I recently exchanged over a hundred emails with a young software executive from Oklahoma who read my book Why Ayn Rand Is Wrong (and Why It Matters), found it unconvincing, and contacted me to explain exactly why.
The fact that this person is an enthusiastic follower of Ayn Rand's ethical philosophy (and I, obviously, am not) did not make it difficult for us to communicate, and in our long conversation we came to understand each other's logical processes better. Neither of us budged our ethical positions as a result of our debate, but I think we both emerged from it a bit sharper. I was impressed by the depth and thorough consistency of my opponent's philosophical method, even when I disagreed with his conclusions, and I hope he felt the same way about mine. I learned that my friend from Oklahoma (and we are indeed now friends, on Facebook and hopefully in real life too) is undoubtedly as knowledgeable and as serious about ethical philosophy as I am.
It's good to achieve clarity in a philosophical discussion. It's better to achieve consensus, of course, but clarity is worth settling for when consensus is not in the cards. Ethicists following the debates over government and taxation in the United States of America experienced a moment of clarity this week when a video clip from a raucous Republican Party debate made the rounds. Wolf Blitzer quizzed Ron Paul about health care policy:
Wolf Blitzer: Let me ask you this hypothetical question: a healthy 30-year-old man has a good job, makes a good living, but decides, you know what? I'm not going to spend two hundred or three hundred dollars a month for health insurance because I'm healthy, I don't need it. But something terrible happens and all of a sudden he needs it. Who's going to pay for it if he goes into a coma, for example? Who's going to pay for that?
Ron Paul: Well, in a society that accepts welfare-ism and socialism, he expects the government to take care of him, but --
Wolf Blitzer: What do you want?
Ron Paul: What he should do is whatever he wants to do, and assume responsibility for himself. My advice to him would have a major medical policy, but not be forced --
Wolf Blitzer: But he doesn't have that. He doesn't have it, and he needs intensive care for six months. Who pays?
Ron Paul: That's what freedom is all about -- taking your own risks. (Applause) This whole idea that you have to take care of everybody --
Wolf Blitzer: Congressman, are you saying society should just let him die?
(Voices in crowd: "Yeah!" "Yeah!")
Ron Paul: No. I practiced medicine before we had Medicaid, in the early 1960s, when I got out of medical school. I practiced in Santa Rosa Hospital in San Antonio, and the churches took care of them. We never turned anybody away from the hospital.
Ron Paul is one of the smartest and most consistent voices in the Republican party today; he is also, like conservative budget guru Paul Ryan, a devoted follower of Ayn Rand's ethical philosophy of extreme individualism and limited government. For many who watched this clip, the chilling moment of clarity came not when Ron Paul spoke, but when a few voices in the crowd cheered for the idea that an uninsured American who gets sick should be left to die. (Many find this sickening, though in fact this is exactly what the US government policy on public health care has been prior to the passage of Barack Obama's important health care reform, and the much-maligned "Obamacare" is the federal government's much-needed attempt to fix this sickening failure.)
Moments of clarity abound; it is shocking to hear a crowd cheer at the notion of a sick fellow citizen being left to die because he forgot to get insurance and can't afford medical care. But it's interesting that even the devout individualist Ron Paul resorts to something other than individualism in his answer to Blitzer's question. Churches (and presumably other charities) would need to fill the needs that a limited federal government would not.
So is Ron Paul's position a Randian position at all, or does he just want to replace a large government bureaucracy with several smaller and more voluntary bureaucracies? This, indeed, is what I believe the anti-"Obamacare" position on health policy must boil down to for any humane libertarian. It's impossible to believe that many Americans want to see sick fellow citizens dying in the streets. Some organization or another must step in to help whenever help is needed, but in Ron Paul's world it would not be the federal government but rather a smaller and more local entity: a neighborhood church, a town charity. This explanation for the anti-"Obamacare" position is less contemptible, though in practice it's no answer at all, since it does not work in real life except for those few Americans who currently live in small towns with strong church-based communities and active neighborhood charities.
Boil down any debate over ethics, and you land at the starkest question, the question that currently divides the world into two sides. Forget Plato vs. Aristotle, or Nietzsche vs. Plato, Hobbes vs. Rousseau, Rousseau vs. Mill, or Derek Parfit vs. Henry Sidgwick. Boil ethical philosophy down even further, and you'll get to the simple question whose opposing answers are best defined by Ayn Rand, in one corner, and Carl Jung in the other. The question is this:
Who are we to each other?
This is the primary controversy behind all of ethical philosophy. Are we each separate? Is the state of self-fulfilled individuality the highest state our souls can aspire to? This is what Ayn Rand and her followers believe.
Or are we each somehow together, as well as as seperate? Is there something that binds us at the very level of our existence? This is the type of position the psychologist Carl Jung has laid out.
For me, the answer is obvious: I stand with Carl Jung. After exchanging a hundred emails, my friend from Oklahoma and I finally began to see our differences clearly. I stand with Carl Jung on this question, and he stands with Ayn Rand. At this point in a debate, it may become pointless to argue further, because neither of us will budge on our answers to the starkest question of all.
Who are we to each other?
This is the biggest question in all ethical philosophy. How do you answer it? Are you with Ayn Rand, or with Carl Jung? Your answer to this question may reflect your most basic and most essential understanding of the meaning of your life.
This article is part of the Philosophy Weekend series. The next post in the series is Philosophy Weekend: The Disappeared Auguste Comte. The previous post in the series is Philosophy Weekend: September 11 and the Gift We're Still Carrying.