Tags: altruism, boundaries, communication, desire, family, happiness, intimacy, jealousy, love, manipulation, needs, relationships, rules, selfishness, shame
You probably saw that spreadsheet of reasons a wife declined to have sex with her husband, a couple weeks back. As these things do, it’s generated a fresh round in the continued conversation about sex and obligation. The conversation goes like this:
Feminist bloggers and commentators: “Nobody ever owes anybody sex for any reason.”
Less-feminist bloggers and commentators: “What, never?”
“Wellll, hardly ev– no, actually never.”
All this is well and good and needs to be said and re-said until everybody gets it. But at the same time something’s been troubling me about posts that talk about how the whole concept of withholding sex is flawed. They’re not wrong; the very idea of “withholding sex” implies that sex is something granted by default, something a person can take back as a hostile act, rather than being always and every time a gift each person freely chooses to give the other. But. I also know people who have suffered in relationships because their partner was never choosing to give them the gift of sex, and in a situation like that, repeating, “Nobody is obligated to give you sex” does not really answer the issue. Nor is it just about sex. The post that I linked argues that it makes just as much sense to talk about withholding baking cookies for your lover, cookies being another way of expressing affection and care that is not in any way owed within a relationship. Nobody is obligated to bake you cookies, have sex with you, kiss you goodbye in the morning, stay in touch during the day, or hug you when you’re sad. And because our cultural dialogue is so warped around sex particularly, and because a lot of people do feel that there’s obligation around it, it’s really good that posts like the above are being written and spread around.
That being said, though, when we’re talking about a loving relationship, I think the whole question of obligation is a derail, if not an outright red flag. True, nobody is obligated to provide their partner with sex or cuddles or kind words or a certain amount of time, but in a loving relationship, obligation is not really the point. If my lover says, “I would like X from you,” where X is any form of attention or affection or caregiving or really anything that would meet their needs or make them feel happier, and my response is, “I don’t think I’m obligated to give you that,” that indicates that there’s a fundamental problem in the way one or both of us thinks about loving behavior.
The problem might be on my lover’s end: they might be in the habit of demanding things from me on the grounds that as their partner I am obligated to give those things. Sex. Cuddles. Making dinner. A ride to the airport. Whether they’re doing it knowingly and intentionally or not, if they tend to make requests with the attitude that it is something that I owe them, that is a problem. This is the side of things that the whole “no such thing as withholding sex” dialogue is coming from, and it’s an important one.
The problem might also be on my end: I may be using “obligation” as a handy way to justify not caring about my partner’s needs and wants. Especially if my lover is a self-effacing type who is easily convinced that they’re not worth effort and care (and so many of us have those voices within us), the exchange of, “Baby, I would love it if you did this,” “Nah, I don’t feel obligated to do that,” can completely shut down the conversation, and make my lover feel guilty for even asking.
Putting obligation behind a request is a means of coercion: it’s a way of attaching moral value to a person’s answer, which is a very coercive thing indeed for those of us who like to think of ourselves as moral. Putting obligation (or lack thereof) behind a denial is a way to make someone feel unvalued, uncared-for, and not worth the effort, while retaining the moral high ground for yourself. Nobody could fault you for saying no to something you were never obligated to do! Case closed, no need to consider further. And that does its own kind of damage.
Obligation is a distraction from the real issue, which is, “Do I feel that making you happy in this way is worth what it will cost me?*” Sometimes the answer is no, and that is an acutely uncomfortable thing to say, which is why we shy away from it and use “obligation” as a screen. We are social beings and most of us are taught that caring for others is a virtue, while refusing care in order to meet our own needs is a suspicious act that must be justified. (Women, in general, receive this message about 2-3 times as strongly as men, but everybody gets it.) Just saying, “No, I’m going to prioritize my own needs here” is incredibly difficult for most of us, and we often feel a strong impulse to justify it, by invoking obligation or another concept that gets away from the central question.
Sidebar, but an important one: some people use the “obligation” screen not because they’re uncomfortable with prioritizing their own needs, but in order to mask how little they actually care about the other’s happiness. “Caring for you isn’t worth it to me” over and over is likely to get the other person questioning why they’re even committed to the relationship, why they’re investing so much in a person who is manifestly uninterested in meeting their needs unless it’s convenient. “I’m not obligated” pushes it back on the person making the request, highlighting how unreasonable they are to keep asking for things, and encouraging them to make themselves and their needs smaller and smaller. It’s a tactic for emotional abuse, and I recommend running very fast in the other direction if you see it in play.
