Friday, June 22, 2007

More on the Benevolent People Premise

My last blog post on the Benevolent People Premise sparked a discussion over on Objectivism Online. Inspector (of Capitalist Paradise) and Kendall (of The Crucible and Column) challenged me to concretize this concept further. This is an edited version of a post I wrote in response to them:

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In my view, The Benevolent Universe Premise (BUP) - and my proposed species of it, The Benevolent People Premise (BPP) - are psychological dispositions, not standards of judgment. A BUP or BPP is a psychological derivative of one's metaphysical value judgments. One does not judge a particular aspect of reality based on the BUP. And one does not judge individual men based on the BPP.

So, how are these psychological dispositions formed? As in the case of metaphysical value judgments, they are usually formed in childhood. This is why one with a terrible childhood has a much more difficult time attaining a BUP or BPP. And its not as though one can snap his fingers and change his entire psychological make-up the minute he discovers a rational philosophy. It often takes years of living virtuously and experiencing the emotional rewards of such a life.

In my experience, there are several positive psychological elements that go along with and compliment a BPP: a healthy self-esteem, a reverence of Man (in the sense Rand used it), a knowledge of the great potential values offered by individual men, and a positive sense of one's own efficacy in judging and communicating with others. These positive psychological elements are not gained from merely studying a rational philosophy. In order to earn self-esteem, one must have evidence of his own efficacy in dealing with reality. He must have a list of accomplishments to which he can refer that prove his value to himself. Similarly, one does not develop a reverence for Man outside the context of actual men and their potential. One develops this reverence by seeing men who actually embody the greatness of Man. We all have heroes, whether it be Rand, or Aristotle, or Washington, or Galt, or one's father, or whatever. In identifying his heroes, one also begins to discover the great potential value that can be derived from dealing with other men. As one grows, he actually begins to pursue and attain these values, whether they be material (eg, money), mental (eg, knowledge), or spiritual (eg, love). Through experience, one can learn how to judge and deal with other men effectively. He learns how to make the most out of his interactions with them. Over time, this leads to a sense of efficacy in his ability to derive value from others.

I offer that the psychological sum of all these elements is a BPP. Each time I meet someone new, these psychological elements are at work: The person could embody the greatness of Man; I know through experience that men can offer great potential value to my life; I believe that I have significant values to offer them in return; and I am very confident in my ability to judge and communicate with them. Since I judge others honestly and rigorously, the potential that a new person could be a great disvalue to me is relatively low. So at worst, the new person is not a threat to me. At best, they could be a source of great value. If that's not a reason to be enthusiastic, friendly, and respectful, then I don't know what is!

These same elements apply to the BUP as well -- I could easily replace the examples I used to apply to dealing with the universe instead of dealing with other men. In order to form a BUP, one must have good self-esteem, a knowledge of the great potential values in the universe, experience actually deriving values fro the world, and a positive sense of his own efficacy in dealing with reality.

As it stands, I think my classification of the BPP as a species of the BUP is valid, though it will take some more chewing.

Thanks for reading,

--Dan Edge

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

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

So You Know Who You're Dealing With, Part II


You must never forget -- when you're dealing with Dan Edge, you're dealing with a very silly person with no shame whatsoever. The cashier at the grocery store absolutely loved this. Kelly captured the moment on her cell phone camera.

--Dan Edge

So You Know Who You're Dealing With


Apparently, I was going for the Dillon McKay look for this shot. Thanks to Chad for taking this picture, and to my most excellent friends Bea and Miguel for hosting such a smashing party in their back yard (where the picture was taken).

Goodness! With these hi-res digital cameras you kids are using these days, my smile wrinkles really stand out. Believe it or not, I am only 28 years old.

--Dan Edge

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

¿Dónde Está la Biblioteca, Pedro?

These immortal words from the movie Dodgeball have taken on a special significance for me recently. I have begun to discover the joy that is the local library.

Let me state at the outset that I do not approve of government funded libraries, just as I do not approve of government funded schools, transit systems, postal service, or medical care. All of these industries should be fully privatized. However, since I am already taxed heavily for these services, I have no qualms about taking advantage of them.

