Human Nature

Why Ayn Rand Was Wrong about Altruism, Selfishness, Evolution, and Human Nature

Rand would be surprised by the new science of selfishness and altruism

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By Eric Michael Johnson

“Every political philosophy has to begin with a theory of human nature,” wrote Harvard evolutionary biologist Richard Lewontin in his book Biology as Ideology. Thomas Hobbes, for example, believed that humans in a “state of nature,” or what today we would call hunter-gatherer societies, lived a life that was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short” in which there existed a “war of all against all.” This led him to conclude, as many apologists for dictatorship have since, that a stable society required a single leader in order to control the rapacious violence that was inherent to human nature. Building off of this, advocates of state communism, such as Vladimir Lenin or Josef Stalin, believed that each of us was born tabula rasa, with a blank slate, and that human nature could be molded in the interests of those in power.

Ever since Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand has been gaining prominence among American conservatives as the leading voice for the political philosophy of laissez-faire capitalism, or the idea that private business should be unconstrained and that government’s only concern should be protecting individual property rights. As I wrote in Slate with my piece “Ayn Rand vs. the Pygmies,” the Russian-born author believed that rational selfishness was the ultimate expression of human nature.

Collectivism,” Rand wrote in Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal “is the tribal premise of primordial savages who, unable to conceive of individual rights, believed that the tribe is a supreme, omnipotent ruler, that it owns the lives of its members and may sacrifice them whenever it pleases.” An objective understanding of “man’s nature and man’s relationship to existence” should inoculate society from the disease of altruistic morality and economic redistribution. Therefore, “one must begin by identifying man’s nature, i.e., those essential characteristics which distinguish him from all other living species.

As Rand further detailed in her book The Virtue of Selfishness, moral values are “genetically dependent” on the way “living entities exist and function.” Because each individual organism is primarily concerned with its own life, she therefore concludes that selfishness is the correct moral value of life. “Its life is the standard of value directing its actions,” Rand wrote, “it acts automatically to further its life and cannot act for its own destruction.” Because of this Rand insists altruism is a pernicious lie that is directly contrary to biological reality. Therefore, the only way to build a good society was to allow human nature, like capitalism, to remain unfettered by the meddling of a false ideology.

“Altruism is incompatible with freedom, with capitalism and with individual rights,” she continued. “One cannot combine the pursuit of happiness with the moral status of a sacrificial animal.” She concludes that this conflict between human nature and the “irrational morality” of altruism is a lethal tension that tears society apart. Her mission was to free humanity from this conflict. Like Marx, she believed that her correct interpretation of how society should be organized would be the ultimate expression of human freedom.

Ayn Rand was wrong about altruism. But how she arrived at this conclusion is revealing both because it shows her thought process and offers a warning to those who would construct their own political philosophy on the back of an assumed human nature. Ironically, given her strong opposition to monarchy and state communism, Rand based her interpretation of human nature on the same premises as these previous systems while adding a crude evolutionary argument in order to connect them.

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Rand assumed, as Hobbes did, that without a centralized authority human life would erupt into a chaos of violence. “Warfare–permanent warfare—is the hallmark of tribal existence,” she wrote in The Return of the Primitive. “Tribes subsist on the edge of starvation, at the mercy of natural disasters, less successfully than herds of animals.” This, she reasoned, is why altruism is so pervasive among indigenous societies; prehistoric groups needed the tribe for protection. She argued that altruism is perpetuated as an ideal among the poor in modern societies for the same reason.

“It is only the inferior men that have collective instincts—because they need them,” Rand wrote in a journal entry dated February 22, 1937. This kind of primitive altruism doesn’t exist in “superior men,” Rand continued, because social instincts serve merely as “the weapon and protection of the inferior.” She later expands on this idea by stating, “We may still be in evolution, as a species, and living side by side with some ‘missing links.’”

Rand’s view that social instincts only exist among “inferior men” should not be dismissed as something she unthinkingly jotted down in a private journal. In two of her subsequent books—For the New Intellectual and Philosophy: Who Needs It?, where it even serves as a chapter heading—Rand quips that scientists may find the “missing link” between humans and animals in those people who fail to utilize their rational selfishness to its full potential. How then does Rand explain the persistence of altruistic morality if human nature is ultimately selfish? By invoking the tabula rasa as an integral feature of human nature in which individuals can advance from inferior to superior upwards along the chain of life.

“Man is born tabula rasa,” Rand wrote in her Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, “all his knowledge is based on and derived from the evidence of his senses. To reach the distinctively human level of cognition, man must conceptualize his perceptual data” (by which she means using logical deductions). This was her solution to the problem of prosocial behavior and altruism among hunter-gatherer societies.

