...whether we are fair [to others] and pay back our debts stems more from automatic feelings than from reason. We can always justify why we don't have to pay back just yet, but we can't help feeling grateful. More important, we are wired in such a way that our gratitude can be misdirected, leading us to repay our debts to the wrong person. The danger of this, of course, is that if we're feeling grateful, we're liable to help anyone who requests it. In fact, it an be quite adaptive if it doesn't happen too often, as it encourages people to take the chance on a stranger with whom they might end up having a mutually beneficial relationship. In short, it's kind of like paying it forward, driven by emotion.
Still, this fact also makes us vulnerable to ploys of others. Think about it. When is the best time to ask someone for a favor or for money? When they're feeling grateful (even if it's to someone else). Ever wonder why sometimes those charities asking for donations stick a dollar in the envelope or give you a "gift" of stamps or stickers that you never asked for? As the results of our experiments suggest, these tactics work. So the next time you're feeling grateful and you're tempted to do someone a favor, take a minute to stop and think about whether or not the person asking you for the favor is someone who really deserves it.
That said, most of the time gratitude serves a bigger and more important function in life than just upholding quid pro quo. Gratitude doesn't only help us reap favors, acquire resources, or build wealth. It builds something that may be even more valuable over the long haul: loyalty and trust. [Out of Character, 163-164]
Although Rand may have been very concerned with how feelings of obligation might be exploited by individuals to manipulate others, her orientation is so driven by narrow ideological concerns that she misses all the important nuances of the situation. Moreover, her denial of innate propensities causes her to naively believe that most important social problems can be solved (or at least severely mitigated) by persuading individuals to accept rational premises. But since these innate propensities do in fact exist and do in fact exercise an influence on many, if not most, individuals, trying to resolve or cure them by propagating so-called "rational" premises is a waste of time. Innate propensities cannot be managed wisely if one refuses to acknowledge their existence.
Apologists for Rand are often quick to remind us that the founder of Objectivism is not responsible for her followers. Yet there is contradiction at the heart of this reminder. Rand insisted that individuals were the product of their premises. Their emotions, their aesthetic responses, their very personalities were mere expressions of whatever premises they had accepted, either through focused thought or unfocused irresponsibility. Rand further insisted that only she advocated the the right and proper premises. Her premises, if accepted, should lead to rational, efficacious behavior. Furthermore, Rand also insisted that only she had the right arguments for these "rational" premises; that most other arguments would only lead people to accept contrary premises. Now if Rand were correct about these assertions, one would expect to find a high level of rationality and efficacious behavior among those who accepted Rand's arguments and premises. But this is not what we do in fact find. Even among the Objectivist elite (i.e., those in whom we would expect to find the strongest evidence of the benefits of Rand's premises) we often find an astonishing degree of irrationality and counter-productive behavior. As one example, consider Leonard Peikoff's behavior during the McCaskey fiasco. One can hardly imagine a more blatant example of sheer irrationality than the admissions Peikoff made in a couple of emails detailing his disdain for McCaskey's scholarly objections to Harriman's regrettable treatise. Peikoff reveals himself as an individual beset by many of the worst propensities in human nature. Acceptance of Objectivist premises hardly helped in his case. If anything, they seemed to have made him worse.
So we are confronted with a basic contradiction: either Rand is wrong about the beneficial nature of Objectivist premises; or she is wrong to assume that human character, including human propensities, are entirely the product of such premises. Rand might, of course, be wrong on both accounts; but she can only be right, if she is right at all, on one. If human beings are the product of their premises and Objectivist premises are good, we should find this borne out in the behavior of actual Objectivists. This we do not find. Nor is it just Leonard Peikoff. According even to orthodox sources, nearly all the original Objectivists (i.e., those in Rand's inner circle), at some point became "corrupted." Leonard Peikoff claims this happened because these individuals lost interest in ideas. But why should this have happened? Hadn't these individuals, by Rand's own judgment, accepted Objectivism? And shouldn't this acceptance have led to emotional propensities which would have favored maintaining an interest in ideas? It simply makes no sense. If Rand was right, most of the Objectivists in her inner circle should not have eventually become "corrupted" (i.e., ceased to remain orthodox Objectivists in good standing with Rand).
