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Objectivism and empathy

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Gary Robinson
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By way of introduction, I read a number of Ayn Rand's fiction and nonfiction books some years ago. Saw the movie, last night, enjoyed it very much, and have started rereading Atlas Shrugged.

I think she got a lot of things right, but I wonder about empathy (which I hold as quite different from altruism).

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"You don't really care about helping the underprivileged, do you?" Philip asked--and Rearden heard, unable to believe it, that the tone of his voice was reproachful.

"No, Phil, I don't care about it at all. I only wanted you to be happy."

"But that money is not for me. I am not collecting it for any personal motive. I have no selfish interest in the matter at all." His voice was cold, with a note of self-conscious virtue.

===========

Now, as I read the above quote, Philip is a bit pathetic. He seems to feel that he needs to suffer to help others. He gets no joy in it. I can see part of why an Objectivist would have no respect for Philip.

On the other hand, I can't relate to Rearden not caring whatsoever about "the underprivileged." Let's take a very concrete example. Millions of people die every year from malaria. It's not a pleasant death. Moreover, the vast majority of them are suffering for no fault of their own but happening to have been born in a particular time and place where there is a lot of susceptibility to the disease. Someone like Rearden (or Bill Gates) is in a position to help -- perhaps a solution can be found: a cure, or eradicating mosquitoes, or a vaccine, or whatever. Maybe there's no solution, but it seems much more likely that there is one, given enough research. That costs money.

I can understand the idea that Rearden shouldn't be guilt-tripped into contributing to the solution. On the other hand, I can't relate to him not caring at ALL about the unnecessary suffering. I can't relate to him being in his position and not being interested in taking joy in helping solve the problem. I think Bill Gates has it exactly right -- he was fairly ruthless as a businessman, did extremely well for himself, but now feels more joy in helping out than in not doing so.

I think this is why Objectivism has such a bad name with so many people. It seems, to them, to be a synonym of psychopathy. Of course, in reality an Objectivist doesn't take pleasure in causing needless suffering, so that's a major distinguishing point. :) On the other hand, the technical definition of psychopathy stresses the total lack of empathy, ultimately, according to recent research with MRI's, based on physical brain differences -- the part of the brain responsible for empathy just isn't lit up.

Rand seems to like the idea of that part of the brain simply not being there from birth. She said of Roark, "He was born without the ability to consider others."

And in the last few days, I've read some of her notes praising William Hickman, saying he had a "genuinely beautiful soul." Hickman had kidnapped and dismembered a 12-year-old girl, and said he thought she was awake when the dismembering occurred.

Having read several books on psychopathy, and having regularly discussed psychopathy with my sister who is a psychologist who works professionally with diagnosed psychopaths, in my personal judgment Hickman was a classic psychopath.

Now, I'm pretty sure that Rand didn't generally think highly of people who go around torturing 12-year-old girls. Those were her private notes, so I expect she wasn't taking a lot of care to be sure she wouldn't be misinterpreted. On the other hand, it all makes me wonder. She really doesn't seem to think other people's underserved suffering is something to be interested in or concerned about.

If I understand her ideas correctly (which I certainly may not), she approved of helping someone if the helper honestly felt joy in doing so. On the other hand, if somebody had many billions of dollars, and could help many people suffering terribly, who simply happened to have been born in the wrong time and place, and he didn't feel like doing so, it doesn't seem like Rand would have any problem with that person at all. To the extent this unconcern was due to being "born without the ability to consider others," it appears that she would think it was commendable. And my take on it is that she would think it was morally wrong for him to be guilt-tripped about his indifference.

I personally feel that one person's unpleasant experience of guilt is a less important matter than a large number of people suffering horribly and dying unnecessarily. As I read Rand, she wouldn't agree with me on that.

Getting back to Philip, I think he is pathetic because he takes no joy in helping, and does it only because he doesn't feel like he has right to live except by virtue of helping others. But, other than that, I don't think he would be wrong in trying to convince Rearden that his total lack of concern for "the underpriviliged" might not really reflect the highest good.

I'd be very interested in any reflections anyone in this forum might care to share regarding the thoughts above.

Gary

Edited by Gary Robinson
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<snip>

I think she got a lot of things right, but I wonder about empathy (which I hold as quite different from altruism).

===========

<snip>

On the other hand, I can't relate to Rearden not caring whatsoever about "the underprivileged." Let's take a very concrete example. Millions of people die every year from malaria. It's not a pleasant death. Moreover, the vast majority of them are suffering for no fault of their own but happening to have been born in a particular time and place where there is a lot of susceptibility to the disease. Someone like Rearden (or Bill Gates) is in a position to help -- perhaps a solution can be found: a cure, or eradicating mosquitoes, or a vaccine, or whatever. Maybe there's no solution, but it seems much more likely that there is one, given enough research. That costs money.

