Reflections on Capitalism – Part II
By Nathaniel Branden - February 26, 2011

The first thing I would say about her is that she operates consciously. And the next thing I would say is that she stands outside traditional moral categories: She is an exponent of rational or enlightened self-interest – a possibility that is not even acknowledged by those who talk about self-sacrifice as the moral ideal, and imply that the only alternative to sacrificing self to others is sacrificing others to self. Marny does neither; she does not believe in the practice of human sacrifice.

Observe that everything she does is motivated by loyalty to her values. She acts on her judgment. And her judgment is thoughtful, not impulsive. For her husband, who she loves most in the world, there are almost no limits on what she is prepared to do (within a rational framework). For her friends, there are many more limits; she is generous, but not to the point of ignoring her higher values. If she supports certain causes, it is because they concern values that are important to her and to the kind of world she wishes to live in. She respects self-interest but understands that what is or is not to one's self-interest is not necessarily self-evident – it requires thought. And her range of concern is a lifetime, not the convenience or inconvenience of this moment. That is why I say she operates consciously.

The philosopher Immanuel Kant would tell her that she is immoral, since everything she does is by selfish inclination. Kant taught that any action contaminated by self-interest to even the smallest degree can make no claim to moral merit – only that which is done out of duty can be virtuous. Hitler would tell her that she has no right to live for herself, that her live is owed to the German Race, and that "in their search for their own happiness, people fall all the more out of heaven into hell." Stalin would tell her that her petty bourgeois preoccupations are absurd, that her egoistic inclinations are subversive, and that her life belongs not to herself but to the Proletariat, meaning the State. Mao would tell her that it is evil and irresponsible for her to imagine that her person is her property – she must accept that she is to be disposed of as the People see fit. The Pope would tell her that her practice of birth-control is sinfully egocentric. A New Age psychologist enamored with the wisdom of the East might tell her that she is retarded in her spiritual development because she still thinks of her happiness in terms of the narrowly personal. And a mystic would tell her that if she dedicates unknown years of her life to meditation, prayer, and study, eventually the veil of ignorance will fall away and she will grasp that selfishness is indeed the root of all evil and that only through selfless service can her soul fully awaken.

Now if we want to talk about evil, I will say that these teachings are what I regard as evil – because of the consequences to which they lead for human life on earth.

No one inveighed against "selfishness" or advocated "selfless service" more passionately than the leaders of Nazi Germany, Soviet Russian, Communist China, or Cambodia. Take a look at what those "ideals" mean when translated into political reality. More people have been tortured and murdered in this century than any other in history, and the justification was always "in the name of a higher good to which the individual must be subordinated." Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot taught their people a lot about "selfless service."

It could be argued that whatever may be true about the cases just cited, it does not apply to Buddhists, who are probably the most peaceful, non-violent people on the planet. This is correct, and it is a fair point to raise. However, consider this: If we teach that individuality is an illusion and that service to others is the essence of morality, what kind of cultural and intellectual climate do we help to create? One that serves a society built on the principles of individual freedom and individual rights – or a society that proclaims duty to the collective above all? Is the doctrine of selfless service more likely to protect an individual when freedom is threatened, or make the individual more vulnerable to manipulation and control?

Anyone who practices psychotherapy almost certainly knows how frightened many people are of even the most appropriate acts of self-assertiveness – they do not know how to answer the charge that they are being selfish. How many people die in insane wars because they do not want to admit that they care more about their own life than about some abstract cause that may make no sense to them? How many people give up their dreams and aspirations in deference to the needs and demands of others, because they dread the charge of being egocentric? This is an open secret: Almost everyone knows it and almost no one talks about it. Instead we go on insisting that ego is the cause of all our misery.

In the course of everyday life we are bombarded in a thousand ways with messages to the effect that "service" is the highest mark of virtue, and that morality consists of living for others. We are told that the intelligent, the enlightened, the able, the competent, the strong must exist for the sake of those who lack those traits; that those who suffer or are in need have first claim on the lives and energy of the rest of the human race, that theirs is the right superseding all other rights. We are told that an individual's mind and effort are the property of the community, of the nation, of the globe. We are told that those who have created wealth owe a particular debt to those who have not created it – including an apology. And all the while politicians, religious leaders, and intellectuals chastise the electorate for being too reluctant to sacrifice for the greater good.

