Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Ayn Rand & Human Nature 14

Social Isolation and Compassion. Psychological research has found evidence that social isolation tends to numb a person's sense of compassion for others: one interesting study, a group of researchers led by Roy Baumeister at Florida State University found that if you made people feel socially isolated..., it would decrease their sensitivity to the plight of those around them. To demonstrate this, they created a clever (though somewhat harsh) experiment. They had participants complete a bogus personality questionnaire and then told some of them that, based on the results, they were the type of person who most likely would not be able to develop meaningful relationships later in life and thus would end up alone....

Turned out that the people led to believe that they would become socially isolated did indeed care less about [others]. Not only that, it also made them less likely to engage in any prosocial behavior in general, and even made them less sensitive to emotional and physical pain. In short, it numbed them. It seems that when the possibility of developing beneficial long-term relationships is removed, either because the person in need doesn't appear to be the type of person who is worth your efforts (i.e., is dissimilar to you) or because you have reason to believe that you are unlovable and so your efforts would be fruitless, ... your impulse to care about the suffering of others switches off. If you can't count on anyone besides yourself, you might as well live only for yourself, right? [Desteno & Valdesolo, Out of Character, 147-148]

This research suggests that socially isolated individuals would be more receptive to the idea of living only for oneself. This could mean one of two things when related to Objectivism: (1) it could mean that Objectivism would appeal to social isolated individuals; and (2) that Objectivism has a built-in incentive to make people social isolated, since this will increase the chances that this individuals will accept and remain true to the Randian creed.

Let's first examine the appeal that Objectivism might have to the socially isolated. One issue that Objectivists tend to be naive about is the degree to which ideologies are, in a sense, self-selecting. That is to say, people tend to choose ideologies, not because of the acceptance of some premise or the logic of some argument, but because that ideology appeals to their needs, desires, and/or weaknesses. Generally speaking (there may be exceptions), people don't become Objectivists because they are convinced by Rand's premises or arguments; rather, there is something they find emotionally appealing in Objectivism, which leads them later to adopt a speculative allegiance to Rand's premises. Rand's philosophy strikes them as true and enlightening, despite the absence of sound argument and compelling evidence.

Now there may be any number of factors that draw individuals to Objectivism beyond social isolation. But it does not seem implausible to suggest that a socially isolated individual will more likely be drawn to Objectivsm than individuals who are better integrated into society.

However, it's also possible that the causation might flow in the other direction: that rather than being socially isolated to begin with, Objectivism may encourage people to become more socially isolated over time, which then reinforces their commitment to Objectivism. There are reasons to believe that this might be the case in some instances. In recent posts, I've been emphasizing the lack of social virtues in Objectivism. While Rand was not necessarily opposed to such values, her refusal to emphasize them (and sometime to write in a way that may suggest, to some readers, disparagement or indifference to them) could have a bad influence on those intensely drawn to her philosophy. I would also note that Objectivism doesn't always have the best record for providing social support to its members. The worst example of this on record involves Ellen Plasil, who was ostrasized by the Objectivism community (and ignored by the Objectivist elite) after she exposed the wrong-doing of "Objectivist" therapist Lonnie Leonard. But there are other examples of anti-social behavior, not only in the behavior of at least some Objectivists online, but even in the behavior of Objectivist elites, including Rand and Peikoff. Rand wound up breaking with nearly all of the original Objectivists who made up her inner circle in the fifties and sixties. And Peikoff has continued that tradition; indeed, he has even admitted to being "on terms of personal enmity" with "a few longtime [ARI] Board members." Why is it that at least some Objectivists struggle to get along even with other Objectivists? To be sure, getting along with other people can be a huge challenge. But that is precisely the reason why social values need to be emphasized. Those who understand and appreciate the limits of human nature realize the need for a kind of chivalry in human dealings. We're not always going to see eye to eye with those around us. People have different desires, tastes, emotions, sentiments, and values, so conflict is inevitable. But as long as we don't always assume that our own personal values represent some kind of gold standard applicable to everyone (despite innate differences in temperament and environmental differences in circumstances), it becomes much easier to tolerate differences in others. After all, we can't be at open war against everyone who thinks differently from ourselves. Freedom requires a certain degree of tolerance. It means allowing other people to think and act in ways that may go against our own deepest convictions. Being at open enmity not only with the world at large, but even with individuals in one's own clique, is hardly a wise way to live. It encourages precisely those elements in human nature that lead to social isolation and intolerance. It's not clear that a free society can exist among intolerant, socially isolated individuals.


Xtra Laj said...

A very important entry, and should be mandatory reading for relatives of Objectivists.

Rey said...

I know two Objectivists (a married couple, both connected with the Atals Society) who are genuinely happy and well-adjusted, and, perhaps not coincidentally, they have a large network of friends, most of whom are non-Objectivists. Both were very successful in their careers (they've since retired) and held in high esteem by their non-Objectivist colleagues. Also, they only use Objectivist jargon if Objectivism happens to be the topic of conversation, which more often then not, it's not---because for them Objectivism is the basis of how they live their lives, meaning that having accepted the tenets of Objectivism, they can go out and actually have lives. In short, they are friendly, cheerful people, blessed with material and professional success, and fun to be around.

On the other hand, another mutual Objectivist acquaintance of ours (affiliated with ARI) pretty much only has contact with other Objectivists, usually in the form of internet correspondence, does not get on well with others when they have difference of opinion, cannot maintain romantic relationships, and despite being a tenured professor of philosophy, feels that he genius has been deliberately ignored by the "second-handers," and can't help but pepper his speech with Objectivist jargon, nonstop, and ties every topic of conversation back to Ayn Rand in some way. In short, he's a pill and nobody likes to spend too much time around him.

