Philosophy Weekend: The Ayn Rand Principle and the Two Senses of Self

Existential Language Psychology

Is Ayn Rand correct when she declares that the pursuit of self-interest is the primary motivating force of our lives, and that a fulfilling sense of human ethics can be built around the honest recognition of the pursuit of self-interest?

This is a gigantic question. It tends to stir up passionate responses, as we discovered last weekend after I brought up the question. The "Ayn Rand principle" has become a philosophy of life to many people, because it provides a refreshingly straightforward, direct and affirmative sense of morality. The Ayn Rand principle provides a chin-up ethic that people can actually live with.

The problem is, ethical considerations aside, the Ayn Rand principle is nonsense words. It's pure applesauce. Ayn Rand had an Oprah Winfrey-like ability to communicate strong messages to her readers, and her ethical philosophy seemed to say a lot. But it doesn't stand up to close examination at all. Let's start with the concept of self-interest and apply a little introspection.

Imagine you're driving a car in the dark on a curvy road on a rainy night, and you've got your spouse in the passenger seat, your child in the back seat, and your child's friend in the back seat. You drive carefully, tense with responsibility, because at this moment you are completely focused on taking care of four people. You are not just interested in your self; you are interested in the safety of everyone in the car, and if a horrible moment occurred when you had to swerve into a tree to stop the car, you would certainly try to maneuver to take the brunt of the hit yourself, because you value the safety of the three other people in the car more than you value your own.

You as an individual barely exist at this moment. There is a car, there are four people in it, and you're the driver. You do not feel a private self-interest at this moment, but rather a shared self-interest.

Let's look at a different type of example, and pay attention to how the concept of "self" is being used. The year is 2003, and three people are arguing about President Bush's decision to invade Iraq.

Person A supports the decision to invade, and says that Bush is acting in the interest of global peace, democracy and freedom.

Person B is against the war, and says the invasion is an act of blatant self-interest on the USA's part, that it's all about controlling oil resources.

Person C is against the war and says that George W. Bush is an egotist who is invading Iraq to fulfill his fantasy of being the next Winston Churchill or Ronald Reagan.

If we try to map these three points of view to the Ayn Rand principle, we find something interesting: Person C believes the invasion is an act of self-interest, and so does Person B. But in Person C's case the self-interest is on behalf on an individual self -- President George W. Bush with his insufferable ego -- while in Person B's case the "self" is the United States of America.

So what is a self, anyway? What does the word mean? In fact, it typically has one of two discrete meanings.

First, there is the individual self, which might also be called the absolute self, or maybe the atomic self. In this sense, "self" refers to a single person. I am an individual self. You are an individual self. An individual self, or individual person, is clearly bounded in time and space. At the risk of over-generalization, it seems safe to say that every individual self has a name, a birthday, a functioning heart, a functioning brain. Every individual self was born with two parents, and will die. This is the first widely understood meaning of the commonly used term "self".

The second might be called the functional self, or the relative self, or perhaps (taking the chemistry metaphor further) the molecular self. We refer to this type of self constantly in our everyday lives. "How'd we do?", I ask a fellow Mets fan on the streets of Queens. Whenever you are in a transaction with another party, then the "self" relative to this transaction is the sum existence of the group of people who are doing this transaction with you. These selves, these wholes are ethically alive; they exist for themselves, as themselves.

We just saw an inspiring, beautiful peaceful revolution (or at least the hopeful beginning of one) in Tahrir Square, Egypt. As in every revolution, the crowd became, and acted as, a collective self.

If the "self" can refer to any group made up of any number of people -- an individual self, the United States of America, the New York Mets, all of humanity since the beginning of time -- then how does Ayn Rand's principle mean anything at all?

All the principle of self-interest means, then, is that we are always acting in the interest of ... many different people including ourselves. Didn't we already know that?

A persistent Randian might argue: doesn't collective self-interest boil down to individual self-interest multiplied by the number of people involved?

I don't think it does. Thinking in terms of chemistry again: it's a fact that sodium chloride dissolves in water. This does not mean that sodium and chlorine dissolve in hydrogen and oxygen. It means that NaCL dissolves in H20. There's a big difference.

The Ayn Rand principle is soft in the middle when it comes to clearly defining what the "self" in "self-interest" is. What appears at first to be solid philosophy turns out to be pop psychology. However, the Ayn Rand principle has a big fan base, and it's an important topic, and I don't think we ought to stop beating up on the Ayn Rand principle after this single objection.

There are more weaknesses in this principle, and I plan to write more about this with the next installment of this series. This weekend, we took apart the word "self" in "self-interest". Next weekend, I'd like to examine what exactly the word "interest" means.

I'd also love to hear your feedback about how you think this inquiry into an important ethical question is going so far.

This article is part of the series Philosophy Weekend. The next post in the series is Philosophy Weekend: A Shot in the Arm, or the Meaning of Empathy. The previous post in the series is Philosophy Weekend: Taking Down Ayn Rand.
36 Responses to "Philosophy Weekend: The Ayn Rand Principle and the Two Senses of Self"

by TKG on

I like applesauce. Thanks for bringing it up. I'm a gonna buy some to eat.

On a note unrelated to applesauce.

r = the genetic relatedness of the recipient to the actor, often defined as the probability that a gene picked randomly from each at the same locus is identical by descent.
B = the additional reproductive benefit gained by the recipient of the altruistic act,
C = the reproductive cost to the individual of performing the act.

rB > C

by cheryl ann on

spoken like a true Dharma Bum, and that is meant as a compliment. (Some meditation practices pose exactly this question. The practitioner is asked to contemplate different aspects of the self -- ego, possessions, family, position in society, physical body etc -- and understand each as a construct of mind or matter. It's hard to say what "self-interest" is after a dzogchen session.)

Reductio ad absurdum is probably a useful approach to deconstructing Rand's "philosophy" because her proponents tend to present what are mere assertions as being actually well thought-out, which they are not. We see presented as "hard-nosed" and "fact based" notions that are really no more than bigoted ignorance all around us -- on television, in the news, etc. I'm particularly sickened by some of the things that have been done in "American interests" which is a form of national collective "self-interest."

by Dharmabum on

A classic Koan in Zen practice involves the student discovering and bring forth his original self.
This exercise turns out to be quite a challenging task. The issue is that, what we think is the self may not be so accurate. This brings up a major issue in Rands' philosophy: if we can't define what the self is, how can we design an ethics based on self-interest? For those interested take a look at The Heart Sutra.

by Don Kenner on

You wrote:

"Imagine you're driving a car in the dark on a curvy road on a rainy night, and you've got your spouse in the passenger seat, your child in the back seat, and your child's friend in the back seat. You drive carefully, tense with responsibility, because at this moment you are completely focused on taking care of four people. You are not just interested in your self; you are interested in the safety of everyone in the car, and if a horrible moment occurred when you had to swerve into a tree to stop the car, you would certainly try to maneuver to take the brunt of the hit yourself, because you value the safety of the three other people in the car more than you value your own.

You as an individual barely exist at this moment. There is a car, there are four people in it, and you're the driver. You do not feel a private self-interest at this moment, but rather a shared self-interest."

None of this has any relationship to the ethics of Ayn Rand's Objectivism. Like it or hate it, it is not a theory that falls apart when confronted with a situation of "shared interest." This is a sophomoric objection to a complex ethical theory. It wouldn't be so bad, except that the ACTUAL theory is readily available in printed form.

Rand was asked if she would take a bullet to protect her husband. She replied "absolutely I would." Does this admission blow her theory to applesauce? No.

Imagine that I told a proponent of John Rawls philosophy that Rawls' ideas were applesauce because...(drum roll).. people break contracts all the time (prolonged, tumultuous applause).

Seriously, dude. This was bloody awful.

by Levi Asher on

Thanks for the feedback, Don (I especially appreciate responses that disagree with me, so I can learn from them). I think you are reading my words in a narrow sense, though.

