Quote of the week...please share your favourite line from Ayn Rand's writings

“Happiness is that state of consciousness which proceeds from the achievement of one's values.”

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Change in Schedule for the next Atlas Meet in Delhi

Please note, the monthly Atlas Meet in Delhi will not take place this Saturday owing to the Christmas and New Year holidays. Instead, the next meet will now take place in the new year on the third Friday of the month, that is on 15 January 2010. Please note the change in day and week and mark your diaries accordingly.

15th January 2010

5 pm - 7.45 pm

The Agenda

Session I
5 pm - 6 pm: Savor Ayn Rand's philosophy and study her ideas. Discussions shall take place on topics of interest to those present.

6.15 pm - 6.45 pm: Tea and snacks break. Those interested in coming in only for one session, could arrive or depart during this time.

Session II
6.45 pm - 7.45 pm: Discussions on ways to spread Ayn Rand's ideas amongst students -
i) continuation of discussions on ideas mooted in previous meetings (Organizing talks in schools through personal contacts).
ii) other ideas for promoting the same.

The Venue
inlingua International School of Languages,
N-12, first floor,
South Extension - Part I

It is an open meeting - anyone interested in Ayn Rand's ideas is welcome.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

A report on the 5th Atlas Meet - Delhi

The 5th Atlas Meet in Delhi took place on Saturday, 28th November. It was much like the previous one - a small, cosy gathering of familiar faces. In attendance were Poonam, Vikram and Arun.

The discussion touched upon topics from the last meeting, but the hot new issue was the Mumbai attacks of last year. The first anniversary of the attacks had just gone by two days before we met. All agreed that even after one year, the government had done nothing much to secure our borders or our cities, and another carnage was just as likely.
One point of view was that we should have become like a fortress by now, with a fenced border and heavily patrolled coastline. But the other view was that a country like ours is too vast a space to fortify. Therefore, the only effective response to such attacks is to go after the states that sponsor terror, and strike at the root of the problem.
That being said, it was agreed that India was presently in no economic or military state to do so - specially given the encirclement of it that China has accomplished through several client states. That leaves only Uncle Sam with the wherewithal to do something. But, given the developments of the past eight years, it lacks the will to do much.
Sadly, the conclusion reached was that there was no option for us in India but to sit tight, lick our wounds, try and grow strong, and wait for the equation to change over the next fifteen to twenty years.
As the group moved to the cafeteria, and to the ever-present tea and Samosas, the talk veered towards ways of sustaining the Atlas Meet initiative. A suggestion, put forward by Arun, was that we could look at shifting the Meets to the 3rd Friday of the month, as Saturdays (specially 4th Saturdays) were invariably a holiday and many do not want to make the journey into town when they have other family commitments.
On that note, the meeting was concluded.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Mankind's First Heroes

While reading the story of man’s evolution recently, I got a fresh perspective on how accurate Ayn Rand’s understanding of human nature was. I learnt that the earliest steps in mankind’s ascent from ‘ape-man’ to human consisted of the development of those very skills that Rand considered distinctly human.

According to this article, the first one in a book titled ‘Time’ (The Life Science Library – 2nd edition), the reason why even the most intelligent animals are a complete evolutionary plane below man is because they cannot project a future and act for it. They only act when an action is necessitated by an immediate impulse, need or threat. The earliest ancestors of man graduated from this level in gentle steps, but the most obvious indication that their mental skills had gone beyond what any animal possessed was when they developed the ability to make crude tools to prepare for a later hunt.

Think about it – this is probably the most significant step in the history of man’s development. Simply the act of sharpening crude stone pieces to make the earliest tools reveals that man’s ancestor had some knowledge of identity (the properties of a sharp stone make it more effective for a hunt) and causality (what happens when a sharp tool hits an animal). However, when he learnt to make his tools in the evening for the next day’s hunt, with the animal not in front of his eyes, he could now separate an action from its consequences, which meant that he could act without an immediate impulse or need, for a benefit still in his future. This act of working for the future shows that early man had developed his ability to conceptualize his understanding about tools and animals. Conceptualizing allowed him to retain his knowledge, recall it whenever he wanted and think about it. This was man’s giant leap of evolution – the ability to form concepts opened the door to infinite knowledge and achievement. Several hundred thousand years later, man began to develop language to identify his concepts, and therefore talk about things he had seen, experiences he had had and things he wanted to do. At about the same time he also applied his conceptual ability to learn how to tame fire. These two skills dramatically improved his ability to survive and flourish. Ayn Rand did not provide or use any reference to this historical context, yet she considered this very ability to conceptualize as man’s distinct characteristic and means of survival, on which both his knowledge and his life continue to depend.

