Mar 202006

You know, I’m almost getting used to defending myself against the presumption of eating babies for breakfast.

It seems to happen around discussion of morality, and in particular around what most take as top-tier other-regarding virtues like kindness, generosity, and charity. Maybe that’s why Tara Smith spends some time analyzing them in her forthcoming book, Ayn Rand’s Normative Ethics: The Virtuous Egoist. I learned she was doing so while enjoying her excellent lecture, “Virtues or Vices? Kindness, Generosity, Charity”, based on a chapter under construction.

People commonly presume that egoists must be averse to kindness, generosity, and charity because of the focus on benefit to others. And it doesn’t hurt that these are high on the list of altruist virtues that are drilled into people from birth as demanded by said sacrificial code. Sure, when it comes up I explain how Objectivists reject human sacrifice as unnecessary, that we don’t consider life to be zero-sum as there are no conflicts of interest among rational men, yadda, yadda. But that’s a bit passive, even defensive. How unsatisfying. And the bulk of Dr. Smith’s talk, while wonderful, wasn’t doing much to affect that stance. She talked about how these ideas are no big deal for Objectivists and just fine as long as sacrifice isn’t involved of course, as well as how they can sometimes be morally required as an expression of integrity and fidelity to one’s values. (Also, it was a welcome bit of clarifying analysis for her to emphasize that because they aren’t unqualified goods and always demanded of us, that they shouldn’t be regarded as virtues. Or as vices.) Very cool lesson, another reason I’m eagerly looking forward to that book!

But the part that made me chuckle and rewind to listen again was where Dr. Smith turned that defensive stance around and talked about how the common presumption is utterly backward. It is the selfish egoists who are naturally inclined to kindness, generosity, and charity, while the selfless altruists are not.

See, we egoists are all about trading on every level and in every way — people can be very valuable to us. Our friends, associates, lovers, and so on all stand in mutually-beneficial relations to us, and we look forward to meeting new people who can do the same. Nobody has an automatic claim on us, so duds we discover can be dismissed — and if someone actually demands sacrifice, we shrug them off as morally confused. So it is easy and natural for us to look well upon those close to us (and at least neutrally on those we don’t know) and express our esteem for them and their actual or potential value in the form of kindness, generosity, and charity. Especially when it is an expression of our more important values. Acting this way can be good and is indeed “no big deal,” so we certainly don’t need to have it drilled into us. We are naturally predisposed to (appropriate) use of kindness, generosity, and charity.

But not so for altruists. If you’re an altruist, people are needy. So fundamentally needy that you’ve got an entire moral code built around that fact. Everybody has an automatic moral claim on you — every need that goes unmet is an unfulfilled duty weighing down your soul, and every value you enjoy is a source of guilt. Talk about an excuse for repression! To the degree you live up to your moral standard you push toward death by giving up values; to the degree you don’t, your self-esteem falters for not acting as you should. Sure, that impossible standard can be used as a basis for kindness, generosity, and charity… But then it only underscores how everyone around you is a threat to anything of value you have. It is easy to come to see people and their actual, potential, and even imagined needs as albatrosses. It is easy to grow to resent them, dreading the inevitable moment they voice a need you’ll be duty-bound to fill. Being already obligated to sacrifice to others’ endless needs, these further reminders of that fact (or of your moral failing for not acting on it) only emphasize the conflicts of interest that altruism sets up, and invite a struggle to suppress the natural reaction, “Be kind to such people? Get out of my face!” (A memorable line.)

So it is no wonder altruists work to constantly convince themselves that kindness, generosity, and charity are important virtues they must strive to practice — and no accident that they are reflexively concerned with how we egoists fare regarding them. Well, I for one expect rational egoists to fare wonderfully because our creed actually encourages us to value our lives and the people in them.

Come to think of it, I’m almost looking forward to the next time some tortured soul asks me what’s for breakfast.

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