I agree that Ayn Rand's principle doesn't fall apart because of the concept of shared interest -- and that's not why I said it falls apart. I said it falls apart because the term "self" is commonly used in two different senses, and the principle depends on the confusion of the two different senses of the word.

if the "self" in self-interest refers to an individual self, then Ayn Rand's principle simply doesn't pass the test of introspection. All we have to do is consider the way we make decisions in every part of our life to see that we commonly make decisions on behalf of various different people including ourselves. It's simply impossible to imagine carrying on with our lives without regularly, constantly considering the needs of others besides ourselves. It's not only that we shouldn't live in this way -- we couldn't live this way if we tried.

Therefore, the self in Ayn Rand's "self-interest" must be understood as referring to the functional self, the relative self. But then, as I point out, it says nothing at all that isn't already obvious.

I'd appreciate it, Don Kenner, if you would critique the point I'm trying to make in these terms. Is Ayn Rand actually referring to the individual self, and if so, how do you address the problem that we all know this is not how we live our everyday lives?

Or is she referring to the relative self, and if so, what is Ayn Rand's principle saying at all?

Thanks.

by Timothy on

"You are not just interested in your self; you are interested in the safety of everyone in the car, and if a horrible moment occurred when you had to swerve into a tree to stop the car, you would certainly try to maneuver to take the brunt of the hit yourself, because you value the safety of the three other people in the car more than you value your own."

Who is the "you" in this sentence? It is, obviously, the individual, atomic self. If the individual self "values the safety of the three other people more than [it values its] own," how is taking the brunt of an accident NOT an act of pure individual self-interest? You do not feel any sort of "shared interest," as the other passengers (with the possible exception of the children) would probably also choose to bear the brunt of the accident.

In every example that you brought out, I failed to see how the "collective self" contradicted individual cost-benefit analysis, and if the collective self always DOES always fall in line with individual decision-making, I am highly skeptical that it exists at all.

The driver of the car makes all of his decisions based on his own cost-benefit analysis, deciding based on what he wants. How is this different from more obvious acts of self-interest?

by Levi Asher on

I like your question, Timothy, because I think you're getting at the crux of the matter. I think there are two ways to answer the question you're asking. If you answer it one way, you may tend to agree with Ayn Rand's principle of ethics. If you answer it the other way, you will not. Here's the question:

When Person A wishes something good for Person B, is this a "selfish" wish on the part of Person A, or is it something else? Certainly, it makes Person A happy to see Person B happy. So does this mean that Person A is only interested in Person's B's happiness in so far that it makes Person A happy? This is one (rather mechanistic) model of human psychology and motivation.

I don't think this model rings true. I would say, rather, that Person A is capable of wishing good for Person B directly. It doesn't matter to Person A whether or not Person B's happiness makes himself happy. (Indeed this whole notion of "I want you to be happy because it makes me happy" quickly becomes circular and ridiculous). Why can't we simply admit that any person's zone of interest encompasses more than that person's individual self? I believe that if we only look within ourselves, we quickly realize this is true.

When it comes to understanding our everyday lives and the various decisions we make, the role of the individual self is overrated, overemphasized. We are more than individual selves. We *are* collective selves. Because I'm like every other parent, for instance, I feel my child's pain when my child is hurt, and I feel my child's pleasure when my child is happy. There is no interim step in which I parse the fact that my child's pain brings me pain. I am irrelevant to the fact that my child's pain brings me pain. My individual self simply doesn't come into play at all in this transaction.

I guess what I'm trying to say is, we can think a lot more clearly about ethics and morality if we think about the difference between the absolute self and the relative self. The boundaries of the individual self are nowhere near as thick and impenetrable as we often think they are. We think about the needs of others constantly in our everyday lives, and we care about these needs directly, in the same exact way that we care about our own needs. We don't even typically distinguish between our needs and those of others whom we love (or, sometimes, others whom we don't even love, but still care about). I believe we only need to look within our own feelings to realize this is a basic part of human nature.

How does that sound as an answer to Timothy's question?

by Bill_Ectric on

I notice no one is commenting on the President Bush/Iraq scenario. Probably because, if they chose "C" they would be calling Bush a jerk; if they chose "B" they would be admitting what most liberals believe is the real reason we invaded Iraq; and if they chose "A," which is the reason most conservatives believe we invaded Iran, it would weaken their stance in the Ayn Rand debate.

Slick! And I really do mean that in a good way.

by Timothy on

What is needed here is an example where the actions of collective self contradict the will of individual self. In areas such as a parent-child relationship, it is a little foggy and difficult to see how "individual self interest" applies, but the application is not out of the question. Does collective self ever operate contrary to individual, cost-benefit interest?

by Paul Ray on

Regarding Iraq, I'll go with B, and I'm not a liberal and it doesn't bother me to be associated with a liberal viewpoint.

I wonder how many Objectivists support the invasion of Iraq- for any reason whatsoever. I doubt very many, so I don't understand your use of this example as a "ah-ha!" moment.

by Levi Asher on

Timothy, I would say this collision happens all the time, in both small and large ways, doesn't it? I guess the conflict between private and shared interest is part of the basic push-and-pull of everyday life. When there is nothing critical or extreme at stake -- when it's about, say, who gets the last cookie on the plate -- then I think the negotiations that take place depend highly on character and personality -- and it's by carrying out these regular negotiations with each other on a constant basis that we build our own character, our own personality.

Paul, I think my use of the controversial example of Bush's invasion of Iraq might have clouded my meaning with that "ah-ha!" moment. The point I was trying to make was a completely non-political one. I was giving an example of a conversation where two people might both agree that an act is selfish, but where one of the two people is referring to an individual person as the "self" (President Bush) and the other is referring to a country, the USA, as the "self". I was merely trying to point out that "self" is a fluid concept, that when we talk about "self-interest" we are not always talking about individual self-interest but often about collective self-interest. The larger point is that, when discussing Ayn Rand's principle of rational self-interest, much depends on which concept of "self" you are using.

These questions are really helping me clarify my own thoughts here (and in this sense, this "shared" posting has really benefited me "selfishly", though I hope most of you reading and responding are enjoying it too).

When I read The Fountainhead, the impression I got was that Rand was not really interested in making a bullet-proof philosophical statement, but rather that she was simply trying to call out bullshitters. In other words, she was trying to say that people tend to drop into a hypnotic sort of false concern for others that is a kind of herd mentality.

Taking Rand's era into consideration, I suspect that one of the main problems tormenting the planet was entire populations behaving like herds of unreasoning zombies. The early to mid-twentieth century strikes me as a time of masses literally marching straight into a meat grinder because of some warped sense of national or group self. It was a time of mass suicide. Rand was simply reacting to that.

The person driving the car with their family in it may plan to swerve themselves into the tree to save everyone else, but when the tree is in front of the car those plans are meaningless and reality takes control. You have no idea which kind of self you are until the tree is there.

Ayn Rand should not have answered the question about stepping in front of the bullet because it is an impossible question to answer. The answer always rings false because it cannot be known.

by Timothy on

Levi,
The cookie example doesn't prove your point. It actually proves mine:

"People are sometimes willing to sacrifice the pleasure they get from a certain consumption experience in order to project a certain image to others"- Dan Ariely, from "Predictable Irrationality."

Whenever people appear to be making an individual-benefit vs. group-benefit decision, they are simply making a decision between individual-benefit and self-portrayal. Personality and character simply determine the individual value that you place on your own benefit vs. your own appearance.

by Levi Asher on

Alessandro, I think that's exactly right. I believe that Ayn Rand's principle has value in that it urges an affirmative, independent frame of mind. And, as I've said before, I respect Ayn Rand a lot, because she spoke up against a lot of corrupt and phony political systems, and she showed courage and originality in how she expressed herself.

The problem is, many people take her principle too far and mistake it for a sound philosophy of life. They think the mysteries of human psychology have now been solved -- we act for selfish reasons, and manage to get along. This is just not a very sophisticated or realistic model for human behavior. The Ayn Rand principle makes a great pep talk for people who need it, but if it's a stopping point for your ethical growth, you really need to look further.

