Not Interested in Self-Interestedness

Part of an ongoing dialog: A reader with the abbreviated name of MB writes,

“This is just my answer to your rhetorical question “does anyone need to be told to be more greedy and selfish?”

The answer is that yes, there are some people who need to be told to be less self-sacrificing or magnanimous and more selfish and greedy. Not that all people should be more selfish, but some people should.

Yes, I understand your answer thoroughly and completely. You stand on the ground I occupied thirty years ago.

Your analysis is flawed, because you are committing what is called a category error — albeit one might more clearly call it a play on words, or a pun.

You answer the question “does anyone need to be told to be more selfish?” with examples, not of selfishness, but of prudence. You mistake examples of imprudence for selfishness because folly mistakes prudence for selfishness.

But in no case you list is it the motive (selfish or unselfish) which is the mistake. In each case the mistake is misapplication of proper judgement as to person, place, condition, time, degree.

“Perhaps self-immolation makes sense in some contexts and is seen as noble by some, but Ayn Rand teaches that it is always wrong…”

Again, category error. This statement contains the false dichotomy: as if everything either fit into the category of self-obliteration via fire or the category of self-interest. Acts of charity and love are neither. A mother nursing her baby is not immolating herself, nor a rich neighbor helping a poor neighbor with no expectation of return.

Ayn Rand’s categorization cannot distinguish between a martyr and a suicide: but these things are not merely unalike, they are opposite. Neither prioritizes self-interest.

Self-interest means self-interest. One does not run into a burning building to save the child of a stranger, nor, for that matter, one’s own, because one might indeed immolate oneself in so doing, and, as you say, in her philosophy that is always wrong.

“…doing something only out of a misunderstood sense of duty is a case of false conscience and can result in more bad than good…”

This is not what she says. Reread John Galt’s speech. She is not preaching against a misapplication of the doctrine of helping others. She repudiates as absolute villainy the doctrine that any man should help another, unless he receives a proper benefit to himself. There is no ambiguity in her writing: she is crystal clear and repeats herself many times.

“Likewise, a widow who sacrifices herself in suttee probably provides a good example to her people of defiance in the face of suffering (this is yet another answer to the problem of pain, one which obviously I disagree with), conforms to tradition and social norms, and raises or upholds her family’s social status.”

Ayn Rand disapproved strongly of straw man arguments, and yet here you are making one. Who is arguing in favor of suttee, again, exactly? How does the argument follow? (1) Suttee is wrong (2) Charity is suttee (3) Charity is wrong. The minor premise is false-to-facts, absurdly so.

“Or someone who sets oneself on fire can make a (possibly noble) cause he deeply cares about famous. In my view, such people should care about themselves more and about others less. “

This statement is illogical and unrelated to reality.

The craving for fame is, at best, a concern for the good opinion of others, but is not a concern for the welfare of others. In any case, the no sage, no philosopher, no writer I can bring to mind ever advocated burning oneself to death as a means to achieve the good opinion of others, nor as the best way to win glory for one’s name in history.

Indeed, the absurdly of the example makes me wonder if you are speaking metaphorically. If so, I cannot fathom for what this metaphor stands. Are you perhaps referring to marching to war as a form of self-immolation? And you are advocating against the example of Achilles, who sought a short life, but a glorious one?

In any case, you once again make a category error. The cure for self-destructive vanity or vainglory or glory seeking, or whatever it is you are criticizing, is not an increase in the selfish impulse. Selfishness does not cure suicide. Indeed, in real life, not in theory, suicide is prompted primarily by selfishness. The cure for vanity is humility, which cannot coexist with the egotism Ayn Rand advocates.

“Following Ayn Rand, Flaubert, CS Lewis, I believe that an unexamined conscience can be bad and in particular self-sacrifice may not always make as much sense as a naive person would think.”

In this belief, you are exactly correct. But even in your own words, your sentence implies that the error is the abundance of naivety, not the lack of self-centeredness.

“This is a lesson I drew from “Atlas Shrugged”, not that adultery is good. Am I missing the point? Perhaps. Perhaps my interpretation is insufficiently literal, but it is mine.” 

You retreat into pure subjectivism, which is very odd indeed when interpreting the founder of Objectivism.

You are indeed missing the point, and, it seems, deliberately so. Missing the point is excusable when done innocently, not when done deliberately, and certainly not when used to criticize the interpretations of men who understand the material.

Ayn Rand says what she says and is what she is. You are entitled to your own opinion, but not to your own facts. Your interpretation is insufficiently literal, indeed. It is also wrong.

“I believe that “Atlas Shrugged” can serve as a useful warning for almost anyone.”

Yes, indeed, but a warning about what?

She is a clear and exact as to the diagnosis of the disease as any human writer I can bring to mind: but her cure is counterproductive.

She explicitly and unambiguously rejects Christianity, which she calls the Mystics of the Spirit, and equates it with what she calls the Morality of Death.

She correctly sees the wolf in sheep’s clothing — and then advocates slaughtering all the sheep.

Stalin, in the name of Utopia, perhaps killed more people than Genghis Khan, in the name of Genghis Khan. But that the one appropriated the name of unselfishness to mask his enormities does not mean that unmasking him leads to benevolence, peace, prosperity and order.

The heroism Ayn Rand herself advocates is impossible in her system.

Indeed, Ayn Rand’s characters did not believe her own preaching: John Galt sacrifices himself — he is crucified on an electrical torture machine — to save his true love, Dagny Taggart, from the secret police. Here, Ayn Rand’s love of heroism overcomes her philosophical conviction that selfishness is the source and summit of morality.