Rebirth of Reason


Ayn Rand and Rational Egoism: The dynamo of human progress
by Manfred F. Schieder

[Editor's Note: This article forms an introduction of sorts to a book written by Manfred that we will be publishing here in the form of a chapter-a-week serial.]
“One of the great tragedies of mankind is that morality has been hijacked by religion. So now people assume that religion and morality have a necessary connection. But the basis of morality is really very simple and doesn't require religion at all. It's this: "Don't do unto anybody else what you wouldn't like to be done to you." It seems to me that that's all there is to it.
Arthur C. Clarke, in an interview with Free Inquiry Magazine (Vol 19 No.2)

“Atheism is more than just the knowledge that gods do not exist, and that religion is either a mistake or a fraud. Atheism is an attitude, a frame of mind that looks at the world objectively, fearlessly, always trying to understand all things as a part of nature.”
Carl Sagan
In my writing “Ayn Rand, I and the Universe” I present the question and provide the answer to why the code of behavior automatically established by nature for plants and all lower animals as well as any code of conduct established by force does not satisfy the requirements of human beings for their personal survival.
Alan Tucker, a reader of the writing mentioned, who has a personal blog at www.aynrandinlatinamerica.blogspot.com, suggested that I should provide a description of the connection existing between the Capitalist system endorsed by Ayn Rand’s Objectivism and her defense of rational egoism. Her logical presentation involved a devastating attack against what Auguste Comte called “altruism”, meaning by it to live for the next of kin or, since Comte was a religious man, for an impossible and, thus, non-existing “higher or supernatural being”.
In his “Catechisme Positiviste” Comte coined the word "altruism" as a synonym of selflessness and self-sacrifice, to refer to what he believed to be a moral obligation of the individuals to serve others and place their interests above their own. In addition to this believe he opposed the idea of individual rights, maintaining that they were inconsistent with this supposed ethical obligation. This automatically turned him into an enemy of individual liberty. Though not voicing it in any way, he lived out his conviction in the evidently Nietzschean self-centered sense of obliging others to support his “supermanliness” by complaining, rather vocally at times, that due to the sickness of his father and sister, the family rarely had enough money to support his literary career, a behavior that corresponds to the Socialist pretension of indolently living from the efforts of others. This way of thinking, however, lacks the understanding that “the next of kin” has the same intension of behaving likewise.
In the course of life’s evolution the faculty of reason, which characterizes rational man, is a latecomer. Man’s evolutionary appearance took place among the further higher animals, which possessed the capacity to retain sensations (perception) but that lacked man’s higher form of consciousness. Man continued to evolve, but a given strand stayed at a level that Ayn Rand termed “the missing link”, a passive mentality that, at a certain point of its development, remains at a point where it is unwilling to look any further, an arrested mentality that cares only about the directly perceivable concretes that surround it and doesn’t want to know anything more. It is among these “missing link” beings that religions developed. They continue to exist, mixed with those human specimens that slowly evolved towards a more and more complex rational mentality.
Religions developed at that time as the only then existing way to explain the universe, to find a reply to the many incomprehensible mysteries that surrounded mankind everywhere: why does it rain, why does a woman’s belly increase and a child come to light, etc., etc. etc. “Since religion is a primitive form of philosophy, an attempt to offer a comprehensive view of reality,” wrote Ayn Rand in “Philosophy and Sense of Life” (The Romantic Manifesto), “many of its myths are distorted, dramatized allegories based on some element of truth, some actual, if profoundly elusive, aspect of man’s existence.” Those among the “missing links” who provided the absurd but at that time for man only practical answers found protection among the leaders of the group.
In Count Volney’s (1757-1820) writing “The Ruin of Empires” (http://www.english.upenn.edu/Projects/knarf/Volney/volneytp.html) we find a good description of what happened at that time.
As man perceived that he was physically subject to forces superior to his own and independent of his will, he considered that these forces were similar to his own but of a much more powerful character. Hence, the primitive and fundamental idea of an overwhelming God, capable of deciding things for himself - the way in which man himself decided whether to kill an animal or an enemy or not - emerged. Further on, since what happened around him and within him, raised sensations of pleasure and pain he judged, by comparison, that two powerful forces were at work, the one beneficial while the other detrimental to his being. As he depended on the caprices of the leaders of the group, from which he had to obtain consent and forgiveness for what he did, soon the corresponding idea came up, that by rendering respect to these powerful unseen beings, that provided him with pleasure instead of pain, he would be able to experience a better life.
