Tuesday, June 19, 2007

The Benevolent People Premise

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,

--Dan Edge


John Drake said...


Very interesting post. My dissertation deals with some very similar concepts, specifically chronic regulatory reference and trusting dispositions. I'm exploring how one's regulatory dispositions, such as seeing things from a mostly positive reference point or mostly negative reference point affects one's decision-making process. I hadn't considered Rand's benevolent/malevolent universe premise, but I can see where it might fit in.

I'd be interested in talking to you some more about this. My email is drakejr@auburn.edu.


Ergo said...

I like your post, and agree with the essence of your sentiment.
However, I do believe that you and i will also agree on the fact that there simply *are* more irrational people than rational, just like there are more average people than geniuses. It's simply a metaphysical fact--the men of ability and reason and intellect are not too common; precisely the reason they are also precious and so important to our world.

I agree with Rand (and your post) that the only thing we owe others is respect until we get good reason or proof to withdraw that respect. I guess I'm just trying to point out that more often and likely than not, one will be faced with a situation where respecting the other becomes a real challenging task.

John Drake said...


While I agree with your statements of fact, I'm not sure your assessment of other people. There is no question that a lot of people act irrational, but it is usually restricted to certain aspects of their life. No man can live by irrationality all the time. Its simply not possible.

So while there is much irrationality in the world, most of our interactions with men can be done on a rational basis. This is what I believe Dan is suggesting (please correctly me if I'm wrong).

Dan Edge said...

Ergo and John,

Thanks for your comments. Ergo, I agree that most of the people I have met are irrational to some degree. The question for me is (as John pointed out): to what degree are they irrational and how will that affect my dealings with them? Living in the United States, I would say that the vast majority of people I meet are sufficiently rational that they do not pose an immediate threat to my life, and most are sufficiently rational that they can offer some value to me.

This doesn't meant that I could be close friends with a majority of people. I have a much higher standard for business partners, friends, and lovers than for casual acquaintances.

I think about the many different people I've worked with over the years. A few of them I became close friends with, and those friendships continue; several more were good friends while I worked with them, but we didn't maintain the friendship when I left; others I never became friends with, but respected and had a great working relationship with; still others were tolerable and did not negatively impact my work life; and finally, there were a very few whose irrationality, irresponsibility, mismanagement, etc., were a great disvalue in my life. On a few rare occasions I had a co-worker or manager totally ruin a job for me. But these people are very much in the minority.

Considering this scale, I would say that most of the individuals I've worked with over the years were worthy of being treated with respect. Of course, I treat my close friends as higher values than tolerable co-workers, but these co-workers are still a value to some degree (assuming they do their jobs).

Based on this evidence, I believe I am justified in assuming that every new person I meet will be honest, productive, and generally rational. Since I value the camaraderie between rational, productive men, it is a great pleasure for me to express this value in the way I treat others -- by treating them with respect and benevolence.

Again, there is a lot more to be said about the Benevolent People Premise with regards to long-term friendships and love relationships. Some people place too much stress on non-essential elements of irrationlism in others. But that is for another blog entry.

Thanks again for your comments.

--Dan Edge

Tom Rowland said...


Your post is timely and well thought out and I particularly welcomed it since I am writing blog posts and a book that are pretty gloomy. Thanks for the reminder that people deserve an open hand and an aware mind when first met.

Tom Rowland

Dan Edge said...

Thanks, Tom. My hand will always be open to you. Unless you say something to piss me off.


--Dan Edge

Jason said...

Excellent essay, Dan.

It is for that very reason I am not hard on Christians. I was raised in a Christian home, but later left the church and became and Objectivist. Many people have not been exposed to Ayn Rand or anything like Objectivism, and since they are so emotionally invested, attacks on their faith put them in a defensive stance.

People like this who hold deep religious convictions aren't going to respond well to things they perceive are insulting, demeaning, patronizing, or dismissive. Objectivists who employ reason and exude happiness when discussing philosophy and religion will do better to approach their discussions in terms of the positives, not the negatives - i.e. showing how reason produces results instead of attempting to prove that faith does not.

Great article, Dan. Reading it, I had the same feeling I had from reading Rand for the first time - "I know this, but I've never seen it articulated so."

Thank you for concretizing this important point.

Inspector said...

Dan, I stated to reply here, but I really got going and so made a full post of it. I agree with, as Ergo said, "the essence of your sentiment," but think you have some things tangled. I think I may have untangled them, though. Enjoy!

Tom Rowland said...


If I do, feel free to plunge right in.


I, too was raised in a Christian home and tread lightly where angels sometimes are not so thoughtful. When confronted from their end, however, I plunge right in, no holds barred.


Burgess Laughlin said...

I deal with the issue of the apparent irrationality of others by, in part, reminding myself of what I mean by "irrational." That term names this idea: evasion of reality.

We live in a division-of-labor society. Holding a bad idea, particularly one that is far outside one's area of competence, is not an infallible sign of irrationality.

A carpenter who agrees with Imminent Catastrophically Anthropogenic Climate Change (ICACC) need not be irrational.

A carpenter who thinks wood is ice cream, because he likes ice cream, and tries to cut a two-by-four with a spoon, is irrational -- either philosophically or psychologically or both.

Burgess Laughlin

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skye said...

I stumbled upon this post several years ago and it really stuck out to me. Every once in a while I google it again. "Benevolent People Premise" is such a useful concept and it's so well stated here. I think maintaining a benevolent view of people is the hardest part about being an Objectivist, and it's great to be able to identify it and have a term for it. Thanks for writing!

Dan Edge said...

And thank you for reading! I re-read this article every now and again, too, as a reminder. I'm glad you get something out of it.