Christopher

Settling the debate on Altruism

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The Reason Why Altruism Will Always Be Misunderstood

Nathaniel Branden defines altruism as the following:

Altruism: placing others above self. As an ethical principle, altruism holds that man must make the welfare of others his primary concern and must place their interests above his own: it holds that man has no right to exist for his own sake, that service to others is the moral justification of his existence, that self-sacrifice is his foremost duty and highest virtue.

Therefore, it follows that altruistic self-sacrifice is “anti-self… anti-man, anti-personal happiness, anti-individual rights.” The individual who does not value his own life cannot value a man’s life. Therefore, altruism makes goodwill impossible because the target of altruistic sacrifice, other men, is contradictory to the proposition that man’s life is not a value. From the cozy armchair of philosophy, the logic against altruism is impeccable. However, within the context of actual human experience, the definition of altruism provided by Branden is anything but clear. Branden proposes that true benevolent behavior, good will and respect for the rights of others, arises from valuing human life.

The respect and good will that men of self-esteem feel toward other human beings [,benevolence,] is profoundly egoistic; they feel, in effect: “Other men are of value because they are of the same species as myself.” In revering living entities, they are revering their own life. (bold mine)

While abstract knowledge and cognition will condone this assertion, the feeling Branden refers to is not experienced consciously in so many words. The most common biologically hardwired form of valuing the lives of others is through empathy. The experience of empathy, an internally-arising phenomenon, is always perceived consciously as externally arising. Dictionary.com provides the following two definitions of empathy:

1. the intellectual identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.

2. the imaginative ascribing to an object, as a natural object or work of art, feelings or attitudes present in oneself.

By definition, empathy is not a consciously-egoic experience. However, ontologically empathic evaluations and experiences are a part of the self as a biological unit. Equally, values that arise from empathy are self-values; but these values are never ascribed to the self because of what empathy represents (see definition). When Objectivist philosophers assert that self-sacrifice is unethical and antithetical to human life, they are consistently met with boisterous opposition. Many Objectivists fail to recognize the source of this opposition, often concluding that society teaches a truly selfless set of ethics. However, this conclusion is premature.

To individuals who experience empathy, valuing others before the self is a conscious ascription of the events that are occurring. When Brother John helps the homeless Macy Gray by giving her his food, Brother John will always assert that he has sacrificed his needs for another. He will add that the motivation for his behavior was a result of empathy. Although Brother John asserts that he has placed another above himself, the ontological truth is that he has placed his values embedded in feelings of empathy above values embedded in his ego. When Brother John later reports that putting others before himself provides a sense of fulfillment, we can be sure that Brother John’s sacrifice, unbeknownst to him, was indeed an act of putting himself first. Thus, because empathic values and fulfillment arise from the self, perceptions of sacrifice in the context of empathy are actually consistent with the ethics of Objectivism.

Individuals who practice ontologically selfish altruism will always consciously report their actions as “putting others before the self,” which on the surface would appear to contradict Objectivism. Now we know better though! The next question becomes: how does an Objectivist distinguish between ontologically selfish altruism and ontologically selfless altruism? The answer is determined by how the practitioner feels. If an act of altruism yields no emotional reward, no fulfillment, it might be considered selfless. If Brother John himself feels like a victim every time he gives his food to Macy Gray, he might be operating through selfless altruism. But without evidence of the altruists inner experience, we can never know. Jesus, Mother Teresa, and many saints. To me, they represent altruists in the most virtuous sense. Their words and behaviors were filled with intention, with passion, with commitment. These characteristics are not the attributes of selfless individuals, they are a function of an individual who is self-full.

Therefore, beware before hastily judging self-attributed altruists as unethical. The fact is that empathic benevolence will never be self-described in comfortable and selfish Ojectivist terms.

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Christopher, you mentioned Jesus and Mother Teresa as “altruists in the most virtuous sense.” Rand created a sympathetic non-religious character like these in We The Living. His name is Andrei. The author carries him into a devastating inner conflict. You might like to read that novel if you have not done so already. Outside of Kira, Andrei is my favorite character in the book. He reminds me of my favorite character in Hugo’s Ninety-Three, a socialist priest named Cimourdain.

