Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Virtue of Selfishness

A recent commenter made an observation which deserves attention:

"[T]he dominant argument on the right these days is simply 'I, me, me, mine.' It comes off as mere selfishness, which is not a virtue, but a base instinct."

Proponents of individual rights are often accused of considering ONLY themselves. This may be true in some cases, in which case the term "mere selfishness"* may apply. In the vast majority of cases, however, those who promote individual rights as the moral guide to social interaction, are referring to the consistent and equal application of those rights to all individuals.

In fighting for and insisting on the respect of MY individual rights, I am also limiting myself and all others to respecting YOUR individual rights.

Individual rights, properly understood, means equality before the law. It means the equal application of rights to all people, myself included.

Insisting on individual rights means insisting there not be separate laws or standards of behavior based on race or income level or gender or sexual orientation or occupation, or any other limited identification.

I can see that this aspect of individual rights can become lost as people speak out in self-defense. In attempt to offset centuries of philosophy and religious teachings which call for the sacrifice of oneself to others, an understandable and natural response is to speak loudest and most often about the right to live one's life for one's own sake. But an inseparable aspect of denying the morality of self-sacrifice is denying any claim on my part to sacrificial acts of others.

Individual rights apply to individuals, and that includes me. Rational consistency requires that I apply moral standards equally. A moral code which can not be consistently applied is irrational and arbitrary. A moral code that demands or accepts sacrifice is one that defines a single act as both moral and immoral at the same time. (If the act of sacrifice makes the giver moral, what is the moral status of the receiver?)

Ayn Rand named the moral virtue of rationally and consistently respecting the right to life of all individuals: "selfishness." Even if you don't like the term she chose, can you disagree with the moral concept it stands for? Can you deny that everyone, including you yourself (and me myself), has a right to live his own life as a end in itself?

The right of an individual to live his life for his own sake, for his own values and happiness, has so long been besmirched that it is important to make the defense of this right clear and explicit. But it is also important to keep in the forefront that this same right is granted to each and everyone, equally and consistently. The moral standard of individual rights is not "mere selfishness" but Selfishness in its grandest most universal form. The fullest respect of human individual life possible is the respect for the lives of others AND for one's self.

The true virtue of selfishness is its rational, consistent application to every Self --and that includes you as well as "I, me, me, mine."

* I interpret "mere selfishness" to refer to the narrow consideration of how something effects only oneself and only the direct and obvious effects. A full concept of selfishness takes into consideration the entire relevant context: long and short term effects, logical consistency, as well direct and indirect consequences.


Anonymous said...

Well said. That was my whole point. Hayek and others beautifully base their views on equal treatment and construct elegant arguments that show that when government injects itself into economic decisions it inherently favors one group over another. While this is a concern, Hayek acknowledges that in some situations (roads, protective regulations such as environmental or safety issues, and maybe even health care) the government will do a better job than the free market. One of his main concerns is the divergence from the rule of law. What he means by this is bureaucratic decisions on a case by case basis (as the Internet psoting on this blog of a couple of days ago) or laws passed to benefit specific groups, businesses or individuals. The latter is a situation that pertains presently in the United States.

The posting folling this one focuses on Statism. I think your fixation on Statism is misplaced. What we now have in thsi country is a Corporatist plutocracy. I fyou don't think this is true, ask yourself why there are more than 30,000 lobbyists in Washington, ans what influence they have over decisions that are being made. When I ask myself that question in the context of the structure of our political system I conclude that there are socialistic aspects to our laws, with the Democrats favoring, but not exclusively, socialism to benefit individuals and the Republicans favoring socialsm to benefit corporations. Interestingly, corporations stand in stark contrast to the tenets of Objectivsm. They are a collective, which has no basis in reality. Worse, the sole purpose of corporations is to allow the owners to avoid resonsibility and accountability for the actions of the company they own. In an Objectivist society ther would be no corporations, only sole proprietorships and partnerships.

Now, I have a question on a micro scale that applies on the grandest scale in our country. You have previously voice dissatisfaction with zoning laws that you hold infringe on your rights as a property owner. If I recall correctly you based your argument on the notion that the zoning lwas are the product of 'the collective,' which you say has no basis in reality and no moral authority. I countered that if I have rights and my neighbors have rights then when we band together as 'a collective' we still have rights. And if we band together to prohibit you from doing something that in our view infringes on our rights and our ability to live our lives for their own sakes, we are morally correct in doing so. Therefore zoning laws and many other laws that may be construed to infringe on an individual's life are, in fact, morally justified.

I agree, in principle with your aversion to mandated sacrifice, but I don't follow your reasoning that accepting sacrifice is somehow immoral. Also, your insinuation that if the sacrificer (giver) is considered moral by fact of the giving, the receiver must therefore be immoral does not follow. It more depends on the situation. When the giving enables shirking neither the giving nor the receiving is moral. However, when the giving helps those who can't fend for themselves by reason of physical or mental disability, then the giving is certainly moral and the receiving, in my view, is neither moral nor immoral.


Anonymous said...

Your comments regarding equal treatment of everyone regardless of income, etc., beg the question of progressive taxation. Each individual, in your view, has the right to live his life for its own sake. It follows then that each individual should have equal voice in issues that affect him. However, our system allows for more voice to those who have more money. And that money voices favor to those who have more money, which disrupts the equality of opportunity on which the argument for abolition of laws favoring minorities and other groups is often based. My point here is that these issues are not so cut and dried as Ayn Rand would have us believe.

