David Kelley
Unrugged Individualism: The Selfish Basis of Benevolence
Institute for Objectivist Studies, 1996
65 pages, $9.95 pb.
Reviewed by Gary McGath
This review Copyright 1996 by Gary McGath

It is widely held that egoism and good will are irreconcilable opposites, that a person who is motivated by self-interest will act coldly toward others and push them ruthlessly aside. Ayn Rand's philosophy of Objectivism rejected this view, showing that proper self-interest means rejecting both self-sacrifice and the sacrifice of others. However, she did not say much on the issue of benevolence, ascribing little ethical significance to it.

David Kelley's monograph, Unrugged Individualism, builds on the base of the Objectivist ethics to show that benevolence is an important virtue and fully consistent with egoism. He rejects the idea that it is altruistic in nature or that it is primarily concerned with relieving suffering, placing it instead as a key component of acquiring the values which are found in dealing with other people. He defines it as follows:

Benevolence 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.

This does not mean that we should blind ourselves to the fact that some people are scum, but rather that "we have no reason to expect it without specific evidence, and it should not be the central focus of our relationships with others." Kelley treats benevolence as the active application of justice, in recognition of the fact that we have to discover people worthy of dealing with. He also notes that benevolence as an ethical principle is not a matter of feeling, but of acting on what we recognize. Thus, it is possible to be benevolent even when not feeling a positive emotion.

Kelley names three specific sub-virtues of benevolence: civility, sensitivity, and generosity. Civility is "the most elementary form of benevolence," and there is nothing controversial here. Sensitivity is "alertness to the psychological condition of others." We might ask whether this is properly considered a virtue or a social skill. As a friend pointed out to me, Ellsworth Toohey was "sensitive" in this sense, and used his alertness for evil purposes.

Generosity, the practice of giving to others without a direct quid pro quo, is "the aspect of benevolence that people most often associate with altruism, and it is the issue about which egoists are most often questioned." Here he makes two principal points: that it is a value to live in a society where people extend help in emergencies, and that giving help may be a kind of investment. This last point is important, and could have used a longer discussion than the one Kelley gives it. This type of generosity is a way of promoting our own values by proxy, gaining "a satisfaction in creating value in the lives of others, a satisfaction that remains even when the value cannot be returned in the form of a definite trade."

A point which Kelley touches upon, but doesn't bring out sufficiently here, is that this satisfaction depends on the extent to which we and our beneficiaries hold common values. The sharing of values is a principal factor in what makes up a community, which in the modern world doesn't depend on geographic proximity. I would much rather be generous to people far away who believe in reason, value liberty, and share my musical loves than to people down the street who camp out in front of the TV, admire looting politicians, and surround themselves with bland music to which they don't listen. (I include music because it's central to my life; others will have different priorities for defining their communities.) To the extent that my time and effort build even a microcosm of the world in which I want to live, they're amply rewarded in a direct and visible way, not just in a "cast your bread on the waters" hope of an indefinite future return.

In an appendix, Kelley discusses the relationship of benevolence to tolerance. Tolerance, he states, is a more restrictive virtue, applying only to the realm of ideas; it is the recognition that a person who holds false ideas is not necessarily morally bad. The concept of tolerance is often applied more widely as a counter to tribalist hostility toward people who are different, but Kelley regards this as a "pitifully superficial response." How much sense, after all, does it make to speak of "tolerating" something which should not be a barrier in the first place, such as skin color?

Unrugged Individualism is for readers who are already familiar with the ethical theory of Objectivism. Ayn Rand's book, The Virtue of Selfishness, should be considered a prerequisite.

The book is available only by mail order from IOS.

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