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Randian Question

One of the propositions which comes through strongly after reading Ayn Rand’s novels is that one of the most important values of man is his achievement. Implicit (actually, very explicit in the famous speeches throughout her works) in this is that this achievement is a function of man’s unique ability to reason, and that his achievement must have started with a spark, an inspiration, a passion, etc. from one single person. Man accomplishes great things not for the sake of others, not with the explicit intention of gifting them to others, but for the sake of himself (and not in the “selfish” way that is colloquially believed). It is therefore man’s ideas and his ability to reason which are truly valuable and these are values that are worthy of holding and are in fact worthy of holding above the feelings for other men.

If we understand that, then I think we can craft a simple mental test of how true these ideas are for people today, including among the modern collectivists who despise Rand and her ideas. Consider the following. Think of all of the things in your life which you have created. Or think of only a subset of them. For me, I am thinking of every blog post, every lecture note, every exam question, every article written – every mental idea that was birthed in my brain and that I hope to use further in my future either for teaching purposes or personal enjoyment or otherwise. Now imagine being offered the following (horrible) choice: you have the option of saving one stranger’s life or you get to keep all of those ideas and creations. If you choose to ignore the plight of the stranger, then you get to keep all of those ideas and creations. If you choose to care for the stranger, you will have all of that expunged from physical, digital and biological memory.

How many of you would choose to help the stranger? I am not sure very many, and that is not because we are malicious or hateful. Seriously, how many people quit their jobs and headed over to Pakistan to help the flood victims – it is almost sure that you could have saved one life by doing so, yet you did not. Similarly, how many people lost nights of sleep when they learned of the Chilean miners being trapped underground? Again, not losing sleep does not make you a bad person, indeed, Adam Smith had much to say about these situations in his Theory of Moral Sentiments. So my bet is that virtually no one would actually help the stranger.

Make the query less horrific. Instead of helping the stranger vs. keeping your creations, what if the choice was simply to give away a bunch of money? Or your house? Or your car? That I would choose to keep my ideas, my thoughts, my creations, provides very strong support for the worldview Rand espoused. Maybe another way to think of this is, “what would you be willing to endure before allowing all of your ideas and creations to be destroyed?” It’s hard to answer such a question, but surely it would be more than just a few lashes of the whip.

Can you think of alternative ways of testing the strength of such a view?

3 Responses to “Randian Question”

  1. Harry says:

    What a tough question. Fortunately, Wintercow cannot assign this question to me for next Monday’s paper in Econ 437.

    Ayn Rand correctly distinguished between people who were altruistic with other people’s posessions (material and otherwise) and being personally generous. Her weakness was, in my opinion, her my-way-or-the-highway approach. (In my attic are issues of The Objectivist Newsletter, and one of them contains a good article by Alan Greenspan on gold and money.)

    I remember watching Firing Line one Sunday when Bill Buckley interviewed Ayn Rand. He asked her, do you believe in God? She responded, “Certainly not!”

    You ask about a test about her principles that would be “true today” and I guess in the academic world, even in divinity schools, her comment would come as no shock.

    But I think she made a metaphysical error in hinging her philosophy to atheism. A better argument would have been to say everybody has to start with a few first principles.

    Now, the progressive socialist believes he can slide a camel between the eye of a needle by giving away other people’s money, while he remains the person who will decide how to distribute the money, a key job, where he is indispensable. If you are a socialist Senator or high-level bureaucrat, that means that some of the fairly distributed income is a salary north of $300,000, plus expenses, just to make ends meet in an expensive town.

    I don’t think you have to be an atheist to think such altruism is nonsense.

    A few people (out of several billions) have given up everything for themselves to save comrades in battle, some of them Medal of Honor.
    One can only imagine their motivation, but I bet their last thoughts did included personal values, and not trivial ones. Certainly some of their values may have been to win the war for the sake of their families back home. But as Patton said, their overall object was not to lose their lives for their country, but to make some other bastard lose his life for his country.

    That does not answer the question you asked, but at least the paper would not mean an incomplete for the course.

  2. Michael says:

    I guess another way to ask the question is, “What is the value of you being yourself and no one else?” Part of the problem with the tradeoff question is that there can be unique things about myself that are able to save more (specific) people than what is offered in trade, i.e. I could spend all my life and/or fortune trying to rid the word of malaria, or reducing hunger and malnutrition. So there is the question of effectiveness. It can be argued that the question is flawed in that what we value in other people is their individuality, where a random generic person doesn’t give us that sense of a unique person.

    By the way, one of my biggest critiques of Ayn Rand was her insistence on there being a superior taste or preference.

  3. Harry says:

    Michael, you get some slack when writing on a blog, as we all do.Not every sentence is free of typos, nor is every paragraph perfectly composed, or linked to the next.

    That said, I am unsure about your point. Or points. Forgive me if I have misread what you wrote.

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