The Philosophy of Selfishness 12/18/2018

Right-wing philosopher and Objectivist cult leader Ayn Rand once wrote a screed called The Virtue of Selfishness (https://www.abebooks.com/servlet/SearchResults?isbn=9780451163936&n=100121503&cm_sp=mbc-_-ISBN-_-used).  In this text she states what can be nothing other than her understanding of how we are supposed to live.  Of course it comes across as a moral tract and, honestly, there is little to disagree with in the general diagnosis Rand has of human civilization and society.  My interest here is the modern right’s perversion of her ideas, and the sort of misinterpretation of her ideals has made this woman (an immigrant who escaped the Soviet Union to forge a wealthy capitalist lifestyle in America) a misunderstood patron saint for the modern conservative movement.  Rand was a swinger, fucking everything she wanted.  She liked drugs, booze and partying all night long.  The more successful she became (she was a very hard worker), the more joy she celebrated in contradiction to many of the ideas she set forth.  What the modern right today fails to acknowledge is the sheer hypocrisy of one of their boldest spokespersons.


Let’s read a few quotes from The Virtue of Selfishness, and compare them to today, in this nightmare world of self-delusion.  Here:


  • You can ignore reality, but you cannot ignore the consequences of ignoring reality.
  • The only proper, moral purpose of a government is to protect man’s rights, which means: to protect him from physical violence—to protect his right to his own life, to his own liberty, to his own property and to the pursuit of his own happiness. Without property rights, no other rights are possible.
  • Poverty, ignorance, illness and other problems of that kind are not metaphysical emergencies. By the metaphysical nature of man and of existence, man has to maintain his life by his own effort; the values he needs—such as wealth or knowledge—are not given to him automatically, as a gift of nature, but have to be discovered and achieved by his own thinking and work.
  • When you consider socialism, do not fool yourself about its nature. Remember that there is no such dichotomy as “human rights” versus “property rights.” No human rights can exist without property rights.
  • Observe, in politics, that the term extremism has become a synonym of “evil,” regardless of the content of the issue (the evil is not what you are extreme about, but that you are “extreme”—i.e., consistent).
  • When a man declares: “There are no blacks and whites [in morality]” he is making a psychological confession, and what he means is: “I am unwilling to be wholly good—and please don’t regard me as wholly evil!
  • Racism is the lowest, most crudely primitive form of collectivism.  It is the notion of ascribing moral, social or political significance to a man’s genetic lineage—the notion that a man’s intellectual and characterological traits are produced and transmitted by his internal body chemistry.  Which means, in practice, that a man is to be judged, not by his own character and actions, but by the characters and actions of a collective of ancestors.
Racism claims that the content of a man’s mind (not his cognitive apparatus, but its content) is inherited; that a man’s convictions, values and character are determined before he is born, by physical forces beyond his control.  This is the caveman’s version of the doctrine of innate ideas—or of inherited knowledge—which has been thoroughly refuted by philosophy and science.  Racism is a doctrine of, by and for brutes.  It is a barnyard or stock-farm version of collectivism, appropriate to a mentality that differentiates between various breeds of animals, but not between animals and men.
  • A genius is a genius, regardless of the number of morons who belong to the same race—and a moron is a moron, regardless of the number of geniuses who share his racial origin.
  • Ask yourself why totalitarian dictatorships find it necessary to pour money and effort into propaganda for their own helpless, chained, gagged slaves, who have no means of protest or defense. The answer is that even the humblest peasant or the lowest savage would rise in blind rebellion, were he to realize that he is being immolated, not to some incomprehensible noble purpose, but to plain, naked human evil.


There is quite of bit of profound thought in this woman’s architecture of ‘the way things ought to be,’ despite her sometimes gaggingly dense prose (this is the same problem, yet on a far deeper level, in her two most famous books, The Fountainhead  https://www.abebooks.com/servlet/SearchResults?isbn=9780451191151&n=100121503&cm_sp=mbc-_-ISBN-_-used    and Atlas Shrugged  https://www.abebooks.com/servlet/SearchResults?isbn=9780451191144&n=100121503&cm_sp=mbc-_-ISBN-_-used, both extraordinarily long and dense, with a crawling pace and some enormously boring passages that makes each novel a terrible struggle to read).  And yet, we need to look at what she says, and how the modern ‘conservative’ has applied these principals into a different hypocritical stain.


