Saturday, November 14, 2009

Objectivism & Politics, Part 33

Politics of Human Nature 17: Vanity and “social metaphysics.” Closely related to the obsession with preeminence and status is vanity. The pervasiveness of this emotion in human nature was satirized to good effect in a bit of amusing doggerel by an unnamed poet as follows:

I am hungry for praise:
I would to God it were not so—
That I must live through all my days
Yearning for what I’ll never know.
I even hope that when I’m dead
The worms won’t find me wholly vicious,
But as they masticate my head
Will smack their lips and cry “delicious!”

The view that vanity is a dominant motive in human nature was fairly common among writers and poets in the 17th and 18th centuries. Pascal is representative in this respect:

Vanity is so anchored in man’s heart that a soldier, a camp-follower, a cook, a porter, boast and wish to have admirers; and the philosophers wish the same; and those who write against the desire for glory, glory in having written well; and those who read it, desire to have glory for having read it; and I who write this have perhaps the same desire; and also those who will read what I write.

While Rand did not address vanity per se, her disciple Nathaniel Branden formulated a concept that dealt with one of the manifestations of vanity, “social metaphysics.” Rand describes social metaphysics as follows:

A social metaphysician is one who regards the consciousness of other men as superior to his own and to the facts of reality. It is to a social metaphysician that the moral appraisal of himself by others is a primary concern which supersedes truth, facts, reason, logic. The disapproval of others is so shatteringly terrifying to him that nothing can withstand its impact within his consciousness; thus he would deny the evidence of his own eyes and invalidate his own consciousness for the sake of any stray charlatan's moral sanction. It is only a social metaphysician who could conceive of such absurdity as hoping to win an intellectual argument by hinting: "But people won't like you!"

Now while some people may be overly concerned with the opinion of others, it is not clear that this concern involves regarding “the consciousness of other men as superior … to the facts of reality.” That is a caricature. Many human beings wish to be admired by others. This may cause them, for example, to try to say things they don’t really believe or pretend to admire things they don’t like. It may even cause them to defer to another persons judgment on particular issues, like Objectivists frequently defer to Rand’s or Peikoff’s judgment. But this merely means the individual trusts another person’s judgment more than his own—a view not at all inconsistent with being an Objectivist, as the facts attest. To describe this trust as invalidating one’s own consciousness or denying the evidence of one’s own eyes is clearly to engage in gross hyperbole.

Yet the exaggerations in the doctrine are not what’s most critical for the current discussion. Even more important is the implication that “social metaphysics”—and indeed any of the manifestations of vanity—are merely the consequences some stray premise that has been integrated in the individual’s subconscious. There is nothing innate about it. The fact that vanity has been a preponderant motive throughout human history is a sheer coincidence. Why so many human beings throughout the ages have held this premise is not explained but is evaded. Apparently, Rand wished to believed that things could be different, that social metaphysics, vanity, the desire for status—that all these troublesome emotions could be abolished; that human beings did not have to be dominated by them. The desire to be rid of these emotions is understandable, particularly for a philosopher advocating laissez-faire capitalism: because these emotions serve as an important obstacle to the implementation of that system.

John Adams, the most psychologically astute of the Founding Fathers, described vanity (which he called the “passion for distinction”) as “the great leading passion of the soul”:

This propensity, in all its branches, is a principal source of the virtues and vices, the happiness and misery of human life; and … the history of mankind is little more than a simple narration of its operation and effects… The desire of esteem is as real a want of nature as hunger; and the neglect and contempt of the world as severe a pain as gout and stone. It sooner and oftener produces despair and detestation of existence… Every personal quality, every blessing of fortune, is cherished in proportion to its capacity of gratifying this universal affection for the esteem, the sympathy, the admiration and congratulations of the public. [Life and Works of John Adams, 232ff]

Now it is often argued by advocates of laissez-faire that one of the chief merits of that system is that it is not a zero-sum game. Peter can get rich without harming Paul. In Objectivism, this characteristic of laissez-faire is exemplified in Rand’s contention that “there are no conflicts of interests between rational men.” But if Pascal, Adams, and most other observers of human nature through history are right about the psychological importance and predominance of vanity, then the obvious retort to Rand’s contention is that most men simply are not rational in the sense meant by Rand. Conflicts of interest between men are ingrained in the very nature of things, because men compete for esteem, status, approbation, fame, etc, and this competition will inevitably breed conflict between various human beings.