<snip>

I think this is why Objectivism has such a bad name with so many people. It seems, to them, to be a synonym of psychopathy. Of course, in reality an Objectivist doesn't take pleasure in causing needless suffering, so that's a major distinguishing point. :) On the other hand, the technical definition of psychopathy stresses the total lack of empathy, ultimately, according to recent research with MRI's, based on physical brain differences -- the part of the brain responsible for empathy just isn't lit up.

<snip>

empathy: : the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner; also : the capacity for this.

Egoism is the ethical base of Objectivism. As such, it is based on what each individual chooses as a value for themselves, why they choose to value it, and to delegate the effort to achieve it. Every individual must do this for themself.

The application of reason to the problem of survival results in production. DDT nearly eliminated malaria on the planet. When individuals choose something other than reason to guide their activities, causality dictates the results. Can the basis for the banning of DDT be fully and objectively validated?

Capitalism is the system of abundance. Do those who use poverty to generate tears for their support advocate capitalism or socialism as their proposed solution?

Empathy is something that is earned. The price is friendship and loved ones.

For the rest of the world out there, the price of reducing needless suffering is simple. Think.

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Egoism is the ethical base of Objectivism. As such, it is based on what each individual chooses as a value for themselves, why they choose to value it, and to delegate the effort to achieve it. Every individual must do this for themself.

The application of reason to the problem of survival results in production. DDT nearly eliminated malaria on the planet. When individuals choose something other than reason to guide their activities, causality dictates the results. Can the basis for the banning of DDT be fully and objectively validated?

Capitalism is the system of abundance. Do those who use poverty to generate tears for their support advocate capitalism or socialism as their proposed solution?

Empathy is something that is earned. The price is friendship and loved ones.

For the rest of the world out there, the price of reducing needless suffering is simple. Think.

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Millions of people die every year from malaria. It's not a pleasant death. Moreover, the vast majority of them are suffering for no fault of their own but happening to have been born in a particular time and place where there is a lot of susceptibility to the disease. Someone like Rearden (or Bill Gates) is in a position to help -- perhaps a solution can be found: a cure, or eradicating mosquitoes, or a vaccine, or whatever. Maybe there's no solution, but it seems much more likely that there is one, given enough research. That costs money.

It's a bit ironic that you chose malaria as an example where increased empathy and concern would help. As dream weaver mentioned, DDT completely eradicated malaria everywhere it was used. It was made illegal for perceived and inaccurate environmental reasons and now for the past 40 years nearly a million people(mostly children) die every year as a result of their well meaning concern.

I realize, of course, that this particular example is not critical to your inquiry, but it does serve well to warn of the immense damage that can be caused by well meaning heroes with such an empathetic world view.

Empathy is a strong and powerfully motivating emotion-so powerful in fact that it, in my opinion, more often than not causes people to act unthoughtfully. Even something as seemingly benevolent as food aid to a famine stricken country has a large context that can quite easily eliminate much or usually all of the benefit. Outside of the obvious use of the aid by a petty dictator to starve and control elements of the population, it has the long term effect of artificially increasing the size of the population far past the point that an agrarian civilization lacking in appropriate levels of technology and education could ever realistically maintain itself autonomously.

The same difficulty accurately scales to individual behavior. Enabling a loved one engaged in an unhealthy habit or behavior, whether it's bailing out a gambler or overreacting to a 4 year old's separation anxiety, almost always ends in far more harm than even completely ignoring the problem would ever have caused.

I think Rand's interest in Hickman had less to do with his psychopathy and more to do with the sociopathic elements of his personality. The ability to override the powerful inclination to help someone because your focused mind acknowledges the long term harm that would ensue, is nothing less than a heroic act. You can see this element in play in a great number of places, but one that leaps to mind for me is Francisco's desire to save Rearden from his investments in his hollowed out copper enterprise. Or even in Dagny's primary struggle to save the world through her efforts when she leaves the valley.

Sociopaths and psychopaths override their empathy naturally but they probably served to help her delineate the behavior required of her heroes to be truly good and just empathetic.

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I personally feel that one person's unpleasant experience of guilt is a less important matter than a large number of people suffering horribly and dying unnecessarily. As I read Rand, she wouldn't agree with me on that.

