“Justice, Cherryl.”

Selfishness and altruism are positively correlated within individuals, for the obvious reason.



An unfortunate obstacle to appreciating the work of Ayn Rand (as someone who adores the “sense of life” portrayed in Rand’s fiction, while having a much lower opinion of her philosophy) is that when Rand praises selfishness and condemns altruism, she’s using the words “selfishness” and “altruism” in her own idiosyncratic ideological sense that doesn’t match how most people would use those words.

It’s true that Rand’s heroes are relatively selfish in the sense of being primarily concerned with their own lives, rather than their effects on others. But if you look at what the characters do (rather than the words they say), Rand’s villains are also selfish in a conventional sense, using guile and political maneuvering to acquire power and line their own pockets, while claiming to be acting for the common good. For example, in Atlas Shrugged, the various directives ostensibly issued for the economic health of the country are seen to instead benefit politically connected crony capitalists like James Taggart and Orren Boyle. In Think Twice, the philanthropist Walter Breckenridge cultivates a public image as an inventor and benefactor of humanity while stealing credit for his junior partner’s work and deriving gratification from exerting power over the people he “helps”.

Despite paying lip service to a pretense of only trading and never giving, we also see examples of Rand’s heroes being altruistic in the conventional sense, of being motivated to help others. For example, in Atlas Shrugged, Hank Rearden rearranges his production schedule (at a critical time when he could scarcely afford to do so) in order to sell steel to a Mr. Ward, who needs the steel to save his family business (but doesn’t see Rearden as obligated to help him). Rearden’s motive is pure benevolence: “It’s so much for him, thought Rearden, and so little for me!” Giving What We Can couldn’t have chosen a better slogan.

Overall, when I look at the universe portrayed in Rand’s fiction, it seems to me that the implied moral isn’t that altruism is bad.

It’s that altruists don’t exist. The people claiming to be altruists are lying. The distinguishing feature of our heroes isn’t, actually, that they’re unusually selfish. It’s that they’re honest about being mostly selfish, and that they want to pursue their interests within a framework of rights that respects that other people are also trying to pursue their interests. “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,” goes the motto of the striking heroes of Atlas Shrugged (emphasis mine); the second clause is important. Given that everyone is mostly selfish and everyone has to eat, the question is: are you going to eat by means of production and trade, or by—other means?

That’s the distinction between Rand’s heroes and villains. The heroes want to get rich by means of doing genuinely good work that other people will have a genuine self-interest in paying for. The villains want to wield power by means of psychological manipulation, guilt-tripping and blackmailing the people who can do good work into serving their own parasites and destroyers.

As Greg Hastings, the district attorney in Think Twice, puts it: “[T]he man who admits that he cares for money is all right. He’s usually worth the money he makes. He won’t kill for it. He doesn’t have to. But watch out for the man who yells too loudly how much he scorns money. Watch out particularly for the one who yells that others must scorn it. He’s after something much worse than money.”

Furthermore, the heroes know that wealth and fame acquired by fraud obviously “don’t count.” In The Fountainhead, Peter Keating’s outwardly successful architecture career has been a sham: he social-engineered his way into partnership in his firm, and all of his best work was plagiarized from the hero, Howard Roark. The turning point for Keating’s character is when he asks Roark to let him plagiarize his work one last time, for the Cortlandt housing project, which Roark would never be allowed to work on for political reasons. Keating finally realizes that fraudulent “success” in the eyes of others is no success at all:

“You’ll get everything society can give a man. You’ll keep all the money. You’ll take any fame or honor anyone might want to grant. You’ll accept such gratitude as the tenants might feel. And I—I’ll take what nobody can give a man, except himself. I will have built Cortlandt.” [said Roark.]

“You’re getting more than I am, Howard.”

In summary, the ultimate sin in Rand’s moral universe isn’t giving charity. (Because, within the ideology, helping those others whom you want to help, is selfish.) What’s evil is demanding charity, claiming the unearned, expecting other people to work for your benefit because you supposedly need them to.


