Friday, February 12, 2010

Objectivism & Politics, Part 41

Self-interest and the Welfare State. Although David Kelley’s brand of Objectivism tends to be several notches above what we find over at ARI, being saddled with some of Rand’s less defensible notions can lead even Kelley astray. Consider what Kelley wrote about altruism and welfare state in the 1998 article “State of the Culture”: "The primary political expression of sacrificial altruism today is the welfare state. And one of the primary foundations of the welfare state is the idea: 'We're all in this together. We should sacrifice to each other and help out those who are in need.'"

Is it really true that the “primary political expression of sacrificial altruism” is the welfare state? Do we have a welfare state primarily because people have bought into altruistic rationalizations? If people could convinced that self-interest is good, would they immediately abandon the welfare state and embrace laissez-faire?

No, of course they wouldn’t, because the primary motivation for the welfare state is self-interest. The welfare state provides: (1) social security to supplement one’s retirement income; (2) supplemental income to cover medical costs for the aged; (3) income for disabled persons; (4) unemployment insurance to help those who have lost their jobs. All these provisions appeal to the self-interest of middle-class individuals. Indeed, the American welfare state is largely orientated towards the needs of the middle class. It is, hence, a middle-class welfare state appealing to the self-interest of the broad electorate.

In the nineties, President Clinton passed the “Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act,” which reformed that section of the welfare state that dealt, not with the Middle Class, but with the poor. This is a rather curious phenomenon. Americans have no trouble reforming welfare to the poor, even if it means cutting or placing restrictions on benefits. But no attempt has been made to cut or limit benefits to the middle class. On the contrary, welfare benefits to the middle class, if they are changed at all, are increased, as they were under President Bush’s Medicare drug benefit plan.

Now the only way to explain this is to assume that middle class voters are primarily motivated by self-interest, not by altruism. Rand’s claim, that from America’s start, she “was torn by the clash of her political system with the altruist morality,” is clearly a gross exaggeration. Generally speaking, in politics, altruistic motivations are dwarfed by self-interest motivations. So condemning altruism is nothing to the purpose. People, of course, like to pretend to be “altruistic”; and they sometimes are “altruistic” in the sense that they give to charity or support (relatively modest) government support for the poor. But hardly anyone follows Rand’s version of altruism to the letter. Self-sacrificial altruism is largely a rhetorical pose used by sentimentalists to make themselves feel good. It’s not an important determinant of the political structure of the nation. Inveighing against it is waste of time.

Precisely because people tend to be more interested in the welfare of themselves and their loved one’s than in the welfare of strangers, appeals to self-interest tend to be more persuasive than appeals to altruistic sentiments. (Best of all are arguments that appeal to both self-interest with altruism, since people tend to like nothing more than to think that by pursuing their own interest, they are helping others.) If the welfare state really was, as David Kelley argued, the “primary political expression of sacrificial altruism,” one could make persuasive arguments against it. But since, in reality, the welfare state is primarily an expression of self-interest, arguing against it on the basis of self-interest is counter-productive. Nor is making the distinction between “rational” self-interest and other varieties going to be of much help, since it is not clear what “rational” means in this context. Why is desiring to live under a safety net any less “rational” than being prey to misfortune?

Once we have unmasked the hollowness of Rand’s attempt to base laissez-faire on “self-interest,” we can appreciate how ineffective her arguments are for capitalism. Rand’s mistake was to take the bad arguments for socialism (i.e., arguments that appeal to altruistic sentiments) far too seriously. Hardly any one is convinced by such arguments nowadays. So trying to refute them in the heavy-handed, Randian manner serves no purpose at all.

45 comments:

DocBadwrench said...

Very interesting. You practically ripped open my brain and clarified something I'd been thinking *around* lately, but not nailing it.

The language of Objectivism seems very much a product of the "Red Scare" time period. Even putting aside whether her assertions are right or wrong, I am amazed at how dated the arguments seem.

The latest generations of US citizens aren't burdened with the same baggage from the cold war. The arguments at both extremes seem very... odd, nowadays.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

Xtra Laj said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Xtra Laj said...

Greg,

Great analysis. I think your analysis is a little simplified and easier if one restricts it to the population of middle class American Caucasians. It might not hold as well in the increasingly diverse USA. However, this does not affect your core insight that political campaigns are for the most part appeals to self-interest. How this self-interest is appealed to is often basic and materialistic and I think that Objectivists see altruism because they see the politicians as promising people things, not realizing that in a democracy, the whole point is to promise people things so the politician can get power.

The other question is the rich people who desire equality for others. Again, here, I think that Objectivists are victims of hanging around intellectuals too often. They look at intellectuals on the left and think that their motives for voting are the same as that of the common man that the politician is appealing to.

Neil Parille said...

Greg,

Wouldn't an altruist assert that everyone is entitled to benefits except himself? I don't know anyone who says that.


You point out that reforming welfare is often done at the expense of the poor. I'd note that some changes such as raising the retirement age for social security and taxing social security do hit the middle class hardest.

-Neil Parille

Anonymous said...

I know that from the UK the reason we have a welfare state over her is that the politicians and the businessmen felt that after WWII Britain needed one to compete on the world market. Of course the working men and women thought it was a great idea to and had been agitating for one for years. It is though nothing to do with socialism as the idea of a welfare state goes back to the times of Count Bismarck, himself no socialist.
The act of parliament creating the welfare state was passed over here in 1944 by the national government, of which the majority were CONSERVATIVE!
Though in the 1945 election the Labour party promised an NHS and they won a landslide victory.
How would that fit into objectivist theory? Politicians, businessmen and working folks behind the welfare state, even if was, for the former, only to keep Britain competitive.
Perhaps over in the US they saw the welfare state as 'creeping socialism', which is isn't, but over in the UK they figured if they didn't give the working men and women a welfare state they, the working folks, would demand a whole lot more.

Steven Johnston

gregnyquist said...

"Perhaps over in the US they saw the welfare state as 'creeping socialism', which is isn't, but over in the UK they figured if they didn't give the working men and women a welfare state they, the working folks, would demand a whole lot more."

This side of the issue Rand and her followers appear completely oblvious. It never occurs to them that welfare might be a way of pacifying the working class. That was obviously a concern in Europe, where Marxist inspired socialist parties had some traction.

Regardless of whether market outcomes, under so-called "laissez-faire" (assuming that's even an empirical construct), would lead to more "fair" or efficient outocomes (in the sense that those on lower end of the economic scale were better off than they would in any other system), this does not mean that everyone would accept it as so. Even if the lowly service worker has access to all the modern conveniences, the fact that so many people have more than he does and enjoy greater status (and, more importantly, greater access to attractive women) would itself be enough to cause resentment and social friction. If you add to this the consideration that, of course, there is no way of knowing that the lower status person would in fact be better off under laissez-faire (it's not as if you can run a scientific experiment about it: it's all based on counter-factuals, i.e. speculation), there's ample room for believing quite sincerely that the individuals in the lower classes are being shafted and amends need to be made to them to avoid social trouble. Even more to the point, it would be in the self-interest of the upper classes to make these "amends."

J. Goard said...

Greg:

Exactly. The absence of anything resembling an awareness of public-choice issues makes Objectivism even less of a serious adult take on social science than is found in hardcore Marxism.

I don't remember Rand's exact wording of the cliche that it's philosophers/intellectuals who ultimately determine the course of history, but, if that's even a reasonable thing to believe, she apparently ran with it way beyond reasonable limits.

I think, despite her acquaintance with profound thinkers on economics and social structure, Rand really couldn't appreciate that there is a relationship between individual ethics and political systems other than simple magnification.

This poisoned her thinking on both sides. She didn't even grasp Adam Smith's crucial point, that a market economy makes a billion douchebags help me live the authentic life.

David Meybohm said...

I think the original poster's argument has the Objectivist definition of "self-interest" wrong, so his argument seems like a bit of a strawman against the Objectivist position.

The money used to fund welfare programs for any individual comes from other individuals. An Objectivist is supposed to be productive and support himself, not take others' production without their consent. That wouldn't be sustainable in the long-term, and hence not in the Objectivist's long-term self-interest. Just because the middle class believe having a welfare state is in their self-interest doesn't mean it is in their self-interest in the Objectivist sense.

