Saturday, August 11, 2012

Why I'm not a Randian

Romney's VP pick Paul Ryan may or may not be a Randian, but I'm certainly not. And I thought this was a good occasion to explain why not (what with the prospect of having someone a heartbeat from the presidency who at least flirts with Ayn Rand's philosophy).

Here then, in no particular order, are three reasons I'm not a Randian.

1. I'm not a fan of false dilemmas

"False dilemma" is the fallacy of setting up two alternatives as if they were exhaustive, refuting one, and then embracing the other by default. Things are either black or white--no gray allowed, let alone red or green or fuchsia.

Rand is the Queen of false dilemmas. Her essay, "The Virtue of Selfishness," is an all-out attack on an ethic that advocates total self-sacrifice for others, that is, caring for everyone but yourself.  Her defense of selfishness is based on this attack (combined with a bit of equivocation on the meaning of "selfishness" that I won't get into here)--as if there were no middle ground, no possibility of an ethic that balances caring for self and others.

Her dystopian novel, Anthem, offers a similar false dilemma in narrative form. She spends the entire novel highlighting the very real horrors of a society that's utterly collectivist, in which there's no word for "I," no respect for individual liberty--a society in which everyone lives for the community and it's forbidden to care about yourself. This horrific situation is justly repudiated by the narrative force of the novel. But more than that, the horror of it is made so vivid that, when you get to the end, the narrator's sacramentalizion of "ego" is experienced as a kind of liberation:

The word which can never die on this earth, for it is the heart of it and the meaning and the glory.
The sacred word:

How do we get to the conclusion that "ego" is not just sacred but the heart and meaning and glory of the world? Rand attempts to do it by demonstrating that completely ignoring the self is bad.

Um...yeah. I agree. But maybe, just maybe, vaunting your own ego so highly that you treat is as the heart and meaning and glory of the world...well, maybe that's bad too. Maybe what's best is some mean between the extremes (as Aristotle tended to think).

But in Rand's universe there are no such middle grounds. In my universe there are.

2. I believe that human beings are social animals who flourish in a network of interdependence

Ayn Rand's philosophy finds its literary summation in Atlas Shrugged, especially in the lengthy radio speech  delivered by the character John Galt. In that speech, Galt lifts up the trader as "the moral symbol of respect for human beings." And who is the trader? "A trader is a man who earns what he gets and does not give or take the undeserved. A trader does not ask to be paid for his failures, nor does he ask to be loved for his flaws."

Of course there is something to be said for working hard to provide for yourself, for not expecting others to provide for your needs in a non-reciprocal way. When human beings deal with strangers, trade is far better than war. Systems of voluntary exchange are crucial in a world like ours, and Rand is right that the incentive of offering something in trade is a better way to get what you need from others than is manipulation or force, guilt-tripping or violence.

But as with all of Rand's thought, there is a tendency to absolutize what can't and shouldn't be absolutized. For most of human history, people lived is tribal kin-groups: extended families living and working together for the good of all. We evolved to be social creatures, not solitary ones. Our survival depended on collaboration and cooperation--a kind of mutual reliance and trust in which the logic of the business transaction, the trader's logic, would be fatal.

If your fellow hunter needed your help in order to avoid being trampled by the mastodon, you helped. You certainly didn't sit down, formulate, and agree on a trade of services while the mastodon was charging. You just helped. And you didn't, afterwards, keep a careful score card of tit-for-tat, attaching a specific value to the service rendered so that you could make sure you got paid back in full. Anyone who's tried to run a personal relationship that way knows how ruinous that would be. After all, not everyone always keeps score in exactly the same way. The response to a perceived injustice in the tallies is perceived by the other as a new injustice, and each successive response ratchets up the retaliatory anger.

Ratchet up the bitterness too much, and the cooperation necessary for survival becomes impossible. Humans are social animals. We live in community. And communities don't survive if the defining model of interpersonal exchanges is the business trade.

Furthermore, human children are born in a state of total helplessness, and their prospects of making it into adulthood are determined largely by the quality of care they receive from adults upon whom they are utterly dependent. Humans get sick or grow old, and their welfare hinges upon help for which they are no longer in a position to reciprocate. They become, again, dependent on the good will of others.

Let me reiterate that word: Dependent. In childhood and old age, every one of us depends on others for the quality of our lives. Every adult who claims some measure of independence does so as someone who was once completely dependent on others, and one day will be largely dependent again--dependent in the sense of needing the good will of others in order to flourish; dependent in the sense of not being in a position to earn that good will or the goods bestowed on its basis.

My children have yet to earn their keep. I feed them because they can't feed themselves. I teach them because I know things they don't know. I do this out of love. This is not to say they should stay children forever, that they should expect free handouts all their lives. Remember that thing about middle grounds? Between total dependence and total independence, there is this thing called interdependence.

There are periods of our lives when we depend largely on others, and periods where others depend largely on us. So what do we do? Do we expect to flourish only in those fortunate times of vigor and competence? Obviously not. We all start out helpless, so if we only received goods when in a position to pay for it, none of us would ever grow to become people who could pay for it.

So do we pay back each and every one of those who helped us growing up, in proportion to the level of help they gave--somehow keeping a tally of all who contributed to our development and earmarking our earnings to go to each of them in fair payment--while neglecting the needs of our own kids, since we don't have anything left for them?

No. Of course not. The give and take of social life can't work on such a strict business model of payment for services rendered. More often than not, we pay forward rather than back; we remember those who gave to us in our moments of need, without any expectation of mutual benefit, and in gratitude we give to those in need.

