So why would I want to discuss THE VIRTUE OF SELFISHNESS: A New Concept of Egoism by Ayn Rand now? The purpose of this post is two-fold:
- I would like to continue the discussion initiated at this post: THE DEBATE OVER CHRISTIANITY, OBJECTIVISM, AND ALTRUISM CONTINUES. In response to the growing decadence of our culture, many of the ideas that Rand promoted have become more popular. Although I see much of what Rand advocated as positive, I fear she would have thrown the baby out with the bathwater.
- Rand served as a strong advocate for the free market, and I don’t doubt she well understood what makes Nazism and Communism abominations. Therefore, I would like to use Rand’s words to respond to a comment from sean samis. What I observed is that the size of the government matters. sean samis took a contrary view.
Size is not what matters, it’s the character of the government that matters. Take care of that and size will be manageable.
Although what sean samis is literally true, we disagree as to what character government should have. If the character of government conformed to my desires (never will, of course), except perhaps in time of war it would always be small.
The Introduction and Chapter 1: The Objectivist Ethics
THE VIRTUE OF SELFISHNESS is a collection of essays. Therefore, I am an not even going to attempt to write a single post that comprehensively comments on it. Instead, I will write a series that comments on the parts I find interesting.
As the title suggests, THE VIRTUE OF SELFISHNESS promotes a form of selfishness. In previous posts (see THE DEBATE OVER CHRISTIANITY, OBJECTIVISM, AND ALTRUISM CONTINUES), we considered what Rand thought of altruism. What did she think of its counterpart, selfishness? Here is what Rand says in the Introduction.
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.
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).
Apparently, because she believed advocates of altruism had unfairly attacked selfishness, Rand felt no compunction against launching a fierce attack on altruism. Then she put the adjective “rational” in front of “selfishness” and proceeded to explain how selfishness could be rational. In the Introduction and Chapter 1, Rand uses some form of the word “rational” almost seventy times. Her point being that altruism is irrational and that selfishness, concern with one’s own interests, can be quite rational.
What Is Missing From The Objectivist Ethical System?
What is missing from the objectivist ethical system? Consider where Rand begins in Chapter 1.
The first question that has to be answered, as a precondition of any attempt to define, to judge or to accept any specific system of ethics, is: Why does man need a code of values?
Let me stress this. The first question is not: What particular code of values should man accept? The first question is: Does man need values at all—and why?
Why am I here? — Before we can determine what is right–answer Rand’s question–we need a reference point.
- What is right and wrong? — If we know why we are here, we can skip Rand’s question. The answer to the question why has already been provided.
- What brings me meaning? — If there is no God, this question has no answer.
- What happens to a human being when I die? — This life may be important, but it terminates. What about the rest of eternity?
In Chapter 1, Rand speaks as if the rules of morality are self-evident, and she constructs a set of rules based upon self-preservation. To justify her rules, she quotes John Galt, the main character of Altlas Shrugged.
I quote from Galt’s speech: “There is only one fundamental alternative in the universe: existence or nonexistence—and it pertains to a single class of entities: to living organisms. The existence of inanimate matter is unconditional, the existence of life is not: it depends on a specific course of action. Matter is indestructible, it changes its forms, but it cannot cease to exist. It is only a living organism that faces a constant alternative: the issue of life or death. Life is a process of self-sustaining and self-generated action. If an organism fails in that action, it dies; its chemical elements remain, but its life goes out of existence. It is only the concept of ‘Life’ that makes the concept of ‘Value’ possible. It is only to a living entity that things can be good or evil.”
Yet self-preservation does not make the difference between rational selfishness and irrational selfishness self-evident. If we can get away with thievery, murder, slavery and so forth profitably — and seemingly thrive — then what makes thievery, murder, slavery and so forth wrong? Why should selfish people who have successfully enslaved others suddenly think themselves irrational? Zacharias observes:
If there is no God, we lose the very standard by which we critique religions and religious people, so whose opinion matters most? Whose voice will be heard? Whose tastes or preferences will be honored? In the long run, human tastes and opinions have no more weight than we give them, and who are we to give them meaning anyway? Who is to say that lying, or cheating or adultery or child molestation are wrong –really wrong? Where do those standards come from? Sure, our societies might make these things “illegal” and impose penalties or consequences for things that are not socially acceptable, but human cultures have at various times legally or socially disapproved of everything from believing in God to believing the world revolves around the sun; from slavery, to interracial marriage, from polygamy to monogamy. Human taste, opinion law and culture are hardly dependable arbiters of Truth. (from here)
Even if we tried, we could not substitute Ayn Rand’s rational egoism for God. Is it possible we might agree upon what is right and what is wrong? Perhaps. Even if we cannot explain it, within each of our hearts we have knowledge of right and wrong. Nonetheless, we can ignore our consciences. When we think we can get away with it, we will seek to make even the most evil deeds seem quite rational. That is why only the belief in a loving God has any hope of forestalling the evil actions of men.
