Thursday, September 04, 2008

Ayn Rand and Charity, Part I

It is occasionally said that Ayn Rand supported charity. By this, one would normally understand (among other things) giving aid to strangers and also various organizations devoted to the care of the sick, the poor, and the needy. For example, giving money to hurricane victims, starving people in far away countries, as well as working for a local soup kitchen are generally considered charitable concerns. I'll call this type of charity (where you don't know much about the moral worth or specific circumstances of the people being helped) "generic charity."

I’m not so sure that Rand would have supported most of what we understand by charity, and in this series of posts I plan on discussing some of the major texts in the Randian corpus.

Rand’s principal work in this area is “The Ethics of Emergencies,” which is reprinted in The Virtue of Selfishness. She discusses a number of scenarios.

1. Helping Those You Love

There is an obligation to help those one loves. Further, such acts are not altruistic and therefore don’t pose a problem for Rand.

2. Helping Strangers: Emergency Situations

Here Rand appears to believe that there is a moral obligation to help people in emergency situations if one can do it without much risk.

"It is only in emergency situations that one should volunteer to help strangers, if it is in one’s power. For example, a man who values human life and is caught in a shipwreck should help those to save his fellow passengers (though not at the expense of his own life)." [VOS, pp. 54-55.]

By “should,” I take Rand to mean morally obligated. If so, then it would appear that the ban on altruism is lifted. Of course, one could read it as something not quite as strong – “it is a very nice thing to do.”

3. Helping Strangers: Semi-Emergency Situations

Following this, Rand gives a somewhat different example:

“Or to take an example that can occur in everyday life: suppose on hears that the man next door is ill and penniless. Illness and poverty are not metaphysical emergencies, they are part of the normal risks of existence; but since the man is temporarily helpless, one may bring him food and medicine, if one can afford it (as an act of good will, not of duty) or one may raise a fund among the neighbors to help him out. But this does not mean that one must support him from then on, nor that one must spend one’s life looking for starving men to help.” [P. 55.]

This is an emergency situation, but not as sudden and unexpected as the one above. She says one “may” help in such situations.

Most people would call this charity. Yet, what about giving to an organization devoted to helping similar people who are “down on their luck”? I don’t think Rand would approve of this, although it’s not clear. She does say:

“Poverty, ignorance, illness and other problems of that kind are not metaphysical emergencies. By the metaphysical nature of man and of existence, man has to maintain his life by his won effort . . . . One’s sole obligation toward others, in this respect, is to maintain a social system that leaves men free to achieve, to gain and to keep their values.” [Id.]

If country X has a social system that is not conducive to economic growth and thus most of the people were poor, I don’t think Rand would endorse contributing money to a charitable agency devoted to helping its citizens.


Richard said...

What a post. No position and no interpretation. What don't you grasp about the nature of "an act of good will", specifically in the moral realm of rational, selfish, individualism?

Given your comments over at ARCHN, it is not really very surprising that such understanding is lost on you. "Good Will" is NOT exclusively altruist in nature.

Check your premises.

Atlas Fan said...

I think it is important to remember Rand's fundamental argument here -- something that the folks at ARCHN consistently fail to do. The argument starts, not with a discussion of altruism and egoism but with a question: Why do human beings need a morality in the first place? In the context of that question, Rand argues that man's nature as a rational being who does not act automatically, requires that he make choices between actions that will further his life (as a rational animal) and acts which will not.

Under normal conditions a person acts morally by pursuing values that are not a threat to other humans in a society that is not faced with emergencies. An emergency removes that possibility, so, as Rand clearly states in VOS, the first rational task is to get things back to normal. Since normal means a state in which people are able to pursue their values once more, it is in one's self interest to help people who are, because of the emergency, not able to do so. This is not an obligation that comes from some rule, it is not required by morality, it is only if it is in one's power, and it is not the standard by which one lives on a daily basis or decides what acts are moral. To set one's moral code with reference to what one does in an emergency is to live as if life were a constant emergency. That is the Christian view, it is not Objectivism's.

As for organized charity, the general principle is that if one can afford to send money or spend time working to pursue a value (a cure for cancer, a political or philosophical movement)it is not a sacrifice (altruistic) to do so.

Altruism means sacrifice for the sake of others, not "support deserving people in the pursuit of their goals." 'Sacrifice' means SACRIFICE' which means it's gotta hurt to count. Put it this way: Rand is out to destroy the reputations of not only Robin Hood but the Biblical story of the Widow's Mite.

Atlas Fan

Richard said...

A very good & well worded response, Atlas Fan. Actually your comment is an example of a selfish act of charity: your time & thought in pursuit of a wider cultural use of reason. I hope your effort is rewarded.

Nick said...

Why wouldn't Rand support contributing money to charitable organizations engaged in charity that supports your values?