Back to the realm of relationships that are sincerely caring, but have some toxic beliefs swimming around (which is most relationships). It is important for everybody in a relationship to really internalize that they get to have needs and wants. That the presence of other people’s conflicting needs and wants does not obliterate their own. That it is okay to prioritize their own needs and wants, even if that means denying the other person something that they want. That my need to not have sex right now, to not make you dinner right now, to not drive out in the cold to pick you up right now, is just as valid and worthy as your desire to have me do those things. This is essential, and it’s hard to grasp.
But the conversation doesn’t end there. It can’t. Because if my needs and your needs are in conflict, at least one of us is not going to get what we want, and the way those conflicts play out makes up a goodly portion of the overall health of the relationship. For some people, bringing in obligation seems like the only way to resolve the standoff. I want X, you want not-X. Let’s ask Obligation to arbitrate and decide which of us gets what we want! But, as I said above, this just brings in an aspect of moral coercion and guilt, which is super not conducive to long-term relational and individual health. (I lived the first 25 years of my life under heavy burdens of moral coercion and guilt. I know whereof I speak.)
To resolve the situation in a way that’s going to strengthen the relationship, you have to look head-on at what’s really going on here: Person A wants something that it will cost Person B to give, and Person B is judging whether the happiness or relief it would bring to Person A is worth the cost. Sometimes the answer will be yes, and sometimes the answer will be no. Sometimes you need to do a lot of talking through the situation in order to reach the answer that will be best for both of you and the relationship. (Because this post started out talking about sex, let me point out that submitting to sex you don’t want to be having is usually very costly; a partner that is comfortable with their partner bearing that cost is likely either uncaring or unaware. On the flip side, for many, going without sex for months or years because they are in a monogamous relationship with someone who isn’t inclined to have sex with them is acutely painful. Again, a partner who is both caring and aware will not be complacent about this situation.)
While both parties may be tempted to control the outcome of this conversation, by bringing in obligation or guilt or consequences (like, “If you don’t do X, I won’t do Y for you in the future), any of these entities are going to do damage. What the conversation needs to center around is both people understanding, as deeply as possible, what the request really entails for the other person. What feelings lie behind the need, and the cost? What fears and insecurities, what unresolved baggage is attached to it? What joys and hopes and satisfactions go along with having the need met? What symbolic meanings does each person attach to this action?
The most productive conflict conversations I’ve had always happen when each of us cares deeply about the other’s happiness, and trusts that the other person cares deeply about ours. When you trust in someone else’s love for you, you don’t have to manipulate and threaten and guilt them into doing what you want. You don’t have to bring in Obligation to arbitrate. You can lay your need or wish before them, and explain to them exactly what it means to you, and you can listen to their explanation of what the cost is for them, and what that means to them. And you can work together to resolve the dilemma in a way that makes both of you feel loved and cared-for.
Another part of this is accepting that sometimes you will do something that causes your partner pain, or decline to do something that would bring them happiness. One of the valuable things about poly is that most of us have to grapple with this pretty regularly. A very few of us are lucky enough to have partners that never feel jealousy, but most of us have to cope from time to time with the fact that our new love is causing another partner some pangs. It is so, so hard to say, “I see that this is hurting you, and I choose to do it anyway,” even when that’s the choice our partner wants us to make. It is much easier to get angry with our partner for feeling hurt (I’ve done that), or to feel guilty for even wanting the other thing (I’ve done that too), or to construct sets of rules that delineate what each person has a Right or No Right to do, thus again bringing in the moral weight of obligation to distract from the reality of feelings (I’ve done that less, because I started my poly life with an experienced partner who stayed away from those pitfalls.) It is easier to do those things, but it is healthier in the long run to be able to say, “I love you, and I see your pain, and it hurts me, and I am choosing to prioritize my need in this case.” (This is made significantly easier when the partner can say, “Yes, it hurts me, but I want you to have this joy and freedom and I am willing to bear that cost.”)
Here is the final piece, and for some of us it’s the hardest: the decision has to be made together, and sincerely together, with both people’s full input. I have been in conversations that look a lot like the one I recommend two paragraphs up, where both people are talking about what they need and want and the feelings that lie behind those and seeking a mutually agreeable solution, and it seems at first glance to be a healthy discussion, but in reality one person is controlling the conversation. They may be telling the other person what they’re “really” feeling, or they may be casting the other person’s feelings as wrong or invalid or harmful, while their own are rational and correct and embody what’s best for everybody. Nae good. That’s another “run very fast in the other direction” situation.
