Monday, April 27, 2020

A Meditation About the Popularity of "Self-Sacrifice"

Politics is force -- and the initiation of force necessarily creates classes of victims and their victimizers. Politics invariably results in "zero sum," or "win/lose" relationships, where some people succeed only at the expense of others. Politics thus fuels resentments, hatred, and social polarization -- which we see all around us, as our society has become so thoroughly politicized.

The coercive interactions that characterize the political world are exactly the opposite of the peaceful, voluntary trade transactions that characterize a free market, which are "win/win" relationships to mutual benefit. Every day at checkout counters we willingly exchange our money for goods or services, and both parties to the transaction customarily smile and say, "Thank you." Why? Because we have both gained something we wanted from the transaction. Neither party has taken something from the other, against his will. It's a peaceful, "win/win" trade, to mutual benefit.

So, you'd think that people who truly want a peaceful, benevolent, harmonious society would realize this, embrace free market capitalism, and reject coercive political interventions that pit people against each other. But no.


Here's where I think Ayn Rand and her followers got things a bit wrong about the popularity of "self-sacrifice." They believe that all value-preferences are driven by philosophical ideas. And they believe intellectuals have spread the moral doctrine of altruistic self-sacrifice, which lies at the heart of various collectivist ideologies. They conclude that to fight the left effectively, they must train their fire upon the moral idea of self-sacrifice, philosophically refuting it, thus undermining its appeal.

But I think this interpretation is mistaken. On its face, self-sacrifice seems unattractive and nonsensical. I believe few people ever become liberals or leftists because they find self-sacrifice to be appealing, or because they've become persuaded of its merits through philosophical argument. Instead, I think their affinity for "selflessness" is a conclusion they've derived -- perhaps even reluctantly, but quite logically -- from their broader worldview or "Narrative" about how the world works.

What worldview?

A huge percentage of people harbor the misguided view that economic transactions are zero-sum, winner-loser relationships. They believe human economic interests are fundamentally in conflict, so that the "self-interest" and gain by some necessitates the "exploitation" and sacrifice of others. They therefore see socio-economic interactions in terms of a binary choice: either gain power over others, or submit to the power of others. And that's why they gravitate to the "class conflict" theories of Marx and other collectivists. Those political theories ratify and rationalize their underlying core belief about the inherent predatory "unfairness" of economic relationships.

This inherent-conflict-of-interests Narrative is rooted deep within humanity's tribal past, when human relationships were all about dominance or submission. We have to remember that, historically, free-market, win-win capitalism is very new -- and from the outset it was misinterpreted through the distorting lens of the traditional zero-sum, win-lose worldview. Early capitalists were thus "robber barons," not society's creative benefactors. Marx, and generations he influenced, construed capitalism and social relationships in terms of class warfare. Today, "identity politics" rests on the same view of inherent tribal conflicts of interest among demographic groups.

So, if I'm right about this, then many people's idealization of the ethics of self-sacrifice makes a warped kind of sense. They come to it not from philosophical/ideological persuasion, but from their deep-seated belief in inherent conflicts of interest among men -- and the corollary conclusion that the only way for people to live in social harmony is for all sides to sacrifice their "selfish" interests for the sake of "the common good."

This puts a different interpretive spin on the popularity of the morality of altruistic self-sacrifice. Again, on its face, self-sacrifice makes no sense. Deliberately sacrificing one's own best interests and well-being is bizarre, and why people should want to accept it as a moral ideal is even more bizarre. Ayn Rand and her followers, who have viewed human action as powered entirely by philosophical ideas, tried to explain the popularity of self-sacrifice by arguing that philosophers and thinkers have pushed it upon the gullible in the form of various religious and philosophical "isms." They have written countless books and articles trying to refute it as a moral idea. Yet we see that their critiques have had little societal influence.

My explanation for their failure is that their attacks on self-sacrifice, though philosophically accurate, are strategically misguided. Altruistic self-sacrifice is less a moral cause than a moral conclusion, for those who believe that socio-economic relationships necessarily involve inherent conflicts of interest. If that's your Narrative about the social world -- if you see transactions as nothing but power relationships about dominance and submission -- then you have a logical choice to make: either to become a cold-blooded predatory brute, or to remain "nice" and allow yourself to be an exploited victim. Those who truly believe in this Narrative may conclude they'd prefer to keep their self-respect by being victimized, rather than join the criminals and brutes. Such erroneous premises and conclusions would explain, for example, the rise of Christianity and the appeal of its altruistic ethics, as summarized in "the Sermon on the Mount."

Is my view of this so far-fetched? In a discussion on Facebook with Objectivists, I found many participants recoiled from the view that even emergency situations are zero-sum conflicts that might require us to become brutes, surviving at the expense of others. That is not the Randian view of "selfishness": Most principled individualists, in fact, would prefer to keep their humanity and self-esteem by dying nobly rather than survive like predatory beasts.

Well, to them I say: Imagine how you'd live if you truly believed that normal life was all about zero-sum conflicts of interest -- that each transaction under capitalism entailed someone gaining at someone else's expense. You'd conclude, logically, that economic winners would have to be rapacious robber barons. You'd conclude, logically, that to keep your soul, you'd have to sacrifice your prospects for economic well-being, doing your work solely for the love of it, and not for commercial success. You'd conclude, logically, that to keep the economic predators in check, we need a strong cop to suppress predatory "greed": a powerful government to regulate Evil Businessmen.

If my interpretation of altruism's appeal is correct, then the real target of individualists' moral criticism ought to be the zero-sum Narrative -- the false belief in inherent economic conflicts of interest -- and not altruistic self-sacrifice per se, which is mainly an emotionally driven reaction arising from the zero-sum worldview. We need to show that economic relationships in a free society are "win/win," not "win/lose." We need to explain what 19th-century economist Frederic Bastiat labeled "economic harmonies."

And we need to teach that the "win/win" marketplace is the moral antithesis of the coercive world of politics, where all relationships are in fact zero-sum and "win/lose." The more relationships we can keep outside the political realm of force and coercion, and within the private sector of peaceful production and trade, the better for our social harmony.


Randy C Finch said...


Phil said...

Robert said, "I believe few people ever become liberals or leftists because they find self-sacrifice to be appealing" --I have several issues with that:

1. What about conservatives, the religious, those on the duty premise?

2. What about those who don't find sacrificing themselves to be appealing, but they find sacrificing others to themselves or having power over them or telling them, even with what they think is there greater wisdom, what they must do?

on the other hand, your perceptive point about people thinking things basically are a zero-sum game is certainly a neglected component of all this!

Anonymous said...

It's as if Rand never discussed the allegedly inherent "conflict of men's interest" and never dramatized the harmony of men's interests. I don't think her thought is as deficient as this essay implies.