In humble attempt at casting this in the tradition of Socrates, a (slightly altered) quote:

"The unexamined vote is not worth casting."

Sunday, February 1, 2009

On Empathy and Ayn Rand

First of all, I owe the launch of today's thought process to Ms. Jone Johnson Lewis of the Northern Virginia Ethical Society, and her thought-provoking blog post, "Empathy in the White House." The concept of empathy as a worthy and even central consideration in our world is one I've seen highlighted by President Obama, as noted in past posts of mine, such as this one. But I laud an effort Jone highlighted by an individual to collect a documentary's worth of examples of Obama discussing empathy, titled "Barack Obama and a New Spirit of Empathy" (though it's still only a rough cut, it's viewable here).

After viewing some of the above clips of Barack talking about empathy this morning, I was thrown into reflective mode as I ate my breakfast and started into the day. The clips add up to over an hour, so I didn't get much past 20 minutes or so (though I hope to look at more of it eventually). One particular section that left me thinking was of Obama speaking at a Northwestern University commencement in June of 2006; the whole speech begins at around 9 minutes and 25 seconds into the video, though the particular section I'll quote below starts right around 10:45:

"So there will be those who will tell you that the Americans who sleep in the streets and beg for food got there because they're all lazy and weak in spirit; that the inner-city children who are trapped in dilapidated schools can't learn and won't learn, and so we should give up on them entirely; that the innocent people being slaughtered and expelled from their homes on the other side of the globe, are somebody else's problem to care for.

I hope you don't listen to this. I hope you choose to broaden and not contract the ambit of your concern. Not because you have an obligation to those who are less fortunate, although you do have that obligation; not just because you have a debt to pay for those who helped to get you where you are, although I do think you have the debt; but rather because you have an obligation to yourself.

Because, what I've found in my life is that my individual salvation depends on our collective salvation. Because it's only when you hitch your wagon to something larger than yourself that you'll realize your true potential, that you'll become full grown."

I'm not sure what I think about this, quite honestly. I think I may disagree in part--though it may just be that he used the word "rather" instead of "also," meaning essentially the same thing. But this leads me to Ayn Rand. I've been surprised at how much Rand, author of books such as Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead, has come up in various conversations and settings recently. I must admit right off, I haven't read any of her books, and so I come to this without a fully informed view. However, I think that is fine in this case, because I am not looking to speak in depth about her views, but rather just to raise a question in relation to what appears to be her perspective--both as I've heard others speak of it, and as I've read in brief in summaries such as this one on the site of the Ayn Rand Institute (a non-profit aimed at promoting Ayn Rand and her views).

I find that some of Obama's comments above hint at Rand in a way I'm not entirely comfortable with--though I post this with the hope that it might lead to some conversations with others that might help inform, and possibly change my view about Rand and/or Obama's comments (I'm feeling pretty committed right now, though that could undoubtedly change if I'm convinced that my view is imbalanced). I won't go on for long here, but will simply post a short summary from Rand's own words of her philosophy, known as "objectivism," and briefly comment on it in relation to the excerpt from Obama's speech that I pasted above. As Rand herself wrote (with the Rand Institute's links included and the primary section I will comment on in bold):

"My philosophy, Objectivism, holds that:
  1. Reality exists as an objective absolute—facts are facts, independent of man’s feelings, wishes, hopes or fears.
  2. Reason (the faculty which identifies and integrates the material provided by man’s senses) is man’s only means of perceiving reality, his only source of knowledge, his only guide to action, and his basic means of survival.
  3. 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.
  4. The ideal political-economic system is laissez-faire capitalism. It is a system where men deal with one another, not as victims and executioners, nor as masters and slaves, but as traders, by free, voluntary exchange to mutual benefit. It is a system where no man may obtain any values from others by resorting to physical force, and no man may initiate the use of physical force against others. The government acts only as a policeman that protects man’s rights; it uses physical force only in retaliation and only against those who initiate its use, such as criminals or foreign invaders. In a system of full capitalism, there should be (but, historically, has not yet been) a complete separation of state and economics, in the same way and for the same reasons as the separation of state and church."
To repeat again the section I marked in bold above, "The pursuit of his own rational self-interest and of his own happiness is the highest moral purpose of his life." I find this imbalanced, and that is my primary objection to the above. Now Rand does seek to provide some balance in the previous sentence, noting that we should not sacrifice others to ourself, but I'm not sure that is sufficient. I believe, as a much-admired social scientist of mine, Robert Putnam, noted here, that "We need to connect with one another. We've got to move a little more in the direction of community in the balance between community and the individual."

And that's wherein the issue lies for me. I think we'll always have to aim for balance, making that the end game--as opposed to making a philosophy of, and forgive me if I offend anyone, pursuing one's "own happiness [as] the highest moral purpose of his life." Yet I hesitate here, and note that Rand may have been speaking at a time when individuals were sacrificing themselves too much for the sake of others; at a time such as that, emphasizing individualism may have been necessary--that comes to mind because I realize that now I think emphasizing community, as Putnam noted above, seems critically important.

