Objective Judgment? February 2, 2015Posted by shaunphilly in Culture and Society, Polyamory, Skepticism and atheism.
Tags: ethics, judgment, morality, objective reality, Subjectivity
1 comment so far
I’ve been thinking a lot, recently, about objectivity. Or, as some call it, “truth.”
(oh crap, he’s about to get philosophical….)
Oh, shaddap, you!
Anyway, back to what I was saying. I like believing things. It’s often nice if they happen to be true. It happens once in a while. Or, you know, at least once. It might have happened.
There is a part of my mind which just insists that there must be true things, out there, which are true regardless of whether anyone effectively simulates those ideas in their heads or not. I recognize this as my ego desiring that my view of the world is true, and this feeling is much stronger the more emotional I am. And then, well, I analyze that statement and I realize the whole thing collapses on its own weight.
I hate that. Disillusionment is a serious harsh to my mellow. Yes, I just used that phrase, which means it’s now 1995. You’re welcome.
Minds are, by definition, subjective. There is no objective point of view (this was one of the central axioms of my MA thesis, which I will not try to summarize here because I like you, dear reader, and I want you to keep reading). All we can do is come together and try to construct reality out of the bloody remains of our experience which survives all that bias and interpretation. Our personal experience, in other words, is like a hot dog is to reality’s cow. Don’t think about that analogy too much, because you will die from an aneurysm.
So if that is the case, then how can we talk about anything being “true”?
There is an idea within the skeptic community, which has been articulated in a few ways. The basic idea is that the “truth” is what remains after we remove all (or, at least, as much as possible) personal bias. It is the thing that continues to exist whether we believe in it or not. It is “reality.” It does not care what we think, it just is. And the best way to apprehend such a thing would be by use of the tools of philosophy and science; logic and empiricism.
And I agree with this idea. But how could I? Why not just give over to the anti-realists? (cf this analysis and this article at the SEP). Why not go even further and become a mystic or neo-vedantic philosophies which reject the concept of reality all-together? Why not just admit that all of this “reality” is merely an illusion–maya–-and forgo this western concept of progress, understanding, and materialism? Why not just admit that everything is mere opinion, and that what “really happens” is a nonsensical idea?
Why not just give people flowers at the airport and change my name to Sunbeam…again?
Stubbornness, I suppose. Also, pragmatism, to some degree. Mostly, it’s Nietzsche. Nietzsche is the Goa’uld for whom I am but a host, apparently.
Science fiction and dead Germans aside, this is a tension that sits on the edge of my mind frequently, and one which is sometimes glossed over in conversations about scientific realism and hippies. But that specific argument is not the focus of my attention today. Today, I’m concerned with how we form opinions about ourselves, other people, and circumstances which I believe has some epistemological commonalities with this philosophical question of whether the world is real.
Is my worldview actually based in reality?
If I believe that I am a good person, or that I’m telling the truth, or even if my memories are based in anything outside of my own desires and biases writing themselves to my brain (or to my cosmic consciousness, if I were to accept the neo-vedantic interpretation), how would I be sure that this idea has any coherence with what is real or true?
I mean, how do I know I’m not a brain in a vat? Or (possibly worse) a brain in a jar of piss in some other universe’s postmodern art installment? I could merely be some lame artist’s attempt to piss off (see what I did there) some establishment which worships brains. Although, probably not mine specifically. Yet.
I could just be a piece of hardware being ignored by 6th graders on a field-trip!
When we start thinking about things such as how we view ourselves, the narratives groups maintain through interpersonal relationships, and even vast and complicated cultures we have to take into account not only what is preferable or comfortable to us, but what is uncomfortable and foreign. Who we are at any moment is dependent upon our environment, and our environment is an organism which feeds upon itself and those who foster its creation and maintenance (much like the role that Shiva has in some parts of Indian mythology). So, the question is who are the people feeding that beast, and what attributes, motives, and capabilities do they have?
Also, are they total dicks? Because that’s honestly the worst.
Further, what are the walls between your worldview and the worldview of others? Is that wall merely a thin transparent material holding in piss and/or brain-vat liquid (mostly Gatorade, is my guess)? So many questions. So many disturbing, but artful, questions.