“For instance, when discussing the social instinct—does it matter whether it had existed in the early savages?” Rand asks in her journal on May 9, 1934. “Supposing men were born social (and even that is a question)—does it mean that they have to remain so? If man started as a social animal—isn’t all progress and civilization directed toward making him an individual? Isn’t that the only possible progress? If men are the highest of animals, isn’t man the next step?” Nearly a decade later, on September 6, 1943, she wrote, “The process here, in effect, is this: man is raw material when he is born; nature tells him: ‘Go ahead, create yourself. You can become the lord of existence—if you wish—by understanding your own nature and by acting upon it. Or you can destroy yourself. The choice is yours.’”

While Rand states in Philosophy: Who Needs It? that “I am not a student of the theory of evolution and, therefore, I am neither its supporter nor its opponent,” she immediately goes on to make claims about how evolution functions. “After aeons of physiological development, the evolutionary process altered its course, and the higher stages of development focused primarily on the consciousness of living species, not their bodies” (italics mine). Rand further expands on her (incorrect) views about evolution in her journal:

It is precisely by observing nature that we discover that a living organism endowed with an attribute higher and more complex than the attributes possessed by the organisms below him in nature’s scale shares many functions with these lower organisms. But these functions are modified by his higher attribute and adapted to its function—not the other way around. – Journals of Ayn Rand, July 30, 1945.

One would have to go back to the 18th century (and Aristotle before that) to find a similar interpretation of nature. This concept of “the great chain of being,” brilliantly discussed by the historian Arthur Lovejoy, was the belief that a strict hierarchy exists in the natural world and species advance up nature’s scale as they get closer to God. This is an odd philosophy of nature for an avowed atheist, to say the least, and reflects Rand’s profound misunderstanding of the natural world.

To summarize, then, Rand believed in progressive evolutionary change up the ladder of nature from primitive to advanced. At the “higher stages” of this process (meaning humans) evolution changed course so that members of our species were born with a blank slate, though she provides no evidence to support this. Human beings therefore have no innate “social instincts”–elsewhere she refers to it as a “herd-instinct”–that is, except for “primordial savages” and “inferior men” who could be considered missing links in the scale of nature. Never mind that these two groups are still technically human in her view. Selfishness is the ideal moral value because “superior men” are, by definition, higher up the scale of being.

Logic was essential to Ayn Rand’s political philosophy. “A contradiction cannot exist,” she has John Galt state in Atlas Shrugged. “To arrive at a contradiction is to confess an error in one’s thinking; to maintain a contradiction is to abdicate one’s mind and to evict oneself from the realm of reality.” I couldn’t agree more. However, Rand may have had more personal reasons for her philosophy that can help explain her tortured logic. As she was first developing her political philosophy she mused in her journal about how she arrived at her conclusion that selfishness was a natural moral virtue.

It may be considered strange, and denying my own supremacy of reason, that I start with a set of ideas, then want to study in order to support them, and not vice versa, i.e., not study and derive my ideas from that. But these ideas, to a great extent, are the result of a subconscious instinct, which is a form of unrealized reason. All instincts are reason, essentially, or reason is instincts made conscious. The “unreasonable” instincts are diseased ones. – Journals of Ayn Rand, May 15, 1934.

This can indeed be considered strange. Looking deep within yourself and concluding that your feelings are natural instincts that apply for the entire species isn’t exactly what you would call objective. It is, in fact, the exact opposite of how science operates. However, she continues and illuminates her personal motivations for her ideas.

Some day I’ll find out whether I’m an unusual specimen of humanity in that my instincts and reason are so inseparably one, with the reason ruling the instincts. Am I unusual or merely normal and healthy? Am I trying to impose my own peculiarities as a philosophical system? Am I unusually intelligent or merely unusually honest? I think this last. Unless—honesty is also a form of superior intelligence.

Through a close reading of her fictional characters, and other entries in her journal, it appears that Rand had an intuitive sense that selfishness was natural because that’s how she saw the world. As John Galt said in his final climactic speech, “Since childhood, you have been hiding the guilty secret that you feel no desire to be moral, no desire to seek self-immolation, that you dread and hate your code, but dare not say it even to yourself, that you’re devoid of those moral ‘instincts’ which others profess to feel.”

In Rand’s notes for an earlier, unpublished story she expresses nearly identical sentiments for the main character. “He [Danny Renahan] is born with,” she writes, “the absolute lack of social instinct or herd feeling.”

