Toohey’s five strategies of altruism

The ethics of altruism holds that others are the standard of value. One is good to the extent one puts the interests of other first, acts to achieve their interests, and, when necessary, sacrifices one’s interests for their sake.

fountainhead-50x83In The Fountainhead, Ellsworth Toohey is the major strategist of altruism, and in my reading he uses five distinct variants of altruism to achieve his ends:

(1) Altruism as a policy of collectivism for the purpose of mutual self support;

(2) Altruism as a tactic of the weak to protect themselves against the strong;

(3) Altruism as a tactic of the weak to get support from the strong;

(4) Altruism as a strategy of the weak to get power over the strong in order to rule them; and

(5) Altruism as a strategy by the weak to destroy the strong out of envy, hatred, or revenge.

History provides many examples of Type 1 altruism, in, for example, religious communities that isolate themselves and live communally. The key organizing concepts of such communities are collective assets, solidarity, and conformity.

In The Fountainhead, Type 1 is combined with Type 2 in the official philosophy Ellsworth Toohey uses when preaching to the masses — for example in his speech to the strikers of the building-trades union (I:9). The key concepts in Toohey’s speech are unity and brotherhood for its own sake, on the one hand; and on the other the aggression of the owners and the consequent role of unions as a self-protection agency to fight back.

Type 3 altruism appears less in The Fountainhead, e.g., in the tactics Keating’s mother uses to live vicariously, both psychologically and — later in the novel — materially, through him. (It is much more developed in Atlas Shrugged, e.g., in the strategy that Rearden’s mother and brother pursue to ensure that he will continue to support them.)

Type 4 altruism is the altruism of power-lust. One sub-plot of The Fountainhead is the battle between Gail Wynand and Toohey. Wynand pursues the common “master” power strategy of physical wealth and intimidation (e.g., of his business competitors), while Toohey’s strategy is to use psychological power. An example from late in the novel when Toohey explains his philosophy to Peter Keating, who is now an empty shell of a man:

“It’s only a matter of discovering the lever. If you learn how to rule one single man’s soul, you can get the rest of mankind. It’s the soul, Peter, the soul. Not whips or swords or fire or guns. That’s why the Caesars, the Attilas, the Napoleons were fools and did not last. We will. The soul, Peter, is that which can’t be ruled. It must be broken” (4:14).

Toohey’s particular tactics to achieve the strategy are designed to make the strong doubt themselves. Toohey elaborates in detail:

“There are many ways. Here’s one. Make man feel small. Make him feel guilty. Kill his aspiration and his integrity. . . . Preach selflessness. Tell man that he must live for others. Tell man that altruism is the ideal. Not a single one of them has ever achieved it and not a single one ever will. His every living instinct screams against it. But don’t you see what you accomplish? Man realizes that he’s incapable of what he’s accepted as the noblest virtue — and it gives him a sense of guilt, of sin, of his own basic unworthiness” (4:14).

Guilty individuals are weakened and much easier to manipulate and rule.

Type 5 altruism is the most disturbing case of altruism. Type 4 altruism is about achieving power in order to rule, but ruling is still a positive goal. Type 5 is about getting power as a means purely to destroy. Rand clearly sees it operative, but many readers wonder whether she exaggerates her enemies’ positions.

Rand provides many examples of Type 5 altruism in Atlas, especially in the characters Lillian Rearden and James Taggart. But it was first made explicit by Toohey when he explained to Keating the real purpose behind his communal organizing, his writings critical of individuality, and his promotion of mediocrities. When Keating whinily asks him what he really wants, Toohey snaps: “Howard Roark’s neck” — and then elaborates: “I don’t want to kill him. I want him in jail. You understand? In jail. In a cell. Behind bars. Locked, stopped, strapped — and alive” (4:13). Toohey has no positive goal: he only wants to destroy an outstanding man.

Toohey is a fictional character, so his words alone don’t have much evidentiary status. But plenty of real-life individuals give us the evidence we need to see Rand’s point:

augustine-50x68St. Augustine included the spectacle of Hell as one of the viewing pleasures for those in Heaven: “the good go out to see the punishment of the wicked . . . so as to witness the torments of the wicked in their bodily presence” (“The Saints’ Knowledge of the Punishment of the Wicked,” 426 CE).

Church father Tertullian exulted over his imagined destruction of the world and the torments of kings, philosophers, poets, and athletes in Hell:

tertullian-50x63“that last day of judgment, with its everlasting issues; that day unlooked for by the nations, the theme of their derision, when the world hoary with age, and all its many products, shall be consumed in one great flame! How vast a spectacle then bursts upon the eye! What there excites my admiration? What my derision? Which sight gives me joy? Which rouses me to exultation?—as I see so many illustrious monarchs, whose reception into the heavens was publicly announced, groaning now in the lowest darkness with great Jove himself, and those, too, who bore witness of their exultation; governors of provinces, too, who persecuted the Christian name, in fires more fierce than those with which in the days of their pride they raged against the followers of Christ. What world’s wise men besides, the very philosophers, in fact, who taught their followers that God had no concern in aught that is sublunary, and were wont to assure them that either they had no souls, or that they would never return to the bodies which at death they had left, now covered with shame before the poor deluded ones, as one fire consumes them! Poets also, trembling not before the judgment-seat of Rhadamanthus or Minos, but of the unexpected Christ! I shall have a better opportunity then of hearing the tragedians, louder voiced in their own calamity; of viewing the play-actors, much more ‘dissolute’ in the dissolving flame; of looking upon the charioteer, all glowing in his chariot of fire; of beholding the wrestlers, not in their gymnasia, but tossing in the fiery billows …” (De Spectaculis, written 197–200 CE).

aquinas50x69St. Thomas Aquinas echoed Augustine: “In order that the bliss of the saints may be more delightful for them and that they may render more copious thanks to God for it, it is given to them to see perfectly the punishment of the damned” (Summa Theologica, Supplement, Q. 94, Articles 1 and 3; written 1265–1274 CE).

