Archives for posts with tag: Ayn Rand

Keith Burgess-Jackson, a name literally no one will recognize, wrote an article that whined about how nobody in ethical circles takes egoism seriously. Why can’t we just look after number one and claim to be acting morally? Ayn Rand had some valid points, right? Now, most people would say, “Of course not! Ayn Rand was a psychopath and should be relegated to the Young Adult Fiction section of the library next to the Twilight Saga.” Unfortunately, the ethical beliefs of Ayn Rand, much like the Twilight series, has gained mind-boggling popularity, so I will grant Burgess-Jackson his request, and take the time to explain why egoism fails as an ethical system.

Burgess-Jackson’s main thesis is dependent on the comparison between egoism and utilitarianism. Utilitarianism, even when rejected, is shown academic respect, but egoism is laughed out of the cafeteria. Both are consequentialist, but one measures the consequences as they relate to the group, the other as they relate to the self. Egoism takes the utilitarian maxim of “the greatest good for the greatest number” and turns it into, “the greatest good for the greatest guy: this guy!” The egoist would then point at himself with his two thumbs.

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Jack Black: A stand-in for the abstract concept of ethical egoism

This isn’t as stupid as it sounds. There are plenty of problems with utilitarianism (to the point where I consider it an invalid system), but the difference between maximizing the benefit for all and the benefit for the self is just arbitrary preference. If a reason were demanded, all a utilitarian could say is that it’s “nicer” than only looking out for the self, but that would certainly not be enough for the egoist, who is only nice insofar as it would work for their personal benefit.

Let’s look at the same ethical dilemma as Burgess-Jackson: should one steal the pensions from a bunch of old people, and then retire to some sandy beach island with your ethically-gotten gains?

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You know your ethical system is a winner when something like this is considered a dilemma

Luckily, Burgess-Jackson says no, and I’m sure we’re all breathing a sigh of relief. His reasoning is a little different than most people’s, though. We shouldn’t steal the pensions from retirees because we might get caught and go to jail. Consequentialism, remember? The egoist ought to weigh the possible outcomes and act according to maximum utility. Not for the pensioners, mind you, just for himself. He posits rule-egoism, comparable to rule-utilitarianism, which suggests that the egoist ought to follow rules that would in general maximize his personal utility, like the law and common social norms.

Much like rule-utilitarianism, however, rule-egoism has the same flaw: if it maintains its original consequentialist principles, it cannot truly exist. If an act would, on its own, create greater utility than following the rule, one ought to act on it. For example, if our egoist had an opportunity to rob senior citizens with a guarantee of escape, he certainly would. Alternatively, if he could obtain their pensions legally (such as by lobbying for tax cuts that are paid for by cutbacks to social security), then he’s going to do that. Hobbes’s sovereign (Burgess-Jackson’s exemplar of rule-egoism) is only obeyed insofar as those underneath don’t see a way to thwart their sovereignty. If the rules are deemed absolute, then the system abandons consequentialism and becomes deontological.

Albert Camus, a philosopher with a lot more name recognition, said, “Every ethic based on solitude implies the exercise of power.” If you’re seeking to make things right only for yourself, you’re going to need power to do it. This is where egoism fails as an ethical system.

Donald Trump

You might think it’s odd that robbing seniors of their pensions didn’t disqualify egoism as an ethical system, but just remember, who’s got two thumbs and became president after bragging about sexually assaulting women?

When everyone is looking out for themselves, those with more power will always succeed over those with less. If I’m looking out for me, and you’re looking out for you, and we come into some kind of conflict, and you possess more power than me, I lose. It’s pretty simple. That’s not great if I’m an egoist who wants to maximize my personal benefit, now is it? Within the egoist system, egoism itself does not provide the maximum utility. It cancels itself out. Perhaps you might argue that it can still survive if only I am an egoist, and I successfully convince others to be, say, utilitarians, then my personal utility is again maximized. However, a system of ethics is a social system. If it cannot function on a macro level, it is no longer a system. If it only works when one person does it, it’s no longer a morality, it’s just selfishness.

So throw Ayn Rand back on to the garbage fire that is her metaphorical equivalent, and think about how your dumb actions impact other people for once in your God damn lives.

Competition is supposed to be the whetstone with which society continually betters itself. Society will flourishes when companies go head to head, as the free market will determine, based on what each of them offers against the other, which will succeed and which will flounder. We revel in the competitive, with combative (both figuratively and literally) sporting events being subscribed to with almost religious dogmatism. Competition appears to be the foundation of Western civilization, supporting the capitalist doctrine of invisible-hand economics.

In Ancient Greek philosophy, the competitive ideologues were called Sophists. The Sophists sought not to reach any kind of philosophical epiphany, but rather only to use language and rhetoric to convince their audience of their deliberative victory, regardless of the weakness of their arguments. The Sophists were derided by the classical philosophers whose names everyone knows, and now sophistry is used in common language to mean “the use of fallacious arguments, especially with the intention of deceiving.” History has already shown its preference.