Now don't know if the couple were innately socially inclined or if at some point early on they realized that there more non-Objectivists and Objectivists and if you're the latter, it's in your own self interest to learn to get on with the former if you want to achieve your goals. In any case, they're good people.

Bob_Mac said...

Anybody feel like helping a 'brother out' with an anti-O ethics argument/fallacy?

Daniel in particular is so awesomely articulate - I'm a big fan, seriously.

Maybe you can work a few posts backward from there to see why I'm flabbergasted...

I'm Bob_Mac

Echo Chamber Escapee said...

@Rey: I know two Objectivists (a married couple, both connected with the Atals Society) who are genuinely happy and well-adjusted ....


On the other hand, another mutual Objectivist acquaintance of ours (affiliated with ARI) pretty much only has contact with other Objectivists, usually in the form of internet correspondence, does not get on well with others ....

This doesn't surprise me. The Atlas Society is for those who like Ayn Rand's ideas at a high level (objective reality, evidence of the senses, rationality, self-interest as a value, free minds and free markets in politics) but don't take her words as gospel. They're open to questioning her epistemology, adding social virtues (tolerance, compassion, etc.) to the pantheon, and willing to acknowledge that even Rand herself was not a paragon of Objectivist virtue. TAS-style Objectivists take Rand's ideas as as broad guides, but their main interest is living happy and fulfilling lives. As a result, they're fairly likely to admit that they're happy in social groups and to identify being a part of a community as a value, with all the attendant compromise and concern for the needs of others.

ARI is much more doctrinaire: Ayn Rand Was Right; end of discussion. Their job is to promote her ideas, intact, and they castigate TAS for allowing impurities or watering down the ideas to appeal to a broader audience. ARI supporters tend to want to be Howard Roark -- the guy who didn't think of the needs of his client when designing a house -- or John Galt -- the guy who was happy to let half the population starve rather than be a participant in a functioning society that might impose constraints on his precious freedom of action. Is it any wonder they don't do well at social interaction?

Daniel Barnes said...

Hey Bob,

Happy to take a look, they know me over there.

I've debated it many times at OL, however, and have yet to see anyone who even understands the problem.

Daniel Barnes said...

Hi Bob,

I had a quick look but haven't had time to tackle it. In short, there seems to be, as is not unusual, a confusion over what the basic problem is. The discussion moves to is/ought after starting with a separate problem, namely whether egoism entails individualism and altruism entails collectivism (a mistaken assumption originating with Plato, and also assumed by Rand).

Objectivists by and large don't understand the is/ought problem in the first place, which is of course one of logical derivation. They have one of two positions; ignorant or delusional, or possibly both. This is testable simply by asking if they can show Rand's argument laid out in a logical form (impossible, as this does not exist). I have seen responses to this line ranging from Michael Kelly's, who claimed that Rand had some other "relation" in mind than a logical one between is and ought, (not realising that if this was true, Rand had solved a non-problem) through to James Valliant claiming that he has formally demonstrated Rand's proof "many times", and that is why he refuses to do it again on request (this was my personal favourite). Most however just insist the answer is just re-reading The Objectivist Ethics until you "get it" or something. One can only conclude Objectivists simply don't actually care about logic or philosophical problems, they just get an emotional kick out of repeating the exciting-sounding slogans crafted for them by Rand.

Dragonfly said...

Bob, of course you're right. A person behaves rationally if his behavior is well suited for obtaining the purpose he has in mind. Whether this purpose is moral in our opinion is totally irrelevant. What Objectivists do is claiming that only moral behavior (translation: behavior according to Objectivist principles) is rational.

That is the same old trick that Rand used when she switched from "survival" as a biological goal to "survival as man qua man" (translation: survival as someone who follows the principles of Objectivism). Terms like "survival" and "rational" are surreptitiously redefined as terms that only apply to Objectivist behavior. As they offer no proof at all, these are just arbitrary statements without any value.

They argue for example that an immoral person can have no gain from their behavior, usually mentioning crooks who are perishing in prison or come to a bad end in another way. This is of course a nonsense argument, as there are also many "immoral" (in the Objectivist or any other sense) persons who lead a succesful life ("but they can't be happy!" How do you know, mr Psychologist at a Distance? Do you have scientific evindence?). On the other hand for many "moral" (Objectivist or otherwise) persons life is a misery with much suffering, so the "immoral makes you unhappy" argument is easily refuted.

The point is that you're talking to cult members. They don't like it when you give an argument that they can't refute. Some cult members think that just giving some quotes from Rand is an argument, or they advise you to read Rand again. That's for me so reminiscent of discussions I've had with creationists, who always came up with bible quotes as argument (as if those would prove anything) and admonishments to read the bible. They couldn't come up with a good argument themselves. Apparently they thought that just by reading the bible (or mutatis mutandis Rand) I would see the light (as if I don't know Rand better than most of them). Moreover, the devil can quote Scripture for his own purpose, and in the same way it isn't difficult (and very amusing) to quote Rand to refute her own arguments.

The other way of responding is of course to attack you personally, to psychologize, as long as they just can evade the points you've made. That's also typical cult behavior.

@ECE: If you follow the Internet discussions, you can see that many TAS/Kelley followers are just as dogmatic and cult-like as the typical ARI-supporter, even if they may admit that Rand wasn't 100% of the time right, but only 95% of the time.

@Daniel: I've heard the "I've proved/refuted it already long ago, so I won't answer you" at least two times, I think from Phil Coates and Roger Bissell. Unfortunately they didn't give links to their proofs...