The gunman who attempted to slay Republican Congressmen at a baseball practice had a Facebook feed. Before it was deleted, everyone could read his vitriolic attacks on the rich, his denunciations of capitalism and corporate culture, his calls for high taxes and wealth redistribution, and, of course, his push for Bernie Sanders to be the ruler of us all. We all know the litany of gripes that drove him.
And yet, when the folks at National Public Radio were reflecting on his motives, the hosts declined to speculate. They feigned to be completely mystified how a happy, charming, good soul such as this could have turned to violence. Had the tables been turned – say an alt-right agitator had shot up a civil-rights protest – there would have been no question about the motivation.
One reason for the failure to connect the dots here concerns the loss of awareness of the destructive effects of envy. When was the last time you heard a sermon against it or observed a media figure casually recognizing its evils? Condemnation of envy as a motivating force for the destruction of life and property has nearly entirely vanished from the culture. This is probably because so much of modern public policy is based on it and depends on encouraging it. What was once one of the seven “deadly sins” is now a baked-in part of our public ethos.
What Is Envy?
Let’s return to the classic understanding of what envy is. It is part of the general vice of looking negatively upon the success of others. It is different from mere covetousness. To be covetous means to desire something that is not yours to have. It is also different from jealousy, which means to look upon the success of others and wish it were yours too. Jealousy can lead to emulation and that can be good. It is not the same as zeal, which is to feel inspiration from the good fortune of another to adapt your own life to also experience good fortune. (This commentary is taken straight from St. Thomas Aquinas.)
Envy is distinct from all these. It observes the excellence of others and desires it to stop. It sees the fortune of another and aspires to punish it. Envy is actively destructive of another’s successes as an end in itself. It is not even the case that the realization of envy brings happiness to the person who wants to harm others. It merely achieves the goal of satisfying the anger you feel when looking upon the happiness of others. It tears down. It harms. It hurts. It crushes, smashes, and kills. It begins with resentment against others’ achievements and ends in the infliction of personal harm.
To review, you notice a nice house. To say, “that very house should be mine,” is to be covetous. To say, “I want to buy a house like that,” stems from jealousy which leads to emulation. To say, “I aspire to a life in which I can afford a house like that,” is zeal. Envy is to say: “I want to burn down that house.”
Envy is a ubiquitous problem but it is not felt by everyone. Let’s say you have a person with a naturally aspirational personality. He or she looks at life as a trajectory of opportunities for success; it is a matter of will, intelligence, and creativity, and he or she believes in all those things. There is no room for envy in this person’s heart. The success of another serves as inspiration and drive to perform, not tear down.
But let’s say another person has no such outlook. He or she imagines himself to be intellectually limited, unskilled, uncreative, bound by a restricted personality or a lack of will. In this case, life seems like a series of routines not to be disrupted, and begins to resent others who pass him or her by in the struggle to achieve. This person is ripe for feelings of envy, that is, the desire to harm others who perform better than their peers.
Every successful person has to deal with the problem of encountering the envy of others. You might begin your career thinking that your excellence will be rewarded. You find that it sometimes or often is. At the same time, it incites envy as well, and you have to deal with knives in the back, hidden attempts to undermine you, plots and conspiracies to stop you from advancing. It is a sad fact but a reality every successful person has to deal with.
Medieval mythology described envy as the “green-eyed monster” because it looks at any sign of wealth with an aspiration to bring an end to it. The legend of the “evil eye” goes back to antiquity and denotes the profound fear all people have felt concerning envy. In Judaism, the rabbis taught to favor the “good eye” which calls for us to rejoice in the fortune of others, while the evil eye is the opposite impulse.
The world’s most famous anti-envy charm comes from Turkey, Greece, and Egypt. It is the Nazar, a glass eye in blue, black, and white. The idea of this charm is that it looks back at the evil eye and neutralizes its influence in your life. So far as anyone knows, it originated in the 15th and 16th century, which is not a surprise given the rising wealth of the Ottoman Empire. The merchants felt envy, and, as wealth grew, so did everyone else. This culture learned that popular hatred of wealth was something to fear, because it truly threatened the basis of people’s livelihoods. Even today, you see the Nazar in the cars, homes, boats, and keychains of average people. Even the Istanbul airport features a huge Nazar above the baggage claim.
The Politics of Envy
At some point in the 20th century, we normalized envy as a political idea. Down with the rich! His success must be punished! The 1% must be pillaged! Redistribute the wealth! All these ideas trace to an ancient idea that was widely seen not as a virtue or a good motivation but rather a socially destructive sin.
Indeed there is a burgeoning academic literature that seeks to rehabilitate envy as a motivator (1, 2, 3, 4, 5). It leads people to oppose unfairness and inequality, and hence builds the kinds of political institutions that many progressives favor. To be sure, there are good reasons to be upset and yell at the immorality of unjustly acquired wealth, but keep in mind that the problem here is not the wealth as such but the means of acquisition.
Real envy makes no distinction: it is unhinged loathing that ends in destruction. It seems like an implausible thing to do, take a sin and convert it to a political virtue. But there is a hidden truth here that people are unable to face: modern political institutions are in fact built on an ancient vice, institutionalized and unleashed.
Envy can seem relatively benign when it is embodied in political institutions. This is why Bernie Sanders can imagine himself as a preacher not of violence but of peace. “I am sickened by this despicable act,” he said of the gunman on the baseball field. “Let me be as clear as I can be. Violence of any kind is unacceptable in our society….”
But what about whipping up masses of people who shout for the violence of the central government to loot and pillage people merely because they are wealthy? Some forms of violence are apparently acceptable.
If you teach with every speech and every article to sow hatred and encourage people to blame others’ successes for their own plight, you are playing with fire. Sometimes the seemingly benign veneer is torn off and this ends in bloodshed.
Both sides of the great ideological splits of our time are rooted in vices. While we are quick to recognize the evil of race and religious hatred, we do not like to think about the insidious effects unleashed by hatred of wealth and success. Maybe it is time for the Nazar to make its way from the Ottoman region to our own. We need some protection from the evil eye that modern politics is working daily to unleash.
Jeffrey Tucker is Director of Content for the Foundation for Economic Education. He is also Chief Liberty Officer and founder of Liberty.me, Distinguished Honorary Member of Mises Brazil, research fellow at the Acton Institute, policy adviser of the Heartland Institute, founder of the CryptoCurrency Conference, member of the editorial board of the Molinari Review, an advisor to the blockchain application builder Factom, and author of five books. He has written 150 introductions to books and many thousands of articles appearing in the scholarly and popular press.
I first encountered Ayn Rand through her nonfiction. This was when I was a junior in high school, and I’m pretty sure it was my first big encounter with big ideas. It changed me. Like millions of others who read her, I developed a consciousness that what I thought – the ideas I held in my mind – mattered for what kind of life I would live. And it mattered for everyone else too; the kind of world we live in is an extension of what we believe about what life can mean.
