The Fountainhead: Putting yourself first really does make you a better person.

I just read about half of Ayn Rand’s “The Fountainhead”, because some people were strongly recommending it and made me read it. I also watched the movie made from it. It seems the moral of the story is that you should live for yourself, not others. And that is not just better for you, but also more morally right.

For me, life illustrated this statement. When I was a young teenager, I was, like many, looking for what to do with my life, who to be, and where to find meaning. One of the things I tried is doing as much good as I can in my lifetime and prioritizing others before myself. Sounds good, right? Well, it didn’t work out, as I didn’t FEEL those good deeds I was doing. I did them because this was the life meaning I stabilized around at the moment, and because this is what the world views as the highest, most honorable way to use your life. Being good is good for society. You should care about society, right?

I started it. I gave when I was asked, hung out with people I didn’t like to be nice to them, did lots of helping. Some few people attempted to use my new morals for their own personal gain. I didn’t let them. And most people around me, even though they didn’t attempt to use me, just didn’t seem worth sacrificing anything for. I wasn’t any worse than them, so it felt unjustified to discriminate against myself to prioritize their happiness over mine.

The mindset also dictated that I must be a good person, who cares about others, is nurturing and giving. After all, I was honestly trying to follow the life of righteousness, and you can’t succeed in that if you’re a selfish prick. But the thing is, I WAS a “selfish prick”, on the inside, and this attempt to make myself good wasn’t working. Giving was becoming too tiring, and always being pleasant to everyone was tiring. There were few people I actually liked genuinely. What I was doing was unfulfilling and felt more like community service sentence than what a good Christian/altruist is supposed to feel. It started to feel fake and pointless.

So, the dissonance between how I felt about people, and my “morals”, inevitably lead to me deciding it was all a bunch of horseshit and I kind of got “evil”. I was also living with a mentally damaging man (mom’s second husband)  and it didn’t help the matter. I changed from the nice helpful girl to an unpleasant antisocial one in a matter of weeks. I thought – fuck people, I will do whatever I want now, and express my dislike left and right. It was very liberating. No more fake smiles, no more restraint, or wasting my time on people I don’t care about. I stopped helping, stood up a boring girl on a meeting after school, embraced schadenfreude and sadism, used a couple of men for free dinners.

After a while, me and mom moved away from the mentally damaging man, and my negative feelings burned out. I allowed them to be completely free, and after a while I noticed there being less and less of them. I actually started feeling guilty about some things I did, because doing something bad didn’t feel all that satisfying anymore. I was technically ok with remaining mean, and all the pressure to be kind and good was gone. But now I wanted to do good things naturally.

Over the next years I gained a lot of empathy and internal peace. I found some good people, so I knew some people were worth sacrificing for. Refraining from doing mean things felt natural. Of course I didn’t turn into some saint, but now at least I’m never pointlessly cruel. Cruelty is a tool of justice. Two somewhat unfortunate effects of increased empathy are loss of ability to lie well, and sometimes overly intense involuntary compassion. It seems I can’t commit to being evil, uncaring and 100% selfish for a long time, but by trying, I stumbled upon my real kindness. It was just a matter of time.

 

For me the usefulness of selfishness was demonstrated well. Trying to make myself good by putting society first lead to evil. Putting myself first lead to true goodness in the end.

I’m not sure why, but I have ideas. Can you be truly good and giving if you don’t know the extent of your bad traits, because you worked hard at denying them? I would say no. They say that those that deny the ability to be evil are the most susceptible to it.

Can you be truly good if your justification for being good is something like “Because that is just how you should be”, or “Because it’s good for society”? I don’t think so. Because something abstract like “society” doesn’t truly touch you, or inspire you to do good for it. Goodness needs some good solid justifications. Like the fact that you actually like some people, and aren’t willing to throw them under the bus, even if you don’t care for humanity as a whole. Or like feeling indignation about injustice and not wanting bad people to get away with abuse. Or like hating illogic and people who perpetuate lies, because facts and truth are one of the greatest joys in life. Or like wanting to be better than the mindless masses who’d follow a saint or a mass-murderer with same enthusiasm, because they respect authority too much. Or because being pointlessly rude is just embarrassing and you value good manners.  Or simply because acts of kindness feel good when you do them.

So what if all those reasons are self-centered? They motivate me into being a good person. I’m as helpful now as I was when trying altruism. I can’t feel any motivation to do anything just for others, with no justification other than “just because it’s good”. And I strongly doubt the average person can. Sure we can all follow society’s rules because we trust authority, but once authority tells us it’s ok to sacrifice and kill certain population groups, we follow also. My egocentric reasons avoid this pitfall. They untangle the self from the external.

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16 Responses to The Fountainhead: Putting yourself first really does make you a better person.

  1. Clarence says:

    I’ve never done pointless evil, but I’ve still ended up where you’ve ended up.
    However, I must point out there are lots of critiques of Rand on the net, and I suggest you read at least a few. Ironically, the woman who claimed to most value freedom respected nothing but intellectual worship from her followers.