Timothy, I respect your right to believe that we wish good to others only because it benefits ourselves. As for me, I remain absolutely sure that this is not a good description of human nature. Why do you assume that the individual self must play such a strong primary role in every transaction? We know that we each inhabit individual physical bodies. That does not mean that our minds or our souls cannot be connected in ways that supersede individual physical separation.

by Timothy on

Levi,
Why do I assume that the individual self must play such a strong primary role in every transaction? Simple answer- I'm an economics major haha. Rational self interest is the basic building block of every economic model, and although theorists like Ariely point out that we are not always rational, no one in the economics discipline questions the absolute prevalence of individual self interest.

by Levi Asher on

Timothy, I definitely believe that economics is all about rational self-interest ... but I'm surprised to hear you say it's about individual self-interest.

Doesn't much of economics have to do with the behavior of corporations, financial institutions, consortiums and governments? Doesn't a corporation always act according to corporate self-interest, rather than any type of individual self-interest? (If it's a publicly traded corporation, I believe it's legally required to). Doesn't a national government determine it's economic policy according to national self-interest?

Seems to me that economics is a great example of a system where rational self-interest is all about the behavior of self-interested collective institutions, as well as the behavior of self-interested individuals.

by Timothy on

It's a simple matter of the whole being the sum of its parts- the decision-makers in a nation/corporation make decisions based on their individual self-interest, but since they're usually accountable to their constituents or stockholders, the choice that best serves their individual interest also best serves the "corporate self interest."

I believe that such "shared" interest is simply the cooperation of many individuals' self interest. "Corporate" interest does not exist on its own, i.e. apart from individual self interest. Therefore, I would submit that it is merely an illusion.

I think what you are saying is that it makes no logical sense, which I don't think is correct. It is definitely not anything like apple sauce.

I think the crux of Ayn Rand's philosophy (while there are many other strains pointed out by you) is to take responsibility for one's own actions and thoughts. The concept of feeling good about a 'sacrifice' is beaten to death. To take the example of your car accident - If I as a father after having taken the brunt for my child gloated about what a great sacrifice I had made, then I would not be Randian. But if I knowing that I was sacrificing my life for my child, did not consider it a big act of sacrifice knowing it is in my "self-interest" to protect my child, then I would be Randian.

Expand this to putting a child through college. I may have given up many things, to save up for my kid. It is my self interest - arising out of my love for my child. But to expect my child to be bound to me for life, because I put him through college, is rubbish. That's all she's saying.

I don't know how the macro economics of it works. The thing with Atlas Shrugged is that we only have a glimpse of utopia of that valley. All we know about the macro-economic situation is that this collective system preached by the "moochers" is doomed to fail.

I think the fundamental issue raised by Ayn Rand is that - you cannot decide to take away from me what I rightfully own or have earned for X,Y,Z, use the fruits of my labour against me, in the name of collective good. That is why there are no children in Atlas Shrugged or Fountainhead.

In fact in Atlas Shrugged, in the valley, there is a mother, whose only job is to raise her children, of which she is doing a good job. I think this debate on "self-interest" is myopic.

This conversation is becoming a muddled confusion. It's because you are starting in mid-stream. You will necessarily end up with statement like that Ayn Rand takes objective reality 'too far'.

What most people who hear rumors of Objectivism don't understand is that it is a complete reworking of the fundamental base of philosophy: our concepts of consciousness. She asserts the primacy of existence: reality is actually 'out there'. It is not just a manifestation of our consciousness or a supernatural consciousness. She asserts that each existent has identity: it is what it is. Each thing acts according to its nature. a = a. Conciousness is the observation of reality through the sequence of steps; sensation, perception, and if you are capable, conception.

She states this succinctly as: Existence is identity. Consciousness is identification.

She holds that man's senses are a valid means of perception, and our mind is free to choose, the primary choice of which is to focus ones mind.

If you try to align her great intellectual achievement, which is the primacy of existence, brought to full rational explanation for the first time, with all the mystical beliefs of all the centuries, you are bound to run into problems.

If you are relying on Kant's nuominal world, a world outside this world, or other mystical explanations, you will necessarily run into contradictions. You can't explain reality if you still rely on mystical insight from another world, such as Plato's world of forms.

The schism in philosophy goes all the way back to Plato and Aristotle and before. They all relied on mysticism to arive at concepts. Rand does not.

To try to understand rational value judgements while still believing in intrinsic value or subjective value does not work. You have to go all the way back to the root of our concepts of consciousness and correct your error.

Only then can you arrive at a concept of objective value.

That is what you are discussing in your car crash example; the value of your life and the lives of those you love. It is not an esoteric or impractical question. It affects everything and everyone you love.

And thank you again, Levi, for having a reasonable discussion in this open forum. This discussion is worthy of the ancient name 'forum'.

by Levi Asher on

Thanks for this response, Mark. I think I understand what you are saying about Ayn Rand's emphasis on the reality of perceived existence, though I'm not sure why you consider this so relevant to the discussion at hand. The reality of perceived existence sure is a big topic, though, and I agree that the question has resonated through the ages. The reason I'm confused as to the relevance to morality and ethics, though, is that I tend to also believe in the reality of perceived existence. I guess this is one of the basic underpinnings of existential philosophy (thus the name), which is the kind of approach I tend to favor. I'm not big into mysticism or alternate realities. I have been very influenced by the ethical writings of Plato and Kant -- the writings, that is, that deal with questions of real-world behavior -- but I've been less interested in Kant's metaphysics, or Plato's forms. And yet, I still don't think Ayn Rand's ethics make sense.

Anyway, for those of you who are following this discussion week to week, the next installment has been posted here:

http://www.litkicks.com/AShotInTheArm

... and once again I appreciate everybody's feedback.

Sorry if I left out a few steps.

Concepts of values have always been in either of two camps; intrinsic or subjective. The dominant Platonic view has always been intrinsicism: the value is in the thing. This is what led to holy relics and cast societies. Over time people rebelled against the obvious flaws in intrinsicism by subverting to subjectivism. Subjectivists believe that value is in the mind. Nothing has intrinsic value so all values are just made up in our heads. This development has occurred over the last several hundred years.

Ayn Rand points out that neither of these views take into account who is doing the valuing. A rock doesn't value anything. An indestructible robot does not value anything. Neither are affected by their choices (if they made any or not). Living organisms are affected by their choices and therefore can value things. Living organisms are faced with a constant alternative: to be or not to be. If they choose to be, they must maintain their life. Animals make this choice instinctively. Humans make this choice by their unique capacity, their conscious mind.

So we value things based on their capacity to secure our existence. This doesn't mean that every human is always rational. That would only happen if we had no choice freedom.

If we always valued other people's lives more than our own that would only mean that we didn't value our own life. That is what Kantian altruism idealizes.

It doesn't just de-value your life. It makes it impossible for you to value anything. And of course it cannot be followed consistently. You have to eat in order to serve others.

Consciousness is the capacity of perceiving that which exists. Intrinsicism and subjectivism separate our consciousness from objective value. Almost everything you've ever read is a child of this schism. So it is difficult to detect it and refute it. It is sung in songs and woven into poems. You have to go back to the foundation of thought.

I would recommend "Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand" by Leonard Peikoff.

by median on

First of all, as is likely the case with many others reading your arguments, I think you're equivocating on the term "self", particularly in the area when you say, "I think 'we' do X all the time." Speak for yourself! You act as though all of us operate just like you and that "WE" think, respond, are motivated, and act just as you do in our "everyday" lives. Based on your presuppositions I can see why you would think this. Is it true? Hardly. The late Anthony De Mello points out the serious flaw in this thinking in his book Awareness. I would here argue the opposite. When people do things they (at the very least, by and large) do them out of self interest (no, not the equivocated "group". Let's stop playing word games to make things convenient). Even in the event that someone gives to the poor, goes on a mission trip, helps the old lady across the road, etc, each of these people have gotten something out of their experience. It’s really irrelevant as to whether or not person A also considers the interest of person B. All that needs to be shown as that person A acted (in some way shape or form) in his own personal self interest, regardless of whether he helped another individual along the way or not. There simply are no selfless acts. When you rescue your son from being harmed, do you (did you) not know how much it would hurt YOU if you did not do it? Did you not know how sad and devastated you would be if, God forbid, something were to happen to him. How selfish! Even if you answer no to this question, you cannot soundly pass your argument onto everyone else, because you aren’t them. They might very well (and I would argue likely) answer YES.