But another, more common dynamic is that one person will look at the dilemma and decide for themselves that their need is not worth what it would cost the other person, without even expressing the need to the other person. I do this all the time, and so do most of my intimates, because we tend to be giving and self-effacing to a fault. “I want to go out tonight with Lover, but that means Spouse will be alone and sad, so I can’t.” And Spouse never even realizes that you’ve given up something you wanted for their sake. Over time, if you’re me at least, this leads to a feeling of resentment and entitlement: “I’ve made so many sacrifices for your emotional comfort!…” And you will at some point become upset when they ask you to absorb some emotional discomfort for their own enjoyment: “…how can you not be willing to make the same sacrifices for mine?” (Because they never even realized you were making the sacrifice, dumbass. Meaning me, on many past occasions.) Or you might decide abruptly that you’ve earned some guilt-free enjoyment, and get frustrated when they still express pain over your choice because OMG, can’t you ever do anything for yourself? (When, again, they didn’t even know you were choosing not to do things for yourself on other occasions, and are likely to feel some nasty whiplash at your sudden, unprecedented, and highly defensive selfishness. And yes, I’ve done that too, and it sucks.) Or, in a specifically poly context when making a sacrifice for Spouse’s sake often involves some sacrifice on Lover’s part as well, your bond with Lover may dwindle because they are never being prioritized.
Asking another person to bear some discomfort or pain or inconvenience for our sake is hard. So, so hard. I can barely bring myself to do it unless I feel completely justified (see again: Obligation and its dysfunctional uses.) But I know my loves love me, and desire my happiness, and that there will be times when they’re more than willing to absorb a little cost to see me happier. After all, I do the same for them all the time, and it’s insulting to behave as if their love is weaker than mine or their ability to handle some discomfort is lower. (Sometimes it is… but not usually as much lower as my private decisions would imply.) And I need to give them the opportunity to do that, by asking for what I want. And I need to do it in good faith, without invoking rules and justifications and obligations. If I am truly loved, the fact of my feelings, my needs, my wishes and hopes and desires, is enough to make them at least consider giving me what I want. And if they decide the cost is too high for them, it’s not because I don’t deserve happiness or because it was wrong of me to even ask: it’s because sometimes, the cost is too high. That’s okay. By talking out our different needs and feelings, we both understand each other better, and can continue to love each other well.
*This sentence is adjusted slightly from the originally-published version, which read, “Do I care enough about making you happy in this way to accept what it will cost me?” Midnight Insomnia Brain threw out the revised sentence, which is a better expression of what I mean.
Tags: altruism, Ayn Rand, ethical philosophy, self-esteem, selfishness, The Virtue of Selfishness
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 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.
“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.”
Tags: altruism, Ayn Rand, egoism, ethical philosophy, Objectivism, The Virtue of Selfishness
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.
Tags: altruism, Ayn Rand, egoism, ethical philosophy, Objectivism, The Virtue of Selfishness
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.
Returning to the distinctions between reason and whims, which we looked at in the introduction, Rand asks the following.
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.
Tags: altruism, Ayn Rand, ethics, Objectivism, selfishness, The Virtue of Selfishness
50 years ago Ayn Rand, a novelist and philosopher, wrote a book entitled The Virtue of Selfishness. I read this book many years ago, in addition to The Romantic Manifesto, Atlas Shrugged, and Anthem. I actually enjoyed some aspects of her writing, especially when it came to her novels. But I never was able to seriously accept her philosophical worldview, and her epistemologucal and ‘ethical’ thinking rubbed me the wrong way.
Ayn Rand called herself an Objectivist. Here, and in the following series posts, I will not be addressing all of her Objectivist views, but will rather be focusing on the essays from this one work, The Virtue of Selfishness, and the related issues pertaining to ethical philosophy. In essence, I will be addressing her ‘ethical egoism.’
From the start, I will be clear that while I find some of what she says to be interesting and thought-provoking, I ultimately disagree with her. Vigorously. In re-reading this work I will be launching a criticism, but I hope it to be fair insofar as I represent her views accurately. That is, in arguing against selfishness as a moral foundation or value, I want to be aware that she uses the term in a different way, intentionally, in an attempt to deconstruct how selfishness has been demonized by our culture and the philosophical history which helped establish that culture. And while this deconstruction does unearth some assumptions about morality, in much the same way that Nietzsche’s views on ethics did, it is my opinion that her views on ethics are derived from an oversimplified caricature of the subject. Her dichotomy between altruism and selfishness (egoism) is sophomoric philosophy, and misses too much to be as influential as her thinking continues to be.
As a disclaimer, I view ethics as not based upon altruism (selflessness) or egoism (selfishness), and view the dichotomy, which Rand employs, between altruism and egoism as misguided as a means of thinking about ethics at a basic level. For me, ethics is based in the value of fairness, derived from freedom and its logical consequences. Further, while an analysis of ethical philosophy can start from consideration of selfish interests, so long as it remains there is never becomes a discussion about ethics at all (I know some people disagree with my on this point, and I’m willing to defend this view).
