In The Fountainhead, Ayn Rand had gotten as deep as collectivism, the political result of altruism. In Atlas Shrugged, she had gotten further and named altruism as the core anti-concept behind collectivism.
But to me, when I read Anthem, written in “the dark ages of the future,” as the book jacket above proclaims, the genuine cause was most evident, even though it is not specifically named. For years this question haunted me: if altruism is so evil and the moral is the practical, what deeper mistake sustains altruism?
Answer: The refusal to face reality.
I have to admit, I didn’t get it the first time.
In Anthem, only Equality 7-2521 faces reality consistently and without fear. Rand’s opening words, “It is a sin to write this….” tells you immediately that the issue is not morality, but something deeper.
In other words, the hero, Equality 7–2521 is ignoring the sin (the morality he has been taught) because he knows something else is more important and contradicts it (reality). The story of Anthem is a coming-of-age story in which the morality of altruism is rejected because it contradicts real-world observations.
He discovers the nature of the contradiction when he re-invents electric light and tries to share its inestimable benefit with society and is forced to flee for his life.
From the point of view of human epistemology, Rand named three axioms in ITOE¹: existence, consciousness and identity. Something exists. It can be apprehended by consciousness. It has a nature.
However, when all three are named as axioms from the point of human consciousness, it is easy to make the same mistake that collectivists and altruists make: that the first two axioms are simultaneous, and the third is the product of applying the second to the first.
In reality, the nature of any thing in existence depends on existence — whether consciousness exists to identify it or not.
There is built up in human cultures world-wide the inability to acknowledge that the unknown and the unknowable are legitimate concepts which act as place holders for missing information because infallibility, omniscience and omnipotence is given to nothing and no one.
Instead people pretend to know, convince themselves and others that they do know, and spill oceans of blood to protect themselves from finding out that they don’t know. It is for this reason that I came to believe that the crisis of our age is deeper than the moral problem of altruism. It is actually an existential problem.
The Enlightenment was the period in human history when Man came closest to conquering his fears and fantasies. Kant is usually thought of as an Enlightenment philosopher, but he was the first of the anti-Enlightenment.
When you affirm A = A, that is an existential affirmation. When you say A = non-A, at the same time and in the same respect, that is a contradiction you can hold in your head only. To fail to resolve a contradiction is to embrace an error in thinking. To embrace an error in thinking is to hold emotion (fantasy or fear) above reality. To hold emotion as the controller of your mental processes is to abandon your nature as a rational being, your outlook as an efficacious being, and your potential as a happy being.
The problem of our age is existential, and until Objectivists recognize and focus on the fact that the existential mistake is the source of the power of altruism over people, I think we will continue to endure frustration and disappointment.
¹Ayn Rand. Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology. The Objectivist. New York. 1973.