Atlas' Achilles Heel
06/10/2010 2:43 pm EST
“No one helped me, nor did I think at any time it was anyone’s duty to help me.”—Ayn Rand
“It was the altruism of our entire family that enabled Alyssa to get out to the United States in the first place.”—Ayn Rand’s sister Nora
One word above all lives in infamy in Ayn Rand’s lexicon: altruism.
She regards the idea that an individual should sacrifice his or her life or happiness for that of another as, in most cases, irrational and immoral.
“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,” she wrote in Philosophy: Who Needs It?
“The creed of sacrifice is a morality for the immoral,” declared John Galt in his famous, 60-page-long radio address near the end of Rand’s masterpiece, Atlas Shrugged.
Rand’s antidote: single-minded pursuit of rational self-interest.
“To redeem both man and morality, it is the concept of ‘selfishness’ that one has to redeem,” she wrote. “...The Objectivist ethics is a morality of rational self-interest—or of rational selfishness.”
In waging war against collectivist ideology, however, Rand employed a definition of altruism (formulated by the 19th-Century French thinker August Comte) far more extreme than the one most people use. By doing so, she vastly overstated her case and beat the concept of sacrificial altruism to a pulp.
But there’s some evidence that altruism—commonly understood as “unselfish regard for or devotion to the welfare of others”—may be hard-wired into our brains. Its principles are central to the world’s great religions. And altruism is often critical to parenting, which is how the human species propagates itself.
And in its most dramatic form—by soldiers, fire fighters, or others—sacrificing one’s own life to save others is considered the highest form of heroism.
Unfortunately, Rand, whose work offers a ringing defense of individual liberty and capitalism, as I wrote here last week, went so far in her attacks on altruism and praise of selfishness that she probably turned off thousands, if not millions, of potential followers—ambitious, rational people who believed in free markets but also felt an obligation to give something back to others. Like, say, Warren Buffett and Bill Gates.
There’s plenty of evidence that altruism (by the common definition, not Rand’s) plays an important role in many areas of human life.
Some cutting-edge research suggests that altruistic behavior—giving things with no prospect of immediate reciprocity—actually triggers pleasurable sensations in the brain. The experiments, reported by the National Institutes of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, found that “a similar pattern of brain activity was seen when subjects chose either to donate or take a payoff” of money.
“This result provides the first evidence that the ‘joy of giving’ has an anatomical basis in the brain,” the Institute said.
In an interview, Dr. Jordan Grafman, who led one of the studies, told me that self-interest and altruism “are certainly coming from the same place in our brain.” Talk about yin and yang!
In fact, “there was a greater magnitude of [brain] activity in giving than in receiving,” he said, cautioning that that may be because altruistic activities are rarer. He also said the science is very new.
Could this show that we evolved to protect not only each of ourselves individually but also larger units like our families and communities? The experience of child rearing suggests that.
Next: Parental and Other Sacrifices|pagebreak|
Parents give up time, money, interests, work, and more rarely even their organs or their very lives for their children.
Actually Rand’s disciple Nathaniel Branden, who was Rand’s lover for years and was expelled from Objectivism after she discovered his affair with another woman, said it well.
“If parents forego other purchases in order to provide for their child’s necessities, their action is not a sacrifice,” he wrote in 1962 in The Objectivist Newsletter.
That’s not Rand’s view, however. “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,” said John Galt is his speech.
So, it all depends on her preference? That’s not exactly the most solid foundation for raising the next generation.
And it’s ironic, because Rand’s own family sacrificed to give her a shot at freedom. Her mother “may have pawned the last of the family jewelry” to fund Rand’s passage out of Soviet Russia to the US in 1926, and other family members in Chicago helped her get on her feet here, wrote Anne C. Heller in Ayn Rand and the World She Made. (To her credit, Rand made considerable efforts to bring her Russian family to the US.)
And what about some of the more dramatic examples of self-sacrificial altruism—like the military, where our nation’s highest honor routinely goes to those who act “with complete disregard for [their] own safety” to save or protect their units?
Or fire fighters? The late journalist David Halberstam wrote a book, Firehouse, about Manhattan’s Engine 40, Ladder 35. On September 11, 2001, 343 of New York's Bravest died trying to rescue people from the doomed, burning Twin Towers. “That morning,” Halberstam wrote, “thirteen men set out on the [40/35] house’s two rigs, and twelve of them died.”
What made men like that tick? “..They were not, in the traditional sense, necessarily very religious,” Halberstam wrote. “But...they were able to take extra meaning from their lives and to find some form of redemption because of the nature of the job, because of the risks they take for complete strangers.”
Would Rand approve of this behavior or condemn it? I don’t know, but I do think it points to a larger problem identified by the late Robert M. Bleiberg, former editorial director of Barron’s and a devoted free market thinker who knew Rand and flirted with Objectivism in the 1950s.
“...Her philosophy seemed to be missing a human dimension,” he said. “If you were going to get the government out of the welfare business—something we all believed should be done—you needed to at least talk about what the private sector and the churches could do to help people who were down on their luck.”
Rand was at her best when she opposed compulsory altruism, where the government forced successful people to give their wealth to the needy. In Atlas, she showed how the idea of “from each according to his ability to each according to his need” led to chaos and destruction.
But she inflated that into a total philosophical system narrowly focused on rational self-interest. While that did give capitalism a firmer ethical basis, it also excluded whole spheres of human activity—religion, for instance—and condemned some forms of altruism that many of us admire as the highest expressions of humanity.
So, yes, we should relish our accomplishments and oppose attempts to take the fruits of our labor from us. But we should also be proud of our efforts to give something back.
And if I were in a burning building, I would want the men and women of the 40/35, not John Galt, to rescue me.
Howard R. Gold is executive editor of MoneyShow.com. The views expressed here are his own.