Saturday, February 23, 2008

Rand's Ethics, Part 8

Distinguishing selfishness from altruism. Both from common experience and psychological research we know that human beings, generally speaking, are inveterate rationalizers, particularly when it comes to issues touching their own interests and predilections. What is worse, human beings rationalize quite unwittingly, with consummate innocence, never realizing the extent to which they are deluding themselves.

What makes rationalization so very easy and so very inevitable is the scandalous ambiguity of words. It is so very easy to equivocate our way to the conclusion we desire. The equivocation is so artfully masked by the ambiguity of the terms used that it remains unnoticed.

Rand’s use of this technique is rather of the more blatant sort, which is why her philosophy doesn’t appeal to particularly sophisticated or subtle intellects. She likes to base her arguments on irrefragable premises—on palpable truisms and even tautologies, which, however, she introduces as if she's made a great discovery that goes against the predominant grain of the culture. Thus she declares that modern philosophy, particularly of the Kantian vintage, is involved in a grand revolt against A is A. A similar tactic is used in her ethics, the central premise of which is that life or death is man’s fundamental alternative. People who disagree with Rand’s ethics are therefore sometimes accused of being anti-life and pro-death.

Rand makes use of ambiguity in a somewhat different fashion when distinguishing between egoism, on the one hand, of which she approves, and altruism and “self-sacrifice” on the other, of which she strongly disapproves. Self-interest, for Rand, is good; living for others is evil.

The chief difficulty in taking this approach stems from the fact that many human interests are inter-personal. Hence an individual’s self-interest is normally intertwined with interests of family, friends, and society at large, so that the distinction between egoism and altruism is, at its very root, an artificial one, intelligible, if intelligible at all, on paper; much less intelligible in reality, where selfish and social interests are, more often than not, all jumbled up, making it problematic to determine whether a given interest is selfish or altruistic.


Rand attempts to get around this difficulty by insisting that altruism demands that a person give up (or, as Rand puts it “sacrifice”) what he values for what he doesn’t value.
Thus, altruism gauges a man's virtue by the degree to which he surrenders, renounces or betrays his values (since help to a stranger or an enemy is regarded as more virtuous, less "selfish," than help to those one loves) [Rand explains]. 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.
But this way of approaching the problem simply will not do; for it not only badly misrepresents altruism, it fails to solve the issue at hand. Rand is telling us that it is selfish to pursue what we really value, while it is altruistic to renounce and betray our values. This way of framing the issue leads to some curious paradoxes. For example, suppose you had an individual who genuinely valued strangers more than himself. In that case, if he chose to take care of his own needs before those of strangers, he would be betraying his values and therefore acting altruistically.

These paradoxes arise because Rand could not bring herself to be consistently selfish. There were some conventionally altruistic acts which she approved of. But since she was loathe to admit this, she merely called meritorious altruistic acts selfish and rationalized this odd usage away by redefining the term sacrifice in a way that entirely flouts and tramples upon common usage. Thus we find her declaring:

If a mother buys food for her hungry child rather than a hat for herself, it is not a sacrifice: she values the child higher than the hat; but it is a sacrifice to the kind of mother whose higher value is the hat, who would prefer her child to starve and feeds him only from a sense of duty.


So the mother who values her child more than she values her hat is acting altruistically if she buys the hat. And the mother who buys food for her child although she would prefer a hat is also acting altruistically.

If ethics is about determining what we should value, then what Rand is practicing here is not ethics, but semantics. The whole debate between altruism and egoism is not over whether we should pursue our values; no, everyone agrees on that, altruists as much as egoists. The question is over what we should value most. Should a mother value her child more than she values a new hat? Most people would say, Yes, she should value the child more than the hat. Whether we call this value-choice “selfish” or “altruistic” is a matter of nomenclature, not ethics. Rand has once again failed to a give us a coherent account of why we should value one thing more than another.

26 comments:

Jay said...

The chief difficulty in taking this approach stems from the fact that many human interests are inter-personal. Hence an individual’s self-interest is normally intertwined with interests of family, friends, and society at large, so that the distinction between egoism and altruism is, at its very root, an artificial one

This is simply not true. For one, Rand made it very clear that a person's self-interest transcends your immediate, most palpable desires. Your wording makes it sound like she was unaware of this. In fact, it occupies a very prominent space in her theory of egoism.

