Ayn Rand and the Good Samaritan

Yesterday I wrote an analysis of the parable of the Good Samaritan.  Among other things it prompted a lengthy discussion of politics and economics, which was not my intention.  In fact, one of my intentions was to show that in that parable Jesus was not teaching about government welfare programs but about individual, voluntary charity–based on compassion for a person that one encounters who has a need.  Jesus was all about people.  He was about people as individuals.  The parable of the Good Samaritan was told in response to the question of an individual and was addresed to that individual.  The characters in the story were all individual people, not groups, although they represented groups or types.

The punch line of the entire thing was Jesus’ statement to the scribe–one man–to “go and do likewise.”  To be a good person you should help those people whom you encounter face to face in your daily life.  That’s not the same as sending your money to some group to distribute as they please.

What would Ayn Rand have said about the parable of the Good Samaritan?  It is possible that she commented on it, but I cannot think of anywhere that she did.  Several objectivists have commented on it in various ways, mostly in the negative when it comes to the general conception of “good samaritans” but mostly in the positive when it comes to some of the details of the story.  You see, neither Ayn Rand nor objectivists nor libertarians are opposed to private, voluntary charity.

What the Story Does Not Say

In order for me to reconcile objectivism with the Good Samaritan, I think it is necessary to show what the story does not say:

  • It does not say that the Samaritan took money from the priest or the Levite to pay for the injured man’s expenses.  He would not be good, in that case.
  • It does not say that he took the injured man to the inn and demanded that the innkeeper care for him without pay.  Again, he would not be good, if he did.
  • It does not say that the injured man demanded or expected the Samaritan to help him.

In other words, there is not a hint of collectivism or authoritariansim in the story.  The Samaritan is “good” precisely because he willingly and cheerfully helps the man in need without anyone compelling him to do so.  If the Samaritan made somebody else pay for the man’s needs, then how would he be good?  He would, in fact, be very bad.  If he did it because it was required, then you could never say that he himself was good, and whoever forced him to do it would certainly not be good, for the same reason that it would be wrong for the Samaritan to force somebody else to do it.

What Rand Would Have Said

Rand would only have considered the Samaritan a good example if two conditions were met:  the robber deserved to be helped and the Samaritan got something out of it.  She would not have liked the idea that the Samaritan fulfilled a religious duty or that his willingness to help is portrayed as categorically or necessarily better than the unwillingness of the other men in the story.

Rand was clear that it is evil to help people who do not deserve it–that it is wrong to sacrifice some greater value for a lesser value.  In any exchange, it is only fair and right if the trade is equal or nearly so.  I love my wife because she loves me, and she loves me because I love her.  We love each other for the virtue that we see in each other and because our relationship is mutually satisfying.

I would like to think that Rand would count the victim of the story as worthy of help because he had been treated unjustly by someone else.  She was a human being with natural human feelings, after all.  In such a real-life scenario, I believe that she would have felt outrage to see a person treated the way the victim of the story was treated (she was against all oppression and violation of rights, after all) and would have felt a desire to help.

(By the way, in such a real-life scenario, it would be right for the victim to offer to pay back his rescuer.  Then it would be up to the rescuer to accept or to refuse the reimbursement.)

By helping him, the Samaritan satisfied his own sense of justice and fulfilled his natural human feelings of empathy.  That’s the main thing that he got out of it, if you exclude the spiritual reward promised by Jesus.  The Samaritan also put himself in a position to receive help from other people if he were ever in such a situation, since people are always more willing to help those in need.  As I mentioned before, she would have been outraged at the crime that took place.  (She once said that her favorite show at one time was Charlie’s Angels because it was purely romantic entertainment.  It was a show about women tracking down criminals and bringing them to justice.)

What I Wish Rand Had Understood

First and foremost, I wish that Rand had understood that there really is a God, and that pleasing Him is our highest objective in life.  I wish that she would have understood the context surrounding the context of the story, which is that nobody is actually good enough to please God on their own.  The scribe who talked to Jesus wasn’t, which is what Jesus wanted him to see.  We are all at times like the priest and the Levite who refuse to be kind to others, and we can only really become like the Samaritan with God’s help, because He promises to change us–to make us better than we could ever be on our own.

Since Rand was all about rational self-interest, I wish that she could have seen that it would be the most self-interested thing that she could do to accept the Gospel, because the payoff is enormous.

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9 responses to “Ayn Rand and the Good Samaritan

  1. I think the political stuff about force is irrelevant to the parable – it says nothing about taxation or whose money is used, it says only that one should help another. I also think that it’s tricky to say only help those worthy of being helped. Think of the parable of the sheep and the goats (Matthew 25:31-46). It’s hard to imagine a “worth test” being part of that, especially when Jesus explicitly says ‘what you have done to the least of these”. Least seems to mean least worthy.

    As I understand most forms of Christianity, two main themes are that the spiritual is far more important than the material, and one should treat others with love at all times. I do not think these mesh at all with Rand’s approach.

    • Scott,
      Jesus suggested “Worthy” is measured by the extent of that individual’s indulgences in not doing evil – not the economic value of their wallet.

      Rand did not dismiss as you suggest either. She provided a rational to why such things are done – one loves to be loved, one helps to be helped.

      The Samaritan had empathy not just sympathy. He saw himself in the plight of the man – and no less than he would have helped himself in such a plight, he helped that man. Rand understood this very well.

  2. Scott, exactly. This parable has pretty much nothing to do with politics. However, when people tell me that Christians should support government welfare because it is the “Christian” thing to do, they sometimes quote this parable to try to prove it.

    I do not agree with Rand about helping only those who are worthy, although I definitely think that there are people for whom “helping” is not helping. That is probably why Jesus stressed helping people individually. Unless the man by the side of the road is faking, it is clear that he really needs help, and because he was treated unjustly, you could say that he deserves it.

    I would say that the “least of these” means those who are truly in need–those who cannot help themselves but also those whom we might not think to help because of their apparent inferiority. (Apparent, because Jesus also taught that those who are in inferior positions now will be exalted and those in high positions now will be humbled.)

  3. personalfailure

    Ayn Rand was opposed to altruism in any form for any reason which is something she did say, repeatedly. Any attempt to reconcile the story of the good Samaritan with Randian philosophy is impossible.

    • PersonalFailure:

      There is nothing about altruism in the story of the Samaritan – the Samaritan did not “renunciation of his self” – he was “charitable – “benevolent giving and caring”.

  4. I agree it wasn’t about altruism, but for a different reason. The self isn’t truly benefited by hoarding things of the world — material objects. For Jesus the Spirit is more important. Doing what’s against your material self-interest may be in your true self-interest.

  5. Neither Jesus nor us here know the mind of the Samaritan nor his reasons.

    We only know the action.

  6. Well, since it was a story Jesus made up, I suspect he had the capacity to attribute whatever he wanted to the thinking of the good Samaritan! It was a parable, after all.

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