Skip to comments.The Selfishness Debate: Ayn Rand vs the Dalai Lama
Posted on 04/27/2012 6:38:23 AM PDT by Kaslin
Im in Monaco for the 10th forum of the Convention of Independent Financial Advisors, a Swiss-based NGO that focuses on promoting an ethical and productive environment for private investment. I moderated a couple of panels on interesting topics, including the European fiscal crisis.
But I want to focus on the comments of another speaker, Monsieur Matthieu
Ricard, a French-born Buddhist monk. As you can see from his Wikipedia entry, hes a very impressive individual. In addition to his other accomplishments, he serves as the French translator for the Dalai Lama.
During one of the dinners, we got into a fascinating conversation about the Buddhist concept of altruism (or at least one strain of that tradition) and Ayn Rands concept of selfishness, both as general ideas and as they relate to happiness.
At the risk of sounding un-libertarian, Im siding with the monk.
Even though Im a big fan of Ayn Rand and periodically give away copies of Atlas Shrugged to unwary young people, Ive always been puzzled by the Randian hostility to altruism.
Yes, coercive altruism is wrong. Indeed, its not even altruism, particularly if you think (like Michael Gerson or Barack Obama) its noble or selfless to forcibly give away other peoples money.
But Rand seemed to think (and some Randians definitely think) that voluntary acts of charity and compassion are somehow wrong. In some sense, these folks take an ultra-homo economicus view that people are relentless utility maximizers based on self interest.
If this is a correct interpretation of Randianism (perhaps I should say Objectivism?), then I think it is inadequate. Yes, people want money, and almost everybody would like more money, but Im guessing that it is non-monetary things that make people happiest.
I dont want to sound too warm and fuzzy and ruin my image, but arent children, friends, family, and love the things that make the world go round for most of us? Yes, we also value achievement, but even that can be unrelated to pecuniary considerations.
These are amateur ramblings on my part, and Ive probably done a poor job of describing the views of Randians and Monsieur Ricard. Moreover, Im sure that very intelligent people have examined this issue in a much more sophisticated fashion.
For a fiscal policy wonk like me, though, this conference and this encounter forced me to give some thought to how you can be a big fan of Ayn Rand while also feeling good about holding open doors for little old ladies.
You are correct. I am using the lazy definition of altruism.
The writer needs to read and think a little more...this is a straw man argument.
I'm certain he doesn't.
There's no way to be a "big fan" of Ayn Rand and be "puzzled" by her "hostility" to altruism. That's lama dung.
Many people that are “hostile” to Rand’s selfishness are the beneficiaries of society’s altruists. That’s the nub of it.
Your post essentially says the same thing. Altruism or money or “gifts” to people who did not have the mind to build upon it. As where selective charitable acts are often done as the giver observes some value in exchange for the charitable act. And the charity is given in proportion to the perceived value.
Altruism creates the evil kind of greed and selfishness. The kind that not only destroys the giver, but the receiver.
For Rand, it has always bothered me as her idea of self preservation is described as selfishness. I consider the example of Dagney when she first arrived in Galt’s Gulch. While they did tend to her wounds and injuries, she understood she needed to return value for value. Whether it was washing clothes or preparing meals, she knew she could not ‘freeload.’
Another example is during the depression when Mom would pay the lady down the road a dime to do the ironing. Sure Mom could have done that herself or she could have just given the lady the dime, but it was the exchange of the value of work that kept the self respect of all involved.
And so this is why I have such a difficult time with the concept of socialism and even our welfare system or unemployment system. I do view it as inherently evil as it rots the person from the inside and out into the culture.
None of us can make another man wealthy by charity/altruism, wealth is what one must do for himself. The American culture has been looted.
People adore dichotomies and polar opposites, such as “good and evil”. They are less comfortable with “gray areas” between dichotomies, that are like “sort of good” or “sort of evil”.
But people are generally uncomfortable with true neutrality, as it has little to hold on to, one way or another. Yet only from the state of neutrality can you hope to transcend the limitations of dichotomy, to find that which is beyond the dichotomy.
Some people can grasp the potential for neutrality, but fail because they try to force it before realizing that it is “powered by” the dichotomy. This is the failure of dialectic, the assumption that the poles of the dichotomy can be forced together to create “the best of both worlds”.
In practice, this just results in an imbalanced dichotomy, which must recover its balance before neutrality can start to be created.
