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In “Conservatism: An Obituary” (an article based on a lecture delivered at Princeton University in 1960), Ayn Rand said:
Altruism holds 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. Capitalism and altruism are incompatible; they are philosophical opposites; they cannot co-exist in the same man or in the same society.
Similar statements recur throughout many of Rand’s writings, and we cannot fully appreciate their meaning unless we understand her notion of self-sacrifice. In a long and detailed letter to John Hospers (29 April 1961), Rand wrote:
I admired your action because it was generous. Generosity is not a sacrifice—it is a gift or favor greater than the friend involved could, in reason, expect. But if your action had been motivated by altruistic duty, I would not have admired it nor approved.
What was the act of generosity of which Ayn Rand approved? Unfortunately, the published volume of Letters of Ayn Rand (ed. Michael E. Berliner, Dutton, 1995) contains only Rand’s side of her correspondence with Hospers—a situation that displeased Hospers, who sometimes thought “that Ayn had not correctly apprehended a point I had made, and her summary of what I said sometimes did not really reproduce what I really did say.”
Despite the problem of knowing only one side of their disagreement, Rand’s letter to Hospers provides an excellent window into her view of altruism and self-sacrifice, and how those concepts differ from generosity and benevolence.
It seems that Hospers, who was then teaching philosophy at the University of California, Los Angeles, had (as Rand put it) once “spent two full nights typing a student’s thesis” because he thought the student was “the victim of an injustice,” and Hospers “wanted him to get his degree.” Rand quoted Hospers as follows: “and yet, believe me, it was a sacrifice, and my classes suffered somewhat, and so did I (I was sleepy for days).” After Rand had approved of the assistance given by Hospers, he was curious about her reasons. Was she not opposed to self-sacrifice, after all?
As indicated in the passage quoted above, Rand responded by distinguishing between sacrifice and generosity. Rand attributed the “unusually generous” assistance by Hospers to that fact that he valued his student, who had been the victim of an earlier “injustice,” and wanted to help the student finish his degree. These were personal values for Hospers, things he valued more highly than the “discomfort” caused by lack of sleep. His action was not a “sacrifice,” because he did not give up a higher value for the sake of a lower value. (As Rand wrote elsewhere, sacrifice “is the surrender of a greater value for the sake of a lesser one or of a nonvalue.”)
Suppose, Rand continued, that the two nights that Hospers went without sleep could have caused the relapse of a dangerous illness, or suppose that his teaching would have suffered “considerably,” rather than “somewhat,” as a result. Such scenarios would have qualified as authentic sacrifices, because Hospers would have risked his own health and happiness for the sake of a person who was not especially close to him, so Rand would not have approved.
According to Rand, the lesser values we forgo in our efforts to achieve goals that we value more highly do not qualify as sacrifices. Only if we forgo those values from a sense of duty may we properly speak of self-sacrifice. Here is how Rand put the matter in “This is John Galt Speaking,” from Atlas Shrugged:
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. If a man dies fighting for his own freedom, it is not a sacrifice: he is not willing to live as a slave; but it is a sacrifice to the kind of man who’s willing. If a man refuses to sell his convictions, it is not a sacrifice, unless he is the sort of man who has no convictions.
Rand’s example of a hat and a hungry child has occasioned a good deal of spirited controversy on various internet forums. (I know this because I have participated in several prolonged debates over the past dozen years.) According to critics of Rand’s hat scenario, it is impossible to forgo a higher value for a lesser value, because all actions are necessarily motivated by what we value most highly at a given point in time. Thus a mother who chooses to buy food for her child rather than purchase a hat for herself supposedly demonstrates, through her action, that she values the child more than she values the hat—so it is incorrect to speak of her sacrificing a higher value for a lesser value. Such a thing is literally impossible.
