As I understand, objectivism is against altruism. If a stranger is drowning in a lake and I know how to swim I can try to help and risk my own life in doing so. The person might cling to me and drown me. So according to my rational self-interest, I should not go and protect myself.

Problem is: if I were in the drowning position I would be hoping that there were someone to be altruistic enough to jump and save me.

Accidents can happen to anyone, including to objectivists. How do they solve this paradox?


First, Objectivist principles are intended to be rational guidelines for maximizing long-term happiness. Accidents and emergencies are, by definition, exceptional events, and behavioral principles aren't always applicable.

Secondly, Objectivism is against altruism in the sense of an obligation to sacrifice to others. It isn't globally opposed to acts of kindness or charity.

The traditional objectivist answer to the question is that an Objectivist bystander should make as well-informed assessment of the risk of providing aid, compared to the value the other's life holds in relation to the objectivist, and act accordingly. This judgement can't be made by anybody other than the individual, because only they know their values.

An objectivist who is drowning would call for help, in the hope that others would save him (i.e., believe that the drowner's value is worth the risk). It would be wrong for the drowner to believe that the bystanders had a moral duty to risk death to save him, but not wrong at all for him to appeal for freely given assistance.

Personally, I think that a practical objectivist incorporates a little bit of game theory into their behavior, and knows that a some minor assistance to others as a general rule can grease the spokes of society... again, as long as it's freely given and reciprocal.

  • This seems correct to me, even if I would not choose to associate with people who behave this way. Therein lies a deeper problem: it can have value to an objectivist to not be an objectivist so that others trust them.
    – Rex Kerr
    Mar 19 '15 at 20:26
  • @RexKerr If a person is going to act altruistically with respect to a particular issue, it is not necessarily in the Objectivist's interest to deal with that person on that issue. The sacrifice leads to problems for the person doing the sacrificing that may make him worse as a partner for cooperation. And finding terms on which to deal with somebody who doesn't want to gain anything because he regards it as morally wrong is difficult.
    – alanf
    Mar 20 '15 at 9:36
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    I should probably add to my answer that fact that personally, although I lean Objectivist, I would jump in to rescue a stranger unless circumstances were dangerous enough the risk of both of us drowning was high. It's very beneficial to me and my loved ones to live in a society where that sort of emergency assistance is the norm, and it doesn't work to expect that from others unless I'm willing to contribute as well. The key point is that it's freely given, not a moral imperative. Mar 20 '15 at 15:44
  • @alanf - (This reminds me of the answer on SE.SF about why Gandalf confuses Sauron.) If an objectivist can be counted on to not act altruistically, then it is not necessarily in the interest of the altruistic to deal with the objectivist on any issue. There are lots of people around. Why do something important with someone who you know will abandon you whenever it seems to them inconvenient to help you? Yes, yes, you can write up a contract and hope that you covered everything, but why bother if you have anyone with a more cooperative attitude around?
    – Rex Kerr
    Mar 20 '15 at 20:41
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    @RexKerr - In a practical sense, it doesn't make a huge difference. Generally, an Objectivist or non-Objectivist would behave the same in this case... hold out their hand and save the guy's life. Where it can make a difference is in extensions of this scenario. How about giving food to a starving man? How about helping out people without healthcare insurance? There comes a point where the difference between acting on an obligation (altruism) and a self-interested value (objectivism) become important. There are cases where altruistic philosophies consider the impractical as imperative. Mar 20 '15 at 22:36

if you have no training, trying to rescue a drowning person with no equipment in deep water is actually dangerous. they aren't thinking straight and may drown you.

but let's assume rescuing them is only a tiny risk. then go ahead. life is full of risks. if you ride in a car you could die in a car crash. trying to avoid all risk would be silly. you don't need a big benefit to accept a tiny risk. it's up to you if you want to rescue them. if you value human life, then that's a reason to do it since you want to see the guy healthy. if you like people in general, and you have a way to be a big help to someone at a low cost, then you can do it, go ahead. there's nothing in Objectivism to outlaw this (nor strictly mandate it. but Objectivists respect human life. so if it's a tiny cost, well, can't you afford it? Objectivists ought to be productive and be able to afford tiny costs to promote their values.).

it's great to look for opportunities to trade mutual benefit in general. if you had more time maybe you'd ask him to pay you $10 to help. but you're in a hurry. you could ask him afterwards. i bet he'd give you $10 if you really care, or perhaps he'll volunteer some other reward for you. but $10 is so small compared to a life that it's not a big concern here, nor is the $10 of effort and risk this cost you. (it depends on the scenario parameters. if it costs you $5000 of effort and risk, then that could harm your own life, and he might not pay you back after you save him, so you have to consider what you want to do.)


Rand wrote an essay called "emergency ethics." It is good! Check it out.

Personally, I disagree with her. Altruism is part of the game-theory of teamwork. Altruism was repurposed in our evolutionary history from---just for the child---to the team as well at some point. Altruism is selected for under darwinian conditions.

In group conditions, if someone is not altruistic then they are going to be excluded from the group---because the group takes it as a sign of acceptable behavior. This is why Rand was so shocking to most people. She is going against their instincts. Her instinct towards being a gadfly was probably combined with some level of autism.

I agree that altruism is not a teleological principle. It is a short-term heuristic in a scenario. Teleologically, the "inclusive reproductive fitness" of the species is the principle by which our heuristical instincts evolved. You can live in harmony with your instincts or you can start hacking at them. Nature does not care what you do, but nature will be selecting the people who don't do this. Rand would dispute what I'm saying with an argument for tabula rasa but I think she was a terrible biologist (and biology is my degree). For example, she often doubted the theory of evolution.

Rand's parents incurred a great cost sending her to America. She was incapable of recognizing the sacrifices her parents made as part of her philosophy. Her philosophy is childless because it assumes that altruism is a teleological motivating principle. This is ridiculous and stupid---like the people who call for sacrifice while holding a pan for the blood. Rand correctly identified the predatory nature of human beings calling for altruism. She just made the mistake of diagnosing the enemy philosophically. People are much dumber than she gives them credit for. James Taggart is a ridiculous character for this reason.


Depends on the relationship you have with the person drowning and your skill to swim. Objectivism doesn't suspend reason. Altruism does suspend reason, so you have two drowned victims if the only choice was to jump in and you can't swim either. Now if it is your kid or someone dear that you cannot live without then objectivists risk it all, that's in their self interest since love is something of the highest value. However, it is all within reason, your life just isn't something to discard, which altruism does.

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    You need to explain why altruism suspends reason in such a way that you should kill yourself when you can't even help. That's not what most people mean by "altruism".
    – Rex Kerr
    Mar 19 '15 at 20:24
  • You might have a non-zero chance of being able to help. Altruism counts that as a reason to help. And if you have a high chance of dying that doesn't matter because you're not supposed to consider the benefit or lack thereof to you of taking the action.
    – alanf
    Mar 20 '15 at 9:30
  • @alanf - Dying with little hope of helping someone prevents you from helping anyone else.
    – Rex Kerr
    Mar 21 '15 at 2:22

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