People today argue over her legacy and influence – taking apart the finer points of her ethics, metaphysics, epistemology. This is all fine but it can be a distraction from her larger message about the moral integrity and creative capacity of the individual human mind. In so many ways, it was this vision that gave the postwar freedom movement what it needed most: a driving moral passion to win. This, more than any technical achievements in economic theory or didactic rightness over public-policy solutions, is what gave the movement the will to overcome the odds.
Often I hear people offer a caveat about Rand. Her works are good. Her life, not so good. Probably this impression comes from public curiosity about various personal foibles and issues that became the subject of gossip, as well as the extreme factionalism that afflicted the movement she inspired.
This is far too narrow a view. In fact, she lived a remarkably heroic life. Had she acquiesced to the life fate seemed to have chosen for her, she would have died young, poor, and forgotten. Instead, she had the determination to live free. She left Russia, immigrated to the United States, made her way to Hollywood, and worked and worked until she built a real career. This one woman – with no advantages and plenty of disadvantages – on her own became one of the most influential minds of this twentieth century.
So, yes, her life deserves to be known and celebrated. Few of us today face anything like the barriers she faced. She overcame them and achieved greatness. Let her inspire you too.
Kudos to the Atlas Society for this video:
Jeffrey Tucker is Director of Content for the Foundation for Economic Education. He is also Chief Liberty Officer and founder of Liberty.me, Distinguished Honorary Member of Mises Brazil, research fellow at the Acton Institute, policy adviser of the Heartland Institute, founder of the CryptoCurrency Conference, member of the editorial board of the Molinari Review, an advisor to the blockchain application builder Factom, and author of five books. He has written 150 introductions to books and many thousands of articles appearing in the scholarly and popular press.
Society is forever threatened by individuals with corrupt hearts
The horrifying events at the Pulse bar in Orlando, Florida, the worst mass shooting in American history, illustrate what is meant by the term terrorism. It is violence designed to shake our sense of security and safety, to instill fear, to remind us how fragile is the very existence of what we call civilization. One moment, people are dancing and enjoying the music. The next they are covered with blood amidst unspeakable carnage, and wondering when the bullets are going to tear through their own flesh.
A nightclub—a conspicuous symbol of commercial ebullience and progressive cultural creativity—becomes a war zone in the blink of an eye, and why? There is no final answer to such a gigantic question, but there are strong suggestions based on the identity of the killer and recent experiences with Islamic extremism. It stems from intolerance, leading to seething hatred, resulting in violence, leaving only devastation and fear in its wake. One corrupt heart, driven to action through profound malice, turns a dance club into a killing field.
No Political Solution
It is political season, so of course the tragedy will have implications for the direction of politics. Islamophobia gets a boost, which helps the cause of religious intolerance and nativism, even though the killer was an American citizen and in no way represents the views of a billion and a half peaceful and faithful Muslims struggling for a better life.
Two nights earlier, beloved YouTube star Christina Grimmie was shot dead by a man having no motivations related to Islam. Fear drives people to seek political solutions, so the details of the case in question are not likely to matter. Political control over our lives and property will undoubtedly follow this catastrophe just as they did after 9-11.
And yet there are no political solutions, at least none readily at hand. Yes, the radicalization of some sectors of Islam might never have taken their present course had the U.S. not made egregious foreign-policy blunders that incited the drive for vengeance among millions. Looking back over the decades, back to the 1980s when the most extreme ideologies received U.S. encouragement from the U.S. as a Cold War measure, all the way to the destabilization of Iraq, Syria, and Libya, one sees how the violence of war has fed the violence of terrorism in repeating cycles.
Still, no one can say for sure that absent such blunders, someone like the Orlando shooter, Omar Mateen, would not come into existence. Society is always threatened by individuals with corrupt hearts and the malicious intent to purify the world of sin. We try to protect ourselves. Security systems respond by becoming ever better at what they are supposed to do. The horror has already re-started the debate between gun rights and gun control (however: by law, that bar was a gun-free zone, meaning that people could not protect themselves or stop others who are intent on killing). And yet, in the end, there is no system of politics and no system of security capable of ending all such threats to human well being.
Toleration as a Virtue
The answer lies with the conversion of the human heart.
Where does this begin?
Given that the driving force here is related to religion, we can turn to the very origins of liberalism itself. It was once believed that society, in order to function properly, required full agreement on matters of faith. But after centuries of warfare amounting to nothing, a new norm emerged, some half a millennium ago, which can best be summarized in the term toleration.
You can’t kill capitalism without killing people. The insight was that it is not necessary for people to agree in order that they find value in each other and get along. A society can cohere even in the presence of profound religious disagreement. We all have a greater stake in peace with each other than any of us do in winning some religious struggle. As 19th century liberal cleric John Henry Newman put it, “Learn to do thy part and leave the rest to Heaven.”
This was the profound insight, and it led to a new enlightenment on a range of issues beyond religion: free speech, free press, free trade, freedom of association. The insight concerning toleration planted a seed that led to a new realization of how humanity can enjoy progress. Voltaire’s Treatise on Toleration, which summed up the case, appeared a mere twenty-one years before Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations. Their core idea was the same: we have more to gain from toleration, exchange, and freedom than we have from vanquishing the foe from the earth.
So it should be no surprise that the attempt to revert that progress and bring back a new age of tribal warfare would begin by questioning the core insight of religious liberty. Instead it seeks to purify the world of heresy and save souls through violence, if not by centralized authority, then by individual action. It is a premodern manner of thinking, one that seeks to end the lives of those who use freedom in ways that contradicts its own views of what is right and proper.
And notice too how the rise of intolerance has targeted such a conspicuous sign of capitalist consumerism: the dance clubs, and, particular, one that caters toward the gay community. Capitalism is the economic realization of the idea of human freedom, one in which people choose their partners, their music, their mode of expression. No one harms anyone; everyone is free to enjoy, to stay out late, to drink liquor, to move and sing as an expression of individuality.
The illiberal mind loathes such freedom and wants it destroyed. This is why, in the end, it is always capitalism itself that is in the crosshairs. And you can’t kill capitalism without killing people.
What are we left to think and do when faced with such a bloody tragedy? Remember the foundations of what made us who we are, the philosophical underpinnings of what made the modern world great. Seek peace. Tolerate, even celebrate, differences among us. Find value in each other through trade. Defend human rights and freedom against all who seek to stamp them out.
Resist fear. Reject hate. Defend institutions that help all of us realize our dreams. Turn away from revenge fantasies and recommit ourselves again to living peacefully with others, treating even our enemies as if someday they might be our friends. Building a world free of violence and terror takes place in the conversion of one human heart at a time, beginning with our own.
Ayn Rand and Friedrich A. Hayek did more than any other writers in the Twentieth Century to turn intellectual opinion away from statism and toward a free society. Although they are opposed on many philosophical and social issues, they generally agree on the superiority of a free market. Rand’s defense of capitalism differs dramatically from Hayek’s explanation of the extended order. In addition, Hayek approves of state activity that violates Rand’s ideas of rights and freedom. The purpose of this brief essay is to describe, explain, and compare the ideas of these two influential thinkers. To do this, I present and explain an exhibit that provides a side-by-side summary of the differences between Rand and Hayek on a number of issues.