Secondly, calling an argument or particular viewpoint “circular”, “ridiculous”, or “mechanistic” doesn’t make it so. I could do the same with your arguments and that would be that! At best we would be left standing where we began. But if your argument stands on an “I believe if we look within”, that is if your argument stands on a subjective “I believe”, we are still at an impasse. Why couldn’t you have labeled your articles that way instead? Posting things like, “Ayn Rand was a Sociopath” or “Why Ayn Rand is Wrong” is quite misleading if it is only that you “believe” she is wrong on the basis that you “believe” we all look inside ourselves and see you are right or see that we act not only on self interest. This argument about “looking within” is used a ton by the Mormons. “Just pray, search the spirit, and God will give you a wonderful burning in the bosom. Then you will know we are right about Joseph Smith.” Sorry guys, I never felt that indigestion!

If every action that you (personally) take is one in which you first consider the ramifications for others (although I would certainly challenge this), what makes you think this is the case for all other individuals? Just looking inside is irrelevant because it assumes all others think and feel like you do. There are many good reasons to think this is purely false (of which I will let those who are interested search out on their own). Again, just saying that “we are collective selves” or “the role of the individual self is overrated”, doesn’t make it so. These arguments ought to be ignored for no other reason than they are wholly arbitrary, and thus invalid.

Lastly, as pertaining to your argument that, “We don't even typically distinguish between our needs and those of others whom we love” I would again strongly disagree. Such things happen all the time! I suppose we could go around in circles if your rebuttal would be to say, “Well, if you did not consider the interests of your loved ones then it is obvious that you did not love them.” But how do you know that? Here we have a case of your presuppositions (i.e. – your worldview), vs. that of others. Should we be stuck now with Socrates and Plato’s Symposium; arguing over what love is? Moreover, when you “consider the needs of others” (in all of your daily affairs), what “others” are you talking about? Are you drawing the line at your immediate/intermediate friends and/or family? Why stop there? Why not consider the needs of all humanity? If this be the case, then maybe you would be out feeding the homeless, clothing the naked, employing the unemployable, or building orphanages, as opposed to eating good food, taking a hot shower, listening to wonderful music, paying your bills, or writing articles trying to refute Ayn Rand! You selfish bastard! How dare you act in such a selfish manner when there are starving children in Africa.
The point here is that you cannot disguise your selfishness as being selfless simply because you say that you considered others. When I “look inside myself” I see (quite clearly) that my actions are based on my personal interest, even if it does not at first look like individual self interest, and I would venture to say that most people also feel this way. When I give flowers to someone on a special day, "I" feel good. When missionaries convert a poor lost soul to their religion, "THEY" (individually) feel accomplished and proud. And when an individual participates in their commune, in such a fashion that they have benefited “the whole”, they too get something out of it.

by Levi Asher on

Median, you've said a lot, and I especially appreciate your points on the weakness of the "look within" argument. You're probably right that "look within" is not an argument that's ever going to persuade anybody, unless they already wish to be persuaded.

But, I have to object when you say I am playing word games or equivocating about the meaning of the word "self". My points about the meaning of the word "self" are the basis of everything I've been writing here. I've given this a lot of careful thought and I really think I'm on to something with this point.

So, please let me turn this around and ask you a question. You say that "my actions are based on my personal interest". Well, I believe that your actions are based on your interest. But "my personal interest" seems to refer to you as an isolated individual, you as a single human being. What makes you so sure that your actions are only based on your *personal* interest? What makes you so sure that you as a conscious being are only capable of caring directly about your own well-being as a single isolated human being?

In other words, why are you sure that the subject of your interest -- not the object of your interest, but the subject of your interest -- must always be your individual singular self?

This is the great unexamined premise, the assumption that always goes unquestioned. We need to start questioning it.

by median on

Well, for starters I suppose I could ask you this question in reverse, seeing as the most intuitive way of looking and speaking of “self” is the one in which we are talking about individuals, and not some obscure (and I would argue artificial and arbitrary) definition of “self” that really just seems like a nice convenient invention in order to attempt a rebuttal of Ayn Rand. But there is another issue here that is even more striking, namely that you have admitted that you believe I am acting in my own interest! If this is so, then I suggest this case is closed. But if by my”self” you are meaning some other definition of self, that has not been justified, then 1) you need to present that definition and show that that definition is justified and 2) you then need to bring forth the necessary and sufficient conditions for such a definition.

Secondly, as pertaining to your question on *personal* self interest, I suppose if you were to provide a convincing real life situation in which a person acted with no individual self interest, whatever, including a case in which that individual got absolutely nothing from their action (of some kind, shape, or sort) then you might be ½ way there to convincing me. You see, the second ½ of your argument would then have to show that the kind of selfishness which Ayn Rand is speaking of (the one in which one is "concerned with one's own interests.") is one we ought not take, and that in its place we ought to follow your ethic of “collective self”, or whatever. Perhaps this would not even do, because if it could be shown (and I maintain that it can) that (at the least) most actions are done with what might overwise be known as primary self interest (when individuals act first in their personal self interest), then Rand would stand.

Your last question is logically complex in that, once again, it assumes something that I do not accept. I have made no assumption or argument to the affect that humans are only capable of caring directly about their own well being. More importantly, though, Rand’s argument doesn’t go there. The argument pertains to the way one ought to go about living. As one introduction puts it, “The evil of a robber does not lie in the fact that he pursues his own interests, but in what he regards as to his own interest.” Let’s turn the tables once again and ask you the same question. What makes you so sure that your actions aren’t based in your own individual self interest? At the end of the day, even if you did something that at some point benefited a person or group other than yourself it could likely be shown that that action also benefited you, and thus it was not a fully selfless action. Therefore, even actions toward the benefit of “the group” are also individually selfish at their core.

by Levi Asher on

Median, I described a situation exactly like the one you ask for in the follow up post to this one, which is here:

http://www.litkicks.com/AShotInTheArm

The entire purpose of me posting this example -- the parable of the parent and child getting a shot in a doctor's office -- is to answer the question you're asking (and that others have asked). I'd love to hear why you think this is not a valid answer -- or maybe you'll agree that it is a valid answer and that there's more complexity to "self" than a simple equivalence to a single isolated human being.

Here's another example, just for fun. I was recently playing poker at a table with my brother and about 8 other people. When I play poker, it makes me happy to win a hand, and it makes me happy to see my brother win a hand. Now, according to the simplistic model of existence in which a self -- that is, a conscious, desire-filled living mind -- is exactly mapped to the boundaries of a single individual, you'd have to translate the above sentence into a formula like this:

-- it makes me happy when I win a hand
-- when i see my brother win a hand, some mental process goes on in which I realize that my brother winning a hand is good for me, and therefore it makes me happy when my brother wins a hand

But why is that extra step needed in the second case? Discarding this presumed exact equivalence of the conscious self with the single individual, I would describe the situation more simply, like so:

-- it makes me happy when I win a hand
-- it makes me happy when my brother wins a hand

I submit to you that the mental or emotional transactions that take place when I see that I have won a hand are very similar to the mental or emotional transactions that take place when I see my brother win a hand. There is no interim step in which I process an "external" benefit into an "internal" benefit. Rather, the belief in a strict separation between the "external" and "internal", between the way I care about another person and the way I care about myself, is a naive (though common) belief. It's the weak link in the doctrine of psychological egoism, and the weak link in Ayn Rand's principle of rational self-interest.