I, like Rand (as we shall see below), don’t want an ethic which sacrifices either the self or the other for their own sake. However, her solution is largely myopic and ignorant of many alternative solutions. Ignorance is not itself bad, but when millions of people follow a view which demonstrates such blatant ignorance, as I philosopher I become worried; especially when I see the same myopia reflected in people who are not ostensibly Rand followers.
Whether the person making the mistake of defending a similar form of ethical egoism is a fan of Ayn Rand or has antipathies towards her is irrelevant if they are making similar philosophical mistakes.
With that said, here’s some selections from the introduction, with commentary by myself, to start out the series.
The Virtue of Selfishness, by Ayn Rand (1964).
The title of this book may evoke the kind of question that I hear once in a while: “Why do you use the word ‘selfishness’ to denote virtuous qualities of character, when that word antagonizes so many people to whom it does not mean the things you mean?”
To those who ask it, my answer is: “For the reason that makes you afraid of it.”
Ayn Rand was not shy nor afraid to be blunt, as we can see from the start. However, there are more motivations than fear which would prompt such a question. In some ways, her reasons for choosing that term may be similar to my reasons for maintaining the label ‘atheist’ when another might be more palatable to people. If I were being snarky, I might respond with a similar answer that Rand gave here when asked why I maintain the ‘atheist’ label, so I won’t chastised her for her tone. Let’s continue to gain more context.
But there are others, who would not ask that question, sensing the moral cowardice it implies, yet who are unable to formulate my actual reason or to identify the profound moral issue involved. It is to them that I will give a more explicit answer. It is not a mere semantic issue nor a matter of arbitrary choice. The meaning ascribed in popular usage to the word “selfishness” is not merely wrong: it represents a devastating intellectual“package-deal,” which is responsible, more than any other single factor, for the arrested moral development of mankind.
That is quite a charge!
OK, so what’s clear here is that Ayn Rand thought that there was something wrong with how American/Western culture and its moral thinking was using the term “selfish,” and maybe the term needed some re-evaluation. Fair enough. Let’s see why she felt that way.
In popular usage, the word “selfishness” is a synonym of evil; the image it conjures is of a murderous brute who tramples over piles of corpses to achieve his own ends, who cares for no living being and pursues nothing but the gratification of the mindless whims of any immediate moment. Yet the exact meaning and dictionary definition of the word “selfishness” is: concern with one’s own interests. This concept does not include a moral evaluation; it does not tell us whether concern with one’s own interests is good or evil; nor does it tell us what constitutes man’s actual interests. It is the task of ethics to answer such questions.
OK, agreed…partially. This image of a brutish person would be included in the set of selfish people, but certainly it would not be an exhaustive list. There are other expressions of selfishness, Rand’s idealized one included, which may or may not be objectionable. My concern here is the hyperbolic nature of the example. This is a tactic that one sees when reading Ayn Rand; she sets up foils which create a caricature of the idea she is criticizing, and sets up her own perspective as an idealized picture. Surely, we all do this to some degree (I’m probably doing so in this very post), but one rarely sees it to the stark level as with Ayn Rand.
In her novels, a common theme is one where the immoral government schemes, through their love of altruism, attempts to prevent capable individuals from succeeding through enforcing taxation and other means of taking from producers and giving to those who don’t produce. Those arguing for the altruistic model, in her caricatures, are set up as sniveling and weak collectivists who de-value personal achievement and virtuous selfish interest. Her foils are never fleshed out as people with complex motivations, whether because Ayn Rand was incapable of comprehending their potential reasons or because she didn’t care to. In the end, it amounts to the same.
In short, Ayn Rand is quite good as setting up strong dichotomies which include the evil, morally regressive altruists and collectivists (who hate individual freedom and strength) against her heroes who strive for personal glory and achievement by bucking the system. Sort of like the ‘lamestream’ media versus ‘mavericks.’
Sound familiar? *cough*tea party*cough*. Also, Fox News.
Is there any surprise that many conservatives love Ayn Rand?
Anyway, when Rand eventually leaves behind the stark dichotomies and straw-men above, she addresses what selfishness is. The demonized ‘selfishness’ she is reacting against is not this monster she just created for the purpose of comparison, it’s something else; something virtuous and moral. Get used to this tactic when reading Ayn Rand. Her method is to contrast a caricatured monster of selfishness with her virtuous one, which ignores the reality that every day self-centered behavior has detrimental effects on all of us, including her own virtuous kind of selfishness (we;ll get to that).
But the contrast to the monstrous selfishness is an equally monstrous altruism, and with this her continuum and her ethical boundaries are painted.
