Atlas Shrugged: Homo Economicus

Atlas Shrugged: Homo Economicus September 12, 2014

NYCSkyline

Atlas Shrugged, part II, chapter V

I’ve said that, in the name of being fair to Ayn Rand, I’ll point out the passages in Atlas that struck me as good, effective writing. This part has one of them, a suitably moody and atmospheric description of what’s happening to New York City:

In the second week of February, for the purpose of conserving copper wire and electric power, a directive forbade the running of elevators above the twenty-fifth floor. The upper floors of the buildings had to be vacated, and partitions of unpainted boards went up to cut off the stairways… The tops of the cities were cut down.

The inhabitants of New York had never had to be aware of the weather. Storms had been only a nuisance that slowed the traffic and made puddles in the doorways of brightly lighted shops. Stepping against the wind, dressed in raincoats, furs and evening slippers, people had felt that a storm was an intruder within the city. Now, facing the gusts of snow that came sweeping down the narrow streets, people felt in dim terror that they were the temporary intruders and that the wind had the right-of-way.

Dagny is at a meeting of the board of Taggart Transcontinental, whose situation is dire. Government flunkies are pushing the company around, making impossible demands on them; their branch lines are bleeding money, and their main lines are critically in need of repair. Everyone looks to Dagny for help, but she tells them, bitterly, that they’ve come to the pass she warned them about and that there’s nothing she can do. Her only concern is to preserve a vital piece of infrastructure, their bridge across the Mississippi River:

The great Taggart Bridge at Bedford, Illinois, had been built by Nathaniel Taggart. He had fought the government for years, because the courts had ruled, on the complaint of river shippers, that railroads were a destructive competition to shipping and thus a threat to the public welfare, and that railroad bridges across the Mississippi were to be forbidden as a material obstruction… He had won that battle by a majority of one voice on the Supreme Court. His bridge was now the only major link left to hold the continent together.

If you missed it, notice that Atlas is rewriting the past and not just the future. There was never a time in American history when a company could be shut down by court decree solely because it might put competitors out of business. Rand wants us to think that the dystopia in this book is what the real America could become, but in her eagerness to recast all of history along her ideological lines, what she’s done is to shunt her entire plot into an alternate history with little resemblance to the real world.

While Dagny stands by silently, a member of the board proposes to tear up the John Galt Line, which she built with her own two hands (apparently) and to use the Rearden Metal rail to reinforce the worst gaps in the rest of the system. She knew this was coming, but she can’t bear to listen, and she walks out:

It’s only a matter of getting through the next few moments, she thought; take care of the next few moments, and then the next, a few at a time, and after a while it will be easier; you’ll get over it, after a while.

The assignment she gave herself for the next few moments was to put on her coat and be first to leave the room.

Then there was the assignment of riding in an elevator down the great, silent length of the Taggart Building. Then there was the assignment of crossing the dark lobby.

Halfway through the lobby, she stopped. A man stood leaning against the wall, in a manner of purposeful waiting — and it was she who was his purpose, because he was looking straight at her.

It’s Francisco who’s waiting for her, of course. He asks her, “Have they finally murdered John Galt?”, and when she confirms it, he suggests that they go out for a drink.

“Dagny,” he said, looking at the city as it moved past their taxi window, “think of the first man who thought of making a steel girder. He knew what he saw, what he thought and what he wanted. He did not say, ‘It seems to me,’ and he did not take orders from those who say, ‘In my opinion.'”

She chuckled, wondering at his accuracy: he had guessed the nature of the sickening sense that held her, the sense of a swamp which she had to escape.

“Look around you,” he said. “A city is the frozen shape of human courage — the courage of those men who thought for the first time of every bolt, rivet and power generator that went to make it… There was a time when human beings crouched in caves, at the mercy of any pestilence and any storm. Could men such as those on your Board of Directors have brought them out of the cave and up to this?” He pointed at the city.

“God, no!”

“Then there’s your proof that another kind of men do exist.”

“Yes,” she said avidly. “Yes.”

“Think of them and forget your Board of Directors.”

Omitted from Francisco’s speech is that a city is also the frozen shape of human community. Cities aren’t built by a million entrepreneurs working in isolation from each other, but by people working in concert, coming together to enact democratic laws that channel and steer the efforts of individuals. Besides the obvious public goods like police, fire, water, sewers, roads and utilities, there are public parks, public schools and libraries, zoning laws, building codes, labor laws, pollution-control laws, safety regulations. The world we take for granted is a product of laws and institutions every bit as much as it is a product of capitalism, and you can’t just subtract out the things you don’t like and assume that all the credit goes to whatever’s left over.

And this principle is true in general. It’s not just capitalists who brought us out of the caves.

There’s a famous experiment in behavioral economics, the Ultimatum Game. In it, two players are given $10, or some suitable sum, to divide between themselves. One player makes an offer: say, $7 for me and $3 for you, or whatever amounts they wish. The other player can’t bargain; their only choice is to accept or reject the offer. But if they reject it, both players get nothing.

Classical economics, which treats human beings as fully rational, purely selfish utility-maximizers, predicts that the first player should always offer the most unfair split possible – $9 for me and $1 for you, say – and the second player should always accept it, since any amount of money is better than no money. But that’s not what happens. Instead, people tend to reject offers of less than 30%. Although there’s some cultural variation, this basic pattern is seen in many societies around the world. Even chimpanzees show this aversion to unfairness.

The Ultimatum Game is an example of “altruistic punishment“: people incurring a cost to punish a wrongdoer, even a wrongdoer who hasn’t directly harmed them. Altruistic punishment, like anything with the word “altruism” in its name, enrages Ayn Rand and her followers; but studies and simulations suggest it’s essential to building complex societies – you know, like those cities Rand idolizes.

Without punishment to enforce social norms, selfishness runs wild and people have a tendency to become exploitative free riders, taking out more than they put back in. If everyone acts this way, no one can trust each other, and society collapses. But when punishment is added back to the mix, cooperation can flourish, and it becomes possible for people to work together to accomplish things that could never have come about if they were all working at cross purposes.

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  • David Andrew Kearney

    “He did not say, ‘It seems to me,’ and he did not take orders from those who say, ‘In my opinion.’”

    So, basic politeness and etiquette are verbal tics of the looters.

    Rand’s heros don’t have opinions — they have conclusions derived from self-evident premises. Thus Halley’s Concerto is *objectively* superior to other music.

  • Verbose Stoic

    I doubt that “altruistic punishment”, as described here and in the article, is something that Randians would oppose, because it isn’t actually altruistic at all. The argument is that altruistic punishment is sacrificing short-term self-interest in order to increase one’s long-term self-interest by encouraging others to co-operate or else they will lose more than if they don’t. That, according to Rand and all Egoists, is not altruistic behaviour. It’s selfish behaviour, as it’s an action taken to, ultimately, increase one’s own self-interest. A true “altruistic punishment” would be someone who sacrifices their own self-interest to punish someone else in order to encourage them to behave better towards others, not themselves.

    The main issue with much of your objections to Rand is this idea that selfish people cannot ever co-operate or ever put aside their own short-term self-interest in service of their own long-term interest. But it is precisely this sort of impression of selfishness than Rand opposed, and argued that truly rational self-interested people ought to act RATIONALLY self-interested, which includes looking beyond the here and now and considering the big picture and the future.

    Also note that the problem with calling the answer of “Take a dollar” as being the rational option is that it doesn’t take future considerations or personal feelings and desires into account. This includes the idea that you want to discourage people from suckering you in the future and in general, as well as how much not feeling suckered is worth to you. In the Ultimatum Problem, $1 is so small an amount that people simply will not take it if they know that they are being treated unfairly, but if it was, say, a million dollars, they likely would … unless there were a billionaire. You cannot separate rationality from the actual beliefs and desires of the agent, which is what most of these Game Theory analyses do.

  • Doug Langley

    Rand doesn’t see it as etiquette. She just believes that her heroes deal in hard, cold facts and pure logic, whereas the others wallow around in feelings and unsubstantiated opinions.

  • Doug Langley

    True – Rand could write some really good, crisp visuals. That’s the best part of the book. If only her philosophy wasn’t so silly, she could have been a great screenwriter.

  • Your description of what it would take to make the game actually “altruistic punishment” is exactly the description of the Ultimatum Game. A key aspect of the game that wasn’t described is that the subjects get to play it exactly once. The punisher has no expectation of getting more money later and the punished has no ability to provide a more fair option down the road to anyone, especially not the punisher.

  • Doug Langley

    I don’t think Adam’s claiming that Rand only advocated short-term behavior. Of course, she claimed true selfishness was long-term. The only question is: what was her idea of long-term behavior?

    Dagny built the John Galt line, a great achievement. But now she’s ordered to tear it down. So clearly she wasn’t engaged in long-term. Building the line was short-term . . . wasn’t it? Could she see that far ahead? But Fransisco could see it and warned her not to build it. Does that make Dagny an altruist? If not, why not?

    Rand’s notion of long-term is pretty meaningless. In the Fountainhead, Howard Roark must suffer for 10 years before finally triumphing. Does that mean that everyone must hurt for 10 years before becoming a success professionally? Dagny doesn’t – she charges out of the gate winning. Fransisco has his own business before he even gets his inheritance. Are they right and Roark wrong? Or vice versa?

    What is Rand’s idea of long term? Struggle for an hour before winning? A year? Ten years? By what standard?

  • Verbose Stoic

    I’m not talking about the game; I’m talking about altruistic punishment. And all the given sources point out that the reason for the anger and the punishment is a mapping onto society, not just on this game itself. In short, we have and use the notion of punishment because these individual actions add up to a societal view; even if that person may not directly interact with us again, it leaves an overall societal impression of what actions will be acceptable and which won’t, which we wouldn’t do if the short-term benefit to us was greater than the perceived long-term benefit of a society where others, and we, are treated fairly.

  • Al Petterson

    So in other words – it’s people empowered to disallow someone else getting money, because it’s not fair that the other person gets so much and they themselves get so little, and they want the other person not to be so selfish in the future. And you think Rand approves of that?

  • Verbose Stoic

    Term’s not the issue; overall benefit is. So how long and how much suffering you accept depends on what the outcome is and how likely you are to achieve it, and overall how much that benefits you. In short, just like Utilitarianism except that it’s about the individual, not society as a whole.

    Also note that something not ending up benefiting you in the end due to unforeseen circumstances isn’t a problem. You have to make decisions based on what you know, not what an omniscient actor would know, and what’s rational thus has to depend on what you know, not what could have been known but not by you. Thus, Dagny being wrong based on information she could not have had in no way impacts her view. Again, just like Utilitarianism, except for you and not for society.

  • Al Petterson

    I’d like to see you debate the person who responded to Brian Utterback above, because the two of you are expressing opposite views on the value of acting to improve society, and you’re both claiming to be stating Rand’s views.

  • David Andrew Kearney

    “Also note that something not ending up benefiting you in the end due to unforeseen circumstances isn’t a problem.”

    Is there any textual support for this in the novel? Because as far as I can see, Rand never takes any kind of externality into account.

  • David Andrew Kearney

    That’s what I was getting at. It seems to be (ha!) a description of someone who sees him/herself as being bold and decisive, but everyone else sees as a jerk.

  • Al Petterson

    That’s what gets me. I can imagine choosing to walk off my very pleasant job and taking a menial physical-labor job in a rustic shithole *if* it promised a sufficiently extraordinary payoff in the future (for example, I’d be tempted if the job were at a Mars colony, and I were actually someone who could do the job)… but there’s no conceivable way I could fool myself into thinking that it wasn’t self-sacrifice, or that the purpose wasn’t to benefit the society as a whole (and, more likely, future generations).

