Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Smear Followup (part 2)

(Continued from here)

Valiunas next criticises Ayn Rand's idea that "man is a being of self-made soul":
Human beings in [Rand's] view are entirely “self-made souls”: if there is no Creator, then man must be purely his own creation. But ...man is a creature who arrives on earth through no will of his own, and whose nature, both as a human being and as an individual, is circumscribed by genetic endowment and other inscrutable strokes of fate. ...no man is sole master of his destiny... Rand has no idea what being reasonable means, and no sense of men as creatures, each graced—whether by chance or design—with his own particular gifts, lacking others he may wish he had, and subject to all the pains of his individual nature and of human nature.
It seems Valiunas is here is taking a rather Augustinian view of man's life, or as Objectivists would term it a malevolent view. Contrary to Valiunas describes Ayn Rand does recognize that people come from different backgrounds and circumstances, as well as with different genetic endowments and this is evident in both her fiction and nonfiction. After all, she has both great and small, rich and poor, intelligent and not-so intelligent morally good and bad characters. It is also evident in her nonfiction, where she always emphasized that she is not morally demanding a certain level of intelligence but only the use of one's intelligence to one's fullest capacity.

However, she denies that one's background or genetics are fundamental to the formation of one's character, which despite Valiunas's denial to the contrary is entirely within our capacity to control and shape, so long as we are mentally free (i.e., not psychotic). Valiunas grudgingly admits that "[m]ost individuals are of course responsible for their actions," yet that rings rather hollow given his above endorsements of man's helplessness. It is rather strange to hear Conservatives sound like Liberals and in essence claim that individuals really can't help the way they are.

Valiunas concludes by criticising Ayn Rand's alleged disdain for "compassion":
As a champion of American democracy, finally, Rand is blind to the foremost democratic virtue, namely, compassion. She claims that reason scorns compassion, but that which she despises is in fact rooted in human rationality. Compassionate men of faith accept their gifts as an obligation to help others less gifted, while compassionate agnostics or atheists recognize that chance has a great deal to do with their own excellence, achievement, and prosperity, and, at best, they pity those whom fortune has not dealt with so generously.

There are of course reasonable limits to compassion: no one can be held responsible for everyone else, nearly everyone must bear some degree of responsibility for his own condition, and some individuals are so depraved by their own choices that they deserve no compassion from others. But Rand sees compassion as simply evil, an unreasonable obstacle to the pursuit of happiness by nature’s aristocrats, who owe everything to themselves and nothing to anyone else. In this sense, too, her failure as a writer and thinker is her failure as a human being, and her idea of what life should be is inimical to life itself.
Sigh...where to begin! First of all, long time readers of Miss Rand's writings will be suprised to find her described as "a champion of American democracy," given that she made quite a big deal of her advocacy of capitalism and her opposition to unlimited majority rule or "democracy." And they will be further surprised to find that her opposition to altruism turns in Valiunas's writing into opposition to "compassion" even though she was always careful to distinguish altruism from benevolence or compassion.

However, let's assume that Valiunas meant capitalism and altruism and proceed from there. Valiunas claims that compassion is "rooted in human rationality" yet his entire argument for the moral "obligation to help others less gifted" consists in the following claims.
  • Religious people will assume their good fortune is a conditional gift from God -- a gift conditioned on their sharing the gift with the less fortunate.
  • Non-religious people will assume their fortune is largely the result of luck and ought to give to less fortunate out of pity for their lack of luck.
Excuse me? This is supposed to be a rational argument? Sure, if you are willing to believe in a God, all sorts of things may follow, although what those things may be seems to be a subject that has been debated for millenia. For those of us who understand that reason and reality permit no such concept, however, pity does not usually result in moral obligations. Of course, Valiunas again backtracks somewhat arguing for "reasonable limits" on what one is obligated to give but on what basis? Aren't the Christian Saints still admired for practically giving it all to the less fortunate, up to and including their own life? Are they not according to the predominant morality, the most virtuous men that are held up as examples to emulate. Well, Valiunas does not want us to go to extremes. He seeks a compromised "compassion" where "nearly everyone must bear some degree of responsibility for his own condition."

I have to admit I'm regretting treating this "embarassing rejoinder" with as much respect as I have, as it does not deserve it. That it was published in Commentary, a magazine I used to respect is even sadder.

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