Joseph Shapiro-Rand

The meaning, purpose and value of one’s life seem to be arbitrary and relative labels. In class we discussed the relativism of morality based on varying principles that are accepted in different societies. We have seen how one’s actions are judged based on whether or not they fit those principles. But the purpose of life and the fundamental principles of morality are still uncertain even within one’s own culture. According to Ayn Rand, if the purpose of life is existence, then individuals should base their actions on preserving and maximizing the full potential of one’s life (81).  Rand argues that the high praise that has been given to altruism is wrong and that it forces individuals to put others before themselves, ultimately harming their own well-being.  Rand devalues altruism as the sole standard of assessing one’s morality. Altruism, as defined by Merriam-Webster, is the “feelings and behavior that show a desire to help other people and a lack of selfishness” (Merriam Webster).

Robert Kurzban, an Associate Professor at the University of Pennsylvania concurs in concurrence with Rand, expresses one reason why altruism should not be equated to morality.  Kurzban argues that  “donating $1 million to terrorists would seem to be ‘moral’ if one uses this definition” of acting in ways that benefit others (Kurzban). Although an extreme example, Kurzban’s point is that we should not base morality solely on seemingly selfless behavior and charitable donations. Ultimately, the point is that morality is not universally defined and therefore, it we should not use one factor to define it.  Rand is right in rejecting altruistic morality as the absolute definition of morality, but she is wrong in her total denial of its importance.

Rand writes that a doctrine which “gives you, as an ideal, the role of a sacrificial animal seeking slaughter on the altars of others, is giving you death as a standard” (81).Rand’s belief that if altruism is used as the sole standard of morality, then individuals are forced forfeit all sense of self-interest and are driving themselves to an early grave. Does Rand truly believe that charitable donations, volunteer work or simple favors for friends are detrimental to our own well-being or our longevity? Although self-sacrifice may push individuals away from purely selfish motives, it doesn’t mean that people forfeit fully compromise their happiness to the point of suffering. Rand uses extreme cases of self-sacrifice to illustrate her point, but she fails to recognize that individuals often make sacrifices only up to a certain point. For example, when non-profit organizations such as schools, religious congregations or charities seek the support of individuals, people do not usually give more money or time then they can afford. Rand says that man “exists for his own sake, and the achievement of his own happiness is his highest moral purpose” (81).

Rand’s argument that we are torturing ourselves if we are held to a standard that demands self-sacrifice, also fails to see that the foundations of society cannot function without it. For example, it is a necessary component of the workplace from sports teams to Fortune 500 companies  For some, helping to improve the lives of others brings them enough satisfaction to make them feel happy themselves.  If we do only what we deem best for our sole benefit, then we may find it difficult to prosper. Conversely, if we never attend to our own wants and needs, we may be jeopardizing our health, our relationships and our lives. Moreover, sometimes helping others to achieve certain goals is actually is beneficial to us as well. If Rand fails to recognize the importance of self-sacrifice then she fails to see how self-interest and self-sacrifice go hand in hand in establishing happiness.

Works Cited

“Altruism.” Merriam-Webster. Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 14 Sept. 2014.

Kurzban, Robert. “Defining Morality and Altruism | Evolutionary Psychology Blog.” Defining Morality and Altruism. Ian Pitchford and Robert M. Young;, 20 Oct. 2010. Web. 14 Sept. 2014.

Rand, Ayn. “A Defense of Ethical Egoism.” Atlas Shrugged (1959): 79-85. Blackboard. Web. 14 Sept. 2014.


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