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Ayn Rand's Attack on Christian Morality | James Kidd | April 14, 2011 | Ignatius Insight

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The April 15 release of the film Atlas Shrugged: Part I brings the Russian-born novelist and philosopher Ayn Rand (1905–1982) back into the spotlight. Her magnum opus, Atlas Shrugged (1957), continues to sell more than half a century after its publication. The novel even topped Amazon.com's fiction sales at one point in 2009 and is required reading among Tea Party activists.[1] Staffers at the libertarian Cato Institute who have not read the novel are called "virgins."

But orthodox Catholics have a love/hate relationship with Rand. Political conservatives, with whom they traditionally align, find much to like in Rand's writings on government and economics. Few have made the case for limited government as persuasively and intelligently as Rand.

But Rand's views on organized religion, making it the major villain of history, gives pause to many religious conservatives. Her diatribes against religion often border on the delirious. Catholics might be surprised to learn, then, that Objectivist ethics is actually reconcilable with Catholic teaching.

Rand's "Selfishness" Defined

Objectivist ethics is defined more by what it opposes than what it proposes. In Rand's view, the entirety of the world's problems can be traced back to altruism, which she defines as "the doctrine which demands that man live for others and place others above self." What's wrong with that? "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."[2]

Rand believes that there are two classes of people: the "creators" (inventors, intellectuals, businessmen, and all others who use their minds to create something useful) and those she calls looters or second-handers, inferior beings who spend their pitiful lives mooching off the creators and their creations like parasites.

According to Rand, "looters" have always been around and have always been dependent on the kindness and compassion of the creators for their own sustenance. But centuries ago, the looters made the creators' benevolence toward them obligatory. In other words, one man's need placed a moral burden on the one who had the resources to relieve it. Ever since then, anything and everything the creators produced was claimed as the rightful property of everyone else. Thus was born the evil of altruism.

This conception of altruism, taken to its logical conclusion, leads to some heinous results, as Rand explains:
Your code [altruism] hands out, as its version of the absolute, the following rule of moral conduct: If you wish it, it's evil; if others wish it, it's good; if the motive of your action is your welfare, don't do it; if the motive is the welfare of others, then anything goes. ...

For those of you who might ask questions, your code provides a consolation prize and a booby-trap: it is for your own happiness, it says, that you must serve the happiness of others, the only way to achieve your joy is to give it up to others, the only way to achieve your prosperity is to surrender your wealth to others, the only way to protect your life is to protect all men except yourself—and if you find no joy in this procedure, it is your own fault and the proof of your evil; if you were good, you would find your happiness in providing a banquet for others, and your dignity in existing on such crumbs as they might care to toss you.[3]
Rand places religion—especially Christianity—at the heart of the great deception that made every man a servant but none a master. It was religious belief, by supposedly rejecting reason and replacing it with an irrational "faith," that gave birth to altruism. From then on, self-interest was discouraged and self-giving was required. Of course, part of the reason for religion's ascent, according to Rand, was that it appealed to those at the bottom of the social ladder. It gave them an opportunity to revel in their worthlessness and justified their demands on those at the top.

From this was born socialism, which sought to take power away from natural leaders and place it in the hands of the unwashed masses. In fact, Rand sees religious believers and socialists as two sides of the same coin: Religionists (or "mystics of spirit," as she calls them) preach that all man's activities should be in service to God, while socialists (or "mystics of muscle") preach that all man's activities should be in service to "society."

In reaction to its conception of altruism, Objectivism takes the other extreme. Rand proposes what she calls "rational self-interest":
The basic social principle of the Objectivist ethics is that just as life is an end in itself, so every living human being is an end in himself, not the means to the ends or the welfare of others—and, therefore, that man must live for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself. To live for his own sake means that the achievement of his own happiness is man's highest moral purpose.[4]
One may object at this point that rational self-interest logically leads to hedonism, which leads to social chaos. But Rand explains:
The Objectivist ethics ... holds that the rational interests of men do not clash—that there is no conflict of interests among men who do not desire the unearned, who do not make sacrifices nor accept them, who deal with one another as traders, giving value for value.[5]
Of course, Rand never demonstrates how aggressively taking advantage of others is not in one's own self-interest; she simply declares that it is.

"Acts of Good Will"

One might think at this point that selfless acts are strictly verboten in Objectivism. But Rand does allow for what Christians call "acts of charity"—reluctantly, it seems, and only with certain preconditions.

Taking the example of a drowning person, Rand declares: "If the person to be saved is a stranger, it is morally proper to save him only when the danger to one's own life is minimal; when the danger is great, it would be immoral to attempt it: only a lack of self-esteem could permit one to value one's life no higher than that of any random stranger."[6]

But what about actions that benefit others while providing no benefit to (or even harming) oneself? Rand provides for this possibility as well:
Suppose one hears that the man next door is ill and penniless. Illness and poverty are not metaphysical emergencies, they are part of the normal risks of existence; but since the man is temporarily helpless, one may bring him food and medicine, if one can afford it (as an act of good will, not of duty) or one may raise a fund among the neighbors to help him out. But this does not mean that one must support him from then on, nor that one must spend one's life looking for starving men to help.[7]
The discerning reader will point out, though, that the phrase "act of good will" in the quote above does not fit with the concept of "rational self-interest"; in fact, it could be seen as an outright contradiction. These justifications by Rand of selfless acts thus seem to be an attempt to shoehorn what is universally recognized as virtuous into her otherwise selfish philosophy. But shoehorn or not, Objectivism cannot be accused of forbidding acts of charity.

