My Own Pie

Libertarian Thoughts from Renaissance Guy

The Value of People

with 4 comments

     I heard Ayn Rand, the forumlator of Objectivism, talk about the concept of sacrifice soon after her husband died.  Someone mentioned that she had “sacrificed” for him during his illness.  “Not at all,” she replied.  “If you love somebody, then it is not a sacrifice to support and assist them.”

     Many people misunderstand Rand’s views on sacrifice.  She made it clear many times that she was against both altruism and the sacrfices that stem from it, but it is important that people understand how she used those terms.  Rand was, after all, a human being.  She had the capacity to love others, and felt the need to be loved.  When she eschewed altruism and praised selfishness, it was not in the context of loving family and friends, it was in the context of totalitarian governments taking people’s property and freedom and even their lives for “the good of the state.”

     A necessary component for Rand in her disdain for and rejection of sacrifice was the component of compulsion.  Rand thought of altruism as the requirement that one give to other people or to one’s country against one’s will.  She thought of sacrifice as giving up something of greater value for something of lesser value, especially because you are told that it is your duty.   On the other hand, Rand explained, when she took care of her husband, she traded something of lesser value (her own comfort and convenience) for something of greater value (the husband whom she loved).  To Rand, such a trade was not a sacrifice.

     Suppose for instance that you had a colleague at work who was in need, and you decided to give him your entire paycheck to help him out.  Then suppose you had nothing left to buy groceries for your own children or to pay the rent on your family’s apartment or to put gas in the car to continue going to work.  In that case you sacrificed something of lesser value (your loyalty to your colleague) for something of greater value (the welfare of your family for whom you are immediately responsible).  You did it out of altruism, as Rand defined it; that is, you did it because somebody had convinced you that to be a good person you had to help your colleague, even if it cost your own family food to eat and a home to live in and future financial security.

     People have told me that Christianity is incompatible with Objectivism, because Christianity extols love for other people and self-sacrifice.  I disagree.  For one thing, Chrisitianity encourages people to love and help others as a voluntary choice.  Nobody is forced to give up anything, unless they themselves see it as the right thing to do–and something that they sincerely want to do.

     Jesus taught that we should value other people.  We should value them at least as much as we value ourselves.  Once we place a high value on people, then it is not a sacrifice to give something up for them.  Once we see greater value in giving than in withholding, it is easy to give.  However, the New Testament strongly enjoins people to provide for their families; therefore, a Christian should never feel compelled to give to others to the detriment of his own children, spouse, parents, or other family members. 

     If my colleague at work has a financial need, and I have money in savings that I was going use on a fishing boat, then it is no sacrifice for me to give him some of that money.  It will not cause my children to go hungry or to get evicted from their home.  If I sincerely value my colleague as a fellow human being in need, then I am exchanging something of lesser value (getting my fishing boat soon) for something of greater value (my colleague for whom I feel compassion).  Rand would not have called it a sacrifice, as long as I were truly happy doing it and felt no compulsion to do it.

     Jesus gave us reasons to give to others.  He promised that if we give, God will give to us.  He also talked about the joy we experience when we give to others.  Even the knowledge that we are pleasing God is a benefit that we gain from giving to those in need.  You might even say that from a Christian perspective it is selfish to be generous, since we gain by giving.  (A higher virtue is to give without expectation of getting anything back, but the promise of a return is still there, and the joy of giving is still inevitable.)

     Jesus gained by giving.  When He died on the cross, it was because he loved us and wanted to redeem us.  The Bible says that Jesus endured the agony of the cross because of the joy that was set before Him in providing salvation for us.  He gave up a lesser value (his own ease and comfort) for what was to Him a greater value (restoring fallen humanity).  In the Randian sense, it was no sacrifice.  But as the Bible defines sacrifice, giving something we would usually want for something that we have grown to want even more, it was.


Written by ambrosianideas

January 16, 2010 at 2:59 pm

4 Responses

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  1. Are you sure Rand was only talking about government forced altruism? That doesn’t seem to be the conventional view on her position. My problems with Rand are less about what she believed then errors in her philosophical system. Objectivism as a philosophy doesn’t hold up logically — it’s a belief system, but one which rests on nothing but its own base assumptions. Second, she (like Marx) rests on a primarily materialist ontology, while I have a more spiritual view of life. Like Marxism, I see her views as a kind of secular religion — something one can believe in and interpret the world through if they wish, but non-believers have no clear evidence or logical rationale to accept her ideas as valid.

    Scott Erb

    January 16, 2010 at 11:47 pm

  2. It’s been a very long time since I read any of Rand’s books. But I also didn’t have the impression that it was only altruism forced by the government which she opposed. I thought she also objected to religion teaching people to feel they had a moral obligation to be altruistic, even if no one was forcing them.

    With sacrifice defined as you indicate, RG, it makes sense – everyone does in fact act according to what they consider their self-interest, although it may be long-term self-interest which causes pain to oneself in the short-term. That was what troubled me, reading Rand’s writings, that there did not seem to be any room for doing things purely out of love for God, as I was taught in church was the highest ideal. But I had to admit that I did in fact act as she said, because if I did what I believed God wanted, I was also doing what was in my self-interest because I wanted God to be pleased with me.


    January 18, 2010 at 12:41 am

  3. I was not clear apparently. My statement about Rand’s context was not meant to be absolutely exclusive. If you read Rand’s books, you can see that she believed very strongly in love for one’s family and friends. That was my point. She was not an isolationist. She did not live solely for herself.

    It is my own analysis to say that she operated in the contex of opposing totalitarian governments. Her biography tells me that, as well as her non-fiction books and her speeches lead me to reach that conclusion.

    That is not to say that it was only altruism toward a state that she opposed. She also opposed blind devotion to family or friends. I was only trying to say that one has to accurately understand her terms to grasp her position on sacrifice. Some people mistakenly think that she (and other Objectionists) Were or are incapable of feeling love or compassion or of doing kind deeds for others.

    Scott, every philosophical system rests on its base assumptions. What else could it rest on?

    True, Objectivism is materialistic. I don’t embrace that aspect of it. However, just about everything else about it rings true to me.


    January 18, 2010 at 12:08 pm

  4. Yes, I agree that there is nothing in Rand that says you can’t choose to help those you love. And I agree she opposed, for good reason, totalitarian governments. I do think she had a problem with Christian charity, due in part to her heavily materialist ontology.

    I think the sentence that you wrote “I don’t embrace that aspect of it” differentiates you from some objectivists I’ve encountered. Some treat it as a secular religion, and believe that the philosophical system is self-evidently true, arising from first principles. Like Marxists, those objectivists tend to be dogmatic. But you recognize it as a philosophical system, some of which you reject, other parts of which “ring true.” And there, I agree — there are many aspects of Rand’s work which are inspirational and ring true to me too, especially in terms of taking responsibility for ones’ own life.

    The thinkers I’ve been drawn to lately are William James and Walter Lippmann.

    Scott Erb

    January 18, 2010 at 2:25 pm

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