This process can be thought of as a human machine of sorts, with the *use* of money as possibly lubricating the machine like oil. But it cannot change either the function of the machine, nor its mode of operation, nor does it power the machine.
The same could be said for alcohol, “the neutral spirit”.
I think the difficulty with this statement comes when you get to the issue of religion. The Bible states, "no greater love has any man shown than that he lay down his life for his friend.....
Romans 5:7 "Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. 8 But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us."
By your definition stated here, the event that the Bible declares the greatest act of love would have to be considered the greatest evil.
Not trying to start an argument, just pointing out why some people would have a problem with Rand's philosophy on altruism.
That’s true it would be the greatest evil If Jesus did it for the sake of others, but did he? Jesus’s act was profoundly selfish in that he loved those he was dying for and his greatest desire was to do his father’s will. Plus he was giving up a lesser value, his life as a man on earth, in exchange for a greater value, his desire to do his fathers will and take his place in heaven which I’m sure you would agree was a greater value. Jesus had the sure and certain knowledge, according to the Bible that his act was in his own self interest so Jesus’s actions on the cross would not meet the definition of altruism but instead would be considered a selfish act. Had Jesus decided not to go through with it, had he gone to the pharisees and the Romans to plead for his life and renounce all that he had said and done then THAT would have been a sacrifice. Of course I understand why many people disagree with the philosophy and as I stated in my post I don’t mind that. My only reason for responding to the article was to point out the error of the author who seemed to be misrepresenting objectivists as uncaring of fellow human beings and only caring about profit or money. I don’t mind people disagreeing so long as it is Objectivism they are disagreeing with and not a misrepresentation of it.
That is an interesting response worthy of a good chewing over. The first thing that your example would require is that the Objectivists acknowledges the deity of Christ, which, while I greatly admire Rand’s books, I don’t recall being one of her themes.
If I am accurate that most Randian Objectivists reject the deity of Christ, then by their measure, he was simply a man sacrificing himself for undesirable others benefiting neither them nor himself. If so, the honest Objectivist (again assuming they reject his deity) would proclaim Christ to be evil.
Personally, I agree with most of Rand’s concepts. They seem to be in line with Adam Smith’s idea of the Invisible Hand. Each man, acting in his own self interest, will find it in his best interest to make sure that he treats his neighbor fairly in order to continue doing business with each other.
Yes that’s right. I would not say most objectivists deny the deity of Christ. I would say they all do, Me included. I am not open to persuasion either so don’t try. I guess I was looking at the story from the Christians point of view, accepting the bible as the true word of God. Christians call what Jesus did a sacrifice but from the Objectivist ethics It would not be. There is so much misinformation about Objectivist ethics out there and the idea of what selfishness is that it struck me as funny that the Christian standard of selflessness would be the Objectivist standard of rational self interest. Again that is assuming the events of the Bible could be taken as objective facts. I was not however trying to evade the fact that Objectivism rejects the concept of the supernatural and considers faith to be irrational. That is of course true. I had just never thought about it before and it struck me as ironic.
After thinking about it some more, it still would not be a sacrifice if the people he died for were not undesirable to HIM. If his love for them was a payment in return for the values they represented then it would still be self interest. According to the altruist ethics in order for his act to be moral he would have to have have no interest whatever in them because the standard of value of altruism is sacrifice not life or values. I will have to think about this some more.
First, let me say, no persuasion will be forthcoming.
Next, let me say thank you. An interesting, thought provoking discussion on such a potentially divisive topic is a rarity, but it is one of the hallmarks of Freerepublic.
This is interesting because I agree with her rebuke of Altruism as portrayed in her books. But what I notice in the characters is that they are unable to invoke altruism in themselves. It is always demanded of others, but never of the characters demanding it. Not that I can remember anyway. It was demanded of Hank and Dagny by their family members, but those characters gave nothing.
Is there any character in her stories, or examples in her other writings of a person, real or fictitious who actually personified Altruism? Do you recall what her assessment was of that person?
But they were practicing it fully. You see the standard of value of altruism is the zero. Whatever virtue you choose to name it was their lack of it that gave them first rights to the lives of Hank, Dagney, Francisco and the rest of the producers. They were good according to the altruist morality precisely because of the inability to produce the values needed to sustain their lives and a Hank Reardon was evil because he was supremely good at it. The goal of altruism is selflessness, which is really non existence if you think about it. The desire to be selfless is the desire not to exist. Besides all that talk about the good of others is just a smoke screen to hide their true motive, even from themselves, which is hatred of the good for being good, hatred of existence and of life and of the virtues required for life. Notice how all the looters were disappointed when the bridge didn’t collapse. They could not stand the sight of a superlative achievement of the mind and they felt compelled to destroy it.
