To Ruth Austin [Letter 236]

Item Reference Code: 036_01D_008_001

Date(s) of creation

July 29, 1946


Ruth Austin


[Page 1]
July 29, 1946 

Mrs. John F. Austin
Sandy Valley Road
Dedham, Massachusetts

Dear Mrs. Austin: 

Your letter of July 15th astonished me. 

The peculiar example you propound—about Roark and another man fighting over the same piece of land—reads as if you had never heard of such a thing as the institution of private property. Private property is based on the idea of rights, not needs. A man holds his property because it is his—regardless of how many parasites claim that they need it more than he does. Anybody who makes a claim upon others on the basis of his need is a parasite. 

The answer to your dilemma is simply that the owner of the land in question will sell it to the highest bidder, and whichever man wants it most will get it. Each of the three men will be properly concerned only with his own interests, but the owner’s interest will be decisive, by virtue of his right of ownership. This is how issues are settled among individualists, because individualists respect the individual rights of others, including property rights. 

Roark’s principles do not and can not depend on any particular piece of land or material property, and certainly not on one belonging to somebody else. Since man is not an animal dependent on his background, but a creative being who adapts his background to his own wishes, no creative man is ever dependent on somebody else’s property. He works to get his own, and he gets it through a voluntary exchange of sale and purchase. He doesn’t kill others in order to get it. Only the altruist kills for gain, because he is a parasite by nature and definition. A man who lives for others lives off others, both spiritually and materially. 

The preposterous situation which you describe could occur only in a society of altruists, where human rights are trampled for the sake of parasites’ needs. (Incidentally, who decides whose need is greater than that of another? You?) Let’s examine your example on your own terms. If both men were altruists, the silly deadlock could not be solved, because each would try to sacrifice himself to the other. If one accepted the sacrifice, it would mean that the evil one won and the virtuous one lost. (Self-sacrifice being your criterion of virtue.) If both men wanted to be virtuous, it would develop into an “Alphonse

[Page 2]
Page 2     Mrs. John F. Austin     July 29, 1946

and Gaston” situation, with each assuring the other that the other’s need is greater than his own. This would mean a contest of sores between two beggars, each claiming that the other one is scabbier than himself, on the theory that the more miserable one is, the more one deserves the reward at stake. This would go on until a humanitarian came along and killed both men “for their own good”, then gave the property to the village idiot. 

No, each man is not “his own criterion of what is right.” 

Reason is the criterion. A man deciding that something is right just because he says so, does not make it right. Morality is an objective standard, true for all men, if it is a rational morality that proves on rational grounds why certain actions are good and other actions are evil. Only on the basis of the morality of Individualism is each man free to decide what is right for himself, and only for himself—so long as his decision is not concerned primarily with others, and is not to be forced upon others. This leaves the altruist out. 

You can not claim that altruism is right merely because it is your own choice of what is right, and then believe that this makes it moral. Altruism is profoundly and totally immoral. Neither you nor any philosopher in history has ever been able to defend it on rational grounds. 

In choosing it, you deny the first premise—that of man’s rights, freedom and choice. 

So you land in a vicious contradiction. 

Each man is free to seek salvation in his own way only so long as he leaves others alone. Then he leaves them the same right. But if he decides that his salvation lies in forcing his own immoral ideas of what is right upon others (as altruists do) on the ground that he thinks it is good to do so—men will have no choice but to answer him in the same way, by force; by cracking his skull in self-protection. That is the vicious contradiction inherent in altruism. 

You can not take the premise of the morality of Individualism—each man’s individual right of choice—and use it to justify its opposite, your decision to sacrifice other men to your own preference for the immoral collectivistic horror of altruism. 

As to Father Damien, I do not say that he was necessarily and consciously motivated by power-lust. I do not know his motives, nor care. I merely say that his action was neither virtuous nor admirable. 

[handwritten insertion:] It is as evil to sacrifice oneself for others, as it is to rule them. Both forms differ only superficially. Please notice that the humanitarians and the social workers nowadays are among the loudest advocates of dictatorship.

[Page 3]
Page 3     Mrs. John F. Austin     July 29, 1946

Now, the following paragraph in your letter was truly shocking, because this represents intellectual dishonesty on your part: “Since Roark grants to each man the right to seek his own salvation in the way he thinks best, I do not think he would be likely to impute motives of altruism to any man, merely because the man seemed to be trying to help his fellows. Roark, who was eminently just, would doubtless judge the man’s motives by the results of his work.”

You refuse to admit to yourself that Roark did not consider “help to his fellows” as a good motive or a good result, and that he had CONTEMPT for those whose aim in life was to help others. Didn’t you understand that it was a housing project which he blew up to hell, where it belonged? 

It is clear to me that you are trying to reconcile the conception represented by Roark with your own devotion to altruism. This can not be done. The two are opposites. If you consider altruism noble in any form, you must accept the fact that you are Roark’s enemy and belong with Ellsworth Toohey. Evading the issue will not alter the fact. 

There is no obligation on you whatever (except intellectual honesty) to admire Roark, but apparently you do; apparently he has made you feel uneasy about the kind of morality you have been taught before. You liked Roark because you recognized the fact that he is a man of integrity; but his integrity rests solely on the fact that he is the exact opposite of an altruist. You must make up your mind which you prefer. You cannot have both. Either you go with Roark or you go with Ellsworth Toohey. 

If you attempt to ease your own conscience by telling yourself that Roark would approve of the very things which he fought, you are not harming me or Roark, but yourself. Intellectual evasion hurts those who practice it, not those who have to hear it. If you like intellectual integrity, this is the question that calls for it.  



Ayn Rand


Mrs. Austin wrote again briefly in August, to which AR responded [Letter 243].