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Objectivists on Benevolence

In a recent excellent facebook post by Quee Nelson (see appended below), she wrote:

Some of my best friends are Randians. They’re excellent people, and one of the things I love most about them (among many things), is the fact that, no matter how generous, compassionate, and charitable they behave, they insist they’re just being selfish.

This called to mind some of the things I’ve written about this issue, a couple of which I collect here:

From The Inaugural Meeting of the Property and Freedom Society:An Incidental Record, by Sean Gabb:

Then there was Stephan Kinsella, who subjected me during a boat trip around the Ionian coast to a friendly but probing examination of what I thought about Ayn Rand and epistemology. I am not sure if he approved of all I gave in answer. Even so, the surrounding conversation was enjoyable. He was scathing about Objectivism. He noted that David Kelley is an improvement on the official movement. “But when someone has to write 15,000 words on why it is permissible to be nice to others, or to tolerate disagreement” he said, “there must be something wrong with his underlying philosophy”.


Re: Gary Hull (on Objectivists and Randians on Charity and Benevolence)

Posted by Stephan Kinsella on September 6, 2006 01:47 PM

Tee-boy–re the Hullster–yeah, the Objectivsts are utterly unbalanced and off their rockers on the issue of libertarianism. As I noted here, their denunciations of libertarianism at first led me to avoid works by Rothbard et al., assuming Rand was right that they were “evil”; finally realizing that the “political” branch of Objectivism was basically (minarchist) libertarianism. (See, e.g., Peter Schwartz’s Libertarianism: The Perversion of Liberty (naturally, due to Objectivists hyper IP stance, not online that I can find; see this response by Kevin McFarlane; and this one by Walter Block).And as I pointed out in the comments to this post: Objectivists harp on the notion that without the full-fledged Objectivist philosophy, the concept of “liberty” is meaningless. But liberty is just a shorthand for describing the state of non-aggression. That is, it is based on the concept of aggression. And even Rand believed that this was a simple, obvious phenomenon:

Whatever may be open to disagreement, there is one act of evil that may not, the act that no man may commit against others and no man may sanction or forgive. So long as men desire to live together, no man may initiate–”do you hear me? No man may start–”the use of physical force against others.

This is Ayn Rand, in “Galt’s Speech.” Here it is very clear that Rand quite properly recognized that aggression–the initiation of force–is a fairly simple, elementary concept. Libertarians are those who believe aggression is not justified (as I have pointed out in What It Means To Be an Anarcho-Capitalist). Now Objectivists may think their the libertarian justification of this proposition is flawed (I think Rand’s is flawed); but I think they are in trouble if they try to maintain that libertarianism is not coherent–it is as coherent as Objectivism’s politics is, since both reason based on the coherence and fundamentality of the primary concept of aggression.

In fact, as I pointed out in A Libertarian Theory of Punishment and Rights:

[An aggressor] A might claim that our classification of actions as either aggressive or not is invalid. We might be smuggling in a norm or value judgment in describing murder as “aggressive,” rather than merely describing the murder without evaluative overtones. This smuggled norm might be what apparently justifies the legitimacy of punishing A, thus making the justification circular and therefore faulty. However, in order to object to our punishment of him, which is just the use of force against him, A must himself admit the validity of describing some actions as forceful–namely, his imminent punishment. If he denies that any actions can be objectively described as being coercive, he has no grounds to object to his punishment, for he cannot even be certain what constitutes punishment, and we may proceed to punish him. The moment he objects to this use of force, however, he cannot help admitting that at least some actions can be objectively classified as involving force. Thus, he is estopped from objecting on these grounds.

On that thread, a Randian wrote,

Objectivism provides answers to these questions because it is systematic, and politics can only arise out of a proper metaphysics, epistemology and ethics. Politics (e.g., libertarianism) is not a primary.

