Saturday, March 30, 2013

Correcting False Claims about Ayn Rand's Ideas

Again, I was unable to restrain myself from defending Ayn Rand's ideas against gross misrepresentations. Thankfully, they are the same misrepresentations I see throughout liberal/progressive blogs and media articles. So my response is ready-to-post because I have posted many variants of it. This time, I responded to a comment from an article that criticizes the funding of the Florida Gulf Coast economics department by the Koch brothers. As an aside, despite some misguided decisions (e.g., funding the Romney Presidential campaign), I have every reason to believe the Koch brothers are libertarian and fund organizations that support political and economic liberty.

There were several false claims about her philosophy, but I picked one that seemed to capture most of misrepresentations in one sentence!

The quote: "When an ideology preaches that volunteerism, altruism, charity, generosity, cooperation, etc. are harmful."

My response: If you can find a single quote to prove this claim, you would be lying. This false claim (which appears to be mostly made by liberals/progressives) of Ayn Rand's ideas is widespread on the Internet. When you make these false claims, you are not exhibiting "free thought." When many of you misrepresent Rand's ideas with the same smears, that's called "group think." It also reveals that you did not read Rand (or if you did, you need to review what she actually wrote). What I suspect is happening is that these false claims are being propagated by online "criticisms" of Rand. Again, this is not evidence of "thinking for yourself."

What did Ayn Rand say about "charity?" [From the Ayn Rand Lexicon]. "My views on charity are very simple. I do not consider it a major virtue and, above all, I do not consider it a moral duty. There is nothing wrong in helping other people, if and when they are worthy of the help and you can afford to help them. I regard charity as a marginal issue. What I am fighting is the idea that charity is a moral duty and a primary virtue." How did Rand define altruism? (Hint: She did not define it as "helping others." She used the term as it was originally coined by August Comte. However, today "altruism" practically means "helping others.")

Again, from the Ayn Rand Lexicon: "What is the moral code of altruism? The basic principle of altruism is that man has no right to exist for his own sake, that service to others is the only justification of his existence, and that self-sacrifice is his highest moral duty, virtue and value. Do not confuse altruism with kindness, good will or respect for the rights of others. These are not primaries, but consequences, which, in fact, altruism makes impossible. The irreducible primary of altruism, the basic absolute, is self-sacrifice—which means; self-immolation, self-abnegation, self-denial, self-destruction—which means: the self as a standard of evil, the selfless as a standard of the good...

The fact that a man has no claim on others (i.e., that it is not their moral duty to help him and that he cannot demand their help as his right) does not preclude or prohibit good will among men and does not make it immoral to offer or to accept voluntary, non-sacrificial assistance. It is altruism that has corrupted and perverted human benevolence by regarding the giver as an object of immolation, and the receiver as a helplessly miserable object of pity who holds a mortgage on the lives of others—a doctrine which is extremely offensive to both parties, leaving men no choice but the roles of sacrificial victim or moral cannibal."

To read a scholarly analysis of Ayn Rand's view on altruism and why she opposed it, see this excellent series of essays by George H. Smith.

Did Rand oppose "cooperation" or "volunteerism?" That's simply absurd. She opposed the welfare state, which mandates how money (from taxation) is to redistributed/spent (i.e., no longer the individual's choice). And she opposed involuntary taxation because it was based upon coercion (e.g., imprisonment). But to know this about Rand, you would need to read her first!

Indeed, she was all for voluntary cooperation, namely, promoting that people act freely (without coercion) in their rational self-interest, especially through trade. Whenever you buy something, you are trading. You are coming to a mutual agreement. In short, you are cooperating! I know it's hard for some progressives to not view the free market as a non-coercive mechanism for cooperation (probably thanks to left-leaning indoctrination), but that's a fact of reality and it's time to stop denying it.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Battle with my Belly Bulge

This blog is a little unusual for me as it is more personal. I gave myself permission to be self-disclosing because many people can relate to this issue. Since 2010,  I have tried to lose weight 3 times. To those who have seen me, I know I don't appear fat, but I am what some call "skinny fat." Most of my fat collects around my gut. Based on BMI calculations and gut-check measurement (i.e., how much belly fat I can hold in my hands), I'm about 15 lbs overweight.

