I intend to use this blog as a platform for my daily thoughts on a variety of topics. I welcome comments, objections, and questions.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

The Virtue of Independence

As some of you may recall, several weeks ago I wrote a few posts about the virtue of honesty that arose from my reading of Ayn Rand's Normative Ethics: The Virtuous Egoist by Tara Smith. Having finally completed my re-reading of Atlas Shrugged today, I was able to finish Chapter 5 of Smith's book on the virtue of independence. Given that the virtues of Objectivism are so often misstated and/or misunderstood, I thought I'd highlight a few good points that Smith made in this chapter. This is by no means a full exposition on the virtue, just a clarification on a few interesting misconceptions.

There's definitely some common confusion as to who exactly an independent person is. Some people will definitely think of the non-conformist who rejects what others like simply because it is popular. Others will think of the anti-social hermit who automatically shuns any contact with other people. And others may think of a person who takes up controversial issues, because they are controversial to most people. All of these people seem to be individualists because they stand apart from others.

According to Rand, however, all of these people should be considered fraudulent individualists. Rather, they are actually examples of what she called second-handers. A second-hander is a person whose primary orientation to reality is through other people. Whether it be his beliefs or his actions, everything about a second-hander is determined by the opinion of others.

There are two primary variants of second-hander: one who blindly accepts the thoughts and will of others, because it is not his own; or, one who blindly rejects the thoughts and will of others. The former variant is typified by the image of the conformist whose opinions, beliefs, and actions are tailored based on what is popular, or what all his friends do, or even what his close friend or romantic partner does. That is, a thing is true if some arbitrarily defined group says it is. The latter variant, on the other hand, is the commonly accepted image of the non-conformist, or "individualist." That is, a thing is false because some arbitrarily defined group says it is true. This so-called individualist however is only the opposite side of the same coin. It is not on the basis of any facts of reality that the non-conformist forms his opinion but rather as a reaction against the opinions of others.

The independent person, in contrast, is independent not by how he stands in relation to others, but rather by the nature of his orientation with reality. When judging if the sun is rising on a particular morning the independent person does not find out what others think and follow it blindly, but rather, uses his own judgment of the facts to form a conclusion. Subsequently, when forming opinions on less obvious matters such as musical interests, who to hang out with, what to study in college, and perhaps most important of all--philosophical beliefs, the individualist will judge reality to aid in a decision.

This brings up another interesting point of clarification about individualism. Contrary to popular belief, the individualist need not automatically scorn or ignore the opinion of others because it is not his own. In fact, in several cases, taking the opinion of others into account is crucially important in making the right decision. For example, it is often necessary to defer to the testimony of experts in every-day life. Examples include auto mechanics, meteorologists, professors, scientists, and so on. Additionally, there are plenty of cases in which an individual can benefit from the advice of friends and loved ones. What is crucially important to independence is ensuring that the final decision is entirely one's own. That is, the testimony of experts or loved ones must exist as evidence to be taken into account, not the final arbiter for decision-making.

In a similar vein, individualism does not require the abandonment of friendships, romantic relationships, or any other contractual relationship. That is, being an individualist does not entail moving to a deserted island to become a hermit. Indeed, an individual can receive enormous benefits through mutual trade to mutual advantage in all areas of life. It does mean, however, that having other people in your life is not an inherent value. Rather, the individualist must judge the conditions that make human interaction valuable. My life is not enhanced simply by having "friends," regardless of their character and the nature of their relationship to me. And, I do not inherently benefit from having "business partners."For example, in regards to friendship, I receive enjoyment from their character, or we share mutual interests that I enjoy pursuing, and so on. In business, I benefit from voluntary agreements to trade money, goods, and/or services to mutual benefit. In sum, as long as the individual uses his own judgment of reality when interacting with others, there is no betrayal of individualism.

The final paragraph of Smith's chapter on independence is a helpful way to close this post:

"Nothing in Rand's conception of virtuous independence, then, entails shunning other people. Given the tremendous value that human beings can offer one another, that would clearly be a foolish course for anyone committed to his own well-being. What independence does require, however, is that a person's thoughts and actions always be truly his own. Because human life depends on rational action and because rationality is inherently a do-it-yourself enterprise, independence is vital to human survival."


A Rational Egoist said...

I'm importing a comment and my response to this post from facebook:


"Nothing in Rand's conception of virtuous independence, then, entails shunning other people. Given the tremendous value that human beings can offer one another, that would clearly be a foolish course for anyone committed to his own well-being."

However, as always, it does entail refraining from taking actions which might actually endanger oneself to help others, regardless of their value to you. In any atheistic egoist framework, the loss of one's own life is clearly so catastrophic that it is impossible to imagine how it could even be rationally considered.

My response:

Oh, this again. It's an understandable objection, but I think it comes from a misunderstanding of Objectivist ethics. Placing one's one life as the standard of value does not literally mean the maintenance of physical survival, but rather the pursuit of long-term flourishing. In Rand's words, it entails living as a human qua human, that is, living in accordance with the requirements of human nature. Said requirements entail not only physical survival but the active pursuit of values necessary for human life. To flourish, a human must be rational, productive, prideful, etc.

Critically, there are conditions under which the pursuit of said values are no longer possible; the best example being the imposition of physical force. In such a case, it is better to risk one's life to ensure the removal of these barriers than to live in the alternative, because such an existence would not really be human.

The loss of a profoundly close loved one is another example in which the conditions of existence would change radically. It is comprehensible that an Objectivist would place substantial value in another person, for their character, their actions, and the joy they bring them. That loss could drastically impair the individual's ability to flourish, if not irrevocably destroy their capacity for happiness. The potential of living in such a state could easily be judged as worth the risk of death, because the alternative life would not be worth living. Whether it is worth the risk depends on the context of the situation, namely, the relation of the individual to your own happiness.

In sum, in Objectivist ethics it's not "physical existence or bust" but rather living a life of long-term flourishing.

Thank you for the continued comments, by the way.

Anonymous said...

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