Most people do not try to practice the code of self-sacrifice consistently in their everyday choices and decisions. That would not be possible. But to the extent that they accept it as right, they are left in confusion if not in a moral vacuum. They have no adequate set of principles to guide their actions. In relationships, they do not know what demands they can permit themselves and what demands they can permit to others; they do not know what is theirs by right, theirs by favor, or theirs by someone's sacrifice. Under the pressure of conflicting personal desires and conflicting external injunctions, they fluctuate between sacrificing themselves to others and sacrificing others to themselves. They swing between the belief that self-surrender is a virtue and the knowledge that they must smuggle some selfishness into their life in order to survive.

Small wonder that when some people do decide to be selfish, they are so often selfish in the narrow and petty sense rather than in the rational and noble sense. No one taught them that rational self-interest is possible – and that it is the obligation of a conscious human being to think carefully about what does in fact represent long-term self-interest. When they hear selfishness castigated as petty, cruel, materialistic, or mean-spirited, these epithets strike a responsive chord within them: Their own guilt feels like a validation of the charge.

This discussion is a brief exercise in what I meant earlier in this book when I suggested that if our intention is to live consciously, we need to focus the searchlight of awareness on the moral values we have been taught since childhood – to look at moral issues through our own eyes – and consider what serves our life and well-being and what is inimical. However, this is not the place for a full moral treatise. I have explored different aspects of value theory in previous books, notably Honoring the Self and The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem, and plan to address these issues in greater depth in a future book. Here, there are only a few more points I need to make about the identification of spirituality with an ethics of selflessness.

If we are operating consciously, the most obvious question to ask, when someone proposes "a life of selfless service," is why?

To quote Ayn Rand in Atlas Shrugged:

Why is it moral to serve the happiness of others, but not your own? If enjoyment is a value, why is it moral when experienced by others, but immoral when experienced by you?…Why is it immoral for you to desire, but moral for others to do so? Why is immoral to produce a value and keep it, but moral to give it away? And if it is not moral for you to keep a value, why is it moral for others to accept it? If you are selfless and virtuous when you give it, are they not selfish and vicious when they take it? Does virtue consist of serving vice?

Those who tend to associate spirituality with selfless service typically offer two answers to the question of why? The first is not really an answer. It consists of the assertion that at a certain level of spiritual evolution one gains the mystical insight – as a self-evident fact, requiring no further explanation – that one should take the path of selfless service. It becomes as obvious as the sun hanging in the sky – one simply sees it. This is not an explanation likely to impress a thoughtful person.

The second, and by the far the more interesting explanation, is the statement that the value of such service lies not so much in the help given the beneficiaries as in liberation from ego on the part of the one who serves. A life of service, it is said, facilitates self-transcendence. In secular terms, this is dangerously close to an egoistic justification: I will serve others as a means to personal development.

I confess I am not really clear on what a life of selfless service literally means. I cannot find a plain definition anywhere. Do we ask people what they would like us to do and then do it (like a solicitous "pleaser")? Do we decide what we think is best for them and do that (like a totalitarian altruist)? Does it mean we abandon the life and work we chose before we attained liberation from ego and go searching the world for suffering to ameliorate (like anyone for whom self-surrender is glory)?

What also confuses is me is that I have known a number of prominent intellectuals who became professors, wrote books, and then at some point saw the light and embraced the ideal of selfless service. They are still professors and they still write books, and in their books they talk about the ideal of service – but apart from that I cannot see how their life has changed. Whom are they serving and how are they doing it? (Some of them have become social activists dedicated to saving the world from capitalism, about which they know appallingly little.)

Perhaps I will be asked: But is not the justification for a life of service the fact that there is so much suffering in the world? Are not kindness and compassion virtues even in your morality?

