Letter 087, pg. 2

2.

“Men are imperfect, so they’ll never work for anything but money, so capitalism is best, isn’t this sad?—communism is really the moral ideal, but human nature can never live up to it, etc. etc.” Say that to men—and they will kill themselves and others and destroy the world in order to reach the ideal. Look at them. They are doing a thorough job of it at this moment. 

I find—in the horror of the present time and in the horror of man’s past history—not a proof of man’s essential evil, but a great and tragic proof of his essential morality, that is, his determination to act according to what he considers as right. Altruism (the conception of living for others as a virtue) has been preached as mankind’s moral ideal for centuries. And all the great horrors of history have been committed in the name of an altruistic purpose. After each disaster men have said: “The ideal was right, but Robespierre was the wrong man to put it into practice” (or Torquemada, or Cromwell, or Lenin, or Hitler, or Stalin) and have gone on to try it again. At the price of incredible suffering and rivers of blood, mankind has stuck to the pursuit of its alleged moral ideal—surely a demonstration of men’s moral instinct. But we look on and say: “This noble ideal is beyond human nature, because men are imperfect and evil.” 

Isn’t it time to stop and to question that noble ideal instead? 

America has been living on a kind of double-standard, a terrible basic contradiction. We have functioned, in economics, on the principle of individualism—and achieved miracles. We have held, in spirit, a collectivist ideal—and achieved world disaster. Altruism is collectivism by definition. (You must live for others. Others are the State, the class, the race or whatever. You must live for the collective. You must live for the State.) We could go on with this contradiction for a while, but since man is a moral being the consequences were bound to catch up with us. They have. 

Men grew prosperous, happy, successful under our system of individualism. But since they held as virtue the ideal of living for others, their own success gave them a feeling of guilt. The richer they grew, the guiltier they felt. They could not find the proper spiritual pride, peace and sense of fulfillment—which an act of virtue gives us—in their own achievement. Achievement was not a moral act. Self-sacrifice was. The more they achieved, the more they felt a need to apologize and atone for it