Category: Philosophy

Welcome to paradise

Driving through the Texas countryside on Easter Sunday, one of my daughters and I stopped at a service station. As we entered the young, scruffy man wearing a bandanna around his head said something like, “Welcome to paradise.”

“Thank you. It’s nice to be in paradise,” I replied.

When we left, I thanked him again for the greeting, and he said something like, “Paradise is all around us if we will just notice.”

As we walked to the car I told Tabitha you don’t expect to meet a philosopher in the middle of the countryside. It’s just another reminder to not be surprised where we might learn something or who might teach us. Remember, Jesus probably looked a bit on the scruffy side.

That meeting also provided a good reminder to take notice of this paradise of creation that God has given us.

By the way, if you don’t think your part of Texas is paradise, you might visit Mexia.

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The problem with Ayn Rand

Confession: I haven’t read any of Ayn Rand, so my reaction is to what little I know of her thought, not to her actual work. Heidi Unruh has written a great piece, “Refuting Ayn Rand,” on the web site of Evangelicals for Social Action.

“As with any philosophy,” Unruh says, “there are glimmers of truth in her writings. Some of the values she espoused—personal responsibility, individual liberty, creative entrepreneurship—are consistent with a biblical framework, and even offer a necessary counterweight to social forces that push in the direction of tyranny.”

But glimmers of truth do not make a philosophy true.

Rand offers a extreme conservative philosophy that is “patently anti-Christian,” says conservative Christian author Charles Colson. He calls it a “phony conservatism,” even though Rand is being espoused by some conservative politicians and spokespersons. Rand’s philosophy is called “objectivism,” and Colson said, “followers of objectism are undermining the gospel.”

Rand (1905-1982) authored several novels, including Atlas Shrugged. That book’s visibility, Unruh says, has gotten a boost from a circle of elected officials who embrace her philosophy, such as California’s Rep. John Campbell, who gives interns a copy of the book. Most notably, Rep. Paul Ryan, who was influential in the summer’s budget debate—calls Ayn Rand “the reason I got involved in public service.”

“Other leaders who claim Ayn Rand’s influence include Supreme Ct. Justice Clarence Thomas, Senator Rand Paul, and former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan,” Unruh says. “References to Atlas Shrugged have shown up in Tea Party rallies and political analysis.”

So what is objectivism? Unruh says it includes the following premises:

  • “Pursuing personal prosperity is the highest value in life. There is no such thing as ‘the common good.’ 
  • “Each person is responsible for her own well-being and happiness. I am not my brother’s keeper. Following a purely rational ethic, no one should sacrifice himself for the sake of others. 
  • “Charity for those in need is not an ethical obligation. Any aid given should be voluntary, private, and not at the expense of the giver’s own well-being.
  • “Aid should be reserved for those truly deserving of charity (i.e. not responsible for their own condition). People should reap the consequences of their choices in life. 
  • “Government exists solely to protect personal liberty and property. Its role should be limited to police and military defense, as well as laws and infrastructure necessary for commerce (e.g., traffic control, anti-fraud laws, contract enforcement). Government overreaches when it provides a social safety net for its citizens or enacts regulations to promote their general welfare.
  • “Laissez-faire capitalism is the highest expression of personal liberty. Society’s progress rests on the shoulders of entrepreneurs, capitalists, and leaders of industry. Nothing must interfere with the workings of the free market—especially not government.”

If you don’t see the problem with that, then it might be best to go back and read Scripture, especially the New Testament.

“Ayn Rand ennobled selfishness, enshrined materialism, and despised altruism,” Unruh says. “Her philosophy portrays the wealthy as the true victims and dismisses many in need as “parasites” and “moochers.” She was vociferously anti-religious, pro-choice, a sexual libertine and critical of the idea of democracy. She kept a journal in which she proclaimed, ‘I want to be known as the greatest champion of reason and the greatest enemy of religion.’ Her journal entries also admire the heroic individualism of a serial killer.”

Toward the end of her life, Unruh says Rand discovered that it doesn’t work so well for those who have less financial resources. “Elderly, sickened by lung cancer (the consequence of a lifetime smoking habit), she turned to Social Security and Medicaid for support in the final eight years of her life. These programs are of course part of the safety net that Rep. Ryan has called “a hammock, which lulls able-bodied people into lives of complacency and dependency.” (Ironically, Rep. Ryan himself used Social Security payments after the death of his father to pay for college.)

“Ayn Rand never publicly acknowledged flaws in her thinking. But one of her most prominent and powerful followers, Alan Greenspan, did. ‘I made a mistake in presuming that the self-interests of organizations, specifically banks and others, were such as that they were best capable of protecting their own shareholders and their equity in the firms,’ he admitted to a House oversight and government reform committee. He submitted to a strenuous critique of his faulty decisions, such as obstructing regulation of derivatives, that helped pave the way for the current financial crisis, and that reveal the fingerprints of Rand’s enduring influence.”

I’ve only given some highlights from Unruh’s piece. If this nation goes the way of Ayn Rand, then we are done as the nation we have been through these many years.

Overwhelming importance

Some things to think about from Alfred North Whitehead, writing in 1925 in the preface to Science and the Modern World:

“This study has been guided by the conviction that the mentality of an epoch springs from the view of the world which is, in fact, dominant in the educated sections of the communities in question.” (p. viii)

Philosophy “builds cathedrals before the workmen have moved a stone, and it destroys them before the elements have worn down their arches. It is the architect of the buildings of the spirit, and it is also their solvent: –and the spiritual precedes the material.” (pp. viii-ix)

“The key to the book is the sense of the overwhelming importance of a prevalent philosophy.” (p. x)

I have at times feared philosophy, but I love it — what little I have dabbled in it. It is about knowing, and knowing can be scary, but it is also rewarding.

I love Whitehead’s line: “the spiritual precedes the material.” I fear we do to little spiritual or philosophical thinking.