Not buying it. And note this: any philosophy that is by and large composed of decent, benevolent, nice, charitable people–as I think Objectivists are, at heart–and that makes its followers feel so guilty about being benevolent and charitable that they think you need a whole book written just to give them moral permission to be nice to their neighbors… has something screwed up about it. You don’t need a fancy philosopher’s tome to justify being nice to your fellow man. It’s just common sense. No agonized, handwringing guilt over it is needed. But of course, to realize this, they’d have to ditch Rand’s flawed concept of “altruism” and that would lead to further unraveling of the tapestry.

NB: I do not mean here to deprecate the valiant effort by David Kelley–whom I have always liked and respectd–to square Objectivism with the virtue of benevolence. I criticize rather the very idea that one ought to feel guilty for being charitable and benevolent to others unless one has worked out a justification for it. This is implied in Rand’s cavalier dismissal of the eleemosynary impulse, her barely disguised disgust for it implied in her tolerance (!) of it in her views on charity:

My views on charity are very simple. I do not consider it a major virtue and, above all, I do not consider it a moral duty. There is nothing wrong in helping other people, if and when they are worthy of the help and you can afford to help them. I regard charity as a marginal issue. What I am fighting is the idea that charity is a moral duty and a primary virtue.

Get that? There is nothing wrong in helping other people — why thank you Ayn! Now I have permission! My God, this is bad enough, to imply that it even needs to be said that there is nothing wrong with helping others! But she can’t even say this without caveat: she has to add: “if and when they are worthy of the help and you can afford to help them.” Now you have to agonize and wonder if your beneficiaries are “worthy” of the help or if you can really “afford” it (does this mean no student or non-retired or non-independently-wealthy person should ever donate to ARI? After all, until you have saved enough to retire on, every dollar should go to your own maintenance/investments, not to charity!).


Update: See also Butler Shaffer’s critique of Objectivism in chapter LXXXIX – The Libertarians’ Albatross of his e-book The Wizard of Ozymandias: Reflections on the Decline and Fall.


Gary Hull

Posted by Anthony Gregory on September 6, 2006 12:34 PM

Stephan, I saw Gary Hull give a talk at UC Berkeley once. It was funny. After the talk, I went up to ask him some more questions about foreign policy. I told him that I thought Bush was a greater threat to my liberty than Saddam was (this was before the war). He said this amounted to my saying I’d rather live in Iraq than America. I told him I said nothing of the sort, that he didn’t understand the difference in threat was one of proximity.

Then, he deduced I was a libertarian. He was disgusted. He wanted to leave the room. Here I was — a libertarian, the worst type of person — trying to engage him! He said he’d rather live under Castro than under libertarians. I pointed out the irony, that he explicitly expressed a preference for living under dictatorship than under libertarians, yet he was alarmed that I would supposedly rather live under Saddam than Bush, when that’s not even what I said.

I’m sure he will provide an important corrective to the problems with education in this country.


Yippee! Objectivist College Being Formed!

Posted by Stephan Kinsella on September 6, 2006 09:46 AM

Objectivist professor Gary Hull, a professor at Duke, plans for-profit college with classic curriculum:

DURHAM, N.C. – Gary Hull thinks today’s colleges are failing, and he believes he has a better way.Hull, who teaches at Duke University, plans to start a liberal-arts college in the fall of 2007. His plan is to operate it as a for-profit business, with investors, a copyrighted curriculum and a bottom line. … Called Founders College, the school would offer programs in liberal arts and business and a classic curriculum in philosophy, history, economics and literature, Hull says. He hopes to start with 100 students the first year and build to 500 by the fifth year. Tuition would be about $22,000 a year, Hull says, and the school would have no sports teams.

At Duke, Hull is a nontenured faculty member and director of the university’s Program on Values and Ethics in the Marketplace. He is a scholar of Rand, the novelist and philosopher who wrote “Atlas Shrugged” and “The Fountainhead.” Her philosophy emphasized individualism, rational self-interest, capitalism and limited government.

But Hull maintains there is no connection between Founders College and any particular philosophy or outside organization such as the Ayn Rand Institute, for which he has written articles.

This might not be a terrible idea–and it’s good to see any challenge to the monopolistic educational establishment–but private conservative and religious schools have a hard enough time competing. If Founders College adopts a Randian secular “rational” hostility to religion and Christianity, that might make it even more difficult to find students. And of course it is crucial that it become accredited. One can only assume that accreditation is one of its goals. If not, it is probably a mistake: if a college degree is not accredited, one might as well save the money and time and become an autodidact.