    The point? Don’t mindlessly follow anyone, take what wisdom you find but be your own person in the end.

    • emmatheemo says:

      Don’t worry, I’m not a “randroid”. I haven’t read anything else by Rand, other than half of The Fountainhead, and saw the movie. I think my experiences fitted well with the philosophy that permeated what I saw/read, but I know it might not be for everyone. It is, like the category suggests, a personal post 🙂 As for Rand herself, I don’t know how she is, but it isn’t relevant to whether her ideas are truthful or not.

    • emmatheemo says:

      Also, have you tried altruism?

      • Clarence says:

        Emma:
        Yes, I’ve always tried altruism. It makes me feel good inside.
        However, altruism to the extent of totally putting my own interests last as a rule? No. I just like making people happy when I can, but I don’t beat myself up if I forget someone or don’t have the time or other resources.
        But I hate the idea of hurting someone else (at least in a non-bdsm type of way). So I avoid being evil.

        Anyway, I’d hardly say Rand is wrong about everything. I read “The Virtue of Selfishness” when I was 20 myself. I find her useful as a counterbalance to all those who would mindlessly sacrifice the individual to the greater good. She just wasn’t a perfect paragon of her own philosophy and she could occasionally really be shitty to people. Also she had a thing for a “bad boy” murderer you might want to read about. Probably because she admired him for stepping so far outside societys norms and living life on his own terms. Problem is , he did it at the expense of an innocent little girl, which Rand totally forgot about…

      • emmatheemo says:

        I have met a few other people who tried the altruism you haven’t tried. It did a number on them. That’s why I don’t trust religious people who are overly into that concept of altruism. Behind their smiles, I feel hell bubbling up.

        Yes, I heard Rand praised a killer. Maybe she was a bad boy loving girl. Or maybe something else. As you know, I know someone who praised a killer, but it had an inoffensive explanation, although it was bad manners to praise him.

  2. Tom says:

    “Maybe she was a bad boy loving girl. ”

    The way she wrote her sex scenes suggests so.

  3. Ceer says:

    Seems to me there are two reasons why you are now more comfortable being a giving person. The man your mother was consorting with needed to be told how you feel, and being kind to him wasn’t helping. He probably had some sort of emotional issue that needed to be worked out. The second reason was that you were trying to pursue happiness for others as a substitute for your own happiness. I think the term value-taking might apply here.

    • emmatheemo says:

      You’re right, and saying he had an emotional issue is an understatement. He was constantly worried his money was being taken (despite the fact that I starved often). He agreed to support me as well, so he put himself into that position, nobody forced him. Mom married him because he seemed like such a reasonable rational choice, yet he turned out like that. Being nice to him didn’t help that much.

      As for the other reason, I honestly don’t know. I was just trying to be like they told me a moral good person should be. It was an identity thing. I wanted to be a good person, rather than a shitty person.

  4. John Tyson says:

    The Fountainhead is my favorite novel by a long way – now I just have to comment.

    I came to your blog from Eivind’s. It’s strange – I remember having felt sorry for him some time ago before there was his trial and before he met you, now I’m almost a bit ashamed as someone who lacks his kind of courage to think that he needs to be pitied. Now he got his trial and survived and he also got you. I wish you guys well.

    I relate very well to what you wrote in this post, although the examples differ and, unlike you, I actually needed Rand to change my mind. Without her, my life would have been over.

    That’s why I feel an urge to defend the lady against her many accusers. Maybe that’s not even necessary, but I’ll do it anyway.

    “Behind their smiles, I feel hell bubbling up.” you say about the religious, I also see it behind everyone else who promotes “good” in contexts that don’t concern them. And that’s a lot of people.

    Rand just saw this in more people. She came from Soviet Russia where her family was stripped from their belongings to be forced to work for the state like unthinking drones while the American progressivist elite cheered the Communist experiment. She escaped through Germany, were later Jews like her should be gassed by a totalitarian regime who asked subordination to the race. In the US, she, a Russian native, learned the English language to wrote novels, one of which being The Fountainhead, rejected by twelve publishers before she had her enduring success. The success that saved my live – the live of some geek in third millennium Germany who was infected with the idea that society is above me, that every selfish act is dirty and every sacrificial one is good.

    Rand believed (and so do I), that the Commies were secular variants of the sacrificial religious. My parents are (or were) Commies (I’m German), and I can relate. That’s how it is.

    And Rand’s time were different. You might think with Eivind that there’s a nasty pseudo-intellectual caste ruling over the world, especially Europe. But at least we have China and Singapore, and America’s cultural war that becomes increasingly disturbing for the leftists. For Rand, it looked as if she escaped Russia only to find the last island in a world that would drown anyway.

    For example, the most vicious review of Atlas was written by Whittaker Chambers, a Communist who had spied for Stalin until Stalin’s irrational purges (a hit list of millions!) made him fear for his own skin. That such a guy even had any standing at all speaks volumes of what kind of people were dominating the Zeitgeist. The world indeed seemed to be drowning.

