I am hungry for praise:
I would to God it were not so—
That I must live through all my days
Yearning for what I’ll never know.
I even hope that when I’m dead
The worms won’t find me wholly vicious,
But as they masticate my head
Will smack their lips and cry “delicious!”
The view that vanity is a dominant motive in human nature was fairly common among writers and poets in the 17th and 18th centuries. Pascal is representative in this respect:
Vanity is so anchored in man’s heart that a soldier, a camp-follower, a cook, a porter, boast and wish to have admirers; and the philosophers wish the same; and those who write against the desire for glory, glory in having written well; and those who read it, desire to have glory for having read it; and I who write this have perhaps the same desire; and also those who will read what I write.
While Rand did not address vanity per se, her disciple Nathaniel Branden formulated a concept that dealt with one of the manifestations of vanity, “social metaphysics.” Rand describes social metaphysics as follows:
A social metaphysician is one who regards the consciousness of other men as superior to his own and to the facts of reality. It is to a social metaphysician that the moral appraisal of himself by others is a primary concern which supersedes truth, facts, reason, logic. The disapproval of others is so shatteringly terrifying to him that nothing can withstand its impact within his consciousness; thus he would deny the evidence of his own eyes and invalidate his own consciousness for the sake of any stray charlatan's moral sanction. It is only a social metaphysician who could conceive of such absurdity as hoping to win an intellectual argument by hinting: "But people won't like you!"
Now while some people may be overly concerned with the opinion of others, it is not clear that this concern involves regarding “the consciousness of other men as superior … to the facts of reality.” That is a caricature. Many human beings wish to be admired by others. This may cause them, for example, to try to say things they don’t really believe or pretend to admire things they don’t like. It may even cause them to defer to another persons judgment on particular issues, like Objectivists frequently defer to Rand’s or Peikoff’s judgment. But this merely means the individual trusts another person’s judgment more than his own—a view not at all inconsistent with being an Objectivist, as the facts attest. To describe this trust as invalidating one’s own consciousness or denying the evidence of one’s own eyes is clearly to engage in gross hyperbole.
Yet the exaggerations in the doctrine are not what’s most critical for the current discussion. Even more important is the implication that “social metaphysics”—and indeed any of the manifestations of vanity—are merely the consequences some stray premise that has been integrated in the individual’s subconscious. There is nothing innate about it. The fact that vanity has been a preponderant motive throughout human history is a sheer coincidence. Why so many human beings throughout the ages have held this premise is not explained but is evaded. Apparently, Rand wished to believed that things could be different, that social metaphysics, vanity, the desire for status—that all these troublesome emotions could be abolished; that human beings did not have to be dominated by them. The desire to be rid of these emotions is understandable, particularly for a philosopher advocating laissez-faire capitalism: because these emotions serve as an important obstacle to the implementation of that system.
John Adams, the most psychologically astute of the Founding Fathers, described vanity (which he called the “passion for distinction”) as “the great leading passion of the soul”:
This propensity, in all its branches, is a principal source of the virtues and vices, the happiness and misery of human life; and … the history of mankind is little more than a simple narration of its operation and effects… The desire of esteem is as real a want of nature as hunger; and the neglect and contempt of the world as severe a pain as gout and stone. It sooner and oftener produces despair and detestation of existence… Every personal quality, every blessing of fortune, is cherished in proportion to its capacity of gratifying this universal affection for the esteem, the sympathy, the admiration and congratulations of the public. [Life and Works of John Adams, 232ff]
Now it is often argued by advocates of laissez-faire that one of the chief merits of that system is that it is not a zero-sum game. Peter can get rich without harming Paul. In Objectivism, this characteristic of laissez-faire is exemplified in Rand’s contention that “there are no conflicts of interests between rational men.” But if Pascal, Adams, and most other observers of human nature through history are right about the psychological importance and predominance of vanity, then the obvious retort to Rand’s contention is that most men simply are not rational in the sense meant by Rand. Conflicts of interest between men are ingrained in the very nature of things, because men compete for esteem, status, approbation, fame, etc, and this competition will inevitably breed conflict between various human beings.
Furthermore, these conflicts, as well as the emotions that inspire them, will continue to predispose individuals against laissez-faire. Every form of society tends to favor some abilities at the expense of others. A capitalist society favors those well-endowed with commercial virtues; a military society favors those well-endowed with martial virtues; a monarchal society favors those well-endowed with the gifts of the courtier. Even if it is true, as is not implausible, that individuals short in commercial virtues and the talents necessary to thrive under free market competition will nevertheless be better off, in terms of economic well-being, under a free market system, it doesn’t follow that they can be persuaded to favor that system. For at the end of the day, many individuals will prefer distinction to wealth, and will hence prefer the system in which they expect to gain the most distinction. As Steven Pinker notes, “ People go hungry, risk their lives, and exhaust their wealth in pursuit of bits of ribbon and metal [i.e., for vanity].” Despite attempts to denigrate and caricature these emotions as “social metaphysics,” they nevertheless exist and cannot be changed or eliminated merely by refuting Kant and Plato and preaching Rand.