Monday, May 4, 2009

Jesus Christ, Vampire bats, and Ayn Rand

What do Jesus Christ, vampire bats, and Ayn Rand all have in common? No, there isn't a bad punchline.. and no, I'm not blogging about Jesus Christ Vampire Hunter. What they have in common is... they all say something about altruism.

First, let's examine two differing moral philosophies: Jesus' Christianity & Rand's Objectivism.

Jesus Christ taught 'the meek shall inherit the earth', and 'to turn the other cheek'. Christ taught that a rich man cannot enter heaven. He died on the cross as a sacrifice for the sins of mankind. Of course, all of this is held irrefutable coming as the word of God. Altruism and self-sacrifice are a central theme in christian morality.

Ayn Rand, the philosopher who founded Objectivism, taught that self-sacrifice and altruism are immoral. This derives from the logic that we are rational beings, and 'man is an end unto himself, not a means to the end of others'. Therefore, the pursuit of our own happiness and self-interest is the highest moral purpose. Capitalism and voluntary trade is the ideal social environment, where every person has a right to choose and be protected from force or fraud.

I got to thinking on this topic after a family discussion about morality and law... where it was argued that religion is the foundation of morality in our country. You see, many people think our country was founded on judeo-christian values. This connection comes from references to "god-given, inalienable rights". There lies my problem. There is an inherit danger in labeling the source of our liberties as a 'natural law', or 'gift from God'... because a religious, mystical source has no substance. It can be created out of thin air as easily as the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Rand's philosophy is unique because she uses reason, logic, and axioms to deduce that individualism is the ideal morality. Within her framework, standards of sacrifice and altruism have no logical moral value.

We each have different individual morality. Our society's rule of law forms from social standards of morality. For example in the Muslim middle-east, law prescribes religious practice. In our religiously tolerant USA, religion has less legal influence (although some, remember Prop 8?). Our individual morality comes from our individual philosophy. So what's more admirable? A morality based on supernatural dogma & mysticism, or a morality based on philosophy & rationality? The latter is, since it can be applied consistently based on reason and logic.

To complete this comparison of religious/christian morality vs. objectivist morality... I'll address the first criticism most people would pose: 'Objectivism sounds selfish and unfeeling. Christians must be more warm and giving people because they value charity, right?' Here's where vampire bats come in.

Surprisingly, vampire bats are highly altruistic creatures. Interesting studies have shown these bats to feed each other when starving. Is this caused by guilt, shame, love, or charity? Such emotions are merely the same bio-chemical responses that modify behavior in both humans and animals alike. These bats learn to trust those that fed them before, and remember 'cheaters' that don't reciprocate. Bats have no moral code, they perform this behavior because it works in their social structure and eco-system. These bats aren't christian.

Humans have no monopoly on charity or altruism, and religion has no monopoly on morality. We learn many hard lessons in life... like lying and cheating are not worth the trouble they cause. Religion often does a nice job of packaging these bits of wisdom into digestible chunks like commandments or parables. Still, I consider the highest morality one that has a solid foundation. One that can be questioned without fault because it's deduced from a structure of principles and philosophy, rather than mythology and dogma.

This is what we can learn from Jesus, vampire bats, and most of all... Ayn Rand.


JJ said...

Nothing wrong with pursuing happiness for yourself but there's a big problem when people pursue happiness at my expense. In the last decade we've seen corporations lie to shareholders that they bankrupted, banks lending money to people that can't pay it back, and steroid-using baseball players stealing jobs from players that don't cheat. A little selfishness is good for motivating oneself to better themselves but extreme selfishness leads to some pretty bad behavior regardless of what your belief system is.

rtaylortitle said...

The intellectual truth is that inalienable rights are derived not from a god, but from the very nature of man qua man. John Locke and the theory of "natural rights" were more accurately the fountainhead of what our forefathers had in mind.

Robert Taylor/Horseshoe Bay, TX

Steve V said...

Jason... you nailed it with "not at my expense". Objectivists hold that force or fraud are immoral, and that includes everything from Madoff to GSE's and bailouts.

Rob, Locke rocks! Yeah I just categorized 'natural law' with religious morality.... because as far as - know neither has a logical foundation. I'd like to read more on Locke.

Michael M said...

Re: "there's a big problem when people pursue happiness at my expense."

There sure is, because that would be an act of self-sacrifice, not the act of selfishness one might think it to be. Per Objectivist ethics, it would not be in one's rational self interest to act at someone else's expense, because that would implicitly condone others acting at one's own expense. In other words, theft is not a selfish act. The violation of another's right to their property voids one's own claim to that same right. The forfeiture of that right would be giving up a higher value in order to get a lower value (the loot), and therefore self sacrificial.

