This essay was originally published in the June 1966 issue of The Objectivist and later anthologized in The Voice of Reason: Essays in Objectivist Thought (1989).
Many students of Objectivism are troubled by a certain kind of moral dilemma confronting them in today’s society. [I am] frequently asked the questions: “Is it morally proper to accept scholarships, private or public?” and: “Is it morally proper for an advocate of capitalism to accept a government research grant or a government job?”
I shall hasten to answer: “Yes” — then proceed to explain and qualify it. There are many confusions on these issues, created by the influence and implications of the altruist morality.
1. There is nothing wrong in accepting private scholarships. The fact that a man has no claim on others (i.e., that it is not their moral duty to help him and that he cannot demand their help as his right) does not preclude or prohibit good will among men and does not make it immoral to offer or to accept voluntary, non-sacrificial assistance.
It is altruism that has corrupted and perverted human benevolence by regarding the giver as an object of immolation and the receiver as a helplessly miserable object of pity who holds a mortgage on the lives of others — a doctrine which is extremely offensive to both parties, leaving men no choice but the roles of sacrificial victim or moral cannibal. A man of self-esteem can neither offer help nor accept it on such terms.
As a consequence, when people need help, the best of them (those who need it through no fault of their own) often prefer to starve rather than accept assistance — while the worst of them (the professional parasites) run riot and cash in on it to the full. (For instance, the student “activists’’ who, not satisfied with free education, demand ownership of the university as well.)
To view the question in its proper perspective, one must begin by rejecting altruism’s terms and all of its ugly emotional aftertaste — then take a fresh look at human relationships. It is morally proper to accept help, when it is offered not as a moral duty, but as an act of good will and generosity, when the giver can afford it (i.e., when it does not involve self-sacrifice on his part), and when it is offered in response to the receiver’s virtues, not in response to his flaws, weaknesses, or moral failures, and not on the ground of his need as such.
Scholarships are one of the clearest categories of this proper kind of help. They are offered to assist ability, to reward intelligence, to encourage the pursuit of knowledge, to further achievement — not to support incompetence.
If a brilliant child’s parents cannot send him through college (or if he has no parents), it is not a moral default on their part or his. It is not the fault of “society,” of course, and he cannot demand the right to be educated at someone else’s expense; he must be prepared to work his way through school, if necessary. But this is the proper area for voluntary assistance. If some private person or organization offers to help him, in recognition of his ability, and thus to save him years of struggle — he has the moral right to accept.
The value of scholarships is that they offer an ambitious youth a gift of time when he needs it most: at the beginning.
(The fact that in today’s moral atmosphere, those who give or distribute scholarships are often guilty of injustices and of altruistic motives, does not alter the principle involved. It represents their failure to live up to the principle; their integrity is not the recipient’s responsibility and does not affect his right to accept the scholarship in good faith.)
2. A different principle and different considerations are involved in the case of public (i.e., governmental) scholarships. The right to accept them rests on the right of the victims to the property (or some part of it) which was taken from them by force.
The recipient of a public scholarship is morally justified only so long as he regards it as restitution and opposes all forms of welfare statism. Those who advocate public scholarships have no right to them; those who oppose them have. If this sounds like a paradox, the fault lies in the moral contradictions of welfare statism, not in its victims.
Since there is no such thing as the right of some men to vote away the rights of others, and no such thing as the right of the government to seize the property of some men for the unearned benefit of others — the advocates and supporters of the welfare state are morally guilty of robbing their opponents, and the fact that the robbery is legalized makes it morally worse, not better. The victims do not have to add self-inflicted martyrdom to the injury done to them by others; they do not have to let the looters profit doubly, by letting them distribute the money exclusively to the parasites who clamored for it. Whenever the welfare-state laws offer them some small restitution, the victims should take it.
It does not matter, in this context, whether a given individual has or has not paid an amount of taxes equal to the amount of the scholarship he accepts. First, the sum of his individual losses cannot be computed; this is part of the welfare-state philosophy, which treats everyone’s income as public property. Second, if he has reached college age, he has undoubtedly paid — in hidden taxes — much more than the amount of the scholarship. Or, if his parents cannot afford to pay for his education, consider what taxes they have paid, directly or indirectly, during the twenty years of his life — and you will see that a scholarship is too pitifully small even to be called a restitution.
Third — and most important — the young people of today are not responsible for the immoral state of the world into which they were born. Those who accept the welfare-statist ideology assume their share of the guilt when they do so. But the anti-collectivists are innocent victims who face an impossible situation: it is welfare statism that has almost destroyed the possibility of working one’s way through college. It was difficult but possible some decades ago; today, it has become a process of close-to-inhuman torture. There are virtually no part-time jobs that pay enough to support oneself while going to school; the alternative is to hold a full-time job and to attend classes at night — which takes eight years of unrelenting twelve-to-sixteen-hour days, for a four-year college course. If those responsible for such conditions offer the victim a scholarship, his right to take it is incontestable — and it is too pitifully small an amount even to register on the scales of justice, when one considers all the other, the nonmaterial, nonamendable injuries he has suffered.