Far from ignoring the interconnectedness of interests, Rand held this as a primary reason to be rationally selfish. Life presents some tough choices, and the best course of action will not float down to you from up on high. Hence rational selfishness, which admonishes the agent do what will benefit him in the long as well as short term.

Here is an example I like to use.

Let's say a kid is enrolled in college, but rarely attends his courses. He just squanders his parents' money and spends his time partying with no academic progress to show for it. Now, most people would consider that to be a "selfish" act. However, this is not actually true if words have any meaning. I believe the correct term for this person's behavior is "whimsical", or "short-sighted" or "mindlessly self-indulgent."

You would probably accuse me of splitting hairs, but these are very different things. The selfish thing to do, on Rand's view, would be for this person to think long and hard about what he wants out of life. This would be the first step toward truly selfish (if selfish means benefitting the agent) action. From here, this person could decide on a course of study that truly excites and intrigues him. Or, he might decide that college isn't for him after all. Maybe he goes to a trade school, or joins the military.

Whatever the ultimate decision is, this person has gone from someone who is going nowhere fast (fun parties notwithstanding) to someone that much closer to finding actual fulfillment. That is not a mere difference of words. That is what selfishness means.

gregnyquist said...

Jay,

I don't see how the points you make, however cogently argued, relate to the current post. You are arguing about the issue of short-term self-interest versus long-term self-interest and the possible conflicts between the two. My post has nothing to do with long-term versus short-term interests, but between selfish and "altruistic" interests, and whether it makes sense to describe interests in others, even if based on real feelings such as love, as selfish. Rand could not bring herself to defend exclusively selfish behavior, even of an immaculately non-exploitive, "rational" type. She wanted to include, under the banner of selfishness, acts which normally, under common usuage, would not be considered selfish, such as a mother giving up a new hat to feed her child or a soldier giving up his life in the cause of defending freedom. This raises problems as to how to distinguish selfish acts, in Rand's sense of the term, from altruistic acts, which is the subject of this post.

Jay said...

Greg,

You're right - I did not focus my point well enough. I think I got too wrapped up trying to challenge what you said about the intolerable vagueness of words.

I should have stayed with the mother/hat example, which I'll do now. Why is it so hard to believe that giving up a new hat to feed the child is selfish? If the mother has kept the child, we can assume it is a value to her. If she did not want it, she could have put it up for adoption, let her parents take care of it (I know a girl who did that), etc. Instead, the mother opted to keep and raise the child herself.

Thus, it only makes sense that she would take the steps necessary to feed the child. I don't see how Rand's theory of egoism would tell us to buy the hat instead. It would probably say to give up the child if it was not a value to us.

Is that any closer to the mark?

Daniel Barnes said...

Hey Jay

Firstly we are in the realms of what is - you guessed it - a verbalist argument. That is, where you change the words used to describe something, but don't fundamentally change the actions or attitude to the underlying problem.

The ethical question is: if a mother buys food for her child instead of a hat for herself, should we approve?

Most people would say yes, she's done the right thing, and call it altruistic.

Rand says yes, she's done the right thing*, and calls it selfish.

Of course, you could call it Arnold and it would make no difference to the actual problem or our attitude to it. See what I mean? It's just like changing the packaging on a product, and saying you've changed the product.

Now as well as all the verbal confusions Rand introduces over "sacrifice" and "selfish", it happens that the whole issue is muddled yet again due to the influence of Plato, who made the original (and deliberately misleading) argument identifying altruism with collectivism, and egoism with selfishness. Rand basically picked up Plato's error, albeit from the other end, without realising it. Popper untangles this historical problem in his "Open Society" vol 1. If Greg is not intending to cover off this angle I will do a post on it a bit later.

*actually there are different interpretations of this passage possible. See "Understanding Objectivist Jargon" under "Sacrifice"

Jay said...

