Posts Tagged ‘circle of empathy’

Mrs. Logic*

November 5, 2010

I’ve been challenged by a student devotee of Ayn Rand to read her major works in their entirety, before concluding that her version of egoism is less than enlightened.

I have tried, but every time I do I’m repelled by her expressions of the attitude that we should never live for the sake of another, or that “we” is itself a dirty and disreputable concept.

But everything I’ve read about her indicates an intellectual intensity and personal magnetism I’d like to know more about. And some of her ideas are holding center-stage in our politics at the moment.

It’s easy to chuckle at Rand, smugly, from the safe distance of intervening decades or an opposed ideology, but in person—her big black eyes flashing deep into the night, fueled by nicotine, caffeine, and amphetamines—she was apparently an irresistible force, a machine of pure reason, a free-market Spock who converted doubters left, right, and center. Eyewitnesses say that she never lost an argument. One of her young students (soon to be her young lover) staggered out of his first all-night talk session referring to her, admiringly, as “Mrs. Logic.”*

So I accept the challenge, Will. I’ll read more Rand, beginning (as you suggest) with Philosophy: Who Needs It?*

In the meantime I just have to say: I’ve known altruists, was raised by some in fact, and have done my best to pass along their model of compassion and concern to my own children.

I do believe there is such a thing as the public interest and the common good, and that it is much more than mere cover for the will to dominate and control.

I believe the most “reasonable” people are those who continually check their personal egoism against the well-being of others, most of whom they’ll never know personally. They subject their own ends to critical scrutiny informed by shared communal values and a desire to enable the mutual flourishing of all.

But I think we agree: people whose self-interest  is truly enlightened are genuinely concerned for, and respectful of, their companions. They try to expand the circle of empathy, balancing ego and public, me and we.

In short, they think like Einstein:

Strange is our situation here on Earth. Each of us comes for a short visit, not knowing why, yet sometimes seeming to divine a purpose. From the standpoint of daily life, however, there is one thing we do know: that we’re here for the sake of others, above all for those upon whose smiles and well-being our own happiness depends; and also for those countless unknown souls with whose fate we are connected by bonds of sympathy.


You might claim — as most people do — that you have never been influenced by philosophy. I will ask you to check that claim. Have you ever thought or said the following? “Don’t be so sure — nobody can be certain of anything.” You got that notion from David Hume (and many, many others), even though you might never have heard of him. Or: “This may be good in theory, but it doesn’t work in practice.” You got that from Plato. Or: “That was a rotten thing to do, but it’s only human, nobody is perfect in this world.” You got that from Augustine. Or: “It may be true for you, but it’s not true for me.” You got it from William James. Or: “I couldn’t help it! Nobody can help anything he does.” You got it from Hegel. Or: “I can’t prove it, but I feel that it’s true.” You got it from Kant. Or: “It’s logical, but logic has nothing to do with reality.” You got it from Kant. Or: “It’s evil, because it’s selfish.” You got it from Kant. Have you heard the modern activists say: “Act first, think afterward”? They got it from John Dewey.

*Well, no. The James and Dewey blurbs in particular here are very much mistaken and misleading. The next paragraph compounds the error against James, and flings a new slur at another of my heroes, Emerson. If this is a good sample of what I can expect, I’m afraid my view of Ms. Rand’s Objectivism is not in for a major revision.

But we’ll see. Anyone else care to join the reading circle?


*P.S. Has Mrs. Logic met Mrs. Premise and Mrs. Conclusion?