Objectivism and Thomas Jefferson
Seven Essays on the Philosophy of Ayn Rand


4. Selfishness as Virtue, Cont'd

A real philosophy of human existence will help us to determine the point at which our tolerance and relationship to others with whom we interact for our mutual benefit is indeed in our "rational self-interest." This is the whole point of altruism: it is not a sacrifice of ourselves for persons we deem somehow more worthy than ourselves, nor is it a denial of ourselves for the sake of others. It is a generous out-flowing, a gift of ourselves, an identification with others, because our deepest insights realize, not that "there but for the grace of God go I," but rather "there by the grace of God am I!" The poet was a thousand leagues ahead of Ayn Rand when he wrote that "no man is an island."

The dictionary defines altruism as "unselfish regard for or devotion to the welfare of others." In its noblest sense, it refers to a person who views the welfare of others as his own. It is an act of love, of giving. It is the spirit behind the maxim, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you," thus acting towards others as if they were equals to oneself and as worthy of equal concern with self. It raises the other up as a person worthy of high consideration simply because that person is a fellow human being.

Rand, however, turns altruism on its head, using the term to suggest that the other is thereby considered, not just an equal, but one superior to oneself. In this caricature, one does not bring the other up to equality; one sacrifices oneself in favor of the other! Having established such an absurd straw-man, all would agree that it should be knocked down.

Unfortunately, there are many unscrupulous people in this world who try to impose just such a principle on others, perhaps even referring to it as "altruism," or "love thy neighbor," or some such palliative, just in order to use and manipulate others. It is often a tactic used by relatives, and for that reason the denigration of the term "altruism" is readily acceptable to many. But this is another distortion. No man can properly honor another as equal to himself, no man can rightly "do unto others as you would have them do unto you," if he does not first honor himself and subscribe to his own rights and dignity.

[See Open Forum Discussion on this point.]

Those who are irretrievably selfish themselves love to make their victims think they should make such a sacrifice. "Become selfless, so I can use you to my heart's content." But that is a corruption and a pathological distortion of altruism, and no valid philosophical concepts can be built on such misrepresentation. The proper remedy for such attempts to defraud is to recognize the tyranny, not to abandon rightful behavior. If we view generosity as a threat to self-interest, we cut ourselves off from the warmth of human contact. The self is not a standard of good or evil; it is merely subject to a deviation from what is right by cupidity and by ignoring its connection with others. The selfless is not a standard of the good or an ideal of self-denial; it merely suggests the overcoming of this tendency to forego generosity. To exaggerate and distort these concepts can only pander to undeveloped consciousnesses that want support and assurance without looking into themselves. It is an inexpensive way of getting self-esteem by merely lowering the standard for decency.

There is no room in this philosophy for those who act for posterity, for their country, for mankind. The following statement by Jefferson, for example, is entirely outside this self-centered philosophy:

For whom are those making such attempts working for? Themselves? Their own private self-interests? Not hardly. They are doing it for their broader self: their people, their nation. And our nation was established by just such people, many of whom died in the process.

Guided by a philosophy of selfishness, there would never have come into being the nation we have or the blessings of liberty we enjoy. Indeed, everything about this country we now have was won for us by people who thought and fought, not just for themselves, but for interests that extend beyond the self: family, country, human rights. Those who come lately upon these blessings, who gladly live under them, and then say they owe nothing to the broad sentiments that established them are truly the parasites of out time. A philosophy of selfishness has no room for:

But when faced with such utter contradictions by Jefferson to their philosophy, Objectivists will say, "Well, Thomas Jefferson was wrong in that instance." What they fail to realize, however, is that these expressions are not just an isolated sentiment. They are all of a piece with Jefferson's whole philosophy. Everything else builds on these premises.

Any system of thought, such as Objectivism, is by its very nature, anathema to Jefferson. The very existence of a set of beliefs that adherents subscribe to, that are issued by authorities who ostracize those who deviate from the "true doctrine," that embrace the delusion of certainty, are contrary to Jefferson's whole approach to life. This is one reason why he never wrote a book on political theory. He did not want to establish a set of doctrines for believers, since he was not such a believer himself.

