Rebirth of Reason


Semantic Sneak-Attacks
by Laure Chipman

Objectivists and non-Objectivists sometimes have difficulty communicating because of differences in word usage.  Sometimes, the problem is more sinister -- the non-Objectivist is not just misunderstanding us, but is trying to use blurry concepts as a kind of "sneak attack" againt Objectivist principles.  In thinking about this recently, I've come to a deeper appreciation of Ayn Rand's ability to define terms by essentials.  Let's look at the Objectivist usage of the terms Reality, Faith, Sacrifice, and Selfishness.  In each of these cases, Rand has drawn the conceptual line at a useful, essential point.  In every case, the definitions that many people hold are much more “blurry.”  This blurring allows philosophical sneakiness.

Rand uses the term Reality to refer to the nature of all that exists, and holds that it is objective, that is, our feelings about it cannot change it.  The unschooled in Objectivism (or the schooled in other philosophies)  will say that “we create our own realities.”  If we interpret that as the fact that we have some control over our circumstances and over our reactions to those circumstances, there is nothing to object to.

The sneak attack comes in as follows:  If we accept that “we create our own realities,” how can we claim that reality is objective?  We create our own realities, therefore everybody has his own reality, not a shared, immutable one.  It’s subjective, therefore I can change it by my own whim!  This is why Rand views reality as the objective and immutable framework of how things are, not as our particular circumstances.  Note that it is not the case that nobody believes in subjective, changeable reality that looks different to everyone.  This is not a straw man, it’s an actual philosophical notion, and one that Rand believed it was important to take a stand against!

Rand defines Faith as belief without evidence, or contrary to the evidence.  Others might say that faith is exactly the same as belief, and that any act of induction includes faith; we have faith that the sun will come up in the morning, because it always has.

If we accept that faith simply means confidence or belief in something, and allow that we have faith that the sun will come up in the morning, then what’s the difference between that faith, and having faith in God or in life after death?  They must all be valid (mysticism), right?  Or maybe they're all invalid, and we can never really "know" anything unless it's a tautology (extreme skepticism).  Here again, the Objectivist concept of faith is obviously not a straw man – there are plenty of people who believe things without any evidence, or contrary to the evidence.  It is this blind faith that Rand opposes.

Rand defines Sacrifice as giving up a greater value in favor of a lesser one or a non-value.  Others may include in the concept Sacrifice the giving up of a lesser value in favor of a greater one (as in chess or baseball!).

If we accept that sacrifice means giving up something in order to gain something else, without the distinction of greater vs. lesser value, then what could be wrong with sacrifice?  The idea of sacrifice as evil is one of the most important aspects of Objectivism.  When Rand says that the world is perishing from an orgy of self-sacrificing, she’s not talking about a sacrifice bunt in baseball, or about a parent working two jobs so that his child can go to private school, or about a family foregoing luxuries so that they can spend the money to cure a sick family member.  No, she is talking about the dictators around the world telling their subjects to put the interests of the State (or of God or of Society or of future generations) above their own personal interests, to sacrifice their own values in favor of somone else’s.  Again, no straw man here, it’s a real enemy she’s taking on.

Rand uses the term Selfishness to refer to rational self-interest.  Others may define it as a callous disregard for the interests and even the rights of others.

If we look at the root of the word Selfishness, it just means concern for self, and looks as if it may have been morally neutral at some time in the past.  But, the word was distorted long ago so that now it has a negative connotation.  What Rand has done with this concept is to un-bundle it from its moral evaluation.  She says that, first of all, for an action to be selfish, it must genuinely benefit the self.  And, a rationally selfish person must universalize the idea of selfishness.  It's not reasonable to expect another person to sacrifice his interests for your benefit. 

The blurry usage of the term Selfishess comes up more in "real life" than it does in abstract discussions.  People tell you "don't be selfish" and if you don't un-bundle that concept from its connotations, you feel a blush of shame and give up whatever it was you sought.  Don't automatically feel the shame; examine the accusation and see if you're really violating someone's rights, or if the accusation is really just a veiled attempt at getting you to sacrifice your interests to those of the accuser!

Note that in every case, with these concepts of Reality, Faith, Sacrifice, and Selfishness, Rand’s usage of the words un-bundles and clarifies them.  When we change our circumstances, we do not equate this with changing the nature of reality.  When we believe something based on evidence, we do not equate this with blind faith.  When we give up something to reach a higher value, we do not equate this with sacrifice.  When we act in our own rational self-interest, we do not equate this with brutish, rights-violating behavior.

Don't let them get away with their semantic sneak-attacks!
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