I remember an anecdote from, I think, a book called The Rothschilds. Lord Rothschild, on the British side of the family, noted that a gentleman in his position could not be seen to be callous toward the poor, or refrain from giving something to a street beggar. So he recommended giving a beggar a fiver. It’s very amusing, he said. The unfortunate fellow is not accustomed to receiving anything above a tuppence. When he sees the size of the alms, he assumes it must be a mistake. His eyes first go wide, then narrow, in hopes that he can benefit from the mistake. He immediately hides the bill, gives quick thanks, then disappears as fast as the can. Overall, said Lord Rothschild, I greatly recommend the giving of a fiver to a beggar.
One of the more amusing crosses that atheists must bear is the odd backhanded compliment. “If you don’t believe in God,” asks the local bible thumper, “What is to stop you from just doing whatever you want, murdering, stealing, raping, and heaven knows what else?”
Good point. If your belief in God is all that stops you from doing such things, I’m entirely in favor of your continuing your belief. I personally have other reasons for not murdering, raping, or stealing. For example, I’m pretty sure that somewhere in either the actions or the consequences lies something that I wouldn’t enjoy. But, hey, that’s just me. De gustibus non disputandem.
Speaking from pure self-interest, a heavenly afterlife is mighty appealing. I’m not entirely sure about the whole “eternal life” thing, (a billion years of reruns might well get pretty tedious), but life is too damn short as it stands. I’d sign on in a minute if the price was right and the deal guaranteed. Oh, but wait, you’re supposed to buy the whole thing on faith, and besides, the check is in the mail. Also, I would be doing it for the wrong reasons, since you’re not supposed to be doing it for selfish purposes. I haven’t found a Jehovah’s Witness yet who could explain how angling for eternal life was altruistic, but I haven’t met them all yet.
Still, the contradictions that can be found in the followers of religion is a fair match to the contradictions in those who purport to be philosophical egoists. The nature of those contradictions is likewise revealing.
Who purports to speak for “The Individual?” The phrase itself is a betrayal, a collective label as subversive to its target as a religious tract. Those who claim the throne of individualism are often labeled “Right Wing.” Libertarians, Nietzscheans, Randites, Social Darwinists, denizens of think tanks like the Cato Institute, authors of papers in Mankind Quarterly. They are tough-minded, almost to a man (including the women). Reading what is written by these individualists, what do we find? Endless arguments over what is the best way to set up an individualist society. In other words, endless prescriptions for how one’s fellows are to behave. Precious little about one’s own behavior, as nearly as I can tell.
But there are telling little slips. Once at a lecture given by Ayn Rand, someone asked during the Q&A: What would be done for the poor in an Objectivist society? Rand’s reply: If you wish to do something for them, you will not be stopped. Then came applause. Of course. That put the bleeding heart in his/her place.
Consider Stirner’s response to a similar question:
But is my work then really, as the Communists suppose, my sole competence? Or does not this consist rather in everything that I am competent for? And does not the workers' society itself have to concede this, in supporting also the sick, children, old men in short, those who are incapable of work? These are still competent for a good deal, for instance, to preserve their life instead of taking it. If they are competent to cause you to desire their continued existence, they have a power over you. To him who exercised utterly no power over you, you would vouchsafe nothing; he might perish. – Max Stirner, The Ego and His Own
And there is the essence of the struggle, is it not? Children, the sick, the elderly, those who are incapable of work, those people may still have a power over you, to whatever extent you have compassion for them. And there are those who hate that power, the power to move through compassion. So they deny it. They attempt to rip it from themselves and to deny its rightful existence.
How is this not a diminution? Someone without compassion is a sociopath. Is a sociopath better than a compassionate man?
We applaud the painter, the musician, the playwright (if their work suits us, of course). The playwright and director move people about in such a fashion that we find the result pleasing. Why does not the philanthropist get at least the same praise? Why is putting a fiver in the hands of a beggar not considered a work of art? And lest anyone impugn the motives of the philanthropist, remember, Lord Rothschild’s beggar nevertheless got his fiver.