The ethics of altruism has created the image of the brute, as its answer, in order to make men accept two inhuman tenets: (a) that any concern with one’s own interests is evil, regardless of what these interests might be, and (b) that the brute’s activities are in fact to one’s own interest (which altruism enjoins man to renounce for the sake of his neighbors).
This is a really excellent example of the straw man fallacy in action. There may, in fact, be people who argue for altruism in this sense, and certainly many ethical systems throughout history have emphasized the importance of forms of altruism which include some sacrifice of the self for the sake of others, but pure renunciation or asceticism is usually only regarded as virtuous within specific religious traditions, including many Catholic saints. That is, if Rand has issues with the altruism within those traditions, then she needs to stop arguing that this altruism is universal, rather than confined to certain small sections of culture and history. Rand’s altruistic monster is not a dominant ethical value, and so it makes me wonder who she’s arguing with, and why she is unable to wrestle with more nuanced ethical questions about fairness, rather than a caricature of such things.
Ayn Rand’s depiction of altruism is nowhere near the dominant value of ethical thinking, and there are many alternatives to the altruism/egoism dichotomy which she portrays. From reading Ayn Rand, one could get the impression that altruism and egoism are the primary values in conflict in ethical philosophy. That view would be very wrong, as there are many ways to address ethics which do not deal with this question of altruism or selfishness directly.
However, perhaps we need to see what she has to say about altruism, and its flaws, to understand how she’s thinking about this.
There are two moral questions which altruism lumps together into one “package-deal”: (1) What are values? (2) Who should be the beneficiary of values? Altruism substitutes the second for the first; it evades the task of defining a code of moral values, thus leaving man, in fact, without moral guidance.
So, in other words, others should be the beneficiary of our values, or actions. This, thinks Rand, is the altruistic value. This is either a terrible misunderstanding of how most people actually think about ethics (including many who talk about altruism specifically) or an intentional skewing of those whom she is arguing against. She continues.
Altruism declares that any action taken for the benefit of others is good, and any action taken for one’s own benefit is evil. Thus the beneficiary of an action is the only criterion of moral value—and so long as that beneficiary is anybody other than oneself, anything goes.
Hence the appalling immorality, the chronic injustice, the grotesque double standards the insoluble conflicts and contradictions that have characterized human relationships and human societies throughout history, under all the variants of the altruist ethics.
So, for those of you who are philosophically inclined, she’s claiming that altruism has an ethical principle of helping others, and from that point of view any selfish action is immoral. Now, some altruists might agree with the first part, but the second does not necessarily follow. In real life, not many people take such an absolutist approach to thinking about selfishness v. selflessness.
So, after reading those two paragraphs, I’m left with the resounding thought that this is–and there is no other way to put it worthy of the content–bullshit. That is, if this is an indictment of popular morality, in favor of a rationalistic ethics, it is a biased and parochial interpretation in order to make her own views look good in comparison to a straw-man version of altruism. It is making the other side look as bad as possible to make the ensuing ‘rational’ view seem reasonable by comparison. it’s a shameless and possibly dishonest method.
It is statements like those above which make many people cringe when calling Ayn Rand’s thinking “philosophy,” as it seems to be more about rationalizing her whims (which is exactly what she claims to be avoiding in being rational) than thinking carefully and with understanding about ethics. The fact that so many people take her views seriously is, well, baffling to me.
Real ethical philosophy is more nuanced than this. Even if altruism were a philosophy that concluded that so long as an act is done for other people it is permitted (it doesn’t make such conclusions, that I’m aware of), the simple fact is that this type of altruism is not the machine against which Rand rages. This, quite simply, is a massively shoddy straw-man which has few (if any) actual representatives, and therefore this introduction is impotent as a critique of popular morality. Also altruists, or at least those who value altruism as part of their ethical thinking, do not view anything done selfishly as evil. This drastic oversimplification is borderline absolutist and reactionary, not careful or insightful.
But it gets better.
Observe the indecency of what passes for moral judgments today. An industrialist who produces a fortune, and a gangster who robs a bank are regarded as equally immoral, since they both sought wealth for their own “selfish” benefit. A young man who gives up his career in order to support his parents and never rises beyond the rank of grocery clerk is regarded as morally superior to the young man who endures an excruciating struggle and achieves his personal ambition. A dictator is regarded as moral, since the unspeakable atrocities he committed were intended to benefit “the people,” not himself.
Right. No, I mean wrong. Sorry, her brain worm is eating my brain. Too much more of this I might start campaigning for Rand Paul.
