Reason as the Leading Motive

Who Cares For the Disabled?

Posted by Jerry on November 12, 2007

I have been having fruitful e-mail exchanges with an intellectual blogger who is only now discovering the philosophy of Objectivism. I believe my blog has had something to do with it. On my eager recommendations, he bought four Ayn Rand books to read–including the Virtue of Selfishness.

I am very happy to respond to his e-mails and queries because he seems truly committed to discovering a philosophy that makes rational sense, and I find great interest in fostering his rational explorations. Therefore, even if I’m busy with my day, I try to take the time to give him detailed responses, often with literature recommendations, links to Objectivist resources, and Objectivist blogs (I recently sent him over to Gus Van Horn’s excellent essay on modern-day atheists).

Today, he asked me: 

In an Objectivist society, what about the people who cannot work; the mentally or physically handicapped? Would national insurance and the NHS be abolished? Rand says that in a purely capitalist society these people fare better, but how can this be if they cannot actually work? Where does the money to support them come from, if not the government and our taxes?

Readers are welcome to contribute a point or perspective that I may have missed in response to the above question. I could forward the comments over to the questioner. My response was as follows:

I understand that it is difficult to imagine a context with practically no government involvement in individual/private affairs because we have become so accustomed to having the government practically run every aspect of our lives.

Let me just point to one principle–the rest is all a matter of concrete-bound applications of principles: Omniscience is an invalid epistemological standard. No entity has an omniscient faculty.

Therefore, having uncertainties about the manner in which a free market or a laissez-faire society would function is not to concede the necessity of having a government to manage and handle the areas of our uncertainty. The government–a group of bureaucrats and politicians–is as non-omniscient as the rest of us are.

In fact, uncertainty is a very integral part of a free society: it is the way in which specific individuals can deal with their own specific issues and resolve them privately without epistemologically burdening other individuals who have no stake in that particular transaction or issue. A simple example: I don’t need to know exactly *how* a doctor will perform his surgery on me in order for me to trust my body in his hands. It’s his business to know; not mine. The uncertainty exists, but it does not faze me.

One man’s limited knowledge in a particular area does not mean that everyone else is also limited in knowledge in that same area. Just as the industrial revolution engendered the division and specialization of physical labor, the whole free market system fosters the division of intellectual and physical effort. It leaves you free to pursue and specialize in that which you have the most interest in pursuing, thus resulting in different people attaining knowledge and specializing in different fields.

I mention all this to assuage your future concerns about the specificity of how some particular aspect of a free market will function. If you know that a principle is moral and practical, then you just have to remain consistent with that principle in your applications to specific situations; if you know the government has no business meddling in the free and voluntary affairs of individual men, then you simply have to apply that principle across the board.

Now, coming to the specific issue of what happens to those who cannot work–due to physical or mental disabilities, etc. The principle is, regardless of your mental and physical state, no man can make unearned demands on another human being: no man is a slave to another; no man is morally obligated to be servile to another. Therefore, people with disabilities can make no legislative demands or claim moral obligations on the work, effort, and productivity of other abled people.

Now, specifically *how* such people might be cared for in a free society is an area of uncertainty (though not wholly); but remember that the principle with regard to uncertainty is, no one is omniscient–and therefore, you cannot claim that in a free society such people will *not* be cared for by some or the other means. In other words, this uncertainty does not justify government involvement just because you cannot seem to project how this matter will be resolved. (Do you see the parallels here with the religious argument for the existence of god from epistemological ignorance?)

In a free society, people with disabilities may be taken care of by several means: family members, lovers, friends, immediate social groups, the general benevolence and voluntary charity of free individuals, private institutions, corporations, religious organizations, etc. You do not need to have the concrete and specific answer to this. Just think at the level of principles.

A free society does not de facto translate into a malevolent society. In fact, observe that the most generous countries and cultures are the ones that have the highest levels of civic liberties–because free societies typically produce more than enough wealth and capital to have some left over to give away: another principle at work here is freedom allows rational choices, and rationality fosters prodigious, often competitive, productivity. Private american citizens are the most generous group of people in the world–in terms of voluntary donations.

When man is left free, he realizes that it is in his best interest to be rational in order to ensure his survival. In a society of individuals, men will realize that it is to each of their own selfish interest to foster a society of rational individuals that they will enjoy living in, find value in entering into economic transactions with, and find purpose in mutual productive benefit. People will realize that it is to their own interest to live in a society that is free from poverty-induced agitation, civil unrest, and fear of crime. Also, on a personal egoistic level, it is rational to cultivate personal virtues of benevolence and kindness: those are the virtues you admire and seek in others in your vicinity; you do not want yourself or your valued lover/children/parents/friends to live next to a malevolent psychopath who hates everyone and treats others maliciously.

