I received this from Margaret Downey recently, about their meeting next Tuesday:
Science, Society and Sex:
An Evening Conversation With Faye Flam
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE APRIL 10, 2014
PHILADELPHIA — Popular science writer, reporter and journalist Faye Flam will participate in a live “actor’s studio-style” interview involving all things science, society, sex and so much more. The Tuesday, April 29, 2014,highly anticipated event starts at 7:00 PM in the large meeting room of the Ludington Library and is sponsored by The Freethought Society (FS).
FS President Margaret Downey will moderate and interview Flam on a wide variety of subjects relative to today’s science and social interaction in what will be an evening of conversation no one will want to miss. Audience participation will also be incorporated.
“We are excited to present Faye Flam in this unique setting,” Downey said from the FS offices. “This setup allows a casual conversation to flow, and with Faye’s extensive science and research background and down-to-earth approach to knowledge, it’ll be a fantastic evening. It is sure to be a fun, educational and enjoyable time.”
Flam is well-known in the Philadelphia area for her past science, evolution and contemporary columns in The Philadelphia Inquirer. She currently teaches science writing at Ursinus College and also holds the respected position of Writer in Residence. She has also written for WHYY/NewsWorks, The Washington Post, Science, The Economist, and Science News. She was recently awarded the National Center for Science Education’s “Friend of Darwin Award” for her Philadelphia Inquirer column “Planet of the Apes.” Flam is also a critic for the Knight Science Journalism Tracker.
The Tuesday, April 29, 2014 presentation starts at 7:00 PM in the large meeting room of the Ludington Library, located at 5 South Bryn Mawr Avenue, Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.
Don’t miss this exciting evening, which is free and open to the public.
I’m hoping to make it (I have not been to too many Freethought Society events recently, but I hope to change that in the future, being back in Philadelphia). If you are in the Philadelphia area and are free Tuesday night, come join us.
In the past, I have been convinced (or convincing) to go to a nearby bar for a drink or two after, and may do so again. If any of that sounds good to you, I hope to see you there.
I know, I know….I have not been keeping up with writing. The reasons for this are complicated and probably uninteresting to you, so I’ll just skip the laments and get to the goods.
OK, maybe not the goods. We’re talking about Ayn Rand here!
Last time, in chapter 3 (The Ethics of Emergencies), we continued with how we are, individually, the standard for our own ethic, yet somehow this is an “objectivist” ethic. This time, we are going to explore the nature of conflict in our competing interests.
Ayn Rand starts with an obvious issue
Some students of Objectivism find it difficult to grasp the Objectivist principle that “there are no conflicts of interests among rational men.”
Um, yes. I am having some problems with this principle. So I’m hoping Rand will sort it out.
Rand starts with a common example:
A typical question runs as follows: “Suppose two men apply for the same job. Only one of them can be hired. Isn’t this an instance of a conflict of interests, and isn’t the benefit of one man achieved at the price of the sacrifice of the other?”
This is, at least, a conflict in opportunity. There is an actual physical conflict here; only one man can get the job, not both. So, how is this not a conflict? In order to explain why, Rand presents us with four considerations. They are:
Let’s look at each briefly. OK, I’ll strive for brevity, anyway. (I failed)
A man’s “interests” depend on the kind of goals he chooses to pursue, his choice of goals depends on his desires, his desires depend on his values—and, for a rational man, his values depend on the judgment of his mind.
Again, Rand is relying on this distinction between reason and whim (as we saw in all of the previous chapters, but especially chapter 1), a distinction which is not as clear as she thought, and as many people still seem to think today.
The next paragraph contains this continued error, but follows with a point I agree with.
Desires (or feelings or emotions or wishes or whims) are not tools of cognition; they are not a valid standard of value, nor a valid criterion of man’s interests. The mere fact that a man desires something does not constitute a proof that the object of his desire is good, nor that its achievement is actually to his interest.
Again, I disagree that desires, emotions, and “whims” are ontologically separate from reason. They can be different in structure, but we must be careful not to think that they come from different places; our reasons ultimately come from our desires, subjectivity, and whims, even if they actually do end up cohering with reality (the role of skepticism/science is to determine which ones actually do cohere).
And, of course the fact that a person desires something is not sufficient to declare that it is good or in their (rational) interest.
To claim that a man’s interests are sacrificed whenever a desire of his is frustrated—is to hold a subjectivist view of man’s values and interests. Which means: to believe that it is proper, moral and possible for man to achieve his goals, regardless of whether they contradict the facts of reality or not. Which means: to hold an irrational or mystical view of existence. Which means: to deserve no further consideration.
What I think she means here is that you get the job, the sandwich, or the girl (yes, she uses this example later) because they have done the work to deserve it. There is no realization of the role of privilege, bias, etc that goes into who actually gets the job. Not that every person that gets a job got it because of these reasons, but ignoring the fact that we think we are being rational when we are being led by “whims” is really the Achilles heel of Objectivist “philosophy.”
This, once again, is simply the same type of magical thinking (a la The Secret) that she is decrying in the very same paragraph. That is, while saying that a mystical view of reality is not worthy of further consideration, she is using magical thinking and calling it rational. Also, once again, this philosophy is subjectivist to the core. Projecting your personal whims onto the wall and calling it rational, reasonable, and objective just does not work.
When a person reaches the stage of claiming that man’s interests conflict with reality, the concept “interests” ceases to be meaningful—and his problem ceases to be philosophical and becomes psychological.
To a philosophy geek, this looks like an homage to Logical Empiricism, but whether Rand was familiar with this or the closely related idea of logical positivism is not clear.
I do find it interesting, however, that she identifies where the conversation has left philosophy and became psychology. In my opinion, this discussion never left psychology at all. But because Rand believes that reason is ontologically (or perhaps merely epistemologically) distinct from desires, emotions, or whims, she thinks that she is actually leaving behind mere pulls of desire and flying into what? The Platonic realm of Ideas or Forms?
It seems that, for Rand, to be meaningful means to be separate from mere emotion, desire, and whim. These things are subject to psychological analysis, not philosophy. Reason and philosophy are dependent on each other, in some way. I disagree on all counts. Not only is desire, whim, and emotion relevant to philosophy, but reason is relevant to psychology. Moreover, Psychology and philosophy are relevant to one-another.
In any case, let’s move on.
Just as a rational man does not hold any conviction out of context—that is: without relating it to the rest of his knowledge and resolving any possible contradictions—so he does not hold or pursue any desire out of context. And he does not judge what is or is not to his interest out of context, on the range of any given moment.
The idea here is essentially to be internally consistent, mostly in the sense of not having any incongruity between various interests; don’t pursue an interest today which will conflict with another interest that will be relevant tomorrow. In short, a person “does not become his own destroyer by pursuing a desire today which wipes out all his values tomorrow.”
Which is all fine, and I have no quarrel with this. Later on, she further clarifies by saying that “a rational man never holds a desire or pursues a goal which cannot be achieved directly or indirectly by his own effort.” Here, it is the term “indirectly” which should hold our attention (she italicizes it in her own text). Let’s see why:
It is with a proper understanding of this “indirectly” that the crucial social issue begins.
So, since Rand has been somewhat quiet about how social issues come into play, my ears perks up (metaphorically, or course) when I read this. She continues.
Living in a society, instead of on a desert island, does not relieve a man of the responsibility of supporting his own life. The only difference is that he supports his life by trading his products or services for the products or services of others. And, in this process of trade, a rational man does not seek or desire any more or any less than his own effort can earn. What determines his earnings? The free market, that is: the voluntary choice and judgment of the men who are willing to trade him their effort in return.
The idea is that we achieve some things directly, by our own efforts, but so long as we are acting rationally and trading (and not sacrificing or asking others to sacrifice), then we are, as a society, achieving the indirect effects of that rationality and trade. That is, if I’m acting according to my own interests and so are you, what we achieve together is deserved, Just, and earned by both of us.
This view is so idealistic, so optimistic, and in a strange way beautiful that I really want to believe it. when I first read Atlas Shrugged, this idea did tug at a part of me. It is a compelling vision, one which shares many of my values and which looks like a world worth working for.
I want to live in a world where people who value effort, responsibility, and (dare I say) fairness that this is their goal. However, when we actually look at those who argue for a free market, I don’t think this is what we get. This optimism of the human potential is not only unrealistic, but it fails to the same problems as before; separating rational interests from whims is a meaningless idea, and we merely end up rationalizing our whims and calling them “reason”.
This is a kind of bait-and-switch. Show me reason and fairness then when I move closer what I get is Ayn Rand’s own personal preferences, rationalized. It bothers me that Rand was unaware of the role of bias, emotion, and privilege in how we think rationally. Even when we are thinking rationally, and using empirical means to solve problems, we must pay attention to whim and irrationality because it is part of thinking rationally (for us humans, anyway) to be swayed by emotions and whims. Logic, after all, is only a tool to apply to the assumptions, feelings, and instincts we have. In the end, logic should weed out the bad ones, but not necessarily.
We cannot separate emotion and rational thought, fundamentally. We can follow the threads of skeptical thought, science, and logic to show which of our emotions, desires, and whims will lead us to a set of goals, values, etc which we want, but in the end all we will have is better emotions, desires, and whims, not some magical substance of reason pulled out of the void.
Reason, rationality, and logic are processes. They are the earned title that whims get when they pass the test of skeptical analysis. Not only are they relevant to ethics, value, etc, but without them ethics, value, and all the other things that matter could not exist at all. Every rational thought, conclusion, or worldview which has ever existed is fundamentally a whim. perhaps it’s not shared by everyone inherently, but that’s how they start. The ones that survive the tests are ones worth considering. The question is which one’s pass all the tests; individual (which is where Rand stops), interpersonal (the realm of ethics), social (the realm of policy, law, and morality), and universality (the supposed role of things like religion, Platonic philosophy, and any other attempt at objective truth, but really might just be a meaningless set).
I actually think that rational thought is just a specific kind of emotional experience, or at least a specific kind of subjective experience which includes emotion and rationality as part of a continuum. But it’s the kind of subjective experience which can be, with effort, sacrifice, and empathy, be shared through language and thus becomes intersubjective. The whims which can be communicated, agreed to, valued, and shared (which is what culture is) are the ones we can address as either rational or not, useful or not, or meaningful or not. But they are still whims; just not mere whims.
Let’s get back to Rand.
When a man trades with others, he is counting—explicitly or implicitly—on their rationality, that is: on their ability to recognize the objective value of his work. (A trade based on any other premise is a con game or a fraud.) Thus, when a rational man pursues a goal in a free society, he does not place himself at the mercy of whims, the favors or the prejudices of others; he depends on nothing but his own effort: directly, by doing objectively valuable work—indirectly, through the objective evaluation of his work by others.
If I were feeling nit-picky (and I am), I would quibble by saying that we recognize the intersubjective value of work. That is, it is work that starts out as subjectively valuable, but when someone else also recognizes the worth of that work, then it becomes intersubjective. At no point here did any objective perspective (like, for example a God) come into play here. There is nothing objective about any of this.
Aside from that quibble, this is all fine in general. It sounds nice, and gives the student of objectivism a warm fuzzy feeling in their chest, but it ignores the fundamental problem which I have been coming back to in this series of posts; there is a real, actual contradiction between selfishness and one’s ability to deal with other people. Our relationships are not mere trades, because to communicate and to interact is fundamentally a process which requires some level of sacrificing one’s “rational” interests. We have to give (potentially) undeserved effort to other people just to comprehend them enough to attempt to trade with them, in many cases.
Yes, we can merely trade goods, effort, and money without digging into the socially structural issues involved, but we can only then trade with those sufficiently similar to us, which leads to the balkanization of social networks. If we seek to trade ideas, goods, etc with a wide range of people, cultures, etc then we need to give more of ourselves.
We cannot understand our privilege, bias, or assumptions without spending some significant time putting other people’s concerns, ideas, and worldviews before our own. The very ability to have empathy, concern, or effort towards social justice of any kind is very difficult while being selfish. The only way one can agree with a position of social justice while being selfish is when the conclusion of the work of social justice happens to cohere with their selfish needs. But what happens when our selfish interests causes dissonance with the idea of social justice? Well, without giving up on selfish interest, all that can happen is self-justification, defensiveness, and rationalization for one’s place of privilege.
A selfish person can parrot the conclusions, enjoy the fruits of, and march along side the empathetic social justice people, but it will be at least partially a charade (perhaps even to oneself while doing it) because the very problem of bias and privilege is founded in the selfish impulse, along with the cognitive dissonance which must accompany it. I’ve known too many people who agree with social justice conclusions, but simply miss the boat when it comes to how what they do violates social justice, whether it takes the form of misogyny, bullying, or harassment.