Daniel,

But it's not a verbalistic game. I demonstrated that by keeping the child, the mother is implicitly recognizing it as a value to her. It makes a difference to her, personally, whether the child eats or starves. She values the child's well-being. Then, judging her interests in a hierarchy rather than a vacuum, she says "y'know what, this hat can wait. I need to feed my kid."

I guess I can see where the "is it selfish or altruistic?" squabble arises. But clearly, it matters to the mother whether the kid eats. Do you think most mothers would say that they feed their children as a totally selfless act and that it matters nothing to them?

Daniel Barnes said...

Whoops, my bad.
I wrote:
"...Plato, who made the original (and deliberately misleading) argument identifying altruism with collectivism, and egoism with selfishness...."

I meant to write "...altruism with collectivism and selfishness with individualism..."

That's better!

gregnyquist said...

Jay: "But it's not a verbalistic game. I demonstrated that by keeping the child, the mother is implicitly recognizing it as a value to her. It makes a difference to her, personally, whether the child eats or starves"

But this is precisely what I am criticizing Rand for: namely, that she has equated selfishness with merely pursuing what one really values. Ethics, however, should be about helping us decide what we should value. Telling us that we should pursue what we really do value is no more helpful than telling us that we should do good and abstain from evil. In short, it's an exercise in belaboring the obvious.

What altruism (I mean here real altruism, not the caricature Rand makes of it) preaches is that individuals should value the needs of other people (particularly unfortunate people) as much as (if not more) than they value their own needs. If we adopt Rand's way of defining selfishness, then we are forced to admit that helping others at our own expense is selfish if we really do value the needs of others more than our own needs. And so the individual that goes hungry so that homeless people can eat is selfish if he really, genuinely values homeless people, if it makes a difference to him, personally, whether they eat or starve.

I'm sorry, but this sort of usage doesn't strike me as particularly insightful. Much more interesting would be to know what people should actually value, not what they should call their values if they pursue them honestly.

dragonfly said...

The problem with the theory that an act that benefits another person at a cost to yourself is selfish if that other person represents a value to you, is that it is a tautology. Someone who gives away all his money to save some children in Africa can perfectly claim that those children are to him a greater value than his money. The same is true for the mother who saves her child at the cost of her own life or the soldier who throws himself on a grenade to save his comrades. With this argument there is no altruism! Therefore the value theory of selfishness has no value.

PS. I see now that Greg made the same point.

Jay said...

Greg,

So, let me see if I get this straight. Are you looking for a philosophy that will say, explicitly, out of context as an absolute "You must value a hat over your child eating." or "You must value your child eating over a hat."

Before I respond I just want to know if that is, in fact, what you are criticizing Rand for not doing.

Jay said...

I ask that because is seems like the standard Rand gives - the rational self-interest of a person - doesn't satisfy you. It seems like you want a philosophy that acts more like a computer program, where you give it a choice and it spits out the one and only correct answer of what you should value.

gregnyquist said...

Jay: "So, let me see if I get this straight. Are you looking for a philosophy that will say, explicitly, out of context as an absolute 'You must value a hat over your child eating.' or 'You must value your child eating over a hat.'"

No, that's not the main point at issue. The issue is over equating selfishness with pursuing those values one really wants. Keep in mind, my post is about the difficulties of distinguishing selfish from altruistic behaviors. Rand's criticism of altruism as not pursuing the values one really cares for is not only false criticism, it leads her to evade the whole issue at stake between altruism and selfishness, which is: whether one should value others over one's self or vice versa. Rand muddles the issue, and muddles it badly, because even though leaned strongly on the selfishness side, she didn't want to be exclusively selfish. She recognized the fact that human beings do in fact care a great deal about other people (about loved ones, family, and even strangers), but her adoption of selfishness made it difficult to incorporate these interpersonal interests into her ethics (a pure altruist would have the same problem). Hence she came up with this idea of equating selfishness with pursuing one's values, while equating altruism with not pursuing one's values.

Jay: "I ask that because is seems like the standard Rand gives - the rational self-interest of a person - doesn't satisfy you."

