Sunday, August 12, 2012

Getting altruism right

It seems to me that one weakness in Western thought is that we are caught between two false positions: the first is an overly radical selfishness and individualism, the second a dissolving altruism. I intend to post on this issue a bit in coming weeks.

One of the opponents of a mawkish altruism was the libertarian writer Ayn Rand. But she seems to have veered toward an excessively radical individualism and selfishness as an alternative.

One illustration of this is her strange attitude to William Hickman, a sociopathic child murderer of the 1920s. Hickman seems to have inspired Rand, not because of his crime, but because he stood as an individualist against the crowd.

Rand seems to have approved of the sociopath Hickman's credo:
In her journal circa 1928 Rand quoted the statement, "What is good for me is right," a credo attributed to a prominent figure of the day, William Edward Hickman. Her response was enthusiastic. "The best and strongest expression of a real man's psychology I have heard," she exulted. (Quoted in Ryan, citing Journals of Ayn Rand, pp. 21-22.)

What is good for me is right? That's on the unacceptably selfish end of the spectrum. It's difficult to square with many of our commitments. What about my commitments to my family? Or to my tradition? Can't I act for the good of these? And what about my sense of what is intrinsically right? If something dishonest were good for me, should I then go ahead and do it, even if my conscience tells me it's immoral?

And then there's this:
At the time, she was planning a novel that was to be titled The Little Street, the projected hero of which was named Danny Renahan. According to Rand scholar Chris Matthew Sciabarra, she deliberately modeled Renahan - intended to be her first sketch of her ideal man - after this same William Edward Hickman. Renahan, she enthuses in another journal entry, "is born with a wonderful, free, light consciousness -- [resulting from] the absolute lack of social instinct or herd feeling. He does not understand, because he has no organ for understanding, the necessity, meaning, or importance of other people ... Other people do not exist for him and he does not understand why they should." (Journals, pp. 27, 21-22; emphasis hers.)

Again, it's not being claimed that Rand approved of Hickman's crimes. But it does seem to be the case that she thought that something very positive, "a wonderful, free, light consciousness," could be derived from a selfish and individualistic consciousness, "no organ for understanding, the necessity, meaning, or importance of other people".

Some on the left have picked up on these journal entries of the young Ayn Rand and used them to attack prominent politicians who have claimed Rand as their political inspiration, including Paul Ryan who has just been named as Mitt Romney's running mate for the presidential election.

These leftists then claim that their own philosophy is less individualistic and selfish than those on the right who follow Rand.

And it's true that leftists do lurch at times toward a dissolving preference for the "other". I quoted a South African liberal recently who asserted the following:
What makes solidarity possible for liberals is not the idea that other members of my group are facsimiles of me. In this conception of things, no solidarity (identification, care or compassion) is possible anyway, because there is no other with which to identify or empathise. In this (collectivist) conception of things, solidarity is really just self-interest masquerading as compassion for others who aren’t really other at all.

What he's saying is that solidarity is not based on loyalty to real forms of community, but on compassion toward and identification with those who aren't part of my group. So I can't by definition have solidarity with those I am most closely related to, or with whom I share a communal tradition. It's a dissolving altruism.

But in other contexts leftists do support selfishness and individualism. For instance, feminists have for many years supported the idea that women should act selfishly in the pursuit of power and status. In the early 1900s, a male feminist by the name of W.L. George wrote exuberantly of modern woman that "at last aggressiveness and selfishness are developing her toward nobility." More recently a feminist by the name of Elizabeth Wurtzel has declared that:
For a woman to do just as she pleases and dispense with other people's needs, wants, demands, and desires continues to be revolutionary.

And in the larger sense the leftist project is based on the aim of individual autonomy, which has been popularly summarised as "be who you want to be, do what you want to do" - which doesn't exactly prioritise commitments to others. It should be noted that the most left-liberal society that exists, namely that of Sweden, also has by far the largest number of people living alone (47%).

So leftism manages to combine a dissolving altruism with a radically individualistic focus on autonomy. It's not a viable alternative to Randism.


  1. The principle that one should do as one pleases, and that moral obligations are illegitimate impositions, is also at the heart of modern Satanism. Aleister Crowley, who also (curiously) approved child murder, taught it with the slogan "do as thou wilt." Satanists sometimes call themselves Luciferians, but most eschew theological labels and say they are libertarians.

