A Civilized Human Being

Anton Chekhov once said that civilized human beings have compassion for other people besides beggars and cats. Their hearts suffer the pain of what is hidden to the naked eye. I think Ayn Rand fits this description. If her analysis of the human society is so perceptive, this is why. Even her most competent admirers do not really understand her controversial arguments because they do not even notice cruelty and fraud. They are not genuinely pained by it. Someone has to point it out to them. This is not a very productive way to learn.

I believe it is a lot like people not being able to read social cues intuitively. Someone has to point this out to them. That is an uphill struggle in which they might never really succeed because their direct introspective knowledge of their own mind is not much of a guide here. They have to use their intelligence and not their intuition. They might eventually understand why people act the way they do, but in a slightly different context, they will still not be able to apply what they had learned. The people with Asperger Syndrome are a good example.

For instance, rational people are surprised again and again when people do not respond to logical arguments. They are surprised again and again because they are deeply moved by logical arguments. They probably will never understand why others are not moved by them. To fully understand why, they will have to get inside others minds and read them. But, this is impossible to do. 

When an ordinary person tries to understand human evil through intelligence and not intuition, the struggle he goes through is similar. In the early 19th century, for instance, most people did not see anything wrong with slavery. If some people did not see slavery as wrong and evil, to be convinced, they might have had to attend to logical arguments against slavery. They might even need empirical evidence that slavery is counter-productive, and that releasing the slaves might not hurt slave-masters. Now, it might as well be true that they sincerely believe that slavery is economical. But, that does not explain why they do not see slaves as people. That does not explain why they cannot see that slaves have equal rights. If they do not notice it  themselves, they probably will never fully accept this. Seeing and accepting this when virtually no one else does is a mark of character strength.

Take Ayn rand’s view that capitalism should be defended on moral grounds and not that it leads to common good. It is monstrous to think that the primary argument for leaving people alone is that it leads to “common good” or some such thing. What happens to poor people or the society as a whole in a capitalistic society is totally irrelevant. But, most people who read her do not get this. It is hard for them , because they got locked into a tribal way of thinking early in their lives, and are probably genetically predisposed to do so.

When people read the black-and-white views of Rand, they often think that she is ranting or being uncharitable:

They do not want to own your fortune, they want you to lose it; they do not want to succeed, they want you to fail; they do not want to live, they want you to die; they desire nothing, they hate existence, and they keep running, each trying not to learn that the object of his hatred is himself.

But, I never doubted whether she was right in thinking so. I think her understanding of human natures comes from hard won experience in her life in Soviet Russia and during her years of struggle in the United States. People often claim that this cannot be true, but this does not have roots in their inner nobility. It is a sign of weak character, of dishonesty. For instance, I have noticed that many readers of my blog admit that my views on human nature are true. But, they go on to say that there is no point in saying this. But, a writer’s responsibility is to what he writes. It does not matter whether stating the truth is “pointless” or not. It does not matter whether stating such truths will make matters worse. As Satoshi Kanazawa said:

“As a scientist, as the Scientific Fundamentalist, I don’t care if people live or die. I just want to know why.”

Now, there seems to be empirical proof for Rand’s view. Bryan Caplan argues:

“Lyubomirsky ran an experiment where (a) participants were given a task, (b) a performance rating, and (c) their partner’s performance rating.  The catch: The so-called “performance ratings” had nothing to do with performance.  They were randomly assigned to measure subjects’ response to social comparison.  Lyubomirsky:

After they were finished, we created a small deception by leading each volunteer to believe that he or she had performed very poorly on this task (that is, that they received an average rating from judges of 2 out of 7), but also to believe that the second volunteer had performed even worse than they had (receiving a disappointing rating of only 1).  By contrast, a second group of volunteers were led to believe that they had performed extremely well (having obtained an average score of 6 out of 7), but that their peer had performed even better (receiving an outstanding score of 7)…

At first, the findings seem banal:

To analyze the data, I divided my participants into those who, before performing, reported being very happy and those who reported being relatively unhappy.  When I examined the “before” and “after” data of my very happy participants, I found that those who learned that they had performed very poorly reported feeling less positive, less confident, and more sad after the study was over.  Their reaction to ostensible failure was perfectly natural and not at all surprising.  By contrast, the very happy participants who learned that they had performed extremely well (a 6 out of 7) subsequently felt better on all dimensions, and, notably, learning that someone did even better did not dilute the pleasure of their ostensible success.

Then things turn Randian:

The results for my unhappiest participants, however, were dramatic.  Their reactions, it appears, were governed more by the reviews they had given their peers than by their own feedback.  Indeed, the study paints a stark and quite unpleasant portrait of an unhappy person.  My unhappiest volunteers reported feeling happier and more secure when they received a poor evaluation (but heard that their peer did even worse) than when they had received an excellent evaluation (but heard that their peer did even better).  It appears that unhappy individuals have bought into the sardonic maxim attributed to Gore Vidal: “For true happiness, it is not enough to be successful oneself… One’s friends must fail.”

Rand’s positive theory of happiness is largely wrong, as she could have readily discovered by carefully attending to her own bitter experiences.  But lets look on Rand’s bright side.  Outlandish though they seem, empirical psych supports some of her most Manichean accusations.

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