It's the mandatory governmental aspect that is problematic for an Objectivist. An Objectivist wouldn't be opposed to a voluntary welfare program (e.g. you sign up and you are covered if you lose your job or you get old, or for your kids). It's the mandatory ones that violate individual rights and engage in force. Force disables the mind. Mandatory funding means we have to accept the principle that the government has the right to take money to alleviate social problems, leads to corruption, a bad economy, and injustice. It is the alruistic philosophy which underpins the mandatory aspect of social welfare. When politicians pass social welfare programs, they do it on the basis of helping the needy. FDR didn't pass Social Security with the support of senior citizens, there weren't even that many recipients when the program started.

But you make a good point that the middle class likely support these programs from a self-interested point of view, so maybe it's more effective to focus on that aspect, and talk about what really is in a person's long-term self-interest rather than reaching for a knee-jerk altruistic response. Seems like there are two parts of the welfare state supporters. I think it's ultimately important to refute both sides of the argument, though.

Daniel Barnes said...

David:
>Just because the middle class believe having a welfare state is in their self-interest doesn't mean it is in their self-interest in the Objectivist sense.

Hi there David,

I am puzzled as to why the middle class should care what Objectivists consider to be or not to be in their (the middle class's) self-interest. Surely they can make their own minds up on the issue?

>It's the mandatory governmental aspect that is problematic for an Objectivist.

Mandatory governmental rules are problematic for people in general and libertarians and Objectivists in particular. Few really like such things. But Objectivists support state initiation of force such as arrest and confinement on suspicion of a crime, even when the person may be innocent. So the disagreement is more one of degree than strict principle.

And of course, following these particular mandatory government rules actually have in this case a clear monetary benefit, so most people don't regard them as repressive - in fact they're generally very popular programs!

Abolaji said...

I am puzzled as to why the middle class should care what Objectivists consider to be or not to be in their (the middle class's) self-interest. Surely they can make their own minds up on the issue?

Daniel,

It's amazing how the philosophy of reason talks around such obvious problems by redefining words.

Of course, the resort to enlightened self-interest makes Objectivism no more insightful than Christianity, which says that if you were acting in your enlightened self-interest, you would accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior and follow the word of God.

Laj

David Meybohm said...

@Daniel


I am puzzled as to why the middle class should care what Objectivists consider to be or not to be in their (the middle class's) self-interest. Surely they can make their own minds up on the issue?


The issue is what is in their interest, and what the original poster was arguing against. Objectivism has a way of determining what's in your self-interest. It is wrong to argue against Objectivism on the basis of a different concept of self-interest. That would be a strawman argument. Everyone does have to make that judgement themselves (what is in their self-interest), but whether they made the correct call or not is where Objectivism differs from just devil-may-care libertarianism. The middle class should care only if they care about doing what really is. It's not a good argument that you should discard Objectivism because you want to keep your own concept of self-interest and not adopt Objectivism's concept. That's not sound reasoning in and of itself, you need some other reasoning to determine whether Objectivism's way of looking at things is good or not. Otherwise you're only confirming your prejudices.


But Objectivists support state initiation of force such as arrest and confinement on suspicion of a crime, even when the person may be innocent. So the disagreement is more one of degree than strict principle.


The Objectivist concept is that the government's only purpose is to enforce the principle of justice in the specific realms of force and fraud. In the wild, the forceful will dominate. The government protects each individual and allows groups of individuals to create a rational society. The government is necessary to restrain those who will not be reasonable. Also, if you give the government other purposes besides a rationally restrained force, you can no longer use reason to resolve problems within that particular area. Instead it gets decided on the basis of political pull. We see that that is rampant in our current healthcare system and leads to negative results for everyone's lives. But aside from the bad result, it is also immoral to take money from people by force in the Objectivist view. So, on this basis, there is a fundamental disagreement between you and Objectivists: Objectivists think the government should only enforce the principle of justice in this limited realm, and you think it should do otherwise. Objectivists' conclusion is based on Objectivist ethics. So there is a difference of principle there whether you recognize it or not.

It sounds to me like you oppose involuntary confinement in general. That seems to me of the idea that men are angels, and it is fundamentally wrong if you care about your own life or anyone else's.

David Meybohm said...

@Laj:

No one is "re-"defining words. I am just informing you that an Objectivist has a different concept of self-interest. Reading the original article reads like an Objectivist is contradicting himself when he supports self-interest and opposes the welfare state. But this is not a problem for the Objectivist because he has a different concept of self-interest. That is a plain fact. So there's no "re-"definition going on. I'm just informing you that the conclusion of the article that Rand's attempt to base laissez-faire capitalism on self-interest is flawed, itself is flawed because it's based on an imprecise understanding of the concept of self interest. The author of the post is the one doing the re-definition.

You think we should argue without defining what the words mean. You want the words to be slippery so you can reach the conclusions you want. But if the concepts represented by your words aren't clear and defined, then the only thing you're doing is reaching for and gesticulating in the directions of your prejudices. You demonstrate that with your latter argument, reformulated as:

1.) Christinaity is bad,
2.) Objectivism is like Christianity in some respect
3.) Therefore Objectivism is bad.

Which is a terrible argument regardless of what you think of Objectivism or Christianity. I suggest you reconsider and retract this argument. Because regardless of what you think, it isn't in any way interesting or well-grounded.

Abolaji said...

David Meybohm,

Reading the original article reads like an Objectivist is contradicting himself when he supports self-interest and opposes the welfare state.

The message I got from the article was quite different - it was that people who support the welfare state do it for self interested reasons rather than interest in other people per se. It is not a sacrificial decision. That a particular individual may think that the welfare state is not in his self-interest does not mean that the reason why others are supporting it is because they are acting against their self-interest.

I'm just informing you that the conclusion of the article that Rand's attempt to base laissez-faire capitalism on self-interest is flawed, itself is flawed because it's based on an imprecise understanding of the concept of self interest. The author of the post is the one doing the re-definition.

If you say so. I think the dictionary and the vast majority of people would agree with Greg's definition of self-interest, and I agree that the Objectivist definition is different at times. I disagree with you that the Objectivist conception of self-interest is less confusing because it is all over the place. As to which definition is correct, I leave debates over the correct definition of words to people who want to debate such things because they are wastes of time - what is important is to convey what one means and attempt to decide whether it is true or false. Rand re-defined "selfishness" and had a penchant for insisting on her own definition as the objective one. If you share the same penchant too, feel free to continue but I shall not follow you down the path which ultimately turns one into a butt plug.

You think we should argue without defining what the words mean. You want the words to be slippery so you can reach the conclusions you want. But if the concepts represented by your words aren't clear and defined, then the only thing you're doing is reaching for and gesticulating in the directions of your prejudices.

Please share the great things you have achieved and the arguments you have won by defining words. Maybe sharing such evidence might convince me of the efficacy of such an approach to debate. I think I've debated many issues without defining words, mostly by focusing on propositions that illuminate what the core disagreement is.

Which is a terrible argument regardless of what you think of Objectivism or Christianity. I suggest you reconsider and retract this argument. Because regardless of what you think, it isn't in any way interesting or well-grounded.

I think that since you are good at inventing my own arguments, I will allow you to invent my own responses to your response too. If you want my opinion of Christianity and/or Objectivism, ask for it. Otherwise, since you know what my consider view of both is, I'm sure you will be able to refute your own response to me and so on ad infinitum. I'm not good at arguing with myself so I'll leave the stage for you.

David Meybohm said...

@Laj

From the original article,

Once we have unmasked the hollowness of Rand’s attempt to base laissez-faire on “self-interest,” we can appreciate how ineffective her arguments are for capitalism.

So we see here explicitly what I was talking about: the original poster trying to say that Rand's argument is hollow. And I am saying this is a strawman argument because he isn't using Rand's concept of self-interest.

The original poster only makes a token of acknowledging that Rand mostly talked about rational self-interest, not naked self-interest (which she rarely talked about except pejoratively). And even then he claims ignorance as to how it would be rational to not want to have social welfare. The answer is he is taking things out of context: is social welfare good for me? Yes? Then I should have it. Is social welfare provided by the government good for me? The Objectivist says no, but the author wants to say that he should reach the same conclusion in the second case as the first. Well he doesn't, and that's precisely because the Objectivist defines self-interest differently, as rational self-interest in the Objectivist sense. And that is the voluntary/mandatory distinction I was talking about before.

There's no contradiction there. It's simply a matter of definition. If you think one form of self-interest is the correct one, you reach one conclusion. If you believe the other, then you reach the other. But that says nothing logically about which is better. Thus this article has not really provided any enlightenment on Objectivist positions. It did provide value for the part describing how people support social welfare for naked self-interest, which I think is something not a lot of Objectivists realize due to reading a lot about altruism's negativity.