I have started my diets well enough. During the first month, I lose weight at a healthy rate (6-8 lbs). But after a month, I tend to lose my discipline for food tracking. I am currently using  the Weight Watchers system, which includes online tracking (also an Android app) and weekly meetings. This time I am more determined than ever. 150 lbs is my goal. Going to meetings for the social support and sharing of tips and experiences is new for me. As a psychotherapist who has helped facilitate group therapy sessions, I have seen the benefits of an emotionally supportive group. So going to these weekly meetings can only be helpful in maintaining my motivation. I weighed in yesterday at 159.6 for a loss of 5.4 lbs after 3 weeks. So far, so good!

I have both external and internal incentives (e.g., health, appearance, my pants fitting comfortably). For an external incentive, I want to reach my goal-weight for my honeymoon to Italy (May 5, 2013). During my honeymoon, I suspect I will gain 3-5 pounds, but that's OK. That's only 2 more weeks of dieting. Once I lose all my weight, I'm going to return to regular weight-lifting (twice weekly) and keep tracking my diet so I maintain my weight. At some point, I may decide to increase my protein intake, but that's only if I am consistent with my weight-training. I really don't want to go back to 165 lbs and wear a beer belly. I've been pretty good about regular exercise. Weekly, I play ice hockey and do an interval run on the treadmill (to simulate the high-low aerobic intensity of hockey). And once it warms up, my wife and I will be cycling.

Friday, March 15, 2013

A few points on Ayn Rand's philosophy

I posted this on a Goodreads thread about the book, Atlas Shrugged and Jesus Wept. I have not read it, but the comment thread was interesting. Whenever I see discussions of Ayn Rand's philosophy, I look for misrepresentations, which is not hard to do, and do my part to correct them. I'm all for criticizing ideas, but at the very least, a critic needs to first understand what they are criticizing. Straw men, after all, are easy to pull apart.

My response was inspired by this comment: "I think it's refreshing to read about a true right wing believer, as opposed to these modern day right-wingers who are more concerned with what others are doing than with themselves."

I think a more accurate description of her political philosophy is libertarian, as opposed to labeling her as a "true right wing believer."

A libertarian can hold liberal views on people's personal lives as well as economic liberal (pro-free market) views. Plus, although many conservatives ("right-wingers") tend to extol the virtues of the free market, they tend not to to practice what they preach. Once in power, they are as guilty as liberal governments for bloating the size of government, intervening in the economy in all kinds of ways, including practicing crony capitalism/corporatism (i.e., privatizing profits, but socializing losses a la bailouts and business subsidies).

As to Rand's notion of rational self-interest, although I don't agree that all moral behaviour needs to be justified by appealing to self-interest, I think there is a lot everyday behaviour in which the self is the primary beneficiary of one's actions. And I believe Rand offered a reasonable humanistic ethical philosophy that can be used as a guide in pursuing one's self-interested actions. Namely, she argued for pursuing values that objectively benefit the self in terms of one's happiness or flourishing. Then she appealed to an Aristotelian virtue ethics by arguing that if we adhere to values such as self-respect, honesty, integrity, rationality, and productiveness, that we do indeed further our happiness and flourishing.

Some of her ethical claims can be testable (e.g., the link between pursuing certain virtues and one's happiness), and that's another reason that makes it a rational philosophy. In my own self-esteem research, I look at whether associating one's self-esteem with the practices of certain virtues (e.g., honesty, accountability, trustworthiness, kindness, effort, discipline), rather than depending on other people to "boost your ego," is a healthier way to maintain one's self-esteem. This idea for this research is, in part, influenced by Rand's ethical philosophy; albeit as refined by Nathaniel Branden's theorizing on self-esteem. 

My disagreement with the self-interest justification is that there can be moral beahviour in which the recipient is the primary beneficiary of a moral behaviour. Rand attempts to argue that the self must and always be the primary beneficiary of an action in order for it to be moral. I think a lot of times that is true, but not always. There will be times when you help someone and what they gain far exceeds what you receive (aside from feeling good about yourself). And moreover, that the action is morally good because the recipient has benefited from your actions. 

Where I agree with Rand is her opposition to self-sacrifice, or more precisely, that our purpose in life is to exist for others (i.e., the Christian ethic). I view this as logical impossibility because if we were truly selfless all the time, others can make unlimited demands on our time and effort. We couldn't have a life we could call our own. We could have to (guiltily) snuggles some "selfishness." And what about the people making demands of your time and effort? Are they not being selfish?