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Saturday, September 25, 2010

Light Bulbs And War

"There is no such thing as collective or racial achievement.  There are only individual minds and individual achievements - and a culture is not the anonymous product of undifferentiated masses, but the sum of the intellectual achievements of individual men," Ayn Rand (The Virture of Selfishness, 148).

Ayn Rand makes a very strong statement about collective achievements not existing, but is something that requires a group of people a collective achievement or an individual achievement?  Is war a collective achievement?

War is not a collective achievement; war is the sum of the individual achievements of individual men.  To win a war, one must have individuals fighting on the ground, individuals relaying messages and information, and individuals planning out the attacks and defenses.  All of these individuals are fighting to protect their individual rights and individual lives.  Individuals can join forces against a common enemey, but that does not make them a collective and it does not make them sacrifice their individuality.

What about the founding of the United States of America?  A group of citizens banded together to create their own country and overthrow the tyranny of Great Britain, surely that must be a collective acheivement.  Great Britain oppressed the individual, all individuals, and the individuals stood up against that oppression.

The Constitution does not form a collecive; the Constitution is an agreement between individuals with similar moral values.  Ayn Rand states, "Individualism holds that a civilized society, or any form of association, cooperation or peaceful coexistence among men, can be achieved only on the basis of the recognition of individual rights - and that a group, as such, has no rights other than the individual rights of its members" (150).  Without individual rights, there would be no United States, there would be no Constitution.  Communism and socialism aim to promote and sustain the common good through collective achievements.  If your neighbor slacks off at work and you break your bakc, you will get a raise but so will your neighbor.  A collective achievement would reward everyone equally, even though not everyone contributed equally.  If the United States' military wins a war, we all get to be on the winning side, but not everyone receives a medal.

Let's scale things down a bit and examine the light bulb.  Is the light bulb a collective achievement?  Edison did not invent the light bulb on his own, he had people helping him.  Unfortunately, we are going to have to simplify the story of the invention of the light bulb because Edison did not invent the first light bulb, but he did invent the first practical light bulb.  Is Edison's invention a collective achievement if others helped him?  Is my blog post a collective achievement?  I did not invent or manufacture the computer I am typing on, I did not invent the internet nor do I maintain any servers, and yet not many people would argue that this blog post is my individual achievement.

The light bulb is the individual achievement of Edison, but it is also the individual achievement of the rest of his team.  Edison paid his team, and each one of his team members can be proud of their individual achievement.  The success of the light bulb depended on the talents of several individuals, individuals that cooperated under the banner of a dream that was shared, but also a dream that belonged to the individuals, not the group.

Your American dream may not match my American dream, and yet we both have an American dream.  As individuals, we are free to pursue our own dreams to better ourselves.  Often these pursuits lead to the betterment of our way of life, but the goal is not to better the lives of everyone, but to better the life of ourselves, whether it be through a monetary betterment (through product/service sales) or a convenience betterment (a letter opener instead of using your fingers).  People may think they are acting to realize a collective achievement, but they are really acting to realize their own individual achievement.  A sniper shoots an enemy combatant to save the lives of the rest of his unit, but the reason he wants to save their lives is because his life may depend on the individuals in his unit being able to do their jobs.

The reason collective achievements do not exist is because individuals act for selfish reasons and individuals should act for selfish reasons.  Edison did not invent the first practical light bulb to make his team rich, but he was willing to pay the individuals for their worthy contributions.  In war it is individuals fighting individuals; it is no different than Edison and his ligh bulb.  The general enlists the infantry to help him realize his goal and he rewards them accordingly.  The individuals are fighting for their own selfish reasons; maybe they want money, maybe they want to defend their individual freedoms, or maybe they enjoy killing.  Whatever the reason, they are there because they want to be there.  If they did not want to participate, they would find a way to dodge service or dodge the draft.

Collective achievements do not exist because the common good does not exist.  The individual good does exist and therefore only individual achievements can exist.  Anyone enlisting you to aid in a collective achievement is hoping to convince you to sacrifice your individual rights in order to achieve their individual goal.  The definition of collective achievement is the "anonymous product of undifferentiated masses."  Collective achievements are the same as slavery.

© 2010 Nate Phillipps


  1. I like that take. I personally think that altruism does not exist other than as a false concept or a non-existing reality. I'm also prone to think that 'egoism is' - or more specifically egoism is an attribute of human consciousness. I differentiate between the different 'types' of egoism and seek to follow rational (aka ethical) egoism as a 'way' to act, but view the overriding concept of egoism (that every man acts for either positive self gain or minimum self loss) as a definition of motive.
    If that motive be irrational in nature in that it is not the most reasonable means to positive self gain or minimum self loss, does not remove it from being 'the' motive for all behavior. Even the altruist seeks to act altruistically out of a selfish motive to uphold his selfish but irrational notion that 'being altruistic' is a virtue.

  2. That is true that the altruist must justify his actions to himself and that is an excellent point you make about even altruists being selfish, even if they're unaware.