Please let me know what you think of this reasoning.

by median on

“Fluid intermediate nature of self”? It sounds as though you are trying to defend Spinoza’s metaphysic, are you really?

Once again, saying something is a “weak link” doesn’t make it so. You have to prove your point; just shouting from the top of a pulpit box isn’t convincing (especially given the fact that what you are saying has implications that are extremely unintuitive to an overwhelming amount of people). This monistic, pantheistic, “intuitional” (all is one) philosophy (propounded by those in eastern philosophy) requires (eventually) an irrational leap of faith (which I will explain in a moment).

Your interpretation is extremely flawed. Let’s take for a moment your “it makes me happy when I win a hand” argument. Why have you added something to the second part of the argument (i.e. – some mental process) but not the first? This is arbitrary. Mental processes happen in both cases. Thus you are begging the question on selfishness. This example doesn’t at all prove what you are attempting to say that it proves. Rather it only shows a significant difference between one individual and another! At minimum, this displays the rational and quite intuitive conclusion that we (our-selves) are not “all one” but that we are individuals and separate from one another. You are confusing individual identity with verbal identity (such as that of a group). We could from here go even further into Parmenides’ and Zeno’s argument against motion but I won’t (yet) presume that you choose to accept that ridiculous argument as well.

Secondly, this attempt at a “fluid self” [hive mentality] argument is really hocus pocus, in that it leads to logical absurdity and what it really stems back to are the ancient arguments on Identity and Change (particularly among the pre Socratics such as the Milesians) along with those arguments propounded by Spinoza himself. Where the absurdity comes in is when you must logically deduce that because “all-is-one”, it has then become impossible to know anything (including how another person felt when they won a poker hand) unless you know everything. This is because anything that is only part of the whole totality is not wholly true (as Spinoza notes). Thus, even if it were true that “all-is-one”, it would be impossible to know that all is one because only knowing one part of that whole would be incomplete (and Spinoza realized this problem in his philosophy, and tried to answer it). This is why eastern philosophers have promoted the idea of silence, nirvana, becoming “one” with the self realization, etc. Under this epistemological structure, one must take an irrational leap of faith (an intuitive jump or leap of mystical intuition) in order to “actualize” the “reality” that is oneness. If you’d like to take that leap, be my guest. I will not be following.

Thirdly, even if it were at all possible to know exactly how another person felt (and I do mean exactly) it would not in any way follow that there is no real and/or actual self identity of individual persons, distinct from others. Your argument is self contradictory. Is there individual self identity or not? If you admit that there is, then this debate is over. But if you deny the reality of individual identity, then I suppose we can debate that subject. I charge that you’re attempting to make a false distinction (or at least that’s how you have presented it). You cannot divide self from “self”, at least not in the same sense. But if you argue that you are using the term in two different senses then we are really not talking about “all-is-one” at all. Rather we would be talking about two different subjects and thus the reality of an individual self stands.

As a final note, this whole idea that there is no “separation” between the individual self and that which is external to the self stems from the ancient philosophy of monism (i.e. – there is only one eternal substance that makes up the whole of reality). This idea destroys (if it is successful) the notion that our senses are at all reliable because it proposes that one’s mind and the perception of one’s external reality (outside of that mind) is really an illusion. But then if such an illusion is true, why should we trust the current perception that you are presenting a valid argument (namely that there is no separation and that Ayn Rand is wrong)? This conclusion is also logically absurd and thus we ought to dismiss it outright and move on. In fact, Spinoza even contradicts himself by saying first that the only reality is “all one” but then on the other hand saying that our perception of separate reality is “real as far as it goes”. This approach is like the man who refuses to admit that he cannot fit all of his belongings into one suitcase at the airport. And when an airport employee challenges him to this task he simply pulls out a large pair of scissors and cuts around the edges of his overstuffed Samsonite saying “See! It all fits!” No sir, there is a me that is not you and unless you provide me with an extraordinary amount of evidence that these distinctions (which our senses display to us) are false, I will continue to reasonably hold to what is intuitive and functional, just as you will continue to hold to what is reasonable about your bank account, your rent/mortgage payment, the water you must drink to continue living, and so on.

Lastly, if your senses are not reliable enough to display to you the distinction between you and another person, why stop there? Maybe you ought to also doubt the reliability of all of your senses on a consistent basis. I propose that if you were consistent in this line of reasoning you would (very soon) not be with us to argue about Ayn Rand.

by Levi Asher on

Median, thanks again for taking the effort to critique and challenge my remarks. I think this is a valuable exercise, and I'm glad we are managing to challenge each other's points without resorting to the usual kinds of personal attacks or defensive attitudes that usually mar these debates.

Naturally, I have some responses back, interspersed below:

YOU WROTE: “Fluid intermediate nature of self”? It sounds as though you are trying to defend Spinoza’s metaphysic, are you really?

ME: well, I've mentioned that I think of it more as Carl Jung's model of the mind, but Spinoza was on to something too. Mostly, these ideas about self are my own ideas, not ideas of anybody else.

YOU WROTE: Once again, saying something is a “weak link” doesn’t make it so. You have to prove your point; just shouting from the top of a pulpit box isn’t convincing (especially given the fact that what you are saying has implications that are extremely unintuitive to an overwhelming amount of people).

ME: I strongly disagree with that. Ayn Rand's philosophy claims to be fully logical and self-evident. The Ayn Rand claim, as I've understood it, is that anybody who fails to see the inherent correctness of her philosophy must be blinded by emotion. Therefore, I accomplish a lot by pointing out that Ayn Rand's model of the mind contains a weak link. I show that, while someone may choose to believe in this model of the mind, this involves a voluntary choice to believe in something which is not self-evident, which is far from proven.

YOU WROTE: Secondly, this attempt at a “fluid self” [hive mentality] argument is really hocus pocus, in that it leads to logical absurdity and what it really stems back to are the ancient arguments on Identity and Change (particularly among the pre Socratics such as the Milesians) along with those arguments propounded by Spinoza himself. Where the absurdity comes in is when you must logically deduce that because “all-is-one”, it has then become impossible to know anything (including how another person felt when they won a poker hand) unless you know everything.

ME: I never said (or thought) that "all is one". I also never said that an individual self is equivalent with any global or universal self. I have pointed to the fact that some religions seem to indicate a universal self (the Hindu "Brahma", the Buddhist "anatta") but I never said that my argument rests on this. I am saying something different. I am saying that an individual sense of self often expands to include specific groups that we belong to. I spoke of a parent who thinks of his child's needs as fully connected to his own needs, so that when this parent thinks of his "self-interest" he includes the child's individual physical needs in the same way as he includes his own individual physical needs. I spoke of two brothers playing poker at the same table, and pointed out that one brother may be just as happy to see his brother win a hand as to see himself win a hand. I am speaking of very small, intimate "collective selves" here, not a wide universal self. There's a big difference.

YOU WROTE: Thirdly, even if it were at all possible to know exactly how another person felt (and I do mean exactly) it would not in any way follow that there is no real and/or actual self identity of individual persons, distinct from others. Your argument is self contradictory.

ME: I'm not sure where you're going with this talk of "if it were possible to know how another person felt". I don't see where that is relevant at all. I have offered two illustrations: the parent watching a child get a shot, and the brothers who play poker at the same table. If I watch my child get a shot, I see the needle enter his or her arm. The point isn't that I am guessing at what feelings this induces in my child -- rather my point is that watching this induces feelings directly in *me*. Even if it turns out that my child feels no reaction upon getting a shot, it's likely that I will feel a reaction. I don't see where any guesswork is involved. Likewise, if I see my brother win a hand, I'm not thinking about what he's feeling. I'm thinking about the fact that he won a hand. If for some reason he doesn't feel happy about winning a hand (which is unlikely) that's irrelevant to me -- I still feel happy about it. This is exactly my point -- we directly feel emotions, in our conscious minds, based on watching things happen to other people we care about. I hope you'll agree that this is a fairly obvious statement. There is no guesswork involved -- the reaction is direct and immediate.

