PBS has published an article by research psychologist Denise Cummins titled This is what happens when you take Ayn Rand seriously. In short, it is another hit piece against the Objectivist ethics of rational egoism. As is commonly the case, Cummins bases her critique on the usual straw man; equating Rand’s ethics of rational self-interest to the conventional definition of selfishness, which is not only what Rand DID NOT advocate but explicitly rejected.
I could make my rebuttal about me, and simply say that I’m living proof of the absurdity of Cummins’s charges. But her critique is apparently addressed to the young. “I find myself wondering,” Cummins writes, “why Rand’s popularity among the young continues to grow.” She doesn’t actually inquire into “why,” though.
Cummins bases her entire critique on a strawman that bares little resemblance to real Objectivism. She cites a few allegedly destructive examples of Ayn Rand’s ideas in action, and claims there are many more. Her examples amount to, “This person claims to be an Ayn Rand fan, therefor his failures are Objectivism’s fault,” as if claiming to be an Ayn Rand fan makes them official representatives of Objectivism and all of their actions automatically consistent with the principles Rand actually advocated. Cummins’s examples are meaningless because of her completely erroneous portrayal of Rand’s ideas.
As I read it, the article boils down to these main points, which I’ll comment on in turn:
- Cummins equates the Objectivist ethics, rational self-interest, to the common conception of selfishness—the predatory loner who needs no one and sees no value in anyone but himself.
- Cummins equates altruism with cooperation and social harmony, by extension claiming that the Objectivist ethics, which explicitly rejects altruism, forbids cooperation and social harmony.
- Cummins asserts that humans are biologically determined to act in a certain moral way, that way being altruistic. Thus, Rand’s ethics contradict man’s nature.
Consider what Cummins writes at the outset: "The core of Rand’s philosophy — which also constitutes the overarching theme of her novels — is that unfettered self-interest is good and altruism is destructive."
What comes to mind when you hear the term “unfettered self-interest?” Or “altruism?” Nowhere does Cummins actually explain what she means by “unfettered,” “self-interest,” or “altruism,” or how they relate to Objectivism. Nor does she explore what Ayn Rand meant by “self-interest” or “altruism.” She leaves it all hanging. So, the reader unfamiliar with Rand’s ethics would logically assume that unfettered self-interest means anything goes, regardless of the consequences—and that that’s what Rand advocated. Likewise, the reader would logically assume, as most people do, that altruism means kindness, goodwill, and respect toward others, and that Rand rejected those. If all of this were true, what person in their right mind would adopt her philosophy? Undoubtedly, she would have been long forgotten.
But that is not the case. Instead, Rand is more popular and respected than ever, as Cummins readily acknowledges, to her personal chagrin, as she wonders “why Rand’s popularity among the young continues to grow.” Given Cummins’s “wonder,” the article is curious, since she doesn’t even attempt an honest query into why Rand’s popularity grows. She could have vetted her personal views about Rand by consulting Objectivist intellectuals, for example. Instead, we get, essentially, “How can these kids be so clueless?”
There’s really no excuse for this hit piece, given not just Rand’s writings but also the readily available Objectivist experts and writings. Fortunately, Rand, unlike Cummins, defined her terms clearly for her readers. First, self-interest. As Rand observed on self-interest:
Just as man cannot survive by any random means, but must discover and practice the principles which his survival requires, so man’s self-interest cannot be determined by blind desires or random whims, but must be discovered and achieved by the guidance of rational principles. This is why the Objectivist ethics is a morality of rational self-interest—or of rational selfishness.
When one speaks of man’s right to exist for his own sake, for his own rational self-interest, most people assume automatically that this means his right to sacrifice others. Such an assumption is a confession of their own belief that to injure, enslave, rob or murder others is in man’s self-interest—which he must selflessly renounce. The idea that man’s self-interest can be served only by a non-sacrificial relationship with others has never occurred to those humanitarian apostles of unselfishness, who proclaim their desire to achieve the brotherhood of men. And it will not occur to them, or to anyone, so long as the concept “rational” is omitted from the context of “values,” “desires,” “self-interest” and ethics. [italics in original, my emphasis in bold]
Notice that Cummins uses “unfettered” where Rand uses “rational” to describe self-interest. There’s a reason for that. Rand didn’t advocate unfettered. She advocated rational. Rather than identifying, Cummins cuts out “the core of Rand’s philosophy.“ The straw man is now firmly set up.
