Sunday, September 14, 2008

Ayn Rand and Charity, Part 2

Following up my previous discussion, I will survey some additional Rand comments on charity here.

Rand’s 1964 Playboy Interview

“My views on charity are very simple. I do not consider it a major virtue and, above all, I do not consider it a moral duty. There is nothing wrong in helping other people, if and when they are worthy of the help and you can afford to help them. I regard charity as a marginal issue. What I am fighting is the idea that charity is a moral duty and a primary virtue.”

Of note is Rand’s statement that “[t]here is nothing wrong in helping other people, if and when they are worthy of help . . . . “ This leads to the question of how much I need to know about people in order to justify helping them. Contributing money to, say, an organization that helps poor people in India might turn on the moral status of the people receiving the help. Some of them might be moral, others not.

Allowing Poor People to Ride on Trains for Free

In one of Rand’s essays she contrasts a railroad’s allowing poor people to ride on a train in empty seats with a full blown altruist. This example approaches what I’ve called generic charity.

For some reason, I’m having a hard time finding the essay.

The Fountainhead: Austin Heller

Austin Heller is a positive minor figure in The Fountainhead. Rand says “he never donated to charity, but spent more money than he could afford, on defending political prisoners anywhere.” (P. 107.)

While this shouldn’t necessarily be taken as describing Rand’s views, it supports the idea that Rand did not support “generic charity,” but thought charity should be limited to specific kinds of people or causes.

I owe this reference to Roderick Long.

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.