Sandefur on the Third Letter

Tim Sandefur writes:

Wilkinson’s argument seems to be that when Rand says that a morality of reason is necessary for man’s survival, that isn’t true, because you can see all around you that there are many people who live and who are not rational. Isn’t this rather like saying that alcoholism isn’t really bad because there are lots of alcoholics who aren’t dead—and even ones who accomplish big things?

No. Here’s the proper parallel. Someone tells you that any alcohol AT ALL imperil your life and happiness. Then you discover that that the happiest, longest-lived people you know regularly drink alcohol. So then you know that the claim about the dangers of alcohol just aren’t true. Rand’s claims about reason are like that. She claims that any bit of irrationality imperils life and happiness. But then you lift your weary eyes from the pages, stick your head out the window, and observe happy, successful people whose commitment to reason is notably partial.

And this:

A bureaucrat at HUD might be a happy person because he is a basically rational person who engages in the behaviors that Objectivism considers virtues—even though his life may include contradictions, and his happiness may be mixed.

This is a move that really bugs me. Start with your theory about the necessary conditions of life and happiness. Observe that someone lives and is not unhappy. Conclude that they must implement elements of your theory. No. No. No. This is backwards rationalism. Do this instead: Observe people who live and are happy. Draw generalizations about them. I think the correct answer, based on a good inductive approach, is something like: yes, a well-developed capacity for “common sense” or “folk rationality” is a necessary condition for life and happiness. But this is not incompatible with all sorts of astonishing forms of irrationality. Many of these forms of irrationality have no apparent effect on life and happiness, and other forms appear to have some positive effect. Of course, there are many forms of irrationality that are truly destructive, and I think we can all agree that these are to be avoided.

I’m reminded of the utilitarian’s favorite dodge. Offer an intuitive moral counter-example, such as “utilitarianism demands cutting up healthy people and distributing their organs to sick people,” or “utilitarianism demands televised to-the-death gladiatorial combat, since so many people really enjoy watching people kill each other,” and the utilitarian will offer an elaborate story about how utilitarianism, properly and subtly understood, actually forbids these things. But there is a point where this becomes ridiculously ad hoc, and it becomes obvious that an honest utilitarian is either going to have to bite some bullets (e.g., “We really should be carving healthy people up!”), reject the notion that intutions about cases like these have any authority and offer a different (non-question begging) standard for evaluating the adequacy of moral theories, or admit that the counterexamples are decisive.

If I keep showing you happy, deeply religious ninety year olds who devoted their lives to altruistic service and the mastery of astrology, and you keep telling me that they must embody Objectivist virtues of rationality because, after all, they’ve never once stepped in front of a car and have a solid record of not doing things that would make them miserable, then I am not going to be impressed.

One thing I meant to take up in the letter, but which I think I will take up in a separate letter, is Rand’s “survival barometer” view of happiness, which I think is quite implausible.

Last, Tim says “Parisitism as a personal psychology, is stable only as socialism . . .” No. A system in which everyone is parasitic is unstable, surely. But my point is that parasitism doesn’t require an especially parasitic psychology, and parasistism works pretty well as long as the host organism is exceedingly robust. Ever met a happy special-interest lobbyist truly proud of their latest success at rent-extraction? I have. Parasites don’t need to have a parasitic mentality. I’ve met any number of professional rent-seekers who see their work as necessary and noble, and who gain the usual psychic rewards from a job well done. These are people who, in fact, contribute next to nothing to the wealth of society, and are in fact part of a system of parasitism and predation. But they don’t see it that way. The system is too robust to suffer too much from institutionalized parasitism. Society continues to get wealthier. There is no serious social instability, or threat of downward spiral. (And so things are not, as Tim says, like the jumper who says “so far so good” halfway down.)These people are as insulated from the objective systemic effects of their work as much as any other more objectively productive member of society. And psychological well-being depends more on the way you conceive of what you’re doing than on the real worth of what you’re doing. Since you’re so insulated from the effects of the real results, which are muted and diffuse, there is little reason to suspect that your actions have a negative effect.

There is simply no non-table pounding reason to suspect that someone’s happiness is compromised simply in virtue of being objectively unproductive and subsisting off of the spoils of political predation. This can, in fact, be a quite nice kind of life and that is part of the political problem.

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center