Posts Tagged irrational

Beyond the Noble Savage, Beyond Economic Man

Economic ManThe topics of self-interest and sacrifice are commonly discussed on this blog—my own view being that any form of either is bound to lead to selfishness unless both are aligned to God’s will (through good, old-fashioned obedience).

I’m currently reading Love & Economics: It Takes a Family to Raise a Village, in which author and economist Jennifer Roback Morse takes a unique approach to the subject, arguing that our views of “rational” man have been severely lacking on both sides (if your ideological buckets are that neat and tidy, that is).

Without incorporating love into our usual assumptions about the self and the other, argues Morse, we will structure a philosophy of life around a fantasy and be doomed to a mechanistic, regressive society.

First, the not unique part—i.e. a summary of the context:

The decentralized market economy is probably the most celebrated self-regulating social institution. Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” insight shows that people pursuing their own self-interest can actually end up furthering the public interest through no intention of their own. Since Smith’s time, free market economists have developed the Invisible Hand concept further through a construct called homo economicus, or economic man. Economic man is a rational person who calculates the costs and benefits of each potential action and chooses the action that brings him the most happiness.

The obvious problem is that we are not, and can never be, fully rational, no matter how much Ayn Rand wishes it were so (though we can certainly be more rational than we are).

On the other side is a similar problem, one which, though more obvious, is plagued by increasingly abundant misunderstanding: other people have an even smaller chance of being “fully rational” on our behalves.

The lofty bureaucrat on top of the hill may think he has a better idea than we do about the appropriate price of an orange (or a cup of coffee), but our personal preferences would likely differ if Grocer Bob had the chance to experiment. Of course, the implications lead to deeper struggles than the prices of oranges and coffee, which is why more fundamental, philosophical variations on Rousseau’s “natural goodness of man” have long served as platforms upon which many a tyrant has constructed his moralistic authoritarian palaces.

Yet even critiques of centralized approaches to knowledge and decisionmaking—Hayek’s, most notably—seem to only get us back to square one: that individual choice would be better (and it would!).

Yes, our knowledge is limited, and yes, our definitions of the “good” will not naturally conform. These are crucial realities to confront, but do they mean that Read the rest of this entry »

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Objectivist Ethics vs. Christian Ethics: Is There Any Common Ground? (Part 2)

Objectivism, Ayn Rand, Christianity, Sermon on the Mount, contrast, ethics, philosophyBy William Schultz, Guest Contributor

Editor’s Note: This the second post by guest contributor, William Schultz, who began by providing a basic introduction to the ethics of Ayn Rand. In this installment, William discusses whether (and where) Christians and Objectivists might find common ground.

At a public forum on the minimum wage, a man talked with two people. Both were vigorously opposed to lowering or abolishing the minimum wage.

One of these individuals was a “social-justice” activist whose concern was that abolishing the minimum wage would lead to the exploitation and suffering of the poor. This concern was, however, only the tip of the activist’s ideological iceberg. His ultimate political purpose, his ultimate political value, was a radical egalitarian society which reined in the power of large corporations and wealthy individuals for the sake of the common good.

The other individual was a Wal-Mart lobbyist whose concern was that abolishing the minimum wage would hurt Wal-Mart by increasing the competition the company faced in the market. This concern was, however, only the tip of this lobbyist’s ideological iceberg. His ultimate political purpose, his ultimate political value, was a corporatist state where Wal-Mart’s profits would be indefinitely secured.

These two had a common interest in supporting minimum wage laws. However, their ultimate political values conflicted. With enough time, their political values would clash.

There’s a similarity between the relationship of the two individuals above and the relationship between Christians and Objectivists. Christians believe that men should be treated as ends not means. They believe that murder, theft, initiation of violence, lying, etc. are evil. On these issues, Christians and Objectivists are in agreement.

However, the ultimate value of a Christian is different from the ultimate value of an Objectivist.

Just what are the ultimate values of a Christan and an Objectivist? What criticisms does Read the rest of this entry »

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The Ethics of Ayn Rand: Guest Post by a Rational Egoist (Part 1)

William Schultz

Guest Contributor, William Schultz

By William Schultz, Guest Contributor

Editor’s Note: I have previously noted the differences between Ayn Rand’s “Objectivism” and Christianity, as well as where I see some overlap. Given the recent prominence of Rand in both the budget talks and the cinema, I thought it timely to provide readers with a general introduction to Randian ethics. To provide such an introduction, I called on William Schultz, an atheist Objectivist and friend of mine. William will follow this post by providing a closer discussion of how Randian ethics (generally) line up against those of Christianity.

I am a rational egoist. In any discussion on morality, the first question I address isn’t “Which moral code should I accept?” Instead, the first question is “Why should I accept any moral code?” Why should I even bother applying “right” and “wrong” to specific actions? Is it all simply a waste of time?

And why shouldn’t I ask this? At first glance, it seems that adopting a moral code is going to place prohibitions on the ways I can act, which might mean all kinds of delightful activities get thrown out the window and the bars of morality are erected in their place. Why would I want that?

