He must be wicked to deserve such pain: The benevolent universe of Objectivism

by John MacBeath Watkins

I've been listening to the rhetoric from the right about issues such as unemployment, and I keep hearing things that remind me of the Social Darwinism of the Gilded Age.

Last summer, Sen. Jon Kyl, (R-Ariz.) said that "continuing to pay people unemployment compensation is a disincentive for them to seek new work."

Orin Hatch upped the ante by saying "You know, we should not be giving cash to people who basically are just going to blow it on drugs." So certain is he of the moral failings of the unemployed, he wants to institute drug tests for people receiving unemployment benefits.

At a time when there were five unemployed for every job opening, Republicans refused to extend federal unemployment benefits during the lame-duck session last December unless Democrats agreed to extend tax cuts for the wealthy. Democrats didn't want to extend the tax cuts, Republican did not want to extend the benefits. These reflect two very different moral universes.

One possible interpretation is that the Republican reaction is due to the "just world" fallacy. If we assume that the world is just, when bad things happen to people it must be their fault. The alternative would be to believe that the world is not just.

While liberals have no trouble with the idea that markets are imperfect and sometimes produce unjust outcomes, conservative Republicans are deeply committed to the perfection of market outcomes. Therefore, if you are rich, this must mean that you deserve to be rich, and if you are out of work, this must mean that you deserve to be unemployed.

In the Gilded Age, such feelings were justified by Social Darwinism, the notion that "survival of the fittest" means competition between individuals that produces the result of revealing who was fittest.  An actual biologist might have pointed out the old saw that "the rich get richer and the poor get children.," meaning that the poor were actually the ones passing their genes on to the next generation, thereby showing themselves "fittest."

What killed Social Darwinism was not the fact that it misunderstood the nature of natural selection, but during a long period of recession and slow growth, lasting from 1873 through the Long Depression to the beginning of World War I, it defined entirely too many people as morally defective. Recessions tend to demonstrate that people who work hard and play by the rules can be ruined by circumstances beyond their control.

Social Darwinism was further discredited by the use of a version that focused on race as well as the individual by Fascists in Germany and Italy.

But the notion that success or failure demonstrates the worth of a person is older than Social Darwinism, and did not die with it. As Max Weber pointed out in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Calvinists and other protestant sects believed that rather than the devout withdrawing from worldly things to show how devout they were, they should dedicate themselves to the common good by working hard at their profession. This was not a path to salvation, but evidence of it. Salvation was available to Calvinists only through the mercy of God.

While establishing virtue through competitive success and showing evidence of grace through success in worldly matter might seem very different, the actions required are exactly the same. And both establish in the mind of the believer that the established social order gives us just outcomes.

The latest version of demonstrating virtue through worldly success is Ayn Rand's objectivism. From the Ayn Rand Institute website:

"Reason is man's only proper judge of values and his only proper guide to action. The proper standard of ethics is: man's survival qua mani.e., that which is required by man's nature for his survival as a rational being (not his momentary physical survival as a mindless brute). Rationality is man's basic virtue, and his three fundamental values are: reason, purpose, self-esteem. Manevery manis an end in himself, not a means to the ends of others; he must live for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself; he must work for his rational self-interest, with the achievement of his own happiness as the highest moral purpose of his life." Thus Objectivism rejects any form of altruismthe claim that morality consists in living for others or for society.
From another part of the site:

The ideal political-economic system is laissez-faire capitalism. It is a system where men deal with one another, not as victims and executioners, nor as masters and slaves, but as traders, by free, voluntary exchange to mutual benefit. It is a system where no man may obtain any values from others by resorting to physical force, and no man may initiate the use of physical force against others. The government acts only as a policeman that protects man’s rights; it uses physical force only in retaliation and only against those who initiate its use, such as criminals or foreign invaders. In a system of full capitalism, there should be (but, historically, has not yet been) a complete separation of state and economics, in the same way and for the same reasons as the separation of state and church.

 I've written previously about how subjective I find objectivism. Here, I'd like to talk about the individualism and competition in Rand's philosophy.

Consider the first of these two paragraphs. I'm still not sure why man must exist for himself, or why he should not consider the continuation of his line or his society more important than his own limited life span, but we are told that he must. Individualism, then, is essential to Rand's moral universe. Laissez-faire capitalism has its historic roots in liberalism, as the system that interferes least with individual freedom of action.

But it's worth noting that this form of capitalism is not the only form compatible with liberalism.  America's founding fathers had not heard of the word "capitalism" in its modern sense when they made their revolution; those with an interest in economics were mercantilists, and therefore saw a major role for the state in developing the New World. This was compatible with their notions of the social contract and their notion of a commonwealth.