Interestingly, one of the reasons George Reisman–an intellectual giant; sincere, honest and passionate scholar of freedom; and true gentleman–was kicked out of the Ayn Rand Institute in one of its many purges, is apparently Reisman’s disagreement with Harry Binswanger’s policy of discouraging graduate students in philosophy from pursuing their doctorates. As one account has it in this forum,

And who was on the ARI Board of Directors that voted to pay the high salaries to Schwartz and Binswanger? Why, Schwartz and Binswanger, of course! Surprise! That’s right. Schwartz and Binswanger voted, as members of the Board of Directors, to pay themselves high salaries out of the ARI coffers, for teaching at the Objectivist Graduate Center. … [Reisman] didn’t want to pay Schwartz and Binswanger …. [Reisman] thought that the needs of the students at the Objectivist Graduate Center could be met just as well, and for far less money, by using local Objectivist graduate students and PhDs, instead of flying Schwartz and Binswanger across the country for seven weeks, and paying them fifty thousand dollars (about ten times what a typical college professor makes for the same amount of teaching). … Of course, this wouldn’t have put any money in the pockets of Schwartz and Binswanger, so George was declared to be “immoral,” and kicked out of the ARI.

(See also, on this: Why I do not support the “official” Objectivist “movement”; George Reisman’s Campaign for Capitalism; Reisman vs. ARI (Re: The Betsy Speicher Flip Flop)).


See also this facebook note by Quee Nelson:

An Albatross Around Capitalism’s Neck
Saturday, December 5, 2009 at 2:12am
Some of my best friends are Randians. They’re excellent people, and one of the things I love most about them (among many things), is the fact that, no matter how generous, compassionate, and charitable they behave, they insist they’re just being selfish. In other words, precisely the opposite of what most people do. Besides, who but a naturally good and admirable person, could be so innocent, as to go through life imagining their own rational self-interest can never conflict with other people’s?I’m an anti-Randian classical liberal — a utilitarian. This is a brief against Randian ethics. I feel especially churlish writing this piece, because without Objectivists, my epistemology book would be far less successful, and I feel very, very grateful to them for their generous and enthusiastic endorsements of it. But, I owe it to them to explain myself as best I can, even if all too briefly here. Therefore, for the ungratefulness of this essay, I ask their forgiveness in advance.

Point one: it just isn’t true that Rand’s is the only morally principled, philosophical foundation for laissez-faire liberalism. Ludwig von Mises, like Henry Hazlitt, Milton Friedman, and many other economists, argued for classical liberalism not on the basis of natural right, but on the basis of practical consequences for the maximization of human welfare. In other words, they argued a principled, utilitarian case.

As a matter of fact, for anyone serious about Rand’s moral philosophy, that economic case for capitalism must be almost completely irrelevant. When faced with a socialist who fears that unbridled capitalism leads to misery and poverty, or that it does nothing for the poor, the proper response to him is to argue that the opposite is the truth. But, this, of course, is an empirical fact of economics, not an abstract question of moral philosophy. If utilitarianism isn’t true, then the fact that capitalism actually maximizes welfare is irrelevant.

Indeed, one often finds this touted as a selling point for Rand’s system: that adopting it relieves us of the burden, of making the laborious, complicated, empirical case!

You can’t have it both ways.

It’s this fact that has made Rand, in spite of her support of capitalism, ultimately an albatross around its neck. The popularity of her novels has boosted the headcount for capitalism, perhaps more than any other single author. But at a terrible price. Any socialist who hasn’t read the economics case will never believe that unbridled capitalism makes poor people richer than any other system, because every Randian they meet utterly confirms their socialist fears, by telling them that what makes capitalism good is not that it works, but the fact that selfishness is a virtue, and altruism is a vice!