  • David Andrew Kearney

    Ah, but see, if you get satisfaction and fulfilment out of helping society and future generations, it’s actually selfish afterall!!!

    This, to me, is the big parlor trick involved in “rational self interest,” at least as I’ve seen it presented. Just about anything can be jury-rigged to qualify.

  • Al Petterson

    “There was never a time in American history when a company could be shut down by court decree solely because it might put competitors out of business.”

    Well….. one could stretch this a little and argue that that’s what our courts actually did with filesharing sites, like Morpheus, or Grokster, or LimeWire, or Kazaa…

  • Al Petterson

    As with Verbose Stoic arguing with himself (or, actually, causing Ayn Rand to argue with herself) elsewhere in the thread, yes, exactly.

    Building a better world, which I (or those I love) then get to live in, is a definition of “selfishness” with which I’m actually very familiar. It’s another way to say “altruism”.

  • Al Petterson

    … and actually, this is where I start thinking, again, that the entire idea of Objectivism is based on a fallacy of equivocation – expand the definition of “selfish” until you encompass all of human activity, then, once you’ve got your target to agree that “selfishness” is a good and rational thing, revert to the narrow definition of selfishness and tell them they’ve agreed that you have to act like a dick.

  • Jason Sartin

    Well, the counterargument to THAT is that those companies aren’t “competitors”, they’re thieves.

  • Doug Langley

    Which is why “Going Galt” has never worked in real life. Wealthy people can’t stand leaving behind the system that made them millions and suffer for years just for the promise of a system that’s barely better.

  • It seems to me (without doing any kind of research or googling or anything) that the person who invented steel girders in our universe probably in fact did say something like “it seems to me” because I suspect this person was in fact not a Captain of Industry. I suspect this person was a construction engineer who did indeed take orders from someone else and who said something along the lines of “Seems to me like we need something a little sturdier than wood beams to hold this structure up. Can we make a beam out of metal? Maybe something less brittle than cast-iron.” And then there was a whole lot of math, and a long discussion with a foundry metallurgist and probably some skeptical looks from boss-type people in much nicer outfits than the one a construction engineer wears to work.

    These things don’t happen in a vacuum and most advancements are not made by people doing paperwork and going to meetings all day, which is 90% of what CEOs do. Most world-altering inventions are made by teams of people, or rarely by creative individuals facing some kind of previously intractable problem.

  • The question of what constitutes “selfishness” was a paradox that Rand was never able to resolve. If you care about things beyond the boundaries of your own body, can’t you “selfishly” act to protect and serve them? But the problem with that kind of expanded self-interest is that it could, theoretically, expand to encompass all of society or all of humanity, which she fiercely denounced as impermissible altruism.

    I believe Rand wrote in another book that, in her view, it would be fine to sacrifice your life to save someone else, if you cared about them so much that you wouldn’t want to live in a world without them. That fits with the expanded definition of self-interest. But earlier in this book, she took a far narrower and more restrictive view, arguing that it was wrong even to buy presents for someone you love, unless your motive was the purely selfish desire to adorn them for your own amusement.

  • EchoChamberEscapee

    That was how she started out. She came to America and went to Hollywood with the goal of writing for the movies.

  • Cerebus36

    One thing that kinda bothered me was the fact that Nathaniel Taggart built the bridge(s). Another railroad competitor built their bridge(s), etc. Sounds like these bridges are independently owned. But aren’t all bridges public works and thus publicly owned? Do any rail-lines outright own the bridges their trains run on? Do other lines have to pay a fee to use the bridges?

  • EchoChamberEscapee

    Right. Regarding the John Galt Line, Rand believes Dagny was wrong to build it as long as the looters were in power. She was acting against her own interest and helping the looters, who would eventually destroy her achievement. No, Dagny didn’t know all her shippers would go Galt, but she should have known (according to Rand) that somehow, some way, the looters would do something to destroy her achievement. Because that’s what looters do.

  • decathelite

    So there’s one bridge across the Mississippi, because it created competition with river shipping industry. Wow – sure seems like the river shippers are way better capitalists than the railroad folks.

  • EchoChamberEscapee

    “But aren’t all bridges public works and thus publicly owned?”

    Not in Rand-land. Nat Taggart would never allow a foot of his railroad to be public property. I don’t think Rand says it outright, but I always assumed that when the other railroads start using Taggart’s bridge (after the Atlantic Southern’s collapses), they pay a fee for the privilege.

    I’m not sure how it works for real-world railroads.

  • Psycho Gecko

    Every competitor is a thief to their competition. In the case of those sites, they merely offered the same goods at a much lower price.

  • EchoChamberEscapee

    There was never a time in American history when a company could be shut down by court decree solely because it might put competitors out of business.

    I think we have to add antitrust law to the list of things Rand doesn’t understand (although she and her followers, particularly Alan Greenspan, have spilled a lot of ink railing against it).

  • Psycho Gecko

    Some have tried with some places in Chile, but unfortunately for them, the land owners are being a bunch of selfish a-holes. Which fits with them being Objectivists, so there’s there.

    Problem is, it’s awful hard for them to start a community when they rip off everyone who tries to buy land in it from them.

    http://gawker.com/ayn-rands-capitalist-paradise-is-now-a-greedy-land-grab-1627574870/all

  • Psycho Gecko

    I wonder if it would have blown her mind to have someone point out to her that capitalism is incompatible with monopoly.

  • EchoChamberEscapee

    Nice try, but no. The argument that filesharing sites are thieves turns on the underlying belief that what they are “selling” is stolen property. It’s not the competitors they’re stealing from, it’s the creators of the works.

  • EchoChamberEscapee

    She insisted that only a government could create a monopoly. Of course, she defined “monopoly” as a situation in which competitors were prohibited by law from entering a particular field. Anything else (e.g., Microsoft) was just being a successful competitor.

  • Psycho Gecko

    In terms of music, this is completely untrue.

    Musicians don’t actually make money off of album sales or even individual song sales. In most cases, due to the way their label has set things up, the main source of a musician’s income is from live performances.

  • EchoChamberEscapee

    “I believe Rand wrote in another book that, in her view, it would be fine to sacrifice your life to save someone else, if you cared about them so much that you wouldn’t want to live in a world without them.”

    She did. And (mild spoiler alert!) at the end of this book we will see a band of rational egoists risk their lives to save someone else.

    As you say, it’s a paradox. She wants to have this single, simple principle of “rational selfishness” (although she regarded “rational” as redundant with selfishness) as an ethical guide, but she also wanted to allow people to care about each other. For her, the solution was that it’s rational to care so much about a specific individual person that acting for their benefit could be in your interest … but it is not rational to care that much about an “abstraction” such as humanity or society in general.

  • Psycho Gecko

    Sounds about right. It’s so annoyingly common for people who are wrong to justify being wrong by rewriting definitions. So monopolies are created by governments and atheists believe in god and agnostics are magically a third option to atheists and theists.

    In the case of monopolies, Rand just didn’t want to believe that the free market could lead to tyranny on its own, I guess.

  • Bob Jase

    I’m confused – how does turning off electricity save copper? Did Rand think the wires were only there when the power was on & that they disappeared when the power was off? And what was the copper being saved for if it wasn’t to be used?
    Her rail infrastruture seems awfully fragile too. I’m hitting sixty next month but the rail lines in my town were laid long before I was born and they are still pretty solid.

  • EchoChamberEscapee

    I would love to see new distribution models knock out the record labels (much as is starting to happen with book publishing). But any new distribution models are only going to benefit the artists if we uphold the principle that you can’t distribute copyrighted work without the copyright owner’s consent.

  • EchoChamberEscapee

    I think the idea was that they could go in and strip the copper wire from the upper floors and use it to replace wires that break elsewhere. (Breaking copper wires will be a recurring theme of one chapter in Part III.)

    But it’s really all just an excuse for the visual of “the tops of the cities were cut down.”

  • ZMIles

    That’s confirmed later. After the government passes a law allowing any railroad to run a train on any rail company’s track without charge (which benefits James Taggart because he just sends all his trains on the Atlantic Southern’s Track), he defends himself by saying, “Well, we don’t charge for the use of our bridge either.” Implying that they did before.

    (If you’re wondering how that track scheme is supposed to work, the idea is that all railroad companies permit each other to run on their tracks without charge, and all their revenue is put into a central fund that is then divvied up according to ‘need’, that is, the track mileage of each company. Taggart can thus run all his trains on his competitor’s track, while taking a huge slice of the fund because his railroad has loads of branch lines and local lines that aren’t being used for anything, thereby increasing his track mileage without his expenses.)

  • Jeff

    I’m also not sure how it works, but I’m pretty sure there’s more than one bridge over the Mississippi….

  • PremiumOsmium

    In a way. But as we observed in history, there is a natural tendency for large companies to form monopolies through merger, acquisition and so on. A corporation’s natural “instinct”, so to speak, is to grow and push out its competitors.
    Another thing she tended to ignore about government-created monopolies (like public utilities, for example), is that a public monopoly may be more efficient than competition, AND the provider has an obligation to provide its service to everybody in the area, regardless of profitability.

  • Azkyroth

    The concept of “theft” is deeply, fundamentally, and inextricably bound up in resource scarcity. Attempting to apply it to non-scarce resources like extant electronic-format creative works is a particularly contemptible form of

    justify[ing] being wrong by rewriting definitions

    , ironically “stealing” the moral weight of the term “stealing” for rhetorical advantage.

  • Azkyroth

    F7U3

  • Azkyroth

    ….and then the “well, that’s okay then” gets snuck back into “selfishness”-as-the-term-is-actually-used-in-honest-discussion.

    Ain’t that one of the same tactics Creationists love?

  • Jim

    Railroads can build and own bridges, and I think most railroad bridges are owned by corporations and not governments. As railroads consolidated during the 20th century, laws and agreements were written that require railroads to share their major bridges (for a fee) with competitors.

  • Al Petterson

    I am suspecting something along the lines of “It is consistent to care about things outside the boundaries of your body, but only insofar as it can potentially rebound to your personal benefit”. It is, apparently, okay to do a cost-benefit analysis on risking one’s life to save another if that other person is going to enhance the rest of your life in a significant way (e.g. if the rest of your life would be 30% worse if they died, it’s worth up to a 30% chance of dying in order to save them.)

    Not that there’s much evidence (that I’ve heard) that Rand actually understood much about math or probability.

    She certainly doesn’t seem to want to deal much with the idea of family, children, or loved ones – especially the idea of either caring for someone who once provided you with utility (parents) but who no longer have the capacity to do so, or providing for someone who is returning you utility (children) but doing so in a way that will continue to benefit them after your own death. Those don’t sound consistent with her philosophy at all.

    Which returns to my other critique of Rand, that of her approximation of perfectly spherical humans in a vacuum: dealing only with the Platonic ideal human. Ironic, of course.

  • Cerebus36

    That was another problem: The whole idea that there only one bridge dividing the East from the West, the North from the South, etc. Rand must not have travelled alot to think the only way to cross the Mississippi was, say, the bridge in St. Louis. (Even then, there’s a bridge for vehicles and a bridge for trains. At least one of each.)

  • Doug Langley

    Unfortunately, since Rand redefined the word “altruism” as always sacrificing and never benefiting, anyone fighting for a better world in the future is always “selfish”, by her definition. And we’re back to Rand and humans speaking two different languages.

  • josh

    I disagree, they are copyright violators. Copyright laws exists to protect the profits of a certain class of producers by limiting an efficient means of reproduction. There might be good arguments for applying those protections, but it is not thievery in the usual sense of ‘I took something and now you don’t have it’. It is like observing your house and building one just like it with one’s own resources.