YOU WROTE: Is there individual self identity or not? If you admit that there is, then this debate is over. But if you deny the reality of individual identity, then I suppose we can debate that subject. I charge that you’re attempting to make a false distinction (or at least that’s how you have presented it). You cannot divide self from “self”, at least not in the same sense. But if you argue that you are using the term in two different senses then we are really not talking about “all-is-one” at all. Rather we would be talking about two different subjects and thus the reality of an individual self stands.

ME: As I said above, I think most collective feeling is between small groups of connected people (families, friends) so I'm not talking about the "all-is-one". I'm talking about a "we are one", where the "we" is usually a small number of people who care about each other. Is there "individual self identity"? Well, let's take it back to Descartes and "I think therefore I am". There is consciousness. That is all we know for certain. Is my consciousness nothing but a consciousness of my isolated individual physical atomic self? No, I don't believe so. I believe my consciousness is something wider than that. So, I think there is self-identity. The big objection I am trying to express with the Ayn Rand model of the mind is that Ayn Rand seems to take it for granted that the self-identity is wholly equivalent to the identity of an isolated individual, and I think this is a naive and unexamined notion -- again, the "weak link" in her supposedly bulletproof logic.

YOU WROTE: Lastly, if your senses are not reliable enough to display to you the distinction between you and another person, why stop there? Maybe you ought to also doubt the reliability of all of your senses on a consistent basis. I propose that if you were consistent in this line of reasoning you would (very soon) not be with us to argue about Ayn Rand.

ME: I have no interest in doubting the reliability of all of my senses. I have no interest in adopting any supernatural beliefs, or in speculating about metaphysical notions that do not appear real to us. I am generally an existentialist, by which I mean that I believe in the ultimate reality of what exists before me, and I don't waste much time thinking about anything else. I think the experience of being alive and having friends and family provides all the natural evidence I need to believe that the human sense of self has a natural fluidity, and that the Ayn Rand model of the human mind is too rigid to correlate with our actual experience as we live our lives.

* * *

Finally, again, I want to say that I appreciate the change to have this type of in-depth debate, and I'll be happy to keep it going. I am planning to post a new entry in the "Philosophy Weekend" series, partly inspired by these recent comments, which I hope states my case in a clearer way. Maybe we can keep the conversation going there, in the newer posts.

by median on

Quote:

I strongly disagree with that. Ayn Rand's philosophy claims to be fully logical and self-evident. The Ayn Rand claim, as I've understood it, is that anybody who fails to see the inherent correctness of her philosophy must be blinded by emotion. Therefore, I accomplish a lot by pointing out that Ayn Rand's model of the mind contains a weak link. I show that, while someone may choose to believe in this model of the mind, this involves a voluntary choice to believe in something which is not self-evident, which is far from proven.

Response:

Red Herring dude. We’re not talking about Ayn Rand’s view right now. We’re talking about your view! Let’s stick to the subject. I’m asking you to defend this position of “collective self” that you have presented. And thus far, all I have seen is your “saying” that it is so.

Secondly, what’s not self evident about the fact that people do things for reasons that they see fit their best interest? Do you really want to say that this “fluid self” argument is what is most intuitive? It doesn’t logically follow that because someone says, “How’d we do” that now we can rightly say, “Hey, we are all a collective and fluid “one-self” now guys! Group hug!” What you are doing is simply trying to mix the meanings of words to suit your needs for this attack on Ayn Rand, and it’s not working. We could play word games all day long, messing around with the definitions of words arbitrarily (ad infinitum), but this will get the argument nowhere. What you must first do is justify why we ought to follow your definition of “self”. I argue that this definition is arbitrary, unnecessary, and just plain wrong.

Quote:

I never said (or thought) that "all is one". I also never said that an individual self is equivalent with any global or universal self. I have pointed to the fact that some religions seem to indicate a universal self (the Hindu "Brahma", the Buddhist "anatta") but I never said that my argument rests on this. I am saying something different. I am saying that an individual sense of self often expands to include specific groups that we belong to. I spoke of a parent who thinks of his child's needs as fully connected to his own needs, so that when this parent thinks of his "self-interest" he includes the child's individual physical needs in the same way as he includes his own individual physical needs. I spoke of two brothers playing poker at the same table, and pointed out that one brother may be just as happy to see his brother win a hand as to see himself win a hand. I am speaking of very small, intimate "collective selves" here, not a wide universal self. There's a big difference.

Response:

“small, intimate, collective selves”? Uh…what?

You’re missing the point! Those examples that you are presenting, as if to show that they display some “collective self”, don’t show that at all. You are begging the question. It doesn’t matter whatsoever if a parent includes their child needs into their own or whether one brother feels “just as happy” if his brother wins a hand in poker or if he himself wins one. AT BEST, all these example show is that one person felt something inside themselves due to something that happened around them. You cannot jump from these examples right into saying, ‘See! There’s a collective self here!” This is purely hogwash. One can just as easily argue the other side, interpreting such situations (as I do) as being ultimately selfish in nature. Why did you care that your brother won that hand in poker? What makes you care so much about your son? Could it be because it ultimately makes you feel good and gives you something inside? Did you decide to have sex and bare a son for simply and totally altruistic reasons? Could it be that when you happen to see others “doing well” (by your hand or someone else) that you get something out of it? How selfish of you!

Next, if you never said “all-is-one”, you certainly alluded to that by arguing that there is this “collective self” identity that exists among groups. Did you not just get done arguing that the individual self identity is not as hard lined as we think; that the “external” and “internal” are not as distinct as we have thought? Talk about unintuitive. “It’s a big collective self!” Most people don’t think that way. They are doing what they deem is best for them (personally) and what they deem (personally) is in their best interest (personally). That is what is intuitive. But that doesn’t even matter! Ayn Rand’s main point is not descriptive content but PRESCRIPTIVE. How “ought” we live? We’ll get to that later.

Quote:

I'm not sure where you're going with this talk of "if it were possible to know how another person felt". I don't see where that is relevant at all. I have offered two illustrations: the parent watching a child get a shot, and the brothers who play poker at the same table. If I watch my child get a shot, I see the needle enter his or her arm. The point isn't that I am guessing at what feelings this induces in my child -- rather my point is that watching this induces feelings directly in *me*. Even if it turns out that my child feels no reaction upon getting a shot, it's likely that I will feel a reaction. I don't see where any guesswork is involved. Likewise, if I see my brother win a hand, I'm not thinking about what he's feeling. I'm thinking about the fact that he won a hand. If for some reason he doesn't feel happy about winning a hand (which is unlikely) that's irrelevant to me -- I still feel happy about it. This is exactly my point -- we directly feel emotions, in our conscious minds, based on watching things happen to other people we care about. I hope you'll agree that this is a fairly obvious statement. There is no guesswork involved -- the reaction is direct and immediate.

Response:

And there are just as many people who would bump their child in the other arm and say, “Toughen up son! Don’t be a cry baby” while feeling nothing of the sort that you are feeling. You feeling a reaction is, once again, begging the question. It doesn’t at all mean there’s a “collective self interest” as you are proposing. So you felt something. People feel things all the time. So what! Your conclusion does not follow from the premises and thus your attack on Ayn Rand fails.

Second, a correction is in order. We do not “feel” emotions in our minds. Minds do not “feel” anything. Minds think. It is the body that feels varying emotions. But even aside from this point, just “feeling emotions” doesn’t at all prove some collective identity.

