Gratitude as social glue. In Out of Character, David Desteno and Piercarlo Valdesolo make the following research-inspired remarks about gratitude:
It seems that just as there are benefits to being fair and trustworthy, so too are there benefits to forging relationships with those we feel we can trust. It's obvious we admire individuals ... who seem honest and who honor responsibilities. These are people we want as partners and friends.When push comes to shove, we need someone who won't sell us down the river to turn a profit. As we've said before, social relationships are a two-way street. These potential partners also need to know the same about us. They need to know that our short-term interest won't always win, that we're in it to share both the profit and the perils. there needs to be some sort of social glue that binds people together.
We believed gratitude functions as just this type of glue. When those warm feelings of gratitude well up inside us, we feel so bounded to others -- at least for the moment -- that we become focused on our collective welfare and willing ... to make sacrifices for the collective good. [166-167]
In this passage the authors of Out of Character make points which Rand and her disciples, because of their strong ideological biases, seem incapable of appreciating. Rand had noticed that there was a sinister side to altruism that had escaped all but the most hard-headed. She then proceeded to denounce all rhetoric that even so much as suggested altruism with a Savonarola-like furor. But in her moral frenzy, Rand lost sight of all the nuances that constitute the reality most of us face in everyday life.
Since human beings are not in fact bundles of premises, as Rand surmised, but creatures with significant motivational baggage, they cannot be inspired to actions most conducive to their long-run well-being on self-interest alone. Long-term and short-term self-interest conflict, tugging the individual in contrary directions. Even worse, decisions are made against a backdrop of varying probabilities and outright uncertainties. Calculations have to be made, often based on little more than educated guesses, as to the probable behavior of other actors and the likely development of unique circumstances. The complexity of many the decisions individuals are forced to make on a day-to-day basis is far too great to be mastered through Randian "reason." The cognitive unconscious must be called in to service to grapple with the complexity. Emotional cues (i.e., messages from the cognitive unconscious) must be taken as part of the data from which decisions are made. Rand's ex cathedra assertion that "emotions are not tools of cognition" has been decisively refuted by the evidence. The neuroscientist Antonio Damasio found that those who, as a result of brain damage, were incapable of responding to emotional cues in decision making, became indecisive and dysfunctional.
There is an element of motivation in all knowledge which eluded Rand, who appeared (at least implicitly) to accept the out-moded view that rational knowledge is achieved through a kind of detached, emotion-free type of reasoning. Knowledge is fundamentally practical; it is gained to achieve a specific practical ends, determined by non-rational motivations. Rand wanted to believe that human motivations were merely the product of premises. Rational premises would lead to "rational" motivations. But this is a view that is both unsupported by the evidence and incoherent in its logic. Rand's view implicitly assumes the existence of unmotivated premises. But since all human action, including the action of thought, must be motivated, motivation would have to precede any acceptance of premises, which means there must have been motivations prior to any premises. Furthermore, anyone with any experience of infants knows that they are motivated long before they are capable of understanding, let alone thinking in terms of, language. Motivations tied to hunger, thirst, and sex are obviously innate; even Rand likely would have accepted this. So why can't motivations involving more complex emotions also have an innate component?
Once it is established that Rand's views on human nature and human motivation are incorrect, Rand's blithe assumptions about the potential rationality of human beings can be challenged and decisively refuted. The failure of Objectivist premises to lead to rationality even among Objectivists themselves demonstrates that individuals don't become rational merely by accepting the premises of rationality. The immaculate rationality preached by Rand is approached, if at all, only by a very few people, and never through Objectivist means. The vast majority of human beings have been and probably always will be influenced to a significant extent by sentiments and emotions. For that reason, if they are to be motivated to behave in a way that promotes happiness and a free and prosperous social order, it may be necessary to appeal to non-rational sentiments and motivational complexes.
Rand's ideal that human relationships be governed entirely by the "trader principle" is based on a mistaken view of human nature. It assumes, against a mountain of contrary evidence, that a rational, enlightened self-interest is in fact possible. But since most human beings are not in fact capable of pursing their interests fairly, impartially, rationally and justly (which is why the law does not allow anyone to be a judge in his own cause), it would appear that a rational outcome can only be approached by maintaining a tenuous balance between egoistic and social sentiments. Human beings need to be concerned for their own interests and welfare, but they also need to be concerned about the interests and welfare of others as well. Gratitude helps maintain this difficult balance. It renders individuals more magnanimous, less prone to nursing private resentments based on overly narcissistic, self-centered judgments. The individual who only attends to his own interests tends to be biased toward his own interests. When he doesn't get his own way, he will tend to become angry and resentful. Instead of focusing on his advantages, he will dwell on his disadvantages. He will become a wet nurse to his own grudges, which will make him ripe to be manipulated by power-hungry demagogues.
While Rand occasionally indulged in sentiments of gratitude toward America, Aristotle, and human achievement, the predominant tone of Objectivism is critical and disparaging. Very little pleased the author of Atlas Shrugged. She might admire the idea of America, but she had little nice to say of contemporary America. She may have admired human achievement in the abstract, but actual achievements often left her cold. She despised or ignored most of the noteworthy achievements of Western literature and Western thought. She does not come off, either in her life or in her philosophy, as a grateful person. The impression she left is that, other than perhaps Aristotle, she owed no intellectual debt to anyone. She often comes off as an angry person, at odds with the world. She had a mania for pronouncing moral judgment, despite the quite obvious fact that, except in rare circumstances, such pronouncements rarely have any beneficial effect, but, on the contrary, are more likely to foster feelings of ill-will and resentment.
The deficiency of gratitude within Objectivism finds its practical exemplification in the anger and contempt that marks the behavior of too many devotees of Rand's philosophy. In a 2006 lecture, Barbara Branden noted: "I find [rage] to be increasingly prevalent among Objectivists. We see everywhere—particularly on the Internet—the spectacle of supposed supporters of reason and free inquiry erupting in fury at the least provocation and hurling abuse at anyone who opposes—even questions—their convictions." Branden traced the origin of this rage back to misapplied premises in Objectivism; but it would be even more plausible to trace this anger back to Rand's own overwhelming disparaging tone and her concomitant mania for moral condemnation, all of which tend to foster sentiments of ingratitude and resentment toward the world at large and render people ungrateful for the advantages they in fact enjoy. In Objectivism, positive assessments are lavished on the purely theoretical. Man in theory is potentially rational and good, but most particular men are horrid mystics of some type or another; the universe in theory is benevolent, but the actual world we live in is an absolute mess teetering on the verge of an apocalypse; America in theory is a great country, but in practice it is almost a fascist state governed almost exclusively by politicians who are either stupid and/or evil. Given Objectivism's general dissatisfaction with the world (a dissatisfaction primarily fueled by allegiance to unrealizable ideals), no wonder Objectivists are so angry. Perfection is the cynic's standard; and the desire for unrealizable ideals only leads to frustration, rage, and ingratitude. It is an acid that dissolves social bonds and leaves the individual isolated from the community. Such isolation is hardly in the individuals "rational" or enlightened self-interest.