Intellectual Curiosities and Provocations


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

by Levi Asher on Saturday, February 12, 2011 11:48 pm

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.

Philosophy Weekend: Taking Down Ayn Rand

by Levi Asher on Saturday, February 5, 2011 05:50 pm

Man — every man — is an end in himself, not the means to the ends of others. He must exist for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself. The pursuit of his own rational self-interest and of his own happiness is the highest moral purpose of his life.
--Ayn Rand, 1962

The ethical principle Ayn Rand describes here was hardly her original discovery. She expressed it so clearly and succinctly that it may be useful to call it the Ayn Rand principle, though we could just as accurately call it the Thomas Hobbes principle (except he lived 400 years ago, and freshness is all). Friedrich Nietzsche wrote of "divine selfishness, of how it was once possible to be alone, undisturbed, unloved, hated, despised on earth, and whatever else may characterize the utter baseness of the dear animal world in which we live."

Various trends in modern political and economic theory can be mapped back to the Ayn Rand principle, especially (but not exclusively) among conservative thinkers. The vigorous capitalism preached by influential economists like Milton Friedman and Alan Greenspan is often described as Randian (the Friedman/Greenspan laissez-faire attitude took a beating when the American financial system collapsed in 2008, but no competing modern theory of economics has emerged to clearly oppose it). The Randian embrace of self-interest and power politics is also visible in the muscle-bound approach to foreign policy proclaimed by politicians like John McCain, Sarah Palin, John Bolton, Henry Kissinger, Dick Cheney, and George W. Bush. Ronald Reagan, whose 100th birthday is being celebrated this weekend (not by me, but by many others) has notably called himself an admirer of Ayn Rand.

Philosophy Weekend: The Innocence of a Crowd

by Levi Asher on Sunday, January 30, 2011 09:13 am

A crowd. A cloud. A mob. What is really happening on the streets of Egypt, and why do we naturally feel optimistic about this attempt at revolution, even as we worry about the many ways it could go wrong?

Like most of my fellow Americans, I feel conflicted about the current uprisings in Egypt, because the military dictatorship these protestors want to be rid of is our own close ally. We have been its primary enabler. Still, we instinctively trust the judgement of a crowd, and we can only feel buoyed to see such a strong spontaneous expression of peaceful rebellion against an oppressive regime. But why do we instinctively trust a crowd, and how do know if this trust will or will not mislead us?

We trust a crowd because we can feel it thinking. Somehow, the mob welcomes us in, even if we're only glancing idly at it on television. Even with a quick look, we can tune into the frequencies of this hive mind, and we can see that this crowd, like most crowds, has unspoken principles. It respects human dignity, it relies on trust. It believes itself to be innocent and perfect. We suspect that this crowd will not maintain its innocence for long if it ever manages to attain some power. But that possibility is far away, and for now this crowd moves with confidence and a sure sense of grace.

The Absurd Life of the Criminal

by Michael Norris on Wednesday, January 26, 2011 07:20 pm

I recently read You Can’t Win, the autobiography of Jack Black. This book was a best seller in 1926, and was a favorite of William S. Burroughs. As I read it, I could see how Burroughs’ first novel, Junky, was influenced by Black’s history. But what came to mind more often were recollections of Albert Camus’ The Stranger.

In The Stranger, we follow the events in the life of Meursault, Meursault is a pied-noir: a Frenchman born and raised in colonial Algeria. The title of this book in French is L’Etranger, and the primary of definition of "étranger" is "foreigner". Meursault appears as a foreigner or outsider, living life through physical sensations, but with little meaningful connection to the society around him. At his mother’s funeral he displays no emotion. He is alive only to the sensations of the sun, the sea, and casual sex with Marie, a woman who used to work in his office.

Meursault thus drifts along through life, reacting rather than acting. Through a seemingly meaningless series of events he finds himself on a beach, in the blazing sun, confronting an Arab that had had an altercation with Meursault’s friend Raymond. Meursault has Raymond’s gun in his pocket, and when the Arab draws a knife in the blinding sun, the light glinting off the blade “like a long flashing blade cutting at my forehead”, Meursault pulls the gun and shoots. He then fires four more shots into the body.

Philosophy Weekend: Philosophy at the Book Review

by Levi Asher on Saturday, January 22, 2011 10:01 pm

My worlds collide. I used to review the New York Times Book Review here every weekend, and then I got tired of the routine and decided to use the space instead to cover the philosophy beat (and review some of my own original ideas). But this weekend's Book Review is a philosophy issue, featuring three substantial articles and a cover illustration allegedly representing great thinkers like Plato, Kant, Descartes, Seneca, Augustine and Rousseau in some sort of faux-ancient diagram. I'm too curious to stay away -- let's dive in and see what we find.