And American “Great Awakening” leader, Jonathan Edwards gave a 1739 sermon entitled “The Eternity of Hell Torments” with the following disturbing affirmation:

edwards-jonathan-50x57“The sight of hell torments will exalt the happiness of the saints forever.” And: “Can the believing husband in Heaven be happy with his unbelieving wife in Hell? Can the believing father in Heaven be happy with his unbelieving children in Hell? Can the loving wife be happy in Heaven with her unbelieving husband in Hell? I tell you, yea! Such will be their sense of justice that it will increase rather than decrease their bliss.”

So Toohey is in “good” company, so to speak.

In a forthcoming journal article, “Egoism in Nietzsche and Rand,” I discuss these five strategies from The Fountainhead in fuller detail, Rand’s use of them in Atlas Shrugged, and I make connections and contrasts to Friedrich Nietzsche’s earlier harsh critique of altruism. The article is to be published in the next issue of The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies (Volume 10, Number 2).

[Update: “Egoism in Nietzsche and Rand” [pdf] was published in The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies 10:2, Spring 2009, 249-291.]

9 thoughts on “Toohey’s five strategies of altruism

  • September 29, 2009 at 8:31 am
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    There’s one that’s missing:
    Altruism as a weapon of the powerful to stay that way. They (the powerful) get to decide who they bestow with their largess and the “beneficiaries” are now beholden to the powerful.

  • September 29, 2009 at 9:54 am
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    Good point. That would be altruism combined with paternalism. A popular choice these days, yes?

  • September 30, 2009 at 10:13 am
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    In your forthcoming article, do you discuss the concept of “ressentiment” in connection with the Type 5 altruism? When I first read about this, I immediately thought of Toohey…

  • October 1, 2009 at 8:36 am
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    Ressentiment indeed. In the Nietzsche and Rand essay there’s an extended discussion of ressentiment and definitely application to Type 5.

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  • July 1, 2010 at 7:17 am
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    This one is missing too. Altruism as a strategy by the strong as a type of revenge on the other strong to protect the weak. In order to make things right. As a way for the strong to heal themselves for once being weak. Not so much to gain from the weak but from themselves. The whole doctor heal thyself mentality.

  • December 22, 2011 at 10:52 am
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    This is very pertinent to terrorism – the use of “altruism” to recruit vulnerable young men into committing heinous acts.

    I wish someone would specifically address this, how people like bin Laden have(had) their own material goods and took advantage of young men who had no hopes of marriage (check out Fort Hood shooter story) or integration into society. By both being the altruist in a position of power (bin Laden helping out poor lost souls) and convincing these young men to become altruists as the highest good because they have no other option to contribute to society, terrorism keeps happening.

    It is not about Islam, it is about individuals twisting others to their will by projecting compassion when there is only hate. Until the focus turns more to the psychology of cults and terrorism in terms of forcing altruism, Islam will continue to be vilified as the source instead of an incidental factor.

  • November 9, 2014 at 4:48 pm
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    Hi and thank you for the interesting article. I think your categories of ways in which altruism is used are interesting, but I’m not sure I agree with all of your examples.

    Firstly, I would include the concept of jealousy in #5. The difference between jealousy and envy is that the envious person wants what the rich person has while the jealous person simply wants to deprive the wealthy person of his riches whether he benefits or not. It is resentment towards those that are better-off but doesn’t necessarily include a desire for what the other person has. The jealous person is the person that will cut off his nose to spite his face. That, I think, really captures the spirit of the fifth type of altruism.

    As for the examples, I don’t think that your examples of point #5 really support the definition. In order for a writing to qualify as the fifth type of altruism, it must exhibit resentment and/or hatred of another person because of that person’s justly earned success. You gave examples of people exhibiting resentment and hatred, but not for altruistic reasons. If one person persecutes another, the latter is fully justified in hating the first. And, while glorifying in the former’s downfall is not an admirable activity, it is still not an activity connected to altruism. It would only properly be connected to altruism if the resentment was a resentment of the other person’s success, not if it was a resentment of the other person’s persecution of oneself.

  • November 10, 2014 at 3:20 pm
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    Mr. Hicks
    I came to this site because someone in a forum about Rand’s philosophy commented this article.

    First of all, see dictionary.com definition of altruism: “the principle or practice of unselfish concern for or devotion to the welfare of others (opposed to egoism ).” I’m sure that you practice altruism, at least, with friends and family members according to this definition.

    As I agree with Ayn Rand on this subject (I also reject that others demand by force altruism from me), I understand that she changed the original meaning of the word to make a point. I don’t agree with her on that tactic, but I agree on her intention to some extent.

    But in this article you used texts from Tertullian, St Agustine and St Thomas that were written for different purposes to demonstrate how these authors defended that notion of type 5 of altruism that you presented. Those texts are irrelevant to your point.

    Tertullian wrote that in a time where christians were persecuted and killed just because of their religion, and the text was to discourage christians to attend shows against christianity. (By the way, times have not changed for christians in many places but I don’t hear you defending their freedom).

    St Agustine and St Thomas wrote theirs to answer a very relevant and difficult question for christians. Do saints share any suffering with the damned? I celebrate that you have this interest in theology but you cannot find in those texts nothing that remotely suggests envy, hatred or revenge.

    I expected logic and rigorous reasoning from a Ph.D. I’m dissapointed.

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