The "born without the ability to consider others" line sounds like something that would have been something from Rand's journals that you didn't read the context of, exactly how you didn't read the context of the Hickman related quote you mentioned. I mean, it was probably just to get her mind directly on a first-handed thinker, seemingly without the ability to consider others because of how selfish he is. In The Fountainhead, Roark indeed did consider others that were of value to him. He certainly felt empathy about Dominique, but not about Peter Keating. As you see, even in the example you gave, it does not make sense to suggest that Rand thought it as being commendable to ignore all people in all circumstances. What is advocated by Objectivism is careful judgment of people and context in order to determine who is valuable to you. More than likely, empathy is the result of these judgments.

Empathy is an emotion, not a method of thought. The only issue here is what you feel empathy about and how you proceed to act.

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Others have provided excellent replies, but I would this for your consideration. Think about the term "underprivileged"? What does that mean? "Unnecessary suffering". What suffering is necessary? Who is responsible for the suffering to begin with?

I personally feel that one person's unpleasant experience of guilt is a less important matter than a large number of people suffering horribly and dying unnecessarily.

Could you provide some concrete example of what you mean by this? Can you answer how much of a man (or any part of him) should be martyred for the needs of those many?

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...the technical definition of psychopathy stresses the total lack of empathy, ultimately, according to recent research with MRI's, based on physical brain differences -- the part of the brain responsible for empathy just isn't lit up.

Rand seems to like the idea of that part of the brain simply not being there from birth. She said of Roark, "He was born without the ability to consider others."

And in the last few days, I've read some of her notes praising William Hickman, saying he had a "genuinely beautiful soul." Hickman had kidnapped and dismembered a 12-year-old girl, and said he thought she was awake when the dismembering occurred.

First of all, you have bought into a misinterpretation of what Rand meant by the lack of an ability to consider others. In short, Roark is unable to consider the judgments of others, not the welfare of others. A major theme of the book is second-handedness, which essentially means living one's life according to the opinions and judgments of others. Keating, the ultimate incarnation of this phenomenon, makes all his decisions based on currying the favor of others or fulfilling their expectations, and finds that his life is empty and meaningless, because it is fundamentally selfless. Roark, on the other hand, is the antithesis of this, because he doesn't have "the ability to consider others," meaning he is unable to consider the judgments or opinions of others in living his life. Magazine reviews of his buildings have absolutely no impact on his opinion of his own work; he is completely secure in his own decisions. It is in this way that he is unable to consider others. It is demonstrably false that he is unable to consider the welfare of others, as shown by any number of actions that he takes (involving the woman he loves in his detonation of Cortlandt for the sake of saving the night watchman, for example). In every one of Rand's admirable characters, we see instances of benevolence and concern for the welfare of others; this is a result of their moral egoism. By contrast, the villains who practice altruism explicitly find that as a result they do not care for the welfare of others.

Also, for the Hickman thing, if you carefully read that journal entry, you can see that she never refers to the adult, psychopathic Hickman as a "beautiful soul;" rather, she calls him a "degenerate" and a "monster." What's happening in that journal entry is that she is fantasizing a possible backstory for Hickman (as part of thinking about a short story) where a young Hickman comes into the world as a proud, independent, individualistic person who encounters a society completely inimical to these characteristics. This kind of society plays a major role in his becoming a monster, in her theoretical history. Look carefully; all positive references to Hickman are actually to this hypothetical young Hickman, pre-psychopath. References to the actual adult serial-killer Hickman are strongly negative.

If I understand her ideas correctly (which I certainly may not), she approved of helping someone if the helper honestly felt joy in doing so. On the other hand, if somebody had many billions of dollars, and could help many people suffering terribly, who simply happened to have been born in the wrong time and place, and he didn't feel like doing so, it doesn't seem like Rand would have any problem with that person at all. To the extent this unconcern was due to being "born without the ability to consider others," it appears that she would think it was commendable. And my take on it is that she would think it was morally wrong for him to be guilt-tripped about his indifference.

She would not commend an attitude of complete indifference towards the welfare of others, but she would certainly commend someone who defended the view that they can be a moral person without giving to charity. Giving to charity is a matter of personal values, and people can vary a great deal in those. Every time she addresses the subject of charity, you can see that her primary concern is not judging the act of charity itself but emphasizing that it is not the core of morality, that it is a matter of personal values, which must be laid upon a solid foundation of egoism.

I personally feel that one person's unpleasant experience of guilt is a less important matter than a large number of people suffering horribly and dying unnecessarily. As I read Rand, she wouldn't agree with me on that.

She was concerned with this issue of guilt as a symptom of the altruist ethics which pervades our modern world. It is this same altruistic ethics which acts to mire major regions of the world in poverty. The solution to poverty and suffering is not charity, but egoism, production, capitalism. The rich man's guilt for not helping others and poverty and suffering are not opposing concerns, but symptoms of the same phenomenon.