From “A Rejection of Egoism,” part of the Randian response to your analysis, Christopher:

In addition to bodily pleasure-pain systems, we have emotional systems. Rand conceives joy and suffering as fundamental emotions that estimate whether something furthers one’s life or threatens it. Which particular things emotions will signal as good or as bad will be shaped by one’s unique past experience and value judgments. If one has taken up values opposing one’s self-interest—not only self-sacrifice as a value, but values contradictory, values impossible, or values sheltered from rational assessment—then suffering and destruction will be the results. On the other hand, if one chooses to value the full use of one’s rational mind, to value the possible, the productive, and the self-beneficial, then there is fair promise of life and happiness (AS 1020–22).

Just as the organs and systems of the human body must act in a properly coordinated way if they are to effect the end-in-itself that is the life of the individual organism, so one’s consciously directed actions must be properly organized if one is to achieve well the end-in-itself that is the conscious life of the individual human being. Rand identified seven coordinated patterns of volitional actions necessary for one’s realistically best life. Those are her seven cardinal virtues . . . .

http://www.solopassion.com/node/4240

More generally, on egoism and definitions of sacrifice and altruism:

http://rebirthofreason.com/Forum/NewsDiscu...2365_1.shtml#28

Edited by Stephen Boydstun

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Individuals who practice ontologically selfish altruism will always consciously report their actions as “putting others before the self,” which on the surface would appear to contradict Objectivism. Now we know better though! The next question becomes: how does an Objectivist distinguish between ontologically selfish altruism and ontologically selfless altruism? The answer is determined by how the practitioner feels. If an act of altruism yields no emotional reward, no fulfillment, it might be considered selfless. If Brother John himself feels like a victim every time he gives his food to Macy Gray, he might be operating through selfless altruism. But without evidence of the altruists inner experience, we can never know. Jesus, Mother Teresa, and many saints. To me, they represent altruists in the most virtuous sense. Their words and behaviors were filled with intention, with passion, with commitment. These characteristics are not the attributes of selfless individuals, they are a function of an individual who is self-full.

Therefore, beware before hastily judging self-attributed altruists as unethical. The fact is that empathic benevolence will never be self-described in comfortable and selfish Ojectivist terms.

Human beings are genetically wired to be sociable. We are born blabber mouths and being neonate we are totally dependent for survival on our care givers and nurturing persons for at least the first three years of life. Part of being human is relating to others. There are good survival reasons why we are sociable. As individuals we would perish quickly. We are neonates (literally born half baked from the oven), helpless as youngsters. Our well being is absolutely dependent on the specialization of labor and mutual support/defense. This is how the human race (homo sapien sapien) made it through the ice age. Trading, swapping, chewing each other's ear off (or the internet equivalent) is how we survive and what we are.

This being said, there is nothing in nature that demands self abnegation and wretched subordination to others.

Speaking personally, I spend a fair amount of time recording technical books for blind and dyslexic folk (I am a superstar at Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic, New Jersey). I crank out six books a year and I do an excellent job (very few errors and I don't put my end users to sleep with a droning voice either). Try reading a book on tensor calculus con vivo voici some time. It ain't easy. I do it because.

1. I might need the service my self one day --- trader's karma

2. It is a job that requires focus and attention to details and technical competence.

3. I like doing difficult stuff -- it is my measure. My measure.

In short I am generous for profoundly selfish reasons. In return I get personal satisfaction, decent respect from others in the same line of activity and a warm feeling knowing that I am an intellectual force multiplier in my community. I unlock math and physics for blind people and people who have a neurological difficulty in handling the written word. I worked for over forty years to learn to pass for human and now I am putting some the skill I got for myself to good use.

Ba'al Chatzaf

Edited by BaalChatzaf

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Hi Stephen,

You bring up two challenging points, and I will seek to address both of them. My addressing of these points will tilt towards epistemology.