I don't go around quoting definitions all the time, but in this particular case, there is a difference in meaning, and that's the crux of the argument, so definitions are important to get clear. You can define self-interest however you want, in your "when I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean" way. But if you want to argue against a philosophical framework which depends on the word being used that way, you use the same word in your argument but define it differently, what have you accomplished? Precisely nothing, because that's an equivocation.

I reformulated your Christianity argument in a more logical format. It isn't exactly what you said, you are correct in that regard. But it is the logical structure and gist of your argument. Obviously, if you had structured it that way, you wouldn't have written it at all, because you would have realized its absurdity immediately. Instead of complaining you should thank me for pointing out the flaws in your reasoning.

David Meybohm said...

I think the discussion is confused because there really isn't a word to name the concept of self-interest divorced from rationality. An Objectivist obviously thinks "self-interest" is equivalent to "rational self-interest", because that which is rational is in your self-interest. But we then don't have a word or concept that describes things which appear to be in your self-interest, but are in fact irrational and detrimental to it.

I guess "irrational self-interest" is a good term because it's very explicit although it seems awkward and contradictory. I was previously using "naked self-interest" but that isn't good due to potential confusion with just "self-interest", which is defined by libertarians and Objectivists (among others) differently.

However, it's probably not a good term because there's a false symmetry that may lead to the idea that "self-interest" by itself includes both the rational and irrational, but it doesn't...

Abolaji said...

David Meybohm,

So we see here explicitly what I was talking about: the original poster trying to say that Rand's argument is hollow. And I am saying this is a strawman argument because he isn't using Rand's concept of self-interest.


That's because he's not only arguing against Rand's concept of self-interest, he's arguing against how Rand conceived altruism and politics in society in general, and he's taking to task one of her disciples for buying into the idea that ideas that are quite self-interested are *altruistic*.

We have a word for irrational self-interest. It is called *selfish*, but of course, when Rand has abused a perfectly reasonable word because she refused to see that the problem had less to do with a simplistic bifurcation between self-interest or interest in others, but had a much more complex and difficult issues in human nature, she couldn't start retracing her steps even if she ever wanted to (which I doubt). Rand decided to argue (and she may have convinced you) that what most of us call "selfishness" is really a form of altruism, and the fact that you even forgot that altruism was how she described "irrational self-interest" shows the problems with trying to turn everyday English upside down in the name of an agenda and then hiding behind definitions.

Maybe you should get into the habit of asking people what they mean and seeing hour far that gets you rather than putting ideas into the mouths of others. It is bad practice in general and Rand's doing it might make her a hero in your book, but there are many reasons why though some consider her a hero, others also consider her a malcontent.

I reformulated your Christianity argument in a more logical format. It isn't exactly what you said, you are correct in that regard. But it is the logical structure and gist of your argument. Obviously, if you had structured it that way, you wouldn't have written it at all, because you would have realized its absurdity immediately. Instead of complaining you should thank me for pointing out the flaws in your reasoning.

My "argument" was not an argument but a comment to a friend who already agrees substantially with me based on a history of interaction (I've know Daniel Barnes online for well over 5 years, maybe more). What you read into it said far more about you than anything I seriously believe ( I tend to mock people who believe they understand the enlightened interest of other people more deeply than those people understand themselves without having proven this through practical experience based on providing successful advice). If you decide to take such a comment as an attempt to persuade, it is your prerogative. But your comments in general reveal very naive insights into the nature of rhetoric in general because you probably buy into how Objectivism characterizes "reason" and "logic".

David Meybohm said...

@Laj:

On definitions, "selfish" is not a good word because it includes actions that are rational and irrational, and generally it has a negative connotation and bias. So in that case have no short word to describe rational self-interest other than "rational self-interest." If we define it your way we're left with this word of altruists that implicitly assumes selfishness is bad. If selfishness in the rational sense is good though, then we have a cognitive bias forced on us through language. And that is bad. So your appeal to tradition argument for the word is not very convincing. That said, I like to stay away from words that are so ambiguous and imprecise or have moral value judgements embedded in them such as "selfish" or "greedy", because I like to make my own moral value judgements, not let the language designers do it for me as you prefer.

The Kelley article linked to mentions altruism as the justification for government-run welfare programs. I have acknowledged that people probably view these programs in an irrationally self-interested way. So we're not in disagreement there I think. But I don't think the fact that Kelley didn't mention that people support the programs because they are irrational means that he's unaware of that. In that case I think you and the original poster are putting words in his mouth. In any case, I think that it's true there's an altruistic motiviation and an irrational motiviation for supporting government welfare programs, and both need to be attacked.

You shouldn't be surprised that I took you to task because you were talking out of the side of your mouth in my direction and making snide comments about what I think. I just made the mistake of taking you seriously. Sorry, I guess I'm just supposed to sit here and let you talk about me without responding...? What do you expect me to do? According to Wikipedia, "rhetoric" is the art of using language to persuade. If your rhetoric contains no logic in it, should we listen to you and be persuaded? If you're in pubic and you want to make unintellectual statements to your friend about another person, it shouldn't surprise you if that other person responds and refutes you. Maybe you can expose to me the "deeper nature" of rhetoric that transcends logic. I call BS. Engaging in mockery isn't convincing or worthwhile. You keep digging deeper and deeper holes for yourself, not I.

Abolaji said...

David,

On definitions, "selfish" is not a good word because it includes actions that are rational and irrational, and generally it has a negative connotation and bias.

It includes actions that *you* consider rational and irrational, but in general, *selfish* has been the word used to describe actions that benefit oneself at the expense of others, regardless of whether those acts are actually selfish or not. You can ventilate all you want, but that is linguistic convention.

For example, if a man decides play music at loud volumes and disturb his neighbors, what he is doing might be legal, but his neighbors would say he is selfish because his loud music does not consider the welfare of others. It does not mean he has no right to do so, but one who is offended by the fact that the action is inconsiderate would consider it selfish.

But I don't think the fact that Kelley didn't mention that people support the programs because they are irrational means that he's unaware of that. In that case I think you and the original poster are putting words in his mouth. In any case, I think that it's true there's an altruistic motiviation and an irrational motiviation for supporting government welfare programs, and both need to be attacked.

You can read the original article completely and see if it is compatible with your interpretation. However, it is interesting how you are unable to use the word "selfish" because Rand defended it (you prefer "irrational", which is so empty that it boils down to personal opinion), but how you are willing to use "altruistic" because Rand loved to use it to deride others. How's da Church of Objectivism working out for ya?

Engaging in mockery isn't convincing or worthwhile.

Yeah. That's why Jon Stewart, Jay Leno and lots of comedians are millionaires and why you are continually trying to mock my argument while pretending to be engaged in sophisticated intellectual discussion. Get a life. Do what makes you happy, but stop pretending it is any better or worse than it is because of some Ayn Rand Objecto-inspired Ego trip.

If your rhetoric contains no logic in it, should we listen to you and be persuaded?

Er, maybe because logic is not the only thing that persuades people to do things? But read prior blog posts on this website on "Logic" or investigate the realm of experimental and cognitive psychology to find out what kinds of arguments really work and whether they rely primarily on logic or not. I'm practical and experience-based so I hate debating issues that can be resolved by simply looking at the real world and asking whether most persuasion in business or politics (and sometimes even science) depends on *logic* or not.

David Meybohm said...

@Laj:

I'm aware of what your use and the traditional use of the word selfish is. Rand identified that usage and the philosophy underlying that usage. If you want to ignore that, you're free to let your mind be controlled by the altruists who defined it that way.

Your point about the comedians is a good example of why you aren't thinking very well. Jon Stewart is regarded as a thinking man's comedian, and what you've said in no way resembles his work, because even when they use comedy to try to convince people, there is (sometimes) an underlying logic, which what you said contains nothing of. Any idea devoid of logic is so obviously not worth discussing I can't believe you'd think otherwise. You are the one on an ego trip who won't admit when he's wrong and won't let it go when he's been refuted. Also comedy is not a good way to talk about philosophies of life in this context anyway. Is there no point at which I can dismiss you for being completely illogical, in your view? If so, why am I bothering to talk to someone who believes that? Your admonishments to me to get a life are well taken --- I shouldn't feed a troll like you.

As for your Pragmatism, that's apparent. You think that we can think without using concepts by using experience. See Tara Smith for refutations of that philosophy and maybe some enlightenment.

