This is a somewhat edited and greatly expanded version of a comment I posted to Peter Schwartz’s Washington Post article, “Objecting to the ‘season of giving’.” You can find my posted comment here. 2000 characters was just not enough space to get across fully what I wanted to say in support of his article in the face of the vast majority of comments that had been left. Or at least I didn’t have the time to make my comment that short.
I would like to thank Peter Schwartz for posting this article. It clearly describes how my family, and likely most others, has always celebrated Christmas, although we never put it into words such as this.
The Objectivist ethics, as the article illustrates, is the science that tells us how to use our limited resources, limited at least at any specific moment in time, to make our lives the best they can be. It tells us that the best course of action is to apply our resources, be they money, time or energy, to those things that are of most value to us; in the context of Christmas, our friends, family, co-workers and the charities we choose to support. The more consistently and rationally we are able to do this, the better our life and world will become. To do anything else is to achieve the opposite, making our life and world worse as a result.
When we exchange gifts, how do we decide who to give them to and how much to spend? We don’t, I hope, give presents to complete strangers and then tell our children on Christmas morning, “Sorry Johnny, but the drug addict on the corner needed the money more than you needed your first real bike.” Nor should we max out the credit cards to buy presents we cannot really afford. Rather we give presents that we can afford to those we care about – or as Mr. Schwartz puts it, those who are of value to us. This does not mean, as some might suggest, that we get some sort of monetary value from them. In most if not all cases, the value here is a spiritual value. We give gifts to the people who make our life better through the very act of being a part of it, be they friends, family, co-workers and etc.
As a concrete example, the best Christmas I can remember was the first one I spent with my wife, the most important, the most valuable, person in my life. She is from Venezuela and the customs for celebrating Christmas are not the same so she had never had a Christmas stocking. I got the most enjoyment, the most spiritual value, out of spending the time looking for the little gifts that have always filled stockings in my house. Seeing her joy at opening them, experiencing this new way of celebrating Christmas, was the best gift for myself I could have asked for. You could not put a dollar amount on it, but it was the most valuable thing I received that year except for the simple fact that she was there.
The same is true of giving to charity, whether it be cash donations or things like “Toys for Tots” which we have here. As with the giving of gifts, most families do not have unlimited resources for giving to charity, so how do we decide which charities to help? Do we just open the phone book and pick one at random? “Well, honey, it looks like we are giving to something called Center for Industrial Progress. I don’t know what they do, but they get our donation this year.” I cannot imagine any rational person doing this. Instead, we give to charities we value, whose mission we agree with and which in some manner make our lives better, even if indirectly by making our community or world a better place to live. Perhaps you believe that art is a value and that all children deserve to have a chance to participate in art classes so you donate money to a local charity that provides those classes or scholarships to take them. Or perhaps you feel that no children should wake up on Christmas morning without presents under the tree, so you spend your time and money selecting toys and other gifts to donate to “Toys for Tots.”
Altruism, the opposite of Objectivism, is not a philosophy of benevolence, but rather one of putting others before yourself. Always. Some have even defined it in a way that if you receive any benefit from serving others, even just the pleasure that comes from helping someone, then you do not receive any moral credit for doing so. Such a philosophy is, as Peter Schwartz points out, impossible to follow consistently, at least if you want to live.
It is depressing to think of a child raised in a family that consistently tried to apply the philosophy of altruism. Under that philosophy a child would learn, and not just at Christmas, that his happiness was worth less to his parents than the needs of the bum on the street. Indeed, the child and his parents would likely end up being homeless when, sooner or later, someone would “need” the rent money more than the landlord needed to paid the rent. Would such a child learn to value himself when his own parents don’t value him, or rather value him less than an unknown child halfway around the world? What future would a child have who cannot see a value in himself? I cannot imagine it would be a full, happy, or long one.
Is it any wonder that when people are confronted with the fact that they cannot consistently follow a code of ethics that they believe is right and that it is actually evil in practice, they react, as most of the comments on Mr. Schwartz’s article show, with hatred, slander and ad hominem assaults against the author and Ayn Rand, those who have forced them to see it?
Again, thank you Peter Schwartz for this article. The gift is greatly appreciated.