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(Coffee) Shop Talk

Welcome to the shop where I talk about things that go well with coffee, which is almost everything.

As much as I would dearly love to scorn and dismiss the woman, I find myself repeatedly locking horns with her because my boyfriend is a dedicated libertarian and Rand fan. Therefore, I feel that I should state my objections in a more precise and literalistic way than in my previous post.

First, a word about libertarians.

I love them. I admire idealistic people, and every libertarian I’ve ever met has been friendly, conscientious, and concerned about the world around them. I particularly love the one that I’m currently dating – for many reasons including the traits mentioned above – but we do sometimes get into it about Objectivism.

The main problem is that I think the basis of objectivism is completely stupid. (I’ll address my literary objections later.) As I understand it, the golden rule of this philosophy is “You should be selfish.” Brilliant. Awesome. And completely pointless; everyone is already basically selfish. It’s the same problem that you run into if you tell people, “You should be selfless.”

Selfless people may exist, but not for long. If you don’t act in your own interest, you’re not going to survive for long. You’re also going to be very strange and confused, because everything about every living thing is oriented around the idea that this thing will continue to live and reproduce in the best possible way. Now, you can really throw a monkey wrench into things if you convince someone that “live” is something you can do forever, and that you don’t even need this messy, mortal coil to do it. You can have a perfect, bodily-function-free, eternal life if you just do and believe these things. That is essentially what makes people do crazy, seemingly self-destructive things like mortifying the flesh, hanging out with lepers, or setting off suicide bombs. Martyrs are behaving selfishly, it’s just that they have a different understanding of self-gratification than I do. (Important note: I think it’s much better to manifest this by “hanging out with lepers” and otherwise helping the less fortunate than by setting off suicide bombs. I’m not trying to draw a parallel between those two things beyond the fact that they are acts of seeming selflessness.)

I think it’s much more helpful to talk about short-term and long-term selfishness and how what’s good for me interfaces with what’s good for you. I don’t hate Ayn Rand because I think she’s evil; I hate her because, from a philosophical standpoint, I think she just muddies the waters and drags the course of western thought off course. I also think that she encourages a certain kind of self-destructive behavior.

If I am already naturally selfish, then someone comes along and instead of saying “Yes, that’s great, now here are some strategies to make a good life for yourself,” she says, “Don’t think about anything except yourself. What relates to you? What’s good for you? Hey! Stop thinking about other people! It doesn’t matter what they think of you, just do your thing.” Hopefully I am the kind of person who understands that this other person is just affirming my natural instincts and telling me that, as much as I may care about some other people, it’s ultimately no help to anyone if I worry too much about what they think.

However, suppose I’m not such a sensible person. Suppose I really take this person at her word. Then I may end up with a very extreme and narrow idea of self-centeredness.

The word “selfish” when used as a pejorative does not actually mean someone whose ultimate goal is to do what’s best for herself insofar as she understands it. That describes pretty much everybody, including people who volunteer their time in city slums and donate money to help children in developing nations. When “selfish” is used in a negative way, it means someone who is so narrowly focused on what is immediately and directly gratifying to her that she misses out on all the other ways she can help herself. Helping those around you creates a better environment for you and also makes others more likely to help you when you need it.

In conclusion, I wish that those interested in alternative views of selfishness would stick with Richard Dawkins. The Selfish Gene is an aptly-titled and excellent place to start.

I write about Ms. Rand because I know that lots of people read her books and I want to offer a nuanced reality check to those beautiful, dangerously idealistic purists who might forget to take her with a grain of salt. (I also do it because Ayn Rand and Thomas Pain have gotten me more reader hits than you can shake a stick at.) In conclusion, her ideas are interesting and can be a good antidote for those who have been told to never be selfish, but I don’t think that unfiltered Objectivism provides a wise or sustainable approach to life.


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