Objectivism: Enlightened Egoism

So, Adam Lee is reading and review “Atlas Shrugged”. He seems to be trying to do it as both a literary reviewing and as a philosophical review, but I find that the series doesn’t do a very good job of either. I’ve been reading along with the series, but haven’t read the book itself. Instead, I dug through her actual philosophy, and so can confirm that, yes, Lee gets a number of things wrong in his zeal to mock Ayn Rand, which is one of the reasons why I hate the “Let me mock my opponents!” style of posting/argumentation; too often, it ends up being a way for people to ignore reasonable arguments in favour of cheap “Gotchas!” that are easy to patch up. And philosophy is full of cases where an original philosophy gets patched up in response to criticism.

Anyway, the biggest thing that I’ve taken from that series is that if you want to understand Rand, you have to start from Hobbes. Once you’ve grasped Hobbes, then you can understand one of the main — if not the main — pillars of her philosophy, which is Enlightened Egoism. Now, I’m not saying that she knew about or was inspired by Hobbes in her philosophy, but if you start from Egoism a la Hobbes, then you can understand the difference between that and Rand.

So, what did Hobbes say? Hobbes is what I’ll call a Psychological Egoist. He argued that we, as humans, are inherently self-interested, and so never act altruistically. No matter what action we take, it’s always because it benefits us, and so, in his words, we are inherently selfish, and never selfless. Now, you can take this stronger or weaker, with the weakest claim being that an action has to benefit us in at least some way or else we won’t take it, without having to insist that it be the action that most benefits us. So if we take an action that helps others because it makes us feel good, then by Hobbes we are not acting altruistically, but instead selfishly. The response to this is that Hobbes equivocates on selfishness here, but I don’t really think that charge sticks to Hobbes, mostly because it’s only those who insist that acting selfishly is really, really bad that are equivocating, as Hobbes doesn’t have to think that acting selfishly in that manner is inherently bad, and in fact his system kinda relies on us doing that.

So what does his system say? Well, since we are always self-interested, you can’t rely on us not acting that way. But no one can guarantee their own self-interest — and the most important thing for Hobbes, our lives — completely on our own. Even the strongest person can be tricked out of their resources, or even overpowered if enough people band together, even if only temporarily. And smart people can be overpowered. The state of nature is where everyone thinks only of their own direct and immediate self-interest, protecting themselves from others and taking from others if they can get away with it. This is Hobbes State of Nature, and according to Hobbes it is characterized by being nasty, brutish and short.

But as thinking beings, we can come to see that this is the result of unrestrained self-interest, and so the Social Contract is born. We get together and agree to restrain our self-interest in some ways in order to have an overall better life. In short, we restrain our short-term self-interest in order to form a society where we might have to sacrifice our interests now, but are far better off in the future. Hobbes thinks, it seems to me, that we always need to have a reason to give up seeking our own self-interest, and that if we are at all rational the only thing that can constantly motivate us to give up our own self-interest is a threat to our life, which is what pushes us to accept the contract in the first place. Thus, Hobbes places a sovereign over everyone with the ability to kill anyone who breaks the Social Contract, ensuring that everyone always has the most reason to follow the contract even if it would, in the short-term, benefit them to break it.

This is where Rand parts ways with Hobbes. She is not, in fact, a Psychological Egoist; she thinks that we are, in fact, psychologically capable of acting not only not in our self-interest, but in fact in ways completely opposed to our self-interest. We can, indeed, act altruistically. But she thinks that we ought not act altruistically. It is immoral according to Rand to act altruistically. We are morally bound to act in our own self-interest all of the time. Thus, Rand is an Ethical Egoist.

So, how, then, does she propose to escape a Hobbesian State of Nature? Well, she is an Enlightened Egoist, taking the starting point of Hobbes — that we form these contracts because we rationally understand that this is in our best interest. If we understand this, then what do we need the sovereign for? Ought we not act in our own proper self-interest and work to preserve this Social Contract that so obviously benefits us? The only reason for us not to do so is that we are in a situation where we can indeed act in our own specific and immediate self-interest and can maintain the Social Contract benefits. In short, the only issue is when we can legitimately cheat and end up benefiting in the short-term without costing us anything in the long-term. But as Rand is an Ethical Egoist, this means that the sovereign — or the government — only have benefit or value in cases where they need to force us to act against what is, in fact, in our own rational self-interest, and for Rand that is absolutely immoral. Thus, for her, we don’t need a sovereign.

Thus, the constant arguments in those posts and comments that Rand is wrong about what is in our self-interest and that there are a number of things that it is better for us for the government to run aren’t arguments against Rand. If those arguments are successful, Rand will merely expand the role of government in her society … or, at least, she’d do that if she’s any kind of reasonable and rational philosopher. To attack Rand, then, you have to undercut the pillar of Egoism out from under her. If you get into arguments about what’s really better for us, you’ve pretty much accept her Ethical Egoism, and now are just trying to shake out what exactly that entails. And people like Lee, certainly, don’t want to accept that we are ethically bound to act only in our own self-interest, and that altruism, in and of itself, is immoral.

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One Response to “Objectivism: Enlightened Egoism”

  1. Objectivism: Capitalism | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] continuing on from my discussions of Objectivism started here, here I’d like to talk about how Rand comes to decide that capitalism is, in fact, the best […]

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