Philosophy Weekend: The Starkest Question

Existential Politics

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 series Philosophy Weekend. 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.
14 Responses to "Philosophy Weekend: The Starkest Question"

by catalyst on

If one is not free, nobody is free. If one is sick, nobody is healthy. So I suppose I stand with Jung on the question you proposed. I find it sickening that a crowd would cheer at the thought of leaving a man to die w/o trying to help him. This society is sick, man. There's definitely a mental problem here, I think, when no compassion can be mustered up even in a hypothetical situation for another human being....those people are just plain sick in the head.

by KKizer on

Thank goodness our earliest forebears didn't practice Objectivism. They probably wouldn't have left the African veld (as a group...looking out for on another) and we wouldn't be here having this cultured debate.

by sirloin furr on

More sickening was the crowd's applauding reaction to Rick Perry's execution rate. Individualism, which I'm considering to be the same as existentialism, is very important for individuals to discover purpose, self, and talents. This is a quality desired by all, as none of us asked to be born. But we all wish to venture further with our own existence, without the burden of others interfering. But, knowing that this attempt to reach ultimate subjectivity is entirely objective, because it is a true desire by all, then we must also be tolerant to other beings, knowing that they are all attempting to do the exact same thing that we are trying to do; figure things out and get by the best way that we know how. And so when someone is need of assistance, it is our duty to offer assistance, knowing that that individual is just as likely to be in the situation as you are.

by TKG on

I don't agree that Ron Paul is particularly sharp or consistent.

Blitzer I think is a blithering idiot not even smart enough to succeed at demagoguery.

His question was a canard on all sorts of levels. Ron Paul's answer was accurate in fact.

Who pays for accidents is worked out between the injured and the doctor hospital and family members.

In Blitzer's scenario, today someone in a coma would be starved to death unless a wife made the decision not to. It would also be clear the patient (if he survived) and his wife would owe the money and learn a valuable lesson about being penny wise and pound foolish -- in other words the slight extra a month for insurance would be worth it.

I find it interesting that the (specious) scenario where he is left to die due to his own negligence and failure to take responsibility for himself (again ludicrous as anything more than a thought experiment) is somehow considered callous or reprehensible by the same mindset (generally) that does support euthanasia (not even bringing in support for abortion).

I find the entire political news celebrity showbiz system and routine such as this a joke filled with idiots starting with the media morons.

I do agree on the need for clarity.

Make believe specious never happen scenarios don't bring clarity.

A better scenario would be the fellow blew out his knee playing basketball and the treatment cost a lot of money. How does he pay?

I say he has a big debt to pay (like a mortgage) and he can do it or go bankrupt if need be. He's relatively young, he learned a lesson about gambling with his health and money.

The other view is that we have paid extra taxes for a universal healthcare system and he is not on the hook for it, or only for some of it, or other words the major monetary hit for the treatment has been taken care of in advance by us, the citizens, under a predetermined socialized health system of some sort.

Hello Levi,
I will gladly join you in condemning the raucous "Let him die" shouts from some member(s) of the audience at last week's debate. It did show the ugliest side of some people who obviously are not fit for prime time. (Though it may have been only one shout, the cheers and applause that followed it were equally revealing and unnerving.)
I was also frustrated at that moment that, once again, Dr. Paul was not allowed - this time by his own supporters - to speak his mind and to clarify his position, which I think may be more subtle than is usually assumed. Most importantly, I think, his own view is not the draconian "let him die' stance, nor is it , necessarily or by default, a 'private charities alone must step in' position.
It is possible, I think to argue that he is first and foremost against FEDERAL fiats and policies, which grant unprecidented rights and assume un-constitutional authority to act in the public good. Might it not be that his is a 'state's right to decide' position, instead, thus moving the discussion to a different level? If one believes, for instance, that the closer to home the policy is decided, the greater the chance that it will reflect the will (and respect the sovereignty) of the individual, then the policy position does not seem so all-or-nothing. In either case it becomes a very different issue.
This, it seems to me, is a qualification of the general debate about Paul and other Libertarians, and one that I would like to hear and learn more about. But as long as he is silenced by fools, or ignored by the media, we may not get to hear that.
BTW and to be fair, his own ineptness at, or unwillingness to be specific when asked detailed questions about actual policy decisions plays a very big part here. When asked these questions, he immediately reverts to philosophical generalities, rather than to "applied Paulism". At times, I think he is his own worst political enemy.

