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Objectivism

I've started reading (well, technically listening to) a book by Ayn Rand, her "magnum opus" Atlas Shrugged.

Ayn Rand is one of those authors that everyone seems to assume that if you're an atheist you've read her, kinda like Nietzsche. My experience in real life with libertarians who embrace Ayn Rand's objectivism are best described as aggravating. (No offense.) But someone I know, whom I think I respect, suggested I read it. And frankly, I think he thinks I'll be converted if I read it, and I look at it more as a way to convert him back to a viewpoint which is slightly more compassionate by using the language of the book, and arguing against specific points that it makes.

Okay, perhaps I am a little insane.

Currently, I'm about 5.5 hours into the audiobook, which is about 50+ hours long, so roughly a 1/10 of the way through. Since the book is 1000 pages or so, that'd be like 100+ pages at this point. (Around where Reardan agrees to get Dagny the track order in 9 months instead of 12. And I actually did a little reading about the book just so I could spell everyone's names properly because I was thinking "Riordan".)

So far, I like Dagny. She reminds me of me. And there are some things about the book I think I will appreciate. Dagny's interest in men is directly proportional to the man's ability to intrigue her intellectually. And sex becomes an expression of that intellectual and emotionally attraction. I agree. Rather Platonic, actually. I don't think I agree with the premise that altruism is inherently bad. One of the contrasts that need to be drawn between rational self-interest and enlightened self-interest (to which I subscribe) is how one's self-interest is calculated. The latter allows for altruism to be beneficial (to oneself), the former doesn't seem to. So far, I do also agree with the notion that being a sacrificial lamb for no good reason is stupid. This is a Christian notion to which I object. It's one thing if there is some greater good to be had, but there is no reason to lie down and take it passively.

One thing I appreciate about the book is a dearth of references to religion so far. That's what a good atheist book should do. I may enjoy listening to it if only for that reason.

In reading the Wikipedia entry on it linked above, I think I will also agree with Rand about the resentment of the masses against the success of those with real talent. I don't think this is universal, but it is grossly endemic in America. I have several other books on my reading list that discuss this. I don't see how, however, one can simply withdraw from society. Frankly, getting a ranch in Montana is not my cup of tea. I don't want to be a rancher. I want to do things I can't possibly fund myself. But, we'll see where the book goes. I'm nowhere close to the point where she gets around to making this point.

So far I've only been able to listen to it for a couple hours on the weekends. So, it may be some time before I finish it. Months even.

Comments

( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
mykelm
Jul. 13th, 2008 09:18 pm (UTC)
Well, you are off to a good start. But I would advise you to label the ideas you encounter that make you uneasy as questions or points to investigate, and not as disagreement. Particularly in the case of Rand's philosophy, the worst of your enemies will be your own false assumptions. And you have already made several.

Rational self-interest and enlightened self-interest are identical. Otherwise you would have to admit that enlightened self-interest is irrational.

Rand point blank states that helping someone else is not immoral if you can afford the help you give. But she would also say that in that case, it is not altruism. Altruism requires a sacrifice, a diminishing of your life to improve the life of others out of an alleged duty.

But a corollary of the main theme of the book is the idea that in a free society, it is those who seek their own wealth and glory that help the poor and helpless the most. That is because in a society where wealth is gained in an open market and no force can be used for gain, the path to the greatest wealth is by fulfilling the needs of the greatest number of people. Sam Walton died the richest man in America and Wal-Mart raised the standard of living of the poorest in America more than all the altruist poverty programs of government or charities that have ever existed.

Rand would be a teeny bit upset at you calling her book an atheist book. Her atheism was not a primary tenet of her philosophy. It is merely a natural logical consequence of her commitment to reason as our only means of survival. That is why it so seldom rears its ugly head.

You have also dropped the context of the withdrawal from society. In Atlas Shrugged it is the last-ditch effort in an imploding society. In contemporary life you need only to make sure that all of your ideas and associations with others are embraced because they contribute to your life and that you do not dilute or degrade them for the sake of the approval of others.


inafoxhole
Jul. 14th, 2008 12:09 am (UTC)
But I would advise you to label the ideas you encounter that make you uneasy as questions or points to investigate, and not as disagreement. Particularly in the case of Rand's philosophy, the worst of your enemies will be your own false assumptions.

Well, I can already see several of Rand's, so we are even.

Rational self-interest and enlightened self-interest are identical. Otherwise you would have to admit that enlightened self-interest is irrational.