Anyway, why do I care? Is it because I am being paid by the Gatorade lobby? Possibly. Alternatively, it might it be because who speaks for a group, what they believe, and what kind of character they have will have implications for that group. And maybe I care about groups of which I am a part. And, eventually, that family, organization, or culture will start to reflect the people that make it up, which is bad if those people are dicks.
That is, there is a very complicated relationship between the things we do, say, and believe and the social/cultural environment in which we live. Our ability to create a worldview is (in part) a combination of insight, self-knowledge, and willingness to be honest with others and ourselves. Any small inherent deviation from honesty, respectability, or consideration for feelings and boundaries of others has large effects on our lives, relationships, and culture because that inherent tendency defines the vast majority of the decisions, actions, and beliefs which define a group of any size or complexity.
What scientists actually do, for example, has an effect on the scientific community. How people in polyamorous relationships behave has effects on the poly community. Not that everyone needs to be flawless; there is no such thing as perfection, after all. But what we believe about ourselves, our families, our communities and ultimately the ideals we strive for or at least proclaim are questions not merely for ourselves and our closest allies, but also those distant from us or even opposed to us.
We should learn from our enemies, as much (if not more) as we learn from our friends, lovers, and even ourselves. Because even where our enemies might be wrong, they are not always completely wrong. And insofar as they may be right, that correctness is a source from which wisdom (or at least its potential) can be gleaned.
It is the fundamental processes of our character which shapes us more than any occasional mistake, misjudgment, or mess we make. That character is like the fluid in our brain-vats; it’s either pissy, delicious, or merely nourishing. It is the ether in which our consciousness (cosmic, vatted, or merely in skulls) propagates. And that character, no matter what direction it flies, will inform how we respond to mistakes, handle conflict, and maintain relationships. Having made a few doosies of mistakes myself, I know of what I speak.
But I do not speak from a point of superiority or of condescension, but simply from experience and growing understanding. And I have learned from my mistakes, my friends, and my enemies.
I don’t believe in any cosmic karma or universal balancing of the scales to have good people rewarded or bad people punished. I believe we have to make our own fates, as it were, and so we need to be paying attention to not only ourselves, but also to others. Not that we need to be watching, with bated schadenfreude, other people’s lives for mistakes. But there is some wisdom in understanding the motivations, actions, and characters of those with whom we share our community, space, and life. And we need to look honestly at those things, because (as I have found) sometimes the people closest to you are not who you thought they were.
More importantly, sometimes you may find that you are not who you thought you were. Which is a disquieting thought, even compared to merely being an art-piece in universe X-5473’s art museum. It’s one thing to not be sure of your very nature, it’s quite another to find that maybe you can change that nature, ever so slightly. Somehow, to me at least, the freedom to make myself be who I am is more terrifying than the uncertainty of what I am. That probably says a lot about me, I know.
I’m working on it.
And so we must rely on a communal system of punishment in order to guide our mistakes through the raging storm of culture, family, and individual characters. The unfortunate fact is that some of us will punish ourselves more than we should while others will not even recognize the need for self-correction at all. We are complicated, and means of figuring out what the right way–the true way–of handling a situation is a very complicated and delicate task which requires wisdom, patience, and a willingness to listen to ourselves and to others. It is, in short, an overwhelmingly difficult task, and one which nobody will likely master.
We have to come forward with our vulnerable hearts opened to the world, and declare not only our errors but our strengths. It is an intersubjective path we walk, one which attempts to take all of our collected experiences and shape them into a “reality” which we can judge better together than alone or segmented into cliques. Truth, therefore, is a kind of transmutation of subjectivities into an attempt to create an objective alloy.
What I’m trying to say is that ethics is like the Borg, except with better fashion sense. At least, I hope so. Aesthetics can’t completely go out the window when coming together into
Communist communal eradication of individuality coming together for the sake of world domination growth and support.
And in the end, no agreement will suit everyone. The leaders of our worlds, whether macro or micro, will be idolized or hated by some, rather than seen as humans struggling with difficulties, sometimes successfully and sometimes not. It is when we idolize or demonize that we fail to see nuances. I, as guilty of this as anyone else, understand that only through nuance can we get to any useful judgment. And sometimes we will find that someone is worth watching and learning from, while others not so much.
Some people, I think, really do just exist in jars of piss.
OK, OK….get to the super cosmically wise point already, bro.
