Howard: Keep looking out for the self during college years

By Giles Howard

For many, college is the time to venture out on their own ideologically, discarding the beliefs… For many, college is the time to venture out on their own ideologically, discarding the beliefs of family and friends in favor of new ideas that they either stumble upon or are exposed to in this new setting. Indeed, the way in which the college experience severs the social and geographical bonds that tie young people to the community of their adolescence creates a vacuum of influences where fresh ideas flourish and a new morality often develops.

Importantly, this campus-centered morality is founded on an appearance of independent thinking, but it often involves the uncritical adoption of another person’s needs as the driving force for morality. This is evident in the international humanitarian who organizes students to stop hunger in Africa, in the new socialist who self-consciously sloughs off his middle class background to decry the excesses of capitalists and starts a group working to unionize service employees — and, most of all, it’s obvious in the student who, in 2008, worked tirelessly to elect Barack Obama because he felt that health care was a right.

What all these archetypes of college life have in common is that they involve the college student’s acceptance of another person’s needs or values as more important than the individual’s own. Ayn Rand called such people “second handers” — those who live through others — explaining that, “After centuries of being pounded with the doctrine that altruism is the ultimate ideal, men have accepted it in the only way it could be accepted. By seeking self-esteem through others. By living second-hand.”

Indeed, the dominant campus Left that so many politically active students identify with is a political movement whose morality is “second-hand,” whose ideology is defined by altruism and whose adherents — though claiming to think for themselves — just uncritically adopt this other-focused way of thinking.

Dr. Allan Gotthelf, a visiting professor in Pitt’s Department of History and Philosophy of Science and an expert on Rand’s philosophy of objectivism, explained the relevant part of Rand’s view of morality in two principles: First, “Each person has a right to pursue his own rational self-interest,” and second, “We will benefit from [others] pursuing their own self-interest, just as they will [benefit] from our pursuing ours,” Gotthelf said.

These pillars of objectivism constitute the morality of that segment of the political Right that values individual responsibility, free markets and small government. It is this morality that is largely absent from college campuses today whereas the Leftist morality of altruism pervades higher education.

Part of the reason for this, Gotthelf said, is that the first-mentioned principle of Objectivist morality isn’t defended or advanced in American society. Instead, Gotthelf said, “people are imbued with the moral sense that lies behind socialism” in their places of worship, schools and families throughout their lives, and although they are “too American” to accept the political dimensions of socialism, they buy in to its morality.

This acceptance of altruism constitutes a perversion of that first liberating impulse that many students encounter when they arrive at college: the new responsibility over one’s own thoughts and actions. Rather than accept the Left’s second-hand ideal of altruism and self-sacrifice, students should fully pursue that first impulse.

Of course I realize that, as Gotthelf said, “it’s not easy to be first-hand.” The groups dedicated to saving Darfur, unionizing university employees or volunteering on alternative spring breaks all tug at the emotional heartstrings of college students and conform nicely to the socialist ethic of altruism that pervades our society. Indeed, scoffing at these groups and their goals seems callous on a campus where we are told regularly that we are privileged and should give back to those less fortunate.

Students who already reject the second-handedness of Leftist altruism must overcome this pressure and begin to defend this first principle of objectivism if the ideological makeup of college campuses is ever going to change. It’s no longer enough to oppose the specific political initiatives of the Left because its embrace of altruism as morality makes it far stronger — on campuses and around the country — than the Right will ever be until it acknowledges and advances the morality of its cause.

We must make the case on campus that the rational pursuit of self-interest is a moral action and that the best way to live is to live a life for oneself rather than a life for others.

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