When I write about the concept of the group mind, I'm often misunderstood to be advocating for collectivism. In fact, I would never bother advocating for collectivism, because collectivism doesn't need an advocate.
The impulse to groupthink has us all in its grip, every moment of our lives -- whether we like it or not, and whether we admit it or not. We can try to better understand the ways that social psychology affects the individual decisions we make and the private feelings we feel, but it is not in our power to remove these societal influences from our lives. We might just as well try to survive without breathing air.
In the past week, the story of the murder of young African-American Trayvon Martin by an overzealous "Neighborhood Watch" volunteer named George Zimmerman in Sanford, Florida has shocked many Americans. The first shock is the injustice of the crime -- a friendly, helpless kid, armed with a deadly Skittle, falling into the crosshairs of a wannabe hero with a gun, a racist eye, and way too much time on his hands.
But George Zimmerman's crime is not an individual crime, and the shadowy fingerprints of the "group mind" are all over this case. Zimmerman was policing a residential area that identified itself as a gated community, and it was his membership in this gated community's "Neighborhood Watch" program that made him feel empowered to shoot at a stranger. When the Sanford police arrived at the scene of the crime, the officers amazingly came to the conclusion that Zimmerman must have been justified in shooting Martin, and even the top leadership of the police force concurred with this decision. What seems at first to be the murderous act of a single deluded man turns out to be the deadly delusion of an entire city.
How would it feel to have been a physicist just before Albert Einstein, or a biologist just before Darwin? I can sympathize with all the dedicated, highly trained scientists who must have toiled in frustration for decades, grasping for insight, groping at patterns, making little discoveries here and there, yet always sensing that they were missing the big idea.
Amateur or professional philosophers today can probably relate, because our field appears to be currently in a state of darkness comparable to physics before Einstein or biology before Darwin. Why do I say this? Well, the big tipoff is the low standing of philosophy as a whole. It's widely considered a quaint and vain hobby, a useless college major that merits half a shelf in every bookstore. We have no famous philosophers, and virtually nobody considers philosophy or ethics important for everyday life.
We are so accustomed to this sad state of affairs that we often forget that societies do not always ignore philosophy; they only do so when the field is moribund. In the half-century before the French revolution, when ethical philosophers like Jean Jacques Rousseau and Voltaire were making powerful discoveries, philosophers were treated as superstars. Similarly, physicists and biologists probably started getting a whole lot more respect after Einstein and Darwin finally broke the ground that needed to be broken, and may not have gotten much respect before. The standing of any intellectual discipline directly correlates to its level of success ... and it's a sad fact that ethical philosophy has been a flop since the dawn of the modern age.
This is no idle or abstract problem; it amounts to the human disaster of a world that fails to comprehend itself. The spiritual, psychological, social and political problems that ethical philosophy are meant to help fix are going unfixed, and modern society has also come to think of this confusion as normal. Here are a few examples of what I mean:
I don't usually read The Stone, the New York Times philosophy blog. The topics are a bit trendy for my tastes, and the contributors' voices tend to be coy and journalistic, rather than bold and declarative, as a confident philosopher's voice ought to be. Still, when Litkicks friend Nardo tipped me off to Colin McGinn's recent The Stone/Opinionator post Philosophy By Another Name I took a look, and liked what I read.
McGinn, a professor at the University of Miami, points out that the word "philosophy" fails to capture its essence in several ways. It translates as "lover of wisdom", but a great philosopher may not be in specific pursuit of wisdom, and may also not love wisdom (if he or she uncovers painful truths, for instance, he or she may hate wisdom, as valuable as it may be). McGinn suggests the word "ontics" as a modern replacement, pointing out that the discipline may gain respectability from the linguistic vicinity to "physics".
"On Sunday, April 27, 1913, in her Yonkers, New York, home, sixty-seven-year-old Jennie Hintz tried a new way of practicing her piety. She did not need the assistance of clergy, nor did she need to go to church, as she had given up her faith almost a half century earlier. The kind of devotion she experimented with had nothing to do with institutional Christianity, or Jesus, or the sacraments of her youth. It simply required her to put pen to paper and express in unguarded prose what Friedrich Nietzsche meant to her.
Her writing took the form of a long handwritten letter to Nietzsche's sister and literary executor, Elisabeth Forster-Nietzsche, to give thanks and praise for her brother's life and though. Hintz, a self-described "spinster", introduced herself as a "great admirer of your brother's philosophy and his morals." She explained that she had been reading Nietzsche's works for over a year and a half, starting with "Beyond Good and Evil", the only Nietzsche volume in her local library at the time ... She said she felt drawn to Nietzsche because "in many points I had already arrived at these truths before he expressed them, but I remained mute keeping them for myself." She did so, she explained, because in dealing with people more educated than she, Hintz found she was not listened to or taken seriously. But reading Nietzsche let her know that there was someone she could relate to."