First up: Sarah Bakewell on a volume of philosopher mini-biographies, James Miller's Examined Lives: From Socrates to Nietzsche. It happens I just read a good new book by Sarah Bakewell called How To Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer, which I hope to write more about soon. Today's article doesn't go down as smoothly as the book, though. Bakewell begins by justifying the rationale for studying the lives of philosophers along with their ideas (an easy sell, as far as I'm concerned), and then spins a few quick stories from the book. But the stories she cites focus more on the weird quirks of various great thinkers, rather than deeply considered appraisals of their entire lives.

So we hear that Immanuel Kant "ended his life in an obsessive-compulsive hell, endlessly consulting thermometers and barometers" and that Diogenes the Cynic "lived in a clay jar, masturbated on the street and embraced snow-covered statues" (don't we all?). But these are sound bites, cocktail-party one-liners, banal anecdotes that only serve to caricature the great philosophers rather than helping us understand them as fully-realized people.

Philosophy Weekend: The Collective Self

by Levi Asher on Friday, January 14, 2011 09:55 pm

The psychologist Carl Jung wrote of the collective unconscious, a source of deep common understanding and knowledge that every person seems to somehow draw from. I've always liked this concept, and I've often thought we could take this further and consider the concept of the collective self. While Jung's collective unconscious is present in our lives as a source of awareness and feeling, the collective self is something else: it's the source of our shared willfulness, our common motivation, our us.

I like to introduce the concept of the collective self into ethical arguments to help explain how human beings can be self-interested and concerned for the well-being of other individuals at the same time. It's often said that we are all motivated primarily by self-interest, but if we examine the goals that truly drive us in our everyday lives, the things that we care about and work hard for, we quickly see that we tend to be motivated not by private benefit but, more often, by public benefit of one kind or another.

Our concern and desire for the well-being of other members of the social groups to which we belong, or the well-being of humanity as a whole, is not a derived element, not a projection of individual self-interest mapped according to utilitarian needs onto others. Rather, our concern and desire for the well-being of numerous collective groups to which we belong is a primary instinct. We care about us. Us, it turns out, is no less a strong glue than me.

Gathered From Coincidence

by Levi Asher on Monday, January 10, 2011 09:37 pm

"Take what you have gathered from coincidence," Bob Dylan sang. Sometimes I'm not sure what to take, and what to leave behind.

Two mathematically improbable coincidences haunted me this Saturday, both related to current events and to this website, Literary Kicks. First, I woke up early Saturday morning and spent a calm hour sipping coffee, eating blueberry Special K and browsing through my complete Plato, intent on finding a kick-ass philosophical quote to put up as the day's blog post. I finally picked a choice snatch of dialogue from the Meno, an old favorite.

Just as this blog post was going up, a brainy, deluded and possibly schizophrenic 22-year-old creep from Tuscon, Arizona named Jared Lee Loughner was shooting six people in a shopping center. Later that day an online list of Loughner's favorite books was revealed. I was shocked to see on the list, along with titles like The Communist Manifesto and Mein Kampf, an excellent novel by Ken Kesey and two by Plato: the Republic and ... you guessed it, the Meno.

Philosophy Weekend: Socrates's Challenge

by Levi Asher on Saturday, January 8, 2011 10:40 am

Socrates: When you speak of a person desiring fine things, do you mean it is good things he desires?

Meno: Certainly.

Socrates: Then do you think some people desire evil and others good? Doesn't everyone, in your opinion, desire good things?

Meno: No.

Socrates: And would you say that the others suppose evil to be good, or do they still desire them although they recognize them as evil?

Meno: Both, I should say.

Socrates: What? Do you really think that anyone who recognizes evils for what they are, nevertheless desires them?

Meno: Yes.

Socrates: Desires in what way? To possess them?

Meno: Of course.

Socrates: In the belief that evil things bring advantage to their possessor, or harm?

Meno: Some in the first belief, but some also in the second.

Socrates: And do you believe that those who suppose evil things bring advantage understand that they are evil?

Meno: No, that I can't really believe.

Socrates: Isn't it clear then that this class, who don't recognize evils for what they are, don't desire evil but what they think is good, though in fact it is evil, those who through ignorance mistake bad things for good obviously desire the good?

Meno: For them I suppose that is true.

Socrates: Now as for those whom you speak of as desiring evils in the belief that they do harm to their possessor, those presumably know that they will be injured by them?

Meno: They must.

