Christopher

Settling the debate on Altruism

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For some real unintended humor, listen to the Fountainhead movie. In particular, the trailer for The Fountainhead.

"Peter Keating - - - selfish."

Seriously, that's what it says.

Amazing.

Bill P

Do you think that Keating was not driven by self-interest/selfishness?

Edited by Xray

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For some real unintended humor, listen to the Fountainhead movie. In particular, the trailer for The Fountainhead.

"Peter Keating - - - selfish."

Seriously, that's what it says.

Amazing.

Bill P

Do you think that Keating was not driven by self-interest/selfishness?

Yes. Keating was clearly not selfish, in Rand's sense.

Bill P

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It was Peter Keating's self-interest to end up how he ended up?

--Brant

Self-interest was present in both Keating and Roark. Self-interest as a natural condition has nothing to do with how one ends up.

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Yes. Keating was clearly not selfish, in Rand's sense.

Rand seriously thought her character Keating was not driven by self-interest? Then why for example did he beg Roark to help him do his work?

Edited by Xray

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Yes. Keating was clearly not selfish, in Rand's sense.

Rand seriously thought her character Keating was not driven by self-interest? Then why for example did he beg Roark to help him do his work?

So I can respond in a way relevant to your familiarity with Rand, please advise re what you have read of Rand. I'm assuming that you have read almost none of the nonfiction works, and perhaps only The Fountainhead without the afterword to The Fountainhead with the quotes by Rand discussing the characters, correct?

From that afterword, here is a quote from Rand writing on December 26, 1935: "Peter Keating - The exact opposite of Howard Roark, and everything a man should not be. A perfect example of a selfless man who is a ruthless, unprincipled egotist, in the accepted meaning of the word. A tremendous vanity and greed, which lead him to sacrifice all for the sake of a "brilliant career." A mob man at heart, of the mob and for the mob. His triumph is his disaster. left as an empty, bitter wreck, his "second-hand life" takes the form of sacrificing all for the sake of a victory which has no meaning and gives no satisfaction. Because his means become his end. He shows that a selfless man cannot be ethical. He has no self and, therefore, cannot have any ethics. A man who never could be (man as he should be). And doesn't know it."

Bill P

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To discuss selfishness, acting selfishly, etc. in Objectivism, we need to use Objectivist definitions:

An actual definition describes an entity and/or relationship. A definition is impersonal. Modification by personal preference is not definition.

To be selfish is to be motivated by concern for one's self-interest. This requires that one consider what constitutes one's self-interest and how to achieve it-what values and goals to pursue, what principles and policies to adopt. If a man were not concerned with this question, he could not be said objectively to be concerned with or to desire his self-interest; one cannot be concerned with or desire that of which one has no knowledge.

Nothing new here. For a five-year-old in the sandbox is already able to operate like that. He is "motivated by the concern of his self-interest" in that e. g. he does not want the other kids to trample on his mud cakes. :)

Obviously, in order to act, one has to be moved by some personal motive; one has to "want," in some sense, to perform the action. The issue of an action's selfishness or unselfishness depends, not on whether or not one wants to perform it, but on why one wants to perform it. By what standard was the action chosen? To achieve what goal?

"To be selfish is to be motivated by concern for one's self-interest", Branden says. Then he concedes that everyone in order to act, one has to be moved by a personal motive.

And that personal motive IS the self-interest.

The issue of an action's selfishness or unselfishness depends, not on whether or not one wants to perform it, but on why one wants to perform it. By what standard was the action chosen? To achieve what goal?

Now he suddenly shifts from the basic fact of self-interest ("personal motive") to "standards" by which he claims to be able to assess whether an action is "selfish" or "unselfish". They are Rand's personal subjective standards which NB as her disciple has adopted.

It is true that the fallacious idea of "altruism" has been used in the history of mankind to manipulate people into serving the

self-interest of others. "Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori" is an Old Roman saying by the poet laureate Horace ("It is sweet and honorable to die for one's country"). Classic propaganda, then and now: telling soldiers to put their country first.

But imo the fight against "altruism" is a Don Quijote-like fight against the windmills: a non-existing phantom is being chased.