In addition to bodily pleasure-pain systems, we have emotional systems. Rand conceives joy and suffering as fundamental emotions that estimate whether something furthers one’s life or threatens it. Which particular things emotions will signal as good or as bad will be shaped by one’s unique past experience and value judgments. If one has taken up values opposing one’s self-interest—not only self-sacrifice as a value, but values contradictory, values impossible, or values sheltered from rational assessment—then suffering and destruction will be the results. On the other hand, if one chooses to value the full use of one’s rational mind, to value the possible, the productive, and the self-beneficial, then there is fair promise of life and happiness (AS 1020–22).

Indeed values are driven through emotional systems. When something makes us feel good, we claim to value that something. For example, when Ba'al says he likes doing challenging things, perhaps gaining a sense of pride from his accomplishments, we know that he values those challenges. He himself will attribute his liking and pride to himself as his emotions. Therefore, whenever Ba'al takes up challenges he know that he is doing so for himself. However, empathy operates uniquely in the realm of human experience. When Brother John acts kindly towards the homeless woman Macy Gray, Macy Gray feels better, and as a result ontologically Brother John begins to feel better. However, Brother John attributes his "feeling better" to the perception of Macy Gray's feelings. This aligns with the definition of empathically-aroused emotions. Brother John acted on a value consistent with his empathic appraisal system, felt better objectively as a result, but from his conscious perspective both the pain and the pleasure were not attached to his ego - they were attached to Macy Gray. Therefore, Brother John asserts that he placed Miss Gray's well-being before his own. As a result, there will always be a miscommunication between the definition of unethical (selfless) altruism and the experience of ethical (ontologically selfish) altruism.

Second, there is the question whether self-destructive values actually elicit positive experiences in the process of self-destruction. This is a much harder point to address. The science of Psychology has pretty much carved the gravestone on Rand's absolute tabula-rasa theory of the human mind. There are many levels of "emotional" experience, from hedonic pleasures (winning the lottery) to fulfilling experiences (holding your newborn baby). The former set of emotions might be closer-attributed to a tabula-rasa approach, whereas the latter set of emotions are thought to be hardwired into the human brain. A value which is inconsistent with basic biological and psychological needs will be strictly hedonic (some short-lived psychological thrill) and/or will cause pain elicited from the innate assessment mechanisms hardwired into the brain. In other words, I don't believe you can practice self-destructive values and not feel bad at some level. As for values consistent with self-growth, I use the word "fulfillment" because fulfillment is a much deeper experience than hedonic-valued experiences, and because I believe fulfillment can only occur when innate needs are met. Therefore, when Brother John feels more fulfilled (regardless of to whom he attributes that sense of fulfillment), he is objectively acting selfishly. But again, he will deny this (not on principle... on perception).

I will conclude with your definition of altruism, which I also think is good: "sacrifice of one’s own self-interest for the sake of another person(s)." Even though we can both agree this is true, the act of fulfilling one's self-interest aroused through empathy will be experientially perceived as: sacrificing one's own [ego-attributed] self interest for the sake of another person(s) [as we perceive through empathic experience]. Thus, the chronic miscommunication between philosophical assertion and perceived experience is revealed.

Christopher

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I will conclude with your definition of altruism, which I also think is good: "sacrifice of one’s own self-interest for the sake of another person(s)." Even though we can both agree this is true, the act of fulfilling one's self-interest aroused through empathy will be experientially perceived as: sacrificing one's own [ego-attributed] self interest for the sake of another person(s) [as we perceive through empathic experience]. Thus, the chronic miscommunication between philosophical assertion and perceived experience is revealed.

Christopher

I have a challenge for you. Apply all your fancy verbiage to a soldier who falls on a grenade to save his buddies.

Ba'al Chatzaf

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YES!!!

Ba'al from behind the three point line and it is good! Swish!

Mixed sports metaphor -'

Game Set Match!