Observe what this beneficiary-criterion of morality does to a man’s life. The first thing he learns is that morality is his enemy; he has nothing to gain from it, he can only lose; self-inflicted loss, self-inflicted pain and the gray, debilitating pall of an incomprehensible duty is all that he can expect. He may hope that others might occasionally sacrifice themselves for his benefit, as he grudgingly sacrifices himself for theirs, but he knows that the relationship will bring mutual resentment, not pleasure—and that, morally, their pursuit of values will be like an exchange of unwanted, unchosen Christmas presents, which neither is morally permitted to buy for himself. Apart from such times as he manages to perform some act of self-sacrifice, he possesses no moral significance: morality takes no cognizance of him and has nothing to say to him for guidance in the crucial issues of his life; it is only his own personal, private, “selfish” life and, as such, it is regarded either as evil or, at best, amoral.
That’s right folks. Look out for yourself because there is no guarantee that anyone else will. Don’t trust, or build interdependent communities where you have to be vulnerable to each other, or submit to any policies which seek to make you support the community as a whole. Make yourself self-sufficient and anyone else who can’t (or won’t) do so, well they’re entitled and immoral leeches upon you, and not worth your time.
I recognize this instinct. In my more selfish moments, I have thoughts that verge along this path. I feel its pull, and I can walk down this road in my mind. I resist this path. I don’t resist it because I feel guilty or because I’m supposed to resist it; I resist it because the behavior it induces are harmful to those around me, and I’m not as happy or fulfilled insofar as I walk that path. And if I were mostly focused on my own interests, I would miss many of the effects of my actions in this way, and I might agree with Rand in that case because I’d be oblivious, or perhaps callous, to those effects.
When I think in these terms, I’m more likely to be angry, reactionary, and less likely to be empathetic. I don’t like the person who walks that path, whether it is another or I who walks it. I have trouble understanding how someone can walk that path without understanding its pitfalls, but I know they exist. I suppose someone prone to selfishness and self-interest would be less likely to notice them, and that’s probably why so many people are drawn to this philosophy.
This screed by Rand, and all her pronouncements similar to it, are the lament of a person who is incapable, apparently, of comprehending or caring about the interests of others (except where they intersect with our own), especially how our actions affect those interests. In a room full of people with their individual interests, they must all equally matter or a contradiction is spawned; whatever argument any of them uses for why their interests are more important is automatically valid for anyone else, which implies that they are all equal from the start (the “original position”). Their individual interests are equal in comparison to each other. It is when they all realize that their interests aren’t superior to the interests of others that each individual is able to start thinking about what will be right to do. If they are all thinking about their own interests, the conversation about ethics can’t even get off the ground.
In light of all this, it seems that Ayn Rand would not have been a fan of John Rawls, whose 1971 book A Theory of Justice described what was called the “veil of ignorance,” which effectively shows the fundamental problem that many ethical systems have missed in trying to establish fairness, or care about fairness at all. Rawls’ view is, in some ways, antithetical to Rand’s. Where Rand seeks to emphasize individual interests, Rawls seems to minimize them, but Rawls was no altruist (which is not to say he was against selfless acts, just that his foundational principle was not that selfless acts were necessarily good, or that selfish ones were necessarily bad).
One of the implications of Rawls’ analysis, as well as that of the idea of power dynamics in general, is that our individual interests, whether rational or irrational, exist within a miasma of blindness, privilege, and lack of understanding of what it’s like to be other people. Rand wants us, as we will see, to consider our rational self interest in thinking about how to behave and what actions to take. She does not want us to merely follow our whims (our irrational self interests), but the problem is that this distinction between rational self interest and irrational self interest (her terms) may be impossible for us to make ourselves, because we may be blind to the processes thagt distinguish them.
In order to comprehend the differences between rational and irrational interests (whether self or other), we need to apply empathy, perspective, consider the interest of others (but not merely sacrifice ourselves to them), and put ourselves behind Rawls’ veil of ignorance. Otherwise, we may end up emulating some of that brutishness even when we think we’re being rational because we think our interests are rational when they are, in fact, irrational.
Rand seems to be unaware that we humans are largely incapable of determining whether our interests are rational or irrational, especially when we are acting primarily with deference to self-interest. Cognitive dissonance, bias, and the fact that we are generally blind to our own flaws are reasons enough to not utilize our self interest as the standard by which we start thinking about ethical behavior. We simply don’t know ourselves well enough to trust that our self interest is actually in our interest, let alone anyone else’s.
Ayn Rand then continues to address means of survival, since altruism is evil and will probably kill us.
Since nature does not provide man with an automatic form of survival, since he has to support his life by his own effort, the doctrine that concern with one’s own interests is evil means that man’s desire to live is evil—that man’s life, as such, is evil. No doctrine could be more evil than that.