Correctly Describing The Abuse Of Altruism
So what did Rand get right? She correctly observed the proper role of government.
The basic political principle of the Objectivist ethics is: no man may initiate the use of physical force against others. No man—or group or society or government—has the right to assume the role of a criminal and initiate the use of physical compulsion against any man. Men have the right to use physical force only in retaliation and only against those who initiate its use. The ethical principle involved is simple and clear-cut: it is the difference between murder and self-defense. A holdup man seeks to gain a value, wealth, by killing his victim; the victim does not grow richer by killing a holdup man. The principle is: no man may obtain any values from others by resorting to physical force.
The only proper, moral purpose of a government is to protect man’s rights, which means: to protect him from physical violence—to protect his right to his own life, to his own liberty, to his own property and to the pursuit of his own happiness. Without property rights, no other rights are possible.
As our Declaration of Independence observes, we have God-given rights to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. When government grows beyond the point required to protect our rights to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness, it does so at the expense of our rights to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.
What is the product of government? Does government produce any thing of its own? No. We need taxes finance it. What government does is make people obey the Law. Therefore, when government grows, the Law become a bigger factor in our lives. Government, by definition, becomes more intrusive.
Consider these recent examples.
- Life: Instead of merely protecting the “right” of women to abort their babies, government now forces taxpayers and employers to pay for what many regard as baby killing. With the inauguration of Obamacare we can only guess at the extent government bureaucrats will intrude into our healthcare. Undoubtedly, however, the politicians running the program will continue to explain they are pro-choice; euthanasia will become a “protected choice.”
- Liberty: Government forces us to pay for and participate in our own political indoctrination. Government runs most of our schools. We have publicly financed anti-smoking programs. The publicly financed Corporation For Public Broadcasting pays for radio and TV networks. Labor unions use government power to force people to join unions and their members to contribute to political campaigns.
- Pursuit of Happiness: Our government taxes and spends huge sums. With every cent government spends, our leaders deprive us of the opportunity to choose how we would spend what we have earned the right to spend. Why is that important? When we spend what we have earned, we “vote” on the direction we want our society to go. When we pay for our schools, churches, hospitals and buy our houses, cars, TVs, telephones, and so forth; we tell the people who invent and produce the services we use and the products we buy–that is, each other–what we want. When politicians spend our money for us, they steal our right to vote on the direction our society will go.
Given the opportunity, our leaders would create a world that satisfies their own vision of how things should be. Our leaders would steal our productivity and mold our character and the character of our children. Therefore, to live as free men and women, we must limit the size and scope of government.
We limit the size of government by limiting the mission of government to protecting our rights to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. That is, we limit the scope of what can be encompassed by that thing we call Law. What Rand observed is that altruism is not a appropriate use of Law. Although it may make for good propaganda, there is nothing altruistic in stealing your neighbor’s rights to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.
The avowed mystics held the arbitrary, unaccountable “will of God” as the standard of the good and as the validation of their ethics. The neomystics replaced it with “the good of society,” thus collapsing into the circularity of a definition such as “the standard of the good is that which is good for society.” This meant, in logic—and, today, in worldwide practice—that “society” stands above any principles of ethics, since it is the source, standard and criterion of ethics, since “the good” is whatever it wills, whatever it happens to assert as its own welfare and pleasure. This meant that “society” may do anything it pleases, since “the good” is whatever it chooses to do because it chooses to do it. And—since there is no such entity as “society,” since society is only a number of individual men—this meant that some men (the majority or any gang that claims to be its spokesman) are ethically entitled to pursue any whims (or any atrocities) they desire to pursue, while other men are ethically obliged to spend their lives in the service of that gang’s desires.
Greedy and selfish people will always seek some “rational” excuse for getting what they want (The Wolf and the Lamb). Nonetheless, reason is not the God of evil men. What evil men desire is what they worship.
- Chapter 2: Mental Health versus Mysticism and Self-Sacrifice posted on 19 Feb 2013