    And people complain that she was bitchy? She tried her best to fight against what probably was the worst threat to civilization since the dark ages, and in my opinion, she did a better job than anyone else I know about.

    That’s why the countless Rand-haters like Clarence make me so angry. Of course he never tried altruism. He explicitly says so while refusing to call it that. He can’t comprehend that there are people who take the sacrificial idea *literally*, yet reacts indignant when you speak out against it. Did he ever had the fantasy of killing oneself in a hospital after signing an organ donor card to be at least of some little use to society? I did. Does this make me a freak? How many felt the urge to follow an order to sacrifice their lives on the battle fields of the World Wars? A majority. All freaks?

    Certainly people who wouldn’t know the first thing about ethics. Neither did I.

    Good for you that you were better than that.

    • emmatheemo says:

      I took a look at your site. I think I rememeber thinking, when reading history, that Christianity actually used to be a pretty leftie religion. Now it’s associated with conservatives and the right, how funny.

      I don’t know if Clarence hates Rand. He sometimes comments here and warns me about this or that intellectual trap 🙂 But I usually already know where they are, and following anyone blindly isn’t something I would do. And if you look in Wikipedia ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Altruism ), you will see that altruism can be defined as just an attitude and practice of concern for others. That is ok in my book, as long as it’s justified. But we both know this isn’t the kind of altruism we both tried. What we tried is to put others above us. So to us, altruism is kind of a dirty word. I’d rather call what Clarence is trying benevolence.

      • John Tyson says:

        Altruism can have that meaning, but it’s odd that benevolence and sacrifice are both meanings of the same word, isn’t it? My latest blog entry is about how odd it is that “You should do X.” can mean both “It’s in you interest to do X.” and “I want you to do X.” Weird, how imprecise language can be, isn’t it? Because there’s not much fuzziness about what a table or a teapot is. But then you can’t fool someone into fucking up their lives with screwed definitions for tables and teapots.

        What I mean is: I think most people actually quite prefer the fuzziness (including the writers of Wikipedia). They don’t really want to think too hard about whether what they argue for is benevolence or sacrifice, because then they can promote sacrifice and later claim they really promoted only benevolence. And if they actually don’t understand the difference, they can even lie to themselves that it was just an honest error.

        Just think of the death toll of Communism. Somwhere in the dozens of millions at least. Who did that? Someone must be guilty and it can’t all have been Stalin and Mao. Stalin and Mao was just one guy each.

        But if you factor in that people are even too lazy to differentiate between benevolence and sacrifice, then one is on a good way to a theory that can explain what happened. Stalin demanded sacrifice and they all heard benevolence – because it’s the same word, altruism.

        PS: Do you use a plugin for your comment system (sending mail to the commenter) or do I just need to upgrade my wordpress?

      • emmatheemo says:

        Huh, that’s interesting. Thanks for pointing that out 🙂

        I think each time someone tells me “You should do X”, I will try to see which one they mean. I think we already can decode it, unconsciously, but don’t think about it explicitly.

        I don’t think I’ve witnessed anyone use the fuzziness of the definition to manipulate people. But if they try, I will know.

      • John Tyson says:

        Just to clarify: I meant to say that they manipulate sub-consciously. That is, they themselves really believe to mean it well. It’s just that they also often have a motive that suggests something else. In other words, people don’t notice their own hypocrisy. I’ve certainly seen this effect in myself as well unfortunately.

        But then yes, have fun investigating. And sorry for the lecture, Rand-critics wind me up too much.

      • emmatheemo says:

        Hmm.. got any examples of this? When you talk about it, I remember the movie Clueless. Two girl friends like the same guy. One of them tells the other that she shouldn’t date him, because “he’s not your type” and they wouldn’t fit together. It was clear her motivation was more selfish, but she didn’t do it maliciously.

      • John Tyson says:

        I don’t know the movie, so I’m only arguing from your description.

        It’s exactly the kind of scenario I mean. I think the girl giving the “bad” advice can genuinely believe her advice to be true. But her beliefs can be influenced by her desires. In other words, she might think they don’t fit together because she doesn’t want them to fit together. If so, she not lying, but it’s also not an honest mistake.

        It’s sometimes difficult to attribute such influences to individual people (and often unfair), but it’s fairly obviously showing in larger groups of people on average. For example, IT people usually defend the tools they have expertise in. That’s odd, because they can’t all be right and if they were all honest and objective, that couldn’t be explained. I know (in retrospect) to have defended tools I had made a great investment of learning that were tied to my self-image.

        It’s also pretty obvious that people who like taxes to go up tend to be those that don’t pay most of them (students, government-funded educational personnel, etc.). They justify that with reason alone, but they strangely pick some arguments and ignore others.

        I think the word “delusion” describes that concept best, although it can range from small things like your own example to grand intellectual traditions such as the world religions.

        And feminism, of course, which is also a set of ideas appealing to some people and repulsive to others.

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