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I was stuck in a college library for a few hours (lucky me; I love libraries; I could probably live in one) and came across William F. O'Neill's With Charity Toward None; An Analysis of Ayn Rand's Philosophy. I had time to kill, so I thought I'd give it a read.

One section I came across that I wanted to bring up here was O'Neill's charge that Rand's definition of altruism was outdated. He claims Rand is "guilty of destroying her customary straw man" when she efforts to refute "absolute altruism" - a mode of altruism that few adhere to today, or so he claims. O'Neill:

In refuting absolute altruism Miss Rand does not validate absolute egoism, she simply beats a dead horse. The type of altruism which is significant today is rational altruism based on psychological egoism -- the sort of altruism which says, in effect, 'It is good to aid others, because we live in a world in which we are necessarily interdependent and in which we must therefore help others in order to help our own broader and more sustaining interests.'

Essentially, O'Neill is arguing that altruism "is merely one way in which egoism manifests itself." He then goes on to claim that Rand's conception of absolutist altruism is inconsistent with "her own assumptions about the intrinsic value of pleasure," but I knew better having read Dr. Smith's Viable Values and understand what makes something a value, and that Rand did not believe value was intrinsic.

Anyway, my question: how would an Objectivist respond to O'Neill's charge that Rand's concept of altruism is antiquated?

asked Oct 15 '12 at 17:45

JK%20Gregg's gravatar image

JK Gregg ♦

edited Oct 15 '12 at 17:55

I don't think O'Neill is correct. It is good to aid others of value. And by saying we're interdependent does not mean I need others and I should therefore sacrifice my time/money to help them. Interdependence means, in my view, that an architect buys wood, concrete, etc. from suppliers. The suppliers get their trucks and tools from companies like CAT. CAT produces their vehicles with metals which are also supplied from other businessmen. Interdependence is voluntary. Altruism requires the individual to give up his rights and conform to the needs of others.

(Oct 15 '12 at 20:10) Collin1 Collin1's gravatar image

Interdependence is the exact opposite of dependence, which is just another veiled form of altruism.

(Oct 15 '12 at 20:11) Collin1 Collin1's gravatar image

Ayn Rand's definition of "altruism" is far from outdated or antiquated--it's actually more prevalent than ever. I'm going to give you a little assignment. Ask anyone you know if they would ever give change to a homeless man. If they say yes, tell them you wouldn't. If they demonize you for being "greedy", and they try to make you feel guilty, you have just experienced altruism in its purest, most disgusting form.

(Oct 15 '12 at 20:15) Collin1 Collin1's gravatar image

If you still do not understand, let me elaborate on your friend's underlying premises. If he demonizes you and calls you greedy and uses guilt to sway you into giving change to that homeless man, he is operating under the idea that you-and probably everyone else-has a societal obligation to help those who "cannot help themselves". If anyone waves this nonsense in front of your face, tell them you are in fact being greedy, but "greedy" is just a word used to make rational self-interest look bad. After trying this myself, I've realized that you cannot win an argument against freedom.

(Oct 16 '12 at 08:44) Collin1 Collin1's gravatar image
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As an analogy: Imagine I were to say to you "capitalism is the best political system," and you were to respond "the idea of capitalism you are talking about is antiquated -- we haven't had pure capitalism, well, ever." Would that make sense?

No, it wouldn't. The point is, to whatever extent we have capitalism, that is good.

Now the same thing applies to altruism. We don't have much pure altruism, but that doesn't mean we don't have many, many varieties of altruism, as well as subtly altruistic policies, and the extent to which we have any altruism in our policies, that is bad.

Ayn Rand's definition of altruism is exactly correct, and those who use the term to refer to anything benevolent or beneficial are doing so to hide the evil of of what "altruism" really means. If you mix true altruism with some selfish ideas, and ask people to call that altruism, you've made it impossible for them to identify the essence of altruism, which is sacrifice to others for no personal reward.

People who say "altruism isn't bad, it's what keeps our society civil" are not using the term correctly. Altruism is precisely the idea that unleashes people like Adolf Hitler. Though our modern rulers might not yet be as bad as he, it is still altruism which causes them to lean in his direction, and which, if adhered to more and more consistently, will visit greater and greater evils against good people.

answered Oct 16 '12 at 23:48

John%20Paquette's gravatar image

John Paquette ♦

edited Oct 16 '12 at 23:50

When politicians, pundits and intellectuals stop advocating rights violating policies that demand the sacrifice of the productive to the non productive and when our cultural ideals, as represented through the mainstream of Hollywood, stop demonizing success and perverting the concept of fairness, then maybe we can take another look at evaluating whether the proverbial altruistic horse is dead or not. Until then O'Neill is simply rationalizing to arrive at an explanation for the myriad examples of selflessness as a noble ideal in our society.

answered Oct 16 '12 at 11:29

la_phil's gravatar image

la_phil ♦

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Asked: Oct 15 '12 at 17:45

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Last updated: Oct 16 '12 at 23:50