Thursday, April 13, 2017

A Sincere But Futile Attempt To Engage With Ayn Rand (2)

Love seeketh not itself to please, 
Nor for itself hath any care, 
But for another gives its ease, 

And builds a Heaven in Hell's despair. 

So sung a little Clod of Clay 
Trodden with the cattle's feet, 
But a Pebble of the brook 

Warbled out these metres meet: 

Love seeketh only self to please, 

To bind another to its delight, 

Joys in another's loss of ease, 

And builds a Hell in Heaven's despite. 

William Blake




We have all heard of people who have spent large sums of money keeping cats and dogs alive long after the vet recommends euthanasia. We might even have said “I am sorry, but by keeping Rover alive when he can no longer bark at postmen, you are being cruel. You ought to have him put to sleep and get a new puppy." There have been tragic cases where doctors and  courts have decided that a desperately sick child ought to be allowed to die, however sad it will make his parents. One might even say the same about a very old person "I am sorry, but another operation would be cruel: you ought to let Grandpa slip away peacefully". The self-interested thing to do is sometimes to keep the suffering creature alive; the altruistic thing to do is to let their life come to its natural end. 

If we believe in the tao — if we believe in human empathy and think that other people have value and agency — then there can be more than one point of view about what constitutes a good death. People who work in hospices or geriatric wards tell us that some of the very old and the very sick find their last hours and minutes precious and wouldn’t want them taken away. Different individuals might have different feelings about this. Some of us might say “If I am ever so frail that I can’t wipe my own bum then for god sake just let me go”; others might say “If I live to be 103 I damn well want you to wheel me into the cinema for the midnight showing of Star Wars: Episode XXXIII”. 


But on Rand’s view, if the rich man chooses to keep his wife alive (even though she has long since decided it's time to quit) because he couldn’t face the grief of switching her off, he acts in rational self-interest regardless of her feelings. And if he chooses to let her die because he can’t bear to watch her suffer and would rather she was at peace then he acts in rational self-interest even if she want to soldier on for a few more months. Forsooth, if he honestly decides that he would derive more deep private joy from a world cruise, a private jet, or a younger mistress than from a long stay in a cancer ward then he would be quite justified in spending his money how he wants to.


Yes, I think that he ought not to value the jet more than the old lady; or that even if he values the plane more he ought to mortify that pleasure because helping his wife is the right thing to do. But all those oughts came from the tao. They can't be extrapolated from Rand's rational morality. 

But the great lady has one more arrow in her rational quiver. 


Rational morality, she says, tells the man to save his wife's life if, and only if, her continued existence is a necessary part of his happiness. 

"But suppose (the rich man) let (the wife) die in order to spend his money on saving the lives of ten other women, none of whom mean anything to him — as the ethics of altruism would require. That would be a sacrifice. Here the difference between Objectivism and Altruism can be seen most clearly: if sacrifice is the moral principle of action, then that husband should sacrifice his wife for the sake of ten other women. What distinguishes the wife from the ten others? Nothing but her value to the husband who has to make the choice  nothing but the fact that his happiness requires her survival."



I agree that this is a genuine moral dilemma which ever kind of morality you follow. It's a particular problem for utilitarians. You have a million pounds. And only a million pounds, and no way of getting another million pounds. Your wife’s operation will, by coincidence, cost a million pounds. But ten other people need operations each costing, by coincidence, a hundred thousand pounds each. And they have no way of begging or borrowing or earning that hundred thousand and obviously there is no such thing as medical insurance. And the surgeon will not work pro bono. 


Do you save your wife, or all the other wives?


It seems to be pretty clear that Rand, sincerely or as a debating tactic, is conceptualizing conventional morality as a sort of evil dark-side reflection of her own rational selfishness. Since the rational person believes that they should always act in their own interest, she affects to believe that the altruistic person always acts against their own interest — that an action is moral if, and only if, it harms the person doing it. 

