Nice Distinction

Unrugged Individualism: The Selfish Basis of Benevolence, by David Kelley, Poughkeepsie, N.Y.: Institute for Objectivist Studies, 65 pages, $9.95

Miss Manners Rescues Civilization, by Judith Martin, New York: Crown, 497 pages, $30.00

Benevolence is the virtue that moves us to take account of the vulnerabilities and values of others for their own sake, not merely our own. As with most virtues, the practice of benevolence does not come easily. But for followers of novelist-philosopher Ayn Rand, it seems not to be available at all. Randians are notorious for extolling selfishness, indeed nominating it for the status of virtue; they speak of altruism with all the affection that a certain ex-president reserved for broccoli. And Rand herself scarcely ever tipped her pen in the direction of benevolence. It is simply a no-show on the Randian agenda.

Or such was the case prior to Unrugged Individualism. David Kelley, arguably the most gifted living interpreter and developer of Rand's philosophy, argues convincingly that a world in which benevolence is absent would be an ugly and brutal place to live. Less convincing are his attempts to square the circle of Randian egoism with an endorsement of unreciprocated acts of kindness and a generosity that isn't incessantly calculating answers to the question, "What's in it for me?" As with Dr. Johnson's dog walking on its hind legs, the wonder is not how well it performs but that it does so at all. Can Kelley's dog get vertical?

On first blush, it seems that it cannot. Egoism is the doctrine that one should always act to advance one's own well-being. That does not mean that one ought to go around trashing the lives of others; living within society as a predatory wolf is not a strategy likely to secure self-advancement. (Well, it might if one's chosen career is subway muggings or politics, but that is a topic for another essay.) Rather, most of what makes human lives go better requires the cooperation of others, and that is most effectively elicited by being a reliable cooperator oneself. Hermits aside, we get on by repeatedly exchanging quids for quos, all parties thereby benefiting.

This is the stuff of which Econ 101 texts are made, and I pick no quarrel with it. However, it is not benevolence. An economic actor is concerned only incidentally with the interests of other parties to the exchange. The good or service one affords them is extended only to induce provision of something one values more highly. The less one gives up (or the more one receives), the better. Getting the most for the least is the essence of economic rationality. But benevolence means providing more than one must. If I have to perform some action to survive or to advance my prosperity, it is a misuse of language to speak of that action as benevolent even if it redounds to the benefit of others. Only when one voluntarily accepts a bit less so that someone else can have more does benevolence come into the picture. And the Randian scorn of altruism seems to place that venue off limits.

Kelley disputes this. Benevolence, he claims, is "a commitment to achieving the values derivable from life with other people in society, by treating them as potential trading partners, recognizing their humanity, independence, and individuality, and the harmony between their interests and ours." Trade, unlike fraudulent deception or the blunt introduction of force, evinces respect for others. They, like oneself, are bearers of rights that may not be transgressed.

Kelley is certainly correct to maintain that a disposition to seek voluntary agreements with others rather than run roughshod over their person and property is a virtue. But to label it "benevolence" is blatant misidentification. Adam Smith was not similarly confused. In The Wealth of Nations he famously observed, "It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest." When regard to one's own interest is pursued in a manner that does not violate the rights of others, an individual is manifesting justice, not benevolence.

More on target is Kelley's observation that we all fare better in a society in which people from time to time extend acts of uncompensated generosity to others. Suppose your car breaks down on a rural road. Someone with a cellular phone in his car drives by. It would brighten your day considerably if he would stop for a moment to ascertain what's wrong and then phone in a request for emergency assistance. To do so will cost him some time in getting to his destination and a few cents in connection charges. Perhaps he calculates that if he stops now to help you out, someday you might encounter him in similar circumstances and will then volunteer your own aid. That would indeed be more than adequate compensation.

But the likelihood of such a tit-for-tat scenario playing itself out is vanishingly small: There are lots of roads out there and lots of cars. It seems, therefore, that a rationally self- interested individual will not stop to offer aid. Yet he and you, and all the rest of us, would benefit from an environment in which such small acts of kindness were common -- that is, from living in a society in which most people are at least modestly benevolent. So should the egoistic motorist stop to help?

Kelley says yes. By helping, the motorist extends a share of generosity to others, the same generosity he would wish to receive if he found himself in similar straits. I endorse Kelley's moral judgment. To offer highly valued assistance to someone at minimal cost to oneself is not mandated by strict concern for rights and duties, but it is nonetheless morally indicated. My disagreement is with the contention that this conclusion follows from egoistic premises.

The example sketched out above is one of numerous variations on the interaction pattern that decision theorists have dubbed the Prisoner's Dilemma. Briefly, this is a situation in which each party will do better with regard to her own interests by acting uncooperatively. If all cooperated, however, they would each do better. In other words, the egoist will be pleased if others stop to help when her car breaks down, but if she is rational she will not stop for someone else.

That, objects Kelley, is to be a free rider. True. The problem, though, is to identify a principled reason why selfish individuals ought to decline any opportunity that comes their way to take a free ride. Kelley replies, "Someone who would accept help in an emergency but would not provide it to others is acting on the premise of seeking something for nothing. He is seeking a benefit without the effort of producing that benefit; he wants to obtain an end without pursuing the necessary means." But this is fallacious. First, it equivocates on "benefit." Either the term refers to this person's stopping to help me when I am in need, or else it means the general social practice of uncompensated assistance. But it is only the former that directly benefits me; how common such assistance might otherwise be is altogether immaterial to the consistently selfish individual.

Second, in neither event is my own co-operative activity a means to the desired end: In the former case, either the motorist stops or doesn't stop, quite independently of what I do when the shoe is on the other accelerator; in the latter case, it is about as likely that my own action will determine whether or not generosity abounds throughout the society as it is that my one vote will tip a presidential election. The game theorists were right all along: In a prisoner's dilemma, selfish participants defect.

Furthermore, the principle of not accepting something for nothing itself has dubious egoistic credentials. If some valued item just falls into one's lap, will an egoist refuse to keep it? If a trade partner is a poor bargainer and offers to sell an item at only half of the maximum price the egoist is willing to pay, will she insist on paying more? I do not think so. But, then, I am not an egoist. That is, I do not equate rationality with selfishness, and I do not identify willingness to make small sacrifices for the sake of others with the pathological syndrome known to Randians as altruism.

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