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In principle I am an objectivist (at least in the ethical and epistemological sense), because I hold the rights of the individual as sacred above all other rights. According to objectivist philosophy intelligent beings have the right to live as they please, as long as their actions do not infringe upon someone else's right to live as he or she pleases. Freedom of speech, religious freedom, anti-racism, anti-discrimination and sexual freedom are all principles that follow automatically from the objective right to live as an individual.

In the United States where Objectivist thinking is strong, it seems to have become a prejudiced ultra-right-wing movement, losing the intellectual and scientific qualities this philosophy had when it was first defined by Ayn Rand in the first half of the twentieth century (note that Rand herself was partly to blame for this degeneration). I find myself often torn between a firm belief in objectivist principles and an abhorrance of the way they are professed by some modern-day objectivists.

This small essay is one of my deliberations on the issue of the rights objectivists claim they have on the world.


Objectivism and the Future

One day, you are confronted by a supreme being that materializes in your home. He puts before you a small cube, on top of which is one red button. Then he speaks to you, and upon hearing his words, you know he is speaking the truth. He tells you the following.

"This cube here has the power to grant you a long, luxurious life. All you have to do is press the red button to activate it. Press the button and you will be wealthy, healthy and happy. And not only you, but also your family and friends, your children, and even your grandchildren.

Of course, there is a catch. To accomplish this feat, the cube has to draw energy and life from future generations. And not a little bit, oh no. The consequence of pressing the button is that, as soon as the last person who benefits from the influence of the cube dies, which will be about 150 years from now, the whole world will be deprived of any of the natural energy resources people currently use, and the earth will be polluted to the core. It may become a dark and ugly place where hunger, war and disease reign. On the other hand, who knows, by that time people may have found a way to revert the damage done to the planet or may have colonized other worlds.

I leave the cube here. I will return in one hour to take it away again. You have until that time to decide whether or not to press the button. I won't judge you, whatever decision you make. It's between you and your conscience.

I'll see you in one hour."

With those words, the being disappears.

Now you are on your own, with the cube. What decision will you make? Think about it for a moment.

One might argue that pressing the button is a selfish act, and therefore morally wrong. However, selfishness is in itself not amoral. Selfishness simply means acting to defend one's own individual rights and welfare. Objectivists extol the virtue of selfishness, based on the premise that an individual's freedom is sacred. An individual has the objective right to fight for his own well-being. One might therefore conclude that an objectivist would have no qualms about pressing the button.

But wait! Let's not be too hasty in our objectivist conclusions. The basis of an objectivist society is not the freedom of one particular individual, it is the freedom of all individuals. The freedom of an individual is limited to where it infringes upon another individual's freedom. The objectivist principle is not that individuals have the right to act as they like, but that individuals have the right to act as they like as long as they do not limit other individuals in their corresponding rights.

Not infringing upon another individual's freedom includes not actively harming that other individual. As Harry Truman said, "The freedom to swing your fist ends where the other guy's nose begins." While hitting someone does not interfere with his freedom to hit you back, it does interfere with his freedom to live an undisturbed life. Objectivist freedom can be summarised as "Live and let live".

If you are an objectivist, you might state that pressing the button does not harm the rights of any other individual at all. As far as you know, everyone else may have such a cube. Anyone who has a cube can press the button, or refrain from pressing is, as he or she wishes, unhampered by your actions.

However, this does not acknowledge the fact that pressing the button will infringe upon the welfare of future generations. Granted, it does not impede upon the individual freedom of our descendants. As far as we are concerned, they can do whatever they want. But they have to do it in the circumstances we create for them. Therefore, if we, willingly and maliciously, create circumstances that are harmful to future generations, we are directly harming other individuals, which is amoral according to objectivist principles.

The question is whether you, as an objectivist, should acknowledge the existence of future generations or not. If an objectivist's moral obligations stretch out only to today's world, you should press the button immediately. If your moral responsibility includes the future, you should not. So, does it?

I think it does. There was a time that only limited groups of people had any rights. Today, we agree that everyone has equal rights and we condemn past generations for taking the stand that women and coloured people are inferior to white males. Do we dare to take a stand now that only living adults have rights and that future generations are inferior to us? If we agree future generations have the same rights we do, under objectivist ruling we are not allowed to intentionally harm them.

I think the basic problem with objectivist philosophy is that it was created at a time when the world was much bigger than it is now. Enacting your individual rights in those days had a relatively local effect. Polluting a river meant polluting a river for a short time, not polluting the world for centuries. Draining an oil well meant having to drill a new one, not depleting yet another resource for heat, energy and plastics. Justice was on the side of those who were truthful, not those with the biggest pockets. And a large corporation was a production centre for cheap, quality goods, not an economic mafia conglomerate that forces people to buy expensive, inferior goods.

I am not saying objectivism is a philosophy of the past, but it is in need of modernisation. Basically, it should acknowledge that the world is a small place and that the impact of individual actions should be judged on a scale that encompasses not only our family, neighbourhood and country, but the world, humanity and the future.

March 31, 2003

© 2003 by Pieter Spronck