An astonishing phenomena in our present era is that hagged reincarnation of egoism (“rational self-interest”) as a basis for ethical conduct; a perspective, to which all too many American ‘Christians’ attempt to syncretize against their diametrically opposed religious ethic/ethos; a Macbethian witches’ brew, to which even leading theologians timidly soft-pedal their opprobrium.
To be fair to Ayn Rand, the modern progenitor of this ethic; it is an approach at arriving at ethical principles and values, starting from personal interest and preference as arbiter. She presumes that because what happens to society or the world at large, does affect the fortunes of the individual, the enlightened individual will be motivated to understand, cope with and shape the social environment in the best interest of him and perhaps all.
It must be remembered that Rand is responding in pendular fashion to the oppressive travesties and atrocities of statism (Russian Revolution) and self-abnegating forms of Christianity (Catholic/Orthodox Kantianism, which are inconsistent with Biblical Christianity1). It is not unlike Augustine’s overzealous asceticism, reacting to his previous life of lascivious debauchery. Rand is good at locating the profound folly and evil within collectivism. But like those Jehovah Witnesses that show up at one’s door, her cure is just as bad as or worse than that, which she despises and declaims.
It is ironic that the sales of Ayn Rand’s books have risen inordinately after the Financial Panic of 2008 and its recessionary aftermath. For, it was the spirit of Rand, which permeated the fiscal system, which significantly contributed to that Panic. The Rand ethic advocates that the limits of one’s moral obligations ends at oneself and one’s own. To give consideration of another encourages moral imperialism (statism) on one side and parasitic behaviour on the other. Thus Cain’s declaration, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”2, has special resonance with Randian libertarians. One seeks one’s best rational interests on the presumption that one’s counterparty is competently doing the same. So long as neither party is blatantly violating a circumscribed standard of morality, this transactional form of justice is just; so it is claimed.
However, this purposefully naive and obtuse perspective on human nature and the human condition presupposes that we are all born with roughly equivalent knowledge, intellect, wisdom, ethical standards and economic and social and other forms of leverage. This is obviously not true. Thus, this Randian ethics gives intellectual cover and moral justification for the cunning and unscrupulous to devour widows’ houses “with the approval of their own conscience”3.
From the perspective of Randian man, this ethic lends to myopia of view. He begins with his concerns and only those concerns beyond himself, which directly affect him. As demonstrated in the Financial Panic, his unbrotherly attitude toward his transaction partners blinds him to their perils and pains, which he discovers can sweep their effect over his own well-bearing. He wins the sum-zero financial poker transactions but cannot collect on his winnings because he has bankrupted his counterparty. Similarly, corporate leaders press their organic economic advantage at the expense of their employees in order to improve their proportion of the economic pie and productivity gains; eventually choking off the source of future revenues and profits, which are their employees in the role of consumers. In this myopia, the intrinsic proclivity of the Randian man to neglect understanding and practicable concern for the big picture; for social concerns and dynamics, which do not directly affect him; are neglected until the tsunami of such developments builds and overturns his own well-being. The Randian perspective proves to be its own worst enemy.
More ominously, the underlying ethos of self-love cannot inspire others to perform beyond that, which has been agreed upon or squeezed from in cold and barren, mercenary transactions. Mutual love, loyalty and concern, which imply going requirement to hold each other up; this is beyond the syntax and semantics of these colorless and soulless wraiths. They are, however, not beyond exploiting the folly of those who would give them such fealty and loyal generousity. Thereby, this self-love is contagious. For, who wishes to give beyond to that other who sees life as a sum-zero game and is constitutionally unwilling to give beyond?
It is formula for societal entropy as each individual goes their own way and only comes together in common causes with his counterparts if and only if, after calculating the personal risk/reward, it proves immediately profitable. This mindset often spawns treachery toward his community in private accommodations to that community’s enemies. The Randian mercenary always has his price. And in atomistic isolation and subsequent weakness, the wealthy and powerful predator, whether corporatist or statist, can pick off human wildebeests one by one. Or in the inherent weakness due to lack of social cohesion and unity, external enemies invade and conquer.
- Whereas the New Testament teaches a balancing of interests (“Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others” Philippians 2:4), the Catholic rendering suggests an obligatory self-denial surrender of one’s interest to others. Thus mothers in labour must sacrifice their lives in favour of the child. (This is not to suggest that a mother should not sacrifice herself. However, there is a difference between an act of obligation and an act of grace. And a sacrifice for a new-born might be imprudent and morally questionable if it means the loss of the mother for the other children in the household.) There are Scriptural enjoinments for self-denial. However, understanding of those passages is a lot more sophisticated and nuanced than the all too simple-minded formulations by Hellenist Christianity.
- Genesis 4:9
- C. S. Lewis, “God in the Dock”, 1970, p. 292. This is a deliberate misuse of Lewis’ famous statement about moral busybody tyranny to demonstrate that even the robber baron can be guilty of similar self-righteousness.