Jump to content
Objectivism Online Forum

Kelley vs. Mackey Debate on Selfishness (and my take)

Rate this topic

Recommended Posts

David Kelley, founder of the Atlas Society, recently debated John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods and admirer of Ayn Rand, on the role of selfishness in our lives and in our societies.  I just watched it and had a response that I felt compelled to write down and then share here.  The debate is here:




David Kelley defends Rand's conception of selfishness while Mackey accepts the traditional view of selfishness and argues that some selfishness is good, but too much is a bad thing, and it should be balanced with other virtues.  I think this is an important position to respond to primarily because we hear it so often, and there's much confusion on the issue.  Also, I don't think Kelley's response was nearly adequate.  So, I'll post my own response to the debate in the next post, so as not to have a huge OP.

Link to post
Share on other sites

So, I'll post my own response to the debate in the next post, so as not to have a huge OP.

It's a good response, and one Kelley should not have omitted, imo.

Hierarchical values, as you indicate, and the rest.

Self-less acts without value, without context - are really acts of contempt to whomever

is the recipient. His worth is the same as everyone else's, that is zero. The "doing"

is the all.

So who would you rather receive an act of kind good-will from, I often ask?

The 'selfish' man, or the selfless?

Edited by whYNOT
Link to post
Share on other sites



To say that one cares about some persons in one’s life along with caring about oneself and to say that their happiness helps to constitute one’s own and that their pain one’s own is sensible, I would say. However, as a theory of pure ethical egoism, and given that Rand’s was a theory of rational egoism which she held could be justified by rational considerations alone, she needed to be able to say in what ways one’s self-interest was served or not by having one’s empathy with others’ success or suffering. The writings of Nathaniel Branden on benevolence and on the visibility principle, under Rand’s auspice in The Objectivist Newsletter and The Objectivist, supplemented what Rand had said on the subject here and there in Fountainhead and Atlas. The independent supplement David Kelley attempted in his monograph on benevolence in the Objectivist ethics attempts to say more on how others are of instrumental value to oneself, recapping but extending what Rand had said on their instrumental value.

The problem for a theory of pure ethical egoism is how one can take the self-orienting principle of which you speak, in sharing joys or pains of others and in decisions about rendering assistance, how one can take that principle and one’s valuations of others to be more than an instrumental value to one’s self-interest and yet remain an ethics of pure self-interest. Insofar as our psychological nature makes us concerned with and for others regardless of our own rational conclusions about the matter, that concern is neither ethical egoism or mutalism or altruism. I think an ethical egoism (which goes beyond any natural concern for ourselves and for others not amenable to reform) that restricts its justifications of chosen concern for others to the instrumental value of those orthers, including their value to our enjoyment, rather than chosen valuation of them for their sake, is defective as an ethical theory. I expect many people sense that, even if they are not professional philosophers and even if they go through all sorts of irrelevant twisting of ethical egoism to fortify their conviction that valuing others for their own sake is good.

I hope to look further into the ways persons and other valuable things can be valued for their own sake in my own thinking about this in the future. I enjoyed your very good thinking post #2.



Link to post
Share on other sites



Thanks for your reply.  A theory of ethical egoism certainly has to justify any empathy and concern for others back to one's own self-interest, and I think this is precisely what the conception of caring about another's happiness does.  It attains a direct and emotional benefit for the actor to do something good for someone they value.  At the same time, an egoistic theory that claims to provide objective values cannot simply say that "whoever you happen to care about, you should act to value them" any more than it can say that "whatever you happen to value, value it" as hedonism does.  We must have principles to distinguish which relationships are objectively good for us and which are bad.  I think Objectivism accomplishes this in much the same way that it guides our choice of a career, so I'll use that as an analogy.


First and foremost, one's choice of a career depends on personal, subjective values; on what one is passionate about.  If I'm passionate about furthering the study of economics (as I am) then I should seriously consider this personal preference when choosing a career.  However, if I'm passionate about robbing banks, say, or conning others, Objectivism provides a moral framework that enables us to reject 'bank robber' and 'con man' as rational career choices.  Thus, Objectivism provides some moral constraints, within which our personal, subjective preferences play a major role in determining what we should do.


Objectivism informs our decisions about relationships in much the same way.  Much is left up to personal preference, to romantic attraction and chemistry, and yet there are objective constraints on what kind of relationships are 'good' for us.  Someone that physically abuses you (to use an extreme example), or someone that constantly manipulates you, is objectively destructive to your life and goals.  Even if you are in love with such a person, you should act to change that, much the same way you would strive to reform yourself if you felt pulled towards a life as a con man.