Edited by Dante
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It's a bit ironic that you chose malaria as an example where increased empathy and concern would help. As dream weaver mentioned, DDT completely eradicated malaria everywhere it was used. It was made illegal for perceived and inaccurate environmental reasons and now for the past 40 years nearly a million people(mostly children) die every year as a result of their well meaning concern.

I realize, of course, that this particular example is not critical to your inquiry, but it does serve well to warn of the immense damage that can be caused by well meaning heroes with such an empathetic world view.

Empathy is a strong and powerfully motivating emotion-so powerful in fact that it, in my opinion, more often than not causes people to act unthoughtfully. Even something as seemingly benevolent as food aid to a famine stricken country has a large context that can quite easily eliminate much or usually all of the benefit. Outside of the obvious use of the aid by a petty dictator to starve and control elements of the population, it has the long term effect of artificially increasing the size of the population far past the point that an agrarian civilization lacking in appropriate levels of technology and education could ever realistically maintain itself autonomously.

The same difficulty accurately scales to individual behavior. Enabling a loved one engaged in an unhealthy habit or behavior, whether it's bailing out a gambler or overreacting to a 4 year old's separation anxiety, almost always ends in far more harm than even completely ignoring the problem would ever have caused.

I agree with your points above.

On the other hand, without empathy there doesn't appear to be any reason to attempt to do anything about those problems, in which case the question of acting thoughtfully vs. unthoughtfully does not seem like it will be an issue.

Sociopaths and psychopaths override their empathy naturally but they probably served to help her delineate the behavior required of her heroes to be truly good and just empathetic.

It's not that they override it, they don't have it to start with -- at least in a number of cases that have beens studied, the relevant physical parts of their brains just don't have much activity in them. That sounds exactly like how Rand describes Roark when she says "He was born without the ability to consider others." Though, as we noted earlier in this thread, Roark doesn't need to make people suffer to get his jollies, so there's a difference there. But I'm not sure a Roark can really exist. It may be that the brain is naturally configured such that if you're really born without the ability to consider others -- and some are in fact born that way -- you're going to be a psychopath, not a Roark.

I think Rand's interest in Hickman had less to do with his psychopathy and more to do with the sociopathic elements of his personality. The ability to override the powerful inclination to help someone because your focused mind acknowledges the long term harm that would ensue, is nothing less than a heroic act.

Please don't take what I'm about to say as unconsciously obeying Godwin's law. And also please don't interpret it as my being negative or attacking. I'm only trying to understand the points of view you and others here hold. I personally am attracted to Rand's ideas in many ways, but I have problems with certain aspects and I am investigating.

People with no affinity for Ayn Rand or Objectivism often say that it sounds like Nazism to them. I think one reason why is exactly what you're saying above. Members of the SS were not all psychopaths. Many of them felt for their victims as they shot them and bulldozed them into mass graves, and they overrode those feelings because of what they believed to be the long-term good of their people. It was very difficult for many of them, but they did it anyway. Were they heroes? They were told that they were, for doing what was so difficult for them to do.

If one is going to overcome one's empathy for the sake of a concept, one had better be very sure that that concept is really for the long-term good (and hopefully, not just for one's own tribe). And I don't think anybody can really know that for sure, because nobody is without any risk of making a logical error. It seems a safer to have some healthy respect for one's feelings of empathy.

But getting back to the original point -- as I read Rand, people like Rearden or Roark simply don't care about suffering non-acquaintences in the first place, so they don't even have to overcome empathy.

If anyone here cares to give me an answer, I'd really like to know: Do you really believe that, if Rearden was in a situation where he could save others from immense needless suffering, but didn't, and told you it was because "I don't care about it at all" (as Rand has him say), would he really be completely virtuous in your world-view?

Or is that that only by lessez-faire capitalism can anyone really be helped, so, ONLY by acting in one's own self-interest can any real good possibly come for others?

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If one is going to overcome one's empathy for the sake of a concept, one had better be very sure that that concept is really for the long-term good (and hopefully, not just for one's own tribe). And I don't think anybody can really know that for sure, because nobody is without any risk of making a logical error. It seems a safer to have some healthy respect for one's feelings of empathy.

It's not about overcoming empathy, but about recognizing which actions will actually serve to achieve the goal of helping others and fulfilling one's empathetic desires. Oftentimes the actions which seem obvious to take to help someone are not genuinely helpful; the challenge is not to crush one's desire to help them, but to conceptually identify what will actually help them and what will not, and to act through on that judgment. For instance, when Francisco decides to allow Rearden to buy copper from his company, we can see his struggle to tell Rearden that he should not (because there actually is no copper in the San Sebastian minds). That struggle occurs because he wants to spare Rearden the pain of taking major losses for his company, but Francisco is able to keep in mind the fact that ultimately, helping Rearden means letting Rearden's company collapse. He doesn't crush his empathy, he simply channels it into the correct actions.

