Ayn Rand? Not right, yet not wrong.
I remember a Hawkwind album I used to listen to years ago that is probably somewhere in my mother’s garage now. In it a disaster was being described and the advice to those fleeing was that if they thought about their own safety first then their chances of survival would be heightened. This does make sense, in daily life I have on numerous occasions had to try and find a happy median to choose a course of action in the light of everybody trying to accommodate each other and nobody being fully happy with the result. What would have given everyone the greatest happiness would be another course of action that they would have hit on immediately if they had not been trying to do the best for another.
In this way it can be seen that thinking selfishly as suggested by the theories of Ayn Rand can sometimes be a good idea. I have not read more than a paragraph or two of Ayn Rand’s writings but I have read a lot of commentary on them and she believed that where there was risk to one’s own self then it was immoral to take that risk for the benefit of others. I am not going to take a polemical stance against this as I am sure that in many instances she is right. When a house is on fire I am certain that there are often times when rescuers put themselves into harm by seeking to save someone who had already left at the first sign of smoke or had never been there in the first place. In this scenario Ayn Rand’s philosophy works perfectly for the utmost benefit. However if there is someone in the house and they can be saved and the risk may be great but the actual damage that is fated to occur to a rescuer will never materialise then Ayn Rand’s philosophy is seriously flawed.
This is the problem with the promotion of selfishness as a philosophy, it is like all other philosophies, a great idea but not necessarily practical. Marx had a fantastic philosophy but no practical plan of how it could work; the result is that Russia decided to make use of his philosophy themselves and what they created was not a utopian society but rather a massive and costly sociological experiment that proved what looks good on paper might be a complete shambles when exposed to the variety of real life.
Likewise the free market is a brilliant philosophy. It is so simple, the ultimate form of democracy, the public pay for what they want and the public will get it at the cheapest possible prices with the ultimate efficiency. The problem as any economist will be able to tell you is that it relies on perfect competition to live up to the textbook ideal. Perfect competition can only exist with total knowledge of the value of what is being purchased. Many of the average people out there might have very good knowledge of who the probable killer in the latest drama series is but they will not possess total knowledge of all the factors that are relevant to the decisions they would need to make a fully informed choice on buying so much as the bare staples needed to remain alive.
The customer might know that a loaf of bread from one shop is £1 and from the shop down the road it is £1.10. They may also know how tasty one is compared to the other, and nowadays they might have relative ideas about how healthy one loaf is compared to another. However, when you start to put dozens of loaves on the shelves then it is not so easy to draw accurate distinctions between them. Looking a little more deeply it is impossible to know the effect on the product due to things like genetic modification as the tests needed to know this sort of thing have not even been taken to conclusive enough a result as to satisfy the scientists performing the tests. Further what sort of effect will this have on the environment in which the materials are grown? What effect will this have on the greater environment? What about relative effects of transportation policies? Side investments made by the producers? The list of variables needed to make a fully informed decision is so great that if we were to objectively analyse the purchase of a loaf of bread we would be dead a long time before we had worked out which one we should buy.
Listening to Leonard White of Duke University’s medical department the other day I was led to thinking about the frontal lobes within the brain. Leonard White discussed historical cases in which this area had been damaged. One of the functions of this area of the brain is the making of decisions and people who had become damaged there would find the greatest difficulty in making decisions. They might have all pertinent facts but still be unable to weigh their worth. This area is also responsible for many emotional reactions and it is therefore probable that the ultimate factor to take into account when making a decision is an instinctive one based upon what feels right emotionally. It occurred to me that this was the area of the brain in which the third eye is located; the area that is focussed upon in many meditations and the area that tends to become stimulated in many meditations even though they may have another focus. It further struck me that those who do spend all their time meditating are not necessarily wealthy or leaders of business but they are often envied by so many other people because this is not an issue. They seem happy; those who meditate seem to make all the right decisions to get what they need to create happiness within themselves. It doesn’t matter how successful you are in material things, if you are not happy then it is not worth much to you. Whereas it does not matter how poor you are materially, if you are happy then you have won.
Priests and holy people who stimulate this area with their meditation seem to spend a lot of their time helping others. This is immoral where there is any risk to their own welfare according to Ayn Rand but then Rand’s philosophy only works adequately where knowledge is mythically complete. In the absence of complete knowledge, far beyond our current level of intellectual evolution, it is necessary to fall back on other brain functions that can process the available information more efficiently that surface consciousness. Those functions have been shown to be covered by the frontal cortex.
In 2005 the Ayn Rand institute began an appeal against helping Tsunami victims as according to Rand’s philosophy this would be the wrong approach. Of course this appeal was based upon incomplete information because there is no way to know what effect on future international trade and national prosperity could be had from getting that country back on its feet as soon as possible. In fact there is no way of knowing how much information the subconscious brain uses to make its decisions beyond conscious thought. Those who look into paranormal and other esoterica might even consider that the subconscious brain of some individuals may even be privy to the knowledge that one individual who could be helped by a handout may go on to be the discoverer of a cure for cancer. Even if this is pushing such potential foresight too far to be feasible it is nevertheless an undeniable possibility in the modern global world.
Ultimately this has all been a very long way of saying that when making decisions about the effect that your actions and beliefs may have on the world it is impossible to make these decisions consciously. By all means learn as much as you can consciously as every extra bit of information aids decision making but ultimately the most successful and honest decisions are the ones made with the greatest aid by the one organ that has been shown as essential to decision making, the frontal cortex. Essentially you should do what you feel is right. No matter how clever you are by the standards of our ultimate potential you are an idiot; by the standards of how clever we need to be to make important decisions you are an idiot; as has been shown by the inability of those with damaged frontal cortexes, by the standards of your own brain sans emotional decision making parts, you are an idiot. That is why you should do what you feel and know and believe to be right, not what you think is right.
Posted on April 25, 2013, in Economics, Philosophy, Uncategorized and tagged altruism, Ayn Rand, economics, frontal cortex, generosity, helping, meditation, selfishness. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.