ARCHN's chapter on Rand's morality thoroughly explores its various fallacies, especially Nyquist's thoughtfully argued sub-chapter on altruism. However, perhaps the most clearcut example of the highly unrealistic nature of her ethics occurs in her "The Ethics of Emergencies", in The Virtue Of Selfishness.
"The Ethics of Emergencies" comes as standard with the usual Randian features, such the opening arguments from intimidation, wiggy, evidence-free psychological speculations, and the retro-fitting of standard terms, such as "sacrifice", with entirely opposite meanings to the usual ones (Rand often reminds me of something someone once said about Gertrude Stein: "she doesn't seem to know what words mean"). And as always, she maintains her habit of saying something on one page, and then taking it back on the next.
But despite this typical thicket, we can eventually struggle through to find Rand stating an interesting and original ethical position, and stating it clearly.
She takes what she calls the "altruist's favourite example: the issue of saving a drowning person." She then recommends the following:
"If the person to be saved is a stranger, it is morally proper to save him only if the risk to one's own life is minimal; when the danger is great, it would be immoral to attempt it; only a lack of self esteem could permit one to value one's life no higher than that of any random stranger." (emphasis DB)
That's right. If you endanger your life to save a stranger, you are immoral. Not just immoral, but psychologically damaged, in that you lack self-esteem.
Now, let’s try to imagine just such a situation, but in a world where almost everyone has adopted Rand’s moral code. A lone young girl is swept out to sea on a dangerous surf beach. The crowd stands by, doing nothing, as they have too much self-esteem to risk their own life for the young girl, who is after all a ‘random stranger.’ A man plunges in after her. Both nearly drown in the attempted rescue, but eventually after a great struggle he brings the both of them into shore alive. They both lie exhausted, gasping on the beach. Eventually he lifts his head only to be greeted by grim faces and contemptuous stares from the surrounding crowd. One woman eventually speaks, voice brimming with emotion: “That was the most immoral thing I’ve ever seen. You ought to be ashamed of yourself.” The crowd nod fiercely, and turn away in frank disgust.
Or alternately: as the girl is swept out to sea, a man walks to the edge of the churning surf. As she cries for help, he stands there, assessing the situation. Then, having decided it’s just too dangerous, he steps back, and returns to his towel by the shore. A wave of spontaneous applause breaks out among the beachgoers, in appreciation of a truly moral act; a woman says to her young son, “Look at that man just did. I hope you grow up to be just like him.”
While this seems absurd, it is actually perfectly consistent with her general stance of the morality of only acting in your own self-interest. Clearly then, by Objectivist standards, people such as lifeguards, or firefighters, are not heroic as they are usually considered, but pursuing fundamentally immoral professions due to their "lack of self-esteem". But of course, while they repeat her rhetoric, Objectivists stop well short of actually living by it. Having just watched Oliver Stone's "World Trade Centre", where two trapped policemen are rescued by Marines (one a committed Christian) at considerable risk to their own lives, I wondered where the ARI's fierce condemnations of the "immorality" these and other voluntary actions on Sept 11 were.
Because absurd as this seems, this is just what Rand is advocating.