Rebirth of Reason

War for Men's Minds

The Problem of Benevolence
by Joseph Rowlands

It's one of the big mysteries in life why Objectivist forums contain so much hostility and lack of benevolence.  Is it because Objectivist feel alienated from the rest of the world and take out their aggression on each other?  Is it because they're used to dealing with people who don't understand important ideas and get used to treating others like that?  Or does Objectivism just attract a bad lot?  Probably there is no single reason to explain it.  But let's look at it from a philosophical point of view.

Benevolence is an Objectivist virtue.  A virtue is a way of gaining values.  The virtue is based on an ethical principle which connects means to ends, suggesting that if you want to achieve certain values, you should follow the appropriate means.  Objectivism upholds virtues as a way of improving your own life, not as a duty to perform in order to uphold the mantle of morality.

When the topic of the lack of benevolence comes up, I've found that it is often addressed to the administrators of a forum.  They're asked to enforce benevolence through a strict moderation policy.  Setting aside the difficulty of setting such a policy without creating a stifling environment, or that a lack of incivility is not the same as benevolence, there's a deeper issue here.  If benevolence really is beneficial to our lives, why can't we simply appeal to the offender's self-interest?  Why have so many people concluded that force is the only way to get people to act morally?  And most importantly, are they right?

What values does benevolence aim at?  And how does it help achieve those values?  In what context is benevolence helpful?  A closer look at the virtue of benevolence is in order.

David Kelley, in his book Unrugged Individualism, defines benevolence as follows: "Benevolence is a commitment to achieving the values derivable from life with other people in society, by treating them as potential trading partners, recognizing their humanity, independence, and individuality, and the harmony between their interests and ours."

There is a condition here that I want to bring into focus.  Benevolence hinges on a recognition of a harmony of interests between the individuals.  What if this condition didn't exist within the context of an Objectivist forum?  What if the values being pursued on these forums were zero-sum?  What if one man's gain was another man's loss?

Let me provide an example.  Imagine a participant in a forum aims to be recognized as the most intelligent person there.  When someone else shows up who is very intelligent, it will seem like a threat to the egotist.  Only one of them can be the best, and one man's gain is another man's loss.  If this is the value the participants are seeking to achieve, there would be no harmony of interests between them.  If you then suggest being benevolent, you couldn't appeal to their self-interest.  You'd have to ask them do be nice as a kind of sacrifice.

In many modern day game shows or "reality TV", a situation is created to pit participants against each other by destroying the harmony of interests between them.  Benevolence ceases to be useful except maybe as a tool to trick others into trusting them.  Are Objectivist forums similar?  If so, it would mean that the lack of benevolence is institutional, and a tighter moderation policy is just a band-aid covering the gaping wound.

Most Objectivist forums don't have a specific purpose.  The participants come to the forum for their own reasons, whether their goals are in harmony with the others or not.  For instance, many people come to debate ideas.  A debate is usually zero-sum for the participants.  Only one side can be right, and the other has to be wrong.  If you're debating for the sake of winning a debate, is it any surprise that benevolence breaks down?  The truth is only of secondary importance.

There are methods of interacting on a forum that are not zero-sum.  When one person teaches an idea to another person, there's a harmony of interest between them.  The teacher wants to spread his ideas, the student wants to understand them.  They both benefit from the interaction.

An exploration of an idea can also be harmonious.  When participants try to figure out a tough problem, they benefit.  Notice that they aren't afraid of having an intelligent person join the conversation.  Since their goal is to gain greater clarity, there's no need or desire for hostility because their interests are aligned.

A common purpose is the most powerful harmonizer of interests.  When people are all trying to accomplish a shared goal, their actions benefit one another.  Not only are their interests not in conflict, but they are the same.  One man's gain is the other man's gain.

Activism can act as this harmonizer.  By actually trying to accomplish a goal, for instance, to bring Objectivism into the cultural mainstream and reshape the world, we gain from one another.  Your means may even be different from mine, but we both benefit from the success of the other.  We have every reason to wish the other success, and even help where we can.

This is one of the reasons I intend to push Rebirth of Reason in the direction of activism.  By focusing on our mutual goals, we fight together for a better world.  We aren't competing for popularity or seeing who can win arguments the best.  We don't need to belittle one another.  We benefit from finding someone else who knows something we don't. We benefit from someone who catches a mistake we make so that we can be more effective in the future.

This is the kind of forum I want to create.  Not one where I have to force people to be civil, but one where there are benefits to doing so and people recognize them.  A place where people can focus on the positive contributions that are being made by another.  A place with a spirit of cooperation and friendship.

As we move forward, if we see more lack of civility, we should remind ourselves of this common purpose.  We should ask ourselves whether our goals are zero-sum, or harmonious with others.  We should ask ourselves whether there are institutional incentives that make benevolence a form of sacrifice.
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