Something people have occasionally noticed about my intellectual style is that I like to win arguments. I take pride and pleasure in pointing out flaws in other people’s work in the anticipation of the audience appreciating how clever I am for finding the hole in someone’s reasoning.

The people pointing out this fact about me generally seem to think it’s a bad thing. They tell me that I should be more charitable to the viewpoints of others, that I ought to be doing collaborative truth-seeking.

It’s true, of course, that there’s a terrible danger in wanting to win arguments. Once your conclusion has been determined, coming up with more arguments for it can’t make you more correct, even if it can help you “win” a debate. Learning something entails changing your mind, which people are often reluctant to do because it amounts to “losing”.

A useful heuristic for overcoming this bias against being willing to “lose” arguments is to take heed of a “principle of charity”, of taking the strongest and most rational interpretation of others’ words. The person you’re arguing against is trying to do what they think is right. If you end up disagreeing with them, it shouldn’t be because they’re stupid and evil; your theory about why the other person is getting the wrong answer shouldn’t make them look that bad. If it does, that’s a sign that you haven’t really understood their point of view and therefore can’t claim to have justly refuted it.

From the standpoint of ideal epistemology, however, the “principle of charity” is not a principle, and the idea of “charity” itself is irrelevant or incoherent. Normatively, theories are preferred to the quantitative extent that they are simple and predict the observed data. There is no concept of a theory “belonging to” someone, or favoring someone’s interests.

For contingent evolutionary-psychological reasons, humans are innately biased to prefer “their own” ideas, and in that context, a “principle of charity” can be useful as a corrective heuristic—but the corrective heuristic only works by colliding the non-normative bias with a fairness instinct, effectively playing the bias against itself: you wouldn’t like it if someone dismissed “your” ideas without understanding why they appeal to you, goes the thought, so you should extend the same consideration to others.

Normatively, of course, this is nonsense. You should update on an interlocutor’s arguments for the same reason that a scientist working alone would update on the results of an experiment: because (and to the extent that) the result conveys information about reality. We would not speak of being charitable to an experimental apparatus. The scientist is not doing their lab equipment a favor.

Because the principle of charity is merely a corrective heuristic for the bias of arbitrarily favoring “one’s own” ideas, it correspondingly only makes sense to apply in one direction—as a corrective for one’s own thoughts. I tell myself to make a special effort to look for reasons why I might be wrong and my interlocutor is right because, knowing what I do about human nature, I selfishly expect to thereby achieve more accurate beliefs than I would in the absence of the special effort. It’s a workaround, a mitigation for a known bug in human cognition; it makes sense whether or not the other person reciprocates, and whether or not I’m particularly trying to collaborate with them.

On the other hand, when someone who is currently trying to persuade me of something tells me that it doesn’t look I’m making enough effort to think of reasons why they’re right, that immediately makes me think they’re more likely to be wrong. Why? Because I think that if they had an argument, they would be telling me the argument, not chastising my lack of charity. The advice to be on special lookout for reasons your interlocutor is right is good in general, but your interlocutor is the last person to be trusted to give it, because (due to the warp in human psychology) they have an ulterior motive.

Overall, when I look at the world of discourse I see, the moral I draw is not that that collaborative truth-seeking is bad.

It’s that collaborative truth-seeking doesn’t exist. The people claiming to be collaborative truth-seekers are lying. Given that everyone wants to be seen as right, the question is: are you going to try to be seen as right by means of providing valid evidence and reasoning, or by—other means?

Or to put it another way: the commenter who admits they care for status is all right. They’re usually worth the status they earn. They won’t lie for it. They don’t have to. But watch out for the commenter who yells too loudly how much they scorn status. Watch out particularly for the one who yells that others must scorn it. They’re after something much worse than status.

Furthermore, I know that “winning” a debate via sophistry and rhetorical tricks obviously “doesn’t count.” Maybe I could fool an undiscriminating audience, but I would know it wasn’t real.