When selfishness is properly understood as acting in the rational, long-range interest of one's life per one's nature, it is right in every instance. In that context, the measurement of selfishness in a range from "a little" to "extreme" is purely quantitative and evades any relevance to the issue of right or wrong.

If acting in my own rational self interest when interacting with others who are acting in their own rational self interest is good in small quantities, in what quantities does it become something not in my and their rational self interest and why? The absurdity of that question points to the fallacy: the idea that any benefit to one man necessitates a detriment to others.

Also, it is imperative to recognizethat the phrase "at my expense" is valid only when it entails the taking by force of something one owns. If, in a free market, a job is offered, you and I compete for it, and the employer chooses you for whatever reasons, that is not something "at my expense". I did not lose anything owned.

That is why the Objectivist politics calls for a government that has but one task, to rid human interrelationships from coercion by physical force. Force is the only means by which one can pursue happiness at another's expense. The government's job is to assure that all human interrelationships and exchanges of values are voluntary. In every voluntary exchange of values, each party gives up something they personally value less than that which they are getting from the other exchanger. Each, acting per his own values in pursuit of his own happiness profits in a voluntary exchange.


Re: "inalienable rights"

In the sense that rights are derived from the nature of man qua man, they are truly inalienable. But that does not mean that they are not inseparable. One must be careful to retain in any discussion of rights the recognition that before there can be political rights, there must be moral rights (and wrongs).

In the absence of a governed society, there are only the attempts of individuals to define and act by a code of moral rights and wrongs. There is in that context no such thing as political or legal rights. Only in a society of men large and complex enough to establish a third party institution to manage the use of physical force does the need for political rights arise. The purpose of political rights is to enable long-range contractual interrelationships by objectifying the moral rights agreed upon and rendering their enforcement predictable.

Politics and political rights, then, are the extension of ethics in the context of the life of individuals into the context of individuals living and interacting together over the long-range in a society. To the degree that the ethics being extended is consistent with the nature of man qua man, the political rights that are the result of that extension can be said to be inalienable.

Steve V said...

Very interesting post Michael. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

JJ said...

Any type of philosophy or thought must be used in moderation so quantity is very important. In America, we have deregulated various industries and cut taxes over the last few decades. Business has been good. Share prices are high but we've catered so much to private industry, the public good has been neglected. And yes, selfish behavior can't exist all the time.

And we forget, that not everything is private property. The air we breathe, the public water supply, and so on. I may drive to work because it's convenient but I'm polluting everybody's air doing that. I have to breathe dirty air because some other guy voluntarily bought a car with an internal combustion engine and voluntarily bought gas.

There are going to be zero-sum games out there (you win, I lose). Not everything is played like that however. In managing the people that work for me, I believe that if we all succeed, our organization succeeds.

In fact, we have had too much "selfishness" in the last generation or so. We've neglected all types of infrastructure in the name of getting lower tax rates. We can't have universal health care in this country because the health care industry is more interested in meeting quarterly earnings targets than in saving people's lives. We can't get off of fossil fuels because the oil companies have perfected their brand of "selfishness." We got where are we are by protecting a few private interests. We've turned into a country in which the few that perfected "selfishness" get rich off the rest of us. Private enterprise is a wonderful thing but when society only caters to private enterprise and neglects the public interest, then we have bridges that fall in rivers, old, polluting power plants, and an expensive, wasteful health care system that benefits no one.

Steve V said...

Good discussion! I think don't think a philosophy has worth if used in moderation... of course, further defining it can be useful (with conditions, etc.)

I have a few thoughts on some of your examples though:

Air & water - yes it's public property. That means when someone pollutes they actually are violating my property. Every person has a right to seek compensation from polluters - whether it be carbon tax, etc. Throwing my taxed money at "green research programs" is, however, not okay. If private companies have to reimburse us for their polluting our air/water... market incentives will exist for that research.

About infrastructure... there are arguments it should & could be privatized (and work better that way). That'd actually cut down on pollution a lot too - but a big topic there, that's another blog.
We have to remember though - government has a self-sustained monopoly on these areas. It's not that private won't do infrastructure, it's that they can't.

Health care - this is a tough one. The only thing I can say is... we have better health care than the King of England 200 years ago. Should every person be entitled to public-funded top quality health care? It's actually a complex moral question... I waver on this issue a bit. Another good future blog post!