  • Doug Langley

    Watch what happened as soon as Rand bumped up against people who would normally be called selfish, but she loathed: bank robbers, corrupt businessmen, and dictators. They’re certainly acting for their selfish behalf, right? But she couldn’t sanction them. Now what? Her reaction was to claim they weren’t REAL selfish people. They weren’t acting long term – yes, that’s it. All these people, she claimed, were actually hurting themselves in the long run.

    Sounds convincing, until you look at the facts. Not all bank robbers go to jail. Not all fascist businessmen go broke. Not all dictators get the guillotine.

    I think Rand’s short-term/long-term logic pretzel was a desperate attempt to sort the “good” selfishness from the “bad” selfishness.

  • Doug Langley

    Remember, Rand considered some members of society so evil, so destructive, that encompassing any consideration to them would automatically hurt you. So it wouldn’t be rational to extend benefits to them. Her solution is to wipe them out in a train tunnel crash and expand self-interest to everyone else.

  • Doug Langley

    Sigh. Microsoft. A glitchy OS with buggy software and it took over the world, thanks to aggressive sales and marketing. If that doesn’t kill your faith in the free market, nothing will.

  • josh

    “He had fought the government for years, because the courts had ruled, on
    the complaint of river shippers, that railroads were a destructive
    competition to shipping and thus a threat to the public welfare, and
    that railroad bridges across the Mississippi were to be forbidden as a
    material obstruction… He had won that battle by a majority of one voice
    on the Supreme Court. His bridge was now the only major link left to
    hold the continent together.”

    Okay, I haven’t read the book, maybe I’m missing important details but this is compounded weirdness. What government anywhere, even the dumbest, coldest most centrally planned communist phantasm, would cut their country in two to please a few river boaters? But wait, they didn’t because the Supreme Court allowed Taggart’s bridge. So why aren’t there all the other bridges we have in the real world since it’s totally legal, even if by only one vote. But then, if there’s only one bridge, there should be a massive infrastructure of water transport to go from one side to the other, even if it’s not as efficient as rail and roads. And the country should be used to relying on that moderately clunky system for crossing the river.
    ?

  • Doug Langley

    That happens in real life, Al . . . sort of. You’re offered a job that’s menial or has sucky pay, but they tell it will lead to better things. You’ll get “experience”, you’ll get . . . well, something. Someday. And so you work at it, and work, and eventually find out they expect you to keep working those lousy conditions forever. Or they fire you – hey, sales are down, whatcha gonna do?

  • Al Petterson

    Can I also express a little … confusion about the (albeit well-written) atmospherics (sorry) in that opening couple paragraphs… *why* are New Yorkers now scared of the weather? Are the storms worse than they were because of the bad economy? Did the bad economy thin everyone’s coats? Can people no longer go indoors? Why exactly should bad weather be more alarming now than previously?

  • Al Petterson

    That’s where I come down too. But. Azkyroth has somewhat of a point, that we have built all of these models and principles alongside an assumption of scarcity, and at the very least society needs to reexamine its principles.

    It’s clear there are two competing schools of thought regarding why we have copyright – you and I follow one of them – that a creator has the right to choose who experiences his/her work – but there are those who follow a different one: that one has the right to any media so long as he does not deprive another of it, regardless of the preferences of its creator. I don’t agree with the latter, but I need to check my principles over time to make sure I disagree for a real reason, and not one based on an assumption of scarcity.

  • EchoChamberEscapee

    They can go inside, but they can’t get warm. Rand tells us:

    The rations of coal, established by Wesley Mouch, permitted the heating of homes for three hours a day. There was no wood to burn, no metal to make new stoves, no tools to pierce the walls of houses for new installations. In makeshift contraptions of bricks and oil cans, professors were burning the books of their libraries, and fruit-growers were burning the trees of their orchards.

  • Al Petterson

    Ah. That explains it. Makes sense, then.

  • Al Petterson

    Or, alternatively, that it is justifiable to work to improve society, but only in one specific direction. And it happens that that one direction is the direction such that everyone will be made to understand that working to improve society is wrong.

    “It is okay that I am trying to improve society, because I am improving it in this one specific Objectively Right direction. And you can tell that this is so, because trying to improve society is Objectively Wrong, and thus everyone but me who tries to improve society is Objectively Wrong, whereas, by improving society in a way that destroys the very idea of improving society, I am Objectively Right. And soon I will have improved society to the point where everyone will be completely free to agree with me, and everyone who disagrees with me will be identified as an altruistic looter and made to die in a train crash.”

    Ahem. Sorry, got off point just a bit.

  • Doug Langley

    Well, if you’re sufficiently cynical, you would support copyright primarily because it gives income to the artist without doing any further work.

    Exhibit A: Ayn Rand. Once the royalty checks started rolling in, she stopped writing and spent her time watching television.

  • Doug Langley

    ” . . . Stepping against the wind, dressed in raincoats, furs and evening slippers, . . .”

    God. This has to be the best-dressed dystopia ever created.

  • Doug Langley

    Rand wrote in her newsletter that she very specifically despised the notion of everyone getting the same. She supported people getting different amounts . . . so long as it was based on your merit.

  • Doug Langley

    I’ve heard of thieves breaking into air conditioners or other equipment and stealing copper coils. Seems there’s a market for it. Of course, they don’t go after skyscrapers.

  • Jason Sartin

    “It is like observing your house and building one just like it with one’s own resources.”

    No, actually, it isn’t. Unless mp3 pirates are only downloading the sheet music for the songs, and then making songs just like them with their own skills and instruments. Which would still be unethical (if not quite as lazy).

    Also, “limiting an efficient means of production” is a vile way of describing the fight to curb digital piracy. What’s next, claiming that human traffickers are just providing men a “more efficient” means of getting laid?

  • (((J_Enigma32)))

    Which is why I’ve never been able to grok it.

    It’s in my rational self-interest to make sure that there’s a society that can care for me if I ever get sick, get injured, or can no longer work for whatever reason. I could just rely on a 401k or some sort of investment, but if I rely on society to do it, it becomes a whole lot cheaper to sustain a better quality of living, since the price is now divided amongst everyone including me. What’s more, it’s in my rational self-interest to ensure that there’s some sort of safety net for myself in place, because dying after I get injured isn’t rational at all. A national healthcare system, then, is in everyone’s rational self-interest. A powerful social safety net is in everyone’s rational interest. A strong government that manages things like medicare, medicate, and social security is in everyone’s rational self interest.

    In short, the best government and economic system for everyone’s rational self interest isn’t capitalism. It’s socialism.

    Looking at Rand’s philosophy, I wonder if she even understood what “rational” meant, and if she realized that “rational” means different things to different people.

  • Azkyroth

    At least in the US, according to the constitution, copyright law, in the US, explicitly exists not to protect profits but to encourage the creation of artistic and literary works. Granted, the mechanism by which it is intended to do so is by, as a purely pragmatic measure, guaranteeing (within limits, including those of timeframe) the opportunity to any combination of profit from those works, maintain creative control of them, and be clearly identified as their author, but this is not the goal but a means to an end, with all the connotations that phrasing implies. In fact, given this explicit goal, nearly the entirety of US copywrong law is unconstitutional, since as it exists now it is demonstrably destructive of this stated end in many cases.

  • Azkyroth

    But a creator DOESN’T have the right to choose who experiences their work. For example, suppose a random Rethug wrote a book whose dust jacket stipulated people of color weren’t allowed to buy or read it. Is the idea that a court might enforce that even contemplable?

  • EchoChamberEscapee

    Well, the Atlantic Southern Railroad had a bridge, up until a couple of pages before that “only major link” line. Also, there is evidently at least one car bridge left since, in Part III, a character will drive from New York to Iowa. Maybe there once were a bunch of other bridges, but they’ve all fallen down over the last 10 years?

    I think this comes back to the same problem Adam noted in his first post in this series: we aren’t told how things came to their present state. There’s Nat Taggart’s day and Dagny Taggart’s day, but basically nothing about what happened in between.

  • Azkyroth

    Really. I mean, they’re not Californians. >.>

  • Azkyroth

    Another way of looking at it, in addition to that dishonest two-step you’re describing:

    “Selfishness” as the term is actually used outside of sophistry means valuing your own happiness or interests to the exclusion of anyone else’s – either SSL* or with reasonable allowances for hyperbole. We’re told, by sophists, that one can only claim to be “unselfish” if one does not value one’s own happiness or interests at all, or even if one actually actively wishes to oppose one’s own happiness or interests. This is idiotic, of course, as is trivially seen when it’s laid out in those terms; the excluded middle here is vast. (Incidentally, the null hypothesis is that one’s own happiness and interests are exactly as valuable as anyone else’s.)

    *Shit-Stupid Literal

  • Azkyroth

    That’s a bit strong, isn’t it?

  • Cactus_Wren

    Copper theft ‘like an epidemic’ sweeping US

    Copper is such a hot commodity that thieves are going after the metal anywhere they can find it: an electrical power station in Wichita, Kan., or half a dozen middle-class homes in Morris Township, N.J. Even on a Utah highway construction site, crooks managed to abscond with six miles of copper wire.

    Those are just a handful of recent targets across the U.S. in the $1 billion business of copper theft.

  • Doomedd

    That exactly the problem I have with this game. It assumes that interactions are isolated events. That a fiction. Humans, even in large city, are likely to meet again. We tend to work with the same people for extended durations; we live with the same neighbourhood for months, years or decades. Even if you will never meet somebody again, a transaction can build a reputation.

    Accepting an unfair deal in real life can mark you as desperate. You may attract the attentions from social predators. This is a real danger.

  • Verbose Stoic

    Yes, because you’re ignoring that the reason it’s done is that in a society that discourages people from being treated unfairly, they are discouraged from treating ME unfairly, which is why I do it (by the theory of altruistic punishment).

    Think of it this way: would it be rational if the split was $9 million to the other person and $1 million to me? The benefit to myself of $1 million probably outweighs the impact on society that that unfairness would have.

  • Verbose Stoic

    I grant it for the same reason that I grant Utilitarians that you don’t have to consider every possible possibility and can only decide based on the information that you have or can reasonably get: without it, the philosophy is utterly unworkable, it’s a reasonable addition, and it doesn’t contradict their underlying philosophy at all. It would be ridiculous to suggest that, say, if you buy a property and it’s hit by an unforeseeable storm that makes it worthless that you were irrational to do it based on information that you simply could not have known beforehand, so unless Rand explicitly denies that it’s certainly reasonable to suggest that she would … and even if she has, it’s certainly reasonable to suggest that Objectivism, as a philosophy, does have to accept that if it doesn’t undermine an actual principle of the philosophy … which it doesn’t seem to.

  • Verbose Stoic

    Since that does seem to be the same person, who is me, let me first point out that there is an important difference between “I support the stability of society because a stable society benefits me” and “I support the stability of society, which HAPPENS to benefit me”. Where they clearly come apart is when you can take an action to destabilize society that happens to objectively benefit you the most. People taking the former view will argue for taking the action that benefits you even if it will destabilize society, while those who take the latter won’t.

    But it’s hard to imagine such a case, but the reasons for that from each view are an interesting distinction. People who take the latter view will argue that someone who would do that would have to be exceptionally evil. People who take the former would argue that someone who would do that would have to be exceptionally stupid, because the benefits of a stable society are so strong that it doesn’t make sense to do that.

    But note that “Atlas Shrugged” is clear about the heroes taking the former tack, as they decide that society is more of an impediment to their own self-interest than a benefit and work either directly or indirectly to destabilize society in order to build their society that does indeed benefit them.

    I may not have made it clear in the other comment that altruistic punishment follows the first view and not the second. Rand opposes the second but definitely seems to feel that our society is trying to condition people to accept that one.