Cummins, ignoring Rand’s readily available thoughts on the issue, then follows with this amazing mouthful:
The fly in the ointment of Rand’s philosophical “objectivism” is the plain fact that humans have a tendency to cooperate and to look out for each other, as noted by many anthropologists who study hunter-gatherers. These “prosocial tendencies” were problematic for Rand, because such behavior obviously mitigates against “natural” self-interest and therefore should not exist. She resolved this contradiction by claiming that humans are born as tabula rasa, a blank slate, (as many of her time believed) and prosocial tendencies, particularly altruism, are “diseases” imposed on us by society, insidious lies that cause us to betray biological reality.
So, Rand’s concept of self-interest requires one to be antisocial, against cooperation, and incapable of valuing other people enough to be concerned with their well-being, as if one has nothing to selfishly gain from associating with other people. To value others, Cummins claims, is to be altruistic. But is it?
Cummins equates altruism to cooperation and looking out for others. Here too, Rand does what Cummins doesn’t do; she defines her terms. Rand understood altruism not the way it is conventionally thought of but the way altruism's theoreticians meant it—"vivre pour autrui" ("live for others"), in Auguste Comte’s words—self-sacrificially serving others:
What is the moral code of altruism? The basic principle of altruism is that man has no right to exist for his own sake, that service to others is the only justification of his existence, and that self-sacrifice is his highest moral duty, virtue and value.
Do not confuse altruism with kindness, good will or respect for the rights of others. These are not primaries, but consequences, which, in fact, altruism makes impossible. The irreducible primary of altruism, the basic absolute, is self-sacrifice—which means; self-immolation, self-abnegation, self-denial, self-destruction—which means: the self as a standard of evil, the selfless as a standard of the good.
Do not hide behind such superficialities as whether you should or should not give a dime to a beggar. That is not the issue. The issue is whether you do or do not have the right to exist without giving him that dime. The issue is whether you must keep buying your life, dime by dime, from any beggar who might choose to approach you. The issue is whether the need of others is the first mortgage on your life and the moral purpose of your existence. The issue is whether man is to be regarded as a sacrificial animal.
Now there is one word—a single word—which can blast the morality of altruism out of existence and which it cannot withstand—the word: “Why?”
Why is it moral to serve the happiness of others, but not your own? If enjoyment is a value, why is it moral when experienced by others, but immoral when experienced by you? If the sensation of eating a cake is a value, why is it an immoral indulgence in your stomach, but a moral goal for you to achieve in the stomach of others? Why is it immoral for you to desire, but moral for others to do so? Why is it immoral to produce a value and keep it, but moral to give it away? And if it is not moral for you to keep a value, why is it moral for others to accept it? If you are selfless and virtuous when you give it, are they not selfish and vicious when they take it? Does virtue consist of serving vice? Is the moral purpose of those who are good, self-immolation for the sake of those who are evil?
The answer you evade, the monstrous answer is: No, the takers are not evil, provided they did not earn the value you gave them. It is not immoral for them to accept it, provided they are unable to produce it, unable to deserve it, unable to give you any value in return. It is not immoral for them to enjoy it, provided they do not obtain it by right.
Such is the secret core of your creed, the other half of your double standard: it is immoral to live by your own effort, but moral to live by the effort of others—it is immoral to consume your own product, but moral to consume the products of others—it is immoral to earn, but moral to mooch—it is the parasites who are the moral justification for the existence of the producers, but the existence of the parasites is an end in itself—it is evil to profit by achievement, but good to profit by sacrifice—it is evil to create your own happiness, but good to enjoy it at the price of the blood of others.
If it is true that what I mean by “selfishness” is not what is meant conventionally, then this is one of the worst indictments of altruism: it means that altruism permits no concept of a self-respecting, self-supporting man—a man who supports his life by his own effort and neither sacrifices himself nor others. It means that altruism permits no view of men except as sacrificial animals and profiteers-on-sacrifice, as victims and parasites—that it permits no concept of a benevolent co-existence among men—that it permits no concept of justice. [Italics is original. Bold is my emphasis. This last paragraph is from selfishness in the Ayn Rand Lexicon.]
