Caring for me, myself and I all too much in vogue nowadays

Sat, Sep 15, 2012, 01:00

The selfish worldview as preached by Ayn Rand has helped create the mess we are in

THE US presidential election is a wonderful spectator sport, but thank God I don’t have to vote in it. The prominent part played by religion is one fascinating aspect.

For example, there is an ecumenical Christian group called Circle of Protection, with members from many Christian denominations, which believes treatment of the poor is a key election issue.

It called on the presidential candidates to declare in a video response where they stood on poverty. Meekly, Obama and Romney did just that, and their responses are available on YouTube.

Obama’s is particularly striking, as he uses the word “Christian” again and again, and even talks of falling on his knees many times to ask God for help, not only in his personal life, but in governing the US.

It is just impossible to imagine an Irish political candidate doing the same without being accused of not being in touch with modern Ireland, and of ignoring the secular nature of our State. Of course, the cynics will say that by emphasising his own Christian faith, Obama is just playing to the bigots who don’t like Romney’s Mormonism.

Perhaps the same cynics would say Paul Ryan was added to the Romney ticket to woo the Catholic vote, which has been quite lukewarm about Romney so far. Ryan is very clear on his opposition to abortion, which will not harm Romney with sections of evangelical Christianity either.

And yet, Ryan provides yet another illustration of how different the US is from Ireland.

I know very, very few Catholics or Christians who would admire Ayn Rand, while Ryan gave people her books as Christmas presents. In fact, I wonder how anyone could admire Rand and still say they were a Christian.

Her ideas are directly opposed to Christianity. Take this quote.

“Man – every man – is an end in himself, not the means to the ends of others. He must exist for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself. The pursuit of his own rational self-interest and of his own happiness is the highest moral purpose of his life.”

The title of one of Rand’s books, The Virtue of Selfishness, sounds like a parody of a self-help book, but she was completely serious. She felt altruism was a deadly virus that destroyed the possibility of human happiness.

The Jesuit Fr James Martin, without I believe specifically mentioning Rand, manages to satirise this approach brilliantly in his parables of the “not so-social gospel”. He takes well-known parables such as the parable of the loaves and fishes and rewrites them according to the gospel of rugged individualism.

So, when the disciples approach Jesus to tell him the crowd of 5,000 are hungry, Fr Martin has Jesus reply: “Don’t waste your time and shekels. It would be positively immoral for you to give away your hard-earned salaries for these people. They knew full well that they were coming to a deserted place, and should have relied on themselves to bring more food. As far as I’m concerned, it’s every five thousand men for themselves.”

When the astonished disciples demur, Jesus goes on to explain: “That’s not my problem, Thomas. Better that their stomachs are empty than they become overly dependent on someone in authority to provide loaves and fishes for them. Where will it end? Will I have to feed them every day?”

The parable ends with Jesus declaring the ancient truth that there is no such thing as a free lunch, taking most of the loaves and fishes for himself, giving a miserly portion to the disciples and keeping some back in case he gets hungry later.

It is a very funny parody, but the trouble is that it comes scarily close to what is being preached in many quarters today. Rand’s ideas have percolated into popular culture.

Ironically, although she despised libertarians, she was a huge influence on them. And much of our culture is defined by libertarian values. It is a culture dominated by first person singulars – I, me, mine.

Many people in effect live by a creed that says their personal concerns come first, and they don’t much care what other people do, so long as it does not interfere with them. What looks like tolerance is often profound indifference, a failure to care enough either way to expend energy on an issue.

It leads to tiny circles of care that extend just as far as myself and those I choose. It removes all possibility of caring in a sustained way for the stranger or the outcast.

Of course, collectivism in any shape was one of Rand’s pet hates. The unfettered individual was her ideal.

She forbade her followers to ever consciously perform an unselfish act. An organisation dedicated to her ideas, the Ayn Rand Institute, has a page aimed at recruiting university students for campus clubs. The headline is “Five Selfish Reasons to Participate”.

The world created by such a bleak view of humans is not some kind of laissez-faire capitalist paradise, but the mess we now have to live in and will bequeath to the next generation.

Sustaining and resourcing circles of protection for the weakest and most vulnerable is indeed an important aim.

Sadly, thanks to the influence of writers such as Rand, even over those who have never heard of her, such an aim is in vogue neither in the US nor in Ireland.

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