Monday, May 11, 2009

The Argument from Self-Interest.

Lately, I've noticed that each time I have a discussion with someone with no idea about Objectivism, I center most of my arguments around the "non initiation of force principle". For instance, if the issue in question is about taxation or anti-trust laws then argument boils down to this: "If you were deserted on an island with ten other people and suppose X proves to efficacious and successful amongst the people you live and Y proves to be the worst at survival. At what point, would you advocate appropriating X's wealth forcefully and giving it to Y even when X disapproves of it? If you think that such an act is morally condemnable, what makes you think it would be right to do it here, in a civilized [?] society? Simply because it makes sacrifices easier given the prosperity and sheer number of people, it wouldn't make it right!" In other words, the relationship of a man with reality and other men remains the same -- in a desert island or in a society. Science, for instance, is still advanced by observation and primacy of existence viewpoint, not by consensus or whatnot. One should grant principles the same status.

However, this video by Yaron Brook completely changed the way I will handle such discusions from now on. Apparently, starting with non-initiation of force principle is the libertarian argument. Dr. Brook correctly points out that this line of argumentation misses the point.

If it is generally accepted that one has the duty to live for others, then there it is completely consistent for the government to tax away a rich persons money to give it to a poorer person. If the rich man has a duty to live for others, then why the heck not? This is the essence of altruism, and why Ayn Rand went such distances to oppose it. If one accepts altruism, it entails a long list of implications.

Here's what Ayn Rand said about altruism:

What is the moral code of altruism? The basic principle of altruism is that man has no right to exist for his own sake, that service to others is the only justification of his existence, and that self-sacrifice is his highest moral duty, virtue and value.

Do not confuse altruism with kindness, good will or respect for the rights of others. These are not primaries, but consequences, which, in fact, altruism makes impossible. The irreducible primary of altruism, the basic absolute, is self-sacrifice—which means; self-immolation, self-abnegation, self-denial, self-destruction—which means: the self as a standard of evil, the selfless as a standard of the good.

Do not hide behind such superficialities as whether you should or should not give a dime to a beggar. That is not the issue. The issue is whether you do or do not have the right to exist without giving him that dime. The issue is whether you must keep buying your life, dime by dime, from any beggar who might choose to approach you. The issue is whether the need of others is the first mortgage on your life and the moral purpose of your existence. The issue is whether man is to be regarded as a sacrificial animal. Any man of self-esteem will answer: “No.” Altruism says: “Yes.”

I think this should be the essence of an argument any Objectivist takes on with a new comer. Can I live my life anyway i choose only by upholding my highest judgement or do i justify my existence on the basis of service to other people? The challenge is firstly to understand the thory of altruism and then explain it as best as possible giving examples along the way. Craig Biddle, the editor of The Objectivist Standard, nails it by exposing the true nature of altruism when he said the following in his talk, "Atlas Shrugged and Ayn Rand's Morality of Egosim":

"Altruism does not call merely for “serving others”; it calls for self-sacrificially serving others. Otherwise, Michael Dell would have to be considered more altruistic than Mother Teresa. Why? Because Michael Dell serves millions more people than Mother Teresa ever did.

There is a difference, of course, in the way he serves people. Whereas Mother Teresa “served” people by exchanging her time and effort for nothing, Michael Dell serves people by trading with them—by exchanging value for value to mutual advantage—an exchange in which both sides gain."

It is crucial to understand this issue and nail it down whether one is talking about the current economic crisis or individual rights or any other position due the fundamental nature of the issue of self-interest and altruism. If one is ethically bound to live for other people then what can be immoral about redistributing the money of the citizens by the government? Any political argument presupposes that one can and should properly live for oneself and it is this that one must understand and explain. Starting with the non-initiation of force principle will not comprehensively win the argument because it bases the whole argument on politics instead of ethics and all the fundamentals that underlie it. I think the conversation will end up being a lot more smoother and clearer if one justified from the perspective of ethics of sefishness instead of politics of non-initiation of force.

Thank you, Dr. Brook!

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