    This principle seems to be based on a childish understanding of morality as a set of rules that are either arbitrary or that benefit only other people. This is how a child understands a rule such as "bed time is eight o'clock." The child thinks that his parents made this rule as a raw display of power, or as a means to their own enjoyment of a tranquil evening, but not as something that actually benefits the child.

    Some years ago, I was drinking coffee with an unhappy woman who said that her therapist had advised her to "follow her heart's desire." I don't know if the therapist was a Satanist or a Randian, but this bromide was terrible advice. The unhappy woman's heart had many desires, many of them irreconcilable, and what she needed was a morality to tell her the desires she should act upon and the desires she should repress.

    I see one possible link between this childish rebellion against morality and what you call "dissolving altruism." Dissolving altruism appears to expand the Christian doctrine "love thine enemies" to the suicidal doctrine "help thine enemies in their war against thyself." If this isn't simply suicidal, acting on a death-wish, it must be based on a belief that (social) conflict is not real. The Satanist/Randian dreams of a world where men are not vexed by "conflicting emotions," the dissolving altruist dreams of a world where peoples are not vexed by "conflicting interests."

  2. I think Ayn Rand gets part of the story right. It seems to me that she was chiefly opposed to "forced altruism," which is encouraged by leftism. Instead of cultivating a natural altruism or goodwill towards other people, the left wants to force others to "help" people the way they prescribe.

    This disgust for forced altruism is really a defense of justice, which is where Ayn Rand shines. She helped me see the injustice inherent in leftism. This form of justice is also promoted by Christianity as I see it. What Ayn leaves out is the other half of the equation, which is love/altruism. Christians, in my opinion, are not forced to help others because they fear repercussions (or hopefully not). They are encouraged to be loving, and so naturally want to help others.

  3. "She helped me see the injustice inherent in leftism", writes Johanna.

    Of course, the most elementary acquaintance with Catholic social and moral teaching (particularly as spelt out by Leo XIII and Pius XI) would have given Johanna a far more rapid aversion towards leftist injustice than anything to be found in the ravings of sluttish, Christophobic, Talmudic hags like Rand, who objected to communism only because they themselves had not been put in charge of it. Is Johanna really recommending Rand's emetic personal life (of which Mark Richardson has given us merely an inkling) as a conservative model?

  4. N. Whitmont wrote,

    "Rand, who objected to communism only because they themselves had not been put in charge of it."

    That's not quite true. I think Lawrence Auster expressed it best when he described randianism as "inside-out" communism.

    I think he meant by that, is that Rand and Marx share a fundamentally material view of the world, dividing all men between those who produce and those who consume. Marx would declare conquer the producers and enslave them to the consumers. Rand would do the opposite.

    It occurred to neither one of them, unfortunately, that there is more to life than making stuff.

  5. Sorry for all the typos in the previous post. I'll proof this one more carefully before posting.

    JMSmith wrote,

    "An unhappy woman...said that her therapist had advised her to 'follow her heart's desire.' The unhappy woman's heart had many desires, many of them irreconcilable, and what she needed was a morality to tell her the desires she should act upon and the desires she should repress."

    I don't thing it's wise of us to tell the world it should just "repress desires". For one thing, the world is highly committed to the idea that pursuing one's desires is the best thing to do. And for another, understanding your desires is a useful way to understand who and what you're supposed to become.

    Just look at the Bible:
    Jeremiah 17:9 tells us that the heart is deceitful above all things. OK, that pretty much lines up with the theme of this blog and reality around us. But then look at Proverbs 4:23, which tells us that the heart is the wellspring of life.

    Ignore/Repress the deceitful one within you, as some in the Church suggest, and you ignore/repress the thing that makes life worth living. That's not going to make for a very compelling case to the world: what's the point of life if you can't enjoy it?

    There's got to be a better way. John Eldredge has written a pretty good book called Desire that addresses exactly this question. His answer, in short, is that your desires, even the wrong ones have value because they tell you who you are and what you're supposed to be doing.

    That's pretty much in line with orthodox Autonomy Theory.