Thus, I think we can say that valuing others and acting for them fits into our self-interest in the same way that pursuing a career that we love does.  These things bring immediate and important psychological benefits, in addition to more clearly instrumental values, and we can still objectively distinguish the good for our life from the bad.  This is what a theory of ethical egoism must accomplish, and I think Rand's does so.

Link to post
Share on other sites

In the debate, John Mackey charges that following a strict conception of self-interest will lead one to disregard any actions taken for others. He accepts the dictionary definition of selfishness and argues against living by it, saying that we should take others into account and balance our interests with those of others.

Kelley responds by disputing this conception of selfishness, as he should, and immediately refers to his own work on benevolence and its relation to selfishness. In so doing, he gives a hypothetical of a neighbor's house burning down, and discusses self-interested reasons to help that person. Namely, he refers to 'investing in a social practice' that he himself might need some day.

This rebuttal completely misses the central point that Kelley should address head on. There's a much simpler reason why you might want to help someone in that situation: because you care about that person. This gets to a central question that Kelley, astoundingly, fails to address. The question is, what role do other people play in our own selfish values?

Mackey contends that, by and large, the two are non-overlapping spheres; there's acting for self-interest, and then there's acting for others. Thus, his example of extreme self-interest is a narcissist that never acts for others. The important distinction for the Objectivist to make is that a narcissist is someone who fails to value other people at all! Selfishness is all about pursuing your own values, and the question is: can other people be values to us? When put this way, the answer is obvious; of course they can! I care deeply about many people in my life. Their happiness helps to constitute my own; their happiness brings me joy, and their pain brings me sorrow. This is what ties acting for others into self-interest, far more so than furthering some social code of helping.

We can put some more meat on this issue by considering its application to some real-life questions of how we should treat other people. This will help to illustrate why selfishness is important even when doing things for others. Let's consider a couple of (related) hypotheticals. In the first, I'm considering going to the hospital to pay a visit to someone who's been injured. In the second, I'm considering spending the night by their bedside in the hospital, to keep them company and reassure them. How do I decide what to do in either case?

In either scenario, the central question is: what does this person mean to me? The reference point is me, myself, my life. It might sound unfamiliar (and maybe callous) to couch the question in these terms, but I encourage the reader to take a second and actually consider this scenario. I'm sure there are many people in your life to whom you would gladly pay a hospital visit if they were sick, or injured. Coworkers, acquaintances, distant relatives, any number of people that you know and like well enough so that you'd take the time to visit them and brighten their day if they were hurt or sick. However, for most of these people, you probably wouldn't put your life on hold and sleep in a folding chair in a hospital room just to keep them company. You might like them, but you don't like them that much.

But there are some people that you would put everything else aside to be with. Immediate family, very close friends, certainly significant others. When people mean a lot to us, we're willing to do a lot for them, as well we should be. I hope Mackey would agree that this is an appropriate way to act and make choices when we're "balancing our self-interest" against other concerns. My point is, in order to act this way, we need to look to ourselves, fundamentally. We do (and should!) treat people differently based, not on some cosmic scale of importance, but on what they mean to us personally. To rephrase this, we should take actions for them to the extent that doing so is also pursuing our own values. We should help them when it's selfish, in Rand's sense, to do so.

In the debate, John Mackey states that he's using the dictionary definition of selfishness, and that it's Ayn Rand and David Kelley's job to justify using a different definition. Well, here is my justification: the integrating principle behind how we should treat other people and how far we should go to help them is inherently a self-oriented principle. It depends on what they mean to us, their relation to our life and our values. If you're willing to acknowledge that other people can be values to us, just as our career or our health or other such 'selfish' values can, then self-interest provides an overarching moral framework that integrates our actions towards other people with the pursuit of our own values. Mackey suggests that we should balance these two things, and perhaps he has some additional ideas as to how to do that, but the truth is this: we should balance acting for others with acting for ourselves the same way that we make decisions between our 'selfish' values, by evaluating their importance to us and paying fidelity to our values.

Good response. Mackey kept appealing to the negativity behind the word "selfish" - it was a bit irritating to listen to. His attempt to refute Rand's ideas by citing her personal life as evidence was below the standards of the debate. It was interesting to listen to but I wish Kelley made your arguments, I don't think he was very convincing. Edited by thenelli01
Link to post
Share on other sites
  • 2 months later...

Thanks, Chris, for the intriguing thinking in #5.




I’d like to lodge in this thread for future reference a couple of remarks of Leibniz, written in 1693 and in 1700. They are from Prefaces he wrote for collections of medieval state documents.