Those who had first deduced the absurd conclusions and which stood close to the leaders of the group, soon found out that by creating certain ceremonies of submission to those unknown and unseen “supernatural” forces, they could increase their own power over their fellowmen. From the thought that we are subject to all-powerful forces but that we may move them to be kind with us, generated a whole paraphernalia of proceedings, such as having to bend in front of certain symbols, bow our heads, etc. The Islamites, Buddhists, etc. physically drop to their knees and bend in front of “them” and bow their heads; the Christians kneel down, etc. Since the “priests”, the masters of ceremonies of these rites, soon found the means to spread the command that they themselves, as close connections to the unknown and unseen forces, deserved identical reverence and, thus, bending in front of them became a routine practice. Record of all these procedures and adjunct fables and invented stories.were registered once language and writing developed, the Egyptian hieroglyphics originating these writings being a direct result of the prehistoric cave paintings. People lived for the powerful forces and, very soon, also for the priest. It was an early form of living for the “next of kin”, the word describing this, “altruism”, being invented much, much later. Ayn Rand pointed this out most precisely in her writing “Faith and Force: The Destroyers of the Modern World”: the irreducible primary, altruism, containing the basic absolute, self-sacrifice, which means: self-immolation, self-abnegation, self-denial, self-destruction - which means: the self as a standard of evil, the selfless as a standard of the good. The resulting reunion of convenience between the Attilas and the Witch doctors, as Nathaniel Branden called the men of force and the men of faith, soon developed. And, having wiped out selfishness, the area was clear for total dictatorship. History proves this. As from then on, there was no limit to humiliate the human being, counting even with its own approval!
The “missing link” had no desire to look for a better explanation of the universe. Thus, by the time the men whose main characteristic is the more enhanced faculty of reason appeared, an iron choker of merciless obligation had already been established. It took thousands of years to start breaking that stronghold. The result is called Renaissance, a denomination so strong that not even the clergy and the kings and emperors were able to shove it aside.
It took a long time for selfishness to start raising its head again. It required the time when rational men were able to start to rebel. They did so almost unconsciously, swayingly and staggeringly starting to look closer at Nature, sometimes even unwittingly forced by the ruling kings, who needed gold for their campaigns of war and who longed to find a fountain of youth to extend their lifespan (this search eventually leading to the invention of cosmetics!), until the present day when Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism provided the intellectual basis for the validation of scientific investigation and industry and its multitude of by-products.
By the time John Beverley Robinson (1820-1896) lived, and without moving into his further political considerations with which we may not need to agree, he correctly deduced that each of us is an individual who stands alone in the midst of the universe. However near and dear our wife, children and friends may be to our feelings, they, as well as the further parts of the universe, are forever outside of ourselves. Thought and emotions are ours alone and no one else can experience our personal thoughts and feelings. Thus, he summed up what had up to then been deduced about that “ugly monster”: egoism.
Philosophically egoism is the understanding that one’s self is the motivation and the goal of one’s own actions. Technically it can be divided into further subdivisions:
- Psychological Egoism
- Normative Egoism, separated into Rational Egoism and Ethical Egoism
- and, as an additional option of ethical egoism: conditional egoism
Psychological egoism describes the main interest of human nature as being wholly self-centered and self-motivated. It is also called “descriptive egoism” Basically it poses no specific moral line of behavior for man, merely stating and describing egoistic conduct. While some authors (Macaulay and Hobbes) provide an explanation of human nature (hence “descriptive egoism”), Hume affirms that egoism can oppose as well as hold moral sentiments concerning others. Personally I would call an egoism that doesn’t hurt my fellow men to be “positive” while one that hurts others, typical of all dictators and tyrants, as “negative”. The “positive” one would descriptively side with rational egoism, but as it merely provides a very general description of its moral proposals, it doesn’t penetrate into the matter as fully as rational egoism does.
Normative egoism goes beyond the psychological egoism, since it proposes a line of moral behavior. It is known in two forms: ethical egoism and rational egoism. I will examine rational egoism with greater detail a little further ahead.
