Monday, November 10, 2008

Why I am an Objectivist

I am a human being who values her life on this earth above all other things. The right and good is that which contributes to my life and the wrong and evil is that which destroys it. Every action I take must pass through the gates of identification before being pursued as a value which I understand will contribute to my life. Happiness is my ultimate goal.

I understand the importance of identifying, applying, pursuing, and achieving those values which will contribute to my life, not just in the immediate sense (which every child understands), but in the long-term sense (which develops with experience). This is not to say that I’m really good at always identifying, pursuing, and achieving those values, or that I remain consistent in my applications of them; merely that I had already understood that this selfishness was the key to my happiness when I was relatively young. The importance of the fact that I understood I was responsible for my own happiness can not be overemphasized here. What I didn’t realize until much later was that this idea was controversial or that it had been developed into a philosophy called Objectivism.

Selfishness

As all children do, at an early age I sought to achieve my own immediate happiness. This is a natural state, often as short-lived and as short-sighted as our experiences will allow and as reality dictates (i.e. how fast your parents can knock it out of you or reality gives you negative feedback). As we mature, we begin to realize that immediate gratification is more like candy than a meal: not fit for a steady diet. (How many of us have dined gleefully and exclusively on candy only to throw up later? I know I have.) Indulging childish whims is not selfishness – it is self-destructive.

It is unfortunate that the immediate gratification stage of a child is most often mistakenly identified as “selfishness”. As we begin to interact with others, and more importantly, to appreciate some people as values in and of themselves, we learn that achieving our own happiness may often include the happiness of those we hold as valuable (as in friendship and love). When I value someone, their happiness is also important to me. I want them to be happy for selfish reasons. This is in keeping with my desire to be happy rather than in conflict with it. If you can not divorce the word “selfish” from the castigations of youth, then “rational self-interest” may be used in its place. Upon being introduced to Objectivism, I preferred to redress my mistake and properly define selfishness as the key to not only life, in and of itself, but moreover, to a happy life.

With experience, we begin to broaden our identification of things that will make us happy. We pursue longer term values which are important to us - truth, knowledge, friendship, love, health, etc. – and begin to apply those values to our decision making process. This identification and application brings satisfaction, a form of happiness. Our increasing abilities to accurately assess things, proves the efficaciousness of our minds and lessens internal conflicts. A rational approach to life, that in which the application of reason and logic based upon our understanding of the way the natural world works, in turn brings happiness.

Altruism

It is important to note that altruism is the antithesis to selfishness. Altruism is the “unselfish concern for the welfare of others” and is in disastrous, direct conflict with rational self-interest. This is not a definition of convenience, but the actual meaning of altruism. I reject altruism in every form.

When someone is repeated told that he must put the welfare of others before himself, he begins to develop a sense that his worth is somehow linked with his concern for others, extending as far as those unknown to them, and unidentifiable by the values they hold – as if each human being is responsible for the life of every other human being regardless of that other’s choices, values, or morality. This moral code dictates that one reject cause and effect and assume that every human being, by virtue of being a human being is worthy of his efforts in the form of his time, money, and consideration before he, or his loved-ones are worthy of his efforts.

If you care about others at your own expense, shortly, you will be depleted. The destructiveness of altruism is really that simple, and should in no way be confused with the concern of others based on your own self-interest, nor should it be confused with simple good will or benevolence.

Consistency with Reality

We’ve all heard, “You can’t fight City Hall.” In fact, no matter how complicated and messy it may seem, you can fight against any man-made system in existence. What you can’t fight are the rules of physics, chemistry, biology, geology…natural laws. We can and should try to understand those immutable laws and make them work for us, but you can’t alter the facts of reality. Objectivism, at its foundation, requires adherence to reality.

While this sounds self-evident, I was surprised to discover that not all philosophies are based on reality. Mystics base their philosophies on unknowable, unworldly magic-guy-in-the-sky morality whereas skeptics base their philosophies on the lack of absolutes – a “nothing is knowable”, “anything goes” morality. Objectivism does not lie between the two, but rather identifies through reason that we know what exists by adjusting our thinking to reality, not that reality mirrors our thinking.

