A Note to Readers: I’ve made the decision to make my latest post into a multi-part series exploring both my understanding of Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism and why I struggle with publicly calling myself an Objectivist—primarily because of Dr. Yaron Brook and the Ayn Rand Institute distorting important aspects of her philosophy. This is part three of a five-part series. Read parts one and two.
The reason Yaron Brook has offended me so deeply, and has engendered this enormous, multi-part rant, is because of his position within the “Objectivist community.” To outsiders, he’s seen as an official leader, a man eminently qualified to talk about Objectivism and frame current events through an Objectivist prism. Objectivism is not a cult, and disagreements occur all the time. One of the virtues of a philosophy that puts primacy on the individual, rather than the collective, is that there can be polite disagreement without animosity. Minor disagreements don’t have to explode into an exaggerated “Us Vs. Them” persecution complex. Philosophy lays out certain general concepts and fundamentals; the specifics are subject to individual passion, interest, thought, and understanding. (And nothing makes me laugh more than Peikoff telling the story of the guy who dyed his hair orange to look like Howard Roark, because he thought that would make him be more of an Objectivist.)
There are dumb Objectivists out there, claiming to speak for the cause without the same authority of Brook. If Brook were someone like Bosch Fawstin (who generally cohosts Amy Peikoff’s awful podcast, Don’t Let It Go… Unheard, and is also possibly the dumbest Objectivist on the planet), his comments on charity wouldn’t bother me. He would just be some guy, claiming to be an Objectivist, with a not-very-bright, poorly-thought-out interpretation of charity based on a mangling of Ayn Rand’s own statements on the subject. Brook isn’t just “some guy”; he’s a finance Ph.D who revels in economic theory and foreign policy, not to mention President and Executive Director of a nonprofit that has Ayn Rand’s name pasted onto it. Brook, unlike Fawstin, has the appearance of authority to outsiders—the appearance of speaking for all Objectivists, of representing the views all Objectivists have, or at least “should” have. But he’s wrong.
Here is the exact, full quote from Ayn Rand (in a 1964 Playboy interview), which Brook mangles: “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.”
I absolutely agree with this, and I wish I could believe what Brook did when he referred to charity in an Objectivist Utopia as “minor” was just a slip of the tongue, and not completely missing what Ayn Rand means when she calls it a “marginal issue.” It’s a marginal issue because, to Rand, it’s neither inherently wrong and evil to help others (as long as you aren’t sacrificing yourself to do it)—any more than it’s inherently right and good to help others. It’s a matter of personal choice, not something that should be product of a societal or theological guilt trip—or outright rejected, because fuck other people!
Brook also revises Rand’s quote to shift charity from “I don’t not consider it a major virtue” to “Charity is not a moral virtue.” There is a significant chasm between “not a major/primary virtue” and “not a moral virtue.” It’s also telling that Rand goes from first-person opinion—“I do not consider it…”—to a more general, “This is a component of the philosophy” explanation about when it’s proper to give to charity, why an Objectivist would give to charity, and how the idea of charity has been conflated with altruism and transformed into a primary moral duty. This is very, very different from how Brook interprets it, and his thoughts on the subject are entirely based on his misunderstanding.
I often see conservatives and Objectivists—including Brook—shitting on Bill Gates. They have this perception that he abandoned some sort of quasi-Objectivist principles in order to—blech!—give away his fortune to people who don’t deserve it. This view disgusts me. It’s a bizarre form of reality denial to try to assert that an openly Catholic, Seattle-raised billionaire wouldn’t have liberal—if not far-left—leanings likely incompatible with Objectivism. Enormous business success and a belief in social obligation are not mutually exclusive (though it often seems to confuse ARI members).
I don’t personally agree with the morality and ethics of social “obligation,” but it’s irrational to conclude that Gates is either a Judas or susceptible to a major guilt trip, as if no other explanation could resolve the “contradiction” between the richest man in the world and his desire to help solve the great problems of the world, and his desire to encourage other wealthy people to do the same (via the Giving Pledge he founded with Warren Buffett, which in 2010 Brook described as “the Guilt Pledge”). I also think it’s counter to the principles of Objectivism to shit all over people for personal choices—or, worse, to make up reasons for those choices and then condemn them on the basis of your fevered imagination—instead of…well, not giving a shit. Objectivism is supposed to be about the primacy of the individual. Individuals make different choices, perhaps choices I would disagree with, but unless they’re harming other people, I don’t consider it my right, duty, or desire to condemn them for it. (The closest I’ll come is to quietly thinking they’re an idiot.)
Don’t accuse me of denying reality by creating a fictitious scenario, but consider this: pretend we live in an Objectivist Utopia, where everyone is rational and honest and fair and passionate. Laissez-faire capitalism is the economic system, the government has absolutely no relationship to or power over economic affairs, and things are humming along pretty well. In this world, let’s say a man spends twenty years working his ass off, building a business from nothing into something ubiquitous, and becoming the richest man in the world in the process. After twenty years, he thinks, “I’ve achieved every business goal I’ve ever had, and I’ve amassed such a vast fortune that I can spend the rest of my life pursuing other goals.” He could do literally whatever he wants at this point, because even if he bought a fleet of solid-gold jets and a neighborhood of solid-gold houses, he’ll never spend all the money he has. So he has two compatible desires: “I want new goals” and “I want new challenges.”
In short, he wants a new business. He considers something that would earn him an even larger fortune, but he can’t find anything that appeals to him—nothing he’s passionate about. So, he looks around at the world and thinks, “I want to eradicate HIV off the face of the Earth, the way other diseases have been eradicated in the past.” That, to him, is a fascinating challenge, and it’s something he’s passionate about. But it’s not profitable—at least, not in the traditional sense of trading value for cash. To completely eliminate HIV would cost billions—though luckily, he has them to spare. If he pulled a Jonas Salk and says whatever vaccines are developed should be given away for free, because he has the fortune to do even that without it hurting him or his family’s wealth…well, he’ll never earn back that money. It’s no longer an investment; it’s philanthropy.
