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Ayn Rand’s misunderstood position on altruism

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Thanks for the notice, Merlin.

“Comte’s conception of altruism is also inconsistent with liberty, Rand’s focus.”

No. That is not her focus. That is the focus of the author. Within his focus, is his focus on Comte, and absence of any attention to the likes of Augustine, who had it that a turning to God is a turning away from self.

Rand’s focus is on the rightness, power, and glory of rational individual mind and life. Freedom or absence of force is a necessary condition, not the prize, and anyone who reads Rand without trying to sweep beyond their blinders-field what Rand writes against religious faith can see that plain as day.

I rather doubt that motivation for the beneficent projects of the Rotary Club are only motivated by the kind of non-sacrificial generosity of a Howard Roark. The motto of the Club is “Service above Self”. And I rather think the influence on adoption of that motto was not Comte, but religious ethics bannering self-sacrifice. Scratch a socialist (e.g. Norman Thomas), and you’ll likely find a religionist, at least one transferring their youthful religious values to their adult political values.

Rand was not writing at a time in which Comte’s ideas were live fires in people. The virtue of self-sacrifice (highest virtue, even only virtue, the very essence of virtue) in the special Randian referent for that term must be widely defeated, both virtue of self-sacrifice for other persons and self-sacrifice for God, for security of the prize. Rand was writing not only against total selflessness, as with Comte, but any degree of selflessness. No poison at all, not any. And health of mind directing a life is not only freedom from force.

From American Heritage Dictionary (American usage):

Altruism — Concern for the welfare of others, as opposed to egoism; selflessness.

Selfless — Without concern for oneself; unselfish.

One can look as well at common-usage meanings for selfish, self-interest, etc. However, at least since Socrates, philosophers answer a calling of stirring the head from these meanings to deeper conceptions underlying them and deepening meanings of words and their interrelations. Philosophers can give special, theoretical meanings to words already in use and having some overlap with the rather loose common meanings in order to bring out what is (or could become) in the depths of thought and action under thought. The special, more philosophical meanings, can be wrong if the system to which they belong is wrong. Still, they often get through to real insight. In my assessment, Rand’s may get some of the depths wrong—some definitions, essences, propositions; things omitted or other things not where they should be—but definitely she’s on to important original insights among those stirrings, including ones on values, altruism, and selfishness.

(Merlin, I’ve been out of commission a week due to death of a sister. I’ll be back to serious work in a couple more days, and back to feedback on your work in progress.)


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The author of the op-ed, Garry Galles, wrote, "The main problem with understanding Ayn Rand’s position on this today is that modern usage of the term has eroded his meaning of altruism to little more than a synonym for generosity, so Rand’s rejection of the original meaning — the requirement of total selflessness — is erroneously taken as rejecting generosity.

Portraying the modern usage as "little more than a synonym for generosity" is a stretch. A parent, human or another animal, caring for its young is often not mere "generosity."

Edited by merjet
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Thanks. I doubt that many honest people have this problem when reading Rand. It seems like the author projecting a personal, arbitrary concern onto others. (Note that he gave zero actual examples, not even a snapshot of the Google definition of "altruism," which would not have supported his assertion.) But, other than that, it's good to see a positive opinion about Rand.

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On 2/5/2020 at 6:49 AM, merjet said:

A parent, human or another animal, caring for its young is often not mere "generosity."

Just to expand on this thought a little ...

It's hardly pure altruism either, as caring for the offspring of the self is caring for the self.  In a modern technical sense we know that children are at least half identical in their genetic heritage.  Given that knowledge it is now literally impossible to understand caring for the young as selfless even in the most materialistic flesh-bound and concrete-bound mentality.   There is also wider and more abstract extended sense of self that comes from being in the company of merely like minded people who are unrelated, and valuing their understanding as your own understanding and consequently valuing the person as a whole to some degree.  I agree that mere generosity is wrong, but because there is a profound selfishness involved not because there is anything but destructiveness in altruism.


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  • 1 year later...

Two books pertinent to this thread are:

Sacrifice Regained: Morality and Self-Interest in British Moral Philosophy from Hobbes to Bentham

Underivative Duty: British Moral Philosophers from Sidgwick to Ewing

I have lately been studying the latter's chapter 7, titled The Birth of Deontology. I have needed to learn more about noted ethical theory, from the time of Kant, in Britain and in America. This by way of completing my study Dewey and Peikoff on Kant's Responsibility. I'll have that study completed and posted in that thread pretty soon. Then I'll turn to completing the two thread in which I'm comprehending the differences and commonalities between Dewey and Rand/Peikoff in perception, conception, foundationalism, and logic.

Other threads here at Objectivism Online related to this present thread are:

Aristotle on Selfishness

Spinoza and Rand

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  • 8 months later...

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