Sunday, June 3, 2012

Response To The Japan Times, No.1

The following is my response to an article from the Japan Times, dated April 6, 2012 entitled, "Way of thinking at stake in U.S. 'boxing match" by Nishimura Mutsuyoshi. The article itself can be found at this link embedded into this text.

The article concerns its author's view on a left-right confrontation via "Tea Party" and (implicitly) "Occupy" groups in the USA. The author attempts to suggest that these groups represent a clash of ideas in which one side will win or a synthesis will be drawn. He associates the ideas of novelist/philosopher Ayn Rand with the "Tea Party" movement, and worries that if they were to become  politically dominant it may result in cultural intolerance when it came to U.S relations with friendly foreign powers, particularly Japan. 

There is a lot of straightening out to do, so if you are interested, read on.

The article states the following:

"Such is the philosophy that exerts the greatest influence on the American people after the Bible. "

That Rand's book "Atlas Shrugged" has sold that many copies does not mean that the influence of her philosophy is strong in American culture.

Many of her readers become political libertarians, anarchists or attempt to merge her philosophy, called Objectivism, with mysticism, which are positions Rand actively denounced. Many readers misunderstand the essentials of her philosophy. This article too, contains several errors about Rand's philosophical views and therefore implies conclusions that do not follow from her premises.

Mr. Nishimura writes, "The message that comes through in her voluminous works is one in which human beings are rational decision makers who commit an immoral act that defiles their sense of value and ability when they entrust decisions to a group. We must therefore affirm individualism and egotism, and deny collectivism. Altruism, which praises service for others and self-sacrifice, must also be denied because it puts the collective will before individual free will.".

There are three problems in this paragraph. First, Rand would say that rationality is a choice, and that one is free at any time to evade the facts of reality, at one's own peril.

Second, "group entrustment or non-entrustment" is not a boolean choice. For example, collaboration among self-interested independents in projects and trade is totally acceptable and necessary by Rand's standards. Differing expertise and the reality that large projects require more than one mind, or more than one person's labour, ensure collaboration.

For example, an architect designs plans for a home, but he collaborates with the construction company and workers on problems that arise in realizing the construction of the building. Many decisions in that process will involve invoking the expertise of individuals of the construction group, the point is that this work must continue to serve the vision of the architect.

So, Objectivism does not a reject all group decision-making, but rather rejects assuming group decision making as a default social standard. Instead, the individual reasoning mind is the standard, and if the judgement of an individual is that he requires collaboration, and others are willing to collaborate, then teamwork is the result.

Thirdly, Mr. Nishimura uses the word "egotism" to describe Rand's philosophy, "Objectivism". This is incorrect. Rand herself made a similar mistake, in part due to English not being her first language. She explains her misunderstanding in the   foreword to her novel "The Fountainhead".

To clarify: There is a difference between the concept of "egotism" and what Rand advocated which is "rational egoism": Egotism is a psychological term, not an ethical term.  "Egotism"  describes a person who over-estimates his own importance, or the importance of his work, such as a janitor who thinks that he is saving the world by scrubbing a toilet, or a politician who thinks re-distributing wealth makes him virtuous.

"Rational Egoism" is the ethical stance that it is both moral and practical for each individual to pursue their self-interest, and that there are no moral conflicts among rational men. It also implies that what is of interest is to pursue discover and cultivate values that further one's life.

If you wish to use a psychological term to associate with Rand's ethics, the most accurate one is "autonomy".

Mr. Nishimura continues, "[The Tea Party] are calling on the government to stop collecting taxes that support the disadvantaged, to avoid budget deficits even for the purpose of stimulating the economy and to make investment returns and inheritances tax-free.".

This observation is dated."The Tea Party" was inconsistent on these issues. It opposed President Obama's national health care plan, but still wanted to protect the existing medicare and social security plans. They wanted to pick and choose what "goodies" to keep, because of this, there was no backbone to the argument --- it was not made on moral grounds.

"The Tea Party" has since lost most of its relevance, and likely Republican candidate for President, Mitt Romney, is no friend of limited government, having nationalized health care in his home state.

"...greatest ideological divergence in 120 years is threatening to split the country."

This is not true. Because altruism is the moral code of both parties, America is effectively a one-party state. Both Democrats and Republicans agree that it is the state's role to provide goods and services to the public, they simply disagree on how much to take and sometimes on to whom will receive what they have looted. Their voting records prove it each month.