  • Verbose Stoic

    How could you possibly consider it self-sacrifice to choose the option that you, personally, most want to do and that you feel is totally worth the sacrifice you are making to achieve? Sure, the Mars colony might benefit society as a whole, but is that why you’re doing it?

  • Verbose Stoic

    It can be … if that’s why you do it. There is no meaningful definition of “altruistic” that allows you to do the thing that most benefits you BECAUSE it’s the thing that most benefits you and call it altruistic.

    If someone gets a lot of pleasure out of helping people, and does it because they get that pleasure, then they are no less selfish than a person who gets pleasure out of playing video games and plays them because of that. Someone who helps people even though they get little to no pleasure out of doing it because they think it is the right thing to do is definitely less selfish, and might be altruistic in doing so.

    Now, you can argue that taking pleasure in helping people is a better thing to take pleasure in than other things, like taking pleasure in hurting others, but you still can’t oppose the Egoist on the basis that your actions aren’t selfish and theirs are; you’re equally selfish, but at best you can argue that you have a more advanced sense of pleasure than they do. Which has its own problems (see issues with Mill’s view of “quality” in his Utilitarianism) and is not something that Objectivists will accept without strong argument.

  • Verbose Stoic

    Well, the thing is that if you accept the broader definition, then their reply is that you can’t call their actions selfish and try to dismiss it simply by attaching that negative qualifier to it. If you accept that the actions that you promote and that they promote all fit the definition of “selfish”, then the problem with their actions can’t be that they’re selfish, and what’s good about your actions can’t be that they’re altruistic, because both are equally selfish/altruistic. Which means that you need to apply another reason to distinguish them, and can’t appeal to benefit to justify the “better” actions.

    Egoists are skeptical that you can come up with a good way to justify those “better” actions without simply relying on calling them “selfish” and letting the negative connotations of the word do the work for you.

  • Verbose Stoic

    I don’t think that Rand ever argued that caring about society or all of humanity because doing so most benefits you was altruistic. She was definitely concerned with caring more about society and humanity than yourself, but as long as your primary concern was your own self-interest you could indeed work to build a community and co-operate with others. In fact, that is indeed the heart of her strategy and why she doesn’t take her Egoism to the point of a sovereign, like Hobbes does: she thinks that a simple consideration of your own rational self-interest will provide all of the societal structures and co-operation that anyone will never need, without the need for any additional authority.

    To be honest, I think that the influence of Game Theory models is what’s causing the confusion here, as they argue that co-operating with others is somehow “altruism”, and then when you try to apply that you Egoists like Rand and Hobbes you try to deny that the basis of a lot of their view — that we can come together as a community based on a rational consideration of our own self-interest — is actually Egoistic at all, which is false.

    As for that supposed contradiction, the idea is that you can do anything as long as it is in your own self-interest. The problem with Rearden and the jewelry is two-fold:

    1) Rearden is characterized by believing in the altruistic view of relationships, that they aren’t two people coming together for a mutually beneficial relationship buttressed by that, but instead in the “sacrificial” model, which Rand hates.

    2) It’s a stylistic call-back to the bracelet of Rearden Metal that Lillian hated and Dagny bought, pointing out that Dagny understands that the relationship is about interest, and that gifts should be that.

    I doubt that Rand would insist that if it benefits you to make your partner happy that you shouldn’t. I DO think that she was very skeptical that that could properly happen in the society with the societal impressions that we had at the time.

  • Verbose Stoic

    The problem is that if this was really in everyone’s rational self-interest, then everyone should do it. But if everyone did it, then it’s self-defeating: everyone would actually be worse off in such a world. So it’s irrational, at least as a general policy, or an argument that selfishness leads in general to that conclusion.

    The contradiction of Egoism — and Game Theory — is that the ideal is that everyone else co-operates and you don’t have to, as that’s the way to maximize your own self-interest. But we all rationally realize that if everyone does that no one will co-operate at all, and we need co-operation to benefit. So we have the fallback position that we should all co-operate … unless we can get away with not co-operating. But, of course, as applied in general we’d know that the people we want to co-operate with us will also cheat if they can get away with it, so it’s in our own self-interest to ensure that people can’t get away with cheating. But those general mechanisms then also apply to us, and so we end up with co-operation, because co-operation is both so important and so fragile.

    Egoism handles that contradiction well. What it doesn’t handle is the idea that acting only in your own self-interest is what it means to be moral, no matter how “enlightened” you make that self-interest. And Game Theory has the exact same problem.

  • Verbose Stoic

    It’s exactly this sort of argument that misses as an attack on Objectivism, or any sort of Egoism, because it accepts the underlying principles and only argues against the specific application. You’re effectively arguing here that she’s right that our moral considerations should be based on the considerations of our own self-interest, but that her dislike of socialism is wrong because socialism IS in our own self-interest. The thing is that if you did manage to demonstrate that — and there are reasons to debate it — in a way that convinced Rand, she’d say “Okay, sure, then let’s do that” … based on her Objectivist principles. You wouldn’t have refuted her view at all, and instead simply accepted it.

    A lot of the arguments in the posts and in the comments against Rand don’t in any way attack her underlying Egoism, but instead accept it and argue against her specific conclusions, and then pat themselves on the back for having refuted Rand. But it no more refutes Rand than pointing out that a Utilitarian has calculated the utility of something they support wrong refutes Utilitarianism. The counter accepts the underlying premise, and doesn’t show that the underlying premise leads to a contradiction; it only shows that their calculations were wrong. It’s like trying to refute the idea that objects fall by point out that the person who dropped it didn’t calculate the time it would take properly; they did get it wrong, but their overall view is still right AND you had to accept that things fall to make the objection.

  • Verbose Stoic

    Well, the thing is that that definition still does work for them, and against the idea of altruism used to oppose Egoists. Let’s flesh that out to this:

    Selfishness is acting on your own self-interest WITHOUT CONCERN for the interests of others … ie not caring whether or not others benefit or are hurt when deciding what action to take. By this, it’s equally selfish to take the action that best benefits when others benefit as much or even potentially more than you as it is when you benefit more than others. Surely we have to accept that acting only to benefit yourself and not caring about the benefits to others is indeed selfish by definition, no?

    The issue here is not with the definition of selfish, but with the definition of ALTRUISM as defined in opposition to selfishness. It seems clear that altruism does not and cannot include actions that you take to benefit yourself without concern for the benefits to others; altruistic actions have to be taken to benefit others without (much) concern for your own benefit. But then how much benefit can you get out of an altruistic action before it stops being altruistic? Strong views — which the Egoists don’t have to hold and don’t necessarily argue for themselves — say that the action can’t benefit you at all. But this seems to only be considered because of the difficulty of judging intent; if an action benefits you, it’s always possible that you did it for that benefit. This leads to the consequentialist approach of measuring how much the action benefits you when compared to how much it benefits others, but this obviously runs into the issue that you could indeed take the action that rationally most benefits you that happens to benefit others more, and having that be called altruistic, which is clearly wrong.

    The Egoists tend to do this more intelligently by arguing that if you take the action because it benefits you, you aren’t being altruistic and are instead acting selfishly. This starts from Hobbes who starts from a Psychological Egoism that asserts that the good deeds that you do that make you feel good are only done BECAUSE they make you feel good; if they didn’t make you feel good, you wouldn’t do them, and so they can’t be done altruistically. This seems perfectly reasonable unless you can show that it isn’t done for the feeling, but that the feeling follows from doing it (which might be a reasonable argument). This won’t work against Rand because she’s an ETHICAL Egoist, arguing that the morally right thing is indeed that which benefits you, which would mean that doing it because it makes you feel good is more moral than not. The way, then, to attack HER is to demonstrate that being moral does not depend on any way on acting in your own self-interest, even as a justification for moral behaviour … which Game Theory models can’t do BECAUSE they rely on justifying moral behaviour by appealing to overall self-interest.

  • Verbose Stoic

    The issue is that if this becomes known, no one will or should fall for the trick, and so you won’t be able to use that as a way to convince people to take that job, so it hurts you in the long run. It’s only because enough businesses actually do follow through on the deal most of the time or that society has convinced us that this actually happens that allows that sort of overall strategy — hire with the promise but renege — to work.

  • What you say is all true and is probably why we have evolved/enculturated this behavior in the first place. But from a purely rational standpoint, such behavior is irrational. Whatever the reason, we prefer to do without rather than accept a blatantly unfair deal.

  • Doug Langley

    But that’s what makes the game so significant. If it really is an isolated event, if the punisher has no reason to believe he’s altering the behavior of the other person . . . then why does he turn down the $1? What possible motive could he have in a setting that isn’t even real life? The conclusion is that rejection of unfairness is an innate trait, an instinct. And that instinct is one of the forces shaping society.

  • Jeremy Shaffer

    It isn’t just copper wiring either. Aluminum siding is a big mark too, as some members of my extended family found out not too long ago. Several houses in their area were foreclosed on or people moved out shortly after the housing bubble collapse in 2007. This left a lot of houses in their area empty with “For Sale” signs out front. According to them it was nothing to see a house for sale that would look great from the street but if you went around to the side or back the siding would be completely stripped. It would usually happen within a day or two of the sign being posted so real estate agents had to stop posting signs.

  • Doug Langley

    Rand made it very clear what she thought was unfair treatment: her ubermensch don’t get everything due them. Any attempt by anyone to deprive the hero is automatically unfair and evil.

    Wouldn’t that induce the hero to behave better? But he’s already perfect. He’s already treating everyone else exactly as they deserve. Therefore, any deviation from this situation must be evil.

    Atlas Shrugged is filled with the notion of someone taking a hit to hurt someone else. The legislators pass laws constraining Dagny and Hank, even though the legislators needs trains and steel. Rand contends that there is no justification whatever. Why do they do it? They must be evil – Rand has no other explanation.

  • (((J_Enigma32)))

    I’m not refuting Rand. Not even attempting to. To start with, a little bit of egoism is not a bad thing, but it goes deeper than that.

    I’m using her argument to argue for something she hated. I’m also using that to show how irrational people actually are, and why her idea of “rational self-interest” isn’t happening, now or ever.

    I just used rational self-interest to argue in favor of socialism and extensive government intervention. How many Objectivists are going to follow me? How many libertarians are going to follow me?

    Who are the irrational ones, again?

  • Doug Langley

    An unforeseeable storm is irrelevant to Rand. Adam’s selection above demonstrates that. Rand contends that as long as the Man of the Mind (TM) is free, he will build storm-proof buildings. He will develop drought-resistant crops. He will construct earthquake-proof bridges. There’s even one point in the book where someone asks what if the sun suddenly went out and the answer is, enh, the genius will just replace it.

  • Doug Langley

    Well, if it’s an issue of trying to refute Rand, here’s a question. Any attempt to put Objectivism into practice meets with dismal failure. The events and characters of Atlas Shrugged simply don’t correspond with events and people on planet Earth. Obviously, something must be wrong with her philosophy – but what? Where’s the error? Her metaphysics? Her definition of selfishness? Her politics?

  • Al Petterson

    That’s an excellent point; there is a huge excluded middle.

  • Doug Langley

    It would be great if life was that logical, but it just isn’t. That sort of trick is well known, and yet it keeps happening anyway. Several reasons: 1. It’s a highly desirable business with far more applicants than openings. 2. It’s the only offer one gets at that one minute, and lousy salary is better than no salary. 3. There’s a sucker born every minute.

  • Al Petterson

    This is a valid point – but it cuts both ways. If I care about an outcome, then the very fact of that caring means that the outcome affects my utility. I am happier – I sleep better, my life is more fulfilling – when people, as a whole, are materially better off. Therefore it is in my interest to take actions that materially benefit others, and which may or may not happen to materially benefit me.