Judgment, like science, is probabilistic rather than absolute. It’s why science does not “prove” anything, but merely makes the best case it can based upon evidence. It’s rather tempting to finally judge someone personally, but that judgment must be ongoing, replicated, and alive if it is to have any meaning. We must watch to see what people do going forward, and stop merely focusing on the past. That is what I hope for myself, and it is what I insist upon my judgment of others.
It’s why we need nuance, and why we must remember that our emotions shade the truth from us. When others err, we need to remember that we also err. And when it’s time to correct those transgressions around us, it need not be an absolute judgment, but it is a judgment.
And when you find yourself judged, it’s time for insight, reflection, and perhaps some empathy. And it’s may also be time to recognize that perhaps some things will never be forgiven, especially by those who were harmed, but perhaps you can make something better of yourself. That’s the goal; not to be superior or dominant. We don’t achieve moral greatness, we process moral growth.
The truth is that we all fuck up. Some of us more than others. But the kicker is not what we did, but how we responded. It’s less about he initial infraction than it is how we go forward. And sometimes, if you keep refusing to accept what you did and you make it worse and worse, eventually nobody is going to accept any amount of apology or change.
Behavior unchanged is the closest thing, from a judgmental standpoint, we have to absolute truth. Patterns of behavior, habit, and stubbornness are the roots of a personality caught in its own web. For anyone to be judged “objectively” or absolutely, they must be static and unchanging people. They have to be (to go back to the old Latin meaning) perfect, or even Platonic.
And just like with Plato, who was so convinced that his Good, his Ideal, and his Forms existed in perfect (objective) reality, so those who get caught in their own webs will find that perfection, superiority, and their own undeserved confidence (i.e. arrogance) will also be wrong.
There’s nothing wrong with being wrong. But there is something wrong about stubbornly or blindly holding onto that error for the sake of reputation.
I’ve been stubborn enough in my life, and I’ll strive to be less so in the future.
Objecting to Objectivism: Ethics as an Epiphenomenon June 3, 2014Posted by shaunphilly in Culture and Society, Skepticism and atheism.
Tags: ethics, moral values, Objectivism, philosophy, relativism, subjective experience
1 comment so far
OK, I give up on the analysis of Ayn Rand. It’s repetitive, annoying, and it’s not getting us anywhere. Ayn Rand was a terrible philosopher, she should not be taken seriously, and selfishness simply cannot be the basis for anything ethical. So, instead, let’s look at some idea which might actually get us towards an objective ethics.
Or, more precisely, an intersubjective ethics.
Why not objectivism?
Clearly, Rand’s rationalized whims dubbed objective was a philosophical failure. Her system was egoism in disguise, a projected set of values onto the tapestry of the universe. In the end, it was no different from Plato’s ironic projection of his thoughts onto the outside of the cave (ironic because it was the very phenomenon of projection that he thought he was correcting). Ayn Rand thought her selfish values were universalizable.
But beyond Rand’s particular brand of “Objectivism”, there is a further problem with moral objectivism as it is conceived in ethical philosophy. Here, for example, is how the distinction between objective and relativistic ethics is described on the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy:
The metaphysical component of metaethics involves discovering specifically whether moral values are eternal truths that exist in a spirit-like realm, or simply human conventions. There are two general directions that discussions of this topic take, one other-worldly and one this-worldly.
If you read the rest of that section, you will see this distinction played out between immutable objectively true moral codes or values pitted against either individualistically derived or culturally maintained sets of ideas which are dependent upon human thought. Here are a couple snippets from that page:
Proponents of the other-worldly view typically hold that moral values are objective in the sense that they exist in a spirit-like realm beyond subjective human conventions. They also hold that they are absolute, or eternal, in that they never change, and also that they are universal insofar as they apply to all rational creatures around the world and throughout time.
Technically, skeptics did not reject moral values themselves, but only denied that values exist as spirit-like objects, or as divine commands in the mind of God. Moral values, they argued, are strictly human inventions, a position that has since been called moral relativism…. In addition to espousing skepticism and relativism, this-worldly approaches to the metaphysical status of morality deny the absolute and universal nature of morality and hold instead that moral values in fact change from society to society throughout time and throughout the world. They frequently attempt to defend their position by citing examples of values that differ dramatically from one culture to another, such as attitudes about polygamy, homosexuality and human sacrifice.
