2.11 The Socio-Personal Principle

Back to 2.10 Objectivism & "Collective" Humanism

2.11.1 Perhaps the most troublesome aspect of Objectivism for me is that one of its major premises (that the highest moral purpose of human beings is the achievement of their own happiness) does not seem to be logically valid. Ethics is a set of behaviors which people agree on between one another in order to get along and work well with one another for their mutual benefit (see 2.1.2). It is merely an awkward and inappropriate analogy to say that the behavior of animals is their "ethics." The ability to make agreements and live by those requires a degree of intelligence which humans posses. Therefore, animals do not have ethics per se, but only instinctive behaviors. Even those animals capable of learned behaviors would only have ethics if they consciously made agreements with each other and restricted their behavior according to such standards, thus generating a general social consensus. Along those same lines, if there were only one person in the world, there would be no need for ethics. Ethics, by its very nature, is intrinsically a social phenomenon and (until we find evidence of other self aware life forms) intrinsically a human phenomenon.

2.11.2 Sometimes, in order to best test the ramifications of a principle, it is helpful to do thought experiments, whereby we imagine extreme circumstances and see if the principle still applies. If it survives, even under a multitude of imagined extreme situations, it is a good bet that we're onto something of a more universal nature. Take the following fictional scenario as an example...

2.11.3 In the near future, telescopes have recently spotted a large meteor and it has been confirmed that it is on a collision course for earth. Were it to hit, the entire planet would be ravaged, spelling certain doom for all life on the planet. Meanwhile, Peter is an astronaut on a space station orbiting Saturn. If he uses all of the fuel on board, he can move the station into the meteor's path. This would deflect the meteor's angle enough to miss earth but would also destroy the station and Peter along with it. Despite all of the other plans the reader may now be entertaining, this one seems to be the only possible way to save the rest of humanity.

2.11.4 Unfortunately, for us back on earth, Peter is an Objectivist. He looks around and sees that, due to the advanced technology of the time, his space station can easily provide all of his needs for his entire life. Furthermore, it has a garden, virtual reality entertainment featuring simulated humans to interact with, plenty of space, and all of the books and multimedia ever created on earth in the data banks. The question is, what should Peter the Objectivist do?

2.11.5 Peter doesn't have much time to decide so he quickly does a search through all of Ayn Rand's works and can find no basis for sacrificing himself for the greater good - so long earth. Eventually, after living out a long life, Peter dies and his unmanned space station eventually falls into Saturn's atmosphere, thus obliterating the last trace of Ayn Rand's works as well.

2.11.6 Perhaps this is the solution preferred by the pure Objectivist? I honestly don't know, although I can't imagine on what Objectivist basis Peter would sacrifice himself to save the rest of humanity. Perhaps this is due to my ignorance of some of its aspects. If so, I will certainly rethink my position. Most people, I hope, would find Peter's lack of action the most vile of all possible decisions - an act of pure cowardice and selfishness. This would not merely be the lack of ethics, but truly anti-ethics.

2.11.7 Now this example scenario may seem so extreme that it would only take place in a Hollywood film studio. But this isn't the point. If Objectivist philosophy was complete, it would be able to account for all manner of situations. Like a theory of physics, if there are exceptions, then we haven't hit Truth with a capital "T" yet.

2.11.8 But, if we say that Peter should have sacrificed himself for the rest of the planet, aren't we necessarily admitting that the individual can't consider himself or herself to be their greatest ethical priority? This seems to indicate that it is the survival, prosperity, and betterment of humanity as a whole which is of supreme ethical importance. Furthermore, even in less extreme situations, it seems that there are many cases when an individual may choose to help others, even at their own expense and who deserve admiration for their sacrifice. Have the collectivists won? If so, what about all the bad side effects of collectivism mentioned in 2.10.5? The dangers of collectivism are numerous and very real. How then does one reconcile concern for humanity with individualism?

2.11.9 Sometimes it seems that philosophies are intentionally crafted to take ideas to extremes, likely in an effort to make the biggest waves and perhaps draw the attention of more publishers, sales, and fame. Such an approach also has the advantage of generating more dedicated followers early on, given that people are in search of certainty. This approach is unfortunate, not only because the truth usually lies between these extremes, but it also leaves the bulk of us who lie in the middle to fend for ourselves. As such, we are forced to take bits and pieces of various philosophies and use them subjectively as our conscience dictates. The goal of the Socio-Personal Principle, and of the next few paragraphs, is to reconcile collectivism and individualism in a formalized manner.

2.11.10 First we will begin by acknowledging the logical conclusion of Peter the astronaut’s story: that when it comes down to it, the survival, prosperity, and betterment of society as a whole is the ultimate ethical priority. This, taken alone, is simple collectivism. However, pure collectivism fails to recognize the following...

2.11.11 A society is not a thing, in and of itself. A society is an emergent property, made up of individuals interacting in just such a way. As such, it cannot be crafted in a manner which is inconsistent with the nature of its elements and still reach its potential effectiveness. The nature of the individual human being is to enjoy freedom, autonomy, self determination, to have his or her rights respected, to have opportunity to make the most of his or her talents and efforts, and to have security and justice. Therefore, only a society which allows for personal freedom and individual rights can be fully compatible with the nature of human beings and, as such, reach its fullest potential. This principle forms the nucleus of Socio-personal humanism.

2.11.12 The Socio-Personal Principle views society and the individual as an integrated whole. A society which violates the individual’s autonomy and rights puts itself at odds with its own elements and spells its own eventual demise. An oppressive society results in less efficiency in the long run, lower productivity, mass expenditures towards police and law enforcement, and runs the continual risk of economic collapse and outright rebellion. In the long-term, there is no such thing as a prosperous society composed of oppressed people. Likewise, the individual who does not recognize his/her moral relationship to others and to society will not be able to reach full potential or happiness, for s/he denies that social part of his/her nature. This may be similar to what Marcus Aurelius refers to throughout Meditations when he refers to the immoral person as defying his nature.

2.11.13 The Socio-Personal Principle, if taken in its complete form, avoids the pitfalls of collectivism, which narrowly puts society ahead of individual in a contradictory model. It may seem to the individualist that the Socio-Personal Principle suggests society is "granting" rights to its individuals in order to get more out of them. However, this view personifies society as a separate entity. The more accurate view would be that reasonable individuals will create the institutions of society in such a way that their personal liberties are paramount. This will then have the effect of maximizing the survival and prosperity of society as a whole - the ultimate ethical priority, should a contradiction occur.

2.11.14 Many of the wiser philosophies have realized that there is truly no conflict between the good for the individual and the good for society - and to conclude otherwise is thinking in short sighted terms. The Socio-Personal Principle seeks to formalize and susinctly spell out the reasons why this is so. The Socio-Personal Principle can then be summed up by the following four points, in order of priority:

a) The survival, prosperity, and betterment of civilization as a whole is the ultimate ethical priority.

b) Only a civilization which upholds the greatest amount of personal freedom and individual rights can be fully compatible with the nature of its own elements (human beings) and, as such, reach its fullest potential.

c) A civilization which denies the nature of its own elements in exchange for short-term benefit (infringes on the autonomy and the rights of its people) endangers its own prosperity and therefore performs evil.

d) The individual who denies his/her obligations to society endangers the long-term prosperity of themselves and the betterment of civilization and therefore also performs evil.

2.11.15 This is not the "social contract" between society and the individual - this is a realization that the two are the same or, more accurately, that there is no society (at least as an autonomous entity). This is a rejection of what I call group personification.

Continue to 2.12 The Principle of Impartiality