You know when I first read that book, Atlas Shrugged, I was so angry I wanted to throw it in the fire. I couldn’t believe she would suggest that the looters, and by extension our modern day liberals, did not want to live. I thought it ridiculous but at the same time there was this nagging feeling that kept making me return to that book. It caused me for the first time in my life to examine all of my premises. I have always thought about the big questions in life and one thing I could never understand was leftists. I always thought they wanted the best for everybody just as I did. I took them at there word that they wanted prosperity for everyone but I could not reconcile this with their policies and actions and embracing of communism. Couldn’t they see the results of communism and the millions upon millions of bodies piled up by it? Then one day I asked myself what if they don’t want prosperity. What if there purpose was the piles of bodies? I’ll tell you it was as if all the tumblers in a lock finally snapped into place and the truth came crashing down on me. I got chills up and down my spine because every contradiction that had been driving me crazy about them suddenly made perfect sense. That is when I knew she was indeed right. But answer it for yourself. Just look at all the things liberals consider evil and all the things they rail against and all the things they support and ask yourself if their purpose is life. It was five years ago when I made that connection and now I can not look at them as Human. I’m not talking about your average run of the mill Democrat but people like Obama, Kass Sunstein, Van Jones, Harry Reid and their brethren.
I guess If I had to pick one example of an altruist it would be Elsworth Toohey from The Fountainhead. And she assesses all altruists the same; the essence of evil. I would say the best example of an altruist from the 20th century would have to be Hitler but don’t take my word for it. Go and read transcripts of his speeches and count how many times the word appears and how many times he talks about sacrificing for the good of society.
An excellent reply and I am better for having read it. While I disagree with her assessment of religion (though sadly, I admit it is not all without merit), I agree with your points completely on the mindset and beliefs of the looters and the moochers.
It seems that you and I may have reached our opinions of leftists from opposite sides of the same coin. I came to your conclusion by living among those who had their humanity stripped away by “well intentioned” welfare programs and public assistance. I understood it to be evil when my aunt told me that she made more money NOT working. Watching my family members “race” to see who get on permanent disability first, like it was a competition.
I have never doubted that the “sympathy” of leftists was driven by the fact that they despise the poor and that they found them to be incapable of any meaningful existence on their own. They dole out welfare like table scraps to a mangy dog and expect the recipients to be grateful.
Thank you for all of your replies. I have enjoyed our discussion. Your right, I never had any experience with people on welfare, until the last few years. There is a town near us that is almost 100% welfare recipients. I see them all the time at the store paying with their benefit EBT cards in their pajamas in the middle of the day, their hair all a mess. Then there are a lot of immigrants from Mexico, some illegal, who work their butts to the bone. They may be poor but they have dignity and pride. They dress to the 9’s in their cowboy boots and hats and their western wear. I have a lot more respect for them than the U.S. citizens in that town and I would gladly make a trade with Mexico for all of their kind if it were up to me. They know what a wonderful place America still is and they appreciate it. I think if many of them could vote they would vote republican.
When I was in college I was friends with an older woman who was going back to school. One time she invited me over to meet her husband who sat their and told me how he got on welfare and how I could and how to scam the system to get benefits. I was so disgusted that I never talked to them again. I know what you mean about people being proud of being on welfare.
Might I add that in your search for true altruism, you would arrive at a figure like Jesus, who, in essence, was pure love, stripped of all the things that make human beings fallible. Here's a pretty good example of the kind of love I'm talking about when I think of altruism.
Granted, I've read only Atlas Shrugged, and struggled/forced my way through it because . . . at least in my opinion . . . she was not a particularly good novelist. Or as a novelist, she made a good political philosopher. Her characters in Atlas Shrugged were stilted, exceptionally robotic, frighteningly cold, overly calculating: in essence, not human. And I think this harkens back to the author of this piece's point in that altruism speaks to human love for humanity, and there was no love to speak of in Atlas Shrugged. Yeah, Dagny was really into her railroad, she f*cked all the male protagonists, but did she love anyone?
If she did, I found no evidence of it. I only saw an admiration for things and for the power of people. Now this may be, to some, a type of love, but I'd say it was awe, not love.
