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Randian Irony at an ICNA dinner

Randian Irony at an ICNA Dinner

Posted on SF Muslim Examiner, December 10, 2012:

Last night I attended the Annual Supporters’ Dinner for the Bay Area Chapter of the Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA), which was a run-away success. Good speakers, good food, lots of money going to a worthy cause and a fabulous if not quirky keynote speech by John Esposito, professor of Islamic Studies at Georgetown University.

I left the dinner filled with a colossal sense of irony.

During the election many Muslim scholars were obviously partisan for Obama. Even at apolitical events, they would say things like “Now, I can’t officially make any kind of presidential endorsement but …” and proceed to bash Romney and Ryan. The club they would usually use was Ayn Rand, yelling with righteous contempt that the GOP candidates were inspired by the author of a little book of essays titled, “The Virtue of Selfishness.”

Here’s why I found it so ironic this time.  During the fundraising at the ICNA dinner Sheikh Alauddin invoked a concept he borrowed from Bill Clinton who used it in a donation appeal to help AIDS patients. It’s called “good selfishness.” He appealed to the self-interest of the audience to persuade them to donate. There was something distinctly Randian about his paraphrase Clinton’s explanation, so I looked it up. Score one point for Smart Phones. Here’s the full quote from the Huffington Post:

“The act of giving is an example of good selfishness because it will almost always make you feel good, or in the case of businesses, it will result in positive things for your bottom line. I think the work of my foundation is a wonderful example of this. We now have 1.4 million people accessing AIDS medicines under agreements that we’ve negotiated with dozens of pharmaceutical companies — but the companies that give us this medicine make money. We insist that they do. They just make money in a different way. Instead of making a higher margin on a lower volume, they make money selling a higher volume with a lower margin, and they keep more people alive. We try to show people and companies that doing good and doing well can be one and the same. In the end, the wise person comes to understand that selfishness and enlightened selfishness are one and the same.”

Now, that is a near perfect paraphrase of Ayn Rand’s thesis in “The Virtue of Selfishness.” In fact, Rand uses the term “rational selfishness” and “enlightened self-interest” so Clinton’s term “enlightened selfishness” is probably borrowed from her.

Now, subscribers have a pretty good idea how despicable I think Obama is. If he is a secret Muslim I want to excommunicate him. They probably also know I have no love for Romney either. The Democrat and Republican duopoly is just the illusion of choice. They are all authoritarian sociopaths. But I’ve never written about Ayn Rand before. I have plenty of problems with her ideas, but she tackled a neigh insurmountable philosophical task. She tried to root human ethics in something objective, specifically human survival, which I find intellectually riveting. My problem is when she is mischaracterized, not when she’s disagreed with. So, I think a well-deserved deference to her intellect warrants at least a brief explanation of what “selfish” means in the Objectivist ethic.

First, it must be said what a colossal injustice it is that a towering genius like Ayn Rand is not acknowledged for her monumental accomplishments simply because people don’t like her politics or her atheism. This is a woman who fled Marxist-Leninist Russia to America in the 20s and then wrote a stack of books including Atlas Shrugged, which is now the bestselling book in American history after the Bible, and it wasn’t even in her native language. She’s probably one of the most accomplished women of her age, and yet she’s ignored by feminists because she so vociferously rejected socialism. Say whatever you will about her flaws, at the core of her philosophy she espoused the non-aggression principle, meaning those who disagreed with her are free to do so, and she rejected any use of the State to impose her views on anyone. That’s more than I can say for most intellectuals.

In the introduction to “The Virtue of Selfishness” Rand writes:

In popular usage, the word “selfishness” is a synonym of evil; the image it conjures is of a murderous brute who tramples over piles of corpses to achieve his own ends, who cares for no living being and pursues nothing but the gratification of the mindless whims of any immediate moment.

Yet the exact meaning and dictionary definition of the word “selfishness” is: concern with one’s own interests.

This concept does not include a moral evaluation; it does not tell us whether concern with one’s own interests is good or evil; nor does it tell us what constitutes man’s actual interests. It is the task of ethics to answer such questions.

Non-aggression is what distinguishes her concept of virtuous selfishness from blameworthy selfishness. A brute who achieves their self-interest through violence or theft is “selfish” but they are also an aggressor, whom she condemns. She’s speaking about those rational actors who are concerned with their own interests but do not desire the unearned, who she says, “deal with one another as traders, giving value for value.” What makes the aggressor evil to her is not that they pursue their own interests, but that they choose to live by violating the lives and property of others. If they achieved the same selfish aims by voluntary means it would mean axiomatically that they were providing value in return.

So what about charity? Clinton and the speaker at the ICNA dinner are invoking good selfishness to promote charity, but Rand herself was not particularly known as charitable. She would not say as Clinton did that giving is good because it makes you feel good, but she might say, “Giving is good IF it makes you feel good.” She writes:

This does not mean that he is indifferent to all men, that human life is of no value to him and that he has no reason to help others in an emergency.

She would say that if a transaction is voluntary, even a charitable one, it is axiomatically value for value with both parties benefiting by their own measure. The charitable giver may not receive a monetary benefit, but if they receive some sense of satisfaction, or pride that is a selfish motive. If they believe, as Muslims do, that giving charity will purify their wealth and bring long term reward that is a selfish motive. The actor is always the beneficiary of their own actions in some way, and so long as it is not an act of aggression it is also to the benefit of others. If there is no selfish motive a person will not act, trade or give unless they are forced against their will.

And this is what frustrates me so desperately about Democrats who hate Rand or Republicans who praise her. They are invariably advocating force. They call the selfish person who does not give evil, but they justify the violent person who takes their life and property by force.

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