On 4 July 1943, Ayn Rand wrote to John C. Gall, a conservative attorney and fan of The Fountainhead:
A great many Republicans would be scared to death to recognize that altruism is the curse of the world and that as long as we go on screaming “service” and “self-sacrifice” louder than the New Deal we will never have a chance. In any encounter with collectivists it is always the acceptance of altruism as an ideal not to be questioned that defeats us. I wrote The Fountainhead to show, in human terms, just what that ideal actually means and where we must stand if we want to win. If we can make the word “altruism” become a shameful term, which it actually is, instead of the automatic trademark of virtue which people think it to be—we will get the Tooheys out of Washington someday.
Although the Tooheys still dominate American politics, and although most Americans do not view “altruism” as a shameful term, much less the curse of the world, Ayn Rand convinced many people to question the conventional wisdom that self-sacrifice is a virtue, especially when enforced by the coercive power of government.
“Altruism,” according to Rand, means “the placing of others above self, of their interests above one’s own.” This account is consistent with standard dictionary definitions of “altruism,” such as “unselfish regard for or devotion to the welfare of others.” But Rand departed radically from conventional wisdom in pinpointing altruism as a pernicious doctrine that is incompatible with individual rights and a free society. “Altruism,” she declared, “is incompatible with freedom, with capitalism and with individual rights.” In one of her later articles (The Ayn Rand Letter, Nov.-Dec. 1975), Rand wrote:
Time and again, I have found that the basic evil behind today’s ugliest phenomena is altruism. Well, I told you so. I have been telling you so since We The Living, which was published in 1936. Those who still pretend that they can save freedom and individual rights without challenging altruism, are outside my power of persuasion (and, I suspect, outside any sort of persuasion, i.e., outside the field of ideas).
Altruism, according to Rand, is the moral basis of collectivism and statism; indeed, she often referred to the “altruist-collectivist” or “altruist-statist” ethics, creed, or code. Rand also explored the psychology of altruism in considerable detail, in both her fiction and nonfiction writings. Such efforts have provided abundant fodder for Rand’s critics, some of whom have ridiculed her attacks on altruism as the ravings of a fanatical egoist.
I shall explore various aspects of Rand’s critique of altruism in later installments of this series. For the remainder of this essay, I wish to discuss some historical aspects of the theory of altruism, as presented by the French philosopher and sociologist Auguste Comte (1798-1857).
In her essay “For the New Intellectual,” Rand correctly noted that the word “altruism” was coined by Auguste Comte, who called his overall philosophy “Positivism,” because it was supposedly grounded in the positive knowledge of empirical science, instead of in the unverifiable claims of religion and philosophy.
How much Comte, if any, did Rand read firsthand? I don’t know the answer to this question, but two lengthy quotations from Comte’s Catechism of Positive Religion appeared in the “Horror File” of the August 1971 issue of The Objectivist. (These excerpts may have been uncovered by Rand’s colleague, philosopher Leonard Peikoff. Peikoff’s first book, The Ominous Parallels, discussed Comte in more detail than Rand ever did, and excerpts from his book were being published in The Objectivist at that time.)
It seems unlikely that Rand would have waded through Comte’s extensive, detailed, and tiresome writings on his ideal altruistic society—such as the four thick volumes that comprise The System of Positive Polity. Even so, Rand’s analyses of altruism—including her claims about its moral, social, and political implications—are a virtual negative image of Comte’s defense of altruism. Thus, however much critics may dismiss Rand’s attacks on altruism as unjustified, her treatment of altruism, as discussed and defended by the man who originated the term and who defended altruism in more detail than any other philosopher, before or since, was remarkably on point.
Although Comte was an agnostic who repudiated all religions based on a supernatural being, he developed his own “Religion of Humanity” in excruciating detail—a secular religion that T.H. Huxley characterized as “Catholicism minus Christianity.” Complete with its own saints, priests, rituals, catechisms, temples, and prayers, Comte’s Religion of Humanity was devised to promote altruism, i.e., to persuade people to further the interests of humanity as a whole, instead of pursuing their own selfish goals. For example, in Comte’s religion the purpose of prayers (which were to be said several times daily) was to evoke altruistic sentiments and thereby habituate people to serving others.
According to Comte, “altruism alone” can achieve “life in the deepest and truest sense.” Those “degraded beings” who wish only to pursue happiness as they see fit “would be tempted to give up their brutal egoism had they but once really tasted … the pleasures of devotedness. They would then understand that to live for others affords the only means of freely developing the whole existence of man.”
