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Altruism and Selfishness

The bracing attractions and severe limitations of Ayn Rand.

By 11.2.07

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This article appeared in the October 2007 issue of The American Spectator, where Mr. Scruton is a monthly columnist. To subscribe to our monthly print edition, click here.

THE FIRST PIECE OF MORAL advice that parents used to give their children was contained in the Golden Rule: Do as you would be done by. Christian parents backed this up with the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jewish parents with the commandment to "love thy neighbor as thyself," enlightened parents with their own version of the Categorical Imperative. It all seemed very simple. After all, what is morality about if it is not about living with others? And how can you live with others if you don't treat them as equals?

Two powerful influences have disturbed that old equilibrium. The first is the gospel of selfishness, preached by Ayn Rand. Don't listen to that socialist claptrap, Rand told us. It is just a ploy of the parasitical, to curtail the freedom of the heroes, and to seize their goods. Rand's fiery mixture of free market economics and Nietzschean defiance proved intoxicating to a generation struggling to come to terms with the New Deal and the growth of the welfare state. By announcing "the virtue of selfishness," she reminded her readers that creation comes before distribution, and that creation needs a motive. And what motive will drive people to take the risks required by wealth creation, unless it be self-interest?

Amalgamating Adam Smith's "invisible hand" with Nietzsche's condemnation of the "slave morality," Rand gave to the would-be entrepreneurs of the mid-20th century the courage to say "get off my back." By being selfish, she argued, I enjoy my freedom and amplify my power -- so creating at least one attractive person in the sea of second-raters. But I also provide work and reward to others, helping those around me to be selfish, and therefore successful, in their turn. By being altruistic I merely waste my energies on useless people; and when the state is altruistic in my name, seizing my goods and distributing them among its ever-growing ranks of dependents, then freedom, creativity, and wealth are all at risk, and futility rules.

Rand was a terrific intellect, in every sense of the word "terrific." She fired her ideas like missiles into all the citadels of opinion, with vivid characters as their advocates and engaging dramas as their proof. Her novels and essays may not be the highest literature, but they grab the reader by the throat and defy him to say so. And when the still small voice speaks up at last, questioning whether it is exactly selfishness that is needed by a free economy, or whether there are not other aspects to human life, other things to strive for, other sources of satisfaction than the satisfaction of me, the reply comes: of course, that's exactly what I am saying! When a father works to provide for his children; when a woman spends her money on a person she loves; even when a man lays down his life for his friend -- all this is selfishness, doing what one wants to do, because one has the motive to do it, because that is what the I requires. The opposite of selfishness is not disinterested love, but the kind of slave labor that the state demands, in order to be "altruistic" with the surplus. An economy based on selfishness is one in which people also give; an altruistic economy is one in which they merely steal.

IT IS NOT SURPRISING if, after a heavy dose of Rand, people end up unsure whether selfishness is a good thing or a bad thing, or exactly how you must behave in order to pursue it or avoid it. Things have been made worse by the biological theory of "altruism," defined as an act whereby one organism benefits another at a cost to itself. On this definition the lioness who dies in defense of her cubs is altruistic. So too is the soldier ant marching by instinct against the fire encroaching on the ant-heap, or the bat distributing its booty around the nest. Geneticists have worried about how to reconcile "altruism" with the theory of the selfish gene; but the rest of us ought to worry rather more about the use of this term to run so many disparate phenomena together. Is it really the case that the officer who throws himself onto a live grenade in defense of his men is obeying the same biological imperative as the soldier ant who marches to his death in the fire? And if so, is there anything really praiseworthy about the officer's action?

Taken together, the Randian encomium of selfishness and the biologist's debunking of altruism seem to undermine those old maxims whereby our parents brought us up. The moral motive is made to look either mistaken or trivial: either something to avoid, since it impedes our creativity, or something unavoidable, since it is implanted in our genes, just as it is implanted in the genes of the bear, the buzzard, and the beetle. The idea that the moral motive is something to be acquired, by learning the habit of self-sacrifice, seems to have no place in modern thinking, and it is not surprising, therefore, if the moral motive has so little place in modern life.

