Monday, 17 September 2012

Did Ayn Rand oppose helping others? Did Ayn Rand consider charity immoral?

No. While Ayn Rand didn't consider charity a moral duty, she did not consider it immoral either.

Like the meme that Ayn Rand believed wealth automatically makes a person morally superior, this is one of the most widespread myths about her ideas. A Huffington Post blogger wrote that private acts of charity were "pathetic and worthless to Ayn Rand." A Salon.com article refers to her "utter lack of charity" and one book about her is even titled "With Charity Toward None."

Ayn Rand personally donated a significant amount of money at least once, to Israel in the 1970s. Her fiction clearly indicates she believed charity is proper in certain circumstances. In The Fountainhead, the main protagonist gives financial assistance to a friend of his, a struggling sculptor, for a period of time. In a scene in Atlas Shrugged, a wealthy protagonist criticizes his brother for the way he has reacted to the support he's received, but in a way that clearly implies it is proper to accept assistance but that one should offer "good will" in return. Rand brought up that she considered charity morally acceptable several times in her non-fiction as well. She wrote, for instance:
The fact that a man has no claim on others (i.e., that it is not their moral duty to help him and that he cannot demand their help as his right) does not preclude or prohibit good will among men and does not make it immoral to offer or to accept voluntary, non-sacrificial assistance.
One possible basis for this misconception is that Ayn Rand opposed the welfare state, but of course, opposing forced government redistribution doesn't entail opposition to private, voluntary charity. Another - almost certainly the most common - basis for this is that Ayn Rand advocated a morality of "rational self-interest," promoted "selfishness" and titled her anthology on ethics "The Virtue of Selfishness." But to take this to imply a complete opposition to charity would be, as seems to often be the case with these myths, to take this isolated part of her ideas and then project what others consider to be "selfish" onto it.

Like in other issues, Ayn Rand did not merely take a position on whether you should be "selfish" or "selfless" as others understood those terms, but challenged how the issue is framed and how morality in general is thought of. Rand used "selfishness" to mean, not cruelty towards others, but literally doing what is in your self-interest, and offered specific ideas about what was in one's self-interest. And according to Ayn Rand, whether charity is in one's self-interest depends on who, and for what. Objectivist philosopher Don Watkins put it this way:
Charity, on Rand’s view, is proper when you’re promoting your values non-sacrificially. There is nothing necessarily unselfish about a college student putting his change into the Ronald McDonald House donation box, or a billionaire donating $100,000 to college scholarship fund. The value involved is the potential value of other human beings, and the cost for the individual may be small, even trivial. [...]
The relevant question is not, “Do I feel like giving to charity?” but why do I feel that way? Is it because I’m promoting my actual values? Or is it because I think it makes me virtuous to altruistically serve others? If the latter, then that is not a self-interested motive (and in the long run it won’t bring you happiness).
Treating charity as either inherently good or bad in the first place would, I think, run contrary to the way Objectivism frames morality, because an essential criticism Ayn Rand makes of the morality of altruism is that it substitutes the question of what one should value with a beneficiary. Ayn Rand did not consider the issue of charity a very important moral question one way or another. She put it this way in an interview:
My views on charity are very simple. I do not consider it a major virtue and, above all, I do not consider it a moral duty. There is nothing wrong in helping other people, if and when they are worthy of the help and you can afford to help them. I regard charity as a marginal issue. What I am fighting is the idea that charity is a moral duty and a primary virtue.
But of course, this is not the outlet and I am not the writer to lay out Ayn Rand's morality. For that, read the summaries of her ideas in the side bar, or better yet, her books. What I hope I have done is make it clear that her morality does not consist of, and does not entail, what her critics have paraphrased it to, and that I have given you a clearer general impression of what it really does consist of and entail.

Further Online Reading/Listening

Charity - Ayn Rand Lexicon
Objectivism's answer: Is Charity a Virtue? - by Peter Schwartz, Ayn Rand Institute YouTube
With Charity Toward Some -  by Don Watkins, LaissezFaire Blog