Ayn Rand responds, defensively and antagonistically, to a letter from novelist Robert Spencer Carr by defining “altruism” in terms of two of Spencer Carr’s characters from his novel The Room Beyond.
To Robert Spencer Carr
January 23, 1949
Dear Mr. Carr:
Thank you for your letter. It has answered my philosophical curiosity. I appreciate your taking the time and effort to do it in detail.
I did not think it was possible that anyone would write to me the following paragraph: “In the formal study of ethics (a course for which no attractive woman has ever enrolled), months and years of cruel discipline are required to drill into the average young man’s mushy little monkey-mind this very principle: That an ethical act, to be ethical at all, must be performed with total disregard of the personal profit, loss, praise or blame attached to it.”
That paragraph states exactly the rotten corruption in all the systems of ethics which I am fighting—yet you present it to me as if you intended it to be news, or explanation, or expected me to agree, or—no, I cannot try to guess your intention. In The Fountainhead, I have presented a new system of ethics, the basic principle of which is that an ethical act, in order to be ethical at all, must be performed with the most profound regard for one’s personal interest, that one’s personal profit must be its sole motive and purpose—and that any other act is totally immoral.
The vicious nonsense which you quote from “formal ethics” (?) simply means that man has no personal interest in ethical behavior, that his personal interests are outside the realm of ethics, but that he must perform allegedly ethical acts for some unknown reason which has nothing to do with himself. Sure, that’s your formal ethics. And that’s why they hadn’t worked after centuries of professors mouthing them at mankind. And that’s why men prefer any kind of sin to this sort of ethics. Brother, have you come to the wrong person! I’m the little girl who has set out (and succeeded) to prove that ethics must be based on man’s self-interest and must be based on nothing else.
You say that Howard Roark is an example of “not caring a damn either way what the hell happens to him.” This means that you have concluded that Howard Roark did not care about his actions or their results—that he did not care a damn either way whether he happened to design a modern building or a classical monstrosity—that he refused to design bad buildings out of some sort of selfless devotion to some sort of woozy “truth,” but his real feeling would have permitted him to design them with pleasure—that his real interest lay in a Peter Keating kind of career, but he sacrificed himself—that when he fought for the kind of buildings he liked, it really meant nothing to him, he had no personal interest in his work, he derived no joy from it and no personal profit—he did not care in what way he used his creative energy, nor in what way he spent his time—he did not care about anything at all—he was just a disinterested amoeba, totally indifferent to life, to reality, to thoughts, emotions and actions. If that is what you got out of The Fountainhead, the loss is yours, not mine.
If one approaches writing or thinking with such terms as: “selfish altruist,” then your statements are not surprising. You write: “I’m curious as to how and why your scorching letter, no matter how indignantly intended, turned out to be an altruistic act.” There is no mystery about it at all—just look up the word “altruistic” in the dictionary. “Altruistic” does not mean “kind” or “valuable to others”—which is the way you use the word. “Altruism” means placing others above self—and placing the interests of others above your own. If you keep this in mind, you will, perhaps, feel a little ashamed of such a paragraph as: “These are the real, the selfish altruists, of whom you are one. Evidence? The Fountainhead, a book that has benefited hundreds of thousands of readers, and harmed only a few humbugs who deserved to be exposed.”
Do you call the fact that my book benefited readers “altruistic”? Do you mean that they derived from it greater benefits than I did, spiritual or material? Do you mean that their benefit was achieved at the expense of mine or at the price of some sort of self-sacrifice by me? Do you mean that I wrote it for their sake, not mine? Do you mean that I wrote it for the purpose of benefiting them, with no personal interest involved in the matter? Or do you mean that in order to be selfish, I had to expect my book to harm people—but since it didn’t, this makes me an altruist?
Whom and what are you answering when you tell me: “It is not true that any act which benefits another human being is per se a sickly, hypocritical fraud”? Who said it was? What The Fountainhead said is that only an act of true selfishness motivated by and intended for one’s own benefit can be of any benefit or value to others—and only as a secondary consequence. But any act motivated by “the good of others” is a vicious act. “The good of others” as one’s aim or motive is a vicious motive. The sole and inevitable result of such acts or motives is to destroy both the do-gooder and his victims. Any attempt to act for the “good of others” is a piece of vicious impertinence.
So if my letter or my book benefited you or anyone, it is not paradoxical, and it can surprise nobody except the moralists of the “disinterested” school. My book is of value to people, because my purpose in writing it was my own philosophical interest for my own pleasure. I did not attempt to do good to my readers. I did not attempt to render any sort of service to mankind. I did not consider it my duty to be of value to anyone. I did not think of anyone, only of my subject. I am happy if readers found benefit in my book, but that benefit was not my purpose.
As you see, I expect principles to have specific meanings, applicable to concrete reality and serving as a guide to one’s actions. Therefore, such a statement as dividing people into “truth-loving persons” and “hypocrites” for purposes of philosophical explanation is totally meaningless to me. What truth? What love? What constitutes loving truth? History is full of people who believed what they taught—yet caused the most unspeakable disasters. Robespierre believed completely in his right to guillotine his opponents. Hitler believed in some mystical visions that had appointed him to be the ruler of mankind. Are these the “truth lovers”? Is one’s own blindness a guarantee of one’s virtue? Do you use emotion (“love”) as a standard for a philosophical definition?
These are terms in which I do not deal, nor do I deal with such statements as: “stretching a generality that last fatal notch to 100 percent that invalidates any generality.” What is that? A Sunday supplement version of Hegel?
