How do you want to live? What values do you aim to hold as guiding principles for your life? What makes for a good society in which to live?
Most of us were raised with a set of values. As children, we were taught that we should share our toys, play nicely with our friends, show respect to the adults in charge (like teachers or the bus driver), and get along with others. We were taught to hold the door open for the person coming after us, to leave some of our favorite food in the serving dish so that others could have some, and to consider the needs of others when making a decision for ourselves. These values reflect teaching from the great religious traditions. Western culture was shaped by the golden rule of Christianity: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. As adults we have come to understand that this golden rule is also a part of all the great religions of the world. Despite the fact that people sometimes act selfishly, there are general values people have around the world for sharing and caring, compassion and empathy.
Sociologists have noted that societies function because of prosocial behavior – a social science term that simply means that people help each other. Psychologists have also found that a component of mental health is related to people’s ability to recognize the needs of others and to respond to those needs. Psychopaths and sociopaths are individuals who are not able to empathize with the feelings of other people, particularly the pain they inflict on others.
In the field of ethics, living by the golden rule and believing that people have some responsibility for each other is called altruism. Altruism is pretty simple: if someone is in need and you can help, then you have an ethical obligation to help. We expect people to be altruistic. We want others to assist us when we are in need and understand that we will do our best to be responsive to the needs of others. For example, if someone is in a public place and has a heart attack, we expect that someone will administer CPR while someone else will dial 9-1-1. We don’t expect that when people are confronted with a tangible need that they will just turn, walk away and do nothing to help a person in need.
In ethics, altruism is contrasted by something called egoism. Egoism holds that people only act in their own self-interest. An egoist perspective always asks one question first: what’s in it for me? If there’s nothing of value in it for me, then there’s no reason to do it.
As someone with a background in philosophy, I’ve found it very interesting that the major Western philosophers (Kant, Hume, Hobbes, and Aquinas, to name a few) all wrote about the problem of egoism. Yet, in the 20th Century, there was one articulate proponent for living based on an egoistic ideal: the Russian born novelist, play-write, and philosopher Alisa Zinov’yevna Rosenbaum, better known as Ayn Rand.
Rand supported ethical egoism and directly rejected altruism. After living through the Communist Revolution in Russia and the experience of abusive government power that occurred under Lenin with the establishment of forced collectives and redistribution of personal property, Rand took the position that the only way to safeguard freedom in society was through ethical egoism: everyone acting in their own self interest.
In the United States today, the media tosses around references to the philosophy of Ayn Rand. Yet, I suspect that most people don’t understand Rand’s philosophy. Rand termed her philosophy as “objectivism” which is often confused with “objectivist” philosophy. Objectivist philosophy holds that some moral and ethical rules are universal. An example is the belief that it’s wrong to kill another human being. Ayn Rand’s objectivism holds that the primary moral purpose of life is the pursuit of one’s own self-interest. It’s this philosophy that is the basis of libertarian political thought in the United States and reflected in the Tea Party movement.
As a person who ascribes to the teachings of Jesus and who affirms the fundamental value of the golden rule found in all great religious traditions of the world, I believe that we are all interconnected. My ethical position is based on altruism: that we have a responsibility to act in ways that promote prosocial behavior in society. My position isn’t just based on religious belief and values honed by spiritual practice. Sociology supports that this approach leads to healthy societies. Research in psychology also demonstrates that mental health is rooted in interdependence and social support. For all of these reasons, I reject ethical egoism and the philosophy of Ayn Rand that gives priority to self interest. Ethical egoism (and the philosophy of Ayn Rand) is the foundation of a way of life characterized by selfishness and greed.
While my position clearly has political implications in the United States during this election cycle, it is rooted in my spiritual life, values, and philosophy of life. Further, rejecting ethical egoism and Rand’s objectivism does not imply that people don’t have responsibility for themselves. Instead, it acknowledges that we are all in this world together. None of us succeeds in any way in life without the support, help, and assistance of others.
So, as we were taught as children, please remember to share your toys and hold the door for the next person. It’s in these small actions that we support the interconnection we share as people living on Earth as a global community.
© 2012, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.