Back to Ayn Rand. Is there any surprise that those fond of Ayn Rand look down upon social justice? Can there be any doubt that a selfish person could never be more than a poser if they espouse concern for social justice? Could such a person ever really internalize the fundamental concept of social justice outside of where the progress that such social movements coincide with their interests? It’s fine, for example, to have a person who sits on the side of social justice, so long as when it is them who is the perpetrator of some harm they don’t recoil behind a wall of defensiveness, excuses, and rationalization–if not out-right denial that they did anything wrong!
And no, I’m not an exception to such criticism. We all make mistakes, an hopefully we all learn from them. But we have to first be aware that there is a problem, before we can fix anything. We all have to be vigilant, honest, and open to criticism. This criticism, like all my criticism, is aimed at specific people, humanity in general, and at myself. We’re, everyone’s, susceptible.
But, I’m getting caught up in a tangent.
Most people hold their desires without any context whatever, as ends hanging in a foggy vacuum, the fog hiding any concept of means. They rouse themselves mentally only long enough to utter an “I wish,” and stop there, and wait, as if the rest were up to some unknown power.
The idea here is simply a continuation of her criticism that many people hold a magical view about reality in which the help that “welfare states” and such seem to want the help to come from somewhere, somehow. She makes reference to the author of chapter 2 (and some later chapters) Nathaniel Brand in saying that “‘somehow” always means “somebody.'” The implication is that if someone is needy, someone else has to help. Well, yes.
But I found this to be interesting.
But humility and presumptuousness are two sides of the same psychological medal. In the willingness to throw oneself blindly on the mercy of others there is the implicit privilege of making blind demands on one’s masters.
Yes, the entitlement of the needy that we, the masters, should give them crumbs off our table! Not every need is a demand. Not every request for fairness is a demand. The fact that it feels like a demand to them should tell us something about them, although I don’t know exactly what.
What I find interesting here is the use of the term “privilege.” I don’t know enough about the history of the social justice movement to know if this term was used in the way I use it back in 1964, but the association between entitlement and privilege is more complicated than this presentation. Sometimes, the masters take more than they should, while thinking they are taking their fair share, and what ends up happening is inequality that to the “master” looks like justice. The master works harder, hence why they are the master. They are blind to the fact that their taking more than they actually deserve creates a tension which the “entitled” person making “demands” understands better than they do.
This, in essence, is a rationalization for the “Haves” to feel superior to the “Have-nots.” Not because they necessarily deserve it…but since one cannot have without deserving it (“reality”), then I suppose they do necessarily deserve it. Or something. And if one does not have it, then that’s because of “reality” as well. Thus, for those interested in social justice who ask for “handouts,” it is a demand that the masters, who are just following “reality” and understanding “context”, it would be irresponsible to give it to them because they don’t deserve it. Isn’t rationalization great!
Since a rational man knows that man must achieve his goals by his own effort, he knows that neither wealth nor jobs nor any human values exist in a given, limited, static quantity, waiting to be divided. He knows that all benefits have to be produced, that the gain of one man does not represent the loss of another, that a man’s achievement is not earned at the expense of those who have not achieved it.
Yes, because resources and money are not limited resources. If we all are reasonable, rational, etc then we can all be wealthy, eradicate conflict, and never have to give up on any of our interests. That doesn’t have any contradictions at all.
But this essay has been a little lass straw-man focused, so let’s not ignore this:
It is only the passive, parasitical representatives of the “humility metaphysics” school who regard any competitor as a threat, because the thought of earning one’s position by personal merit is not part of their view of life. They regard themselves as interchangeable mediocrities who have nothing to offer and who fight, in a “static” universe, for someone’s causeless favor.
She goes on in that vein for a while, and it’s all the same trite as before so we don’t have to address it. But then Ayn Rand says something that will sound familiar to those of us in the polyamory community.
He knows also that there are no conflicts of interests among rational men even in the issue of love. Like any other value, love is not a static quantity to be divided, but an unlimited response to be earned. The love for one friend is not a threat to the love for another, and neither is the love for the various members of one’s family, assuming they have earned it. The most exclusive form—romantic love—is not an issue of competition. If two men are in love with the same woman, what she feels for either of them is not determined by what she feels for the other and is not taken away from him. If she chooses one of them, the “loser” could not have had what the “winner” has earned.
Notice that she says “if she chooses one of them,”which could be taken to mean if she chooses either of them or only one of them. I do not know Rand’s views on monogamy (her books seem to espouse some sort of sexual freedom, but not polyamory per se), but this certainly leaves room for nonmonogamy. This is interesting because she seems to have this notion that values, including love, are essentially infinite. This is an idea that has persists throughout the poly community, as we can see from the infinity heart symbol which was the inspiration for the PolySkeptic logo (in combination with the Dawkins scarlet A).
But she also seems to think that resources are limited. Because while love, as well as other values, may be unlimited (which is debatable), the resources for economic growth and prosperity are not unlimited, and so wealth must either be distributed (whether through planned economies of free markets) unevenly or evenly. I am not sure if Rand thought it was possible to have an egalitarian outcome of economics through her Objectivism, but what is clear is that she thinks that the level of inequality that existed then (and it has grown worse since) was Just. People have what they have because they deserve that.
Ah, Just-world fallacies….
So, what’s the conclusion?
Now let us return to the question originally asked—about the two men applying for the same job—and observe in what manner it ignores or opposes these four considerations.
(a) Reality. The mere fact that two men desire the same job does not constitute proof that either of them is entitled to it or deserves it, and that his interests are damaged if he does not obtain it.
(b) Context. Both men should know that if they desire a job, their goal is made possible only by the existence of a business concern able to provide employment—that that business concern requires the availability of more than one applicant for any job—that if only one applicant existed, he would not obtain the job, because the business concern would have to close its doors—and that their competition for the job is to their interest, even though one of them will lose in that particular encounter.
(c) Responsibility. Neither man has the moral right to declare that he doesn’t want to consider all those things, he just wants a job. He is not entitled to any desire or to any “interest” without knowledge of what is required to make its fulfillment possible.
(d) Effort. Whoever gets the job, has earned it (assuming that the employer’s choice is rational). This benefit is due to his own merit—not to the “sacrifice” of the other man who never had any vested right to that job. The failure to give to a man what had never belonged to him can hardly be described as “sacrificing his interests.”
I don’t want to live in Ayn Rand’s world. It’s not that I think her ideal vision is ugly, per se, it’s just that her world is fantasy. She rationalizes what is a real set of conflicts by calling them deserved fruits. She is blind to the fact that rationality cannot be divorced from emotion, bias, whim, and emotion generally. She’s blind to the fact that as a result of this inability to divorce these things, she is rationalizing her own whims into “objective” reality. She’s blind to her own magical thinking, which is exactly the Just-world fallacy, which is essentially the same as victim-blaming.
At bottom, again, her Objectivism is sophomoric philosophy. It’s dressed up subjectivist rationalization. It’s not stupidity but it is myopia. It sounds appealing (even occasionally to me), but all good rationalizations look good with it’s nice shiny new suit on! The Emperor has no clothes, Ayn Rand has no objective truth, and selfishness cannot be ethics The emperor’s garments , ideally, look rational, reasonable, and real but they are merely whims dressed up for a Halloween party, dressed as Reason.
Over the last couple of years, I’ve been circling back repeatedly to the questions around the intersections of anger, marginalization, oppression, and social justice. I came to it with a knee-jerk, “Of course it’s better to restrain your anger and express yourself calmly and civilly no matter the provocation” stance, born out of my own Stoic Peacekeeper personality and the cultural values I picked up from my white educated middle-class environment. I did a lot of listening to the arguments that challenge that stance, and because this is the way I develop my understanding of knotty ethical problems, I threw myself as completely as possible into the “an oppressed person should get to express themselves however they feel like, even if it sounds unreasonably hostile and aggressive to others” viewpoint. I argued that side to others and put myself into communities where it was the rule, to see what the outcomes of having that rule are.
Based primarily on those experiences, I’ve pulled back a little and am working on settling myself somewhere in the territory between those two stances. I’m still working on where, exactly, that will be. But it’s distressing to me that the majority of the conversation I hear about the issue is pretty much either “How dare you say hostile things you mean meanyface!” or “How dare you silence someone’s expression of anger, whatever [verbal] form it took!” So I loved this post by Aoife over at Consider the Tea Cosy, which had a practical and nuanced view, affirming the right of marginalized people to express anger, allowing that the anger is not always going to be contained to the immediate oppressors, and exhorting people on all sides to be aware of how much they don’t know about the people who are in the immediate vicinity.
Bits I particularly appreciated:
When the status quo is oppressive (it is), then staying neutral just keeps things as they are.
The status quo needs shaking up. Anger- even messy outbursts of I CAN’T FUCKING DEAL WITH THIS SHIT ANYMORE WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU PEOPLE DOING- shakes things up. Anger is a sign that someone’s been stressed to a breaking point. Anger reminds us that something is rotten. It knocks away a little of our complacency.
It has taken me a long time to really grasp that staying calm and absorbing emotional strain doesn’t always help situations. Sometimes it just allows really bad situations to linger far longer than they needed to. I will likely continue to struggle with this — stoic peacekeeper, over here. But I’ve been in enough situations where just quietly coping turned out to be a maladaptive strategy, and some anger, even messy and poorly-targeted anger, would have driven us much more quickly toward solutions.
While as oppressed people it’s often a good idea to focus our anger at appropriate targets when we can, when we are privileged it’s our responsibility to.. deal with it. Take some breaths. If we need to stew and simmer (we’re only human!), be careful about where we direct that hurt. Understand that whatever anger we’re receiving is magnified many times by the other crap the person has had to deal with. Accept that it’s not fair. It’s not fair for anyone involved.
I really like that she handles both sides of the coin here. The hurt I, as a privileged person (in a hypothetical scenario) feel from being lashed out at unfairly, is real. It counts. It’s not nothing. But it’s also (in this same hypothetical scenario) way less than the person doing the lashing-out has had to deal with, so it’s my responsibility to suck it up and cope in a way that doesn’t create more hurt for that person.
And then there’s the cases where maybe the hurt I feel isn’t way less, because of whatever shit I’ve got going on:
If the world were divided neatly into privileged and oppressed, we could all portion out how much anger we can take (and from who) and how much venting we get to do. It’s not, though. It’s messy- messier than our anger, messier than the hurt that leads to that anger or that results from it.
As people who are hurt and angry, intersectionality, I think, reminds us that other people could be dealing with things as opaque to us as our experiences are to them. There’s no such thing as the Last Acceptable Prejudice. All prejudices are the Last Acceptable Prejudices. While they all hurt us in different ways, the fact of that harm is always there. Vent if we need to, but understand that not-in-my-group doesn’t equal never-hurt, that not all things are visible to bystanders, and that this person might have a load of microaggressions of their own tipping them over an edge you never knew existed.
This is the piece of things that had me tearing my hair out when I was active in a heavily social-justice-oriented community. Situations would arise where one person’s hurt and anger and oppression redounded on another person in a way that aggravated that person’s hurt and anger and oppression, and trying to adjudicate those situations was frankly more than I was able to cope with, especially when I was one of the people being hurt.
Shock absorption: a model for looking at hurt and response
There are two different ways I’ve seen people look at anger, hurt, and response. The first is what I’ll call the “conflagration” model. People who love and trust each other, and have the right temperament for it, can get into screaming fights, yelling all over each other and maybe even breaking a dinner plate or two, and then once they’ve expressed themselves as loudly and fully as possible the anger dies down and they can hug and laugh and be close again. As far as I can tell (and I really don’t know, because this is an alien dynamic to me) the things each person said get filed away under “things I say when I’m angry” and both people know that they weren’t really meant, and don’t have a lasting hurtful impact. Maybe both people just grok that those are feelings expressed but not endorsed? The point is, in that model both people’s anger and hurt flares up like a bonfire, feeding on itself and growing for a while, and then naturally burning itself out and leaving very little residue to deal with.
Then there is what I’ll call the “shock absorption” model. In this one, hurtful things that were said and done while angry (or irritated or sleep-deprived or distracted) don’t go away… they react and rebound like shock waves. Jo, coming home from a shitty day at work, says something carelessly hurtful to Sal, who then has to do something with that hurt. Ze can bounce it right back to Jo, snapping back at hir, or ze can take it out on someone else, or ze can hold onto it and let it stew and fester, where it will likely gain momentum and fly out later at Jo or someone else with even more force. Any of these actions are going to cause an echoing effect, where the person who got hit by the rebound will then bounce it back to someone else, and on it goes. (If it’s just Jo and Sal volleying back and forth, hey presto! you have a fight.)
Sal can also do some conscious shock absorption, where ze thinks, “I know Jo is having a terrible time at work. I know Jo loves me and didn’t want to hurt me. I’m going to let that slide, and maybe bring it up later when Jo is in a better place to have a conversation about it.” This kind of shock absorption — reacting to hurt with understanding and patience — is what stops the endless cycle of hurt and anger rebounding all over the place. In the shock absorption model (which I think applies to any relationship where love, trust, and/or conflict-friendly temperaments are not firmly established, including nearly all the interactions social justice is concerned with) somebody, somewhere, has to do this before things will calm down. Often multiple people need to, as everybody takes deep breaths and works to get to a place of understanding and kindness.
