A Philosopher’s Attempt to Justify Mediocrity
Posted by Jerry on July 27, 2007
Steve Gimbel is a philosopher at Gettysburg College who says that he is “just a bleeding heart, mediocre philosopher who will never achieve greatness”. And I am willing to take his word for it. Not content with just being a “mediocre philosopher,” Gimbel decides to write up a post that not only attempts to justify his mediocrity but also launch an attack on human excellence itself–in his post titled “Is Human Excellence a Mark of Mental Illness.”
Of course, in order to spew his caustic verbiage, he quite appropriately chose as his target the perfect exemplar and champion of human excellence–Ayn Rand.
His caricature of Rand says that her celebration of egoism is most attractive to “upper-middle class white male[s] of above average means and intelligence,” because it allows them to stroke their own ego and provide a rationalization for not being an empathetic individual. I’ll let this uneducated absurdity pass without comment since it does not apply to an Indian like myself.
His attack on Ayn Rand’s conception of the ethic of rational egoism boils down to this inanity attributed to Objectivists:
Accoring to Gimbel, an Objectivist believes that
“caring about others is actually going to harm others. If only I think about nothing but myself, I’m doing the best for everyone else because the rest will become better. My selfishness is the tide that raises all boats, so it would be immoral of me to be moral. Hence, I can relax and be a jerk who never helps anyone because only jerks never help anyone truly help anyone.” [bold mine]
First, an Objectivist is not “selfish” because he believes it is the best way of “doing the best [for] everyone else because the rest will become better.”
An Objectivist does not justify the ethic of self-interest on the grounds that it is good for everyone else. That is altruism worded differently!
An Objectivist identifies self-interest as the only moral and ethical code proper to *free* men, i.e., men free from obligations to another that is not accepted voluntarily. An Objectivist holds that human beings are not sacrificial animals, that no one must be forced or obligated to sacrifice their own values and happiness for another, that each man has the right to be free, pursue values and happiness, and determine his own goals and the means to achieving them. This involves trade to mutual benefit but never the sacrifice of one for the benefit of another.
Second, note how the mediocre philosopher commits a fallacy that Rand termed as the “fallacy of the frozen abstraction.” The fallacy is in substituting a particular concrete or concept in the place of a wider class to which it belongs.
Gimbel says that an Objectivist who embraces rational self-interest does so as a justification for “not being an empathetic individual.” Further, Gimbel asserts that an Objectivist believes that it would be “immoral” of him to help anyone and therefore decides to be “a jerk who never helps anyone.”
The frozen abstraction here is the concept of altruism; the only kind of act that Gimbel considers “moral” is the altruistic type of action–empathy and helping behavior. In other words, only an altruist could be empathetic and exhibit helping behavior, and altruism is substituted for morality when in fact altruism is only one type of moral code just as egoism, hedonism, and rational self-interest are all different types of moral codes.
In Gimbel’s view, to “help anyone” must necessarily be moral and therefore an Objectivist–by apparently choosing to not help anyone–is necessarily being immoral. Since an Objectivist rejects altruistic actions, he must therefore be “a jerk.” Thus, according to Gimbel, to be “empathetic” is to be altruistic and anti-self-interest, to “help anyone” is to be moral, to be an Objectivist is to be “a jerk.”
The only kind of action offered as moral, i.e., empathy and helping behavior, is regarded as being exclusively under the domain of altruism. In other words, to Gimbel, the notion of a rational egoist being empathetic and helping someone whom he values is an impossibility, a contradiction of ethical codes.
After his wildly off-target attack on rational egoism, Gimbel turns his attention to attacking human excellence in general, partly in an attempt to justify his own mediocrity and partly because Objectivism–as Rand described it–is a philosophy dedicated to the glory and celebration of man.
Gimbel questions “whether it actually is true that excellent people are, in fact, better people.” Then, he answers himself by stating “that those who achieve excellence are the last ones we would want to serve as models of lives well-lived.” He justification for this view is to point out the many examples of famous athletes, scholars, businessmen, and political leaders who are pathetic spouses, parents, or teachers.
He argues that excellence requires a focused dedication on some one aspect of life at a very costly expense of other areas of one’s life; that is, to be a great athlete is to be a negligent parent, to be a superbly successful entrepreneur/businessman is to be derelict in your other roles as a human being, etc.
Therefore, he says,
“Excellence in one area seems to have deleterious effects in others, meaning that this naive picture of human excellence that the Randians hold is worrisome.”
This is his defense for (his own) mediocrity–that he’d rather be a jack of all trades and the master of none. However, in the same breath, he also says that he is glad that there are people who pursue great levels of excellence: He is glad that there are “doctors who work all night and day to develop life-saving measures, civil rights activists who gave their bodies and lives in leading the charge for equality, artists who suffered to create great beauty.” But, he is also glad that he is not one of them.
In Randian terms, Gimbel is glad that there are Prime Movers, Atlases, the men of superior ability and excellence who drive the world; but, he contends that their drive is “pathological,” “irrational,” and a “mental illness.” Despite that, the pathology of these great Atlases does not deter Gimbel from coming along for the ride; he is very content at resting on Atlas’ shoulders and hoping they don’t shrug.
The false dichotomy that Gimbel serves up is this: either one achieves excellence in one area and is pathetic in practically every other area of life, or he is simply mildly competent at everything, and therefore, more rational.
First, it should be obvious that these two alternatives are not exhaustive in any sense. Excellence is one area of life does not automatically translate into a failure in every other; excellence is no area of life does not automatically translate into mild competence in every field.
Second, the Randian notion of excellence and perfection is primarily not material, physical, or existential, but primarily moral–excellence in moral virtue. Rand did not regard superior athletes, uber-rich businessmen, great geniuses of science as de facto exemplars of her notion of heroism and excellence by virtue of their physical and material accomplishments.
As an example, in Atlas Shrugged, Robert Stadler is presented as a man of great scientific genius and superior intelligence; yet, he is a vilified character who represents the worst kind of immorality (as a betrayer of values–anti-life) and is despised by the novel’s heroes.
Noumenal Self gives another example of what the Objectivist notion of moral excellence implies. In his comment to Gimbel’s post, Noumenal Self states:
“Even the meekest adjunct professor has a right to pursue his happiness, and shouldn’t sacrifice it, even to those above him with tenure. Mutatis mutandis for the meekest plumbers, whom Ayn Rand thought were usually of greater productive virtue than most tenured professors. See the character of Eddie Willers in Atlas Shrugged.”
In sum, Gimbel tries very hard to justify his own mediocrity by launching an attack at human excellence in general and the excellence exemplified and defined by Ayn Rand. However, in an inescapable irony, his own self-confessed mediocrity and defense of it becomes his argument’s greatest weakness.