'Every interest,' says the Marquis d'Agenson, 'has its different principles. Harmony between two interests is created by opposition to that of a third.' He might have added that the harmony of all interests is created by opposition to those of each." – Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), The Social Contract (page 73, footnote)
This quote establishes the fundamental premise upon which all leftist revolutions and totalitarian regimes have rested their moral authority.
That principle is the virtue of selflessness.
Now, in everyday use the term "selfless" refers to an act of supreme kindness or thoughtfulness, or a person who is not overly absorbed in him- or herself but thinks often and genuinely of the good of others.
For example, many Christians commonly put themselves in dangerous situations in order to help the suffering of people in troubled parts of the world, and such acts are often referred to admiringly as selfless.
In other words, in everyday use, the term selfless is a well-meaning word that most often refers to somebody who actively and courageously seeks to do good, to do God's will, or to devote themselves in some way to helping others.
But there is no contradiction between seeking to be a good person – seeking to treat others with kindness and empathy, taking action that is helpful to others, or acting with heroism by putting yourself in danger in order to help, protect or defend somebody or to fight for your country – and one's own personal happiness. Indeed, kindness, empathy, and active engagement with others are all fundamental to a happy life.
A happy life, of course, is not necessarily a comfortable life.
Acts of courage or heroism — even given great personal risks – can be supremely meaningful, can build a tremendously strong sense of your own value and effectiveness, and can create a powerful sense of connection between yourself and the others involved.
So let's distinguish the common usage of the term selfless from what it actually means, and what in practice it has meant for revolutionaries from the French Revolution through the Communist revolutions, and in fact for all of the revolutions of the left: a complete abandonment of your own personal interests and sense of individual identity.
Rousseau's formulation above draws on the idea that to unify a nation, you must have an enemy. In foreign policy, you can unify two factions within a country by coming together against an external enemy (harmony between two interests is created by opposition to that of a third).
But Rousseau takes this principle a step further: he believed that harmony within a nation could be secured by pitting each individual against his or her own self interest (harmony of all interests is created by opposition to those of each).
His idea was that the common will consists of all those interests that are shared by every person. It is the interests that do not match with those that are common to all that must be purged from society. This is the left's "virtue of selflessness." While the striving for goodness has been responsible for the greatest acts of kindness in the world, I don't think it's exaggerating to say that the left's idea of selflessness has been responsible for all of the greatest evils of modern times.
From the Reign of Terror, to the Soviet purges and gulags, to the Nazi death camps, to the killing fields of Cambodia, the idea that the interests of any given individual must be cleansed from the common or general will has been the foundation for millions upon millions upon millions of acts of murder, torture, inhuman imprisonment and ghastly atrocities.
As Hannah Arendt points out: "Virtue has indeed been equated with selflessness ever since Robespierre preached a virtue that was borrowed from Rousseau… that the value of a policy may be gauged by the extent to which it will contradict all particular interests, and that the value of a man may be judged by the extent to which he acts against his own interest and against his own will." (On Revolution, page 69)
So we see that, while the American Revolution was founded upon an understanding and an acceptance that every individual will have his or her own interests and that the purpose of government is to allow for the immense diversity of interests while also providing a framework whereby individuals can work out their differences peacefully within a reliable legal framework, virtually all other revolutions since have been founded upon an antithetical premise.
The revolutions of the left have sought not to respect the diversity of human interests, but to burn away all interests that do not fit within the common will. Though Rousseau would have thought that there is some magical power that guides this common will toward the good, in practice, of course, the common will is what whomever is in power decides that they want it to be.
We saw the results in the totalitarian regimes of the past two centuries.
Today in America we have the practice of political correctness to purge the public discourse of any idea or argument that contradicts what is accepted by the media, politicians and academics of the left.
We can understand why language that is commonly used by virtually everyone in political discourse is only publicly chastised when it goes against the left wing dogma. We can understand why those who question the science behind the theory of man-made global warming are equated with holocaust deniers. And we can understand why the Constitution is trivialized by the left whenever it suits their purposes.
All of these positions are motivated by the idea that the interests of the individual are irrelevant and only interfere with some larger vision.
For the left, it is the general will that supersedes some old words written by old dead white guys like James Madison because our founding principles were set forth before the general will was established during the French Revolution as the supreme source of political good.
But our founders knew all about this nonsense. They were familiar with Rousseau.
Such nonsense is likely in part what inspired James Madison to clarify a crucial idea in Federalist Papers #51, a passage that was repeated in February 2011 by Judge C. Roger Vinson of the U.S. District Court in his decision nullifying Obamacare:
If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.
When governments put forth some variant of the general will – the public good, the betterment of society, social justice – they are counting on our automatic sanction that such appeals to selflessness are unquestionably virtuous.
But virtue is not achieved through selflessness – not as that word is defined or conceived of by the revolutionary left. Virtue is achieved, to the contrary, through individual consciousness, through a dedicated effort to know yourself; to understand your own reactions and motivations, to recognize your own interests and passions, and to be self aware about your interactions with others.
Virtue requires not a rejection of yourself, but a knowledge of yourself, an acceptance of yourself, and a conscious understanding of what you value, feel, desire and believe so that you can live with integrity.
Virtue also requires a decision to integrate who you are as an individual in relation to the people in your life. Virtue is lived through engagement, empathy and relationship with others. But we do not serve each other by rejecting or abandoning our own sense of self. It is what is unique in each of us as individuals that adds to the joy and love and delight that we bring to others.
Consider this: If your husband or wife were to say to you: "My love for you is an act of selflessness and sacrifice," how good would you feel about that?
If he or she were to say, instead: "Who you genuinely are reflects my own deepest values and joy. I love you from the depths of my being; you add to all that is good and meaningful to me in life." I suspect that you would feel much more seen, valued and loved.
Ayn Rand used the phrase, "The Virtue of Selfishnes,s" for the title of a book in order to make a dramatic point about selflessness. But I've never liked that title because a selfish person is commonly thought of as rude, self-centered and lacking in empathy, so the title rubs a lot of good people the wrong way.
I prefer a title from a book written by my friend and mentor, Nathaniel Branden: Honoring the Self.
It is through honoring yourself that you are able to also honor others. It is a person who knows his or her own self that is most able to be genuinely kind, caring and empathetic to others.
Rousseau himself was not a very nice man, nor a very good man. He was just an influential man, and a rather hideous person, really. Let's stop giving him and his ideas – as pervasive and commonly accepted as they may be today by other very influential people – the benefit of the doubt.
There is no virtue to an absence of self. In reality there is only default to unconsciousness, surrender to impulses, and abandonment to social forces that can sweep you away into mass hysteria.