Ayn Rand and Altruism

11 minute read

My short analysis of a theme from Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged. I am probably going to skip to something else for my next post, but I will probably be doing another down the road. As usual, I am not a professional and chances are I am wrong about something, so all commentary is welcomed:
Calvin and Hobbes 

Altruism as Seen in Atlas Shrugged

In Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand repeatedly alludes to the supposed nature of Altruism, a characteristic she believed to be destructive and counter to man's nature. In a novel based around man's ego and self interest, Ayn Rand depicts Altruism as the evil that created the dystopian scenario that Dagny Taggert and Hank Reardon found themselves fighting to stop.

You will often find the various antagonists from Atlas Shrugged claimed the need for sacrifice for the good of the whole/majority. This 'need' of self sacrifice often ends with decisions that cost the jobs, livelihood, and the actual lives of civilians caught in their grand schemes. Eventually, this fetishization of the idea of self sacrifice leads to the destruction of much of the United States and the world, economically and socially.

John Galt, one of the main protagonists eventually gives a speech revealing his feelings towards such an idea:

“If you wish to save the last of your dignity, do not call your best actions a ‘sacrifice’: that term brands you as immoral. 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. If a man dies fighting for his own freedom, it is not a sacrifice: he is not willing to live as a slave; but it is a sacrifice to the kind of man who’s willing. If a man refuses to sell his convictions, it is not a sacrifice, unless he is the sort of man who has no convictions. (Atlas Shrugged, pg 942)

Ayn Rand has this scenario play over and over again until she paints the picture a dozen times over: Altruism is very very bad. It is what made Atlas Shrugged what it was, a gargantuan novel about the results of socialist and pluralist governments, as well as the danger of the masses. All of those things are made possible, at least according to Rand, because of this idea of "Altruism" and the idea that the individual must sacrifice for others, regardless of the consequences to the self.

Before we move on, keep in mind that Ayn Rand did leave the door open to the idea of  intentionally starving your child being okay ethically-even if it happens because you preferred buying a hat over food.

What Did Ayn Rand Mean?

Rand defined Altruism as the following:

What is the moral code of altruism? 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. (Philosophy: Who Needs It, pg 61)

Most people immediately ask "So charity is bad by her definitions?", or something along those lines, but Rand has an answer to that. She makes a further clarification:

Do not confuse altruism with kindness, good will or respect for the rights of others. These are not primaries, but consequences, which, in fact, altruism makes impossible. The irreducible primary of altruism, the basic absolute, is self-sacrifice—which means; self-immolation, self-abnegation, self-denial, self-destruction—which means: the self as a standard of evil, the selfless as a standard of the good. (Philosophy: Who Needs It, pg 61)

To Ayn Rand, charity, kindness, and recognizing the existence of others by helping them is not Altruism (We'll get to that in a moment).

Altruism was the Denial of the Self. This focus on Altruism in Atlas Shrugged was a criticism of the belief that man was inherently evil and corrupt, and incapable of good. Furthermore, it was a criticism of the idea that man must forego himself to achieve anything morally right, and that only by depreciating the ego could any enlightenment be achieved. If you have any inkling of Rand's philosophy you already know this, but Rand believed the Individual to be 'everything.'

What is Wrong with Sacrifice?

Ayn Rand on The Individualist

Ayn Rand believed that individuals act out of self interest, and that contrary to popular belief, this wasn't a bad thing. Alluding to the first quote, she believed that whenever you do something willingly for someone else, you most likely do it because you want the product of exchange. For the mother, the well being of her child was the product, thus she chose food over a hat.

Again, a Sacrifice was "self-immolation", something done not out of self interest, but because you are either forced to or because you actually believe self-denial to be good. In other words, outside of you being forced into jail for trying to kill an innocent bystander(or a similar situation), 'sacrificing' was wrong.

Rand's reason for this was because if you set yourself, the individual, as the 'standard of evil' was logically bunk. How could being selfish in order to pursue happiness, life, and well being be wrong? To her, Morality came out of existence. Everything we defined as right or wrong were not innate instincts, but observations from survival; morality was not an arbitrary set of rules, but logical conclusions based on a set of observations throughout humanity's survival. Morals only existed because man existed, and they all originated from life and the pursuit to survive. She explains:

“You who speak of a ‘moral instinct’ as if it were some separate endowment opposed to reason—man’s reason is his moral faculty. A process of reason is a process of constant choice in answer to the question: True or False?—Right or Wrong? Is a seed to be planted in soil in order to grow—right or wrong? Is a man’s wound to be disinfected in order to save his life—right or wrong? Does the nature of atmospheric electricity permit it to be converted into kinetic power-right or wrong? It is the answers to such questions that gave you everything you have—and the answers came from a man’s mind, a mind of intransigent devotion to that which is right. (Atlas Shrugged, pg 931)

Our system of morality originates with the idea of self preservation. Planting plants to harvest leads to food which we can eat to survive, therefore it is good. This eventually got more and more complex to the system of ethics before us now. This is what made Rand believe that Self Interest was an innate good, rather than bad. Through this, she also hits at arbitrary ethics and morality set by both religious and secular philosophers("Moral Instinct"), and argues that ethics can't be based on anything but our own objective experience.

