The Supposedly Objectivist Center (TOC) might just have outdone itself. Last year, the Christmas op-ed from their Washington Man Ed Hudgins, entitled The Human Spirit of Christmas, bore no resemblance whatsoever to Ayn Rand’s philosophy. Its warm and fuzzy remarks about baby Jesus as “a child whom many see as manifesting the highest aspirations of the human spirit” and about human capacities as “divine sparks” were basically just an expression of secular humanism appeasing religion. The insipid haziness of its closing thought that “most of all, if our hearts and minds are filled and open, we will reflect upon the spirit within us that can make peace on earth and peace in our souls truly possible” was truly laughable.
Admittedly, it is hard to imagine how TOC could have outdone itself this Christmas. I almost didn’t bother to read Ed Hudgins’ 2004 Christmas op-ed for just that reason. But Goodwill Toward Men is well worth perusing, as it is a stellar exemplar of need-worshiping altruism combined with Humean sympathy ethics. Let me generously quote the entire op-ed, commenting paragraph by paragraph. Oh, and you might want to be sitting down.
Christmas is a season of beautiful lights, parties, gifts, food, family, friends, songs and sentiments. Among the latter “goodwill toward men” is a favorite, and we are urged to keep such sentiments not only during the holiday season but all year round. But what lessons from these sentiments should we really take from December to July?
Consistent with his standard operating procedure, Hudgins opens the op-ed by accepting some common cultural bromide and merely asking what lesson may be gleaned from it. He does not consider the actual meaning or origin of “goodwill toward men,” but merely accepts the Biblical phrase (from the account of the birth of Christ in Luke 2:14) as obviously morally praiseworthy.
Often goodwill can mean a general sympathy for others. As self-conscious individuals, we can imagine what it’s like to be in another’s situation. When we see someone else stub their toe, we ourselves wince and cry “Ouch!” When we see someone in misery we want to ease their pain. During the holiday season many think of goodwill means giving food, gifts, donations or making visits to those who are in need.
Here, Hudgins outlines the source and implications “goodwill toward men.” Its source is a purely Humean mechanism of sympathy in which moral sentiments are aroused by imagining ourselves to be in the position of a suffering person. Its implication is altruistic concern with the plight of the needy. If you haven’t been struck blind already, note the emphasis on suffering and need as the source of goodwill.
Given the qualifications of “can mean” and “many think,” it might seem that Hudgins is merely sketching a view that he will later reject. However, that never happens. Instead, he relies upon the foundation laid in this paragraph to distinguish between two kinds of need in the next few paragraphs. So despite the slippery wording, this paragraph does represent his actual views, confusingly disguised as the views of others.
In some cases — the death of a loved one, sickness, mental illness, the rigors of old age — the cause of suffering might be beyond the individual’s control and our sympathy for them as fellow human beings is quite appropriate as is reminding them with a visit or a gift of the good things still left in life.
Notice that Hudgins is not speaking of the tribulations faced by people that we know and love. If that were the case, our actions toward them would be motivated by our particular feelings for them, not any general “sympathy for them as fellow human beings.” So according to Hudgins, it is “quite appropriate” to visit random people in nursing homes and mental hospitals out of sympathy for their plight, perhaps even bringing them gifts of “the good things still left in life.” Need I ask: How is that not counseling altruism?!?
If you think it can’t get worse, think again.
In other cases — drug addiction, broken families, poverty — the causes might in part or whole be within one’s power to change. In such cases, true goodwill would mean eliminating the causes, not merely treating the effects. Ultimately it is those who suffer who must show goodwill to themselves. They must appreciate that they have the power to resist that which is harmful to them and to change bad habits. Other persons of goodwill can help such individuals by urging them to hold to the best and highest within themselves, by showing them, especially during this season, what beauty and joy life holds.
So it’s not just the morally innocent who are worthy of goodwill, but also the morally culpable, including drug addicts, child abusers, and welfare queens. Of course, Hudgins cautions us not to enable such bad behavior, but rather help such people “resist that which is harmful to them and to change bad habits.” Yet in the name of goodwill, we are urged to expend precious time helping such people, regardless of their personal value to us or their expressed willingness to change. The genuinely moral action in response to vicious people — objective moral judgment and self-protection through distance — are clearly not a choice consistent with the urged policy of “goodwill toward men.” And apparently, we need not concern ourselves much with the innocent victims of such people.
One can ask them to imagine future Christmases in which they, who are often the denizens of soup kitchens and homeless shelters, will no longer be objects of charity but self-sufficient, proud and prosperous individuals who will celebrate their regained lives in this most wonderful time of year.
Of course, most such people are not merely confused, but rather unwilling to exert the required effort to become “self-sufficient, proud and prosperous individuals.” Living a decent life just isn’t that hard!
In general, other than the astonishing lack of either quality or insight, how does this op-ed differ from the standard conservative view?
Then they will join the rest of use in practicing a more personal form of goodwill through an active appreciation of those individuals in our lives whom we enjoy, respect, admire and love, not only in December but all year round. These are our colleagues at work; the paperboys, garage parking attendants or others who serve us during the year; neighbors whom we see on the run but with whom we’d really like to spend more time; friends with whom we go to movies, ballgames or shopping malls; relatives with whom we’ve shared important parts of our lives; and those we truly and deeply love — parents, brothers, sisters, husbands and wives.
Okay, so finally Hudgins considers the particular people in our lives with whom we can “practic[e] a more personal form of goodwill.” Depressingly but not surprisingly, this category includes everyone but the kitchen sink: spouses, parents, and siblings; casual friends, co-workers, and neighbors; and my personal favorite of sundry unskilled service workers. And we are not merely supposed to “enjoy” and “respect” all such people, but also “admire” and “love” them!
We will express our goodwill to these individuals in different degrees as they are of personal value to us: small gifts as tokens of appreciation for some; extravagant or extremely thoughtful presents for others; parties for many or intimate meals for others.
Okay, so at least we don’t owe our parking garage attendants lavish gifts or dinner invitations. I’m glad that’s cleared up.
Benevolent men and women recognize the value to themselves of living in society with others. They recognize the need to foster a harmony of interests that arises when each individual respects the humanity and independence of others. We each will show appreciation for those we value in our own ways and as others do the same, we will understand why this is indeed the season of goodwill toward men.
Um, whatever. That’s just vague nonsense without discernable connection to all that came before.
Ed Hudgins is the Washington director of the Objectivist Center.
The Objectivist Center is dedicated to promoting a culture of reason, individualism, achievement, and freedom.
Finally, some good news: Ayn Rand’s name is nowhere mentioned in that tagline!
Next year, I’m hoping that Ed Hudgins will serve up some good, old-fashioned Kantian ethics. Sure, he could do utilitarianism or pragmatism instead. But I’d really love to see him universalizing some Christian maxim and testing for contradiction.
And remember, Ed Hudgins will soon be the Executive Director of The Appeasement Center. It’s good to know that the ship will be steered by an experienced executive with a thorough knowledge of and deep commitment to Objectivism. Yup.
Oy, I’m so glad to be gone!