Is Love the Answer?

Ed asked: A quick question about Objectivism: how can it be valid when humans are notoriously UNrational beings? We’re known for it! Crimes of passion, less than optimal behaviour, the examples are more than numerous. There’s even a field of study for it around money: behavioural finance. The entire pseudo science of economics assumes so called rational humans, who just don’t exist! Behavioural finance researches how people make most of their financial decisions from emotions, usually to their detriment. This makes much of economic theory completely bogus. Look it up, it’s easy to verify. So if we can’t depend on reason, what can we depend on? The only thing that has ever worked over the long term: love. Sure, use reason when needed, but love is primary. If we did this, there wouldn’t be any exploitation of others, and the planet and our society wouldn’t be in the state it’s in.

If one parses the first sentence in this way: “How can it be valid to to say rationality is the highest virtue when humans are notoriously unrational and look at all the problems that causes”, the question answers itself.

Objectivism does not claim that humans are rational in the sense of automatically acting rationally. If that were the case, there would be no need to talk about it. Aristotle’s definition of man as a “rational animal” simply means we possess the power of reason, by our nature. To actually live byreason requires an act of choice (a choice itself made possible by having the power of reason). But as our nature requires living by reason – simply because our nature requires dealing with reality by our choices – then of course, if we don’t live by reason all kinds of problems ensue. That is why irrationality is bad.

As for economics, while some economic theories might assume universal rational behaviour, that certainly isn’t an assumption of Objectivist-related economic thinking. However I must note that a lot of criticism of people’s economic behaviour as irrational is, frankly, patronising and insulting. I have read a number of articles on that kind of thing and the definition of “rational” used is often absurdly irrational. So in the absence of any concrete examples, I can make no further comment on economics in this context.

The claim that love is the only thing that has ever worked over the long term is a strange one. When has it ever worked? If Ed wishes to cast a jaundiced eye on how rational people are, how much more cynical should he be about the history of love? And why think love as a prime mover can solve anything? It didn’t help Romeo and Juliet, and the divorce courts and broken homes are overpopulated by people who felt that love can conquer all and did not think. And it isn’t limited to errors. Stone Age people loved their friends and children as much as we do, but that didn’t save them from 80% infant mortality and short, nasty, brutish lives. Love might encourage the parcelling out of goodies to the ones you value the most, but it can do nothing to create the goodies in the first place. Only reason can do that, and it is reason we have to thank for electricity, antibiotics, clean food and water, the ability to feed the world on the effort of a tiny percentage of farmers, personal entertainment, modern medicine, and so on. I would be careful about complaining about the “state we’re in”. Have a bit of historical perspective. Try living in anytime from the Stone Age to Medieval Europe instead and see how you like it.

Love is certainly a good thing, in the sense of a positive response to values. But if that is all Ed means, then love is certainly not primary. To be based on reality, those values must be chosen rationally, and so love is subservient to reason, not its master. But if Ed means one should love indiscriminately, loving anyone and everyone regardless of their worth or character – that is, independently of values – then that is worse than wrong. By rewarding the worthless at the expense of the best among people, all it can achieve is the devaluing of love and, like any other injustice, the destruction of values. Whatever such simpering emotion devoid of values is, it isn’t love. By attempting to sever the feeling and benefits of love from the values that rightly create it, it is the psychological equivalent of heroin, which severs pleasure from its purpose, from what is good for you. And it would be just as destructive.

If people are notoriously irrational, does that mean we are doomed, that any attempt to teach people that they should live by reason cannot win? Well, no, because they are not fundamentallyirrational. It is certainly difficult to get people to be rational when they are taught from an early age that reason doesn’t work, that the will of the collective is more important than the mind of the individual, and to believe all kinds of irrational nonsense. But that is the fault of irrational adults and ultimately irrational philosophy, not an inherent flaw in human nature.

© 2008 Robin Craig: first published in TableAus.