Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

Defining Your Terms

with 6 comments

Well, to start, I’m definitely in favor of the poster who said that one way to beat depression was to read my books–yes, absolutely, the whole country should do that.  I could go to Maui.

But let me get to Cheryl’s comment on “This is John Galt Speaking.”

First, as an aside, I’d like to point out that I wasn’t (necessarily) advocating the content of the moral code Rand puts forward in that essay or in any other place.

All I said was that she has managed to provide an objective foundation for morality that is not based on God and that is not based on “it feels good.”

It also happens to be a moral philosophy that is humanistic in the original sense–it derives from a deep respect for and understanding of the special status of human beings.

That said–my guess is that, if you’d read it through rather than skimming it, you might have found less to disagree with than you’d think.

Rand does not define the terms “selfish” and “selfless” the way they’re defined in common usage.

Consider this example:

Mary is the mother of Tom.  She loves Tom passionately.  From birth, she’s recognized that he is extraordinarily talented.  As he’s grown, she’s seen that he’s also very ambitious.  For Mary, Tom is the single most important and valuable thing that has ever existed.  She scrimps and saves all his childhood to give him extra opportunities, like Space Camp and accelerated math programs.  She goes without things she really enjoys, like chocolates and movies and vacations, to make sure he gets the best possible start.  She really puts herself through the wringer to make sure he can go to the best college.

Is Mary being selfish, or selfless?

Is Mary living “for the sake of” Tom?

For Rand, Mary is being selfISH, and she’s not living for the sake of Tom, but for her own sake.

Selfishness, to Rand, is not that mindless grasping after do it my way whims that we think of when we use the term.

Selfishness, to Rand, is having a strong sense of oneself and what one values, and supporting those things one values most.

Since Mary values Tom above any of the things she gave up, she’s made no sacrifice at all, and her life is an example of a human being identifying her values and committing herself to the support of them.

Sacrifice, for Rand, means giving up something you value MORE for something you value LESS.

Now,  take this contrast:

For Dr. Jonas Salk, the most important thing was putting an end to childhood polio.  He worked all his life for very little money–relative to what he could have made if he’d done something else–to achieve this goal.  Once he had produced an effective vaccine, he put it immediately in the public domain.  He could have gotten rich from the sale of it.  Instead, he let the money go to make sure everybody could afford to have his child vaccinated against the disease.

Paris Hilton was born into a rich family.  She went to rich girls’ schools.  She lived in rich girl places.  As soon as she was old enough, she started to go out to parties nearly every night.  She chose her clothes with an eye to getting publicity, and she chose her actions with an eye to getting publicity, too.  She did whatever she had to do to be a public personality.  Even her spending habits were conditioned, at least in part, by what they would get her in terms of publicity.

Of the two people above–which one is selfish, and which one is selfless?

For Rand, Salk is the selfISH one–he identified what he valued most, dedicated his life to it, and pursued his goal without concern for what other people thought he ought to be doing or how the world would judge him.  He was selfISH because he had a strong sense of self.

For Rand, Hilton is selfLESS.  There’s no there there.  Her tastes, her habits, her life is determined by other people, what they will think, what they will say, how they will react.  She’s selfLESS because, when you get to the core of her, she has no self.  She’s the creation and reflection of other people.

Rand is not the only person in the world to use words in a way that isn’t usual in the population at large, but at least she does outline her definitions explicitly when she makes her arguments.  Buried in that long essay “This Is John Galt Speaking” is an argument about epistemology that includes a fair presentation of how she’s using the words she’s using and why.

Lots of people use unusual definitions without making those differences clear.  And others use words in a way that is common in one small group but not in the population at large.

I was confronted by this last night on Keith Olbermann’s program, where he discussed (with a female African-American professor from Princeton) whether or not the Tea Party movement was “racist.”

And what I got was this, “A lot of people don’t understand that if you support public policies that have a disparate impact on people of color, that’s racist.”


Most of us would define racism as treating individuals as members of their race rather than as individuals, or doing them harm simply because of their race, or denying them rights and opportunities simply because of their race.

