The Virtue of Selfishness, Chapter 7: Doesn’t Life Require Compromise?

Welcome back to explaining basic ethical thinking to sociopaths.  OK, that’s not fair.  Not all Objectivists are sociopaths.

Today’s chapter is a short one, but one that seems to follow along nicely from where we left off before, with Chapter 4: The Conflicts of Men’s interests. Those of you who are familiar with how numbers work will have noticed that I have skipped from chapter 4 to chapter 7, missing two chapters.  I’m doing this for the same reason as I skipped chapter 2, which was because some of the chapters were not written by Ayn rand, and Rand later disassociated herself from the author of those other chapters.

Also, reading this stuff is frustrating, and I’m trying to minimize the pain.  I know, I know…I’m a selfish bastard.

In any case, on with it!

What is compromise?

A compromise is an adjustment of conflicting claims by mutual concessions. This means that both parties to a compromise have some valid claim and some value to offer each other. And this means that both parties agree upon some fundamental principle which serves as a base for their deal.

This is not an Ayn Rand quote. No, really!
This is not an Ayn Rand quote. No, really!

It is the nature of agreement in a trade-relationship.  The nature of compromise is to make sure that each side agrees to what is being traded. A compromise is not a sacrifice:

But if one wanted to be paid and the alleged buyer wanted to obtain one’s product for nothing, no compromise, agreement or discussion would be possible, only the total surrender of one or the other.

Rand likens this to burglary; there is no compromise between a robber and the robbed, and if one asks another to give up something, then this is not compromise.

What value or concession did the burglar offer in return? And once the principle of unilateral concessions is accepted as the base of a relationship by both parties, it is only a matter of time before the burglar would seize the rest.

Don’t give an inch, because if you do you may end up with nothing.  Robbed blind.

Hey! stop compromising my TV!
Hey! stop compromising my TV!

And this is true! Don’t give the person who breaks into your house anything if you don’t want to.  They genuinely have not earned it, and you don’t have to give it.  And if you do, perhaps the robber will come back for more.  The problem here is the extent of the robber metaphor, because Rand is not merely talking about literal burglars. Rand means much more than that.

There can be no compromise between freedom and government controls; to accept “just a few controls” is to surrender the principle of inalienable individual rights and to substitute for it the principle of the government’s unlimited, arbitrary power, thus delivering oneself into gradual enslavement. As an example of this process, observe the present domestic policy of the United States.

Whoa! Where did that come from? We were just talking about compromise as a tool for fair and equal trade rights, or something to that effect, right? Then we were talking about how that relationship is not like being burgled.  Which was all a fair point to make, and I agree with the idea that being burgled is not like a fair trade.  But where did government control come into this?

This is one of the major plot points for the rest of the book.  We’ve dealt with individual ethics already, and now we will start talking about the relationship between freedom and government control, whether in the form of taxes, trade law, etc. In later chapters, Rand will expound on the issue in more detail.

I’m not an expert of law orthe relationship between individual freedoms, the social contract, or governmental power.  I cannot speak with any authority about the relationship between freedom and government power in specific details concerning the United States’ Constitution or “domestic policy.”  What I can do, however, is spot a false dichotomy.

Once again, Rand has set up up with a situation where there is the reasonable side of freedom of the individual set up against an oppressive and “arbitrary” power which seeks to force us to sacrifice against our will.  We are the reasonable individual who finds a burglar in our house (the government), and we should not have to sacrifice to their demands.  The relationship, Rand seems to be saying, between the people and the government is not a compromise because one side (the individual) does not have the ability to haggle for a better trade or to opt out.

And I have some sympathy for that feeling.  I used to argue that we should have an opt-in tax system.  You choose what you pay for. Don’t care about roads? Don’t pay those taxes (but then should you be permitted to use them?). Don’t care about education? Then don’t pay local school taxes (then should your children be able to use them?). Don’t agree with the war in [insert country here]? Then don’t pay those taxes (but don’t complain when we are attacked). Etcetera.

YouDidntThe problem here (and I want to gloss over the many intricacies of this issue, because I am not that interested in getting sucked into this maelstrom of a topic) is that there are certain roles of government which are inherently shared responsibilities.  We need roads, schools, and defense (to varying degrees, which is the part where it gets complex).  There are certain things which we benefit from paying for, collectively, which if people saw as theft (and some do *cough* tea party *cough*) they might not want to pay for.  But all to often people are blind to the advantages of giving of ourselves for the greater good, in the long run, which that selfish impulse to frame that relationship as theft overlooks.