Then again, perhaps this speaks to Rand's failings as a novelist in that she could not create a character capable of love.
My best to the both of you.
Thank you. I want to reply to you but it will take me some time as I am working all day and I want to think about your post and then respond.
He obviously has not read Rand's books. Rand was against FORCED charity to the unproductive. Her novels are full of characters acting to help each other out, sometimes at cost of their lives.
O.K. I’m ready to reply to your post now. I have been working a lot of hours but that gave me time to think.
I don’t see Jesus’s actions as altruism. The term altruism was coined by Auguste Compte in 1851. He was was a French philosopher, an advocate of totalitarianism and an atheist. The term means to live for others. He saw egoism or self interest as evil and believed humans could be taught to live for others instead. So selflessness or the absence of self interest is a goal of altruism. But Jesus did not act selflessly in dying on the cross. He definitely had an interest, it was his purpose in coming here. Sacrifice is always portrayed as being painful to the one sacrificing and as a loss or trading something of greater value for something of lesser. While he suffered greatly, he did it to gain a much greater value, the fulfillment of his mission on earth and the re-attainment of his place in heaven.
As far as the characters in Atlas Shrugged I can’t agree with you. Yes they were cold and stilted in their relationships with the looters but that is because they were despised by them and under constant criticism. Just imagine if your wife and family treated you the way Hank Reardon’s did. you would be stilted around them too. Also too I think Ayn Rand was trying to show how much of a toll the hatred and vitriol had taken on them. They were always made to feel guilty for their success and called evil for their ability. plus they were living in very serious times. Dagney is trying to save the railroad because she knows what will happen to the country if it fails. They were working so hard to overcome all the obstacles being put in their way they were seriously stressed out. But you’ll notice that when each one retires or decides to quit he changes. Dan Conway says he wants to read books and go fishing, things which he never had time for. Ken Danneger says there’s a thing he’s always wanted to do and never had time”, to take and excursion trip around the island of Manhattan. Then he says “I’ve always been short on time, never what to do with it”. After the first run of the John Galt line Reardon tells Ellis Wyatt that he’s always wondered what he was like and Wyatt answers “I’ve never had a chance to be what I’m like” and that night while celebrating they are anything but cold as they talk about their achievement. And if you’ll notice when she meets them all in Galt’s Gulch they are like different people because Galt has given them the moral sanction they deserved but never got from the looters. So it’s very realistic the way the characters are portrayed and later in the book she makes a very subtle point. in Galt’s Gulch Ellis Wyatt says that what he and all the rest of them are doing is manufacturing time. By making things better and cheaper they are freeing up time from one task so that they have more time to spend on better things. I never noticed this before until I started thinking about your post. She is showing you that the men of he mind are the life givers and the looters are life takers.
As for the characters being incapable of feeling love I’ll give just one example from many, many I could choose from. One of the most moving scenes in the book, for me, is when Reardon tries to save the wet nurse who has been shot and thrown down a slag heap. In the beginning of the book Reardon feels nothing but contempt for him. After all he is there to enforce the onerous government regulations of the looters. But gradually the boy comes to love and respect Reardon and Reardon him as the boy grows and comes to share Reardon’s values. As he is cradling the dying boy he bends down and kisses him on the forehead as he would a son. This is the cold, Ruthless businessman Hank Reardon. Meanwhile his life’s work is being burned to the ground and he knows it. The boy, who he at first despised, now means more to him than his mills. But his actions would not be altruism because he loves the boy. He doesn’t love him for his power or ability because he has neither. He loves him for the moral virtues he has come to embody and for his character.
Sorry to be so long winded but that book and the ideas in it are very important to me. I’d love to hear what you think.
I think Atlas shrugged is one of the greatest pieces of literature ever written in the history of mankind. It’s second only to the Declaration of Independance because the founders were able to say the same thing, except for the part about the creator, in one paragraph that took Ayn Rand over a thousand pages. Lol.
So selflessness or the absence of self interest is a goal of altruism. But Jesus did not act selflessly in dying on the cross. He definitely had an interest, it was his purpose in coming here. Sacrifice is always portrayed as being painful to the one sacrificing and as a loss or trading something of greater value for something of lesser. While he suffered greatly, he did it to gain a much greater value, the fulfillment of his mission on earth and the re-attainment of his place in heaven.