But getting back to the original point -- as I read Rand, people like Rearden or Roark simply don't care about suffering non-acquaintences in the first place, so they don't even have to overcome empathy.

This is the part that you're reading wrong; see my post above.

If anyone here cares to give me an answer, I'd really like to know: Do you really believe that, if Rearden was in a situation where he could save others from immense needless suffering, but didn't, and told you it was because "I don't care about it at all" (as Rand has him say), would he really be completely virtuous in your world-view?

Or is that that only by lessez-faire capitalism can anyone really be helped, so, ONLY by acting in one's own self-interest can any real good possibly come for others?

In this hypothetical, where he has a sure way to genuinely help others with no cost to himself, he would not be virtuous if he did not take it (either he doesn't have the right attitude towards others, vis a vis the harmony of rational interests, or he is failing to act on his values, vis a vis integrity). However, your second paragraph more accurately reflects reality, although I certainly wouldn't argue that every single instance of helping others that's not done through promoting a free society is doomed to fail. That's overgeneralizing a bit, but the fundamental point is that charity is not a proper way to support another's life over the long term; charity should primarily be about helping people who are in some sort of extraordinary or emergency situation, who will be able to support themselves if they are helped out of their immediate emergency situation. A sort of "helping others help themselves" applied consistently.

Edited by Dante
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First of all, you have bought into a misinterpretation of what Rand meant by the lack of an ability to consider others. In short, Roark is unable to consider the judgments of others, not the welfare of others. A major theme of the book is second-handedness, which essentially means living one's life according to the opinions and judgments of others. Keating, the ultimate incarnation of this phenomenon, makes all his decisions based on currying the favor of others or fulfilling their expectations, and finds that his life is empty and meaningless, because it is fundamentally selfless. Roark, on the other hand, is the antithesis of this, because he doesn't have "the ability to consider others," meaning he is unable to consider the judgments or opinions of others in living his life.

Maybe it's just because I read The Fountainhead so long ago that I'm not remembering it correctly. But I'm reading Atlas Shrugged now, and Reardon does say of the issue of "the underprivileged", "I don't care about it at all."

I do completely recall and understand the issue of Keating's second-handedness. Actually one of my favorite book lines of all time was when Roark is dealing with a woman who had a number of second-hand opinions of how her house should be designed, and couldn't hear Roark at all, and Roark realized "There was no such person as Mrs. Wayne Wilmont." That's how I recall the sentence about 25 or 30 years after reading it; I wonder how close I am to remembering the the woman's name. I have occasionally felt similarly to how Roark felt then.

Magazine reviews of his buildings have absolutely no impact on his opinion of his own work; he is completely secure in his own decisions. It is in this way that he is unable to consider others. It is demonstrably false that he is unable to consider the welfare of others, as shown by any number of actions that he takes (involving the woman he loves in his detonation of Cortlandt for the sake of saving the night watchman, for example). In every one of Rand's admirable characters, we see instances of benevolence and concern for the welfare of others; this is a result of their moral egoism. By contrast, the villains who practice altruism explicitly find that as a result they do not care for the welfare of others.

I think I'll go back and reread the Foundtainhead; I don't remember the bit about him saving the night watchman. But I remain struck by what Rearden said about not caring at all about the underprivileged.

Perhaps as I move through Atlas Shrugged in my current rereading I'll see more of Rearden that is consistent with your view.

Also, for the Hickman thing, if you carefully read that journal entry, you can see that she never refers to the adult, psychopathic Hickman as a "beautiful soul;" rather, she calls him a "degenerate" and a "monster." What's happening in that journal entry is that she is fantasizing a possible backstory for Hickman (as part of thinking about a short story) where a young Hickman comes into the world as a proud, independent, individualistic person who encounters a society completely inimical to these characteristics. This kind of society plays a major role in his becoming a monster, in her theoretical history. Look carefully; all positive references to Hickman are actually to this hypothetical young Hickman, pre-psychopath. References to the actual adult serial-killer Hickman are strongly negative.

What you say here is good. And in fact, I have been gleaning my impressions on this matter "second-hand" on the Web; I don't have the book these journal entries originally appear in. So if what you're saying is correct, I have erred in allowing myself to rely on such second-hand sources. I should get that book.

She would not commend an attitude of complete indifference towards the welfare of others, but she would certainly commend someone who defended the view that they can be a moral person without giving to charity. Giving to charity is a matter of personal values, and people can vary a great deal in those. Every time she addresses the subject of charity, you can see that her primary concern is not judging the act of charity itself but emphasizing that it is not the core of morality, that it is a matter of personal values, which must be laid upon a solid foundation of egoism.