Well, I think there are reasons. But first things first.

In order for someone to persuade me that I should accept any moral code, we must first understand what a moral code is. A moral code tells you the types of things you should go after. A moral code is a hierarchy of values. Values are things you act to gain or keep. A hierarchy is a ranking structure. But why should I value some things and not others? And why should I place the things I do value in hierarchical order.

To answer the above questions, we must first recognize a crucial distinction between entities in the universe: the difference between inanimate and animate matter. Inanimate matter has no values. A rock, a rocking chair, the rings of Saturn — these entities don’t have values. These things could care less whether you beat them, break them, or throw them in a box. They can’t “care” at all. They don’t “act” at all. On the other hand, animate organisms face a fundamental Read the rest of this entry »

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Ayn Rand: Closer to Christianity than Marx

Ayn RandThe American Values Network recently lambasted Rep. Paul Ryan for expressing pro-Rand sentiments in several statements and online videos. In a response ad geared toward Ryan’s supporters, AVN criticized Rand’s atheism and ethics, acting as though Christian conservatives would be shocked to learn of her beliefs.

How could we, as admirers of Rand, ever be aware of her rejection of the Judeo-Christian ethos? She’s sooooo subtle.

I doubt any Christian Rand admirers were surprised at the news. Most of us draw value out of Rand in very specific ways, and we are very used to hearing the majority of our conservative brethren rejecting and lambasting her views outright (see Whittaker Chambers). What the ad really did, then, was illuminate the way the Left continues to misunderstand conservatives, particularly when it comes to what value, if any, they see in Rand.

Let us remember: For progressives, Rand is the epitome of what they are not. She boasts an emphasis on individualism that, in its most basic orientation, is opposed to their top-down, mechanical view of human engagement and society. For them, it is (supposedly) all about the “other,” and for Rand, the other only matters insofar as she is beneficial to the self (not a charming alternative, if you ask me). Faulty ethics aside, in mere political application, Rand’s message is in many ways your typical pro-capitalism shtick — rational self-interest does not negate or disregard the other; rather, it allows humans to identify ways through which they can share, exchange, and collaborate in a productive manner.

Where conservatives typically differ with Rand is on her view of the human person — the nature of the individual himself — and the subsequent moral responsibilities we as individuals have toward others. For example, what precisely is our value? Is it intrinsic? What precisely is in our self-interest? Could it actually be selflessness? It is here that we move away from the political jabber — the primary kumbaya nexus of, say, Atlas Shrugged — and toward the more fundamental disagreements over philosophy and theology (still a largely evident feature of Atlas Shrugged, if not too much so).

Yet, I suspect, even on matters of philosophy and theology, conservatives and Christians can actually find more in common with Rand than they might assume (not to mention what they might learn from their differences). As a way of illuminating this, one might consider how Rand stacks up against other atheist or “non-Christian” thinkers. For example, I continue to hear Rand compared to Karl Marx, as though Read the rest of this entry »

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The Search for Self: It’s Not About You…Until It Is

Hire Me, College GraduatesIn a recent column for the New York Times, David Brooks does a fine job examining the overall condition of today’s rising generation(s), describing them as a lot of self-absorbed, egotistical wanderers in need of what was once known as calling.

Brooks is dead on in his explanation of why individuals should set their sights outward, onward, and upward, rather than merely inward:

Most successful young people don’t look inside and then plan a life. They look outside and find a problem, which summons their life. A relative suffers from Alzheimer’s and a young woman feels called to help cure that disease. A young man works under a miserable boss and must develop management skills so his department can function. Another young woman finds herself confronted by an opportunity she never thought of in a job category she never imagined. This wasn’t in her plans, but this is where she can make her contribution.

Brooks places a good deal of emphasis on the value of the self to the other — how we as individuals can align our passions, courses, dreams, and inward searches properly and thus make a significant contribution to those around us. If you’re a Christian, this consists of syncing up your plans with God’s purposes, something the Apostle Paul called “pressing toward the mark.”

Brooks is also clear about the danger of what some might call “atomic” individualism, through which the self is only interested in his own (supposed) gain and thus rejects God or the other altogether:

If you sample some of the commencement addresses being broadcast on C-Span these days, you see that many graduates are told to: Follow your passion, chart your own course, march to the beat of your own drummer, follow your dreams and find yourself. This is the litany of expressive individualism, which is still the dominant note in American culture. But, of course, this mantra misleads on nearly every front.

Yet Brooks is less clear, though still cognizant, about the value of the other to the self. Yes, he thinks our callings should be based in a specific pursuit aligned to external value. But will that process also produce value in our own lives? The closest he gets to this is in his statement about the self being “constructed gradually” by one’s calling. Toward the end of the piece, he also talks about fulfillment being “a byproduct of Read the rest of this entry »

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It Takes a Market: Hillary Clinton, Milton Friedman, and the Family

family, market, grocery, shoppingThis week at Common Sense Concept, I use Hillary Clinton’s popular premise as a launching pad for discussion about the role of family and the subsequent role of the market in enabling it.