There is much more to write and think about in regard to this, so forgive me if this ends up being too cursory of a post. But I will, for the moment, end by noting how all this relates to Obama's thoughts from that above speech. Again, he said that we needed to expand "the ambit of our concern" to include the larger good, not only because we have an obligation to others ("you do" he said),

"[B]ut rather because you have an obligation to yourself. Because, what I've found in my life is that my individual salvation depends on our collective salvation. Because it's only when you hitch your wagon to something larger than yourself that you'll realize your true potential, that you'll become full grown" (emphasis mine).

I just worry that this way of emphasizing individual over other, as I said above, tips the scale; but again, he may have in essence meant "But also..." That is what I would have wanted him to say; that is, that we should expand our concern to others because "a, b, and c": a) we have an obligation to others; b) we have a debt to pay those who helped us get where we are; and c) because we have an obligation to ourselves. He clearly emphasizes "c," though perhaps that was unintentional.

I think the three (though cumulatively it's probably only two: self and others), need to be seen as a sacred balance. When in balance, we can have a healthy equilibrium; when out of balance, it's just that, tilted too much towards either individual benefit at the cost of communal health (which some see as the state of affairs in America), or towards communal benefit at the cost of individual health (which some see as the result, in the past at least, of communal approaches in countries such as Japan).

I'll end with a line from sociologist David Popenoe, in a piece titled "The Family Condition of America: Cultural Change and Public Policy" (part of this book). In that piece, he notes that some countries, such as Norway and Switzerland, "combine individualism with a moderate collectivism," referring to that balance as "communitarian individualism." He continues: "Individual goals are important, but they are blended with strong communal concerns and feelings of national solidarity. Self and community are in better balance than in other highly developed nations, especially the United States" (emphasis mine). He does note that these countries have some characteristics that make this balance easier, such as more homogeneous societies, relative geographic isolation, and cultures less affected by various qualities of modernization (such as commercialism and the individualism it often encourages). (As a sidenote, I am thankful for our diversity, though some such as Robert Putnam have pointed out that that same diversity gives us a steeper challenge; read this article about his recent research on the subject, or the full paper he wrote on it (PDF) in 2007--both are well worth the read).

As I said, there is clearly more to think about with all of this, but I wanted to put some of my thoughts down on it all. And, for my part, I hope that Obama does understand and aim for a balance of individualism and communalism--I think he may very well, but that this may just not have been articulated exactly in his above speech; also, I don't want to confuse any into thinking that I'm not ecstatic--I am--about Obama's rise and current position; I think it's monumental for our future in so, so many ways (and will still throw up a quick post with a few favorite lines from his inaugural speech here soon!).

Update: I just remembered this neat TV piece Bill Moyers, of PBS, did a few months ago on Alan Greenspan (Chairman of the Federal Reserve from 1987-2006). Greenspan had just testified before Congress about the financial crises of recent. Moyers talks about how Greenspan was a big admirer of Ayn Rand, going on to basically suggests that Greenspan reflected her view of government in his own approach to it. The piece then goes into how Greenspan admitted to some extent during his testimony that his philosophy didn't work, at least in terms of the financial crisis and the inability of the financial industry to self-regulate--worth a watch, and the video isn't super-long.

Update 2: In having all this come to back to mind, I took another look at the section I quoted from Obama above...I think I may see more of where he is coming from now. It seems that it could be read as encouraging more full grown people in general, not necessarily as looking out for oneself at the expense of others...though perhaps becoming "full grown," and simply being an individual in charge of keeping oneself alive, we necessarily end up looking out for ourselves somewhat more than others. Yeah, this all brings up some substantive considerations, though some healthy ones I think...


Anonymous said...

The post raises some interesting thoughts about Ayn Rand's ethical system, although I think an actual reading of her works, namely Atlas Shrugged, will give the author a better understanding of her idea that man's happiness is the moral purpose of his life.

As for Greenspan, while he was certainly an admirer of Rand's ideas while she was still alive, his later writings and acceptance of the Chairmanship of the Federal Reserve are an indication that he long abandoned any practice or understanding of her ideas. There's a short post here that explains why:

Rob Diego said...

The "imbalance" is with Obama and the altruism he represents. Obama is a cheap copy of Ellsworth Touhey in Rand's novel the Fountainhead who attempted to use altruism in order to gain power. Altruism has been the argument used by virtually every dictator and mass murderer in the history of the world. It isn't that these people had good intentions but somehow went wrong. Rand is right that their goal is to destroy the good for being the good. Where is the balance in that? What are you trying to balance? Obama vs. Stalin? Slavery vs. freedom? A socialist dictatorship vs. a free society? I've always noticed that anybody can claim that they've never read Rand but for some reason think they are an expert in her philosophy nonetheless. If you want to comment on Rand, read her full argument in her novels and stop assuming you understand her views. All you do is confuse people who also have not read her views and that sort of confusion is what leaves the door open to the evil that Obama will do.

Brendan O'Connor said...

Hola Anonymous,

Thanks for the thought back, and apologies to both you for the delayed response here.


