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"The Shawshank Redemption" (film): Does Objectivism's ethical rejection of altruism lead to a negative evaluation of this film?

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In the film "The Shawshank Redemption" (starring Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman), the hero, Andy Dufresne, is sentenced to life in prison in a harsh prison for murders of which he was completely innocent.

While he is in prison, Andy Dufresne volunteers his time and effort to help other inmates learn to read and get other education. This seems like altruism; Andy Dufresne got nothing from it in terms of money, freedom, sex, or anything.

In one scene, Andy Dufresne plays, over the prison loudspeakers, a recording of a beautiful, inspiration duet from a Mozart opera, in order to inspire and comfort his fellow prisoners. This seems like altruism, especially given that Andy Dufresne knew that this action would lead to him being severely punished by the warden (which did in fact happen--so Andy willingly sacrificed himself for the sake of his fellow prisoners).

The hero Andy Dufresne eventually uses his reason and courage to escape from the prison, but he also makes detailed plan to help his friend named Red survive and thrive when Red is eventually paroled out of prison. This seems like altruism.

Thus, the "redemption" in the movie's title refers not only to Andy Dufresne's escaping from prison and ending up with the warden's ill-gotten wealth.

The "redemption" in the movie's title also refers to Andy Dufresne's voluntary actions to be the savior of the life of his friend Red, and also to the general help and inspiration that he voluntarily brought to some of his fellow prisoners.

It seems clear that Andy Dufresne was significantly motivated by altruism, and that, in fact, this this dramatization of the good results of altruism is one of the things that leads many moviegoers to love "The Shawshank Redemption" and to love its hero, Andy Dufresne. 

So, what would Ayn Rand or any conscientious follower of the principles of Objectivism say about the altruism (pointed out above) that is dramatized in "The Shawshank Redemption"?

I do like "The Shawshank Redemption," and I realize I like it mainly because Andy Dufresne is such a "good guy" (altruistic; Christ-like).

But should I love this movie for this reason?

Would I be wiser and more ethical and more rational to reject this movie as childish pablum, as a silly fantasy fairy tale?

It's true that Andy Dufresne never advocates for government-mandated altruism, as in Socialism or Progressivism.

But does Andy Dufresne's philosophy of life and way of life really fit in with the ethics of The Virtue of Selfishness

Do any of the heroes or heroines in Ayn Rand's novels, plays, or screenplays live out a life of voluntary altruism the way that Andy Dufresne does?

Edited by The Laws of Biology
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I have neither seen The Shawshank Redemption nor read the book I understand it to be based on, so I will have to engage in guesswork based on your post.

1 hour ago, The Laws of Biology said:

While he is in prison, Andy Dufresne volunteers his time and effort to help other inmates learn to read and get other education. This seems like altruism; Andy Dufresne got nothing from it in terms of money, freedom, sex, or anything.

If he gets pleasure and satisfaction from seeing other inmates better themselves and knowing he played a crucial role in this, that could be benefit enough, especially when you consider the limitations on expenditure of time and effort imposed by the prison.

1 hour ago, The Laws of Biology said:

In one scene, Andy Dufresne plays, over the prison loudspeakers, a recording of a beautiful, inspiration duet from a Mozart opera, in order to inspire and comfort his fellow prisoners. This seems like altruism, especially given that Andy Dufresne knew that this action would lead to him being severely punished by the warden (which did in fact happen--so Andy willingly sacrificed himself for the sake of his fellow prisoners).

This does seem like altruism, unless he got enough out of it to make it worth the punishment.

1 hour ago, The Laws of Biology said:

he also makes detailed plan to help his friend named Red survive and thrive when Red is eventually paroled out of prison. 

If he values his friend enough to make this worthwhile for him, it is not altruism.

***

If Andy Dufresne does a good job of living up to his principles and values, this speaks well for him, even if those principles and values are mistaken.  In her very favorable introduction to Victor Hugo's Ninety-Three, Ayn Rand says the focus is not "What great values these men are fighting for" but "What greatness men are capable of when they fight for their values".

1 hour ago, The Laws of Biology said:

Do any of the heroes or heroines in Ayn Rand's novels, plays, or screenplays live out a life of voluntary altruism the way that Andy Dufresne does?

The hero of Anthem initially intends his invention, at least consciously, as a gift to the society in which he lives.  At one point he suffers a severe beating for not making it back in time from working on his invention.  Only after his invention is rejected does he flee that society and discover full egoism.