Ever since I started reading philosophy, around the age of 14 or so, something about this distinction bothered me. It bothered me so much that my MA thesis was geared around the ontological aspects of this same distinction, as it pertained to the relationship between science and religion (ontology, to be more specific) especially.
I have come to conclude (tentatively, of course) that this philosophical dichotomy–whether between ontological realism or anti-realism, objectivism or relativism, etc–is a kind of cognitive splitting. And sure, I’m aware that many thinkers have existed in the many grey areas between such extremes, but I feel that defining the problem in such dichotomies isn’t helping and perpetuates us thinking of these questions in terms of ethics being either objective or relative, when it might be neither.
I believe that there is a nuanced and subtle way to appeal to the cognitive, emotional, and social advantages of both objective morality and relativism. If this approach is sufficiently powerful, it could establish a metaethical, normative, and potentially applied ethical way of thinking which achieves the best of both worlds, as it were, without sacrificing either reality or the sense of shared values. That is, such an approach may satisfy our desire for consistency and meaning which objectivist approaches provide, while at the same time allowing our individual subjective experiences to not be truncated by proposed “objective” truths which those experiences might contradict.
Truth, after all, must rise out of subjective experience and be weeded out by empirical methodologies. Truth is not derived from meditating on universal imaginary worlds, revelation from gods, or ideologies. Truth is the thing that individual people conceive of and offer to the rest of us to test, criticize, and perhaps accept as worthy of adoption. We should think of whims, values, and ethical preferences the same way.
The parts of us that are attracted to the certainty of an objective moral foundation, whether from religion, reason, etc, look for a way to project our individual experiences, values, and conclusions onto the world. It creates the illusion that our values are not merely opinion. But the parts of us which recognize the diversity and (often) contradictory nature of those subjective experiences will balk at the possibility of there being an objective reality to ethics. Whether people see this subjective diversity as the source of evil, chaos, or mere inefficiency, it creates a problem in establishing any shared ethics.
Whether we feel compelled to myopically obsess over our own values and desires or to altruistically sacrifice for the sake of the whole (as well as all the grey areas in between, of course) are one type of approach to addressing this problem, but it is not the only way.
Ethics as an emergent property of society
There is no Platonic world of Ideas, divine creator, or some other objective source of moral conclusions or values. Moral values only make sense within the scope of a plurality of sentient beings who interact, and it is only with such beings that questions of harm, welfare, rights, etc can become relevant. This, to most, might seem to imply that any conversation about morality must be relativistic, subjectivist, and possibly ultimately selfish or nihilistic in nature.
And it is certainly possible to construct a normative ethic which stays within this realm of relativism. Ayn Rand did it (poorly), Nietzsche did it (brilliantly, but often misunderstood), and there are many others to choose from. But if we remain convinced of and mired in the realm of relativism, problems arise related to whose subjective whims to follow (if we should follow any, of course) and how to proceed with establishing guidelines, social rules, or even laws. If there is no objective source, how can we escape pure, selfish, ethical egoism?
This has been the lament of many moralists, and not only from religious conservatives. Their arguments are sophomoric and trite, but they are obviously hitting on an issue with cognitive, emotional, and social weight because it keeps working. The lament of meaninglessness, poignantly illustrated by Dostoevsky with his claim that without god “all is permitted,” is trotted out frequently by those terrified of subjectivism and relativism.
And relativists of all stripes will attempt to respond with other meaningful values. Some might say that we can and should create our values. We can get together, agree on some basic principles and rules, and decide to abide by it or face whatever consequences we also agreed to. Social contract theory, in essence, is where potentially conflicting and disagreeing people agree on how to run our lives as a group.
Some might point to an ideal as a sort of agreed upon arbitrary replacement for the idea of an objective source. It would be sort of like creating an idol, giving it qualities, and asking everyone to try and emulate this idol. In the absence of a clear objective source, we idolize either a person (which we might deify), an idea (such as democracy, freedom, etc), or even a set of traditions which define who we are, how we behave, and who we demonize. We often do all of these things to various degrees.