It's all an issue regarding how one frames the issue of rational self-interest. And I'm not satisfied at all with how Rand frames it. It is very odd to describe selfishness as pursuing one's values, particularly given the very real possibility that one could truly and genuinely value others the needs of other people more than one values oneself. If Mother Theresa truly, genuinely valued the people she served more than she valued her own needs; if, moreover, she was happy living what was essentially a life of service towards others; does this mean that she was acting selfishly? And if so, then how does one ever distinguish selfish from altruistic behavior?

Anonymous said...

Just strolled along this blog and realized that it might benefit from a second voice dialoguing with the author.

I found this post to have one incredibly rich irony to it. On the one hand, the site's name asserts that Ayn Rand's philosophy is in contraditction with human nature. On the other, the only type of individual this blog entry cites who would cause a contradiction to her rational ethics is one who "genuinely valued strangers more than himself." Anyone who thinks that such an individual exists in nature has no grasp of human nature at all. Hence the irony.

By nature, one has to take care of themselves to survive. Evolution would weed out any individual organisms that sacrificed themselves for strangers - within one generation. This is why moral systems based on sacrifice, must use the threat of force (and force itself) to endure and why those that took self-sacrifice to extremes collapsed within a few generations at most.

Neither I, nor Rand, nor Jay, nor any accurate supporter of Ayn Rand is saying that individuals do not or should not care about or value each other. What we are saying is that the self is the higher value when compared with another individual. The exact example of Rand you cite, in her stating that it is rational to value one's own child more than a hat supports this claim, although it one of the weakest examples - one drawn with tremendous extremes (a hat vs. a child) to make the point crystal clear for almost any rational reader. (Ayn Rand wrote about love as the highest value one can have of another individual, and used it to show how one could value one person more highly than another.)

Having read a little further into the site, I must add that I am perplexed by the author. On the one hand, Mr. Nyquist shows and exceptional and precise command of English. On the other, he repeatedly appears to misunderstand Rand's statements. This particular article states that her philosophy doesn't appeal to "particularly sophisticated or subtle intellects". It thereby implies that those who do accept her philosophy lack such intellect. Well, how does one respond to that? It is a circular declaration that anyone who disagrees with you must lack the fundamental intellectual traits to know that you are right. There is no room for debate. Rand often criticized mystics for making the claim "If you do not understand, I cannot explain it to you".
I do not mean to suggest that Mr. Nyquist lacks a subtle and sophisticated intellect. The evidence that he does have one is abundant in this blog alone and his responses. However, and consistent with the assertion that men are "inveterate rationalizers" Mr. Nyquist appears to relax the subtlety and sophistication of his intellect when reading Rand.
I do not want to engage in a battle of quotes of Ayn Rand with Mr. Nyquist as I neither have the time, nor think that such an exchange gets to the point. The point is that I think Mr. Nyquist should read a whole work - whether a novel or an essay of Rand's - not with the view of finding a single example here or there of a sentence that he can critique when he applies special circumstances to it, but to read it with the view of understanding its overarching logic and theme. This does take a sophisticated intellect. Forget what you want to believe, but just read the whole thing and when you've deconstructed it see if any of it is wrong - Rand would agree that if you find a single premise incorrect you would be able to declare her wrong. But get to the premises. Don't politely and with big words accuse those who disagree with you of being stupid. Be objective in your criticism.

Regards.

Mark said...

Would the latest anonymous poster happen to go by "evanescent" or "Ergo" elsewhere on the internet?

gregnyquist said...

Anon: "On the one hand, the site's name asserts that Ayn Rand's philosophy is in contradiction with human nature. On the other, the only type of individual this blog entry cites who would cause a contradiction to her rational ethics is one who 'genuinely valued strangers more than himself.' Anyone who thinks that such an individual exists in nature has no grasp of human nature at all."

The example of an individual who genuinely values strangers more than himself was not brought forward in order to contradict Rand's ethics. It was brought forward, as I have already tried to explain several times, to criticize a particular argument of Rand's that creates difficulties in terms of distinguishing selfishness from altruism. That's really the main thrust of this particular post. Whether the individual who values strangers more than himself is possible in the real world has no bearing on the question at issue. What's at issue is how we should describe that person if he pursues his values and does in fact help others more than he helps himself. Is he selfish because he's pursuing his values? Or is he an altruist because values others more than himself?