The same moral principles and considerations apply to the issue of accepting social security, unemployment insurance, or other payments of that kind. It is obvious, in such cases, that a man receives his own money which was taken from him by force, directly and specifically, without his consent, against his own choice. Those who advocated such laws are morally guilty, since they assumed the “right” to force employers and unwilling coworkers. But the victims, who opposed such laws, have a clear right to any refund of their own money — and they would not advance the cause of freedom if they left their money, unclaimed, for the benefit of the welfare-state administration.
3. The same moral principles and considerations apply to the issue of government research grants.
The growth of the welfare state is approaching the stage where virtually the only money available for scientific research will be government money. (The disastrous effects of this situation and the disgraceful state of government-sponsored science are apparent already, but that is a different subject. We are concerned here only with the moral dilemma of scientists.) Taxation is destroying private resources, while government money is flooding and taking over the field of research.
In these conditions, a scientist is morally justified in accepting government grants — so long as he opposes all forms of welfare statism. As in the case of scholarship recipients, a scientist does not have to add self-martyrdom to the injustices he suffers. And he does not have to surrender science to the Dr. Floyd Ferrises [this refers to a villain in Atlas Shrugged who is a government scientist].
Government research grants, for the most part, have no strings attached, i.e., no controls over the scientist’s intellectual and professional freedom (at least, not yet). When and if the government attempts to control the scientific and/or political views of the recipients of grants, that will be the time for men of integrity to quit. At present, they are still free to work — but, more than any other professional group, they should be on guard against the gradual, insidious growth of pressures to conform and of tacit control-by-intimidation, which are implicit in such conditions.
4. The same moral principles and considerations apply to the issue of taking government jobs.
The growth of government institutions has destroyed an incalculable number of private jobs and opportunities for private employment. This is more apparent in some professions (as, for instance, teaching) than in others, but the octopus of the “public sector” is choking and draining the “private sector” in virtually every line of work. Since men have to work for a living, the opponents of the welfare state do not have to condemn themselves to the self-martyrdom of a self-restricted labor market — particularly when so many private employers are in the vanguard of the advocates and profiteers of welfare statism.
There is, of course, a limitation on the moral right to take a government job: one must not accept any job that demands ideological services, i.e., any job that requires the use of one’s mind to compose propaganda material in support of welfare statism — or any job in a regulatory administrative agency enforcing improper, non-objective laws. The principle here is as follows: it is proper to take the kind of work which is not wrong per se, except that the government should not be doing it, such as medical services; it is improper to take the kind of work that nobody should be doing, such as is done by the F.T.C., the F.C.C., etc.
But the same limitation applies to a man’s choice of private employment: a man is not responsible for the moral or political views of his employers, but he cannot accept a job in an undertaking which he considers immoral, or in which his work consists specifically of violating his own convictions, i.e., of propagating ideas he regards as false or evil.
5. The moral principle involved in all the above issues consists, in essence, of defining as clearly as possible the nature and limits of one’s own responsibility, i.e., the nature of what is or is not in one’s power.
The issue is primarily ideological, not financial. Minimizing the financial injury inflicted on you by the welfare-state laws, does not constitute support of welfare statism (since the purpose of such laws is to injure you) and is not morally reprehensible. Initiating, advocating, or expanding such laws is.
In a free society, it is immoral to denounce or oppose that from which one derives benefits — since one’s associations are voluntary. In a controlled or mixed economy, opposition becomes obligatory — since one is acting under force, and the offer of benefits is intended as a bribe.
So long as financial considerations do not alter or affect your convictions, so long as you fight against welfare statism (and only so long as you fight it) and are prepared to give up any of its momentary benefits in exchange for repeal and freedom — so long as you do not sell your soul (or your vote) — you are morally in the clear. The essence of the issue lies in your own mind and attitude.
It is a hard problem, and there are many situations so ambiguous and so complex that no one can determine what is the right course of action. That is one of the evils of welfare statism: its fundamental irrationality and immorality force men into contradictions where no course of action is right.
The ultimate danger in all these issues is psychological: the danger of letting yourself be bribed, the danger of a gradual, imperceptible, subconscious deterioration leading to compromise, evasion, resignation, submission. In today’s circumstances, a man is morally in the clear only so long as he remains intellectually incorruptible. Ultimately, these problems are a test — a hard test — of your own integrity. You are its only guardian. Act accordingly.