Sunday, January 21, 2007

The Virtue of Clear Language

An interesting comment on an earlier post about Objectivism questions my assertion that disliking cynical people is part of Objectivism's cultural ethos. On the surface, this is exactly right. After all, a cynic is typically someone who despairs of finding anyone motivated by anything other than selfishness. Since Rand likes to talk about Selfishness as a virtue, then it would seem impossible for any Objectivist in good standing not to be a cynic. Far from being a vice, cynicism would be seen as virtuous behavior in such a system.

The problem is a common one where Objectivism is concerned: Rand has an annoying habit of deliberately misusing words as a provocation gimmick. She would call this being challenging and serious - but in fact it's an abuse of language on some level.

I'm not totally unsympathetic; I do this myself in my refusal to use "liberal" to describe leftists. Originally that word meant what we now have to say "Classical Liberal" to express: a supporter of roughly the kind of free-market minarchist politics I myself support. On some level I'm abusing language. People say "Liberal" more or less interchangeably with "Democrat" these days, so one could argue that the meaning has changed. I persist in this, though, for a couple of reasons. First, I think the terms were clearer back when present-day "liberals" were Social Democrats and present-day "libertarians" were "Liberals." And in fact the problematic nature of the term "libertarian" is a case in my favor. It's not entirely clear what "libertarian" means, even applied to the party that supposedly represents the concept. That party admits anarchists like Murray Rothbard and law-and-order types like me all under the same roof. It's only slighly clearer than "Republican!" The sloppy use of "liberal" to describe people who, historically speaking, are just the opposite of "liberal" is a mixing of technical, political science-level terms with informal public discourse terms. We don't need a precise definition of "Republican" or "Democrat." In fact, these have other meanings when not associated with the respective parties. A "republican" in the PolySci use is typically someone who favors the abolition of monarchy in favor of a representational system. A "democrat" is someone who favors direct franchise for everyone - and sometimes even direct democracy. Likewise, a "liberal" should be someone who supports a minarchist, market-driven political economy. But this is hard to maintain when its informal definition is more or less the opposite of this! Maybe the only thing that I will ever be willing to support that idiot George Lakoff on is his attempt to replace "liberal" in informal discourse with "progressive." Of course, Lakoff chooses "progressive" to stack the deck in favor of the policies he advocates, but at least there's historical precedent. In the 19th century (and into the 20th) there was a party that is more or less the modern Democratic Party that called itself the Progressive Party. He can have the word "progressive" if he wants. I just want a label for my beliefs that doesn't sound as goofy as "libertarian," damnit, and "liberal" is not only etymologically accurate for what I stand for, it's also historically the word people used to describe people like me! I want it back. Second, I think it's not too late to change back. There are still enough people (but only barely) who are willing to use it for what it used to mean that this isn't hopeless.

But OK, Rand has a similar argument for using the word "selfishness" the way she does. She claims that the word as presently used stacks the deck in favor of altruism as the basic moral principle - and this because "selfishness" lumps people who act in their rational self interest into the same category with those who pursue their own pleasure without any consideration for, and indeed at the deliberate expense of, others. And fair enough, as far as that goes. I think Rand is right that a lot of ethical thought is sloppy for just this reason. People think that because ethics is the branch of philosophy that governs how we behave toward others (at least socially) that virtue necessarily involves the ability to place the values of others above our own. Rand is right to fight this tendency.

However, I'm not sure she's right to misuse the word "selfishness" to describe her cardinal virtue. And indeed, in her own book of essays on the subject she admits that what she really means is "rational self-interest." I personally don't think the deck is stacked so far in favor of altruism that people have lost the ability to understand what is meant by "rational self-interest." Quite the contrary - "rational self-interest" was invented precisely to address the problem she thinks she's identified (i.e. that there isn't a word for "rational self-interest"). It's a term that was invented to describe someone who pursues his own values without callous disregard for others - someone who refuses to sacrifice his values for others, but acknowledges the right of others to do the same.