    It is in my interest, by definition, because it is what I want. I after all only desire material benefits because material benefits happen also to be among the things that can make me happy (satisfied, secure, content, accomplished, pleasured) – in the economic sense, provide me utility. I want what I want. If I want a prosperous society – if a fact of being a member of a prosperous society makes me secure, content, accomplished, pleasured, proud – then by definition a prosperous society is in my interest, and pursuing my interests is selfish.

    Thus I am selfish, you are selfish, everyone is selfish, Rand approves, and we have defined a term that is precious to her philosophy – “selfish” – into a vacuous term that encompasses all activity, and serves to distinguish no action from any other.

    And it presents no problem to then oppose someone who meets the vernacular definition of “selfish”, i.e. “being a dick”. When they take actions that benefit themselves, to the exclusion of concern for whether they benefit others, this tends to mean – in the real world that I experience – that they act in ways that negatively affect my utility: if nothing else, I don’t like being around them, because they’re being a dick. (That is, if they deliberately do not concern themselves with whether their actions benefit me – unless they have made a specific conscious decision that they are likely to benefit from me later – they will then routinely act in ways that happen to annoy or upset me.) And I can oppose and discourage their actions, and be selfish in doing so, because all actions are selfish – but not all actions are being a dick.

  • Doug Langley

    That may be, but Rand never defined morality in any collective or social manner. To her, everything was individual. Moral, which meant selfish, meant working for yourself. She never considered “what if everyone acts this way, would it work?”

    This is why I think it’s relevant to consider her views of bank robbers and dictators. She made very specific arguments about them in her newsletter, and I think it demonstrates the sloppiness in her thinking.

    Why shouldn’t the bank robber be considered selfish and therefore moral? Because he threatens force? But Dagny threatens force against judges and legislators. Because he relies on someone else’s wealth? But Reardon relies on his client’s wealth. Because he doesn’t use his mind? Hey, you try planning the perfect crime. Because he doesn’t consider the feelings of other people? But that’s exactly Rand’s description of her heroes.

    The more you try to work it out by Rand’s standards, the more tangled it gets. I think she finally played the short-term/long-term card as her last attempt to resolve it.

  • Al Petterson

    Indeed, the parallels strike me every time I enter such conversations.

  • Doug Langley

    Ah, those lucky Californians. They only have to contend with earthquakes, drought, wildfires . . .

  • Azkyroth

    “….OH MAH GAWERD DERE’S WAH-DUR COMIN’ OUTTA D’SKAH! WHASSIT MEAN?! AH BEDDER SLOW DOWN TO 5 MAHLES PER HOUR JUZZIN CASE!”

  • Azkyroth

    So basically you’re saying you don’t see any difference between marginalized human beings and digital files?

    That’s pretty fucked up, dude.

  • David Andrew Kearney

    Of course a creator has the right to choose who experiences their work. They can choose not to publish.

  • David Andrew Kearney

    I don’t think anyone here has an agenda of refuting Rand, come hell or high water — that’s an interpretation you’ve imposed.

  • josh

    The ‘good arguments’ I alluded to are about encouraging the creation of artistic works.The means is protection of profits. I agree. (Whether or not they are sufficiently good to justify the current system is another debate.)

    My only point was that copyright is a particular kind of protectionism, and breaking it has little to do with theft, or piracy.

  • Verbose Stoic

    Where did I say that they had an agenda of refuting Rand, come hell or high water? I do think that the criticisms, though, are aimed at showing her view to be wrong, no?

  • Verbose Stoic

    So, let’s see if I have your argument straight: What you’re trying to do is demonstrate that those who claim to be so rational really aren’t as rational as they think they are?

    Well, not that useful as a comment about how you don’t “grok” the view, and to demonstrate it you’d need to show that rationality really does demonstrate that socialism is more in line with rational self-interest — which is a position that libertarians and Objectivists already argue against — and you can’t call someone irrational simply for being wrong but … well, I GUESS it’s an argument, if that’s what you’re after. But it doesn’t do anything against Rand’s underlying philosophy of Objectivism or against Egoism, which is not something that you can allow a “little” of. The capitalization of “Egoism” refers to the philosophy, not the emotion.

  • EchoChamberEscapee

    [Rand] thinks that a simple consideration of your own rational self-interest will provide all of the societal structures and co-operation that anyone will never need, without the need for any additional authority.

    That is a fair statement of Rand’s position. She thinks the men of the mind, if left free to act, will solve every problem that could ever come up, so we don’t need government nannies to worry about things like unemployment, disability, feeding the poor, pollution, workplace or highway safety, etc.

    One huge problem is that it works only under some very unrealistic assumptions. Among other things, Rand assumes that resources are unlimited; that there are no problems the human mind cannot solve; that “there are no conflicts of interest among rational men”; that accidents are rare and insignificant; that everyone is (or can become) adept at figuring out what is in their rational self-interest; that the “crippled” are monstrous aberrations from which the rest of us should be shielded; and so on.

    Another huge problem is that Rand’s concept of “rational self-interest” turns out to lead to conclusions that don’t comport with any meaningful notion of “self-interest.” Rand argues that what is in one’s self-interest is to adhere to a particular set of principles (rationality, integrity, etc., as she defines them in Galt’s speech). This includes her “non-initiation of force” principle, which means, among other things, that you absolutely cannot use government as an agency to promote the general welfare, even if the consequence of that is that you (and most people) end up worse off. For instance, she would insist that you cannot properly conclude that single-payer health care is in your rational self-interest. Even if you figure out that, given your circumstances and the way private health insurance works, single-payer would be the best way to maximize your chances of having access to health care when you need it, single-payer is still not in your rational self-interest because you’d be endorsing the “enslavement” (her word) of doctors.

    But how is it in my interest to shut up and die, when I, with the cooperation of a lot of like-minded people, could take collective action to do something that would improve our self-interest? Rand’s followers have no answer other than variants of “oh, any decent person would have money and/or friends who could help” or “medical insurance would be more widely available were it not for all the existing government meddling.” Basically, the magic of the market will take care of it, if only we’d just stop meddling and let it.

    Having believed all this myself for years before adopting a more enlightened view, my conclusion now is that what Rand endorses is not so much rational self-interest as adherence to a particular dogmatic creed. She invokes self-interest as a rationalization to justify the dogma.

  • josh

    :No, actually, it isn’t. Unless mp3 pirates are only downloading the sheet music for the songs, and then making songs just like them with their own skills and instruments. Which would still be unethical (if not quite as lazy).”

    Yes, actually it is. The resources in question are those necessary to produce a copy, which in the case of e.g., an audio recording, are a few kilobytes of digital memory and a program. It is like using blueprints to build a copy of a house, which of course is done all the time in large developments. Is someone lazy if they don’t take the blueprints and build the house themselves from scratch, using their own unskilled labor? The only difference is that we don’t currently have a machine that can simply be given a command to copy a house (although with 3-D printers who knows).

    Whether it is ethical to do so is another question, but it is not unethical for the reason that theft is unethical.

    ‘Also, “limiting an efficient means of production” is a vile way of describing the fight to curb digital piracy.’

    I’m of the philosophy that giving an accurate description is not ‘vile’. Music used to be hard to reproduce. You needed to hear it from a band or orchestra in person. Then records were introduced, then casette tapes, then cds, then flash drives. Each step made it easier to reproduce sounds almost exactly, i.e. they are more efficient means of production. Copying something does not rob the original owner of the use of their copy. Stealing it does.

    Now the argument of course is that allowing efficient copying will make the production of original content unprofitable. That may well be. The upshot is that we are protecting a certain class of jobs against the impact of technological progress. I’m not trying to tell you if that is a good or bad way to do things, I’m pointing out that it shouldn’t be confused with theft.

    “What’s next, claiming that human traffickers are just providing men a “more efficient” means of getting laid?”

    If the motive for anti-trafficking laws was to ensure that local whores remained profitable because otherwise there might not be any new sex, this might somehow be relevant to what I said.

  • Verbose Stoic

    I’ve actually talked about this before. I don’t think her view works on either philosophical or practical grounds.

    1) On philosophical grounds, it simply isn’t the case that what is moral is defined or justified by what serves an individual’s rational self-interest.

    2) On practical grounds, everyone has biases in place that prevent them from being completely and ideally rational, which means that when you encourage people to be selfish they always end up acting as brutes if they can get away with it. This is why Hobbes’ view includes massive enforcement of the social contract.

    Note that Rand thinks that if we simply educated people properly they’d do this right, and it’s hard to argue that we shouldn’t train people to judge their own rational self-interest better. That’s why the philosophical argument is actually stronger, although the practical argument can work by arguing that it needs to be too perfect for that to work out. But Game Theory models of society weaken that by showing that unvarnished self-interest can produce co-operative behaviour, leading us to wonder what directed education could do.

  • Pierre Cloutier

    If that is case then Rand was a True Believer who deliberately ignored reality in order to continue to believe her reality denying dogmas.
    So Rand’s “logic” was Only governments can create monopolies. Since Companies / corporations are not government they can’t create monopolies. So if a company does in fact create a monopoly so long as the government didn’t create it by law it is not a monopoly.
    Pure semantic word game crap.

  • Verbose Stoic

    That may be, but Rand never defined morality in any collective or social
    manner. To her, everything was individual. Moral, which meant
    selfish, meant working for yourself. She never considered “what if
    everyone acts this way, would it work?”

    Um, the whole premise of “Atlas Shrugged” is asking “What would it be like if most people were looters/what would it be like if most people were Objectivists?” and concluding that the world would be a far better one if the latter were true. So this just seems patently false.

    Why shouldn’t the bank robber be considered selfish and therefore moral?
    Because he threatens force? But Dagny threatens force against judges
    and legislators. Because he relies on someone else’s wealth? But
    Reardon relies on his client’s wealth. Because he doesn’t use his mind?
    Hey, you try planning the perfect crime. Because he doesn’t consider
    the feelings of other people? But that’s exactly Rand’s description of
    her heroes.

    The bank robber isn’t moral unless there’s a particular reason why they think that they can get away with it and others can’t. Again, not everyone can be a bank robber, but if being one was sufficiently rational, then everyone would try. So not everyone can be a bank robber. And banks and others definitely have a rational self-interest in protecting their goods, and everyone, even bank robbers, have an interest in there being banks. All of this means that, in general, a bank robber is not moral because they are not going to be acting in their own rational self-interest.

    This is clear in her discussion of brutes, the idea that it is stupid to act selfishly in that manner. Maybe you can argue that she’s wrong about bank robbers in general not acting in their own rational self-interest, but it is pretty obvious that it’s the rationality that she denies.

    I haven’t read that newsletter defense, so if you have a link to that I’d like to read it and see what she says directly.

  • Verbose Stoic

    One huge problem is that it works only under some very unrealistic
    assumptions. Among other things, Rand assumes that resources are
    unlimited; that there are no problems the human mind cannot solve; that
    “there are no conflicts of interest among rational men”; that accidents
    are rare and insignificant; that everyone is (or can become) adept at
    figuring out what is in their rational self-interest; that the
    “crippled” are monstrous aberrations from which the rest of us should be
    shielded; and so on.

    I’d be hesitant to hold what’s said in the novels against Rand, and even more so to hold her own personal views against Objectivism as a philosophy. These are all issues for Objectivist positions, but I do think there is room to accommodate them and still maintain a distinctly Objectivist or libertarian view.

    This includes her “non-initiation of force” principle, which means,
    among other things, that you absolutely cannot use government as an
    agency to promote the general welfare, even if the consequence of that
    is that you (and most people) end up worse off.

