“I’d like to start tonight with a little thought experiment,” said the man in the gray suit. “Imagine you must choose today between two moral codes. One says that your life is the most important thing in the world…and provides you with an abundance of guidance about how to make your life wonderful. The second moral code says that your life is unimportant, that you should give up the things that make your life great.”
The first moral code, it turns out, is Ayn Rand’s unique system of ethics, known as rational egoism or objectivism. The second is its polar opposite, the philosophy of altruism. The man in the suit was Craig Biddle, editor of The Objective Standard and author of “Loving Life: The Morality of Self-Interest and the Facts that Support It,” who spoke Tuesday evening to a group of approximately 90 students in Building 320.
Biddle’s lecture, which event organizer and Objectivists of Stanford President Evan Storms ’13 said was intended to give attendees a “concrete, easy-to-understand introduction to objectivist morality,” provided listeners with a two-hour survey course in the philosophy and ethics of Ayn Rand, author of “Atlas Shrugged” and “The Fountainhead.”
Biddle devoted the initial part of his talk to differentiating between “selfishness and selflessness,” between Ayn Rand’s system of rational egoism, which emphasizes acting purely in one’s own self-interest, and the competing moral framework of altruism, which demands that individuals act in the interest of others.
“Whether we choose a morality is not an option,” declared Biddle. “Morality is inescapable, and the reason is because we have free will.”
Biddle warned, however, against what he called accepting a morality “by default, by osmosis,” a principle he cautioned would inexorably lead to the passive acceptance of altruism, which he contended dominates schools, religious institutions and the media today. He proceeded to repudiate what he saw as four logically flawed reasons historically presented by proponents of altruism for acting in the interests of others besides oneself: because God tells us to, because other people need our help, because we must do so or face coercion by the state or because it’s simply the mature thing to do once we grow up. “Altruism,” declared Biddle in dismissing each of these claims in turn, “is the morality of logical fallacies.”
By contrast, Biddle argued, “practiced consistently, egoism leads to a life of happiness.” Using one’s reason and intellect to make rational decisions in one’s own self-interest under a government that respects fundamental individual rights, he declared, is the only true path to individual fulfillment. Employing three fundamental qualities — reason, purpose and self-esteem — each individual is equipped and obligated to use his or her mind to produce and be productive, and to refuse to be a “parasite” by living off the work of others.
Biddle followed with questions to the audience about people’s fundamental obligations to one another and critiqued the widely held notion that self-sacrifice is morally good or praiseworthy.
“Why sacrifice at all? What reasons are there to sacrifice?” he asked, asserting instead that the rational egoist realizes that he must “neither sacrifice himself nor sacrifice others.”