The irony, of course, is that in misusing "selfishness" to mean "rational self-interest," Rand is effectively destroying the concept that goes along with the general-use term "selfishness." As far as I know, she's offered no replacement term for the vice "selfishness," that is, the vice of using other people as a means to your own ends without regard for their values, feelings and rights. This is strange since that kind of selfishness is, in fact, the cardinal vice of Objectivism. The climax of Atlas Shrugged, indeed, involves the protagonist submitting to physical torture rather than agree to become a dictator.

And this is my, and I suspect anyone's, main frustration with the way she expresses herself. Objectivism isn't a cold-hearted philosophy that encourages the pursuit of one's goals at the expense of others. That Nietzsche's domain. But given Rand's choice of words, it's impossible to fault anyone for getting that impression. There's something Orwellian in trying to redefine popular terms so that they only express virtues.

Now, I do have a bone to pick with regard to the word "cynical," however. I reject the notion of morality that says that virtue is only the ability to look beyond one's own interest. I agree with Rand that the question isn't one of capacity for sacrifice. In fact, no system that calls itself moral should promote sacrifice, as that is a destructive and irrational basis for behavior. Sacrifice is only meaningful when someone does it in the service of a higher value, and the interests of others in the abstract - as in, the interests of others whom I haven't met, don't know and therefore cannot possibly care about - is an absurdity as a higher value. One cannot value something he doesn't know! So in this sense I do think the word "cynical" as it is generally used stacks the deck in favor of altruism.

I take "cynicism" in its broader meaning - which is to say the belief that people are without virtue. My own moral system needs a term to occupy this spot - and so I've simply used "cynicism," assuming people will understand. For my moral system, that means people who believe that mankind is essentially a bunch of animals pretending to be civilized. I despise this view. I think people are, for the most part, overwhelmingly good. They are often weak, but most people I meet are basically good people who want to do right by themselves and their fellow man. I have a positive view of the human race, and that is what I meant when I said that part of the ethos of Objectivism that I liked was that it rejects cynicism. What I meant, and perhaps should have said more clearly, is that Objectivism encourages optimism and belief in the sincerity of men. It doesn't sneer and it isn't sarcastic.

But alright - one of the things that gets old about sympathizing with Objectivists is the constant need to have to explain points like this. Rand could have saved us all a lot of trouble by expressing herself more clearly. But of course, it sells more books (and by this I do mean "reaches more people;" whatever her other faults, Rand was not money-grubbing) to title them provocative things like The Virtue of Selfishness.

I also ran across a funny comment on Amazon today about just this issue. It's in the section for this book - Unrugged Individualism: The Selfish Basis of Benevolence. See what I mean? In this sense Objectivism is more than a little like Chomsky's linguistic theories. Whether or not Chomsky's theory generates sentences like it claims has yet to be proven to me, but it definitely generates a lot of books...

Anyway, one commenter writes:

To his everlasting credit, David Kelley has noticed that there's something missing from a philosophy whose adherents need to be told that it's okay to be nice.

HA! Right. Objectivism is offputting in exactly this way. Nothing in Rand's essays does, mind you, but her novels definitely do present as heroes people who seem callous and cold. Now I will personally admit that there is something about this kind of arroagance that I find attractive, and I'm not hiding the fact that this image is one of the trappings of Objectivism that I like. But attraction to certain images aside, Objectivism as spelled out has no problem with and indeed encourages people to be kind. It just takes some issue with the traditional definition of "kindness," getting into which would take more space than I really have here.

I should probably reiterate that, although I admire Rand's thought and have been influenced by it, I don't buy into it enough to call myself an "Objectivist" personally. I don't mind being identified with it, but I'm not, strictly speaking, a believer. Rand's tendency for this kind of dramatic theatrics in her use of language works well in her novels, but I do think it gets in the way of her philosophy.

In any case, that should clear up what I meant by saying that I don't like cynical people.


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