In order for what Mr. Nishimura says to be true, America would need a real second party, a party that does not operate on the premises of altruism. A party whose guiding principle is the defense of  "Individual Rights". The closest politician Americans have to representing this view is former governor of New Mexico, Gary Johnson. Johnson was once a Republican candidate for President but was often excluded from debates by the media. If America was in the middle of an ideological battle such as posited by the writer, Johnson would be under the spotlight. Yet since altruism is the only culturally acceptable moral code in America, he is isolated and ostracized for his integrity.

"Altruism, which praises service for others and self-sacrifice, must also be denied because it puts the collective will before individual free will."

Altruism is not opposed by Rand strictly on terms of "free will", it is opposed because it is incongruent with man's autonomous nature. Altruism states that man has no right to exist save for his duty to others. You can read more about Rand's real opinion of altruism here ( This is an essential point to understand.

"As fellow practitioners of capitalism..."

The social system both countries operate under is not capitalism, it is what is called the "mixed economy" which is a mixture of state regulations and controls, combined with a semblance of respect for property rights (which is increasingly, as is inevitable, becoming more of the former and less of the latter) . Those who agree with the status quo yet call themselves capitalists, do more damage to capitalism than statists ever could, via misrepresentation.

"I sincerely believe that most Americans continue to show respect for foreign cultures and to serve others..."

The implication here is that without serving others, i.e., altruism, respect for foreign cultures is impossible.  But there is not necessarily a conflict between the ethics of rational self-interest and respecting foreign cultures. That depends on the contents of the foreign culture. We have to ask question such as, "What respect is there in the other culture for integrity and honesty? For rationality and productiveness?". These things do not always manifest themselves in the exact same ways. So, awareness and toleration of differences of tradition is not necessarily a problem.

Altruism underlies Japanese culture, just like in America. But the traditions and culture are still radically different. Differences of culture would still remain strong even if rational self-interest were the dominant moral trend.

Still, Japan is already witnessing a rejection of altruism in it's own ways, via the rise of freeters, sōshoku-danshi and "cute culture", among other groups. These social developments, are the polite, non-confrontational way individuals reject the duty-ethic.

To clarify further: Historically human beings have tended to think of only two alternative moralities. Selfishness or self-sacrifice. Normally, they think selfishness is when a person sacrifices others to himself so he can benefit. The alternative is supposed be: sacrifice oneself for the benefit of others. Ayn Rand states that these options are simply two sides of the same sacrificial coin. She tells us to throw away that coin completely and offers a radical departure from the morality of sacrifice.

Objectivism holds that one should neither make sacrifices nor collect them.  The Objectivist moral currency is not sacrifice, but virtue. And the virtuous method of rational self-interest when it comes to social relationships is simple: mutually beneficial trade by voluntary consent.

While Mr. Nishimura suggest that without serving others, (i.e., altruism) respect for foreign cultures is impossible, the reality is that altruism is what causes cultural intolerance, not self-interest.

This is because altruism kills genuine goodwill. It causes resentment when one's own desires and goals conflict with what is perceived to be moral. Resentment of the demands of others, the demands of the culture, the demands of family. Sacrifice means that we will allow ourselves to be stepped on for the supposed benefit of others. But to feel happiness or virtue at the sacrifice one has made is selfish, and therefore wrong, so even that is disallowed. Thus, our sense of our own value shrinks when we make sacrifices.

"You must marry a man of greater stature!" your mother says. "Yes, what you say is true, but you should not say it." your co-worker says. "It is not good to stand up for yourself because that will cause an uncomfortable confrontation around others." your friend says. "You should be working 20 hours of unpaid overtime per week and consider it to be normal." your boss implies. "You are selfish for living alone taking a low-paying job with few hours, why aren't you looking for a spouse? If everyone did what you are doing the economy will die!" society says.

Why do we not consider that if the person admonishing us to make sacrifices was truly our ally, friend, lover, leader or protector they would not want us to hurt ourselves in this way?

Others cannot be looked at as potential values under altruism, but rather as potential moral burdens to which one is obligated to serve.

By contrast, rationally self-interested people harbour no resentment. Because they refuse to make or collect sacrifices, they rarely feel stepped-on, and they never feel dutiful obligations --- they only have obligations of their own choosing not out of others expectations. As a result what they harbour inside is goodwill towards others.

Thus, other people, from whatever culture, are treated as potential values, not potential burdens. The presence of more people in a self-interested person's life is not an obligation to make more soul-crushing sacrifices, it is an opportunity for great things! For relationships, trade and cultural exchange without any of the fear, presumption or obligation found in dead-end of unchosen duties.

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