Rand and the Fear of the Self

They say that for libertarians it usually starts with Ayn Rand, but for me it
didn’t. This makes for some interesting conversations because when people find
out that I lean libertarian they typically assume I’m intimately familiar with
Rand’s work, which I’m not. To this day I’ve only read one and a half of her
books, and they weren’t The Fountainhead or Atlas Shrugged.

Nonetheless I’m acquianted with the essential thrust of her philosophy. I’ve
read the writings of various Objectivists along with critiques of
Objectvism. And I have to say that while I find the hardline Randroids boring,
humorless, pedantic, cold, and a little cultish – it’s their committed opponents
that I find actually scary.

Rand has the strange ability to make otherwise levelheaded people freak the fuck
. I once had an uncle, on seeing that I was reading one of her books, launch
into an angry tirade about how she was a hack author, a bad philosopher, and a
horrible person. I guess he was afraid she might influence me.

But it’s in debates over altruism vs. rational self-interest where things get
really frightening. Whenever the subject comes up in a public forum a few
hardline andi-Rand types crawl out of the woodwork and start talking about all
the terrible things people would do if they acted solely out of
self-interest. And they always lose me at this point because what they describe
as self-interest sounds to me like the interests of a psychopath.

Almost every human being is born with an instinctual empathy for other
creatures. A toddler will cry at the sight of an animal in pain, exhibiting
sympathy for a creature that isn’t even in the same species as herself. My 1
year old son picks up his toys and gives them to anyone nearby, with a big smile
on his face. His instinct is to be happy when giving things to other people; he
hasn’t learned to grasp them “selfishly” to himself yet.

I myself and driven by a complex mix of motives. Some of them are to satisfy my
basic physical urges – to eat, to fuck. Some of them – in fact, perhaps the
majority – are to satisfy my essential human urge to make the people around me
happier. Spending time with my kids fills me with more joy than just about
anything else. Bringing in money to give my family the things they want gives
me a sense of worth. Leaving a hefty tip for a waitress I may never see again
still adds to my happiness, because I empathise with the happiness she will
experience when she cleans up the table.

Notice that I am not even getting into the argument that rational self-interest
is about doing nice things to others so that they will do nice things to you.
I’m saying that regardless of what others do for me, one of the basic
satisfactions of my life on earth – even more than acquiring wealth and power –
is making other people happy. And I think that most people are born with this

So when one of these vehement opponents of self-interest comes along and
declares that in a world of rational self-interest, every person would steal,
cheat, rape, and murder to whatever extent he or she could get away with it
scott-free, I begin to wonder: what planet is this person from? Is he deriving
his picture of self-interest from what he sees as his own personal
self-interest? And if so– are my doors locked?

We have a term for people who can’t empathise with other human creatures. We
call them psychopaths or sociopaths. They are often cruel to animals and
younger children while growing up. They simply don’t feel a pang in the heart
that most of their peers would feel when causing pain to another creature.
Without intervention they may grow up to be criminals.

I can see two possibilities. Either the people scandalised at the thought of
self-interest are sociopaths and cannot imagine others except in terms of their
own pathology; or they are profound cynics who believe everyone besides themself
is a sociopath. Which is really the same thing because either way they’ve lost
their ability to see fellow creatures as “another me” and instead see them as
simply “other”.

Which is why I’m more afraid of the anti-self-interest crowd than the
doctrinaire Objectivists. The latter may be irritating. But people who
honestly believe that we are all inherently depraved and are held back only by
stolid adherence to a moral code and/or threat of punishment have a tendency to
snap and/or start Inquisitions.

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  1. Let me comprise my usual role and complicate this…

    1. I totally agree with you that acting in rational self-interest is not some evil thing–and I also get scared by those who look at it and think it is..

    I find idealists–the term that I use for those you would call anti-self interest–often to be terrifying–because they seem to live in a world that doesn’t seem to have that much to do with the one I’ve experienced–and I’ve watched them deny various peoples wishes, desires, needs–all because they knew better how people were supposed to be.

    One of the fastest ways to commit evil in my book.

    2. I don’t think most people are as good as you think they are. When I think back on most of my experiences–the idea that most people were acting in a fashion driven by empathy to others–that doesn’t conform with all of the head games, lies, abuse, egotism, and just downright cruelty that I’ve experienced first hand.

    To approach the same view from another way–I’ve had the chance to spend lots of time around many different small children. Some children appear to be really generous–they share toys willingly and like to play with others and to genuinely be happy about this. I’ve also seen other children–I’d say at least half of them–to whom sharing is perceived as a dire threat to their existence and is only something that they are ever forced to do. And I’m not just speaking of 4-5 year olds–but of children as young as 1-2 years old.

    What I’m trying to say here–is that the quality of empathy that you have found common–something that is obviously inherent to you and your son–might not be as common as you think–its out there, obviously, (I tend to be pretty generous and my brothers have also always been this way too.. as is my dad..), but we must be careful not to project this personal trait onto everyone just because it seems natural to us..