With government, we all benefit from some level of tax-based collective effort. With interpersonal questions, we all benefit from some level of self-sacrifice, empathy, and effort which does not immediately benefit us.  The question, with each, is how much to give up, to whom, etc.  This false dichotomy between pure freedom and government (or ethical) theft is laughably simplistic and absurd.

But Rand sees this as a dichotomy, much in the same way as life and death (rather than degrees of health, well being, etc).

There can be no compromise on basic principles or on fundamental issues. What would you regard as a “compromise” between life and death? Or between truth and falsehood? Or between reason and irrationality?

Well, I would consider the choices we make and how they affect the likelihood of healthy living in general, how likely those choices were to actually reach truth or merely  rationalized subjective opinions, and how they are to promote actual reason, and not subjective irrationality labeled as objectively true values.

But, then again, I’m not Ayn Rand.

The question “Doesn’t life require compromise?” is usually asked by those who fail to differentiate between a basic principle and some concrete, specific wish.

What, you could ask, could that mean? She continues.

Accepting a lesser job than one had wanted is not a “compromise.” Taking orders from one’s employer on how to do the work for which one is hired, is not a “compromise.” Failing to have a cake after one has eaten it, is not a “compromise.”

Yeah, take that lazy moochers! You can’t get whatever you want! Only Objectivists get that!

The idea here becomes more clear when we read on.  But before we do, I just have to quote this, because every time I read sentences like this in Ayn Rand my head thumps on the desk.

Integrity does not consist of loyalty to one’s subjective whims, but of loyalty to rational principles.

Keep telling yourself that. I’m not going to keep stomping on the error of mixing up what one decrees to be rational, subjectively, and what is actually rational.  Because seriously, that shit is getting old.  But back to the point about differentiating between a basic principle and concrete, specific wishes:

A “compromise” (in the unprincipled sense of that word) is not a breach of one’s comfort, but a breach of one’s convictions. A “compromise” does not consist of doing something one dislikes, but of doing something one knows to be evil.

Like, what?

Accompanying one’s husband or wife to a concert, when one does not care for music, is not a “compromise”; surrendering to his or her irrational demands for social conformity, for pretended religious observance or for generosity toward boorish in-laws, is.

So, being nice and going to that movie or concert that your sweetie-pie wants to see is fine, but any other kind of demand for social conformity, especially if it involved their parents or religion, is not fine.  Now, I might agree with this distinction, but this does strike me as at least somewhat arbitrary.  Perhaps another example will clarify the core issue here.

Working for an employer who does not share one’s ideas, is not a “compromise”; pretending to share his ideas, is.

OK, better.  You don’t have to like your boss, but you shouldn’t pretend to if you don’t.  Got it.  I thought we were talking about freedom and oppression here? I suppose we aren’t going to address that any more, then.  Now, it seems, we’re talking about personal compromises and agreements again.  This is an issue which is very relevant when it comes to polyamory, and relationships in general, especially when we are talking about boundaries and relationships rules.

The idea seems to be that we should be able to come to an agreement with people, but we should not give up our integrity or “compromise” our values in doing so.  If we were to, we would be acting unethically.

The excuse, given in all such cases, is that the “compromise” is only temporary and that one will reclaim one’s integrity at some indeterminate future date. But one cannot correct a husband’s or wife’s irrationality by giving in to it and encouraging it to grow. One cannot achieve the victory of one’s ideas by helping to propagate their opposite.

I want to tease out a distinction here.  The first sentence above seems to be addressing the idea that by giving up, by sacrificing, now I will get something back in the long run.  Rand is reacting to an idea, one which I think is true, that we should be willing to give up something of ourselves for the sake of long-term benefit, not only to oneself, but to other people as well.

But rather than address it in these terms, it becomes about both giving into irrationality (because when someone else’s desires conflict with ours, it’s probably irrationality on their part, amirite?) and achieving victory in the battle for ideas.  Yeah, no narcissism going on there.

Listen, imaginary Objectivist interlocutor in my head, not everything is a competition.  When other people want different things than you, value different things, etc it is not necessarily for irrational reasons.  Your feelings and thoughts about things are not necessarily rational nor are they the only things that can be rational.