The ability to conceptualize also involved another crucial skill for early man that has been indicated above, and that is also central to Ayn Rand’s vision of a human being: the ability to project a goal in the future. With an effort of his will and a conscious decision, man’s ancestor was no longer a slave to the present. He had learnt to control and manage time. In fact, the first man who decided that he was going to use his evening to make tools for his tomorrow can perhaps be considered John Galt’s grandfather. He brought all his knowledge and ability to bear upon an action that was dictated by a productive goal as far into the future as he could possibly envision. He integrated his past knowledge with his present, and his present with his future, and he could not have done it any better. The lesson he taught his brothers was one that would eventually allow man to fire rockets to the moon. Though not yet man himself, he was mankind’s first hero.

All the heroes Ayn Rand created were rational human beings who set a productive goal for their respective futures as the central value of their lives, and then weighed their actions according to whether they helped them achieve their goal or whether they thwarted it. It was such human beings who consolidated early man’s position on this earth as the dominant species. After making tools for a hunt, someone invented tools to make other tools. Then someone organized his brothers to gather fuel for the night’s fire. Then someone decided that summer was when they should make some form of garments for the winter. Had it not been for such people, mankind would have either stagnated or gone extinct.

There are people who make the mistake of thinking that it was some kind of automatic instinct which led man to necessarily use the conceptual ability that he had acquired with his growing brain. In other words, they think that it was inevitable in an automatic sort of a way. However, there are enough people in today’s world to prove such a thought process wrong. Even now there are those who cannot project a future and work for it, who live range of the moment and don’t have a time sense further evolved than early man. Consider, as an example, any thug, hedonist or loafer. Strip these people naked, transport them back 500,000 years, and they would have lived like stagnant savages, and died at the first sign of trouble. This brings back yet another lesson learnt from Rand: ‘man has to be man by choice.’ Change the tense, and you have: ‘man had to be man by choice’. The fact that he exercised it is why the ancestor finally became man, as we know him now.

Thanksgiving season is still in the air; perhaps we should all offer our thanks to mankind’s earliest heroes!

‘Emerging India’ – The Same Old Story…

If you live in a country long enough, you observe qualities about its people, administration, culture, economics and the kind of life it offers. It is hard for any Indian to miss a certain predominant characteristic about their homeland: glaring contradiction. Technically, ‘contradiction’ is not a characteristic, but an identification of a particular kind of relation between different qualities. Nevertheless, as a concept it serves well to identify the haphazard mix of opposing and contrasting forces that are at play in this nation. At one level its leaders miss no opportunity to present it as an emerging superpower, at another level it has a poverty count comparable to sub-Saharan Africa; at one level there is talk of brilliant minds, at another level it presents a hollow education structure topped by a largely defunct university system; a concern in limited pockets about justice and the rule of law is mocked openly by vast tracts of utter lawlessness; an emerging business district flaunting promising towers of glass and concrete (read Gurgaon) stands at the end of unkempt, rickety roads strewn with potholes – one could go on, but it is not a very agreeable prospect.

Perhaps this is why it doesn’t come as a very remarkable surprise to anybody when they read a news item that says that Rs 204 crore of taxpayers’ money per annum has been feeding over 22,000 bogus employees in the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD). An American would probably be shocked at the apathy with which such a news item is received. Of course, a system of unearned benefits is a long running tradition in India, courtesy its socialist background, and every time someone makes an attempt to overhaul such a structure, vehement protests follow (try removing any class from the ‘scheduled caste’ category).

The only way principled consistency can combine with sustained progress in India is if it accepts the principles of individual rights, rule of law and limited government, and its administration works sincerely to put these principles into practice. If this happened, one would not confront such a piece of news ever again.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Intellectual Ammunition for the Fight Against Government Control

While browsing recently, I stumbled upon a series of short lectures that should be of great interest to those who follow any Ayn Rand forum. The videos were recorded from the ‘intellectual ammunition strategy session’, co-hosted by The Ayn Rand Center for Individual Rights and The Competitive Enterprise Institute in Washington, DC on September the 11th. This session was held to offer the September 12 Washington, DC tea party protesters better knowledge and a wider understanding of the ideas they were fighting for and those they were fighting against. Many speakers spoke at the event, and the entire session is available here in a series of five videos (30-45 minutes each).