Here's where I get tripped up on things: altruism is the denial of self interest in favor of the interests of others, but one could counter that "altruism," in that sense, does not involve denial of self interest at all, for the satisfaction one derives from denying one's self interest is the reward for selflessness. Performing charity, for instance, feels good, and that feeling of goodness is a reward for sacrificing whatever it is you're going to sacrifice for the good of someone else.
All well and good.
Let's dabble, then, in the supernatural a bit. If you're a believer, you believe, to some degree, that Jesus was the physical embodiment of God. If you're not a believer, you believe something along the continuum of Jesus didn't exist at all and is purely a myth to Jesus was a really important historical cat to Jesus could've been one of those prophet-types you read about in books. Personally, I'm in the former camp, but that's me personally, and I'm cool with whatever anyone believes about Jesus . . . I'm just trying to describe to you what I take as the "givens" part of the mathematical problem to be solved. So I'm coming to you as one who believes Jesus to be the physical embodiment of God.
Now, God is love, and love is all-consuming. Of course I'm talking about the universal love, all that is good, not the variety of love you have for your Labrador retriever, your wife & children, or your '62 Corvette Stingray. This is the love from which the energy of the universe derives; it consumes, wholly, the notions we regard as good or positive, like feelings of satisfaction, self worth, etc. This is what the Buddhists talk about when they talk about achieving Nirvana. This is it, man: there is no self. No suffering, no pain, no anything, just oneness.
In essence, Jesus to me was a Buddha. He eased suffering because that's what Buddhas do: they show others the path to the elimination of suffering, and thus, the path to God. Is Jesus receiving a "reward" for doing this good, in terms of self-satisfaction? No, because Jesus has no "self." He's a Buddha. He's eliminated self, and he's showing others the path, like I said, because that's what it means to be a Buddha.
Anyway, that's how I see the Jesus/altruism thing. It's not a scale where the things Jesus gives up are on one side and the things he gets in return are on the other. He's a Buddha, or at least in his life we see his progression into becoming one. He has nothing to give up; he has nothing to gain in return; he just is. It's not the perfect equation, it's the universe that consumes all equations and everything else with it.
As for Atlas Shrugged, I think we can find common ground on the notion that the book is very important because of the ideas and the philosophy it illustrates. Where we're going to differ is in its place in the pantheon of English-language literature. Like I wrote earlier, as a novelist, Ayn Rand makes a good political philosopher, and this is truly a matter of the aesthetic here. Some people like Miles Davis, some people don't. Both are right.
Here's why I think she wasn't such a great novelist:
- One-dimensional characters. I think I read once that she thinks her characters are real people or at least the way real people would act in the real world if they were unrestrained; she also exaggerates points of human personality to make points or serve her artistic purpose. This sort of strategy will almost invariably lead to one-dimensional characters, and since plot derives from character, one-dimensional characters are going to give you less of a plot. It's one of the reasons, I think, that Rand has to use so many different characters to drive her plot: each character brings something different to the table, but only one thing.
Take Rearden's wife, for example - you mentioned how she treated Rearden, and wondered why anyone would put up with a woman like her. Exactly. Who the hell would? A captain of industry certainly wouldn't. She had no redeeming qualities whatsoever. She was completely unlovable. The reader was left to wonder what ever brought them together in the first place. Why would a man like Rearden love a reprehensible person like her? He wouldn't. She was set up purely as a foil, like one of those stuffed society ladies in a Three Stooges short. In other words, a one-dimensional character, and just one of a cast of dozens in Atlas Shrugged.
Or take Dagny. She's the female Spock. Or the poor dimestore gal who marries James Taggert . . . straight out of central casting, and not much more.
- Pacing. Awful, just awful. Narrative time flew and then it didn't. And then you were stuck in a Galt radio speech that would've lasted a day and a half if Galt actually spoke it out loud. As many good ideas were contained in that speech is exactly how badly it worked as a narrative device.
- Language. Granted, she wrote that thing in the 1950s and it's now 2012, but her "high-pants, quick talking 1940s newsman" voice does not stand the test of time.
- Melodrama. The love scenes, starring Dagny Taggart, were goofy bodice-rippers. Just not my taste at all. They are what Stalin would write, if Stalin endeavored to be a romance novelist catering to 1950s Soviet tastes.
- Humanity. I don't think Rand had any children, did she? If she did, she wrote like a woman who had no children. And by that I mean I found absolutely no warmth in her writing. I found things that would stick in my head, but not in my heart.
I could go on and on, but you get the point.
We're just debating aesthetics here.