    You can go back to Hobbes to demonstrate this one: if you advocate that in some cases you can use force to impose your view on others — as opposed to defending yourself from impositions — then someone who has more force than you would be justified in using it against you. The rational self-interest of the majority doesn’t justify it under Objectivism, so you’d be arguing for doing it because it would benefit you … which means that the same argument can be made by someone against you. Then it comes down to whoever has the most force available, and no one wants that. So we all want everyone to react to someone initiating force with sanctions or force against them preventing them from doing so. Otherwise, you end up in the state of nature which isn’t stable and is bad for everyone.

    For instance, she would insist that you cannot properly conclude that single-payer health care is in your
    rational self-interest. Even if you figure out that, given your
    circumstances and the way private health insurance works, single-payer
    would be the best way to maximize your chances of having access to
    health care when you need it, single-payer is still not in your rational
    self-interest because you’d be endorsing the “enslavement” (her word)
    of doctors.

    Since becoming a doctor is a matter of choice, making being a doctor a condition of enslavement simply means that people won’t become doctors … and having doctors is in your own rational self-interest, or else you wouldn’t want to do that. So that action in that case would be self-defeating, and so not in your rational self-interest.

    Having believed all this myself for years before adopting a more
    enlightened view, my conclusion now is that what Rand endorses is not
    so much rational self-interest as adherence to a particular dogmatic
    creed. She invokes self-interest as a rationalization to justify the
    dogma.

    Out of curiosity, what view have you adopted?

  • Verbose Stoic

    This is a valid point – but it cuts both ways. If I care about an
    outcome, then the very fact of that caring means that the outcome
    affects my utility. I am happier – I sleep better, my life is more
    fulfilling – when people, as a whole, are materially better off.
    Therefore it is in my interest to take actions that materially benefit others, and which may or may not happen to materially benefit me.

    True, but the issue is that your wants aren’t immune to criticism. It seems to me that Rand’s big problem with wanting to help others is that she feels that society conditions us into wanting that, AGAINST considering our own self-interest, which is bad in and of itself. If that’s what you want based on your own inherent nature and wants and considerations of rational self-interest, that’s fine, but that doesn’t work in a society that teaches you as children to ignore your own self-interest in order to promote the self-interest of others.

    Thus I am selfish, you are selfish, everyone is selfish, Rand approves,
    and we have defined a term that is precious to her philosophy –
    “selfish” – into a vacuous term that encompasses all activity, and
    serves to distinguish no action from any other.

    Except that it does distinguish selfish actions from one very important type of action: altruistic ones. You had to tack “materially” onto your consideration above to make your point, but her view is about benefit, not just material benefit. If you take the materially out of the consideration, you’re stating a view that Rand would consider altruistic — and unacceptably so — not selfish,

    And I can oppose and discourage their actions, and be selfish in doing so, because all actions are selfish – but not all actions are being a dick.

    So, yes, you definitely can oppose people trying to harm your interests to promote theirs, within reason. But that would still leave society far short of the altruistic or even utilitarian ideal that Rand is opposing.

  • EchoChamberEscapee

    I’d be hesitant to hold what’s said in the novels against Rand, and even more so to hold her own personal views against Objectivism as a philosophy.

    I am not at all hesitant to hold what is said in the novels against Rand, since she insisted she meant it. She believed she had constructed a coherent moral and political system and provided a completely logical (and even inevitable) argument in defense of that system. If she wants to live and die by her own arguments, I’ll accommodate her. (I’ll also note for what it’s worth that I have yet to meet a self-proclaimed Objectivist who does not hold to the assumptions I listed.)

    That said, you are, of course, free to modify Rand’s conclusions as you see fit and/or to try to put them on a more solid intellectual footing than she ever did. But at that point, I would say that we are no longer talking about the ideas of Ayn Rand, but about the ideas of Verbose Stoic.

    I’ll add that as an ex-Randroid, I will get confused if the latter are to wear the label “Objectivism.” Rand was always insistent that the term “Objectivism” referred specifically to her ideas as she articulated and defended them. While others were free to disagree, they should call their ideas … something else, to avoid confusion with Rand’s ideas. So when I see you talking about “Objectivism,” I assume you mean Rand’s ideas (including her arguments in their defense), not more generically egoist/libertarian ideas that are defended by arguments that, in some instances, would have Rand spinning in her grave. I may not be the only one here suffering from this confusion. Perhaps you can clarify what you think “Objectivism” means.

    Since becoming a doctor is a matter of choice, making being a doctor a condition of enslavement simply means that people won’t become doctors …

    I notice you don’t question Rand’s premise that having government pay for healthcare amounts to enslavement of doctors. Does it?

    Out of curiosity, what view have you adopted?

    Pragmatic humanism might be a concise label, although I’m not big on labeling myself. I’m still an atheist, which means I believe this life is all we have, which means it only makes sense to make it the best we can: happy and pleasant for ourselves and future generations.

    Contra Rand, I now think a lot of our ideas about morality arise from intuitions that evolved in our ancestors’ brains long before we started reasoning about it, as successful strategies for a social animal. (Which doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to improve on them through conscious reasoning, just that the “blank slate” is not the starting point.) Also contra Rand, I don’t believe that “it is on a desert island that [a man] would need [morality] most.” I think morality has relatively little to do with a lone person in an untouched wilderness (an extreme outlier in the spectrum of the human condition, although it is what Rand regards as the fundamental) and a lot to do with the problem of constraining social interactions so as to achieve net mutual benefit. As far as politics, I’m a lot more sympathetic to social contract theory than Rand ever was; she hated it for its inherent pragmatism; I like it for that reason.

    Ultimately, I don’t think there is or ever will be any ideology that has “the solution” to the problems of social organization and optimization of quality of life. (And I doubt that we’d ever get universal agreement on what “quality of life” entails anyway.) The best we can do is to learn from experience: try different things, observe the practical results, draw conclusions accordingly, and be prepared to adapt to change. For instance, if every advanced country in the world that has single-payer healthcare has better outcomes than we do and spends less per capita to get there, then maybe we should try to learn something from this information, rather than arguing from ideology.

  • EchoChamberEscapee

    Rand opposes the second but definitely seems to feel that our society is trying to condition people to accept that one.

    What Rand actually thought our society was trying to condition people to believe (well, she despised the term “conditioning” but never mind that now) would be neither of the above. It’s this:

    The good, say the mystics of muscle, is Society—a thing which they define as …. a superbeing embodied in no one in particular and everyone in general except yourself.

    In other words, “I support the stability of society, REGARDLESS of whether it benefits me,” or even worse: “I support the stability of society EVEN THOUGH it does NOT benefit me.” See also Rearden’s earlier rant about society asking him to immolate himself even though that’s clearly against his self-interest.

  • Doug Langley

    “. . . the whole premise of “Atlas Shrugged” is asking “What would it be like if most people were looters/what would it be like if most people were Objectivists?”

    Sorry, have to disagree on that one. Nowhere in the book does Rand ever discuss the proper ratio of Objectivists to looters. She never uses statistics. Everything’s based on the individual. The hero is good. The looter is evil. That’s it. The plot involves heroes being worn down by looters, but there’s no indication of how many looters would be OK. Even one looter is too many.

    “. . . The bank robber isn’t moral unless there’s a particular reason why they think that they can get away with it and others can’t . . .”

    Look, I know the bank robber is immoral and you know the bank robber is immoral. Rand also believed the bank robber immoral, but for very shaky reasons. The bank robber comes dangerously close to matching Rand’s description of the ideal man. The fact that she once thought William Hickman was the greatest thing since sliced bread proved her values weren’t very clearcut.

    True, not everyone can be a bank robber – who would build the banks for them to rob? But push that argument ahead: what if everyone tried to run a railroad like Dagny? Who would pour the steel for rails and raise the crops and refine the diesel fuel? OK, a silly argument.

    I know Rand argued that a bank robber would be immoral if you designated him a brute. I don’t like brutes myself. But how is a brute different from Ragnar blowing up ships? Dagny threatening to kill anyone who gets in her way? Shooting a guard at the end? She tries to create very exact standards, but just gets too confused.

    Sorry about the newsletter link. I threw out all my Rand stuff a while ago and don’t know if it’s on the web anywhere.

  • Doug Langley

    ” . . . I’ve actually talked about this before. I don’t think her view works on either philosophical or practical grounds. . . ”

    Sorry, I just joined this forum a month or two ago. I haven’t studied your posts from before then.

    However, I am in complete agreement with you on these two points. Rand’s philosophy is shaky on both theoretical and practical grounds.

  • EchoChamberEscapee

    The bank robber isn’t moral unless there’s a particular reason why they think that they can get away with it and others can’t.

    Not in Rand’s version of egoism. In her version, the bank robber is never ever acting in his self-interest, even if he thinks he can get away with … and even in fact if he does get away with it. From The Virtue of Selfishness (all emphasis in original:

    The evil of a robber does not lie in the fact that he pursues his own interests, but in what he regards as to his own interest; not in the fact that he pursues his values, but in what he chose to value; not in the fact that he wants to live, but in the fact that he wants to live on a subhuman level.

    That is, robbing banks is wrong because it violates a set of principles Rand has defined as constituting “the good.” Making your own conduct an exception to this general rule is not morally acceptable. Period. Call it what you will but this seems closer to a Kantian categorical imperative (“act only on that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law”) than any standard definition of ethical egoism.

  • Doug Langley

    Exactly. Rand believed “society” is a myth, a hoax cooked up by the altruists as an excuse to make people sacrifice.

  • EchoChamberEscapee

    Nowhere in the book does Rand ever discuss the proper ratio of Objectivists to looters. She never uses statistics. Everything’s based on the individual.

    Exactly. This seems to be a significant difference between Verbose Stoic and Rand. Rand again, from “Collectivized ‘Rights'”:

    A great deal may be learned about society by studying man; but this process cannot be reversed: nothing can be learned about man by studying society.

  • Doug Langley

    Thanks. The only way Rand can call a bank robber immoral in her philosophy is to slap on an arbitrary label of “subhuman”.

    Good think you held on to your Rand books. (I envy your stomach.)

  • EchoChamberEscapee

    Hoarder mentality, actually. :-)

  • EchoChamberEscapee

    “Pure semantic word game crap” sums up huge swaths of Objectivism.

  • J-D

    You refer there to ‘an action … that happens to objectively benefit you the most’. What is the significance of the word ‘objectively’ there? Is there a difference between ‘objective benefit’ and ‘subjective benefit’?

  • J-D

    From a purely rational standpoint, there’s no reason to desire money, so from a purely rational standpoint, there’s nothing irrational about refusing it.

    From a purely rational standpoint, there’s no reason to desire anything. It’s rational to act in a way that can be rationally calculated to offer the highest expected value for the desire-fulfilment function, but rationality alone is insufficient to dictate which desires are to be included in the desire-fulfilment function.

  • J-D

    This analysis can only be meaningful to the extent that the concept of ‘self-interest’ has a definite meaning. But does it? For the purposes of this analysis, what constitutes ‘self-interest’? Is there any way it’s possible to distinguish between what’s in my self-interest and what isn’t? For example, which of the things on the following list are in my self-interest, and, critically, why? —

    the continuation of my own life
    experiencing physically pleasurable sensations
    attracting affection and friendly feelings from other human beings
    accumulating power over other human beings

    The analysis isn’t useful without answers to questions like that. Do we have any basis, for example, for saying that people who commit suicide are acting against their own self-interest? What basis could there be for saying that?

  • Verbose Stoic

    “Objective” benefit means, essentially, rational benefit, meaning that anyone can reason out what most benefits you and it can’t be something that you just declare based on what you think benefits you; whether or not an action benefits you is something that’s demonstrable and provable.

  • Verbose Stoic

    Yeah, I was just translating the principle to the context of the game, but the heart of what I was saying meets that: the first is “Support society if it benefits you to do so” while the second is “Support society whether it benefits you or not”.

