One of our blog readers, Justin, sent in the following question: “What is the Objectivist position on charity? Ayn Rand condemned charity, but does that apply to all charitable activities?”
This is really an ethical question, but it comes up so often in the context of defending laissez-faire capitalism that I wanted to address it here.
Under laissez-faire, the government protects your right to your wealth—it doesn’t confiscate it and redistribute it to other people on the basis of need. Those who are genuinely in need of assistance have to rely on private, voluntary assistance, including private charity.
But if Rand is an opponent of private charity, then doesn’t that mean in her ideal society the handicapped will go without aid?
The mistaken premise in Justin’s question is that Rand condemned charity. What she opposed was self-sacrifice: surrendering a higher value to a lower value. Your job is to support your own existence, and you should never treat the well-being of others as a higher priority than your own well-being, on Rand’s view.
For a rationally selfish individual, his goal is always to foster his values—to promote that which promotes his life. What most people fail to appreciate however, is that a selfish person’s values include other people. Other people are tremendously valuable to him and his life. The benefits other people can provide in terms of knowledge, trade, friendship, and romance are hard to overstate.
When we see a man painting his house, none of us thinks he’s acting “unselfishly” because he is spending money and time “on the house” rather than himself. It’s obvious that he’s making his house look nicer for his personal enjoyment.
Yet we’re taught to believe that any time a man helps other people, he is being unselfish. But helping others can be selfish or selfless—it depends on who those others are, what you’re doing for them, and why you’re doing it.
If you’re helping someone you care about because they are a value to you, and you’re helping in a way that does not involve sacrifice on your part, then that’s 100% selfish. If your best friend needs a place to stay for a few days after her house burns down and you have a spare bedroom, it would be a betrayal of your values to turn her down.
It’s in this context that charity should be understood. Here is how Rand explained her position:
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.
Charity, on Rand’s view, is proper when you’re promoting your values non-sacrificially. There is nothing necessarily unselfish about a college student putting his change into the Ronald McDonald House donation box, or a billionaire donating $100,000 to college scholarship fund. The value involved is the potential value of other human beings, and the cost for the individual may be small, even trivial.
But don’t make the opposite error. Some people conclude from this that, so long as the government isn’t forcing you to give, so long as you want to give to charity, that means it is in your self-interest. After all, they’ll say, you’re doing what “makes you happy.”
But your interests aren’t determined by your feelings, they’re determined by the facts. If you have objectively better uses for your money, then giving to charity is wrong, however it might make you feel in the moment.
Take an obvious example of self-sacrifice: you give money to feed a starving neighbor at the cost of being able to feed your own child. Most people don’t take altruism that far—although some do—but there are many less extreme cases of the same principle. Suppose, for instance, that you are in debt, or are saving to start a business. In such cases, it is unlikely that you’re fostering your life by donating thousands of dollars to feed strangers in Haiti.
Or, to take a different kind of case, it is self-sabotaging if the object of your charity is of no value to you—above all, if the recipient is a threat to your values. You are depriving yourself of resources in order to promote vice. Prime examples are businessmen who bestow millions of dollars upon colleges and universities that unrelentingly denigrate capitalism.
The relevant question is not, “Do I feel like giving to charity?” but why do I feel that way? Is it because I’m promoting my actual values? Or is it because I think it makes me virtuous to altruistically serve others? If the latter, then that is not a self-interested motive (and in the long run it won’t bring you happiness).
So there is no reason why there would not be widespread charity in a free society filled with people pursuing their self-interest. But as I always stress in these cases, this is a secondary issue. The case for freedom does not depend on whether people in need will receive charity. Freedom is right because each individual has a right to live and work for his own sake—no one’s need, however real, is a claim on anyone else.