I hear and tried to stress in my post that my thoughts might not be accurate enough to the ideas of Rand's books, but i would ask if you think that there may be a conflict between a balanced ethical system and the pursuit of one's own happiness as the purpose of life; do you think that Rand focuses enough on balance between one's own happiness and that of others, noting the ways by which pursuit of one's own happiness can indeed encroach on that of others (i see the way she's says we must not sacrifice others to ourself, but i honestly wonder, not having read her, if she emphasizes the balance enough--thoughts?).

I see some of where you're coming from w/the thoughts on Greenspan, but nevertheless, people are not black and white, and the post seems to suggest that he's either free market or not, stating "any belief Greenspan ever had in truly free markets was abandoned long ago." Greenspan said in the testimony that he thought markets would self-regulate, so that seems quite free market to a serious extent.


Hi Rob,

Thanks for the note, and i think it goes w/out saying that we're coming at this from different views--to start with, the idea you mention of the "evil that Obama will do." What evil are you getting at? You think he's headed towards a dictatorship?

On a related note, with your comment about altruism leading to dictators, some might say it's led to other things too, ay? The word "altruism" may need some defining here though, and i'd say the idea is that good should be done for others to balance out life and have some progress in this messed up world of ours. Some might even say reforms such as child labor laws, minimum wage, desegregation, peaceful overturning of rulers, etc., have had roots in altruism as i defined it above. But again, you might have a different definition and we're talking past each other if that's the case, so you may need to define your view of it.

I think i went to some fair lengths to say that i didn't understand Rand to any detailed degree, but i also don't think folks need to read this or that book to be able to discuss philosophy in the way we are here; and please correct me if i misrepresented her in some way, i'm open to that as i mentioned in the post.

What do you mean by this statement by the way: "Rand is right that their goal is to destroy the good for being the good."?

thatramongirl said...

Thanks, Brendan. Excellent post.

Noah Dodson said...

Great post.
I think that Ayn Rand would have been a great philosopher had she not been born in the USSR; which she hated so much "forced" her thoughts to the extreme right. I totally understand what she means when she talks about individualism, it's true that humans lack of it - and by that I mean we're all individualists at the same level, the only difference is that one may accept it where one may hide it and pretend they're not. I know a lot of people who were raised religious and learned that individualism is the worst thing of all and are now completely poisoned by it - they can't make a decision for themselves, they're always complaining about not having what they want because they never learned how to get up and get it without asking for permission, they always wait for others to tell them what to do and they always complain when they didn't want to do the things they were told to but only after they had done it = they've become slaves of the Will of others. I think that's the main reason why Ayn Rand hated anti-individualists: she realized how important it was to accept our own self by accepting the fact that we're all individualists just like any other animal of the planet; that's just how our brains work. So yes, individualism is important in this particular case, because it helps people achieve their goals and be happy without carrying this feeling of frustration all the time. Where I disagree with Ayn Rand is that this philosophy will and cannot work in economics, for it to work we would need all humans to be rational and intelligent - which is never going to happen. She was an idealist in that she believed humans were capable of making choices of their own without being influenced (she did not believe in determinism), it's way more complicated than that. You could NEVER have a free society, that's just a dream, for that to happen you'd need to kill everyone and rebuild an entire civilization based on everyone starting at the same level. That's the main problem I'm having with Ayn Rand's economics solutions: there are people who are born rich, and then there are people who are born poor. A free society for me means that the ones who are poor can work themselves out of it and become rich. This will not happen (or at least in most cases) if poor children do not have access to proper education; that means that your society is conceptually free but not for everyone. I understand her point: she thinks that taxing the rich is "stealing" their right to choose whether they want to help others or not. I totally get that. But the thing is: a lot of rich people are rich because they were born in rich families - so how can someone who was brought up in an extremely poor family could feel like they're just as free as the ones who weren't? That's not a free society, is it? Take me for instance, my mom made $10,000 a year and college tuition was $40,000 a year, how the hell could I afford that? Even if I worked 80 hours a week I wouldn't have been able to. Solution? Go to a less expensive one, and get a bad education that will lead to a bad job which will lead to frustration and I'll wind up in Wall Street along with all the spoiled hipsters who don't even know why they're there. That's why I flew to Europe and got my education there: good education for $500 a year. Of course the school isn't as great as the one in New York but it's good enough, and at least I feel like I am now free to do what I want.
Enough about me, what I'm trying to say is that the concept of total freedom will not work because there are too many people benefiting from what their ancestors accomplished (and Rand is the first one to talk about how much she hates it when people pretend that they "benefit from their ancestors' genes", well this is pretty much the same thing Ms. Rand!).

Noah Dodson said...

p.s. I do agree with Rand when she says that the government should not interfere with Wall Street because it leads to corruption (bailout). The idea that the government can use taxpayers' money to repair Wall Street's mistakes is just insane. That's where the government should not intervene - if that were the case brokers and insurance companies would have never had the guts to do what they did, had they not known the government would bail them out anyway (at least that's what I think).