What makes rationalization so very easy and so very inevitable is the scandalous ambiguity of words. It is so very easy to equivocate our way to the conclusion we desire. The equivocation is so artfully masked by the ambiguity of the terms used that it remains unnoticed.
Rand’s use of this technique is rather of the more blatant sort, which is why her philosophy doesn’t appeal to particularly sophisticated or subtle intellects. She likes to base her arguments on irrefragable premises—on palpable truisms and even tautologies, which, however, she introduces as if she's made a great discovery that goes against the predominant grain of the culture. Thus she declares that modern philosophy, particularly of the Kantian vintage, is involved in a grand revolt against A is A. A similar tactic is used in her ethics, the central premise of which is that life or death is man’s fundamental alternative. People who disagree with Rand’s ethics are therefore sometimes accused of being anti-life and pro-death.
Rand makes use of ambiguity in a somewhat different fashion when distinguishing between egoism, on the one hand, of which she approves, and altruism and “self-sacrifice” on the other, of which she strongly disapproves. Self-interest, for Rand, is good; living for others is evil.
The chief difficulty in taking this approach stems from the fact that many human interests are inter-personal. Hence an individual’s self-interest is normally intertwined with interests of family, friends, and society at large, so that the distinction between egoism and altruism is, at its very root, an artificial one, intelligible, if intelligible at all, on paper; much less intelligible in reality, where selfish and social interests are, more often than not, all jumbled up, making it problematic to determine whether a given interest is selfish or altruistic.
Rand attempts to get around this difficulty by insisting that altruism demands that a person give up (or, as Rand puts it “sacrifice”) what he values for what he doesn’t value.
Thus, altruism gauges a man's virtue by the degree to which he surrenders, renounces or betrays his values (since help to a stranger or an enemy is regarded as more virtuous, less "selfish," than help to those one loves) [Rand explains]. The rational principle of conduct is the exact opposite: always act in accordance with the hierarchy of your values, and never sacrifice a greater value to a lesser one.But this way of approaching the problem simply will not do; for it not only badly misrepresents altruism, it fails to solve the issue at hand. Rand is telling us that it is selfish to pursue what we really value, while it is altruistic to renounce and betray our values. This way of framing the issue leads to some curious paradoxes. For example, suppose you had an individual who genuinely valued strangers more than himself. In that case, if he chose to take care of his own needs before those of strangers, he would be betraying his values and therefore acting altruistically.
These paradoxes arise because Rand could not bring herself to be consistently selfish. There were some conventionally altruistic acts which she approved of. But since she was loathe to admit this, she merely called meritorious altruistic acts selfish and rationalized this odd usage away by redefining the term sacrifice in a way that entirely flouts and tramples upon common usage. Thus we find her declaring:
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.
So the mother who values her child more than she values her hat is acting altruistically if she buys the hat. And the mother who buys food for her child although she would prefer a hat is also acting altruistically.
If ethics is about determining what we should value, then what Rand is practicing here is not ethics, but semantics. The whole debate between altruism and egoism is not over whether we should pursue our values; no, everyone agrees on that, altruists as much as egoists. The question is over what we should value most. Should a mother value her child more than she values a new hat? Most people would say, Yes, she should value the child more than the hat. Whether we call this value-choice “selfish” or “altruistic” is a matter of nomenclature, not ethics. Rand has once again failed to a give us a coherent account of why we should value one thing more than another.