Image credit: Osservatore Romano/AP
Pope Francis had harsh words to describe libertarians Friday, Breitbart reports. I generally don’t prefer labels, but there are a few which I proudly wear. I am a libertarian, an individualist, and a Catholic. Despite the message Pope Francis sent to members of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences on Friday decrying the “invasion of the positions of libertarian individualism,” I find no contradiction between my libertarian philosophy and my Catholic faith. In fact, the two complement each other quite nicely.
I am a proponent of what many would call, Ayn Rand’s “harsh” individualist philosophy of objectivism. Her philosophy is primarily concerned with the individual versus the collective. To Rand, all evil stems from a collective mentality. It is not surprising that many Christians (and presumably Pope Francis) take issue with her claim that “altruism is evil” and her hailing of “the virtue of selfishness.” Harsh as it may seem, I suspect that descriptor is based on a misunderstanding of her philosophy due to colloquial interpretation of the terms “altruism” and “selfishness.”
While Pope Francis did not reference Ayn Rand specifically, objectivism is a prominent individualist philosophy and a major libertarian influence.
In his letter, Francis criticized libertarianism for holding a “selfish ideal” and minimizing the “common good.” Describing individualism, Francis said: “only the individual gives value to things and to interpersonal relations and therefore only the individual decides what is good and what is evil.”
Pope Francis assumes that individualism doesn’t allow for relationships, and that it demands living “free” from others, and perhaps even God. This could not be further from the truth.
The Virtue of Selfishness
The selfish ideal, or the virtue of selfishness holds that man exists for himself. His highest moral aim is pursuing his own happiness, which is achieved by staying true to his values. Consider the opposite: the purpose of a man’s life is to appease his community or society. His aim is to gain the approval of most people as he works for the “common good.” Does living with an obligation to serve the interests of the group sound morally righteous to you?
Imagine middle school. There are lots of cliques in your class of 40, but one individual with thick-rimmed glasses and a book, sitting in the corner at recess, is collectively avoided by every group of friends. We’ll call her Jackie. Billy sees Jackie, sheepishly watching a four-square game on the quad, and feels bothered by the fact that she’s alone and ignored. Billy chooses to invite Jackie to join the game as his friends give him the side-eye and look around at each other, dumbfounded.
What pushed Billy to invite Jackie to join the game? Was it for the sake of the “greater good?” No. It was his personal value of kindness harassing him inside his mind to the point of driving him to action. He couldn’t stand to see her alone, so he acted.
The virtue of selfishness advocates choosing the action that satisfies your personal values (and subsequently brings you happiness.) Pope Francis misperceives selfishness, or individualism, as devotion to one’s comfort or contentedness over all else. Billy may have been content going along with his friends (we’ve all been there), but he compromised his standing with his friends to satisfy his personal values and achieve happiness.
Selfishness can best be described in relation to romantic love. Think of when you love someone and how it makes you feel – is that want not completely selfish? Yes – and it’s nothing to be ashamed of – a date without a sense of selfishness is a pity date.
Ayn Rand was an ardent proponent of capitalism and made a good living off her philosophical writings and fiction. Her husband was an artist, who’s passion she supported financially. “Does this not contradict your philosophy?” interviewers would ask. Rand explained that she receives selfish joy out of seeing the person she loves happy, pursuing his passion. His ability to pursue his passion and values is of value to her. “Love is our response to our highest values. The noblest love is born out of admiration of another’s values,” she said. This love is fulfilling and mutually beneficial, unlike sacrificial or “altruistic” love.
I’m willing to bet that few would deny that an individual sacrificing their personal values to please a partner is tragic, not to mention unsustainable. “Altruism” in Rand’s terms means that self-sacrifice is man’s highest moral duty and service to others is the only justification for his existence.
Altruism says you must give a dollar to the man on the street corner whether you like it or not, and to refrain from doing so is immoral. Selfishness says you have a choice, and if you value charity and kindness, reason tells you that you should give the dollar.
Are you satisfied when you give to the homeless man because you know you should, but you feel resentment as you walk away because you’re struggling making ends meet yourself? Certainly, not. Following your faith goes beyond merely following the virtue of charity. A person with strong faith holds charity as a personal value, and is genuinely happy to give to the homeless man.
Surely, Christianity advocates charity and kindness even when you don’t want to, and admittedly Ayn Rand would disagree. However, I’d argue the goal of having a servant’s heart and receiving personal gain from works of charity is best achieved by adopting the virtue personally, not merely viewing it as a “rule” to follow.
Pope Francis assumes individualism rejects any influence or guidance outside one’s own brain, which is clearly impossible. Catholic values have become my personal values, so when I make the choice to give to the homeless man, I do so because of the incessant nagging in my mind which is the drive that can only be achieved by defining your individual values. This is individualism. This is the only personal philosophy that consistently pushes an individual to moral action. Collectivism, or serving the wants of the group, does not.
The Greater Good
The greater good is nothing less than an evil concept because it implies sacrificing the minority for the sake of the majority. As Ayn Rand said, the smallest minority is the individual. Recognizing the Catholic belief that the individual is made in God’s image, he ought not be sacrificed.
God and the Individual
I grew up hearing a beautiful song at Mass. The verse ends with God asking, “Whom shall I send?” The chorus goes:
Here I am Lord, Is it I, Lord?
I have heard You calling in the night.
I will go Lord, if You lead me.
I will hold Your people in my heart.
As these song lyrics suggest, I have always considered God’s call very personal. The responsibility to do God’s will can’t be passed off to my neighbor for the day, it is mine. It is every individual’s. The Church teaches that each individual has unique gifts to carry out God’s will in the world. He calls each of us by name. When the time comes, it is the individual who He will judge, not the whole of society.
My faith and my sense of personal responsibility to do good in the world have grown since I’ve taken libertarian ideas to heart. Despite Pope Francis’ remarks, I trust he maintains there is only one way to answer God’s call, and it begins with “I.”