Objectivist Virtues and Compassion. The six primary Objectivist virtues are: rationality, honesty, integrity, productivity, pride, and justice. What is perhaps most interesting about this list is not the virtues that are included but those that are omitted. There is nothing about compassion, kindness, empathy, consideration for others, avoidance of cruelty, charity, good manners, etiquette or any of the so-called "social" virtues. This is not to suggest that Rand was opposed to these virtues, or regarded them as vices. She regarded charity, for example, as a "minor" virtue, and she was always eager to insist that altruism could not be equated with consideration for others. However, it is clear that these social virtues are not at the center of the Objectivist ethics, but are regarded by that system as lesser virtues which, when used as a facade for altruism, can easily become vicious.
Now recent psychological research has brought to light some interesting features of human nature in relation to compassion and cruelty:
A growing body of evidence suggests that an important factor underlying whether we show someone compassion or cruelty is the person's perceived similarity to us. It should take little introspection to realize we feel the pain of those with whom we seem to share some commonalities. Countless studies have demonstrated that we not only consistently show more compassion to those we deem "like us." ...
These psychological mechanisms were at work ... for the people who came out in droves to help the victims of 9/11, Katrina, and the Haitian earthquake -- the crises shifted their focus away from all their squabbles and differences and onto their shared identity as human beings. But once the worst was over and they slipped back into their "us/them" mentality, their compassion swiftly abated. It only takes a quick glance at the headlines to see that most conflicts -- be they national, political, religious, or personal -- often come down to this very simple and automatic "like us"/"not like us" split. [Out of Character, 127-128]
Among the many things this research suggests is that there exists within most human beings innate propensities in conflict with acquired propensities. In above example, the innate propensity involves a preference for people "like us," while the acquired propensity involves the belief that we shouldn't prefer individuals who are like us to individuals who are not, and that people should be judged on the content of their character and/or their accomplishments rather than their similarity to ourselves.
Now because Objectivism denies the existence of innate propensities, it has difficulty explaining the above conflict. On the one hand we find a prevailing meme in society that everyone should be treated equally and that is wrong to be prejudiced against people merely because they are different from us; and on the other, we frequently find people lapsing into behavior that contradicts this meme. If the propensities of human beings were merely the product of premises imbibed by the culture around them, as Objectivism assumes, how come we find continue to find propensities that go against the dominant cultural trends of the age? And why do we constantly come across examples of a conflict or contradiction between behavior on the one side and thought on the other?
The view that propensities are innate, but that people can act against them is far superior at explaining these contradictions between behavior and thought than anything found by or concocted through Objectivism. If these propensities are a vestige of the more animalistic side of our nature, which appears to be the case, then we would expect these animalistic vestiges to sometimes conflict with the more "rational" sides of our nature. Rand appears to have believed in a sharp division between human beings and all other animals. Animals, Rand suggested, have instincts; man is without instincts. Yet given that man is an animal and therefore (at least on non-theistic premises) must be a product of evolution, it is difficult to accept this belief. All the relevant evidence strongly testifies against the Randian view. Human beings from many different cultures still share a variety of propensities, even when their specific culture inveighs against them. The human being is clearly an animal, sharing the same organs and much of the same DNA with his furrier, four-legged brethren. Why would human beings share many of the same desires of animals, such as thirst, hunger, sex, yet not instincts? All social animals (human beings included) engage in status rivalries. The notion that such status-competition is an acquired propensity via the acceptance of some philosophical premise is just not plausible. If other social animals engage in status-competitions and if man is a social animal, the likelihood is man shares the same innate drive for preeminence that exists in animals, just as he shares a large percentage of his DNA with these very same critters.
Now if, as is likely, human beings are predisposed to treat people like themselves with more charity and compassion than people different from themselves, then one might argue that the non-instinctive, rational side of human nature should be called into action to mitigate whatever problems or issues arise as a result of this propensity. This is precisely where Rand's blank slate view of human nature demonstrates its lack of wisdom. The denial of innate propensities leads to the denial that countermeasures may be needed to mitigate the bad effects of the predisposition. Moral systems place compassion, charity, and kindness as primary virtues precisely because people are not always inclined to treat those who are different from themselves with compassion and charity. In light of this, Rand's failure to include any of the preeminent social values in her Objectivist catalogue of virtues, combined with her tendency to allow her fervent denunciations of altruism to create an aura of distrust for compassion and charity, demonstrates the degree which Rand simply didn't understand human nature or the moral needs of human beings living in a civilized social order.