atlas shrugged statue man holding world

On Rand and Altruism: A Defense of Christian Self-Interest

image This guest post is by my good friend and LCC reader Douglas Douma. He has put together a VERY provocative and challenging article about Rand and the morality of “selfishness.” Thank you for your submission, Doug! The views expressed in any guest article should not be construed as an official position paper of and are the work of the guest author alone.

Ayn Rand, the founder and sole source of the philosophy called Objectivism, taught an ethical system based on the principle of “rational self-interest” – defined as aiming at the fulfillment of one’s own highest values. In The Virtue of Selfishness Rand wrote, “The Objectivist ethics holds man’s life as the standard of value – and his own life as the ethical purpose of every individual man.” Her enemies then were those who taught the ethics of altruism, which in her words says “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.” Rand’s novels, particularly Atlas Shrugged, portrayed the devastating outcome of the choices made by those who follow the code of altruism. Rand correctly concludes that rational self-interest is the basis of ethics, but she fails to make the choice that is most in her (and indeed everyone’s) self-interest – faith in God as their creator and redeemer.

In addition to being man’s self-ruin, altruism, using Rand’s definition and thought out to its logical conclusions, is an unethical and logically contradictory creed. For every act of altruism there must a recipient and if, as altruism claims, self-interest is evil, then the recipient of altruism is performing an evil deed by virtue of receiving in his own self-interest. Thus, for an act of altruism to take place an “evil self-interested” recipient must be found. Even if altruism is ethical on the giving end, it is unethical on the receiving end by its own creed. Alternatively, perhaps altruism could be defined as simply being more concerned for others than for oneself. But this has the same logical problem. To function, a recipient of this kind of altruism must be fooled into thinking that he is in fact doing the favor. For to receive the gift he must consider it a good which the initial altruist didn’t himself want, and thus he believes HE is being more concerned for the giver than for himself in receiving the gift.

Altruism is the creed that Rand falsely assumed is taught in Christianity. In the Letters of Ayn Rand she wrote:

“There is a great, basic contradiction in the teachings of Jesus. Jesus was one of the first great teachers to proclaim the basic principle of individualism – the inviolate sanctity of man’s soul, and the salvation of one’s soul as one’s first concern and highest goal; this means – one’s ego and the integrity of one’s ego. But when it came to the next question, a code of ethics to observe for the salvation of one’s soul — (this means: what must one do in actual practice in order to save one’s soul?) – Jesus (or perhaps His interpreters) gave men a code of altruism, that is, a code which told them that in order to save one’s soul, one must love or live for others.”

Rand was correct that Christianity is focused on individual salvation, the highest form of self-interest. What she misunderstood was that the love of others flows from knowing the Love of God. Jesus Christ taught, “love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31), not in place of yourself, as altruism would direct. In Christ’s words “What shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world but lose his own soul?’ Christ appealed to “profit” and genuine self-interest, not altruistic ethics. Christ did say that in order to gain life one must lose it (Mark 8:36), but the life a man gives up is his old life; the life he is receives is a new, better life and thus no sacrifice at all. John Piper, a supporter of many of Rand’s views (Piper writes “…Ayn Rand was right on some fundamental issues”), is a Christian theologian and preacher who pointed out Rand’s error:

“Ayn Rand’s devastating criticism of altruism missed the point of Christian mercy. She could only conceive of mercy in terms of our sacrificing our greater values to lesser ones. The Christian sacrifices no values in blessing those who curse him, nor is his behavior causeless or aimless. It is an achievement of his own dependence on and love for the merciful God. It is caused by God’s mercy, and it aims to transform the enemy into one who treasures God above all things. It is thus a self-benefiting act, compounding, as it does, the joy of the believer.”

Ultimately a Christian’s charitable action toward others IS a form of self-interest, in that the emotional and spiritual rewards involved in submission to God’s will move the Christian closer to his personal interests of happiness and fulfillment than he would have otherwise been had he NOT behaved charitably. Rand failed to see the invisible “pay-off” of Christianity, and mislabeled it as altruism.

Christianity is frequently linked with altruism, but doing so commits a fundamental error. True Christianity is a personal relationship with God, a covenant that is in one’s self-interest to follow. This relationship is based on understanding that man is saved by Faith in Christ apart from any deeds. The Augustinian/Lutheran tradition teaches that good works follow necessarily from faith but that good works themselves do not provide salvation. An understanding of Christianity as a religion of altruism would be more in line with the heretical tradition of Pelagius who taught that one’s own good deeds affect salvation. Variants of Pelagianism have continued to be prevalent in many church bodies that falsely teach that man is the determiner of his salvation. Perhaps Rand confused the heretical tradition for the accepted teachings of mainstream Christianity, and therefore assumed that salvation in Christianity is based on “good deeds.”

Rand’s understanding of self-interest was incomplete because it relied solely on the self, not God, to know its interests. This view was based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the origin of reason. She claimed that man has to choose to be man. The notion that man makes himself, that “man is a being of self-made soul,” is a logical contradiction (see John Robbins: Without a Prayer, Ayn Rand and the Close of Her System). Reason cannot come from unreason, consciousness from unconsciousness, nor free will from determinism. If man did not choose reason, he must have been created with it. This is precisely the teaching of the Bible, which proclaims that man was made in God’s image and spoken into being through His very Word. Man’s reason, and therefore his ability to be self-interested, comes from God. In recognizing that God created man, one can conclude that it is God who knows what is in man’s self-interest, that is, what is in man’s best interests.

Just as Rand’s philosophy fails at the beginning of life, so it fails at the end. Rand’s view of “rational self-interest” is based on the necessity of man to use reason as his tool to stay alive. But no matter how well a man uses his reason he will still die. He can never be smart enough to live forever. Death is inevitable to man. If he is to live, God must grant him life. Again, it is precisely this kind of life Christ promises in the Bible. Man’s only hope to live is to have life given to him. Just as God made man alive at his first birth, so it is God that gives him eternal life when he follows Christ.

Not only is it in one’s own interest to have eternal life in heaven, but also to live a fruitful life on earth. Christianity is not a sacrifice of one’s current enjoyment for potential enjoyment in the afterlife; a Christian lifestyle benefits one’s day-to-day life on earth. If anything, perhaps Christians should think more like C.S. Lewis, who said in The Weight of Glory that Christians are not self-interested enough:

“If there lurks in most modern minds the notion that to desire our own good and to earnestly hope for the enjoyment of it is a bad thing, I suggest that this notion has crept in from Kant and the Stoics and is no part of the Christian faith. Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling around with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”

Ayn Rand appears to be quintessentially selfish, but I contend that she was not nearly selfish enough. She, like the child in the slum, was content with the immediate life and so failed to find the true selfishness that lies in the benefit of knowing God and living with Him in eternal paradise. It is the Christian, who, in seeking the blessings of God, is truly self-interested.

Douglas J. Douma works as an engineering manager at an aerospace company near Austin, TX. He has a mechanical engineering degree from the University of Michigan and an MBA from Wake Forest University.