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Nathaniel Branden

 
Egoism & Benevolence

Editorial By Nathaniel Branden

Individualism and self-esteem predispose one to benevolence. Why?

Benevolence raises one's spirits. Benevolence promotes more harmonious relations. It helps create a superior, more life-serving social environment.

Would you rather live in a society whose members were committed to benevolence in human dealings... or a society in which benevolence was not viewed as important? Which society is more supportive of "Man's Life" – if that's our standard of value? And if a benevolent society serves man's life and well being far more than a society in which benevolence is not esteemed or practiced is that not grounds for benevolence to be included among the Objectivist virtues?

Do we not want others to treat us with benevolence? Not everyone practices benevolence, but I have never met anyone who did not wish to be treated benevolently, with the exception of certain psychologically troubled individuals. Then do we not have a moral obligation to seek to realize within ourselves that which we wish to see in the world around us? Is this not an application of the virtue of integrity? And does not our self-esteem demand this of us?

What is the role of self-interest with regard to benevolence and respect for the rights of others, in the context of the Objectivist ethics?

The purpose of this editorial is to examine the relationship of egoism to benevolence, on the one hand, and respect for the rights of others, on the other, within the context of the Objectivist Ethics.

The Foundations

First, some preliminary observations, which are essential for establishing the context of this discussion.

1. Definition of egoism; varies throughout history; but core ideas is that self-fulfillment, self-realization, or self-interest (however understood) is the moral goal of life. While the Objectivist Ethics is an egoistic ethics, in that it offers itself as a guide to the life and well being of the individual, that is not its unique or defining characteristic. Many people seem to believe it is, but they are mistaken. The Aristotelian Ethics, the Epicurean Ethics, the Ethics of Stoicism, to name only three examples, while all different from one another, are all in their own way egoistic. Indeed, even the Christian Ethics has been viewed by some as egoistic in that its aim is the salvation of the individual soul. No. What is unique about Objectivism is not its egoism, although egoism is implicit in the question with which the Objectivist Ethics begins: What are values and why does man need them? What is unique about the Objectivist Ethics is its standard of value and its derivation of that standard. That standard, of course, is "Man's Life" – that which is required for man's survival qua rational being. I am not going to recapitulate the derivation or justification of that standard for this audience because I will assume everyone is familiar with it.

2. The next point to be stressed is that at the base of the Objectivist Ethics is the recognition of the most intimate relationship between man's life and well being, on the one hand, and reason or rationality, on the other. The moral life is the life guided by reason – meaning, guided by rationally validated principles.

3. Third, the Objectivist ethics is a set of abstract principles, of which the purpose is the life and well being of the individual – here is where egoism comes in – but of which the standard is that which serves man's life as a rational being. To quote Ayn Rand: "The difference between a 'standard' and a 'purpose'... is as follows: a 'standard' is an abstract principle that serves as a measurement or gauge to guide a man's choices in the achievement of a concrete, specific purpose. 'That which is required for the survival of man qua man' is an abstract principle that applies to every individual man. The task of applying this principle to a concrete, specific purpose – the purpose of living a life proper to a rational being – belongs to every individual man, and the life he has to live is his own." (The Objectivist Ethics) What I want you to note here is that Objectivism says, in effect, that which is rational, in a given context, will serve your self-interest. It does not say that which you decide serves your self-interest is the rational. Self-interest, or happiness, is the purpose, not the standard. People destroy themselves every day by pursuing paths that they feel are to their self-interest. Self-interest, per se, is not and cannot be the standard; it can only be the purpose. Otherwise, the question is left open: By what standard do you determine what is to your self-interest?

In the Objectivist Ethics, reason has the last word, not "self-interest" – where "self-interest," in effect, hangs in a void.

With this context understood, let us turn next to the role of benevolence in human life and in the Objectivist Ethics.

Benevolence

Benevolence has a range of meanings, depending on the situation: civility, good will, warmth, giving the benefit of the doubt, assuming innocence unless there are grounds to believe otherwise, helpfulness, kindness, generosity, magnanimity.

For many years I have expressed concern about the lack of any discussion of benevolence in Objectivism and more broadly, the lack of any detailed treatment of human relationships in Rand's writing except, perhaps, from a political perspective.

Thus my pleasure in reading David Kelley's essay "Unrugged Individualism," in which he offers arguments for including benevolence in the list of Objectivist virtues.

David's argument and my reservations.

Has anyone ever performed a spontaneous act of kindness without any thought that the beneficiary might be a future trading principle?

The "trader principle" has its merits, to be sure, but it is not enough.

Going deeper into benevolence…

Individualism and self-esteem predispose one to benevolence. Why?

Benevolence raises one's spirits. Benevolence promotes more harmonious relations. It helps create a superior, more life-serving social environment.

Would you rather live in a society whose members were committed to benevolence in human dealings... or a society in which benevolence was not viewed as important? Which society is more supportive of "Man's Life" – if that's our standard of value? And if a benevolent society serves man's life and well being far more than a society in which benevolence is not esteemed or practiced is that not grounds for benevolence to be included among the Objectivist virtues?

Do we not want others to treat us with benevolence? Not everyone practices benevolence, but I have never met anyone who did not wish to be treated benevolently, with the exception of certain psychologically troubled individuals. Then do we not have a moral obligation to seek to realize within ourselves that which we wish to see in the world around us? Is this not an application of the virtue of integrity? And does not our self-esteem demand this of us?

Is this an "egoistic" argument for benevolence? Ultimately, yes, but it is seriously misleading to frame my argument that way because of the implication that, in acting benevolently, we are at the same time consciously preoccupied with our self-interest. I think we all know from experience that we are not. I think it is far more accurate to say that we are prompted by a generalized feeling of respect for the value of human life. Often our benevolence is a natural outpouring of our own happiness and joy in living. And sometimes it is a reflection of our belief that when we deal with people benevolently we optimize the chances of the encounter being a positive one. And finally, there is the observation that acting benevolently tends to make us feel good about life, about ourselves, and often about others – an "egoistic" argument to be sure, but not in any "calculating" sense of the word. Of course we all – quite legitimately – take actions at times that are based on cold, calculating self-interest. But I believe ordinary life experience informs us that practicing benevolence operates at a different level of motivation.

The point is, there are many reasons to wish to cultivate within oneself the practice of benevolence, quite beyond any "practical" considerations such as are implied by appeal to "the trader principle."

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