All of these approaches necessitate that we utilize our subjective perspectives in some manner. But because they emerge as private experience, walled away from the rest of the world behind a veil of subjectivity, does not mean that we have to conclude that morality is a selfish enterprise. In fact, if we remain behind those walls, then we cannot do ethics at all. The ideas have to come from us, ultimately, but we have to use our ability to communicate, understand, and agree to implement any of these ideas as ethical constructs.
While such a set of values would grow out of subjective soils, it would either live or die in the real, intersubjective, world based upon how well it survives the trials of communication, interaction, and contradictions between other individuals and ourselves. A selfish whim or value will either work as a shared value, or it will not. No one individual can decide this alone (although individuals may articulate it better), because whether it works is not subject to any one person (or even a set of persons who happen to accidentally agree), but to how the value supervenes on the group.
When a value is presented by a person to a group, society, or even all of sentient life, it can be evaluated in a different environment from which it grew. As this idea moves away from individuals and towards the diversity of subjective opinions, it will either survive as a value which can be shared, or it won’t. No matter how well this value suits a person, or even a small group of like-minded individuals, if it cannot be applied to the group then its value as a moral foundation or value may be weak.
If you cannot show how the idea which you value in your life among yourself, friends, or family, is useful or helpful to everyone then it might not be a value which most people can share. My (hypothetical) selfish interest to do whatever I want, and not care about the desires of others, cannot be a shared value because there is a logical contradiction to applying it to the group. The idea is self-refuting when applied to the ethically relevant group;society.
Kant and the Scientists
Much like Kant’s categorical imperative, if the value a person presents to the world cannot provide value to the group, then the idea may be useless and possibly amoral (if not down right immoral). The philosophical and scientific study of ethics is, therefore, an epiphenomenon of subjectivist, relativistic, preferences. But rather than remaining at that limited and myopic level of description, looking at the effects of introducing those subjectivist preferences to the group dynamic creates an emergent property, ethical philosophy, which acts as a sieve for what moral principles are valid for consideration.
Thus, it does not create an objectivist ethic, because such a thing is impossible. It creates, however, a level of description which acts very much like objectivity in relation to our minds. It is a reality outside of us, but it was created by our collective effort, communication, and understanding. Being intersubjective, it is always being revised and updated just like a scientific theory. The strength of its propositions is directly related to how well it survives criticism and attempts to sink it.
It is not selfish, because selfishness is incapable of the relevant understanding and concern necessary to create the conversation which could sustain it. It is not absolute, because it is subject to actual circumstances which might change. It adjusts to our preferences, values, and thus is perfectly suited for progression and improvement as our understanding of ourselves, the world, and communication is improved.
It is also not relativistic. It is not culturally relative because all cultures have to deal with the realities of the facts about human psychology, harm, and the inter-related aspects of human existence. All cultures are subject to the same reality, and merely having the mass opinion that, for example, slavery is acceptable does not survive the larger skeptical, empirical, and rational analysis of the effects of slavery on people. It’s also not relativistic in the sense of being a matter of whims, because being subjected to scrutiny from any and all people erases that.
It is, however, skeptical and scientific. While this approach begins as individual subjective preferences, just like with other questions about the nature of reality it gets exposed to other people who will try to demonstrate problems with those ideas. Morality, values, and meaning are not ontologically different from other facts. The facts about how I feel, why I feel that way, etc are empirical questions. Once we realize that we are talking (when talking about ethics) about how to best implement ideas about how to behave in relation to other people, the question is one of doing the empirical work to find out how my feelings interact with the feelings of other people.
Because if I accept the reality that other people exist, have similar types of internal experiences as I, and that I’m capable of figuring out some things about those feelings, preferences, and whims, then ethics becomes a philosophical puzzle about how best to arrange guidelines, rules, or laws about how to interact which maximizes the experience of people. And then we can pull in questions of consequences, best habits and personality traits, and fairness (among other considerations) in order to figure out the details.
Ethics is an enterprise for science. Just like with facts about the nature of reality, it starts with subjective experiences and through epiphenomenal processes the emergent property of true things comes about(ideally). But for it to work we all have to be willing to be wrong, especially about our own values. Our preferences, even if they are working for us, might be better supplanted by other values (in some cases). We cannot allow ourselves to rationalize our selfish preferences as a fundamental value. We cannot allow self-justification, groupthink, or tribalism to convince us that our group has superior values. If our values are hurting other people, it is very possible they are not the best values.