David Meybohm said...

@Laj,

On the first point, the problem is if you use the word "selfish" in this way, you are holding that there are values outside of the self that exist. I disagree that I ought to obliterate my concern for myself to have concern for my neighbors in a non-selfish way. But if I don't want my neighbors to be angry at me, then I would turn it down, as a result of my concern with myself. So there is a linguistic convention for the word "selfish" that is a result of the philosophy that says you should be concerned with others as a primary. Objectivism says you should be concerned with others secondarily as a result of your concern with yourself, and that the self is the primary root of all value. The word in the traditional sense includes the judgement that the action being described as selfish is morally bad. Must everything that is "selfish" be morally bad, though? Disregard for others is disregard for others and shouldn't be tarred by association with the self. But maybe sometimes disregard is appropriate, so the truth of whether it's morally bad depends on what the others are doing --- is it "selfish" of me to not give away wealth to someone who is needy? If I don't, and I'm justified, I have no word to describe my self-concern. Or to try to achieve my goals and not pay more attention to my family? So, I think like the word "greedy" that the traditional definition is not a conceptually good one, is very morally slippery, and imprecise. Rand's interpretation on the other hand is better: that which is selfish is any action in your rational self-interest. That said I like to avoid words that I'm unsure people will get my meaning out of, since meaning is the important thing, and words are arbitrary.

On Kelley's article, I think the disagreement is that you and the original poster don't acknowledge that Objectivists don't only oppose altruists. The mere fact that Kelley doesn't mention people who are irrational doesn't mean that he is unaware of that. But he and Objectivists would go further and disagree, to say that it isn't rational to support social security, I think.. Here's a quote from Rand that I think illuminates the difference in self-interest between the original author of this article and Rand:


There is a fundamental moral difference between a man who sees his self-interest in production and a man who sees it in robbery. The evil of a robber does not lie in the fact that he pursues his own interests, but in what he regards as to his own interest; not in the fact that he pursues his values, but in what he chose to value; not in the fact that he wants to live, but in the fact that he wants to live on a subhuman level (see “The Objectivist Ethics”).


Objectivists would regard those who support mandatory social welfare programs as robbers in this sense.

Btw, I'm not a member of any church. I like to think for myself, but Objectivism is good. How's the Church of Anti-Objectivism working out for you?

David Meybohm said...

A better quote that is more illustrative:


The Objectivist ethics holds that the actor must always be the beneficiary of his action and that man must act for his own rational self-interest. But his right to do so is derived from his nature as man and from the function of moral values in human life—and, therefore, is applicable only in the context of a rational, objectively demonstrated and validated code of moral principles which define and determine his actual self-interest. It is not a license “to do as he pleases” and it is not applicable to the altruists’ image of a “selfish” brute nor to any man motivated by irrational emotions, feelings, urges, wishes or whims.

This is said as a warning against the kind of “Nietzschean egoists” who, in fact, are a product of the altruist morality and represent the other side of the altruist coin: the men who believe that any action, regardless of its nature, is good if it is intended for one’s own benefit. Just as the satisfaction of the irrational desires of others is not a criterion of moral value, neither is the satisfaction of one’s own irrational desires. Morality is not a contest of whims .

Abolaji said...

I'm aware of what your use and the traditional use of the word selfish is. Rand identified that usage and the philosophy underlying that usage. If you want to ignore that, you're free to let your mind be controlled by the altruists who defined it that way.

As someone whose mind is supposedly not controlled by altruists, you should have some evidence of what one can achieve free of altruism in your personal life. So let me know what *your* monumental achievements now that you are free of altruism are. Maybe I could learn from such with your before-and-after contrast of how your rejection of altruism transformed you from an ugly duckling into a towering phoenix. Maybe these are things that people who have found some merit in altruism can never achieve. Share! Share!

Jon Stewart is regarded as a thinking man's comedian, and what you've said in no way resembles his work, because even when they use comedy to try to convince people, there is (sometimes) an underlying logic, which what you said contains nothing of.

You obviously do not watch Jon Stewart. There is also a reason why most of his audience is liberal, and it is not because his "thinking" comedy is supposed to persuade people to change their political viewpoints. In the real world, most people tend to have very stable sentiments and political views. What he does is mock views he disagrees with often without engaging in deep logical nuance, though on occasion he does this on a pet issue. He plays to gallery, just as I was playing to gallery for my friend Dan Barnes.

Also comedy is not a good way to talk about philosophies of life in this context anyway. Is there no point at which I can dismiss you for being completely illogical, in your view?

You have every right to disagree with my statement. You even have a right to insult me for it, if you think it is beyond the pale, just as some do not like Jon Stewart. However, to treat as some serious piece of logic demanding structural parsing and scrutiny is the kind of thing that only someone with nothing better to do will engage in. On the other hand, you might have one of those disorders that makes it difficult for you to separate humor from serious debate. I know that you can't resist the desire to squash the slightest hint of irrationality in your sphere. Ah, all those critics of Objectivism with a malevolent sense of life that leads them to put Objectivism and Christianity in the same sentence - how dare they! They shall be convinced by me from the top of Mount Meybohm on the the benefits of utilizing Objectivist reasoning and ethics!

As for your Pragmatism, that's apparent. You think that we can think without using concepts by using experience. See Tara Smith for refutations of that philosophy and maybe some enlightenment.

Here we go again. My being "practical and experience-based" turns me into a supporter of "Pragmatism" with a capital P. A new dragon for David Meybohm to slay with his delusions of grandeur. Time for you to tell me how I think and what I live like, since I'm obviously a Pragmatist. Save me from the pits of Dewey, Pierce and James and let me know exactly what I should really be doing to save my life. You sure are true to Rand - identifying everything and putting it into some category to simplify your campaign of rationality and your goal of dehumanizing your critics. So how should *man qua man* think? How does Pragmatist Laj think? Slay me! Slay me!

Abolaji said...

That said I like to avoid words that I'm unsure people will get my meaning out of, since meaning is the important thing, and words are arbitrary.

Hmmm... words are arbitrary??? Is this really an Objectivist speaking? Just wanted to point that out before responding to anything you wrote.

I disagree that I ought to obliterate my concern for myself to have concern for my neighbors in a non-selfish way. But if I don't want my neighbors to be angry at me, then I would turn it down, as a result of my concern with myself.

David,

Before I respond to you in depth, I will point out that I believe that there is no easy formula for living a good life and your formulation may be as good as any, since it is for the most part a long-winded description of what you think you are doing and not what you may actually do in a similar situation. What I will point out is why I (and most people who think that the emotions of others can drive how we should act in a way that isn't entirely reducible to our self-interests) do not agree with you.

If someone else was playing loud music and I was unable to sleep (let me acerbate the situation and say that I'm studying for an exam tomorrow, but I'm too ill to leave my apartment), I would probably never get revenge. Yet I would be happier if he would turn down his music so I could do better and might try to let him know about my situation.

Now let's assume I'm the only playing the music and my neighbor is the one with the bad situation. Should I now think of only myself because I'm not the one that is sick? Yes, that is a position that one can adopt. And for the most part, it is the default position of most people. I would blast my music because that is what I want to do. But if it isn't that important for me to have the music at a loud volume, and I know that my music can disturb others who would want a more peaceful environment,am I now right to dismiss how others feel because they are not me. Rand often believed the answer was yes, and most believers in common sense altruism (not Rand's caricature of it) would say no. The degree to which we can all be altruistic or selfish is based on many things, but I think that there is clearly something good in keeping the music low if it disturbs others and I have no strong reason other than my personal pleasure to do so (after all, there are other ways of seeking pleasure with less of an impact on what is going on). But if I have the legal right to play the music, others just have to live with that if it is my choice (or change the law).

So you could say that what I am doing is selfish because I am thinking of how I would feel if I was in the position of others. But I might never be in that position, but I would still feel that I was doing something good for the most part.

(to be continued)

Abolaji said...

Disregard for others is disregard for others and shouldn't be tarred by association with the self.

If only our world was so simple. The truth is that just about everything we do impacts others and the limits are set more by social convention and moral precedents (all based on human nature) than by any hard or fast logical rules. By the way, I'm not that altruistic as a person. But I think understanding how others really see themselves in a serious way is a very important skill for a negotiating business man, and that caricatures don't cut it unless you will never be forced to test them in service of a goal you want to achieve.

Rand's interpretation on the other hand is better: that which is selfish is any action in your rational self-interest.

