Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Egoism, but how rational?

  In the long summer break between ending my PGCE and getting my job, I attempted to take apart Ayn Rand.
  Sadly, the task was far too big, as she is far too wrong in far too many ways to deal with, unless one is committed to writing a book. And, in the end, why would her supporters listen, when they are so fundamentally opposed to arguments against her? However, I cannot hold my tongue against one aspect of her 'philosophical' beliefs, culminated in various essays and fictions etc.
  Rand was a rational egoist, believing that self-interest was rational and right, in all circumstances, actively denying the goodness of altruism and promoting selfishness as a virtue. I do believe this is not slanderous to her position, if anything, she would herself probably find it not strong enough a statement of her values.
  There is a curious problem about being such an egoist. How is it possible to hold and teach the philosophy at the same time? Say that I believe in the fundamental rightness of being moral, in that I consider others. I can exhort others to follow this standard, and there is no contradiction - I believe that I know what is good and right, and wish for others to share in it.
  It is not so easy to be so transparent when espousing rational egoism. Why should you hold the belief and also teach others it? If, say, you believe society is rather too altruistic (as Rand did) and that people should act in their own self-interest, then the most rational course of action is to praise altruism and benefit from it, while giving little yourself. That way you can live a prosperously immoral life, while appearing moral in order to evade detection (which is, interestingly, the argument of Thrasymachus in Plato's Republic).
  What does it mean to hold and preach such a belief, however? On one hand, it might mean that Rand was simply imperfect, teaching something that she did not hold completely herself, as it would be contradictory. But I believe that there is every evidence that she did try to live by her philosophy, which is exactly why she is still so adored - she is a figurehead for such a lifestyle.
  Ayn Rand, I think, acted in her own self-interest by writing about and publishing upon the subject of rational egoism. By trying to win others round to the argument, she obviously made things more difficult for herself, by increasing the competition for resources. If she had succeeded within her lifetime of changing the social and political conduct of some area, and living there, it would be a much harder place for her to live without the possible (although to her uncouth) altruism of others as a support, as all would be following the edict to be selfish. How would that help her when compared to Thrasymachus' cunning approach?
  I believe that it is feasible to conclude that her whole philosophy is based on her self-interest. It is not about teaching others to further their own self-interest, as there seems to be little reason to think that this option would fit in with her very philosophy. She was selfishly attempting to garner a society around her. She was cultivating social status amongst people. She was living off her philosophy and selling it to others for financial and social profit, without intending it to help others - by her very own thinking she should care not at all for that.
  So, perhaps it might be a good idea, if you are the sort of person to fall in love with her writing, to consider whether it was written to teach you how to help you or her.
  I admit, perhaps there is much evidence that she helped all sorts of people around her in many ways, indisputably not for the furthering of her own ends. And what does that make of her philosophy? How could that be explained?

  This is only one possibility. IF there is no reason why rational egoists should help others to become rational egoists unless a world of rational egoists would help the individual rational egoist (and I cannot see how that is (rationally) the case) there are two more answers that I can imagine:
  Firstly, Rand's work was a capitalist fascism, then the importance of the myth of the business-superman and libertarian-fatherland are the real aim, not rational egoism. This possibilty fascinates me, as it is historically a neat-and-tidy concept that would tie various ideologies together.
  Secondly, I have a suspicion that the real aim was not towards a society of rational egoism but simply one against the values that she despised. Against the communism that she hated and escaped from, therefore against any left-wing or socialist political system (it can, of course, be argued that the communism as was practised is nothing like socialism etc. ad infinitum), winding up as against altruism. Such a journey, from personal experience of the Soviet regime to a hatred of altruism, is hard to contemplate, both psychologically and philosophically.
  As hard as it could be to grasp, this explanation would explain why, rationally, she teaches others rational egoism from a standpoint of rational egoism which, to me, does not make sense. She is not espousing it to create a new society and increase the competition around her - much better to be two-faced! - but to destroy the contrary ideals.
  Is the espousing of universal selfishness in your own interests? If not, it is hard to see why it is espoused by the selfish. Is it, perhaps, in order to quash something desperately unliked?

  I am very interested in why such ideals as altruism - and therefore unconditional or low-conditional love, agape, mutual/communal respect and so on - are so hated. I believe they may be the actual main target at the heart of all this. There is a movement to destroy them, and it might be that they are not stating their real motives clearly. What is it about humanity that some examples of it wish to destroy what many would call humanity itself?
  Otherwise, I am still interested in why she cloaked her own philosophy self-interest as one of being interested in the self-interest of others. What did she gain?


Post a Comment

<< Home