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Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, and Ayn Rand's Moral Triad

Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, and Ayn Rand's Moral Triad

6 Mins
September 1, 1999

Ayn Rand contrasted her morality of rational self-interest not just with altruism but with that irrational egoism which she acknowledged to be "the popular usage" of the word "selfish." (See The Virtue of Selfishness, vii-xii.) Objectivists may therefore be interested to know that a similar three-fold analysis of morality formed the basis of a major philosophical debate in Russia during the latter half of the nineteenth century.

Such, at any rate, is the thesis of a recent article by James P. Scanlan: "The Case against Rational Egoism in Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground" (The Journal of History of Ideas, July 1999).

According to Scanlan:

That Dostoevsky should make egoism the subject of a major work in 1864 [Notes from Underground] comes as no surprise to anyone familiar with tendencies in Russian literature at the time or with Dostoevsky's own earlier career, which reflected a continuing interest in the topic.

Dostoevsky's interest stemmed, in great measure, from his belief that egoism was destroying Western civilization. Following an 1862 tour through Europe, the author's Winter Notes on Summer Impressions (1863) described egoism as

the personal principle, the principle of isolation, of intense self-preservation, of self-solicitousness, of the self-determination of the I, of opposing this I to all nature and all other people as a separate, autonomous principle entirely equal and equivalent to everything that exists outside itself.


In the same year that Dostoevsky published Winter Notes, Nikolay Chernyshevsky, the leader of Russian radical opinion, brought out a novel called What Is to Be Done? Through this fictional vehicle, Chernyshevsky endorsed egoism as the proper source for individual behavior and for harmonious social relations. Scanlan says that the story's lead characters claim to seek nothing but their own interests, as determined by informed calculations. Yet they are also depicted as bringing benefit to others.

Philosophically, Chernyshevsky, Dmitry Pisarev, and others represented a view called Rational Egoism (in Russian, razumnyi egoizm), and this outlook had two aspects that coexisted uneasily. The first was a belief in "psychological egosim," the deterministic doctrine that people necessarily pursue the goals they believe to be in their best interest. Obviously, there are objections to this and Rational Egoists attempted to deal with them. But the greatest difficulty faced by the Rational Egoists was that they simultaneously believed in "normative egoism," the ethical doctrine that people ought to pursue the goals they believe to be in their best interests. The need to reconcile a belief in determinism (implied by psychological egoism) with a belief in free will (implied by the injunction "ought") was a paradox the Rational Egoists never solved.


Yet even this contradiction was a minor problem in Rational Egoism so far as Dostoevsky was concerned. More important was the fact that these so-called egoists were completely false representatives of selfishness and had the potential to lead impressionable people into a morality that would have consequences far different from those Chernyshevsky depicted, consequences that would be similar to those that egoism was having in the West. Writes Scanlan:

The hypothesis I wish to propose is that Dostoevsky set out in Notes from Underground to create, in contrast to Chernyshevsky's sham egoists with their contrived goodness, the figure of a genuine believable Russian egoist—an authentic, non-altruistic, morally repugnant egoist, someone who by his person and his attitudes would show the reality of egoism.

In the course of his attack, Dostoevsky took on the psychological egoism of the Rational Egoists, but of greater interest here is the Underground Man's attack on the philosophy's normative aspects. That normative doctrine holds, first, that the true interests of people are based on objective facts regarding the nature of man and society; and, second, that the pursuit of these true, scientifically determined interests is wholly benign as regards other people.

Against this outlook, the Underground Man poses two major questions: (1) Do the Rational Egoists know what the true interests of a human are? And: (2) Are the true interests of people harmonious? Of course, he answers these questions "No" and "No."

Regarding the true interests of people, the Underground Man says:

One's own free and voluntary wanting, one's own caprice, however wild, one's own fancy, though chafed sometimes to the point of madness—all this is that same most advantageous advantage, the omitted one, which does not fit into any classification, and because of which all systems and theories are constantly blown to the devil.