A person’s ability to act as a shock absorber in this way is limited: by their temperament, by their maturity, and by the level of stress they’re currently under, including how much shock-absorption they’ve already been doing in the recent past. Once your shock pads are worn down, you’re back to Sal’s original choices in response to hurt: lash out (at the person who hurt you or someone else) or let it fester inside you, where it will only get worse and eventually emerge to do more damage. I didn’t mention it above, but sometimes if you go the “let it fester” route, the damage it does is to yourself and your own self-esteem. Taking on a lot of hurt and never dealing with or expressing it can eventually have you believing that you deserve to be treated badly, that you can’t expect any different in relationships, that this is just how things are.
When we’re talking about anger and social justice, asking a more privileged person to suck it up and deal with the occasional misdirected outburst is essentially saying, “The person who lashed out at you is likely near the end of their shock-absorption capacity. You have plenty left, so use it.” It’s saying, “One of the hazards of dealing with constant micro-aggressions is internalizing that sense of inferiority, starting to believe that you don’t deserve better. The person who lashed out at you is protecting themselves against that outcome; let them.” As long as you have some shock-absorption capacity left, it’s best to use it in those situations.
This is complicated by the fact that the apparently privileged person might also be at the end of their shock-absorption capacity, for any of a number of reasons (including having some invisible sources of marginalization.) This is what the third quote I pulled from Aoife’s post touches on. Saying, “you have to be the shock absorber here because you haven’t been hurt the way the other person has” is really, really upsetting — not to mention sometimes impossible to grant — when you’re staggering under the weight of your own stress and hurt.
And on the flip side, a lot of people who have the capacity to absorb hurt choose to rebound it instead. Absorption takes work, lashing back is easy. This is one reason I’m wary of the extreme “marginalized people get to express themselves however they want!” position. In some cases, I think it can turn into an abdication of any responsibility for acting as a shock absorber when you do have the capacity. This especially happens with people who are somewhere in the middle of the privilege ladder (assuming such a thing is a sensical concept, which it’s not, but it’ll do for the moment.) It is impossible to know what’s going on from outside: whether the person lashing out is doing so because their shocks are worn too thin, or just because they feel entitled to lash out. But I will say, that of the many and varied outbursts I’ve seen, statistically some of them are almost certainly being perpetrated by people who could have healthily chosen to absorb the hurt instead, and that just increases the strain on the system for everyone.
It’s even further complicated by the fact that, if you’re an internalizer, it can be hard to tell the difference between internalizing the hurt so that it festers, and absorbing it so that it dissipates. Impossible to tell the difference from the outside, and not always easy from the inside. If you’ve gone through most of your life acting as a shock absorber for other people, you can slide from “productively exercising patience and understanding” to “self-destructively internalizing hurt” without even noticing it. Another dynamic I’ve seen play out in social justice circles is that a bunch of people who tend to externalize are loudly rebounding hurt all over the place, while the people who tend to internalize are just getting quieter and quieter and eventually slip away from the circle, when they realize they’ve crossed that line and participation is becoming self-destructive. The people who externalize hurt are not always the ones most deeply hurt, but this tends not to get recognized in the conversations about anger and social justice.
Sometimes a situation is so tense that there’s just not enough shock absorption capacity to handle the level of hurt that’s bouncing around. When things get to this point, there’s nothing to be done except back away; any interaction is going to cause more damage, whether it’s internalized or externalized. If the connection is valuable enough, and the parties involved are able to replenish themselves elsewhere, they may be able to regroup and try again. But maybe not. I’m convinced that the main reason many relationships and communities fall apart is that the total shock absorption capacity of the group is worn too thin to handle the next wave of stressors.
Implications of the shock absorption model
What does this mean, both for social justice circles and for relationships? The guidelines I’m tentatively staking out are these:
In most situations, if you can be a shock absorber, do. If you can react to being hurt with patience, understanding, and kindness, and do so without damaging your own sense of self-worth, do that, because there are likely plenty of people in the situation whose capacity is lower than yours.
Recognize that for some people in some circumstances, letting hurt rebound so that it strikes someone else is the healthiest option. That doesn’t mean it’s a good thing, per se, but it’s the best way to deal with a bad situation. It also doesn’t mean that you personally deserve the attack that was sent your way. Draw a line between, “this person needed to vent their hurt toward me” and “I deserved what they said/did.” You don’t have to draw it publicly, in fact you shouldn’t. Just note that it’s true, and go seek reassurance and comfort somewhere else if you need to.
Work on being self-aware about when you absorb and when you don’t. If you’re an internalizer, get smart about the signs that you’re unhealthily internalizing rather than productively absorbing, and find ways to express your anger when you’ve hit the limit of your absorption capacity. If you’re an externalizer, don’t take “I get to express anger however I want” as carte blanche to throw your hurt around. Again, if you can be a shock absorber, do, because the fewer shock absorbers there are in a situation the more likely the whole group is to reach critical dissolution point.
Be wary of making judgements about how much absorption capacity the people around you have. The less you know them, the less clue you have about what’s going on with them and how thick their shock pads are at the moment. What matters (to you) is your hurt and how much you can take. You get to draw boundaries to protect yourself whether someone is willfully and carelessly throwing hurt around, or reacting in the only way possible to them.
When everybody’s shocks are wearing thin, the best thing to do is back away. Let everybody go off and replenish their emotional reserves. Sometimes, getting a situation resolved right now is not going to happen, and continued attempts are just going to wear everybody down even further. One of the sucky things about certain kinds of oppression is that it becomes very hard to find a retreat space where you’re not constantly being worn down by new stressors and microaggressions. This is part of why “safe spaces” are so important, and why people shouldn’t complain about being excluded from them. Having a space to vent and express and restore makes it easier for someone to come back and have a conversation that will be productive and healthy on both sides.
And my overall, foundational principle for these kinds of discussions: Be excellent to each other. We’re all hurting, in various ways and at various times. Wherever it’s possible, let’s do what we can to make less hurt, not more.
Welcome back! Real life and nicer weather has prevented me from writing this up, but this morning I will trudge along to get this out.
You may have noticed, from the title, that I’m skipping chapter 2 of The Virtue of Selfishness (entitled Mental Health versus Mysticism and Self-Sacrifice). This is for two reasons. The first is that this chapter was not written by Ayn Rand. Usually, this would not be especially important, since she did include it in the book (which was first published in 1964), but there is a note at the introduction (added in 1970) that said that Nathaniel Branden, the author of chapter 2’s contents, “is no longer associated with me, with my philosophy or with The Objectivist [Rand’s newsletter].” The extent to which the contents of chapter to are at odds with Rand’s thought after 1970 or so are unknown to me, and not especially relevant here.
The second reason is that the content of chapter 2 are somewhat repetitive, and covering it would largely be redundant from what I wrote in response to chapter 1.
In that case, onto chapter 3: The Ethics of Emergencies
In this essay, Rand returns to talking about how we should treat other people, while focusing on the distinction between normal life and emergency situations. Previously, I criticized Rand’s views about sacrifice, and here she gets more specific about what it means to sacrifice as a selfish individual. In essence, to help those we care about is not a sacrifice and we should not be morally required to help those with whom we have no interest in helping.
But before she gets there, she wants to make clear that questions about emergencies–whether a stranger drowning, a fire, etc–are a means by which ethics of altruism tries to propose ways to think about ethics which are problematic. She will, later in the essay, try to show why there is a difference between emergencies and normal life, but first she wants to address why the altruistic approach is problematic.
If a man accepts the ethics of altruism, he suffers the following consequences (in proportion to the degree of his acceptance):
1. Lack of self-esteem—since his first concern in the realm of values is not how to live his life, but how to sacrifice it.
Rand, as we saw in earlier posts (parts one, two, and three of my analysis of chapter 1), asserts that the altruist ethic creates a dichotomy between selfishness and sacrifice. I believe that she is as guilty as anyone for perpetuating this dichotomy, as I have already argued (and will not dwell on further, here).
The essential thing to notice here is that this dichotomy is present here at the start. Rand will address it more below, as we shall see.
2. Lack of respect for others—since he regards mankind as a herd of doomed beggars crying for someone’s help.
There are two problems here. The first is that there are beggars, and they are not in their predicament necessarily because they did not employ reason and selfishness enough, and are therefore not necessarily responsible for their having to beg. The second problem is that it assumes that people who do work hard and who are not begging might still need our help, because sometimes the world we create is unjust. The fact that someone needs our help does not mean they are trying to mooch off of us, necessarily.
Also, if it were the case that the world were full of beggars crying for help, thinking so would not be disrespectful. Rand’s contention here seems to be that he world is not full of such beggars, and that where there are such people it’s their fault for not applying reason, productivity, and self esteem. The idea here seems to be the the moral duty or impulse to help people must imply that those people are not capable of helping themselves, which would be an offensive idea to an Objectivist.
She wants us to assume that other people are capable of helping themselves, and for us to believe in that ability rather than give handouts to them. Fine, but this ignores the realities of poverty, its systematic causes, and the fact that capable people still struggle and need help. This ignorance is somewhat relevant to her next consequence of altruism.
3. A nightmare view of existence—since he believes that men are trapped in a “malevolent universe” where disasters are the constant and primary concern of their lives.
This gets back to another of Rand’s criticisms of altruism. Altruistic ethics, she claims, paints the world as made up on confrontation and unfairness. I would argue that her reaction to this is to paint the world as fundamentally fair, which is equally problematic. This is another dichotomy which she employs, and I believe that the reality of fairness in the world is more nuanced, and less Just than Rand describes.
As I have argued, Rand’s metaphysics seems similar to The Secret or to the Prosperity Gospel. The difference is that Rand does not ask for belief, faith, or altruistic giving as the action which will pay off; Rand believes that being reasonable and productive pays off with success. If you have not succeeded, its because you are not being reasonable, working hard, or are not maintaining self-esteem by jettisoning altruistic demands of sacrifice.
This is a kind of faith unto itself, and it is blind to both privilege and the power dynamics at the core of most human social relationships. To maintain this belief in the universe paying you back for being reasonable and working hard requires a kind of metaphysics similar to faith and belief in (again) The Secret, or perhaps more appropriately The Invisible Hand.
And then, to the point of the essay:
4. And, in fact, a lethargic indifference to ethics, a hopelessly cynical amorality—since his questions involve situations which he is not likely ever to encounter, which bear no relation to the actual problems of his own life and thus leave him to live without any moral principles whatever.
Well, perhaps with principles, just not “reasonable” ones. But let’s see her spell out the problem in full, and go from there.
By elevating the issue of helping others into the central and primary issue of ethics, altruism has destroyed the concept of any authentic benevolence or good will among men. It has indoctrinated men with the idea that to value another human being is an act of selflessness, thus implying that a man can have no personal interest in others—that to value another means to sacrifice oneself—that any love, respect or admiration a man may feel for others is not and cannot be a source of his own enjoyment, but is a threat to his existence, a sacrificial blank check signed over to his loved ones.
I will admit that after reading chapter 1, the interpretation she is decrying above is a reasonable one to make. Having read the book previously, I knew that she would reject such an interpretation, so I leveled my criticism with a different weapon than this simplistic caricature of egoism. There are still problems with her argument, but they are not so sophomoric as to be simply based in the simple inability to care about anyone else. My criticism in part 3 of my critique from before are still relevant here, especially when we consider people we are not already committed to and love.
The important distinction to point out here is that, for Rand, other people only matter insofar as their interests directly affect a person’s selfish interests. That is, value, meaning, etc are only relevant insofar as they come from my interests. If I care about you, you matter. If I don’t care about you, then you don’t matter.
Today, a great many well meaning, reasonable men do not know how to identify or conceptualize the moral principles that motivate their love, affection or good will, and can find no guidance in the field of ethics, which is dominated by the stale platitudes of altruism.
This present discussion is concerned with the principles by which one identifies and evaluates the instances involving a man’s nonsacrificial help to others.
So, helping others is not necessarily a sacrifice. So, what does “nonsacrificial help” look like, and what’s the line between sacrificial and nonsacrificial?
“Sacrifice” is the surrender of a greater value for the sake of a lesser one or of a nonvalue.
The rational principle of conduct is the exact opposite: always act in accordance with the hierarchy of your values, and never sacrifice a greater value to a lesser one.
Whereas altruism, at least in the “mystical” and ascetic caricature of altruism which Rand employs, asks us to give of ourselves with non-proportional levels of value. Never act in such a way where your interests are hurt more than you are helped. In essence, this is a sort of utilitarian calculation of your own interests, which may sometimes coincide with the interests of others. Again, the ethic never leaves the realm of self-interest, and so never actually becomes a question of morality (as far as I’m concerned, anyway).
What about love?
