Saturday, April 28, 2007

Rand's Anti-Heroic Ethics

ARCHN's chapter on Rand's morality thoroughly explores its various fallacies, especially Nyquist's thoughtfully argued sub-chapter on altruism. However, perhaps the most clearcut example of the highly unrealistic nature of her ethics occurs in her "The Ethics of Emergencies", in The Virtue Of Selfishness.

"The Ethics of Emergencies" comes as standard with the usual Randian features, such the opening arguments from intimidation, wiggy, evidence-free psychological speculations, and the retro-fitting of standard terms, such as "sacrifice", with entirely opposite meanings to the usual ones (Rand often reminds me of something someone once said about Gertrude Stein: "she doesn't seem to know what words mean"). And as always, she maintains her habit of saying something on one page, and then taking it back on the next.

But despite this typical thicket, we can eventually struggle through to find Rand stating an interesting and original ethical position, and stating it clearly.

She takes what she calls the "altruist's favourite example: the issue of saving a drowning person." She then recommends the following:

"If the person to be saved is a stranger, it is morally proper to save him only if the risk to one's own life is minimal; when the danger is great, it would be immoral to attempt it; only a lack of self esteem could permit one to value one's life no higher than that of any random stranger." (emphasis DB)

That's right. If you endanger your life to save a stranger, you are immoral. Not just immoral, but psychologically damaged, in that you lack self-esteem.

Now, let’s try to imagine just such a situation, but in a world where almost everyone has adopted Rand’s moral code. A lone young girl is swept out to sea on a dangerous surf beach. The crowd stands by, doing nothing, as they have too much self-esteem to risk their own life for the young girl, who is after all a ‘random stranger.’ A man plunges in after her. Both nearly drown in the attempted rescue, but eventually after a great struggle he brings the both of them into shore alive. They both lie exhausted, gasping on the beach. Eventually he lifts his head only to be greeted by grim faces and contemptuous stares from the surrounding crowd. One woman eventually speaks, voice brimming with emotion: “That was the most immoral thing I’ve ever seen. You ought to be ashamed of yourself.” The crowd nod fiercely, and turn away in frank disgust.

Or alternately: as the girl is swept out to sea, a man walks to the edge of the churning surf. As she cries for help, he stands there, assessing the situation. Then, having decided it’s just too dangerous, he steps back, and returns to his towel by the shore. A wave of spontaneous applause breaks out among the beachgoers, in appreciation of a truly moral act; a woman says to her young son, “Look at that man just did. I hope you grow up to be just like him.”

While this seems absurd, it is actually perfectly consistent with her general stance of the morality of only acting in your own self-interest. Clearly then, by Objectivist standards, people such as lifeguards, or firefighters, are not heroic as they are usually considered, but pursuing fundamentally immoral professions due to their "lack of self-esteem". But of course, while they repeat her rhetoric, Objectivists stop well short of actually living by it. Having just watched Oliver Stone's "World Trade Centre", where two trapped policemen are rescued by Marines (one a committed Christian) at considerable risk to their own lives, I wondered where the ARI's fierce condemnations of the "immorality" these and other voluntary actions on Sept 11 were.

Because absurd as this seems, this is just what Rand is advocating.

14 comments:

Neil Parille said...

This is an interesting essay of Rand's. Her psychologizing at the beginning of the essay is worse than normal.

I found this sentence particularly odd: "Since men are born tabula, both cognitively and morally, a rational man regards strangers as innocent until proved guilty, and grants them that initial good will in the name of their human potential." I'll try to remember that the next time I'm walking in a dangerous part of town late at night.

It's difficult to commend a general "benevolence" toward humanity and at the same time argue that helping others is marginal.

I think Rand is correct that a great deal of harm has been done by the professional altruists and do-gooders of the world. As I recall Isabel Paterson had an interesting discussion of this in her famous chapter "The Humanitarian With a Guillotene" in The God of the Machine.

Daniel Barnes said...

Neil:
>I found this sentence particularly odd: "Since men are born tabula, both cognitively and morally, a rational man regards strangers as innocent until proved guilty, and grants them that initial good will in the name of their human potential." I'll try to remember that the next time I'm walking in a dangerous part of town late at night.

LOL! Where's your rational benevolence, man?

>I think Rand is correct that a great deal of harm has been done by the professional altruists and do-gooders of the world.

No question. This is one of Rand's best features, her passionate defence of the individual "eggs" that must be broken on the way to that Great Omelette In The Sky.

Neil Parille said...

Rand says that:

1. It is "morally proper" to save a drowning stranger. I take that as "may."

2. If you are in a boat that is sinking you "should" help save others.

I don't see the difference here, except that in the latter case you are also at risk (maybe the unstated difference is that you might need help).

By the time I get to the end of the essay, my question is "what duties (if any) are there toward strangers who are suffering (poverty for example) and Rand apparently thinks there are none. Not only that, I think she believes one shouldn't help, say, starving people in a foreign country.

Daniel Barnes said...

Neil:
>my question is "what duties (if any) are there toward strangers who are suffering (poverty for example) and Rand apparently thinks there are none. Not only that, I think she believes one shouldn't help, say, starving people in a foreign country.

She is very confused. For example, you'll note that on one page she says you shouldn't help people at all except in emergencencies, and goes on to say that poverty and illness are not emergencies. Then on the very next page, she says you may help a neighbour who's poor and ill!