Not that our parents were entirely blameless in this matter. My own father was none too clear about the distinction between caring for others and caring for yourself. When I protested that I was doing my duty in walking the dog, and therefore could be excused from the washing up, he retorted, "But you enjoy walking the dog; so that doesn't count!" Like many a person brought up in the grim routines of Northern Protestantism, he believed that no action could be truly dutiful if you didn't approach it with gritted teeth, and that pleasure was a sign of selfishness. His socialist opinions came from the same source: not a desire for justice, but a resentment of success. My father was one of those people -- and British society is as full of them now as it was full of them then -- who make Ayn Rand look plausible. And maybe it was because I early rebelled against his outlook that I have never been persuaded by Rand.

IS IT NOT OBVIOUS, from Christ's description, that the Good Samaritan enjoyed helping the man who fell among thieves, that he went out of his way, from an abundance of good will and from the sheer pleasure of giving, to set the man on his feet? And is it not probable that the priest and the Levite felt no pleasure at all when they passed on the other side, and maybe that they did so with a cringe of self-loathing? Learning to love your neighbor as yourself is learning to take pleasure in the things that please him, as a mother takes pleasure in the pleasures of her child. To call this "selfishness" is to abuse the language. A selfish act is one directed at the self; an unselfish act is one directed at others. And the truly unselfish person is the one who wants to perform unselfish acts, who takes pleasure in giving, and who enjoys the prospect of another's success. This is not, as Rand would have us believe, just another form of selfishness. It is an altogether higher motive, one in which the other has replaced the self as the object of concern.

Moreover, it is a motive of which animals know nothing. The ant and the bee may obey the genetic imperative that sends them to their death against the intruder: but they have no idea of doing this for the sake of the heap or the hive. Not even the lioness, who fights to the death for her cubs, has any knowledge that it is for their sake that she does this, or that she is making them a gift of her life. The little word "sake" is one of those words -- like "the" and "that" -- to which a whole book of philosophy could be devoted. Indeed, whole books of philosophy are devoted to this word, since that is what moral philosophy is about-acting not just for a purpose, but for the sake of something, be it honor, duty, or another person. No animal has the concept expressed by this word, or the motive explained by it, and to describe animals as altruistic is to place an immovable obstacle in the way of understanding their behavior.

Unlike the officer who throws himself on the grenade, the lioness defending her cubs is not tempted to save herself. She is obeying a species need that we admire because we share it, but which we also pass beyond into another state of mind of which the lioness knows nothing. To act for the sake of others, when temptation pulls in another direction, is to obey an imperative that goes beyond every species emotion. It is to make a gift of oneself, of one's interests, and at the limit of one's life, and the words of the Gospel-that "greater love hath no man than this, that he should lay down his life for his friend" -- describe what is really at stake in the moral life, namely self-sacrifice.

Europeans, who are snobbish about American culture, are also shamed by American altruism. Once they have made their fortune, Americans devote themselves to giving it away. They lavish gifts on their school, their church, their college, or their hospital, taking an obvious pleasure in doing so. They also take pleasure in others' success -- an emotion that seems to have vanished entirely from European society. Of course, Europeans are great preachers of altruism. But the more they preach, the less they give. For they do not regard others as their personal concern: It is the state, not the individual, that has assumed the duty of charity, and when things go wrong -- as in the recent floods in England -- it is the state that must step in to help.

The core idea of morality, the idea contained in that little word "sake," is rapidly vanishing from the European consciousness. The public square is full of moralizing language about hunting, smoking, drinking, and other forms of enjoyment. But when you ask for whose sake this or that is demanded, the answer is always: yourself. The old training in "sakehood," which our parents regarded as the first step in moral education, simply does not occur. We should not be surprised, therefore, to discover that European cities are full of disoriented teenagers who think of the laws of morality as rules of longterm self-interest, and who seem unable to imagine what it would be, to do something for any other sake than their own.

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About the Author
Roger Scruton is a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. His latest book, How to Think Seriously About the Planet: The Case for an Environmental Conservatism, has just been published by Oxford University Press.