In my last essay, I summarized some leading ideas of Auguste Comte, who coined the word “altruism” and defended the subordination of individuals to humanity (“the Great Being”) as the ultimate moral ideal. I also characterized Rand’s conception of altruism as the “negative image” of Comte’s.
The contrast between Comte and Rand could not be more stark. According to Comte, for example, “Humanity is divisible primarily into States, then into Families, never into individuals;” and man’s “emotional nature” should be “paramount” over his reason. Similar fundamental differences abound throughout the writings of Comte and Rand—as we see in Comte’s assertion that wealth should be held “in trust” for the good of humanity, and that “industrial chiefs” should be viewed as “representatives of Humanity,” whose ultimate purpose is to serve humanity as a whole rather than their own interests.
Although I doubt if Rand ever read Comte in detail, some of her statements appear to be direct responses, in effect, to his claims. Consider this passage from Roark’s courtroom speech in The Fountainhead:
Civilization is the progress toward a society of privacy. The savage’s whole existence is public, ruled by the laws of his tribe. Civilization is the process of setting man free from men.
Comte, in contrast, demanded the “constant subordination of private to public life.” Indeed, an important function of Comte’s “priesthood” of social scientists (supported by the state, of course) was to inquire into every aspect of the private lives of individuals and expose to public condemnation any manifestations of selfishness. Since the primary moral duty of every person is to serve the interests of the Great Being of humanity, every trace of selfishness must be rooted out. And this, according to Comte, demands that we rid ourselves of the individualistic notion that people should have a private sphere of action, in which they may act without regard to the good of humanity. Privacy, in the final analysis, is a refuge for selfishness.
Comte, like Rand, viewed altruism and egoism as polar opposites. And they agreed on a fundamental characteristic of altruism, namely that it demands self-sacrifice as moral duty. Both thinkers therefore understood that altruism and benevolence are not the same thing. Comte (as noted in my last essay) astutely recognized that benevolent actions are compatible with egoism. Altruism is an unconditional duty that must be observed in all cases, regardless of whether or not we feel benevolent toward others in particular cases.
Mere benevolence will not suffice, according to Comte, because benevolence permits us to choose when to help others, and such choices will frequently depend on egoistic considerations. Altruism demands that we subordinate self-interest to the interest of others, regardless of how we feel about them and regardless of their personal value to us. No such personal considerations are permitted in Comte’s theory of altruism.
Rand pushed the point even further, arguing that benevolence is in fact incompatible with altruism. As she wrote in “The Man-Haters” (a column published in the Los Angeles Times in 1962):
Many people believe that altruism means kindness, benevolence, or respect for the rights of others. But it means the exact opposite: it teaches self-sacrifice, as well as the sacrifice of others, to any unspecified “public need”; it regards man as a sacrificial animal.
Rand’s views on benevolence (and related matters, such as charity) have been persistently and egregiously misrepresented by her critics, so we need to explore her position, which is fraught with political implications, in more detail.
Rand’s arguments about the incompatibility of altruism and benevolence are rooted in her conception of egoism, so we cannot hope to understand the former unless we first understand the latter. This is a daunting task, one that I cannot cover in detail in this series. Rand’s theory of egoism, like her theory of altruism, is complex and richly nuanced.
As an example of what I mean, consider what Rand wrote in a letter (5 March 1961) to the philosopher John Hospers. After noting that egoism is the “basic theme” of The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, Rand continued:
The traditional concepts of an “egoist” are represented in The Fountainhead by Peter Keating and Ellsworth Toohey. (Keating is the unthinking, parasitical, “range-of-the-moment” secondhander —Toohey is the “Machiavellian schemer” or power-luster.) The relation of these two types to Roark is made amply clear. The theme of The Fountainhead is: to demonstrate in what fundamental sense and manner Roark is an egoist, while Keating and Toohey are actually selfless—and why the traditional concepts of egoism are destroying the world.
