Statesboro, GA, USA
Hi everybody. Hope you're not tired of talking about Ayn Rand yet. Had some more to add if you're game.
I came across an Ayn Rand quote which was quite interesting to me. The conflating of "selfishness" and "self-interest", is evident in the quote itself, especially in what it omits. Ayn writes:
"The meaning ascribed in popular usage to the word 'selfishness' is not merely wrong; it represents a devastating intellectual 'package-deal' which is responsible, more than any other single factor, for the arrested moral development of mankind. In popular usage, the word 'selfishness' is a synonym of evil: the image it conjures is a murderous brute who tramples over piles of corpses to achieve his own end, who cares for no living being and pursues nothing but the gratification of the mindless whims of any immediate moment. Yet the exact meaning and dictionary definition of the word 'selfishness' is concern with one’s own interests. This concept does not include a moral evaluation; it does not tell us whether concern with one’s own interests is good or evil, nor does it tell us what constitutes man’s actual interests." (From The Virtue of Selfishness)
Of particular note is where she cites a dictionary definition of "selfishness". I don't believe in a slavish compliance with the dictionary. But, since Ayn brings it up, I will note that she only gives us a part of the definition. And someone as intelligent as her, can't have overlooked the important references to excess, which is central to the way we use the word. The definition actually runs thus:
1. devoted to or caring only for oneself; concerned primarily with one's own interests, benefits, welfare, etc., regardless of others.
2. characterized by or manifesting concern or care only for oneself: selfish motives.
stinginess resulting from a concern for your own welfare and a disregard of others.
Whatever you might think about this, it is plain enough to see that there is some manipulation going on here with language, for the purpose of making a philosophical point. Or did she really think that selfish meant "self-interest"? Or did she really think that Christianity looks down upon self interest?
Whether or not her philosophical points are valid, it is not valid to claim that the traditional religious form of "morals" disapproved of a healthy degree of self-interest. Again, Jesus presupposed this when he urged people to love their neighbors as themselves. Paul presupposed this when he wrote to the Church at Philippi "Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.". (Phillipians 2:4)
The traditional moral safeguard came in the form of guarding against excess, or self absorption ... a question of amount rather than kind, or the perversion of an essentially good thing, as in the difference between eating and gorging. But Rand, having already demolished the credibility of traditional morals, attempted to redraw the erased line with humanistic reason. Of course, the problem is that reason has now become diminished and truncated. The mind is forbidden to calculate with the moral data that it has had for centuries.
It seems Rand was trying to correct what didn't need correcting. For though authoritative obedience is spoken of, the Biblical view of morals is not without the acknowlegement of reason. In its context reason simply has always been free to take into account other important data, such as divine authority and the the world to come. It has also been free to recognize the disconcerting truth that rewards and punishment, sowing and reaping, Karma, or whatever you want to call it, doesn't always come out as expected in this present life. That's when the good old fashioned moral preaching (even if that preaching is in your own head) fills the gap that egoism cannot. For there will always be times (and more than most admit) when behaving badly seems to turn out pretty good. There will always be times when we are tempted to play against the odds, even if we think that reason predicts a probable unpleasant outcome.
I'm now reading "Atlas Shrugged" and reading further articles about Ayn Rand. I'm not claiming that I know a lot. But my first impression is that her view of Biblical morality is more based upon caricatures of it, than upon what it really states. Also I feel that her attempt at liberation of healthy self-interest is right, though she need not reject religion in order to secure it. And it seems that she unduly limits reason, by forbidding certain categories for it operate in, and making it, as it were, autonomous? What if reason was meant to be cooperational with something more, in order to remain viable?
I guess the three questions posed by this thread are thus?
1) How far is too far, in making language say what you want it to say? Can there be a kind of deception involved?
2) Is the claim that Biblical morality is self deprecating, sustainable?
3) Is the forbidding of considerations of moral authority or other religious ideas, crippling and unduly limiting to human reason?
BTW, lest anyone feel that I am picking on Ayn Rand, these ideas are certainly not limited to her writings. I would rather discuss the ideas, regardless of their authorship.