Our own effort, but definitely not by our collective effort, is the means to moral behavior (says Rand). This continuation of a caricature of a self-hating, insecure, and completely anti-life demon should be getting on your nerves by now. I don’t know anyone who believes that our own interests are evil per se (well, maybe some Christians, but again Rand is not overtly criticizing religious morality, but supposedly altruism-based morality in general), even if they could be harmful or problematic sometimes. Similarly, acting on behalf of others is not good in itself, but it could be. The major flaw here is arguing that the base value of ethics has anything to do with either selfishness or altruism. Neither of those factors are sufficient to construct an ethical system.
The more one applies weight to the value of selfish motivations (whether reasonable or not), the farther away from ethical considerations one gets. One must have some consideration of the interests of others to be doing ethical thinking. This is not because selfishness is immoral per se (or because altruism is good per se), but because without the presence of others, or their interests we are not even talking about ethics. Selfishness is not immoral because it makes us brutes (although it might do that as well), selfishness is amoral by definition. Our rational self interest is not ethics. It is one of the building blocks of ethics (potentially), but by itself it is nothing more than establishing what an individual wants, which is not an ethical question at all.
Individual interests are great to know for the sake of personal growth, therapy, and knowing how to spend time alone, but until the interests of others come into play a conversation about ethics is logically impossible. That is, until some level of giving of ourselves for the sake of others is admitted into consideration as ethically relevant, we are not talking about ethics at all. So when Rand argues that we should not be concerned with the interests of others at the expense of our own, she might be arguing that ethics are not worth our effort.
If it is true that what I mean by “selfishness” is not what is meant conventionally, then this is one of the worst indictments of altruism: it means that altruism permits no concept of a self-respecting, self-supporting man—a man who supports his life by his own effort and neither sacrifices himself nor others. It means that altruism permits no view of men except as sacrificial animals and profiteers-on-sacrifice, as victims and parasites—that it permits no concept of a benevolent co-existence among men—that it permits no concept of justice.
Altruism, even when portrayed this way, allows for the existence of such people, it just might look down upon them. But being that I am not coming from an altruistic point of view, this is not relevant to me or to most ethical thinkers.
But we do have other concepts of justice–John Rawls’ work was already alluded to, and there are others. Rand here is so blind to anything except her own interests that she can’t see that she is not being rational in her criticism of a moral system which is not only a straw-man, but ignores many other possible views. This myopia is common in Rand’s work, and seems to belie a general lack of understanding of ethical philosophy, especially that of her philosophical opponents.
If you wonder about the reasons behind the ugly mixture of cynicism and guilt in which most men spend their lives, these are the reasons: cynicism, because they neither practice nor accept the altruist morality—guilt, because they dare not reject it.
To rebel against so devastating an evil, one has to rebel against its basic premise. To redeem both man and morality, it is the concept of “selfishness” that one has to redeem.
So, there are some people who resent being repressed to act the way that they want, because what they want to do is considered immoral. The problem with this is that this could be true of all sorts of behaviors, whether actually immoral or not. Wherein popular morality has not caught up with what is rational, this is a battle cry for those who fight against the conservatism of our society. For atheists, polyamorous people, etc such ideas are important if we want to progress our culture morally, legally, and behaviorally.
But for others this could be used as an excuse to not consider the social and interpersonal effects of their behavior. There are times when we need to, morally, restrain our interests (even if we think those interests to be rational), when the effects of those interests harm others unnecessarily. And in more cases than not, this side of this battle cry seeks to preserve certain types of power structures and privileges which the individual, who considers their proclivities to be rational, is blind to (due to the nature of privilege and power).
It is no surprise that fans of Ayn Rand tend to side with business interests, free market capitalism, etc and view any form of socialism, communism, or any type of centrist criticism of Wall Street et al as problematic at best and down right un-American at worst. Anyone who has a problem with those things hates freedom, and seeks to take something from you which you earned rightfully. Any tax or sacrifice of any kind, which you earned, is immoral because it gives to someone who didn’t earn something.
The first step is to assert man’s right to a moral existence—that is: to recognize his need of a moral code to guide the course and the fulfillment of his own life.
For a brief outline of the nature and the validation of a rational morality,see my lecture on “The Objectivist Ethics” which follows. The reasons why man needs a moral code will tell you that the purpose of morality is to define man’s proper values and interests, that concern with his own interests is the essence of a moral existence, and that man must be the beneficiary of his own moral actions.
Since all values have to be gained and/or kept by men’s actions, any breach between actor and beneficiary necessitates an injustice: the sacrifice of some men to others, of the actors to the nonactors, of the moral to the immoral. Nothing could ever justify such a breach, and no one ever has.