 

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2 hours ago, The Laws of Biology said:

So, what would Ayn Rand or any conscientious follower of the principles of Objectivism say about the altruism (pointed out above) that is dramatized in "The Shawshank Redemption"?

None of the examples in your post are instances of altruism, even if they're all followed with the word 'altruism' colored in red.

Consider what money can get Andy in prison, compared to the outer world. Now consider the benefit of improving the collective he's stuck with for the rest of his life (barring an escape). A person's situation dictates where his time and energy is best spent.

In the Mozart scene, he concludes that the potential punishment is a good tradeoff for what he gains by playing the recording. Was his judgement right? For him it was worth it, for others the punishment might be a deal-breaker. Depends on the person.

Doing things for your friends, as Andy does for Red, is not altruism.

The movie is fine from an Objectivist perspective. Reminds me of a question to Peikoff about superheroes. He replied that fighting for justice (if that's a top value for you) is completely selfish, not altruistic.

I'd say that your view of what altruism is differs significantly from Rand, as presented in The Virtue of Selfishness and elsewhere. So for you this movie might not resonate very much with selfishness.

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44 minutes ago, Doug Morris said:

In her very favorable introduction to Victor Hugo's Ninety-Three, Ayn Rand says the focus is not "What great values these men are fighting for" but "What greatness men are capable of when they fight for their values".

That's interesting.

Would or did Ayn Rand praise Fidel Castro or Che Guevera for the greatness they demonstrated in fighting for the implementation of the Socialist values they apparently sincerely believed in?

 

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11 minutes ago, The Laws of Biology said:

Would or did Ayn Rand praise Fidel Castro or Che Guevera for the greatness they demonstrated in fighting for the implementation of the Socialist values they apparently sincerely believed in?

Depends on how you interpret the quote. If you simply read it and leave it at that, then the answer is yes, she would praise both dictators.

If you add the other relevant facts, such as her philosphical views, then no, definitely not.

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31 minutes ago, KyaryPamyu said:

None of the examples in your post are instances of altruism

I think you are correct.

I found this definition of "altruism" in The Ayn Rand Lexicon:

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.”

“Faith and Force: The Destroyers of the Modern World,”
Philosophy: Who Needs It, 61

Even so, for me, this doesn't entirely settle the matter.

Why?

Because I wonder if Ayn Rand has artificially constricted the definition of "altruism" in such a way that it doesn't match up with the full mental, cognitive, and behavior dynamics of what people observe (in self and others) in the phenomenon of altruism.

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy gives this introductory definition:

Behavior is normally described as altruistic when it is motivated by a desire to benefit someone other than oneself for that person’s sake. The term is used as the contrary of “self-interested” or “selfish” or “egoistic”—words applied to behavior that is motivated solely by the desire to benefit oneself. “Malicious” designates an even greater contrast: it applies to behavior that expresses a desire to harm others simply for the sake of harming them.

Under the definition of The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, I think that much of what Andy Dufresne does in "The Shawshank Redemption" is aptly called "altruism." 

Still, this doesn't prove that there's a problem with Ayn Rand's system of ethics.

In the fields of philosophy and psychology, there is no "Supreme Court" to appeal to for a final ruling. 

But I do think many professional philosophers have written a lot about how some people give words unusual (unusually broad or unusually restricted) meanings in order to "stack the deck," so to speak, in order to reach (or justify) certain conclusions.

I'm not saying that this has occurred in the case of Ayn Rand's concept of "altruism."

But I am left wondering, and I may someday investigate this matter further. 

Edited by The Laws of Biology
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1 hour ago, The Laws of Biology said:

But I do think many professional philosophers have written a lot about how some people give words unusual (unusually broad or unusually restricted) meanings in order to "stack the deck," so to speak, in order to reach (or justify) certain conclusions.

True. People bend definitions and principles, not out of some ill intention, but because otherwise their explanations do not match their actual, real-life experience.

This is a bad strategy, for two reasons. First, you will get into trouble. To give a crude example, jumping into a fire is not life-supporting, even if your PhD thesis states otherwise.

Second - and this is why most people do it - is because they feel that an 'alternative' truth would force them to make painful or uncomfortable changes to their lives (or at least make them live with the knowledge of being an outlier).

This is also wrong. Of course, we are shaped by factors such as childhood experiences, natural inclinations toward introversion/extraversion, the knowledge we have and so on. An accurate view of how things work (reality) will increase our ability to thrive and to stand proudly for who we are.

The Stanford definition you quoted mentions three classes: doing stuff solely for yourself; doing it for others; and doing it simply to harm others.