Love and friendship are profoundly personal, selfish values: love is an expression and assertion of self-esteem, a response to one’s own values in the person of another. One gains a profoundly personal, selfish joy from the mere existence of the person one loves. It is one’s own personal, selfish happiness that one seeks, earns and derives from love.
I hope nobody ever loves me in that way. This sounds, to me, like love being based on whether the object of said feeling happens to have the amazing characteristics I have. It seems to make it impossible to find any different values which could possibly matter or be useful. This is “I love you because you validate my own value,” and never “I love you because you complement and add to my value, and challenge me to expand, grow, and learn.”
Whatever. What about why we might choose to help those close to us over strangers?
If a man who is passionately in love with his wife spends a fortune to cure her of a dangerous illness, it would be absurd to claim that he does it as a “sacrifice” for her sake, not his own, and that it makes no difference to him, personally and selfishly, whether she lives or dies.
But suppose he let her die in order to spend his money on saving the lives of ten other women, none of whom meant anything to him—as the ethics of altruism would require. That would be a sacrifice.
I am not sure who would argue with this. Oh, wait, except for the caricature of altruism. I’ve gotten so used to it by now that I forget that it’s bullshit. The idea that we should choose 10 strangers over our wife (and/or husband) is a consideration of trolley thought experiments in order to map actual human morality, but I don’t know any serious ethical system that would maintain this scenario (excepting some very specific examples we might imagine; but, again, that would the ethics of emergencies, not everyday life).
The proper method of judging when or whether one should help another person is by reference to one’s own rational self-interest and one’s own hierarchy of values: the time, money or effort one gives or the risk one takes should be proportionate to the value of the person in relation to one’s own happiness.
And if I don’t value someone, I shouldn’t be compelled help them. A sociopath who followed Ayn Rand would have no reason to help a person being attacked, robbed, etc. While Rand’s ethics are not sociopathic per se, they create a space for people with limited empathy to rationalize their selfish choices. If we assume generally empathetic and good people are Objectivists, then her ethics is probably largely practically indistinguishable from most other moral systems, because empathetic people will already include the plight of others into their interests. Again, unless someone is already predisposed towards empathy, Objective Ethics can only lead to rationalized selfish behavior.
All that is fine, I suppose, but then she makes the claim that
only a lack of self-esteem could permit one to value one’s life no higher than that of any random stranger.
And then we return to the myopia inherent to Objectivism. This is precisely the subjectivism that Rand decries in her introduction and chapter 1. This is nothing more than a subjectivist’s interpretation of value. What Ayn Rand misses is that things like value, ethics, and meaning have intersubjective components.
Individual value, meaning, and interests supervene and create emergent properties in groups of social animals (us included). Where my individual interest remains stuck in the realm of subjectivity, when I fail to perceive the social implications of my actions, I fail to do ethics. When I do perceive the emergent properties of the collected set of interests, values, etc from the other people around me, then all of a sudden I realize that I matter more to me only insofar as I’m blind to the simple fact that my interests exist within a pool of social interests.
And then I (hopefully) realize that it was only an inflation of my worth, relative to everyone, that led me to believe that my interests supersede, ethically, those of others. It is not a lack of self esteem that creates altruism, because self-esteem is neutral to both selfishness and selflessness. It is a myopic inflation of my value over others which leads to selfishness, and a depreciation of ourselves which leads to self-hatred and our own subjugation to others.
Self-esteem would have us realize that we are on equal footing with others (in general), and that by being self-deprecating or self-aggrandizing to ourselves we are starting to lean either towards selfishness or selflessness. Associating self-esteem with selfishness can only make sense to a person who is so insecure that they, whether deep down or consciously, believe or fear that they matter less than other people
There is a spectrum of arrogance and self-depreciation in feelings of self-worth, and Objectivism is largely consistent with a myopic arrogance, and possibly narcissism towards that one extreme. On the other side is a kind of ascetic, self-punishing, lack of self-esteem. This, however, is not a dichotomy but a continuum. Rand points to the self-depreciating aspects of human behavior and says no to it completely, but misses the strengths of self-correction, skepticism, and a healthy sense of humility. Around the middle of this continuum are those who are able to consider that their own personal interests are a part of a society of many interests which could be reined into conflict and/or cooperation. Self-worth, like interests, supervene and emerge (properly) into a social worth which leads to not selfishness or selflessness; it leads to compromise, fairness, and (ideally) a Just world.
Don’t hold your breath, however.
This leaves an important question for us to ponder.
What, then, should one properly grant to strangers?
A rational man does not forget that life is the source of all values and, as such, a common bond among living beings (as against inanimate matter), that other men are potentially able to achieve the same virtues as his own and thus be of enormous value to him.
Therefore, the value he grants to others is only a consequence, an extension, a secondary projection of the primary value which is himself.
That is, the standard of ethics is not humanity, human experience, or even the human condition. The standard of ethics is my experience and interests. Also yours, but only to you. This, again, is subjectivism. This is relativism. The ultimate irony of “Objectivism” as the name of this ethical philosophy is that it is wholly relativist and subjectivst. Or perhaps it’s a solipsistic ethics (which is an absurd idea). Perhaps Ayn Rand was the only sentient being who ever lived, and we are all her dreams or nightmares (depending on whether we reflect her values or not). That would be further ironic; that Ayn Rand might be akin to Shiva, the Hindu maintainer and destroyer, and the loved one of many mystics.
And then Ayn Rand says this.
Since men are born tabula rasa….
It does not matter what she says after that, because we are not born “blank slates.” We are not wholly responsible for all of our attributes. I’ll ignore that part because it’s not worth our time.
It is important to differentiate between the rules of conduct in an emergency situation and the rules of conduct in the normal conditions of human existence.
In an emergency situation, men’s primary goal is to combat the disaster, escape the danger and restore normal conditions.
But this does not mean that after they all reach shore, he should devote his efforts to saving his fellow passengers from poverty, ignorance, neurosis or whatever other troubles they might have.
Because everyone is responsible for all of ourselves; failures, success, and everything in between is our responsibility, right? There isn’t an entire social, economic, and cultural construct around us into which we are thrown with our varying skills, weaknesses, and experiences which other people won’t understand. There is no need to spend the time, energy, and even money to understand the situation of others, because all that matters is our interests (and where other people are so different from us, we may not see how their interests should matter to us).
Ugh, the pure inability to comprehend the vast complexities of human experience inherent to this is sickening. The Obtuseness, obliviousness, and self-centered myopia here is mind-boggling. If I never spent any effort to understand such ideas, I would find them evil and unforgiveable. As it is, I just find them pitiable.
We finish with this.
The moral purpose of a man’s life is the achievement of his own happiness. This does not mean that he is indifferent to all men, that human life is of no value to him and that he has no reason to help others in an emergency. But it does mean that he does not subordinate his life to the welfare of others, that he does not sacrifice himself to their needs, that the relief of their suffering is not his primary concern, that any help he gives is an exception, not a rule….
And if the pursuit of said happiness contributes to social unhappiness, then that’s everyone else’s problem.
And if we all try and follow these rules of life, as Ayn Rand spells them out, but some of us end up unsuccessful, unhappy, or just a douchebag to everyone else while unaware of it, then that’s everyone’s problem.
Until next time, when we tackle chapter 4; The “Conflicts” of Men’s interests, I’ll take a shower, because I feel dirty after reading this trite rationalized “philosophy.”
Ginny sometimes writes elsewhere besides PolySkeptic.com, and when she does I think it’s a good idea to inform our readers of that. Today, Ginny posted this article on everyday feminism about what to think about when considering opening up and possibly becoming polyamorous, which is a question that more and more people are doing these days.
Sorry, I’m apparently working on a TV series here. I cannot confirm or deny whether it will air on Fox News.
In part 2, we addressed Ayn Rand’s argument that reason is important as a means to realizing our capability for pleasure, life, and giving to charity. OK, maybe not that last one.
Today, we continue with Rand’s essay, picking up with the theme that human life is the standard of value.
The Objectivist ethics holds man’s life as the standard of value—and his own life as the ethical purpose of every individual man.
In this case, the repetitive nature of this essay is helpful is useful to us, because it acts like a scene from the previous episode, in case you missed it. Rand either assumes that her readers have the attention span of a goldfish, or she just never edited her essays very well.
This repetitiveness, along with her stark dichotomies, straw men, and logical fallacies are trademarks of her writing. It makes good speeches for people prone to agree with her, and I can imagine many Objectivists feeling the emotional rhythm of the repetitive nature of these essays, coming at them in waves of freedom, individual virtue, and life, but this is nothing more than affective rhetoric. It’s no different from a good sermon or political speech, but it’s not good philosophy.
The rest of the essay is better imagined as a stump speech at a political rally, or perhaps a sermon at a revival. A godless, selfish, pleasure-seeking revival.
Rand has laid out the groundwork of her ideas and has tantalized us enough that it’s time to get to the flesh of the ideas. As the following commences, you might imagine the crowd becoming more animated, and perhaps hands pound lecterns with each emphasized word.
The three cardinal values of the Objectivist ethics—the three values which, together, are the means to and the realization of one’s ultimate value, one’s own life—are: Reason, Purpose, Self-Esteem, with their three corresponding virtues: Rationality, Productiveness, Pride.
Aren’t those things nice? I mean, sure they are! I like when I’m reasonable, I like when I have a purpose, and self-esteem is s good thing for all of us to have. The ability to be rational, production, and proud of my achievements are all good things. So, what’s my problem? Why and I not excited about this Ethic which promises me all of this? How could a rational person disagree?
Here’s the rhythmic, pulsating, cheer-inducing climax (although the end would be cut out in today’s political atmosphere);
It means one’s acceptance of the responsibility of forming one’s own judgments and of living by the work of one’s own mind (which is the virtue of Independence). It means that one must never sacrifice one’s convictions to the opinions or wishes of others (which is the virtue of Integrity)—that one must never attempt to fake reality in any manner (which is the virtue of Honesty)—that one must never seek or grant the unearned and undeserved, neither in matter nor in spirit (which is the virtue of Justice). It means that one must never desire effects without causes, and that one must never enact a cause without assuming full responsibility for its effects—that one must never act like a zombie, i.e., without knowing one’s own purposes and motives—that one must never make any decisions, form any convictions or seek any values out of context, i.e., apart from or against the total, integrated sum of one’s knowledge—and, above all, that one must never seek to get away with contradictions. It means the rejection of any form of mysticism, i.e., any claim to some nonsensory, nonrational, nondefinable, supernatural source of knowledge. It means a commitment to reason, not in sporadic fits or on selected issues or in special emergencies, but as a permanent way of life.
This is the kind of speech that would, for the most part, fit into an atheist convention. The values enumerated here are good ones, generally, and I agree with most of it. Where I start to differ is here:
It means that one must never sacrifice one’s convictions to the opinions or wishes of others (which is the virtue of Integrity)
I have a different use of ‘integrity,’ one which permits me to not hold onto my convictions so tightly. While I will not change my mind merely because others wish it, I would consider the wishes and opinions of others in the potential interest of changing my convictions if the evidence or perspectives warranted such a change. The level of stubbornness here is a little worrying, especially from a skeptical point of view (and no, I would not call Ayn Rand a skeptic). This rigidity of conviction is quasi-religious, yes, but it is also consistent with modern Right Wing politics where loyalty, conviction, and not hesitating or changing one’s mind are often considered virtues. I don’t think such things are necessarily virtuous.
Perhaps this level of conviction is related to “pride.”
The virtue of Pride can best be described by the term: “moral ambitiousness.” It means that one must earn the right to hold oneself as one’s own highest value by achieving one’s own moral perfection….by never placing any concern, wish, fear or mood of the moment above the reality of one’s own self-esteem. And, above all, it means one’s rejection of the role of a sacrificial animal, the rejection of any doctrine that preaches self-immolation as a moral virtue or duty.
Because nothing is more important than you. Your truth, your life, and your feeling of self-worth trumps everything. You (not humanity in general, just you) are the standard by which you decide which is right. And if anything out there conflicts with that self-esteem or value, then that thing brings with it death. In some ways, this is not all that different from the concept of “spiritual death” within some interpretations of Christianity; Any form of altruism is a kind of “sin” which separates you from true, selfish, morality.
I know this type of thought well. When I’m defensive, scared, and feeling insecure about myself. I paint myself into a corner with self-interest. And I can feel the rationalization churning away as I do this, because what’s happening when I feel this way is that I’m trying to hold back the flood-gates of things that contradict my own happiness, pleasure, and dissonance with the view of myself as a virtuous and good person.
What bothers me most is that while I get this, I know many other people do not get this, and many of them genuinely think that they are not insecure, defensive, or delusional about themselves. They just seem themselves as successful and awesome. You know, attributes consistent with narcissism.
I, therefore, think that I have the same gut feeling as Ayn Rand is describing here in her Ethic, and I recognize it for what it is; a self-centered and inconsiderate impulse–a reaction–against the threat of the Other. It is a reaction against being potentially wrong, of being uncertain, of having to admit that maybe other considerations besides my own might be worth caring about. It’s tempting, sometimes, to just go with what’s comfortable and easy; to allow my selfish impulses to rule my decisions, actions, and subsequent worldview created by trying to rein those actions into a coherent worldview of myself as virtuous and awesome.