Ethical egoism, as defined by dictionaries, is the normative theory that the promotion of one’s own good goes in accordance with morality. It helds that it is always moral to promote one’s own good to uphold and protect one’s own life. However, it also states that it is not always necessarily moral to promote one’s own good, for there may be conditions in which the avoidance of personal interest may be a moral action. This leads to “conditional egoism”, a sub-specimen of ethical egoism, which states that egoism is only morally acceptable or right if it yields morally acceptable ends, for example if self-centered behavior leads to a general betterment of society as a whole, i.e. if the whole society is improved as a result. Adam Smith provided a famous example in his “Wealth of Nations” by stating that we fulfill our necessities by appealing to the personal advantages which the producers of goods obtain by catering to our personal needs. This way of acting tends toward the establishment of acting in such a manner that it will tend to become a “universal law of nature”, as Kant would have said.
Finally we reach a new model of egoism, a recent arrival that was deduced by philosopher Ayn Rand from the facts of reality and human nature in relation with them: rational egoism. Rational egoism holds that the promotion of one’s own interests must always be guided by the rules of reason and these rules determine what is good and what is bad. This kind of selfishness rejects the Judaic-Christian sacrificial ethics, based on the reasoning that it is right for man to live his own life and not to live for anybody else, which, of course, includes non-existing things or beings. Relations with others take place through commercial transactions, i. e. the exchange of values which are not related only to material but as well to emotional goods, such as friendship, love, personal help to those who deserve it, understanding, compassion and all the many instances of sentimental and physical correspondence. Hence, rational egoism is a virtuous line of behavior worth to be pursued. Ayn Rand stated, in accordance, that the actor must always be the beneficiary of his action and man must, thus, act for his own rational self-interest which includes a feeling of wellbeing generated by noticing that the loved ones live a satisfied and happy life. To be ethically selfish entails, thus, a full commitment to reason rather than to emotionally driven whims and instincts.
In her work “The Objectivist Ethics” Ayn Rand precisely stated: “When one speaks of man’s right to exist for his own sake, for his own rational self-interest, most people assume automatically that this means his right to sacrifice others. Such an assumption is a confession of their own belief that to injure, enslave, rob or murder others is in man’s self-interest - which he must selflessly renounce. The idea that man’s self-interest can be served only by a non-sacrificial relationship with others has never occurred to those humanitarian apostles of unselfishness, who proclaim their desire to achieve the brotherhood of men. And it will not occur to them, or to anyone, so long as the concept “rational” is omitted from the context of “values”, “desires”, “self-interest” and ethics.”
If we behave wrongly for ourselves we will automatically proceed likewise against others, as the world’s history proves. This way of behavior, however, is mainly due to the fact that as the human species evolved from its not-yet human ancestors, the automatic rules of behavior that guide non-rational species were inherited and mechanically applied by the newly evolved kind. But these rules of conduct are wrong, as Ayn Rand showed. They do not correspond to the characteristics of the new species. In fact, they are detrimental to its survival. Here again, we just have to look at mankind’s history to view the results.
For the lower species adapting to the environment, obeying the demands of the alpha-animals, i.e. those that take the leading role and occupy the dominant position in the group, and further such ways of adjustment, are the only manner to cover the possibility of a longer survival for the beta- or subjected animals of the lower species. But this has only meant mayhem for the human kind. The human species has up to now obeyed to the correlative “human” correspondence of such alpha-animals (the men of force and men of faith in Objectivist terms) but these only created situations of violence when it came to obtain personal wishes. The inherited rules favored kings, their political coterie and the so-called “priestly caste”, all of them obliging human beings to live for them, in the name of a non-existing “heavenly” thing. Due to the fact that the irrationals (by which I mean religious people, i.e. prehistoric creatures) are now equipped with twenty-first-century total destruction weaponry, mankind currently faces its total removal from planet Earth, a circumstance that may surely satisfy the religious mentality, since for it this life is but a “preparation for the ‘real’ life” that it envisions for the time after death, an attitude that is totally unacceptable for rational people that know perfectly well that this present life is the only one we will ever have.