Now I would say, following common usauge, that he is altruist. But if we take the Randian argument quoted in post at face value, he would appear to be acting selfishly, because he's pursuing what he genuinely values.

Now the issue is important because, in common parlance, selfish and altruistic interests tend to merge. If a man buys himself a new sports car, it's very easy to describe the act as selfish. And if he buys a station waggon for a homeless shelter, the act would conventionally be considered as altruistic. But what if he buys a car for his wife? That doesn't fit so easily within our schema of altruistic and selfish acts. It seems to partake of both, since he's doing something that gives pleasure to himself and to his wife.

Now Rand, because of her party spirit against altruism, doesn't want the taint of "self-sacrifice" to besmirch an act which she would approve of. So she would presumably describe the act of a husband giving his wife a car as "selfish," because the husband is acting on the basis of what he genuinely values (i.e., his wife). The problem here is that very same argument could be used to defend the guy who buys a car for a homeless shelter—provided, of course, the guy genuinely valued homeless people!

So several questions arise:

1) Is it possible that buying a car for a homeless shelter can, under Objectivist ethics, be regarded as good (i.e. selfish)?

2) Is it possible that buying a car for homeless shelter can also be evil (that is, altruistic) assuming that the donater really didn't genuinely value homeless people?

3) If the answer to (1) and (2) is yes, then Objectivist ethics is clearly not a fully consequentialist ethics, since the morality of giving to the homeless is dependent on whether the individual genuinely values homeless.

These are some of the problems that arise from Rand gratuitous argument against altruism and sacrifice. Altruistic sacrifice, for Rand, means giving up a greater for a lesser value. Everyone agrees, even those horrible altruists, that people should pursue the greater value. The question, however, for the ethicist is: What should they value more?

Jay said...

What's at issue is how we should describe that person if he pursues his values and does in fact help others more than he helps himself. Is he selfish because he's pursuing his values? Or is he an altruist because values others more than himself?

He would be, by definition, an altruist. If someone literally valued others more than himself how could anyone say he was selfish? It would be a contradiction in terms.

Jay said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jay said...

Greg,

Also, your equivocation between buying a car for your chosen wife and living for homeless people doesn't hold up. Rand did not say "Pursue whatever you might happen to arbitrarily value." She said to value things that objectively benefit you.

So, since we're talking about Objectivism, we'll assume that the wife is someone who embodies things her husband values: intelligence, charisma, kindness, whatever the case may be. Taking this into account, buying her a car is selfish. She is important to you because she objectively makes your life better and more fulfilling.

Making homeless people the sole reason for your existence doesn't do that. It might fulfill you to help them from time to time. If you volunteer at a soup kitchen every other weekend, for example. However dedicating your entire life to the betterment of others deprives you of your own needs: enjoyment of hobbies, companionship, advancement in a career that intrigues you for entirely personal reasons, etc.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your quick reply Greg. (BTW Mark, I am genuinely new here and have never heard of "evanescent" or "Ergo".)

You are very clear about what it is you are arguing here. Your question is "What is the greater value?" and more importantly - "Is Ayn Rand wrong when she says that the self is the highest value to an individual?"

Rand makes her argument over and over, sometimes briefly and sometimes in novels that exceed a thousand pages. But she is consistent. Whether you call it altruism or not, what she objects to as evil is telling an individual that someone else's interests are more important than theirs, that they should give up that which they value for the values of someone else - that they should replace their own values with someone else's.
Ayn Rand would say that someone who values giving a station-wagon to the homeless is acting in their own interest if they do so. If, however, that individual was told by someone else that they owe it to the poor because they are rich, and, out of a false sense of guilt, that person bought the station-wagon OR if someone else determined that the individual in question should have his wealth seized and used to buy a station wagon for the poor then that is evil. It is evil because it denies the individual the right to act on his own will. Now a station-wagon for the poor is of course nowhere near the kind of crime that has been committed by those who preach the philosophies of substituting one's own values with "greater goods". The first case, guilting the innocent into making sacrifices is the domain of religion (particularly Christianity) and the second case, seizing the wealth of some to spend it on the poor, is the domain of communism. Anybody who has lived under either of those regimes and remained sane knows that they are evil philosophies, and it is Rand who has so accurately described why it is that they are evil.

gregnyquist said...