And the point of my comment to Daniel Barnes is that what one claims is in one's rational self-interest depends on what one thinks the most important goals are, and it is on this very issue that Objectivism is often at odds with many people in society. And part of the reason why Objectivists don't realize this is because their psychology of human beings is very limited and often anti-empirical - they try to moralize before they study, rather than study before they moralize.

So ultimately, the problem with defending rational self-interest is that it still leaves open the question of what is truly in one's interests, the time horizon over which those interests should be considered, how those interests were arrived at etc. These widely vary amongst individuals for many reasons.

And of course, Objectivists don't agree with the goals of people for a variety of reasons. But assuming that Objectivism is right about the goals to pursue or that even if it is right, that it is pursuing them correctly is to beg the question repeatedly, and that is what you are doing. And this is why Daniel Barnes asked you why you should utilize Objectivist self-interest in analysis rather than the material self-interest that is common parlance.

And even in that case, Greg's main point was that altruism (A regard for others) is not what drives the welfare state - it is mostly material self-interest.


And even if you disagree with the welfare state, to think that it is driven by a regard for others is likely because (as I alluded to in my first post) you hang around too many people who do not enjoy its benefits. Maybe intellectuals like Kelley hang around intellectuals like Peter Singer, and maybe think that the reason why the welfare state has political traction is because of how Peter Singer writes about it, or how Barack Obama sells it, but not because of how the middle class voters who support it view it.

(to be continued)

Abolaji said...

There is a fundamental moral difference between a man who sees his self-interest in production and a man who sees it in robbery. The evil of a robber does not lie in the fact that he pursues his own interests, but in what he regards as to his own interest; not in the fact that he pursues his values, but in what he chose to value; not in the fact that he wants to live, but in the fact that he wants to live on a subhuman level (see “The Objectivist Ethics”).

If you read this, you will conclude that all Rand is saying that is substantive is that she strongly disagrees with the values of the armed robber that she infers from the actions he has pursued. What is likely is that you disagree with the armed robber too, since you agree with Rand. What is unclear, without some regard for the values/interests that others have, how one can argue that what the armed robber is doing is wrong, since what he is doing is clearly helping his material interests. But if you have an argument for this, present it and I will assess how convincing it is. Don't just state that what the armed robber is doing is wrong. Explain why you think it is wrong without referring to the interest of others and explain how you could castigate the armed robber without thinking about the interests of others - after all, you wrote:

On the first point, the problem is if you use the word "selfish" in this way, you are holding that there are values outside of the self that exist. I disagree that I ought to obliterate my concern for myself to have concern for my neighbors in a non-selfish way.

Now if we disregard the over-the-top language which is another symptom of too much black and white Objectivist rhetoric, we'll see that the real problem here is how to go about valuing others enough to moderate your pursuit of your interests, because without that, explain to me why the armed robber is wrong. If the armed robber could escape getting caught, would what he did still be wrong (since what you fear is reprisal)? The specific answer to every situation is difficult, but the general principle is clear, even if fallible.

Btw, I'm not a member of any church. I like to think for myself, but Objectivism is good. How's the Church of Anti-Objectivism working out for you?

It's quite great. I come to this blog almost everyday to worship at it. We make fun of Rand and discuss some interesting esoteric knowledge. Helps a little with having to deal with the existence of Objectivist relatives whose views are far deeper than yours. And of course, the view of life and human beings that I've acquired since my brief dalliance with being a quasi-Objectivist makes me cite Rand as an intellectual influence, if only because I've gone on to much deeper reading about behavioral genetics and evolutionary psychology because of her.

Finally, you cited an Objectivist text at length (not sure if it was Rand or Peikoff). All I'll conclude with in response to that is that such stuff is easy to believe when you agree with its agenda. A more dispassionate assessment of it is that while it is easy to call the expressed values of those you disagree with "whims", they are often at least as well thought out, supported and validated by reasoning and experience than anything Rand ever wrote.

Since Rand thought her morality was a guide to living a great life, take a look at Rand's marriage and some of the things her insufficiently valuing the needs of others led her to do. Again, they were all her prerogative. She had every legal right to treat a husband with a mental illness as if his problems were a result of having bad premises, or to have sex with another man even though it made her husband feel horrible. Of course, she didn't want to deal with the social repercussions of such behavior and kept the affair secret. Like I said, these are difficult questions and we can all chose our own answers and arrive at what we believe is in our "rational self-interest".

(The end).

David Meybohm said...

First I don't dispute that self-interest plays a role in the support of the welfare state. I do know some people who support it on that basis. What I disagree with is the implication that this somehow creates a contradictory problem for Objectivism because those people are acting in their "self-interest." Such a point of view doesn't understand the Objectivist concept of self-interest, and that is the point of view you and the original poster represented and which I have refuted. You could go deeper and try to argue that the Objectivist concept of self-interest is not true, but the fact is that you and the original poster are factually wrong because you're both equivocating on the term "self-interest." I was linking to Rand's writings not to show what a great Objectivist I am, but to demonstrate that factually Objectivists oppose naked Attila-the-Hun-like self-interest. It's entirely consistent for an Objectivist to identify that and oppose it.

On Jon Stewart, I couldn't agree more. I said he is "generally regarded as the thinking man's comedian," but I didn't mean to include myself, and I was only trying to emphasize that what you were saying didn't rise to his level. Jon Stewart is funny sometimes, but you are right that most of the time he only gestures in an intellectual direction. That's why I prefaced my comment with "(sometimes)" before. Comedians are only convincing from a rhetorical point of view by the degree to which their comedy is in accord with logic. I know it is the case that people are convinced by things other than logical arguments --- but are you saying that that ought to be the case? Am I to accept that your comparing me to a Dragon-slayer is somehow an argumentative tactic people should pay attention to? (Personally I'll take up the more modest "Trollslayer title for now). Ultimately though, the comparison only works if there is some underlying comparison to logic.

I really don't care what you think about Objectivism and Chrisitianity, what I was responding to was your dishonest argumentative tactic and your talking out of the side of your mouth at me.

As far as giving you any personal details of my life, "No." You haven't shown me any reason I should want to share anything with you. As far as my life is concerned, Objectivism has given me incalculable material and spiritual wealth.

On armed robbery, quickly: the robber needs to produce in order to live. If he doesn't produce, he's dependent on others. If the others don't produce, he can't live. There's no such thing as a free lunch or a free bank robbery. There's no guarantee he'll get away with it. Furthermore, he's at war with reality. Man's nature is to think and create the values necessary for his own existence. When he doesn't do that and sponges off someone else he courts disaster when they stop producing or they turn on him. He's much better off trading with people voluntarily. He's also tacitly admitting his own low self-esteem and lack of belief in himself to produce the values necessary to have a fulfilling life --- he's saying "I'm no Bill Gates - but I can be one if I cheat!" Such a point of view must be devastating to one's happiness because he explicitly admits his own powerlessness to even try anything else.

Will the robbery make him happy? Further, will the achievement of mindless hedonism, the destruction of any possibility of a positive life really replace the irreplaceable value of all the other potential values in his life? Is a robbery as valuable as a sonnet or the love of a woman? There is a spiritual value in production that you cannot obtain by robbery. In the violent case, you've made an extreme commitment to unreason that will forever make your life more unhappy and spiritually unappealing.

Rand basically says you can't get away with it and you're at war with reality.

David Meybohm said...

Edit: Rand basically says you are at war with reality. She doesn't say you can't get away with it. I don't remember her exact line of argument though and I don't remember where she wrote about it.

David Meybohm said...
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David Meybohm said...

Here's a link that discusses armed robbery from Objectivist point of view: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e1Tmr84vUKA

David Meybohm said...

@Laj:

There is a name to the higher-level mental categorization faculty which you scorn. It's called "Abstraction." It's very amusing that you have to use it even of the process of scorning it when you divide the world into the Categorizers (Rand and myself) and the Non-categorizers (putatively you, but obviously contradicted by your categorization of me and Rand as Categorizers).

Abolaji said...

David,

You could go deeper and try to argue that the Objectivist concept of self-interest is not true, but the fact is that you and the original poster are factually wrong because you're both equivocating on the term "self-interest."

Again, Greg's primary point has been conceded by you and that it is that support of the welfare state is not primarily a result of the regard for others. But you want us to explain the problems with Objectivist self-interest?