Knowing and understanding other people is hard, and knowing what we want and what brings us pleasure is easier by comparison. The idea here seems to be that if we can see ourselves as virtuous, reasonable, and productive people then we can take pride in that. It’s not our job, says this Ethic, to account for the reasonableness, production, or pride of others. That’s their job. Anyone else who is not succeeding is doing so because they aren’t being reasonable or productive, and so their struggles are their own doing.
Happiness is the successful state of life, suffering is the warning signal of failure, of death.
That is simply not true. This is a wonderful example of the just-world fallacy at work. The world does not, whether by gods, fate, or karma, dish out happiness to the just or not suffering to the unjust. This delusional belief, which is similar to the ideas behind The Secret and similar worldviews, must be confronted and slapped down as the bullshit it is. And yet it is all too common a belief that if you work hard and are ethical (no matter the ethic), you will be rewarded. It’s quite possible you won’t be. It’s also possible that you will be very happy while making many people around you miserable. It happens all the time, and it blinds the happy person from the effects of their behavior. And if said person is predisposed to selfishness and egoism, they are even less-likely to realize it.
All too common.
More John Galt:
“Happiness is a state of non-contradictory joy—a joy without penalty or guilt, a joy that does not clash with any of your values and does not work for your own destruction. … Happiness is possible only to a rational man, the man who desires nothing but rational goals, seeks nothing but rational values and finds his joy in nothing but rational actions.”
Pure delusion. But at least Rand is aware enough to make the following distinction:
If you achieve that which is the good by a rational standard of value, it will necessarily make you happy; but that which makes you happy, by some undefined emotional standard, is not necessarily the good. To take “whatever makes one happy” as a guide to action means: to be guided by nothing but one’s emotional whims.
The distinction is important, and I’m glad she made it here, otherwise she leaves herself open to the “Nietzschean egoism” she despises. She’s not stupid; she’s just myopic, oblivious, and obtuse.
Further, she is no mere hedonist;
This is the fallacy inherent in hedonism—in any variant of ethical hedonism, personal or social, individual or collective. “Happiness” can properly be the purpose of ethics, but not the standard.
I’m also glad she makes this distinction as well, as it is also important. Happiness, Rand argues, is great as a result but it is not the standard. The standard is, of course, is life itself (according to Objectivism, anyway). A happy life is just the reward for living with reason, productivity, and pride. All bullshit, of course, but at least it’s somewhat internally coherent bullshit.
Perhaps the following is a more clear illustration of the relationship between sacrifice, conflict, and the difference between egoism and altruism. This quote comes directly after addressing utilitarianism, wherein (according to Rand) the centrality of desire leads to situations where “men have no choice but to hate, fear and fight one another, because their desires and their interests will necessarily clash.” Desire, says Rand, cannot be the ethical standard.
And if the frustration of any desire constitutes a sacrifice, then a man who owns an automobile and is robbed of it, is being sacrificed, but so is the man who wants or “aspires to” an automobile which the owner refuses to give him—and these two “sacrifices” have equal ethical status. If so, then man’s only choice is to rob or be robbed, to destroy or be destroyed, to sacrifice others to any desire of his own or to sacrifice himself to any desire of others; then man’s only ethical alternative is to be a sadist or a masochist.
The moral cannibalism of all hedonist and altruist doctrines lies in the premise that the happiness of one man necessitates the injury of another
OK, that’s interesting. The idea seems to be that built into the very fabric of altruistic ethical philosophy implies that all desires, whether of the owner or the robber, are indistinguishable, and so equally valid. As a result, Rand seems to argue, we are all in perpetual conflict and that only by inciting sacrifice can we avoid perpetuating this conflict.
If you believed in a Hobbesian universe where we were all brutes who will try to rob, cheat, and lie to each other for our own benefit (a quite cynical view), enforced altruism might seem a way to get society to work. But what if that was not the motivation for altruism? What if the reason we ask for consideration, compromise, etc are not because we assume humanity is in a perpetual state of conflict?
It’s very possible that a sense of empathy, altruism (in the sense of the willingness and ability to sacrifice some of our desires, not Rand’s caricature), and care can be mapped onto a reasonable and logical moral framework without appealing to this view that leads to either sadism or masochism. If that were true, then self-sacrifice would not be causally related to conflict, and so we would not have to demonize altruism. Then, if (like Rand) we were to believe that human interactions are not inherently conflict-based, the solution does not have to be a fundamentally selfish set of values and virtues, whether Objectivist or otherwise. The solution could also be altruism or some compromise between selfish and selfless values (as most ethical philosophy does).
Choosing selfishness, whether as Rand does via reason, purpose, and self-esteem or otherwise, would then be as valid as any oither attempt to formalize ethics, rather than being objective or the true foundation of ethics, as Rand claims.
If our being reasonable, productive, and proud lead to us being happy (because we deserve it), then why she even worried about whether we are altruistic? Or, is it that her Ethic rids the world of this conflict and the injury. Or perhaps it just ignores it by eliminating selfless acts? If conflict is not inherent to human interaction, then being altruistic is not necessarily self-immolating, and will not lead to any kind of death. It might be unnecessary, but that’s another question than it being evil. I’m having trouble making sense of all that. So much for internal coherence, I suppose.
In any case, let’s see how Rand deals with some of the implications of being selfish on other people.
[W]hen one speaks of man’s right to exist for his own sake, for his own rational self-interest, most people assume automatically that this means his right to sacrifice others. Such an assumption is a confession of their own belief that to injure, enslave, rob or murder others is in man’s self-interest.
This is obviously a preemption of concerns about Rand’s Ethics implying that since we shouldn’t sacrifice ourselves, it means we simply sacrifice others. It seems to imply that by doing neither type of sacrifice (of ourselves or others), we are left with neutral parties free to interact without a sense of sacrifice or conflict between them. Nobody has to sacrifice anything! Sounds great.
But what if the very nature of refusing to give an inch of your interests (or convictions) was inherently sacrificial of not only the interests of others, but ultimately our own interests? Not because the others are moochers or trying to steal from us, but because the very nature of human interaction or communication is already inefficient and requires some level of effort (on both parts) in order to succeed. The very nature of communication, therefore, would require self-sacrifice.
Let me try to sketch this out.
Communication is inherently difficult, but even more so the more different we are. If I am to interact with other people, especially if those people are significantly different from me (whether due to language barriers, psychological differences, temperaments, etc), then that interaction inherently requires some level of work on my part to effectively communicate my proposals, ideas, etc. So, is this work in my interest? Not always.
When misunderstandings or conflicts do occur (and they will, even among Objectivists), the unwillingness to give up any level of self-interest for the sake of another will make it very difficult, if not impossible, to communicate the specifics of a neutral and mutually beneficial proposal, let alone where there actually is a conflict of interests.
This unwillingness blocks the possibility of understanding points of view not immediately in the Objectivist’s interest, or even ones that might be in their interest but are unknown to them. But because an Objectivist would be unwilling to extend any “altruistic” effort to understand the interests of other people, they would never learn about the ideas connected to those alien interests. What’s worse is that they might not even see this as a loss. Nothing in The Objectivist Ethics would imply otherwise.
If sacrifice for the sake of others is actually evil, then perhaps understanding others might require being evil in some cases. My taking the time to try to empathize, listen, and hopefully understand the interests of others is a sacrifice on my part. It’s a sacrifice of my time, patience, and cognitive effort to communicate with people who think differently than I. And if I see this effort as a sacrifice, then Rand might say that putting forth that effort would be bowing to altruistic demands, and therefore not being virtuous. And the result of this is that I cut myself off from not only potential neutral trade partners, but sets of ideas which are significantly different from my own, which will end up isolating myself from people with diverse perspectives, opinions, and worldviews. Just like with Galt’s Gulch, Objectivism seems to want to isolate itself from the world, effectively impoverishing its access to ideas, people, and experiences which they might learn from if they were not so self-absorbed and against any sort of self-sacrifice.
Getting back to Rand’s argument, Rand is asserting that the non-selfish ethical systems (whether utilitarian, Kantian, or full-blown altruism) view the world as full of people ready to take advantage of others and to ask us to sacrifice ourselves as a reaction to that inherent conflict. Rand does not assume this conflict is necessarily the case but neither do I, who she would have called an altruist, think that this is the case (no, I’m not even that cynical).
Let’s continue with the essay.
The idea that man’s self-interest can be served only by a non-sacrificial relationship with others has never occurred to those humanitarian apostles of unselfishness, who proclaim their desire to achieve the brotherhood of men.
Perhaps it has not occurred to some, but it has occurred to me, at least. Ayn Rand has set herself up as a sort-of prophet for true ethics, but what she really is doing is demonstrating her ignorance and misunderstanding of ethical philosophy in such spectacular fashion that all I can to is stare, slack-jawed. And yet this philosophy is revered by so many people!
The great speech of the essay has climaxed, and we head towards resolution. At this point, we’re past the part of the great speech where the music swells and the lights flicker, and we reach the part where the crowd is hushed and the speaker drops into a lower register, almost whispering so the everyone needs to strain to hear them. It’s now time for Objectivist pillow-talk.
The Objectivist ethics proudly advocates and upholds rational selfishness—which means: the values required for man’s survival qua man—which means: the values required for human survival—not the values produced by the desires, the emotions, the “aspirations,” the feelings, the whims….
The Objectivist ethics holds that human good does not require human sacrifices and cannot be achieved by the sacrifice of anyone to anyone. It holds that the rational interests of men do not clash—that there is no conflict of interests among men who do not desire the unearned, who do not make sacrifices nor accept them, who deal with one another as traders, giving value for value.
Nobody expects, accepts, or offers any compromise. This neutrality is a sort of marketplace of self-interested people who will trade their ideas and products in order to create a non-competitive world, or so Rand thinks. Not competition. Not brutish, emotional, covetous desire.
However, when this Objectivism is actually put into practice in life with other people around, it does in fact create a kind of conflict. The conflict is there, it’s just that this philosophy encourages people to re-define any sign of this conflict as an attempt of moochers and robbers to steal from them in some way, rather than some actual injustice.
Any request or expectation of consideration looks like a demand for the Objectivist to sacrifice their convictions; to give into altruistic morality. Any request of empathy is a demand for the Objectivist or egoist to sacrifice themselves in some way; a demand to give up what they consider to be virtues. Why should they give up anything, material or conceptual, for your sake? You should do that yourself (they think as they step on your toes, dominate a conversation, or otherwise impose themselves onto the world around them). The logical conclusion of this view of self-sacrifice makes any request of empathy or consideration look like a kind of demand or theft.
In order to operate effectively in the world, however, consideration, empathy, and some level of self-sacrifice is necessary; not merely ethically, but practically as well. Until we are able to transcend the realm of individual interests and dive into intersubjective concerns (where ethics lives), we can’t even consider what I want from, to do, etc other people. In other words, it’s not even possible to have interests related to others until I have some ethically relevant relationship with another person. I can only do this by sacrificing my immediate interests for the sake of external reality.
But Objectivist Ethics never leaves the realm of individual interests, because it considers doing so “evil”. Now, actual Objectivists might employ some level of empathy and consideration in their lives, but this would accidental or incidental, rather than inherent to the Ethic. That is, if the Objectivist doesn’t have an inclination towards empathy or consideration already, Objectivism does not encourage this empathy (and actually discourages it), so the Objectivist can feel fine not employing such tools, isolating themselves from people, ideas, and whole sections of cultures.
Objectivism gives us no reason to employ empathy, and even uses reason to imply that being asked to do so is a form of theft. But without empathy of some kind, communication and understanding are not possible, leaving the non-empathetic Objectivist as indistinguishable from the “Nietzschean Egoist,” who merely does whatever they want. If Ayn Rand ever employed any kind of empathy, she was only doing so while being a bad Objectivist.
Rand’s claims that her Ethic does not lead to the sacrifice of others is not reasonable given that the unwillingness to empathize does not, in fact, create a neutral relationship. The difficulty of communication, understanding, etc create an imbalance; not one of tension between owner and potential robber, but simply of comprehension. Thus, it hurts us all. This is the absurdity of calling any self-sacrifice as evil; avoiding self-sacrifice hurts us all in the long run.
Only a brute or an altruist would claim that the appreciation of another person’s virtues is an act of selflessness.
a trader is a man who does not seek to be loved for his weaknesses or flaws, only for his virtues, and who does not grant his love to the weaknesses or the flaws of others, only to their virtues.
In other words, we don’t love someone despite their flaws. We love them when they don’t have any, or at least we love them insofar as their virtues overshadow their flaws. That may sound good to you, but I would caution you against falling into a trap of privilege here; many of us struggle with aspects of ourselves that make our virtue harder to act on.