Adam

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I have a challenge for you. Apply all your fancy verbiage to a soldier who falls on a grenade to save his buddies.

Ba'al Chatzaf

Soldier #1 falls on a grenade killing himself and saves the lives of 6 of his buddies.

Soldier #2 falls on a grenade, wearing a flak jacket and survives, and saves the lives of 5 of his buddies.

Which soldier is more heroic? How would different numbers affect your answer?

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I have a challenge for you. Apply all your fancy verbiage to a soldier who falls on a grenade to save his buddies.

Ba'al Chatzaf

Soldier #1 falls on a grenade killing himself and saves the lives of 6 of his buddies.

Soldier #2 falls on a grenade, wearing a flak jacket and survives, and saves the lives of 5 of his buddies.

Which soldier is more heroic? How would different numbers affect your answer?

I don't especially care for this discussion one way or the other. A fellow high-school student joined the Marines and manning a machinegun in the Mekong Delta in 1967 threw himself on a grenade saving his fellow Marines and sacrificing his own life. Congressional Medal of Honor. His name was Jedh Barker.

--Brant

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My apologies, Brant, if I upset you. I'm a VV, too (1968 mostly) and 5 guys in my H.S. graduating class were killed over there.

The question I posed is one to make those who glorify self-sacrifice think. I don't believe anyone here does that.

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I believe Rand wrote a special article on emergency ethics. Throwing yourself on a grenade is neither consciously altruist nor selfish, it is altogether a different arena of impulse behavior. The example Ba'al introduced is way off topic.

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I believe Rand wrote a special article on emergency ethics. Throwing yourself on a grenade is neither consciously altruist nor selfish, it is altogether a different arena of impulse behavior. The example Ba'al introduced is way off topic.

It is "off topic" because you and your fancy theory cannot explain it. Destructive counter examples are my specialty.

Ba'al Chatzaf (slayer of fancy theories).

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I have a challenge for you. Apply all your fancy verbiage to a soldier who falls on a grenade to save his buddies.

Fancy verbiage? Perhaps my writing is a bit esoteric. (who the hell uses the word "ontologically" anyway!?)

In the most simplist terms:

we perceive concepts and internal experiences differently. The idea of altruism as self-sacrifice is unethical when perceiving altruism as a concept. Conversely, the experience of empathically-motivated benevolence is perceived as self-sacrifice, as putting others before yourself. Therefore, the unethical concept altruism and the ethical experience of empathic benevolence use the same descriptive words!

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Christopher,

Altruism as an ethical standard is the issue. Ethics in Objectivism means choice of values, volition. What standard do you use when choosing those values?

Rand always tried to go to the core standard, the fundamental one. When faced with a choice, there will be an underlying bias. Do you choose to live your life in the service of others or do you choose to live it in your own behalf? Do you follow someone else's mission in life or do you follow your own?

Obviously, if you choose to live your life in your own behalf (on a fundamental level), you can have times of putting the interests of others over your own since you will have some kind of chosen value on another level you are preserving or gaining.

If you choose to live it in the service of others (on a fundamental level), you can have times of putting your own interests first for the same reason.

When you throw our mental prewiring into the mix, it seems complicated at times, but it isn't. A person who automatically puts his own life in danger by jumping in dangerous waters to save a drowning person is not acting selfishly or altruistically in the terms Rand was saying. He is acting automatically, and that means no choice. It's like breathing. Ethics does not play a role in that.

I do not like the way altruism gets demonized by many Objectivists to justify an almost depraved indifference to the suffering of others (or even glee), but when I see how it has been distorted by those seeking power on the scale of entire nations and to justify large-scale scapegoating, I fully understand Rand's nonstop rants against it.

I believe the only manner of correctly thinking about this will be for each person to come to his own conclusions with his own mind, then act according to his choices. The jargon on all sides regarding altruism is as thick as molasses and just as sickly sweet, so I reject the jargon. I deeply distrust this manner of rhetoric. When I see slogans or catchphrases taken to the level of jingoism, I reach for my mental gun, so to speak.

