Thursday, November 10, 2011

Rand, Selflessness, and the Silly Undergrad

A relatively recent online debate grabbed my attention when an individual (who shall remain nameless) more-or-less claimed that the Austrian theory of economics was to be equated with Ayn Rand and her virtue of selfishness. While Rand's individualism and defense of capitalism certainly make her a fellow traveler among the Austrians, this individual had painted Austrian theory as nothing more than greed-fueled anarchism. Most likely unaware of the breaks Rand had with Rothbard's anarchism, Mises' praxeology, or Hayek's ethical foundations of traditional morality (it was consistently asserted in the debate that Hayek was some kind of anarchist), this critic of conservatism had no problem painting with a broad brush.[1] I explained that I have been critical of Rand's rhetoric regarding selfishness, yet pointed out that she basically redefined the term in an attempt to unload it of the negative baggage (whether wisely or not).



As Rand states in the introduction to her The Virtue of Selfishness,

The title of this book may evoke the kind of question that I hear once in a while: "Why do you use the word 'selfishness' to denote virtuous qualities of character, when that word antagonizes so many people to whom it does not mean the things you mean?" To those who ask it, my answer is, "For the reason that makes you afraid of it." [2]

The use of the word 'selfishness' was largely for shock value, not to mention her extreme disdain for anything collectivist due to her experience as a youth in Russia.[3] After a fairly lengthy exchange, a separate post was made by this individual to "educate" me (a silly undergraduate, which I am no longer nor was at the time) on the meaning of altruism in contrast to selfishness. The definition of 'altruism' was provided, along with the notion that to support her form of altruism (i.e. wealth redistribution) was to be caring, moral, and (as her post implied) Christian. She further implied that support of the market system was inhumane, selfish, and spat in the face of Jesus Himself.

Ignoring the multiple problems that presented themselves throughout her barrage of ill-mannered responses, I wanted to address the relationship between selflessness and selfishness. Ayn Rand has had little influence on my worldview, in large part due to her atheism and Objectivism. While I can understand her appeal to market proponents, I have never quite understood the borderline obsession.


However, her comments regarding the "selfish" nature of serving others is interesting. Joseph Smith reportedly told Oliver B. Huntington that "some people entirely denounce the principle of self-aggrandizement as wrong. ‘It is a correct principle,’ [Joseph] said, ‘and may be indulged upon only one rule or plan–and that is to elevate, benefit and bless others first. If you will elevate others, the very work itself will exalt you. Upon no other plan can a man justly and permanently aggrandize himself’.”[4] On this, the late philosopher Truman G. Madsen wrote,

God, taught the Prophet, loves Himself in an inclusive way and hence "everything God does is to aggrandize His kingdom." Such love expands the "self" to include all selves, all life; and God, therefore, cannot be happy except in the happiness of all creatures. Call that "selfish" if you like. But notice that the opposite is a selfishness which seeks something in indifference to or at the expense of others. We are commanded to be selfish as God is. Joseph Smith taught that there is a law (not, if I understand him, of God's making but in the very nature of things) that "upon no other principle can a man permanently and justly aggrandize himself." This is the meaning of the Master's cryptic phrase: "Lose yourself...and find yourself."[5]

Using a version of "The Prisoner's Dilemma" game and fMRI, a team of researchers from Emory University found that activation in the reward-processing regions of the brain (i.e. nucleus accumbens, caudate nucleus, ventromedial frontal/orbitofrontal cortex, rostral anterior cingulate cortex) took place during cooperative situations. This data demonstrates that what is known as altruism is in fact intrinsically rewarding.[6] Related results were found in another study, which provided participants the choice of either collecting a maximum of $128 or donating to a variety of charities. Scans during the process revealed that "the midbrain ventral tegmental area (VTA), the dorsal striatum, and the ventral striatum were activated by both pure monetary rewards and decisions to donate..., suggesting that donating to societal causes and earning money share anatomical systems of reward reinforcement expectancy...This finding is compatible with the putative role of the "warm glow" ("joy of giving") effect, the rewarding experience associated with anonymous donations."[7] The fronto-limbic activity is connected to "more basic social and motivational mechanisms" stimulated by such things as "food, sex, drugs, and money."[8] Even without any evidence of direct material or reputation gains or reciprocity, charity is neurologically rewarding.

