Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Is there virtue in serving a purpose we do not know for reasons we do not question?

When I recently re-read John Galt’s speech (in “Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand) I was reminded of Rand’s view that the mystics of spirit, who believe that the good is God i.e. beyond man’s power to conceive, and the mystics of muscle, who believe that the good is Society, a super-being embodied in no-one in particular and everyone in general except yourself, have similar moral codes. Galt says: “No matter how loudly they posture in their roles of irreconcilable antagonists, their moral codes are alike, and so are their aims: in matter – the enslavement of man’s body, in spirit –the destruction of his mind”.

In the next paragraph Galt explains: “Man’s standard of value, say the mystics of spirit, is the pleasure of God, whose standards are beyond man’s power of comprehension and must be accepted on faith. Man’s standard of value, say the mystics of muscle, is the pleasure of Society, whose standards are beyond man’s right of judgement and must be obeyed as a primary absolute. The purpose of man’s life, say both, is to become an abject zombie who serves a purpose he does not know for reasons he is not to question” (p. 1027).

A few pages earlier Galt said: “Thinking is man’s only basic virtue, from which all the others proceed. And his basic vice, the source of all his evils, is ... the act of blanking out, the wilful suspension of one’s consciousness, the refusal to think ... . It is the act of unfocusing your mind and inducing an inner fog to escape the responsibility of judgement ...” (p 1017).

When I read this stuff 20 years ago it was like being at the sidelines at a football match cheering for my side to win. I thought that people who unquestioningly adhered to customs or the teachings of religious or secular authorities were behaving like zombies. It seemed obvious to me that individuals should be using their minds to decide for themselves how they should live.

So, what has changed? Not much, except that, having read a lot more of the writings of Friedrich Hayek since then, I now also see merit in the view that “submission to rules and conventions we largely do not understand ... is indispensible for the working of a free society”. Hayek argued that in our efforts to improve our institutions “we must take for granted much that we do not understand”: “We must always work inside a framework of both values and institutions which is not of our own making. In particular, we can never synthetically construct a new body of moral rules or make our obedience of the known rules dependent on our comprehension of the implications of this obedience in a given instance” (“Constitution of Liberty”, p. 63).

Is it possible to reconcile the view that it is good for people to decide for themselves how they should live their lives with the view that there is merit in observing rules that serve purposes beyond our understanding? I think Hayek was right to emphasise that it is unwise to reject customary rules just because we do not understand their purpose. Many customs deserve respect because they evolved through an evolutionary process in which groups that adhered to superior rules were most successful. Hayek recognized that for this cultural evolution to occur some people had to break with custom in order to introduce new practices advantageous to themselves, which then proved beneficial to the groups in which those practices prevailed. He noted that one of the benefits of freedom was to enable this cultural evolution to occur: “The existence of individuals and groups simultaneously observing partially different rules provides the opportunity for the selection of the most effective ones” (“Constitution of Liberty”, p. 63).

However, I think Rand was right to emphasise that the purpose served by rules protecting lives, liberty and property are capable of being understood. As John Galt explains: “there are no conflicts of interest among rational men” ... “I deal with men as my nature and theirs demands: by means of reason. I seek or desire nothing from them except such relations as they care to enter of their own voluntary choice” (p 1022).

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