And, most importantly, we can not allow ourselves to idolize, deify, or even consider settled, our values. They must always be open for criticism and debate. There is no room for sacred ideals, ideologies, or tribalistic jingoism in values. The more isolated our values are, the more exposure makes them defensive or aggressive, and the less communication with alternatives exists, the less powerful those values will be.
Ethics is not merely relative and it is not objective. But it can be shared as an intersubjective reality and it can draw from our most personal experiences and values. In the end, ethics cannot rely on either any ultimate reality or personal preference; it must rely on reality potentially telling us that our preferences might be harmful and in need of alteration.The truth points to itself, but the truth is also not written in stones, ideals, or hearts. It is only written, collectively, in the great conversation which I hope we all keep having.
Tags: Ayn Rand, ethics, selfishness, The Virtue of Selfishness
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Welcome back to explaining basic ethical thinking to sociopaths. OK, that’s not fair. Not all Objectivists are sociopaths.
Today’s chapter is a short one, but one that seems to follow along nicely from where we left off before, with Chapter 4: The Conflicts of Men’s interests. Those of you who are familiar with how numbers work will have noticed that I have skipped from chapter 4 to chapter 7, missing two chapters. I’m doing this for the same reason as I skipped chapter 2, which was because some of the chapters were not written by Ayn rand, and Rand later disassociated herself from the author of those other chapters.
Also, reading this stuff is frustrating, and I’m trying to minimize the pain. I know, I know…I’m a selfish bastard.
In any case, on with it!
What is compromise?
A compromise is an adjustment of conflicting claims by mutual concessions. This means that both parties to a compromise have some valid claim and some value to offer each other. And this means that both parties agree upon some fundamental principle which serves as a base for their deal.
It is the nature of agreement in a trade-relationship. The nature of compromise is to make sure that each side agrees to what is being traded. A compromise is not a sacrifice:
But if one wanted to be paid and the alleged buyer wanted to obtain one’s product for nothing, no compromise, agreement or discussion would be possible, only the total surrender of one or the other.
Rand likens this to burglary; there is no compromise between a robber and the robbed, and if one asks another to give up something, then this is not compromise.
What value or concession did the burglar offer in return? And once the principle of unilateral concessions is accepted as the base of a relationship by both parties, it is only a matter of time before the burglar would seize the rest.
Don’t give an inch, because if you do you may end up with nothing. Robbed blind.
And this is true! Don’t give the person who breaks into your house anything if you don’t want to. They genuinely have not earned it, and you don’t have to give it. And if you do, perhaps the robber will come back for more. The problem here is the extent of the robber metaphor, because Rand is not merely talking about literal burglars. Rand means much more than that.
There can be no compromise between freedom and government controls; to accept “just a few controls” is to surrender the principle of inalienable individual rights and to substitute for it the principle of the government’s unlimited, arbitrary power, thus delivering oneself into gradual enslavement. As an example of this process, observe the present domestic policy of the United States.
Whoa! Where did that come from? We were just talking about compromise as a tool for fair and equal trade rights, or something to that effect, right? Then we were talking about how that relationship is not like being burgled. Which was all a fair point to make, and I agree with the idea that being burgled is not like a fair trade. But where did government control come into this?
This is one of the major plot points for the rest of the book. We’ve dealt with individual ethics already, and now we will start talking about the relationship between freedom and government control, whether in the form of taxes, trade law, etc. In later chapters, Rand will expound on the issue in more detail.
I’m not an expert of law orthe relationship between individual freedoms, the social contract, or governmental power. I cannot speak with any authority about the relationship between freedom and government power in specific details concerning the United States’ Constitution or “domestic policy.” What I can do, however, is spot a false dichotomy.
Once again, Rand has set up up with a situation where there is the reasonable side of freedom of the individual set up against an oppressive and “arbitrary” power which seeks to force us to sacrifice against our will. We are the reasonable individual who finds a burglar in our house (the government), and we should not have to sacrifice to their demands. The relationship, Rand seems to be saying, between the people and the government is not a compromise because one side (the individual) does not have the ability to haggle for a better trade or to opt out.
