I have recently finished reading The Fountainhead, Ayn Rand’s epic of a novel heralding human egoism as the ultimate virtue. One of my high school teacher’s noted Rand’s seductive abilities, and I have to admit that I was indeed to quite an extent seduced by the book and its underlying values. The whole notion of individuals steadfastly holding to their ideals, not answering to anyone else, and only doing things in their rational self interest at first glance appealed to me a lot.
However, with more reflection, I also noticed why ultimate egoism of the Randian variety is an unreachable, and unfavorable ideal. Humans are inherently social. Yes, self-interest determines much of our lives, especially economically, but not to the extent that we completely disregard others. We have emotions, we have empathy, we have sympathy, succinctly put – we care for others too. The main problem with Rand’s view of human nature is that the ultimate egotist would fail to see the consequences of his/her actions on the extended environment, thus leading to a long-term net loss of utility and welfare for the entire environment in which the individual egotist exists. As a global society, we have already seen the great devastation caused by largely individual disregard for negative externalities during the financial crisis of 2007-2010.
This brings me to Schroedinger. In one of his 1956 lectures at Cambridge University on Mind and Matter, Erwin Schroedinger defined consciousness as providing “the mechanism for adapting to a changing surrounding”. He ventured further to even postulate that “evolution falls in the realm of consciousness” as evolution is a biological response to changes in environment. While Schroedinger acknowledged that evolution takes place through mutations of genes in individuals, he also asserted that it is the net result of evolution in a multitude of individuals which is biologically significant. He also mentioned that “for a solitary animal egoism is a virtue that tends to preserve and improve the species; in any kind of community it becomes a destructive vice”. He then gave the example of bees, ants, and termites in their primary communities “having given up egoism completely”. Unfortunately, a slightly disturbing anecdote about “worker bees that go astray to the wrong hive and being murdered” concluded the example on a morbid note, and paralleled somewhat to current human society.
As humans have become increasingly interconnected and interdependent, in our immediate communities (and sometimes even larger extended ones), we have consciously evolved towards a greater altruistic identity as we realize that the well-being of others has a profound impact on our well-being. Examples of this include family members often sacrificing their self-interest for the well-being of their kin (in the form of working jobs they don’t enjoy, feeding others before themselves etc) and soldiers risking their lives for the protection of their country and its ideals. However, a widespread ‘global altruism’ is still lacking. Luckily enough, evolution (both biological and social) is a continuing process and we can individually consciously contribute towards a broader outlook towards the well-being of all things living.
To me it seems that Ayn Rand got human nature only half-right. Without doubt, as individuals humans are self-interested, but in communities rational egotism makes way for irrational egotism and rational group-interest. Ayn Rand was a staunch critic of altruism, saying that people were only ‘trying to be altruistic’ so that they could be championed in society. If I could have met her, my question to her would be “but why is that so bad”? While she had a point that true altruism is exceedingly hard to find, I don’t think it should be looked down upon at all. In fact this ‘trying to be altruistic’ aspect of human nature should be inherently good for communities. It represents a compromise between the self and the community. ‘Trying to be altruistic’, humans will work for the greater good of their communities while at the same time quenching personal desires of seeking recognition and ‘feeling good about themselves’. Perhaps this is the best philosophy for humans to follow.