I have viewed the first session so far, and found it extremely engaging. Lin Zinser, vice president of the Ayn Rand Center, introduced the session and she was followed by the first speaker, CEI senior fellow Iain Murray. He spoke on the historical background of the original tea party protests that took place in the years leading up to the American independence. What he revealed was a fascinating aspect of history that I had no idea about. In tracing the British roots of the American struggle for individual rights, he revealed that the battle for individual freedom goes back as far as 1381, with the peasant revolt in London. From there he built up a fascinating story, covering those important moments in British history that finally led to a recognition of the rule of law and the rights of the individual, and also culminated in the American tea party protests and, finally, the American independence.

Viewing this talk is a wonderful opportunity to find out how the common classes of Britain revolted, time and again, against government influence. However, in the absence of any substantial ideas on limited government and liberty, these early protests, according to Murray, were the result of an almost instinctive perception of injustice. Eventually, though, the ideas that had sprung with these modest beginnings, found their way into the British parliament, and, thanks to John Locke, into the mainstream of philosophical and political thought. Finally, the notion of individual rights and limited government traveled across the Atlantic, and was adopted and developed further by the founding fathers of the American constitution.

Click here to view how Murray, like a historical detective, traces back the path of liberty.

An Article on Ayn Rand's Influence in India

The ‘Ayn Rand in India’ initiative was mentioned for the first time in the media recently, in an article written by author Jennifer Burns. The article titled ‘Howard Roark in Delhi, appears on the Foreign Policy magazine website.

In this article, Burns traces the popularity that Rand enjoys in India. She has mentioned that outside the US, Indians perform the maximum number of Google searches on Ayn Rand. This is a bit of news that a lot of us may not have been aware of. The other interesting fact she provides is that unlike the US, the most popular Rand book in India is not Atlas Shrugged. Instead, it is her earlier novel, The Fountainhead. Think about it a little bit, and this is probably not surprising. For one, The Fountainhead is a much easier read. Besides, the explosion of popularity that Atlas has seen in the US is largely linked to their current economic and political context. Everyone is talking about the similarities between the world of Atlas and the US of today. A lot of Indians haven’t explored such an angle, and Atlas Shrugged largely remains a staple only for the serious Rand aficionado.

Burns’ article has a couple of contentious aspects to it as well. First of all, she suggests that the reason why so many Indians have an interest in Ayn Rand is because Rand is representative of the wave of modernization that has swept the cities. With the collectivist past left behind, and traditional family and community ties breaking, individuals seeking fresh answers are drawn towards Rand. Consider her comment –

“As modern India continues to undergo seismic economic and cultural shifts … Rand is emerging as a touchstone for a new generation. For many Indians, she is a tonic of modernization, helping to inspire a break with India's collectivist, socialist past.”

And –

Rand's celebration of independence and personal autonomy has proven to be powerfully subversive in a culture that places great emphasis on conforming to the dictates of family, religion, and tradition.

While there may be a lot of people in India for whom the influence of Rand was crucial in stepping out of the shadows of collectivism and traditional bonds, I’m not sure that this historical and cultural context sums up the reason why so many people in India are attracted to Rand. There may be just as many Indians who have been drawn to Rand even though they haven’t lived under collectivist or stifling family influences (myself being one). That is the power of an author who presents universal truths that are not related to one specific time period or cultural context.

Additionally, I don’t think that the modernization that India has encountered represents Ayn Rand’s ideas, even though individualism and free markets are stronger forces than before. The vision of life and man’s potential she presents is missing as much from the ‘modern’ environment, as from the traditional one. The business world in India hardly upholds Rand’s notions of rational selfishness, creative ingenuity and uncompromising integrity. If we look at cultural values, films or art, it is not much different. Rand’s vision of a proud, heroic man who is self-sustaining and fearless is rarely to be savored. So, I don’t think Rand is a ‘tonic of modernization’. She cannot be considered a part of any larger movement that we see in India. In fact, a modern individual in India will find just as radical an alternative in Rand, as a traditional one.

The other contentious point of this article is Burns’ identification of Rand’s philosophy as a development of ‘libertarianism.’ Considering how much Rand hated what ‘libertarianism’ stood for in her time, she would certainly not have appreciated this kind of an analysis. Click here for Rand’s views on libertarianism.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

The 5th Monthly Atlas Meet, Delhi

The monthly Atlas Meet in Delhi will take place, as usual, on the fourth Saturday of November, that is on the 28th of November. Please mark your diaries.

28th November 2009

5 pm - 7.45 pm

The Agenda

Session I
5 pm - 6 pm: Savor Ayn Rand's philosophy and study her ideas. Discussions shall take place on topics of interest to those present.

6.15 pm - 6.45 pm: Tea and snacks break. Those interested in coming in only for one session, could arrive or depart during this time.

