Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Did Ayn Rand believe altruism is impossible? Does Objectivism hold that "people invariably act in their self-interest"?

No. According to Ayn Rand, man should act in his rational self-interest, but it is not automatic, and he needs a moral code to help determine what is in his self-interest.

That Ayn Rand held selfishness to be innate is one of the strangest and most arbitrary myths, and most straight-forward to explain. Objectivism holds that man possesses free will, that he requires morality, which is a "code of values to guide man’s choices and actions." It holds that he can choose the code of morality that he can practices and that if he chooses the incorrect one, such as altruism, this will be harmful for him.

Ayn Rand was, as usual, very clear about her position on this issue:
Man has been called a rational being, but rationality is a matter of choice—and the alternative his nature offers him is: rational being or suicidal animal. Man has to be man—by choice; he has to hold his life as a value—by choice; he has to learn to sustain it—by choice; he has to discover the values it requires and practice his virtues—by choice. A code of values accepted by choice is a code of morality.
In Ayn Rand's writings on ethics, she argues passionately against the moral codes she opposes and for those she believes in. In her novels, those who choose to pursue the first fail and those who pursue the second succeed. It is hard to imagine how one could get the impression that a writer who considered morality such an important issue and stressed how consequential the choice of a moral system is believes self-interest is innate. If it were innate, how would the proper code of morality be a relevant issue at all?

Of course, self-interest isn't innate, and those who intend to act in their self-interest may choose to pursue values which are not in their self-interest, which is why Ayn Rand warned of the consequences of failing to pursue the values that are: "Man is free to choose not to be conscious, but not free to escape the penalty of unconsciousness: destruction. Man is the only living species that has the power to act as his own destroyer—and that is the way he has acted through most of his history."

The most prominent of the recent examples of this myth is a Guardian piece from early this summer "Confessions of a recovering Objectivist," which writes that Rand claimed "all human acts come from self-interest" and "that altruism doesn't exists," and summarized the point this way:
What needs to be emphasized is that Rand conflates descriptive psychological egoism (people act in their self-interest) with normative ethical egoism (acting in self-interest is the right thing to do). Part of this "ought-from-an-is"-type assumption is that altruism does not exist – very much the backbone of her belief system.  
West Valley College's Sandra LaFave does a great job following this line of thought and pointing out why it doesn't work. The basic claim of egoists, LaFave notes, is that people "always and invariably act in their self-interest". 
This "backbone of her belief system" is a gross misstatement of it. How can she say that Rand bases Objectivist morality on "descriptive psychological egoism" when Rand repeatedly argued that one has the power to choose the moral code one follows? And when Rand gave a different basic justification for Objectivism's moral system? How can she say that Rand's "basic claim" is that people "always and invariably act in their self-interest" when Rand actually wrote "Man is free to choose not to be conscious, but not free to escape the penalty of unconsciousness: destruction. Man is the only living species that has the power to act as his own destroyer—and that is the way he has acted through most of his history"?

The "man is innately self-interested" myth is not the only one in the article. She repeats some that I've covered before, such as that Ayn Rand's taking Medicare was somehow hypocritical, and some that I will in the future.

The last part of the article features the claim that she "outgrew Rand." Whatever it is that she's describing that she "outgrew" were not Rand's ideas. And obviously, she is yet to grow out of intellectual dishonesty.