  • This would be funnier if we weren’t in the middle of a really worrying drought. It’s a slow-motion state-wide ecological disaster, and if it doesn’t rain this winter either the economic consequences are going to be pretty bad too.

  • J-D

    Is it? How? How would you (or anybody) demonstrate that something benefits me (or you, or anybody)? Can you give even one example of a demonstration that something objectively benefits somebody?

  • Verbose Stoic

    Really? You can’t possibly think of how we can objectively and rationally determine that an action would benefit someone as opposed to being to their detriment?

    In general, being alive is to someone’s benefit. In general, not being in pain is to their benefit. In general, being able to achieve their rational desires is to their benefit. In all of these cases, you can find exceptions, but all of those exceptions are justified by an appeal to reasons, reasons that can be rationally assessed and therefore objectively demonstrated. What more are you looking for? And how bad must your skills at practical reason be if you seem puzzled that practical reason can even exist?

  • Verbose Stoic

    Regardless of her insistence, she wrote a novel, a novel that has stylistic concerns and that has to try to express the views in a way that people can understand, and thus in an exaggerated sense. So I don’t really feel bound to take it completely literally any more than I feel compelled to take Chalmers’ zombie or the Chinese Room completely literally. Things that characters say certainly have to be taken seriously, but events should be taken with a grain of salt, especially if they lead to stupid or contradictory results. The first rule of charitable interpretation is that no one will deliberately contradict themselves, and so to try to interpret their view in as consistent a way as possible.

    Rand was always insistent that the term “Objectivism” referred specifically to her ideas as she
    articulated and defended them. While others were free to disagree, they should call their ideas … something else, to avoid confusion with Rand’s ideas.

    And my answer to her in that case is: philosophy does not work that way. Platonism isn’t just what Plato said, but what people who came after did to refine his views and fix contradictions. Utilitarianism didn’t stop at Bentham, or even at Mill, or even at “Act Utilitarianism”. Stoicism has two veins: Greek and Roman, and even they didn’t stop there. What philosophy does is take a view, take the name the originator gave it, parse out the key details that differentiate it from anything else and make it distinct, and then call any philosophy that maintains those details by that name. While people rant that philosophy doesn’t advance, it clearly does in those cases; Rand does not get to declare her name sacrosanct. Even calling her view “Randian Objectivism” runs into issues when it has to deal with new objections and new situations; philosophy has to be able to figure out what the view WOULD say in those cases when she can’t, and that means trying to get at the heart of the view and applying it.

    So she can roll over in her grave all she wants. If she wanted to do philosophy, she had to expect that.

    Here’s what I think is key to Objectivism (although I’m not an expert):

    – Objectivism is an Egoistic philosophy.

    – Objectivism is an Ethically Egoistic philosophy; it declares that what is morally right just is what most benefits the individual (Hobbes, in my view, is not an Ethical Egoist but is a Psychological Egoist; he doesn’t think that what is moral is what benefits us, but that we are incapable of acting in a manner that doesn’t benefit us)

    – Objectivism holds Enlightened Egoism, the idea that we have to calculate our self-interest rationally and not just on brute or animal desires, which includes long-term thinking and all sorts of other considerations, most of which have been teased out in various forms when thinking about practical reason, both in philosophy and in psychology (ie Game Theory).

    Off the top of my head, I can’t think of any other defining principle of Objectivism. Everything else — the dedication to capitalism, the fear of government intervention, the idea that rational people can have no substantive disagreements — are all CONSEQUENCES of these principles, and thus can be argued against and changed WITHOUT refuting or undermining Objectivism itself. That’s my entire objection to the “Well, see, you’re actually better off with X” objections, because they don’t strike at Objectivism, but at the purported consequences of it, which philosophically we can see can be altered without changing the underlying philosophy.

    I notice you don’t question Rand’s premise that having government pay for healthcare amounts to enslavement of doctors. Does it?

    I live in a country with universal healthcare, so that’s not an argument that I tend towards. I was indeed just talking about her view there; that if it WAS enslavement, or felt to be so, then it would be an issue. As a Stoic, as long as they are compensated reasonably for their work — and they generally are — then they shouldn’t be concerning themselves that much with an indifferent to consider that slavery.

    Thanks for outlining your view. I think it would be a bit off topic to go into it here, but it’s interesting to know what moral viewpoint the people you’re discussing things with are using.

  • Verbose Stoic

    Hey, that’s the essay of hers that I actually did read [grin].

    The issue here is that she is, indeed, basing all of this on self-interest, which was my main point. Her only notion of “good” — which she goes on and on and on about in that essay (I looked it up this morning) — is self-interest, starting from life, through sensations and pleasure. What differentiates men from animals is reason, and that’s what they need for ethics and why they need ethics at all. She argues that criminals and dictators are acting like animals, and that’s why they’re wrong, because men CAN’T survive like animals. This maps quite well to Hobbes’ Egoism, where he argues that we escape the state of nature and the brutal life because we can’t live well in one. What, then, to her is the difference?

    Man cannot survive, like an animal, by acting on the range of the moment. … MAN’s life is a continuous whole: for good or evil, every day, year and decade of his life holds the sum of all the days behind him. …If he is to succeed at the task of survival, if his actions are not to be aimed at is own destruction, man has to choose his course, his goals, his values in the context and terms of a lifetime. No sensations, percepts urges or “instincts” can do it; only a mind can.

    So you have to consider what this would mean to you over the full span of your lifetime, which is where the criminal and the dictator fail; they consider that it would benefit them in the moment, but ignore the consequences to themselves overall across their lives, which can obviously include the Game Theory models that you can destroy co-operation and so end up worse off. Now, while my introducing the “if the bank robber can get away with it” was confusing, it is a consequence of this or ANY Egoistic philosophy: there are cases where I could be ethically bound to rob a bank if it really did benefit me more than not doing so, which implies in all cases the belief that I won’t get caught and don’t have to worry about the consequences — ie increased security in banks, decreased confidence in them, etc, etc. That’s effectively what “get away with it” means in these cases. But this is extremely rare, and as I said earlier the complaint about criminals and dictators is not that they are “evil”, but that they are “stupid”.

  • Verbose Stoic

    The whole point of Atlas Shrugged is that the society that has mostly looters and that drives out the Objectivists fails miserably, and that the society that has only Objectivists is wildly successful. Her view is that the individual should only consider their own self-interest, but that people doing that will indeed consider that co-operation at times is better than the alternative and so act that way and build a society that, as Adam pointed out, can even include some notion of “sacrifice”. Since my only point was that she thinks that you have a better society with Objectivists than with looters, I fail to see the issue here.

    Also note that I am completely puzzled about what that discussion of “learning about man by studying society” quote is supposed to say about my position; from my view, it seems completely irrelevant.

  • Verbose Stoic

    Where did I ever argue that she uses statistics? The society that the looters run fails miserably, while the society that the Objectivists run succeeds. To try to nitpick over my use of the word “most” is, well, nitpicking and actually contradicts how the world succeeded in the first place. The ideal is no looters, but that’s not going to happen any more than you’ll ever get a world with no cheaters.

    The fact that she once thought William Hickman was the greatest thing
    since sliced bread proved her values weren’t very clearcut.

    Actually, if you really read her comments on him — I looked them up a long time ago — she didn’t think he was great. She thought that he had the right attitude, but he bought into society’s warped — in her mind — view of selfishness as being a brute and, well, became a brute, which is what brought him down. If only the world was Objectivist, his natural understanding of self-interest would have served him well, and he wouldn’t have acted like a brute. So, indeed, fairly clear cut to me …

    I know Rand argued that a bank robber would be immoral if you designated
    him a brute. I don’t like brutes myself. But how is a brute different
    from Ragnar blowing up ships? Dagny threatening to kill anyone who
    gets in her way? Shooting a guard at the end? She tries to create very
    exact standards, but just gets too confused.

    This is a tension in her, although I think it can be solved, at least if you start from Hobbes, and the idea that we enter into these agreements because they are mutually beneficial. Thus, we follow the rules because it is better for us to follow the rules. But if the person we’re dealing with isn’t following the rules, then we’re no longer bound by them, and can respond outside of the rules. I think Rand is trying to demonstrate that the looters aren’t following the rules, and so that her “heroes” can then not follow the rules themselves.

    Note that the difference between Hobbes and Rand here is that Hobbes, in seeing this problem, introduced the sovereign to enforce the rules while Rand, being suspicious of such authority, insists that the people will work it out themselves. Hobbes’ reply would be that the “I’ll break the rules if you do” model as the underlying enforcement mechanism will simply run you right back into the state of nature, which is what we were all trying to avoid in the first place.

  • Doug Langley

    Oh, don’t get me started. You don’t want to see my closets crammed with boxes of old junk. At least Half Price Books gives me an incentive to lose old books.

  • Doug Langley

    Don’t feel bad, Josh. Even if you’ve studied the book thoroughly, you still feel like you’re missing something. Rand just didn’t think some things through.

  • Doug Langley

    “. . . Where did I ever argue that she uses statistics? . . .”

    You didn’t use the word “statistics”, but you described groups of Objectivists vs groups of looters and the effect of their relative numbers. That’s statistics.

    ” . . . To try to nitpick over my use of the word “most” . . .”

    I don’t see where I argued over the meaning of the word “most”. I just pointed out that Rand didn’t base her ethics on groups, or numbers, or ratios, or statistics.

    ” . . .Actually, if you really read her comments on him . . .”

    Alright, that’s enough. Take your condescending attitude and get off this thread. I most certainly did read her comments, quite thoroughly, and will not suffer any fool trying to inform me whether I did or not.

  • J-D

    How bad must your skills at practical reason be if you think that an assertion is the same thing as a demonstration?

    How would you _demonstrate_ to would-be suicides that their intentions are opposed to their self-interests?

    How would you _demonstrate_ to ascetic mystics, or to masochists, that being in pain is not to their benefit?

  • Verbose Stoic

    You didn’t use the word “statistics”, but you described groups of
    Objectivists vs groups of looters and the effect of their relative
    numbers. That’s statistics.

    Colloquially. I never, ever asserted in any way that she was indeed using statistical calculations, and did indeed, in that comment, show what my comment meant.

    I don’t see where I argued over the meaning of the word “most”.

    You said:

    The plot involves heroes being worn down by looters, but there’s no
    indication of how many looters would be OK. Even one looter is too
    many.

    Since I commented that a society with mostly looters was clearly dysfunctional and a society with mostly Objectivists was fine, the only point of disagreement here that justifies that statement is over how many, with you insisting that there can’t be any. Which I agreed with in theory but noted will never happen in practice, and so that comment would indeed be nitpicking over “most”.

    Alright, that’s enough. Take your condescending attitude and get off
    this thread. I most certainly did read her comments, quite thoroughly,
    and will not suffer any fool trying to inform me whether I did or not.

    I meant “read” as it would rhyme with “reed”, not “read” as it would rhyme with “red”. Thus, I was making an argument, not talking about what you precisely did. And I don’t think you really should be talking overmuch about a “condescending attitude” or telling someone to get out of this thread. If you think my argument wrong, show how it is wrong.

  • Verbose Stoic

    Um, you don’t seem to know what PRACTICAL reason is to make this statement. You seem to be trying to argue that I don’t know the difference between an assertion and a demonstration, which might be a point of logic/reason, but not practical reason (which is the ability to reason out what’s in your own self-interest).

    As for demonstrations:

    1) Again, in general, being alive is in one’s self-interest because you can’t do or experience anything if you aren’t alive. Thus, it is, in general, better to be alive than to not be alive. If the would-be suicide thinks otherwise, they’d have to do so based on reasons in order to be rational. And those reasons would then be evaluable rationally. In short, they’d have to demonstrate that they really would be better off dead than remain alive by giving reasons that are valid and lead to that conclusion logically. If they can, then we’d agree that committing suicide would be objectively in their own self-interest.