She was concerned with this issue of guilt as a symptom of the altruist ethics which pervades our modern world. It is this same altruistic ethics which acts to mire major regions of the world in poverty. The solution to poverty and suffering is not charity, but egoism, production, capitalism. The rich man's guilt for not helping others and poverty and suffering are not opposing concerns, but symptoms of the same phenomenon.

I think that the key to this is that, in Rand's view, more good will be done by capitalism than by charity. So, there's no reason for a producer/capitalist to distract himself with charity if he doesn't happen to feel inclined that way; more good will be done if he acts in his own self-interest without such distraction. Needless suffering of innocents SHOULD be alleviated; but the realistic way to do that is by letting producers do what they feel is in their own interests, and that will help everyone. It may appear "selfish" but this approach will in fact will alleviate the suffering of innocents more than "altruistic" behavior will. Would you say this is consistent with Rand's thinking?

I think the common perception is that Rand does not think the suffering of non-producers matters. You seem to be saying that as you read Rand, she does think it matters, but the way to help is not to focus on charity but on making a better world for everyone through unrestricted capitalism.

I appreciate your thoughtful responses, especially in light have how rusty I am with my Rand memories/understandings. I will keep these thoughts in mind as I continue rereading Atlas Shrugged.

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In this hypothetical, where he has a sure way to genuinely help others with no cost to himself, he would not be virtuous if he did not take it (either he doesn't have the right attitude towards others, vis a vis the harmony of rational interests, or he is failing to act on his values, vis a vis integrity). However, your second paragraph more accurately reflects reality, although I certainly wouldn't argue that every single instance of helping others that's not done through promoting a free society is doomed to fail. That's overgeneralizing a bit, but the fundamental point is that charity is not a proper way to support another's life over the long term; charity should primarily be about helping people who are in some sort of extraordinary or emergency situation, who will be able to support themselves if they are helped out of their immediate emergency situation. A sort of "helping others help themselves" applied consistently.

I see we were writing at the same time. Thank you for your further clarification. This whole discussion is very helpful to me, and perhaps will be to some others who are wondering about the same things I am.

I'm going to stop writing now -- I'm going to get into bed and read Atlas Shrugged on my Kindle, keeping this discussion in mind.

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I know that malaria is not your main point, so feel free to ignore this post if you do not want to take the topic of malaria any further. But... when you said...

Let's take a very concrete example. Millions of people die every year from malaria. It's not a pleasant death. Moreover, the vast majority of them are suffering for no fault of their own but happening to have been born in a particular time and place where there is a lot of susceptibility to the disease. Someone like Rearden (or Bill Gates) is in a position to help -- ..

I wonder if you realize that it is not the geography of Africa that makes it the place where malaria kills so many, rather it is the politics of Africa. Europe had malaria, North America had malaria. It is differences in political systems that have allowed some parts of the world to grow rich enough to leave behind many diseases that were common just a couple of centuries ago. Even in Asia, the countries that have been relatively successful at combating these disease have been the ones that found ways to have a political system that allowed the creation of wealth. So, if Africans are suffering from malaria, it is because Africans have not created a decent political system for themselves, where wealth creation becomes commonplace. Perhaps there is a sense in which it is "for no fault of their own", perhaps it is their ignorance; but the world of nature does not have respect for human ignorance.

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Maybe it's just because I read The Fountainhead so long ago that I'm not remembering it correctly. But I'm reading Atlas Shrugged now, and Reardon does say of the issue of "the underprivileged", "I don't care about it at all."

In a world where "helping the underprivileged" is synonymous with simply giving to others on the basis of how much they need it, I'm not surprised that he explicitly rejects that as a valid concern. Giving with reference to desert (for example, giving only to those who genuinely intend to get to a position of standing on their own two feet) is the only form of giving that actually helps anyone. I wouldn't interpret his worded rejection of helping the underprivileged with an absolute indifference to the welfare of others in general.

I think that the key to this is that, in Rand's view, more good will be done by capitalism than by charity. So, there's no reason for a producer/capitalist to distract himself with charity if he doesn't happen to feel inclined that way; more good will be done if he acts in his own self-interest without such distraction. Needless suffering of innocents SHOULD be alleviated; but the realistic way to do that is by letting producers do what they feel is in their own interests, and that will help everyone. It may appear "selfish" but this approach will in fact will alleviate the suffering of innocents more than "altruistic" behavior will. Would you say this is consistent with Rand's thinking?