In their early years of writing, both Hayek and Rand were dismissed by intellectuals, but they were heralded by businessmen. Hayek began to gain some respect from intellectuals when he published The Road to Serfdom in 1944. He wrote a number of scholarly books, attained formal academic positions, and earned the Nobel Prize for economics in 1974. Rand never did write scholarly works or hold a formal academic position. Her philosophy must be extracted from her essays and her fiction.
Hayek was read in college classes sooner, and to a much greater extent, than was Rand. He was viewed by intellectuals as a responsible and respected scholar, and Rand was not. His vision of anti-statism was more acceptable to intellectuals because he called for some exceptions to laissez-faire capitalism. In his writings he permitted concessions for some state interventions. In his immense and varied body of work, he touched upon a great many fields, including anthropology, evolutionary biology, cognitive science, philosophy, economics, linguistics, political science, and intellectual history. During the last 25 years or so, Rand’s works have been increasingly studied by scholars. There is now an Ayn Rand Society affiliated with the American Philosophical Association and a scholarly publication devoted to the study of her ideas—The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies. In addition, her writings are now being covered in college classes.
A Summary Comparison
Exhibit I provides a summary comparison of Rand and Hayek based on a variety of factors and dimensions. With respect to metaphysics and epistemology, Rand holds that “A is A” and that reality is knowable. Contrariwise, Hayek argues that reality is unknowable and that what men see are distorted representations or reproductions of objects existing in the world. The skeptic Hayek goes so far as to state that the notion of things in themselves (i.e., the noumenal world) can be dismissed. Whereas Rand’s foundation is reality, the best that Hayek can offer as a foundation is words and language.
Hayek supports the view that the human mind must have a priori categories that are prior to, and responsible for the ability to perceive and interpret the external world. He adds to this Kantian view by making the case that each individual mind’s categories are restructured according to the distinct experiences of each particular person. Each person’s neural connections can therefore be seen as semi-permanent and affected by his or her environment and experiences. The mind’s categories evolve as each specific person experiences the world. According to Hayek, there is pre-sensory knowledge embedded in the structure of the mind and the nervous system’s synaptic connections which can be further created and modified over time. For the neo-Kantian Hayek, knowledge always has a subjective quality.
Reason for Rand is active, volitional, and efficacious. It follows that she sees rationality as man’s primary virtue. She sees progress through science and technology as the result of the human ability to think conceptually and to analyze logically through induction and deduction. Rand also contends that people can develop objective concepts that correspond with reality.
In his philosophy, Hayek relegates reason to a minor role. He argues for a modest perspective of people’s reasoning capabilities. He contends that reason is passive and that it is a social product. Hayek’s message of intellectual humility is primarily aimed at constructivist rationalism rather than critical rationalism. As an “anti-rationalist,” he explained that the world is too complex for any government planner to intentionally design and construct society’s institutions. However, he is a proponent of the limited potential of critical rationalism through which individuals use local and tacit knowledge in their everyday decisions. Hayek views progress as a product of an ongoing dynamic evolutionary process. He said that we cannot know reality but we can analyze evolving words and language. Linguistic analysis and some limited empirical verification provide Hayek with somewhat of an analytical foundation. His coherence theory of concepts is based on agreement among minds. For Hayek, concepts happen to the mind. Of course, his overall theory of knowledge is that individuals know much more than can be expressed in words.
Rand makes a positive case for freedom based on the nature of man and the world. She explains that man’s distinctive nature is exhibited in his rational thinking and free will. Each person has the ability to think his own thoughts and control his own energies in his efforts to act according to those thoughts. People are rational beings with free wills who have the ability to fulfill their own life purposes, aims, and intentions. Rand holds that each individual person has moral significance. He or she exists, perceives, experiences, thinks and acts in and through his or her own body and therefore from unique points in time and space. It follows that the distinct individual person is the subject of value and the unit of social analysis. Each individual is responsible for thinking for himself, for acting on his own thoughts, and for achieving his own happiness.
Hayek denies the existence of free will. However, he explains that people act as if they have free will because they are never able to know how they are determined to act by various biological, cultural, and environmental factors. His negative case for freedom is based on the idea that no one person or government agency is able to master the complex multiplicity of elements needed to do so. Such relevant knowledge is never totally possessed by any one individual. There are too many circumstances and variables affecting a situation to take them all into account. His solution to this major problem is to permit people the “freedom” to pursue and employ the information they judge to be the most relevant to their chosen goals. For Hayek, freedom is good because it best promotes the growth of knowledge in society. Hayek explains that in ordering society we should depend as much as possible on spontaneous forces such as market prices and as little as possible on force. Acknowledging man’s socially-constructed nature, he does not view individuals as independent agents but rather as creatures of society.
According to Rand, the principle of man’s rights can be logically derived from man’s nature and needs. Rights are a moral concept. For Rand, the one fundamental right is a person’s right to his own life. She explains that rights are objective conceptual identifications of the factual requirements of a person’s life in a social context. A right is a moral principle that defines and sanctions one’s freedom of action in a social context. Discussion of individual rights are largely absent from Hayek’s writings. At most he says that rights are created by society through the mechanism of law.
Whereas Rand speaks of Objective Law, Hayek speaks of the Rule of Law. Objective laws must be clearly expressed in terms of essential principles. They must be objectively justifiable, impartial, consistent, and intelligible. Rand explains that objective law is derived from the rational principle of individual rights. Objective Law deals with the specific requirements of a man’s life. Individuals must know in advance what the law forbids them from doing, what constitutes a violation, and what penalty would be incurred if they break the law. Hayek says that the Rule of Law is the opposite of arbitrary government. The Rule of Law holds that government coercion must be limited by known, general, and abstract rules. According to Hayek certain abstract rules of conduct came into being because groups who adopted them became better able to survive and prosper. These rules are universally applicable to everyone and maintain a sphere of responsibility.
Rand espouses a rational objective morality based on reason and egoism. In her biocentric ethics, moral behavior is judged in relation to achieving specific ends with the final end being an individual’s life, flourishing, and happiness. For Hayek, ethics is based on evolution and emotions. Ethics for Hayek are functions of biology and socialization. They are formed through habits and imitation.
Rand advocates a social system of laissez-faire capitalism in which the sole function of the state is the protection of individual rights. Hayek, or the other hand, allows for certain exceptions and interventions to make things work. He holds that it is acceptable for the government to supply public goods and a safety net.
For Rand, the consciousness of the individual human person is the highest level of mental functioning. For Hayek, it is a supra-conscious framework of neural connections through which conscious mental activity gains meaning. He states that this meta-conscious mechanism is taken for granted by human beings. The set of a person’s physiological impulses forms what Hayek calls the sensory order. Perception and pattern recognition follow one’s sensory order which is altered by a person’s own perception and history of experiences
Aristotle is Rand’s only acknowledged philosophical influence. They both contend that to make life fully human (i.e., to flourish), an individual must acquire virtues and make use of his reason as fully as he is capable. Hayek was influenced by Kant and Popper in epistemology, Ferguson and Smith in evolutionary theory, Hume in ethics, and Wittgenstein in linguistics.