The reason why Greg seems to be equivocating on "self-interest" is that as he has argued elsewhere and as I have repeatedly mentioned, Rand's notion of selfishness cannot distinguish between acts that are based on one's regard for self and acts that are based on one's regard for others, and simply sets up Rand as the person who decides what one really loves or hates because she can read the minds of others. Read the link below and the ensuing comments for clarification:

http://aynrandcontrahumannature.blogspot.com/2008/02/rands-ethics-part-8.html

There is a whole book called "Ayn Rand Contra Human Nature", which explains how Rand's misguided view of human nature (I call it terrible psychology) led to her getting a whole lot of issues wrong. In it, you'll find criticisms of Rand's ethics, view of history, politics etc., all from an empirically influenced view of human nature which incorporates the findings of modern scientists, the philosophers that inspired them and revered historians. The book even shows that Rand's view of human nature cannot even square itself with the theory of evolution!

This blogspot owes its birth in part to that book and you can read the numerous blog posts on Ethics if you want to know why and how the Objectivist conception of self-interest is horribly inconsistent and all over the place. You'll also find a view of human nature that squares far better with what we see in the world today.

The problem, however, is that one has to be willing to have an empirical attitude to testing philosophical ideas (in other words, see if Objectivist ideas are consonant with scientific ideas) to accept the limitations of Objectivism. This is precisely what most Objectivists like yourself lack.

You could read this post about Rand's views of Hickman, the notorious serial killer who lived around her time and let us know why Rand should show *any* affinity for this kind of man if his concept of selfishness is really "altruistic":

http://www.michaelprescott.net/hickman.htm

Of course, this was when Rand was younger. But it betrays something about how selfish Rand was, and how some of her ethics around "benevolence" were really concession to common sense and our customary modes of behavior that she could not defend on the basis of selfishness.

Finally, I think my previous posts were for the most part detailed enough that anyone who understood them (as imperfectly written and rushed as they were) could predict my response to the rest of what you wrote pretty easily, since you added little that I haven't already addressed.

Cheers,

Laj

David Meybohm said...

Laj,

I don't think I conceded the point because I didn't agree that people are primarily motivated by your concept of only material self-interest in supporting welfare. I was saying there are both types of people (
However, since reflecting on this I have some new thoughts. There's an important moral dimension from Rand's arguments you and the original poster have missed.

Some people may feel it's in their self-interest to grab whatever they can from the welfare state like crazy, but I think the truth is that people use altruism as what gives them moral support for feeling that they are entitled to welfare from the state. Rand identified this very well --- what entitles someone to benefit from a sacrifice? His lack of something. Health care, education, and other things provided by the state rest implicitly on the premise that someone not only should provide this to you for your "self-interest", but that you are entitled to it. Without the entitlement, how can you justify taking from someone else? So, altruism is the philosophy which enables you to claim, with a straight face morally, that someone has to provide you with these welfare rights.

Without that philosophy, you wouldn't have a moral basis to claim you are entitled to something. So I think you really need to have both attitudes in order to really want to defend your access to them. That is, you need an irrational material self-interest along with the sense of entitlement that gives you the right to take it away from others. Altruism is the only thing that gives you the moral right to take something of value from someone else.

If you only have the irrationality, but not the altruism, then you have to identify that whatever it is you're taking from others doesn't rightfully belong to you (which you would need to do if you don't have a moral justification like altruism to support you). So in that case you think you can take away something from someone else even if it doesn't belong to you. But then you are just a marauding barbarian who takes from others through force. I don't think there are many of those people in this country. I would think if there were that we would be in even worse shape than we are.

So, I think the anti-altruist argument is the correct one, since the irrationality doesn't have any basis without it. But the altruist's argument for welfare conceals the self-interested nature of people's support for it. People will argue against mandatory welfare systems much more effectively when all the proponents have to stand on is the "self-interest" of a thug, which crumbles immediately. But as long as people accept altruism, we'll never reach that point of crumbling.

On the article you linked to, the author fails to support his argument that selfish and altruist acts are indistinguishable. The author seems to "disidentify" the motivation of the person doing the act as a an admissable observation --- it appears he only cares about the idea that the "act" is indistinguishable. But this violates the fact that people have thoughts and make decision based on their ethical principles (or lack thereof), which is grounded in reality and the principle of identity (i.e. the woman chose the child because she wanted to, and that distinguishes one act from the other). The author therefore wants to stand outside any metaphysics and argue against Rand's ethics. You can't stand in a void and argue against something. It doesn't make any sense. He's picking and choosing facts to make an argument but he's not identifying reality, and therefore not worth listening to.

Your ad hominem attacks on Ayn Rand show nothing at all, because like your previous Christian/ Objectivism remarks they have no relevance to her philosophy in the abstract sense. That demonstrates that your reasoning is flawed and/or that you are not an honest debater but just a politician.

Xtra Laj said...

Your ad hominem attacks on Ayn Rand show nothing at all, because like your previous Christian/ Objectivism remarks they have no relevance to her philosophy in the abstract sense. That demonstrates that your reasoning is flawed and/or that you are not an honest debater but just a politician.

I would buy this for just about any other part of philosophy except ethics, and for most people who admitted that they had their personal issues, but not Rand and her sycophants like yourself, who hold her up as a paragon of moral virtue. If she can't see the issues her correct philosophy created for her, so much for her and her supporters who think it is a perfect philosophy and the only practical philosophy for living on earth. You (or Rand) can't tell me that Ayn Rand and Frank O'Connor is a living example of her ethics, then when I point out her flaws, accuse me of ad hominem. What you should be doing is explaining why those are not flaws, since she lived the life that showed her principles to be supposedly true.

On the article you linked to, the author fails to support his argument that selfish and altruist acts are indistinguishable. The author seems to "disidentify" the motivation of the person doing the act as a an admissable observation --- it appears he only cares about the idea that the "act" is indistinguishable. But this violates the fact that people have thoughts and make decision based on their ethical principles (or lack thereof), which is grounded in reality and the principle of identity (i.e. the woman chose the child because she wanted to, and that distinguishes one act from the other). The author therefore wants to stand outside any metaphysics and argue against Rand's ethics. You can't stand in a void and argue against something. It doesn't make any sense. He's picking and choosing facts to make an argument but he's not identifying reality, and therefore not worth listening to.

This is nonsense, and you need to learn how to produce the arguments of others in terms they would agree with if you want to be taken seriously. Greg explained why using the motivation for the egoist/altruist distinction is problematic. If you read the article and the comments, Greg pointed out that if an act is done to make others happier because making others happier makes you happier, is that act selfish or altruistic? Rand could say it is still a selfish act, or in another context, say it is an altruistic act but should not be venerated, but that is precisely the problem. If such an act based on a regard for others giving oneself pleasure, which is what many charitable and heroic acts boil down to, can be considered selfish purely on the basis of internal motivation, then there are no selfless acts. Greg did not even get into the problem of changing emotional states and with imperfect knowledge (both of the self and others), which acerbates these problems.

(To be continued)

Xtra Laj said...
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Xtra Laj said...

David Meybohm,

Note in my last post, I'm not talking about an act like paying someone off so that they will not kill you, an act which is ultimately materially self-interested. I'm talking about an act like giving a beggar some alms and taking pleasure in alleviating some of his suffering while realizing that you might never even see the beggar again. Are people who derive pleasure from such acts egoists or altruists?

I don't think I conceded the point because I didn't agree that people are primarily motivated by your concept of only material self-interest in supporting welfare. I was saying there are both types of people (
However, since reflecting on this I have some new thoughts. There's an important moral dimension from Rand's arguments you and the original poster have missed.


Now the reason I responded to your post in a different order from that which you posted it is hopefully clearer. I disagree that either Greg or myself is guilty of missing anything. What makes you think we have is in part your reliance on how Rand framed the issue without appreciating the limitations of her approach.

Some people may feel it's in their self-interest to grab whatever they can from the welfare state like crazy, but I think the truth is that people use altruism as what gives them moral support for feeling that they are entitled to welfare from the state.

So I have a selfish goal and I use deceptive means to achieve it. What's your evidence that my moral argument is my only means or justification for getting what I want, not just that which I prefer based on my assessment of the situation? Or are you relying on overblown rhetoric as opposed to substantiated argument?

Without the entitlement, how can you justify taking from someone else? So, altruism is the philosophy which enables you to claim, with a straight face morally, that someone has to provide you with these welfare rights.

You seem to think that the verbal moral justification is the primary reason why people act the way they do. The sentiment is what drives behavior primarily, not the verbalized justification.