Instead of analyzing and unmasking altruism as an illusionary concept, it is accepted as such unquestioned, even taken seriously as an 'adversarial philosophy' to be fought tooth and nail.

Edited by Xray

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xray:

Since the Catholic Church was kind enough to excommunicate my father in the 30's for being a Mason, I was not quite favorable to the attempted inculcation of Catholicism.

Armed with objectivism, I was able to make the argument to the priest "instructor" that:

1) you love serving the Lord, yes? ans. yes

2) serving the Lord gives you complete pleasure, yes? ans. yes

3) therefore, father, you are the most selfish person in the room, so please practice what you preach which is selfishness.

Game set match

Is this what you mean??

Adam

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Ethics is a code of values to guide man's choices and actions... 'Value' presupposes an answer to the question:... Who is to be the intended beneficiary of his actions...
'Ethics' are as subjective as 'values'. What one person considers as unethical may not bother another person at all. It's purely personal preference with no objective criteria.
My initial argument on this thread was purely epistemological. I believe altruism as defined by Objectivists is when authentic ethically-good altruism (ontologically self-serving but perceived as acting to the benefit of another) becomes scripture guiding people to act towards the benefit of others even when the empathic drive is absent.
Imo objectivists would deny that there exists any such thing as "ethically-good altruism". For altruism (by whichever words one may try to qualify it) is considered as anathema in their eyes.
Good altruism is like being filled with spirit when praying to God. Bad altruism is like praying to God and reading scripture when deep down you don't believe in God.

Ayn Rand would have hit the roof if you ever mentioned "God". ;) :)

I love this stuff!

Chris

I find the topic very interesting too.

Edited by Xray

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So I can respond in a way relevant to your familiarity with Rand, please advise re what you have read of Rand. I'm assuming that you have read almost none of the nonfiction works, and perhaps only The Fountainhead without the afterword to The Fountainhead with the quotes by Rand discussing the characters, correct?

I have read the afterword of the Fountainhead too. Also the Virtue of Selfishness and am going to read more.

From that afterword, here is a quote from Rand writing on December 26, 1935: "Peter Keating - The exact opposite of Howard Roark, and everything a man should not be. A perfect example of a selfless man who is a ruthless, unprincipled egotist, in the accepted meaning of the word. A tremendous vanity and greed, which lead him to sacrifice all for the sake of a "brilliant career." A mob man at heart, of the mob and for the mob. His triumph is his disaster. left as an empty, bitter wreck, his "second-hand life" takes the form of sacrificing all for the sake of a victory which has no meaning and gives no satisfaction. Because his means become his end. He shows that a selfless man cannot be ethical. He has no self and, therefore, cannot have any ethics. A man who never could be (man as he should be). And doesn't know it."
There you have it: "vanity" "greed" "ruthless egotist " Rand judges Keating. And THAT is supposed to be "selfless" ??

If you believe that, then going by the logic, the sentence "What a selfless man! A vain, greedy, ruthless egotist!" would not make you wonder?

Edited by Xray

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So I can respond in a way relevant to your familiarity with Rand, please advise re what you have read of Rand. I'm assuming that you have read almost none of the nonfiction works, and perhaps only The Fountainhead without the afterword to The Fountainhead with the quotes by Rand discussing the characters, correct?

I have read the afterword of the Fountainhead too. Also the Virtue of Selfishness and am going to read more.

From that afterword, here is a quote from Rand writing on December 26, 1935: "Peter Keating - The exact opposite of Howard Roark, and everything a man should not be. A perfect example of a selfless man who is a ruthless, unprincipled egotist, in the accepted meaning of the word. A tremendous vanity and greed, which lead him to sacrifice all for the sake of a "brilliant career." A mob man at heart, of the mob and for the mob. His triumph is his disaster. left as an empty, bitter wreck, his "second-hand life" takes the form of sacrificing all for the sake of a victory which has no meaning and gives no satisfaction. Because his means become his end. He shows that a selfless man cannot be ethical. He has no self and, therefore, cannot have any ethics. A man who never could be (man as he should be). And doesn't know it."
There you have it: "vanity" "greed" "ruthless egotist " Rand judges Keating. And THAT is supposed to be "selfless" ??