Yes, many have. Ayn Rand and her followers may not think it moral to get between you and your interest, but insofar as your interest is hurting other people, we have many tools to evaluate the worthiness of such a breach. While I would not advocate a strong altruism, this view of Rand’s, which calls itself rational, misses so many levels of reasonable consideration that it is almost laughably simplistic in its perspective.
One thing we have learned, since Rand’s time, is that our moral motivations are fundamentally emotional and instinctual, and then secondarily rational. Ethical philosophy, insofar as it attempts to be rational or divorced from our mere whims, is largely an illusion. By making a strong distinction between rationalism and emotional/instinctual concerns, Rand and anyone else who argues for a similar worldview of maintaining a purely reasonable or rational approach to ethics, is failing to understand a fundamental problem of human nature and behavior; most of our thinking is rationalized whims.
Ayn Rand does not seem to agree, which is fine because we discovered this after she formed her ideas.
The Objectivist ethics holds that the actor must always be the beneficiary of his action and that man must act for his own rational self-interest. But his right to do so is derived from his nature as man and from the function of moral values in human life—and, therefore, is applicable only in the context of a rational, objectively demonstrated and validated code of moral principles which define and determine his actual self-interest.
It is fair to emphasize that Rand’s views are not a license to just do whatever we want:
It is not a license “to do as he pleases” and it is not applicable to the altruists’ image of a “selfish” brute nor to any man motivated by irrational emotions, feelings, urges, wishes or whims.
This is said as a warning against the kind of “Nietzschean egoists” who, in fact, are a product of the altruist morality and represent the other side of the altruist coin: the men who believe that any action, regardless of its nature, is good if it is intended for one’s own benefit. Just as the satisfaction of the irrational desires of others is not a criterion of moral value, neither is the satisfaction of one’s own irrational desires. Morality is not a contest of whims.
No, morality should not be a contest of whims, but that is what most ethical philosophy ends up being; a contest of rationalized whims. Rand’s dichotomy between the altruist and the egoist is interesting as an analytical tool for deconstructing the nature of those two sets of values and behaviors, but as a means of discussing what seems to be meta-ethics, this is a flop. Altruism and egoism are not fundamental values, they are two conclusions. And if this is an attempt to analyze them as conclusions, all we have is a couple of straw-men and what is presented as a rational middle ground. I’m not convinced it is rational or reasonable.
Rand does not like the straw-man she creates for altruism, nor does she like the (also straw-man) Nietzschean egoist, but her rational solution is not any better. She believes that she is being rational and not following her mere whims, but I am skeptical of this belief. Here’s more:
Just as man cannot survive by any random means, but must discover and practice the principles which his survival requires, so man’s self-interest cannot be determined by blind desires or random whims, but must be discovered and achieved by the guidance of rational principles.
What moral principles? Well, we will have to wait for later to get the flesh, but the foundation is rational self interest:
This is why the Objectivist ethics is a morality of rational self-interest—or of rational selfishness. Since selfishness is “concern with one’s own interests,” the Objectivist ethics uses that concept in its exact and purest sense. It is not a concept that one can surrender to man’s enemies, nor to the unthinking misconceptions, distortions, prejudices and fears of the ignorant and the irrational. The attack on “selfishness” is an attack on man’s self-esteem; to surrender one, is to surrender the other.
No, to attack selfishness is not to attack self-esteem. One can be secure in themselves without being selfish, and one can be secure in oneself and be altruistic. This contradiction Rand thinks she sees is an illusion; a warped reflection in a dirty mirror. We may never be able to see others completely, or know their interests, but that does not mean we should merely concern ourselves with our own interests. That seems to me to be a rationalization of a lack of consideration or empathy.
Ethics does not ask us to surrender to the other, but sometimes it asks us to see the other as a mirror of ourselves. We have our interests, and so does the other. What do we do when confronted with this fact? By waving off the other and their interests, whether due to lack of interest, lack of understanding, or any other reason is to wave off any attempt as not only ethics but also community, intimacy, and the possibility of understanding through shared vulnerability. We don’t surrender to the other, we identify with them insofar as we can in order to not put our interests over theirs, because doing so is a contradiction of the commonality of our interests.
If we view the interests of the other as competing with our own, or we view them as incomprehensible because they are ultimately unknowable to us, or if we just think their interests will rob us of our own interests, we are missing out on a large part of humanity. To focus on our own interest so much seems too parochial and limiting. If I really want to be a great individual, I should give up some of myself just for the sake of self-improvement. By not wanting to give up any of ourselves or to understand the interests of others, we are much more likely to start idolizing the self and not change, which is bad for everyone around us. Especially ourselves.
Understanding of others is a key to self-improvement.
Ayn Rand gets into more meat in the essays themselves, and I we will dig into that when that time comes, but this short introduction (and this long analysis) will set the stage for how we think about her ideas.