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Aristotle on Selfishness

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Here is a paper by Gregory Salmieri, who has written for ARI and spoken at OCONs. In chapter 6 of A Companion to Ayn Rand Salmieri portrayed Ayn Rand as trying to reform selfish similar to others “who seek to reform language that they think reflects and reinforces widespread prejudices” (p. 145). He cites examples of other people doing something similar with “slut” and “queer.” He also says that Rand’s statement about the dictionary definition of “selfish” pertained to what she thought the word ought to mean (p. 146) as opposed to what it does mean to most people.

In this paper he argues or suggests that Aristotle did a somewhat similar thing with the Greek word philautos, which has most often been translated as “self-lover” or “lover of self", and less often "selfish."

I have no strong opinion on how truthful this is. I don't have a broad and deep understanding of Greek philosophy, can't read Greek, and have no grasp of the cultural and intellectual milieu during Aristotle's life.

I haven't read the entire paper yet, but might post some more here as I read more of it. 
 

Edited by merjet
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Whether the rendering in English is self-love or is selfishness, I notice that Nichomachean Ethics ix 8 is lamentable by its craft of two distinct sorts of selfish conduct: one selfishness said to be reprehensible (because virtually all of us find it repugnant) and running with the selfishness of the self that is one’s passions; the other selfishness said to be good and praiseworthy conduct because, however dissolving of one’s passion-self-regard, it runs with the selfishness of being good, fine, noble, beautiful (ostensibly objective, but actually handwaving circles of conventionality) in accordance with the self that is one’s passion-vacated reason. Or so the chapter strikes me.

Greg lists several translators going with two sorts of self-love in their translation. To those I can add the translation by Joe Sachs.

Greg’s paper is also here.

Edited by Boydstun
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1 hour ago, Boydstun said:

Nichomachean Ethics ix 8 is lamentable by its craft of two distinct sorts of selfish conduct: one selfishness said to be reprehensible (because virtually all of us find it repugnant) and running with the selfishness of the self that is one’s passions; the other selfishness said to be good and praiseworthy conduct because, however dissolving of one’s passion-self-regard, it runs with the selfishness of being good, fine, noble, beautiful (ostensibly objective, but actually handwaving circles of conventionality) in accordance with the self that is one’s passion-vacated reason. Or so the chapter strikes me.

In a similar vein there are two distinct meanings of selfish or selfishness in today's world -- the common one and the one approved by Ayn Rand. That is the topic of my essay titled "Selfish Versus Selfish" coming in the July 2021 edition of The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies (noted earlier here).

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On 3/8/2021 at 5:51 AM, merjet said:

In this paper he argues or suggests that Aristotle did a somewhat similar thing with the Greek word philautos, which has most often been translated as “self-lover” or “lover of self", and less often "selfish."

Having now read most of Salmieri's article, which I had not when I wrote the above, there are significant similarities between the article and Chapter 6 of of A Companion to Ayn Rand. The article and Chapter 6 were written for different audiences -- the former for readers of philosophy journals and the latter for a much larger audience -- but do use some common themes.  

For example, section 2 of the article says: "Pointedly rejecting or seeking to replace the conventional usage of a term is a tactic used by thinkers who want to challenge an entrenched belief that underlies the usage and that they think exerts a pernicious influence on ordinary thinking."

Chapter 6 says: "Rand’s stance here is like that of other thinkers who seek to reform language that they think reflects and reinforces widespread prejudices."

Salmieri even uses the same examples of "slut" and "queer" in both places. He writes about sacrifice in both places. 

A difference is that Salmieri did not attribute Aristotle with trying to reform conventional language, but only with noting the different and inconsistent uses of philautos or "selfish behavior" by his contemporaries. Contrarily, Salmieri did attribute Ayn Rand with trying to reform conventional language.

 

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One can hear the word "selfish" in multiple languages and cultures and amazingly it translates only to narcism or "absence of awareness of others". The concept itself is hijacked.

The way self interest or rational self interest is held in society or discussions, is it can't have any laudable meaning. A definition that includes "you are aware of others and you do what is to your long run benefit" someone can't exist. But most non-sociopaths implicitly advocate some sort of long term self interest, otherwise we would have complete chaos in the world.

The word itself is too confused and enmeshed with shame and hatred to discuss the truth about it.

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I'd stand up for the term "selfishness" and make it a talking point. There are things that are labeled "selfish" that are not selfish in the sense of selfishness wedded to rationality, independence, and objectivity. That is partly from fuzzy talking, but also sometimes by way of trying to hinder a notion of rationally licensed selfishness---by people coveting your property, your labor, and the property and labor of other individuals for the sake their collectivist plans, their power, and their moral praise. Take a stand for selfishness, talk out, sort out. Also, I don't think "self-interest" is an entirely equivalent concept or names the core of what the moral disputing is about.

Edited by Boydstun
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Posted (edited)

The following is the abstract of my article which is scheduled to appear in The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies in July.

Ayn Rand’s controversial use of “selfish” and “selfishness” has arguably done as much or more to supply “grist” to her critics and drive people away from her philosophy than to persuade people to adopt it. This article is about her meaning of “selfish” and the common, popular meaning. Succinctly, the former is a high-level abstraction, philosophical, and mainly a way of thinking, whereas the latter is a low-level abstraction, not philosophical, and mainly a way of acting. They also have different contrast terms.

Aristotle accepted that "selfish" (philautos in Greek) had two quite different meanings. I do, too.

Edited by merjet
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  • 3 weeks later...

I hope to return to this discussion in the context of Merlin’s paper once it has been published. Meanwhile, looking for something else, I came across these ideas of Rand on this topic in her 1943, which would be good to have in this thread.

“[Keating’s] paying the price and wondering for what sin and telling himself that he’s been too selfish. In what act or thought of his has there ever been a self? What was his aim in life? . . . . Others were his motive power and his prime concern. . . . He didn’t want to build, but to be admired as a builder. . . . It’s his ego that he’s betrayed and given up. But everybody calls him selfish.” (HR XI, 657–58)

“In the realm of greatest importance—the realm of values, of judgment, of spirit, of thought—they place others above self, in the exact manner which altruism demands. A truly selfish man cannot be affected by the approval of others. He doesn’t need it.” (HR XI, 658)

“We haven’t even got a word for the quality I mean—for the self-sufficiency of man’s spirit. It’s difficult to call it selfishness or egotism [egoism], the words have been perverted, they’ve come to mean Peter Keating. Gail, I think the only cardinal evil on earth is that of placing your prime concern within other men.” (HR XI, 660)

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