If you believe that, then going by the logic, the sentence "What a selfless man! A vain, greedy, ruthless egotist!" would not make you wonder?

If you want to understand what Rand is saying about this, you're going to have to seek to understand the definitions she is using. Words have meaning - - - and the emotional content you choose to attach to a word may not be the author's meaning. To argue against Rand's use of a term based on a definition of a word you choose to use, when Rand has specifically defined the term as she uses it, is a sure recipe for remaining confused.

Read the quote from Rand above carefully to see at least one misunderstanding in your post of my very short quote from Rand.

Bill P

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To understand what is meant when people on this Objectivist website refer to selfishness or altruism, you have to understand Objectivist definitions in order to accurately translate. If you do not, then you are miscommunicating and the issues you desire to discuss are lost in translation.

Obviously, in order to act, one has to be moved by some personal motive; one has to "want," in some sense, to perform the action. The issue of an action's selfishness or unselfishness depends, not on whether or not one wants to perform it, but on why one wants to perform it. By what standard was the action chosen? To achieve what goal?

"To be selfish is to be motivated by concern for one's self-interest", Branden says. Then he concedes that everyone in order to act, one has to be moved by a personal motive.

And that personal motive IS the self-interest.

The issue of an action's selfishness or unselfishness depends, not on whether or not one wants to perform it, but on why one wants to perform it. By what standard was the action chosen? To achieve what goal?

Now he suddenly shifts from the basic fact of self-interest ("personal motive") to "standards" by which he claims to be able to assess whether an action is "selfish" or "unselfish". They are Rand's personal subjective standards which NB as her disciple has adopted.

As I believe others mentioned, it is important to read works such as "The Virtue of Selfishness." Selfishness is not "for me as I feel is right," selfishness is "for me as is right to my nature as a biological organism." These are my words, but they describe Objectivist views of selfishness in a nutshell. When Rand (or any Objectivist) talks about selfishness, it is the latter definition that applies. Cutting myself for pleasure is not selfish in the Objectivist sense. I imagine the only reason you are discussing selfishness right now on an Objectivist website is because you associate selfishness with Objectivism. But the definition of the word "selfishness" associated to Objectivism is this definition I provided. If you talk about any other definition of selfishness, you're not talking about the selfishness associated to Objectivism.

btw, when I discuss altruism within this post from an epistemological perspective, I am merely trying to build a bridge between perception and logical assertion. Given what you're saying now, it doesn't relate to the conflicts you're having with the words selfishness and altruism.

Instead of analyzing and unmasking altruism as an illusionary concept, it is accepted as such unquestioned, even taken seriously as an 'adversarial philosophy' to be fought tooth and nail.

I'm not sure what you're getting at here. Without understanding the basis for Rand's definition of selfishness (and its roots in a sort-of Darwinian/biological stance), then it's impossible to understand her use of the opposite word altruism.

Chris

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[Xray]:

There you have it: "vanity" "greed" "ruthless egotist " Rand judges Keating. And THAT is supposed to be "selfless" ??

If you believe that, then going by the logic, the sentence "What a selfless man! A vain, greedy, ruthless egotist!" would not make you wonder?

If you want to understand what Rand is saying about this, you're going to have to seek to understand the definitions she is using. Words have meaning - - - and the emotional content you choose to attach to a word may not be the author's meaning. To argue against Rand's use of a term based on a definition of a word you choose to use, when Rand has specifically defined the term as she uses it, is a sure recipe for remaining confused.

Read the quote from Rand above carefully to see at least one misunderstanding in your post of my very short quote from Rand.

I'm not talking about "Rand's sense" because I don't accept the her claim of selfless man. I say it's impossible. This is the issue. Self-interest is always present. I read Rand's words, but see no objective validation of such a selfless man existent. Therefore, "Rand's sense" is irrelevant until a selfless man is shown to exist. Only then will I be convinced that self-interest is not 100% of the time.

The issue does not depend how much I read of Rand's beyond the present points. The issue is most direct and clear. Keating asked for Roark's help.

What motivated this action? If not self interest, what?

The action of asking Roark for help had to be motivated by something didn't it? If not motivated by self-interest, what is left but non self-interest?

How does non self-interest motivate an action?