Although Rand and Hayek are opposed on many philosophical questions, they generally agree on the desirability of a free market and are among the most well-known defenders of capitalism in the twentieth century. The works of both of these intellectual giants are highly recommended for any student of liberty.
A Summary Comparison
Words and Language
Reality is knowable.
Skepticism – The idea of things in themselves can be dismissed.
Reason is active, volitional, and efficacious.
Reason is passive and a social product.
Based on power of human reason and conscious thought
Evolution and social selection
Logical analysis, including induction and deduction
Linguistic analysis and empiricism
Theory of Concepts
Objective concepts that correspond with reality
Coherence or agreement among minds
Positive case for freedom
Negative case for “freedom”
Man has free will.
Man is determined but acts as if he has free will.
Subject of value and unit of social analysis
Perpetuation of society (i.e., the group)
Dependent—man is socially constituted
Based on the nature of the human person
Created by society through law
Rule of Law
Ethics and Morality
Rational objective morality based on reason and egoism
Evolutionary and emotive ethics based on altruism which is noble but cannot be implemented because of ignorance. Established through habits and imitation
Desired Social System
Minimal welfare state that supplies public goods and safety net
Highest level of understanding and mental functioning
Consciousness of the Individual
Meta-conscious framework—neural connections
Ferguson, Smith, Kant, Hume, Popper, Wittgenstein
How Anti-Individualist Fallacies Prevent Us from Curing Death – Article by Edward Hudgins
Are you excited about Silicon Valley entrepreneurs investing billions of dollars to extend life and even “cure” death?
It’s amazing that such technologically challenging goals have gone from sci-fi fantasies to fantastic possibilities. But the biggest obstacles to life extension could be cultural: the anti-individualist fallacies arrayed against this goal.
Entrepreneurs defy death
A recent Washington Post feature documents the “Tech titans’ latest project: Defy death. “ Peter Thiel, PayPal co-founder and venture capitalist, has led the way, raising awareness and funding regenerative medicines. He explains: “I’ve always had this really strong sense that death was a terrible, terrible thing… Most people end up compartmentalizing and they are in some weird mode of denial and acceptance about death, but they both have the result of making you very passive. I prefer to fight it.”
Others prefer to fight as well. Google CEO Larry Page created Calico to invest in start-ups working to stop aging. Oracle’s Larry Ellison has also provided major money for anti-aging research. Google’s Sergey Brin and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg both have funded the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences Foundation.
Beyond the Post piece we can applaud the education in the exponential technologies needed to reach these goals by Singularity U., co-founded by futurist Ray Kurzweil, who believes humans and machines will merge in the decades to become transhumans, and X-Prize founder Peter Diamandis.
The Post piece points out that while in the past two-thirds of science and medical research was funded by the federal government, today private parties put up two-thirds. These benefactors bring their entrepreneurial talents to their philanthropic efforts. They are restless for results and not satisfied with the slow pace of government bureaucracies plagued by red tape and politics.
“Wonderful!” you’re thinking. “Who could object?”
Laurie Zoloth’s inequality fallacy
Laurie Zoloth for one. This Northwestern University bioethicist argues that “Making scientific progress faster doesn’t necessarily mean better — unless if you’re an aging philanthropist and want an answer in your lifetime.” The Post quotes her further as saying that “Science is about an arc of knowledge, and it can take a long time to play out.”
Understanding the world through science is a never-ending enterprise. But in this case, science is also about billionaires wanting answers in their lifetimes because they value their own lives foremost and they do not want them to end. And the problem is?
Zoloth grants that it is ”wonderful to be part of a species that dreams in a big way” but she also wants “to be part of a species that takes care of the poor and the dying.” Wouldn’t delaying or even eliminating dying be even better?
The discoveries these billionaires facilitate will help millions of people in the long-run. But her objection seems rooted in a morally-distorted affinity for equality of condition: the feeling that it is wrong for some folks to have more than others—never mind that they earned it—in this case early access to life-extending technologies. She seems to feel that it is wrong for these billionaires to put their own lives, loves, dreams, and well-being first.
We’ve heard this “equality” nonsense for every technological advance: only elites will have electricity, telephones, radios, TVs, computers, the internet, smartphones, whatever. Yes, there are first adopters, those who can afford new things. Without them footing the bills early on, new technologies would never become widespread and affordable. This point should be blindingly obvious today, since the spread of new technologies in recent decades has accelerated. But in any case, the moral essential is that it is right for individuals to seek the best for themselves while respecting their neighbors’ liberty to do the same.
Leon Kass’s “long life is meaningless” fallacy
The Post piece attributes to political theorist Francis Fukuyama the belief that “a large increase in human life spans would take away people’s motivation for the adaptation necessary for survival. In that kind of world, social change comes to a standstill.”
Nonsense! As average lifespans doubled in past centuries, social change—mostly for the better—accelerated. Increased lifespans in the future could allow individuals to take on projects spanning centuries rather than decades. Indeed, all who love their lives regret that they won’t live to see, experience, and help create the wonders of tomorrow.
The Post cites physician and ethicist Leon Kass who asks: “Could life be serious or meaningful without the limit of mortality?”
Is Kass so limited in imagination or ignorant of our world that he doesn’t appreciate the great, long-term projects that could engage us as individuals seriously and meaningfully for centuries to come? (I personally would love to have the centuries needed to work on terraforming Mars, making it a new habitat for humanity!)
Fukuyama and Kass have missed the profound human truth that we each as individuals create the meaning for our own lives, whether we live 50 years or 500. Meaning and purpose are what only we can give ourselves as we pursue productive achievements that call upon the best within us.
Francis Fukuyama’s anti-individualist fallacy
The Post piece quotes Fukuyama as saying “I think that research into life extension is going to end up being a big social disaster… Extending the average human life span is a great example of something that is individually desirable by almost everyone but collectively not a good thing. For evolutionary reasons, there is a good reason why we die when we do.”
What a morally twisted reason for opposing life extension! Millions of individuals should literally damn themselves to death in the name of society. Then count me anti-social.
Some might take from Fukuyama’s premise a concern that millions of individuals living to 150 will spend half that time bedridden, vegetating, consuming resources, and not producing. But the life extension goal is to live long with our capacities intact—or enhanced! We want 140 to be the new 40!
What could be good evolutionary reasons why we die when we do? Evolution only metaphorically has “reasons.” It is a biological process that blindly adapted us to survive and reproduce: it didn’t render us immune to ailments. Because life is the ultimate value, curing those ailments rather than passively suffering them is the goal of medicine. Life extension simply takes the maintenance of human life a giant leap further.
Live long and prosper
Yes, there will be serious ethical questions to face as the research sponsored by benevolent billionaires bears fruit. But individuals who want to live really long and prosper in a world of fellow achievers need to promote human life as the ultimate value and the right of all individuals to live their own lives and pursue their own happiness as the ultimate liberty.
Dr. Edward Hudgins directs advocacy and is a senior scholar for The Atlas Society, the center for Objectivism in Washington, D.C.
