Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Objectivism & Politics, Part 30

Politics of Human Nature 14: Egalitarian Envy. In an earlier “Objectivism and Politics” post, we found Rand using the phrase “ hatred of the good for being the good” to describe nihilism. But she had also used to the phrase to describe “envy.” And in her essay “Age of Envy,” she illustrated her notions in relation to egalitarianism.

Egalitarianism means the belief in the equality of all men. “Equality,” in a human context, is a political term: it means equality before the law… But this is not the meaning that the altruists ascribe to the word “equality.” They turn the word into an anti-concept: they use it to mean, not political, but metaphysical equality—the equality of personal attributes and virtues, regardless of natural endowment or individual choice, performance and character. It is not man-made institutions, but nature, i.e., reality, that they propose to fight—by means of man-made institutions.

Since nature does not endow all men with equal beauty or equal intelligence, and the faculty of volition leads men to make different choices, the egalitarians propose to abolish the “unfairness” of nature and of volition, and to establish universal equality in fact—in defiance of facts. Since the Law of Identity is impervious to human manipulation, it is the Law of Causality that they struggle to abrogate. Since personal attributes or virtues cannot be “redistributed,” they seek to deprive men of their consequences—of the rewards, the benefits, the achievements created by personal attributes and virtues. It is not equality before the law that they seek, but inequality: the establishment of an inverted social pyramid, with a new aristocracy on top—the aristocracy of non-value.

While many of us could do without the over-charged rhetoric, what Rand is saying in so many words is that “altruists” (i.e., socialists, humanitarians, leftists, etc.) seek real, as opposed to merely political equality, and that such equality is impossible. Fair enough. Where Rand gets into trouble is when she tries to analyze where this egalitarian “hatred of the good for being good” comes from. She ventures upon a psychological explanation:

The hater’s mental functioning remains on the level of childhood. Nothing is fully real to him except the concrete, the perceptually given, i.e., the immediate moment without past or future. He has learned to speak, but has never grasped the process of conceptualization…. [How does she know this? Where is her evidence?]

How does a human being descend to such a state? There are different psychological reasons, but—in pattern—the process of self-stultification is initiated by the child who lies too often and gets away with it. In his early, formative years, when he needs to learn the mental processes required to grasp the great unknown surrounding him, reality, he learns the opposite. He learns, in effect, that he can get whatever he wants not by observing facts, but by inventing them and by cheating, begging, threatening (throwing tantrums), i.e., by manipulating the adults…. Reality does not obey him, it frustrates his wishes, it is impervious to his feelings, it does not respond to him as the adults do; but, he feels ... he has the power to defeat [reality] by means of nothing but his own imagination, which commands the mysterious omnipotent adults who can do what he is unable to do…

Gradually, these subconscious conclusions are automatized in his mind, in the form of a habitual, ambivalent feeling: a sneaky sense of triumph—and a sense of inferiority, since he is helpless when he is left on his own. He counteracts it by telling himself that he is superior, since he can deceive anyone; and, seeking reassurance, he multiplies the practice deception. Wordlessly, as an implicit premise, he acquires the belief that his means of survival is his ability to manipulate others. At a certain stage of his development, he acquires the only authentic and permanent emotion he will ever be able to experience: fear.

Again, one wonders: how on earth does she know all this? It seems all very speculative, and some of it isn’t even plausible. Perhaps there might be something in Rand’s assertion that children who lie and get away with it can easily become manipulators who, as adults, will attempt to live off others, as parasites. But it is also possible that the principle danger of the child who gets away with lying (as well as other things) is that he becomes a spoiled child who ends up, as the conservative philosopher Richard Weaver once put it, failing “to see the relationship between effort and reward,” which causes him in turn to regard “payment as an imposition or as an expression of malice by those who withhold [him from] it.” In other words, Rand’s best speculations about egalitarian envy, while plausible, are not necessarily true. And her worst speculations seem merely expressions of a moralistic spleen trying to vent itself against an imaginary target. She claims, for instance, that the only “authentic” emotion the envious hater is capable of is “fear.” If an individual is so good at manipulating others that this can be a means of survival, why should he be afraid? If he has found a method of survival that works, why should he worry any more than the rest of us? Is it because of his dependence on others? Many people who don’t live by manipulating others nonetheless are dependent, in many important respects, on others. Why should dependence, in and of itself, be a cause of fear? Are human beings, by and large, really that undependable? And where does Rand get the odd notion that “haters” are incapable of “conceptualization”? Since anyone who uses language must understand the conceptualizations behind language, this view appears contrary to obvious facts.

