However a shorter and lesser known essay, "The Ethics of Emergencies", throws other light on fundamental problems with both Rand's ethics and her typical style of argument. Over the next few weeks we will do a "slow read" on this piece, para by para, and unpack in detail the plentiful intellectual and stylistic confusions therein.
"The Ethics of Emergencies" by Ayn Rand (February 1963)Comment: This opening is vintage Rand. For despite her authoritative tone, Rand knew next to nothing about psychology, and sometimes chided Nathaniel Branden for even being interested in such an ultimately irreducible subject. Yet despite her ignorance, and perhaps because of this convenient irreducibility, she nonetheless regularly enjoyed draping her arguments in pseudo-psychological trappings*. This penchant for armchair psychology is mostly risible: for example, in "The Cult of Moral Grayness" Rand declares that the order in which people commonly say "good and evil" and "black and white" is, apparently, "...interesting psychologically." One is tempted to reply that the only thing interesting psychologically is that Rand finds this interesting psychologically. Similarly, here we find her whimsically inferring the "psychological results of altruism" on society at large from existence of a commonplace "what if"? She clearly never read Freud on the cigar. (Stylistically we also have the glitch of her clumsy set of examples. For we really need only "drowning"; we do not need the ramping melodrama of the other three redundancies, nor the attempt to itemise this padding into significance).
The psychological results of altruism may be observed in the fact that a great many people approach the subject of ethics by asking such questions as:"Should one risk one's life to help a man who is: a) drowning, b) trapped in a fire, c) stepping in front of a speeding truck, d) hanging by his fingernails over an abyss?"
But what are these "psychological results" of altruism? Rand then outlines them as follows:
Consider the implications of that approach. If a man accepts the ethics of altruism, he suffers the following consequences (in proportion to the degree of his acceptance):Comment: Perhaps we should really consider the implications of Rand's approach here. For, from the mere utterance of an ethical chestnut, she is claiming to have diagnosed the utterer's psychological state as suffering from a "lack of self-esteem", "lack of respect for others", "a nightmare view of existence", and "in fact, a lethargic indifference to ethics, a hopelessly cynical amorality..."If there was any doubt that Murray Rothbard's parody "Mozart Was A Red" - where Mozart's "collectivist", "anti-life"psychology is implied by "every bar of his music" - accurately reflected the Randian method in action, this gives us a perfect example in her very own words.
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.
2. Lack of respect for others - since he regards mankind as a herd of doomed beggars crying for someone's help.
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.
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 life and thus leave him with no moral principles whatever.
We should also pause to reflect on 4., where she criticises the above ethical questions for being situations one is "not likely to encounter" and thus leave us with "no moral principles whatever." Yet this is the very method she uses elsewhere to capture the "essence" of altruism; by the use of a reductio ad absurdum to claim, for example, that "death is the ultimate goal and standard of altruism." Of course, we are hardly likely to encounter death as a result of a typical altruistic act. What, according to Objectivism, our moral status will be should this unikely event occur we will attempt to discover as we read on.
(to be continued)
*She also indulged in lengthy, pseudo-psychological introspective ramblings herself, as is excruciatingly exhumed in the end section of James Valliant's hapless hagiography "The Passion of Ayn Rand's Critics".