Friday, November 04, 2011

Ayn Rand Contra Human Nature 12

Objectivist Virtues and Compassion. The six primary Objectivist virtues are: rationality, honesty, integrity, productivity, pride, and justice. What is perhaps most interesting about this list is not the virtues that are included but those that are omitted. There is nothing about compassion, kindness, empathy, consideration for others, avoidance of cruelty, charity, good manners, etiquette or any of the so-called "social" virtues. This is not to suggest that Rand was opposed to these virtues, or regarded them as vices. She regarded charity, for example, as a "minor" virtue, and she was always eager to insist that altruism could not be equated with consideration for others. However, it is clear that these social virtues are not at the center of the Objectivist ethics, but are regarded by that system as lesser virtues which, when used as a facade for altruism, can easily become vicious.

Now recent psychological research has brought to light some interesting features of human nature in relation to compassion and cruelty:

A growing body of evidence suggests that an important factor underlying whether we show someone compassion or cruelty is the person's perceived similarity to us. It should take little introspection to realize we feel the pain of those with whom we seem to share some commonalities. Countless studies have demonstrated that we not only consistently show more compassion to those we deem "like us." ...

These psychological mechanisms were at work ... for the people who came out in droves to help the victims of 9/11, Katrina, and the Haitian earthquake -- the crises shifted their focus away from all their squabbles and differences and onto their shared identity as human beings. But once the worst was over and they slipped back into their "us/them" mentality, their compassion swiftly abated. It only takes a quick glance at the headlines to see that most conflicts -- be they national, political, religious, or personal -- often come down to this very simple and automatic "like us"/"not like us" split. [Out of Character, 127-128]

Among the many things this research suggests is that there exists within most human beings innate propensities in conflict with acquired propensities. In above example, the innate propensity involves a preference for people "like us," while the acquired propensity involves the belief that we shouldn't prefer individuals who are like us to individuals who are not, and that people should be judged on the content of their character and/or their accomplishments rather than their similarity to ourselves.

Now because Objectivism denies the existence of innate propensities, it has difficulty explaining the above conflict. On the one hand we find a prevailing meme in society that everyone should be treated equally and that is wrong to be prejudiced against people merely because they are different from us; and on the other, we frequently find people lapsing into behavior that contradicts this meme. If the propensities of human beings were merely the product of premises imbibed by the culture around them, as Objectivism assumes, how come we find continue to find propensities that go against the dominant cultural trends of the age? And why do we constantly come across examples of a conflict or contradiction between behavior on the one side and thought on the other?

The view that propensities are innate, but that people can act against them is far superior at explaining these contradictions between behavior and thought than anything found by or concocted through Objectivism. If these propensities are a vestige of the more animalistic side of our nature, which appears to be the case, then we would expect these animalistic vestiges to sometimes conflict with the more "rational" sides of our nature. Rand appears to have believed in a sharp division between human beings and all other animals. Animals, Rand suggested, have instincts; man is without instincts. Yet given that man is an animal and therefore (at least on non-theistic premises) must be a product of evolution, it is difficult to accept this belief. All the relevant evidence strongly testifies against the Randian view. Human beings from many different cultures still share a variety of propensities, even when their specific culture inveighs against them. The human being is clearly an animal, sharing the same organs and much of the same DNA with his furrier, four-legged brethren. Why would human beings share many of the same desires of animals, such as thirst, hunger, sex, yet not instincts? All social animals (human beings included) engage in status rivalries. The notion that such status-competition is an acquired propensity via the acceptance of some philosophical premise is just not plausible. If other social animals engage in status-competitions and if man is a social animal, the likelihood is man shares the same innate drive for preeminence that exists in animals, just as he shares a large percentage of his DNA with these very same critters.

Now if, as is likely, human beings are predisposed to treat people like themselves with more charity and compassion than people different from themselves, then one might argue that the non-instinctive, rational side of human nature should be called into action to mitigate whatever problems or issues arise as a result of this propensity. This is precisely where Rand's blank slate view of human nature demonstrates its lack of wisdom. The denial of innate propensities leads to the denial that countermeasures may be needed to mitigate the bad effects of the predisposition. Moral systems place compassion, charity, and kindness as primary virtues precisely because people are not always inclined to treat those who are different from themselves with compassion and charity. In light of this, Rand's failure to include any of the preeminent social values in her Objectivist catalogue of virtues, combined with her tendency to allow her fervent denunciations of altruism to create an aura of distrust for compassion and charity, demonstrates the degree which Rand simply didn't understand human nature or the moral needs of human beings living in a civilized social order.


