The Silver Thread: Ayn Rand Redux
By Michael Abramsky
In the early days of the pandemic, before the shutdown, I was in my car listening to the radio. I often tune in to some of the right-wing talk radio, just to see what the world looks like from their point of view.
I tuned in Dennis Prager, who, I thought, was a more rational and thoughtful conservative. He was saying that “playing it safe” was not for him, referring to his willingness to go to crowded venues, and willingness to take the risk and get sick. He thought it should be his choice to be ill, not a government dictate to stay home. As he finished, it struck me; he never mentioned becoming a carrier and infecting others, including his family.
Sometime later, a group of protestors went to Lansing to protest and contest Governor Whitmer’s lockdown orders. I know some to be NRA activists. What brought them together is a common belief that there should be no boundaries on one’s behavior as long as it is not violating others’ rights, whether weapons or congregational rights.
When the then speaker of the House Paul Ryan was interviewed, he credited the writer Ayn Rand as an inspiration for his ideas. I was surprised to hear that name from such a young man, a throwback to the World War II era.
Ayn Rand was a Russian Jew who fled the Soviet Union and the collectivist mentality, which fueled it. She settled in New York and published novels and essays. Her most famous novels are “The Fountain Head” and “Atlas Shrugged.” A student and follower of hers developed a form of psychotherapy based on her ideas.
Central to her philosophy was the individuals constant battle for self-expression against the conformist forces of society. One of her last books was called The Virtue of Selfishness. Her central idea is that we must seek our own vision and not be dissuaded by others’ disapproval. If others benefit from my work, that’s fine, but if they get hurt, that’s fine too. Unless I am committing a criminal or civil action, I do as I wish.
Entailed in that world view is the proposition that we as Individuals are alone. We do become connected to others, but even those bonds are secondary to one’s sense of purpose or ideology. Values and ideology supersede all.
In contrast, spiritual traditions focus in that level of being, which connects us to all sentient beings. We see the world as interconnecting parts where movement in one part, good or bad, resonates in another part and sticks to us like dust on a country road. Bad action: bad Karma; Good Action: Good Karma: every thought, every action changes the world.
The elevation of unbridled rights is a call for conflict. It is antithetical to a democracy, which relies on majority rule, and mandates we live according to the majority’s wishes.
Extreme individual stimulates grasping and gluttony, jealousy, envy, and all varieties of anger.. It fosters a mecantile attitude toward others, valuing them only as they benefit your life, the opposite of empathy. The lack of empathy implied by the individualist leads to conflict, not cooperation. Cooperation is seen as surrender.
In contrast, the highest psychological calling from the spiritual tradition is empathy. Empathy is our ability to feel as another does. When this is paired with the virtue of compassion. We connect with people in a healing way. Empathy leads to compassion, love, and caring.
Our connectedness to others fosters empathy as we experience that causing pain to others causes pain in ourselves. Being preoccupied with afflictive thoughts is a terrible way to go through life. Empathy and compassion for others yield inner peace.
In Governor Whitmer’s battle, she choose life by locking down. Those who advocated an individualistic right objected to the lockdown—freedom, and commerce over life protection.