The most plausible explanation for these anomalies is that Rand is wrong on all counts. Human beings are not the product of their premises. Therefore, getting them to "accept" the "proper" premises is useless. Regardless of whatever speculative allegiances an individual may entertain, the innate propensities influencing his judgment and behavior remain. They will shift and color his speculative allegiances in ways that Rand never anticipated. This consideration brings us back to the issue of gratitude and its absence among the explicitly promoted Objectivist virtues. Many people are turned off by Rand's insistence on the "virtue of selfishness." It is assumed, by Rand's apologists, that such people are influenced by altruistic premises absorbed from the prevailing culture. Yet this is not a very plausible explanation. Many of the very same people who are uncomfortable with Rand's emphasis on selfishness would be equally uncomfortable with the view that human beings must live unconditionally for others. In any case, one rarely hears appeals to the extreme kind of altruism advocated by Auguste Comte and denounced by Rand. Discomfort with selfishness, far from being motivated by an allegiance to extreme forms of altruism, is more commonly rooted in a mistrust of unconditional self-seeking. People notice that encouraging selfishness, far from leading to more rational and benevolent behavior, often leads, instead, to irrational, anti-social behavior. It matters little whether we insist that selfishness must be "rational" and "enlightened." Very few human beings are capable of such rationality and enlightenment. (For those who entertain any doubts on this score, see Pareto's Mind and Society, or any well-researched tome on behavioral economics.) Since the cognitive unconscious plays a much larger role in cognition and even decision-making then most people realize, even individuals sincerely committed to "rational" self-interest can easily be led astray. Those who, following Rand, deny the existence of innate propensities, have a vested interest in repressing whatever innate propensities may be influencing their own conduct. Repression sabotages, if not prevents, any attempt to deal with these innate propensities in a rational and wise manner. Instead, the repressive individual merely begins to concoct rationalizations which he uses to explain the contradiction between his innate proclivities and his speculative allegiances. Denying human nature merely leads to rationalization and casuistry on a grand scale.
Experience, if followed wisely, counsels that it is better to emphasize social virtues such as gratitude and empathy, rather than merely personal virtues such as pride and ambition. Human beings tend to be rather biased toward their interests and concerns. Worse, they are often not even consciously aware of these biases. Many people spend a great deal of time constructing narratives which justify both their behavior and their self-esteem. The human being, far from being a "rational" animal, could more accurately be described as a rationalizing animal. In other words, there is often no reason to encourage pride, ambition, and self-esteem, since the desire for these things is built in. But social virtues are not built-in to the same extent. Gratitude is often tied to short-term feelings which wax and wane and which do not have a specific target. Hence it may prove the wiser course to emphasize grateful behavior, rather than merely grateful feelings. And it won't do at all to merely emphasize virtues such as pride, self-esteem, or even justice and honesty. Trust is built, not on speculative commitments to a specific virtue, but on actual behavior; and behavior that exhibits gratitude is more likely to build trust than is the mere "acceptance" of the premise of honesty. Despite all the virtuous noise Objectivists make about honesty, they don't seem particularly honest in their philosophy or in their scholarship. Some of the things Rand wrote about Kant, Hume, Bertrand Russell, and Emerson can hardly qualify as honest. Objectivists seem to be driven to write and say dishonest things about philosophers and critics they don't like because they place far too much emphasis on virtues such as pride and self-esteem (which only serve to exacerbate tendencies toward pretension and self-aggrandizement) while ignoring virtues such as gratitude, empathy, and kindness toward others (which would render them less prone to judge everyone who disagrees with them so uncharitably).