When I started to research Objectivism, I was very excited. Ayn Rand’s philosophy seemed to be founded on axioms that are very similar to mine — namely the axiom of existence in the form of “existence exists” from which Rand derives life as the ultimate value (from Wikipedia):
According to Rand, “it is only the concept of ‘Life’ that makes the concept of ‘Value’ possible,” and, “the fact that a living entity is, determines what it ought to do.” She writes: “there is only one fundamental alternative in the universe: existence or non-existence—and it pertains to a single class of entities: to living organisms. The existence of inanimate matter is unconditional, the existence of life is not: it depends on a specific course of action… It is only a living organism that faces a constant alternative: the issue of life or death…” The survival of the organism is the ultimate value to which all of the organism’s activities are aimed, the end served by all of its lesser values.
She continues to argue as following:
As with any other organism, human survival cannot be achieved randomly. The requirements of man’s life first must be discovered and then consciously adhered to by means of principles. This is why human beings require a science of ethics. The purpose of a moral code, Rand held, is to provide the principles by reference to which man can achieve the values his survival requires. Rand summarizes:
“If [man] chooses to live, a rational ethics will tell him what principles of action are required to implement his choice. If he does not choose to live, nature will take its course. Reality confronts a man with a great many ‘must’s,’ but all of them are conditional: the formula of realistic necessity is: ‘you must, if -’ and the if stands for man’s choice: ‘if you want to achieve a certain goal’”
So far so good. However, it is the next step that leads her to advocate selfishness in achieving the goal of existence where she loses me. In this context I would like to put forward the following key quotes of hers to illustrate the Objectivist perspective.:
“Man knows that he has to be right. To be wrong in action means danger to his life. To be wrong in person - to be evil - means to be unfit for existence.” (source)
“I swear — by my life and my love of it — that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.” — John Galt, Atlas Shrugged
It is not surprising that since these postulates contradict my own concepts of morality as well as the centrality of compassion in it, I was keen to disprove selfishness as virtue using a third party, an ‘independent’ concept if you will. Well, meet the Price equation and how it applies to the evolution of altruism.
In this context altruism is defined as the genetic predisposition to any behavior which decreases individual fitness while increasing the average fitness of the group to which the individual belongs. Or in other words: a group with sufficient altruists will out-compete a group of egoists.
A similar example would be kin selection; and without wanting to get into too much details J.B.S. Haldane had full grasp of the basic quantities and considerations that play a role in kin selection when he famously said that:
“I would lay down my life for two brothers or eight cousins”
However you slice it, the question remains how the Objectivist ideal of selfishness as a virtue holds up against these insights in evolutionary dynamics? In short: it doesn’t. Egoists can only exist as parasites in groups of altruists—period. Fully selfish groups would be out-competed over the course of evolution because they are simply “unfit for existence” to use Rand’s own words.
Valentin Turchin probably put it best when he wrote:
“Let us think about the results of following different ethical teachings in the evolving universe. [...] No one can act against the laws of nature. Thus, ethical teachings which contradict the plan of evolution [...] will be erased from the memory of the world. [...] Thus, only those [ethical] teachings which promote realization of the plan of evolution have a chance of success.” — Valentin Turchin, The Phenomenon of Science, Ethics and Evolution
Sorry folks — the math says Objectivist Ethics is not one of them.