The answer to the second question is yes, kindness and compassion are virtues. We cannot have a decent life without them. But why would anyone identify kindness or compassion with self-sacrifice? If it is in the name of one's values – such as regard for the value of a human life – kindness can be as much an act of self-assertion as any other act of self-expression. And yes, there is a great deal of suffering in the world. And one of the reasons for that suffering is the fact that most people have never been taught a code of ethical principles that would support a truly human form of existence on earth. Consider the following.

One of the greatest causes of suffering on this planet is poverty. It follows, therefore, that if one is genuinely interested in relieving suffering and is disposed to approach the problem consciously, one would wish to understand how poverty is eliminated. Fortunately, the answer is known.

Prior to the industrial revolution and the birth of capitalism, poverty was the natural condition of almost all of the human race. It was not perceived as an aberration but as the norm. Ninety-eight percent of the world's population lived in conditions unimaginable to a twentieth century citizen of the United States. That was poverty of a kind that makes what we call poverty today look like luxury. Then, dating from the time of the American Revolution, the ideas of individualism, human rights, and political-economic freedom – capitalism – began to sweep the Western world. To the extent that capitalism was accepted, which varied enormously from country to country, the result was an unprecedented rise in the standard of living of millions and millions of people that would have been inconceivable a century earlier. Infant mortality rates dropped and life expectancy leapt upward. In the brief span of less than two hundred years the West witnessed a growth in material well-being unequaled by the by total sum of human progress up to that time. At every step of the way, the freer the country was, the faster the rate of progress and the more rapid the decline of poverty.

What compassionate mystic understood what he was seeing, above all in the United States, stopped talking about self-sacrifice, decided to step out of the Middle Ages and rethink his code of values–and began proclaiming the glories that were possible when human intelligence is liberated and people are free to act on their own initiative? What compassionate mystic – hit by a this-worldly vision – got enlightenment and realized that there might an answer to suffering this side of Nirvana and began to champion the right of life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness?

Notice, even today, with the world-wide collapse of collectivist economies, how grudgingly the Vatican acknowledges the achievements of free minds and semi-free markets in raising the quality of our lives. Notice the resentment that still attaches to the word profit by glowering, cassocked Rip van Winkles who still think they are living in the year 1200 and have not yet discovered the industrial age, let alone the information age. Notice the arrogant presumptuousness of offering miserly recognition to entrepreneurs who have transformed the world – and immediately following it by scolding reminders that they are, after only, only servants of humanity and should not be allowed to forget it.

To carry this point still further: A major part of the world that for a very long time fiercely resisted the incursion of "Western ideas" is Asia, and this is an area where the influence of mysticism has been at its strongest and where for centuries poverty has been at its worst. But in the years following World War 2, the situation began to change. Slowly the ideas of entrepreneurial capitalism caught fire in the Asian mind. Men (and women!) of courage, initiative, and ambition began to challenge old traditions and to think about the possibilities of this world, if governments would cede them even a modest degree of economic and political freedom. They got a little freedom and then they pressed for a little more and a little more. The battle is still going on and is far from over. But what has happened has been described as a miracle.

To quote from John Naisbitt's Megatrends Asia:

From 1945 to 1995, half a century, Asia went from rags to riches. It reduced the incidence of poverty from 400 million to 180 million, while its population grew by 400 million during the same period. The World Bank has pronounced that nowhere and at no time in human history has humanity achieved such economic progress, and concluded that the East Asia story is an economic miracle.

A significant aspect of this story is the cultural transformation in the role of women. An increasing number of Asian women have become entrepreneurs, against thousands of years of tradition. And more and more women are pouring into the workplace. (In Japan, for example, virtually all the currency traders are women.) To be sure, there is still much resistance to these changes and there are still efforts to integrate Asia's semi-capitalism into "the old ways," resulting in some rather incongruous mixtures of practices and principles. That is culturally inevitable. But an extravagant source of human energy has been released by such freedom as has been permitted and is not likely to be bottled up again.

In an age in which few achievements seem to impress us, and the most extraordinary triumphs of human intelligence often leave us blasé, take a moment to meditate on the meaning of the quote from Naisbitt. And then ask yourself:

Why aren't the apostles of kindness, compassion, and concern for human suffering, shouting about this historic achievement from the rooftops?

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