First, here’s my quick re-cap of Clinton’s view, which is not particularly unique in the scope of human history:

Clinton’s main argument is that we need a society which meets all the needs of all its children (“Just imagine, bro!”). For Clinton, however, such ends are not to be reached by encouraging freedom, instilling dignity, or teaching the importance of self-government and charity. Instead, children are only to reach their ultimate state of nirvana if the State becomes the family itself. After all, much like those other pesky private institutions — churches, schools, businesses…that kind of thing — the private family simply cannot be trusted (fascism alert).

To illuminate the errors within such a view, I lean on economist Milton Friedman, whose widely circulated exchange on the distribution of income vs. wealth provides some good insights.

Here’s Friedman in his own words:

The thing that is amazing that people don’t really recognize is the extent to which the market system has in fact encouraged people and enabled people to work hard and sacrifice — in what I must confess I often regard as an irrational way — for the benefit of their children. One of the most curious things to me in observation is that almost all people value the utility their children will get from consumption higher than their own.

As for where I stand, I take a view quite similar to that I made in my recent post on WALL-E vs. the Jetsons:

When the material needs are met by utilizing the proper socio-political framework, we can then more easily progress as a society toward a proper spiritual orientation. If we take a different path, and attempt to Read the rest of this entry »

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Culinary Luddites: The Historical Distortions of 21st-Century Food Faith

Hot dogs

For many culinary Luddites, hot dogs are the ultimate blasphemy.

Rachel Laudan has a great post over at Utne Reader called “In Praise of Fast Food,” which is actually an excerpt from the book The Gastronomica Reader. I came across the article via Nick Schulz over at the Enterprise Blog.

In the article, Laudan criticizes what she calls “culinary Luddism” — a creative spin on the term used to describe anti-industrialists in 19th-century Britain.

Where the original Luddites had an irrational fear of free trade and technological advancement, the new “culinary Luddites” have an irrational fear of processed and preserved foods.

As Laudan explains:

Modern, fast, processed food is a disaster. That, at least, is the message conveyed by newspapers and magazines, on television programs, and in cookbooks. It is a mark of sophistication to bemoan the steel roller mill and supermarket bread while yearning for stone-ground flour and brick ovens; to seek out heirloom apples while despising modern tomatoes; to be hostile to agronomists who develop high-yielding crops and to home economists who invent recipes for General Mills.

The strange part is that Laudan describes her culinary background as being rooted in the very principles of such anti-industrialization. Why then does she depart from her Luddite collegues?

Culinary Luddism has come to involve more than just taste, however; it has also presented itself as a moral and political crusade — and it is here that I begin to back off. The reason is not far to seek: because I am a historian.

Wait a minute. Isn’t “history” what this is all about? Aren’t we supposed to hearken back to the good old days when everyone knew how to Read the rest of this entry »

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Phil Wickham on Radical Individualism: Lose Your Life Just So You Can Find It

Last week I wrote two posts dealing with the connection between self-denial and self-interest (or what I like to call the “upside-down economics of Christianity”).

Today I just wanted to share a song by Phil Wickham that conveys the concept pretty well.

Watch a live performance of the “True Love” here:

In the chorus, Wickham explains how Jesus’ sacrifice gave us freedom of sin:

When blood and water hit the ground, walls we couldn’t move came crashing down. We were free and made alive, the day that True Love died, the day that True Love died.

He then points out what is required to experience such freedom, namely faith in God and a rejection ofworldly (i.e. irrational) self-interest:

Search your heart; you know you can’t deny it. Come on, lose your Read the rest of this entry »

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Moonshine or the Kids: Greed as a Poverty Trap

If you had $12 extra, would you buy a few drinks or send your kids to school?

Nicholas Kristof recently wrote a column discussing an often-ignored detail about poverty-stricken cultures — that the poor are prone to the same vices as the rich.

The poorest of the world certainly don’t have much to live on — the World Bank claims it’s as little as $1 a day — but what is even more startling is how wasteful people can be when they have so little.

Kristof sums up the problem this way:

“[I]f the poorest families spent as much money educating their children as they do on wine, cigarettes and prostitutes, their children’s prospects would be transformed. Much suffering is caused not only by low incomes, but also by shortsighted private spending decisions by heads of households.”

We often hear about how the West is prosperous because of unfettered greed, but what many fail to see is how greed is an inherently human characteristic that rarely leads to any sustainable good.

Kristof provides several instances where the extremely poor choose to put self-indulgent (and self-destructive) habits in front of basic necessities (e.g. education, mosquito nets, medicine, etc.). For one Congolese family, the Obamzas, the father chooses to spend $12 a month on alcohol rather than pay $2.50 a month for each of his children’s school tuition. He also refuses to pay $6 for a mosquito net, even though two of his children have already died from malaria.

In this case, it appears that irrational self-interest is the primary culprit. The socio-economic conditions of the Congo Republic are bad enough as it is, but here we can see how one man’s greed is Read the rest of this entry »

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