To love or cherish is to find pleasure in the happiness of another, or what amounts to the same thing, to accept the happiness of another as one’s own. Thus the knotty question of how there can be a disinterested love which is free from hope and fear, and from every consideration of utility, is solved, and in a way that is also of great importance in theology. For happiness of those whose happiness pleases us is obviously built into our own, since things which please us are desired for their own sake. Thus the contemplation of beautiful things is itself pleasant, and a painting of Raphael affects him who understands it, even if it offers no material gains, so that he keeps it in his sight and takes delight in it, in a kind of image of love. But when the beautiful object is at the same time itself capable of happiness, this affection passes over to true love. The divine love moreover . . . .



It seems desirable, however, to reply to one objection which has been made to me, on an issue upon which I touched . . . before it was openly discussed, and which recently excited much argument in France, until it was suppressed by authority of the king and the supreme pontiff. This is the controversy about whether love which is disinterested, and seeks the well-being of the beloved, nevertheless depends upon the impulsion towards one’s own well-being. Somewhat the same question, namely, had occurred to me when I prefaced [1693] . . . . For how can love be bestowed upon others? Who seeks the well-being of the beloved for its own sake, since we will nothing except for the sake of our own good?


I should answer that whatever is pleasant is sought for itself, as opposed, that is, to what is useful to the good ends of producing the well-being of another. I observed that such is the object of true love, since to love or to cherish is to be delighted by the happiness of the beloved and his perfections. I understood the following objection to have been made against this—that it is more perfect so to submit to God that you are moved by his will alone and not by your own delight. But we must recognize that this conflicts with the nature of things, for the impulse to action arises from a striving toward perfection, the sense of which is pleasure, and there is no action or will on any other basis. . . . Nor can anyone renounce (except merely verbally) being impelled by his own good, without renouncing his own nature. And so it is to be feared that the negation of self which certain false mystics teach, and the suspension of action and thought by which they assume that we find supreme union with God [are incorrect] . . . .

(In Loemkr 1956,* 421–22, 424)

Link to post
Share on other sites
  • 9 months later...



On 4/18/14 a paper titled “Love and Attachment: The Value of Self-Interestedness in Loving Relationships” will be read at the Pacific Division Meeting of the APA in San Diego. The author is Monique Wonderly.



It is not uncommon for philosophers to name disinterestedness, or some like feature, as an essential characteristic of love. Such theorists claim that in genuine love, one’s concern for her beloved must be non-instrumental, non-egocentric, or even selfless. These views prompt the question, “What, if any, positive role might self-interestedness play in genuine love?” In this paper, I argue that attachment, an attitude marked primarily by self-focused emotions and emotional predispositions, helps constitute the meaning and import of at least some kinds of adult reciprocal love. In this way, attachment represents a type of self-interestedness that not only contributes positively to such relationships but is also essential to them.


Link to post
Share on other sites

Several years ago I was at Freedomfest and saw Mackey have a debate with another objectivist on this, at the time he was going with the "Compassionate Capitalist" tag line which reaked so much of Compassionate Conservative" that I was shocked he didn't see it.  Later on he was at a round table with both Brandons and as I recall they shot him down fairly well when he went there again.  I might have that on mp3 so I'll hunt for it. 

Link to post
Share on other sites

Mackey said, "Parents routinely sacrifice their own self-interests for the sake of their children."
This strikes me as odd since, if he has read Rand, he would have known very specifically the Objectivist view on sacrifice.  If he doesn't accept the context in which Rand explains selfishness and sacrifice, then what is the point of the debate?
From Galt's Speech:

If you wish to save the last of your dignity, do not call your best actions a “sacrifice”: that term brands you as immoral. If a mother buys food for her hungry child rather than a hat for herself, it is not a sacrifice: she values the child higher than the hat; but it is a sacrifice to the kind of mother whose higher value is the hat, who would prefer her child to starve and feeds him only from a sense of duty. If a man dies fighting for his own freedom, it is not a sacrifice: he is not willing to live as a slave; but it is a sacrifice to the kind of man who’s willing. If a man refuses to sell his convictions, it is not a sacrifice, unless he is the sort of man who has no convictions.


Link to post
Share on other sites

Join the conversation

You can post now and register later. If you have an account, sign in now to post with your account.

Reply to this topic...

×   Pasted as rich text.   Paste as plain text instead

  Only 75 emoji are allowed.

×   Your link has been automatically embedded.   Display as a link instead

×   Your previous content has been restored.   Clear editor

×   You cannot paste images directly. Upload or insert images from URL.

  • Recently Browsing   0 members

    No registered users viewing this page.

  • Create New...