I suspect Rand's rejection of any form of collectivism would extend to the commonwealth and the constitution's provision for "providing for the general welfare." Even those who have read only her shortest book, Anthem, will be aware of her attitude to the notion in the Declaration of Independence that "all men are created equal." Her philosophy is essentially social Darwinism without the dubious biological justification.

From the Ayn Rand Lexicon:
“Value” is that which one acts to gain and keep, “virtue” is the action by which one gains and keeps it.
Virtue, then, is acting to gain what you value. And what should you value? "The proper standard of ethics is: man's survival qua man..."  So, not entirely without biological justification, but since she insists on survival "as a rational being," survival is not merely biological.

But it is the central concept for organizing values. And those who have acquired and survived have demonstrated virtue.

Her insistence on the importance of the individual would seem to indicate that once the individual had died, the virtue represented by their acquisitions would die with them. One would expect her philosophy to be neutral on the issue of inherited wealth, though there is nothing in it that would suggest it was a bad thing. Yet the Ayn Rand Center for Individual Rights advocates abolishing the inheritance tax. Why should this be?

From Atlas Shrugged, a speech by Hank Rearden:

Only the man who does not need it, is fit to inherit wealth—the man who would make his own fortune no matter where he started. If an heir is equal to his money, it serves him; if not, it destroys him. But you look on and you cry that money corrupted him. Did it? Or did he corrupt his money? Do not envy a worthless heir; his wealth is not yours and you would have done no better with it. Do not think that it should have been distributed among you; loading the world with fifty parasites instead of one, would not bring back the dead virtue which was the fortune.
The point, then, is to avoid creating "parasites." Note that the assumption is that the goal of an inheritance tax is redistributive. The money might profitably be used to support the state's activities that Rand approved of, defending individual rights and fending off foreign invaders. But the possibility that the money would be redistributed is the worst sort of hazard, because, as she states on page 91 of The Virtue of Selfishness, "Whoever claims the 'right' to 'redistribute' the wealth produced by others is claiming the 'right' to treat human beings as chattel."

 So we see virtue is established through acquisition, that redistribution is evil, and that wealth redistributed through inheritance is not evil.

The moral imperative seems to be making sure that no wealth is redistributed (except by inheritance,) because doing so would corrupt the people who received it. Herbert Spencer argued that too much benevolence to the undeserving poor would break the link between conduct and consequence that was essential to natural selection. The correlation is not exact, but both believed that to redistribute wealth from the rich to the poor was to take from virtue and give to those lacking virtue.

As Richard Hofstadter noted in his 1944 book, Social Darwinism in American Thought, "There was nothing in Darwinism that inevitably made it an apology for competition or force. (Petr) Kropotkin's interpretation of Darwinism was as logical as (William Graham) Sunmers." Kropotkin wrote Mutual Aid, a Factor of Evolution, which proposed that animals helping each other was an important factor in survival, and therefore evolution.  Sumner used one of Spencer's books in teaching sociology at Yale, and wrote extensively on the subject of social Darwinism himself.

So why did social Darwinism take the form it did in America? "...America saw itself in the tooth-and-claw version of natural selection...As long as the dream of personal conquest and individual assertion motivated the middle class, such a philosophy seemed tenable..." Hofstadter tells us.

But it stopped seeming tenable during that long period of economic instability that started about 1873 referred to earlier.  And in the long period of prosperity from World War II to the present, with a few hiccups along the way, it has come to seem tenable again. The version we now hear is more along the lines of Rand's work, but the basic outline of virtue demonstrated through competition and opposition to welfare remains the same.  This is based on the assumption of a "benevolent universe," explained by Leonard Peikoff, founder of the Ayn Rand Institute, as follows:

The “benevolent universe” does not mean that the universe feels kindly to man or that it is out to help him achieve his goals. No, the universe is neutral; it simply is; it is indifferent to you. You must care about and adapt to it, not the other way around. But reality is “benevolent” in the sense that if you do adapt to it—i.e., if you do think, value, and act rationally, then you can (and barring accidents you will) achieve your values. You will, because those values are based on reality.
 The "reality" of the benevolent universe is recognizably that of the "just world" fallacy, poetically explored by Robert Browning in Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came, when he speaks of seeing a blind, gaunt horse:

Seldom went such grotesqueness with such woe;
I never saw a brute I hated so;
He must be wicked to deserve such pain.

To see the suffering of the unemployed, to see homes lost, lives blighted, and still believe in the benevolent universe, perhaps it helps to believe that they "must be wicked to deserve such pain."