The reality of human differences means that some of us will have fewer years of vigor and competence than others. Some of us will have skills and talents that are uniquely needed in the era in which we live; others will have skills that would've taken them far, if only they'd been born into a different time and place. In real human societies, the tallies won't come out even. And if we insist that they must, that no unearned goods end up in anyone's hands simply because of need, we are insisting on a world that only the lucky would like to live in. And guess what? They didn't earn their luck.

3. I believe in love

At the trumpeting conclusion of John Galt's speech in Atlas Shrugged, Galt makes a vow that some today seem to think would be a good one for us all: "I swear by my life and my love of it that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for the sake of mine."

There is, in this vow, the echo of the Randian false dilemma: live for yourself or live for others, with no room for the more complex balance of self-regard and care for others that fits with the realities of the human condition. Galt's vow is motivated by horror at a society defined by a call to sacrifice, in which virtue is equated with denying oneself for the sake of others regardless of their worth.

Rand, like Nietzsche before her, sees the Christian love ethic as an ethic that rewards mediocrity and calls for the strong to sacrifice what is theirs to the undeserving masses. In the middle of Galt's speech, Galt explicitly targets this Christian "agapic" love (calling it "your morality") with an impassioned (mis)characterization intended to paint it as absurd:

Your morality tells you that the purpose of love is to set you free of the bonds of morality, that love is superior to moral judgment, that true love transcends, forgives and survives every manner of evil in its object, and the greater the love the greater the depravity it permits to the loved. To love a man for his virtues is paltry and human, it tells you; to love him for his flaws is divine. To love those who are worthy of it is self-interest; to love the unworthy is sacrifice. You owe your love to those who don't deserve it, and the less they deserve it, the more love you owe them--the more loathsome the object, the nobler your love--the more unfastidious your love, the greater the virtue--and if you can bring your soul to the state of a dump heap that welcomes anything on equal terms, if you can cease to value moral values, you have achieved the state of moral perfection.

Of course, what comes under attack here is not Christian "agapic" love but a caricature. To love the enemy, to love those who persecute you, is not to become a doormat in the face of persecution or to believe that wickedness and cruelty don't matter. You do not love the cruelty of a villain when you love the villain in the Christian sense. You despise the cruelty on account of your love for the person who has descended into villainy, on account of your love for a person who could be so much better. To love another is to wish that their potential be actualized--and this desire for their good and their goodness extends, in Christian love, even to those who are not yet good.

But even if we account for the caricature, there is an element of Rand's critique that one might think persists: love of the Christian sort idealizes sacrifice of the self: it is right to give up your own good for the sake of the comparable good of someone else, to live as if others matter more than you do--to live for others rather than yourself, and have them live for you.

But again, I think Rand has missed something essential when she conceives of Christian love in terms of such sacrificial living-for-others. Loving others and caring for their good amounts to sacrifice only if it is love without love and care without care.

Let me explain. To love another is to expand your sense of self, to pay attention to the other so truly that the same concern that rises up spontaneously for the needs and wants of your narrow ego also rises up for the one you love. This is what it means to love the neighbor as yourself.

When you love others, you become bigger than you were before. Love is the only thing with the power to do this. And by virtue of this power, love opens up a path to something greater even than self-actualization. It becomes a path to self-transcendence. Paradoxically, by virtue of our capacity to love we have it in ourselves to be greater than ourselves. Actualizing this capacity means replacing our narrow ego with an expanded self. This is what it means, I think, to say that the first shall be last and the last shall be first--what it means to say that we find ourselves by losing ourselves.

Through an empathetic love that enables us to identify with more than our narrow ego, we escape the confines of that ego in a way that Rand's vaunting of the ego simply does not allow. When we treat "ego" as the sacred word, we make our world as small as we are. Through love, we have the potential to make ourselves encompass the world.

And there is a potential for joy in this, a potential for fulfillment, that transcends what comes with actualizing the narrow ego alone. From this space of joyful self-transcendence, to share what little you have with a hungry child isn't a sacrifice of yourself but an expression of who you have become through love. The loving sacrifice is only a sacrifice from the standpoint of the narrow ego--but it is precisely this standpoint that love lifts us out of.

At the heart of it, this is the most important third-alternative that Rand's false dilemmas miss: Perhaps we are tuest to ourselves, living for ourselves most fully and richly, when we do not live merely for ourselves. We find a happiness deeper than would otherwise be possible, and nurture ourselves in a uniquely satisfying way, only when we live a life of love--a love that isn't about liking what others do for us, but caring for others for their own sakes. Such love is not about tearing out what is essential to ourselves and handing it over to another; it's about taking in the other and so becoming more than we were before.

Outwardly, at least sometimes, the two acts may look similar--although if you look at the broader pattern of a life characterized by real love, you'd be hard-pressed to confuse it for the life of the codependent doormat. But some people don't notice the broader patterns. And when the one is confused for the other and the virtues of love are attributed to self-denying doormats, that can indeed be a grave and dangerous thing. Then, the pall of duty pressures us to make sacrifices that empty us of what we have and give us nothing in return.

But between self-immolation and selfishness lies love. I believe it's there, a possibility to strive for. Rand doesn't.

And that, above all, is why I'm not a Randian.

1 comment:

  1. Absolutely- the Rand-ian valorization of selfishness is not only morally reprehensible, but discards our most important social, historical, and indeed biological patrimonies. One would have thought that the implosion of Alan Greenspan's policies and world view would have been more than enough to drive this meme out of town.