Sunday, 6 February 2011

Chris Port Blog #82. Conversation Thread on Ayn Rand's 'Atlas Shrugged' - "What if all the creative minds of the world went on strike?"

“What if I went on strike? What if all the creative minds of the world went on strike?” ~ Ayn Rand

A ‘homage to greed? ‘Nearly perfect in its immorality’? ‘Nerd revenge porn’?

“There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old’s life:
The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.” ~ Paul Krugman

‘The concept “Sanction of the victim” is defined by Leonard Peikoff as “the willingness of the good to suffer at the hands of the evil, to accept the role of sacrificial victim for the ‘sin’ of creating values”. This concept may be original in the thinking of Rand and is foundational to her moral theory: she holds that evil is a parasite on the good and can only exist if the good tolerates it. Atlas Shrugged can be seen as an answer to the question of what would happen if this sanction were revoked. When Atlas shrugs, relieving himself of the burden of carrying the world, he is revoking his sanction.’

‘ “I suppose somebody’s got to be sacrificed. If it turned out to be me, I have no right to complain.” John Galt vows to stop the motor of the world by persuading the creators of the world to withhold their sanction: “Evil is impotent and has no power but that which we let it extort from us”, and, “I saw that evil was impotent... and the only weapon of its triumph was the willingness of the good to serve it”.’

‘In Rand’s view, morality requires that we do not sanction our own victimhood. She assigns virtue to the trait of rational self-interest. However, Rand contends that moral selfishness does not mean a license to do whatever one pleases, guided by whims. It means the exacting discipline of defining and pursuing one's rational self-interest. A code of rational self-interest rejects every form of human sacrifice, whether of oneself to others or of others to oneself.’

Blog #78. On the Need to Relearn the Socratic Method. 

In response to another thread...

I approve of
Atlas Shrugged [in general] because it raises profound moral, pragmatic and philosophical issues. Whether I agree with any author’s ‘preferred reading’ is (for me) largely irrelevant. I don’t see meanings as fixed but as negotiable and forever in flux. What may have been valid in 1957 may be hopelessly anachronistic in 2011. But the important questions usually stay the same.

On this point, I like the anti-fatalistic message in your quote. It put me in mind of Cassius’ admonition to Brutus: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, But in ourselves, that we are underlings.” (Shakespeare, Julius Caesar (I, ii, 140-141). However, the conflicting currents of fate versus free will always muddy clear waters...

Hume’s ‘is-ought’ problem

and Kant’s Categorical Imperative 

mean that concepts such as ‘free will’ and ‘good’ are less self-evident than they might first seem.

By the time we get to all the various relativisms, cause and effect become unclear and I’m not even sure what ‘I’ means any more! At this point, I opt out of fate versus free will and just try to work out which of Wittgenstein’s ‘language games’ is being played.

“Don't worry about ‘reality’. You can never know it. I’m not sure if it even exists in any meaningful sense. Just know which game you’re playing. And learn the rules for that game. It’s the trick to a happy life...” ~ Marty Gull

“Statistics are like a bikini. What they reveal is suggestive, but what they conceal is vital.” ~ Aaron Levenstein

Statistic, Probability and Bikinis

[Epistemological Debate Map]

From another thread...

A young boy wins 1st place in a race by a large lead. His teacher tells him he should slow down so the other children are not hurt that they lost by so great a length. The next day he races again and races even har
der, winning by an even greater amount. His teacher says “Why didn’t you listen to me?” The boy says “Because I will not live for the sake of another, nor ask another to live for me.”

In response to another thread... 

"Well fancy that, a talking fox."

As you may know, the fox is reputed to be a wily creature. One day, a fox was slinking through a field when he heard two horses arguing. His ears pricked up. Horses were normally such placid animals. What cou
ld they be arguing about?

He drew closer. An old racehorse was berating his young rival.

“Listen” said the old horse. “All I’m asking you to do is lose one race. Just one. You’re young. You’ve got years of racing ahead of you. But look at me. I’m knackered. Please. Just let me win my last race on Saturday.”

“I’m sorry,” said the young horse, “I can’t do that. It would be cheating. Worse than that, it would be letting my owner down. He’s spent a lot of money on me. I owe him to try my hardest.”

“Oh don’t be such a prig!” snapped the old horse. “Don’t you realize what will happen? If I lose this last race, my owner will think I’m past it. He’ll send me to the glue factory for sure. My death will be on your conscience. But if you let me win, then my owner will think I’m good breeding stock. He’ll put me out to stud. I’ll spend my retirement in green pastures, pleasuring young mares. Please. I’ve worked hard all my life. I’ve earned my time in the sun. Please do this one favour for me. Have pity.”