No wonder “progressives” see the Tea Party movement and most Republicans as “racist” and the Tea Party movement and the Republicans just think the progressives are indulging in hate speech–they’re not using “racist” to mean the same thing.

So, before you decide Rand has nothing to say to you, try to make sure you know what she’s actually saying and how she’s defining her terms.

But today, I’m going to do neither.

It’s my birthday, and I’ve had NO sleep.

Matt’s going to cook for me, I have friends coming over this evening, and I think I’m going to go take a nap.

Written by janeh

July 13th, 2010 at 7:05 am

Posted in Uncategorized

6 Responses to 'Defining Your Terms'

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  1. Have a lovely day, Jane, and I hope it’s the start of a much better year for you.


    13 Jul 10 at 7:33 am

  2. Happy birthday, Jane. Have a wonderful day.


    13 Jul 10 at 9:55 am

  3. Happy Birthday, Jane, and try to sleep. I’ve noticed I tend to get very bad-tempered and make a lot of silly mistakes if I don’t get enough sleep.

    Something’s wrong with my rss feed – I wouldn’t have seen this if I hadn’t seen Mique’s reply (and then Mary’s) because it isn’t showing up on the list for the posts themselves, although the responses are showing up just fine. Odd.

    I’ll take your word for it about what Rand means by ‘selfish’ and ‘unselfish’, but I think your examples don’t work unless you add some outside qualification to the activity that makes an observer conclude that a person is being selfish or unselfish. Utility, perhaps, or lasting artistic merit. Because I don’t know whether Paris Hilton is merely living as a reflection of others’ attention or creating a life that is a kind of performance art, a creation using the language of fashion and pop culture. And if she is, she’s at least as unselfish as any other artist with a vision and possibly as unselfish as a scientist (using Rand’s version of ‘selfishness, and depending on whether you consider a performance valuable on the same scale as something more concrete, like a vaccine.

    Think of musicians. They sacrifice and work and slave to master their particular sub-genre – or to invent a new one – so they can express themselves through it. They do this by their own choice. A few of them become rich and famous; others don’t, but wouldn’t they all be ‘unselfish’ regardless of whether I personally think their music is on an intellectual and enjoyable par with the story of Hilton’s life?

    And if so, there’s something wrong with the idea that all you need to be the best you can is to express what’s truly you. Without an outside referent, there’s no way to ascribe value or worth or right or wrong to what you come up with, so this isn’t really a foundation for morality.


    13 Jul 10 at 11:54 am

  4. Happy Birthday, Jane. Definitely nap, eat well, enjoy your loved ones.

    Make joy whenever you can.


    13 Jul 10 at 12:25 pm

  5. Happy birthday–and schedule a day in a week or two to do something nice for yourself when you’re not in crisis mode. Birthday celebrations don’t count if you’re not awake for them, or if your mind is somewhere else.

    As for terms, my feeling is that the purpose of language is to communicate, and exotic definitions are generally used to AVOID communication. That use of “racism” you gave was fairly typical. I’ll bet nine times in ten when the good professor calls some person, group or policy “racist” she does not explain that she’s using her own private definition. Rand was generally clear and straightforward in her language. If she used a word in a unique way–“selfish” is the outstanding case–she generally at least defined it, which is the critical bit.

    That said, I always thought she was cheating on “sacrifice.” By her definition, the thing basically isn’t done at all, in which case we don’t need a word for it. If you think I’m wrong, try to find anything in real life for which we use the word “sacrifice” from offerings to pacify Greek gods to the soldier laying down his life for his country which would qualify for a “sacrifice” as Rand uses the word. In fact, as I recall Rand herself gave only hypothetical examples of “sacrifice” as she defined it.

    I never understood what provoked this, as the twisty definition of “sacrifice” was not necessary to her moral teachings. I rather suspect there was behavior she admired but had a hard time reconciling with her philosophy. Wanting to have things both ways gets a lot of us in trouble. No reason she should be exempt.


    13 Jul 10 at 4:45 pm

  6. Happy Birthday Jane!

    My only comment about people using their own definitions of common words is !


    13 Jul 10 at 8:32 pm

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