Kelly and I now visit the local library frequently, and we’re having a blast. We never pay money to rent movies any more – the library has more classic, high-quality films than most video rental stores. In the past month, I have checked out the first three Harry Potter books in succession (in preparation for the release of The Deathly Hallows), an informational book for the “Clueless Groom,” a textbook for MBAs focused on entrepreneurship, tape lectures by Peter Lynch and Suzie Orman, and, most recently, a two-tape educational course on intermediate Spanish. (My South American friends will be so surprised when I declare, ¡Yo quiero una jirafa violeta para desayuno!)

Each of these items, whether for education or entertainment, offers a tremendous benefit to my life. As small as my local rural library is, I will never run out of interesting books, movies, and tapes to explore. If you are unfamiliar with your local biblioteca, I highly recommend paying it a visit. ¡Que Suerte!

--Dan Edge

Monday, June 4, 2007

12 Steps to Evading Responsibility

Anyone who has ever had a loved one addicted to drugs or alcohol has a stake in addiction recovery programs. These programs are supposed to help the abuser get clean and stay clean. Those who commit drug-related crimes are often required by the state to attend addiction recovery groups. Millions of tax dollars and the hopes of countless loved ones are invested in these programs each year.

By far the most popular philosophy guiding addiction recovery is the 12 Step Program. This program was initially developed by a group of alcoholics who later formed Alcoholics Anonymous. Almost all addiction groups approved by the state follow the 12 Step philosophy.

Discouragingly, this popular method of recovery is not at all effective – “relapse” is common. Statistics have consistently shown that 12 Step Programs do not yield any better results than self-recovery. How could such a widely practiced recovery method prove to be so ineffectual? The answer: 12 Step Programs encourage the addict to evade the responsibility of fixing his own problems.

The first of the 12 Steps affirms, “We admitted we were powerless over [drugs or] alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.” From the outset, one is compelled to concede that he is impotent to solve his own problems. But if one is incapable of recovering by himself, then how is it possible to recover at all? We are told in step three that we must make “a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we [understand] him.” By the time one reaches step seven, his will is strong enough to “Humbly [ask God] to remove [his] shortcomings.” So if one is successful in staying away from drugs or alcohol, then the credit belongs to God. (Addicts internalize the direct implication: that the credit for “relapse” is also God’s.)

One’s “higher power” does not have to be the traditional Christian God, 12 Step advocates are quick to add. We can choose any conception of a “higher power” we like, as long as it is outside of the self, separate from one’s own will. For this reason, they believe it is impossible to renounce drug abuse once and for all. If one’s will is fundamentally impotent, then he is only capable of staying clean “one day at a time.” There’s plenty of proof that permanent recovery is impossible, we are told – almost everyone in the 12 Step Group has “relapsed.”

The truth is that the 12 Step philosophy sanctions and encourages “relapse” (which is itself a dubious term implying that drug abuse is an uncontrollable disease like cancer). These programs will never be successful because they are based on a false premise: that one is incapable of mending his own character. We all have free will – we have the choice to think or not, to live or not, to stay away from drugs and alcohol forever or to commit slow suicide through substance abuse.

If one truly wishes to overcome drug or alcohol addiction, his first step must be the exact opposite of what the 12 Step Program advocates. He must embrace the responsibility for his own faults and acknowledge that he alone can fix them. His next step must be to renounce drug and alcohol abuse for all time. Otherwise he is setting himself up for failure and “relapse.” One must recognize that no values are possible for the drug addict. What use is there in apologizing for past offenses or creating new values if one is only going to throw it all away the next time he “relapses?” That one’s will is capable of renouncing drugs and alcohol forever is blasphemy to 12 Step advocates, yet that is precisely what one must do if he hopes to live a normal, happy life.

If you ever have the misfortune of witnessing a loved one struggling with drug or alcohol addiction, do not make the mistake of advising him to seek shelter in Alcoholics Anonymous or some similar group. Encourage your loved one to think hard about whether or not he truly wants to get clean. If he is not fully dedicated to reforming himself, then recovery is impossible — neither the will of God nor the will of the group can save him. But if he sincerely wishes to reconstitute his character, refer him to a rational self-recovery program (like www.rational.org). He will thank you for the rest of his life.

--Dan Edge

This article was written for my "Intro to Writing II" class at the Objectivist Academic Center, and is the property of the OAC. It does not necessarily represent the views of the OAC or the Ayn Rand Institute. I reproduce it here with permission.