In other words, that which, to a human, represents his highest interest is not an ordinary sort of scientifically determined self-advantage but just sheer self-assertion, the expression of one's will, however whim-driven, however contrary to one's other interests and advantages. And this view of egoism not only represents the view of Dostoevsky's fictional creature, it was the view Dostoevsky himself held. Says Scanlan:

The Underground Man's awareness of the brute, irrational force of the human drive for free expression was shared by Dostoevsky, as we know from his earlier observations of the behavior of his fellow Siberian prisoners. In The House of the Dead he speaks of the convicts' efforts to show that they have 'more power and freedom than is supposed'; he describes a prisoner's sudden violent outburst as 'simply the poignant hysterical craving or self-expression, the unconscious yearning for himself, the desire to assert himself, to assert his crushed person, a desire which suddenly takes possession of him and reaches the pitch of fury, of spite, of mental aberration, of fits and nervous convulsions.'

At this point we have a contrast remarkably similar to the one that Ayn Rand and her colleagues employed: rational egoism versus irrational egoism. Rational egoism, of course, is the position of Objectivism. As Nathaniel Branden wrote: "An individualist is, first and foremost, a man of reason" ("Counterfeit Individualism," The Objectivist Newsletter, 1962). As against this rational egoism, Branden described two forms of irrational egoism: an ethical-political variety characterized by coercion and exemplified by Friedrich Nietzsche; and an ethical-psychological variety characterized by whim and exemplified by Dostoevsky's Underground Man.

To make matters more interesting still, the link between Nietzsche and Notes is not only philosophical but historical. Chris Matthew Sciabarra pointed out, in his work Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical, that "Nietzsche's notes and drafts in the winter of 1886–87 constantly refer to Dostoevsky" (35). Yet even Sciabarra did not remark the source of Dostoevsky's influence on Nietzsche at this time. It was Notes from Underground.

According to an article in the July/September 1991 issue of the Journal of the History of Ideas ("Dostoevskii's Specific Influence on Nieztsche's Preface to Daybreak," by Eric v. d. Luft and Douglas G. Sternberg), Nietzsche picked up a French translation of Notes from Underground called L'espritsouterrain, in Nice, in December 1886. The result was an immediate effect on his work, specifically on his preface for the second edition of Morgenröthe (Dawn or Daybreak), which he sent to his publisher on December 22, 1886. In the main body of that text, Nietzsche wrote that "the striving for excellence is the striving to overwhelm one's neighbor, even if only very indirectly or only in one's own feelings." The similarity of these sentiments to the Underground Man's irrational egoism is obvious, particularly if one focuses on the last phrase: "only in one's own feelings."

But was Nietzsche's irrational egoism actually influenced, after 1886, by the irrational egoism of the Underground Man? That is a question for further study.


The third element of Rand's moral triad—altruism—was also articulated in nineteenth-century Russia, also by Dostoevsky, but this time in his own voice. For although he agreed with his fictional creation about the irrational nature of egoism, he did not agree that people ought to embrace that irrational morality. In his view, man's "highest advantage" (if one can even speak the language of advantage) lies in following the altruistic teachings of Christ.

Real freedom lies only in overcoming the self and the will so as ultimately to achieve a moral condition in which one at each moment is the real master of himself. . . . The very highest form of freedom is . . . 'sharing everything you have and going off to serve everyone.'

In sum, if we accept Scanlan's thesis that Dostoevsky wrote Notes from Underground as a reply to Rational Egoism, we may say that the reasoning implicit in that work is: rational egoism is not true egoism; irrational egoism is true egoism; therefore, embrace altruism.

When Ayn Rand introduced a radically new version of rational egoism, in 1943, she thus brought full circle the three-way argument that Chernyshevsky and Pisarev; the Underground Man and Nietzsche; and Dostoevsky the Christian philosopher conducted in Russia after 1860.

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