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[Christopher]

Cutting myself for pleasure is not selfish in the Objectivist sense.

What is it in the Objectivist sense? "Selfless"?

Since Rand constructs the opposition selfish vs. selfless, iut follows that if an action is not A (selfish), it must be B (selfless).

Selfishness is not "for me as I feel is right," selfishness is "for me as is right to my nature as a biological organism." These are my words, but they describe Objectivist views of selfishness in a nutshell. When Rand (or any Objectivist) talks about selfishness, it is the latter definition that applies.

I'm not at all sure about that, Chrsitopher. For example, if Rand had been concerned about what was right to "her nature as a biological organism", she would hardly have become a chain smoker. :)

And hers was not the case of someone saying she'd like to kick the habit but couldn't. No, she actively advocated smoking.

Edited by Xray

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If not motivated by self-interest, what is left but non self-interest?

How does non self-interest motivate an action?

Xray,

I once encountered a woman who was motivated as a child to always think of what others needed or wanted or what would make them happy. She evidently was driven by wanting to be a good person by so doing. Her undoing was her aversion to allowing herself to ever, ever think in terms of "What do i want for myself?" in any context. She thus rendered herself directionless about the issue all of the rest of us address at some point, to wit, "what do I want to be when I grow up?"

Instead she busied herself with helping out her family and remained close to home, ultimately living with a very normal, married sister. It is not as simple as that I am sure but there did not appear to be a selfish bone in her body although she was treated for depression and there is more to her story.

gulch

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If not motivated by self-interest, what is left but non self-interest?

How does non self-interest motivate an action?

Xray,

I once encountered a woman who was motivated as a child to always think of what others needed or wanted or what would make them happy. She evidently was driven by wanting to be a good person by so doing. Her undoing was her aversion to allowing herself to ever, ever think in terms of "What do i want for myself?" in any context. She thus rendered herself directionless about the issue all of the rest of us address at some point, to wit, "what do I want to be when I grow up?"

Instead she busied herself with helping out her family and remained close to home, ultimately living with a very normal, married sister. It is not as simple as that I am sure but there did not appear to be a selfish bone in her body although she was treated for depression and there is more to her story.

gulch

Thanks galtgulch for posting this example which serves as excellent illustration of the issue.

My claim is that self-interest motivates every human being 100 percent of the time. In the case of the woman, imo her self-interest was to gain the appreciation of the family who obviously had indoctrinated her since childhood on the "proper" to live her life.

Her own wishes may have differed, but they were traded off by her ("sacrificed", if you will - a sacrifice is always a trade-off) for a believed bigger value: to be appreciated and loved by her family.

It may have appeared that she did not have a selfish bone in her body, but this is only a surface impression. Once you dig, always the self-interest motive will be found, whatever the situation.

(The depression is a signal that she was unhappy with her life, but depression could also have struck e.g. a person with a totally different value system than she had).

Edited by Xray

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It was Peter Keating's self-interest to end up how he ended up?

--Brant

Self-interest was present in both Keating and Roark. Self-interest as a natural condition has nothing to do with how one ends up.

Altruism does not benefit the (human) organism, self-interest does. This is the objectification of morality as opposed to your subjective orientation. Self interest may motivate me to cross the street. I may not see the speeding car that kills me. It was not in my self interest to step in front of the car.

Our habits leave deep ruts in the roads in our minds. Some of these habits, like smoking, may over time be very destructive. That's an objective evaluation based on facts. In 1969 in consideration of said facts I stopped smoking. In the collision of my subjective and objective consideration of my self interest the objective won out in a battle requiring my rationality and a lot of will power.

I don't think you understand you are actually attacking free will, not merely the idea of altruism. Yes or no. Self interest or not. You are looking backwards and saying that was self interest but not forward and asking what would be self interest? This is determinism. Why should you? Anything you do "choose" will be jake. No? But life is about choosing and the one thing we do choose means countless things we don't and will not over time. If we are rational we ask what would be the self interest? We don't say anything we choose will be.

--Brant

Edited by Brant Gaede

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Altruism does not benefit the (human) organism, self-interest does.

