Alex Blaze

The morality of selfishness

Filed By Alex Blaze | September 30, 2009 9:30 AM | comments

Filed in: Living
Tags: Ayn Rand, greed, Ohio, sweden, swine flu, university of miami of ohio

A recent college graduate in Ohio died late last week because she didn't seek treatment for her flu symptoms until it was too late. She was a vibrant young woman, and it makes little sense that she would die from the flu in this day and age, in the richest country in the world. Unfortunately for everyone, the Senate Finance Committee rejected a public health care option yesterday because they've been bought and paid for by the same people who would rather let this woman die than offer her a reasonable health care option and stop looting America.

In the face of her death, America's leading "intellectual" conservative magazine had this to say:

This young woman's death is indeed tragic, but it is not an indictment of the U.S. health-care system, cheap left-wing moralizing to the contrary notwithstanding. Many capable young people forgo stable careers in order to try their hands at starving-artistry. The rest of us are under no obligation to subsidize that choice.

What he wrote in the National Review isn't recognizably human, but it isn't all that shocking. We hear some permutation of "Why should I have to pay for your disease" pretty much every day, without even an acknowledgement of the obvious: a) that no one is immune to every possible disease and injury out there, or even poverty, so setting up a working safety net is in everyone's best interests, b) that leaving communicable diseases untreated doesn't just hurt the people who currently have the disease, and c) that we can't consider ourselves a "free" nation at all when the price for that freedom is a risk of dying of whatever disease you don't know you're going to get.

It reminded me of this rant I read from a few weeks ago on the origins of the "the only moral stance is greed" position that a whole lot of people seem eerily attracted to:

Far from a simple believer in limited government and a free market economy, Rand's philosophy--now being endorsed by tea party protesters and anti-Obama minions across the nation (indeed the Ayn Rand Center for Individual Rights was among the sponsors of the 9/12 march on Washington)--was predicated on one overarching notion: that a commitment to selfishness and a rejection of altruistic behavior were the height of morality. That's not to say that she merely rejected compulsory altruism via taxation, but altruism even privately chosen. To do for others, out of a charitable impulse or out of some faith-based commitment, for example, is morally and ethically suspect, for neither feelings nor faith are rational bases for human actions, according to her philosophy known as Objectivism. Unless one's assistance to another were rooted in some self-interested motivation, it was to be condemned.[...]

This is what the Rand-bots are reading, the vision of society they endorse: one comprised of better people, and decided inferiors, sub-humans even, who are worthy of death for their laziness, their sloth, their lack of industriousness. No wonder people imbued with such a truly sadistic mindset as this would oppose health care reform. To this way of thought, those without health care deserve their suffering, and that suffering should be of no concern to the rest of us.

Those who have written biographies of Rand--including former acolytes--paint a uniformly disturbing picture. Rand, according to Nathaniel Branden's My Years with Ayn Rand, Barbara Branden's The Passion of Ayn Rand, and Jeff Walker's The Ayn Rand Cult was narcissistic in the extreme, incapable of empathy, often cruel--going so far as to have an affair in full view of her husband--as well as paranoid, addicted to amphetamines, and obsessed with her belief that average people were "ugly, stupid and irrational."

Interestingly, despite her general disdain for humanity, there were people she seemed to admire greatly, such as William Edward Hickman, whose credo, "What is good for me is right," she described in her Journals as, "The best and strongest expression of a real man's psychology I have heard." But Hickman was no simple expositor of personal greed and self-interest; no mere modern day libertarian; no pedestrian practitioner of excessive self-love. No indeed. He was a sociopathic murderer. In 1927 he kidnapped a 12-year old girl from a school in Los Angeles by the name of Marian Parker, chopped off her legs, cut our her internal organs, drained all of her blood and then spread parts of her body all over the city.

Of Hickman, this sick murderer, Rand had almost nothing but positive things to say.

She indeed critiqued those who would condemn Hickman's actions for having committed "worse sins and crimes," such as those she ascribed to his jury. Among those "greater" crimes--greater than mutilating a child--she included being, "Average, everyday, rather stupid looking citizens. Shabbily dressed, dried, worn looking little men. Fat, overdressed, very average, 'dignified' housewives." Their ordinariness, in other words, placed them below Hickman, in Rand's mind. "How can they decide the fate of that boy? Or anyone's fate?" she implored in her Journals.

