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: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."
- Reality exists as an objective absolute—facts are facts, independent of man’s feelings, wishes, hopes or fears.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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."
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...