Session II
6.45 pm - 7.45 pm: Discussions on ways to spread Ayn Rand's ideas amongst students -
i) continuation of discussions on ideas mooted in the last meeting (Organizing talks in schools through personal contacts).
ii) other ideas for promoting the same.

The Venue
inlingua International School of Languages,
N-12, first floor,
South Extension - Part I

It is an open meeting - anyone interested in Ayn Rand's ideas is welcome. If you're planning to attend, it would be helpful if you let us know through the comments column below. You may call Vikram on 9810028900 for directions.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Objectivism: Looking at spirituality

Objectivism seeks to provide a broad philosophy relevant for living on this earth. Religions were an early attempt by man at providing a basis for life and living, not limited to this earth, since some also suggested possible rewards in some other world beyond this one! How does objectivism look at religion and spiritualism?

There is a recent comment posted on this blog in which the author seeks to draw a parallel between Objectivism and Christian ideas. And I have heard from quite a few people who felt that Hindu or Vedic philosophy has strands that run parallel to objectivism.

It would be interesting to discuss this issue. Here are a few passages from The Fountainhead, regarding the temple that Howard Roard built to the spirit of man, that illustrate how Ayn Rand looked at spirituality and religion.

In the novel, Hopton Stoddard, tutored by Ellsworth Toohey, convinces Howard Roark to undertake the design of the temple by saying,

Hopton Stoddard: "You are a profoundly religious man, Mr. Roark - in your own way. I can see that in your building."
Howard Roark: "That's true."
Ayn Rand described the temple as,

scaled to human height in such a manner that it did not dwarf man, but stood as a setting that made his figure the only absolute, the gauge of perfection by which all dimensions were to be judged. When a man entered this temple, he would feel space molded around him, for him, as if it had waited for his entrance, to be completed. It was a joyous place, with the joy of exaltation that must be quiet. It was a place where one would come to feel sinless and strong, to find the peace of spirit never granted save by one’s own glory.

Following the construction, Roark was sued by Stoddard for failing to build a temple. Toohey contrasted Roark's vision of a temple to the commonly held belief.

Toohey proved that the Stoddard Temple contradicted every brick, stone and precept of history. ‘[T]he two essentials of the conception of a temple are a sense of awe and a sense of man’s humility . . . tend[ing] to impress upon man his essential insignificance, to crush him by sheer magnitude, to imbue him with that sacred terror which leads to the meekness of virtue. The Stoddard Temple is . . . an insolent ‘No’ flung in the face of history.
At the trial, Dominique Francon, whose statue was at the heart of the temple, appeared as a witness for Stoddard (the plaintiff) . While testifying against Roark, she described the temple as,

Howard Roark built a temple to the human spirit. He saw man as strong, proud, clean, wise and fearless. He saw man as a heroic being. And he built a temple to that. A temple is a place where man is to experience exaltation. He thought that exaltation comes from the consciousness of being guiltless, of seeing the truth and achieving it, of living up to one’s highest possibility, of knowing no shame and having no cause for shame, of being able to stand naked in full sunlight. He thought that exaltation means joy and that joy is man’s birthright. He thought that a place built as a setting for man is a sacred place. That is what Howard Roark thought of man and of exaltation.
Towards the end of The Fountainhead, Howard Roark, in his speech at his trial for blasting Cortland said: “From this simplest necessity to the highest religious abstraction, from the wheel to the skyscraper, everything we are and everything we have comes from a single attribute of man—the function of his reasoning mind.”

This sentence has been a point of discussion for a long time. Ayn Rand in her introduction to the 25th anniversary issue of The Fountainhead had dwelt on this line.

This could be misinterpreted to mean an endorsement of religion or religious ideas. I remember hesitating over that sentence, when I wrote it, and deciding that Roark’s and my atheism, as well as the overall spirit of the book, were so clearly established that no one would misunderstand it, particularly since I said that religious abstractions are the product of man’s mind, not of supernatural revelation.

But an issue of this sort should not be left to implications. What I was referring to was not religion as such, but a special category of abstractions, the most exalted one, which, for centuries, had been the near-monopoly of religion: ethics—not the particular content of religious ethics, but the abstraction “ethics,” the realm of values, man’s code of good and evil, with the emotional connotations of height, uplift, nobility, reverence, grandeur, which pertain to the realm of man’s values, but which religion has arrogated to itself . . .

Religion’s monopoly in the field of ethics has made it extremely difficult to communicate the emotional meaning and connotations of a rational view of life. Just as religion has pre-empted the field of ethics, turning morality against man, so it has usurped the highest moral concepts of our language, placing them outside this earth and beyond man’s reach. “Exaltation” is usually taken to mean an emotional state evoked by contemplating the supernatural. “Worship” means the emotional experience of loyalty and dedication to something higher than man. “Reverence” means the emotion of a sacred respect, to be experienced on one’s knees. “Sacred” means superior to and not-to-be-touched-by any concerns of man or of this earth. Etc.