22 Responses to “Who Cares For the Disabled?”

  1. suvine.com said

    Great post I love it.

  2. Avadhut said

    Jerr, loved this post, and especially your explanation of “uncertainty.” Read this yest., and although was quite convinced myself, it was difficult to come up with real life example. Well I think I found one—freerice.com. The Web site has a very simple revenue model: Visitors play an online vocab game during which ads are displayed. The ad-generated revenue is not only used to sustain the site and provide for the developer(s) but also to buy rice, which is distributed under the United Nations World Food Program. And it is not like they are sitting on a pile of rice already that they are not letting go of. It is only after the ad-generated revenue is earned that the rice is bought and distributed. Moreover, the game on the site is quite challenging, and thus cognitively seductive, has a high playability, and is thus attracting thousands of visitors every day! The most important point to be noted here is that mega corps such as Toshiba, Apple, Raddison, etc. advertising on this site are not doing so as a part of some CSR program but only coz’ the site has such an excellent unique-visitors-per-day count, and the game attracts just the right type of consumers for their products. Excellent, no?

  3. Ergo said

    Avs, thanks! By commenting on the freerice.com revenue model, you’ve validated my post in more ways than one. It just goes to show that in a free society, the selfish interests of rational men never conflict. Freerice.com gets the publicity and visibility by comments such as yours, the corporations who advertise on freerice.com reach more people with their ads, and the people who need the food get it.

    The point is, in a free society, private entities are compelled to think of creative and innovative solutions to tackle challenges because there is no government safety net to fall back on; and in the process, they strive for efficiency, simplicity, and elimination of waste in order to remain competitive and ensure longevity.

  4. Ergo said

    P.S. The freerice.com game is totally addictive! Particularly for language nerds like me! 🙂 My highest score touched 41 and then came down to 37 before I decided I had to STOP. There was one ironic moment when the game asked me the meaning of altruism. I smiled as I happily selected “unselfish.” 🙂

  5. Charl said

    HAHAHAHA! Guess who introduced Avadhut to freerice.com! And yes, everyone at Noesis is addicted, or should I say, cognitively seduced, lol 🙂

  6. In a free society, who will support adults who can’t support themselves?

    Those who want to.

    Burgess Laughlin

  7. Great post! I have a real life example to share. My brother-in-law is mentally handicapped. He is and will remain unable to live independently. He is able to work a little and can earn some money, but not enough to live on. He is also unable to handle finances and other necessities of life.

    Should he be a burden on the state? Should he be your problem? Absolutely not. His family takes care of him. My mother-in-law is his guardian and at some point in the future, his care will be up to my husband and his siblings. Everyone is fine with this arrangement and quite frankly, given the level of care he would receive if he were a ward of the state, we much prefer to care for him ourselves. He is a very nice guy and I’m happy to know him. He is a value to our family, and thus, we will take every measure possible to ensure that he is healthy, happy, and taken care of.

  8. Ergo said

    Rational jenn,

    That reminds me of a related point: in the case of children, Ayn Rand had said that parents have a duty–an obligation–to care for their children till the point that they can care for themselves. This duty stems from the consequence of the parents voluntary choices (since, unlike the Catholic church, contraceptive use and abortion are not immoral according to Objectivism).

    I would assume, similarly, that children with severe mental and/or physical disabilities who will require care well into adulthood may have legitimate moral claims to some extent for care from their parents (or voluntary guardians).

  9. Rambodoc said

    A more common but contrary claim to moral obligation, at least in India and similar cultures, is the onus of taking care of one’s parents when you are a productive individual and they are retired, ailing, or handicapped individuals.
    There is a severe moral pressure on the individual to take care of them, though I believe this is not ethically incumbent or mandatory.
    That said, the uncaring and neglecting offspring is usually not an admirable sort…
    Sorry if this is OT.

  10. Ergo,

    I completely agree with you. All children have a legitimate moral claim on their parents, since they are necessarily dependent for survival. In the case of children with disabilities so great that they will never be fully rational or functional as an adult, I think that moral claim extends into adulthood. It’s a tragedy, of course, when this occurs, and should be a risk factor that parents should consider before having the child. Fortunately, it’s very rare. Any way you look at the parenting commitment, it’s a good long one–about 18 years, give or take–so parenthood should not be entered into without a great deal of thought.

    As for the moral obligation to take care of one’s parents, absolutely not! And no way would I expect my kids to be responsible for me, unless we entered into some kind of formal mutual agreement (like a legal healthcare power of attorney).

  11. Oh, and in the case of my brother-in-law, he does have a moral claim on my mother-in-law, but not his siblings. However, since he is a great value to those siblings, his care is something that they have willingly agreed to, as well as all of the spouses. We (his siblings and spouses) are not obligated in a moral sense for his care, but will look after him selfishly, in the same way I look after my own kids.