Author and neuroscientist Sam Harris defines morality as that which produces the well-being of conscious creatures. Drawing on studies of moral cognition, he recognizes the existence of a "reward component of genuine altruism (often called the "warm glow" associated with cooperation)" and that "we know from neuroimaging studies that cooperation is associated with heightened activity in the brain's reward regions." From this evidence, Harris concludes, "Here...the traditional opposition between selfish and selfless motivation seems to break down. If helping others can be rewarding, rather than merely painful, it should be thought of as serving the self in another mode."[9]

It is perhaps worth noting that research conducted by Arthur C. Brooks of Syracuse University (now president of the American Enterprise Institute) has shown those in favor of free enterprise and less government donate four times as much money as redistributionists (even when controlled for income), give more blood, and volunteer more hours.[10] Not only is free enterprise statistically linked with charity, but charity is statistically linked with reported happiness. When controlled for income, education, age, race, gender, religion, and children, "conservatives are, on average, 7.5 percentage points more likely than liberals to say they are very happy."[11]

With all the morally superior sneering that takes place on my debate opponent's wall, I wonder how she feels about being neurologically selfish in her altruistic pursuits. On top of that, I wonder if she cares that the ideas she advocates not only harm those she intends to help, but her own happiness and well-being also.



1. The principles behind policies are often more important than the policies themselves. In other words, just because Rand and other market-oriented voices came to similar conclusions does not mean that they hold the same principles for doing so. In his testimony favoring Robert Bork's 1987 Supreme Court nomination, Thomas Sowell explained how principles behind policies take on a life of their own. For further reading on Rand's relationship with economists of the Austrian theory (and her life and politics in general), see The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies 6:2 (Spring 2005); Jennifer Burns, Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009). For an overview, see Reason TV's interview with historian and author Jennifer Burns.

2. Ayn Rand, The Virtue of Selfishness: A New Concept of Egoism (New York: Signet, 1964 [1961]), 5.

3. "It was a wintry day in 1918 when the Red Guard pounded on the door of Zinovy Rosenbaum's chemistry shop. The guards bore a seal of the State of Russia, which they nailed upon the door, signaling that it had been seized in the name of the people. Zinovy could at least be thankful the mad whirl of revolution had taken only his property, not his life. Alisa [Ayn], twelve at the time, burned with indignation. The shop was her father's; he had worked for it, studied long hours at university, dispensed valued advice and medicines to his customers. Now in an instant it was gone, taken to benefit nameless, faceless peasants, strangers who could offer her father nothing in return. The soldiers had come in boots, carrying guns, making clear that resistance would mean death. Yet they had spoken the language of fairness and equality, their goal to build a better society for all. Watching, listening, absorbing, Alisa knew one thing for certain: those who invoked such lofty ideals were not to be trusted. Talk about helping others was only a thin cover for force and power. It was a lesson she would never forget." (Burns, 2009, 9)

4. Quote and reference provided in this excellent post at Life on Gold Plates.

5. Truman G. Madsen, "Joseph Smith and the Sources of Love" in his Four Essays on Love (Provo, UT: Communications Workshop, 1971), 13-14. To clarify, I by no means am attempting to equate the philosophy of Ayn Rand with that of Joseph Smith.

6. James K. Rilling, David Gutman, Thorsten Zeh, Giuseppe Pagnoni, Gregory Berns, Clint Kilts, "A Neural Basis for Social Cooperation," Neuron 35 (2002).

7. Jorge Moll, Frank Krueger, Roland Zahn, Matteo Pardini, Ricardo de Oliveira-Souza, Jordan Grafman, "Human Fronto-Mesolimbic Networks Guide Decisions About Charitable Donations," Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 103:42 (2006): 15624.

8. Moll et all, 2006: 15625.

9. Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values (New York: Free Press, 2010), 91-92.

10. Arthur Brooks, "Tea Partiers and the Spirit of Giving," The Wall Street Journal (Dec. 24, 2010). For a book length treatment of this subject, see his Who Really Cares: The Surprising Truth About Compassionate Conservatism - America's Charity Divide: Who Gives, Who Doesn't, and Why It Matters (New York: Basic Books, 2006).

11. Brooks, 2006, 110.

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