I'm having some trouble with this topic. If I enjoy serving others, sometimes even at my expense, am I not serving my self [sic]? It brings me joy...so I'm getting something out of it. Or maybe that's not the same thing. I'm still learning. I'd appreciate your thoughts.
It’s “serving myself”—self-interested—as long as the service does not come at the expense of something more important to your life and well-being. Otherwise, it’s altruistic—self-sacrificial (self-destructive)—and thus wrong according to the Objectivist Ethics.
“Service”, of course, is a broad term. For example, serving others is the act one performs in making money. Productive people serve their customers or their bosses or whomever is paying them for the service. That is called trade. Making money—earning a living—is vital to living. Money is not the only form of payment, though. Trade is broader that money. Joy is a form of payment. But if the service the questioner speaks of comes at the expense of money or time or effort needed for purposes more important to you, then the joy is not worth it and therefore not selfish, and therefore not moral. Personal well-being is a long-term process to the rationally selfish individual. With very rare exceptions involving emergencies, the long-term always trumps immediate gratification. Would you go out of your way to serve a stranger if the cost is standing up a friend who is counting on you? Risking a friendship, not to mention your reputation for trustworthiness, for the sake of momentary joy is neither selfish nor rational.
Let me step back a second. Ethics was one of the hardest aspects about Objectivism for me to grasp. It took me years to grasp that altruism is not about good will or serving others, and that selfishness, properly understood, is not about screwing others. Altruism is about making one’s own life worse; that is, giving up a greater value for a lessor value or a non-value; that is, self-sacrificially serving others. Objectivism holds that one’s actions should always be self-beneficial, not self-sacrificial. There is nothing about the Objectivist Ethics, called rational selfishness, that stands in the way of serving others, even if only as an act of goodwill and benevolence. Other people (or causes that benefit people you don’t even know) certainly can be a value to a rationally selfish person.
Which brings us to the starting point of the Objectivist ethics. The Objectivist ethics starts with the observable fact that human life, like all life, is about values—specifically, for humans, the need to pursue, achieve, and to protect the values that your life and flourishing depend on, from material values like food, shelter, phones, and cars, to the spiritual like human relationships or relaxation. Humans need a philosophic guide to figure out what is good or bad for them, which leads to the need for a moral code. This leads to the question above—when is it moral to serve others for the mere joy of it? The Objectivist ethics holds that one must perform the task of hierarchizing one’s values by importance to one’s life; a hierarchy of values geared not to the short term but to the long term context of one’s entire life. Once you have established a proper value hierarchy, you are in a better position to judge whether a given action or goal is rationally selfish or self-sacrificial.
Only when the service rendered advances one’s own values is truly “serving myself”. Let me give an example. My wife and I are both retired. My wife used to volunteer at a food pantry. She quit that to become a CASA volunteer. CASA stands for Court Appointed Special Advocates for Children. It’s strictly volunteer service that requires the juggling of her time. But none of the time spent working at the food pantry or the more demanding CASA interferes with her personal relationships or activities she loves or in any way undermines her enjoyment of her retirement. She is serving these children, but not in a sacrificial way. That is the Objectivist Ethics—rational selfishness.
On the other hand, volunteer service is not for me. My main retirement interest is writing as a political activist—activism not in regard to the usual Republican vs. Democrat, or conservative vs. liberal, or “Right” vs. “Left”, but in the more fundamental sense of individualism vs. collectivism. I have other activities, as well. But my interests do not involve volunteer service. That, too, is the Objectivist ethics. The Objectivist ethics does not hold service to others as a moral commandment.
My wife and I are both pursuing our interests and values non-sacrificially—that is, not at the expense of our commitment to each other, our children, our friends, our interests, or any other important values. We never deliberately ignore our hierarchy of values.
There is nothing about the Objectivist ethics that doesn’t leave room in one’s hierarchy of values for serving others or giving a helping hand, even to strangers. In the example above, there’s nothing wrong with short-term joy if it doesn’t harm you longer term. The trader principle, exchanging value for value that results in win-win, comes into play whether the payment for service is material or spiritual (no one should ever demand service from you unconditionally, nor should you give it, nor should you ever expect unrewarding service to you from others.) If your payment is spiritual—that is, the mere joy of it—it’s fine as long as it is genuine joy (not a quest for others’ praise or approval) and it doesn’t conflict with what in your own judgement are values more personally important. Self-sacrificial service is never good. It is dishonest, because it ignores one’s own needs. And research is increasing showing that self-sacrificial service—putting others above self—can be psychologically, emotionally, and even physically damaging (See Being empathetic is good, but it can hurt your health, Jennifer Breheny Wallace).
The most fundamental question is not, does this action give me joy or satisfaction, important as those emotions are. Emotions are a reflection of your convictions (right or wrong). They are not a guide to action. Only reason should be your guide. The question is, where does this action fit into my rational hierarchy of values? Am I giving up another value in my service in pursuit of joy? If so, is it a greater or lesser value? If a lesser value, or if the action doesn’t entail giving up another value, and if the service is consistent with your own convictions, the service can be considered self-interested. However, if the action requires the giving up a value that, by one’s own rational judgement, is greater than the value derived from the act of service one is considering, it is a sacrifice and is thus immoral.
Other people can be and often are of great value to us. As long as person(s) are deemed to be worthy according to our own judgement, we should approach them as selfish values, and act accordingly toward them—that is, in accordance to our own value hierarchy—and expect no less in return from them.
Normally, I’d have posted this answer as a reply to the questioner. But Eric MacIntosh replied at length and did a good job, as well as posting a link to his article Other People as Egoistic Values Versus Other People as Objects of Self-Sacrifice in Ayn Rand’s Philosophy. So I didn’t think my explanation, being largely redundant, would add substantially to the conversation (though MacIntosh doesn’t mention Rand’s value hierarchy tool).
The Objectivist Ethics by Ayn Rand
Books to Aid in Understanding Rational Selfishness