Mike Kueber's Blog

April 27, 2010

Ayn Rand’s self-esteem vs. Mitt Romney’s altruism

Filed under: Issues,Politics — Mike Kueber @ 5:03 am

The word “altruism” was coined by Auguste Comte, a 19th-century French philosopher who believed that individuals have a moral obligation to renounce self-interest and live for others.  Although I have always believed in altruism, my recent readings of Ayn Rand, a 20th-century Russian-American philosopher, have caused me to question that belief.

In her book, Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand (speaking through her alter ego, Dagny Taggart) says:

  • “I swear – by my life and my love of it – that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.”  

This philosophy seems extreme and reminds me of Gordon Gekko’s famous comment, “Greed is good.”  More typical in America is the following paraphrased comment by Presidential candidate Mitt Romney in his book, No Apology, while describing the reasons for America’s greatness:   

  • Americans are a religious people.  And even if they aren’t religious, they believe in a purpose greater than themselves, such as their family, community, or country.  They aren’t hedonists, except for those few who want to legalize marijuana. 

Can the philosophies of Rand and Romney be reconciled or are they mortal enemies?

Although some components of their philosophies are diametric opposites (Rand was an unabashed atheist who thought that altruism was an evil moral philosophy whereas Romney is a devout Mormon who believes in self-sacrifice), Rand and Romney share an unshakeable belief in laissez-faire capitalism, individual liberty, and productivity.  In Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand tells the story of an economy that collapses under the weight of a bunch of capitalists who decide that “doing good” or “doing the right thing” is more important than their companies’ bottom line.  In No Apology, Mitt Romney makes clear that “doing good” cannot come at the expense of being productive:

  • “[T]he importance of productivity transcends ideology.  Whether you are interested in spending more on benefits or you want to add to defense, achieving your objective depends on the nation’s productivity.”

Thus, both Rand and Romney believe, as did Calvin Coolidge, that “the chief business of the America people is business.”  It is not clear, however, whether they agree on governmental altruism. 

Rand’s philosophy on altruism is clear – i.e., she regarded it as immoral and evil.  Although her philosophy allows for individual kindness and good will, she strongly believed that no individual should feel obligated to help others:

  • “Do not hide behind such superficialities as whether you should or should not give a dime to a beggar. That is not the issue. The issue is whether you do or do not have the right to exist without giving him that dime. The issue is whether you must keep buying your life, dime by dime, from any beggar who might choose to approach you. The issue is whether the need of others is the first mortgage on your life and the moral purpose of your existence. The issue is whether man is to be regarded as a sacrificial animal. Any man of self-esteem will answer: ‘No.’ Altruism says: ‘Yes.’”

Because of Rand’s unwavering opposition to individual altruism, she felt even stronger that the government should not act altruistically.  Instead, she saw the role of government as limited to protecting our national security and maintaining law & order.  The uncertainty with Romney’s philosophy is whether, because of his belief that Americans are a Christian, altruistic people, he might feel it is appropriate to adopt public policies that are consistent with that altruism, especially if he thinks that non-Christian hedonists are not doing their fair share of altruism.  Romney’s book suggests that he agrees with Ayn Rand on limited government, but I suspect his fervent altruism and political pragmatism would cause him to act like Bush-41, who raised taxes despite his “read my lips” pledge.  “Not that there’s anything wrong with that.”


  1. […] the philosophy of Ayn Rand, who often disparages altruism.  In fact, more than a year ago I posted an entry to my blog that contrasted Ayn Rand’s self-esteem with Mitt Romney’s […]

    Pingback by Sunday Book Review #34 – Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life by Karen Armstrong « Mike Kueber's Blog — June 11, 2011 @ 5:19 am | Reply

  2. […] of my favorite philosophers, Ayn Rand, has written extensively in opposition to altruism, and I have adopted one of her pithy anti-altruism sayings on the […]

    Pingback by Sunday Book Review #159 – The Most Good You Can Do by Peter Singer | Mike Kueber's Blog — May 17, 2015 @ 1:45 am | Reply

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