“You can ignore reality, but you cannot ignore the consequences of ignoring reality.”  Is this statement taken seriously by anyone, right or left?  With all these claims (and occasional realities) of ‘fake news,’ and absurd statements like “truth isn’t truth,” and Kellyanne Conway’s classic “alternative facts,” how is the present collapse of society not attributable to the consequences of ignoring what is right in front of your face?  This disillusion of truth, and our descent into individual alternative universes does represent Rand’s solemn views on individuality, but the deep misunderstanding of this more important statement is lost, cynically discarded and no longer quoted by anyone other than me.


The next principal I’ve quoted, on the purpose of government to protect its citizens and nothing else, has an underlying question mark at the end.  This final statement, “Without property rights, no other rights are possible,” is really the only thing that matters in her view of government.  And she has a point, at least to a certain extent.  Back in the days before the founding of America, and certainly up through and past the Civil War, owning property was the only thing that entitled a person to vote.  Prior to Rand making this much broader statement about ‘rights,’ the nation had already shut out the struggling and the poor–those mostly unfortunate, although occasionally layabout individuals who are most in need of help.


Today’s right (and often today’s left, with their aloof and condescending indifference), has great contempt for society’s failures.  “You have to work hard to make something of yourself,” and “pull yourself up by your bootstraps,” and other cliches are fired onto these people like battle axes forcing them into submission.  But usually those condemning the poor do not take into consideration the realities that put them those people into the lives they are forced to live.  Let us take three examples and see how they fit into the foundation of human rights and liberty being only the ownership of property:


A wounded soldier comes back to the States.  His legs no longer function.  His sex life is at an end, and he is constantly in pain.  He is already addicted to his pain killers.  He only joined the army because life at home offered him no other options.  He had been raised by a single mother who had slowly lost her mind trying to survive as a struggling at home hairdresser, raising three children from two different fathers.  She had dropped out of school after getting pregnant at 16 with her oldest, the soldier in question.  They rent a shitty little house in a terrible neighborhood and this man, with no prospects set before him other than collecting a pension too small to help him survive, moves back in with his frazzled mother, who sometimes steals his pills.  The soldier had gone to a terrible public school, consumed by gang culture and teachers who acted more like prison guards than educators.  The soldier had tried hard to do well in school.  He wanted to go to community college and find a way out of his mother’s life.  But school taught him nothing beyond how to fight, and the teachers sometimes came to work reeking of alcohol and pot.  He graduated in the middle, his grades based more upon the teachers’ opinions of him.  After high school he could not afford to go the community college.  He joined the army.  His story ended.


Or what about the poor child whose parents both died in a car crash?  This kid might be from the middle class–maybe even the upper middle class!  But she is only seven years old and is now forced to move in with her aunt, who had always resented her sister, and who treats the little girl like yet another interference to her already hectic life.  The girl brings some money with her–even a trust fund, of sorts, but she is not allowed to touch it until she is 18.  This is, perhaps, the thing that drives her aunt the most crazy.  The little bitch won’t even pay her own way!  And so the child is raised unloved by everyone, bullied by her cousins, who are told that this is okay.  She keeps to herself, lonely, miserable, learns to trust no one and finds herself sitting alone at lunch in school.  She believes that everybody hates her.  She cuts herself.  She does not even know what self-confidence means.  She finds no direction in life and, goes on to drop out of college, where she was majoring in art history, and gets an indifferent job at Starbucks, or somewhere like that (does Orange Julius still exist in some mall, anywhere?)  She lives off her trust fund, rents an apartment in the city and goes on to lead an anonymous life with an increasing number of cats mewing around her.


Or, finally, there is the child of criminals.  He is raised to admire so-called gangsters and he finds himself always terrified.  His father beats him.  His mother beats him.  His older brother, who used to try to protect him, finally went to prison and won’t get out any time soon.  In school the other punks admire him because of who his father is, and he is forced to put on an air of psychotic toughness that keeps him out of fights because everyone is scared.  He starts doing drugs, dealing drugs, cutting school and calling his teachers ‘motherfucking assholes,’ to their faces.  He gets his hands on a gun.  He is an emotional wreck, never having been taught the difference between right and wrong, having been raised into a life where anything goes.  He never reaches the age to spend his ill-gotten gains (usually spent on drugs and whores and gambling anyway) to buy himself a little house, and settle down with whichever girlfriend he feels most comfortable with.  He is murdered at age nineteen.  No one really mourns him, and life continues in the neighborhood exactly as before.  He becomes another statistic.