But such concepts do name actual emotions, even though no supernatural dimension exists; and these emotions are experienced as uplifting or ennobling, without the self-abasement required by religious definitions. What, then, is their source or referent in reality? It is the entire emotional realm of man’s dedication to a moral ideal. Yet apart from the man-degrading aspects introduced by religion, that emotional realm is left unidentified, without concepts, words or recognition.

It is this highest level of man’s emotions that has to be redeemed from the murk of mysticism and redirected at its proper object: man.

- “Introduction to The Fountainhead,” The Objectivist, March 1968

At another place, Ayn Rand writes,
Philosophy is the goal toward which religion was only a helplessly blind groping. The grandeur, the reverence, the exalted purity, the austere dedication to the pursuit of truth, which are commonly associated with religion, should properly belong to the field of philosophy.
- “The Chickens’ Homecoming,” in the Return of the Primitive: The Anti-Industrial Revolution

Here are two additional links that might be useful to refer to while discussing this issue.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Pouring Into Two New Biographies on Ayn Rand

Since there has been such a resurgence of interest in Ayn Rand’s ideas in the US, it is no surprise that there are a lot more people curious about Ayn Rand, the person. And it is a curiosity that now has two fresh answers in the form of ‘Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the Conservative Right’ by Jennifer Burns, and ‘Ayn Rand and the World She Made’ by Anne C. Heller. Both these simultaneously released books are biographical works about the iconic author, and from the reviews and interviews I have read, there are a few reasons why they will both make for some very interesting reading.

For one, neither of the two writers were personal associates of Rand, unlike Nathaniel Branden, Barbara Branden, Mary Ann Sures and Leonard Peikoff, who have all given some account of Rand, the person. As a result, instead of being fully or partially in the form of memoirs, these books are wholly biographical. While they don’t have the inimitable insight of someone who has directly known and observed the subject, the advantage is that they are both based on thorough research. Both the authors have been commended for the pains they have been through to reconstruct every little detail of Rand’s life, right from her early days in Russia. And Jennifer Burns, a rigorous academic, and Anne Heller, a journalist, had the skills to bring forth previously unknown (or little known) details. According to reviews, Anne scores with Ayn Rand’s early life. She actually investigated in Russia itself, trying to trace whatever leads there were to Rand’s youth. The previously known sketchy details have been fleshed out to reveal a total picture. Burns, on the other hand, spent years going through every written word Rand ever wrote, including unpublished letters and journals. She had access to all of Rand’s original writing in the Ayn Rand archives, and uses this first hand opportunity to pour into the author’s personality. They both conducted several hundred hours of interviews, and so the word goes, are the first to come up with a comprehensive factual presentation of Rand’s life and the Objectivist movement that grew around her.

The other aspect of this that would interest readers is that neither Jennifer Burns nor Anne Heller have anything to do with Objectivism, as a philosophical system and movement. Neither of them have been significantly influenced by Rand in the development of their lives and minds, and they don’t count themselves amongst Objectivists. In fact, they are not only the first ones outside this movement to comment on Rand’s life, but also the first ones outside it to comment on the various splits, irreconcilable differences and divisions that have plagued Objectivism. As a result, one does not have any reason to suspect a motivation to distort facts. And since, according to reviews, both the books are fact oriented, for the first time one may have a complete account to make a clear, informed judgment about the Rand-Branden split and the series of divisions that followed.

Talking about facts, Burns brings up a disturbing one when she writes that Rand’s original text published in The Journals of Ayn Rand and other posthumous publications has been altered in several places without any editorial comment or note. She has mentioned some of these changes, and given evidence of how, at some places, the original meaning has been significantly altered. Eventually, she concludes, most of the posthumous publications cannot be treated as authentically from Rand’s pen. This is a very serious criticism leveled at those managing Ayn Rand’s estate. However, she also mentions that she was impressed with the professionalism with which the Ayn Rand Archives are currently being managed.

Importantly, they have both come in for serious criticism from Objectivists on their assertions about Rand’s writing style, the purpose and content of her philosophy and her personality. It seems that both books have an underlying tragic tone. But these are not necessarily the reasons why someone well-versed with Rand’s philosophy should dismiss these biographies. Rand’s philosophy and writing style are no mystery, and one doesn’t need these books to make a judgment. What these supposedly offer are clear facts about Rand’s life, which, if true, is an invaluable contribution for those interested in the mind that conceived of Atlas Shrugged.

