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Charity vs Justice

“A naked guy with a gun? You expect anyone to believe that?”
“Get the fuck away from me.”
“How’s it gonna look in your report?”
“It’ll look like justice. That’s what the man got: justice.”
“You don’t know the meaning of the word, you ignorant bastard.”
“Yeah? Well, you think it means getting your picture in the paper. Why don’t you go after criminals for a change instead of cops?”
“Stensland got what he deserved and so will you.”

In her book Atlas Shrugged, philosopher Ayn Rand contrasts the concepts of charity, need, and the unearned on the one hand with justice, merit, and the earned on the other.

Through her characters’ statements and interactions, Rand criticizes people who want to, say, be liked not for courage, ambition, or ability, but for lacking those qualities. They think admiring someone for their abilities and achievements is ‘just’ a fair trade – that the real admiration lies in giving someone the gift of admiration without them having earned that gift. Conversely, they think people who don’t give that unearned gift are cold and unfeeling; “conscientious”.

This perversion of values applies in various contexts. For example, in the context of beauty (bold emphasis is mine in all subsequent quotes; note that antagonists take up much of these dialogs, ie represent views Rand wants to criticize):

   “Now you see, that’s the cruelty of conscientious people. You wouldn’t understand it—would you?—if I answered that real devotion consists of being willing to lie, cheat and fake in order to make another person happy—to create for him the reality he wants, if he doesn’t like the one that exists.”
   “No,” he said slowly, “I wouldn’t understand it.”
   “It’s really very simple. If you tell a beautiful woman that she is beautiful, what have you given her? It’s no more than a fact and it has cost you nothing. But if you tell an ugly woman that she is beautiful, you offer her the great homage of corrupting the concept of beauty. To love a woman for her virtues is meaningless. She’s earned it, it’s a payment, not a gift. But to love her for her vices is a real gift, unearned and undeserved. To love her for her vices is to defile all virtue for her sake—and that is a real tribute of love, because you sacrifice your conscience, your reason, your integrity and your invaluable self-esteem.
   He looked at her blankly. It sounded like some sort of monstrous corruption that precluded the possibility of wondering whether anyone could mean it; he wondered only what was the point of uttering it.
   “What’s love, darling, if it’s not self-sacrifice?” she went on lightly, in the tone of a drawing-room discussion. “What’s self-sacrifice, unless one sacrifices that which is one’s most precious and most important? But I don’t expect you to understand it. Not a stainless-steel Puritan like you. That’s the immense selfishness of the Puritan. […]”

Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged (p. 305). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

(As an aside, I think someone actually advocating this view wouldn’t be this honest about it “defil[ing] all virtue”. They’d probably evade that problem.)

A bit further down, she adds, to avoid accountability:

“Oh, darling, don’t take me seriously! I’m just talking.”

When someone doesn’t want to be taken seriously, that’s a red flag. If you later criticize their view, they can always just say ‘I didn’t mean for it to be taken seriously anyway’.

As I’ve discussed a bit before, I think obese models are a modern-day example of the perversion of beauty; of giving ugly women the unearned title of ‘beautiful’; of lying to the obese that they’re healthy and attractive so they can evade the responsibility for destroying their own bodies; and of tricking people into thinking that health and beauty are not worth attaining.

In the context of virtues more generally, Rand offers us this dialog:

   “[…] What’s the generosity of loving a man for his virtues? What do you give him? Nothing. It’s no more than cold justice. No more than he’s earned.”
   […] “You want it to be unearned,” she said, not in the tone of a question, but of a verdict.
   “Oh, you don’t understand!”
   “Yes, Jim, I do. That’s what you want—that’s what all of you really want—not money, not material benefits, not economic security, not any of the handouts you keep demanding.”

p. 884

In other words, when people want minimum-wage laws and welfare handouts, when they say that people should contribute according to their ability and receive according to their need, and so on, they don’t want those things in order to help the poor, say – instead, they want to corrupt trade in favor of the unearned. They want merit to be trumped by need. That’s what they think charity is: giving someone that which he hasn’t earned. They want a mutually beneficial transaction – trade – to be replaced by a zero-sum transaction: charity. Which transaction do you think is able to create wealth?

The opposite of charity is justice:

   “You know, Miss Tag—Dagny,” she said softly, in wonder, “you’re not as I expected you to be at all. . . . They, Jim and his friends, they said you were hard and cold and unfeeling.”
   “But it’s true, Cherryl. I am, in the sense they mean—only have they ever told you in just what sense they mean it?”
   “No. […] What did they mean about you?”
   “Whenever anyone accuses some person of being ‘unfeeling,’ he means that that person is just. […]”

p. 889

The code of ethics that Rand criticizes is upside down: it values mediocrity and vilifies achievement.

Character John Galt summarizes the issue in his speech:

Justice is the recognition of the fact that you cannot fake the character of men as you cannot fake the character of nature, that you must judge all men as conscientiously as you judge inanimate objects, with the same respect for truth, with the same incorruptible vision, by as pure and as rational a process of identification—that every man must be judged for what he is and treated accordingly, that just as you do not pay a higher price for a rusty chunk of scrap than for a piece of shining metal, so you do not value a rotter above a hero—that your moral appraisal is the coin paying men for their virtues or vices, and this payment demands of you as scrupulous an honor as you bring to financial transactions—that to withhold your contempt from men’s vices is an act of moral counterfeiting, and to withhold your admiration from their virtues is an act of moral embezzlement—that to place any other concern higher than justice is to devaluate your moral currency and defraud the good in favor of the evil, since only the good can lose by a default of justice and only the evil can profit—and that the bottom of the pit at the end of that road, the act of moral bankruptcy, is to punish men for their virtues and reward them for their vices, that that is the collapse to full depravity, the Black Mass of the worship of death, the dedication of your consciousness to the destruction of existence.

pp. 1019-1020

Note that the kind of charity Rand criticizes is different from, say, helping those in need if you want to help them and they deserve that help.

There’s also mercy, which is “an unearned forgiveness”.

In other words, justice is the evaluation and treatment of a person that is commensurate with, ie true to, that person’s character and actions. It’s when you get what you deserve.

In short: accommodating evil betrays the good. How could it be otherwise?


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