This objection overlooks Rand’s stress on acting from a sense of duty, which she regarded as essential to altruism. Rand stressed this feature of altruistic acts again and again, including in her letter to John Hospers:
[I]f your action had, in fact, been a moral duty, the student would have had a right to it; he would have had the right to demand it of you, to condemn you morally if you refused to do it, and to owe you no appreciation, no gratitude if you did do it. Duty, on the part of one man, implies a claim on the part of the other; thus (according to altruism) you owed your services to the student, but he owes you nothing thereafter—he has merely collected his rightful due. Wouldn’t a moral situation or a human relationship of this sort turn your stomach? It turns mine. And yet this would be pure altruism consistently applied. (Observe that this is the exact way it is applied in politics, on a grand scale: men are taxed to support the needy, yet the needy owe them nothing in return, not even gratitude or respect—nothing but insults, denunciations and further demands.)
Rand’s hat example was unfortunate insofar as it does not take into account the special moral obligations of parents to their children (especially helpless infants) —an element that complicates matters considerably. Nevertheless, other examples given by Rand (both in Galt’s Speech and elsewhere), such as that of a man who dies fighting for his freedom, make her basic point sufficiently clear.
Rand obviously understood that actions are motivated by value judgments—indeed, she stressed this fact many times—and that particular actions are motivated by what we value most highly at a given time. But this psychological (or subjective) meaning of “value” was not what she had in mind in her many discussions of altruism and self-sacrifice. As Nathaniel Branden explained in his article “Isn’t Everyone Selfish?” (1962; reprinted in The Virtue of Selfishness):
It is a psychological truism—a tautology—that all purposeful behavior is motivated. But to equate “motivated behavior” with “selfish behavior” is to blank out the distinction between an elementary fact of human psychology and the phenomenon of ethical choice. It is to evade the central problem of ethics, namely: by what is man to be motivated?
Branden illustrated his point with the following example: Suppose a boy chooses a career by “rational standards,” but his mother disapproves of his decision and pressures him to pursue a career with greater social prestige. The boy accedes to his mother’s wish because he believes he has a “moral duty” as a son to place his mother’s happiness above his own. In this case, according to Branden, it would be “absurd” to maintain that no self-sacrifice is involved just because the boy subjectively values his mother’s happiness more than his own. To say that the boy acted from his highest psychological value is true but trivial. This trite observation tells us nothing about the particular value judgment that motivated the boy’s decision.
In short, it is the specific nature of a value judgment that will determine whether an action is self-interested or self-sacrificial. To forgo certain values in pursuit of other values is an inherent aspect of purposeful action and does not qualify as self-sacrifice, according to Rand. But to forgo certain values from a sense of duty, i.e., from the belief that one’s own happiness must be subordinated to a “greater good,” does qualify as self-sacrifice.
The concept of duty is the thread that runs throughout Rand’s discussions of self-sacrifice and altruism. Duty (which Rand sometimes distinguished from moral obligation) trumps personal considerations. Duty demands that we sacrifice our own happiness for the sake of other people or for some abstract goal—such as the common good, society, or the state. This is the notion of altruism against which Rand protested so vehemently.
Rand acknowledged the possibility of defending self-sacrifice as a voluntary duty, without insisting that altruistic duties be enforced by means of coercive laws. But she was highly skeptical, to say the least, that the distinction between voluntary and coercive duties could be maintained for any period of time. The political system of a given society, she believed, will ultimately reflect the predominant moral beliefs of that society, so to preach the duty of self-sacrifice, even if that duty is seen as voluntary, is to establish the moral foundation for collectivism.
As Rand indicated in a passage (quoted above) from her letter to John Hospers, duties normally entail corresponding rights, so to argue that we have a moral duty to sacrifice our own interests to the interests of other people is implicitly to maintain that others have a right to such sacrifices. And from this position it is a short and virtually inevitable step to demand that a government enforce those “rights.”
Thus, according to Rand, does political collectivism emerge from the moral doctrine of altruism.
This article is reprinted with the 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.