Altruism—that is, real altruism—in fact makes cooperation, social harmony, and concern for others impossible. This is what Rand demonstrated in her novels and nonfiction writings. Only rational self-interest—not “unfettered,” or “solitary,” or “extreme,” or “supreme,” all adjectives that Cummins wrongly applies to Rand’s ethics here and in a follow up piece—but rational self-interest can generate the kind of respect that leads to cooperation, social harmony, and valuing of others. This is what Rand believed. Why did she believe that? What led her to those conclusions? What evidence did she present? If altruism really means “it is immoral to live by your own effort, but moral to live by the effort of others” and “permits no concept of a benevolent co-existence among men,” would it be a good code to follow? Cummins ignores all of those questions in favor of her straw man.
Cummins treats altruism the same way she treats selfishness. She evades altruism’s real nature, Rand understood it, and instead uncritically assumed the common understanding of altruism as kindness and goodwill, thus equating Rand’s opposition to altruism with opposition to kindness and goodwill. Consequently, she equates altruism with cooperation.
But altruism really is about self-sacrifice. No life form can survive on the basis of self-sacrifice. As Rand observed, life is a process of self-generated, self-sustaining action. Altruism is the opposite of self-sustaining. It is self-denying. No life form, including the most primitive single-celled forms, can survive on self-denial, because the opposite of self-sustaining is death. Cooperation, on the other hand, implies working together toward a common goal that benefits each participant—win-win and self-sustaining all the way around. The personal selfish benefits of cooperative human activity are obvious—and obviously non-altruistic. Altruism, properly understood, is about self-sacrifice for the benefit of others—lose-win. Cooperation, properly understood, is about mutual benefit, mutual selfishness, win-win. Altruism really does, in fact, make true cooperation impossible.
We can go further on this subject of cooperation. If, according to Cummins, Rand opposed cooperation and “prosocial tendencies,” then how to explain Rand's embrace of the trader principle—the voluntary exchange of values to mutual benefit? Trade, another term for cooperation, requires of each an appeal to the self-interest of the other, in order to forge a win-win outcome, which Rand considered the only type of relationship proper to man. Trade, Rand believed, is “the moral symbol of respect for human beings.” She considered trade a broad phenomenon, covering the exchange of both spiritual and material values. But consider trade in the economic context: The business enterprise in a free market is a great example of trade—of real cooperation between employer and employee, employee and employee, business and suppliers, business and consumer, etc.
There is no denying that trade is both mutually selfish and—being voluntary—cooperative. These readily observable and regularly experienced facts about trade alone explode Cummins’s absurd assertion (or implication) that Objectivism isn’t consistent with cooperation.
Altruism, in fact, is the predatory code. It defines moral behavior as living for others, which means it's selfish and immoral to live for yourself. In other words, we each have a moral claim on others' time and wealth, but not on our own. If that is true, the only way one can sustain one’s life morally is to prey on the wealth and time of others. If that isn't universal predation, then what is? Not rational selfishness, which forms the basis mutual respect: I have my life, and you have yours, and neither of us should sacrifice or be sacrificed for the other. (To avoid misunderstanding, it’s important to know that Rand’s understanding of “sacrifice” as giving up a greater value for a lessor or non-value, not the giving up of short term pleasure in pursuit of a long- term goal you consider more important. The usual package deal of “sacrifice” holds that making your life better and making it worse are both sacrifices, which is ridiculous.)
As to Cummons’s implication that Objectrivism equals anti-social, Rand, in fact, saw great value in living among others in a social environment—just not any social environment. She was not blindly “prosocial.” She was prosocial, but only under the right conditions. What conditions? The proper social conditions for man are based on liberty, not chains. As she wrote in The Nature of Government:
Since man’s mind is his basic tool of survival, his means of gaining knowledge to guide his actions-the basic condition he requires is the freedom to think and to act according to his rational judgment. This does not mean that a man must live alone and that a desert island is the environment best suited to his needs. Men can derive enormous benefits from dealing with one another. A social environment is most conducive to their successful survival—but only on certain conditions.