I made the accusation that Cristina [from Spencer Carr’s The Room Beyond] was the counterpart of Ellsworth Toohey [The Fountainhead’s antagonist, a man who promotes the ideals of ethical altruism in order to destroy his victims]. Your answer is: “Only an initiate can tell the two species apart.” An initiate into what? (The question is rhetorical. I know the answer.) So you say you’re not a mystic? In the realm of rationalism, there is no such term as “an initiate.” It takes no “initiation” to explain anything in rational terms: It takes simple words and common sense. If you wrote a book, in which your readers cannot tell whether your heroine is a saint or a monster without some sort of “initiation” into something, previously to and apart from the content of your book—can you then complain about being “misunderstood”? If you wrote a book in the Tibetan language (which, I think, you did), then offered it to English-speaking readers, and then sighed at people’s lack of understanding, saying nobly that you “forgive” them—do you know the proper English answer to that?
After innumerable passages (in your book) in which you state that Cristina had achieved “total selflessness,” that she “desired nothing for herself,” that her eyes lighted up with interest only when she thought that Dan was sick, so that she could “help him”—you attempt to tell me that he had something in common with Roark—because she, too, had consecrated herself to her work, such work consisting—here, on earth—of washing other people’s infected colons.
I suppose I should point out to you that the thesis of The Fountainhead is not: Do whatever you wish, so long as you believe it. The thesis is: do whatever you wish, so long as you are independent of other men. This thesis rests, for its justification, on man’s nature—you may discover why and how if you care to study Roark’s speech, all the steps of the argument are included there. This thesis cannot be stretched to include those who wish to have its benefits without its base—those who wish to spend their lives in the unnatural perversion of serving others, yet try to claim all the rights pertaining to independence, at the same time.
I shall now have to quote from Roark’s speech: “The first right on earth is the right of the ego. Man’s first duty is to himself. His moral law is never to place his prime goal within the persons of others. His moral obligation is to do what he wishes, provided his wish does not depend primarily upon other men. This includes the whole sphere of his creative faculty, his thinking, his work. But it does not include the sphere of the gangster, the altruist or the dictator.”
The intent of this paragraph was to close the door to all the Cristinas who might attempt to climb on the Roark bandwagon with no better ticket than the alleged happiness they claim to find in self-immolation. Nothing doing, sister!
You say of Cristina: “Of course, her motives were selfish; she was seeking full selfhood.” If you attach any meaning to words, if you made the above clear in your novel, but I missed it—then you should have told me what her “full selfhood” specifically consisted of. In your book, she achieved something which you called happiness somewhere after death. All that she did in life and on earth was to take care of sick children. What specifically, was the connection between her “selfhood” and the sick children? What, specifically, gave her happiness? If her happiness did not consist of the good of the children, what did it consist of? And where? And how?
You say that you can’t understand why I blame Cristina for ruining every life she touched. Perhaps I took your book and your character more seriously than you intended them to be taken. (I did not know, for instance, that you intended your book as a piece of “science fiction.”) I took Cristina to represent an ideal—that is, your version of a human ideal. I did not gather that all the men in your book wanted to sleep with her. I gathered that their longing for her was the spiritual longing for an ideal which they could not reach and which left them dissatisfied with everything else thereafter, so that they never found happiness in any form with any other woman after they had known Cristina. If this was not your intention, then I am wrong, but then your book has no philosophical meaning at all. If Cristina was intended as an ideal, then she does ruin every life she touches, because she is an unattainable ideal. She arouses in men a longing for something which they cannot reach or achieve, which they cannot make part of their action sand their daily lives. This, of course, is the nature of altruism, and I gave you credit for presenting it correctly. Anyone who would hold altruism (living for others) as an ideal, would be condemned to a state of miserable frustration, fear, guilt and inferiority—because the only way to be a complete altruist is to offer yourself as a meal to the first tribe of cannibals you can find. Anything less than that is a way short of the ideal, and leaves one in the position of a weak, imperfect, unhappy sinner.
Why do I blame Cristina for Dan’s unhappiness? Because she was a woman who professed to live for others, because she spent her life relieving the suffering, the physical suffering of children—yet ignored the much greater suffering of Dan and of all the other men who wanted her, a suffering which she herself had caused. I gathered that they wanted her spiritually—they wanted her companionship, her understanding and the love which she had allegedly shown them and then withdrawn. If she was concerned with relieving the suffering of others, then it was her duty to give them what they wanted. And if, as you say, what they wanted was to sleep with her—then, as an altruist, it was her duty to do that, too.
No, Dominique or I do not have to say “Yes” to every man, because Dominique and I are not altruists. We do not consider the suffering or the desires of others as our responsibility or concern. But an altruist would have to say “Yes” to any and every desire of any and every man—and this is just another minor example of the vicious nonsense which is altruism.
You ask: “If you know any kindlier way of turning down a man than gentle laughter, let’s hear it.” The answer is: respect. Take the man seriously and tell him the truth. There can be no such thing as gentle laughter when one laughs at someone’s pain or disappointment.
Do you really want to know why your readers liked Wendra [another of Spencer Carr’s characters, less angelic than Cristina]? You say that she was “a bad, vain, worldly woman trying futilely to buy love and happiness.” You forgot a very important point: she did not try to buy love, she actually loved. She loved one man all her life. Any person capable of doing that is neither bad nor vain. The capacity for a love of this kind comes from a very deep, very noble and very selfish quality of the spirit. Some of your readers would not, perhaps, be able to explain it to you or give you their reasons, but they all know it. They know that Wendra knew more about love than Cristina ever could. Cristina, who—as you said repeatedly in your book—loved everybody, actually loved nobody at all, not even herself.
I strongly suspect that the real difference between you and me is that I did take your book more seriously than you intended. When you write a story in which the heroine vanishes through a shimmering film of air into the fourth dimension, and then returns, walking on a light ray—when you are then accused of being a mystic and answer that you are not, because you once got a letter from Einstein who does not write to mystics—I cannot take it any way except as humor.