Jay: "Also, your equivocation between buying a car for your chosen wife and living for homeless people doesn't hold up. Rand did not say 'Pursue whatever you might happen to arbitrarily value.' She said to value things that objectively benefit you."

I don't believe I equivocated between the buying the car for wife and buying for homeless shelter, since I did distinguish between them. And yes, I do understand that Rand regards buying the car for wife as a selfish act, as well as the notion that one should value things that are of an "objective" benefit to oneself. But none of this really serves the purpose at hand. How are we to determine what constitutes an "objective" benefit? Is it more money? Better health? Longer life span? More friends? All of the above? If an individual find happiness from helping homeless people, does that qualify as an objective benefit? If an individual is made unhappy by the thought of other people starving, and goes to great personal trouble to himself to make sure strangers have enough to eat, isn't he acting in a way to benefit himself, and therefore behaving selfishly?

If you're going to define selfishness as pursuing what "objectively benefits you" I don't see how you can avoid falling into these kind of paradoxes. Inter-personal interests do in fact exist. People, particularly women, care about other people, including strangers. Indeed, new psychological research is beginning to show that many women who pursue ambitious careers feel unfulfilled because they are unable to satisfy the female instinct for nuturing, because they're too tired after a long days work. Is it not therefore possible that this whole distinction between selfishness and altruism is overplayed? That except in extreme cases, people wish to pursue interests that are both selfish and altrusitic? That, in other words, that one moral ideal might be to extend the range of interpersonal interests so that there exists as little conflict between selfish and altruistic concerns as is practically possible?

Daniel Barnes said...

Anon:
>Rand makes her argument over and over, sometimes briefly and sometimes in novels that exceed a thousand pages. But she is consistent.

Hi Anon,

You have two serious problems with the above.

The first problem is your claim that "she is consistent" in her ethical arguments. This is quite incorrect. She is not even consistent within two pages of her ethics, let alone "a thousand." For example, she says on one page ("Ethics of Emergencies"p47, VOS)

"It is on the ground of that generalized goodwill and respect for the value of human life that one helps strangers in an emergency - and only in an emergency."

On the next page (p48) she says that one "may" bring food and money to a man who is "ill and penniless", but three paras later proclaims that "illness" and "poverty" are not emergencies.

Say what??? Let's run that again:

So according to Rand, it's ethically wrong to help strangers except in emergencies. But it is ok to help them if they're poor and ill...except being poor and ill isn't an emergency, so it isn't ok!

So I say again: Rand's ethics are certainly not consistent, or even very coherent.

This leads to your second problem, which is this:

Anon:
>Ayn Rand would say that someone who values giving a station-wagon to the homeless is acting in their own interest if they do so.

This is nothing more than mere guesswork your part. It is just as likely that Rand would argue the exact opposite to what you claim here, based on the fact that "the homeless" are both strangers and in a non-emergency situation (poverty) - in fact, one of what according to Objectivism is ultimately their own devising. This would be what Rand would also consider a "sacrifice" - giving up a greater value, the result of your productive efforts, for a lesser value - subhumans who do not use their human faculty of reason to survive.

So your problem is that you really have little or no basis for your contention above. This is not your fault, but simply a function of the fact that the Objectivist ethics are basically incoherent.

George Saad said...

I think that framing Randian ethics in terms of a zero-sum choice (I give money to a homeless man or I purchase goods for myself) misses the real thrust of her ethics, which held productivity above all else. For an agent to pursue any value, he must have produced something of value first. This of course does not seem very applicable in emergency situations where one must immediately distinguish between two distinct values (the value of one's own life as opposed to one's wife drowning in a river). Under normal circumstances, however, we have implicitly chosen our course of action over infinitely many we could have chosen.

Which leads to this neo-Randian formulation: under stable circumstances, pursue the most productive course of action. Add to the wealth of the world. Then, in emergency situations, which are inherently destructive, act to preserve whatever you value most.

Differentiating between the creative and destructive circumstance allows us to recognize that there are times for building and times for defending that which one has built or the conditions which would allow one to continue building in the future (something like the rule of law in a society).