“The two great values to be gained from social existence are: knowledge and trade. Man is the only species that can transmit and expand his store of knowledge from generation to generation; the knowledge potentially available to man is greater than any one man could begin to acquire in his own lifespan; every man gains an incalculable benefit from the knowledge discovered by others. The second great benefit is the division of labor: it enables a man to devote his effort to a particular field of work and to trade with others who specialize in other fields. This form of cooperation allows all men who take part in it to achieve a greater knowledge, skill and productive return on their effort than they could achieve if each had to produce everything he needs, on a desert island or on a self-sustaining farm.
“But these very benefits indicate, delimit and define what kind of men can be of value to one another and in what kind of society: only rational, productive, independent men in a rational, productive, free society.” (“The Objectivist Ethics,” The Virtue of Selfishness)
A society that robs an individual of the product of his effort, or enslaves him, or attempts to limit the freedom of his mind, or compels him to act against his own rational judgment-a society that sets up a conflict between its edicts and the requirements of man’s nature—is not, strictly speaking, a society, but a mob held together by institutionalized gang-rule. Such a society destroys all the values of human coexistence, has no possible justification and represents, not a source of benefits, but the deadliest threat to man’s survival. Life on a desert island is safer than and incomparably preferable to existence in Soviet Russia or Nazi Germany.
If men are to live together in a peaceful, productive, rational society and deal with one another to mutual benefit, they must accept the basic social principle without which no moral or civilized society is possible: the principle of individual rights. (My emphasis)
Does this sound like a woman who is anti-cooperation and anti-social? If what Rand actually meant by selfishness and altruism was what is conventionally believed, Cummins would have a point. But that’s not how Rand saw it, and she must be judged on that basis. What if Rand is right? How is Rand wrong? That’s the question Cummins evades.
Returning to the above quote from Cummins’s article, notice Cummins uses the term “tendency to cooperate,” as if man is guided by some kind of instinct, rather than choices based on personal ideas and motivations.
This view is supposedly gained from studying the behavior of ancient humans. A central theme Cummins relies upon is the idea that altruism is biologically programmed into the human species, based on the study of primitive hunter-gatherer cultures. To me, it’s sounds like determinism—the idea that human behavior is primarily driven by outside forces rather than his own choices. On this view, by upholding selfishness and condemning altruism, Rand goes against man’s nature.
I’m no anthropologist. But it seems to me that this view ignores free will, which enables man to override biological “tendencies”—such as they exist—so as to engineer his own progress beyond the primitive stage (where other animal species are stuck). For example, humans progressed beyond the tribal stage to the individualist capitalist stage, resulting in man bursting out from his stagnant tribal existence.
The rise of capitalism begs the question: If altruism is biologically programmed into us, then how to explain the fact that political and economic freedom—the liberation of the individual to act on his own judgement—spontaneously gives rise to capitalism. Capitalism wasn’t invented by thinkers. It’s a term coined by Karl Marx after observing decades of human with free markets, limited government, and unalienable individual rights. Capitalism arose naturally as a result of the principles laid out in the Declaration of Independence. Capitalism happens whenever and to the extent that cultures respect reason and science, and adopt a significant degree of individual freedom. How is it possible that capitalism—the central tenet of which is the universal selfish pursuit of personal gain (“the pursuit of happiness”) through personal productiveness and mutually beneficial trade—can arise naturally if man is biologically programmed toward altruism? It seems that capitalism would be impossible. If the hunter-gatherer tribe is man’s natural “tendency,” shouldn’t we still be there?
In fact, Rand argued that man is not biologically programmed toward any moral code, although the “instinct” for self-preservation is more or less automatic. But such an “instinct” is not a moral code. Man, Rand argued, must discover and adopt the moral code proper to his nature as a rational being.
