Altruism, Ayn Rand & Simone Weil

ayn rand

Objectivism, the movement started by actress and novelist Ayn Rand, is probably little known outside the USA. Within that country though it has some traction with significant numbers of influential conservative and libertarian minded people who probably have disproportionate influence over US economic and foreign policy. This, of course, makes Objectivism a matter of worldwide importance given the power that America still wields. One of the key props of Objectivism’s framework is an assertion of the benefit of selfishness (which Objectivists redefine). Reading Rand’s works, however, it might be deduced that she is more motivated by a rejection of altruism, about which she writes with a visceral horror, than a positive embrace of selfishness.

Given her personal history it is easy to see how Ms Rand may have developed such a strong reaction to altruistic systems. Born in Tsarist Russia at the beginning of the 20th century she belonged to a family which was bourgeois and ethnically Jewish. Over the next two turbulent decades she encountered successively Orthodox Christianity which, to put it at its mildest, tolerated vicious Russian anti-Semitism and then Soviet Communism which actively persecuted the bourgeoisie and their children. Both of these systems were ostensibly altruistic in motivation and philosophy and Rand would have experienced each of them in the capacity of victim. Her sufferings, moreover, resulted not from anything which she had actually done but merely because of the family into which she had happened to be born.

With such formative experiences to draw upon it was not unreasonable for Ms Rand to stress the importance of considering individuals as individuals not as products of a class, race or collective of any kind. Nor is it surprising that she looked upon altruistic notions with a cynical and jaundiced eye. All of which may lie behind this quote from her novel Fountainhead

The man who attempts to live for others is a dependent. He is a parasite in motive and makes parasites of those he serves. The relationship produces nothing but mutual corruption. It is impossible in concept. The nearest approach to it in reality — the man who lives to serve others — is the slave. If physical slavery is repulsive, how much more repulsive is the concept of servility of the spirit. The conquered slave has a vestige of honor. He has the merit of having resisted and of considering his condition evil. But the man who enslaves himself voluntarily in the name of love is the basest of creatures. He degrades the dignity of man, and he degrades the conception of love. But that is the essence of altruism

A contemporary of Ayn Rand was the philosopher Simone Weil who in many ways is the anti-Rand since she adopted radically opposite propositions (although it is doubtful that the two women were aware of each others work.) She was also concerned about the reduction of people to the state of slaves and in Liberty and Oppression wrote-

The common run of moralists complain that man is moved by his private self-interest: would to heaven it were so! Private interest is a self-centred principle of action, but at the same time restricted, reasonable and incapable of giving rise to unlimited evils. Whereas, on the other hand, the law of all activities governing social life, except in the case of primitive communities, is that here one sacrifices human life — in himself and in others — to things which are only means to a better way of living. This sacrifice takes on various forms, but it all comes back to the question of power. Power, by definition, is only a means….. Human history is simply the history of the servitude which makes men — oppressed and oppressors alike — the plaything of the instruments of domination they themselves have manufactured, and thus reduces living humanity to being the chattel of inanimate chattels.

Simone Weil painting

On the face of it there is much that is similar here, Professor Weil gives some praise to the principle of self-interest which Ms Rand was so committed to. However, Weil was simply using it as a contrast to her main concern which was power, she also wrote, in Gravity and Grace-

The thought of being under absolute compulsion, the plaything of another, is unendurable for a human being. Hence, if every way of escape from the constraint is taken from him, there is nothing left for him to do but to persuade himself that he does the things he is forced to do willingly, that is to say, to substitute devotion for obedience. … It is by this twist that slavery debases the soul: this devotion is in fact based on a lie, since the reasons for it cannot bear investigation. … Moreover, the master is deceived too by the fallacy of devotion.”

The order of development for Professor Weil is that power structures are created, by those who seek to wield them, and then philosophical or religious systems are developed to make living under the oppression of these structures more endurable, that is oppression creates altruistic ideologies. Ms Rand reverses the order and supposes that altruistic ideas create oppressive structures (and servile people.) If the ‘Great Beast‘ which Rand despised was human society dominated by ideas of altruism for Weil it was human society as such unless dominated by notions of selflessness.

