Sunday, June 21, 2009

Randian Objectivism: The Highest Form of Morality

Recently, a buddy of mine and I had a debate about martial arts and philosophy. As a former (physical) pracitioner of martial arts (now I just practice the mental aspect of it), I found the debate very interesting and wanted to memorialize it here as it also pertains to the philosophical and intellectual roots of post-WWII modern American Conservatism.

So my buddy, who is as left as you can get, but incredibly bright, suggested that martial arts, in addition to its physical benefits, had tremendous intangible benefits as well. Namely, that practicing martial arts brought out one's innate morality, specifically, one's duty to protect the weak, to help the poor, and to put society above oneself. Then, in an attempt to provoke, he asserted that a disciple of Ayn Rand would object to this "moral" magnanimity. Yes, I'm a fan of Ayn Rand, and yes, his provocation succeeded. But as I will attempt to explain, the notion that Ayn Rand was somehow immoral or against helping the poor is a common misconception. Indeed, it clearly shows that the provocateur has not read much of Rand's writings and has simply echoed popular culture's erroneous perception of Rand.

First of all, men are not born innately good. Men are born in sin and are born virtueless (inability to detect right from wrong). We are not born with knowledge and understanding of a duty to protect the weak. But this does not mean that men have no ability to develop into good men. In fact, men are born with a "moral" gene. But it is our environment - family, friends, spirituality, religion, and of course martial arts - that create a conducive environment in which our seeds of morality can sprout and develop. In turn, it changes and civilizes us for the better. Martial arts is one vehicle by which we develop away from our innate weaknesses and toward civility, honor, and virtue. Moreover, in a diverse nation like ours, morality, for good or ill, will necessarily be fluid. What is moral to me differs from what is moral to you. So when the state, which is run by men, imposes their morality onto me, a conflict could likely ensue. And of course it does all the time.

Ayn Rand battled against state-imposed collectivism and state-imposed redistribution of income. In other words, Rand battled against state imposition of morality. She certainly felt that she had a duty to protect the weak (the people) from the threat of totalitarian government and state imposition, which undoubtedly diminishes freedom in society. Freedom from oppression and state control was the highest form of morality and thus her ultimate objective. Personally, it is freedom that allows me to carry out my learned duty to stand by the weak - giving to charity, church - not the state forcing me with the threat of loss of my life and liberty and happiness if I don't comply with their conception of morality. (Of course, if we were all Burkean conservatives, our moral sensibilities would more or less be the same due to our shared appreciation for Judeo-Christian values. But I must concede that Rand was a devout athiest. But her view of what was "moral" was, again, maximum freedom fettered only by positive law, a notion that squares perfectly with Judeo-Christian values and Edmund Burke's respect for religious traditionalism.)

But even so, the rich do not have a "duty" to give to the poor or to help the indigent. And the state certainly has no mandate to force the rich to do so. But wealth is relative. I'm not rich, and comparatively, I'm also poor. But damn, I certainly don't think that Bill Gates has an obligation, a duty, to give his money to me. I'll work and make it on my own. Moreover, we may not have such a duty, but again, through experience and wisdom obtained from our environment, we develop an understanding that private charity and philanthropy - whether it's giving millions to a charity or simply tithing every week to a religious institution - benefits everyone and makes for a better society. Because, from a both selfish and altruistic perspective, it is in all our interests to maximize everyone's standard of living. But again, I emphasize, it is not the job of the government to force me to be altruistic and to help the poor.

That said, it is obviously beneficial for the rich to give back to the poor, BUT THROUGH PRIVATE CHARITY, not under the duress of the state. History shows that Americans have been and continue to be the most generous nation on earth. Our overwhelming generosity was recently exemplified by the tsunami disaster. We gave, and gave, and gave some more. (I'm drinking Ethos Water as I'm writing this.) Moreover, history has shown that with all else equal, private charity increases with the decrease in the size of the welfare state. It makes sense if you think about it. If 35% of your hard-earned income (and all the other forms of taxation) is being taken away by the government and redistributed through welfare and foreign aid, what incentive do I have to give privately? The government is doing it for me!

If you read Rand's fiction (Rand articulated her philosophy mainly through her fiction), every single antagonist is clearly portrayed as lazy, entitled, and slothful. Rand's ire was directed to such individuals. Let's be clear about this: the antagonists were not hard working, driven people. They had abundant access to opportunity. Some were heirs to great wealth who went on to waste it away (a typical result of being born into privilege). They were entitled. They were idiots. They couldn't compete with the hard-working protaganists in the realms of intelligence and productivity. They were proven failures undeserving of man's compassion (perhaps all are deserving of God's compassion.) But this idea is certainly not incongruent with morality. It is not immoral to not want to help unproductive entitled individuals especially when there are so many out there who do truly aspire to augment their greatness through merit and hard work. So martial arts teaches. And so Rand believed.

American Confucius


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Anonymous said...

How very silly. Judeo-Christian values have nothing to do with freedom. Nothing whatsoever. You've somehow, likely through ignorance of the Bible, completely missed the point of your own religion. Giving to a church does nothing for society. Giving to charities is often the same as throwing your money away, since there are no requirements for charities to spend any of their income actually helping anyone. Some obviously do, but the spirit of private enterprise, which you so revere, is always waiting around for an opportunity to part unsuspecting rubes from their money. Pay attention to what Rand actually said in person when asked about helping people. It's not even close to what you've said here.