Misunderstanding Ayn Rand

This article was printed in our newspaper today by Michael Gerson: Ayn Rand’s adult-onset adolescence

The article touches on quite a few things, but I really wanted to comment on one thing, because it shows that Gerson might need to check his premises. He writes:

Rand developed this philosophy at the length of Tolstoy, with the intellectual pretensions of Hegel, but it can be summarized on a napkin. Reason is everything. Religion is a fraud. Selfishness is a virtue. Altruism is a crime against human excellence. Self-sacrifice is weakness. Weakness is contemptible.

First of all, anything can be summarized on a napkin, given that the reader understands the terms involved. But then we have to argue about semantics. What is “reason”? What is “selfishness”? What is “altruism”? What is “self-sacrifice”? I think most readers just take these terms at face value, which leads them to completely misinterpret Rand. For example, if you jump in front of a bullet to save a loved one, many would call that self-sacrifice. But if you love the person, then it’s not actually self-sacrifice, it’s an act of selfishness. Ayn Rand has nothing against you jumping in front of bullets or donating loads of money to charity, etc, if you’re doing it out of your own self-interest. And you can’t truly call yourself compassionate if you’re not doing it out of your own self-interest.

So, a little further down, Gerson writes:

If Objectivism seems familiar, it is because most people know it under another name: adolescence. Many of us experienced a few unfortunate years of invincible self-involvement, testing moral boundaries and prone to stormy egotism and hero worship. Usually one grows out of it, eventually discovering that the quality of our lives is tied to the benefit of others.

Yeah, see that last sentence? Read it again and think about it. You should see Gerson’s misunderstanding pretty easily. If the quality of your life is tied to the benefit of others, then helping them is a selfish endeavor. I guess Gerson agrees with Ayn Rand after all!