Here are some useful resources for those interested in finding out more about both these books:

  1. Here is the Amazon page devoted to Anne Heller’s book. It has an interview with the author.
  2. Here is a New York Times comparative review of both the biographies.
  3. Here is a very detailed and well-constructed criticism of Jennifer Burns’ book by writer Jeff Perren.
  4. Here is an article based on an interview with Jennifer Burns.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Writing on the Wall: Fall of the Berlin Wall

The Ayn Rand Centre for Individual Rights, has three thought provoking videos on the implications and impact of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. In a two part video "The Berlin Wall", Debi Ghate interviews Yaron Brook and Onkar Ghate on the history of the Berlin Wall, and the meaning of its fall.

There is another short video "The Day Communism Crumbled: Remembering the Fall of the Berlin Wall", where Yaron Brook discusses what the Berlin Wall stood for.

My limited technical skills did not allow me to embed the videos directly from this blog!

I am trying to compile a list of interesting and stimulating material commemorating the fall of the Wall twenty years ago. Would be great if you could share other relevant items that you may find, and post a link from our blog.

Here are a few more audio-visual links.
  • Competitive Enterprise Institute marking the occasion in this video on YouTube.
  • Cafe Hayek lists these two videos, on Reason-TV and an earlier interview of FA Hayek himself discussing socialism on YouTube.
  • Reuters news agency has a slide show on the 20th anniversary celebrations in Berlin.
  • BBC has a special page on the history, the events leading to its fall, and the present.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Fall of the Berlin Wall, 1989

November 9, 2009, is the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. The 150 km long Wall divided Germany, both physically and ideologically, for four decades. The fall of the Wall, triggered a political earthquake that signaling the demise of the communist tyranny in eastern Europe, and beyond. Following is my contribution on the occasion.

Communism was characterized by its contempt for private property, by the complete control of the state over the economy, and consequently, by its disregard for price as a signal of scarcity and guide for investment. Over the past two years, the foundation of global finance has been shaken, not because of any Marxian foresight, but because of the failure on the part of the capitalist world to appreciate the relationship between property ownership and valuation of that property.
To read, please visit In Defence of Liberty, "Berlin Wall 1989: Collapse of Communism - Lesson for Capitalism"

A version of the same article is published in the Financial Express newspaper, titled "Writing on the Wall", on Nov 10, 2009

A Debate on the Definition of Selfishness

Recently, I wrote a piece on my understanding of what Ayn Rand really meant by 'selfishness', and the difference between 'selfishness' and 'rational selfishness.' According to me a lot of Ayn Rand's readers mis-understand these concepts.

Interestingly, Vikram Bajaj, who is also on this network, disagrees completely with my understanding of these concepts, even while neither of us claim to diverge from the position that Rand took on this matter. I thought that posting my own view here, followed by the correspondence that Vikram and I have had on this matter (and may continue to), might be of interest to a lot of other people.

To begin with, here is a relevant excerpt from my article. Bear in mind that it is a bit longer than the regular blog post:

"In her introduction to ‘The Virtue of Selfishness’, Ayn Rand re-defined ‘selfishness’. In popular usage, and most dictionary definitions, the word ‘selfish’ denotes a person exclusively concerned with his/her own interests at the expense of others, or at best, with complete disregard for others. The image it brings to mind is of “a mindless brute who tramples over piles of corpses to achieve his own end”, or some other hedonistic monster. For most people, in order to condemn anyone, it is enough to say that they are ‘selfish.’ Ayn Rand freed ‘selfishness’ from this kind of a moral evaluation and from any judgment on how one treats others. She defined it, simply, as “concern with one’s own interests.”

However, the common misconception is that Ayn Rand replaced the negative moral evaluation contained in the conventional definition of selfishness (‘disregard for others’/ ‘at the expense of others’), with a positive one. Readers believe that the word ‘selfishness’, according to Ayn Rand, is a concept that denotes a rational, independent person concerned with his own properly defined, long term, rational self-interest. In other words, it conceptually subsumes every virtue of the Objectivist ethics. Just the word must evoke the image of someone like John Galt or Howard Roark. However, just like popular usage, this too is an error, albeit of the opposite kind.

Bear in mind that Ayn Rand did not define selfishness as a ‘heroic concern with one’s own interests’, or a ‘concern with one’s own rationally defined, long-term interests’. There is no evaluation of the kind of concern and action (whether rational or irrational, short-term or long-term) contained in her definition itself. It simply identifies the beneficiary of one’s own concern and actions: oneself. Altruism also identifies the beneficiary of one’s own concern and actions: others. The concept of selfishness is not meant to evoke the image of a mindless brute or a rational human being. Choosing one of these images means that one has incorporated a view of how someone acts, not just who benefits.