Comte’s altruism went far beyond the conventional moral beliefs that we should exercise benevolence and charity toward our fellow human beings. Altruism, for Comte, was the absolute duty of humans to subordinate all personal interests (other than eating and other rudimentary necessities of physical survival) to the interests of others, and ultimately to “humanity” as a whole. According to Comte: “Man … as an individual, cannot properly be said to exist, except in the too abstract brain of modern metaphysicians. Existence in the true sense can only be predicated on Humanity.”
Consider Comte’s reaction to the Golden Rule, which many philosophers had cited as exemplifying the principle of justice, “Do to others as you would be done unto.” This will not suffice as a guide to social interaction, Comte argued, because it introduces “a purely personal calculation” and is therefore inherently egoistic. Even what Comte called “the great Catholic formula: Love your neighbor as yourself” retains the “stain of selfishness” and is therefore inadequate. One should love one’s “neighbor” more than oneself.
Only Comte’s doctrine of altruism, according to which we should “live for others” exclusively—again, with the “sole limitation” of basic life-sustaining activities, for only the living can live for others—can satisfy “the definitive formula of human morality.” “Live for others” is the “motto” of human beings at their highest stage of moral development. This is why Comte condemned suicide; to kill oneself, say, to escape intolerable pain is a selfish act that eliminates one’s potential service to humanity: “For our life is less even than our fortune or any of our talents at our arbitrary disposal, since it is more valuable to Humanity, from whom we hold it.” There can, after all, be no self-sacrifice without a self to sacrifice.
According to Comte, love, not the desire for personal gain, should be “the sole source of voluntary cooperation.” This maxim illustrates Comte’s belief that “the fundamental law” of society should be the “constant supremacy of feeling over thought and action.” Humans are motivated by their desires, and only a society whose members are truly and solely motivated by the altruistic feeling of love can hope to attain the “unity” required by a good society. Hence the fundamental “problem man has to solve [is] the subordinating [of] egoism to altruism.”
Altruistic service to humanity, which Comte frequently called “the Great Being,” is at once our greatest duty and the ultimate source of our happiness. The “highest gratification” we can attain—our “sovereign good” — flows from our “constant ministration to the Great Being.” The “kingdom of Humanity is a kingdom of love.”
In appealing to happiness as the consequence of exercising our altruistic sentiments, Comte might be accused of introducing an egoistic element into his altruistic scheme, so he set the record straight. Although altruism is the only possible source of true happiness, happiness may or may not result from altruistic acts. In no case, however, should personal happiness be the motive for altruistic acts. Whether or not we “gain” happiness from serving humanity is irrelevant. To behave altruistically because we want to be happy is to taint altruism with an egoistic motive; it is to degrade our duty to serve humanity to the level of a selfish desire for personal happiness.
Comte clearly understood that his theory of altruism was incompatible with any notion of rights and individualism, both of which he frequently associated with “anarchical” tendencies to disobey authorities. Our obligations to others—past, present, and future—are so extensive that we can never completely fulfill them, so we can never claim rights of our own.
Positivism never admits anything but duties, of all to all. For its persistently social point of view cannot tolerate the notion of rights, constantly based on individualism. We are born loaded with obligations of every kind, to our predecessors, to our successors, and to our contemporaries. Later they only grow or accumulate before we can return any service. On what human foundation then could rest the idea of right, which in reason should imply some previous efficiency [efficacy]. Whatever may be our efforts, the longest life well employed will never enable us to pay back but an imperceptible part of what we received. And yet it would only be after a complete return that we should be justly authorized to require reciprocity for the new services. All human rights then are as absurd as they are immoral.
The details of Comte’s ideal altruistic society—such as a government ruled by industrialists, with three bankers at their head, and a scientific “priesthood” of sociologists (Comte gave us the word “sociology,” in addition to “altruism”), who minister to the intellectual and emotional needs of society—have all the marks of a first-rate crank. Even many of Comte’s admirers, such as J.S. Mill, could not stomach this aspect of Comte’s ideas, preferring instead to praise Comte for his extensive writings on the philosophy and history of science (and intellectual progress generally).
Nevertheless, Comte insisted that his theory of altruism was the crowning achievement of his sociological theories, and that the moral application of those theories to society (which he dubbed “sociocracy”) took precedence over mere knowledge. Having progressed through two stages, the material and the intellectual, humankind had now reached the third and final stage of social development—the moral stage, in which altruism would and should triumph over the anarchical impulses of individualistic egoism. Only in this way, as humans learned to subordinate their selfish impulses and desires to the needs of the Great Being of humanity, would a lasting and equitable social order come about.
This article is reprinted with the permission of the author and libertarianism.org.
George H. Smith
George H. Smith was formerly Senior Research Fellow for the Institute for Humane Studies, a lecturer on American History for Cato Summer Seminars, and Executive Editor of Knowledge Products. Smith's fourth and most recent book, The System of Liberty, was published by Cambridge University Press in 2013.