I know that this is not orthodox Objectivism. Even before encountering this site I disliked Rand's emergency ethics formulation and certain other formulations. I do, however, think that Rand's arguments in favor of the creator are necessary in evaluating the normative ethics of a distributive situation. Ethics cannot be reduced to a set of imputations as to what one should do in a given situation, but must also take into consideration the causality of that situation (Why is there wealth to be given to the homeless in the first place?).

TSK said...

I see a severe problem in this discussion.
Most of the things we do don't have a rational cause, we don't think about it.
What should I do right *now* ?
Stay up and get a drink ? Switch the computer off ? Continue
typing ?

From a rational point of view there is no answer because they are "subjective" causes. The problem now is that many of the behaviors mentioned here are based on exactly this emotional causes which have nothing to do with reason.
If I spend money for a homeless person I don't do that because I checked my personal philosophy for self-sacrifice and made a rational decision. It was simply compassion. If I buy flowers for my SO, I do it for love.

If many of my and most other people actions (and exactly the altruistic ones !) are triggered by emotions, why bother to build a seemingly "rational" philosophy around that ?
I don't know "Atlas shrugged" or other works, but the only reason I can see is that Ayn Rand didn't like to tell: "I hate communism and christianity. I don't want to share with other people and I want to cultivate my own egoism. I can't stand other people who expose my ego by altruistic behavior.". It sounds like she felt compelled to hide these emotional causes under a seemingly attractive philosophical mumbo-jambo.
Lets imagine that we have a sociopath: He has no idea what fear, love, compassion etc. means,
he is a merciless emotional robot with the exception that he works for his own benefit. But he is also intelligent and a verbicide and he uses deliberately Ayn Rands philosophy to excuse and defend his behavior.

My question for Ayn Rand proponents:
How do I can discern as an outsider
between this sociopath and an Ayn Rand proponent who is basing this decisions *really* on Ayn Rands philosophy ?
I can't look in the head of people to check their actual value scale.

Nyquist asks IMO the question: If humans have different value scales (which is not unrealistic), how does Ayn Rand solve the problem that the scale of a Hannibal Lecter is considered "good" and the scale of Jesus "bad" in her system because the former is "selfish" pursuing his own deeds and the latter "altruistic" ? Or, that Jesus is "good" because he gets so much emotional reward of feeding poor people that it is on top of his personal scale and Hannibal is "bad" because he killed his victim swiftly despite preferring normally to let it scream a bit ?

As sociopaths exist, this is not an academic question.

@jay: Your example with the lazy kid at college has a snag: Not *you*, the kid must define what is selfish and altruistic. If you or other persons are trying to tell him what is "good" for him, isn't that "evil" by Rands definition ? But there is absolutely no guarantee that the kid will "rationally" come to the same conclusion because different value systems exist.

@anon:
Evolution would weed out any individual organisms that sacrificed themselves for strangers - within one generation. .
Wrong. Evolutionary theory does in fact search for an explanation how altruistic behavior survived and there are many possible explanations. Here is one:
People need other people to accomplish something. The human alone is weak, a group is better,
a group grown together is best. Altruists in a group will have high social status and much more friends because they are reliable partners and they help bonding.
Such a group will effortlessly defeat a group of selfish people because the latter will not risk their life if they can simply run away.

Jay said...

TSK,

No, it would not be "evil" for me to tell someone else what's good. What would be evil is me forcing that person against his will into a classroom or career that I selected. Saying that a person should give conscious thought to what will fulfill them beyond the immediate moment is simply a fact.

Also,


a group grown together is best. Altruists in a group will have high social status and much more friends because they are reliable partners and they help bonding.
Such a group will effortlessly defeat a group of selfish people because the latter will not risk their life if they can simply run away.


You didn't say what one group would have to do to "defeat" the other. Other factors besides each group's ethical philosophy are relevant. Does "defeat" mean kill, wound, mame, win a game of Counterstrike? It seems that whichever group is more skilled at the task in question would win, on average.

Also, nothing precludes selfish people from working together on mutually accepted goals. You are using a straw man to unequivocally dismiss their chances in battle.