Say I do something for someone because it gives me pleasure. Under the above definition, this is selfish, because I do it for my enjoyment. But it is selfless, because it's for someone else. See the problem? If two opposite terms can convey the same thing, the definitions fail to fulfill their purpose.

Edited by KyaryPamyu
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I just remembered that Ayn Rand expressed criticism of some popular Hollywood films. As I recall, in her testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee, Ayn Rand said that several popular Hollywood films were examples of Hollywood films that promote Communism. 

As I see it, some of the films that Ayn Rand criticized contain dramatizations of altruism that I think are similar to dramatizations of altruism in "The Shawshank Redemption" and also in "Forrest Gump."

(I concede that I'm not using the particular, more limited definition of "altruism" that Ayn Rand used. I believe that I'm using the more standard dictionary or encyclopedia definition, and the more historically normal and consistent definition. I am not asserting that Ayn Rand's definition of "altruism" is wrong, just different.) 

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1 hour ago, The Laws of Biology said:

Ayn Rand said that several popular Hollywood films were examples of Hollywood films that promote Communism

As I understand it, the point was not that the movies, taken as a whole, promoted Communism, but rather that bits of Communist propaganda had been slipped into movies that were primarily about other subjects.  I don't know any specific examples.  If we could get hold of her Screen Guide for Americans, that should clarify things.

 

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Quote

 

I owe nothing to my brothers, nor do I gather debts from them. . . . I ask none to live for me, nor do I live for any others. . . .

I am neither foe nor friend to my brothers, but such as each of them shall deserve of me. And to earn my love, me brothers must do more than to have been born. . . .

I shall choose companions from among my brothers, but neither slaves nor masters. And I shall choose only such as please me, and them I shall honour and love and respect, but neither command nor obey. And we shall join our hands when we wish, or walk alone when we please. For in his heart of hearts and in the sanctuary of his spirit, each man is alone. Let each man keep his sanctuary untouched and undefiled. Then let him join hands with others if he wishes, and there is no shame and no evil in such joining, but only beyond his holy threshold.

. . .

When I shall have read all the books and learned my new way, when my home will be ready and my earth tilled, I shall steal one day, for the last time, into the cursed City of my birth. I shall call to me my friend who has no name save International 4-8818, and those like him, Fraternity 2-5503 who cries without reason, and Solidarity 9-6347 who calls for help in the night, and a few others. I shall call to me all the men and the women whose spirits have not been killed within them and who suffer under the yoke of their brothers.

 

—Ayn Rand (Anthem 1938)

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1 hour ago, Doug Morris said:

As I understand it, the point was not that the movies, taken as a whole, promoted Communism, but rather that bits of Communist propaganda had been slipped into movies that were primarily about other subjects. 

Here's a bit of a digression: I have always loved the original "Planet of the Apes" movie that came out in 1968. I recently learned that the second screenwriter of that movie was Michael Wilson, a one-time Communist Party member who was blacklisted in Hollywood in the 1950s.

The first screenwriter on the movie was Rod Serling.

I can't recall any Communist propaganda in the 1968 "Planet of the Apes," but, who know, maybe it is there.

The movie is very pessimistic about humankind's prospects for survival in the age of weapons of mass destruction, but I don't think Capitalism is blamed, but rather human nature itself. That doesn't sound very Communist to me.

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I can see how central the concept of Altruism is.

I would like to study the history of this word and of some closely related concepts.

I can see that Ayn Rand's concept of Altruism is somewhat different than how most people use the term, or, at least, her concept provides certain specific psychological conditions that must be present before Altruism can be said to exist. There is more depth to her concept.

She relates Altruism to someone believing that they literally have no "right to exist" unless they are constantly devoted to sacrificing their whole life for other people.

Ayn Rand's concept of Altruism sounds like a very extreme, very pathological condition, that might not exist in most people, but maybe only in Catholic nuns, Catholic monks, certain other religious fanatics, and a few zealous dedicated Marxist revolutionaries. 

In any case, I see myself lacking in knowledge of this topic. 

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9 hours ago, The Laws of Biology said:

Ayn Rand's concept of Altruism sounds like a very extreme, very pathological condition, that might not exist in most people, but maybe only in Catholic nuns, Catholic monks, certain other religious fanatics, and a few zealous dedicated Marxist revolutionaries. 

The point is that a lot of people buy into the idea that this sort of altruism is the ideal, and that any deviation from it on their part is a moral failing on their part.  This has very destructive consequences, even if they manage to live in a way that involves a lot of egoism.

Also, a lot of people don't clearly distinguish between altruism in this extreme sense and such things as benevolence and generosity.

