In “Benevolence versus Altruism” (The Objectivist Newsletter, July 1962), Nathaniel Branden decried the “package deal” that links altruism to “the principle of benevolence, good will, and kindness toward others.” This claim is “worse than mistaken”; in fact, “altruism and benevolence are not merely different, they are mutually inimical and contradictory.” Branden concluded his article as follows:
The choice is not: selfishness or good will among men. The choice is: altruism or good will, benevolence, kindness, love and human brotherhood.
To find, in the official Objectivist publication of its day, positive references to kindness, human brotherhood, and similar notions may come as a shock to those many detractors of Ayn Rand who insist on portraying her as an unreformed Ebenezer Scrooge in a bad mood. But this and other egregious misrepresentations of Rand’s views have become the rule rather than the exception, so they should come as no surprise to those who actually take the time to read what Rand (and Branden) wrote on the subject of benevolence.
According to Rand, “No man can have a right to impose an unchosen obligation, an unrewarded duty or an involuntary servitude on another man. There can be no such thing as ‘the right to enslave.’” This “right to enslave” is precisely how Rand viewed altruism, which preaches self-sacrifice and service to others as a moral duty and, ultimately, as a political duty that should be enforced by the power of government.
Although Rand understood that there have been “variants of the altruist-collectivist doctrine which subordinated the individual to some higher authority,” she insisted, again and again, that the supposed duty of self-sacrifice, in whatever form it has manifested itself, has invariably undercut the notion of individual rights and thereby undermined the moral foundations of a free society.
A consistent defender of rights must uphold the right of individuals to pursue their own values according to their own judgments, so long as they respect the equal rights of others. Rights are a moral concept that “preserves and protects individual morality in a social context,” the “means of subordinating society to moral law.”
Altruism, in contrast, is a type of “moral cannibalism” in which some people are sacrificed to others in the name of “duty.” And since altruism cannot be consistently practiced (it is impossible to sacrifice everyone to everyone), in practice altruism amounts to the “right” of governments, speaking on behalf of “society” (or some other collective abstraction), to decide who should be sacrificed to whom, and to enforce their decisions by coercive means. Altruism therefore results in a profoundly amoral society—a society in which rulers are “exempt from moral law” and claim the right to dispose of people and property as they deem fit.
Essential to Rand’s analysis of altruism is the bright moral line she drew between persuasion and coercion. In “What is Capitalism?”—one of her best essays, in my judgment—Rand argued that “an attempt to achieve the good by physical force is a monstrous contradiction which negates morality at its root by destroying man’s capacity to recognize the good, i.e., his capacity to value.”
Force invalidates and paralyzes a man’s judgment, demanding that he act against it, thus rendering him morally impotent. A value which one is forced to accept at the price of surrendering one’s mind, is not a value to anyone; the forcibly mindless can neither judge nor choose nor value. An attempt to achieve the good by force is like an attempt to provide a man with a picture gallery at the price of cutting out his eyes.
The upshot of this argument, for our purpose, is that altruism is utterly devoid of moral value, even if we accept the premise (which Rand did not) that the disposition to help others is a major virtue. Voluntary charity is one thing, but coercive charity is a veritable contradiction in terms. Coercion is necessary only when one cannot persuade others to act as one thinks they should. And to compel someone to take an action is to strip that action of any moral value it might otherwise have.
Consider these two scenarios. First, I believe (for whatever reason) that you should contribute a thousand dollars to the Red Cross, and I successfully persuade you to do so. Second, I fail in my attempt to persuade you to donate a thousand dollars, so I threaten you with force unless you comply, while explaining that I am merely enforcing your moral duty to help others. You then comply with my demand, preferring to surrender your money rather than risk suffering the harm I threaten to inflict.
Superficially considered, your actions in both scenarios are identical. That is to say, in both cases you ended up transferring a thousand dollars to the Red Cross. But the two actions differ radically from a moral point of view. In the first scenario, you are free to agree or not; you are free to evaluate the desirability of a potentially benevolent action in the full context of your personal values. The second scenario presents no such option; you agree to surrender your money not because you value charity but only because you fear the consequences of not obeying my coercive command.
In “A Nation’s Unity” (The Ayn Rand Letter, 23 October 1972), Rand identified fear as a crucial difference between benevolence and altruism.
Benevolence is incompatible with fear. It is only when a man knows that his neighbors have no power forcibly to interfere with his life, that he can feel benevolence toward them, and they toward him—as the history of the American people has demonstrated…. Since agreement on the principle of individual rights does not impose any official dogma and does not violate anyone’s convictions, the greatest variety of views and ideas could coexist peacefully in the same country without threatening anyone. If two men disagreed, they were free not to deal with each other, and neither could force his choices on the other.
Nathaniel Branden made a similar point in “Benevolence versus Altruism”:
By the nature of the altruist ethics, it can engender only fear and hostility among men: it forces men to accept the role of victim or executioner, as objects of sacrifice or profiteers on human sacrifices—and leaves men no standard of justice, no way to know what they can demand and what they must surrender, what is theirs by right, and what is theirs by favor, what is theirs by someone’s sacrifice—thereby casting men into an amoral jungle. Contrary to the pretensions of altruism’s advocates, it is human brotherhood and good will among men that altruism makes impossible.
Benevolence, good will and respect for the rights of others proceed from an opposite code of morality: from the principle that man the individual is not an object of sacrifice but an entity of supreme value; that each man exists for his own sake and is not a means to the ends of others; that no one has the right to sacrifice anyone.
In a letter to John Hospers (29 April 1961), Rand wrote that “charity is a marginal issue, as far as ethics is concerned.” Charity may be “morally proper,” but it is not morally required and should not be treated as “a major virtue.”
Those conditions in which Rand regarded charity as morally proper are not especially relevant to my discussion of her views about altruism, since she viewed charity (and benevolence generally) and altruism as polar opposites. I have called attention to Rand’s endorsement of voluntary charity, in some circumstances, to rebut the preposterous claim of some critics that Rand defended “selfishness” in the vulgar sense, according to which an egoist should show no concern for the welfare of others. That was not her point at all.
It is not as if critics need to delve into Rand’s more obscure essays to understand her views on altruism and how she distinguished altruism from charity. Rand clearly explained the essential difference in Galt’s Speech.
As a basic step of self-esteem, learn to treat as the mark of a cannibal any man’s demand for your help. To demand it is to claim that your life is his property—and loathsome as such claim might be, there’s something still more loathsome: your agreement. Do you ask if it’s ever proper to help another man? No—if he claims it as his right or as a moral duty that you owe him. Yes—if such is your own desire based on your own selfish pleasure in the value of his person and his struggle.
Herbert Spencer, whose views on charity were similar to Rand’s, once estimated that “in three cases out of four the alleged opinions of mine condemned by opponents, are not opinions of mine at all, but are opinions wrongly ascribed by them to me.” Rand’s critics, it seems, are determined to surpass the three-quarters mark and thereby set a new record for lack of intellectual integrity.
Such misrepresentation is the likely fate of any libertarian who dares to argue for the moral supremacy of voluntary over coercive interaction. If you don’t believe that a government should coercively enforce x, then you must be opposed to x per se. Q.E.D.
Bertrand Russell once said that most people would rather die than think; in fact, many do. By this standard, many of Rand’s critics should have self-destructed long ago.
This article was 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.