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Ben Bayer on the Genealogy of Altruism

If altruism has no rational basis, what is its psychological source?

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“Altruism is everywhere,” claims Ben Bayer. It’s on the political and cultural left; it’s advocated by the socialists, by the effective altruism movement, by the environmentalists; it’s also on the right. So, the natural question that follows is, where does altruism come from?

It’s not sufficient to say that altruism comes from mystical philosophers. Where, after all, do the mystical philosophers get their altruism? To answer the question of where altruism comes from, Bayer argues that we need to investigate the psychological origins of the idea of altruism.

In his talk at Objectivist Summer Conference 2022 in Washington, D.C., Bayer analyzed the development of Ayn Rand’s views on the origins of altruism, drawing on both her novels and numerous essays, and categorizing them systematically.

According to Rand, altruism ultimately derives from whim-worship, “a desire experienced by a person who does not know and does not care to discover its cause” (“The Objectivist Ethics”). Thus, to explain Rand’s genealogy of altruism, Bayer focuses on different kinds of whims that motivate either the intellectual leaders of altruism or their followers.

In the final moments of the talk, Bayer compares Rand’s genealogy of altruism to Friedrich Nietzsche’s genealogy of morals, noting the superficial similarities and major differences between their approaches to the history of morality.

During the Q&A session, Bayer addresses questions on various topics, for example:

  • Whether the Attila and the Witch Doctor distinction can be applied to Wynand and Keating from The Fountainhead;
  • How people rationalize their fear;
  • Whether there is a method to change altruistic thinking;
  • What intellectual confusions lead to the acceptance of altruism.


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Ziemowit Gowin

Ziemowit Gowin, PhD candidate in philosophy, is a junior fellow at the Ayn Rand Institute and web editor of New Ideal.

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