In my own view, I have accepted that I have prewiring that includes selfish-valuing components and species-valuing components. I try to put them into balance in my fundamental standards for choosing my acts (I use an 80-20 rule, but this is more general than exact).

The best figure I have come up with as a concrete for my own guidance is the typical American good guy: competent at what he does and loves his work, constantly seeks to improve his skills, chooses the good and right because it is good and right, stands up to bullies who pick on both himself and weaker folks, helps old ladies across streets and tries to set children and ill folks he encounters on a good way.

I am that way and I think it is a good way to be.

I can accept as true the altruism-selfishness dichotomy as a fundamental standard for using volition (ethics)—as a starting point. But that's as far as it goes. The fundamental level is a simple level so it needs a simple choice. When more complex behavior and choices arise, the context and full array of values must also be included. So I do not accept the altruism-selfishness dichotomy as a behavioral straitjacket or as a proper identification of man's psychology.

Nor do I accept arguments that constantly slip back and forth between the fundamental level and a more complex contextual setting, pretending that such verbal sleight-of-hand disproves one or the other. I often speak out against it.

This usually pisses off a lot of folks. :)

Michael

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Human beings are genetically wired to be sociable. We are born blabber mouths and being neonate we are totally dependent for survival on our care givers and nurturing persons for at least the first three years of life. Part of being human is relating to others. There are good survival reasons why we are sociable. As individuals we would perish quickly. We are neonates (literally born half baked from the oven), helpless as youngsters. Our well being is absolutely dependent on the specialization of labor and mutual support/defense. This is how the human race (homo sapien sapien) made it through the ice age. Trading, swapping, chewing each other's ear off (or the internet equivalent) is how we survive and what we are.

Imo Rand's construction "selfishness vs. altruism" is an artificial opposition.

"Selfishness" (I prefer to call it self-interest) is present in every human being 100 percent of the time, for if it weren't, we wouldn't be able to survive for a single day. Self-interest is a necessary survival tool. It is neither a virtue nor a vice - it is what it is.

Human beings are genetically wired to be sociable. We are born blabber mouths and being neonate we are totally dependent for survival on our care givers and nurturing persons for at least the first three years of life. Part of being human is relating to others. There are good survival reasons why we are sociable. As individuals we would perish quickly. We are neonates (literally born half baked from the oven), helpless as youngsters. Our well being is absolutely dependent on the specialization of labor and mutual support/defense. This is how the human race (homo sapien sapien) made it through the ice age. Trading, swapping, chewing each other's ear off (or the internet equivalent) is how we survive and what we are.

Biologically, we are mammals living in groups. The fact that in the course of evolution, our brain has developed so highly does not change this basic fact

This being said, there is nothing in nature that demands self abnegation and wretched subordination to others.

Imo our biological heritage does pose a hurdle because of the pack structure (with a group leader) we have always been living in. Hence people's susceptibility to follow an authority, a leader and submit to the leader's wishes, whether it is the sandbox bully of a kids' group, a political leader, an ideological guru or a god - the mechanism is basically the same.

Edited by Xray

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Twenty one hundred years ago R. Hillel wrote the following words (I will give the English translation):

If I am not for myself, who is for me?

If I am only for myself, what am I?

If not now, then when?

Perke Avot I 15

Ba'al Chatzaf

Edited by BaalChatzaf

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The evolution of language, in particular science, may be viewed as an extra-neural mechanism for utilizing the experience, and so survival advantage, of other individuals (present or past). This catapulted man far ahead of animals.

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Imo Rand's construction "selfishness vs. altruism" is an artificial opposition.

Xray,

Welcome to OL.

The opposition is artificial when it is applied to areas Rand did not intend it for.

Rand was discussing the dichotomy as an ethical fundament, not as a biological condition. Ethics (in terms of guiding principles) deals with the fundamentals of how volition is to be exercised. The prewired psychological stuff is secondary in that context.

