Is Ayn Rand Confused About Altruism?

In the PJTV video I talked about yesterday, Bill Whittle and Andrew Klavan also criticize Rand for confusing selflessness and altruism. Selflessness doesn’t exist, Klavan says, because “everyone is acting for personal gain, even if that personal gain is joy” from helping others. Altruism then is simply doing good for others in order to gain joy, which Klavan stresses is a good thing.


Rand’s error, he says, is to conflate the two and then (wrongly) conclude that the only alternative to selflessness is selfishness, which Klavan suggests means only caring about yourself and not about others.


There’s a lot there to untangle, and for a full answer, I recommend that you check out the interview I did with Peter Schwartz on altruism, as well as Ayn Rand’s book The Virtue of Selfishness.

Here I just want to make one point, which is that, if you look at how people actually apply the concept of “altruism,” they often use it in Ayn Rand’s sense: to describe selflessness or self-sacrifice, rather than for doing good for others.


When Bill Gates created a software company that made millions of people better off, was he heralded for his altruism? No, because he profited in the process. Who is considered altruistic? Well, the arch-example is someone like Mother Teresa. Is it because she helped more people than Bill Gates? No, it’s because she sacrificed for the poor — she served them selflessly.


Rand doesn’t conflate selflessness with helping others in order to sell people on selfishness — it’s altruists who conflate those two in order to sell people on self-sacrifice. They offer us a choice: You can either surrender your money, freedom, hopes, and dreams — or else become a monster who doesn’t care about others.


Rand rejects that as a false alternative: it ignores the possibility of a person who pursues his own rational interests, neither sacrificing himself to others nor others to himself. For such a person, caring about others isn’t unselfish. Other people are an enormous source of values, whether it be of knowledge, trade, or love and companionship. It’s not for nothing Rand called her theory a new concept of egoism.