But Rand is not done with her psychological speculations. She proceeds by suggesting that there are two possible “roads” open to the envious haters: to either “seek safety in stagnation” or become an intellectual “who believes that ideas are tools of deception.” Her comments on the intellectual “hater” are worth reproducing, if only for purposes of comic relief:

Psychologists have observed a phenomenon called “the idiot-savant,” a man who has the mentality of a moron, but, for some as yet undiscovered reason, is able to perform a prodigy’s feats of arithmetical calculation. The hater of the good becomes a similar phenomenon: “the idiot philosopher,” a man who is unable to grasp the relation of ideas to reality, but devotes his life to the manufacture, propagation and manipulation of ideas…

And who are these “idiot philosophers” Rand is speaking of? Is there anyone she might wish to name? Thankfully, she grants at least one name: “On the basis of his works, I offer Immanuel Kant in evidence, as the archetype of this species.” [The New Left, 164-181]

The notion of Kant as an “idiot philosopher” “unable to grasp the relation of ideas to reality” is absurd, and easily refutable. Much of Kant’s philosophy may be overly pedantic and speculative, but this does not mean his mind was detached from reality, as Rand suggests. On the contrary, Kant, in his scientific speculations, was actually quite shrewd. He not only figured out, long before anyone else did, that the frictional resistance against tidal currents on the earth's surface must cause a diminution of the earth's rotational speed, he also helped popularize the Nebular hypothesis, in which he deduced that the Solar System was originally formed from a large cloud of gas. Kant also correctly speculated that the Milky Way was a large disk of stars, formed from a (much larger) spinning cloud of gas. As Wikipedia puts it: “These postulations opened new horizons for astronomy: for the first time extending astronomy beyond the solar system to galactic and extragalactic realms.”

Rand, as is often the case, relies too much on speculation unguided by empirical evidence; indeed, if her speculations are guided by anything, it is merely her own personal prejudices, particularly her prejudice against any innate influence or tendency in human behavior. There are probably many causes of egalitarian envy, some which may have a partial origin in innate proclivities prominent in certain strains of human nature. Egalitarian envy may, for instance, arise from concerns over status. As I will explain in more detail in a later post, many human beings desire status and respect, and feel envious of those who, they imagine, have attained a higher position in the socio-political pecking order. Nor is it necessarily true that these envious persons are always incompetent or lazy or mere manipulators of others. In all human societies, there exist status-rivalries, which easily can be the source of an envious hatred, particularly when one rival triumphs over another. The defeated rival may be an individual of estimable talent characterized by a strong work ethic. But if he happens to be a sore loser into the bargain, one can easily see this individual being attracted to egalitarianism. It is not necessarily the envy of the third-, fourth-, and fifth-rate that is the most malicious and dangerous. Why should it be? Incompetent individuals are likely to be incompetent even in their envious revenge. But the envy of the second-rate individual—of the man who is a notch or two below greatness and who boils with frustration at being so close to the top without reaching it—the envy of such an individual can lead to great mischief. The Nazis were not a party of incompetent, fifth-rate men, incapable of conceptualization. They were second-rate men who wished to be seen as first-rate men, and this gave rise, in at least some of them, to sentiments of envy, which focused much of its resentment and rage on Jews, partly because in Germany, the Jews, as a social group, were rising in society. It is difficult enough for the status-obsessed second-rate individual to tolerate being bested by people in his own ethnicity or race; but to bested by individuals in another ethnicity and race, particularly one that has for centuries been despised, that was more than Hitler and his genocidal fraternity could bear.

Rand’s tendency to equate “evil” with incompetence, impotence, and idiocy leads her speculations concerning envy astray. She seems to be trying to evade two important facts: (1) that not all envious people are incompetent idiots, but some are dangerous individuals with real capabilities; and (2) that the envy that provides emotional sustenance to egalitarianism is not the product of a mere premise which can be combatted with “reason” and moral condemnation. On the contrary, the envious, like the poor, will always be with us: the battle against envy is never-ending. It is part of the battle for civilization, which is also of the never-ending variety.


Anonymous said...

We all hate the good for being good. Remember how nauseated we all were/are by those who are allways doing the right thing and saying the right thing. Freaking hell! Stop being such a Ken and Barbie doll! We are human, we mess up, from time to time and we hate the good two shoes and hell yes, admit, when the great and the good come crashing down it is, sometimes(!), funny.

As they say on the news on the Simpsons, sorry about this, welcome to the "it's funny when it happens to them" section.

Anonymous said...

Wow, you are a very poor analyst. You don't understand the fundamentals of objectivism. If you have to ask " How does she know this" regarding some of the basic elements of concept formation, you have a lot of reading to do. Furthermore, Rand has explained over and over which philosophers are wrong. There are many, many places where you could discover Rand's conclusions re. the far-reaching ends of the Plato/Aristotle split. She can integrate much better than you are able to, because she knows more than you do. Your opinion of Rand is weakly stated, and it shows how little you understand regarding not just Rand, but reality.