This strikes any commonsensical person like a man in court telling a jury, “I didn’t kill the guy, and even if I did, he had it coming.” It is at this point that the Misesian defense attorney puts his head in his hands and weeps. He should stand up now, and try to interest the jury in the finer points of DNA and hair analysis? Good luck with that. He just lost the case.

“Never in history has more intellect and ingenuity been expended in defending an untenable position. We are lost in admiration of the magnificent performance of these philosophers. We might almost say that what they have done to prove the impossible elicits more admiration than the achievements of the great thinkers and sociologists who have made Eudaemonism and Utilitarianism a permanent possession of the human mind.”
Utilitarians famously reject the principle fiat justitia ruat caelum, “Let Justice Be Done Though the Heavens Collapse,” — let justice be done though the world be destroyed. That’s why utilitarian arguments are more palatable to most people, than non-utilitarian arguments which usually attempt to found moral philosophy upon very abstract, a priori justice, and/or an axiomatic account of rights.

Socialists, for example, can talk about “rights” and “justice” until they’re blue in the face, and yet, still, people will say, “Okay, yeah, that’s all well and good, but we have to be practical. Let’s be pragmatists, not ideologues.” Of course, what they really mean by that, is they’d rather choose what “works.” In other words, what they care about, what they want to know is, what will the actual economic consequences be? Scratch a supposed “pragmatist,” and you’ll uncover a utilitarian.

Egalitarian social justice, versus libertarian social justice, is a crucial debate, yes. But, the value of doing justice derives, ultimately, from its indispensable utility. In other words, justice is a derivative, instrumental good, not an end in itself.

If doing justice really would destroy the world, then doing justice would not be good. It would be bad. If this were not so, then mercy could never be right.

Rand’s argument from “A = A” to “altruism is bad” is a long and tortured path. Among its many logical fallacies and invalid arguments is the striking fact that “Man’s” right to property (“Man’s” right? Not the right of the individual? Why the collectivist formulation?) is based on the fact that he needs property to live. Needs! Needs it to live! Can’t survive without it! That sounds curiously like a socialist argument for some random villain with two bad kidneys having a right to your kidney, because he needs it to live. No? What are you, “anti-life” or something?

Speaking of “life,” this is typically the way Rand smuggles welfare in, to borrow a bit of utilitarianism’s robust plausibility. But the switcheroo becomes apparent as soon as cases such as euthanasia and abortion come up — i.e., cases in which happiness and life conflict.

But the most controversial Randian claim is the worst. The idea that altruism is never a virtue, and you just can’t be too selfish. People who’ve never read Galt’s speech find it hard to imagine there are intelligent people who really believe such things.

Only recently having read Galt’s speech, I finally understand. What makes that notion plausible, is the fact that Galt, himself, personally, is a perfectly selfish person, and also an obviously good and even somewhat admirable person. But, the only reason that works, is because it just so happens, as a matter of fact, that he has no bad inclinations. He has no harmful animal instincts, no perverse desires, no lousy genes, no brain diseases, no psycho burning desire to become the greatest serial killer in history or some awful thing. That’s great! Bully for Galt! But where does that leave the perverted kidnappers and serial killers?

I know, I know. The principle is that Galt shall not sacrifice others to himself. The problem is: why? In Galt’s case, it appears the reason is just that he doesn’t want to. That’s not his ambition; he’s against it; it’s against what he values. He’s just not into it. Again, bully for him. For him.

A moral philosophy that’s only been shown to work when applied to the behavior of naturally good people, and sweet little old ladies who have no desire to do anything wrong, is a moral philosophy that needs to get out more. It’s like a car that’s never been test-driven on the highway.

For a twisted, perverted, or otherwise evilly inclined person, selfishness is not a virtue. It’s a disaster. If you take the position that it’s not okay for a kidnapper to sacrifice others to himself, you have a problem. You have to be able to say why he cannot. Why he may not, no matter what, even if that’s what the kidnapper would very much like to do with his life.

Don’t tell me it’s because he’ll go to jail. People like Mao Tse Tung don’t go to jail, but that doesn’t make their selfish violation of others’ rights okay, does it? No. So, “you’ll get caught” isn’t really the reason evil is wrong, is it? Of course not.