*Finally, your asterisk. Your treatment of the 'full concept of selfishness' implies the complete rationality of all decisions. This is inconsistent with human experience as much research in economics, safety, and psychology is beginning to understand. More often than not selfishness is just that. Selfishness. Fixation on the immediate benefit to one's self without consideration of the long term, even to the detriment of one's self.


HaynesBE said...

Thank you for your lengthy response. I only have time right now to address on point: that we currently have a corporatist plutocracy.
I agree that we have a significant amount of corporate plutocracy, but that term alone does not capture the full essence of our system. I prefer the term "mixed economy" (or Mises' term "hampered market economy")--referring to the fact that we have a mixture of laissez-faire capitalism and statism. Statism in this country certainly occurs in both corporatist and socialist forms--and both are in opposition to individual rights. I view corporatism (and its totalitarian cousin fascism) and socialism (and its totalitarian form communism) all as subsets of the wider concept of statism.
In writing this response, I find I need to work on a succinct definition of statism.

Thank you for your other comments. I would like to spend some time thinking them over before responding.

HaynesBE said...

PS to Aononymous1.
If you would ever like to put together a formal rebuttal to what I am writing, I would be glad to consider posting it on the "front page." I make this offer because your comments indicate that you giving this all serious consideration and that you would reply with rigor and politeness.

HaynesBE said...

On zoning:
In his article "Houston, We Have a (Zoning) Problem" in Spring 2009 The Objective Standard (subscription required) J. Brian Phillips discusses how zoning laws and regulations increase the cost of living, create housing shortages and high real estate prices, and deleteriously restrict the choices of residents and businesses. Permission is given to excerpt up to 600 words of the article for reproduction, so I have chosen to copy the section of the article which addresses alternative ways of protecting property owners from undesirable noise, smells and pollutants in ways which respects property rights.
This is not a complete answer to Anonymous1's question, but it's a good start and points our thinking in the right direction. I do plan to address the matter of "collective" rights in a future post.
Thanks for the thought provoking points and questions!

The "Justification" for Zoning
Given zoning’s destructive consequences, both economically and in terms of lost freedom, why do most American cities embrace it? And why, given the economic benefits that Houston has enjoyed as a result of its relative respect for property rights, are many Houstonians eager to enact more restrictive land-use regulations?

A common argument given for zoning is that it protects home owners from dangerous pollutants, excessive noise, nauseating smells, and other things that may be emitted from industrial or commercial operations. “Without zoning laws,” the argument goes, “people would be subject to all types of dangers and nuisances; therefore, the city must dictate how property owners may use their property.” But there are legitimate laws and principles to deal with such situations. If a business spills chemicals onto someone’s property, the business has violated that person’s property rights and can be held accountable in a court of law.

As for loud noise, unpleasant smells, and the like, such matters are addressed by the English common law principle of “coming to the nuisance.” “Coming to the nuisance” is essentially the idea of “first come, first served,” and it is rooted in the age-old maxim “no legal wrong is done to him who consents.”21 On this principle, if someone comes to an existing nuisance—say, he builds a house next to a shooting range, or opens a restaurant next to a paper factory—then he has no right to demand that the nuisance of loud noise or nasty smell be eliminated. Conversely, if someone builds a shooting range next to a preexisting quiet residential neighborhood, the residents of that neighborhood have a right to demand that the range either reasonably soundproof its facility or cease operation.

Granted, cases can be more complex than these, but the basic principle still applies. If someone comes to a preexisting nuisance, he has no right to demand that it be eliminated.

Individuals can also achieve desirable neighborhood characteristics and avoid undesirable ones by means of deed restrictions, or restrictive covenants. Deed restrictions are a contractual means by which owners voluntarily limit the use of their property. Because they are voluntary, deed restrictions respect property rights while providing stability and predictability in land use. Those who wish to live in neighborhoods without billboards, businesses, or other commercial activities can opt to live in master-planned communities or other neighborhoods with deed restrictions to this effect.

Combined with existing laws against harming other peoples’ property, the principle of “coming to the nuisance” and the option of deed restrictions provide rights-respecting solutions to all legitimate concerns about property-use conflicts without resorting to coercive zoning laws.

Anonymous said...

The excerpt presents a seemingly reasonable alternative. I can't comment on the alleged economic harm claimed in parts of the article not shown, however the important point would be to examine the incremental harm between the two approaches. It's not clear that the author's suggestion would reduce economic costs.

In cases of entities commencing nuisance activities after the harmed party (ies) have taken posession of thier property the cost and inconvenience to the individual would be worse in the author's scenario. Take the shooting range or the paper mill case. If either of those entities sets up shop next to a residential neighborhood, it would be up to the residents and non-nuisance businesses to sue them to make them cease. If the nuisance businesses have a bigger war chest the process could drag out for years and the smaller party could lose due to lack of resources. Zoning laws make such waste of time and resources unnessesary, as the business would not be able to get building permits or licenses to do business.

The excerpt doesn't address the problem of morality or justness of people collecting together to make zoning laws, nor does it address the question of whether the collected people retain the rights of the individuals that make up the collective. Do 'the people' have the moral right to enact zoning laws?