Friday, June 24, 2016

The Virtue of Selfishness

Ayn Rand - in Manhattan in 1957
Ayn Rand wrote a book by that title in which she justified the selfish choices everyone makes. She went on to condemn altruism as incompatible with the requirements for human life and happiness.  She was a brilliant lady, an atheist and objectivist who insisted on "the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute."

Selfishness is both necessary and morally right, she tells us, and a person's reasoning is the only law.

Is she right?  Is altruism just wrong thinking?

In the book, she compares the industrialist/producer with a bank robber, both pursuing personal fortune.
  • The producer is virtuous, she says, despite having the same motivation of greed.  She offers us, “Yet . . . there is a fundamental moral difference between a man who sees his self-interest in production and a man who sees it in robbery...."  She's perhaps right about the industrialist/producer, of course.
  • She considers the robber's behavior to be sub-human and the producer to be noble.
  • She encourages the wealthy to pursue more, motivated by healthy greed.
  • And personal sacrifice is abhorrent.
So, did she notice that business motivated by such greed is likely to be abusive?   We know that problems may arise when you consider the capitalist model in which the industrialist operates.
  • The industrialist/businessman can look exactly like the robber with the only difference between the two being the legality (or illegality) of their behavior.  
Is business good or bad?  To be fair, there are those who innovate and improve our world, and there are those in business who do harm.  Some contribute wonderfully, and some suck the life out of us.  It would appear that Rand's observations of greedy business were perhaps idealistic, ignoring the depth of unconscionable practices common in the business community even during her formative years.  The only 'ethical' criteria applied to such practices was (and is) profitability and avoidance of legal repercussions.

She arrived at her basic thinking as a teenager, she tells us.  Born in 1905 in Russia to a middle class family, she and they were devastated by the revolutions of the time.  The family business was confiscated, and they were driven from their home.  They fled for their lives, nearing starvation on multiple occasions before finally settling in the U.S.  Today ...
"Her ideas permeate contemporary American policies and institutions. Hundreds of former protégés, including Federal Reserve Board chairman Alan Greenspan, Libertarian Party founder John Hospers, former Barron’s editorial director Robert Bleiberg, and best-selling psychologist of self-esteem Nathaniel Branden, lead government agencies, publications, corporations, and popular movements. Forbes and Fortune regularly mention Rand as a present-day hero of young Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. Television hosts and Tea Party activists invoke her name. Hundreds of campus study groups and clubs continue to debate her views."
“A trader,” she writes, “is a man who earns what he gets and does not give or take the undeserved.  He does not treat men as masters or slaves, but as independent equals.  He deals with men by means of a free, voluntary, unforced, uncoerced exchange - an exchange which benefits both parties by their own independent judgment.”

Ah, there we come to the heart of the matter.  Ayn Rand is quite clear that her view of capitalism is precise and ideal and virtually unrelated to modern business practices.  There is nothing wrong with capitalism, but capitalists can be lying, murderous sub-humans, not unlike the bank robber in her earlier description.
Wealth distribution in America in the years since Ayn Rand

"Pure capitalism," she concludes, "has never existed: but in the countries that approached it, with America in the second half of the nineteenth century leading the way, the individual was able to flourish. This is because capitalism is the only system that fully recognizes that man is the rational being who 'has the right to exist for his own sake,' free from coercion by others."   
And there you have it.  We perhaps came close, briefly. Ayn Rand died in 1982, just as explosive inequality and the GAP began to infect the world marketplace.  The nation she knew had been growing with opportunity for most.  Subsequent years saw opportunity and gains going exclusively to the wealthiest 10% at the expense of everyone else.

I don't agree with Rand and her followers on many issues, but on this one point (and perhaps only this one), we agree.

"We've never seen pure capitalism."  

Perhaps that's because there are no pure capitalists, and some (not all, but some) are these greedy sub-humans that are willing to get rich at the expense of other's lives, literally.

As for altruism, well that's another story entirely. I suspect she may have disagreed with herself on that one. 
Thanks and a hat tip to my friend Joel for provoking this re-review.

Note: Ayn Rand is rather famous for being slightly off the mark in her attacks. Take a look at her website and see if you can spot any misidentification of opposing values and subsequent off-target responses.

By way of example, she tells us her opinion of the communists who took over her homeland when she was a child; "The advocates of collectivism are motivated not by a desire for men’s happiness, but by hatred for man . . . hatred of the good for being the good; . . . the focus of that hatred, the target of its passionate fury, is the man of ability." 

Notice how, as she attacks this group, ...
  • she ascribes a root motive (hatred for man),
  • then she ascribes a behavioral rationale (hatred of the good for being good), 
  • and identifies a hypothetical innocent victim (their target ,,, the man of ability) 
  • for the group's irrational and evil behavior (that hatred, passionate fury).   
She passes judgement on the basis of her critique, but each attribution is oddly unreasonable and unsupported by available evidence.  Still, she's popular, and not for her objectivity but for her literature; all wonderfully illustrative and engaging.  Needless to say, she's been a controversial voice.

Academic philosophers have mostly ignored or rejected Rand's philosophy.[ref]  Nonetheless, Objectivism has been a significant influence among libertarians and American conservatives.[ref]

Thoughts on her contribution to our culture?

No comments: