The Morality Of Individualism vs. The Morality Of The Collective
During my time as a bartender, I heard many people grouse about the state of society. I listened while people complained how hard they worked all week and how stunned they were when they got their paychecks and saw how much of it they paid in taxes. Inevitably, the topic would turn to all the people that were laying on their butts watching TV and collecting welfare on their dime. Why the heck are we working for them? How come no matter how much money we give them, they are always complaining? Why do I owe that lazy ingrate a dime? I heard a lot from the other side as well. There was plenty of grumbling about rich people and how much money they had and how they rigged the game so that poor people like them didn’t have a chance. Among these people there seemed to be a universal feeling that they were owed some type of compensation for the unfairness and inequities of our society.
What all of those conversations boil down to is a simple, but incredibly complex question. What do we as individuals owe to society and, conversely, what does society owe to each citizen in turn? I am not referring to what a Christian/Jew/Muslim/Hindu/Buddhist/Atheist owes to his fellow human being. That is a completely separate discussion dealing with questions of faith, metaphysics and the soul that is beyond the scope of this book. Instead, I want to examine how someone’s conception of morality informs and guides their relationship to the broader society they inhabit and how that influences what they see as the proper role for government to play in our lives. Should the government just mind its own business and leave us alone to live our lives the way we choose or do we want it to intervene directly in our lives to help mitigate some of the unfairness and inequalities of the modern world?
These are deep moral questions and, in many ways, the conclusions we derive from them determine how we relate to our world politically. I would like to say that our schools, media and politicians speak directly and with deep intellectual insight about this subject, but we all know that they’d rather entice you with shiny objects and distractions like how many candidate’s tax returns and birth certificates can dance on the head of a pin. In order to go beyond the Matrix and understand the nature of the huge partisan and philosophical divide between our people, it is essential that we examine the morality that underlies the two great political movements now dominant in our country.
I began to think about this subject more intensely than I had in awhile in response to an e-mail I got about Ayn Rand from a friend of mine named “Fred”. My buddy hates Rand and her philosophy of Objectivism and, when he found out that Paul Ryan was a fan of hers, he wrote to me that this just proves that Republicans are cold hearted cretins. Having just finished reading Atlas Shrugged, I felt the truth to be the opposite. While writing a response to him, I found myself diving into deep issues about morality and the human condition that are particularly relevant to the huge battle over the soul of our nation fought between conservatives and progressives.
I found it oddly coincidental that my friend would bring up Ayn Rand completely out of the blue at just the point I had just finished reading her novel because I had delayed reading it for so long. For many years I knew of Ms. Rand’s work and of the profound impact her writing had on others. I hate to admit it, but every time I tried to pick up Atlas Shrugged, I got through about a chapter of that turgid prose, realized I still had another thousand pages to go, and put it down assuring myself I’d finish it later. Of course, I never did. However, when Barack Obama became President and there was greatly renewed interest in Rand’s seminal work, I began to read it again.