Charity as an Obligation

Getting back to Rand's indictment of altruism, while it is a caricature, it is accurate in at least two respects.

First, her critique of socialism is largely correct. The basic idea of socialism is taking charitable motives and sentiments and codifying them into law. The goals of socialists and "progressives" can be characterized as taking from the "haves" and giving to the "have-nots," all in the name of justice.

Second, Rand's attack on religion is true insofar as the attitude that charity is an obligation permeates religious belief. Many Christians (and even many Catholics) subscribe to this idea—and not just those on the religious left who preach "social justice." It is not uncommon to hear in Sunday homilies that we have an "obligation of charity" to help the poor, that charity toward one's neighbor is "a moral duty," that we are "required" to help our neighbors.

Indeed, it is easy to read Christ's words regarding charity as commands. Take, for example, John 15:9: "This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you" (emphasis added).

So is Catholic morality guilty of Rand's charges? Does it mandate self-donation, corrupting both the giver and the recipient and destroying the very concept of charity? If not, how are we to understand the words of Christ and of the Church regarding the virtue of charity?

The Catholic View of Charity

A proper understanding of charity recognizes the difference between the cardinal virtue of justice and the theological virtue of charity. Justice consists of what is required of us, or giving each man his due. Charity, on the other hand, goes above and beyond what is required of us.

Thus the phrase "obligation of charity" is an oxymoron. The concepts of obligation and charity are mutually exclusive: If something is obligatory (say, adhering to the terms of a contract), then fulfilling it is not an act of charity; if an act is recognized as charitable (say, holding an elevator for a stranger), then it is not mandatory in any way.

So what does Christ mean in the quote from John 15? Here let's take a step back to properly understand the relationship between the Old Law and the New Law. The Old Law consisted of many obligations that God required of his people. Christ initiated the New Law, which did not replace the Old but only added an exhortation to go above and beyond it. In the words of the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
The Law of the Gospel fulfills the commandments of the Law. The Lord's Sermon on the Mount, far from abolishing or devaluing the moral prescriptions of the Old Law, releases their hidden potential and has new demands arise from them: it reveals their entire divine and human truth. It does not add new external precepts, but proceeds to reform the heart, the root of human acts, where man chooses between the pure and the impure, where faith, hope, and charity are formed and with them the other virtues. The Gospel thus brings the Law to its fullness through imitation of the perfection of the heavenly Father, through forgiveness of enemies and prayer for persecutors, in emulation of the divine generosity.[8]
So in the same way that charity exceeds justice while not replacing it, the New Law of Christ goes above and beyond the Old Law without wiping it out. Christ institutes the New Law not as a set of new mandates but as an exhortation to go above and beyond the existing ones. In other words, Christ does not add to the virtue of justice; he adds the virtue of charity on top of it. But charity remains distinct from justice. Or, in terms of the old theological dictum, grace does not destroy nature; it presupposes and perfects it.

Unfortunately, though, a lack of clarification has led to a misunderstanding of charity. Today, the impression is left that Christianity mandates benevolence toward one's neighbor.

A Difference of Emphasis

This more refined notion of charity, combined with Rand's shoehorning of charity into her philosophy, allows us to reconcile Objectivist ethics with true Christian charity. The difference is only a matter of emphasis.

Rand stresses the non-obligatory nature of charity and, by her reluctance to highlight them, de-emphasizes the goodness of charitable acts. Catholicism, on the other hand, emphasizes the commendability of charitable acts, even as many Catholics may be under the impression that these acts spring from an obligation.

Of course, this does not mean that Objectivists and Catholics can hold hands and sing Kumbaya. There are many Objectivist positions that are diametrically opposed to Catholic teaching, such as its atheistic rationalism and its belief that religious belief is the root of all major problems in the world today.

Nevertheless, Rand's devastating critique of altruism serves to help clarify the nature of true charity: It is not required, but it is still good. Rand is not that far off base after all.


[1] Alex Spillius, "US Midterms: Essential Reading for the Budding Tea Party Activist", The Telegraph, October 25, 2010, accessed April 8, 2011.
[2] Ayn Rand, The Fountainhead (New York: Penguin, 1943), p. 680.
[3] Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged (New York: Penguin, 1957), pp. 943–44. All emphases in quotes from Rand are in the original.
[4] Ayn Rand, The Virtue of Selfishness (New York, Penguin, 1964), p. 30.
[5] Ibid., p. 34.
[6] Ibid., p. 52.
[7] Ibid., p. 55.
[8] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1968.

James Kidd is editor of PublicSquare.net. He worked as an assistant editor of This Rock magazine and is former managing editor of The Philadelphia Bulletin. He holds a bachelor's degree in philosophy from the University of Dallas. He lives in Falls Church, Virginia, with his wife and five-year-old son.

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