Simply stating that "needless suffering of innocents should be alleviated," is not an accurate characterization of Rand's views. She was always very careful to consider the subject of any proposed moral duty; should be alleviated by whom? The point is that figuring out the best way to help others is not the primary concern of morality at all; figuring out how to live our own lives to the fullest is. To the extent that you want to help others, you should be deliberate and conscientious in doing so, but you should not take all the suffering out there in the world as imposing a moral duty on you; you should feel comfortable with asserting the importance of your own desires. Thinking of every moment you spend doing things that make you happy as a moment you could be spending helping others is no way to live life.

I think the common perception is that Rand does not think the suffering of non-producers matters. You seem to be saying that as you read Rand, she does think it matters, but the way to help is not to focus on charity but on making a better world for everyone through unrestricted capitalism.

Again, matters to whom? We all want to live in a more prosperous, freer world, but this does not mean that we should take the misfortunes of the world as moral impositions on our own lives. Life should be primarily about pursuing one's own personal values.

Also, welcome to the forum.

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Benevolence means helping to remove the suffering of others. Rand holds there is a sharp difference between benevolence and altruism. It is entirely proper and profoundly egoistic to help others, e.g. fighting for a noble cause, struggling against evil, helping victims of injustice. Helping others and justice goes hand in hand in Rand's ethics.

We cannot separate the two, so we need to examine what you are saying here. What is “underprivileged”? A privilege is something extended to someone as a courtesy. If justice demands a person have some thing or condition that is absent, it is not a matter of “lack of privilege” or courtesy, but a lack of justice. What is “needless suffering”? To not inflict suffering on someone who doesn't deserve to suffer is a matter of justice. Rand is interested in justice. Rand is very much interested in the suffering of the innocent. Rand is interested in benevolence and goodwill. Rand is just not interested in sacrifice, which would mean the abrogation of justice, the suffering of innocents, and would make benevolence and goodwill impossible. Her point is simply that there is no goodwill or benevolence without justice, and justice demands the suffering of innocents be alleviated, but it does not demand sacrifice of anyone to anyone. A distinction she makes because of the fact that altruists try to claim benevolence is only possible through sacrifice. Rand rejects this because it would mean that you prefer the innocent to suffer (or that the innocent deserve to suffer!), but you go ahead and alleviate it anyway out of mercy.

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I think that the key to this is that, in Rand's view, more good will be done by capitalism than by charity. So, there's no reason for a producer/capitalist to distract himself with charity if he doesn't happen to feel inclined that way

It's not that more goodwill is done by a capitalist than by charity, it's that before charity can be done, there must exist something to be charitable with. Before you can dole out some money to charity, you had to obtain it first. Before wealth can be given in charity, it had to be produced by someone. In that way, productiveness is the primary virtue here. We can all scream about charity all day long, but if no one produces, then it will all be in vain. Thus using your product to achieve your values, including helping others if that's the case, follows only after something is produced.

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I see we were writing at the same time. Thank you for your further clarification. This whole discussion is very helpful to me, and perhaps will be to some others who are wondering about the same things I am.

I'd also like to add some additional clarification to that last paragraph you quoted. The "with no cost to himself" was absolutely essential to that hypothetical. In reality, there is never no cost to oneself, and the task of balancing the cost of helping and the benefit from being benevolent is a matter of the individual examining his own hierarchy of values. Because of this, it is not generally possible to determine whether the rich person's spending and giving decisions are virtuous without knowing more of his personal value context; whether he is sacrificing his values or adhering to them.

Edited by Dante
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  • 2 years later...

on the subject of empathy, would this comment hold true:

 

"Empathy is among the innate moral instincts. The moral instincts are fine-tuned in response to the moral social orders in which we participate."

This smells deterministic. Instinct and 'social orders' are not the only relevant factors, and are not an appropriate basis for ethics.

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Dante is absolutely right, in every post I've skimmed (sorry), but with respect to the OP I think it's even more fundamental than that.

In my opinion:

All social concepts and interactions stem from an individual's analogous thinking about their own introspective data (generally implicitly, of course).

For example, to admire someone else's greatness first requires a desire to take pride in one's own soul, for such a social response to occur.

Notice in Galt's speech, "your fear of death is not love of life".

Notice when Roark remarks: "Why should anyone think of Ellsworth Toohey?"

The concept of "mercy" would be more apt than "empathy" (since empathy is not restricted to others' suffering) and to have mercy on oneself is a surrender to that fear of death.

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on the subject of empathy, would this comment hold true:

 

"Empathy is among the innate moral instincts. The moral instincts are fine-tuned in response to the moral social orders in which we participate."

On a neurological level, empathy is tied to the limbic system in the brain.  There are people, with brain damage, who are incapable of emphatic thought.  Also, not all animals posses this system (reptiles for example).  The capacity to grasp the state of mind of another individual, predator or prey, plays a significant evolutionary role in the development of social cohesion.