How will we know if an artificial intelligence actually attains a human level of consciousness?
As work in robotics and merging man and machine accelerates, we can expect more movies on this theme. Some, like Transcendence, will be dystopian warnings of potential dangers. Others, like Ex Machina, elicit serious thought about what it is to be human. Combining a good story and good acting, Ex Machina should interest technophiles and humanists alike.
The Turing Test
The film opens on Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson) , a 27-year-old programmer at uber-search engine company Blue Book, who wins a lottery to spend a week at the isolated mountain home of the company’s reclusive genius creator, Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac). But the hard-drinking, eccentric Nathan tells Caleb that they’re not only going to hang out and get drunk.
He has created an android AI named Ava (Alicia Vikander) with a mostly woman-like, but part robot-like, appearance. The woman part is quite attractive. Nathan wants Caleb to spend the week administering the Turing Test to determine whether the AI shows intelligent behavior indistinguishable from that of a human. Normally this test is administered so the tester cannot see whether he’s dealing with a human and or machine. The test consists of exchanges of questions and answers, and is usually done in some written form. Since Caleb already knows Ava is an AI, he really needs to be convinced in his daily sessions with her, reviewed each evening with Nathan, that Nathan has created, in essence, a sentient, self-conscious human. It’s a high bar.
Android sexual attraction
Ava is kept locked in a room where her behavior can be monitored 24/7. Caleb talks to her through a glass, and at first he asks standard questions any good techie would ask to determine if she is human or machine. But soon Ava is showing a clear attraction to Caleb. The feeling is mutual.
In another session Ava is turning the tables. She wants to know about Caleb and be his friend. But during one of the temporary power outages that seems to plague Nathan’s house, when the monitoring devices are off, Ava tells Caleb that Nathan is not his friend and not to trust him. When the power comes back on, Ava reverts to chatting about getting to know Caleb.
In another session, when Ava reveals she’s never allowed out of the room, Caleb asks where she would choose to go if she could leave. She says to a busy traffic intersection. To people watch! Curiosity about humanity!
Ava then asks Caleb to close his eyes and she puts on a dress and wig to cover her robot parts. She looks fully human. She says she’d wear this if they went on a date. Nathan later explains that he gave Ava gender since no human is without one. That is part of human consciousness. Nathan also explains that he did not program her specifically to like Caleb. And he explains that she is fully sexually functional.
A human form of awareness
In another session Caleb tells Ava what she certainly suspects, that he is testing her. To communicate what he’s looking for, he offers the “Mary in a Black and White Room” thought experiment. Mary has always lived in a room with no colors. All views of the outside world are through black and white monitors. But she understands everything about the physics of color and about how the human eyes and brain process color. But does she really “know” or “understand” color—the “qualia”—until she walks outside and actually sees the blue sky?
Is Ava’s imitation of the human level of consciousness or awareness analogous to Mary’s consciousness or awareness of color when in the black and white room, purely theoretical? Is Ava simply a machine, a non-conscious automaton running a program by which she mimics human emotions and traits?
Ava is concerned with what will happen if she does not pass the Turing test. Nathan later tells Caleb that he thinks the AI after Ava will be the one he’s aiming for. And what will happen to Ava? The program will be downloaded and the memories erased. Caleb understands that this means Ava’s death.
Who’s testing whom?
During a blackout, this one of Nathan in a drunken stupor, Caleb borrows Nathan’s passcard to access closed rooms, and he discovers some disturbing truths about what proceeded Ava and led to her creation.
In the next session, during a power outage, Ava and Caleb plan an escape from the facility. They plan to get Nathan drunk, change the lock codes on the doors, and get out at the next power outage.
But has Nathan caught on? On the day Caleb is scheduled to leave he tells Nathan that Ava has passed the Turing Test. But Nathan asks whether Caleb thinks Ava is just pretending to like Caleb in order to escape. If so, this would show human intelligence and would mean that Ava indeed has passed the test.
But who is testing and manipulating whom and to what end? The story takes a dramatic, shocking turn as the audience finds out who sees through whose lies and deceptions. Does Mary ever escape from the black and white room? Is Ava really conscious like a human?
What it means to be human
In this fascinating film, writer/director Alex Garland explores what it is to be human in terms of basic drives and desires. There is the desire to know, understand, and experience. There is the desire to love and be loved. There is the desire to be free to choose. And there is the love of life.
But to be human is also to be aware that others might block one from pursuing human goals, that others can be cruel, and they can lie and deceive. There is the recognition that one might need to use the same behavior in order to be human.
If thinkers like Singularity theorist Ray Kurzweil are right, AIs might be passing the Turing Test within a few decades. But even if they don’t, humans will more and more rely on technologies that could enhance our minds and capacities and extend our lives. As we do so, it will be even more important that we keep in mind what it is to be human and what is best about being human. Ex Machina will not only provide you with an entertaining evening at the movies; it will also help you use that very human capacity, the imagination, to prepare your mind to meet these challenges.
Dr. Edward Hudgins directs advocacy and is a senior scholar for The Atlas Society, the center for Objectivism in Washington, D.C.
Mr. Stolyarov endeavors to refute the common argument that any law, be it a physical law or a law of morality or justice, requires a lawgiver – an intelligent entity that brought the law into being. While some laws (termed manmade or positive laws) do indeed have human lawmakers, a much more fundamental class of laws (termed universal or natural laws) arise not due to promulgation by any intelligent being, but rather due to the basic properties of the entities these laws concern, and the relations of those entities to one another. To the extent that positive laws are enacted by humans, the purpose of such positive laws should be reflect and effectuate the beneficial consequences of objectively valid natural laws.
– Formula for the Universal Law of Gravitation: F = G*m1*m2/r2, with F being the force between two masses, m1 and m2 being the two masses, r being the distance between the centers of the two masses, and G being the universal gravitational constant.
Here I endeavor to refute the common argument that any law, be it a physical law or a law of morality or justice, requires a lawgiver – an intelligent entity that brought the law into being. While some laws (termed manmade or positive laws) do indeed have human lawmakers, a much more fundamental class of laws (termed universal or natural laws) arise not due to promulgation by any intelligent being, but rather due to the basic properties of the entities these laws concern, and the relations of those entities to one another. To the extent that positive laws are enacted by humans, the purpose of such positive laws should be to reflect and effectuate the beneficial consequences of objectively valid natural laws. For instance, it is a natural law that each human being possesses a right to life. A positive law that prohibits and punishes murder of one human being by another would reflect the natural law and therefore be desirable. On the other hand, if any positive law were to mandate murder (as various edicts by tyrannical regimes throughout history, targeting political dissidents or disfavored minority groups, have done), then that positive law would be contrary to the natural law and therefore illegitimate and harmful.
The physical laws of nature pertain to all entities, including humans, and describe the regularities with which these entities will behave within applicable situations. Examples of physical laws include Newton’s Three Laws of Motion, the law of gravitation, the law of conservation of matter and energy, and the law of conservation of momentum. If it is asserted that these laws require a lawgiver, then the lawgiver would hypothetically be able to alter these laws on a whim at any time, thereby depriving them of their universality and predictable application. Such a state of affairs would not only be highly inconvenient (to say the least), but also completely incompatible with the reality that these laws are derived from the nature of entities as they are.
