An Objectivist Case for Charity

0 Posted by - February 17, 2011 - Commentary, Commentary - Guest, Economics

*Written by Tho Bishop.

Like many on the right, I have been exposed to, and intrigued by, Objectivism – the philosophy of Ayn Rand. Rand’s goal of a reasoned, consistent, ego-driven philosophy was a noble one and served to inspire a great many in the cause of liberty. It is often attacked, however, for its perceived ruthlessness, mainly rooted in its hostility to altruism. Objectivism vehemently rejects self-sacrifice as a primary virtue and chooses to celebrate self-service; an objectivist seeks to dedicate his life for his/her own happiness, not sacrifice theirs for the happiness of others. What place is there, then, for charity in a truly objectivist society?

181690 1635571925430 1120650218 31534301 457203 a An Objectivist Case for CharityAyn Rand was relatively  ambivalent on the subject herself. In a 1964 interview she summarized her view on the subject:

“My views on charity are very simple. I do not consider it a major virtue and, above all, I do not consider it a moral duty. There is nothing wrong in helping other people, if and when they are worthy of the help and you can afford to help them. I regard charity as a marginal issue. What I am fighting is the idea that charity is a moral duty and a primary virtue.”

Though I agree with the objectivist stance that any form of mandated charity is immoral, I oppose Ayn’s view of charity as lacking primary virtue. And I can do so on her own terms.

First, we must establish that society exists because it’s beneficial to man. I shall begin with the hypothetical isolated man Alpha. Alpha is responsible for all the tasks necessary to sustain human life. Alpha must hunt, Alpha must find water to drink, Alpha must build shelter, Alpha must build tools, Alpha may wish to create clothes or other forms of protection. Alpha may be forced to go days without food if he cannot find and catch his dinner, or may find himself constantly having to move as he uses up the resources around him. If Alpha suffers from a hurt foot or a debilitating illness, it will be very difficult to survive.

One day, however, Alpha stumbles upon Bravo. As our daily exposure to people would indicate, each individual possesses his own unique talents and interests. Alpha, in this case, is really skilled at creating stone tools and producing shelter. Bravo is the better hunter. So now, where Alpha would have to spend time hunting, gathering and crafting – he can now focus simply on crafting and gathering. Bravo can focus on hunting. The two exchange goods by whatever exchange they agree with (after all, if the agreement is not seen as beneficial to each member, they can easily leave.) As the two become more skilled at their chosen specialties, a miraculous phenomenon occurs. Free time – primitive profit. Before there is coined currency, time is money.*

What else can we learn from this? Society is an inherent good. If the purpose of life is to seek one’s own happiness (an objective principal), than society is essential to allow man to live not simply to exist, but to enjoy free time.

If one views charity as an investment into society, then one can see the self-serving nature of the institution. If, for example, Bravo falls ill – it is in the interest of Alpha to provide for Bravo. If Bravo dies, so does Alpha’s ability to benefit from his utility.

But does the same remain true in a larger, more complex society? Yes. If Alpha and Bravo where living in a society with 300 other individuals, and have no personal relationship, the utility of Bravo as a hunter (even if he is no longer the only one) is beneficial to Alpha. If society loses one of the specialized hunters, someone else – maybe Alpha – will be required to pick up the slack. Ceteris paribus, a society of 300 functioning individuals will always be more productive than a society of 299 functioning individuals.

This approach only focuses on individual utility, the Objectivist case for charity becomes even more pronounced when one takes into consideration factors like reputation. Who is respected more in society today? A billionaire who spends no money in charity, or a billionaire who spends a great deal on charity? In the NFL, if one is looking to live as prestigious career as possible, if two wide receivers have identical stats, the same number of championships, identical Pro Bowl appearances and the same skill-based awards, how can one separate himself from the other? Charity. There are awards in the league to recognize charity and none to recognize a lack of it. If there is only one spot open for the Hall of Fame and all other things are equal, the more charitable and socially motivated player will get the spot.184966 1635572605447 1120650218 31534302 2930870 a An Objectivist Case for Charity

Charity, I contend, should not be seen as an act of altruistic self-sacrifice, but as a self-driven investment in society. Altruists would contend that a selfless act of charity should be more respected than a self-driven one, but I would question the premise of that notion. Not only does it require the belief that acting for yourself is less valid than acting for others, but it raises this hypothetical: A man donates five thousand dollars to charity selfishly (i.e. to improve his standing in society). Another man donates four thousand dollars to charity selflessly. Is the five thousand not always more beneficial to the whole than the four thousand? How about if the money totals are equal, is the five thousand selfishly given not equally as beneficial to society as the five thousand selflessly given?

Ayn Rand may not have been the most delightful individual to have walked the Earth, but the failings of Rand, the person, does not represent a valid criticism of her philosophy as a whole. Furthermore, too often those who oppose government mandated social functions are often described as social Darwinists and painted with a barbarous brush of ruthlessness. I hope by understanding the inherent good of voluntary society and the utility of every individual in it, these misunderstandings can be resolved. Charity is not only an altruistic virtue, but also an objective one.

*Adam Smith’s realization of this principal led to the creation of the Labor Theory of Value further developed by David Ricardo and Karl Marx. Though Smith rejected this value theory in terms of a 18th Century (or contemporary) economy, he did believe it was valid for a primitive economy as hypothesized above. In reality even this economy has a Subjective Theory of Value due to the fact that Alpha and Bravo may not value an hours worth of hunting and an hours worth of crafting as equal. Price, even in this setting, is determined only by the reasoning of those involved in the transaction.

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