I do note that she stops well short of saying even this act is morally good; merely that one may do it. But this if this act is merely neutral, this too clashes with her either/or approach to morality, as expressed in "The Cult of Moral Grayness" in the same volume!

IMHO her ethics are as incoherent as her epistemology - and that's saying something.

Neil Parille said...

Rand says: "It is only in emergency situations that one should volunteer to help strangers, if it is one's power."

However, when it comes to non-emergency situations such as poverty, one should not help strangers, and instead support a free society. (Although, as you point out, she isn't clear here.)

So, if an earthquake strikes India, I should help the victims. But I should not help the poor in India.

This strikes me as an odd conclusion. However, if you read the essay closely, it appears that Rand is using the term "stranger" in the context a person that you come across in distress (someone you see drowning for example).

Michael Stuart Kelly said...

Daniel,

Let me weigh in here to add another friendly voice.

I personally think this example by Rand is not her at her finest. In other places, she has made mention of "lifeboat" cases (when 2 people are in a lifeboat that can only hold one and stay afloat). She has stated that in these cases, morality is out the window. There are no principles of right and wrong, only subjectivity. Either choice was right. (See, for example, the Q&A book, p. 113-114).

In the example you criticized, Rand needed to be criticized and criticized thoroughly. I am glad you highlighted this point because it needs to be seen clearly for what it is and rejected. As an Objectivist, I reject calling the act of saving a stranger by endangering your own life "immoral."

For the record, I don't call it "moral" either. I think it is a subjective call and one has to do the best he thinks possible at the time.

btw - Your little stories were hilarious.

Michael

David said...

Snark Alert!

This must be why (after achieving success) Rand disowned her family in Chicago - you know, the ones that took her in, sheltered her, fed her, took care of her when she was an impoverished immigrant ingnorant of our language and customs. After all, it was terribly immoral of them to do all that for her.

Daniel Barnes said...

Nothing wrong with a bit of snark!

Don't you know - "no-one" helped her!

Anonymous said...

Greg I put what you wrote here to an Objectivist in the UK. He told me you were wrong, but didn't explain why of course. Is this standard procedure for Objectivists? To make statements such as, Peikoff's book on Objectivism is fantastic, and leave it at that?

Daniel Barnes said...

Hi Anonymous,
>Is this standard procedure for Objectivists? To make statements such as, Peikoff's book on Objectivism is fantastic, and leave it at that?

Yes. David Ramsay Steele has a nice line which sums up the situation:

"Objectivist doctrine is bluff, buttressed by abuse of all critics."

Standard operating procedure, tho of course there are some thoughtful, reasonable Objectivists too.

Anonymous said...

Hi all,

Got word back from Objectvists in the UK, here's what they think of your article. Make of it what you will!

"Right, well cutting through all the dross and verbiage we have his assertion:

'If you endanger your life to save a stranger, you are immoral. Not just immoral, but psychologically damaged, in that you lack self-esteem.'



But is not what see is saying. She says 'any random stranger' i.e. somebody in China who might benefit from one of your lungs and one of your kidneys.



If he wants to do that he can go ahead - I won't try to stop him but I would question his morality.



A girl accidentally swept out to sea is different. Accidents happen, good people blunder or sometimes get into jeopardy through freak waves or other accidents of nature. It would be proper to help them because if you value your own life - if you value reason - you value such characteristics as they manifest in others. It is just that you should not take their lives as your *standard* and *purpose*.



I've no idea who this Greg Nyquist is - he sounds like a loony to me."

Then he'd be wrong there as Greg sounds perfectly sane to me.

Daniel Barnes said...

Hey anonymous

Which Objectivist UK list was this from?

Thanks
Daniel

Anonymous said...

It's from the United Kingdom Objectivist assocaition. They've been going strong since 1989 and they tell me that Tara Smiths new book is all the rage in Cambridge.

Bryan M. White said...

Here's how I, personally, would address this problem:

I would think - I would hope - most of us in that situation would WANT to help the drowning girl. Think how horrible it would be to watch someone drown in front of you, wailing and screaming and thrashing about. It's perfectly human to want to help the girl. And, of course, you weigh that against the risks involved to yourself. If it's a simple matter of bending down poolside and casually extending a hand, who wouldn't do it? I mean, c'mon! On the other hand, if it means swimming half a mile out to sea...well, that might give anyone a moment's pause. However, if forsaking all that, a person dives in and swims out to rescue her, then that's certainly commendable, an act of courage because they forsook the danger to pursue the desire to help the girl, a heroic act, perhaps even the definition of a heroic act.

The problem with altruism is that it takes these very human impulses and replaces them with the cold hand of "moral obligation." It seems to be based in the assumption that if you don't saddle people with this notion of obligation and beat them over the head with it then we'd all stand around and watch each other drown. I'd like to believe that that's not true.

I'd also like to believe that these are the grounds on which Rand objects to altruism, the mandate of it and the corrupting grudge it fosters, rather than objecting to the idea of actually WANTING to help someone. There ARE hints of that here and there in her writings and places where she actually says it explicitly. But it's not mentioned nearly enough. It seems like something she's reticent to admit, like it would be a concession or a weaknesses or some sort. Therefore, you end up with embarrassing formulations like the one above where she says it's "permissible" to help a drowning person. Well, gee, if it's okay then...