PBS Columnist vs. Ayn Rand: Is Altruism Biological?

A recent review of Ayn Rand and Objectivism attempted to debunk Rand’s philosophy. The article, “This Is What Happens When You Take Ayn Rand Seriously” was written by a research psychologist.

In the article, she bemoans that more students than ever before are turning to Rand’s philosophy. “Ayn Rand is my hero,” yet another student tells me during office hours. “Her writings freed me. They taught me to rely on no one but myself.”

For some reason, this research psychologist finds relying on oneself objectionable. She never explains why. But in a way, it makes sense. It’s highly probable that her research grants are funded by government funds. These projects would not exist if the government were not forcing people to pay for them, via taxes. And pbs.org, where her article appeared, would not exist without money forcibly taken from taxpayers. So it seems reasonable that self-reliance and self-interest would threaten her. But why should any of her students care? Why should any of us listen to her in the first place?

Interestingly, the article does not cite any of Rand’s ideas by quoting them, and demonstrating what logical errors or fallacies she finds in the quotes. It’s unclear that she ever even read a word of Atlas Shrugged, or any other of Ayn Rand’s writings. She seems to take it for granted that she need not do so; that perhaps she’s above doing so, and you should be too. This is not reason. This is not sophisticated, intellectual proof. She might hide behind her role as a psychological researcher and writer funded mostly by government dollars, but this does not make her right, or accurate.

Her essay basically boils down to two complaints against Objectivism, particularly Rand’s ethics of rational self-interest and politics of unhampered capitalism. One, she says, human beings are not born tabula rasa, i.e. as blank slates, as Rand argued. Humans are, by their biological natures, altruistic and compassionate, she insists. In other words, ideas are not relevant, as Rand (and many others in psychology and philosophy) argued. We are the products of our biology. And our biology tells us to be altruistic.

Of course, if people do not ultimately choose or accept their ideas, how do you explain the fact that some people become sociopaths, while others do not? Why do people accept self-sacrifice in varying degrees? A few become Mother Teresa, while others limit their altruism to writing a check to charity, or feeling guilty when they don’t. Why do some people become Objectivists, for that matter? If we were not born tabula rasa, with respect to our ideas and premises, then wouldn’t all of us turn out the same? Choice has to factor in somewhere.

And what drives our choices, if not our ideas, and our thinking? No answer is given. And you’re expected to reject Rand’s philosophy for this reason. But on these terms, you’d have to reject any and all philosophies, as well as religions, since all of these approaches to life involve certain ideas and principles. Just as the students who run to support Bernie Sanders have chosen one set of ideas (the author probably approves of this choice), the students who love Ayn Rand’s ideas have made a different choice.

The second objection to Objectivism posed by this government-funded author is that if we ignore the requirements of religion and “society” to be altruistic, then everything falls apart. She cites the example of Honduras, where she says the government handed over power to corporations and required them to build government roads, but it never happened. Of course, government-controlled corporations do not consist of capitalism. If this critic of Objectivism had read Atlas Shrugged, she would know that the novel does not describe a socialist state. It describes a society where businesses are still nominally free to produce and make profits, but only under conditions where the government sets the terms.

This is not a free market. A free market consists of a society where nothing is against the law except fraud and force, subject to due process and proof in a court of law. A government-run economy where we shift from (1) government agencies issuing all the orders to (2) a government-run economy where agencies and regulations work through the nominally private companies is actually fascism, more than socialism. That’s what Rand describes in Atlas Shrugged. In a free society, it would be profitable to build roads and private parties would willingly pay for them, out of self-interest more than anything else.

Rand also made it clear that she was primarily an advocate of reason and rationality, not capitalism. If a person is not rational and objective, he or she will not benefit from a free market, and will not be able to build roads. Economic freedom does not generate a guarantee of success; it does, however, provide the absolutely necessary conditions for the exercise of reason to generate success.

The author, like a lot of Rand’s critics, takes it for granted that cooperation would not happen without compulsion. “If the government did not require and build roads, there would be no roads.” They see this claim as proof that we need compulsion to inspire cooperation. But self-interest inspires authentic cooperation more than compulsion ever could. Compulsion was not required to create the awe-inspiring technological civilization that America became, after only being a wilderness two centuries before. It did not take compulsion to create Standard Oil, IBM, Microsoft, Apple, ExxonMobil, McDonalds, Netflix, Amazon, Uber, grocery store chains or any of the other manifestations of self-interest which make life on earth so tenable (in capitalist-like societies) today. Government force could not have done any of this.

As for altruism: Is altruism part of our natures? Is it part of what our survival requires? This critic of Rand says “yes.” But she mixes altruism with benevolence, treating them as one and the same. Rand does not. Read it for yourself in this passage:


What is the moral code of altruism? The basic principle of altruism is that man has no right to exist for his own sake, that service to others is the only justification of his existence, and that self-sacrifice is his highest moral duty, virtue and value.

Do not confuse altruism with kindness, good will or respect for the rights of others. These are not primaries, but consequences, which, in fact, altruism makes impossible. The irreducible primary of altruism, the basic absolute, is self-sacrifice—which means; self-immolation, self-abnegation, self-denial, self-destruction—which means: the self as a standard of evil, the selfless as a standard of the good.

Do not hide behind such superficialities as whether you should or should not give a dime to a beggar. That is not the issue. The issue is whether you do or do not have the right to exist without giving him that dime. The issue is whether you must keep buying your life, dime by dime, from any beggar who might choose to approach you. The issue is whether the need of others is the first mortgage on your life and the moral purpose of your existence. The issue is whether man is to be regarded as a sacrificial animal. Any man of self-esteem will answer: “No.” Altruism says: “Yes.”


It’s clear that Rand did not equate self-sacrifice with kindness. The issue is not whether you should always or never be kind. The issue is whether you’re sovereign over your own life, or not—regardless of whether you help others. Helping is a choice. There will be no roads or charity without a lot of self-interest on the part of those who might willingly provide either.

People who value their own lives produce and contribute the most. They’re not burdened with unearned guilt, and they’re not dependent on others to provide for them. They are their own men and women. It’s fine to denounce such qualities all you want in a free country, although you should not enjoy government funds for the privilege of doing so. Yet it’s these very qualities of self-interest and self-confidence upon which all individual lives, and all of human survival and civilization depend. Get used to it.

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