For thousands of years human development was prohibited by the mere existence of religious beliefs. Due to this mind-set, its adherents have always been against betterment of human life. After all, the passage through this “valley of tears” was only a short one. Religious organizations demonstrate this mentality by their constant demands for contributions to merely alleviate the hunger of the poor and their also invariable position of enmity towards scientific investigation, industry, commerce and the system of Capitalism which represents and defends the free human endeavor for mankind’s betterment. The religious mentality hasn’t the slightest interest to create a state of general wellbeing in this only world. If it had it would forcefully promote the application of the economic system of Capitalism on a worldwide basis. Had humanity eliminated the foolish notions of belief, it could have had modern times by much over two thousand years ago. Just thinking of the fact that Earth is permanently in danger of being hit by a large incoming meteorite (such events have already happened many times before) boggles the mind at the lateness with which we are only now starting to consider the possibility to set up defenses against such “heavenly” occurrences. But, then again, religious mentality considers this to be unnecessary…
The existence of the principles of faith and the stranglehold held by it and by its ruling supporters delayed beyond any sensible time every possible improvement of the human race. Nay, it even drew it back when the Christian religion destroyed even the most insignificant trace of betterment existing at the time of its appearance. And the now existing Islamite war against the West wants to throw humanity back to where it was far before the Renaissance. “Do you think they are taking you back to dark ages?,” wrote Ayn Rand, “They are taking you back to darker ages than any your history has known. Their goal is not the era of pre-science, but the era of pre-language. Their purpose is to deprive you of the concept on which man’s mind, his life and his culture depend: the concept of an objective reality. Identify the development of a human consciousness – and you will know the purpose of their creed.”
Religious “views” and their worldly equivalents of impediment to progress, which encompass all kind of socialist beliefs (Communism, Communitarianism, Fascisms, all secular expressions of religious beliefs and their derivatives and subsidiaries: environmentalism, antiglobalism, etc.), correspond to an earlier stage of human development. I will come back to this a few paragraphs later in this article.
In the meantime human evolution proceeded until the required absolute/relative brain weight was reached, at which the faculty of reason started. By the time of the fist economic revolution, at the beginning of the 14th century, the first timid steps towards scientific and economic improvement were taken. Close to the end of the first half of the 15th century mankind started to look at things with a wider perspective. It isn’t by chance that at the same time the rules of visual perspective itself were discovered. The time of two-dimensional flatness, symbolized by Egyptian wall painting, started to fissure and the Renaissance begun. Unknown to those who participated in it through the pursuit of learning, investigating, discovering, inventing and producing, it was based on their personal desire to know more and to live better from the knowledge attained. The background of it was, still is and ever will be rational egoism, the dynamo of human progress, at whose origin is rational man himself and his purpose of survival and assertion.
This fact has up to now been cloaked by the contention that these improvements were reached for the next of kin, but the arrival of philosopher Ayn Rand’s gigantic accomplishment of the philosophy of Objectivism clearly revealed the truth behind it. As she symbolically showed, the way of making fire at will was not invented to warm the next of kin but oneself, that is the man or woman that invented it. General betterment obtained through it was a mere by-product.
Does this situation have a correspondence with human evolution itself? It can be argued that it does, since some thinkers, among them Joel Cohen, a professor of populations at the Rockefeller and Columbia universities, considers that our species has outgrown its childhood and adolescence and is now, in the 21st century, entering its mature stage. At it, irrational beliefs, such as religions, must be shed and the rational way of looking at things which has been brought forward by Objectivism, will predominate… that is, if the irrationals don’t wipe out the whole species first, as pointed out earlier.
We, the Objectivists, as the rationals (Ayn Rand called us “The new Intellectuals”), are dangerously living among the irrationals, which are worldwide personified by the believers, the people of faith, in a manner similar to what happened in distant days when homo sapiens neanderthalensis and homo sapiens lived together at the same time. As I mention in my writing “Ayn Rand, I and the Universe”, even those subject to government and religious manipulations since their earliest youth, are capable of solving complex mathematical formulas, bring to fruition extremely complicated inventions, direct highly sophisticated business operations, and operate on a high level of what can be termed “mechanical thinking”. However, beyond this point their brain operates in a watertight compartment where a stern and arrogant adherence to impossibilities and senseless beliefs of old age apparently cannot be overcome. A perfect example of it are those persons who accept the lessons of the evolution of the species but, at the same time, adhere to impossible religious beliefs. They carry throughout their life a fundamental contradiction of terms which they themselves do not seem to notice but which, nevertheless, produces an intellectual and moral conflict. It takes a strong will of character to recognize truth and defend it against all kinds of attacks, particularly those that are so subtle that they even go unnoticed.
