What is the standard of value in this or that ethical system? Is it some transcendent immaterial ideal? A personal God? The community at large? One’s self? According to Ayn Rand, “The objectivist ethics” which she promotes “holds man’s life as the standard of value—and his own life as the ethical purpose of every individual man” (The Virtue of Selfishness, Signet, 1964, p. 27). Rand goes on to unpack what she means by standard and purpose and value. For our purposes, it is sufficient to focus consideration simply on her human individual-centered ethical system. Later, Rand goes on to write:
The basic social principle of the Objectivist ethics is that just as life is an end in itself, so every human living being is an end in himself, not the means to the ends or the welfare of others—and, therefore, that man must live for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself. To live for his own sake means that the achievement of his own happiness is man’s highest moral purpose (The Virtue of Selfishness, p. 30).
Lastly, for our purposes, she writes,
The Objectivist ethics holds that human good does not require human sacrifices and cannot be achieved by the sacrifice of anyone to anyone. It holds that the rational interests of men do not clash—that there is no conflict of interests among men who do not desire the unearned, who do not make sacrifices nor accept them, who deal with one another as traders, giving value for value.
The principle of trade is the only rational ethical principles for all human relationships, personal and social, private and public, spiritual and material. It is the principle of justice (The Virtue of Selfishness, p. 34).
I don’t believe Ayn Rand had any reservations in thinking that she was seeking to dismantle any and every form of altruistic ethical system, including the Judeo-Christian faith. Whether she is right or wrong about what she claims, why do so many Christians seem to think they can make use of her system of thought for how they engage in life? For some of them, do they find her a modern day Nostradamus, who in their minds rightly predicted America’s current economic situation? Even if that were so, would it suffice for discarding altruism? I believe Christian Scripture has a lot to say about the future of those who discard altruism.
The connection to Rand may be more indirect—a lack of concern and even disdain for altruism in the market more than a devotion to Rand. Yet as has been shownelsewhere, key conservative leaders with whom many Evangelicals align politically have looked to Rand in the development of their policies and views, including Paul Ryan and Glenn Beck.
Is it simply Rand’s atheism that is the problem? Not all atheists reject altruism, but rather embrace it. Perhaps many of these Christians think that one can practice altruism in their personal lives with family members and in church, though not in the sphere of the market. For what it’s worth, Rand would reject such compartmentalization. Her system applies to all spheres, just as altruism applies to all spheres in the Christian faith in my estimation. With this in mind, can Christians approach trade in the market void of any altruistic concern? Can we ever reduce or limit consideration of our fellows to the label of “trader”? If so, how? From a biblical Christian standpoint, how just would that really be?
This piece is cross-posted at Patheos and at The Institute for the Theology of Culture: New Wine, New Wineskins. Comments made here are not monitored. To join the conversation, please comment on this post at Patheos.
Dr. Paul Louis Metzger is the Founder and Director of The Institute for the Theology of Culture: New Wine, New Wineskins and Professor at Multnomah Biblical Seminary/Multnomah University. He is the author of numerous works, including Connecting Christ: How to Discuss Jesus in a World of Diverse Paths and Consuming Jesus: Beyond Race and Class Divisions in a Consumer Church. These volumes and his others can be found wherever fine books are sold.