Narcs and Paths and Heroes
There’s a movie called Miller’s Crossing about gangs controlling the government in a small town. One of the characters in this movie is a really low-life slime-ball named Bernie Bernbaum. This guy would sell his mother if there were two bits in it for him. The hero of the movie, Tommy, is expected to execute Bernie for chiseling a gang leader. Bernie begins begging for his life in a most cowardly and unbecoming way. Tommy lets him live but Bernie (true to form) uses Tommy’s act of mercy to blackmail him. Bernie is the most thoroughly selfish person imaginable. As a psychopath, I accept the fact that I’m selfish. Yet, I don’t want to share the label of psychopathy with this person. Am I wrong?
I re-read Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged every few years. I am in the middle of reading it now. I like her writing because every time I re-read her books, I get something new from it. I consider that the sign of a good writer. Many people say she’s a lousy writer. I think that is because of her politics which are slightly right of Atilla the Hun. I, myself, became a true believer of her philosophy first time I read the book while I was in my teens. Over the years, I have found holes in her political ideology and have written several critiques of her opinions. The last rebuttal I wrote is The Social Darwinism of Ayn Rand. Ms. Rand has written a book called The Virtue of Selfishness. Atlas Shrugged is a novel about productive people, mostly industrialists, who have adopted selfishness as a necessary virtue. In other words, you can’t be a good person without it. They even swore an oath, “I swear by my life and my love of it that I will never live for the sake of another man nor ask another man to live for mine.”
Reading Atlas Shrugged, I have come across characters who are selfish in the usual sense of the word. One character, for example, Mayor Bascom, sums up his philosophy of life by saying, “In this world, either you’re virtuous or you enjoy yourself. Not both, lady, not both.” People like Mayor Bascom are clearly not intended as role models. The selfish people Rand admires run companies that produce metal, in one case, run railroads, in another case, or are even philosophers. They live for their work. They are brilliant. They have no empathy for the unproductive. Rand explained that when she wrote that need should never be an imperative for action. Ability, achievement were what counted. These characters have a tendency to adhere to a rigid system of ethics. One character, Henry Rearden, believes so solidly in keeping one’s word, especially when given in a solemn ritual, that he is determined to stay in a bad marriage as long as his wife wants to. He was eaten up alive with guilt when he started an affair with a woman he really loved. He did get over it but it really messed him up for a long time. His wife’s pain mattered but only because he had a contractual obligation, i.e., wedding vows.
Kant coined the term categorical imperative as an ethical rule one must obey. My parents were liberals and my mother raised me on the categorical imperative that one must feel compassion for those in need. I learned to fake it but I’m conflicted on this subject. It would be easy to accept Rand’s philosophy and shrug along with Atlas. Who needs people who can’t even sustain themselves? Except that sometimes I’m the one in need. I depend on Social Security and Medicare. The truth of the case, the extended family doesn’t provide for it’s aging and/or disabled members any more. The individual is freer. He is more of an atomized entity. With no more extended family, Social Security and Medicare are necessities. When workers are unable to work due to age or illness, a society that doesn’t provide for them is not going to work well. Whether people “care” about others or not, they, too, unless they are wealthy, are going to need these programs. Republicans collect their benefits and I doubt the GOP will really make their rhetoric into policy. Their base would never put up with it.
It makes me smirk when I think of how Rand, herself, collected Medicare when she needed treatment for lung cancer. She did it under her married name, Alisa O’Connor. You might consider this an ad hominem but I think the ability of an individual to live hir own philosophy speaks to the sustainability of the philosophy being advocated. In this case, need was the criterion upon which Rand made her choice. She used programs she had called robbery. One might argue that she figured she paid into the programs. But the amounts she had paid would never have covered the cost of her cancer treatment. Unless, of course, one is a psychopath. Psychopaths know what is right or wrong. But we don’t care enough to let that knowledge govern our choices. Not that we always do what’s wrong. But is what we want to do happens to be wrong, we might go ahead and do it anyway. So a psychopath may believe something (abolishing Medicare for example) is morally right, but choose to benefit from the policy they thing objectively ought to be abolished. I suppose the difference between a psychopath and an ordinary hypocrite is the former doesn’t feel guilty while most hypocrites experience a twinge of conscience.
Ethics is all about should, not what is like in Metaphysics, for example. One’s system of ethics is presumed to be universal and proscriptive rather than descriptive. An act is right or wrong no matter who performs it. Circumstances can affect the moral significance of the action but every time those circumstances exist, the moral value of the act is the same no matter who is performing it. In politics, liberals and conservatives advocate policies that are often in direct conflict with those of their opponents while claiming a universal principle as justification for that policy. No wonder politics is so volatile.
A problem with making need a basis of policy is that it encourages people who need but can’t produce so they have to receive the fruits of someone else’s productivity in order to satisfy that need. Liberals think the government should redistribute the fruits of productivity to the extent that everyone has a minimum of the things needed to live a reasonably happy and healthy life whether or not they produced those fruits themselves. Most liberals believe everyone should be productive enough to earn a living. Those who need extra help must prove they are doing the best they can. There has to be a reason someone needs assistance. It can be a disability. It can be the fact that one is a child. Or it can be the very complexity of the economy makes one unable to find a job. Then they must prove they are trying honestly to get a job. In other words, people must be provided what they need if and only if they can’t earn their own way.
That seems reasonable.
But back to Ayn Rand’s philosophy. Rand believes in the heroic and the ethical. She believes everyone should compete for the good things in this world but they should compete on a level playing field and with the same rules. So shoplifting may be selfish but it’s unethical by Rand’s standards. Stealing is wrong. Production is right. That’s much more in keeping with narcissism. Not all but many narcs try to live up to a self-image in which they are superior people. Psychopaths might agree with Rand’s standard of right and wrong. But we are not as likely to get all fussed up about it.
A narc is more likely to really live a “good” life. He wants to believe he really is superior. Ayn Rand’s heroes are “good” because they have something to create that they are really interested in. Unlike a narc, the Ayn Rand heroes are trying to be good to help the world. They are genuinely interested in production. Dagny wants to run a railroad. Rearden wants to invent a new metal. They want to think well of themselves and live in a way they respect. And yet, the creative strikers in Atlas Shrugged were willing to let the entire civilized world to fall to pieces. That’s kind of psychopathic of them.