On Objectivism

After browsing a whole lot of blogs talking about real (i.e. political/philosophical) issues, I found a favorite: Revolution is Free. The author, Erika, wrote an interesting post on Altruism from an Objectivist perspective. I posted a thought experiment as a comment to that post, and include it at the bottom of this post.

I did read about Objectivism some time ago, on Wikipedia and some libertarian sites. I decided I couldn’t agree with it, mostly because of its conclusions about altruism. This was while I remained a Christian; after my deconversion, I reconstructed my ethics and found myself with a model very similar to Objectivism – due mostly, I’m sure, to subconscious plagiarism rather than the objectivity of morality.

Objectivism is the brain child of Ayn Rand, and… Well, here’s her explanation from Atlas Shrugged:

My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.

This is almost what I believe, but I think it’s incomplete. I really ought to read Rand’s books, but for now I’ll give a snapshot of my thoughts.

Reason as the only absolute? Yep, I agree there. Our mental faculties fail us regularly, but that’s why we discuss these things.

Productive achievement as the noblest activity? Absolutely, but probably for different reasons than Rand would cite.

Happiness as the moral purpose? Umm, what? What is happiness and why is it so important? This question is what the entire foundation of my own personal philosophy grew out of.

Just before leaving Christianity, I believed in reason as the only absolute. I sought the truth that I might be set free. It turns out that freedom ain’t so great once you have it. My mental stability, self-respect, sense of identity, and overall happiness all plummeted. I still valued morality but had just destroyed my reason for being moral, and found my resolve weakening. I decided I would have been better off without this freedom.

Observing that I valued happiness over truth, the only reasonable response seemed to be to promote happiness over reason. I swore to myself that I would not be responsible for anyone else’s similar experience. But why was happiness so important, and what caused it?

Ultimately I decided that my very amateur understanding of evolutionary psychology was the best available material for constructing a new foundation for my ethics. We are made happy by things which have historically promoted survival. We exist because our ancestors did such things. Survival is our mission, and our instincts, including happiness, are a crude mission brief.

This results in three principles:

  1. Each person is obligated to promote the general interest, or “greater good,” or, most specifically, the survival of the human species;
  2. Every person’s base value is equal; and
  3. Each person is (usually) most familiar with his own interest, and therefore holds more responsibility for himself than for anyone else.

“Base value” means the value afforded to someone for being human and thereby promoting the survival of the human species. Attributes like youth, or leadership and hunting skills (in a primeval society) make some people more valuable than others.

Too much emphasis on instincts to the exclusion of reason causes destructive behavior like war. Too much emphasis on reason to the exclusion of instincts causes other destructive behavior like eugenics. My conclusion: The primacy of reason must be held in tension with an aversion to cognitive dissonance.

By this I mean that I believe the Nazis, for example, had instincts against their atrocities. A combination of hatred (instincts) and misguided (pseudo-)science motivated them toward horrible acts. Although primal instincts were part of the problem, I can easily imagine this happening solely on reason. We must listen to our “hearts” when they warn us that what we’re doing is wrong.

Such cognitive dissonance is a pretty reliable sign that neither we nor society will be happy about our actions. On the other hand, the ability to override one’s instincts is a very important skill. Despite the horror of war, we do need soldiers who can kill other soldiers. Unfortunately this cognitive dissonance then turns into PTSD.

Anyway, here’s the thought experiment:

You find yourself on an island. Also on the island is a critically injured man. You can treat him enough that he will heal and be able to fend for himself, but doing so will delay your return home. Should you help him, and why or why not?

In case conscience (psychological self-interest) plays a part, imagine it as two scenarios:
1) Your travel delay would be significant but not quite enough that it would justify his death in your mind;
2) Your travel delay would be huge enough that you could rationalize the man’s death and not feel guilty. (What kind of delay are you thinking here?)


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