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Ayn Rand's View on Altruism

Instructor: Karin Gonzalez

Karin has taught middle and high school Health and has a master's degree in social work.

In this lesson, you will learn about Ayn Rand's views on altruism, morality and the role of government. Following the lesson will be a brief quiz to test your knowledge.

Altruism Versus Selfishness

Ayn Rand, a Russian-born American writer and philosopher, dismissed altruism, the idea that self-sacrifice and selflessness are the ideal standard for morality. In fact, she was a believer of the value of selfishness, but perhaps not in the way you would interpret it. Selfishness is now defined as, excessive concern only for yourself, and not for the needs and feelings of others.

Rand believed selfishness was a virtue.
Ayn Rand

In Ayn Rand's time, the definition of selfishness was merely, concern with one's own interests. When Rand saw selfishness in this context, she determined that there was no negative judgment to this definition. She argued that there was nothing wrong with someone putting their own needs and wants as a first priority.

Believers of fact that altruistic acts are the highest degree of morality would probably label selfishness as a character flaw or sin. But, Rand argued that if a person is selfish, they can have the self-esteem and self-empowerment to use their skills, talents and intelligence as best as they can. And this, in turn, will benefit others. For example, a trial attorney who spends all of his time working on his debate and public speaking skills, as well as reading to keep up on his knowledge of law, will in turn, benefit others who need a good lawyer. According to Rand, he does not need to offer his services for free in order to be moral. He just needs to pursue his passions and interests, which will in turn, be advantageous to others.

Altruism Versus Capitalism

Ayn Rand grew up in Russia until she moved to New York City at the age of 25. When she was a child and teen, she looked at the Western world with an envious eye. She loved the idea of a capitalist, free-will society, versus a communist one. She especially hated communism when her father lost the family's pharmacy during the uprising of communism; her family struggled through poverty and near starvation.

After 6 months with family members in New York City, she moved to California to pursue her dream to be a screenwriter in Hollywood. In Rand's writings for the remainder of her life, including The Fountainhead, The Objectivist, and Atlas Shrugged, she frequently wrote about how a nation's philosophy was represented in its political structure.

She rejected a communist, or altruistic society, where each individual works for the good of the group and not himself. In this society, individual fulfillment can be met by serving others and self-sacrifice for others and the group as a whole. Individual rights are not valued; everyone must work in cohesion to benefit the whole. A communist society based on altruism becomes dangerous when the value of the group versus the individual is so strong, that sacrifice or killing of individuals is seen as necessary, common or even valued, if that individual is seen as a threat to the whole.

Ayn Rand strongly believed in the value and success of capitalism, where each individual has the opportunity and right to pursue their own rational self-interests. Each individual is seen as unique in their contributions to society and they are given rights to pursue whatever that they wish, as long as it is rational. What is rational self-interest?

Rand identified rational self-interest to mean a person's right to pursue their own happiness without trampling on others in the process. It involves not lying, cheating or stealing in order to get ahead. It involves identifying one's own strengths and capitalizing on them in the pursuit of success, wealth and happiness. She also identified seven principals that one can adhere to while pursuing rational self-interest: integrity, productiveness, pride, honesty, rationality, independence, justice and productiveness.

Rand's idea of rational self-interest, or rational egoism, was very popular because it helped people not feel guilty if they engaged in activities, work or bought material items for their own happiness rather than giving it to those that were less advantaged.

Altruism Versus Objectivism

Rand coined the term Objectivism, her philosophy on life in the 1970s. During this time, she received an honorary doctorate from Lewis and Clark University. She also taught classes on her philosophy of Objectivism at top universities, like Harvard, Columbia, Princeton, and Yale. Objectivism begins with the idea that existence exists. The world and universe are as they are. Rand believed that we must face reality and not wish for a reality that we are not certain exists (i.e. God, heaven, etc.).

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