  12. Ergo said

    Rational Jenn,

    Ayn Rand addresses the issue that Rambodoc raised, about children caring for their parents. Rand did not say that children have a moral obligation to care for their parents, but she argued that some justification for such care can be made. I am inclined to think that such qualities of benevolence, good nature, and mutual care between parent and offspring are rational virtues to be inculcated. Insofar as the child is not called upon to make sacrifices to his career, personal life, etc., caring for one’s parents to reasonable–non-sacrifical–extents are consequences of a good upbringing and a rational nature. This applies *only* if the offspring shares a mutually appreciative relationship with their parent, and not a parasitic or fractured one.

  13. Akhil said


    Awesome post!

    Your post and comments and Rational Jenn’s comments reminds me of the discussion that I had with you on schizophrenics. I was wondering if a person being mentally challenged or a schizophrenic would have some basic moral claim on his siblings, like staying with them. Or is it taking too far because the sibling will have his own personal life, family and career, etc to deal with?

    ‘Also, on a personal egoistic level, it is rational to cultivate personal virtues of benevolence and kindness: those are the virtues you admire and seek in others in your vicinity; you do not want yourself or your valued lover/children/parents/friends to live next to a malevolent psychopath who hates everyone and treats others maliciously.’

    ‘I am inclined to think that such qualities of benevolence, good nature, and mutual care between parent and offspring are rational virtues to be inculcated. Insofar as the child is not called upon to make sacrifices to his career, personal life, etc., caring for one’s parents to reasonable–non-sacrifical–extents are consequences of a good upbringing and a rational nature. This applies *only* if the offspring shares a mutually appreciative relationship with their parent, and not a parasitic or fractured one.’

    Totally agree with that. I guess most people would think that being rational would mean being unkind. But, of course, as you so rightly put it, caring for one’s parents shouldn’t be sacrificial to one’s values of career and personal life.

  14. Ergo,

    Thank you for this post. It had some great insights.

    Joseph Kellard

  15. Ergo said

    Thanks everyone!

    I haven’t had the time to write up another blogpost: I’m inundated with work at work right now, given that my American colleagues are gearing up for the great Thanksgiving break and hence dumping upon their overseas counterparts all the work that needs to be done in the meantime. *sigh*

    In any case, I wish all of you celebrating the Thanksgiving holidays, have a great one! 🙂

  16. cafedog said

    it seems like what you refer to is also parallel to Libertatianism
    This is a paper called the paradoxical theory of change..
    See what you think!

  17. […] in such a society is a topic for another discussion, or I direct you to an excellent article here.  As to how government is financed in a properly free society is again, a discussion for another […]

  18. […] The discussions got onto politics. Politics is the social extension of one’s morality. That is to say: only when one understands what is right or wrong, can one begin to ask what should be allowed in society, when force should be used, and the proper role of government. (This post is about my learning Objectivism; I will not be explaining the philosophy here). Objectivism necessitates laissez-faire capitalism, which for me led to the immediate question: without taxes, who pays for all the things that taxes do? And who cares for the disabled. After fruitful discussions, Ergo even posted the following: https://ergosum.wordpress.com/2007/11/12/who-cares-for-the-disabled/. […]

  19. So basically, the disable will be cared for thus

    “….well I don’t know but you don’t know they wouldn’t be so you are probably wrong”

    I think even Homer Simpson would be a little embarresed to field an argument that vacuous.

  20. Jeff said

    Celtic Chimp,

    The goal here was not to map out a detailed treasure map, but rather to suggest concepts as to how these types of situations could be dealt with.

    In my opinion, Ergo did a fine job of stating the epistemological agnosticism of a hypothetical philosophy in regards to detailed manifestation, and the confidence-in-the-individual [and humanity] trait that Objectivism holds so true to its core.

    The only embarrassed people here should be those that didn’t understand Ergo’s initial intent in posting this article for theoretical discussion.

  21. Jeff,

    Ergo wrote this post in response to evanescent’s question but regardless, if you can’t smell BS this pungent then I can’t help you.

    Look at the wonderful results we are now experiencing of bankers running amok without sufficient regulation. A lot of vital regulation has been removed in the last few years by free-market proponents. Anyone placing their faith in the individual simply ignores the evidence we have on human nature. Wait, don’t bother…..I know I know, it wasn’t really the fault of profiteering, greedy individuals trying to milk the absolute maximum personal gain as possible with no regard for others that caused the credit crunch, it was in fact the government who was responsible! 😛

    …stating the epistemological agnosticism of a hypothetical philosophy in regards to detailed manifestation,..

    Objectivists do excel at one thing at least. They can manage to cram more wordy gibberish into a single sentence than anyone else.

  22. […] question. I will not answer it here, as I have written on my blog before on this subject, as have other Objectivists. The reason I mention this is because I find it rather illuminating as to a […]

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