Socrates: And don't they believe that whoever is injured is, in so far as he is injured, unhappy?

Meno: That too they must believe.

Socrates: And unfortunate?

Meno: Yes.

Socrates: Well, does anybody want to be unhappy and unfortunate?

Meno: I suppose not.

Socrates: Then in not, nobody desires what is evil, for what else is unhappiness but desiring evil things and getting them?

Meno: It looks as if you are right, Socrates, and nobody desires what is evil.

Socrates: Now you have just said that virtue consists in a wish for good things plus the power to acquire them. In this definition the wish is common to everyone, and in that respect no one is better than his neighbor.

Meno: So it appears.
-- Plato, Meno

Philosophy Weekend: Satori In Concrete

by Levi Asher on Saturday, January 1, 2011 04:49 pm

When we talk about philosophy, we should have some idea what we're aiming to achieve.

There's a popular misconception that philosophy has no purpose, other than perhaps to exercise and train the mind. If this were all it was good for, I wouldn't bother much with it. When I read or write or discuss ideas, I am always hoping for satori, an event of understanding. This Japanese word can sometimes be used to refer to a specific kind of understanding, and it can also be used to describe the sensation and experience of this understanding, which can be so sudden and surprising as to resemble a lightning bolt, or a smack in the head.

But descriptions of satori may over-emphasize its instantaneous nature, because it's actually not the quickness of satori but rather its permanence that matters most. It's a popular mistake to think that a lightning-bolt realization must be an ephemeral or elusive thing. Satori can be made of concrete, and can be a sturdy and reliable building block to place further ideas upon. The theory of evolution was Charles Darwin's great satori, and is satori as well for everyone else who learns and comes to understand the theory. Sigmund Freud's discovery of dream analysis was also satori, and Einstein's theory of relativity. Buddha's moment of enlightenent under a Bodhi tree may be the most singularly celebrated satori in history, but that's only because there is no biblical record of the specific moment when Jesus of Nazareth realized that the meek would inherit the earth, or Abraham that there is one God. Jack Kerouac once wrote a poignant novel called Satori in Paris, though this is one of his least-loved works, probably because it's about a guy who goes to Paris looking for satori rather than about a guy who finds it. Sometimes, as in this book, satori makes its presence felt most when it can't be found

But we yearn for it often, and luckily we find it often as well. What could be more depressing than an entire day without a single moment of enlightenment? We should never let that happen. When we work on crossword puzzles or sodoku games, we may think we're passing the time or training our minds, but in fact we're sustaining ourselves with little, constant doses of satori.

Philosophy Weekend: On Extreme Wealth, Identity and Taxes

by Levi Asher on Sunday, December 12, 2010 08:59 am

I've never wished for wealth. I hate shopping, luxury is not my idea of pleasure, and I don't enjoy owning a lot of stuff. I've never been able to understand why somebody would get excited about a widescreen TV or a gigantic house or an expensive car. I drive a 2001 Saturn, and I really don't know what a car could have that this one doesn't. I guess the most luxurious thing I own is my Takamine acoustic classical guitar, which I paid a thousand dollars for because I could actually hear the difference.

The only amount of money I'd ever wish for is the amount that would buy me freedom from working for a living. I've spent my adult life earning my monthly keep and supporting my kids with long, hard hours. I've rarely managed to get more than a few months ahead of my bills, and a couple of times I got a few months behind. I did have one extensive flirtation with wealth (this was one of the main subjects of my memoir) during the Internet stock boom in 1999. But a million dollars in stock options didn't buy me any freedom at all. Instead, it shackled me to my job more tightly than I'd ever been shackled before, and the crazy year that followed (before the 2000 stock market crash wiped out my "wealth") was one of the worst years of my life.

So I don't think wealth buys happiness, and nothing I've observed around me has suggested otherwise. But money sure does have a hold on the public imagination, and it sure gets people riled up. The big public debate that's taking place in the United States of America these days about taxes and budget deficits is worth studying from many different angles. As far as the battle in Congress indicates, the Democratic Party wants to cut taxes on lower and middle class Americans but wants the wealthy (those earning above $250,000 a year) to pay more, while the Republican Party wants to extend tax cuts to the wealthy.

It takes some effort to unpack the real agendas behind these stances. Why do the mass of Republican voters care so much about tax cuts for the wealthy, when Republican voters are actually no wealthier than Democratic voters? I've heard it explained that anti-tax conservatives are "voting their dreams" -- they hope to someday become wealthy, and when they finally do they don't want the government taxing their money away. This is the "Joe the Plumber" theory, and I'm sure there's something to it. But it doesn't explain enough.


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