You've brought up an interesting debate and framed it well: however, I must protest the tendentiousness you've also given in to. Wolff Blitzer's question clearly assumed a person who COULD have had insurance; he just WOULDN'T buy it. He didn't "forget", nor was it 'unaffordable', just foolishly deemed unnecessary. To suggest otherwise skews the discussion.
Sure, it broadens it to include those who don't have the option - which is a necessary consideration to the national debate - but it is beside the point here. Blitzer's approach was intentionally to pin down Ron Paul on the issue of compliance with a rational mandate; not a discussion of ethical first principles.
Also, health-care care policy in America before the Obama-care bill was simply NOT a "let 'em die" policy. I wish we could put this rabid dog down, once and for all. While the procedures for accessing federal and state assistance - even forgiveness - of medical care are/were not 'automatic and comprehensive', they did/do exist and are widely effective. Let's all face this fact together, shall we: If this were not the case, there would likely be no health-care debate, because cost would not be so high!!! To suggest otherwise is playing into an Hysteria which is politically effective among ignorant people, but which is ultimately unhelpful in seeking rational solutions and consensus. We must begin with the truth, if there is to be hope for resolution and cooperation.

As always, I appreciate your sincerity and your sense of priority, and I wish you well.

Hello again, Levi,
I wanted to make this point about your main philosophical question: "Who are we to each other?" to which, you say the "opposing answers are best defined by Ayn Rand, in one corner, and Carl Jung in the other."
Isn't there room here also for the position taken by Camus, who says outright (though I am here only paraphrasing), that it is a question of what kind of people we wish and are willing to be. His existentialism doesn't assume that human nature is a fixed entity of one sort or another (which I think both Ayn Rand and Carl Jung both assume), but a state of possibilities - like a state of quantum superposition - for self-definition. This makes ethical decision a matter of rational or even irrational choice, but is not based on the arguable interpretations of empirical theory about human nature. Rather, the choice is up to each for his own reasons, and argument, persuasion and debate have a central role to play.
It seems that this position may seem to conflate with that of Libertarians in its implicit belief in Freedom of the individual as the natural starting point, but I think it makes fewer naive assumptions than they do about the accessibility (and the desirability) of that natural state, and it is a more profound view of actual human Freedom. Libertarianism, after all, is really only a political philosophy about the proper relation of the individual to the government --not to his/her fellows in the world!
Do you think this broadens the discussion?

by Mickey Z. on

The problem with these "debates," Levi, is that we so often have to accept your opinion as fact before answering. The framing of any debate shapes it, as you know.

For example, what if we don't agree that Ron Paul is smart? (I see no evidence of it). What if we see past the media hype and recognize Obama's health care reform (sic) was merely another big giveaway to Corporate America?

What about all the angles you omit, e.g. the role of preventative lifestyle measures and the reality that most of American health care is "disease care" based on faulty models?

I could go on but mostly, I'm suggesting that you can set up a Jung vs. Rand discussion rather easily without having us wade through your opinions.

by Bill_Ectric on

Kevin MacLellan has a good point in that health care has long been available for those who really need it. I know people who work "under the table" and pay no taxes and have no health insurance, and when they get seriously ill or injured, they go to the emergency room of the hospital. They can't be turned away. They get a large bill, which they may or may not pay eventually, at $10.00 per month or something. Basically, the taxpayers are paying for them. I don't mind my taxes going to help needy people, but I'm thinking that some of these people could pay for health insurance if they wanted to. There is also the idea of preventive medicine, to catch illnesses before they become life-threatening. If I hadn't been getting medical check-ups for the past 10 years through my health insurance, you would all probably be supporting my debilitated ass by now.

by Levi Asher on

Thanks for the responses, all.

I am surprised to hear Sirloin say that individualism is the same as existentialism. I don't think this is accurate. I've studied existentialist philosophy for decades -- there are several ways to define it, but I've never heard it equated to individualism. I personally tend to agree with existential approaches to philosophy, but I do not tend to agree with philosophies based on individualism (such as Ayn Rand's).

