Bernie, Bernie: Was it selfish?

Many would say Bernie Madoff was a very selfish man — a man who hurt others, including his own family, because he acted only for himself. But did he?

Bernard Madoff announced yesterday, through his lawyer, that he will not attend the funeral of his oldest son, Mark Madoff, 46, who committed suicide over the weekend. Mark hung himself in his Soho, New York, apartment, using a dog leash slung over a pipe. He left his second wife, his two-year-old daughter, and also a previous family that includes two grown children.

A father ordinarily might wish to attend the funeral of his oldest son, but Bernard Madoff is serving a 150-year prison sentence for perpetrating the largest, most damaging (non-governmental) Ponzi scheme investment fraud in history, which devastated the lives of thousands of investors who trusted him. If he attended his son’s funeral, his presence would create a media circus of epic proportions, turning the funeral into a horror show for Mark Madoff’s wife and baby daughter and other family members, including Bernard Madoff’s wife.

It was the firestorm of anger and hate for the very Madoff name, and also an endless stream of lawsuits, criminal and civil, that drove Mark Madoff to kill himself on the second anniversary of his father’s arrest for the legendary Ponzi scheme. The same vehement notoriety caused Bernard Madoff’s wife to petition a court to change her name and the name of her two children from Madoff to something — anything — else.

As Bernard Madoff’s various homes, boats, and other possessions, including even his shoes, have been auctioned off to raise a few dollars to help compensate his victims, his name has become synonymous with dishonesty — the very embodiment of ugly immorality. Given the sentence he received, he will die in jail, but this is viewed as inadequate punishment for his crimes.

Our culture has one virtually universally agreed-upon term for Bernard Madoff’s behavior: “selfish.”

Bernie Madoff
That was the motivation, was it not, of this man who ruthlessly devastated the lives of so many people, so many friends, family members, and associates who trusted him with their savings?

He acted only for himself; and, we have been taught, selfish behavior in all its forms is the cardinal moral danger to the social order.

To act merely for oneself, one’s own values, goals, interests, implies a possible range of behavior from merely mean to monstrous.

Given no principle but selfishness to guide behavior, there supposedly are no limits to destructiveness. Hence Bernard Madoff.

But this brief description of Bernard Madoff’s life, today, raises an obvious question: How did behavior motivated solely by concern for himself, for his own self-interest, lead to the life he now lives — and will live until his death behind bars?

He has nothing of his own, save personal effects in his prison cell. His wife seeks only to sever herself from his name. His eldest son timed his suicide to mark the anniversary of Bernard Madoff’s arrest and public disgrace, and Madoff himself is viewed as such a fascinating object of loathing and morbid curiosity that he dare not attend his son’s funeral.

Bernard Madoff was and is a brilliant man. He created and maintained a mind-bogglingly complex scheme of deception that over decades fooled government regulators, bankers, brokers, and investment professionals of every kind — as well as his associates, closest friends, and family. He built an empire based on out-witting all comers in one of the most scrutinized and competitive businesses in the world. If he set his mind to pursuing only his self-interest, his own values and fulfillment, how could he have gone so completely, disastrously wrong?

Posed this way, the question has no satisfactory answer. The problem, I think, is with one of our assumptions. Before we accept the assumption that Bernard Madoff acted selfishly, we should pose a commonsense test. If we were in young Bernard Madoff’s shoes, beginning his career, what would be some obvious selfish goals? To be plain, and perhaps unimaginative: to earn lots of money to obtain and enjoy comforts, such as luxurious apartments, and pleasures, such as perhaps travel, vacation homes, boats — and to enjoy these acquisitions in peace.

Perhaps to marry an attractive woman (he did) who would love us and admire us, and to have children who would admire us and make us proud by succeeding in their own right. To enjoy the admiration and friendship of colleagues and friends. Simple and obvious things — and nary a mention of what are deemed unselfish pursuits, such as philanthropy, service to our fellow men, religious piety, or sacrifice for supposed ideals such as public service, patriotism, making a better world.

But I would suggest that Bernard Madoff, by any common reckoning, pursued none of those selfish values. He did not earn money, he stole it; and, although he acquired many possessions, he hardly could have enjoyed them in anything like peace and serenity, given his constant vigilance, scheming, deception, and manipulation. And, of course, he lost everything and is spending what should be his years of achievement and satisfaction in a medium-security federal prison.

