Though evolutionary anthropologist Eric Michael Johnson, writing for Slate, claims to have disproven Ayn Rand’s ethics of rational egoism through study of the morals of hunter-gatherer tribes, he misses the mark. In fact, his essay betrays serious deficiencies in his understanding of Rand’s philosophy.
Johnson attempts to refute Rand’s ethics of self-interest by citing research showing that altruism, which he defines as “extra-familial generosity,” is encouraged by the moral rules of virtually all hunter-gatherer tribes studied. This, he claims, is evidence of the ubiquity of altruism in our evolutionary past, supporting his conclusion that “we [are] an innately social species for whom altruism was integral to our success on this planet.”
Johnson’s foremost error is equivocation over the meaning of altruism. His definition of altruism is in vogue in the biological sciences, but it is not generosity that Rand opposed (she regarded it as marginal issue in ethics). Rather, she was against philosophical altruism—a code of ethics based upon a standard of self-sacrifice to others. Auguste Comte, the 19-century founder of positivism, coined the term “altruism,” Latin for “other-ism,” precisely to describe this self-effacing code of ethics.
Even if it were true that all of the tribes adhere to primitive sets of rules that merely nod to modern altruism, this would not disprove Ayn Rand’s ethics. Rand’s goal was not, as Johnson seems to believe, to mine man’s prehistoric past for evidence that he is innately a rational egoist. To the contrary, Rand discovered objective moral values from her observations of the nature of man and the requirements of his life, prompting her to the conclusion that man should choose to be a rational egoist.
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