 

I would not agree that it is a "moral instinct" -- but empathy is fundamental to connecting with others.  Psychopaths are persons who cannot do this, and often time there are underlying neurological reasons.  Also from wiki:

 

Emotion recognition and empathy[edit]

Studies by R.J.R. Blair and others suggest psychopathy is associated with atypical responses to distress cues (e.g. facial and vocal expressions of fear and sadness), including decreased activation of the fusiform and extrastriate cortical regions, which may partly account for impaired recognition of and reduced autonomic responsiveness to expressions of fear, and impairments of empathy.[63][64][65] Studies by Blair on children with psychopathic tendencies have also shown such associations.[66][67][68] The underlying biological surfaces for processing expressions of happiness are functionally intact in psychopaths, although less responsive than those of controls.[65][66][67][68]

A recent study in which psychopathic criminals were brain-scanned while they watched videos of a person harming another individual found that psychopaths' empathic reaction (theorized to occur through the mirror system) initiated the same way it did for controls when they were instructed to empathise with the harmed individual, and that the area of the brain relating to pain was activated when the psychopaths were asked to imagine how the harmed individual felt. The research demonstrated how psychopaths could switch empathy on at will and would enable them to be both callous and charming.[69] Professor Simon Baron-Cohen suggests that, unlike the combination of both reduced cognitive and affective empathy often seen in those with classic autism, psychopaths are associated with intact cognitive empathy, implying non-diminished awareness of another's feelings when they hurt someone.[70]

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All social concepts and interactions stem from an individual's analogous thinking about their own introspective data (generally implicitly, of course).

For example, to admire someone else's greatness first requires a desire to take pride in one's own soul, for such a social response to occur.

.

I am not so sure about that, since I believe empathy to be pre-cognitive and pre-moral, while it seems you could be making it rational and explicit: Benevolence, in fact.

 

To that quote earlier, it appears an attempt to 'automize' and collectivize morality, or morality as an automatic, metaphysical 'given' in all humans - and it leads to one of the most pernicious effects one may see on societies. First, empathy is "innate moral" - and then, it's "fine-tuned" by the morality of society! Never one's own morality iow, and determinist as someone said.

 

The worst of it, is that its consequences are to falsely dichotomize empathy from rationality.

Empathy is fine and good (and rejection of mind/body split, means that nothing which is of the rational animal should be denied) but without support, it is unsustainable, imo. Empathy without supremacy of reason and a rational morality will not last (in society and the individual) or at least become completely ineffectual.

In general, I think of people who have the need to advocate for empathy, as suspect mind-haters, therefore anti-life whether they know it or not..

Edited by whYNOT
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Its important to remember that it is cognitively impossible to deal with more than a couple hundred relationships. The tendency in history is for people to trust their in-group and not trust those outside of their group. Our natural, undeveloped, capacity for empathy doesn't seem to be all that great and promoting morality.  

 

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dunbar's_number

 

Not all people are equally empathetic, yet it seems like it is a capacity that can be altered by one's education. I have read about parenting methods, having two parents, reading fiction, and even unsupervised outdoor activity being correlated with an increase in the amount of empathy a child develops. A well developed sense of empathy is useful for maintaining a good network of secondary and primary relationships. Empathy is even important when interacting with strangers.

 

However this modern humanity is only possible because children can freely associate without violence against them and that most people can read books at a young age. Free association forces children to learn lessons about how other people can be valuable and how they can bring value to a relationship. Fiction and Non-Fiction have been widely available since the invention of the printing press, and some historians suspect it was the printing press that brought about the enlightenment. By bringing about fiction that showed how other kinds of people lived and books that enhanced the reasoning skills of the readers. 

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The basic problem is that if empathy is an instinct a. it can't be taught or learned b. it's therefore not a basis of morality c. it has evidently been -and so will continue- often over-ridden by man's other, savage instincts. d. if it HAS to be 'taught', in what poor condition is society?

Hairnet has some valuable information, with Dunbar's research indicating something many might have guessed: that empathy is not limitless, but brain hard-wired to the size of early Man's tribe(I roughly summarize).

As for improving it with education - and the interesting 'printing-press argument', I have strong doubts. Surely, what is being taught or indicated to good effect (by fiction, especially) is not empathy, but respect for others? For their boundaries and individuality?

And despite the 'modern printing press'- the Internet and mass media - I don't expect to see an outpouring of empathy anytime soon around the world.

But, by definition, what can be learned or made conscious, isn't empathy. I maintain still that empathy exists at its best when needed the least. When rationality breaks down, empathy has proved itself next to useless in protecting life and rights.

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