Quote:

As I said above, I think most collective feeling is between small groups of connected people (families, friends) so I'm not talking about the "all-is-one". I'm talking about a "we are one", where the "we" is usually a small number of people who care about each other. Is there "individual self identity"? Well, let's take it back to Descartes and "I think therefore I am". There is consciousness. That is all we know for certain. Is my consciousness nothing but a consciousness of my isolated individual physical atomic self? No, I don't believe so. I believe my consciousness is something wider than that. So, I think there is self-identity. The big objection I am trying to express with the Ayn Rand model of the mind is that Ayn Rand seems to take it for granted that the self-identity is wholly equivalent to the identity of an isolated individual, and I think this is a naive and unexamined notion -- again, the "weak link" in her supposedly bulletproof logic.

Response:

Connection and “collective self” identity are two entirely different things. As usual in this debate you are mixing apples and oranges. As to the matter of consciousness, it seems you are once again mixing terms and meanings. What “weak link” is there except that your arbitrary definition of self clashes with that of Rand’s? If that be the case then I see no weak link except in your attempt at a definition of self. You said you object to the idea that, “self-identity is wholly equivalent to the identity of an isolated individual”. Are you objecting to A=A? “I am myself…but my identity is not equivalent to my identity.” This is purely absurd and should be rejected out of hand. Unless of course we’re not living in reality anymore, at which case we should all just be BEGGING-THE-QUESTIONALISTS.

Quote:

I have no interest in doubting the reliability of all of my senses. I have no interest in adopting any supernatural beliefs, or in speculating about metaphysical notions that do not appear real to us. I am generally an existentialist, by which I mean that I believe in the ultimate reality of what exists before me, and I don't waste much time thinking about anything else. I think the experience of being alive and having friends and family provides all the natural evidence I need to believe that the human sense of self has a natural fluidity, and that the Ayn Rand model of the human mind is too rigid to correlate with our actual experience as we live our lives.

Response:

“Appear real to ‘us’”?? Are you serious? Your definition of “existentialist” has no defining characteristics by which to differentiate between those who are existentialists and those who are not. I too believe in, [stomps foot on ground and shakes head] “the ultimately reality that exists before me.” But once again you have begged the question. Thus, you must be a member of the BEG-THE-QUESTIONALIST CLUB. Being alive, having friends, having family, etc…wow. Wait! I have those too! EPIC FAIL…

“A natural fluidity”?? What it seems like you are saying now is, “I can’t prove my point with solid necessary and sufficient (non vague) defining evidence. So I’m just going to say I believe it, that’s it’s enough for me, and that’s that.” Well, if you’re going to take this approach about having family, friends, and being alive etc. why even argue in the first place? Just say this is what you believe and don’t bother to post ad hominem attacks such as, “Ayn Rand was a Sociopath”.

All you’ve really shown here is that you personally don’t LIKE Ayn Rand’s philosophy, but you haven’t come anywhere near refuting it. All you’ve done is to say that you like to interpret nature and the things around you in one specific way that is consistent with your presuppositions about the nature of reality and what you think you know. Nice try, but this is a long way off from refuting Ayn Rand.

by Levi Asher on

Median, you wrote:

"Red Herring dude. We’re not talking about Ayn Rand’s view right now. We’re talking about your view! Let’s stick to the subject. I’m asking you to defend this position of “collective self” that you have presented. And thus far, all I have seen is your “saying” that it is so."

Well, let's take one thing at a time. The blog post on this page is part 2 of a 5-part series specifically intended to challenge the ethical philosophy of Ayn Rand. I've made it clear throughout this series that this is the exact purpose of the series. So, I disagree that we aren't talking about Ayn Rand's view right now. We ARE talking about Ayn Rand's view. This is why I have given myself the goal of putting a crack in one of Ayn Rand's primary pillars -- her explicit belief that her ethical philosophy is the only possible ethical philosophy that any rational person can believe in. She claims philosophical certainty on the point of ethics -- she claims this in her work and in her interviews, over and over. Thus, she sets a high bar for herself. All I have to do is prove that her philosophy is based on at least one voluntary premise rather than constructed completely from necessary and self-evident premises, and I have succeeded in proving that her ethical philosophy is not the only ethical philosophy that a rational person can have.

I believe I have accomplished this by pointing out the weak link that we've been discussing. That's been the express purpose of this 5-part blog post series. The purpose has not been to discuss my own philosophy, but to show the weakness in hers.

That's why I have not focused on pushing my own premises in these posts. I only need to show that my premises are possible for a rational person to believe in, and I have succeeded in taking down Ayn Rand's argument for the certainty of her ethical philosophy.

It doesn't mean I've shown Ayn Rand's philosophy to be impossible. It only means I've shown that its claims for self-evident certainty are incorrect.

Median, I also have to object to your statement that I have posted ad hominem attacks like "Ayn Rand is a sociopath". I certainly have never said anything remotely like this. I've said over and over during this series that I respect Ayn Rand very much. I have no idea where you're coming from when you say that I called Ayn Rand a sociopath. I've never written (or believed) anything of the sort.

Finally, I'd like to accept the challenge (which Median seems to lay before me now, and others too) to move beyond the discussion of Ayn Rand and lay out my own ethical principles and beliefs. I'm going to begin doing that now, and I've just published my latest "Philosophy Weekend" blog post, titled "The Elusive Self". This post doesn't explain very much -- it's just an appetizer for the meal that will hopefully follow. I've tried to explain what my starting points are, and how I will proceed, and I hope to develop some significant stuff in the weeks to come.

Some of what I wrote in the new blog post (linked above) is inspired by the conversation we've had here. Thanks again for really great feedback, and of course please keep letting me know -- either as a response to the comments on this post, or on future blog posts -- how you think I'm doing.

by median on

Quote:

Well, let's take one thing at a time. The blog post on this page is part 2 of a 5-part series specifically intended to challenge the ethical philosophy of Ayn Rand. I've made it clear throughout this series that this is the exact purpose of the series. So, I disagree that we aren't talking about Ayn Rand's view right now. We ARE talking about Ayn Rand's view. This is why I have given myself the goal of putting a crack in one of Ayn Rand's primary pillars -- her explicit belief that her ethical philosophy is the only possible ethical philosophy that any rational person can believe in. She claims philosophical certainty on the point of ethics -- she claims this in her work and in her interviews, over and over. Thus, she sets a high bar for herself. All I have to do is prove that her philosophy is based on at least one voluntary premise rather than constructed completely from necessary and self-evident premises, and I have succeeded in proving that her ethical philosophy is not the only ethical philosophy that a rational person can have.
I believe I have accomplished this by pointing out the weak link that we've been discussing. That's been the express purpose of this 5-part blog post series. The purpose has not been to discuss my own philosophy, but to show the weakness in hers.

Response:

Uh…dude…(knock, knock), you’re not listening. I’m challenging your view! Thus, were NOT talking about Ayn Rand, were talking about YOUR ASSERTION on “collective fluid self”, which I argue is NOT “self evident” nor is it intuitive in the slightest. Besides that, you haven’t defended that view. All you’ve done is shout, “It’s intuitive! Its self evident!” And all that shows is that you have a presupposed worldview that you’re attempting to promote. So what! It’s one thing to have a worldview and promote it. It’s an entirely different thing to prove it by providing the necessary and sufficient evidence for its veracity or cogency. I’ve already demonstrated how anyone could take your supposed “evidence” and easily interpret it in a fashion that is contrary to you conclusion. So once again, you haven’t accomplished your task of proving “collective self”. All you’ve shown is that your interpretation of the facts (i.e. – your worldview) prefers to cater favorably to a “fluid self” metaphysic. Instead of getting down to the philosophical tough job of proving your case you’ve resorted to preverbal foot stomping saying, “It is too!”

Secondly, when you say, “I have succeeded in proving that her [Ayn Rand’s] ethical philosophy is not the only ethical philosophy that a rational person can have” you have done nothing of the sort. Even if this task is possible you haven’t accomplished it. I have provided at least two counterexamples to your supposed “proofs” regarding the existence of some “fluid self”. Neither of which have you paid any attention to. I can only presume that you have chosen not to deal with them because either they are inconvenient to your view (which undoubtedly is the case), you cannot cogently answer such counterexamples, or you simply don’t care what anyone says in response to your view and wish to just continue ranting.