Without that philosophy, you wouldn't have a moral basis to claim you are entitled to something. So I think you really need to have both attitudes in order to really want to defend your access to them. That is, you need an irrational material self-interest along with the sense of entitlement that gives you the right to take it away from others. Altruism is the only thing that gives you the moral right to take something of value from someone else.

That last sentence is especially self-serving and confused. If this was altruism, the right should be concerned with others. I can understand an altruist making the case that someone else should be robbed to feed someone else. But an altruist cannot make the case that someone else should be robbed to feed himself. Why isn't selfishness the *only* thing that gives you the moral right to take something of value from someone else? After all, you have to value *your* right to that thing over the right of someone else to have it?

You seem to be believe uncritically Rand's claim that ideas (in their expressed form) primarily drive behavior and that therefore, if altruism is shown to be irrational, the motive underlying it would disappear. Read a deeper and far more empirical ethicist/psychologist like James Q. Wilson.

David Meybohm said...

That last sentence is especially self-serving and confused. If this was altruism, the right should be concerned with others.

Wrong assessment. Read Rand where she talks about who is to benefit from altruism, probably The Virtue of Selfishness. Someone has to benefit or you end up with an infinite loop of sacrifices.

You and the poster did miss something. That is this "self-interest" you're talking about is not the Objectivist self-interest. The second thing you both missed is your criticizing Rand's assessment of social welfare as altruistic because people support it for allegedly self-interested reasons. If you ask someone, "Do you support Social Security/Medicare?" they would more than likely say yes. Unless they support it as a complete unthinking barbarian, who thinks he has a right to take from others for whatever reason, when they support it, they accept the idea that something should be taken from someone else and given to someone else on the basis of need, which is part of Rand's view of altruism. That's why you and the original poster are wrong about Rand being wrong. Show me the barbarians, because that's what your point of view reduces to.

Believing that the ideas people hold true affect what they do isn't controversial. Your attempt to argument from authority on it is laughable. No amount of citations will sway me from this idea. But it seems like your arguing in your pragmatist way "they sorta matter, and they sorta don't." They matter. You ought to agree. Either they matter or they don't. A is A.

I don't think you understood my critique of the article. As I pointed out before, your motivation for doing an act isn't irrelevant. (including the ideas you hold: such as whether you due it out of a sense of duty). Rand wrote novels were people did help others sometimes. Metaphysically the acts are distinguishable. If the selfless acts can be identified, and there are some selfish acts which aren't selfless, then they aren't the same. And it seems that you are making the same mistake the author of the article did, because the motivation of the person and the ideas are what makes it "selfless." There's nothing intrinsic about an act that makes it selfless: it's the relationship of the act to the doer of it that does.

You are making ad hominem attacks, because you're argument reduces to "if Ayn Rand was not perfect, then her philosophy that she lived according to is wrong." You haven't identified whether she was consistent or inconsistent, or anything about her philosophy with your attacks on her personal life and notes that she may or may not have taken. Whether your charges against her are true or not, I quite frankly don't care because your charges just sound like desperation and are extremely uninteresting to me due to their lack of relevance. Thanks for including me in the circle of ad hominem attacks by calling me a sycophant. That's rhetoric that shows the audience who's thinking and who's not.

David Meybohm said...

The second thing you both missed is your criticizing Rand's assessment of social welfare as altruistic because people support it for allegedly self-interested reasons.

Terrible editing on my part. Should have said:

The second thing you missed is that Rand's concept of altruism requires someone to benefit from a sacrifice.

Xtra Laj said...

Wrong assessment. Read Rand where she talks about who is to benefit from altruism, probably The Virtue of Selfishness. Someone has to benefit or you end up with an infinite loop of sacrifices.

You clearly did not understand the point. So let's try again. If I am advocating a principle which pretends to be altruistic, but is ultimately concerned with my self-interests, am I acting altruistically? If I support a principle that benefits the needy while I am needy, am I now an altruist because my principle, if accepted, would affect people other than myself?

That is this "self-interest" you're talking about is not the Objectivist self-interest.

The Objectivist notion of self-interest is not widely accepted, inconsistent and confused. And since this post is primarily an attack on the claim that altruism, Randian or other wise, as the primary justification of the welfare state, the general point about misunderstanding Randian self interest is uninteresting.

If you ask someone, "Do you support Social Security/Medicare?" they would more than likely say yes. Unless they support it as a complete unthinking barbarian, who thinks he has a right to take from others for whatever reason, when they support it, they accept the idea that something should be taken from someone else and given to someone else on the basis of need, which is part of Rand's view of altruism. That's why you and the original poster are wrong about Rand being wrong.

Let's try again: are the supporters of social security primarily amongst its beneficiaries, or are the supporters of social security people who are not amongst its beneficiaries but just support it anyway to help others? The first set of people would be egoists, the second set of people would be altruists. Greg is saying that the supporters of the Welfare state are found most commonly in the first class, and they are a large voting block. You are arguing that the justification of the welfare state lies with people in the second class, and/or that people in the first class and the second class should both be called altruists. I hope the difference is now clearer, and I hope it is also clear that if you want to redefine altruism and egoism just because you don't believe that people in the first class are acting in their ultimately rational self-interest, that is fine. But you cannot produce any convincing evidence that most people in the first class would be clearly better off if they did not live off the welfare state so no one will accept your argument unless it agrees with their opinions.

Xtra Laj said...

We all make grammatical errors so get over it. Your meaning isn't obscured seriously by the errors and I hope mine isn't either.

Believing that the ideas people hold true affect what they do isn't controversial. Your attempt to argument from authority on it is laughable. No amount of citations will sway me from this idea. But it seems like your arguing in your pragmatist way "they sorta matter, and they sorta don't." They matter. You ought to agree. Either they matter or they don't. A is A.

You see, there's this thing called context - maybe ideas are the primary determinants sometimes, but maybe other things can be influential at other times. So you see, I'm not as silly as you are in refusing to see that context is important in determining whether something matters in the particular case under consideration. Let's go back to empirical evidence. People have very stable temperaments that undergird that ethical and political philosophies. Mental traits of call kinds have high concordance in identical twins raised in different environments. If the idea was what determined the temperament, this would be unlikely. Also, there are differences in popular beliefs held by high IQ people and those held by medium/low IQ people on a variety of social issues. Sometimes, class plays into this, but sometimes, the ability to form complex ideas beyond stereotypes also plays a role. These are things that can and do affect the conclusions people reach, especially on complex issues where the evidence cannot be rejected beyond reasonable doubt.

There's nothing intrinsic about an act that makes it selfless: it's the relationship of the act to the doer of it that does.

Then I want a straight answer to the question I posed rather than all the verbiage you just wrote. If a person finds genuine pleasure in making others happy, is that person an egoist or an altruist? And if the person promotes charitable giving as a great good, is the person being an egoist for promoting his values or an altruist for promoting values that are interested in other people? Rand's descriptions of charitable people in her novels leads me to believe that she found the concept of such an altruist either impossible or reprehensible.

You haven't identified whether she was consistent or inconsistent, or anything about her philosophy with your attacks on her personal life and notes that she may or may not have taken.

Oh, I guess consistency with one's philosophy makes it right for someone to applaud a serial killer's selfishness, to treat a husband who is aging with a mental illness as if he is a victim of "psycho-epistemological" problems, and to lie about the past repeatedly on things as small as your intellectual influences to things as large as whether family members ever helped you or not as documented in both biographies about her (biographies I'm sure you will never read given that facts not sanctioned by Rand repulse you). Of course, honesty is a virtue to Objectivists when it suits them, but when it doesn't suit them, it is rational to lie. How can one take such consistency seriously?

I quite frankly don't care because your charges just sound like desperation and are extremely uninteresting to me due to their lack of relevance. Thanks for including me in the circle of ad hominem attacks by calling me a sycophant. That's rhetoric that shows the audience who's thinking and who's not.

They are very relevant to whether Rand's philosophy is a practical philosophy for living on earth, and to point out that Rand was still just as liable as the rest of us to engage in self-deception when it suited our interests. But maybe you are not a Rand sycophant and I was too hasty to point it out. Could you state if, when and where you disagree with Objectivism? We await your answer with bated breath!

gregnyquist said...

David Meybohm: "You and the poster did miss something. That is this 'self-interest' you're talking about is not the Objectivist self-interest."