Friedrich Nietzsche, that strange, alluring bird. His prose could soar, but what happened when this bird landed on the earth? I knew as soon as I heard about the new American Nietzsche: A History of an Icon and His Ideas by Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, that this book would be valuable, and I could barely wait to read it. I'm a gigantic fan of Friedrich Nietzsche, but his outrageously original books (some of the best include The Birth of Tragedy, Beyond Good & Evil, On the Genealogy of Morals, Thus Spake Zarathustra, Ecce Homo) often leave readers in a state of vertigo. His slashing rants against phony moralists and smug academics were clearly designed to reverberate, but exactly how did they reverberate? To understand a philosopher so conscious of conflict, we must understand the conflicts his own ideas created, because these conflicts are the very manifestation of the philosophy. The fact that this sickly German professor became a celebrity and an icon seems as unlikely as his works themselves, and just as laden with meaning.
Three quotes I like, not necessarily related in any particular way:
When Zarathustra was thirty years old, he left his home and the lake of his home, and went into the mountains. There he enjoyed his spirit and his solitude, and for ten years did not weary of it. But at last his heart changed,- and rising one morning with the rosy dawn, he went before the sun, and spake thus unto it:
Thou great star! What would be thy happiness if thou hadst not those for whom thou shinest!
For ten years hast thou climbed hither unto my cave: thou wouldst have wearied of thy light and of the journey, had it not been for me, mine eagle, and my serpent.
But we awaited thee every morning, took from thee thine overflow, and blessed thee for it.
Lo! I am weary of my wisdom, like the bee that hath gathered too much honey; I need hands outstretched to take it.
I would fain bestow and distribute, until the wise have once more become joyous in their folly, and the poor happy in their riches.
Therefore must I descend into the deep: as thou doest in the evening, when thou goest behind the sea, and givest light also to the nether-world, thou exuberant star!
Like thee must I go down, as men say, to whom I shall descend.
Bless me, then, thou tranquil eye, that canst behold even the greatest happiness without envy!
Bless the cup that is about to overflow, that the water may flow golden out of it, and carry everywhere the reflection of thy bliss!
Lo! This cup is again going to empty itself, and Zarathustra is again going to be a man.
Thus began Zarathustra's down-going.
What do the following scenarios have in common?
- A football stadium erupts in cheers when the home team scores.
- An army advances towards the enemy in a battle.
- A family watches TV together.
- Two people meet, fall in love, get married, stay together for life.
- Twelve poker players glare at each other as the final table of a tournament begins.
- A fire department storms into a burning building and saves several lives.
- A group of marine scientists and ecologists rescue a shoreline from an oil spill.
- Members of a small town church gather for a weekend's worship.
- A high school drama department puts on a musical play.
- A political party conducts an intensive national voter drive on election day.
- A classroom gathers for a teacher's lesson.
Let's also throw in these somewhat different situations, and look at them in a similar light:
What do all these scenarios have in common? In all of these cases, an outside observer who wishes to understand exactly what is taking place will have to consider not only the isolated thoughts and motivations of each individual person, but also the dynamics of the group as a whole. Each person in each scenario has a private set of feelings, desires, fears, ideals, motivations. But the group itself seems to exert a strong force, often creating a sense that the group has its own feelings, desires, fears, ideals and motivations separate from those of each individual in the group. As the activity plays out, the intentions of the group will often take precedence over the intentions of each individual in the group.
A family watches TV together. Two of them want to watch a comedy, one wants to watch basketball, one wants to watch a cooking show. They flicker through the channels and find "American Idol". No mathematical equation of (2 * comedy) + basketball + cooking could possibly equal "American Idol", and in fact none of them would enjoy watching this show if they were alone. But they do enjoy watching it together, and the next night they happily gather in the same room to do it again.
It's not surprising that many techies like Ayn Rand. There is a minimalist clarity to her ethical philosophy, a primal unity of method and structure, that may remind an Objectivist of the intellectual foundation of a great operating system.
I often disagree with my Objectivist friend John from Oklahoma City, but he and I share a common frame of reference because we're both networking professionals: he runs his own firm, and I'm a software consultant. (I'm not an Objectivist, of course, but I am an anti-Objectivist, which means I spend a lot of time thinking about the same problems that Objectivists think about.)
I recently received an insightful email from another reader of my book Why Ayn Rand is Wrong (and Why It Matters), Tommaso Delfanti, a race car engineer from Italy. He contacted me to share his thoughts on the effectiveness of my arguments in this book. He also mentioned that he'd become interested in Ayn Rand's philosophy after playing the game Bioshock, which portrays a dystopian world in which Randian heroes (both good and corrupt, including a quasi-Randian figure named Andrew Ryan) compete with various enemies for primacy in their violent world.
The producers of last year's film Atlas Shrugged: Part One, based on Ayn Rand's controversial 1957 novel about heroic business vs. corrupt government in a mythical USA, have just announced that the second installment in the three-part series will be released in 2012. The first installment got poor reviews and failed to pack theaters, so there was some uncertainty as to whether the second and third installments would ever secure funding. But it wouldn't be very Randian to yield to bad reviews, so I'm not surprised these filmmakers have found a way to persevere.