We can draw upon ubiquitous observation and the fact that these laws of nature can indeed be harnessed so precisely that every functional technology ever invented works because it takes advantage of them. The argument that the laws of nature could change tomorrow depends on a false perception of what those laws are – a kind of Platonic view that the laws of nature are superimposed upon the world of objects. In reality, however, objects (entities) and their qualities and relationships are all that exist at the most basic level. The laws of nature are relationships that are derived from the very properties inherent to objects themselves; they are not some higher layer of reality on top of the objects that leads the objects to behave in a certain way. That is, the laws of nature are what they are because the things whose behavior they describe are what they are.
The truth that the laws of nature are a function of the objects whose behavior they describe pertains to fundamental physical laws, such as the law of gravitation. While the law of gravitation and the equation  describing that law apply universally, the very existence of the law is dependent on the existence of entities that have mass and therefore exhibit gravitational attraction. Were there no entities or no entities with mass (incidentally, both logically impossible scenarios), then the concept of gravity would not have any relevance or applicability. Likewise, the amount of mass of particular entities and their distance of separation from one another will determine the extent of the gravitational force exerted by those entities upon one another. The gravitational force arises because the entities are as massive as they are and located where they are relative to one another; it does not arise because a supernatural lawgiver imposed it upon entities who would otherwise be completely static or random in their behavior in relation to one another.
The key parallel with the laws of morality is that, as the laws of gravitation stem from the objective properties of entities themselves (i.e., that they have mass – which is a universal property of all entities), so do the laws of morality stem from the objective properties of human beings themselves – namely, the biological and physical prerequisites of human survival and flourishing. Different specific decisions may be the appropriate moral decisions in different contexts, but because of the essential similarities of humans along many key dimensions, certain general moral truths will hold universally for all humans. But again, were there no humans (or similar rational, sentient, volitional beings) with these essential attributes, the concept of morality would have no relevance.
Neither morality nor gravitation require the existence of entities outside of those exhibiting moral behavior or gravitational attraction. A system of physical or moral laws is not dependent on an outside “lawgiver” but rather on the objective natures of the entities partaking in the system. Objective moral laws include the principles of ethics, which address how a person should behave to maximize possible well-being, as well as the principles of justice, which address how people should relate to one another in respecting one another’s spheres of legitimate action, rewarding meritorious conduct, and punishing destructive conduct against others. There is a natural harmony between adherence to objective moral laws and the attainment of beneficial consequences for one’s own life, material prosperity, and happiness – provided that one adheres to a view of long-term, enlightened, rational self-interest, which does not allow one to sacrifice the lives, liberty, or property of others to achieve a short-term gain.
Some would assert that principles of behavior that tend to maximize well-being and serve one’s rational self-interest may be part of prudent or practical conduct, but are not the same as morality. In the minds of these individuals, morality (typically, in their view, willed by an external lawgiver) is independent of practical means or consequences and often (as, for instance, in Immanuel Kant’s outlook on morality) inherently divorced from actions conducive to self-interest. I, however, strongly reject any notion that there might be a dichotomy between morality and practicality, happiness, or prosperity – when a long-term, enlightened, and multifaceted outlook on the latter conditions is considered. Some might be so short-sighted as to mistake some temporary advantage or fleeting pleasure for true fulfillment or happiness, but the objective cause-and-effect relationships within our physical reality will eventually disappoint them (if they live long enough – and if not, their punishment – death – will be even greater). If some or even many humans might be drawn toward certain pleasurable feelings for their own sake (which is an evolutionary relic of a very different primeval environment inhabited by our ancestors – but a tendency ill-adapted to our current environment), this is not the same as achieving truly sustainable prosperity and happiness by using reason to thrive in our current environment (or to create a better environment for human flourishing). One of the objectives of a good moral system is to guide people toward the latter outcome. My essay and video “Commonly Misunderstood Concepts: Happiness” offer more detailed thoughts on key elements of a life of flourishing and the concept of eudaemonia – the actualization of one’s full potential, as Aristotle and later virtue-oriented philosophers described it.
Objective moral law, derived from the fundamental value of every innocent rational, sentient being’s life, posits an essential harmony of the long-term, enlightened self-interests of all who earnestly pursue truth and goodness. Unlike many proponents of an externally legislated moral framework (for which the alleged lawgiver might be a supernatural being, a single human ruler, or a collective of humans), I would not consider self-sacrifice to be a component of morality. I align more with Ayn Rand’s view of sacrifice as a surrender of a greater value (e.g., one’s life) to a lesser value (e.g., abstractions such as nation-states, religions, or perceived slights from another nation-state or religious or cultural group). A person can behave morally – promoting his own life, respecting the rights of others, and contributing to human flourishing – without ever surrendering anything he values (except as an instrument for obtaining outcomes he might justifiably value more). Morality should therefore not be seen as the subordination of the individual to some higher ideal, be it a divine order or a manmade one. Rather, the individual is the ideal for which moral behavior is the path to fulfillment.
A person who behaves morally advances himself while fully respecting the legitimate prerogatives of others. He improves his own life without damaging anybody else’s. In the process of pursuing enlightened self-interest, he also benefits the lives of others through value-adding interactions. Indeed, he may enter into an extensive network of both formal and informal reciprocal obligations with others that result in his actions being a constant, sustainable source of improvement in others’ lives. The virtue of honesty is part of objective ethics and impels a moral individual to strive to honor all commitments once they have been made. The key to a morality based on objective, natural law, however, is that these obligations be entered into freely and not as a result of the self being compromised in favor of an alleged higher ideal. Consequently, a key component of natural law is the liberty of an individual to evaluate the world in accordance with his rational faculty and to decide which undertakings are consistent with his enlightened self-interest. When positive laws are crafted so as to interfere with that liberty, positive law becomes at odds with natural law, leading to warped incentives, institutionalized sacrifices, and painful tradeoffs that many individuals must make if they seek to abide by both natural and positive laws.
Objective natural laws – both physical and moral – do not require a lawgiver and antecede manmade, positive laws. Some natural laws, however, may require positive laws – such as prohibitions on murder, theft, and slavery – in order for the desirable outcome brought about by the natural laws to be reflected in actual (rather than simply hoped-for) human behavior. In order to improve human well-being, positive laws should be developed to advance and effectuate natural laws, instead of attempting to resist them or contravene them. Just as a law that redefines the value of pi as 3.2 (one actually unsuccessfully attempted in Indiana in 1897) is rightly seen as absurd on its face, even if a majority votes to enact it, and would result in many failed constructions if implemented by engineers and designers of machines, so would a law that abrogates the natural liberty of individuals to peacefully pursue their own flourishing result in damage to good human beings and increases in physical harm, suffering, and injustice. A good human lawmaker should respect pre-existing objective natural laws and not attempt to contradict them.
