Altruism is a widely accepted principle, at least in American culture. But should it be so widely and readily accepted? Are the needs of the many really of greater importance than the needs of the individual?
According to Ayn Rand in The Virtue of Selfishness the answer is no on all counts. The individual is paramount and altruism is downright evil. Here are a few interesting passages relating to altruism from the Introduction of “The Virtue of Selfishness”.
Altruism holds that anything is good as long as it is not for yourself:
“Altruism declares that any action taken for the benefit of others is good, and any action taken for one’s own benefit is evil. Thus the beneficiary of an action is the only criterion of moral value – and so long as the beneficiary is anybody other than oneself, anything goes.” (Page viii)
Altruism as the cause of society’s problems:
“Hence the appalling immorality, the chronic injustice, the grotesque double standards, the insoluble conflicts and contradictions that have characterized human relationships and human societies throughout history, under all the variants of the altruist ethics.” (Page viii)
From the perspective of an altruist, both the producer and looter are equally immoral:
“Observe the indecency of what passes for moral judgement today. An industrialist who produces a fortune, and a gangster who robs a bank are regarded as equally immoral, since they both sought wealth for their own ‘selfish’ benefit. A young man who gives up his career in order to support his parents and never rises beyond the rank of grocery clerk is regarded as morally superior to the young man who endures an excruciating struggle and achieves his personal ambition. A dictator is regarded as moral, since the unspeakable atrocities he committed were intended to benefit ‘the people,’ not himself.” (Page viii)
If man does not provide for himself, who will?:
“Since nature does not provide man with an automatic form of survival, since he has to support his life by his own effort, the doctrine that concern with one’s own interests is evil means that man’s desire to live is evil – that man’s life, as such, is evil. No doctrine could be more evil than that.” (Page ix)
Man is not a sacrificial animal:
“It is true that what I mean by ‘selfishness’ is not what is meant conventionally, then this is one of the worst indictments of altruism: it means that altruism permits no concept of a self-respecting, self-supporting man – a man who supports his life by his own effort and neither sacrifices himself nor others. It means that altruism permits no view of men except as sacrificial animals and profiteers-on-sacrifice, as victims and parasites – that it permits no concept of a benevolent co-existence among men – that it permits no concept of justice.” (Page ix)
This view is certainly counter to mainstream beliefs, and this is one of the major reasons why the work of Ayn Rand is so controversial. After you get over the knee jerk reaction of thinking, how can it be wrong to help others? How can it be good to be selfish? Consider what is really being said here.
Think of a flight on a modern aircraft. The passenger is always instructed by the flight crew in the event of an emergency to secure an oxygen mask on themselves first and then to assist other passengers. If the individual would assume an altruist perspective – they would attempt to sacrifice themselves to assist the other passenger first which may or may not succeed. However, from a selfish, or self-interested standpoint, the passenger would affix their mask first and then once they are capable, assist other passengers. By saving themselves first, they will likely be in a much stronger position to help others than if they sacrificed themselves.
The same may be said for daily living. From a self-interested perspective, you would ensure that your needs are satisfied first and then help others as you are able and should you choose to do so. From this perspective you are not sacrificing yourself, you are benevolently helping others if you choose to do so. Self-interest may not be monetary or tangible rewards, it may be goodwill or good feelings that result from such benevolent acts. Again, this is really a choice of altruism versus benevolence or obligation versus free will.
1. Ayn Rand. The Virtue of Selfishness:
2. J.R. Sedivy. Ayn Rand Myths: http://jrsedivy.com/ayn-rand-myths/