Rather than adhere to dogmatic theory, he considered the whole universe of ideas his source. The principles he recognized were derived from nature, not from an abstract system of analysis. Concepts like "individualism" are like molds into which thought is poured. Rather than work with such abstract concepts, he studied nature and man himself, and discovered philosophic necessity by observing and understanding both. As emphasized so many times by Jefferson, man is a social animal, and

The immature young person does not readily accept social dispositions and responsibilities. Not only are they "not planted in every man," but they are usually undeveloped in the very young. Part of growing up is becoming socialized and being able to relate to the world outside oneself in a mature fashion.

Those who feel alienated from society welcome a philosophy that provides them with self-esteem in spite of their alienation. They feel uplifted if they receive a boost to their sense of self-worth, not on the basis of acceptance or achievement, but on the basis of a contrived self-confidence alone. A mere adjustment of thinking that assures a person they are OK is a lot easier than working on one's character. And it makes a person feel better to blame society for his failure than to look deeply within himself.

The philosophy of selfishness and individualism is the whole focus of Objectivism. Individual rights exist in order to permit selfishness, and

Well, of course a free state must protect individual rights! If individuals are not protected, no one is protected. As Jefferson wrote,

But compare Rand's statement and Jefferson. With Rand, government exists for the individual. But with Jefferson, WE--us individuals-- resort to government to protect OUR rights. WE, collectively, create this thing for the benefit of us all. Government is not an institution that offers protection for isolated individuals. Government is OUR institution that performs certain functions for US. The whole principle of this government is SELF-GOVERNMENT. It is US acting. It is not an agency that performs services for registered subscribers. It is a cooperative.

Under Rand's interpretation, government is not an agency created to serve the needs of a nation of individuals, but rather to serve each individual separately, and even then mainly to keep them apart, to prevent them from injuring one another and to let them live as they please with no duty or obligation to one another. This government does not provide services which the people being served wish it to provide; it only prevents individuals from forcibly violating the rights of other individuals.

Objectivism is described as "an integrated system of thought that defines the abstract principles by which a man must think and act if he is to live the life proper to man." What it defines, however, is an abstract system of individualism that ignores the life of a nation as a society of people living and working together. Ultimately, by ignoring this social aspect, it cannot define a life that is proper to man, or even a life that is practicable for man, because civilized life apart from society is impossible. Or, as Jefferson put it,

His life and the government under which he lives is shaped by this social aspect.

The individual freedom that restrains him in no moral right and protects him from every moral wrong is all in the context of "the predominance of the social over his dissocial passions." Such a government, if founded as indicated, may then offer that level of individual freedom.

Self-government--government of the people--is a cooperative collective organized for the benefit of its members. It provides each with individual liberty, but it also requires from each collective responsibilities. It was not established solely for each individual's selfish ends. It acts in general for the interests of all, but those actions may not be in accordance with the wishes of some individuals at one time or another.

It is difficult to know what to say to those who purposely choose to be "disjointed individuals." We can say, "Fine, but that's not the way we operate here. It's give and take here, and if you want all take and no give, you're not going to like it here." A free society that is nevertheless a cooperative society provides considerable slack for those who refuse to cooperate. Nevertheless it is a society, and it makes certain requirements of its members, and this aspect of it is, fortunately, supported by the vast majority of its members who see no need to accommodate those who would promote the disintegration of society. But as long as those who do not wish to be a part of a cooperative society obey the laws created under this form of government, they remain free to believe what they wish, and are even free to try to convince others.

NEXT ESSAY 5. Capitalism Over Self-Government

Go to the Essays

Front Page | 1. Reason as Absolute
2. Safety in Error | 3. Happiness as Moral Purpose
4. Selfishness as Virtue | 5. Capitalism Over Self-Government
6. Non-Initiation of Force | 7. Adversaries of Democracy

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