And I have some sympathy for that feeling. I used to argue that we should have an opt-in tax system. You choose what you pay for. Don’t care about roads? Don’t pay those taxes (but then should you be permitted to use them?). Don’t care about education? Then don’t pay local school taxes (then should your children be able to use them?). Don’t agree with the war in [insert country here]? Then don’t pay those taxes (but don’t complain when we are attacked). Etcetera.
The problem here (and I want to gloss over the many intricacies of this issue, because I am not that interested in getting sucked into this maelstrom of a topic) is that there are certain roles of government which are inherently shared responsibilities. We need roads, schools, and defense (to varying degrees, which is the part where it gets complex). There are certain things which we benefit from paying for, collectively, which if people saw as theft (and some do *cough* tea party *cough*) they might not want to pay for. But all to often people are blind to the advantages of giving of ourselves for the greater good, in the long run, which that selfish impulse to frame that relationship as theft overlooks.
With government, we all benefit from some level of tax-based collective effort. With interpersonal questions, we all benefit from some level of self-sacrifice, empathy, and effort which does not immediately benefit us. The question, with each, is how much to give up, to whom, etc. This false dichotomy between pure freedom and government (or ethical) theft is laughably simplistic and absurd.
But Rand sees this as a dichotomy, much in the same way as life and death (rather than degrees of health, well being, etc).
There can be no compromise on basic principles or on fundamental issues. What would you regard as a “compromise” between life and death? Or between truth and falsehood? Or between reason and irrationality?
Well, I would consider the choices we make and how they affect the likelihood of healthy living in general, how likely those choices were to actually reach truth or merely rationalized subjective opinions, and how they are to promote actual reason, and not subjective irrationality labeled as objectively true values.
But, then again, I’m not Ayn Rand.
The question “Doesn’t life require compromise?” is usually asked by those who fail to differentiate between a basic principle and some concrete, specific wish.
What, you could ask, could that mean? She continues.
Accepting a lesser job than one had wanted is not a “compromise.” Taking orders from one’s employer on how to do the work for which one is hired, is not a “compromise.” Failing to have a cake after one has eaten it, is not a “compromise.”
Yeah, take that lazy moochers! You can’t get whatever you want! Only Objectivists get that!
The idea here becomes more clear when we read on. But before we do, I just have to quote this, because every time I read sentences like this in Ayn Rand my head thumps on the desk.
Integrity does not consist of loyalty to one’s subjective whims, but of loyalty to rational principles.
Keep telling yourself that. I’m not going to keep stomping on the error of mixing up what one decrees to be rational, subjectively, and what is actually rational. Because seriously, that shit is getting old. But back to the point about differentiating between a basic principle and concrete, specific wishes:
A “compromise” (in the unprincipled sense of that word) is not a breach of one’s comfort, but a breach of one’s convictions. A “compromise” does not consist of doing something one dislikes, but of doing something one knows to be evil.
Accompanying one’s husband or wife to a concert, when one does not care for music, is not a “compromise”; surrendering to his or her irrational demands for social conformity, for pretended religious observance or for generosity toward boorish in-laws, is.
So, being nice and going to that movie or concert that your sweetie-pie wants to see is fine, but any other kind of demand for social conformity, especially if it involved their parents or religion, is not fine. Now, I might agree with this distinction, but this does strike me as at least somewhat arbitrary. Perhaps another example will clarify the core issue here.
Working for an employer who does not share one’s ideas, is not a “compromise”; pretending to share his ideas, is.
OK, better. You don’t have to like your boss, but you shouldn’t pretend to if you don’t. Got it. I thought we were talking about freedom and oppression here? I suppose we aren’t going to address that any more, then. Now, it seems, we’re talking about personal compromises and agreements again. This is an issue which is very relevant when it comes to polyamory, and relationships in general, especially when we are talking about boundaries and relationships rules.
The idea seems to be that we should be able to come to an agreement with people, but we should not give up our integrity or “compromise” our values in doing so. If we were to, we would be acting unethically.
The excuse, given in all such cases, is that the “compromise” is only temporary and that one will reclaim one’s integrity at some indeterminate future date. But one cannot correct a husband’s or wife’s irrationality by giving in to it and encouraging it to grow. One cannot achieve the victory of one’s ideas by helping to propagate their opposite.
