Peter Schwartz is a distinguished fellow at the Ayn Rand Institute and the author of the forthcoming “In Defense of Selfishness: Why the Code of Self-Sacrifice Is Unjust and Destructive.”
The “season of giving” comes with its own set of commandments. Give back, we’re told. Remember the needy. Don’t give because it makes you feel good; give because it’s the right thing to do.
But these platitudes don’t represent my perspective on the Christmas season. As an Objectivist, I’ve adopted an ethics not of altruism but of rational self-interest. I don’t believe that giving should be about moral debts being paid. And I don’t think we have an altruistic duty to provide for others — that the fact of someone’s need creates a claim against anyone who can fulfill it.
Nonetheless, and even though I’m an atheist, I do enjoy Christmas. I love to see the twinkling lights adorning our houses and streets, the delightfully inventive displays in store windows, the Santas greeting enthusiastic children. I wholeheartedly join in when yuletide songs are being sung. I’m happy to attend parties that evoke the holiday spirit. Some people lament the secularization and commercialization of Christmas; I applaud it. I’m glad that most of us don’t spend it huddled in penance, praying for redemption and renouncing the pleasures of this Earth. Instead, at Christmas, people embrace those pleasures and rejoice in life — very much in line with the ethics of Ayn Rand’s Objectivist philosophy .
Imagine trying to celebrate Christmas by taking altruism seriously. Instead of buying gifts for your children, you would be obliged to spend that money on needy children in, say, Bangladesh. Instead of buying yourself a new suit for the holiday, you would have to go around in sackcloth because of your duty toward those who have less than you. Is that what the Christmas spirit is supposed to mean? Does an obligation to sacrifice for the sake of others sound like a prescription for goodwill among people — or for resentment and conflict?
A “season of trading” would make better sense than a “season of giving.” The central principles could be summarized as: Give when it’s in your interest to do so. Give because someone deserves it, not simply because he or she needs it. Don’t sacrifice yourself for others, and don’t ask others to sacrifice for you.
At Christmastime, I gladly spend time searching for a present that will make my wife happy. But this is not a selfless act. Love offers an intensely personal, selfish pleasure. I love my wife because she personifies the things I treasure most. My affection is not given indiscriminately, to anyone who might need it, but uniquely to her, because of what she means to me. She happens to be enamored of owls, and I take great joy in finding an owl-motif gift that will surprise and delight her. But my gift is not an act of charity. It is a form of spiritual payment in acknowledgment of the value her life has to me.
The holiday cards I send to friends are similarly selfish — and properly so. Consciously or not, we choose our friends because they embody things we value, whether that’s an interest in sports or a particular outlook on life. We exchange cards not out of pity but out of a recognition that we share something worthwhile. Our relationships are mutually beneficial.
Christmas is about conveying goodwill toward people. When we wish happy holidays to strangers, that, too, stems from selfishness. It is only because we value our own lives that we can feel benevolent toward others who have the same fundamental nature that we do and who have the potential to share our basic values. We certainly wouldn’t extend that benevolence to people who, say, wanted to stone us to death for not accepting their religion. The altruistic command to “love thy enemy” is a self-abnegating and self-destructive injunction.
What about outright charity? The Salvation Army bell-ringers are out in force at this time of year, and each day the mail brings requests for donations. I have no objection to charity as long as it isn’t viewed as an altruistic duty and isn’t a central issue in one’s life. I disagree with the declaration by Pope Paul VI, and Saint Ambrose before him, that “you are not making a gift of your possessions to the poor person. You are handing over to him what is his.” That premise makes you the servant of anyone lacking something you have, and there can be no authentic goodwill toward someone who has a right to demand that you provide for his needs.
As Rand put it: “It is morally proper to accept help, when it is offered, not as a moral duty, but as an act of good will and generosity, when the giver can afford it (i.e., when it does not involve self-sacrifice on his part), and when it is offered in response to the receiver’s virtues, not in response to his flaws, weaknesses or moral failures, and not on the ground of his need as such.”
I donate to certain charities when the recipients, as judged by my standards, are worthy of help. For example, when someone I know was diagnosed with cancer and couldn’t cover the costs of treatment, I willingly contributed. But again, charity should be a gift generously given, not a debt dutifully paid. You have no obligation to make yourself suffer so that someone else might benefit.
So buy yourself that new suit, get those presents for your family, exchange cards with your friends, convey goodwill to people you meet — and celebrate Christmas as an occasion for affirming, not sacrificing, all that makes life enjoyable.