 F = G*m1*m2/r2, with F being the force between two masses, m1 and m2 being the two masses, r being the distance between the centers of the two masses, and G being the universal gravitational constant.
Liberty is won and preserved not primarily with guns, but with ideas. Spreading freedom requires that we spread an understanding of the benefits freedom brings, that we explain to whomever will listen how freedom is really in everyone’s best interest. In making the case for a truly free society, however, we will inevitably come up against a wide array of illiberal beliefs that keep others from embracing our vision of a better world. The more we seek to understand those beliefs, the better we will be able to counter them and address the concerns that underlie them. In this ongoing series, I address some of the issues we can expect to face, along with brief outlines of the kinds of responses I think can be helpful.
Is it true, as cynics believe, with some backup from certain schools of economics, that everybody is selfish? Well, no. But even if it were true, is being selfish really such a bad thing anyway? The answer to this question depends on what you mean by “selfish.”
The traditional view of selfishness, promoted by religion but maintained by many secular thinkers as well, is that it is bad. According to this view, a selfish person thinks only of his own interests, disregarding the interests of others. Such a person might steal from, lie to, betray, or at the extreme even go so far as to murder others in order to get his way.
But is this really a selfish way of acting? It’s a petty, criminal, malevolent way of acting, to be sure—but does a person really serve his own interests by stealing, lying, betraying, or murdering? It might serve one’s immediate interests to have more money, avoid responsibility for something, or do away with someone who stands in one’s way, but what about the longer-term consequences? Embracing a life of crime, aside from eating away at your soul, for lack of a better word, will very likely come back to bite you, landing you in jail or in an early grave. It’s not a great way to make friends, either.
A person who is selfish and rational takes the longer-term consequences of his actions into account when deciding how to act, what kind of life to lead, what kind of person to be. A rationally selfish person doesn’t cheat or steal, but instead works hard, learns about the world, respects the rights of others, and builds lasting, fulfilling relationships—the kinds of things that are actually in a person’s best long-term interests. This is the kind of view taken by philosopher and novelist Ayn Rand, who titled one of her collections of essays The Virtue of Selfishness. This kind of rational self-interest is not something to be lamented, but something to be celebrated, leading to greater wealth and happiness for all.
Those who moan that everyone is selfish have the first kind of selfishness in mind, the bad kind, but clearly not everyone is a thug or a cheat. True criminals are a tiny minority in any civilization. Most people follow some kind of moral code, however mixed up and unexamined it may be. They feel the need, not only to enjoy lives full of rewards, but also to deserve those rewards. They want not merely to have good lives, but to be good people. This simple, basic truth flies in the face of what the cynics out there would have us believe.
The economists who inadvertently lend some support to the cynics have the other kind of selfishness in mind, the good kind. Economists since at least Adam Smith have been unable to deny the beneficial side-effects of lawful self-interested action—though they have not, as a rule, been as unapologetically enthusiastic about it as Rand.
In an article entitled “The Denial of Virtue” published in the January/February 2008 edition of Society, sociology professor Amitai Etzioni takes on economists and other social scientists who are quick to explain away charitable behaviour as a way to get tax deductions, volunteer work as a way to meet other singles, or heroic acts as the result of “hard-wiring.” Etzioni tells us about experiments suggesting that many people do not “free ride” even when they think they can get away with it. He also points out that many people vote, even though they know the chances that their vote will make a difference are close to nil. In these and other cases, people plausibly report that their actions are motivated not by self-interest but by what they think is right, by what they think they ought to do.
I think Etzioni is correct, as far as this goes. The claims of economists and social scientists that all actions are self-interested—that whatever people choose to do necessarily reflects their calculations of costs and benefits for themselves—is belied by clear cases of people acting out of a sense of duty, either to god or society or their parents.
Where I part company with Etzioni is in believing that this sense of duty is a good thing. Etzioni can point to people doing good out of a sense of duty, but I can point to people disowning their natural desires for pleasure out of a sense of religious duty; sacrificing their rights out of a sense of national duty; abandoning a career or a mate out of a sense of duty to their parents. I do believe in virtue, but I believe that duty is its enemy. Duty ethics ask you to adhere to a set of rules, whereas virtue ethics ask you to live up to an ideal, which is a very different focus.
It is a good thing people are not all selfish in the narrow, petty way the cynics imagine them to be, but it is actually unfortunate that people are not all rationally self-interested in the way social scientists suppose. This kind of rational self-interest not only has beneficial spill-over effects, but is in fact a virtue—it leads people to act virtuously, to live fulfilling lives, and to be good people. As Dr. Nathaniel Branden wrote in “Isn’t Everyone Selfish?” published in the Rand book mentioned above, this rhetorical question, though intended as a cynical jab, actually “pays mankind a compliment it does not deserve.” Hopefully, more and more of mankind will deserve it as they increasingly embrace the virtue of rational self-interest and reject not only petty, narrow selfishness but also the heavy hand of duty.
“By the mean of a thing I mean what is equally distant from either extreme, which is one and the same for everyone; by the mean relative to us what is neither too much nor too little, and this is not the same for everyone. For instance, if ten are many and two few, we take the mean of the thing if we take six; since it exceeds and is exceeded by the same amount; this then is the mean according to arithmetic proportion. But we cannot arrive thus at the mean relative to us. Let ten lbs. of food be a large portion for someone and two lbs. a small portion; it does not follow that a trainer will prescribe six lbs., for maybe even this amount will be a large portion, or a small one, for the particular athlete who is to receive it…. In the same way then one with understanding in any matter avoids excess and deficiency, and searches out and chooses the mean — the mean, that is, not of the thing itself but relative to us.”
This is not medical advice, but rather a general synthesis of philosophical and common-sense lifestyle heuristics for those who are generally healthy and seek to stay that way for as long as possible. All of the ideas below are ones I endeavor to put into practice personally as part of my endeavor to survive long enough to benefit from humankind’s future attainment of longevity escape velocity and indefinite lifespans. As an educated layman, not a medical doctor, I accept contemporary “mainstream” medicine (i.e., evidence-based, scientific medicine) as the most reliable guidance for specific health matters that currently exists. I consider the discussion below to be sufficiently general and basic as to be consistent with common medical knowledge – though, in any particular person’s case, specific medical advice should prevail over anything to the contrary in this essay.
It is easier for humans to live by absolutes than by degrees. If a practice or pursuit is unambiguously harmful, it can readily be avoided. If it is unambiguously beneficial, then it can be pursued in any quantity permitted by one’s available time and other resources. The very fact of being alive is itself an unambiguous good, of which no amount is excessive. On the other hand, death of the individual is an unambiguous harm, as is any behavior that directly precipitates or hastens death due to harmful effects upon the human body.
But much of life is comprised of elements that are essential to human well-being in some quantity but could become harmful if pursued to excess. This is where Aristotle’s idea of the “golden mean” – of virtue as being neither a deficiency nor an excess of various necessary attributes – can be applied to the pursuit of health and longevity. Indeed, much of health consists of maintaining key bodily functions and metrics within favorable ranges of parameters. A healthy weight, healthy blood-sugar concentration, healthy blood pressure, and a healthy heart rate all exist as segments along spectra, bordered by other segments of deficiency and excess.