Depending on what you mean by 'altruism' maybe. If an altruistic act makes you feel good then it benefits you in some way, no? I think Rand's philosophy is designed to fight against the imposition of values on individual by public policy-makers. I think it is a mistake to apply this to an individual helping another individual.

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Altruism does not benefit the (human) organism, self-interest does.

Depending on what you mean by 'altruism' maybe. If an altruistic act makes you feel good then it benefits you in some way, no? I think Rand's philosophy is designed to fight against the imposition of values on individual by public policy-makers. I think it is a mistake to apply this to an individual helping another individual.

Politics is derived from an ethical base but that ethics is first in a person or there simply is no base.

If we want floating definitions we can talk about this forever to no point.

--Brant

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Xray: excellent posts, in which you've unambiguously identified the problem with Rand's notion of selfishness and altruism. The confusion arises because different definitions are used. The objective definition, that is used in biology, is that altruism is behavior that benefits other people but that is detrimental to the personal survival of the altruist, for example a mother who tries to save her child at the cost of her own health or even her life, or the soldier who throws himself on a live grenade to save his comrades. Another definition is based on the notion of the hierarchy of values, altruism would then be the sacrifice of a higher value to a lower one. According to Rand's definition a value "is that which one acts to gain and/or keep". But with that definition altruism is impossible, as Xray correctly observes, as the fact that the altruist tries to gain something implies automatically that this "something" is to him the higher value. Rand tries to circumvent this by claiming that there is an objective hierarchy of values, but then we are in fact back at the biological definition, in which individual survival is the criterion.

Rand then makes the same switch as in her "from is to ought" argument: instead of basing the notion of value on the objective notion of "mere survival" she does base it on "survival as man qua man", "survival according to the nature of man" (read: "survival in accordance with Objectivist principles"), which is, as Xray observed, Rand's personal subjective standard. Peter Keating may not flourish because he doesn't act according to Objectivist principles, but Peter Keating is not a real person, he's a character in a novel. In real life there are enough examples of people who definitely are not living according to Objectivist principles, but who are flourishing nevertheless. And in her zeal to condemn everything that could be interpreted as altruistic behavior, Rand just uses a different name for such behavior in cases when even she can't really object to it: she then calls it "benevolence".

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Altruism does not benefit the (human) organism, self-interest does. This is the objectification of morality as opposed to your subjective orientation. Self interest may motivate me to cross the street. I may not see the speeding car that kills me. It was not in my self interest to step in front of the car.

Self-interest motivating us does not imply that our actions will lead us to the desired goal. Adults can misjudge a traffic situation of course.

A small kid running to grab his ball which has rolled in front of an approaching ar is driven by the self-interest to retrieve the ball. The outcome may result in a successful retrieval or in an accident.

Self-interest in humans is a natural condition present 100 per cent of the time. What the self-interest is varies from individual to individual.

To pick up on the example you used: suppose someone tries to commit suicide, his self-interest may lead him to deliberately cross the street with the car approaching. The self-interest in that case is ending his life, preferring to be dead than alive.

Our habits leave deep ruts in the roads in our minds. Some of these habits, like smoking, may over time be very destructive. That's an objective evaluation based on facts. In 1969 in consideration of said facts I stopped smoking. In the collision of my subjective and objective consideration of my self interest the objective won out in a battle requiring my rationality and a lot of will power.

Not to be misunderstood: Self-interest is always a subjective issue. For example, John Doe, despite knowing about the dangers of smoking, still may continue because his self-interest leads him to prefer the kick of the nicotine as a value higher than his health. It's that simple.

I don't think you understand you are actually attacking free will, not merely the idea of altruism.

The contrary is the case. See my above example re smoking.

Yes or no. Self interest or not.

That is Ayn Rand, not me. It was she who constructed the dualistic pair "selfishness" versus "altruism".

My claim is that this opposition does not exist. For all humans are driven by self-interest 100 per cent of the time.

Fell free to post any example of which you think this is not the case and we'll discuss it further.

You are looking backwards and saying that was self interest but not forward and asking what would be self interest? This is determinism.

I'm a stickler for preciseness. Please explain to me what is "deterministic" about my claim that we are driven by self-interest 100 per cent.

But life is about choosing and the one thing we do choose means countless things we don't and will not over time.

Your point being?

