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In the foreword to The Moral Basis of Individualism—a book that Ayn Rand began writing for Bobbs-Merrill in 1943 but never finished—we find this assessment of altruism.
Every major horror of history was perpetrated—not by reason of and in the name of that which men held as evil, that is, selfishness—but through, by, for and in the name of an altruistic purpose. The Inquisition. Religious wars. Civil wars. The French Revolution. The German Revolution. The Russian Revolution. No act of selfishness has ever equaled the carnages perpetrated by disciples of altruism. Nor has any egotist ever roused masses of fanatical followers by enjoining them to go out to fight for his personal gain. Every leader gathered men through the slogans of a selfless purpose, through the plea for their self-sacrifice to a high altruistic goal: the salvation of others’ souls, the spread of enlightenment, the common good of their state.
We see here a focus on the political fallout of altruism that Rand stressed throughout her career. Altruism, for Rand, is and always has been the moral foundation of collectivism. Before you can persuade masses of people to sacrifice their own interests for the “common good” (or some similar, supposedly noble altruistic ideal) you must first persuade them that self-sacrifice is a moral duty.
As noted in my last essay, Rand’s emphasis on altruism as a moral duty (a position she shared with Auguste Comte) is what led her to insist that altruism is incompatible with benevolence. I will examine this claim in more detail in a future installment. In this essay I will discuss some of Rand’s observations about the relationship between altruism and collectivism—and political power generally.
A fascinating analysis of the relationship between altruism and power is given in The Fountainhead (1943). Near the end of the novel (Part 4, Chapter 14), arch-villain Ellsworth Toohey tells a stunned Peter Keating the true meaning of altruism, a moral doctrine that Keating “had tried not to understand.” According to Toohey, altruism serves as an ideological rationale for the acquisition and maintenance of political power over others. “Every system of ethics that preached sacrifice grew into a world power and ruled millions of men.”
Preach selflessness. Tell man that he must live for others. Tell men that altruism is the ideal. Not a single one of them has ever achieved it and not a single one ever will. His every living instinct screams against it. But don’t you see what you accomplish? Man realizes that he’s incapable of what he’s accepted as the noblest virtue—and it gives him a sense of guilt, of sin, of his own basic unworthiness. Since the supreme ideal is beyond his grasp, he gives up eventually all ideals, all aspiration, all sense of his personal value….His soul gives up its self-respect. You’ve got him. He’ll obey. He’ll be glad to obey—because he can’t trust himself, he feels uncertain, he feels unclean.
The duty of self-sacrifice cannot be consistently practiced, so altruism fails as a moral ideal on purely logical grounds. “No human beings can accept altruism fully and consciously—i.e., accept the role of sacrificial animals,” as Rand later put it in The Ayn Rand Letter (6 Nov. 1972). But this very failure is the source of altruism’s strength as the moral foundation of collectivism. In Toohey’s words, “Don’t bother to examine a folly—ask yourself only what it accomplishes.”
The ultimate incoherence of altruism—its folly—has proven useful to power seekers by enabling them to employ vacuous bromides to inspire and motivate the masses. “You don’t have to be too clear about it,” Toohey notes. “Use big vague words” that suggest a mysterious kind of happiness attainable only through self-sacrifice—expressions that can never be precisely defined, and were never meant to be. “The farce has been going on for centuries and men still fall for it.” Toohey continues:
[J]ust listen to any prophet and if you hear him speak of sacrifice—run. Run faster than from a plague. It stands to reason that where there’s sacrifice, there’s someone collecting sacrificial offerings. Where there’s service, there’s someone being served. The man who speaks to you of sacrifice, speaks of slaves and masters. And intends to be the master.
Ellsworth Monkton Toohey is one of the most complex characters ever developed by Rand. Her early character sketch of him, written in 1937, is far longer and more detailed than her sketches of other characters in The Fountainhead. Toohey, Rand wrote, is dominated by a “lust for power,” but he possesses the “cunning perception that only mental control over others is true control, that if he can rule them mentally he is indeed their total ruler.”
