They say that for libertarians it usually starts with Ayn Rand, but for me it
didn’t. This makes for some interesting conversations because when people find
out that I lean libertarian they typically assume I’m intimately familiar with
Rand’s work, which I’m not. To this day I’ve only read one and a half of her
books, and they weren’t The Fountainhead or Atlas Shrugged.
Nonetheless I’m acquianted with the essential thrust of her philosophy. I’ve
read the writings of various Objectivists along with critiques of
Objectvism. And I have to say that while I find the hardline Randroids boring,
humorless, pedantic, cold, and a little cultish – it’s their committed opponents
that I find actually scary.
Rand has the strange ability to make otherwise levelheaded people freak the fuck
out. I once had an uncle, on seeing that I was reading one of her books, launch
into an angry tirade about how she was a hack author, a bad philosopher, and a
horrible person. I guess he was afraid she might influence me.
But it’s in debates over altruism vs. rational self-interest where things get
really frightening. Whenever the subject comes up in a public forum a few
hardline andi-Rand types crawl out of the woodwork and start talking about all
the terrible things people would do if they acted solely out of
self-interest. And they always lose me at this point because what they describe
as self-interest sounds to me like the interests of a psychopath.
Almost every human being is born with an instinctual empathy for other
creatures. A toddler will cry at the sight of an animal in pain, exhibiting
sympathy for a creature that isn’t even in the same species as herself. My 1
year old son picks up his toys and gives them to anyone nearby, with a big smile
on his face. His instinct is to be happy when giving things to other people; he
hasn’t learned to grasp them “selfishly” to himself yet.
I myself and driven by a complex mix of motives. Some of them are to satisfy my
basic physical urges – to eat, to fuck. Some of them – in fact, perhaps the
majority – are to satisfy my essential human urge to make the people around me
happier. Spending time with my kids fills me with more joy than just about
anything else. Bringing in money to give my family the things they want gives
me a sense of worth. Leaving a hefty tip for a waitress I may never see again
still adds to my happiness, because I empathise with the happiness she will
experience when she cleans up the table.
Notice that I am not even getting into the argument that rational self-interest
is about doing nice things to others so that they will do nice things to you.
I’m saying that regardless of what others do for me, one of the basic
satisfactions of my life on earth – even more than acquiring wealth and power –
is making other people happy. And I think that most people are born with this
So when one of these vehement opponents of self-interest comes along and
declares that in a world of rational self-interest, every person would steal,
cheat, rape, and murder to whatever extent he or she could get away with it
scott-free, I begin to wonder: what planet is this person from? Is he deriving
his picture of self-interest from what he sees as his own personal
self-interest? And if so– are my doors locked?
We have a term for people who can’t empathise with other human creatures. We
call them psychopaths or sociopaths. They are often cruel to animals and
younger children while growing up. They simply don’t feel a pang in the heart
that most of their peers would feel when causing pain to another creature.
Without intervention they may grow up to be criminals.
I can see two possibilities. Either the people scandalised at the thought of
self-interest are sociopaths and cannot imagine others except in terms of their
own pathology; or they are profound cynics who believe everyone besides themself
is a sociopath. Which is really the same thing because either way they’ve lost
their ability to see fellow creatures as “another me” and instead see them as
Which is why I’m more afraid of the anti-self-interest crowd than the
doctrinaire Objectivists. The latter may be irritating. But people who
honestly believe that we are all inherently depraved and are held back only by
stolid adherence to a moral code and/or threat of punishment have a tendency to
snap and/or start Inquisitions.