The Selfish “-ism”

©1948 Harding College

aynrandThe Birth of Objectivism

For those who don’t recognize what the above video is, it is an example of post-war propaganda from the 1940’s. During this period America was only a few years past the end of the Second World War, Europe was piecing itself together, and the Soviet Union’s influence was on the rise. In one year the USSR would test their first atomic weapon taking what was a notion of fear into a blanket that would cover the west and influence American culture for decades to come. Out of this playful fear which inspired a mocking a cartoon mocking collectivism would grow a very real and a very inspirational fear that collectivist ideals would take hold of the American way of life.  Out of this inspirational horror was born Objectivism.

Spoken from the mouth of Ayn Rand’s protagonist in the ever popular Capitalist fiction, Atlas Shrugged, the philosophy was created to rival collectivist ideals and give virtue to the individual. In the 1960’s Ayn Rand would go on to write a series of essays expounding through rhetoric, argumentation, and dialectic the particulars of her idea of Objectivism. These essays which make up — in part — her work, The Virtue of Selfishness are often divisive as they are seen as praise of narcissism. Additionally, Ayn Rand was a defensive of those who had benefited to what some would consider an exorbitant extent from free market enterprise.  So what is Objectivism?

The Virtue of Self; in Self.

Ayn Rand’s ethic of Objectivism is founded on the question of “Why does man need a code of values?”. She criticizes that often when it comes to ethics and moral philosophy this question is not answered, and yet, her contemporaries air on the side of pluralism. Pluralism as a reference to the subjective virtue of the individual being what is best. She, through some eventual —though noteworthy— contradiction, feels that this is the root cause of “why the world is collapsing into an even lower rung of hell” setting out to challenge this by extolling a new ethic based on the speech of her protagonist John Galt.

“You have heard it said that this is an age of moral crisis. You have said it yourself, half in fear, half in hope that the words had no meaning. You have cried that man’s sins are destroying the world and you have cursed human nature for its unwillingness to practice the virtues you demanded. Since virtue, to you, consists of sacrifice, you have demanded more sacrifices at every successive disaster. In the name of a return to morality, you have sacrificed all those evils which you held as the cause of your plight. You have sacrificed justice to mercy. You have sacrificed independence to unity. You have sacrificed reason to faith. You have sacrificed wealth to need. You have sacrificed self-esteem to self-denial. You have sacrificed happiness to duty.” — Ayn Rand Atlas Shrugged (1957)

A fragment of John Galt’s 70 page speech. On a personal note, I highly recommend reading it as its ambiguity offers more clarity as an argument than Rand’s attempt at dialectic in her ethical essay The Objectivist Ethics, the first essay in The Virtue of Selfishness.

There is a fundamental issue anyone familiar with pluralism, determinism, collectivism and ethics in general will recognize in Rand’s ethical theory. Essentially, it is the spectrum of contradictions which Rand stumbles upon when the ambiguity of prose is removed from her writing. Where the reader is confronted with the virtue of sacrifice in the above excerpt, in Rand’s essay on Objectivist ethics another virtue is presented, value. Rand defines value as “that which one acts to gain or keep”; action being what she presents as the sign of life in a being.  Right from its inception Rand places into context three things which will be reasserted throughout: value as virtue, agency of action, and life as an end.

Value as Virtue

Value as virtue is the first of Rand’s fundamental flaws in building her argument.  Value to by Rand’s definition takes a materialist form and soon finds itself conflated with its secondary English definition referencing a standard of principles of behavior. It is important to note prior to deconstruction that the concept with which one “acts to gain or keep” is life. Actions, in Rand’s vocabulary, are inherently good when they act toward the preservation of life and are evil when they jeopardize it, a statement which puts absolute connotations on morality. This is Rand’s attempt at meeting the requirement that a virtue must be inherently objective and subsequently value as a virtue must be objective which seems to meet the requirement. Life is an objective term which encompasses a variety of types and levels of consciousness. A plant is a living thing though a plant is not conscious on a level in which humans are when it comes to perception and conceptualizing —terms which Rand is fond of. An organism lower than human in a sense of conceptualizing is capable of perceiving, yet, conception to the organism —attaching meaning to objects through language and recognizing traits inherent in objects— is not possible to a human level. Because of this Rand limits non-human animals perceptions as automatic and inherent to an extent yet defines these notions as subject to a “pleasure-pain mechanism” in the brain of all organisms including humans.  This is where the contradiction begins.

“Now in what manner does a human being discover “value”? By what means does he first become aware of the means of “good and evil” in its simplest form? By means of the physical sensations of pleasure or pain…The capacity to feel pleasure or pain is innate in a man’s body; it is part of his nature, part of the kind of entity he is. He has no choice about it, and he has no choice about the standard that determines what will make him experience the physical standard of pleasure or pain. What is that standard? His life.” — Ayn Rand The Virtue of Selfishness (1964)

Rand goes on to state in the following paragraph that in individuals who cannot experience pain life can be short due to their not being able to feel pain and experiencing the potential harm that causes it. Because of this they do not have the internal faculties capable of preserving their life and subsequently —though it is not admitted by Rand— the basic ability to discern right and wrong (also a reason for misidentifying Rand as a hedonist and not a moral absolutist). The above statement becomes even more trivial when Rand goes on to say:

“Man has no automatic code of survival. He has no automatic course of action, he has no automatic set of values. His senses do not tell him automatically what is good for him or evil, what will benefit his life or endanger it, what goals he should pursue and what means he will achieve them, what values his life depends on, what course of action it requires.” — Ayn Rand The Virtue of Selfishness (1964)

Man’s consciousness is “volitional”; man chooses to think or not to think.  This is where the complexities of perception and human condition are lost to Rand. She is capable of accepting a “Pleasure-Pain Mechanism”; however, man must choose what is good and evil based on perception alone. It is not conceivable to her what is know of human physiological, a realm outside of the philosophical, which she has invited into her discussion. The fact that along side the “pleasure-pain mechanism” (the amygdala), there is a portion of the brain which desires fats, carbohydrates and protein which stimulates feelings of hunger inside the human body. Additionally, the portion of consciousness which rationalizes is actually due to the frontal lobe and can be affected as easily as the central nervous system’s ability to process pain. Being that this is the case humans are not so absolutely conscious about survival as Rand would have us believe. Human desire to prolong their own life is what makes human survival in harsh conditions a possibility.  This is no more a choice than a series of urges of a lower organism which humanity once was and in this case so is Rand’s virtue of valuing ones own life.  It is true that the level of value one places on their own life is subjective; however, there is a natural instinct in most humans to remain alive.  Most often this inclination is referred to as a survival instinct and is —as science has proven time and again— inherent in human beings.  Because of this, if preserving ones own life is inherent, then one cannot choose to be otherwise therefore the natural systems which cause life cannot be value based as the desire to value ones own life at the base level is not a choice. Because of this one must deduce that Ayn Rand is not —or at least should not— be referring to the survival instinct.

Value Expressed Through Responsibility

“To love is to value. Only a rationally selfish man, a man of self esteem, is capable of love – because he is the only man capable of holding firm, consistent, uncompromising, unbetrayed value. The man who does not value himself, cannot value anything or anyone” — Ayn Rand The Virtue of Selfishness (1964)

So what then does Ayn Rand intend when she says that value is the virtue of life? It does reflect extremely coherently; however, the easiest way to describe it is what Rand likely intends to say is that responsibility is the virtue of life.  One shows that they value their own life by taking responsibility for it and by taking responsibility one gives life value. Understanding ones actions and accepting the consequences as openly as the rewards, not allowing another to take their autonomy, and using ones faculties to think are all ways Rand describes one giving value to one’s life. This is ultimately the basis of her argument.  It is not an overly complex string of thought and certainly doesn’t require much dialectic to reason out, rather, Rand chose to use such tenets to argue against her primary target, collectivism.  To her, collectivism undermined these three basic was of giving value to life.  First, by shifting the responsibility of a individual to the responsibility of the collective.  This shift removed the ideas of reward and consequence from the shoulders of the individual to the collective as the identity of the individual is simply a part of the collective. Second, because the individual is now a piece of the collective they no longer have true autonomy as their choices are in the interest of the collective and not the state; an admittedly large conclusion to jump to but existing none the less. And third, removing man’s ability to reason completely as all choices are dictated by the collective as all choices are made for the collective; again Rand seems to remove too much of the individual in this case. At this point one finds the heart of Rand’s reason for writing an ethical essay, to provided a layer of philosophical and logic based depth against collectivist ideals in favor of Capitalist, or perhaps better described, materialist ideals.

A Product of Her Time 

From a non-critical standpoint there’s a great deal to agree with in Ayn Rand’s writing. You would be hard pressed to find someone who would disagree that the way she defines responsibility is wrong.  You would certainly find people who would gladly call her narcissistic or selfish and to some degree they would be correct in that as well.  All opinions aside though what can be seen is the same message expounded in the video we opened with 20 years later in Ayn Rands philosophical essays, and it was the same tone felt towards every form of collectivism that existed in the cold war.  Soviet and Chinese citizens were prime examples of Rands extreme take on collectivism and for her time, the argument certainly fit.  What people in Rand’s time lived through under Stalinist and Maoist Communism, was a reflection of autonomy and responsibility being removed from the individual to their undoing. It is somewhat forgivable that Ayn Rand was who she was in this period of extreme collective principals being reciprocated in Capitalist crusading in American culture. It is all to often that extreme ideals beget and equally opposing structure of ideals; both abandoning reason for absolute acceptance. The extreme good of egoistic thought and the extreme evils of collectivism were highlighted by Rand because of her experience. Only because the more prevalent her perspective was in reality the more it proved her correct , while counter-intuitive to her argument as she required less and less thought to reason the truth of her argument, it serves as a message to learn from that even something that seems correct may not be well thought out.  Additionally, if one is not seeking that counterpoint to ones own argument, the argument is never truly tested and the argument cannot fully and adequately be realized.

In Conclusion

This should not deter anyone from reading or seeing the admirable in Rand’s work, in fact if you disliked already Rand and saw this as a form of validation I would urge you even more to read Rand’s work for yourself.  Simply because Rand did not have the full method of a philosopher behind her argument does not mean there is quality to it, rather it means it requires more thought and method to its formulation.  Rand has a good message to her work when you remove the absolute stance against collectivism that seems to show up in her work.  I think —and this is an obvious opinion— that had Rand left more room for middle ground in her work should would have found her self in the realm of Egoistic Altruism and that, as the name suggests, would have been good for everyone and likely won more people over to her form of ethics.  Sadly, the environment which created Ayn Rand’s perspective did not make her such.

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