Did he enjoy the admiration and love of his wife, given what he knew all along about the life he had created for her? And what do any years in which she did love and admire him mean now, as she seeks to disown his very name? His sons, his friends, his colleagues? He did not in fact pursue any of these values; he pursued the pretense of them: the appearance of achievement, the misguided love and admiration of wife, sons, and friends. He pursued not one real value, not one real interest of the self.

I would suggest to you that Bernard Madoff pursued only an image in the minds of others: the image of a successful businessman, the image of a caring husband and father, the image of the creator of wealth and plenty, the image of a man on top of the world. He was not selfish; he created a life in which his existence was solely in the deluded minds of others.

Bernard Madoff’s “self” was a mere misapprehension in other minds. When he dies, nothing real will die. Whatever existed will continue to exist in the minds of others — but now as an avatar of contemptible and ultimately pathetic futility.

Bernard Madoff is a very selfless man.

And we should be very, very afraid of unselfish men.

Walter Donway is a founding trustee of The Atlas Society and author of the book Touched by Its Rays.

11 comments from readers  

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Selfish or selfless is not the point! Those words are used by someone who is trying to persuade me to think in a particular way. Try a different perspective. I do whatever I do as a glorious means of demonstrating, declaring and experiencing who I am and who I choose to be. Iâ??m pretty sure this is how all the great men and women of history lived their lives (including Ayn Rand and Mother Theresa). They never felt victimized, powerless, or without choice. They never saw themselves as selfless or selfish. They saw themselves as freeâ?¦free to live life as they chose!
As Tibor MacHan reiterated on Fox Business News' Freedom Watch this week, few people have been taught the importatnt difference between wealth that's been stolen and wealth that's been honestly earned. This' even more odd when you consider that these same people can't relate to the ethical capitalist profit motive of their own efforts. For most, it's OK to make a living if you give it all away to your kids and the community, but if you should actually show a profit, then you're guilty of being "selfish".

Bernard MaDoff will now be used as the new mascot for so called selfishness even though he's just a bigger and faster breed of modern day thief. He's really a product of the mixed economy who specailized in exploiting the system's corruption for all it's worth, like an addict who couldn't resist the easy money. I'd bet a lot of people are actually jealous they didn't think of it themselves and enviously believe they'd be able to get away with it. This makes me wonder how many other MaDoffs are getting away with it or are planning to try. As Ayn Rand pointed out, when a thief steals, it's only a matter of time before a bigger thief comes along to steal it from him.
The article works hard to conclude that Bernie isnâ??t selfish. If the article is speaking to the Objectivist choir steeped in Randâ??s concepts the article will ring true, a sort of â??of courseâ?. But if the intent is to educate others unfamiliar with Randâ??s ideas, the article appears absurd. When most people, unfamiliar with Objectivist ideas, use the word selfish they mean the dictionary definition of it.

From Websterâ??s:
1. concerned excessively or exclusively with oneself : seeking or concentrating on one's own advantage, pleasure, or well-being without regard for others
2. arising from concern with one's own welfare or advantage in disregard of others

The dictionary definition of course isnâ??t what Rand means when she champions Selfishness, and neither is the author of the article. But letâ??s admit that if we are speaking English, then Bernie was selfish and we all know exactly what is meant regardless of our philosophical persuasions.

Arguments like this one, out of context, make even sane people promoting Objectivist ideas appear nutty.
Unfortunately, the author misses what most others have missed: YOU CAN"T CHEAT AN HONEST MAN. Every one of Madoff's investors knew that he was reporting unbelievable "profits". Many probably figured that there was something not quite kosher, but wanted the money. It takes a gonif to take a gonif, and, until it fell apart, Madoff was the penultimate gonif. I just can't work up the sympathy that many have for Madoff's victims. They had other investment opportunities and elected to put all their eggs in the wrong basket.
I appreciate the attention readers have paid to my article. I received half-a-dozen private comments in addition to the public letters to the editor. Thanks!

Many emails have been complimentary, but at least one came laden insults ("fool," "fraud," "joke") and almost glowing with rage at Ayn Rand and her philosophy of Objectivism. I would not reply to such a communication because it is obvious this individual seeks no dialogue, and, strictly speaking, deserves none because the price of engaging in dialogue is a focus on facts and arguments, not insults.