But in the real world altruists — people with basic human empathy; people who are not psychopaths — think that in some cases you ought to act not only in you own interest but also in other people’s interests. And this may sometimes mean denying yourself some particular good. Often it means nothing more than sacrificing your desire to have two chocolate biscuits so everyone else can have at least one; occasionally it might mean throwing yourself on the grenade so the rest of your platoon has a fighting chance. Rand falsely concludes that it's not having the biscuit and getting blown up by the grenade which are the point of the exercise. Since her morality consists in asking "what outcome would be best for me?" she imagines that traditional morality must consist in thinking “what outcome would be worst for me?"

It is true that Jesus Christ told his followers that they should aim at being completely self-sacrificial — to give all their stuff away, to act as if they were slaves and everyone else was their boss, to always make for the least prestigious table in the restaurant. But this is a specifically Christian idea: it’s not the tao. Perhaps Rand had imbibed the idea that all morality was Christian morality and concluded that to attack morality meant attacking Christianity?

It is also true that some religions say that self-denial is sometimes good. Particular people should give up particular nice things under particular circumstances or at particular times. You might fast because it is Ramadan, abstain from chocolate because it is Lent, or give up sex because you are a monk. So it is possible that Rand thinks that because altruism and asceticism are both things which Christians approve of, altruism and asceticism must be identical?

I am prepared to bet that at least one person reading this essay has experienced a life-threatening house fire. Perhaps one of you has even been in a boat which got into difficulties and had to call out the coastguard. (There were a hundred and forty two shipwrecks in 2016.)  I do not believe that anyone in this room has ever been in the position of having to choose between their true love's life and the lives of ten strangers. But according to Rand, it is illegitimate — decadent and amoral and lazy and lethargic — to create thought experiments based on rare and unusual events. It doesn't matter if objectivism breaks down when the ship hits a lifeboat and there are three people rushing for the same iceberg, because you are never likely to encounter this situation in real life. So: why is it legitimate for Ayn Rand to invoke the fantastically unlikely circumstance of being faced with the mutually exclusive choice between saving your own spouse and saving ten other spouses in order to prove that objectivism works, but illegitimate for me to imagine myself on S.S Titanic in order prove that it doesn't?

"But Andrew you are avoiding the question."

Very well: I shall answer it directly. 

If you can, with a sufficiently complicated set of trolley cars and levers, generate a circumstance where I have to choose between saving the life of one person I love or the lives of ten people I do not care about, then I ought to save the strangers. I don't say this because I think I would have more rational happy happy joy joy with the grief of having lost a friend than with the guilt of having killed ten innocent persons. I say this because if I was the one tied to the railway line, and it was a choice between saving me and saving the ten kids whose steam train was about to careen off the edge of cliff, I think that I ought to be prepared to lay down my own life. I assume that anyone I loved would feel the same way. I think that if I were the only surgeon in the world capable of operating on ten children who would certainly die without my skill, and if someone rushed into the operating theater and said "Doctor, doctor, you wife has just been shot by a one armed man and you are the only surgeon in the world with the skill to remove the bullet and if you do not come now she will certainly die before the next commercial break" I would say "I am sorry, but I cannot come until I have saved the lives of these ten kids. Because it is the right thing to do." 


Love ye therefore the stranger: for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.
Deuteronomy 10:19

Rand owns that you should rescue your nearest and dearest from the shipwreck, although she frames this as selfishness rather than generosity.


She concedes that you should rescue friends from the shipwreck, although here she invokes a new value called “integrity” that she hadn’t mentioned before: if I wasn’t prepared to rescue you from the shipwreck then I had no right to call you my friend. 

She even admits that there should be a presumption towards helping strangers, because they might, at some point in the future, become your friends and be a component of your selfish, rational, personal joy and happiness. 


“The generalized respect and good will which one should grant to a human being in the name of the potential value he represents — unless and until he forfeits it….A rational man does not forget that life is the source of all values and as such a common bond among living being (as against inanimate matter) that other men are potentially able to achieve the same virtues as his own and thus be of enormous value to him.” 