    2) Again, not being in pain is generally in one’s self-interest. If they think otherwise, they have to demonstrate it. For masochists, that it gives them more pleasure than pain would count. I’d have to know the details of the ascetic mystic, but my guess is that in those cases they accept the pain in order to achieve a greater end, like the masochist, or the person who undergoes surgery to save their life, or the person who runs a marathon, or any number of other exceptions where suffering the pain in the short-term leads to greater goals in the future. In those cases, again, the reasons hold logically and so accepting the pain is indeed in their own rational self-interest.

    These are standard to pretty much any discussion of practical reason … again, the study of how we determine what is in our own self-interest.

  • ThaneOfDrones
  • EchoChamberEscapee

    I don’t have a lot of time to continue this, but I will say that you left out a hell of a lot of stuff that Rand would define as essential to Objectivism. For instance, she believed that her ethics were grounded in her metaphysics and epistemology (and could not be defended properly without them). She would emphatically disagree with the suggestion that there could be any “other considerations” than long-term thinking involved in determining one’s self-interest. And she would be having conniptions at the suggestion that

    the dedication to capitalism, the fear of government intervention, the idea that rational people can have no substantive disagreements — are all CONSEQUENCES of these principles, and thus can be argued against and changed WITHOUT refuting or undermining Objectivism itself.

    Based on what you outlined, you seem to be saying that you regard the term “Objectivism” as synonymous with the genus “enlightened ethical egoism,” rather than as a species within that genus (which is how Adam and everyone else in these threads is using the term). As I said before, I think that trying to attach the “Objectivist” label to ideas completely opposed to Rand’s will just confuse your fellow commenters here and make productive discussion impossible.

  • Azkyroth

    Don’t worry, they slow down to five miles per hour in the absence of rain too.

  • Azkyroth

    To try to nitpick over my use of the word “most” is, well, nitpicking

    Kind of annoying, isn’t it? *makes some popcorn*

  • Verbose Stoic

    For instance, she believed that her ethics were grounded in her metaphysics and epistemology (and could not be defended properly without them).

    Again, philosophy does not work that way. I am not considering the entire system in considering what an Objectivist ethics would be, any more than I talk about the noumenal and the phenomenal in talking about the categorical imperative. It certainly matters, and if I was doing a full-on critique I’d consider it, but it’s certainly possible to look only at the ethics and not at the other parts even if the originator thinks they matter. Otherwise, you’d run into issues where they get, say, the view of epistemology wrong and you aren’t allowed to point out that the ethics still works even with the new view of epistemology.

    She would emphatically disagree with the suggestion that there could be any “other considerations” than long-term thinking involved in determining one’s self-interest.

    Except those other considerations are things like “Taking a short-term gain that’s greater than even the long-term gain in the future”, which can be arguably fit into long-term considerations, and “Give preference to your wants”, which she has to respect for the line of “If you want to give to charity, no one will stop you”. Whether we fit all of these into “long-term considerations” or not isn’t really relevant … and besides, she is indeed more about overall benefit across your entire life than simply “long-term considerations”. It’s just that you have to think long-term as well to maximize your self-interest over your entire life.

    Based on what you outlined, you seem to be saying that you regard the term “Objectivism” as synonymous with the genus “enlightened ethical egoism,” rather than as a species within that genus (which is how Adam and everyone else in these threads is using the term).

    I do think it synonymous, in general, with Enlightened Egoism because that’s what I think it is. There may be subgenuses in there as well, but if there are I will differentiate them. For example, Hobbes might fit into that view, but as I said he’s not an Ethical Egoist. The Game Theory views might not be Ethical Egoists either. To me, the heart of her ethical view IS the Enlightened Ethical Egoism, and that’s the basis of it, which she herself admits.

    Essentially, what I outlined above are the principles that Objectivists can never reject. There may be others than I am not aware of, but even in what I’ve read she can’t say that capitalism is one of those principles; if a socialist system really did maximize self-interest, she’d argue that the ethical thing to do is to do that. Thus, her basic moral system is always based on the basic principle of rational self-interest and her idea of selfishness. The reason that I bring this up is to indeed clarify the position and to point out what I feel is the real problem with Objectivism: that it defines what is moral on the basis of the individual’s personal self-interest, and to show that concluding that certain things that Rand disliked really contradict her view do no such thing, as we should expect Rand, when convinced of that, to change her view.

    Now, if there are other principles that I’m missing, feel free to point them out. It might be reasonable, for example, to argue that libertarians — as a political philosophy — must reject government involvement as much as possible since that is a defining principle of their political philosophy. I don’t think that’s the case for Objectivism, which is why I say what I say. And all of that is debatable, and I’m not generally unclear about what I think that foundation is, and have much evidence that the foundation IS what I think it is.

  • Al Petterson

    I do have to say – driving is different in different places. Los Angelinos may be the best freeway drivers in the world; the herd behavior on freeways there is an intricate dance that works really well, actually. But send an Angelino into the mountains for vacations, and it becomes really obvious that they Do. Not. Know. What. They. Are. Doing.

  • Al Petterson

    If you take the materially out of the consideration, you’re stating a view that Rand would consider altruistic – and unacceptably so – not selfish

    (nod) That’s what I thought. I figured it was important to add the qualifier, and that it would make the discussion fruitful. I think it did; I think what you say is a crucial insight.

    The thread’s getting a little dated now; doubtless we’ll spar in future AS discussions here. A pleasure talking to you – this helps me learn more about the philosophy.

  • Al Petterson

    she feels that society conditions us into wanting [to help others], AGAINST considering our own self-interest, which is bad in and of itself.

    I think there’s a lot more excluded-middle discussion to be had about that position. I think I understand you, a bit, that the whole idea of non-material benefit – other than the specific emotion of satisfaction in one’s work – is one Rand seems to view with deep suspicion.

    Separate from the excluded-middle discussion, I do agree that society conditions us. I don’t know (and, not being an expert, I can’t venture an informed opinion) whether the difference between empathy (acting with regard for the welfare of others) and sociopathy (acting without regard for the welfare of others) is at all inherent or solely a learned behavior, but it’s certainly the case that all rational individuals who live in society prefer the company of empathic individuals to the company of sociopaths (leaving aside the question of whether a rational individual ought to choose to be a sociopath, as Rand seems to advocate), so it makes sense we would be conditioned to be empathic.

    Again, it’s a fruitful discussion and I’d like to continue it, though we’ve made this thread long enough that Disqus is starting to balk at displaying it coherently; we should talk about this further in future AS daylightatheism posts, if you’re willing (and our host doesn’t find it tiresome).

  • EchoChamberEscapee

    The reason that I bring this up is to indeed clarify the position and to point out what I feel is the real problem with Objectivism: that it defines what is moral on the basis of the individual’s personal self-interest, and to show that concluding that certain things that Rand disliked really contradict her view do no such thing, as we should expect Rand, when convinced of that, to change her view.

    To begin at the end, with the benefit(?) of roughly 20 years of reading and studying Rand, I would not expect her ever to be convinced of anything or to change her view, especially on whether a socialist system could maximize self-interest. Yes, I would expect a rational person to change their mind based on evidence and reason, but Rand is more like a creationist; there is no amount of evidence or data and no chain of reasoning that would ever get her to budge on her opposition to socialism. Despite all her efforts to cloak herself in “reason” and “logic” and “reality,” Rand was more of a dogmatist than a thinker; she avoided realizing this about herself by being an expert rationalizer. As a result, Objectivism (i.e., Rand’s philosophical system) is a lot more like a religion than an actual philosophy. As David Ramsay Steele put it, “Objectivist doctrine is bluff, buttressed by abuse of all critics.”

    As to your central point, about the real problem with Objectivism being “that it defines what is moral on the basis of the individual’s personal self-interest,” I would agree that this is problematic, not just for Rand but for ethical egoism more generally.

  • uykhvasdrvtjyku

    I don’t find it too implausible that a government would seek to protect a powerful, incumbent industry at the expense of a newer, potentially disruptive industry. But such behavior is typically the result of corruption or influence peddling, not because people think it’s a good idea. (And the idea that a railroad baron would be the victim instead of the recipient of favoritism is ahistorical, to put it mildly.)

    This is a persistent problem with the novel. The looters are always making rules that are stupid and have little or no plausible public benefit. In some cases, it turns out that they’re corrupt and just serving their own interests, so at least it makes sense. But in other cases, they’re apparently doing it out of a misguided belief that it’s good for the public. Rand tries to have it both ways, basically casting belief in the public good as the same thing as corruption. Of course that’s silly. If they really cared about the public, they wouldn’t do half the things they do, and if they’re just corrupt, then the actual problem is good old-fashioned greed, the opposite of what Rand wants you to believe.

  • uykhvasdrvtjyku

    Something else that just occurred to me: River traffic on the Mississippi goes north/south. The railroads, by trying to bridge the river, are going east/west. There’s not much reason for the former to fear the latter. If anything, they’re complementary. But our looter villains are stupid and do things that make no sense just because.

  • Verbose Stoic

    Just a few final thoughts here, then …

    I think there’s a lot more excluded-middle discussion to be had about that position. I think I understand you, a bit, that the whole idea of non-material benefit – other than the specific emotion of satisfaction in one’s work – is one Rand seems to view with deep suspicion.

    I see her as more being suspicious of the non-material benefits as being defined as being better than the material ones a priori, and it also does run into a problem with her view that capitalism sets the value of production, which it does through material benefits. I don’t think she distrusts them in and of themselves.

    Separate from the excluded-middle discussion, I do agree that society conditions us. I don’t know (and, not being an expert, I can’t venture an informed opinion) whether the difference between empathy (acting with regard for the welfare of others) and sociopathy (acting without regard for the welfare of others) is at all inherent or solely a learned behavior …

    The answer to “nature vs nurture” is always “Both”, but we know that autistics have problems with empathy — ie telling what others are feeling — but are generally not sociopaths, while psychopaths certainly seem able to figure out what others are feeling but simply don’t care beyond their own interest. So if that’s true then empathy can indeed be learned.

  • Verbose Stoic

    So one final “Philosophy does not work that way”: whether Rand was a dogmatist or not, that doesn’t mean that Objectivism, as a philosophy, must or ought be treated that way. The same thing can be said for Marxism, but philosophy can take the underlying philosophy and evaluate it non-dogmatically no matter how dogmatic even the founders were about it.

    You will not refute either Objectivism or libertarianism as a philosophy and therefore as the philosophical system we should follow by pointing out that the founder was dogmatic and treating the view as inherently dogmatic or like a religion.

  • josh

    “I don’t find it too implausible that a government would seek to protect a
    powerful, incumbent industry at the expense of a newer, potentially
    disruptive industry.”

    Yeah, that basic idea can happen of course, it’s just that it has limits and they come well before ‘Let’s not have any bridges because of the powerful ferry-boat lobby’. I think you make a good point about Rand wanting it both ways. Her villains are greedy when that is needed to make them do villainous things, and stupid when needed, and committed to (villainous) principals when needed. They aren’t actually characters with realistic motivations, they are just vehicles to make bad things happen. Which leaves us wondering ‘Wait, how could that have happened in the real world?’

  • PremiumOsmium

    Another question that occurred to me is the question of geography. The Mighty Mississippi has several large tributaries, such as the Missouri, Ohio, Illinois, and Kentucky rivers. Those tributaries are also covered in bridges along their lengths. Have all those other bridges collapsed as well? And where, exactly, is “Taggart’s Bridge?”