Now we can take each of these realities (all three are based upon students I once taught), and certainly find fault with the decisions these people have made, and definitely with the terrible job their parents did raising them.  But is any of this truly their fault?  We imitate what we have always known.  This is why the children of wife-beaters often beat their wives, and why so many victims of incest and pedophilia go on the commit the same acts of terror.  As horrible or tragic we may find these people, we blame them for their lives.  We even turn them into horror stories to scare our kids–“Do you want to wind up on the streets?  Do your homework!  Play your French Horn!”  Not every mistake we make is wholly our own fault, and this is perhaps the greatest and cruelest misunderstanding of everyone living by their own means, at home, comfortable, warm.


Since this piece has grown so long, I will finish up with a few highlights from Rand’s philosophy and them close with my usual ‘fuck you’ to trends and behaviors we all notice in the world.


Rand’s defense of extremism, which she merely calls ‘consistent,’  is a horrifying statement that, to me, undermines anything she has to say.  Her dismissal of extremism’s ‘evil’ puts her at odds with every moral precept she otherwise promotes.  She does not define extremism, merely attributes it to a natural human right.  She does not even seem to understand the deadly nature of extremism, of absolutism.  In other places Rand condemns violence, calls it the “tactic of beasts.”  And yet fanatics can use nothing other than violence, as their outrage boils over, and they demand the world kneel before their will.  Extremism, of any sort, is the primary characteristic of all terrorists, of every person sitting there plotting and raging against those they disagree with.  Extremism, despite what Ayn Rand claims, is the worst evil all members of civilization could ever be guilty of.


Rand’s condemnation of racism as a lowly form of collectivist socialism is an idea that is completely lost to the present world.  Rand was writing at the peak of the Civil Rights movement, and her views on race seem like more of a dismissal than a defense.  She regards everyone who thinks along racial lines as a ‘brute,’ both oppressors and victims.  From this perspective she equates Martin Luther King with George Wallace and ‘Bull’ Conner, turning full strength fire hoses on children.  And while she condemns the violence as a helpless gesture on the part of the oppressors, she really cannot see the reason, despite her promotion of extremism in the name of freedom, that anyone even cares about race.


Of course race continues to linger along as a central issue in racists of every sort, from every race, in a far more hypersensitive way than when people were truly fighting for freedom.  It is any longer more about hurt feelings then the far too frequent incidents of police shooting first, or blaming the black man, or simply hammering out all of their frustrations on someone who may look a little like the piece of shit they are actually seeking.  And the level of outrage over these crimes spills over into perception, into mutual expectation.  In other words, into prejudice.  Into racism.  Into outright hatred, in contradiction to Rand’s simple philosophy of judging people by their actions and not their genetics.  She preaches it is wrong to ascribe blame to a collective group.  How has that one gone in this culture of blame?


Rand goes on to talk about geniuses of every stripe (no doubt she was referring to herself), and morons of every race.  She finally finishes up with an attack on the totalitarian mind, not just from the individual leader, but as a group mindset of a slobbering culture of desperate and pathetic blind followers.  Lets read that last one once more:

  • Ask yourself why totalitarian dictatorships find it necessary to pour money and effort into propaganda for their own helpless, chained, gagged slaves, who have no means of protest or defense. The answer is that even the humblest peasant or the lowest savage would rise in blind rebellion, were he to realize that he is being immolated, not to some incomprehensible noble purpose, but to plain, naked human evil.


Rand, here, is attempting to relate the freedom of choice individuals face, the idea that they can revolt against the common order and control of a dictatorial society.  But this neglects the reality that such movements can go both ways, or one can come to represent the other.  No doubt she was talking here about Hitler and Stalin and the internal fight against them.  But the ‘blind rebellion’ she raves on about might just be the cause of the evolution of tyranny.  If tyrants have convinced enough people to overthrow the government, and that any alternate form of freedom is the true evil.  She is right about the power of propaganda, and propaganda has become far more complicated and effective in this time of divided truth.  Of selfish truth.


What, then, is the virtue of selfishness?

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