Some people accept that Ayn Rand’s definition of ‘selfishness’ does not subsume the Objectivist ethics, however, implicitly or explicitly, they think that it necessarily implies it. Accordingly, ‘selfishness’ must lead to a concern with one’s own ‘rational self-interest’, or ‘rational egoism’. Therefore, once again, it is enough to simply call John Galt selfish. This is not accurate either. The term ‘rational self-interest’ identifies a system of values based on a proper standard. Concern with it means that one discovers the objective standard and identifies the universal values that adhere to it, without contradiction or error. It requires consistent, disciplined thinking. Just because one’s intention is that one benefits from one’s own actions, it does not necessarily cause the recognition of this particular code of values. There is no such guarantee.

Confusing ‘selfishness’ with ‘rational selfihsness’ is confusing a subjective intent with an objective concept (‘rational selfishness’ requires the objective definition of man’s actual self-interest). In recognizing selfishness as a virtue, one simply accepts the fact that one’s own concern for one’s self-interest is morally valid and good. The fact that one accepts this, is a pre-condition to discovering what constitutes one’s proper, long-term self-interest. In that sense, ‘selfishness’ is a moral starting point for an individual. The end is ‘rational selfishness.’ This is why Objectivist scholars constantly refer to rational self-interest, or rational selfishness as Ayn Rand’s code of ethics.

Bear in mind that a person who drives recklessly on the road and jumps traffic lights for thrills (while endangering others in the process) also acts on what he perceives to be his self-interest. However, the selfishness he is practicing is vicious, irrational and range-of-the-moment. While it is not proper to simply say that he is being selfish, this is not to say that one can’t at all use the word ‘selfish’ for him. If one uses the word ‘selfish’, one has to qualify it (‘rational’ selfishness vs ‘irrational’ selfishness).

To sum up, I think that the word ‘selfish’ itself neither ought to depict brutish irrationality nor heroic rationality. The definition itself must remain morally neutral."

I have included the correspondence I've had with Vikram till now in the comments section below.

Is The Nobel Prize an Honor?

Since I’m aware of the dubious history of the Nobel Peace Prize, I wasn’t one of those people left aghast by the choice of the Norwegian committee to award it to Barrack Obama three weeks ago. Unfortunately, there was no reason to expect a more rational choice from them. However, it makes sense to understand exactly why that choice is wrong, especially since Obama still has over three years left in office. And possibly, another four to follow… On this matter, I came across a pertinent article titled ‘The Nobel War-is-Peace Prize’ by Edward Hudgins, a scholar at the Objectivist Center.

In his article, Hudgins offers a ruthless criticism of some of the explicitly stated reasons for which Obama received the prize and of Obama’s policies themselves. While the arguments and criticisms are very broadly generalized and may be a little difficult to follow for those who are not familiar with Ayn Rand’s perspective on the nature of a rational government, individual rights and socialism, this is not to doubt that Hudgins’ essential assessment is, in fact, accurate. He has made it clear why neither Obama nor the Nobel Peace Committee truly represent peace.

In fact, here I have quoted some of the reasons offered by the committee for choosing Obama. The comments that follow are mine.

Dialogue and negotiations are preferred as instruments for resolving even the most difficult international conflicts.”

So, is America expected to sit across a conference table and ‘negotiate’ with irrational terror regimes such as Iran, North Korea, Hamas and the Taliban, that would embrace any opportunity to hit America and its allies?

“The vision of a world free from nuclear arms has powerfully stimulated disarmament and arms control negotiations.”

Of course, the country that has the maximum ‘disarmament’ and ‘arms control’ to do and therefore, the maximum security compromises to make, is America.

“The USA is now playing a more constructive role in meeting the great climatic challenges the world is confronting.”

…by proposing a climate and energy bill, which will hinder certain industries through billions of dollars worth of taxes and caps on fossil fuel utilization.

“(Obama’s) diplomacy is founded in the concept that those who are to lead the world must do so on the basis of values and attitudes that are shared by the majority of the world's population.”

Even if the ‘majority of the world’s population’ share a hatred for America’s industrial and military strength, and want it cut down to size?

"Now is the time for all of us to take our share of responsibility for a global response to global challenges."

This is from Obama himself. So, Americans are no longer just their ‘neighbor’s keepers’, but should now be ‘global keepers’! Of course, so should everyone else…

Click here to read the entire statement from the Nobel Peace Committee on this matter.

