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.