Ayn Rand's "Benevolent Universe Premise" (referred to in various essays, letters, and journal entries) is her description of a rational man's fundamental psychological perspective on reality. Operating on this premise, one views the universe as a place where he can succeed and be happy. He has a generally positive attitude about life -- he expects to be happy. This does not mean that he is never sad or never experiences failure, but that he believes happiness and success are his natural state of being. He does not repress or ignore negative emotions, but neither does he dwell on them unnecessarily. He focuses on the positive.
Rand contrasts this perspective with the "Malevolent Universe Premise," in which one sees the universe as a place where failure and pain are the norm. One who holds this premise may live virtuously and enjoy continuing success in life, but he is always waiting for the other shoe to drop -- he expects failure and unhappiness. When things are going his way, he begins to experience happiness anxiety. When something bad finally does happen, he feels miserable -- but justified.
For years, I have watched (mostly young) Objectivists struggle with a specific form of the Malevolent Universe Premise. I call it the "Malevolent People Premise." One with a Malevolent People Premise expects the worst out of each new person he meets. He realizes that everyone has the capacity to be rational, but he expects those he meets to be irrational. While he may develop relationships with new people who seem virtuous, he always expects to find faults, and he carefully scrutinizes new friends or lovers for any evidence of irrationality. When he discovers a flaw in the person, he feels betrayed and angry -- but justified.
I believe that the Malevolent People Premise is a subset of the Malevolent Universe Premise, and is psychologically destructive for the same reasons. Either premise can lead to happiness anxiety and severely limit one's capacity for joy. The alternative - a benevolent view of the universe and its inhabitants - is a critical component of a healthy mind.
I must stress that I do not advocate failing to properly judge people. Just as one with a Benevolent Universe Premise always must be ruthlessly honest and judicious in his evaluation of a particular aspect of reality, so one with a Benevolent People Premise must be honest and judicious in his evaluation of a particular person. When Mrs. Rand talked about the Benevolent Universe Premise, she often included a parenthetical like the one found in her Journals. One ought to maintain a Benevolent Universe Premise only "(if he remains realistic, that is, true to reality observed by his reason)." (Rand, Journals of Ayn Rand, pg 555). One can properly judge an aspect of reality, or an individual human being, while maintaining a positive general view of reality and mankind.
I consider myself to be a good example of someone with a Benevolent People Premise. I always expect the best out of people, particularly when meeting them for the first time. When I meet someone new, I am generally very enthusiastic, respectful, and friendly. This reflects my sincere expectation that the person will be rational and virtuous. No matter how many irrational people I meet (and believe me, I've met a lot), I still always expect the best from each new person. This does not mean that I ignore the possibility that people may be irrational, only that I do not consider that to be the natural order of things.
When I say that I treat all people with a certain degree of respect I mean all people. I am friendly to the Latino guy who does the landscaping at my office. I am courteous to the young man who sells me coffee at the gas station on the way to work. I am respectful to the very Orthodox Jews with whom I share this office building. I am kind to the children of the Hatian immigrants who populate my apartment complex.
If I looked carefully, I could find a reason to be wary of each of these people. The Latino guy doesn't speak very good English, and I oppose the multiculturalists who believe he has no responsibility to learn our national language. Perhaps the Latino guy sides with the multiculturalists, and chooses not to learn English on principle. The young man at the coffee shop has accepted a low-wage job, and many people who work as gas station attendants remain in those jobs because they have no ambition. Perhaps the young man is one of those people. The Orthodox Jews are famously ritualistic and devoted to faith-based principles. Perhaps some of my co-workers blindly follow a destructive philosophy which will negatively impact our working relationship. The Hatians are mostly poor and uneducated. Perhaps my Hatian neighbors fall into this category, and their children are trouble-makers.
All of these are legitimate possibilities, and they are things that my subconscious looks out for. I do not want to associate closely with those who will negatively affect my life. However, I am also aware of the potential positive impact these people can and do have on my life. The Latino man works to make the grounds outside my office look aesthetically pleasing; the young gas station attendant works to make coffee and gasoline accessible to me; some of the Orthodox Jews are my business partners, and made it possible for me to start my own company; and the Hatian children play sports in the apartment parking lot each day, displaying a youthful exuberance that is a joy to behold.
Everyone I meet has the potential to have a positive and/or negative impact on my life. While I am prepared for the negative, I focus on and expect the positive. Those around me detect this positive attitude, and most respond in kind. People can also easily detect the opposite -- one with a Malevolent People Premise sticks out like a sore thumb. If you have ever been pounced on by a crabby Objectivist you just met for some miscommunication on technical epistemology, then you know what I'm talking about.
Many young Objectivists are disheartened by the overwhelming tide of irrational philosophy in our culture. They feel alone and isolated in high schools and on college campuses. This is a natural reaction to the discovery of widespread irrationalism. However, one should watch out that this reaction does not become ingrained and solidify into a Malevolent People Premise. Keep in mind that every individual possesses free will -- each man has the capacity for rationality and virtue. You owe it to yourself to maintain a Benevolent People Premise, and open your heart to the great potential values that can be found in other rational beings.
(The Benevolent People Premise is also very important in the context of long-term friendships and romantic love relationships. Unfortunately, I am short of time, so that will be a discussion for another blog entry. )
To the best within us,