The Virtue of Selfishness, Chapter 3: The Ethics of Emergencies

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.

keep-calm-in-case-of-emergenciesIn that case, onto chapter 3: The Ethics of Emergencies

In this essay, Rand returns to talking about how we should treat other people, while focusing on the distinction between normal life and emergency situations.  Previously, I criticized Rand’s views about sacrifice, and here she gets more specific about what it means to sacrifice as a selfish individual.  In essence, to help those we care about is not a sacrifice and we should not be morally required to help those with whom we have no interest in helping.

But before she gets there, she wants to make clear that questions about emergencies–whether a stranger drowning, a fire, etc–are a means by which ethics of altruism tries to propose ways to think about ethics which are problematic.  She will, later in the essay, try to show why there is a difference between emergencies and normal life, but first she wants to address why the altruistic approach is problematic.

If a man accepts the ethics of altruism, he suffers the following consequences (in proportion to the degree of his acceptance):

1. Lack of self-esteem—since his first concern in the realm of values is not how to live his life, but how to sacrifice it.

Rand, as we saw in earlier posts (parts one, two, and three of my analysis of chapter 1), asserts that the altruist ethic creates a dichotomy between selfishness and sacrifice.  I believe that she is as guilty as anyone for perpetuating this dichotomy, as I have already argued (and will not dwell on further, here).

The essential thing to notice here is that this dichotomy is present here at the start. Rand will address it more below, as we shall see.

2. Lack of respect for others—since he regards mankind as a herd of doomed beggars crying for someone’s help.

There are two problems here.  The first is that there are beggars, and they are not in their predicament necessarily because they did not employ reason and selfishness enough, and are therefore not necessarily responsible for their having to beg.  The second problem is that it assumes that people who do work hard and who are not begging might still need our help, because sometimes the world we create is unjust.  The fact that someone needs our help does not mean they are trying to mooch off of us, necessarily.

That’s not me in the photo, because I was too busy picking the pockets of nearby stock-brokers.

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.

prosperity-gospel-motivation11As 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.

invisible-hand-of-the-marketI 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.

RandHypSo, helping others is not necessarily a sacrifice.  So, what does “nonsacrificial help” look like, and what’s the line between sacrificial and nonsacrificial?

“Sacrifice” is the surrender of a greater value for the sake of a lesser one or of a nonvalue.

The rational principle of conduct is the exact opposite: always act in accordance with the hierarchy of your values, and never sacrifice a greater value to a lesser one.

Whereas altruism, at least in the “mystical” and ascetic caricature of altruism which Rand employs, asks us to give of ourselves with non-proportional levels of value.  Never act in such a way where your interests are hurt more than you are helped.  In essence, this is a sort of utilitarian calculation of your own interests, which may sometimes coincide with the interests of others.  Again, the ethic never leaves the realm of self-interest, and so never actually becomes a question of morality (as far as I’m concerned, anyway).

What about love?

Love and friendship are profoundly personal, selfish values: love is an expression and assertion of self-esteem, a response to one’s own values in the person of another. One gains a profoundly personal, selfish joy from the mere existence of the person one loves. It is one’s own personal, selfish happiness that one seeks, earns and derives from love.

And maybe you too, if you're worthy of me.
And maybe you too, if you’re worthy of me.

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.

l_5_sixbillionsecrets.com_1954161_1375891271Self-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.

and then,

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.

Well, perhaps not the first sentence, but the rest is right on.

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.”