What follows is part of a series on Objectivism I had no plans to write. I think Ayn Rand ideas interesting and her books entertaining, but I never intended to post much on Objectivism. However, I respond to comments, and Objectivism is what some of my commenters wanted to hear about. So here is a list of the earlier posts.
- A DEBATE OVER CHRISTIANITY, OBJECTIVISM, AND ALTRUISM
- CHRISTIANITY IS NOT ABOUT SACRIFICING ONE’S VALUES
- WHAT DID AYN RAND THINK OF ALTRUISM
The Latest Comment
The latest comment driving this series came from John Donohue
Your paragraph “Is Objectivism A Rational Moral Philosophy” contains at least four inaccuracies about Objectivists’ and Ayn Rand’s thought, which taken together amount to evidence you have either not understood it or choose to not fairly make its case preparatory to criticizing it.
I will only address the primary fault, one that subsumes the others: “…Communism, it is not altruism. What is altruistic about throwing tens of millions of one’s own countrymen into gulags and working them to death?”
Ayn Rand, and decades of Objectivist thinkers, thoroughly and exhaustively point out that the root of ethical altruism is not “general benevolence and helping,” but rather “living for others.” In the first place, you will hopefully discover that Rand has no quarrel with individuals voluntarily aiding others on any level of “need,” as long as it does not damage pursuit and respect for ones chosen responsibilities and purpose in life. Second, when ethical altruism (living for others) switches into political altruism, it becomes indeed the driver of Communism, Fascism, Theocracy and all other forms of tyranny. Colloquially: “live for others and if you refuse to do so, the state will put you under compulsion to do so.”
The primary text for getting clear on Ayn Rand’s position on altruism is “The Virtue of Selfishness.” Naturally you are free to dispute Rand’s ethical philosophy, but you are shooting at phantoms if your target is not squared fairly against that book.
An interesting outside discussion that goes right to the heart of “altruism as self-immolation and political tyranny” vs “general benevolence” is a response to a thinker who made similar claims that you make. The link below contains the response, and uncovers the original meaning and still-potent concept of altruism by the thinker who originated the word.
A Bit Of Humor
I have never much cared for the term “altruism.” Did I know how it was coined? No. Can I explain why I did not like the term? Not really, but I would like to believe I disliked the term because of the way people use it. Consider this bit of humor from the Online Etymology Dictionary (see altruism).
There is a fable that when the badger had been stung all over by bees, a bear consoled him by a rhapsodic account of how he himself had just breakfasted on their honey. The badger replied peevishly, “The stings are in my flesh, and the sweetness is on your muzzle.” The bear, it is said, was surprised at the badger’s want of altruism. [“George Eliot,” “Theophrastus Such,” 1879]
Let’s get to the point. Does Donohue’s complaint have a basis in fact? Have I mischaracterized what Ayn Rand said about altruism? In spite of how word “altruism” was coined, I don’t think so.
Here is the definition we ordinarily use for “altruism.”
altruism n :
Here is the more extreme definition for the term “altruism” used by Rand.
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. (continued here)
Few today would associate altruism with the definition used by Rand. Nonetheless, the term altruism does have a dubious history. As Donohue observed, Auguste Comte (19 January 1798 – 5 September 1857) coined the term altruism (Here is what Wikipedia has to say about altruism.). Comte tried to start his own religion, the Religion of Humanity. Comte’s religion involved the worship of humanity, and altruism served as one of its key tenets. Thus, Comte coined the term “altruism” with the more extreme definition. Apparently, however, the public has watered down the definition to something more reasonable.
The Difference Between Altruism And A Lie
Note that Comte defined altruism in the context of a belief system the deifies humanity. Then consider Donohue’s complaint.
when ethical altruism (living for others) switches into political altruism, it becomes indeed the driver of Communism, Fascism, Theocracy and all other forms of tyranny. Colloquially: “live for others and if you refuse to do so, the state will put you under compulsion to do so.”
What Communism, Fascism, and autocratic Theocratic religions all involve is the worship of man by man. Such systems insist upon “altruism” because the individual is by definition either subordinate to the great collective or to the great leader.
When we as a people speak of altruism, we each put our own altruism in the context of our love for our fellow man. When we speak of altruistic behavior, we speak of a voluntary sacrifice. Consider an example. If they knew the origin of the term”altruism,” can you imagine the folks who wrote this article, The Problem of Goodness, using the term?
By insisting upon a government role and tempting us with promises of wealth from the rich or the enemies of the state, political leaders pervert the voluntary nature of true charity or altruism. Thus, we end up with Communism, Fascism, Theocracy and other forms of tyranny that are supposedly based upon altruism. In reality, such systems are simply abuses of power justified by a lie. In his fable about The Wolf and the Lamb, Aesop explained the technique long ago.
The Christian Attitude
What is the Christian attitude towards altruism. For the most part, I provided my opinion in the previous posts. However, the Catholic Encyclopedia (which significantly predates Ayn Rand) has a good article on the subject, Altruism. Naturally, the article notes the defects of Comte’s religion.
Here is what Catholicism or (Christianity in general) teaches about love.
The Catholic teaching on love of others is summed up in the precept of Christ: Love they neighbour as thyself. The love due to oneself is the exemplar of the love due to others, though not the measure of it. Disinterested love of others, or the love of benevolence, the outward expression of which is beneficence, implies a union proximately based on likeness. All men are alike in this that they partake of the same rational nature made to the image and likeness of their Creator; have by nature the same social aptitudes, inclinations, and needs; and are destined for the same final union with God by which the likeness receive through creation is perfected. By supernatural grace the natural likeness of man to man is exalted, changing fellowship into brotherhood. All likeness of whatever grade is founded ultimately in likeness with God. Love, therefore, whether of oneself or of others is in its last analysis love of God, by partaking of Whose perfections we become lovable. (from here)
All men are alike. That is, we were all made in the image of God. Because we are children of God, His creations, we are worthy of love, and the more Christlike we become, the more worthy we become.
What Then Of Objectivism?
Because Objectivism, like Comte’s Religion of Humanity, is a godless philosophy, it is an empty philosophy. Outside of man’s reason, it has no anchor. Man’s reason is no defense, not even against our own devices for tyranny.
So why would intelligent men and women gravitate to such a thing as Objectivism? I can only speak of my own experience. When I did not know Christ, I remember the pride. I had the courage — ME –to face a universe without God. The rest of men were sheep and cowards.
I looked at the universe, and I did not see God. I had seen a forest and missed the most significant detail. Just as a forest is filled with trees, God had filled the universe with the glory of His creations.
Yes! I had the courage to do without God. I ignored the fact of death. I ignored the parade of coffins, the slow, stately departure of everyone I have known. With masterful disdain I ignored the fact that after my last breath I will join the march, wrapped in metal box, buried deep, and slowly rotting.
Yet the Objectivist will say I now believe because I am afraid, and how will I object? Here is God’s answer. There are two fears.
- God does not exist.
- God exists.
Only the fear of God leads to the beginning of wisdom.