    Don't let that be a turn-off. Eldredge goes on to explain why, then, following your desires so often leads to problems and pain, which is in line with what we traditionalists have been saying. The short answer is, God made us with infinite desire (so that we want Him, an infinite being) but with limited knowledge (because we, the creation, are necessarily less than He, our Creator).

    The upshot is that we don't understand our own desires well enough to allow them to guide us. This leaves us with two options: A.) We develop a relationship with Jesus, our mediator with the infinite being, and allow him to guide us through our desires or B.) We simply repress/ignore desires we don't understand or are proscribed by society.

    I think A.) is a better, more fulfilling option, because in the end, you find out that you got what you really wanted all along, but didn't realize. I guess, though, for those adamantly opposed to God, who nonetheless don't want to end up ruining their lives (I'm think of the Daily Mail feminist columnists who rue the decisions that have led them to childlessness) B.) might spare them some pain. In the long-term, though, B is going to lead to unfulfillment and other kinds of pain, e.g. the mid-life crises.

    It turns out that there's no short-cut around God. I'm guessing He designed it that way.

  6. Bartholomew,

    Thanks for your comment. I certainly do not advocate repression for its own sake, and am not asserting the total depravity of the human heart. Many desires are wholesome, and their gratification altogether licit. There are, however, a great many desires one cannot gratify, and foregoing gratification of these desires is all I mean by repression. Basically, I must repress any desire that, gratified, would prevent gratification of a higher desire. My desire to stand in a right relation to God, for instance, nullifies my sinful desires (in theory, at least). My desire to loose weight likewise nullifies (again in theory) my desire to drink my fill of beer. Thus I see no way to get around repression. What we want is the grace to repress the desires that need to be repressed.

    I honestly don't know about repression in the deeper sense of refusing to acknowledge some hideous desire. If the desire cannot be gratified, it seems to make sense to try to think of it as little as possible.

    A man who refuses to listen to his heart is obviously headed for grief, but so is the man who takes every utterance of his heart as a command. Personally, I aim to take the middle way, between cold rationalism and torrid romanticism.

  7. N. Whitmont, I don't equate Randism and conservatism. I'm merely pointing out that they share some of the same features. I don't defend immorality in Rand's life or fully agree with her philosphy. I think you are probably correct that I could have learned about injustice faster if I was better acquainted with Catholic teachings. Unfortuantely, I was raised in an agnostic environment. Ayn Rand happened to be more accessible to me. While I eventually saw holes in her arguments, it was a starting point for me.

  8. I don't think it's a matter of hideous desires. After all, what's hideous about hunger, thirst, arousal, or competitiveness? I think it's a matter of hideous and evil means. I don't think God fashioned, say, Hickman to murder children. I also don't think it makes much sense to say that God fashions us with false desires. Therefore, whatever desire in him Hickman was trying to satisfy by murderhad to be pointing in some other direction.

    It's not that repression isn't good--by all means, Hickman should have practiced it! It's that repression is only the first step. The next step is figuring out what the real reason for your bad desires is and dealing with that root cause.

    I'm not sure Eldredge is right. I do think it's a promising thesis.

  9. There is one additional point to liberal autonomy theory, which is that you may do what you wish as long as you don't do "harm" to others. This is a morality cut down to its most minimal concept.

  10. I'm sure that most adherents of liberal autonomy theory would quickly forget even that minimal vestige of "not harming others" if they thought that punishment for whatever crime they planned to commit would not be forthcoming.

    We can see that already with the millions of babies being slaughtered. It's "legal" therefore they do it without a second thought. I'm sure that many of them would jump at the chance to murder elderly relatives if euthanasia should become legal.

    That way they wouldn't have to bother with looking after them any longer, & could use the money to gratify themselves with more filthiness, dope-snorting, giant colour television sets &c.

    It is somewhat of an over-simplification, but really liberal autonomy theory can be summed up as the putting into practise the dictum of the the satanist Aleister Crowley, "do as thou wilt". If the modern world & its ways are not the devil's own I don't know what is.

  11. Happy Assumption Day Mr. Richardson, may the Most Holy Mother of God bless & keep you, & all of the remnant of the Faithful.

  12. Rand was a pervert who wrote a bunch of pornos about mythic alpha fantasy men that she wanted to fuck. It's "50 Shades of Grey" with a thin philisophical veneer.