Finally, you cannot avoid the fact that you have made unchecked philosophical assertions that require justification and defense (just as you claim Ayn Rand has done). How interesting! Whether or not your “purpose” has been to discuss YOUR philosophy is irrelevant. Your philosophy has already come out! It has done so when you wrote at least one article claiming an alleged distinction between the self and “THE SELF”. Nigga please! Do us all a favor and stop kidding yourself that you are not promoting your philosophy (Carl Jung philosophy on collective unconsciousness and analytical psychology? Benedict Spinoza onto something? Fluid intermediate nature of self? Collective nature of consciousness? Blurring the lines between “internal” and “external” self? ) You (that is, your INDIVIDUAL SELF) have certainly promoted your view. The question is…for whom have you done it?

by Levi Asher on

Median, on your main point, we're just going to have to agree to disagree. You think that I have to prove my theory to be definitely true to take down Ayn Rand's claim of self-evidence for her own theory. I say that I only have to prove my theory to be coherent and possible. I do not have to prove it to be true. I have to prove that a rational and intelligent person, weighing all available evidence, could hold the position that the human sense of self is a fluid and intrinsically social/collective thing. By thus holding this position, this intelligent rational person proves that Ayn Rand's doctrine of ethics is not the only doctrine an intelligent rational person could have. Therefore I succeed in proving her wrong on one of her main declarations, her declaration of self-evidence.

But if you don't agree that I accomplish anything by doing this, then I think we should register your objection and move on. I think I've accomplished something.

As to addressing your specific examples, I'd be happy to. I'm going to reread them right now and will post again shortly.

by Levi Asher on

Okay, Median, I'm responding directly to what I think are they key points or counterexamples in your last post:

YOU WROTE (in response to my story of the parent watching a child get a flu shot):

"There are just as many people who would bump their child in the other arm and say, “Toughen up son! Don’t be a cry baby” while feeling nothing of the sort that you are feeling. You feeling a reaction is, once again, begging the question. It doesn’t at all mean there’s a “collective self interest” as you are proposing. So you felt something. People feel things all the time. So what! Your conclusion does not follow from the premises and thus your attack on Ayn Rand fails."

ME: I don't understand why it matters that some people might not feel empathy in the same situations that others would feel empathy. I'm sure that is often the case, but the fact still stands that empathy is a real, substantial and direct thing. It exists on a phenomenological level. This is in contrast to the Ayn Randian view of empathy, which is that it is a phantasm, an artificial (though morally acceptable) construct of the mind.

By pointing out the fact that real empathy does sometimes exist on a physical and perceivable plane, I expose a weak link in Ayn Rand's doctrine of rational self-interest. Median, what part of this sentence don't you agree with?

YOU WROTE:

"You said you object to the idea that, “self-identity is wholly equivalent to the identity of an isolated individual”. Are you objecting to A=A? “I am myself…but my identity is not equivalent to my identity.” This is purely absurd and should be rejected out of hand. Unless of course we’re not living in reality anymore, at which case we should all just be BEGGING-THE-QUESTIONALISTS."

ME: One thing I can say for sure: we are living in reality. It's the only show in town.

I don't object to A=A. I am saying that many philosophers and psychologists have raised valid questions about the idea that the human mind responds only to the needs of the individual self. In fact, there's no good reason to believe that the human mind does not have strong natural instincts and tendencies towards collective identity.

by median on

Quote:

I don't understand why it matters that some people might not feel empathy in the same situations that others would feel empathy. I'm sure that is often the case, but the fact still stands that empathy is a real, substantial and direct thing. It exists on a phenomenological level. This is in contrast to the Ayn Randian view of empathy, which is that it is a phantasm, an artificial (though morally acceptable) construct of the mind.
By pointing out the fact that real empathy does sometimes exist on a physical and perceivable plane, I expose a weak link in Ayn Rand's doctrine of rational self-interest. Median, what part of this sentence don't you agree with?

Response:

What part of your sentence don’t I agree with? Once again, it makes no difference whether empathy is “a real thing”, as you say. There are lots of feelings that are “real” to us. How OUGHT we act is the question, says Rand. She attacks altruism (i.e. – the virtue of total self sacrifice at the expense of the self). Again, you are confusing what is DESCRIPTIVE with what is PRESCRIPTIVE (and begging the question at the same time). Describing the way something IS doesn’t at all mean that things OUGHT to be that way. I argue, as Rand does, that selfishness (properly understood as care for one’s self) IS self evident and virtuous, as we all (at one point or another) do and ought to care for ourselves. We take care of those around us, for example, (those who we love) because (first of all) we want to (selfish), and secondly because it benefits us to do so (selfish). Is it “collective consciousness”? No, it’s self interest.

Perhaps your escape route out of our discussion will be that you have misunderstood Ayn Rand. She is attacking this view, which btw was/is used by Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Kim Jong Il, Barack Obama and other socialist/communist/fascist dictators, that the best good is that we sacrifice ourselves for others and/or the state (“Spread the ‘wealth’”), and we have all seen the terrible implications of this kind of thinking when it is has been implemented and/or taken by force throughout history. Perhaps, if you disagree, you could share some of your collective bank account with me. I would happily choose to be proven wrong if you did so. If our identities are “fluid” and/or “collective”, it only seems right that I should have access to “my”, “your”, “our”, fluid identification.

Quote:

One thing I can say for sure: we are living in reality. It's the only show in town.
I don't object to A=A. I am saying that many philosophers and psychologists have raised valid questions about the idea that the human mind responds only to the needs of the individual self. In fact, there's no good reason to believe that the human mind does not have strong natural instincts and tendencies towards collective identity.

Response:

I’m really not following this “collective self”, “collective identity”, “fluid intermediate nature of self” argument. I suppose you would have to provide this alleged “evidence” of which you speak. But from the way you have made it sound thus far, all you have given me are examples that can easily be countered. And if by those examples it was your intention to show that your thesis is self evident then you haven’t accomplished your task. If such a thesis was self evident I presume we would not be discussing it, namely because it would be self evident!

Your attack on Ayn Rand isn’t just detractive. That is, it isn’t that you are simply and only pointing out a logical fallacy. You have gone further than that by presenting your own philosophical theses. And you must buttress and defend those theses. It is not enough to simply show that other views are possible to think about or hold by rational human beings, for one, because of the fact that you claim your view is the self evident one. No philosophical system is said to be without its own perceived imperfections. But you must show that your view is more rational and more in line with human experience than that of Rand’s, and it is that which you have not accomplished.

Lastly, I did want to point out an interesting fact about your debate tactic. Why is it that you always seem to feel that you have to get the last word in when I post? Why do you feel that you have to respond to every posting I make? Could it be in the interest of your…SELF?? Could it be that you feel your position is threatened and you are trying to protect and defend your…SELF? Please consider our collective selves the next time you post by allowing me (the challenger) the respect and acknowledgement that I deserve. After all, you are not only you. You are you, and me, and all of us, RIGHT?

But...if you must continually post after everything I say, I understand...you're selfish! Just like all of us...

by Levi Asher on

Median, once again, thanks for your response. Why do I always respond to your comments? First, because I'm a persistent bastard. But it's really mainly because I am hoping if I respond that you'll respond again, because, seriously, you are about as smart a debater as I have run across since I started doing these philosophy posts. It's about time somebody showed up here who can go this many rounds with me and keep coming back. I can argue forever, but I now step aside and give you the last word.

I also invite you to write for Literary Kicks an article describing your own point of view about ethics, the Ayn Rand doctrine, my ideas about the collective self, etc. I hope you'll accept this invitation.

by Bill on

Rand was asked if she would take a bullet to protect her husband. She replied "absolutely I would." Does this admission blow her theory to applesauce? No.

Was this her husband or the young man she was screwing on the side? I'll assume having an affair was seen as valuable to her. Gee. so I can screw someone else and tell my wife it was value to me and served my self interest. I would indeed be selfish.

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