 

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I just found a pdf of Screen Guide for Americans.  I read some of it and skimmed the rest.  It does not give specific examples from specific movies.  But it does state a number of specific principles to follow to keep Communist propaganda out of your movies, with a few examples of what to avoid.

We'd have to dig into other material from that time to get specific examples from specific movies.  

 

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Here are a couple of examples from a Wikipedia article.

 Examples included The Best Years of Our Lives (because it portrayed businessmen negatively, and suggested that bankers should give veterans collateral-free loans), and A Song to Remember (because it implied without historical evidence that Chopin sacrificed himself for a patriotic cause rather than devoting himself to his music).[14]

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Here is a quote from the Wikipedia article on A Song to Remember .

Though Chopin was a true Polish patriot, Vidor highly romanticizes Chopin's patriotism in the film, which was produced during World War II. He fictionalizes Chopin's relationship with Elsner (who did not really accompany him to Paris) and greatly distorts Chopin's relationship with Sand to produce a "good vs. evil" struggle for Chopin's soul between Elsner and Sand. The script occasionally sounds more like propaganda for wartime self-sacrifice over individualism than like the real story of Chopin's life.

Ayn Rand was sharply critical of the film, strongly taking the side of the George Sand character as against the Polish nationalist ones – a value judgment diametrically opposite to that taken by the film makers: "George Sand, according to the film, is evil because she provides a beautiful, private retreat where Chopin can live in peace and luxury, because she takes care of his every need, attends to his health, and urges him to forget the world and devote himself exclusively to the work of writing music, which he is desperately eager to do. The young Polish girl, according to the film, is good because she urges Chopin to drop the work that he loves and go out on a concert tour to collect money 'for the people', for a cause that is identified as national or revolutionary or both, and this is supposed to justify everything – so she demands that Chopin renounce his genius, sacrifice his composing and go out to entertain paying audiences – even though he hates concert playing, is ill with tuberculosis and has been warned by the doctors that the strain of a tour will kill him".[3]

Victor Brown noted that "The breakup of George Sand's relationship with Chopin was for personal reasons completely different from those shown in the film – mainly Chopin's siding with Sand's estranged daughter against her mother. In fact, George Sand was an outspoken supporter of the Polish national cause in her own right, an allegiance which lasted long past the end of the relationship with Chopin. During the Revolution of 1848 in France, George Sand took part in a Polish solidarity demonstration held in Paris on May 15, 1848, calling for the French Army to be sent to liberate Poland".[4]

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Side point: Rand got one detail wrong about The Best Years of our Lives. On p. 367-368 of Journals she says that the movie shows a rich businessman bouncing a war hero from a flight, when in fact the opening scene establishes that the businessman has a reservation while the vet is on standby. Most Americans of the era would have recognized that this is what "space available" means.

She asks "What is the point of this episode - if not the implication that the vicious, unpatriotic rich are grossly indifferent to war heroes?" The point might be that the military is ungrateful to its vets for not buying them reserved seats, but more likely it's simply a way of heightening the character's tension, and the audience's, about seeing him safely home.

Edited by Reidy
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The Laws of Biology, I am disappointed in seeing your post. To assume something good someone does for others is altruist shows how much altruism does infect our culture. Before getting into the movie, know that Ayn Rand said that true benevolence can only be done selfishly. It's altruism that destroys our capacity for benevolence. I think in real life, things done to help others is rarely what is altruist. The altruist things that are most common are when an employer keeps an employee around who doesn't produce or a friend has a friend he doesn't like or when a person votes his conscience, something like that. Listens to his mother because she's his mother.   Most people don't give to the Salvation Army because they feel they need to, they feel good about donating. 

Next, I would argue there are very few movies as heroic as The Shawshank Redemption that fit the principles of Objectivism.  Also, the context was spot on.  Reason is the key even in the most hopeless of contexts as this movie illustrated. You should value this movie because it could hardly be more Objectivist if it tried. 

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Let's see if I can guess his literally selfish motivations.  

 

1.  Helping the friend to read, helped to keep his mind active and made him feel good.  Mind what Morgan Freeman said about keeping one's mind active in prison. 

 

2.  Playing the music.  Couldn't Andy Dufresne hear it too?  Loudly and thoroughly?  Plus, you know the adage that music has the power to soothe the savage beast.  He wanted to soothe the prisoners so maybe they'd treat him better.  Plus upset the warden and show he was not afraid of him. 

 

3. Helping Red.  He liked Red. Simple enough. 

 

 

 

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