Saturday, April 10, 2010

The Virtue of Selfishness and Applications in Diet

By Hoyt Chang

[Note: This post is part of Modern Paleo's weekend schedule of blogging on Objectivism on Saturdays and free market politics on Sundays.]

A few days ago, Adam posted Food Sensitivity Discovery and Self-Diagnosing, an excellent example of the morality of selfishness in action. Since selfishness is one of the most radical and misunderstood aspects of Ayn Rand's philosophy of Objectivism, I'd like to give some details on: (1) what selfishness is, (2) what selfishness is not, and (3) an application of selfishness in my own diet.

We will start with a quote from Ayn Rand:

The Objectivist ethics holds that the actor must always be the beneficiary of his action and that man must act for his own rational self-interest. But his right to do so is derived from his nature as man and from the function of moral values in human life--and, therefore, is applicable only in the context of a rational, objectively demonstrated and validated code of moral principles which define and determine his actual self-interest. It is not a license "to do as he pleases" and it is not applicable to the altruists' image of a "selfish" brute nor to any man motivated by irrational emotions, feelings, urges, wishes or whims.
Let's unpack the critical elements in that paragraph, particularly focusing on the ideas of beneficiary, rationality, nature of man, and values.

Like plants and animals, man is a living being. Plants require certain things -- such as water, sunlight, and soil -- in order to grow and flourish. Likewise, animals also require certain things. For example, a rabbit must search for food, and he must avoid being eaten by a fox. Finding food is beneficial, whereas being caught by a fox is harmful. Likewise, certain things are beneficial to man, while other things are harmful. Here are some examples, from the more obvious to the less obvious: (1) Eating healthy food is good, but eating poison is bad. (2) Taking shelter during a snowstorm is good, but wearing a t-shirt out in the snowstorm is bad. (3) Pursuing a career is good, but drifting aimlessly from one menial job to another is bad. All the things that are beneficial and enhancing of the life of an organism are values to it. All the things that are harmful or destructive of the life of an organism are dis-values to it.

Now, man is very different from other living beings because he has the faculty of reason:
Reason integrates man's perceptions by means of forming abstractions or conceptions, thus raising man's knowledge from the perceptual level, which he shares with animals, to the conceptual level, which he alone can reach.
Man needs to look at reality and figure out what the necessary values are, before he can take the appropriate action to obtain these values. This identification and pursuit of values requires reason, which is neither automatic nor instinctual. In fact, Ayn Rand identifies reason as man's basic means of survival.

If we compare this Objectivist view to conventional views of morality, we see radical differences. For most people, morality is mystical, mysterious, and usually religious. For Ayn Rand, morality is bound to reality. For most people, the noblest act is to give up your own values and to serve someone external to yourself, such as a God or a king that rules over you, or the poor and needy, or the state, the nation, or the race. To Ayn Rand, the proper beneficiary of your actions is yourself, and the noblest act is to pursue your own values.

For those who think morality is mystical, morality turns into a list of commandments or duties that must be obeyed without question, in an uncritical and unthinking way. But since reason is the means by which you gain conceptual knowledge -- including knowledge of how to live a happy, healthy, fulfilling life -- selfishness involves a commitment to reason, not unthinking obedience to commandments.

Many people believe that selfishness means "doing whatever you feel like." They think that it's selfish to play video games all day instead of pursuing a career. They think it's selfish to take drugs and thus destroy their mind. They think it's selfish to be rude or insensitive to others. But these things are not selfish because "doing whatever you feel like" is to follow urges and whims, which is a rejection of reason, not a commitment to it.

Another good example of not being selfish is binging on unhealthy foods such as candy, cookies, or ice cream. Even though it might feel good when you are doing it, doing so harms you rather than benefits you. Assuming you know that these foods are in fact unhealthy -- probably a good assumption for this audience -- what then, is the selfish thing to do? Must I never eat unhealthy foods? What if I eat one cookie a day or just one a week? What if I don't have time to prepare a healthy meal? What if I'm at a social event and I don't want to appear rude? The ethics of rational selfishness should be used to help guide us.

For example, I find that when I am stressed out at work, I tend to crave a candy bar. Is the pleasure of eating a candy bar a value? It can be. Can it help me handle the stress? Possibly, but I'm not sure. Perhaps finding the issue that is causing my stress and working towards resolving it will be a better stress reliever. What will eating the candy bar do to my appetite for dinner? What will this surge of sugar do to my exercise routine and exercise goals? I know from experience that sugar makes me sleepy during the day and restless when I try to sleep at night. Maybe the negative effects of the candy bar will increase my stress. I also know that eating sugar will make me crave more sugar, so it's a slippery slope. How often have I eaten unhealthy foods in the last week or so? Are there long term effects such as risk of diabetes or heart disease? All these aspects, and more, should be considered. No one said selfishness is easy. It is precisely because life is complicated that we need principles to guide us.

Since starting a paleo diet, I've been more aware of my own health. I used to eat a candy bar every day, either right after lunch or around 3 pm. The vending machine is just down the hall from my cubicle, and I just blindly followed my urges. But after taking a good look at my own health and refocusing on my own self-interest, I now eat junk food such as a candy bar or a cookie about once or twice a month, and it's usually if a colleague brings cookies or donuts to share with everyone. I don't buy junk food at the grocery store anymore and so I don't store any in the apartment. Also, I find fatty meats and leafy vegetables like spinach a great pleasure to eat, and reminding myself of this fact helps control any sugar cravings.

What you eat has an impact on your health, and it can literally be a matter of life and death, even if some of the consequences are years or decades out in the future. There will be many temptations to stray from your diet, and you have to exercise your own judgment and decide if it is worth it. I believe that some version of a paleo diet is the healthiest diet, based on the best available science. I also think that paleo fans are generally selfish in their pursuit of healthy eating. We should realize that each of our lives is an end-in-itself and we should all be proud of such selfishness.

If you're interested to read more, you can read Ayn Rand's anthology of essays on ethics, The Virtue of Selfishness, listen to a debate on Ayn Rand's ethics between Dr. Onkar Ghate and Dr. Michael Huemer, Making a Virtue of Selfishness?, and review these Ayn Rand Lexicon entries:

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