There are absolutes, both good and bad. Being able to identify the good (that which contributes to human life) and the bad (that which seeks to destroy human life) is critically important.

Intellectual Leadership

I am not an intellectual. No one who knows me or reads this blog needs to be reminded of this fact; I just want you to know that I am painfully aware of this fact as I am writing this piece.

I do, however, know enough about myself and the importance of intellectual leadership in our culture to understand that while I am not yet a very capable person regarding the explanation of the philosophy of Objectivism, I am making efforts to become so. Understanding of philosophical systems requires tremendous effort and study. As someone who has never studied philosophy, I lack ownership of some basic philosophical terms (i.e. metaphysics, epistemology) and I can be trapped by people who are unabashed in their employment of logical fallacies (it can take me some time to recognize and refute them). This is my way of explaining that I am clearly not attempting to be an intellectual spokesperson here.

This being said, the works of Ayn Rand, who developed the philosophy, are the best source if you are interested in exploring Objectivism. I recommend that you read one or all of her works of fictions (there are only four novels and a play, and you needn’t begin with Atlas Shrugged, though it is my favorite). You should visit the Ayn Rand Institute and read her introduction to Objectivism to which I have linked. I do strongly recommend that you read her works prior to reading any applications of her ideas by others and judge for yourself.

I cannot say that identifying myself as an Objectivist has made me a happier person; I grasped the importance of selfishness when I was young, well before I had heard of Ayn Rand. However, I can say that if the promise of religion doesn’t appeal to you, if the uncertainty of skepticism leaves you feeling empty, or if you have embraced the doctrine of altruism all the way to its logical end, the destruction of self, perhaps Objectivism will make you happier. Knowing that Objectivist intellectuals exist does in some small way contribute to my hope for the rest of the world.

In Conclusion

Everything I have read by Ayn Rand only deepens my understanding of exactly how Objectivism is an excellent philosophy based on the morality of the life and sovereignty of the individual man. There is no mysticism or skepticism in Objectivism, and unless you think that conformance with reality and living for your own sake is cultish or too extreme, then Objectivism may resonate with you too. If you choose to live for no man and would not force another man to live for you, but would rather cultivate relationships based on mutual benefit and shared values, then I urge you to read more from Ayn Rand herself.

Objectivism is a philosophy which gives a moral foundation to man’s rational pursuit of happiness – that is why I am an Objectivist.
______________________________

This is just my first attempt on this much larger subject, and is not my last (nor, hopefully, best) word on the matter. I have not touched upon the politics, nor fully developed the metaphysics or epistemology of Objectivism herein, but rather limited my thoughts to the ethics of selfishness as that is what I understand best.

18 comments:

Rational Jenn said...

Hooray! I've been contemplating a similar post and you've inspired me to get going on it!

LB said...

Great! I think it's important that we get our opinions out there.

I'd like to think that my getting it out there compensates somewhat for my lack of clarity or precision. It's just such a huge topic. I'll keep working on it.

BTW: I hope you have as good a trip as possible.

Burgess Laughlin said...

Thank you for your forthright statement. It is well founded. You made exactly the right point: the ethics of rational egoism is founded in the nature of reality: What is good is what contributes to the life of the organism.

Coincidentally, Study Groups for Objectivists has today started Part I of its close, slow look at Ayn Rand's essay, "The Objectivist Ethics." (SGO) We are covering about 3 pp. per week, so I am now seeing more clearly some of the very issues you have brought up. Part II, the second half of the essay, will begin in January after a break.

Best to you in the "spiral of learning" (a phrase I inferred from Leonard Peikoff). I think of learning as being like one of those paper spirals that hang from a Xmas tree: As we learn, we go deeper and broader, around and around, up and down our hierarchy of knowledge.

Dean Striker said...

Your soft touch to this is greatly needed. Submitted to Digg. Thank you for presenting it nicely.

C. August said...

I'm hoping you could provide some context for why you endeavored to write this?

Were you trying to sort some things out for yourself and more fully integrate the philosophy into your thinking? Are you working on something like what Burgess termed the "CPL" (Central Purpose in Life)? Is this like a manifesto saying "This is who and am and who I intend to be?" Are you hoping to give a personal guide to the people you value, hoping that they will embark on a similar journey, or at least understand the ideas you live by?

