An intelligent non-Objectivist raises a big Happy Birthday to one of Ayn Rand’s most powerful and most misunderstood ideas. “No, Ayn Rand Did Not Want Us to Be Selfish,” says Gary Galles in this guest post. Except, she sort of did …
February 2 marks the birth of one of the most praised and criticised thinkers of the past century – Ayn Rand. [Yay! – Ed.]
Rand sold more than 30 million books. Atlas Shrugged has been ranked behind only the Bible as an influence on readers’ lives. She has also been stridently attacked for issues such as her militant atheism. But perhaps least understood has been her full-bore rejection of altruism. On her birthday, it is worth reconsideration.
Altruism has commonly been held up as the standard for moral behaviour. But Rand rejected it, asserting it was “incompatible with freedom, with capitalism, and with individual rights,” and therefore “the basic evil behind today’s ugliest phenomena.”
That head-on collision arises from French philosopher Auguste Comte, coiner of the term altruism. The altruists.org website describes Comte’s meaning as “Self-sacrifice for the benefit of others,” where “the only moral acts were those intended to promote the happiness of others. The only moral acts. The philosophybasics.com website describes it as a doctrine that “individuals have a moral obligation to serve others and place their interests above one’s own.” Comte’s Catechisme Positiviste further asserts that altruism “gives a direct sanction exclusively to our instincts of benevolence,” and, therefore, “cannot tolerate the notion of rights, for such a notion rests on individualism.” In short, Comte asserted that people had to be altruistic to be moral and fully selfless to be altruistic.
In Comte’s view, [an idea derived from philosopher Immanuel Kant] any act performed for any reason beyond solely that of advancing someone else’s well-being is not morally justified. That implies taking a tax deduction for a charitable act strips it of its morality. The same is true when done because “what goes around comes around.” Something as seemingly innocuous as feeling good about doing good also fails Comte’s joyless standards. Even “love your neighbour as yourself” fails his unlimited duty of altruism. As George H. Smith summarised it, “One should love one’s neighbour more than oneself.” [It brings to mind WH Auden’s celebrated criticism of this ‘otherism’: "We are all here on earth to help others; what on earth the others are here for I don't know.” – Ed.]
It is hard to imagine a bleaker criterion for morality than one that demands such joylessness.
Ayn Rand’s attacks on altruism are aimed specifically at Comte’s definition. Modern usage however has eroded his original meaning to little more than a synonym for generosity, so Rand’s rejection of the original meaning is now often taken as a rejection of generosity, which it is not. In Roderick Long’s words,
… her sometimes misleading rhetoric about the “virtue of selfishness”… was not to advocate the pursuit of one’s own interest at the expense of others … she [explicitly] rejected not only the subordination of one’s interest to those of others, (and it is this, rather than mere benevolence, that she labelled “altruism”), but also the subordination of others’ interest to one’s own.
Rand’s categorical rejection of altruism was a rejection of Comte’s requirement of total selflessness, because that was inconsistent with any individuals mattering for their own sake. Rand vehemently opposed such an invalidation of each individual’s significance.
The basic principle of altruism is that man has no right to exist for his own sake, that service to others is the only justification of his existence, and that self-sacrifice is his highest moral duty, virtue, and value.
Rand’s “virtue of selfishness” was a response to Comte’s demand for complete selflessness – that each person completely disregards benefits to him- or herself arising from any of their actions. Not only is a requirement for everyone to completely disregard themselves an unattainable ideal, it is self-contradictory. You cannot possibly sacrifice yourself fully for me while I am also sacrificing myself fully for you. [Just what are those others here for?- Ed.] And if no one has any intrinsic value, why would the results, even if possible, be meritorious? As Adam Smith noted long ago. “Nobody but a beggar chooses to depend chiefly upon the benevolence of his fellow-citizens.” In contrast, Comte’s view would characterise a society where everyone was sustained as a beggar, dependent on charity, as moral, but would characterize people providing for themselves and their families as immoral.
With Comte as a starting point, more attention to people’s own well-being – more selfishness, in Rand’s terminology – is the only way to move toward recognising value in each individual and significance in each life.
As Rand recognised and pointed out so colourfully, Comte’s conception of altruism is inconsistent with liberty, and fatally undercuts its underpinnings. Comte’s duty to put others first at all times and in all circumstances denies ‘self-ownership’ and the power to choose that derives from it. Everyone else maintains never-ending presumptive claims on every individual, overriding any rights they may have. In contrast, benevolence involves voluntary choices to benefit others of one’s own choosing, in ways and to the extent individuals choose for themselves.