CW said...

I find the "like us/not like us" split intriguing in the light of recent political ideological movements, such as the Tea Party vs. Occupy Wall Street/"the 99%". Each of course claims to represent the majority of people (who are "like them"), and each protests perceived unfairness. One could make a case that both movements strive for most if not all of the Objectivist virtues, though they may differ wildly on how they define and interpret those virtues.

Granted, the Tea Party could hardly be considered a pure Objectivist movement, what with there being a strong Christian conservative stripe running through it, but concerning economic ideology, Rand's name was being dropped all over the place.

The Tea Party and its stated goals seemed to embolden some Objectivists that would occasionally enter my sphere - claiming it was a sign that eventually Rand's philosophy would come to be seen as the all-benefiting true wisdom it was, that people were, in fact, coming around, greed would save the economy, the market would soon be completely unfettered, and everyone would be more rational and agree with the Objectivists.

Now that the OWS movements have gained a bit of steam, those same Objectivists have kind of cooled their rhetoric a bit, if not gone into hiding. I don't follow the movement enough to know what the official Objectivist stance on OWS is, but I can't imagine they like it much.

Anonymous said...

By what train of thought do you arrive that these "propensities" are innate? That seems to be just an assumption that is necessary for the innate vs. acquired idea, but I can't see any basis for it in the first place.

Daniel Barnes said...

Anon, "like us/not like us" has its innate roots in genetic investment eg Haldane's "I would lay down my life for two brothers or eight cousins". The further people get from your own genetic makeup - the less "like me/us" you are - the less you are likely to exercise altruistic acts towards them.

Daniel Barnes said...

CW, the Tea Party/OWS are actually united by the perception that they are basically being ripped off by irresponsible elites. They different emphasis on which elites (political/capitalist vs capitalist/political) and have some differing policy prescriptions as to how to solve it. But basically they agree on the fundamental issue, even if they don't quite realise it. And you know what? They've got a point.

gregnyquist said...

By what train of thought do you arrive that these "propensities" are innate?

It's not by a train of thought, but by intelligent consideration of the evidence. These propensities have been observed across cultures throughout human history. One finds evidence of them among animals. From the science of genetics we find that 50 to 70 per cent of human characteristics, including behavioral propensities, have a significant genetic component. Furthermore, these propensities tend to be weakest in individuals in which the "rational" cognitive side of their natures is best developed; which, if you understand genetics and evolution, provides additional evidence for the innate hypothesis. Those who deny these propensities deny them at their peril. Most human beings will continue to be influenced by them, regardless of whatever "premises" you throw at them. The centuries roll on and human nature remains the same!

Unknown said...

Hi guys - totally off topic as its just a general comment. Stumbled on this site from one of Daniel's comments on Catalkaxy. This stuff is great, most of it's beyond me, but It's great to see Rand's trope dismissed point by point. Keep it up.

Daniel Barnes said...

Hi Unknown, glad you find the site of interest. It needs a bit of organising, there's quite a mass of criticism now on board and could probably be made easier to dive into.

On my to do list!

Neil Parille said...

Rand once said you could raised your IQ from 110 to 140 and that people use only a small amount of their brain power.

Two of central objectivist virtues are rationality and productivity. Since the average person has the ability to be much more productive and rational than he is, Rand should of necessity look down on the common man.

While you can find hints of this in Rand, for the most part she seemed to respect the average joe.

-Neil Parille

M H J Bramwell said...

There is research that shows that lab rats and lab primates show signs of stress if others of their own species are tortured. Stress doesn't appear if some other creature, such as a rabbit, gets it instead.

Anonymous said...

Hey there, first time here. I was doing some research and I ended up here. Well I am an objectivist and having read this article I find that you ignoring something quite important about objectivism: love.

Objectivist personal love is based on finding one's own values in someone else. Which is exactly what this psychological study proposes: finding part of our selfs in other people, meaning that we will feel attracted or bound to them.

This does not mean, however, that we loose our sense of individuality, as some may argue. Instead it means that, in finding the values we praise in other people, relating to them and befriending this people will contribute to our own happiness. Our own happiness, as I suppose you know, is the highest goal. This kind of friendships is what may bring and make charity a good thing. It is not because you have to, but because you want to help someone because you care about them, in the sense that they contribute to your happiness by being friends. The kind of charity that Rand criticized was that which came from the altruistic notions that you owe yourself to other or the community.

I hope I may have been helpful in some way.