Ayn Rand and altruism


Jason Collins


October 4, 2012

While I find the occasional Ayn Rand (or Ayn Rand fan) bashing amusing, critics of Rand typically mis-characterise her writings (as many of her ardent fans also do). A Slate article by Eric Michael Johnson continues this tradition, where Johnson sets Rand up as the representative of selfish individualists against the altruists of hunter-gather tribes.

Johnson’s altruistic case study is the Mbuti hunters of the Congo:

The Mbuti employed long nets of twined liana bark to catch their prey, sometimes stretching the nets for 300 feet. Once the nets were hung, women and children began shouting, yelling, and beating the ground to frighten animals toward the trap. As Turnbull came to understand, Mbuti hunts were collective efforts in which each hunter’s success belonged to everybody else. But one man, a rugged individualist named Cephu, had other ideas. When no one was looking, Cephu slipped away to set up his own net in front of the others. “In this way he caught the first of the animals fleeing from the beaters,” explained Turnbull in his book The Forest People, “but he had not been able to retreat before he was discovered.” …

Faced with banishment, a punishment nearly equivalent to a death sentence, Cephu relented. “He apologized profusely,” Turnbull wrote, “and said that in any case he would hand over all the meat.” … Cephu was bound to support the tribe whether he chose to or not.

The “altruistic” behaviour of the Mbuti in conducting their hunt is only one example of wider altruism in hunter-gatherer societies. In research by Christopher Boehm, he found that sharing and cooperation are the most commonly named moral values in these societies.

Johnson contrasts this tribal collectivism with Ayn Rand’s worship of the individual:

“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.”

The problem with the dichotomy set up by Johnson is that, at least as it relates to his Mbuti example, he has it backwards. Rand rails against people who did not pull their weight and who loot rather than relying on their own productive efforts. In Johnson’s example, it was Cephu who was the looter who sought to take advantage of the hard work of others. If someone turned up in John Galt’s town and sought to skim off the rewards of his effort, Galt would withdraw his cooperation with them. And that is the beauty of the picture painted by Johnson - the association was voluntary (it may not classify as euvoluntary, however). Cephu was offered the choice to stay and cooperate, or he could leave. Tribe members are free to cooperate with each other and reap the rewards of that cooperation as they see fit.

Of course, Rand’s philosophy was not to ignore others. If helping them or providing them services is valued by you, go ahead and do it. The heroes of Atlas Shrugged did not seek to become self-sufficient. They sought to succeed by providing goods and services valued by others. Dagney Taggart’s trains ran on steel provided by Hank Reardon. Hank Reardon used coal provided by Ken Dannager. The gains from specialisation and trade make it in your interest to care about the welfare of others.

If Rand makes an error, it may be her understanding of primordial savages. She saw the tribe as dominating the lives of its members, when it is closer to a cooperative pact. Johnson’s story also suggests that Rand may have been too pessimistic. Rand saw a world where the looters were winning, where second-class talent prospered at the expense of the truly talented and where the wealthy maintain their wealth through political patronage. In contrast, Johnson paints a picture of the looter getting his due, so at least in this small part of the world, Rand’s nightmare has not come true.

Johnson goes as far as noting the benefits that come from “altruistic” behaviour (hence my use of inverted commas around “altruism” during this post). Gossip is a primary form of communication within tribes. Reputations rapidly spread and those with bad reputations can be quickly marginalised. Further, altruistic behaviour is a signal to the opposite sex as it may be a reliable signal of your quality. Is something still altruistic when it allows the continued propagation of your genes?