Even longtime fans of Ayn Rand might be surprised to learn that she intended the characters of Keating and Toohey to be representative of the traditional concepts of egoism. Moreover, what are we to make of Rand’s statement that it is owing to the traditional concepts of egoism that the world is being destroyed, given that she typically placed the blame on altruism?
Facile critics of Rand—and they are legion—would probably answer my question by accusing Rand of inconsistency. Of course, these are the same critics who do not take Rand seriously as a philosopher and so refuse to take the time and effort needed to understand her theory of egoism and how her theory is inextricably intertwined with her condemnation of both altruism and the “traditional concepts” of egoism. A good deal of my series on “Ayn Rand and Altruism” will be devoted to this issue.
Let’s begin our exploration of Rand’s theory of egoism with a bit of trivia. In the Introduction to the Twenty-fifth Anniversary Edition of The Fountainhead (1968), Rand, after saying that she wished to leave the text untouched, called attention to “one minor error.”
The error is semantic: the use of the word “egotist” in Roark’s courtroom speech, while actually the word should have been “egoist.” The error was caused by my reliance on a dictionary which gave such misleading definitions of these two words that “egotist” seemed closer to the meaning I intended (Webster’s Daily Use Dictionary, 1933).
Although the word “egotist” was left unchanged in later printings of The Fountainhead, changes had already been made, seven years earlier, in the reprint of Roark’s speech in For the New Intellectual (1961). There, on two occasions, “egotist” was silently altered to read “egoist; and in another excerpt (“The Nature of the Second-Hander”), “egotism” was changed to “egoism.”
The reason for Rand’s later dissatisfaction with “egotist” should be apparent. (Her early misuse of the term suggests that she had not yet mastered some nuances of the English language.) When we call someone an egotist, we usually mean that he is conceited and boastful, that he has an exaggerated sense of his own importance. This does not describe Howard Roark and other protagonists in Rand’s fiction. On the contrary, it is the precise opposite of the character traits that Rand wished to convey.
In the Introduction to The Virtue of Selfishness, Rand argued that altruism confuses two distinct questions, namely: “What are values?” and “Who should be the beneficiary of values?” She continued:
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….
Rand rejected this “beneficiary-criterion of morality.” The intended beneficiary of an action is not “a criterion of moral value,” nor is it “a moral primary.” As Rand explained in a lengthy letter (29 April 1961) to John Hospers:
The “traditional” view of egoism assumes that the standard of value by which one judges the worth of an action is not a principle, not a specific premise, not a defined concept of the “good,” not any objective consideration, but only the beneficiary of an action. It assumes that the beneficiary is an ethical primary and a standard of moral value: if an action, regardless of its nature, is intended to serve your own benefit—you are an egoist (and, traditionally, evil); if an action, regardless of its nature, is intended to serve the benefit of others—you are an altruist (and, traditionally, good). This leads to all the vicious contradictions that I discuss in Galt’s speech.
Rand condemned the traditional view of egoism as a “groundless, unwarranted unjustifiable package deal” because it focuses solely on motivation, while bypassing more fundamental issues, such as the nature of values and why man needs a code of values in the first place.
I certainly maintain that an egoist is a man who acts for his own self-interest and that man should act for his own self-interest. But the concept of “self-interest” identifies only one’s motivation, not the nature of the values that one should choose. The issue, therefore, is: what is the nature of man’s self-interest?
We thus see why Rand viewed altruism and the traditional concept of egoism as two sides of the same coin. Both treat the intended beneficiary of an action as a standard of moral value, whereas it is nothing of the sort. In Rand’s approach to egoism, the desire to further one’s own interests does not make an action morally good, nor does a desire to help others make an action morally bad. These are secondary considerations that can be viewed in their proper light only after the truly fundamental problems of ethical theory have been addressed.
Peter Keating was a traditional egoist in the sense that he sought to advance his career through any means necessary, and Ellsworth Toohey was a traditional egoist in the sense that he sought power over others. But neither, as we shall see, was an egoist in Rand’s sense of the term.
This essay is reprinted with permission of the author and of 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.