I seem to be suffering from a desire to do too many things at once. It is exhilarating- and a tad frustrating.
In the last two days I have gotten halfway through Ayn Rand's Philosophy: Who Needs It (in case you're wondering: you do). I have gotten through the first part of, Stumbling on Happiness, a book dealing with the psychology of that elusive state which we all pursue- thus far, it is delightfully written. I have worked on crafting poetry. I have watched a live debate on the subject of capitalism. I have been pondering the ethics of being a rational, omnivorous creature, and questioning what it means to live out my values. I have watched TED talks on architecture, gratitude, "anonymous extraordinaries," and a host of other interesting and inspirational subjects. I have loaded my bedside table with more philosophy books, Russell's Principles of Mathematics (a perhaps foolish ambition), an introduction to game theory, and I become increasingly persuaded that I need to investigate economics. It seems like every half hour I decide that I really, really want to learn about or think about something new and exciting- or pursue an idea to greater depth.
...What will I do with five weeks at home? I don't have enough time to think about half the things I want to think about!
Unsurprisingly, I suspect I lose a great deal of time fretting over the dilemma, rather than simply sitting down and actually doing some good thinking and reading. This can be a problem, but there's hope.
Fortunately, in the last half hour or so I managed to capture the latest intellectual whim "on paper"(actually, in a word document, but same thing, right?).
See, I was slowly eating teaspoons of peanut butter out of the peanut butter jar (a delicious but overall unwise idea). I believe I had just been mentally protesting the impossibility of fitting ten different subject into my next two college terms when I got sucked into renewed contemplation of the Kant paper I wrote for my ethics class. Whilst savoring the sweet peanut buttery-ness I returned to one of problems that kept bugging me. Is it, or is it not, plausible to say that an agent will necessarily require the assistance of others to achieve his end? Kant presumably believed that this made sense, but I went on to question that assumption. I began to wonder... what exactly does it mean to absolutely require the help of others?
The best I could come up with is being bitten by a poisonous snake and requiring someone else to fetch the antidote to save you. In that case, I willingly concede that self-help is not exactly an option.
But excluding cases of physical (or mental- but that is a big problem indeed!) debilitation... how much sense does it make to posit that, on the basis of self-interest, a rational agent cannot will the universalization of the maxim to neither help nor hurt others, because there exists a case in which the agent will require the help of others to obtain (one of) his end(s)?
I should perhaps clarify. It's more or less obvious what it means to not hurt others. What it means to help others is perhaps not so clear. I'm talking about "selfless charity"- assistance disconnected from any notion of rational self interest.
Let us envision a world where you are forced to solve your own problems. As humans, we are extraordinarily talented, capable creatures; we use our intellect to find creative solutions. Given this capacity, and given a free society- that is, a society where people are politically free (free from compulsion, free from abuse, free from violence), a society where people neither hurt nor help you... Given these things, it seems reasonable that when you find yourself in a strait... you are free to find your own solution. And you do so- without need of the help of others.
Imagine you're in a world where no one will offer you charity… You find yourself under stress. You find yourself in need of a solution to a major problem. What do you do?
Well, here's something you don't do. You don't sit on a street corner and pout. That will get you nowhere.
So what do you do?
Well, what can you do? Call upon those prodigious powers of intellect!
You start to think. Hard. You figure out what tools you possess to get around the problem. You find a solution, and you get around your problem.
Do I expect someone to help me by giving me a job I don't deserve? No. If I'm in need of employment, I start trying to think what jobs I can perform- moreover, what jobs I can perform well. What do I have of value that I can offer to someone?
Do I expect someone to hand me a check in the belief that I can offer them nothing in return? No! No one invests in something they believe to be worthless. That is irrational, and I don't expect others, or myself, to be irrational.
To return to the question then...What sort of help would I, or could I, expect from others?
Certainly, I would expect people to treat me with respect- but that's not a question of charity. That's a part of freedom- respecting the rights of individuals.
I would expect others to deal with me in a mutual exchange of value- I would expect people to behave rationally, in a manner conducive to their rational self-interest.
If someone hands me a check, I expect it is because they believe I can offer them something valuable in return. And I accept their check because I believe it is fair compensation for what I provide them. Value for value. When dealing with others, I don't expect them to waste time or money on something that they believe to be worthless. That, fundamentally, makes no sense!
I don't expect senseless, selfless charity.
So, again, does it even make sense to conceive of a world where people neither help nor hurt one another, where people leave each other to act freely, where people respect the rights of others… does it make any sense to say that in such a world, when you find yourself having a problem, the only thing you can do is rely on others solve your problems for you?
I would argue that, no. It doesn't.
And in case you were wondering- yes, I'm a capitalist.
Feel free to take issue with me on this. If you don't wish to go through the hassle of putting yourself in a position where you can leave a comment, address questions or comments to firstname.lastname@example.org
And look forward to more thoughts on Objectivism, Kantianism, or whatever else strikes my intellectual fancy!