This seems to leave us very much where we would have been if we had stuck with the old fashioned moral law. Prof. Lewis’s reading of the tao distinguished between a law of general beneficence and a law of special beneficence.We should help one we have promised to help rather than another, or a benefactor rather than one who has no special claims on us, or a compatriot more than a stranger, or a kinsman rather than a mere compatriot.Be nice to everybody, but be specially nice to people you have a special reason to be specially nice to. Objectivism seems to say very much the same thing. We ought to help our loved ones; we ought to help our friends; we ought to help strangers unless there is a good reason not too. 


But Rand drops in one rather massive qualification:


“For instance a man who values human life and is caught in a shipwreck should help to save his fellow passengers. … But this does to mean that he should spend his life sailing the seven seas in search of shipwreck victims to save.”


“Suppose one hears that the man next door is ill and penniless….One may bring him food and medicine if one can afford it (and as an act of good will, not of duty) or one may raise a fund among the neighbours to help him out. But this does not mean that one must support him from then on, nor that one must spend one’s life looking for starving men to help.” 


As usual, I don't know where her rules come from. I don't know how you get from “There is a presumption that we ought to help people in distress” to "We ought to help individuals in distress who we happen to come across, but not distressed persons in general.” The implication would be that the obligation to help someone increases the closer they are to you physically which seems to me to be neither moral nor rational.

It is true that if everybody in the world always helped people who were physically close to them, then everyone who was in trouble would always get help. But that is only useful if we have already agreed that we want to create in a world where everyone who needs help gets helped. Why do we necessarily want to create such a world  apart, obviously, from its being the right thing to do? 

A particular person might get rescued from a shipwreck and decide to change their career and become a coastguard or a lifeboat man. "I was very pleased that there was someone to fish me out of the sea when I was drowning, so I have decided to spend the rest of my life fishing other people out of the sea when they are drowning" is as far as it goes a pretty logical, rational and praiseworthy attitude. But a different person might equally well say "I am personally no sailor and no swimmer, but I was glad that someone was on hand to help me when I needed it, so I would like someone to be on hand to help other people when they need it, so I am going to give some of my money to the lifeboat service each month and go door to door selling those little flags once a year." 

But what about the impoverished neighbor? If it is rational for me to give money to Mr Smith, who is out of work; and even rational for all Mr Smith's neighbors to get together and give money to Mr Smith, why is it irrational for people in general to get together to give money to unemployed people in general? If you find an abandoned infant you should certainly take care of it. You should not necessarily neglect your own child in order to take care of it. I don't think that faced with a zero-sum choice of looking after the foundling or looking after your own child you should necessarily prefer the foundling, or that you should positively seek out abandoned children in order to neglect your own. But it might be that some of the money you might have spent on nice things for your own kids will have to go on keeping the orphan alive. And I think that is true even if the orphan was not dumped on your doorstep, but is in some other part of town or some other country. I think that some kids may have to make do with a bit less cake so that other kids can have some bread.

I don’t think the question about killing one person to save ten arises very often in real life. The one about giving your own kinds a few less sweets and video games so that someone else's kid can have basic nutrition and education comes up literally all the time.

Rand tells me that, if I want to, I can go along the street collecting money to help out Mr Smith at Number 19 who has fallen on hard times. But if I admit that I have any kind of responsibility to impoverished people and sick wives and drowning men and orphaned children who I have never met, I may be tempted to organize a city-wide or nation-wide whip-round to pay for their basic needs. And that, Rand fears, could lead to a system of general taxation, state schools and hospitals, welfare, and from there to collectivism, socialism, communism and the end of civilization as we know it.

This is what I have learned from reading Ayn Rand. 

It is a good thing for individuals to help other individuals, and even for groups of people to get together to help one person in particular. But it is a bad thing for groups of people to try to help people in general. 

Charity good, welfare bad. 

I wish I hadn’t bothered.

So: what does any of this have to do with Spider-Man?





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