    Anyway–my final point is that I think it’s pretty easy to chart a fourth path–not Objectivist, not Absolutist (morally), Not Avdi-ish (people are basically good and their self-interest also includes being good to others naturally), but rather one that sees people as naturally self-interested, but also often or mainly selfish in this self-interest, but not to see that as depraved or something that I need to change.

    To state it a different way–I think most people are often self-interested/selfish bastards–but that doesn’t mean we cannot choose to overcome this fact. It doesn’t mean that we cannot choose to be noble–to become mature, to grow up, and to realize that there is something more than ourselves and that we can make this a better place by being secure in this knowledge.

    Don’t get me wrong–I don’t think we can ever FORCE anyone to choose this path–it is something that people must discover for themselves and unless they do discover it themselves, it can never be forced upon them.

    A different name for it might be wisdom–a process of reflection upon ourselves and an acknowledgement that despite our basic self-interested nature, that we can all live a much happier and productive life by choosing not to act selfishly and to overcome certain natural instincts and be more giving.

    In any case–those are my complications. Once again, it appears that you and I have arrived at some rather similar beliefs–or at least practices–but we have gotten there from very different origins and understand our world through very different frameworks… 🙂

    1. Re: Let me comprise my usual role and complicate this…

      It’s a fair point: I need to be every bit as cautious at inferring the interests of others from my own interests as the sociopaths do. In re-reading that I think I came on a little strong with the rainbows-and-unicorns. I don’t actually think that most people are primarily driven by the urge to make other people happy. What I DO believe is that most people have the capability to take joy from acts of kindness, and when they do such acts it’s one of the most fulfilling and guilt-free types of pleasure they experience. Whether they have often experienced this “altruistic” pleasure may have to do with how they were raised and what influences they were exposed to. I think a lot of people forget about or don’t discover the pure pleasure of kindness until later in their lives. Whatever the case, I think the decisions most people make are driven by a mix of motiviations, all of them selfish in a sense, but some more shortsighted and tightly self-focused than others. And it’s very possible to forget about the pleasure of kindness while singlemindedly pursuing the pleasure of sex, or toys, or fame.

    2. Re: Let me comprise my usual role and complicate this…

      …which was all to say I don’t think everyone has chosen to be dominated by the pursuit of group happiness, but I think most healthy individuals have the capacity to experience a great deal of joy from that pursuit. So when I come across people to whom the pursuit of self-interest is wholly and unreservedly evil, I can’t help but think that either they are broken in some way, or they have completely forgotten the pleasure of kindness. Either way, it can’t make them very nice people.

      1. Agreed on almost all of your points…

        .. I believe that most people have the capability to take joy from acts of kindness–even if this capability may come naturally more to some and may need more teaching in others.

        I also strongly agree that the pleasure you get from kindness is so unacknowledged in many parts of society… and I mean the pleasure that doesn’t come from living up to some commandment–but rather just from having done something for others.

        I remember the distinct feeling of being “high” after having gone and worked one night at a soup kitchen as a teenager–not that I didn’t enjoy doing stuff for others in other contexts–but this instance was really a stark example of it…

        In any case.. I’m not sure if I would say that I thought that these people had “forgotten” the pleasure of kindness–although that might often be the case.. I just generally tend to see it as if they had not matured enough to grok the pleasure of kindness.

        Again–this particular time based framework might just be a function of having a craptastic childhood where I experienced most other children (and adults) as being nasty critters–and only later finding happiness as I matured and met more mature people… but it seems to explain a lot of what I see…

        As I meeet people, the people who seem to have gained this kind of understanding are almost always–heck, they are always–the ones who have experienced a ton of shit in their life–and this massive amount of experience–and a brain capable of processing it–seem to give them a maturity that almost always includes this viewpoint.

        Relatedly–this maturity/wisdom–while correlated with age–is not tied 100% to it. I’ve met a number of older people who entirely lack this view–and a few “youngsters” who seem much wiser than their years would allow…

        In any case–this ties in nicely with my growing appreciation for the D n D attribute of “Wisdom”–and how I, as a youngster, didn’t understand what the hell it was and/or how it could ever be useful… but I have come to appreciate it more and more…

        ps–Related to this in a tangential fashion, I’m prolly gonna post something soon about how Intelligence and Wisdom are really interesting and asymmetrical character traits in a role-playing game… For example–we can easily project/imagine how a character could be stronger/faster/tougher than we are (and also how they could be weaker/slower/wimpier).. but when it comes to intelligence/wisdom–it is entirely possible to play a character who is stupider and less wise than we are–but how do you really play one that is smarter and wiser than you are. It doesn’t really work to say “I have an 18 int, therefore I just figure out the problem that you’ve thrown in front of us, oh Dungeonmaster…” (furthermore–if your character is supposedly stupid–but you figure the problems out yourself–it is quite hard, I’ve noticed, for people to refrain from making their characters suddenly insightful…)

  2. Reply

    Why can’t they be nice?

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    Что-то не вижу форму обратной связи.

  4. Интересно читать

    Что-то не вижу форму обратной связи.

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  6. Интересно читать

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  12. Классный блог!

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  13. Классный блог!

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  14. Классный блог!

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