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Tuesday, February 04, 2014

"The Virtue of Selfishness: A New Concept of Egoism" by Ayn Rand

I have fallen into the habit of picking up books that are perhaps a bit on the out-dated side and yet finding myself unable to put them down.  I've always felt an intense responsibility to finish a book, even (and perhaps even more specially so) those that I know would yield little to my time investment. This was sort of the case with Ayn Rand's "The Virtue of Selfishness: A New Concept of Egoism."  The difficulty with this short little collection of essays (many of which are by Nathaniel Branden, the psychological theorist) is that while some of the ideas are outdated, many are frighteningly close to the current dilemma facing the United States today.  Whether political, social, civic or even religious, Rand touches on subject that are front and center to today's current events.  Of course, the initial reaction is to think that these subjects are so general in content that they transcend the span of 50 years, but upon closer inspection, this is not the case.

There is very little that can be called "general" about individual rights and the role of an either big or small government in the daily lives of citizens. Even after 50 years, Rand is insightful mainly because the universality (not generality) of the issues resonates beyond the construct of her age.  For example, Rand defines "Values" as "that which one acts to gain and/or keep--virtue is the act by which one gains and/or keeps it.  The three cardinal rules of the Objectivist ethics--the three values which, together, are the means to and the realization of one's ultimate value, one's own life--are: Reason, Purpose, Self-Esteem, with their three corresponding virtues: Rationality, Productiveness, Pride."  She then moves on to describing/defining the idea in more detail: "Productive work is the central purpose of a rational man's life, the central value that integrates and determines the hierarchy of all his other values.  Reason is the source, the precondition of his productive work--pride is the result.  Rationality is man's basic virtue, the source of all his other virtues.  Man's basic vice, the source of his evils, is the act of unfocusing his mind, the suspension of his consciousness, which is not blindness but the refusal to see, not ignorance, but the refusal to know.  Irrationality  is the rejection of man's means of survival and, therefore, a commitment to a course of blind destruction; that which is anti-mind, is anti-life."  

Rand defines a complex system of ethical values (the Objectivist ethics) by clearly and systematically defining that which is NOT the values productive to men.  Whatever is based on a whim, on an emotion, and not based on a rational/logical premise is detrimental to humanity as a whole.  The modern concept of "altruism" is labeled by Rand as the major culprit.  The idea that men must sacrifice from their toil because of how it makes others (and himself) feel is unethical and down-right disgusting to her.  I do see the level of extremism that can be constructed from this idea, but it does hold when one applies the idea of purpose to it.  If I mean to help someone because I fear others might think me a brute for not doing so, or, worse, if I do help someone because of my own selfish interest to portray myself as a humanitarian, then I am not doing anyone service.  Ayn Rand takes it further, of course, in insisting that modern altruism is completely immoral and incompatible with human nature.  In that I see a great deal of truth, but I fear the hasty generalization renders the argument problematic.  She expands on the idea of "feel" versus "rational thinking:"  "Man has no choice about his capacity to feel that something is good for him or evil, but what he will consider good or evil, what will give him joy or pain, what he will love or ate, desire or fear, depends on his standard of value.  If he chooses irrational values, he switches his emotional mechanism from the role of his guardian to the role of his destroyer.  The irrational is the impossible; it is that which contradicts the facts of reality; facts cannot be altered by a wish, but they can destroy the wisher.  If a man desires and pursues contradictions--if he wants to have his cake and eat it, too--he disintegrates his consciousness; he turns his inner life into a civil war of blind forces engaged in dark, incoherent, pointless, meaningless conflicts (which, incidentally, is the inner state of most people today)."  All one has to do is look at the apologetic principles and ideas of political correctness today to concede the argument.  Rand, whether we like it or not, is right about most people leading their lives not so much based on a rational system of beliefs but rather they seem to go about making decisions based on how these decisions make them "feel."

Rand is quite concrete in her argument for individual rights.  She offers specifics about how a society either allows the government to dictate those rights, to change them at their whim for the sake of "greater goods."  The entire premise of a giant central government telling people what they can or cannot do invalidates the idea of guaranteed individual rights. Once again, whether I agree or not with Rand, I must yield the argument.  While it sounds simplistic enough, Rand offers specifics: "The necessary consequence of man's right to life is his right to self-defense.  In a civilized society, force may be used only in retaliation and only against those who initiate its use.  All the reason which make the initiation of physical force an evil, make the retaliatory use of physical force a moral imperative.  If some "pacifist" society renounced the retaliatory use of force, it would be left helplessly at the mercy of the first thug who decided to be immoral.  Such a society would achieve the opposite of its intention: instead of abolishing evil, it would encourage it and reward it."  This passage resonates with today's argument by law-abiding citizens to "keep and bear arms."  We cannot outlaw all guns, collect them, destroy them... to think that thugs and criminals would line up to peacefully and willingly give up the tools of their trade is unrealistic and based on emotional nonsense.  By the same token, forcing a law-abiding citizen to surrender the means by which he defends his property and family is irresponsible by virtue of the previous sentence's premise.

Of course there is much more to Rand's little collection of essays (many of the finest ideas are also presented by Nathaniel Brand).  The last essay "The Argument from Intimidation" is a prime example of what passes today for political discourse in both Left and Right information outlets (MSNBC & Fox News, correspondingly).  We are at the end of what Ayn Rand warned 50 years ago.  With nearly all aspects of American life (social, civic, religious, individual/special group) reaching critical mass, every year we live in this collective blindness is another year from which we might not return to reason.

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