'But Greed is Wrong'

This is where Rand's philosophy actually gets quite interesting, because it all begins to come together.

You might say that by legitimizing any actions done out of self interest, you now allow massive amounts of abuse, corruption, and violence. However, this would be negating Rand's view on Altruism. By forcing or manipulating someone else, you take away their ability to act out of self interest.

In other words, you make them a sacrifice.

This denies whoever is forced/manipulated of their 'agency', their ability to act and choose for themselves. You make it impossible for someone to act out of self interest when you murder them, and this continues on into areas such as stealing, lying, etc. When you stifle a person's right to live as they want, assuming they aren't harming others, you make them sacrifice their lifestyle, time, money, etc. So when operating under the ethical construct Rand creates, we see things such as 'Natural Rights' are still very much preserved.

The reality is that greed will always exist due to Human nature(we are biological beings who need to survive); however, contrary to the claims of others, Rand also says that it is greed and self interest that will actually lead to progress.

To Rand, it is the idea of Altruism that leads to the problems we see in society. The mentality and belief in altruism necessitates sacrifice on the part of others and yourself, and is used to justify practically anything. When X politician believes national security is at risk, rather than fix the actual causes, they can simply pass a sweeping law that violates rights under the mentality of sacrifices being necessary. When X corporation is about have a huge loss, they advocate that the nation must take a sacrifice collectively to bail the company out, less 100s of jobs are lost due to their mistake. You get the idea. Far too often people get caught into the debate of whether or not such action ought to happen(is it right or wrong?), when in reality the debate should be about whether or not someone should have to actually do it . Rand clarifies:

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 you must keep buying your life, dime by dime, from any beggar who might choose to approach you. The issue is whether the need of others is the first mortgage on your life and the moral purpose of your existence. The issue is whether man is to be regarded as a sacrificial animal. Any man of self-esteem will answer: “No.” Altruism says: “Yes.” (Philosophy: Who Needs It, pg 61)

I do and don't agree with this, and that depends entirely on the context. I agree with Rand that you should not be forced into giving to any cause without mutual consent. Coming to mind are my bailout and national security examples. That extends to charity, something that I believe should be completely voluntary as well. However, I believe there are moral imperatives that should be met, and that it is a good thing to give to those in need, etc. This is a discussion for some other time, though.

Altruism, Another Controversy

Ayn Rand is controversial, this has been previously established in a previous post. This just adds to the list. However, I think there is still plenty of value in reading Rand, even if it is just for the fact she makes you think. In closing this entree, her Altruism argument can be split into three parts:

1. First of all, Rand views child care/charity as an exchange. With a child, not only do you want to protect your progeny, you project what you think is of worth into the world by instilling it into your kid. You feel good when you help the poor, just like you project your view on how the poor should act/pursue life when you give them work, etc. You shape the world to your desire.  I see nothing wrong with this, and I find it rather undeniable. You get something out of every exchange, else you wouldn't be doing it in the first place. 

2. Second, by attempting to split the self interest from our actions/decisions, we either lead to our own demise(giving everything you have till you die), or we use it as a tool to manipulate/harm others. Far too often we hear "for the common good" used to justify atrocities or the outright theft of peoples' money by groups and politicians. The idea of altruism leads to the justification of Sacrifices, whatever that may be.

3. Third, and as a result of the other two, morality is based purely out of self interest. Whether or not something is right is largely, if not entirely, based on whether or not you gain from it.  Think of the farming comparison given by Rand in a previous quote. Things like Charity are 'non-issues' and can be pursued if you want, but are of no real importance morally. Interestingly enough Rand actually says that if your acts of charity put you at risk or harm you, they aren't in fact virtuous, but actually bad:

“If you give money to help a friend, it is not a sacrifice; if you give it to a worthless stranger, it is. If you give your friend a sum you can afford, it is not a sacrifice; if you give him money at the cost of your own discomfort, it is only a partial virtue, according to this sort of moral standard; if you give him money at the cost of disaster to yourself—that is the virtue of sacrifice in full. (Atlas Shrugged, pg 942)

To me, not only is she wrong on point three(I believe there is virtue in such acts), but she also contradicts herself. How is an act self sacrificial when you personally want/gain from the act? What if it was your child? Some sort of war/revolution of liberation or defense? If you value those things above your life by seeing the value from the future of your 'investment', are you not facilitating a trade? So long as you are not viewing yourself, the individual, as unworthy/evil, but just in fact believe that your death/sacrifice will serve a greater cause that also serves your interest, how are you doing anything wrong? To me, there is a major gap here that can be filled with numerous situations where the actor is indeed being 'selfish,' and is not just sacrificing themselves.

Altogether, with these three components combined, Rand's argument against Altruism holds some warrant. To me, it really applies to the "Intentions vs. Reality" facet of life. As humans, we often have very good intentions that back our actions, but more often than not, those actions create a situation worse than before. In society, we belittle any kind of greed or ambition, but if it wasn't for these exact type of emotions and the individuals who have them, where would be we? I'll leave you to decide.

As usual, Rand was onto some ideas that have both valuable and questionable thinking behind them. Luckily, she didn't force anyone to accept them, but instead wrote and spoke extensively to convince us.