Furthermore, these conflicts, as well as the emotions that inspire them, will continue to predispose individuals against laissez-faire. Every form of society tends to favor some abilities at the expense of others. A capitalist society favors those well-endowed with commercial virtues; a military society favors those well-endowed with martial virtues; a monarchal society favors those well-endowed with the gifts of the courtier. Even if it is true, as is not implausible, that individuals short in commercial virtues and the talents necessary to thrive under free market competition will nevertheless be better off, in terms of economic well-being, under a free market system, it doesn’t follow that they can be persuaded to favor that system. For at the end of the day, many individuals will prefer distinction to wealth, and will hence prefer the system in which they expect to gain the most distinction. As Steven Pinker notes, “ People go hungry, risk their lives, and exhaust their wealth in pursuit of bits of ribbon and metal [i.e., for vanity].” Despite attempts to denigrate and caricature these emotions as “social metaphysics,” they nevertheless exist and cannot be changed or eliminated merely by refuting Kant and Plato and preaching Rand.


Kelly said...

The last few posts (Objectivism & Politics)have been excellent. So good so that I'm on my way to purchase "Visions of Reality". Thanks for posting so frequently.

Dragonfly said...

Off-topic technical question: when I move accidentally my cursor over one of those "sharethis" pictograms, I get a pop-up with facebook, twitter, myspace and all that kind of nonsense, with the result that I cannot read the underlying text. The only way I can remove that irritating thing is by refreshing the screen with F5. Even using "blocking all pop-ups" in my browser doesn't help. Is there some way to disable this very annoying feature? I hate it!

Anonymous said...

The Branden quote sounds like a description of himself and the Randoids with regard to following the an 'intellectual' charlatan. See The Sociology of the A. Rand Cult by Murray Rothbard. See:

Damien said...


As a Child Smurfs was my favorite cartoon show, for a long time. I think there was an episode where Gargamel made Vanity Smurf Ugly, and the Smurfs concocted a potion to make Gargamel ugly as well so he would give them a cure. At least one of the Smurfs didn't think it would work. In response Papa Smurf pointed out, "There's a little Vanity in us all."

Which if you think about it, is true. Often through we have too much vanity, and too much pride. People often think too highly of themselves and it hurts them in the long run.

Damien said...


Actually come to think off it you did a post here on the danger of pride awhile back

proudfootz said...

Perhaps there is a case to be made for a 'politics of vanity' which would tend to support laissez faire capitalism, as it is often represented as a kind of meritocracy - and there are many who are vain enough to think they would spectacularly advance if only they could pursue their goals without the interference of regulation and taxation.

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

proudfootz: "Perhaps there is a case to be made for a 'politics of vanity' which would tend to support laissez faire capitalism."

While vanity of the meritocracy sort probably plays some role in the motivation of advocates of laissez-faire, I doubt it's a prominent motive, at least among Objectivist advocates of the position. In the first place, Objectivism scorns vanity, so that the philosophy tends to attract people weak in this motive. Furthermore, because of Rand's fierce condemnation of "social metaphysics" (i.e., being concerned about what other people think), to the extent that this motive is present in the Objectivist, it will likely be repressed. Or, if not repressed, then redirected. Objectivists tend to scorn the culture and the society they live in. The rest of society, particularly its culture, is regarded as corrupt, evil, anti-life, etc. These attitudes encourage the Objectivist to displace his desire for esteem from his peers and from society at large toward the Objectivist community. In other words, he tends not to care what non-Objectivists think of him; but he cares very much (whether he admits to it or not) what other Objectivists, particularly high status Objectivists like Peikoff and his inner circle, think about him. Now once an individual has joined a community of Objectivists, of course he must be an uncompromising advocate of laissez-faire: he'll be shunned and denounced by other Objectivists if he waffles on the issue even in the slightest.

One thing else about both Rand and her followers: they oftentimes don't strike one as terribly ambitious in the worldly, capitalist sense of the term. They seem rather idealistic, even to the point of being passive, intellectual, weak in energy and drive. I wonder how many of them actually see themselves as entrepreneurs and businessmen. Keep in mind: Objectivism is not merely about laissez-faire: it's about bringing forth a society in which "reason" is culturally dominant and where much fewer people are "irrational" (in other words, where most people agree with Objectivism so that all the nasty conflicts that plague society can be resolved "rationally"). There's a lot of social idealism in all of this that is not widely different from other social idealisms that support very different politico-economic policies. Some Objectivists, I suspect, merely want the vanity-satisfaction of having taken part in bringing this "non-exploitative," non-initiation-of-violence, "rational" utopia into existence; so that when the Objectivist millenium finally descends upon us, they can say: "I was one of the few who helped make this society possible!"

Mark Plus said...

Greg writes: "One thing else about both Rand and her followers: they oftentimes don't strike one as terribly ambitious in the worldly, capitalist sense of the term. . . I wonder how many of them actually see themselves as entrepreneurs and businessmen."

I can understand why Objectivists wouldn't find the real world of business appealing. In the real world of business, you have to deal with irrational, stupid, annoying, dishonest or even potentially violent government officials, supervisors, employees and customers. Why put up with that hassle when you can stay in your mother's basement and blog about the heroic fantasy world of business as imagined by Rand?

Anonymous said...

Yes, here is one vain individual and an objectivist to boot.
Certainly a very extensive biography here. More than I think any of us need to know about him.