Monday, 15 May 2017

Objectivism: The Philosophy of Benevolent Individualism

Unrugged Individualism: The Selfish Basis of Benevolence 
David Kelley
The Atlas Society, Revised Edition, 2003

I remember a discussion on “Individualism” that I had with a person who has been an Objectivist for many years. He told me that he regards Howard Roark, the protagonist in The Fountainhead, as an ideal individualist.

“Why?” I asked. To my surprise, he offered me the lines from the novel that Peter Keating uses to describe Roark’s character to Ellsworth Toohey: “He'd walk over corpses. Any and all of them. All of us. But he'd be an architect.”

But is Howard Roark so ruthless that he will walk over corpses for the achievements of his ambitions? Is he totally bereft of benevolence?

In his monograph Unrugged Individualism, David Kelley argues that benevolence is not the converse of individualism. He begins by reflecting on Roark’s first meeting with the sculptor Steven Mallory. Roark finds Mallory in a state of semi-drunken despair. Mallory’s artistic ambitions have been battered by the cynical and vulgar cultural environment. But when he notices that Roark’s idealism is genuine, he breaks down.

Roark is not disgusted by Mallory’s lapse into drunken despair. He does not berate Mallory for his weakness and failure to fight for his values. Instead, he offers Mallory kindness and understanding. Kelley says, “It is a moving scene of benevolence between human beings, one of many that occur in Rand’s novels.”

The idea that Roark’s individualism makes him capable of walking over corpses is Peter Keating’s opinion. Keating is a negative character in The Fountainhead—he is a collectivist and he is bound to feel insecure in face of Roark’s individualism.

The Oxford Dictionary defines “benevolence” as “the quality of being well meaning; kindness.” This definition fits Roark’s attitude towards Mallory. Roark is benevolent but he is not self-sacrificing or altruistic. Benevolence must not be confused with self-sacrifice or altruism, which Objectivist ethics rejects as a moral principle.

In chapter 2, “Background,” Kelley investigates the reasons for which some philosophers equate “benevolence” with “altruism.” He points out that in Atlas Shrugged when the Starnes factory is reorganized by the altruist principles of the founder’s heirs — “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need” — there is loss of benevolence among the workers.

In the second part of the chapter, Kelley looks at the relationship between benevolence toward others and the benevolent view of the universe. He points out that the universe is not malevolent—“achievement, success, and happiness are not only possible but normal, where they are the to-be-expected, the primary virtues must be those by which we pursue and achieve them: rationality, courage, productiveness, integrity, pride.”

Ayn Rand has said that “Value is that which one acts to gain and/or keep—virtue is the act by which one gains and/or keeps it.” So what is the value that benevolence aims at? In chapter 3, “The Nature of Benevolence,” Kelley draws the relationship between benevolence and the trader principle. He defines benevolence as “a commitment to achieving the values derivable from life with other people in society, by treating them as potential trading partners, recognizing their humanity, independence, and individuality, and the harmony between their interests and ours.”

But when there is coercion in society, people stop feeling benevolent towards others. In Atlas Shrugged, when Hank Rearden is blackmailed by the government into signing over the rights to Rearden Metal, he is filled with such lack of respect for the men around him what he no longer wishes to engage in trade with them. Here’s the paragraph from Atlas Shrugged in which Rearden’s thoughts are described:

“He felt nothing at the thought of the looters who were now going to manufacture Rearden Metal. His desire to hold his right to it and proudly to be the only one to sell it, had been his form of respect for his fellow men, his belief that to trade with them was an act of honor. The belief, the respect and the desire were gone.... The human shapes moving past him in the streets of the city were physical objects without any meaning.”

In The Fountainhead, Ellsworth Toohey opines that kindness is more important than justice—he accuses Howard Roark of being unkind. But is there a conflict between benevolence and justice? Kelley says that benevolence, being the commitment to achieving certain values in our relationship with others, does not conflict with justice. “If it becomes clear that those values are not available from a specific person—for example, if his behavior or character make him a positive threat— then it is not an act of benevolence to extend sympathy, kindness, or generosity.”

In chapter 4, “The Practice of Benevolence,” Kelley considers the specific kinds of actions, habits, and policies that are part of the practice of benevolence. He says that civility, sensitivity, and generosity are the specific virtues of benevolence.

He defines “civility” as the expression of “one’s respect for the humanity and independence of others, and of one’s intent to resolve conflicts peacefully.”

“Sensitivity,” he says, “is the alertness to the psychological condition of others.” The Fountainhead offers several instances of Roark and Dominique controlling their reactions to another person in order to spare him the pain of showing what he has revealed. For instance, Roark displays lot of sensitivity when he sees Keating after many years.

“Roark knew that he must not show the shock of his first glance at Peter Keating—and that it was too late: he saw a faint smile on Keating’s lips, terrible in its resigned acknowledgment of disintegration.” ~ (The Fountainhead)

Kelley defines “generosity” as “the willingness to provide others with goods without the expectation of a definite return, either as aid in an emergency or as a nonspecific investment in their potential.” The relationship between generosity and individualism is captured in several scenes in Atlas Shrugged. For instance, Dagny saving a tramp from being thrown off the train and inviting him to dinner with her—Rearden’s indulgent attitude towards the Wet Nurse.

Unrugged Individualism offers a wealth of instructive reading on Ayn Rand’s literature and philosophy. It makes an important contribution to Objectivist ethics by demonstrating that benevolence is an Objectivist virtue.

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