If we are rational we ask what would be the self interest?

Self interests can be rationally examined 'sine ira et studio' in both personal and scientific studies.

Scientific studies have examined the self-interest principle many times.

Random example of a personal study: I'm an educator and some days ago, to my and my colleagues' suprise, six-year-old Sally (name changed), unasked, suddenly started tidying up the large garden, collecting many sandbox playthings and deposing them in the container.

"She is probably doing this because she expects a reward", we supposed. This was indeed the case. :)

We don't say anything we choose will be.

A person's choices are always subjective, and the judging (valuing or devaluing) of the choices is a subjective act too.

Edited by Xray

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If you find a good Altruist, a lot of times you can hire them to do stuff that has a higher purpose than they are aware of. After that, usually, they get bored and go on doing other stuff.

Normally, at that time, you will feel relief, and with luck a true value-for-value exchange will have gone down.

rde

Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.

Edited by Rich Engle

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Well, Xray, your thoughts on this seem to nicely dovetail with Austrian economics theory of subjective value of economic goods and transactions.

More later, I hope.

--Brant

Edited by Brant Gaede

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Politics is derived from an ethical base but that ethics is first in a person or there simply is no base.
"Politics is derived from an ethical base"? I suppose you are referring to Rand's statement "Every political system is based on some code of ethics."

Does such a statement not imply that ethics are a subjective choice?

I'd like to discus an example with you because from your posts I infer you have been there. (served in Vietnam)

"Dulce et decorum est pro partia mori" was an Old Roman saying by the poet laureate Horace.

A political statement based on "ethics" so to speak. The obvious purpose of the ethics was to make it easier for the soldiers to accept the realistic prospect of dying in battle. Dying in battle for one's country was even sold as "dulce" ('sweet') and the self-interest aspect, the personal reward for the alleged "altruistic" act was the "decorum" ('honor').

Imo such manipulative propaganda is as alive today as it was back then. What do you think?

[Brant Gaede]:

If we want floating definitions we can talk about this forever to no point.

Please give an example of a "floating definition".

Edited by Xray

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According to Rand's definition a value "is that which one acts to gain and/or keep". But with that definition altruism is impossible, as Xray correctly observes, as the fact that the altruist tries to gain something implies automatically that this "something" is to him the higher value. Rand tries to circumvent this by claiming that there is an objective hierarchy of values, but then we are in fact back at the biological definition, in which individual survival is the criterion.

Rand then makes the same switch as in her "from is to ought" argument: instead of basing the notion of value on the objective notion of "mere survival" she does base it on "survival as man qua man", "survival according to the nature of man" (read: "survival in accordance with Objectivist principles"), which is, as Xray observed, Rand's personal subjective standard. Peter Keating may not flourish because he doesn't act according to Objectivist principles, but Peter Keating is not a real person, he's a character in a novel. In real life there are enough examples of people who definitely are not living according to Objectivist principles, but who are flourishing nevertheless. And in her zeal to condemn everything that could be interpreted as altruistic behavior, Rand just uses a different name for such behavior in cases when even she can't really object to it: she then calls it "benevolence".

Thanks Dragonfly for your comments which express in clear words what it is about. ITA agree with your assessment of the issue.

Peter Keating may not flourish because he doesn't act according to Objectivist principles, but Peter Keating is not a real person, he's a character in a novel.

So true. But wouldn't you believe it - Rand actually wrote in the afterword to Atlas Shrugged:

"I trust you to that no one will tell me that men such as I write I about don't exist. That this book has been written - and published is my proof that they do." (end quote)

Proof of what?

Does she think such men actually "exist" in reality just because she invented them in her book? Rand can tap dance around the truth all she wants, it does not change one iota the fact that Keating & Co are fictional characters only, and therefore "exist", technically speaking, on the same level as e. g. Rumpelstilzkin, Raskolnikoff, Spiderman or Nancy Drew - as mere creations of the author's imagination. :)

And in her zeal to condemn everything that could be interpreted as altruistic behavior, Rand just uses a different name for such behavior in cases when even she can't really object to it: she then calls it "benevolence".

Rand even speaks of a "benevolent" universe - as if the universe were a volitional entity.

Edited by Xray

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