Benevolence and Enlightened Self-Interest

13 October 2009

Over the weekend, I posted an article at Get Rich Slowly about the guilt of wealth. I was nervous about the piece, and almost didn’t share it. It felt too personal. In the end, though, I’m glad I did. It spurred one of the best discussions we’ve had at GRS in a very long time.

I find it curious that the conversation has veered toward a discussion of Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism. Rand wrote dreadful novels (in the sense that they were poorly written) filled with great ideas (in the sense that they sparked intellectual debate). Her ideas were brilliant, but she was repudiated by both the Left and the Right. Because Rand was a touch messianic, this caused her a bit of consternation.

Now, however, a curious thing has happened. One segment of the American conservative community has openly embraced Rand as an inspiration. They cling to that part of her ideology that rejects the notion of working for the benefit of others. In it they find reason to argue against the liberal agenda. (At the same time, these conservatives choose to ignore that Rand was about as atheistic as they come. She would be just as angry at their belief in god as she would be at the liberal desire for universal health care.)

Note: Most people pronounce “Ayn” like “Ann”. Most people are wrong. “Ayn” is actually pronounced to rhyme with “mine”.

When I was young — just out of college — I read The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged and many of Rand’s other works. I had a vast library of Rand materials, much of it obscure. There’s no question that her work had a profound effect on my life. It continues to have such an effect to this day. Much of my personal philosophy is based on her work.

Much of my philosophy — but not all of it.

In particular, I’m troubled by what my cousin Nick calls the “Eddie Willers problem”. In Atlas Shrugged, the great men and women of the world go on strike. They follow the great John Galt to a secluded spot in the Rocky Mountains where they establish a sort of industrialist Utopia in which no man lives his life for any other man. And when they go on strike, the world stops. It cannot function without them.

One of these great men is Dagny Taggart, the main character of the book. (And yes, I know she’s not a man. But using this terminology is hilarious to me, especially given Rand’s thoughts on the subject. (She believed no woman should ever be President of the United States.)) Taggart is the manager of a railroad empire and one of the great industrialist thinkers who goes on strike.

When she leaves, though, she leaves behind her loyal friend and assistant, Eddie Willers. Willers is no great thinker. He’s no rich capitalist. He’s just a hard-working loyal man. And he’s left behind. He’s not good enough to be included in the little “industrialist club”. As Nick says, this is a Problem.

It’s also a problem that Rand argues against altruism. She believes that altruism is evil, the direct opposite of enlightened self-interest. Good objectivists abhor altruism. This has always bugged me.

To return to where I started, in the thread over at GRS, a commenter named Amy pointed to an article on the benefits and hazards of Ayn Rand by Nathaniel Branden. Branden was once a close associate with Rand. She considered him the embodiment of her ideals. But after nearly 20 years together, they had a split in 1968, and Branden went his own way. In 1984, after Rand’s death, he gave a talk, and this paper is the written version of his lecture.

First, he covers an overview of Ayn Rand’s philosophy, enumerating ten main points:

  1. That reality is what it is, that things are what they are, independent of anyone’s beliefs, feelings, judgments or opinions—that existence exists, that A is A;
  2. That reason, the faculty that identifies and integrates the material provided by the various senses, is fully competent, in principle, to understand the facts of reality;
  3. That any form of irrationalism, supernaturalism, or mysticism, any claim to a nonsensory, nonrational form of knowledge, is to be rejected;
  4. That a rational code of ethics is possible and is derivable from an appropriate assessment of the nature of human beings as well as the nature of reality;
  5. That the standard of the good is not God or the alleged needs of society but rather “Man’s life,” that which is objectively required for man’s or woman’s life, survival, and well-being;
  6. That a human being is an end in him- or herself, that each one of us has the right to exist for our own sake, neither sacrificing others to self nor self to others;
  7. That the principles of justice and respect for individuality autonomy, and personal rights must replace the principle of sacrifice in human relationships;
  8. That no individual—and no group—has the moral right to initiate the use of force against others;
  9. That force is permissible only in retaliation and only against those who have initiated its use;
  10. That the organizing principle of a moral society is respect for individual rights and that the sole appropriate function of government is to act as guardian and protector of individual rights.

Next, he summarizes the benefits of Rand’s world view and explains why it holds such a powerful draw for so many young people. Including me. If you want to know the origins of my personal philosophy, you can see them in the ten points above.

Note: Although these points form the basis of my philosophy, they don’t describe it fully. For one, I’m still informed by the religions of my youth. For another, Rand is an absolutist. I am not. The older I get, the more of a relativist I become. At Get Rich Slowly, my motto is “do what works for you”. In truth, that is my motto for life. Rand would hate that.

Branden’s article/lecture continues, however, by describing the problems with Rand’s philosophy. Eventually, he makes the brilliant point that Rand conflates sacrifice and benevolence (emphasis added):

I am referring to the principle of benevolence, mutual helpfulness and mutual aid between human beings. I believe it is a virtue to support life. I believe it is a virtue to assist those who are struggling for life. I believe it is a virtue to seek to alleviate suffering. None of this entails the notion of self-sacrifice. I am not saying that we should place the interests of others above our own. I am not saying that our primary moral obligation is to alleviate the pain of others. I am not saying that we do not have the right to place our own interests first. I am saying that the principle of benevolence and mutual aid is entirely compatible with an ethic of self-interest and more: An ethic of self-interest logically must advocate the principle of benevolence and mutual aid.

Given that we live in society, and given that misfortune or tragedy can strike any one of us, it is clearly in our self-interest to live in a world in which human beings deal with one another in a spirit of mutual benevolence and helpfulness. Could anyone seriously argue that the principle of mutual aid does not have survival value?

[…]

There are too many immature, narcissistic individuals whose thinking stops at the point of hearing that they have no obligation to sacrifice themselves to others. True enough, they don’t. Is there nothing else to be said on the subject of help to others? I think there is and I think so precisely on the basis of the objectivist standard of ethics: man’s/woman’s life and well-being.

Go, Nathaniel Branden!

One topic that I would love to research more (and write about more) is social capital, the idea that there’s a sort of hidden economy of neighborliness and mutual aid. In Robet Putnam’s influential Bowling Alone, he argues that the decline in social capital in this country is responsible for many of its social ills. Social capital is a sort of glue that bonds society together. (Note that social capital is not always good. Think of the KKK.)

Rand would reject the notion of social capital. It doesn’t fit her philosophical system. Yet social capital is very real and very important. As Branden says in the quote above, the principle of mutual aid has survival value. When we give without expectation of return, we’re improving our community and our society. We’re making the world a better place. And that is in your self-interest. Just because you cannot see an immediate benefit from some action does not mean it’s not in your interest.

I think this point is lost on a lot of businesses. For the past six months, I’ve been working closely with a business that is moving into a new realm. This business is expert at doing one thing, and is trying to leverage new technology to do it in a new way. (Sorry to be vague; it can’t be helped.) But this business has repeatedly demonstrated an inability to look beyond the immediate benefits. If they can’t see a payoff today, they’re not going to take action or make a deal. This is unfortunate. As a result, they’ve missed several opportunities to improve their environment. And they’ve missed out on possible future rewards.

I don’t know where I’m going with all of this. I just thought the discussion at Get Rich Slowly was interesting, and I had more to say, but this seemed like a better forum than over there. I’m glad to have found the paper from Nathaniel Branden. I’ve bookmarked it for future reference.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ll return to my life of enlightened self-interest (with a touch of benevolence)…

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