Nobody is asking anyone to give up their ideas or values, necessarily (which is to say, sometimes we might be doing so).  What we might be doing is asking you to give up some of your time, mental effort, etc in order to determine what you might be able to learn not only from other people’s ideas but also their values, flaws, strengths, etc.  By viewing this as a competition, you are almost certainly not going to be open to learning anything from people, especially if you disagree.  If a conversation or a relationship is a competition you are trying to win, then you will not be likely to learn much, grow as a person, or to ever understand people who are drastically different than you.

A relationship is not something you win.  A conversation is not something you win.  A debate might be (but even then, not really), but not everything is a debate especially when someone is not trying to debate you.  Your wife or husband is not trying to win a conversation about whether you will come to dinner with your in-laws (and if they are, they are not doing it right).  I am not trying to win by criticizing Ayn Rand’s (or anyone’s) thoughts.  I’m trying to understand.  I do  not seek out ideas in order to either bolster my own ideas or to show why I’m right.  I seek out other ideas in order to test if mine can stand up to scrutiny (ideally, anyway.  I’m human and err, including being occasionally defensive).

Perhaps, you Objectivist interlocutor, you should be more focused on understanding, rather than winning.  And perhaps I, sufferer of a disorder that makes criticism feel painful, should try to remember that as well.  Again, all my criticisms of everything are relevant to me.

If one found it difficult to maintain one’s loyalty to one’s own convictions at the start, a succession of betrayals—which helped to augment the power of the evil one lacked the courage to fight—will not make it easier at a later date, but will make it virtually impossible.

Conviction is more akin to religion than philosophy, Ayn Rand.

Or, perhaps, one should not have more than a minimal amount of loyalty to one’s convictions.  Perhaps opinions and values are things that we should hold tentatively, and not with conviction.  Other opinions and convictions are not the enemy.  They are not the evil at the gates.  Other ideas, opinions, etc are just that; other.  You might learn something from them if you stopped clinging so hard to your own sacred ideas.

Nothing should be sacred.  The ideas in your head, the ideals that you have, nor even the people in your life (in some cases).  Because while trying to maintain a sense of integrity is good, integrity (as I mentioned in a previous post) is not necessarily conviction.  We should not hold so tightly to our values, ideals, and opinions.  We should hold them only insofar as they don’t get blown away by the facts from other sources.

Rand seems to be holding on too tight here, and because so many people value conviction, they see this as a strength of hers  And when you are holding onto something too tight, you won’t notice when the wind of truth wants to carry it away.  We are all too naturally good at self-justification, bias, and error to hold onto such things too tightly.  Because of these biases, we should err on the side of self-correction, rather than trying to win. When you are trying to win, we become jingoistic, nationalistic, and tribal. When the goal of winning is all we see, we cannot notice our own errors.

There can be no compromise on moral principles.

If your moral principle is good, you have no need to defend it.  One should test one’s moral ideals and principles, and insofar as they stay good, we should keep them.  The truth, in the end, points to itself.

The next time you are tempted to ask: “Doesn’t life require compromise?” translate that question into its actual meaning: “Doesn’t life require the surrender of that which is true and good to that which is false and evil?” The answer is that that precisely is what life forbids—if one wishes to achieve anything but a stretch of tortured years spent in progressive self-destruction.

Oh, irony. What if your ideas are not true and good?

Sorry, of course they are; their yours.  And you are an intelligent, good, honest person.  How could a smart, good, and authentic person have ideas which may have flaws? Easily. And the problem is that this selfishness and this conviction to selfish, subjectively derived values, is a harbor for human flaws.  Selfishness as a virtue leads to a mind where one must defend its opinions and ideals because those ideals are the very source of value.  From there, everything looks like a competition.

No, thanks.  I don’t want to play that game.



One thought on “The Virtue of Selfishness, Chapter 7: Doesn’t Life Require Compromise?

  1. 1. are moral truths possible? if not, then isn’t “there are no moral truths” a moral truth?
    2. if there are moral truths, then which moral truths do you wish to compromise? why?
    3. “without forcing people, who will build the roads?” this is just status quo bias. she states elsewhere that government should do one thing: protect individual rights. that is, humans require reason to live since inborn instinct isn’t enough. force is the negation of reasoned judgment, so no one may initiate force or fraud. thus gov may not initiate force–even if people vote to do so. the gov should use force only in retaliation or self-defense. military, law enforcement, & courts are legitimate gov functions. such a gov’s budget would be less than 1% of what it is now and it would receive overwhelming voluntary support without any coercive taxes. in short, “someone needs it” is not the criterion for deciding what the gov should do. nor is it legitimate to claim that “the people voted your rights away.”

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