Actually, I did mention this in the post, when I wrote "Nor is making the distinction between 'rational' self-interest and other varieties going to be of much help." I rather doubt if Mr. Meybohm has understand the main thrust of my post. My posts about Objectivist politics have a common theme: I'm attempting to establish the impracticality of Rand's ideals. In this particular post, I'm arguing that attacking "altruism" is not persuasive argument against the welfare state, primarily (though not solely) because most people favor the welfare state out of self-interest. When I say the Objectivist argument is persuasive, I mean that you're not going to get very many people to change their minds using it.

Now many Objectivists seem to be incapable of understanding this point. Whenever they bring it up, they constantly ignore the point I'm making and instead try to shift the argument into a debate over whether Rand's ethical and political views are correct. But this misses the point entirely. It wouldn't matter if Rand's arguments are correct. As long as they are unpersuasive, they will continue to be inefficacious. And so even if you imagine that Rand solved the logical problems in formulating a political philosophy, that philosophy could still remain utopian if it failed to persuade anyone.

Now as a matter of fact, Rand's arguments are not very persuasive (ever tried to use them on non-Objectivists?). Part of this is due to the fact that they aren't very good arguments; but it's also due to the fact that people don't, as a general rule, think as Rand believed they do. Human beings are not the products of their premises. Nor do they have a bunch of premises in their head from which they draw the appropriate conclusions. They are actually (as experience will testify and cognitive science discovered) rather pragmatic and results orientated in their thinking, as I will explain in my next comment.

gregnyquist said...

David Meybohm: "Some people may feel it's in their self-interest to grab whatever they can from the welfare state like crazy..."

This sort of thinking strikes me as rather removed from reality. While there may be some people who have an entitlement mentality when it comes to the welfare state, there are a great many others who merely regard the welfare state as a safety net. It's like insurance. They hope never to have to make use of it, but they are glad it's there, just in case they get in trouble. Moreover, the biggest welfare programs are medicare and social security. It's interesting to note how many beneficiaries of these programs think about them. If you talk to them, they'll often tell you, "I'm just getting back what I put into the system." Which means that, implicitly, they are accepting Rand's premises. ("I'm not making anyone sacrifice for my benefit. I'm just receiving back the money I put in.")

"Health care, education, and other things provided by the state rest implicitly on the premise that someone not only should provide this to you for your 'self-interest', but that you are entitled to it. Without the entitlement, how can you justify taking from someone else?"

This, again, completely caricatures and misrepresents how many people think about these issues. It's not even entirely true of that portion of the welfare state that involves transfers of money from producers to non-producers. Again, we're talking about the persuasiveness of the Objectivist arguments, whether they can convince enough people to make the Objectivist views on politics feasible and practical. Now most people think in narrowly consequential terms. So when they are confronted by Objectivist arguments, instead of thinking in terms of the premises which their views alleged come from, they immediately switch their focus to the minute practical consequences that would arise if the Objectivist political prescriptions were put in practice. So if you argue that it is immoral to take from producers and give to non-producers, many people will ignore the stuff about the premises as unimportant or annoying and instead think merely about the practical consequences of ending public assistence for the indigent. Most people aren't interested in abstract theory. They neither care and often don't even understood the "logic" of abstract arguments. What they want to know is: what will be the empirical, practical consequences if this person who is arguing with me gets his way? If welfare to "people in need" is terminated, what is going to happen to them? Wouldn't they be in danger of starving? Now psychologically speaking, the image of people starving is far more powerful than abstract talk about premises, as anyone can testify who tries to arguing with people on the assumption that they are merely following a given set of premises. Most human beings think on a far more emotional level than is assumed in such talk about premises. As a general rule, human beings don't stop and consciously accept premises and then make careful deductions from those premises. People instead make rather loose and often (technically) illogical inferences from their sentiments. These sentiments, in turn, are not, as Rand imagined, the product of premises. They have much more complex roots in biology and circumstance, in the nurturing and conditioning of innate predispositions.

Now of course, what I am saying is merely true "in the main" or "in general." It is not necessarily true all across the board. There may be exceptions. But it's unrealistic to assume that what may be possible to the few is also possible to the many, particularly when one reflects that it goes against every thing we know about human nature from history.

Xtra Laj said...

It's interesting to note how many beneficiaries of these programs think about them. If you talk to them, they'll often tell you, "I'm just getting back what I put into the system." Which means that, implicitly, they are accepting Rand's premises. ("I'm not making anyone sacrifice for my benefit. I'm just receiving back the money I put in.")

Thanks for bringing this up. Analysts do know that social security is a Ponzi scheme (it assumes a growing population even in its actuarial assumptions), but everyday citizens do not know the precise math that connects what they contributed from their paychecks to what they receive from the system. By not addressing this point, I made it sound like people who support a system that is in many ways progressive understand the details of the system to the point that they know it is progressive and are consciously taking advantage of it.

Xtra Laj said...

These are things that can and do affect the conclusions people reach, especially on complex issues where the evidence cannot be rejected beyond reasonable doubt.

I actually meant that these factors (the psychological ones that I discussed, or what Greg said have "complex roots in biology and circumstance, in the nurturing and conditioning of innate predispositions") are things that do affect the conclusions people reach, especially on complex issues where the imperfect correlation of cause and effect cannot sway people one way or another beyond reasonable doubt. The *cause* of complex phenomena like the rise of the stock market or the Great Depression, can be debated endlessly for this reason, and often, people's opinions on the cause will rarely be based on some ironclad argument, but on some disposition to accept one kind of explanation over another. This is very different from say, debating whether the cause of one ball moving is that another ball hit it, which most people will accept with little fanfare because it is easy to reproduce and use to practical effect.

David Meybohm said...

Objectivism doesn't aim for pragmatic compromise with its opponents - it aims to win the argument, and that happens by changing the culture and people's minds. If you think that's ineffective because Objectivism is too complicated for people to understand, I think that's misdirected. Objectivism is a principled philosophy, so it reaches certain conclusions based on the idea that man is rational. But any idea that changes the status quo has to oppose the practical men of the established dogma. Your argument could have been applied at any point in history to oppose political movements that were opposed that did in fact happen anyway, and would oppose any revolutionary idea in its infancy as Objectivism is. Such change can only happen slowly over time. We only need to change the tragic image that comes up in people's minds automatically from the image of people starving to a John Galt on the rack being tortured.

Also, you recognized that many people *do* support the welfare state for altruistic reasons in your last post to counter my argument, thus contradicting the point in your original article that people support the welfare state for self-interest. I believe you did so because you think it's the more persuasive argument. That is the opposition most people bring up when I have suggested the idea to them. If people were thinking self-interestedly, they would probably prefer to receive the money that's taken away from them in Social Security taxes anyway, so their opposition to repeal is primarily based on their concern for others. (Medicare probably less so, due to the extremely large inflation in medical costs in the US)

A point from your article I'd like to counter now that I missed: you say that altruism is only a "rhetorical pose". But Rand's philosophy is aimed at what people hold to be good explicitly. Kelley's article quotes the Beautitudes. That's a good summary of morality pre-Rand/pre-Nietzsche in Western civilization. How can altruism be just a rhetorical pose if people accept it to be good? The contents of their ideas aren't irrelevant, and we are not born with our ideas.

On the use of self-interest in your article, you clearly lead the reader towards contrasting non-Objectivist self-interest with the Objectivist view of altruism. There are several points were you equivocate between Rand's concept of self-interest and your own. At the end you briefly mentioned rational self-interest specifically, but only to ask a question about how it could lead to the conclusion for an individual that he should not seek welfare. I answered this before that this is not how an Objectivist would frame the question. He would seek insurance if he believed it to be in his self-interest, but he would recognize that he has no right to force anyone to provide it to him, and that to seek that would be akin to robbery. So, Objectivism does oppose both the altruistic and self-interested arguments for supporting government-provided social welfare.

"Desiring to live under a social safety net" an Objectivist does not take as an absolute to be achieved by any means necessary. An Objectivist recognizes that there's no such thing as a free lunch, which is what the economic guarantee of a social safety net is. So, he doesn't think he should be prey to misfortune, but he doesn't think that the world should be stopped nay that happen. That would put a mortgage on his own life without his consent from the disasters that befall everyone else anywhere under the aegis of the government-run insurance. That is also a mature call for self-responsibility to a person's own good. If we apply your understanding of self-interest, then it is also in a person's interest to have government-run flood, earthquake, meteor, famine, hurricane, and any other conceivable insurance for whatever disaster might befall a human being. The concept degenerates into a collectivist view of society that transforms a man into a mere number with no rights.

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