March 2001 -- A writer suffering from clinical depression finds relief from Prozac. Realizing how profoundly the drug's inventor has affected her life, she sets out to find him. But she is disappointed when she finally tracks down Bryan Molloy, a scientist at Eli Lilly. "How does it make you feel, I asked, to know that you have helped people? . . . 'I just wanted to do it for the intellectual high,' he said. 'It looked like scientific fun.' Reality is rarely what we imagine. Great and noble things do not always happen for great and noble reasons."
The story is a perfect illustration of what's wrong with altruism as a moral code. Bryan Molloy helped create a drug that millions have used to flee the dark nights of their souls. For the altruist mindset, however, the fact that he aimed only to satisfy his own curiosity makes the benefits to others irrelevant and his achievement unworthy of praise.
This blind spot springs from the assumption that the basic moral choice we face in life is self versus others. It is an ancient assumption. Conventional moral codes were forged in a pre-industrial era, when most people lived in societies based on ties of family and tribe. Producing food and other goods was largely a matter of routine, with little scope for the exercise of thought and imagination and little prospect of increasing output. Since the pool of wealth was more or less fixed, the key question was how to distribute it. Living in close dependence on their fellows, people survived the hard times by sharing, and at all times feared that the strong and rapacious would take more than their share. In the circumstances, it was not implausible to regard sacrifice, compassion, and mutual support, at least within the tribe, as important virtues.
With the Industrial Revolution and the emergence of complex economies, however, two facts have become blindingly obvious. The first is that production is not a routine task; the scope for employing man's highest powers of creativity, daring, and commitment is unlimited. The second is that wealth is not a fixed quantity; it can be expanded continuously through invention, trade, and investment; one person's success does not come at the expense of others, as long they cooperate and trade with each other freely. These facts may not have been obvious at the dawn of civilization. Now they are.
Economists have understood them for over two centuries, but moralists have not caught up. At a time when human intelligence is transforming the world at an accelerating pace, creating wealth on a scale undreamt of in human history, people still operate with the moral perspective of tribes eking out their existence.
Altruism is a demand-side ethic, based on the view that the distribution of goods is the fundamental issue in ethics and that the needy have first claim on goods. In defending egoism, Ayn Rand did not merely defend a new standard for the beneficiary of one's actions. She completely recast the framework of debate by denying that distribution is the fundamental issue.
Rand was the first thinker, to my knowledge, who proposed a genuine supply-side ethic. She recognized that achievement, not suffering, is the central fact of human existence. She honored the act of creating value above the act of giving it away. Pride of place in her moral code went to the virtues that make achievement possible--rationality, courage, productiveness, pride--rather than the virtues of benevolence to others. She was impatient with the altruists' obsession about whether a person is acting for himself or others. People have a right to live for themselves, and a creator has a right to the value he creates; that's a matter of justice. Still, when people are free to create, one person's gain does not come at another's expense; everyone benefits. But it is the act of achievement, from which those benefits flow, that deserves our highest moral honor.
Imagine how different things would have been in a culture that valued achievement rather than sacrifice. To dramatize the difference, I once compared Michael Milken with Mother Teresa (on John Stossel's program "Greed"). Mother Teresa is the emblem of altruism: raising money for the poor and sharing their plight. She has a saintly aura not because of her works, strictly speaking--other philanthropists have done more--but because she is seen as deliberately sacrificing herself. She has cut corners at times, strong-arming donors and making deals with corrupt governments, but these flaws are easily excused as excesses of a noble soul.
This article was originally published in the March 2001 issue of Navigator magazine, The Atlas Society precursor to The New Individualist.
David Kelley earned his Ph.D. in philosophy from Princeton University in 1975, and later taught cognitive science and philosophy at Vassar College and Brandeis University. His articles on social issues and public policy have appeared in Harpers, The Sciences, Reason, Harvard Business Review, The Freeman, and elsewhere. His books include Unrugged Individualism: The Selfish Basis of Benevolence; The Contested Legacy of Ayn Rand; The Evidence of the Senses, and The Art of Reasoning, one of the most widely used logic textbooks in the country. Kelley is founder and executive director of The Atlas Society.
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