That particular communication seemed to rest (or toss and turn) on one argument: Bernard Madoff obviously wanted money and he got it, so he was successful; he did achieve his goal and it was a selfish one. The image he cultivated was a means, and a successful one, to pull in the money that he sought.

A couple of other communications, courteous and thoughtful, argued that in common parlance Madoff WAS selfish, and only in the particular version of the concept of "selfish" developed in Ayn Rand's philosophy was he "unselfish."

Let me make a few comments.

The argument that Madoff was "selfish" because he desired money for himself, and did obtain lots of money, raises a fundamental point about morality. Is morality a matter of facts, of reality, or a matter of individual desires, feelings, subjective choices? Is morality objective or subjective?

Ayn Rand, of course, argued that morality is "objective"--a matter of facts, reality. The case for that position can be found in its most powerful and engaging form in her book, "The Virtue of Selfishness," but the nub of the argument is that, as living beings, our survival requires a specific course of action and that, as human beings, we have no automatic, wired-in knowledge or guidance to the kind of choices and actions that will support our lives. We have needs but must learn what they are, how they can be met. We must choose to seek that knowledge of the values that we require and we do so--as we pursue knowledge of facts in every other science--by reason. And once we have knowledge of the course of action that our life requires, we must choose to follow that course of action.

It is the need to discover what course of action, what values, our life requires that gives rise to the very notion and need of "morality." Morality is a code of values discovered and accepted by us to guide us to survival, to successful living and to the emotional states that accompany such success--pleasure and happiness.

Now, let us ask, again: If Bernard Madoff FELT that he craved money, that he craved respect even if it was a sham, that he craved fame and prominence--even if they rested on a life-long lie--then wasn't he selfish? The answer inherent in the Objectivist view of morality, even as sketched in barest outline, should be evident. No, just because he FELT he was acting in his self-interest, just because he FELT that his life required respect-at-any-price, did not make it TRUE. Successful life over the full term of an individual's existence requires specific values, specific actions, in REALITY--and, like any other aspect of reality, these facts are not known by means of feelings. They must be discovered, tested, demonstrated.

It is true that Madoff was MOTIVATED to seek certain goals, but that leaves open the question: was he motivated by selfish values? Because such values are FACTS. It seems far more likely he was motivated by insecurity, by contempt for others, by belief that he could outwit reality, and perhaps by terror of failure. This makes it far easier to understand why the values and actions he pursued led to complete disaster.

But what if Madoff's fraud had not been uncovered? What if he lived out his life with wealth, luxury, and respect, honored and grieved at his funeral? How can we say that in his case he did not take the correct course of action--act in ways that served his goals and his self-interest? The question seems harder. Although we can say that he may--even must--have suffered fear of discovery, disgust with himself, a sense of being a complete fake, that is not the essential answer to the question.

Human life typically involves decades and decades of immensely complex action, with unpredictable circumstances that require choices, with thousands of interactions with other individuals making their own choices that affect us. No one can predict, even for the next month or year, let alone the next decade, what specific actions will be required for survival and success. No one can anticipate and lay out, at the beginning even of a week--let alone a lifetime--what specific actions will be appropriate to the complex and changing circumstances that arise.

Following our feelings and urges, acting on random bits of wisdom from parents or from the culture at large, imitating others who seem to know what they are doing, reacting to circumstances with what feels right at the moment: These MIGHT lead to achievements of certain goals, might lead to moments of pleasure and success--might even in the rare, exceptional life, lead to some decades of gaining wealth and respect. But is the individual who acts in this way pursuing the values and actions appropriate to the nature of life, appropriate to the life of a being who must live by acting in accordance with human nature and the nature of reality? Or is the individual's life an accident waiting to happen--the gambler who keeps throwing the dice at the craps table and MIGHT be the one player in millions who wins a fortune and walks away from the table a wealthy man?

What is missing from that life are moral principles. It is only principles of action, based on objective human needs and capabilities, based on the nature of human interactions, and based on the nature and requirements of dealing with reality IN GENERAL that enables a person to choose and act appropriately for survival and success over a whole lifetime of changing circumstances, problems, challenges, and opportunities. It is impossible to act selfishly without acting on principles for the same reason it is impossible to conceive, design, and build a manned space craft without the principles of physics and chemistry, meteorology and astronomy, and human biology. A code of morality provides the principles by which to choose values and actions based on human nature and the nature of reality. Such values and actions are not guaranteed to succeed because it is not only our own choices and actions that determine what happens to us. But to choose to act in our self-interest, to act selfishly, can mean nothing but the choice of the principles (such as for example, using reason, being productive, dealing with others fairly and by consent) appropriate to human action and success.

