I just finished reading Atlas Shrugged and I couldn't help but notice something. Rand speaks out against altruism and uses various people in the book to represent them. The thing is, through Galt's speech and various revelations in the story, it seems as if these people never even legitimately cared for anyone else…. The characters in her story ... just seem like a bunch of vindictive parasites rather than the common definition of an altruist…. Granted, people like this do exist in the world, but they aren't really altruists.
By portraying altruists as “vindictive” parasites, Rand winds up caricaturing the altruistic or humanitarian type. While these individuals may have a vindictive, worm-eaten side to their characters, it would be unfair to paint them all black. Consider how altruism is defined over at altruism.org:
Altruism is a system in which everyone tries to think of others and care for them just as they care for themselves. It has been used since time immemorial within families, close friends and religious communities etc. but has rarely been conceived as applicable on a larger scale. We believe however, that it can represent a more stable, sustainable solution than the money-focused, model of competitive capitalism.
Now there is no reason not to believe that at least some altruists (in the sense of the word provided by altruists.org) are more sincere than not. At least some of these people genuinely wish to do good to others. As Pareto noted, “The intent of sincere humanitarians is to do good to society, just as the intent of the child who kills a bird by too much fondling is to do good to the bird.” Yet despite the best intentions in the world, the altruist, the humanitarian often does more harm than good. How are we to explain this?
We know how Rand explains this. She merely defines altruism in the most extreme way (i.e., “ man has no right to exist for his own sake”), and then attempts to draw the necessary conclusions from her definition. But since few, if any, altruists would actually accept Rand’s definition, her explanation of why altruism/humanitarism often harms the very people it sets out to help seems implausible. Altruists say they wish to help people. Why isn’t it possible for them to succeed in this aim? After all, one can certainly imagine an individual who, in his desire to help others, applies intelligence and the lessons of experience to the task and manages to attain his end. Yet so often we find the altruist, the humanitarian failing miserably to achieve his stated goal.
Those of a more cynical cast of mind explain this odd phenomenon by questioning whether there is such a thing as altruism:
Actually altruism simply does not exist on earth, at least in our present glorious age [wrote H. L. Mencken]. Even the most devoted nun, laboring all her life in the hospitals, is sustained by the promise of a stupendous reward—in brief, billions of centuries of undescribable bliss for a few years of unpleasant but certainly not unendurable drudgery and privation. What passes for altruism among lesser practitioners is even less praiseworthy; in most cases, indeed, it is too obviously selfish and even hoggish. In the case of the American reformer, in his average incarnation, the motive seldom gets beyond a yearning for power, the desire to boss things, the itch to annoy his neighbors. [Minority Report, 114]
Given the refusal by many of our altruistic humanitarians to own up to their failures, there is something to be said for Mencken’s analysis. There is often a self-indulgent, even a narcissistic quality to the altruists’ passion to do good to others. We see this clearly in the refusal of many humanitarians to accept criticism or acknowledge failure. Indeed, many of these people exhibit a kind of priggish self-righteousness that is as distasteful as it is counter-productive. The altruist’s emotional pathologies prevent him from pursuing his objective to help others in a rational way. This being the case, it would seem as if it were these pathologies that are the prime source of the harm caused by humanitarianism, not any abstract theory of altruism, as Rand proposes. Far too many self-professed altruists care more about preserving their inflated view of themselves than they do about the people they imagine they are helping. It is the narcissism, the self-indulgence, the vanity of the humanitarian that leads him astray; not any doctrine of the moral necessity of “self-sacrifice.”