Mere physical power, Toohey explains to Keating in The Fountainhead, is nothing compared to the power over men’s minds that altruism provides. Convince people that they have no right to live for their own sakes, that they have a moral duty to sacrifice their interests to others, that personal happiness must always be subordinated to the needs of others, and you will be rewarded with the “lever” essential to the acquisition and maintenance of power. Nothing can compare to this kind of ideological power—not “whips or swords or fire or guns,” or the power exercised by “the Caesars, the Attilas, [and] the Napoleons”—mere “fools” whose power “did not last” because they relied too much on brute force alone.
The character of Ellsworth Toohey (as I noted in my last essay) was intended by Rand to represent one variant of the traditional concept of egoism. Indeed, given Toohey’s overriding desire for power over others, and given his understanding that altruism is “a great help” in achieving this self-interested goal, in what sense may he be called an authentic “altruist” at all?
In her 1937 character sketch, Rand refers to the “monstrosity” of Toohey’s “selfless” egoism, and she says that Toohey’s “crusade is thoroughly selfish in the [sense of the] perverted selfless selfishness of the ‘second-hander.’” Although many of Rand’s critics would contemptuously dismiss these seemingly paradoxical statements, to do so would be unfair to Rand, who developed her notion of rational egoism in considerable detail, both in her fiction and nonfiction writings. Although criticism of Rand may be appropriate on this point, as elsewhere, criticism rooted in ignorance of her theory of egoism will accomplish nothing.
Unfortunately, a discussion of the psychological nuances of the traditional concepts of egoism, as exemplified (in one variant) by the character of Ellsworth Toohey, would be quite complicated and falls beyond the scope of my series on “Ayn Rand and Altruism.” I could not possibly do justice to her treatment in the space available to me. But I can address a more general question, namely: To what extent, according to Rand, do those power seekers who invoke altruism to justify their actions actually believe what they preach? Granted that the doctrine of altruism is an indispensable tool by which they acquire power over others, do power seekers generally believe their own propaganda?
In The Moral Basis of Individualism (quoted at the beginning of this essay), Rand wrote that many “self-seeking hypocrites” have invoked altruism “to delude their followers and achieve personal ends….But they never caused the bloody terrors caused by the purest ‘idealists.’ The worst butchers were the most sincere.”
Years later, in “To Dream the Non-Commercial Dream” (The Ayn Rand Letter, 1 January 1973), Rand discussed the same issue in more detail. The “impassioned advocates of altruistic ideals…are not hypocrites.” Most such advocates are sincere, after a fashion, because they have no other realistic choice.
They need to believe that their work serves others, whether those others like it or not, and that the good of others is their only motivation; they do believe it—passionately, fiercely, militantly—in the sense in which a belief is distinguishable from a conviction: in the form of an emotion impervious to reality.
If anything, the faith in altruism required by political leaders runs deeper than “the faith they demand of their victims”—and in this sense those who invoke altruism to justify their own power “believe what they preach.” It is this kind of self-delusional faith that enables them “to lie, to cheat, to rob, to kill” with a clear conscience, “so long as they hold, as an inviolate absolute, the belief that they are the vehicles of a higher truth which justifies, somehow, any action they might commit.”
Thus does altruism emerge as a dominant theme in Rand’s writings. It is a doctrine that infuses a profound amoralism throughout a society, a doctrine that trumps individual rights and freedom with a vague appeal to the supposed virtue of self-sacrifice. All this serves to make altruism a political ideology for all occasions, a convenient cover for whatever special interest groups can agitate most successfully for their particular needs, while demanding that other be compelled, in the name of social justice, to satisfy those needs. As Rand put it:
No man could face others and declare that he intends to force them to support him for no reason whatever, just because he wants it, for his own “selfish” sake. He needs to justify his intention, not merely in their eyes, but, above all, in his own. There is only one doctrine that can pass for a justification: altruism.
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.