If Bernard Madoff managed for some decades to pile up wealth by deceiving everyone around him, by cooking the books, by lying to everyone in his life--and avoid exposure at least until it all fell apart and he ended broke and in jail--he does not deserve the high praise of being said to have pursued his self interest. Indeed, the question of acting selfishly or unselfishly hardly captures the reality of his life. He acted in defiance of any reality other than the shifting social reality of what all those around him thought: their perceptions, their images, their hopes, perhaps in some case their own self-deception. When those social perceptions changed, literally overnight, nothing--nothing at all--was left in reality.
Unfortunately, the common use of the word "selfish" is mind-numbingly imprecise, and thereby often used to describe people just like Madoff. Donway points out that Madoff chose short term gratification over long term, earned satisfactions, and, more importantly, by opting for the trappings of success over the real thing was necessarily adopting his perceived standards of others, thereby making him, literally, selfless. While I do get it (and agree) this sort of piece fails to communicate to even intellectually honest non Objectivists; at best it sounds to them like semantic quibbling. Thus my only disappointment reading this piece is that, despite Orwell's astute recognition of the power of precision, and deliberate imprecision, in language. it would probably have little impact on the intellect of many of my colleagues.
Leftists, Liberals, Communists, Progressives, and Socialists... These are all words for the same vile thing (now), but once were respected labels. A few of those words even started life defined as the opposite of what they mean today.

Liberals can get away with redefining terms because Liberals reject: reality, objective standards, and any kind of legal, moral, or logical accountability.

Conservatives cannot redefine common terms, we lack the legion of useful-idiots (schools, "news", entertainment) to spam the lie.

When you say "selfish", four-fifths of the population hears the traditional definition.

While it's true that rational self-interest is a virtue, this column's attempt to redefine "selfish" is pretty feeble and will not win any new hearts or minds.
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Very provocative subject.

I agree that you can't scam an honest man. Rand also noted that nobody can get away for long with being unworthy of one's unearned wealth. Madoff proved this point.

On a larger scale however I fear that this is just the tip of the iceberg... That all of us are guilty of participating in a million scams involving gambling with imaginary money and employing virtual slaves abroad, and we are all headed soon enough for our day of national reckoning.

Madoff is our canary in the mineshaft.
Excellent article. Mr. Donway brings to mind the same questions that Ayn had asked, that is, what are the presumptions does society have about the Judeo-Christian doctrine of "selfishness". If Bernie had been truly "selfish" he would have not lived a life that contributed to his own and other's destruction.

It is society's misguided premises that "selfishness" is the morally corrupt egotism that is rejected by Judeo-Christian ethics, when in reality, real selfishness has a virtuous nobility at its roots, as depicted in many of Ayn's works.
Jeff O
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You hit me with that last two sentences. I'm not sure what you meant, but I fear it will stay with me for a long time. The man is the closest thing we have to a definition of Altruism and he is considered to be selfish. He should be buried right beside Benedict Arnold with a wooden cross.

I believe in our philosophy it would be a contradiction to rate success in failure, to rate success in second-handedness, to rate success in destruction of the good.

I will have to think about this.
Madoff relied on what most call "greed" but what I call laziness. How can anyone give their money to someone expecting a big return without knowing how the feat will be accomplished or what is in it for Madoff? How can anyone put their life or their property in the hands of another without investigating? If anyone had asked Madoff how he earned profits and demanded proof, that person would have recieved no answer and been warned. How many did that? Expecting profits without work is unrealistic and foolhearty. The victims were lacking self confidence and self esteem. They doubted their ability to assess the feasibility of investiment strategy and their worthiness to question Madoff's intentions. This is one more example of the selfless being lead by the selfless. Of course, the untimate example is the people of the world sacraficing their sovereignty for protection by a sovereign government. For example, we pay taxes for services. It is now becoming apparent that the taxes are spent and the services promised are not coming. The people blame the politicians but who is untimately responsible? Who paid and forced others to pay inspite of evidence of malfeasence?
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