This statement is false. Rational self-interest can very easily be a misnomer. Enlightened self-interest admits more of what is typically considered altruist into it than any application of rational self-interest I've seen. Enlightened self-interest doesn't look at only my interactions with other people, but it looks at cultural ones. If by giving to some strangers, I might benefit in some way, then that is to my self-interest. Whether an action is considered altruistic or whether it is considered "self-interest" depends very much on the scope of one's calculation. Many evolutionary biologists have proposed mechanisms for "altruistic" behaviour that are essentially self-serving in the long run. It is only the religious motivations of "altruism" that suggest that these actions should have no benefit to the self. Instead, I would argue that if looked at carefully, no altruism is without self-interest.

And seriously, I don't have a problem with duty. As a fairly intelligent person, I look at it as a duty or obligation to make the most of my "brilliance", and not to waste my life being a farmer or factory worker, but rather being a teacher or researcher. I not only enjoy these jobs more, but I'm intellectually better suited to them, better than those of average intelligence. Even without my sense of duty, I would be very unhappy wasting my intelligence.

Sam Walton died the richest man in America and Wal-Mart raised the standard of living of the poorest in America more than all the altruist poverty programs of government or charities that have ever existed.

I would hesitate to hold Wal-Mart up as a symbol of a company that raised up the American standard of living, when most of their own employees can't afford to shop there. And they cost the American taxpayers billions of dollars in healthcare and lost revenue from not paying their employees better. They also creep me out. Walking into Wal-Marts always make me feel dirty and like I'm about to be asked about god.

I also don't think the best of capitalism can be found in a completely free market. I look at it like a sport. Sports exist because everyone strives for the same thing within agreed-upon rules. And everyone follows those rules. But if you took away the umpires and referees, the games would dissolve into fist fights and the "best" teams would be the biggest bullies. Government regulation of business plays the role of the referees and umpires. When everyone plays fair, then everyone wins. Without that, the bullies cheat, steal, and loot, and only a few people benefit, and everyone else pays the price. You may not trust government, but I trust unregulated businessmen even less.

Rand would be a teeny bit upset at you calling her book an atheist book. Her atheism was not a primary tenet of her philosophy. It is merely a natural logical consequence of her commitment to reason as our only means of survival. That is why it so seldom rears its ugly head.

Well, I think of it as an atheist book only because it is a-theistic (as opposed to anti-theistic). Not that it is against religion, but simply lacks it. But good logic always ends up rejecting religion. :)

As for the context of the withdrawal from society, like I said, I only know about it from listening to argument from Rand's followers, and from the Wikipedia article. I haven't gotten to the context yet. From what I understand, that's closer to the end of the book.
(Anonymous)
Jul. 13th, 2008 09:29 pm (UTC)
Religious references?
I've read Atlas a couple times now - I didn't notice many religious references. I mean, obviously, the altruism is very similar to Christian altruism, but historically, and ideologically, Ayn Rand draws her presentation of altruism from Immanuel Kant.

Also, by altruism, she doesn't mean giving your friends presents, or funding a school because you think education is vital to the future of America. She means feeling duty-bound to give people presents who aren't even your friends, who aren't even of value to you; or in government terms, being taxed money to fund a state-education system.

I hope you enjoy it. I really loved Atlas and even if you think she's wrong by the end, you won't be able to deny that it was a damn good read. :D

By the way, could you say some more about those other books on your reading list? I'd be interested to grab a copy of at least one of them for myself.
inafoxhole
Jul. 13th, 2008 11:45 pm (UTC)
Re: Religious references?
What I meant about the religious references was that I didn't notice many, and that was a relief. She hints at concepts that have religious derivation of course, but that's not the same thing. Did I forget a negative somewhere?

I know what she means by altruism. Friends who are likely to reciprocate personally don't count. Giving to strangers is bad because they are not likely to reciprocate (personally to you). And, yes, I get the government thing. Dealing with her followers, it's pretty clear that she conflates just about every system of state "control" from fascism to socialism to statism to whatever. I know, because I can't get a damn one of them to even admit there is a definitional difference. But in reference to the state-funded edication system, I happen to think that it is to the benefit of everyone that even poor children are literate, and that gifted kids be able to go to at least state-funded colleges without needing to rely on their parent's financial status. And since it's to my benefit to live in an educated society, it's to my benefit to help pay for it, even though I don't have any kids, and even though my parents paid to send me to private school for most of my education.

Finding time to do real reading is tough right now. I cared the one book around for three months and got about 6 pages into it. The one is Anti-Intellectualism in American Life by Richard Hofstadter. The other picks up where this book leaves off, The Age of American Unreason by Susan Jacoby. There was another one I read on this same topic years ago, but I can't remember the title or author.
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