I’m not convinced that reason, productivity, and pride are sufficient to create a person of virtue. Is there no room for depression and its side-effects in virtue, where one might struggle with pride? What about economic factors that hold many people back from production? Are they not allowed to be loved or considered virtuous? What about a person whose reason is handicapped, at times or chronically,by either emotional disorders or simple cognitive inability? Do they get no love?
The worry here is that a person who wants to adopt this view will either be the type of person who is blind to their own faults (narcissists, for example) or who exist in such a bubble of privilege that they are deluded into thinking that they actually earned their success and happiness without the sacrifice of others around them. This view, therefore, is in tension with social justice insofar as economic and neuro-typical privilege (at least) is concerned. It seeks to pump up the already privileged, stigmatize the non-privileged, and to rationalize it all as “reasonable.”
But the line between reason and whim, as I discussed previously, is but a neuron or two away and all too often we are incapable of distinguishing them, especially when privilege takes its toll on us. I do not believe that Ayn Rand, or her followers, are any more reasonable than utilitarians, Kantians, or even those who follow the ethics of care (for example). I think they think they’re more reasonable, but we have Dunning-Kruger for that. But, of course, knowing you are subject to the Dunning-Kruger effect requires a certain level of self-awareness, attention, and care towards others. People prone to follow Ayn Rand have little of those qualities, in my experience.
And yet, they speak of love, human society, and the trade of knowledge and potential. However, Rand speaks of these things as things to be earned solely, and those “moochers” and other parasites cannot live in a rational, loving, cooperating society. It all sounds great, especially to Objectivist ears, but it’s an ideology which is startlingly ignorant of the nature of knowledge, intelligence, and the complexities of power and privilege.
But, what of government?
The only proper, moral purpose of a government is to protect man’s rights, which means: to protect him from physical violence—to protect his right to his own life, to his own liberty, to his own property and to the pursuit of his own happiness. Without property rights, no other rights are possible.
And while Rand does not deal with the politics of Objectivism here (the answer is Capitalism; “full, pure, uncontrolled, unregulated laissez-faire capitalism”), I’m glad she’s for the separation of church and state, at least.
In a sort of summation, she offers this:
I have presented the barest essentials of my system, but they are sufficient to indicate in what manner the Objectivist ethics is the morality of life—as against the three major schools of ethical theory, the mystic, the social, the subjective, which have brought the world to its present state and which represent the morality of death.
And then, following some more analysis of each school of ethical theory, she says that
It is not men’s immorality that is responsible for the collapse now threatening to destroy the civilized world, but the kind of moralities men have been asked to practice.
And then she ends by quoting John Galt (AKA herself) once more.
“You have been using fear as your weapon and have been bringing death to man as his punishment for rejecting your morality. We offer him life as his reward for accepting ours.”
However, the life that is offered is one infested with myopia, privilege, and an impoverishment of understanding of anything not immediately self-interested. This is a philosophy not built upon reason, but of rationalized selfish whims.
Smart people are really good at rationalizing their whims and making themselves think they are being reasonable. Ayn Rand was a smart woman who found a way to not only do so for herself, but created a worldview that still resonates with millions of people. If you look for them, you will find real places called Galt’s Gulch, and the influence of some of Rand’s ideas are still quite popular in political spheres, specifically for Rand Paul and many others within the Tea Party.
This essay demonstrates a sophomoric ethical philosophy, hardly worth serious attention except for its continuing influence. But there is more book to go (18 chapters, in fact), so we still have a way to go. Future posts will be shorter, as I will try not to address the same points.
My opinions about the season finale of How I Met Your Mother have grown stronger in the days since I watched it, and saw many other people’s reactions. My first response was, “I never thought I would be okay with this but… I kind of like it.” Reading a lot of people’s negative responses, and the reasons behind them, has pushed me firmly into This was one of the best romantic comedy endings ever territory. And here’s why.
The whole premise of the show, we thought, was ultimately going to be a fairy tale, Ted questing for his true love and then getting his happily ever after. Ted buys into that narrative whole-heartedly. Words like “the one” and “destiny” get thrown around. While he has a number of good relationships, alongside the multitude of not-so-good ones, he clearly views them as failures and false starts on his way to finding his One True Love.
All romantic comedies are fairy tales, and meeting or marrying the destined partner is the happily ever after. Plenty has been written about how inadequately that storyline reflects reality: that there are just as many (almost certainly more) messes and tears and misunderstandings after the big I Do or I Love You as before; that the most dramatic stories don’t usually lead to the happiest love relationships; that maybe teaching ourselves to view meeting The One as the endgame of life isn’t the healthiest pattern. But it’s a compelling story and it’s easy to get invested in it.
One of my big worries throughout the show was that The Mother couldn’t possibly live up to the hype. But she did! She was fantastically written and fantastically cast, and pretty much charmed the pants off me in every scene. She was a perfect match for Ted without being at all obnoxious, which in itself is a minor miracle. (I don’t hate Ted nearly as much as a lot of people do, but I grant his frequent obnoxiousness.) I loved her and if she’d shown up as a character and NOT been The Mother, I suspect the writers would’ve had a riot on their hands.
So it was that much more surprising (although in retrospect, it was telegraphed throughout the season at least) that that turned out not to be the story at all. The entire show was never about finding the one person who completes you, the one true love that give you your happy ending. It was about how love can be amazing and perfect and right at the moment, and then three years later, maybe it isn’t right any more. Or maybe you lose that person through circumstances neither of you can control. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t real love, doesn’t mean it wasn’t amazing and perfect and right when it was happening. And if you later fall in love with someone else, you don’t have to pick which of the two is your “real” love story, your true destiny and the love of your life. They both are.
I was rooting for Barney/Robin from the moment they suited up and drank scotch together. (Hotttttt.) And their relationship was important to both of them: it let two commitmentphobes get a genuine workout in their issues, and when they broke up, it wasn’t about lack of trust or the impulse to run away or the inability to resist that one little fling… it was just that they weren’t making each other happy any more. And they were both honest enough, and cared for themselves and each other enough, to admit it. That’s a brave and positive step, and one that I wished we saw more in stories. They had a great relationship, and the fact that it ended doesn’t erase that.
And then The Mother’s death. (Even though we find out near the end that her name is Tracy, she’ll always be The Mother to me.) I’d read speculations that that was going to happen, and the way the last season played out brought me closer and closer (and with a heavy heart) to believing it. That one episode with the flash-forward of them going back to the inn and the “What mother would miss her daughter’s wedding?” bit? Yeah. I got it, and I cried, and I hugged Shaun. One of the things HIMYM has done brilliantly is the tragedy of untimely death. In our medically advanced, “wars happen on other continents” culture, that’s a thing that we try really, really hard to pretend doesn’t happen. Or we try to give it a bigger meaning or significance, to distract from how much it hurts. HIMYM has never done that. People die, it hurts, it doesn’t make sense. The only comfort is that we got to love them while they were here.
Tracy’s own story foreshadows this really nicely, and it tells us (in case anyone was unclear) exactly how to take her death. We never met her former lover (what was his name? Mike maybe?) but it was clear she thought of him as her One True Love, her destiny… and when that destiny was cut short, she thought that was the end of love for her. And letting go of him, finding the ability to love again, didn’t erase her love for him. The whole episode “How Your Mother Met Me” was great both in that we got to know Tracy better, but more so in that it pre-figured the process Ted was going to have to go through. We don’t see him going through any of the steps Tracy did in the six years between her death and his telling of the story, but it’s easy to imagine him slowly letting go of the idea of One True Love, and instead thinking of her as a true love.
And then we come to Robin, and here’s where the show fell down a bit. (Or a lot.) Ted’s pining for Robin in the latter seasons was SO obnoxious that it became impossible to root for them, even if the show hadn’t been insistently telling us that they wouldn’t get together (or so we thought, because we didn’t question the assumption that “the mother of my children, the woman who made my life incredibly happy” = “the only woman I’ll ever be with for the rest of my life.”) I actually did root for them in the early seasons, or wanted to: there were a lot of moments where I was like, “Dammit! Why can’t it be Robin?” But by the end it had turned from “two people who are so close to being right for each other, but agonizingly not close enough” to “OMG Ted will you GET OVER IT?” I can see why he didn’t. He loved her, and he was fixated on the idea of romantic destiny, and when those two things go together it can be very hard to let go of someone. But it dragged on too long and was too one-sided, and ultimately that “I love you + destiny = obsessing futilely over you for years” equation is not attractive or healthy.
And I guess, because of the whole destiny delusion, it was easy for people to read the whole story as, “Robin was Ted’s ultimate destined True Love, Tracy was just another distraction that happened to give him kids.” But I don’t see that and I don’t think the actual writing of the show supports that. The Robin-as-destiny concept was false and flawed and childish. Ted had to grow up and grow out of it. He sort of did, in the last season, but it was too little and waaaay too late to have any impact other than “my god, finally.” And then the whole locket thing brought it back in in a way I really disliked. I think it would’ve been better if Ted had had his “actually letting Robin go” moment a few seasons back, and then their continuing chemistry and love could have been gently hinted at at moments here and there, without it ever being about one of them helplessly pining for the other.
I also get why a lot of people feel betrayed by the way it all played out. In a lot of ways, the whole show was a huge bait-and-switch. The entire premise was supposed to be a traditional love story with a fairy-tale happy ending, and it turned into a story about how love takes many forms, and loving someone sometimes means saying goodbye, and there are actually no happy endings at all, because the story keeps moving and changing and what you actually get (hopefully!) is a sequence of happy middles, sometimes very different from each other. That is a much better story! Or at least it’s a much truer story, and one I wish our culture would tell itself more often.
And it’s not that lifetime love never happens, either. Marshall and Lily provide a counterpoint story, one of a single love that flourishes over a lifetime. But theirs is realistic too: they have to fight and struggle and sometimes their dreams conflict, and they have to make tough choices. I loved that moment when they said new wedding vows to each other, and agreed that they’d probably need to do the same thing again multiple times in the future. They keep choosing each other, through all the changes that happen, and it’s a free and happy choice for both of them.
There were other little things in the finale that I loved: I loved that becoming a dad was Barney’s real transformative moment, and goddammit if Neil Patrick Harris didn’t make that well-worn trope moving and beautiful. I like that Marshall had to go back to being a corporate lawyer for many years more before getting his judgeship. Having to take jobs you don’t like is another harsh, oft-denied reality that the show’s done a good job with over the years. I like that Robin fulfilled all her personal dreams: if she had ended up giving up on them in favor of a relationship with anyone, I’d have burned shit down. I like that there were long periods where the group of friends had grown apart and rarely saw each other; their lifelong friendship wasn’t about things always being the same between them, but about the fact that they could always come together after a long separation, and always wanted to.
In part 1 of this analysis, we primarily addressed the attempt of Objectivist Ethics to use reason, divorced from emotion, preference, or what Rand calls our mere “whims” in order to establish the “discovery of ethics. Let’s pick up on that theme as we continue, in order to work our way back into the structure of her essay.
Today, as in the past, most philosophers agree that the ultimate standard of ethics is whim (they call it “arbitrary postulate” or “subjective choice” or “emotional commitment”)—and the battle is only over the question or whose whim: one’s own or society’s or the dictator’s or God’s. Whatever else they may disagree about, today’s moralists agree that ethics is a subjective issue and that the three things barred from its field are: reason—mind—reality.
Perhaps that was true in 1964, but even if this narrative of popular ethical thinking was the case then, to treat the entirety of ethical philosophy, from Plato on through the 1950’s, as if a monolithic set of subjectivist or relativist claims based in a dangerous altruism is over-simplistic at best. And if this was an obscure argument from 50 years ago (The Virtue of Selfishness was published in 1964, and is a collection of essays from earlier years) which had little to no influence today, my pointing out such a problem would be uninteresting and irrelevant. But Ayn Rand’s words are still influential, resonant, and a common voice for many people who have not even read her work.
But the fact that people still make this argument today is problematic considering the wealth of information–from both science and philosophy–about how morality can be built upon objective facts about our actual real life in other ways besides Rand’s egoism. The dichotomies which Rand paints, even if they had been relevant in 1964, are certainly not relevant any longer. We really should leave this simplistic ethical dichotomy between subjectivism/relativism and Objectivism/individualism in the pile of philosophically impotent ideas, where it belongs.
And yet, Objectivism persists. If you think that individual selfishness is a virtue, well OK. But if you think that this alone can inform ethics, then I can’t trust you to be ethical nor do I think you know what ethics is.
Ayn Rand is concerned with things like virtues and values. So let’s see what she means by “value.”
“Value” is that which one acts to gain and/or keep. The concept “value” is not a primary; it presupposes an answer to the question: of value to whom and for what? It presupposes an entity capable of acting to achieve a goal in the face of an alternative. Where no alternative exists, no goals and no values are possible.