Due to this and applying a careful limitation of the term in accordance with levels of knowledge and intelligence, we can still categorize such people in general as “homo irrationalis” while the now emerging new stage of human evolution must be called “homo rationalis”.
In an article that I wrote in 1983 (“The Battle for the Minds”) I mentioned this already and the recent advances of biology seem to confirm the need for such a new evaluation. The appearance of “homo rationalis” on life’s stage as the highest level of humanity is too recent to allow us to ascertain neither how wide nor how all-encompassing the development will be. However, it can very well be established already that there is scarcely a possibility to communicate with the earlier human species as it either doesn’t use reason or apply it only in an arrested way. Hence, for lack of rational arguments, those belonging to this earlier stage of human development always resort to deadly violence. Their “Ultima ratio regis”, as the cannons of yonder used to bear, is the killing of the rational opponent. Rational man is, thus, facing an unavoidable situation of conflict: either to subdue to homo irrationalis, which would mean that humanity itself comes to a final stop, a situation penalized by nature itself with the eradication of the species, a measure it already applied automatically to over 2,5 million different species in times past, or, if mankind is to survive and thrive as a species, to go its own way, avoid as much as possible any contact with homo irrationalis, and slowly increase in numbers until the new species prevails by its own predominance and the older stage of evolution dies out.
Albeit Ayn Rand didn’t call him “Homo irrationalis”, she thoroughly analyzed the specimens of the older stage of human’s evolutionary development, in her article “The Missing Link” (“Philosophy: Who needs it?”) where the reader will find a full description of why this older species reached only an arrested rational maturity, and the motives of its conceptual limitations.
Ayn Rand herself is not a casual emergence, as well as the notion of a different economic system (Capitalism), the right to abortion, the concept of personal liberty, reduced government or even anarchy isn’t, for these and similar new facts correspond and are required by a specific evolutionary development of the human brain. We have now reached a stage where the size of our brain and the complexity of the neuronal connections produce a new level in the history of evolution: the appearance of homo rationalis, who will replace homo sapiens sapiens. This automatically produces a situation of unavoidable conflict. The type becoming extinct tries everything available to insure the continuance of its species, in spite of the fact that it is condemned by nature itself. All those who belong to any of the former homo species (all that are religiously minded, which among many other characteristics, can be recognized for their stern opposition to science and industry) are now raising their clubs against homo rationalis in defense of their inferior evolutionary status. It is thus, as Frederick Cookinham precisely states in his book “The Age of Rand”, that the final confrontation will take place between them and the Objectivists, who are the direct embodiment of homo rationalis. Said conflict could be avoided, if the older evolutionary types of mankind were to understand that by accepting the predominance of homo rationalis and the many advantages he signifies for the human species as such, their own existence would be prolonged, but they are unable to understand that the arbitrary use of violence never was and never will be a tool of survival, as they have never known any other way of procedure.
The breach existing between ignorance and knowledge is not insurmountable however, for there are those that exist at the edge between irrationality and reason that could cross the border in a way similar to what can often be witnessed by the limit crossing of communists/socialists changing to the Capitalist side. This change of position, however, cannot be accomplished by force, in a way identical to a smoker giving up smoking. The decision is personal, it comes from within. All that Objectivists can do is to spread their arguments as wide as possible, even if it means a repetition of effort. This will allow non-Objectivists to come in touch with Objectivist ideas. It remains then in the working of each individual’s mind to make the decision of change, a decision made on the basis of free will. Once the crossing has been made there’s a clear cut and no return to irrationality is possible, not due to some penalizing command as religions issue, but due to the sheer fact that reason has the only valid points of argument. Knowledge obtained cannot be reversed.
Objectivism, being the rational philosophy, has, of course, a rational ethic, expressed in Ayn Rand’s social axiom that “Nobody has a right to initiate an act of violence against another person or persons”. This axiom is much more specific and subtle but still a close companion to Arthur Clarke’s motto at the beginning of this article.
Hence, Objectivism, as the new man’s philosophical basis, is, as Ayn Rand herself declared, “the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, his productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute” (From the Appendix to Atlas Shrugged).
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