Daniel Barnes said...

TSK:
>I see a severe problem in this discussion. Most of the things we do don't have a rational cause, we don't think about it. What should I do right *now* ? Stay up and get a drink ? Switch the computer off ? Continue typing ? From a rational point of view there is no answer because they are "subjective" causes...

Yes, TSK. This is due to the well-know problem that decisions, including ethical ones, pertain to, but are not logically derivable from, facts. This is known as the "is/ought" gap of David Hume, and we do tend to bang on about it rather a lot on this site. Thus all decisions, whilst always related to facts, have a subjective element. Ayn Rand thought this was very bad, but she was wrong (and did not understand the problem anyway); the subjective element is not a bug, but a feature; for it means we have to take some personal responsibility for our decisions. For obviously there is little we personally can do about objective, logically derivable propositions such as 2+2=4; thus they are outside the scope of moral questions.

TSK said...

I have read now an overview of Ayn Rand and Objectivism on Wikipedia and my mood dropped considerably. She is using words on words with such feeble definitions and clarity that it looks like nailing jelly on the wall.

What would be evil is me forcing that person against his will into a classroom or career that I selected.

Fine. Then let's expand our view on the college kid. He is an adult and self-responsible and he has inherited several million dollars.
As Rand said (correct me) that he should strive for happiness and the level of happiness is an "barometer" for fulfilling his life, he settles on an island out of reach from the state together with a live long storage of heroine and cocaine, girls etc. ...you get the picture.

What has Rand to say to criticize this style as "subhuman" ?
"Subhuman" is just a subjective value. Objective (!) brain measurements of the endorphine level proves that the man is happier than you, so what ?

So far Rands philosophy cannot be used for judging if you already have an implicit assumption of what is "right" or "wrong". But in that case the philosophy is superfluous; it simply puts out in words and rational sounding prosa what you already believed.

It is exactly the problem with Lecter and Jesus: As long as I don't have access as outsider to *their* value systems, I can't evaluate their behaviour as "good" or "evil" in the Randian sense of "selfish" and "altruistic". It is irrefutable and therefore totally useless.

You didn't say what one group would have to do to "defeat" the other. Other factors besides each group's ethical philosophy are relevant. Does "defeat" mean kill, wound, mame, win a game of Counterstrike? It seems that whichever group is more skilled at the task in question would win, on average.

A more altruistic group equal in numbers, equipment and brainpower will almost always defeat a group of selfish people, either in war or in Counterstrike.
I am sounding out the implicit assumption that the more selfish people are more skilled, but there is no indication that altruism or egoism is correlating with intelligence.
Sure intelligent selfish people could agree on mutually accepted goals, the problem arises to hold that contract. As every intelligent egoist knows his *own* survival and success is his top priority and assumes rightly that it is the goal of all others, they will inevitably try to cheat to assure that they are spared. Egoists can't trust others, otherwise they wouldn't be egoists.

@daniel: True, but I wanted to hold the discussion as unphilosophical as possible. I see enough problems with common sense so I don't dig deeper philosophically (yet).

Jay said...

Objective (!) brain measurements of the endorphine level proves that the man is happier than you, so what ?

Gee, that wouldn't have anything to do with the mind-altering drugs coursing through his bloodstream, would it? Endorphin levels don't have the final say, anyway. That's a very superficial gauge of how happy someone is. Rand's argument would be that the habitual abuse of drugs endangers your life and makes you less able to pursue/enjoy objective values. I don't think many would disagree with that.

Egoists can't trust others, otherwise they wouldn't be egoists.

That is absolutely untrue. My best friend and I are egoists and trust each other more than almost anyone else in our lives. Which leads me to another question: do these groups of altruists and egoists know each other? Let's say the egoists were each clubbed over the head, taken out of their homes, dropped in a room and ordered to compete with altruists. Sure, that might make them a little less likely to cooperate - they don't know what the hell is going on! But if they have any kind of pre-existing relationship, I see no reason why they could not cooperate to survive.

Of course, all of this evades the fact that life isn't a constant struggle where you don't survive unless you step on somebody else's throat. This is just a straw man concocted to make selfishness seem hostile.