My Interview on the Doctrine of Altruism

Well before In Defense of Selfishness was published—when  its working title was The Tyranny of Need—I was  interviewed by Don Watkins of the Ayn Rand Institute. Here is an edited excerpt (and you can click below it for the audio version of the full interview):

Q. If you asked most people what morality is, I think they would say something along the lines of: “not hurting others” or “doing good for others, not just going out and doing what’s good for myself.” You seem to have a much broader view of what morality is.

A. One of the tragedies of Western culture is that the very concept of morality has come to be synonymous with altruism—with self-sacrifice, with surrendering your interests for the sake of others, with placing the needs of others above your own. And that’s a tragic mistake. People can’t even imagine that there is some valid, rational alternative to the ethics of altruism.

That alternative, in my view, is the one formulated by Ayn Rand. It’s a system of rational self-interest, wherein you don’t sacrifice yourself to others, but simultaneously you don’t sacrifice others to yourself. You live an honest, productive, self-respecting, self-sustaining life and deal with other people by trading value for value without in any way seeking the unearned.

Q. Let’s talk about the meaning of altruism. Could you contrast your view of altruism with the traditional view that it simply means being nice to others and helping them?

A. Altruism is accepted almost universally because people have a distorted understanding of what it actually demands. People believe, as you say, that altruism means simply being generous to others—that, for example, if your neighbor’s house burns down, you should go over there and help him out. Or you should help little old ladies cross the street.

In fact, this is not what altruism demands. Generosity is perfectly compatible with an ethics of rational self-interest. What altruism distinctively demands is that you subordinate yourself to others. It declares that whenever somebody lacks anything that you possess, you have a moral duty to provide it to him. According to the code of altruism, you are not entitled to say: “It’s my money. I earned it. I ought to have a right to spend it to advance my own life.” You can’t say that because whatever you have, no matter how honestly and productively you’ve obtained it, really belongs to those in need. You have a duty to sacrifice your interests for the sake of others. And that’s just another way of saying that you must be a servant to others. If people understood fully what altruism means, they would not be so eager to embrace it.

Q. That leads to the next thing I wanted to ask. Do people really believe in and practice altruism?

A. Nobody can practice altruism consistently and remain alive, because he’d have to give up everything, including his organs—a kidney, a lung, an eye—for people who need it. So it’s an ethics that is regularly flouted. But the fact that someone does not abide by the tenets of altruism does not mean that he rejects altruism. It just means that he feels guilty. It means that he tells himself: “Well, you can’t be fully moral all the time. You have to think about being practical.” Nonetheless, as a moral principle, he accepts altruism. That is, he accepts the idea that if you do want to be moral, if you do want to do what is right and good, you should sacrifice.

And that’s why we have a welfare state. People will not stand up and say: “I have a right to the money I’ve earned, no matter how many poor people lay claim to it. I can be generous if I want to. I can give them charity. But it’s a gift. It’s not a debt that I owe them, as altruism demands.” People are unwilling to say that, which is why we have the government constantly taking money from some people in order to give it to others.

Q. I want to make sure that everybody is really clear on what altruism does and doesn’t mean. Let me give a couple of quick examples and have you tell me whether this is or is not something you would classify as altruism. Let’s start with charity.

A. No. That does not necessarily entail altruism. I give to charities. But the difference is that I judge whether those charities deserve my help or not. And I decide whether I can afford to help. I don’t choose to go hungry or homeless in order that some other people be fed or be housed. I place my interests first. I say, “Okay, here’s a cause that I’m willing to give money to.” But, again—as a generous gift. Altruism demands that you sacrifice for others because you owe them a debt. Altruism says the recipient is morally entitled to your aid. That’s the big difference. So charity is perfectly compatible with a philosophy of self-interest.

Q. What about taking care of your kids?

A.  Well, that’s even more so. They’re your kids. You’ve chosen to have them. You value them. The altruist would say: “You have a child you’re raising in a nice home, but there are all these people in Haiti whose children are much worse-off than yours. Let your children do without, so that the more needy can be provided for.” That is what altruism would require.

But your children are yours. They’re part of your life. They are a value to you. They’re part of the whole structure of your self-interest. What you do for them is because they are your children, not because they are some stranger’s children.

Q. What about people who believe that a sacrifice is being made whenever a great effort is required to achieve something? They say: “I had to sacrifice in order to make the basketball team” or “I had to sacrifice in order to keep my romance alive.”

A. That’s another example of the tragic distortion of concepts that underlies altruism. Just as people distort the meaning of altruism, they distort the meaning of genuine self-interest. And along the way, they distort such concepts as “sacrifice.”