Professor Weil’s schema has the merit of simplicity. The experience of humans living in societies is a universal one therefore humans are by nature social creatures. Human societies always evolve power structures therefore humans are hierarchic creatures. Power structures over time always act in unfair, unjust or arbitrary ways which those subjected to such treatment resent. Humans, therefore, are creatures who need liberty just as much as they need hierarchy. What is perhaps surprising here is that the development of philosophies to justify oppression is seen as meeting a need of the oppressed as much as it does that of the oppressor. For Weil humans are also imaginative creatures and if they cannot escape oppression in reality then they will seek to escape it in imagination by re-branding the tyranny under which they live as being a necessary and right ordering of the world.

Ms Rand, by contrast, has a gap in her scheme. She seems to suppose that individualistic societies which functioned well, because individualism is the system most consonant with human nature, were subverted and ultimately destroyed by the development and triumph of altruistic thinking, specifically Christianity in the West. What is unclear is why these modes of thinking arose, gained popularity and endured over thousands of years if they are so fundamentally anti-human. That she thinks them to be so is clear from this quote

The irreducible primary of altruism, the basic absolute, is self-sacrifice—which means; self-immolation, self-abnegation, self-denial, self-destruction

I think that she involves herself in a contradiction when she tries to explain the enduring popularity of such ideas. She appears to hold that independent self-reliance is the default mode of being for humans but that the vast majority of humans are afraid of being independent. This supposes either two types of human, one naturally sturdily free (the natural elite) and one naturally timid and self-afraid (the masses) or some Randian equivalent of the Catholic doctrine of Original Sin whereby everyone is born with a flaw which means that they will to be free but act against their will in order to be slaves.

The alternative to Objectivist selfishness which Weil would propose is the act of attention “The capacity to give one’s attention to a sufferer is a very rare and difficult thing; it is almost a miracle; it is a miracle. Nearly all those who think they have this capacity do not possess it. Warmth of heart, impulsiveness, pity are not enough” (Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies PDF) What she means is that one should, dispensing with imagination and illusion, look unflinchingly on reality as it is. This means not only looking at power structures or societies honestly but also looking at each other, at all of our fellow humans with a level of attention which enables us to understand them as fully as we understand ourselves. Here selflessness, altruism if you prefer, is not the means but the inevitable end. We do not seek to annihilate our individual Self in order to serve others but we must annihilate all that is imaginary in ourselves before we can truly understand the world we inhabit and the people who surround us. When we have done so, when the world reflected in our mind is an accurate mirror of the world in which we walk then, inevitably, our actions will become altruistic because we will recognise that the suffering, the oppression, which we loathe being inflicted upon ourselves is something that we cannot inflict upon others since we will recognise each of them as being, as it were, our second self.

It seems to me that the key failing of Objectivism is that it fails to accept that humans are by nature and unavoidably social creatures and that, moreover, this is not a weakness or an evil to be endured but the very reason, combined with intelligence, that humans have thrived, developed and endured. Being social means more than living in societies it means we positively need to value others and do good to them as they do to us. That is something hardwired into us. Altruism in the sense that Ayn Rand uses it is less of an ideology, or series of overlapping ideologies, than it is a simple description. Once we accept that humans are social creatures we cannot evade accepting that they are also altruistic creatures for the one inevitably accompanies another. What Rand correctly notes is that humans are not exclusively social, they have needs for privacy and for unique self-development and self-expression. The need is for these things to be integrated and provided for but not for them to become dominant.


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About thoughtfullydetached

I am 50something, born in Scotland, living in England. By profession I am a registered nurse but due to long term illness have not worked for a couple of years. Philosophically I am economically and environmentally radical and socially conservative. This oddity springs from my understanding of my Catholic faith. This blog is an attempt in non-religious terms to express the outlines of that philosophy.
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