Altruism and Selfishness

THE FIRST PIECE OF MORAL advice that parents used to give their children was contained in the Golden Rule: Do as you would be done by. Christian parents backed this up with the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jewish parents with the commandment to “love thy neighbor as thyself,” enlightened parents with their own version of the Categorical Imperative. It all seemed very simple. After all, what is morality about if it is not about living with others? And how can you live with others if you don’t treat them as equals?

Two powerful influences have disturbed that old equilibrium. The first is the gospel of selfishness, preached by Ayn Rand. Don’t listen to that socialist claptrap, Rand told us. It is just a ploy of the parasitical, to curtail the freedom of the heroes, and to seize their goods. Rand’s fiery mixture of free market economics and Nietzschean defiance proved intoxicating to a generation struggling to come to terms with the New Deal and the growth of the welfare state. By announcing “the virtue of selfishness,” she reminded her readers that creation comes before distribution, and that creation needs a motive. And what motive will drive people to take the risks required by wealth creation, unless it be self-interest?

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