Friday, July 22, 2011

The Virtue of Time

I discovered The Fountainhead in the summer of 1984 and was immediately drawn to Ayn Rand’s clear and rational philosophy, known as Objectivism. What she considered her most definitive work, Atlas Shrugged, offered no new insights and failed as a novel. I found The Virtue of Selfishness, a small collection of philosophical writings unencumbered by artificial story lines, to be much more compelling. My brief infatuation with Objectivism ended with these two paragraphs, which Rand would probably consider some of her least important:

“Observe also that the advocates of altruism are unable to base their ethics on any facts of men’s normal existence and that they always offer “lifeboat” situations as examples from which to derive the rules of moral conduct. (“What should you do if you and another man are in a lifeboat that can carry only one?” etc.) The fact is that men do not live in lifeboats—and that a lifeboat is not the place on which to base one’s metaphysics.

The moral purpose of a man’s life is the achievement of his own happiness. This does not mean that he is indifferent to all men, that human life is of no value to him and that he has no reason to help others in an emergency. But it does mean that he does not subordinate his life to the welfare of others, that he does not sacrifice himself to their needs, that the relief of their suffering is not his primary concern, that any help he gives is an exception, not a rule, an act of generosity, not of moral duty, that it is marginal and incidental—as disasters are marginal and incidental in the course of human existence—and that values, not disasters, are the goal, the first concern and the motive power of his life.”


This quote is complete with respect to the lifeboat question. Rand does not return to it later in the book. Note how she trivializes lifeboat questions, almost as if she were afraid of the direction in which she would be taken.

In fact, we live in a lifeboat, one floating in space that we share with seven billion others. Disasters may be rare, but they are certainly not marginal and incidental. Moments of crisis define our lives, because we (as individuals and as a society) make some of our most important decisions when cornered. To the extent that our values drive our decisions, our values matter most during crises. We have discovered physics living on lifeboat Earth, and a lifeboat may just be the best place on which to base our metaphysics.

Scientists construct simple models and test them in the lab, computationally, or in thought experiments (introduced by Einstein). In a similar vein, lifeboat questions simplify the world for the purpose of moral thought experiments. Successful models simplify real problems while retaining their essential character. Most lifeboat questions fail in this respect by eliminating the time dimension: Strangers suddenly find themselves in or around a boat. Without a past, they lack any basis for decision-making. Without a future, they lack any motivation for any action in the present. Add a time dimension by giving the strangers a past and a future, and suddenly a lifeboat situation becomes more human, realistic, and ambiguous (within the boundaries of the remaining simplifications).

The most trivial of backgrounds is often sufficient to resolve the moral dilemma. For adventurers on a quest to find utopia, fighting for the boat is a distraction. They have selfish reasons to work together and to fight common dangers. Give the lifeboat actors a different story, say one is a convict and the other his executioner, and each has selfish reasons to kill the other. With time, even a mere moment, it is virtually impossible to be truly indifferent to the other person. Dropped as strangers on lifeboat Earth, we immediately develop relationships. We love. We hate. We are never indifferent. True strangers, like those in lifeboat questions without a time dimension, do not exist. By acknowledging the importance of time, Rand could have solved any lifeboat dilemma without abandoning Objectivism. Depending on the circumstances created by a specific history, there are indeed perfectly selfish reasons for rescuing the other.

The current debate on debts, deficits, and social welfare is dominated on the right by Rand’s objectivist philosophy against wealth redistribution. Given a time dimension, the perfectly selfish case for redistribution is easily made. When we deny an education to a child, we rob ourselves from that child’s potential. Saving just one future Einstein will easily pay back billions invested in education. Inadequate healthcare endangers everyone through increased risk of communicable diseases. Given the virtue of time, even the perfectly selfish Randian needs to share his wealth: not to improve the lives of millions, but to enrich his own life.