I want to tease out a distinction here. The first sentence above seems to be addressing the idea that by giving up, by sacrificing, now I will get something back in the long run. Rand is reacting to an idea, one which I think is true, that we should be willing to give up something of ourselves for the sake of long-term benefit, not only to oneself, but to other people as well.
But rather than address it in these terms, it becomes about both giving into irrationality (because when someone else’s desires conflict with ours, it’s probably irrationality on their part, amirite?) and achieving victory in the battle for ideas. Yeah, no narcissism going on there.
Listen, imaginary Objectivist interlocutor in my head, not everything is a competition. When other people want different things than you, value different things, etc it is not necessarily for irrational reasons. Your feelings and thoughts about things are not necessarily rational nor are they the only things that can be rational.
Nobody is asking anyone to give up their ideas or values, necessarily (which is to say, sometimes we might be doing so). What we might be doing is asking you to give up some of your time, mental effort, etc in order to determine what you might be able to learn not only from other people’s ideas but also their values, flaws, strengths, etc. By viewing this as a competition, you are almost certainly not going to be open to learning anything from people, especially if you disagree. If a conversation or a relationship is a competition you are trying to win, then you will not be likely to learn much, grow as a person, or to ever understand people who are drastically different than you.
A relationship is not something you win. A conversation is not something you win. A debate might be (but even then, not really), but not everything is a debate especially when someone is not trying to debate you. Your wife or husband is not trying to win a conversation about whether you will come to dinner with your in-laws (and if they are, they are not doing it right). I am not trying to win by criticizing Ayn Rand’s (or anyone’s) thoughts. I’m trying to understand. I do not seek out ideas in order to either bolster my own ideas or to show why I’m right. I seek out other ideas in order to test if mine can stand up to scrutiny (ideally, anyway. I’m human and err, including being occasionally defensive).
Perhaps, you Objectivist interlocutor, you should be more focused on understanding, rather than winning. And perhaps I, sufferer of a disorder that makes criticism feel painful, should try to remember that as well. Again, all my criticisms of everything are relevant to me.
If one found it difficult to maintain one’s loyalty to one’s own convictions at the start, a succession of betrayals—which helped to augment the power of the evil one lacked the courage to fight—will not make it easier at a later date, but will make it virtually impossible.
Or, perhaps, one should not have more than a minimal amount of loyalty to one’s convictions. Perhaps opinions and values are things that we should hold tentatively, and not with conviction. Other opinions and convictions are not the enemy. They are not the evil at the gates. Other ideas, opinions, etc are just that; other. You might learn something from them if you stopped clinging so hard to your own sacred ideas.
Nothing should be sacred. The ideas in your head, the ideals that you have, nor even the people in your life (in some cases). Because while trying to maintain a sense of integrity is good, integrity (as I mentioned in a previous post) is not necessarily conviction. We should not hold so tightly to our values, ideals, and opinions. We should hold them only insofar as they don’t get blown away by the facts from other sources.
Rand seems to be holding on too tight here, and because so many people value conviction, they see this as a strength of hers And when you are holding onto something too tight, you won’t notice when the wind of truth wants to carry it away. We are all too naturally good at self-justification, bias, and error to hold onto such things too tightly. Because of these biases, we should err on the side of self-correction, rather than trying to win. When you are trying to win, we become jingoistic, nationalistic, and tribal. When the goal of winning is all we see, we cannot notice our own errors.
There can be no compromise on moral principles.
If your moral principle is good, you have no need to defend it. One should test one’s moral ideals and principles, and insofar as they stay good, we should keep them. The truth, in the end, points to itself.
The next time you are tempted to ask: “Doesn’t life require compromise?” translate that question into its actual meaning: “Doesn’t life require the surrender of that which is true and good to that which is false and evil?” The answer is that that precisely is what life forbids—if one wishes to achieve anything but a stretch of tortured years spent in progressive self-destruction.
Oh, irony. What if your ideas are not true and good?
Sorry, of course they are; their yours. And you are an intelligent, good, honest person. How could a smart, good, and authentic person have ideas which may have flaws? Easily. And the problem is that this selfishness and this conviction to selfish, subjectively derived values, is a harbor for human flaws. Selfishness as a virtue leads to a mind where one must defend its opinions and ideals because those ideals are the very source of value. From there, everything looks like a competition.
No, thanks. I don’t want to play that game.
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.