Tuesday, March 29, 2011

ANTHEM: The flaws of Ego and Self for Moral Utopia

Written as the diary of Equality 7-2521, a young man living in a future in which people have lost all knowledge of individualism, to the point of not even knowing words like 'I' or 'mine.' Everyone lives and works in collective groups, with all aspects of daily life dictated by councils -- the Council of Vocations, the Council of Scholars, etc. When he is assigned to a menial job cleaning the streets, Equality 7-2521 rebels against collectivism by conducting secret scientific research, which eventually leads him to re-create electric light. When he presents his discovery to the Council of Scholars, they condemn him for daring to act as an individual and threaten to destroy his creation.  (nobelsoul.com)

If I were to describe the novella that acts as the Objectivist manifesto in one word, it'd be "ironic." Not Alanis Morissette "ironic", I mean ironic, ironic. Considering that I am talking about Ayn Rand, I feel that mentioning Alanis is fitting. The singer-songwriter famous for her angry, pissed off complaints, or songs if you'd rather call them that, is a fair comparison to the quasi-philosopher who stopped at nothing to warn about the dangers of Communism/Socialism (they're the same thing anyway), even if it meant to never try and find out what they are. Just like how Alanis never cared to open up a dictionary to learn how to properly use the word "ironic."

Ayn Rand was born in Russia to a bourgeois (rich) family. After the revolution she saw the disasters of Russian Communism. When first coming to America to visit family, she saw the Manhattan skyline and wept tears of joy, deciding she must never leave America. Thus becoming one of the biggest supporters of American Capitalism, ever. Being brought up in the Soviet Union, she thought that the Communist state of Russia is what Communism actually was because of how it was executed in Russia. When in reality a leader (Stalin) used Marx's ideas differently than how Marx intended them to form a type of Communism in which he and his followers would benefit from, being the few that oppressed the many. Just like how many leaders (Corporations) have taken advantage of lassiez-faire Capitalism to become the few that oppress many. As was said by a Russian contractor who spoke with my family (paraphrase), "America feels like the Soviet Union, just a little different."

In Anthem, Rand paints a picture of dystopia. Councils that control all decisions in a society where people don't even have proper names. They have identification numbers (e.g. Equality 7-2521), and are told what job to fulfill. They breed once a year to create offspring that they never meet. Each person is born into a class and has no hope of escaping it. If I didn't know better, this is modern day America. But, I do know better, and Rand was trying to paint a picture of Communism/Socialism. This is of course the ironic part of her novella. Maybe it was just a lack of foresight or understanding of economic/governmental systems, but she shows the great similarities in what tragedies can happen when one takes advantage of another out of their own selfish desire. But of course, according to her that's perfectly ethical. 

At the end of the novel when Equality 7-2521 learns the word "I", and discovers the self, he realizes the importance of such concepts. That there is nothing but shame in the word "we", it means weakness. The only thing that is important is one's own fulfillment of their happiness, no matter what it means for others. This is called Ethical Egoism. Which isn't Rand's idea, at all. 

It is likely that Rand studied the ideas of Thomas Hobbes, who held a position called Psychological Egoism. Which is that man is naturally focused on their own self-interest. Hobbes also states that because of this, man is incapable of performing a truly altruistic action. Therefore, we have Ethical Egoism, which is that since man can only be selfish he ought to act on the desire of the self in order to be ethical. Another philosopher points out the problem with this. 

John Locke notices that to say we ought to do something means that we can do that thing; ought implies can. For example, if I told my friend Adam that he ought to solve world hunger by tomorrow, he might be put into a difficult place. There is no way Adam can solve world hunger by tomorrow, so he therefore isn't ought to do it, since he can't. Similarly, if I told Adam he ought to do his laundry tomorrow, then since it's something he can do, he might ought to. But, he also can decide not do it. Which means ought implies both the ability to do and not to do something. So, if man ought to act selfishly to be moral, he can act altruistically. But Hobbes holds that man cannot be altruistic and therefore should act selfishly! 

Because of these arguments, it might not be a bad assumption that Rand had as much understanding of Egoism as she did of Communism/Socialism. Nonetheless, Rand's own theory, Objectivism, is a moral theory of selfishness and that the only moral system to uphold this goal is Capitalism. If only she would have looked into Totalitarian states versus Democratic states. 

It seems to me that what Rand has a problem with is Totalitarianism. She dislikes the idea of someone being in control of her pursuit of happiness. She also probably is much more of a hedonist than an egoist.  I say this because of the emphasis she puts at the ending of Anthem on one's own happiness. Which I do think is essential, partly because one must be well in order to help others be well. 

This is where the biggest flaw of the novella comes out. Much like Rand, the protagonist of the novel goes from one extreme to the other extreme. He goes from having no identity to only having the self.  His life has been chosen for him and when he discovers something new, electricity, he tries to share it with the others, but they're outraged. They hold the position that if something is not agreed upon by everyone than it must be false/wrong. So, facing punishment, he leaps out a window and heads to the Uncharted Forest. He travels and finds fulfillment and pleasure in hunting and cooking his own food instead of it being prepared for him. He sees himself for the first time in a reflection of water. Finally, he learns the word "I". (Throughout the entire novella he annoyingly referred to himself as "we", which I originally thought was some sophomoric style choice). Moving from the extreme of being in nothing but a interdependent community to being completely independent. Though he is followed by a woman whom he has been lusting after, he is now dependent on no one. He does all for himself and teaches her to do the same. 

Though he does mention that he may choose friends, and that he decides when to see them and when not to, I still feel that people are so built into their families and social circles that this extreme would frighten them more than being interdependent. If we are to look at the natural world, we see a large amount of examples of successful species who mirror this interdependence. The problem is the extremes. When put into an extreme the same things are likely to happen. 

Russian Communism was an extreme where the state owned most of the wealth and all the power and oppressed the many to keep said power. If we move to the other extreme, corporate entities can take advantage of workers and gain most of the wealth (e.g. the top 1% make up most of America's wealth) and all the power, oppressing the man to keep said power. Similarly, in Anthem, we have the extreme of a council controlled society where they have all the power. When the protagonist escapes he finds a house and tells the woman who follows him all that he has learned, telling her this is the way it is because he has decided so. Though Rand probably didn't intend this, but he now, at any moment, can take advantage of her and have all power. She becomes subservient to him. If she does not act as he has decided to act, she is wrong. No longer is someone wrong because everyone does not agree, but now someone is wrong because they do not agree with him. 

At the beginning, I called Rand a quasi-philosopher. She resembles something like a philosopher, but her poor use of logic and argumentative form leaves her short of such a distinction. Also, she fails to see the flaw in her ethical pursuit. I would argue that Stalin acted incredibly selfish, which lead the to system she abhors more than anything else. But, according to Rand, isn't that exactly what he ought to have done? She does not recognize the possibility that in one's pursuit of the self they can take away the possibility of other's to do the same.

She also detested any form of the public sector in government, basically condemning such services as Social Security and Medicare as immoral. It only follows that such services go against her moral outlook. Yet, she cashed Social Security checks and took from Medicare when she was suffering from lung cancer. A very selfish act indeed, but it tears down the idea of selfishness being moral. Her actions implicate that immoral systems are O.K. when acted upon from a moral place. If this is true, than an immoral system such as the eating of unwanted babies is O.K. when coming from the moral place of solving hunger. 

Extremes bring about corruption and unequal distribution of power and wealth. To act solely for the self in an egoistic way is a harmful extreme. It is in no way moral and must be avoided, at all costs. 

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