Monday, August 13, 2012

The Reprehensible Ethics that Underpin Paul Ryan's Politics

Now that Romney has chosen Paul Ryan as his running mate, I've decided to write briefly on the philosophy of Ayn Rand, whom Ryan credits as the inspiration for his policies and proposals.  I'm particularly concerned with Ryan's draconian budget proposal and his proposals to privatize Social Security and to eliminate Medicare and Medicaid.  There are many places where the budget and his other proposals are critiqued, but I want to write about Rand's philosophy.  Ryan's proposals are not merely compatible with Rand's philosophy, but he credits her philosophy as the bedrock of his own thought.  His only caveat is that he does not agree with her atheism.  My perspective on this is that there is much more about her philosophy that is antithetical to Christianity than her atheism, which is of absolutely no concern to me.

I've read Atlas Shrugged and several, but not all, of the essays that comprise The Virtue of Selfishness.  I find her explication of ethics as solely self-interest to be reprehensible.  She sums it up: "Man—every man—is an end in himself, not the means to the ends of others. He must exist for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself. The pursuit of his own rational self-interest and of his own happiness is the highest moral purpose of his life."  The Ayn Rand Institute adds this addendum, which is completely consistent with what I've read in The Virtue of Selfishness: "Thus Objectivism rejects any form of altruism—the claim that morality consists in living for others or for society."  

This, I think, is the antithesis of every form of spiritual wisdom, which she reviled, whatever the tradition.  I also wholeheartedly disagree with her metaphysics, epistemology, and politics, but mainly because they express her ethics, just from a different angle.

I do agree that one should not sacrifice others for oneself, but the systems that would be set up by objectivism do just that.  Just because an individual does not personally stand on the throat of another individual, that doesn't mean the systems set up don't function in that way for the benefit of the so-called "producers" over against the so-called "looters" or "moochers" Rand describes in Atlas Shrugged.

Rand's entire philosophy centers around the idea that an individual owes nothing to any other person or, even worse from the perspective of objectivism, to any group of people.  It sees everything that an individual owns as solely owned by that individual, with no social or societal obligation.  An individual may choose to provide care for another individual, usually a family member, but that is only because it is in the rational self-interest of the individual to continue genetically through offspring.  But, even then, it would be left up to the individual as to whether one extends care (functional care, not psychological feelings) or whether one withholds it.  Any other instance in which one sacrifices for others is ethically wrong, according to Rand.

A society grounded in this philosophy would be, in my estimation, a horror.  No other political philosopher (and I don't know of any actual philosophers who hold to objectivism) sees society in this manner, not the most optimistic about human beings and not the most pessimistic.  The Enlightenment political philosophers whose underpinnings are most responsible for the establishment of the modern democratic or republican state -- Kant, Hobbes, Locke, and Jefferson -- all speak of a social contract.  Hobbes, who was the most pessimistic about human nature, saw the state as a monster, hence _Leviathan_ as the title of his most well-known work, but a necessary monster to which individuals cede some measure of our autonomy (sovereignty) because the alternative, humanity in our "natural" state, is "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short."  That's what I see if any society were to embody Rand's objectivism, which is what Ryan would like to see.

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