This is why Rand criticised equating altruism with benevolence. The key distinction is not the “doing good for others” aspect that the two words share, but that between benevolence’s individual discretion in making such choices with one’s recognised-as-valid claim to decide such things and altruism’s unconditional requirement to sacrifice for others in all things. Rand called the latter treating man as “a sacrificial animal.” As she put it,
Do not hide behind such superficialities as whether you should or should not give a dime to a beggar. That is not the issue. The issue is whether you do or do not have the right to exist without giving him that dime…The issue is whether the need of others is the first mortgage on your life and the moral purpose of your existence.
An omnipresent duty of self-sacrifice also makes people vulnerable to manipulation by those who disguise power over others as “really” a means to attain some noble goal. The desire to sacrifice for the good of others can be transformed into the requirement to sacrifice to the desires of leaders. As Rand expressed it:
Those who start by saying: “It is selfish to pursue your own wishes, you must sacrifice them to the wishes of others” – end up by saying: “It is selfish to uphold your convictions, you must sacrifice them to the convictions of others.”
Philosopher Leonard Peikoff’s description of the results is particularly striking:
Every man, [altruists] argue, is morally the property of others—of those others it is his lifelong duty to serve; as such, he has no moral right to invest the major part of his time and energy in his own private concerns…if he refuses voluntarily to make the requisite sacrifices…he is a moral delinquent, and it is an assertion of morality if others forcibly intervene to extract from him the fulfilment of his altruist obligations…Thus has moral fervour been joined to the rule of physical force, raising it from a criminal tactic to a governing principle of human relationships.
In sum, Comte’s view of altruism can be seen as logically inconsistent, joyless, liberty excluding and morality eroding. And, as Ayn Rand took the lead in showing, it has enabled the imposition of vast harm on vast numbers. It is not entitled to deference as a guide for morality. And one need not accept everything Rand ever argued to recognise her rebuttal of Comte as overwhelming.
However, with the world having largely transformed altruism in Comte’s sense into a synonym for benevolence, why should we still care about a rebuttal of a term that now usually means something else? The key here is Rand’s emphasis on duty.
While in typical modern usage, what people who endorse altruism really advocate is benevolence (something Rand did not reject, despite misrepresentations that she did). But just below the surface, the concept of duty remains. And it frequently re-emerges as an illustration of William Graham Sumner’s “forgotten man.”
The key here is Rand’s emphasis on duty [that ethical vestige of Kant – Ed.]:
When A needs something, in B’s opinion, if C, who can do something about it refuses … C is pilloried as someone who is selfish rather than altruistic for not choosing to support B’s cause. The faulty syllogism remains that “C is failing to do his duty here. C should do his duty. So C should be made to do it.” And … that syllogism as a bludgeon remains an ever-present threat from everyone who wants to do good with someone else’s resources, and finds coercion an acceptable mechanism.
[The alleged ethical duty to sacrifice slides so easily into the political desire to coerce the sacrifice of others. – Ed.]
Rand reminds us of the central defence against the threat of coercion lurking beyond altruistic demands placed on people. [It lies in both politics and ethics. – Ed.] [Politically,] it lies in protecting individual ‘self-ownership’ and the property rights that derive from it. When that is maintained as fundamental, my power to choose what to do with myself and my property – including when my conclusion is, “I could contribute to cause X, but I choose not to” – is accepted as legitimate. [Ethically, it lies in rejecting any taint of self-sacrifice in our morality. – Ed.] Thus we would soundly reject the view that “Apart from such times as [someone] manages to perform some act of self-sacrifice, he possesses no moral significance.”
Without the coercive violation of rights, liberty can be maintained. [Without the fallacious equation of morality with altruism, the ethical underpinnings of liberty can be secured. – Ed.] Their voluntary arrangements, including their chosen generosity, creates a better world than Comte’s altruism.
To Rand, Comte’s view of altruism is logically impossible, joyless, and liberty-excluding, and has enabled vast harms to be imposed on vast numbers. It does not deserve deference as a guide to morality. However, Rand offers no criticism of voluntary benevolence. That is why we should still care about her objections to altruism, which we now mistakenly take to mean whatever voluntary individual choices people make to be generous to others.
Gary M. Galles is a professor of economics at Pepperdine University. He is the author of The Apostle of Peace: The Radical Mind of Leonard Read.
This article previously appeared at FEE and the Mises Daily.