To sacrifice does not mean simply to give up something. When you buy a loaf of bread you’re giving up money, but that’s certainly not a sacrifice. It’s a trade, and you’re benefiting. So the meaning of “sacrifice” isn’t the giving up of something as such, but the giving up of something of value to you for the sake of something that isn’t.

The whole idea behind altruism is that you should have no self-interest in the result of the sacrifice. If somebody is poor and you have money, you have to give it to him—not because it’s in any way benefiting you, but precisely because it isn’t. Altruism requires you to harm yourself so that others might benefit.

When it comes to planning long-range, by an extended effort to achieve something, no sacrifice is involved. if you decide you want to be a doctor or a concert pianist and you give up various short-term pleasures in order to devote yourself to that long-term goal, obviously you’re doing it for your own interest. You’re thinking far in advance, you’re future-oriented, and you’re saying that your life will be better served if you devote all the years necessary to acquiring the knowledge and skills to practice medicine or master the piano. A long-term perspective is not a sacrifice. “Sacrificing” one dollar today so that you can have two dollars tomorrow or next year is not a sacrifice. It’s a profitable activity. And it’s disastrous that people call it a sacrifice.

Q. And what then would you say is wrong with the ethics of altruism?

A. The same thing that’s wrong with physical slavery. What’s wrong with some people being slaves to others and being forced to work for someone else’s benefit and having no say in their own lives? People today understand the evil—and not just the evil, but the senselessness—of physical slavery. The same applies to moral enslavement. There can be no justification for claiming that because you have something that another person lacks, you become his servant and his life takes priority over yours.

We each have one life, which requires certain actions in order for us to achieve our goals and to become happy. Why should anyone have to suffer so that someone else might benefit? It’s irrational.

And in fact the defenders of altruism never offer any validation for it. All they do is distort the meaning of altruism and of its rational alternative.

Q. We’ve focused on the harm that altruism does to the person who is sacrificing. But does it benefit the recipient?

A. That’s a tricky question because you have to ask in what sense you mean that. Now, in a superficial way, you could say yes. Even if you’re forced to do it, if you give money to somebody, he benefits. But if you look at it from a more fundamental perspective, the answer is no, he doesn’t.

Altruism holds that you are not responsible for your own life. You have needs, and other people must satisfy them for you. Others must provide you with housing, clothing, food, health care, etc. Now take this to its logical conclusion. Since it is the responsibility of others to take care of you, you should just lie there and vegetate. Other people will find you some place to live, clothes to wear, books to read, movies to see, etc. Everything will be done for you.

Is that really in your interest? No, it’s not. It’s not in your interest because you are not living your life. That is, you are not living a human life. A human life means something that is sustained by the actions of the person himself. It’s your life and it requires your efforts to support it. Living as a vegetable would be like living in a coma.

Obviously, if you’re paralyzed or otherwise physically incapable of acting, then unfortunately that’s the way you have to live. But that is certainly not the paradigm of human living. That is vegetable-living. And you’re not a vegetable. You’re a human being. So in that respect, even the recipients of altruism are not being helped. And you can clearly see the harm being done if you look at our welfare state. The welfare state, which is based on altruism, inculcates dependence. It makes people parasitically dependent on the sacrifices of others. They no longer feel a requirement to go out and sustain their own lives—to find a job, to acquire skills, to move to another location where their prospects are better. They just sit there and demand to be fed and housed and clothed. In effect they live the lives of vegetables, or semi-vegetables, and that is ultimately not in their interest.

Q. Your book is going to be called The Tyranny of Need, but what does “need” actually mean?

A. That’s a good question. Objectively, need arises only in the context of a living organism. A rock doesn’t have needs. A need pertains to something required to further your life. The doctrine of altruism, however, has a different view of “need.”

You’re being taxed, for example, to subsidize the needs of subway riders in New York City or of the producers of ethanol in the Midwest. Why? Why are their needs worthy of consideration, whereas your needs—that is, your need to keep your money and to spend it on a new suit of clothes, on a vacation, etc.—are dismissed? If need is the standard, why are the altruists concerned only with the needs of the recipient and not the needs of the donor?

And the answer is that altruism regards the needs of the person who has earned his money—the person who takes responsibility for paying his own way—as a selfish desire. The status of “need” is granted only to those who lack something that they cannot or will not obtain by their own efforts. “Need,” on this view, amounts to any desire someone has that can be fulfilled only through the sacrifice of others. That is why I call it the tyranny of need. The idea that your wanting something you lack entitles you to demand that someone else provide it for you—that is an act of tyranny.♦♦


(Click here for another, video interview about In Defense of Selfishness.) 

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