It was Hickman's willfulness, his disregard for others, which so seems to have resonated with Rand. It fit perfectly with her own developing philosophy, which she would articulate perfectly in her original notes for The Fountainhead, wherein she wrote, "One puts oneself above all and crushes everything in one's way to get the best for oneself. Fine!" Thus Hickman's crime, to Rand, was "a daring challenge to society," rather than the act of a seriously deranged person from whom the society should seek protection.

Indeed, Rand speculates that Hickman's real crime may have been merely that he was "too impatient, fiery and proud" to accept the slow, soul-crushing death that his life had become. She even went so far as to blame the crime on Christianity, which she described as "ludicrous tragic nonsense," capable of turning this "bad boy with a very winning grin, that...makes you like him the whole time you're in his presence" into a sadistic killer.

Indeed, this worldview pops up from time to time, depending on how explicit they want to be about it. Here the National Review says that this young woman who died of the flu was a stooge for not getting a real job and being able to fork over the ransom health insurance companies demand for us to have basic access to health care.

It doesn't follow perfectly with Rand's vision, since she despised people with 9-5's who have a decent salary. As much as the right fetishized "going Galt," most of them wouldn't have qualified since Galt wasn't just some dude with a good job, he was the best dude with the best job, and he "went Galt" to stop paying taxes for the benefit of the dudes with good jobs. Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, they can go Galt; the rest of America would just stop working and expect to be sustained... by what, exactly?

But what does remain the same, from Rand's mind to the conservative id, is a displeasure for the weak, a knee-jerk reflex that whatever bad befalls people who aren't in their tribe is their own fault, and a need to intellectually justify what most humans can recognize as simple greed. Gay men got a taste of this 20 years ago when straight America saw gay people dying of AIDS and worried about it getting into the "general population," but really just wanted them to die and go away. It's a baser human instinct, and part of living in civilization is rising above it.

The problem with America right now is that we've let people who nurture that instinct get far too much power. In fact, an utter disregard for human life seems to be a primary qualification for being able to rise the corporate ladder in the health insurance industry. Performance reviews are based on bureaucrats' ability to cut expensive patients, and the companies rise and fall on Wall Street based on how little money they can get away with spending on actual health care. The system is set up to demand people's blood.

When/if the public option fails to get through Congress, it won't be because of the teabaggers. They're an interesting sideshow, but nothing more. They're not a majority of American voters, or even a large interest group. What will kill it is the group of people pumping $1.4 million into Congress daily to stop meaningful reform. They're greedy to the point of sociopathy, and that helped them get money. They then use that money to get their chosen candidates into office, who know who their real bosses are, and they hem and haw and make up all sorts of lame excuses for why we can't have meaningful health care reform, when we know the real reason is that it would cut off the flow of cash.

The system showers rewards on the greediest, and they create a health care system that lets a 20-something in Ohio die of the flu. And when she does, they point and laugh, saying that she's one of the system's losers, but, by golly, it would be immoral for the rest of us to "subsidize" her loserdom.

She wasn't a loser because she didn't have a job, of course. She was a loser because she worked two low-paying jobs, one at a coffee shop and one at a bagel joint. She was the help, the person who probably would have served the snobs over at the National Review coffee while they talk about how they shouldn't have to pay for other people's diseases.

There is no moral or intellectual component to these positions. If/when health care reform fails, it'll be because powerful people are so greedy they don't care who dies. One hopes the rest of us will be able to recognize that.

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Robert Ganshorn Robert Ganshorn | October 1, 2009 5:19 AM

I have maintained for years that American productiveness depends upon national health care. In the most productive country in the world (and the largest exporter in the world), Germany, health care is a fixed cost and ran very well. They concentrate on prevention of illness and heavily tax alcohol and nicotine.

If we want to continue to manufacture we need national health care. (answer to the greedy)

If you are foolish enough to believe that someone with an infectious disease cannot spread it to someone you love oppose health care. (answer to the fearful and/or wealthy)

As much as the right fetishized "going Galt," most of them wouldn't have qualified since Galt wasn't just some dude with a good job, he was the best dude with the best job, and he "went Galt" to stop paying taxes for the benefit of the dudes with good jobs. Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, they can go Galt; the rest of America would just stop working and expect to be sustained... by what, exactly?

What's "going Galt?" There's no link for reference and I have no idea what you're talking about.

Basically, "going Galt" is a fantasy that taking your ball and going home will ruin everything and make everyone realize how incredibly important you are.

John Galt is the amazing super-talented guy from Atlas Shrugged who gets frustrated with how society coddles the undeserving at the expense of the privileged that he arranges for all the great minds like him to withdraw from society until things fall apart and society comes crawling to him, begging that they'll do things his way because they can't function without the amazing minds of him and his colleagues.