Certainly the classical philosophers sparred over ideas. Aristotle is quoted as saying, “Piety requires us to honour truth above our friends” in regards to his philosophical criticisms of his tutor and friend, Plato. The difference however is this: the goal of Plato and Aristotle was never to be “right,” their goal was the truth. The Sophists had no goal other than to win, competition being their only motivation.

Competitivism as an ideology prefers to focus on winners, but by its very nature necessarily requires losers. The selfish could theoretically hoard to their heart’s content without impacting anyone else; the competitive need someone else to lose. Consider the outcome of the Sears corporation attempting to promote company profits by splitting everyone up into units and pitting them against each other. Unsurprisingly, they collapsed into chaos. The groups spent more time sabotaging each other than actually contributing anything toward the company’s well-being. Though in theory there could be Pyrrhic winners within the Sears organization, the main takeaway is that regardless of how the individual units did on their own, Sears as a whole failed catastrophically. The only thing stopping the Sears model and its consequences being a symbolic microcosm of society as a whole are the government regulations stopping competing corporations from burning the whole country to the ground. Competition is not a whetstone, but rather the motivation to slice the Achilles tendon of your opponent.

Unfortunately, those likely to win in a libertarian battle-royale, based on their already accumulated wealth and status, seek to drive us toward its unforgiving hellscape: the celebration of competition and the illusion of meritocracy allows them to exude the moral nobility of a cultural hero, no matter how many dead they’ve left in their wake. Who doesn’t love being a hero? From here, competitivism becomes a means of control. The winners have already won a game rigged in their favour, so they have nothing to fear, while the losers fight for scraps. Those who have noticed the problem can do nothing; to stop competing means to starve. We cannot stand with our neighbours because our neighbours are after the same scraps we need to feed our family.

In my own personal experience, I had a practicum at a Senior’s Resource Centre that provided information and other resources to those over the age of 65. All of the Senior’s Activity Centres in town got their funding from the same government grant, which means helping senior citizens is a zero-sum game. Some Activity Centres would come to the Resource Centre for a letter of commendation, little realizing that the Resource Centre too was seeking the same funds. If the goal was the improvement of the lives of seniors, then there would be an emphasis on dialogue and collaboration. Even if there were disagreements over the best methods, the goal would drive the collective forward. But because competitivism forced them against each other, they each now only have the goal to keep their own heads above the water, senior citizens be damned. The heads of the Activity Centres could not be in the same room together. It is my very own Sears Corporation anecdote. However, this is slightly different. Whereas the failure of one company might not have a huge impact on society overall, the collapse of the care for seniors in this city would devastate the local population. And due to the incumbent cutthroat competitivism, there is no possibility of political solidarity to stand against it.

The same applies to the private sector. I’m sure anyone with half a brain and half a heart has asked themselves why corporate executives seem to disregard the future of the human species for the sake of a short-term profit. Surely they must have grandchildren? The same systemic ideology that applies to Senior Activity Centres applies to corporations. A CEO that cannot provide immediate gains will simply be replaced by one who can; the corporation must remain competitive or it will sink. Though I’m sure greed certainly plays a part, it is the rules of competitivism that create the destructive myopia. “Winning” triumphs over common sense.

Competitivism: Where the means justify the end

What’s the point of being better than someone else? An evolutionary psychologist might make an argument for a biological mating drive, comparing us to male birds who advertise their virility with flamboyant plumage in competition with the other males. Hobbes’ state of nature paints humanity as brutal and selfish at our core, and he argues that for civilization to work we must be stringently regulated by a governing body. Though perhaps, just as libertarian goddess Ayn Rand suggests we condition altruism out of our social psyche, we could condition out competitiveness instead, which would reduce the need for oversight.

Alternatively, an anthropologist might argue that our natural state is far more collaborative, and that competitivism is what is conditioned into us rather than its opposite. Things like sporting events would be less like cultural memes indicative of our biological impulses, and more like propaganda for a systemic imbalance alien to our intrinsic nature. The only reason our society functions the way it does would be because the winners have told us this is the way it must be. In either case, be it our natural state or not, competitivism needs to be wrested from our civilization, lest it turn it into ash.

Post-script: I am directly related to athletes, so I’m going to answer the question about whether the elimination of competition would eliminate sport altogether. It is a question of goals. Is testing the human capacity for speed and endurance a reasonable goal? Sure. Why not test our limits. Is putting a ball in a net a reasonable goal? No. That’s entirely arbitrary and pointless. Sports entertainment is sophistry in its original sense. If it is something worthwhile, then it ought to be worked towards collectively and collaboratively. Can you imagine what a collaborative hockey match would look like? It would be a bunch of players standing in front of an empty net trying to see how many pucks they could put in during the span of three 20 minute periods.