Rand says, “Do you ask what moral obligation I owe to my fellow men? None—except the obligation I owe to myself, to material objects and to all of existence: rationality.” That implies that either not violating others’ rights is a part of “rational” self-interest, or else we’re left with no reason why Mao wasn’t allowed to violate other people’s rights.

I know, I know. The answer is supposed to be that aggressive or harmful desires or instincts are not “proper” values. I.e., they aren’t good values! But here the argument threatens to beg the question, because the task assigned first and foremost to a theory of ethics, is to say what is good and what isn’t.

How are we going to prove to a happy tyrant that his values are bad, after we tell him he has no moral obligation to others? “None—except the obligation [that Mao owes] to [himself], to material objects [!] and to all of existence: rationality.” Fine, the tyrant says, that’s what I’m doing. He’s really quite happy, and no punishment is, actually, in store for him, or others like him. So, even if “you’ll get caught” were the reason not to be evil, it wouldn’t work. Besides, a moral philosophy that rests the whole darn thing upon “you’ll get caught,” seems both unpalatable and implausible, as a few minutes thought makes clear.

What are we supposed to say to a happy robber-king who enjoys with impunity his big harem and 200 children? That this is against his own personal rational self-interest?
What are we supposed to say to a happy robber-king who enjoys with impunity his big harem, great wealth, and 200 children? That this is against his own personal rational self-interest?Indeed, how can one who accepts Randian ethics believe without contradiction that the “Public Choice Problem” (regulatory capture, graft, monopoly-mercantilism) really even exists? This problem is an important part of the case that explains why capitalism works better than activist interventionism.

Rand says, “The evil of a robber does not lie in the fact that he pursues his own interests, but in what he regards as to his own interest; not in the fact that he pursues his values, but in what he chose to value; not in the fact that he wants to live, but in the fact that he wants to live on a subhuman level.”

But what could be more typically “human,” thanks to evolution, than a happy satrap, or an unchallenged dictator with 200 children?

It seems that maybe where Rand said “subhuman,” she meant “irrational.” Like, maybe this thought might owe something to the Aristotelian idea that each species possesses a “proper function,” and the proper function of Man is to be rational.

Two problems with this. First, that we’re back again to having to show the satrap he’s irrational, without just saying “you’ll get caught.”

Second, the notion that Man has some other “function,” i.e., some other purpose (i.e., to be rational), higher than his own self-interest, contradicts Rand’s claim that he does not, cannot, have any higher obligations that conflict with his self-interest.

Put it this way: if to be “rational” is (let’s just grant it) to respect the rights of others, and the obligation to be rational is superior to the right of self-interest (as her robber doctrine has it), then it just isn’t true, that a man does not have any higher obligations to other people, which, as a matter of fact, do over-ride, pre-empt, preclude, and/or conflict with his own individual, personal self-interest. But, if that’s true, then it isn’t true that altruism is nothing but a vice, nor that one can never be too selfish.

Not to care about what happens to orphans, not to tell an old lady she dropped her wallet, not to yell “fore!” when you see a golf ball about to bean somebody, not to reach out a hand to save a kid who’s slipping on the ice, these things are wrong. Morally wrong. Everybody knows this. It’s not a question of justice — I mean, you don’t owe it to strangers, strictly speaking, to be a servant to them. It’s a matter of utilitarian virtue: it’s because virtues are virtuous precisely because they generally promote the general welfare.

In sum, when Rand conflates “life” with happiness, or slips back and forth between one man’s rational self-interest, and humanity’s or “Man’s” rational self-interest, she commits the “fallacy of equivocation.” A fallacy of equivocation can trick us into agreeing with a false proposition, by conflating it ambiguously together with one that is true, but actually not the same.

Equating “Man’s” self-interest with the self-interest of each man, also commits the “fallacy of composition.” The fallacy of composition can be illustrated with an example: the fact that an annual pruning is the interest of a rose bush, doesn’t mean it’s in interest of the individual branches that get sawed off. A list of common fallacies will typically express it by saying that which is true of a whole is not necessarily true of its parts.

Quee Nelson
December 2009

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