Rebirth of Reason


Transitioning to Self-Interest
by Joseph Rowlands

I was once told by someone that the way he converted to Objectivism was by reading all of the literature, deciding that it was correct, and then adopting the new philosophy.  The strange part for me was that he seemed to think that just by agreeing with the philosophy, he could simply adopt it as his own worldview.  The thought that it might actually take some time and effort to move from one world view to another seemed lost on him.

A worldview is not like a political party, where you can just join another by signing a piece of paper.  It is fundamentally the way you view the world and how your life fits in it, and that's not something that changes overnight.  In this article, I just want to touch on some of the issues that can be problems for people who are trying to adopt the Objectivist morality.

The first problem is gaining a proper understanding of the Objectivist ethics.  Coming from a predominantly altruistic culture, even the idea of what an ethical system is can be tricky.  For most people, as far as day-to-day activities go, conventional ethics has more to do with what you're supposed to avoid.  You shouldn't steal.  You shouldn't lie.  You shouldn't kill people.  You shouldn't cheat.  You shouldn't say bad things about people.  You shouldn't hurt people's feelings. The list goes on.

Objectivist ethics shares some of these ideas, but it is at heart a system of choosing actions.  The goal is to provide you with guidance as to what kind of choices you should make, instead of just telling you what things are immoral.  It's primarily concerned with what you should do, and not with what you shouldn't.  There can be added confusion here because when conventional morality tells you something is moral to do, it usually involves something unpleasant, like diving into a frozen river to try to save someone, or giving your hard-earned money away.

There are other major differences.  Objectivist virtues are principle-based, showing a connection between your values and your actions.  They don't tell you that you must or must not do something to remain moral.  They tell you that if you want to accomplish some ends, there are specific means you must follow.  A more conventional morality provides you with moral rules to follow.  To remain moral, you must follow them.  The rules are set in stone, and context doesn't matter.  The classic example of the difference is that in a rule-based system, you must always tell the truth to be honest.  But if a murderer is asking you for information that he'll use against you, the Objectivist rejects the need to tell the truth, and further would not describe the action as "honest."

There are obviously other misunderstandings that can happen because of the differences not only in the ethics, but the kinds of ethics.  But let's move on to other kinds of difficulties with the transition to a different morality.

The Objectivist theory of emotions ties them to your past value-judgments, which are decidedly ethical in nature.  It makes sense that there will be plenty of emotional baggage along the way.  You may resent businessmen or people unwilling to give to charity. You may feel an obligation to help anyone "in need."  You may routinely take the side of the weaker party, regardless of merit.  In countless ways your emotions may be tied to your previous standards of value.  It takes time to sort these out, and not having direct control over your emotions can make the process difficult. 

In fact, sorting out your emotions is a skill you have to learn with the new philosophy.  A more conventional belief is that you don't have control over your emotions, as if they have a life of their own.  Only when you understand the connection between reason and emotion can you hope to try to align the two. 

Since that skill is undeveloped at first, your emotional reactions might appear to be wrong a lot of the time.  When faced with an unreliable tool, the easiest thing to do in the short term is to try to ignore your emotions, giving them up as useless.  That can hurt the process of integration of your new morality.  When emotions are working properly, they can be useful for motivating you, keeping you focused on your goals, and otherwise keeping your mind at peace with itself.  If you reject emotions, you're choosing to battle against them forever.

Another undeveloped skill when you first transition is value- identification.  Since the Objectivist ethics deals with choosing between possible values, you really need to be able to identify what are the benefits you gain from the things you do.  Conventional morality, with its system of rules, tells you to do things but not why.  Why shouldn't you steal?  Why shouldn't you be rude to others?  The answers aren't obvious at first because it takes time to work them out.

This deficiency in the skill of value-identification can lead to some bad results.  You may reject friends for not living up to abstract values, like productivity or rationality, because you weren't able to recognize the specific values they did have.  A common horror story from Objectivists is how they lost friends or loved ones at the beginning of their new philosophically based lives simply because they didn't see the whole picture.

I could go on, but this gives a pretty good example of how the transition to a moral rational ethics can be filled with mistakes, pains, and even heartaches.  Some people give up at this point, claiming Objectivism is horrible because it led them to terrible results.  Others adapt and make progress, learning to improve their lives and finding an outlook that leads to wonderful rewards and a more fulfilling life.  The transition may not be easy, but SOLO is here, in part, to help guide people through this process. 
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