Just wanted to clarify that ... as for all other comments, I could say much more to each one, but this week I think I'll just let all your responses stand!

by Bill on

Ron Paul is not an Objectivist, but an "Austrian"--that is, he is a follower of the economists F.A. Hayek and Ludwig von Mises. Rand's Objectivism would conflict with Paul's personal religious beliefs, and while he may respect her work, it was Hayek's The Road To Serfdom that won Paul over to the libertarian side.

It was odd to see Republicans cheering the death of someone who didn't want to buy health insurance since their whole legal argument against the Affordable Care Act is basically that it infringes on their right NOT to buy health insurance.

As long as there is mental illness, there will be Republicans.

I don't think it is a matter of either/or, or compassion v. self-interest, or objectivism v. the collective unconscious. We come together in society to make a better life possible for each by making it possible for all.

Take a long think along the imaginary journey of a life totally by and for oneself. Not much there. Even what was once abundant has been used, is being used, by a great many other individuals, who, by this frame are each by and of themselves, scurrying about to find wherewithal to survive. Is that the free and independent picture held by those who insist on each for oneself?

In general, your starkest question is spot on. However, I think that in relation to the debate in the video the issue is slightly different, and the starkest question is not quite relevant. As Paul makes clear, some forms of communitarianism are okay for the Republicans: families, charities, churches, etc. They affirm a world in which there is a degree of Jungianism. And they are all, in any case, sitting there as flag-waving Republicans (which brings to mind that scene from The Life of Brian in which Brian tries to persuade the throng that each of them is an individual, and with one voice they shout back: "We are all individuals"). What they don't want is people to have a right to things like work and health care - a right protected by the state. The issue is not the conception of life in general, but of the body politic in particular. The state is called upon to act AS IF we were all monads - AS IF there were no Jungianism - AS IF there were no such thing as society.

Why? Perhaps the answer to that is more psychological than philosophical.

by kim on

I don't think it is practical to let someone die of course, but the fact that he does not have insurance because he could not "afford" it tells me right away that he expected someone else to carry him in the event of an unforeseen situation!!!!!

Why should any one of us ever have to carry anyone else on our backs.............please please please can someone explain that to me.

I do not know him, I do not owe him anything, why should I have to give up something of mine to support someone else who could not afford to take care of himself!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

I can't stand it!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Of course the totally messed up welfare state we live in is not going to change in an instant....but if he not been raised up in a welfare state, i.e. a state that says if you fall on hard times we will take care of you, then he would not have come to expect to be taken care of!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

He would have found a way to afford his own healthcare!!!!!!!! Because the consequence of his own actions would be his and not mine. I do not want to have to bear the weight of the consequences of others!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

I can almost guarantee that most of the people who say they can not afford something are just not willing to give up that lifestyle they believe themselves to be entitled to because they are "special" somehow and truly believe that they should be taken care of by others.............i can't stand it when people are telling me how they partied at the lake with 30 cases of beer over the holiday weekend and then come tell me the next week how sad it is that they have to put all their jewelry in hock to pay some bills because "everything is so expensive"!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! OH WOE IS ME!!!!!! I HAVE TO TRADE MY GIGANTIC FORD F-350 IN BECAUSE GAS IS SO EXPENSIVE!!!!!!!!!!! WE'RE GONNA GET A NEW TOYOTA TUNDRA!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!



If everyone took care of themselves truly, and society was not burdened by millions of needy then when the time came for someone who truly needed it I am sure the community would take care of him. His own family with the help of friends and possibly people who provide private charity.

But not at the expense of taking from me to give to somebody who I can almost guarantee just would not take the necessary steps to ensure that he could take care of himself........self responsibility means planning ahead and not becoming a burden on others. my husband and I are just fine. We have everything we want and a little more and have some investments that pay us a bit...we are both insured and have life insurance just in case. We buy what we can afford and don't rely on welfare and food stamps. We do not have kids because we want to buy a house first and to us that means BUY. We made good decisions for ourselves so as to be able to stay together and have our own lives and not be bothered by or be a bother to anyone else. In fact we have been asked by two different friends in the past year for help with money. WHY!?! Because they are going out to the bars and smoking a pack a day and they simply cannot afford that lifestyle. So when they party too much they came to us thinking since we have a nice car and some nice things that we should "share the wealth"!!!!!!!!!!

There is no difference between us and them except that we take care of ourselves and plan wisely!!!!!

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