“I’d like to help you, truly I would,” said the young upstart. “Please don’t think I’m without a heart. But life is harsh. It’s survival of the fittest. If you’re not fit enough to win, you’re not fit enough to breed. I’m sorry, but that’s just the way it is.”

The old horse was about to remonstrate when he heard a discreet cough.

“Excuse me,” said the fox, “I couldn’t help but overhear. I’ve listened carefully to both sides of the argument, and I think I have a solution acceptable to both of you.

Young horse, you have spirit and energy. So in the first few furlongs, you take the lead.

Old horse, you have experience and stamina, so you tuck in behind and slipstream. Then, when the time is right, you take him on the bend.

Young horse, you let him steal the lead then tuck in behind him. The crowd will be screaming with excitement. Your owners will be getting the race of their lives.

Then, when it comes to the last few furlongs, young horse, you put on that extra spurt of speed. You’ll both be neck and neck, each nosing ahead, the roar of the crowd like the wind in your ears. It’s down to a photo finish... And you cross the line... together.

That way, young horse, your owner will be ecstatic. Youth and energy were a match for age and experience. If you can do that in your first race, what glories lie ahead?

And old horse, you’ll have shown that you’ve still got it. The future took you on, but it couldn’t beat you. No glue factory for you. You’ll be breeding to your heart’s content.”

The young horse looked at the old horse, and smiled.

And the old horse looked at the young horse, and smiled.

“Well fancy that,” he said, “a talking fox.”

The horse story is actually an old shaggy dog story (or shaggy fox in this case).

However, transposed to this context it is now made to serve as an allegory with hidden meanings.

1) What might the old horse, the young horse, and the fox represent in human affairs? Think nations, politics, economics...  

2) In what ways might their arguments be applied to human affairs? 

3) Do both arguments have merit? Do both arguments have flaws? Can you identify them?

4) After considering the implications of both arguments, do you side with one against the other? If so, why? Is the fox’s suggestion a compromise, a con, or an ‘everybody wins’ solution? 

5) What is meant here by ‘winning’ and ‘losing’? Is it the race itself that’s important? Or is it people’s enjoyment of the race?

6) If everybody is happy and gets what they want, isn’t this better than some being unhappy? Or are we being deceived by a trick here? Is some ‘law’ of nature being cheated with dire consequences later?

7) What is meant by the last line? In the original ‘shaggy dog’ context, the audience is ridiculed for getting sucked into anthropomorphism (attributing human qualities to animals). 

8) Cynics dismiss anthropomorphism as sentimental, misleading and self-centred (e.g. Disney films). However, the point about anthropomorphism in Aesop’s Fables is not that animals have human qualities, but that humans have animal qualities. Over 2,000 years before Brecht, Aesop made us unfamiliar to ourselves so that we might see ourselves more critically.

9) Does anybody ‘earn’ their place in the sun? Regardless of past achievements, is it ‘right’ to burden the young with subsidizing the old?

10) The ‘law’ of nature has nothing to say about justice or gratitude. It’s only the here and now and the self that counts. In what ways should human beings follow the ‘law’ of nature? In what ways is being a human being going against the law of nature?

How would you apply some of your findings, and Rand’s philosophy, to the following solution to an apparent economic problem...?

History lesson for neo-positivists. Teachers talking maths in 1930s Italy... (From Life Is Beautiful, Roberto Benigni, Melampo Cinematografica, Italy 1997).

"Third grade. Listen to this work. Really. It’s quite shocking. The problem. Supporting a lunatic costs the state four marks a day. Supporting a cripple costs four and a half marks. An epileptic, three and a half marks. Figuring the average at four marks per day, and considering there are three hundred thousand, how much would the state save if these individuals were simply eliminated?"

"Completely unbelievable!"

"That is exactly how I reacted. Completely unbelievable. I can’t believe an elementary school child is expected to solve something like this. It’s a difficult calculation. The proportions, the percentages. They’d need some algebra to solve these equations, right? That would be high school material for us."

"No, no. It’s just multiplication. What did you say it was? Three hundred thousand cripples?"


"Three hundred thousand times four. We’d be saving around one million two hundred thousand marks a day if we killed them all. It’s easy."

"Exactly. But you’re an adult. In Germany, seven year-olds are given these problems to work out. A most amazing race indeed..."

The Fox Scene (Chaos Reigns) from Antichrist, Lars von Trier, 2009.

1 comment:

  1. A councillor has apologised for telling a disability charity that "disabled children cost the council too much money and should be put down".