If this man didn’t have the money to spare and didn’t desire the intellectual, financial, and logistical challenge of solving this problem, that would be altruism. If he feels guilty about having so much money and wants to “give back” (that’s usually what conservatives say about Gates), even if he has the money to give, that would be altruism. This might be too hard-line for non-Objectivists, but it’s really quite clear: in Objectivism, there are right reasons to give money, and there are wrong reasons. I don’t care if it’s a quarter to a bum on the sidewalk or fifty billion dollars to eliminate HIV. It’s right or wrong, and a rational person needs to evaluate the broader context to determine, as Rand says, “if and when they are worthy of the help and if you can afford to help them.” If you can’t, don’t; there’s nothing evil about that. If you can, shit… Also don’t, if you don’t want to. It’s not my decision; it’s yours. If you have billions you want to give away to get rid of HIV, go for it. Who am I to criticize you? Who am I to say you’re irrational? I can very, very easily see many acts of philanthropy—even huge ones that take on global problems at great expense—of being completely rational and self-interested.
There is nothing in Objectivist philosophy that is incompatible with philanthropy. Rand herself puts it in a pretty nice nutshell above. The problem is not with charity in and of itself; the problem is with the prevailing attitudes toward charity. Like so many facets of Objectivism, she’s reshaping Aristotelian concepts for the modern world and seeking to eliminate the popular religious notion that sacrifice is the key to happiness. This isn’t strictly a Christian idea; most religions favor sacrifice as a path toward happiness and salvation. Many of them, of course, rook you by framing what’s actually self-interest as self-sacrifice: give away everything, and you’ll get a greater reward in the next life (or afterlife), I promise. So ultimately, the reason for “doing good,” as they would call it, is just as self-interested as anything Ayn Rand suggests; the only difference is that they’re doing it for a cosmic reward that will never come, which is completely irrational.
Because Brook can’t outright say there’s something wrong with charity—because he knows Rand would disagree—he instead makes a negative judgment on “most Objectivists,” who “are doing it out of a sense of altruism, a sense of obligation.” He offers no support for this belief, which makes it, at best, an opinion stated as fact, and at worst, an imaginary conjecture (much like the suppositions on Bill Gates’s philanthropy above) established as an easy straw man to dismantle.
It’s an ironic presentation of an argument against charity, because in effect he’s saying, “You Objectivists are only giving to charity out of guilt—but you’re wrong, so you should feel guilty about that.” Some people think Objectivism is anti-guilt; in actuality, it’s anti-unearned guilt, meaning a person shouldn’t accept guilt trips from others for doing nothing wrong. Earned guilt would be murdering a spouse who cheated on you: an immoral, irrational action that you should feel badly about and be punished for, even if it’s only by your own mind. By saying most Objectivists give to charity out of a sense of altruism, he is implying they make immoral, irrational actions—and thus, they should feel guilt. And they should absolve by donating, instead, to the Ayn Rand Institute.
Holy shit, guys. In addition to being flat-out wrong about charity, in addition to making up a reason that Objectivists must be giving to charity instead of just chalking it up to a plausibly rational personal decision, in addition to making every Objectivist (especially me) sound like an asshole, Yaron Brook sounds like a fucking priest on the pulpit. Only instead of preaching the Catholic tenets of self-sacrifice by saying, “You should donate everything you can to Catholic charities—but make sure you save the most for us here at your church,” he’s framing it in a slightly more Objectivist, “charity is not a major virtue or moral duty” sort of way by saying, in effect, “You should stop donating to those other places and only donate to us—and Leonard Peikoff, the Pope of Objectivism, agrees!”
What the fuck, Yaron Brook?
And to say, in a free-market/Objectivist world, “charity would be a minor, tiny little thing, because we’d all be so wealthy,” is batshit crazy. One of the reasons the majority of the populous grew to hate laissez-faire capitalism in the late nineteenth century is for the simple reason that not everyone will get rich by it. The sad fact is, human beings are inherently unequal when it comes to the requirements of self-sufficience. Some are stronger than others, some smarter, some more creative, some more resilient, some more compassionate… But the virtue of capitalism, in a pure, unrigged form, is that it equalizes the freedom to take advantage of everything the world has to offer. John D. Rockefeller forsook an education to go to work and support his family, because he was the son of a shiftless con artist and an uneducated mother. Bill Gates was the son of upper-middle-class parents who could afford to send him to elite private schools and Harvard. Both became the richest man in the world.
That is the beauty of capitalism. It doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from, what advantages or disadvantages you began with. The problem with our country now is that the system is rigged, and it has been for a hundred years. That has led the notion of “equality” to evolve from “the freedom to pursue any opportunity that makes you happy” to “the level playing field.” The level playing field is as unfair and rigged as the current system. Taking from those who have to give to those who don’t, under the guise of equalizing opportunity, is immoral and heinous. It is not compatible with freedom. The more Americans give in to this notion that the solution to an increasingly unfair system is to increase the opportunities for unfairness is absolute lunacy. Limiting the freedom of those who have more than I do in order to increase my freedom is not a solution to anything. Freedom is freedom. The government is the one that rigged this system; why would anyone think the government should be responsible for correcting the rigging?
Coming Up in Part IV: A description of how the Objectivist Utopia might function, based on Ayn Rand’s writing. Also: was Yaron Brook full of shit when he claimed, in such a Utopia, “we’d all be so wealthy” (emphasis mine)?