December is the month where many of us think about giving. I read that December is for development officers what April is for accountants, the high season where they hope that donors with good financial years will feel more than a little generous. But most of us feel like December is the time where you put a little extra in a Salvation Army kettle or the poor box at church.
But the spirit of kindness seems to have touched even the most devoted disciples of Ayn Rand, as this piece by Peter Schwartz of the Ayn Rand Institute shows.
Now I am not an Objectivist; I’ve always been a Frank Meyer/Stan Evans fusionist, dedicated to advancing traditional virtues and individual liberty. As a fusionist, I deplore internal doctrinal battles and always try to see the good in anyone’s political position. (However, I note that very early on in the online comments, trolls too cowardly to use their real names refer to Schwartz as a “traitor to Objectivism,” which is not my food fight.)
That being said, it should be noted that some of Schwartz’s views seem like the intellectual equivalent of mumbling to yourself. For example, his wife likes presents that have something to do with owls, so he always gives her something that’s owl-related. Well, why not?
I love my wife because she personifies things that I treasure most. . . . My gift is not an act of charity. It is a form of spiritual payment in acknowledgment of the value her life has to me.
This may well be the least romantic display of affection since Walter E. Williams famously announced to Rush Limbaugh’s audience that he was giving his wife a vacuum cleaner for Christmas and dadgum it, she’d better like it because that’s what she was getting.
But let’s focus on what is right about Schwartz’s position. Ayn Rand spoke about “the virtue of selfishness.” This can be a philanthropic virtue with one slight modification: you should talk about being “self-ish.” You can’t be a good donor if you aren’t pursuing personal projects that are ideas that you are passionate about.
Let’s contrast this with the anti-Rand, Peter Singer. Singer’s utilitarian beliefs are that you have to give away most of your income; moreover, this income, following the utilitarian doctrine of doing the greatest good for the greatest number, means that you should give money to a few pre-vetted charities that fight disease in the Third World. Further, you need to sacrifice because of your privileged status in the wealthy West.
What Singer calls utilitarianism Schwartz calls altruism, and here’s his take on it:
Imagine trying to celebrate Christmas by taking altruism seriously. Instead of buying gifts for your children, you would be obliged to spend that money on needy children in, say, Bangladesh. Instead of buying yourself a new suit for the holiday, you would have to go around in sackcloth because of your duty toward those who have less than you.
Now there are people like this in the world. The New Yorker about ten years ago had a profile of a man who made a few million and decided to give it all away. He even gave a kidney to a stranger, which was admirable. However, the man investigated if he could give away both of his kidneys, which crosses the line into lunacy.
We should give out of joy, not guilt, because of the pleasure that arises when your gift improves the world. And you should give for your causes, not to please Peter Singer, the Council on Foundations, or the Clinton Global Initiative.
In giving, you should of course rely on advice; a trusted advisor can tell you there are many better ways to help kids succeed in college than by unrestricted gifts to college endowments. But the donor is always the best judge of his intentions.
“Charity should be a gift generously given, not a debt dutifully paid,” Schwartz writes. “You have no obligation to make yourself suffer so that someone else might benefit.”