Only a living entity can have goals or can originate them. And it is only a living organism that has the capacity for self-generated, goal-directed action….
she continues shortly after by saying
Life can be kept in existence only by a constant process of self-sustaining action. The goal of that action, the ultimate value which, to be kept, must be gained through its every moment, is the organism’s life.
An organism’s life is its standard of value: that which furthers its life is the good, that which threatens it is the evil.
This is all fine, and I am in general agreement that life is good (I would, being alive) and that in general what supports life is good and what takes it away is bad (not ‘evil’, because I read Nietzsche). However in what follows it seems like she’s making the same mistake she was chiding above (in criticizing how people submit their ethics to a god, society, or others in general); she appeals to an ultimate authority:
Without an ultimate goal or end, there can be no lesser goals or means: a series of means going off into an infinite progression toward a nonexistent end is a metaphysical and epistemological impossibility.
But this is absurd. Not only is this not reasonable or rational, it’s not even consistent with er own argument above. What is the desire for life but another whim (if not a deeper one)? It’s not ultimate any more than my preference for vanilla over chocolate is ultimate. She then doubles down:
Metaphysically, life is the only phenomenon that is an end in itself
This can only be true if we were myopic enough to actually take our own individual perspectives as in some way privileged or ultimate. The level of self-centered bias here is so staggering that it leaves me nearly speechless. Further, so far the ethical perspective being advocated is consistent with the “Nietzschean egoism” she dismisses (putting aside that Nietzsche is not the straw-man she makes him out to be).
Ayn Rand wants to simultaneously decry the subjectivist parade of “whims,” and then proceeds to champion the one whim that (we might assume) we all happen to share. This is not a fundamental metaphysics, this is myopia projected onto metaphysics. The level of obtuseness and lack of perspective here is, perhaps, the key to understanding The Objectivist Ethics. It is this vacuous scaffolding which the whole Ethic is based upon, and I cannot fathom how Ayn Rand, as well as egoists in generall, are so self-absorbed as to miss the error here.
The fundamental problem here is not that Rand’s object of criticism (self-hating altruism) is actually right (it’s mostly a straw-man), but that her alternative to this straw-man is so absurd. There’s this, for example:
In answer to those philosophers who claim that no relation can be established between ultimate ends or values and the facts of reality, let me stress that the fact that living entities exist and function necessitates the existence of values…
Agreed. I would quibble over the use of “ultimate” ends or goals, but I essentially agree with the above. She then, however, finishes the clause;
and of an ultimate value which for any given living entity is its own life.
How is any individual life ultimately valuable? Only to itself. But this is subjectivity! This is more people prattling on about whims; it just happens to be her whims. And even if it were the case that the ultimate value is our own life, how does this point to selfish interests rather than either an altruistic value or even a balance of selfish/selfless values? What makes my interests more valuable than those of another? Nothing but a purely myopic lack of mirror neurons in action. Let’s put that aside for the moment. For the moment, something else just caught my eye, and I think David Hume just resurrected and is eloquently screaming from pure frustration.
The fact that a living entity is, determines what it ought to do. So much for the issue of the relation between “is” and “ought.”
(For some context on my views about the relationship between facts, values, is, and oughts, see my post here)
Not only is this mere brush-off of Hume a misunderstanding of the Is/Ought problem (the Naturalistic Fallacy, as G.E. Moore later called it), but it is not even insightful or clever. For some context, here’s David Hume, from A Treatise of Human Nature:
In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remarked, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary ways of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when all of a sudden I am surprised to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, ’tis necessary that it should be observed and explained; and at the same time that a reason should be given; for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it. But as authors do not commonly use this precaution, I shall presume to recommend it to the readers; and am persuaded, that this small attention would subvert all the vulgar systems of morality, and let us see, that the distinction of vice and virtue is not founded merely on the relations of objects, nor is perceived by reason.
Hume here seems to be inferring that we at least need some connection between our declarations of facts and what we should do with the facts. And I agree with him; is can be connected to an ought, but we should at least try to delineate the connection rather than merely assert a connection. Perhaps Rand intuits some obvious logical connection, but if she values reason as highly as she does, she should spell it out in a philosophical defense of her thoughts.
OK, so the connection between her is and her ought is a little shaky, but perhaps we can take a look at what kinds of actions we ought to take, and perhaps that will shed some light hat kinds of actions we should take as living things. Lets start with the question “what has value?”
Now in what manner does a human being discover the concept of “value”? By what means does he first become aware of the issue of “good or evil” in its simplest form? By means of the physical sensations of pleasure or pain.
she continues a bit later by saying that
The physical sensation of pleasure is a signal indicating that the organism is pursuing the right course of action.
If it’s pleasurable, it’s right. If there’s pain, it’s not. The childish simplicity of this is mind-boggling. The moral implications are, to me, startling. Contemplating the kind of mind that can seriously propose this as a means to defining a set of ethical actions is terrifying. And yet, if we remember from her introduction, she does delineate between a ‘Nietzschean egoism’ and hers, but so far here I’m not seeing any reason to not simply do what you will. Perhaps there’s more below.
After some discussion of the hierarchy of life, based upon differing levels of consciousness where we go from plants, animals with mere “sensation,” and on through “perception” we get to people, who are different from animals and plants in a significant way. And I know that Rand is writing 50 years removed, and that we understand a lot more about how the brain processes information, feelings, and decisions, but the following is just silly;
Man has no automatic code of survival. He has no automatic course of action, no automatic set of values.
We, unlike the animals, don’t have things like instincts or any unconscious moral sense (Rand claims). As I referred to in my critique of the introduction, this is flatly false. The research of people such as Jonathon Haidt (cf. The Righteous Mind), who have shown that much of our ethical reasoning is post-hoc rationalization of our automatic moral senses, simply contradicts Rand’s view here.
The simple fact is that Ayn Rand is stuck inside a Platonic-style dualism wherein the intellect is separate and superior to the animal instincts and material existence of us as animals. Our rational processes, moral thinking, etc are not separate and logical structures floating over a miasma of sensations and feelings. We cannot pull apart the rational, logical, and coldly logical from the mess of instincts, emotions, and “whims.’ This ontological dualism, one that Rand thinks she’s transcending, is exactly the delusion that Objectivism is subject to.
The faculty that directs this process [of “concept-formation”], the faculty that works by means of concepts, is: reason. The process is thinking.
We cannot always separate, at least with any meaningful certainty, reason and whim. Ayn Rand’s whims, which are based on the preservation of human life, is no better than a whim for the preservation of the society. Granted, this tension between the focus on protecting the society or the individual is a real one in ethical history, but the stark dichotomy between the sacrifice for the self for the society versus the society for the self (remember, Ayn Rand escaped soviet Russia) is hyperbole.
Perhaps this hyperbole is understandable given Rand’s experience within the problems of Russian Communism, but it is no less reactionary because of those considerations. Ayn Rand is as much the crystallization of the cultural phenomenon of the “Red Scare” than any American writer, and the kinds of thoughts that she proposed have influenced a large segment of people who seek to fight for individual rights at the very expense of the culture in which they live.
Any way you cut it, the subjectivism that Rand criticizes is as much a part of her thought as anyone else’s. Pleasure, happiness, and reasons are no more a way to advocate for a rational morality than pure asceticism or extreme altruism.
Rand wants us to actively pursue this thinking, because to not do so is to choose death:
Psychologically, the choice “to think or not” is the choice “to focus or not.” Existentially, the choice “to focus or not” is the choice “to be conscious or not.” Metaphysically, the choice “to be conscious or not” is the choice of life or death.
Constant diligence, therefore, is necessary. Now, to a certain extent I think there is something of value here; it is good to be able to maintain focus and attention, but I don’t accept that to stop doing so is analogous to a kind of mental death. There are times when we need to slow down, quiet our minds, and allow our unconscious processes to do their thing. When we are too involved and attached to a process, a set of arguments, or even a conclusion then we can often miss too much. Sometimes, we need to listen and be passive in order to learn. Not always, mind you, but sometimes.
But then Rand says something, occasionally, which I fully agree with. The following is an example.
But man’s responsibility goes still further: a process of thought is not automatic nor “instinctive” nor involuntary—nor infallible. Man has to initiate it, to sustain it and to bear responsibility for its results. He has to discover how to tell what is true or false and how to correct his own errors; he has to discover how to validate his concepts, his conclusions, his knowledge; he has to discover the rules of thought, the laws of logic, to direct his thinking. Nature gives him no automatic guarantee of the efficacy of his mental effort.
Yes. Because even if we cannot divorce reason and logic from ours whims completely, we can sharpen those tools to be more effective. The mistake, one that many people make, is in concluding that when we sharpen those tools enough, such tools are no longer subject to bias or emotional influence. I know of too many ‘skeptics’ and atheists who fall victim to this vanity, and it is as universal an attribute as there is.
What is open to his choice is only whether he will discover it or not, whether he will choose the right goals and values or not. He is free to make the wrong choice, but not free to succeed with it. He is free to evade reality, he is free to unfocus his mind and stumble blindly down any road he pleases, but not free to avoid the abyss he refuses to see.
Knowledge, for any conscious organism, is the means of survival; to a living consciousness, every “is” implies an “ought.”
And then she loses me again. Now, if this is merely equivalent to the ancient idea of “do thy will,” then I can be on board, insofar as the traditional “harm no one” follows it. But it doesn’t, here. Here, Rand wants us to associate what is (our pleasure, which comes from our physical nature) with what we ought to do. What is good for us, what is pleasurable, is good. Full stop.
But what about ‘ethics’?
What, then, are the right goals for man to pursue? What are the values his survival requires? That is the question to be answered by the science of ethics. And this, ladies and gentlemen, is why man needs a code of ethics.
OK, finally, we get to the meat! Now we can leave the confines of selfish desires and pleasure-fulfillment and get to how we should behave, ethically.
Ethics is an objective, metaphysical necessity of man’s survival—not by the grace of the supernatural nor of your neighbors nor of your whims, but by the grace of reality and the nature of life.
Ethics is a real thing, observable and scientific, which is not dependent upon gods or neighbors. OK, I will agree that we don’t receive moral absolutes or conclusions from neighbors, but I think that without consideration for the interests of our neighbors we might have some trouble developing an ethical sense. Without that, we’re just concerned with the effects as they pertain to us, which while important, is not ethics.
What else? Well, more quoting from John Galt, of course! (Which is really just her quoting a character from a book she wrote)
“Man has been called a rational being, but rationality is a matter of choice—and the alternative his nature offers him is: rational being or suicidal animal. Man has to be man—by choice; he has to hold his life as a value—by choice…”
and then some more commentary about choice. I’m not even touching the implications of determinism and free will on this, because Ayn Rand seems to take free will for granted. So, leaving that aside, what should we choose to do? And by what standard?
The standard of value of the Objectivist ethics—the standard by which one judges what is good or evil—is man’s life, or: that which is required for man’s survival qua man.
OK, going around the circle again. We covered this already. Survival is good, and in general I agree. So what? What kind of survival? What kind of life? And what about other people’s lives?
Since reason is man’s basic means of survival, that which is proper to the life of a rational being is the good; that which negates, opposes or destroys it is the evil.
OK. A reasonable and rational life. That sounds good, I guess. But, again, we covered that. What kind of reason? what factors should we consider? How should I weigh my reason in comparison to the reasons of others? How do you know when it’s reason and not merely a “whim” that feels like reason?
Since everything man needs has to be discovered by his own mind and produced by his own effort, the two essentials of the method of survival proper to a rational being are: thinking and productive work.
OK, that’s a little better. We need to think (good) and we need to produce, through work. OK, as an economic principle that is true. But this is true within a world of altruistic self-sacrifice and of selfish egoism just as equally; whether we are working for our own benefit, for everyone else’s benefit, or for a mixtures of all of our benefits, work and thinking can still be good qualities. I’m curious what makes these two things important to Objectivism specifically.
So, what kind of work? And, again, what kind of thinking?
If some men do not choose to think, but survive by imitating and repeating, like trained animals, the routine of sounds and motions they learned from others, never making an effort to understand their own work, it still remains true that their survival is made possible only by those who did choose to think and to discover the motions they are repeating. The survival of such mental parasites depends on blind chance; their unfocused minds are unable to know whom to imitate, whose motions it is safe to follow.
In other words, think for yourself. Good advice for individuals in any situation. Learn to think independently, reason out the world for yourself, and don’t merely follow. That’s good advice! However, that still could be true in an altruistic and selfless society of individuals. I am not seeing, here, how this reasonable ethics differs from an altruistic and social morality. I don’t see the contradiction between altruism and reason.
I’m not seeing what this reasonable selfishness is offering me that another set of values couldn’t. Just like when religion offers me community, shared values, and morals, my answer is “I can do that without religion too!”
I can have free-thinking and productivity without the virtues of selfishness.
But then, something bizarre happens:
If some men attempt to survive by means of brute force or fraud, by looting, robbing, cheating or enslaving the men who produce, it still remains true that their survival is made possible only by their victims, only by the men who choose to think and to produce the goods which they, the looters, are seizing. Such looters are parasites incapable of survival, who exist by destroying those who are capable, those who are pursuing a course of action proper to man.