He does not understand, because he has no organ for understanding, the necessity, meaning or importance of other people. (One instance when it is blessed not to have an organ of understanding.) Other people do not exist for him and he does not understand why they should. He knows himself—and that is enough. Other people have no right, no hold, no interest or influence on him. And this is not affected or chosen—it’s inborn, absolute, it can’t be changed, he has ‘no organ’ to be otherwise. In this respect, he has the true, innate psychology of a Superman. He can never realize and feel ‘other people.’ (That’s what I meant by thoughts as feelings, as part of your nature.) (It is wisdom to be dumb about certain things.)

I believe a strong case could be made that Ayn Rand was projecting her own sense of reality into the mind’s of her fictional protagonists. Does this mean that Rand was a sociopath? Diagnosing people in the past with modern understandings of science has many limitations (testing your hypothesis being chief among them). However, I think it’s clear that Ayn Rand did not have a strongly developed sense of empathy but did have a very high opinion of herself. When seen through this perspective, Rand’s philosophy of “Objectivism” and her belief in “the virtue of selfishness” look very different from how she presented it in her work. When someone’s theory of human nature is based on a sample size of 1 it raises doubts about just how objective they really were.

Update: A point that has been brought up repeatedly is that Ayn Rand used a different definition of altruism than what is standard in biology and so therefore what I wrote is invalid. This is incorrect. To clear up any confusion, Ayn Rand relied on Auguste Comte’s definition from his Catéchisme Positiviste (1852) where he advocates “l’altruisme sur l’égoïsme” (altruism over egoism) because, he writes, “vivre pour autrui fournit le seul moyen de développer librement toute l’existence humaine” (to live for others provides the only means to develop freely throughout human existence). The biological definition of altruism is not only consistent with Comte, it subsumes his definition and makes it testable and, one would think, more objective.

2015 September 21

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  • Δημήτρης

    Bacteria ane viruses die in order to produce new lives. Lions, dogs, horses etc would sacrifice themselves for the benefit of their offsprings or even of their friends of another species (e.g. dogs for thei master). Is this natural selfishness or altruism?

    • Paul May

      Bacteria don’t die; they are immortal. They split to create new ones, but they do not die to do so.

      Viruses weren’t alive to start with.

  • Jukka Aakula

    Animals take care of their children. They are not egoists. The can be hugely collectivist also – like ants and naked mole rat.

  • Kristina

    Great Article! Thank you for Lewontin’s quote! Very useful for my PhD. Keep up the great work!

  • Derryl Hermanutz

    Supposing men were born social (and even that is a question)—does it mean that they have to remain so? If man started as a social animal—isn’t all progress and civilization directed toward making him an individual? Isn’t that the only possible progress? If men are the highest of animals, isn’t man the next step?”

    Like pretty much every political philosopher except John Locke, Rand assumes “man” born fullgrown into the world. Rand believes the man chooses his own nature; others make their own assumptions about the “nature” man is endowed with. All of these are counterfactual fictions.

    Man is born as a helpless infant into a family that takes care of him for many years until he is ready to go into the world on his own. As a man he does not stride naked into “nature”: not unless he chooses to live as a self-sufficient hermit in the woods. He leaves home and tries to find a place for himself in “society”. People are born and raised in a social environment, and would die if they were not taken care of for many years.

    Within modern civilization, the world people are born into is more social and man-made than anything to do with “nature”. What is natural about working in an office in a city? What is natural — what is “individualistic” — about being hired to manage a big collectivist business with hundreds or thousands of employees and annual sales revenues larger than the GDP of most nations? The whole thing is a social construct.

    The great 19th century titans of industry were Robber Barons who manipulated money, corporate stocks, legislation, and government procurement to gain “ownership” of money-profitable industrial infrastructure that was built by the cooperative and coordinated effort of the nation. The capitalist titans built empires of “ownership”. The people of the nation built up the industrial infrastructure with the sweat of their brows.

    Ayn Rand seems unaware of the distinction between extractive activity that transfers ownership to manipulators; and productive activity that builds the things that are owned.

    • No More Neos

      Precisely. So now we’ve seen what this political ideology of Rand, Friedman, Hayek and others has resulted in – a rentier neoliberal capitalism that is killing the host.

  • AJ

    The question isn’t about “should” to begin with, it’s about what human nature “is”.

  • I’ve always thought the best person to discuss this was John Kenneth Galbraith. He believed that humans are motivated to cooperate. For instance a person may dig a ditch to drain a field if (a) they are by coercion made to do it by a beating master or (b) they are given a reward , they do it for pecuniary gain or (c) they see the necessary of draining the ditch, for food production or disease prevention, they identify with the task or (d) they see the benefit of draining the ditch, either for disease prevention or food production.