In fact, when you look at it from Rand's perspective, those who preach "others first" as what you should do (ethics) are proven wrong in terms of human nature (the prewired psychology stuff) precisely because of the survival reason you cited.

I agree with you about the tribal nature of the human being. I also agree that Objectivism does not take this into account enough when dealing with human nature, or more precisely, the Objectivist literature is full of taking the tribal stuff into account when talking about "them" (the enemy), never the good guys ("us"). :)

Tribes are what other folks do. When we group around a leader, we are "exchanging values." :)

I have been doing a lot of studying and thinking about all this recently. At least, here on OL, I have made a conscious effort to disencourage the more toxic results of tribal behavior. I try to encourage each person to think for himself or herself. This has gotten me into trouble at times with the Objectivism preacher types, but I am too strongly committed to the goodness and rightness of independent thinking to care all that much. I do insist on civility, but even that is flexible depending on the depth of the issues and the basic character of the people discussing things. (Good people tend to work out their differences when they operate on the basis of goodwill.)

Back to the point. Social proof and obedience to authority are in us all, but they are more than prewiring. They are intimately entangled with the way our mind develops from infancy. We have to get much of our information from what the adults around us say and we have to obey them when growing up—all this in addition to learning from our own direct experiences and thinking.

Michael

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Well put Michael, I have experienced your evolution on the "tribalism" issue since I joined last year. It has been a worthwhile less traveled path and I commend you for your discipline in developing this position.

I did not think of seeing the adoring attendees at NBI as "tribalism" when I witnessed that "glow of awe" in the acolytes' eyes back in the '60's NBI mass meetings, but, in retrospect that is why I walked away.

I even knew one or two poor souls who started smoking because Ayn did! We are all susceptible to the negatives of the "willing suspension of disbelief" which works for plays, but not for philosophies.

Your statement that:

"We have to get much of our information from what the adults around us say and we have to obey them when growing up—..."

This is basically true. I have had long discussions/arguments with folks as to how many of our early memories are our own memories or the "myths" or family stories that have been repetitiously imprinted over the years.

Sometimes these "myths" are accompanied by a photo from when you were two or three. Raises the question, is it live or imprinted by the "adults".

Interesting questions Michael.

P.S. Your use of the word "fundament" through me off, thought it was a typo, then had to go down to the 4th usage to see the use in that sentence! lol

fun·da·ment NOUN:

1. The buttocks. The anus.

2. The natural features of a land surface unaltered by humans.

3. A foundation, as of a building.

4. An underlying theoretical basis or principle: "All neighbor states ... must revise ... their policy fundaments" (C.L. Sulzberger).

ETYMOLOGY:

Middle English foundement, from Old French fondement, from Latin fundmentum, from fundre, to lay the foundation, from fundus, bottom

Have a great day,

Adam

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I even knew one or two poor souls who started smoking because Ayn did!

Classic example of blind leader followership without using one's brain.

My guess is the total number of those who started smoking because of Rand (or did not think of quitting because Rand advocated smoking) was quite high.

Edited by Xray

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Angela correct?

LOL

I even had a very close and smart friend of mine who dabbled with cigarettes. He got a special blend that were perfectly hand rolled and he would offer them in a silver cigarette case with a beautiful burst of gold interior metal as it flipped open. On the outside, it had engraved I/$.

I used to borrow it at parties to acquire women. Worked really well.

Adam

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I even knew one or two poor souls who started smoking because Ayn did!

Classic example of blind leader followership without using one's brain.

My guess is the total number of those who started smoking because of Rand (or did not think of quitting because Rand advocated smoking) was quite high.

She made it stylish.

Bill P

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Angela correct?

LOL

I even had a very close and smart friend of mine who dabbled with cigarettes. He got a special blend that were perfectly hand rolled and he would offer them in a silver cigarette case with a beautiful burst of gold interior metal as it flipped open. On the outside, it had engraved I/$.

I used to borrow it at parties to acquire women. Worked really well.

Adam

So, how many do you have?

--Brant

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Brant:

Enough. lol

Adam

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