Earl: I got a weird feeling in my stomach.
Randy: Maybe you got stomach cancer. Can karma cause stomach cancer?
– My Name is Earl, “O Karma, Where Art Thou?” Season 1, Episode 12
While I was packing returns at the bookstore where I work, a random book on relationships caught my eye. I spent less than a minute flipping through it and unfortunately I can’t remember the title, but as far as I could tell the basic message was “it’s all your fault.” Not the “you thought it, you brought it” of The Secret, or the accumulated karmic debt of My Name is Earl. More the “everything I do, I do it for me” of Ayn Rand
The point I took out of the book (henceforth The Book) was that everything we do is motivated by self-interest, so whatever’s wrong in your relationships it’s all your fault for doing what you wanted to. ‘Fess up. It made me think of Rhonda Byrne’s Oprah pick best-selling book/movie combo The Secret, which focuses on the Law of Attraction: basically the power of positive or negative thinking to intentionally bring things you want into your life and accidentally bring things you really don’t.
Following the implications of The Secret, apparently all you have to do to be thin is think thin thoughts. I suppose that means if you’re fat, it’s because you think fat thoughts, assuming you got that far without telling her to go to hell for criticizing your body in the first place. And if only that were the sketchiest thing The Secret implies people attract to themselves: cancer or genocide anyone? Note to self: make sure not to think “same wavelength” thoughts about the four horsemen of the apocalypse. I do not want to meet those guys.
Part of Rhonda Byrne’s Secret is that true happiness comes from putting yourself before others. This seems like a similar message to The Book, but I think there’s a difference between saying we’re responsible for what we get because thinking makes it so, and saying that we’re responsible for what we get because we always do what’s best for ourselves. The second thing is a lot closer to Ayn Rand’s version of Egoism. Rand argues that to both fulfill and sacrifice the self is a logical impossibility, “a contradiction akin to a round square.” She suggests that rationally egoistic individuals benefit themselves by helping others, and help society by focusing on self-fulfillment.
If that was the argument The Book was making, though, the random example I read didn’t defend the position especially well. The author quotes a woman who objects to her premise with something like: ‘But i pay lots of money to send my 5 year old to a good school so he can get an education, get a good job and be happy.’ The author’s response is to ask: ‘Do you really do that for him, or do you do it for yourself? Does he want that? Did he ask for it?’
Here are two logical flaws with this example:
1) If we only did things the way our small children wanted us to they’d all be dead, dead, dead.
2) The expensive school strikes me as a poor example. Kids do need some kind of educating to succeed and it’s a parent’s job to help them succeed, but a fancy school isn’t necessary to that goal. How about ‘is keeping all my power tools and poisonous substances locked away in inconvenient places something I do for me?’ No, it’s really annoying for me. I do it to keep my kid safe.
On some level though, one can argue that how we feel is our motivation for everything we ever do, so we’re always, inevitably acting out of self-interest. In that sense, love and self-interest are inseparable: we try to keep the people we care about safe because their suffering causes us pain and we try to make them happy because it gives us pleasure. Perhaps the author went on to argue that there’s no such thing as altruism because we can only act based on how we feel, and whatever feeling we choose to act on, we’re still motivated by how we feel. We may feel that we’ve engaged in right action by doing something that causes us pain but is good for another person or appears to be counter to our own self-interest, but arguably we’ve simply chosen to respect the deepest seated feeling we have about the situation: the need to feel that we did what we believed was right.
All of which brings me to Earl Hickey and his karmic List. In the pilot of My Name is Earl, he wins $100k in the lottery and then loses the ticket when he gets hit by a car, which he decides is karma telling him to be a better person. He makes a list of all the bad things he’s done and resolves to make them right so he can cross them off his list. His understanding of karma is a little vague though, since it comes entirely from hearing Carson Daly mention it on tv while he’s on morphine in his hospital bed.
Earl’s list is a wonderfully transparent example of altruistic behavior motivated by self-interest. Earl decides to do good things for other people so that he won’t be punished by karma. He believes that if he doesn’t keep making amends and crossing things off his list, anything bad that happens to him is instant karmic justice. Like The Secret, he sees his actions and thoughts as a magnet attracting good or bad luck. Over the course of the show, he evolves to a more egoistic state in which he understands that helping other people and helping himself are interconnected, but in the beginning he’s just motivated by the desire to avoid having bad things happen to him. He sees karma as an external force regulating his actions, and he tries to appease it like an angry god.
Unless you’re Earl, it’s probably going overboard to say that it’s all your fault, but there’s something to be said for admitting you did it to get what you wanted.
Earl: Maybe Karma’s behind this whole thing Randy. I mean the guy finally got what he deserved. Maybe Karma just borrowed my fist to give it to him.
– My Name is Earl, “O Karma, Where Art Thou?” Season 1, Episode 12
alex MacFadyen freely admits that he wants what he wants, but secretly suspects he is striving to be a round square.
You know, your same wavelength comment makes me think of Ghostbusters. “Choose the form of your destructor. Choose and pay”:
also, this made me laugh out loud: “If we only did things the way our small children wanted us to they’d all be dead, dead, dead.”
I think you’re missing an important part of Ayn Rand’s philosophy – which is that what constitutes “selfish” behaviour isn’t just doing whatever we feel like. People who do that wind up like the poorly parented kids you mention: dead dead dead.
Ayn Rand called her philosophy “Objectivism” because first and foremost it calls for being objective in one’s analysis of who one is, the surrounding world, and what truly constitutes self-interest.
See her writings on virtue here: http://aynrandlexicon.com/lexicon/virtue.html
I can think of a number of Randian influenced politicos I would love to see go Galt. That would be prime entertainment!
And I second Carol’s comment, above. I’m not sure what would kill us first: not sleeping; electrocution; or sugar overload.
It somewhat embarrasses me to reference this, but the comment referencing “Choose the form of the destructor” also made me think of the Indiana Jones movie: “She Chose Poorly” bit. I’m not happy about recalling a scene from a movie I think rather badly of, but there does seem to be an awful lot of that weird sense of karmic justice these days in that “the people who suffer deserve to suffer for some reason or another” which I see in politics and movies alike. I wonder what they’d make of whatever the dinosaurs thought as the asteroid/comet came along to finish them off? Truthfully though, if karma really did work that way the world probably would be a much better place than it currently is.
yes, we must all choose and pay.
I wasn’t suggesting that Rand’s definition of “selfishness” was anarchic or unethical, rather that rationally egoistic individuals recognize the value to themselves involved in helping others, and that she did not believe in altruism.
The parallel I drew to ethical egoism was with accepting that people act out of self interest and advocating taking responsibility for what you get as a result. The example I cited from the Book regarding the theoretically dead children was to illustrate how if that was actually the point the author was trying to make, she had failed.
in my parenting experience, sleeping does take care of itself eventually for the kids, just not in time to save the parents. sugar and electrical outlets, however…
i actually had a comparison to a game of lemmings that didn’t make the final edit: where do i put that ramp? oh, not there “aaa! aaa! aaa!” (as they all follow each other over the edge)