Now, I imagine that here is where Rand differs from the egoists (she calls the “Nietzschean egoists” in the introduction) who simply do what they will. The difference seems to be that one produces while the other simply takes. But I don’t see how one could not start with the valuation of pleasure and life (as Rand does) and not logically be able to get to being a thief. A thief, after all, is following his or her pleasure, and many a thief or robber is quite capable of survival. Also, I know many people who strive to work and produce who are on the edge of survival, because those who control the means of production….
Oh, wait, I’m starting to sound like a socialist….
I was about to associate those who are at the top of the economic food-chain, the so-called producers (we call them “job creators” now), are making it so that one might consider crime in order to survive, because having the value of production and work are insufficient what the system is tilted against you. But that would be associating the “Robber Barons” with the mere “robbers.” As we saw in the introduction, Ayn Rand dislikes this comparison. I’m guessing that Ayn Rand would not have been at Occupy Wall Street, except to tell them all to get a job (or to be some sort of entrepreneurial genius, like John Galt).
Man cannot survive as anything but man. He can abandon his means of survival, his mind, he can turn himself into a subhuman creature and he can turn his life into a brief span of agony—just as his body can exist for a while in the process of disintegration by disease. But he cannot succeed….
No, I have not stopped quoting Ayn Rand and started quoting recent Republican speeches. if this rhetoric sounds familiar to you, it’s because of the influence of the “teabagging” right-wing of American politics these days. Because while Ayn Rand was not the only influence of this political set of ideologies, she was a strong influence. The fact that these ideas have subsequently been hitched to conservative religious ideas is, to me, high comedy.
But more than being comedy, this fact demonstrates the center of my critique; Ayn Rand’s whole philosophy here is not, in fact, a reasonable discourse divorced from the human whims and fancies from which religion, dictatorships, and crime arise. This delusion of being above the fray is the source of this ideology becoming the new fray.
For every person who claims to be above being superior to the faults of human bias, error, and self-deception, I give you a person steeped in such biases. The way to escape is not to rise above it, it is to dive down into it and get to know them. Because we can only avoid traps if we are on our hands and knees, in the mud of our messy emotional selves, feeling for traps. Ayn Rand thought she transcended the mucky swamp of human whims, but like the rest of us she was swimming waist deep in her own shit, but just not looking down.
We have to have the courage to look down. And when we do look down and see the abyss, and that abyss looks back, we need the courage to not blink or look back up out of fear. Because whether we look back up to a god (as Rand encouraged us to avoid) or to some Platonic ideal of pure reason (it amounts to the same), we are deluding ourselves.
And here we must pause again. Later this evening or tomorrow, I will post the final part of this analysis, where we will discuss the cardinal values of Objectivism and how they might usher in a utopia, somehow. Stay tuned.
Many years ago I read Ayn Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged. I found it entertaining, but mostly it was preachy. The convoluted universe within contains idealistic characters who give long diatribes composed in an attempt to get the reader riled up about how our culture is broken morally, and how we can pull ourselves up through our individual greatness to a utopian future. Such narratives failed to evoke more than mild positive feelings in me, and in the end I found Ayn Rand’s novel to be emotionally immature and philosophically problematic.
And yet, in opening her essay about ethics, Ayn Rand quotes one of the characters from this book as a representative of her “Objectivist Ethics,” as a man we should try to emulate. Here are the words of John Galt.
“Through centuries of scourges and disasters, brought about by your code of morality, you have cried that your code had been broken, that the scourges were punishment for breaking it, that men were too weak and too selfish to spill all the blood it required. You damned man, you damned existence, you damned this earth, but never dared to question your code. …
“Yes, this is an age of moral crisis. … Your moral code has reached its climax, the blind alley at the end of its course. And if you wish to go on living, what you now need is not to return to morality … but to discover it.”
And with this as the battle cry, Ayn Rand attempts to help us discover ethics, a process which seems to include trashing the history of ethical philosophy as misguided and ultimately evil. Despite her antipathy to Nietzsche’s egoism, this is very much a quest that we have found Nietzsche to be on many years before (especially with Beyond Good and Evil), and while I appreciate the need for a re-valuation of value (Nietzsche’s phrasing), as we have seen previously I am skeptical that Ayn Rand’s contribution is worthy of significant seriousness. So, in order to understand why, let’s take a look at a few highlights from chapter one of The Virtue of Selfishness, which is composed of an essay called “The Objectivist Ethics.”
What is morality/ethics?
It is a code of values to guide man’s choices and actions—the choices and actions that determine the purpose and the
course of his life. Ethics, as a science, deals with discovering and defining such a code.
The first question is: Does man need values at all—and why?
These are fair questions and definitions for starting to think about ethics. And I agree with Rand that ethics is essentially a scientific, or at least empirical, exercise. Rand is reacting, in part, to the movement in popular ethics which was largely subjective and relative, and while I am not a relativist myself I am also not an Objectivist. One thing to be aware of is the dichotomy set up there; those are not the only options.
Is ethics the province of whims: of personal emotions, social edicts and mystic revelations—or is it the province of reason? Is ethics a subjective luxury—or an objective necessity?
Clearly, Rand thinks that ethics is not a mystical, social, or subjectivist project. Rather, it is “scientific” and “objective”–hence Objectivism. And despite the fact that a number of philosophers, including Nietzsche, have sought a scientific approach to ethics prior to Rand (and many more since Rand wrote this book), Rand has the following criticism.
No philosopher has given a rational, objectively demonstrable, scientific answer to the question of why man needs a code of values. So long as that question remained unanswered, no rational, scientific, objective code of ethics could be discovered or defined.
The greatest of all philosophers, Aristotle, did not regard ethics as an exact science; he based his ethical
system on observations of what the noble and wise men of his time chose to do, leaving unanswered the questions of: why they chose to do it and why he evaluated them as noble and wise.
I’ve admired Aristotle’s approach to ethics for a long time. I don’t consider him to be the greatest philosopher, but I think his contribution to philosophy is profound and influential. His Nichomachean Ethics is among my favorite works of ethical philosophy, and anyone who takes ethics seriously should be at least familiar with it. Let’s spend a moment looking at Aristotle’s Virtue Ethics, since Rand at least hold Aristotle himself in high regard.
“Virtue Ethics,” as Aristotle’s view is called, is an interesting and powerful method for thinking about how we behave and why. Essentially, it focuses less on outcomes or principles, and instead looks at varying human attributes–virtues and vices–and considers what would be the ideal level of such attributes, which is often some moderate between extremes. We identify which temperaments make better people, and try to emulate those characteristics in ourselves. Looking at the individual behavior of a person who is admired, respected, and sought as virtuous is often an indicator of (at least) who a culture holds as a virtuous person.
However, if we left it there we would be missing something. Ethics, as I stated in the introduction, can start with individual interests, attributes, and concerns, but it must transcend these things to be powerful enough to be ethical. Much of Objectivism can be seen as a lesson in how to be an individual, but it often fails (for reasons I’ll get to) in addressing ethics primarily because it rejects the very definition of ethics. I realize Rand is doing this intentionally, I just think it fails.
Why? Let’s get back to Aristotle.
What does it matter what this or that “wise” or “virtuous” person does unless we are interested in the social and cultural implications of those actions? That is, unless we are concerned with the implications of a set of actions or virtues which we may or may not emulate, then why would we even bother paying attention to the actions of said person? Unless we are concerned with how our actions affect other people, or with how their actions affect us, then we would not care what they did. It is the very fact that we concern ourselves with the right set of actions and virtues in (other) people which excavates the fact that ethics is a social question, not an individual one.
Rand rejects “subjectivism,” but the “Objectivism” that she proposes rarely, if ever, leaves the bounds of individual interest. She thinks that the effect on the world will be one of love, collaboration, and fair trade (as we shall see), but she never articulates how this happens or why we should care about that. Without a connection between the virtues of selfishness and how it avoids making our culture and society sick, evil, or at least unsuccessful, we are left holding a bag of our own selfish interests and successes without any overt concern for anyone else, or even why we should care about them. Ayn Rand never traces how her virtues of selfishness translate into a better world in this essay, and often states directly that we should not be concerned with this. If this is not a contradiction, it is at least a serious tension.
Selfishness per se is insufficient to address a question of social significance, such as ethics. Selfishness cannot bring in empathy (a word that never comes into “The Objectivist Ethics” or the rest of the book) or understanding, which seems intentional on Rand’s part. Rand seeks to de-couple ethics from its mystical past of self-sacrifice and “irrationality” in an attempt to de-couple reason from emotion.
But you can’t de-couple reason from emotion. You can’t be coldly reasonable and rational without concern for emotion, because our brains simply are not constructed in such a way that we can separate reason from emotion. We can delude ourselves into thinking we have done so (which Rand seems guilty of), but this is an illusion.
Ayn Rand is just focusing on her set of preferences and turning them into “objective” ideals (they are, at best, intersubjective). There is nothing wrong with that inherently, but her conclusions are so self-centered, myopic, and (ironically) disjointed from reality that Objectivism can only appeal to those who are predisposed to avoiding any kind of self-sacrifice for the sake of their own selfish interests.
In other words, it seeks as a rationalized shelter for selfish people, rather than a reasonably constructed utopia of ethical living away from an evil world of altruistic fear.
Insofar as Western thought has tried to de-couple ethical philosophy from religion and mysticism specifically,
…their attempts consisted of trying to justify them on social grounds, merely substituting society for God.
This is quite similar to arguments I have heard from many conservatives, especially Christian apologists, who claim that liberals/atheists are substituting the government, science, or (in one case, at least) time for god. Society, progress, and time are all “replacements” for the missing god, supposedly. The basic complaint seems to be that where people try to understand something, all they end up doing is replacing god, rather than actually figure out what the truth is.
Now, Ayn Rand was no fan of god (she was an atheist and spoke against religion openly). Her complaint here is not that in creating a social morality we are replacing the true source of morality; god. Her problem seems to be that in attempting to re-think ethics as secular or social ideal, we are just doing the same thing as the broken systems of religion, communism, etc were doing, and which Objectivism is trying to transcend. I have had similar thoughts in relation to some of the humanist community, and so I recognize this complaint as sometimes legitimate.
Insofar as secular ethics merely clones religious ethics, I think this criticism is fair. But is this what ethical philosophy was doing? And even if it was then, is it still doing so now?
If we are to build ethics from the ground up (using reason and science), it does not mean that the structure of social morality must be abandoned as a conclusion, even if we do abandon a subjectivist, social, or mystical grounding of ethics as a starting point. One can build a reasonable ethics that leads to us thinking about ethics as a social phenomenon without starting there. In fact I’d argue that not only must we start with the facts of individual interests and considerations, if we don’t arrive at a set of social considerations when we’re done then all we are doing is arguing for the abandonment of ethics in favor of individual interests, not the discovery of ethics.
How does Rand see the relationship between society and ethics?
This meant, in logic—and, today, in worldwide practice—that “society” stands above any principles of ethics, since it is the source, standard and criterion of ethics, since “the good” is whatever it wills, whatever it happens to assert as its own welfare and pleasure.
Rand’s confusion here is to say that, for the culture and society she is criticizing, ethics starts as being what society claims to be right, wrong, or true. This description of social ethics, if true, is indeed circular and does often lead to a kind of relativism rather than anything objective or true. But this description is a straw-man. What Rand continues to misunderstand is that it is possible (and has been done, many times) to build an ethical system from the ground up (using reason, and not mere “whims”) and conclude that ethics are about social good and may, in fact, include some aspects of altruistic thinking.
Rand is essentially saying that we have all been spoon-fed a social standard of morality which is harmful to us as individuals and as a group, and I’m responding by saying simply that this is not necessarily true. It might be true for some people; some people might accept a social morality without thinking about it or taking the time to care about their individual interests enough, but this does not imply that we must abandon social concerns as a legitimate question in ethics in order to be reasonable.
My argument is that ethics can start with individual virtues, selfish concerns, and other non-inherently social factors and when we then ask the question about interactions, differences of opinion, etc, then those individual factors coalesce and supervene to create a larger level of description via the emergent properties of selfish interests.
That larger level of description is ethical philosophy. In the same way that cells operate individually, yet when we study the implications of how they interact, new levels of description (tissues, organs, bodies, ect) come into view.
If Ayn Rand’s ethics were biology, it would imply that the only thing that would matter is how cells operate independently of other cells. And just like cellular biology isn’t all of biology, selfishness isn’t all of ethics. Selfishness is, at best, the start of the conversation. How does Ayn Rand deal with the rest? Well, we’ll have to see in part 2.
This is a good time to pause. In reading, analyzing, and writing this post I have managed to compose nearly 9000 words (so far), and after writing a nearly 6000 word introduction, I decided to break up this analysis into 3 parts. I will publish part 2 in the next day or so, depending on how busy I am.