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Benevolence and Self-Assertiveness

Benevolence and Self-Assertiveness

2 Mins
January 23, 2011

Question: How do we reconcile the principle of general benevolence and tolerance toward other people with the intransigent self-assertiveness of John Galt and Howard Roark?

Answer: Benevolence and tolerance are considered part of the Objectivist view of ethics, even though they are not explicitly stated among the primary virtues. They do not however, contradict the self-assertiveness or the intransigence that are fundamental virtues of all of Rand’s heroes.

Tolerance as a virtue means being broad minded in recognizing that others are entitled to their own personal views. It does not mean that there is no objective right or wrong or that one cannot criticize a wrong opinion. It also does not mean tolerance for that which is irrational or immoral (which is why Dagny is intolerant of inefficiency—she knows Orren Boyle is free to be inefficient if he likes, but she is not obligated to work with him).

Benevolence, as defined by David Kelley in his book Unrugged Individualism (which details the selfish basis of benevolence) is a “commitment to achieving the values derivable from life with other people in society, by treating them as potential trading partners, recognizing their humanity, independence and individuality, and the harmony between their interests and ours”. Benevolence is thus clearly rationally selfish. It is not a sacrifice of one’s interests to those of others. Rather it reaffirms a positive view of human beings and recognizes the potential of humans.

The self-assertiveness of Roark and Galt were inherent in their commitment to their own rational self-interest. Their values were of supreme importance to them, and their actions were all ultimately aimed at peaceably and justly achieving them—and this is the most significant aspect of their selfishness. Their intransigence meant that they were uncompromising with their values, and they never allowed a breach of their integrity—and this is an important virtue. Neither selfishness, nor intransigence prevented them from demonstrating tolerance and benevolence.

While they did not agree with many of the people around them, they were no instances of intolerance toward a rational viewpoint. But there are several instances of benevolence in The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged . David Kelley cites Roark’s reaction to Steven Mallory’s despair and Dagny’s generosity toward the tramp as examples. There are many—Dagny’s kindness to Cheryl Taggart, Rearden’s sympathy for the Wet Nurse, Francisco’s help to Rearden, to name a few others.

Thus benevolence and tolerance are not contradictory to the virtues of self-assertiveness, selfishness and intransigence. Benevolence is not rooted in altruism but in rational selfishness. And an unwavering commitment to one’s values and ideas does not mean that one is intolerant of rational people.

Malini Kochhar
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Malini Kochhar
Values and Morals