How Socialism works

An economics professor at a local college made a statement that he had never failed a single student before but had once failed an entire class.That class had insisted that socialism worked and that no one would be poor and no one would be rich, a great equalizer.The professor then said, "OK, we will have an experiment in this class on socialism. All grades would be averaged and everyone would receive the same grade so no one would fail and no one would receive an A. After the first test, the grades were averaged and everyone got a B.The students who studied hard were upset and the students who studied little were happy. As the second test rolled around, the students who studied little had studied even less and the ones who studied hard decided they wanted a free ride too so they studied little. The second test average was a D! No one was happy.When the 3rd test rolled around, the average was an F.The scores never increased as bickering, blame and name-calling all resulted in hard feelings and no one would study for the benefit of anyone else. All failed, to their great surprise, and the professor told them that socialism would also ultimately fail because when the reward is great, the effort to succeed is great but when government takes the reward away, no one will try or want to succeed.Could not be any simpler than that

Friday, November 6, 2009

Should the state have a claim on the dead?

There was a vigorous discussion on the eGroup recently, on the issue of estate tax. Estate tax is a tax that many governments levy on the property of the dead, and claim it from those who inherit the property. The question under discussion was whether government could claim a stake in the body and property of any person after his death? On the intellectual plane, the question that was raised is does the dead possess any right? What would be the status of the property earned by the person after his death? On the practical side, the question was, given that governments are to provide the core services, such as law and order, and judiciary, could an estate tax on the property of the dead be used to finance the government. A corollary was, could the government, seize the body of the dead, and harvest the organs for the benefit of those who may need a transplant.

The detailed discussion, and the various arguments can be read at the thread "Estate tax under objectivism", in the eGroup. If you are not a member, you are welcome to join the eGroup, the goal is to discuss the implications and impact of Ayn Rand's ideas in today's world.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Ayn Rand on the cover of the Reason magazine

Reason magazine covers featuring Ayn Rand -

 And on the cover of the latest issue!-

 I don't think I have missed any.All Reason covers are here.

What got me going was this Che like graphic of Ayn Rand posted by Ed Driscoll according to whom it's "a reprint of one of Reason’s 1973-era covers featuring a posterized version of Ayn Rand".

However I couldn't find any such cover.
I do however agree with one the commentators to that post that it would make a great T-shirt!

The 1942 film of 'We the Living' is now out on DVD

Some good news -the 1942 film of Ayn Rand's We the Living  is now out on DVD-

Big Hollywood has a review-

We The Living was made during World War II in Mussolini’s Italy, of all places.  The government warily allowed it to be filmed as a propaganda vehicle against the Soviet Union.  But when Mussolini realized the movie was a critique not only of communism but of all forms of statism, he banned it from theatres, where it was a smash hit.

The government rounded up and destroyed all copies of the film – save one, the original negative, which was secreted away.  As we are informed by the fascinating documentary (included among the DVD extras), the film’s reels languished unseen for decades until Rand’s attorneys went hunting for it among the Italian film community.

Duncan Scott, who produced the DVD release, explains how as a young editor he talked his way into recutting and subtitling the film alongside Ayn Rand herself. WTL had originally been released as two separate films.  They combined them, trimmed away some of the excess, and removed or redubbed pro-fascist propaganda speeches inserted at the insistence of the authorities.

The issue of re-dubbing is intriguing -
Scott tells how in the original version, Andrei delivered a heated diatribe against the evils of capitalism. Needless to say, this speech didn’t exactly belong. Not content merely to change the subtitles, Scott actually hired a sound-a-like Italian actor so he could redub the voice track in Italian to match the new subtitles.

Unfortunately the digital transfer was done in 1987, and the cost of a high-definition remastering was prohibitive for this DVD release, so the picture quality isn’t quite as crisp as one might wish. Nevertheless, it is completely watchable.

Glenn Kenny quotes J.Hoberman's description of the film -
"Shot mainly in close-up and entirely in the studio, We the Living evokes an atmosphere of total, demoralized corruption. As directed by...Alessandrini, a filmmaker with some Hollywood experience, the movie does not lack for mise-en-scéne. The grim sets are scrawled with hammer-and-sickle graffiti and Cyrillic exhortations, emblazoned with menacing posters of proletarian ape-men and encephalitic Lenins. That everyone is always layered with clothing adds to the sense of unpleasant crowding, just as the already high fog quotient is significantly augmented by a constant sucking on cigarettes. The atmosphere is as gray as the dialogue is purple."

If anybody gets a hand on the DVD, you know where to contact me.

(cross posted at the Liberty News Central)