I'm curious, also because Jenn said she wants to write something similar, while I don't think writing my own version of "why I am an Objectivist" would occur to me. Since two people I respect think it's an important thing, I'm intrigued as to why?

LB said...

Thanks for your words of encouragement, Burgess, and for the intellectual role model you provide.

LB said...

Good question, C. August.

I think that at some point in the not too distant past, there was some discussion about it on HBL. Like Objectivism itself, upon closer examination, the idea of explaining why I am an Objectivist made perfect sense to me. It makes sense for all of the reasons you mentioned (but the hope that others will embark on a similar journey)AND most importantly, that in order to write about something, you must at least begin to understand it.

It forced me to think about a few things, but I had to post it in its incomplete form or run the risk of never posting it at all as learning never ends.

Again, by publishing this initial attempt at an explanation in this very limited and so far friendly forum, I hope to show that Objectivism is not a cultish obsession based on the personality of Ayn Rand, but a real philosophy for life. In one respect, I'm just another married woman with bills and kids and a mortgage, trying to make sense of it all and grow to become a better individual, etc. But in another respect, I already understand the importance of rational self-interest in the decision making processes of my life. To the best of my knowledge, only Objectivism provides the moral foundation for this self-interest and the happiness it provides.

With all the references to Ayn Rand and Objectivism in the media these days, I also wanted to be able to defend what Objectivism is and isn't and why it is for me.

Maybe later I'll be bold enough to encourage others to embark on this journey.

Burgess Laughlin said...

> "Are you working on something like what Burgess termed the 'CPL' (Central Purpose in Life)?"

Additional information for those not familiar with the term: The phrase "central purpose "comes from Ayn Rand. The Ayn Rand Lexicon, "Purpose," has excerpts of her discussions of a central purpose in life.

A central purpose in life is one's productive purpose, the work one loves to do. It is a means to an end, one's ultimate purpose, which is happiness.

I present my view in the May 20, 2008 post on Making Progress, here.

LB said...

Thanks for the Digg, Dean Striker. I'm not exactly sure what it's all about, but it seems to have caused some traffic here. I'm working on figuring this neato tool out.

Tell me: is it gauche to digg yourself? Even if you're an egoist?

Principled Parent said...

Great post LB! You've given me a lot to think about and have also sparked a lot of potential blog posts for myself. Thanks for writing this piece!

Beth said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Beth said...

(Sorry. I don't know how to edit my comment without deleting it and resubmitting, but I couldn’t stand having it posted with glaring errors! So here it is again, edited. BH)

Thanks for your post.

When I want to really understand something, I write. I find it perfectly natural to want to write "Why I am an Objectivist." The added impetus of making it public increases my desire to make it well organized and clear.

I love reading what Objectivism means to people. Each of us has our own take on it as we work to integrate it into the uniqueness of our individual lives and selves. I often come away with a new perspective or a deeper understanding after reading a carefully thought out statement such as this. Thanks again.

LB said...

Beth, I feel your pain and officially welcome you to my world.

Amy Mossoff said...

I really like this post. So many Objectivists talk and write about current events, politics, and why everyone else in the world is wrong. I'm interested in how people apply the ethics in their own lives. I hope to start some kind of structured exercise where I focus on one virtue at a time and try to find (and write about) all the ways I can apply it in my everyday life, especially as it applies to parenthood.

Now that I've read your post and I'm thinking about this project again, I'm going to put it on my to do list as top priority in the new year. Thanks!

Harsha said...

Awesome post!!
I have discovered objectivism very recently, in comparison to all the people who have posted here. I think that writing down as to why I want to be an Objectivist will make things much clear(for students like me) and better in all aspects. All can i say for now is "Im loving it".

Concord Carpenter said...

Very well written, well done!

rtaylortitle said...

Precise, eloquent and inspiring. You should be very proud of your life and its results.

nolanreviews said...

I never realized that there were so many Objectivist blogs! I should have known. Glad I stumbled on this one, too.

http://nolanbookreviews.wordpress.com/

Mine ^