Ayn Rand was a hot-button topic through 2011, and there's no sign that the fiery author-philosopher's newly popular Objectivist ideology won't stir up the same intense debates in 2012. An avowed Randian named Paul Ryan remains one of the most influential Republicans in Congress, and Presidential candidate Mitt Romney seems to agree with Paul Ryan's plan to drastically cut Social Security. That doesn't mean Mitt Romney is an Objectivist (though, we can imagine, he'd probably become one if necessary). But it does mean that the controversy over entitlements for middle-class Americans and safety nets for the poor will continue to be a gigantic topic of public debate through the upcoming election year. This is the controversy that Objectivists eat for breakfast, lunch and dinner. The ghost of Ayn Rand will continue to make herself felt in 2012.
I can tell that Ayn Rand is still hot by looking at the continuing sales of my short book Why Ayn Rand is Wrong (and Why It Matters). I'm about to pass the 1000 sales mark for this modest publication, and it's still selling more copies each month than the month before. There are 72 comments (some of them brilliant, some of them absolutely ridiculous) on the book's Amazon page, and several readers have also posted critiques of the book (sometimes harsh ones) on Litkicks.
I love it when readers give me negative or positive feedback about this book, and I don't mind the criticism. I'm aware that I advance some unusual (some might even say "quirky") ideas to support my argument, and I'm not surprised that many readers are initially put off by some of my premises or methods. (I do think, though, that the book stands up to close examination, which is why I always try to respond to a serious critique.)
We've covered a lot of ground since I kicked off this Philosophy Weekend series a year and a half ago. But I'm not sure if it's clear how these blog posts are meant to build upon each other towards an ultimate result or conclusion. I'd like to take a step back and look at the overall plan of the project today.
I began this series because I know we all live by philosophical and ethical principles that affect everything we do. This is true, I've observed, of people at every level of education and intellectual sophistication (those few individuals who might claim not to live by deeply-held principles would probably be not uneducated but highly educated, and perhaps overly influenced by Friedrich Nietzsche).
We all live by philosophical principles; we all stand up and fight for our principles in one way or another, and many of us would carry our beliefs to our deaths rather than give them up. And yet, when exposed to the light of the slightest examination, many of these deeply held principles and beliefs quickly show themselves to be weakly constructed, purposefully ignorant, childishly simplistic.
However, it does not seem that people hold naive or unexamined beliefs because they are lazy, or because they don't care. Rather, it seems to me that every single person cares very much about the validity of his or her deepest beliefs. The problem with philosophy is on the supply side. The professional philosophy community is lost within abstract layers of internal debate that do not connect with the larger public at all -- not to the slightest degree. (Name one living philosopher. If you said "Daniel Dennett" or "Alain de Botton" you get a prize.)
Many people want to be exposed to philosophy, but the suppliers have let us down. We lack even the most basic forums for in-depth logical debate. Worse, we have failed to construct the linguistic and social structures that would allow us to follow ethical arguments through to their conclusions. Instead, arguments typically die in the very moment they are born, because participants are often unable to establish a common vocabulary with which to speak, or viable rules of debate. We lack the social toolbox that would allow us to resolve even the most basic and obvious philosophical conundrums.
A surprising moment of revelation has taken place within this year's bizarre Republican presidential primary contest. It began after journalists investigated candidate Mitt Romney's claim that he created over a hundred thousand jobs as chief of Bain Capital, a very successful private equity firm. They discovered instead that during Romney's tenure at Bain Capital the firm was just as likely to profit by investing in struggling companies and stripping them for parts, allowing the businesses to die and selling off their assets (all the while charging the companies high management fees), as it was to profit by enabling jobs.
Rick Perry (of all people) made a strong point when he called Bain's practices "vulture capitalism", and it was brave of Perry, an otherwise plodding pro-business Reaganite, to make this statement. Newt Gingrich cleverly baited Romney for a full week with questions about Bain and about his own finances, forcing Romney to reveal that as a venture capital investor he has continued to have a luxurious income every year, but has been paying only 15% in taxes, less than half what a typical American pays. The outrage over this has allowed Gingrich to vault himself over Romney in South Carolina's primary this weekend, a stunning upset victory.
It's gratifying to hear conservatives finally join liberals in criticizing the predatory and hyperactive forms of "extreme capitalism" that Bain represents, which are rooted in the same syndrome of reckless misuse of honest finance that caused the crash of 2007/2008. It has been a conservative basic principle to avoid any criticism of free market capitalism, to blame the crash instead on home ownership initiatives, and to characterize even the slightest critique of economic inequity in the USA as "class warfare". The accusation that critics of Wall Street or tax breaks for the wealthy engage in "class warfare" is intoned repeatedly these days by conservative commentators like Rush Limbaugh, Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity. This tends to be a real conversation-killer, since the term carries such ominous historic undertones. It reminds us of the guillotine, the gulag, Mao's terrible starvation farms.