Sometimes I want people to understand some specific truth (out of the vast space of possible truths to pay attention to), for selfish reasons of my own. In these cases, I’m happy to do the work of explaining to put it on the shared map. When someone asks me questions about my work, I don’t regard it as an attack, because I expect to be able to answer them—and if I can’t, that’s my problem.

I will never ask my interlocutors to be more charitable to me. I will often say “That’s not what I meant”, or “That’s not a reasonable interpretation of the text I published”—but that’s a claim about what I mean, or a claim about the text; it’s not a claim on them. I don’t expect people to listen to me because I supposedly need them to.


My favorite scene in Atlas Shrugged is the one where Cherryl Taggart (née Brooks) goes to see Dagny Taggart after discovering the truth about her marriage. Cherryl had married Dagny’s brother James thinking that he was the intrepid industrialist responsible for the success of the Taggart Transcontinental railroad, only to later find out that James is a phony political actor who took credit for Dagny’s accomplishments after the fact, despite having opposed her initiatives and made her work more difficult.

(“I married Jim because I … I thought that he was you,” Cherryl tells Dagny. There is some very beautiful slash fanfiction that needs to be written picking up from that line, which is out of scope for this blog post.)

Cherryl intends only to briefly apologize to Dagny for earlier insulting remarks, not to make any further imposition—and is surprised when Dagny not only forgives her, but seems to take a genuine interest in her welfare. It’s worth quoting at length:

“You’ve had a terrible time, haven’t you?” [said Dagny.]

“Yes … but that doesn’t matter … that’s my own problem … and my own fault.”

“I don’t think it was your own fault.”

Cherryl did not answer, then said suddenly, desperately, “Look … what I don’t want is charity.”

“Jim must have told you—and it’s true—that I never engage in charity.”

“Yes, he did … But what I mean is—”

“I know what you mean.”

“But there’s no reason why you should have to feel concern for me … I didn’t come here to complain and … and load another burden on your shoulders. … That I happen to suffer, doesn’t give me a claim on you.”

“No, it doesn’t. But that you value all the things I value, does.”

“You mean … if you want to talk to me, it’s not alms? Not just because you feel sorry for me?”

“I feel terribly sorry for you, Cherryl, and I’d like to help you—not because you suffer, but because you haven’t deserved to suffer.”

“You mean, you wouldn’t be kind to anything weak or whining or rotten about me? Only to whatever you see in me that’s good?”

“Of course.”

Cherryl did not move her head, but she looked as if it were lifted—as if some bracing current were relaxing her features into that rare look which combines pain and dignity.

“It’s not alms, Cherryl. Don’t be afraid to speak to me.”


“You know, Miss Tag—Dagny,” she said softly, in wonder, “you’re not as I expected you to be at all. … They, Jim and his friends, they said you were hard and cold and unfeeling.”

“But it’s true, Cherryl, I am, in the sense they mean—only have they ever told you in just what sense they mean it?”

“No. They never do. They only sneer at me when I ask them what they mean by anything … about anything. What did they mean about you?”

“Whenever anyone accuses some person of being ‘unfeeling’, he means that that person is just. He means that that person has no causeless emotions and will not grant him a feeling which he does not deserve. He means that ‘to feel’ is to go against reason, against moral values, against reality. He means … What’s the matter?” she asked, seeing the abnormal intensity of the girl’s face.

“It’s … it’s something I’ve tried so hard to understand … for such a long time. …”

“Well, observe that you never hear that accusation in defense of innocence, but always in defense of guilt. You never hear it said by a good person about those who fail to do him justice. But you always hear it said by a rotter about those who treat him as a rotter, those who don’t feel any sympathy for the evil he’s committed or for the pain he suffers as a consequence. Well, it’s true—that is what I do not feel. But those who feel it, feel nothing for any quality of human greatness, for any person or action that deserves admiration, approval, esteem. These are the things I feel. You’ll find that it’s one or the other. Those who grant sympathy to guilt, grant none to innocence. Ask yourself which, of the two, are the unfeeling persons. And then you’ll see what motive is the opposite of charity.”

“What?” she whispered.