    • Paul May

      And he’s since been shown to be correct; we are naturally social and altruistic, and it’s why we are so successful–contrary to a large portion of Rand’s teachings.

      • Δημήτρης

        I think we are all three kinds: We are egoists, like all other animals. We try to satisfy our physical needs, to eat, drink, make love etc and to avoid the threat to lose them. We are altruists, trying to satisfy our social needs, including the motive of love and to be recognized by others. Animals are also altruistic. But we are also idealists, trying to satisfy our own purposes. This is not egoism because in order to accomplish our own task we sacrifice our personal natural needs, including our very life (e.g. Socrates, Jesus etc). Idealism does not exist in other animals, because they are not capable of forming purposes; they act only because of causes and not for purposes.

  • Paul May

    Because altruism and social behaviour is why humans are so successful.

    A single man on his own is no more successful than a chimpanzee.

    Humans need society to be as successful as we are, and all humans act in and in response to society–even the most rugged individualist libertarian has used and does use society.

  • Nemerian

    [citation needed] on everything you just said.
    And except snakes, you couldnt have picked worst examples.
    All of those are highly social and hierarchical pack animals.

    And bacteria freely swap around their genes.
    And in biology, viruses are highly debated if they are even alive.

  • Matt Faherty

    I find this article very confusing and difficult to untangle. I think it’s a very elaborate means of missing the point.

    The author says:

    “How then does Rand explain the persistence of altruistic morality if human nature is ultimately selfish? By invoking the tabula rasa as an integral feature of human nature in which individuals can advance from inferior to superior upwards along the chain of life.”

    This is a misunderstanding of Rand. The author is conflating two forms of human nature –
    1. It is man’s nature to be ABLE to make decisions, even bad ones, and
    2. It is man’s nature that he is best off making selfish decisions

    To Rand, it is in the nature of humans to act in one’s own self interest to survive. This is obvious in and of itself. If a person is truly selfless, he will not care about his survival and quickly die. Alternatively, he will live only so long as he is beneficial to others, and then die as soon as he is not. Even if you don’t agree with Rand’s interpretation of the effects of selfless living on man, this is her understanding of human nature.

    However, just because it is the nature of man to act in his own self-interest to survive, that doesn’t mean man is biologically predisposed to only act selfishly. It is also man’s nature to be “Tabula Rasa” (used in a very loose way to mean man doesn’t have prior knowledge), and therefore man has the CHOICE to be selfish or selfless.

    To Rand, being “selfish” or “altruistic” was a conscious choice. It was not the product of biological evolution except insofar as evolution provided man with consciousness which allows him to make that choice. The vast majority of this article seems to be arguing against Rand’s questionable views on evolution, and the author may well be right that Rand had an inaccurate view, I’m not sure. But that has no bearing on Rand’s central point that altruism is a choice.

    One big reoccurring problem is that the author jumps between pre-Fountainhead Rand (when she was just musing about philosophy in her private journal and had nothing close to a coherent philosophical system) and post-Fountainhead Rand (when she encapsulated her philosophy in Atlas Shrugged and set out to write non-fiction). There are not only differences in Rand’s views between those two periods, but difference in how she uses terminology, but the author consistently conflates the two.

    For instance, “Supposing men were born social (and even that is a question)—does it mean that they have to remain so? If man started as a social animal—isn’t all progress and civilization directed toward making him an individual? Isn’t that the only possible progress? If men are the highest of animals, isn’t man the next step?”

    This quote is pre-Fountainhead Rand using “social” in a sloppy way that post-Fountainhead Rand wouldn’t. To later Rand, “social” means cooperative, which is distinctly different, but not mutually exclusive, from “altruistic.” Rand was under no delusion that man can live happily and healthily as a hermit, and living as a hermit is not living “selfishly.”

    One more minor point:

    “To reach the distinctively human level of cognition, man must conceptualize his perceptual data” (by which she means using logical deductions).”

    No, she means logical inductions.

  • Matt Faherty

    It’s also worth noting that using Rand’s private journals as a meaningful source of her philosophy is bizarre and malicious in and of itself. What other philosopher gets that treatment? Does anyone go through Focault, Quine, or Singer’s private journals they wrote as 20 year olds to find parts where they wrote something strange, and then use it to debunk their formalized, official philosophical writings?

  • Matt Faherty

    Why was my long rebuttal deleted?

  • No More Neos

    Why does a tree produce fruit? It does not benefit from the fruit itself, but is created as an offering to the next evolution of species. What has the human species prepared as an offering to the next evolution of beings… besides luxury bunkers, a metaphor for the failure of man to coexist fruitfully with the natural order of things?