The hunter-gatherer reference begs another question: Were primitives collectively working for the benefit of their tribes really acting altruistically? Or was this cooperation intended for self-preservation—which means, selfish? Before there were governments and the rule of law, there were tribes. If the tribal existence was all the primitives knew, then it stands to reason they would act tribalistically, for selfish reasons. Absent a strong, rights-protecting government and the rule of objective law, the individual could not survive independently for long, because anarchy leads inexorably to gang rule and conflict. To survive in such an environment, individuals had no choice but to forgo his sovereignty and align with a tribe. But when man discovered the concept of government to protect him, he discovered he could act individualistically for his own benefit and do much better. When he discovered the principles of individual rights and constitutionally limited government, we got capitalism. The submissive tribal form of cooperation gave way to a new form of human co-existence—individualist cooperation, which combines individual sovereignty with a new form of social interaction; free trade (“free” meaning the absence of physical aggression).
There are many misconceptions (I'm being polite here) of rational selfishness put forth in the article. Judging from the real-life examples Cummins gives of "what happens when you take Ayn Rand seriously," it's obvious that Cummins is speaking of a "self-interest" of predation. But what did Rand actually advocate? Here are her own words on selfishness:
The meaning ascribed in popular usage to the word “selfishness” is not merely wrong: it represents a devastating intellectual “package-deal,” which is responsible, more than any other single factor, for the arrested moral development of mankind.
In popular usage, the word “selfishness” is a synonym of evil; the image it conjures is of a murderous brute who tramples over piles of corpses to achieve his own ends, who cares for no living being and pursues nothing but the gratification of the mindless whims of any immediate moment.
Yet the exact meaning and dictionary definition of the word “selfishness” is: concern with one’s own interests.
This concept does not include a moral evaluation; it does not tell us whether concern with one’s own interests is good or evil; nor does it tell us what constitutes man’s actual interests. It is the task of ethics to answer such questions.
There is a fundamental moral difference between a man who sees his self-interest in production and a man who sees it in robbery. 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. (My emphasis)
Comparing what Rand actually understood and advocated to what Cummins wrote, it is obvious that Cummins is either grossly mistaken or grossly misrepresentative of Rand’s views. Either way, for someone of her stature, it’s inexcusably negligent. If this seems harsh, it’s because I find it hard to believe that an educated person who writes a whole column about “taking Ayn Rand seriously” can miss so much about the subject of her analysis. The question is, why are so many of Rand's critics so desperate to misrepresent her ethical philosophy, which is grounded in the observable facts of man's nature and in essence calls for each one of us to pursue his own rational, long-term self-interest (the only kind of self-interest there is), neither sacrificing oneself to others nor sacrificing others to oneself? What do they fear about Rand saying it’s right to think independently, to choose your values wisely, and then work to protect and keep them and never sacrifice them, to live for yourself by making your life the best and happiest possible by your own honest efforts, to live without fear of predation; to live in harmony with other rationally selfish individualists? Perhaps it is that she grounded the Declaration of Independence—i.e., a free society that limits government power to protecting or inalienable individual rights to life liberty, property, and the pursuit of personal happiness—in a rational, reality-oriented ethics that eliminates predation and leads to peaceful coexistence. Such a benevolent system, otherwise known as free market capitalism, is the bane of parasites and power-lusters everywhere. For statism to succeed in America, Ayn Rand must be destroyed without a hearing.
To thinking people, my advice is to read and study Rand's philosophy for yourself. You'll never gain an understanding by reading deceptive articles like this one. But a word of caution: Rand's view of selfishness is radical, so one must put aside preconceived notions of morality. This—to wipe the slate clean in one’s mind and be prepared to rethink everything you've been taught about ethics—is not easy, especially for older people. It took me a long time to come to a full understanding and acceptance of Rand's reality-grounded ethics. If you do that, you have a chance. In the end, you may not agree. But at least your disagreement will be grounded in honesty. Then again, you may discover, as I did, that Objectivism is a benevolent, pro-life philosophy that banishes predation from human relationships, a good guide to living your own life, and provides a moral defense of capitalism, individual rights, a free society, and your right to pursue your own happiness for your own sake without guilt. Since your life is the only one you’ll ever have, you owe it to yourself.
[I’ll conclude my response to Cummins in my next post.]
PBS Columnist vs. Ayn Rand: Is Altruism Biological?—Michael Hurd
Response to Cummins on Rand at PBS—Ben Bayer @ The Ayn Rand Society
Gary Moore vs. Ayn Rand: Or, the Battle for America's Soul