More is known today about what is harmful to longevity than what would extend it past today’s typical “old age”. For instance, smoking, consumption of most alcohol (apart, possibly, from modest quantities of red wine), and use of many recreational drugs are clearly known to increase mortality risk. As these habits provide no support for any essential life function while having the potential to cause great harm to health, it is best to eschew them altogether. Indeed, the mere avoidance of all tobacco use is statistically the single best way to increase one’s remaining life expectancy. Yet this is the easy part, as one can quite resolutely and immoderately reject all consumption of tobacco, alcohol, and recreational drugs with no harm to oneself and only benefits.
An Aristotelian “golden mean” approach is needed, on the other hand, for those elements which are indispensable to sustaining good health, but which can also damage health if indulged in imprudently and to excess. Aristotle recognized that the “golden mean” when it comes to individual behavior cannot be derived through a strict formula but is rather unique to each person. Still, its determination is based on objective attributes of physical reality and not on one’s wishes or on the path of least resistance. The realms of diet, exercise, and supplementation are of particular relevance to life extension. It would particularly benefit individuals who seek to extend their lives indefinitely to adopt “golden mean” heuristics in each of these realms, until medical science advances sufficiently to develop reliable techniques to reverse biological senescence and greatly increase maximum attainable lifespans.
Food is sustenance for the organism, and its absence or deficiency lead to starvation and malnutrition. Its excess, on the other hand, can lead to obesity, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and a host of associated ills. It is clear that a moderate amount of food is desirable – one that is enough to sustain all the vital functions of the organism without precipitating chronic diseases of excess. Contrary to common prejudice, it is not too difficult to gain a reasonably good idea of the quantity of food one should consume. For most people, this is the quantity that enables an individual to maintain weight in the healthy range of body-mass index (BMI). (There are exceptions to this for certain athletes of extraordinary muscularity, but not for the majority of people. Contrary to common objections, while it is true that BMI is not the sole consideration for healthy body mass, it is a reasonably good heuristic for most, including many who are likely to object to its use.)
The comparison of “calories in” versus “calories out” – even though it must often rely on approximation due to the difficulty of exactly measuring metabolic activity – is nevertheless quite dependable. It is scientifically established that consuming a surplus of 3,500 calories (over and above one’s metabolic expenditures) results in gaining one pound (0.45 kilograms) of mass, whereas running a deficit of 3,500 calories results in the loss of one pound.
Consuming a moderate amount of food (relative to one’s exercise level) to maintain a moderate amount of weight is one of the most obvious applications of the principle of the golden mean to diet. Yet it is also the composition of one’s food that should exhibit moderation in the form of diversification of ingredients and food types.
Principle 1: There are no inherently bad or inherently good foods, but some foods are safer in large amounts than others. (For instance, eating a bowl full of vegetables is safer than eating a bowl full of butter.) Furthermore, one’s diet should not be dominated by any one type of food or any one ingredient.
Principle 2: In order to maintain a caloric balance at a healthy weight, consideration of calorie density of foods is key for portion sizes. More calorie-dense foods should be consumed in smaller portions, while less calorie-dense foods could be consumed in larger portions, provided that there is adequate diversification among the less calorie-dense foods as well.
Here my approach differs immensely from any fad diet – from veganism to the paleo diet to anything in between that prescribes a list of mandatory “good” foods and forbidden “evil” foods and attempts to rule human lives through minute regimens of cleaving to the mandatory and eschewing the forbidden. I acknowledge that virtually any fad diet is superior to unrestrained gluttony or the unconscious, stress-induced lapses into unhealthy eating that plague many in the Western world today. This, indeed, is the reason for such diets’ popularity and the availability of “success stories” from among practitioners of any such diet: virtually any conscious control over food intake and concern over food quality is superior to sheer abandon. However, all fad diets are also pseudo-scientific. Contradictory evidence regarding the health effects of almost any type of food – from meat to bread to chocolate to salt and even large quantities of fruits and vegetables – emerges in both scientific and popular publications every week. While some approaches to diet are clearly superior to others (e.g., most diets would be superior to a candy-only diet or a diet consisting solely of peas, as in Georg Büchner’s play Woyzeck), no fad diet can claim to reliably extend human lifespans beyond average life expectancies in the Western world today.
In the absence of clear, scientific evidence as to the unambiguous benefits or harms of any particular widely consumed food, diversification and moderation offer one the best hope of maximizing one’s expected longevity prior to the era of rejuvenation therapies. This is because of two key, interrelated effects:
Effect 1: If some food types indeed convey particularly important health benefits, then diversification helps ensure that one is gaining these benefits as a result of consuming at least some foods of those types.
Effect 2: If some foods or food types indeed result in harms to the organism – either due to the inherent properties of these foods or due to dangers introduced by the specific ways in which they are cultivated, delivered, or improperly preserved – then diversification helps reduce the organism’s exposure to such harms arising from any one particular food or food type, therefore lessening the likelihood that these harms will accumulate to a critical level.
Diversification, coupled with consideration of calorie density of foods, has the additional advantage of flexibility. If one encounters a situation where dietary choice is inconvenient, one might still enjoy the occasion and accommodate it through judicious portion sizing or adjustments to other meals either beforehand or afterward. One does not need to condemn oneself for having committed the dietary sin of eating an “unhealthy food” – as it is not the food itself that is unhealthy, but rather the frequency and amounts in which it is consumed. The Aristotelian “golden mean” heuristic also implies that there is no fault with pursuing food for the purpose of enjoyment or sensory pleasure – again, in moderation, as long as no detriment to health results.
A final note on diet is that the approach of moderation does not favor caloric restriction – i.e., reduction in calorie intake far below typical diets that suffice for maintaining a healthy body mass. Caloric restriction has shown remarkable effects in increasing lifespans in simple organisms – yeast, roundworms, and rodents – but has not demonstrated significant longevity benefits for humans, at least as suggested by presently available research. It is possible that the positive effects which caloric restriction confers upon simpler organisms are already reaped by humans and higher animals to a great extent, such that any added benefits to these organisms’ already far longer lifespans would be slight at best. A calorie-restricted diet is an excellent option for those seeking to lose weight or transition from a diet of gluttony and reckless abandon. It is also likely superior to “average” dietary habits today in terms of forestalling diet-related chronic diseases. However, there is no compelling evidence at present that a calorie-restricted diet is superior to a moderate, diversified diet that maintains a caloric balance. Furthermore, extreme calorie restriction would either require activity restriction (to conserve energy) or would involve descending into an underweight range, which is associated with its own health risks.
Exercise cannot be disentangled from considerations of dietary choice, since it is crucial to the expenditure side of the caloric equation (or inequality). It is, again, scientifically incontrovertible that regular exercise is superior to a sedentary lifestyle in enhancing virtually every metric of bodily health. On the other hand, moderation should be practiced in the degree of physical exertion at any given time, so as to prevent pushing one’s body to its breaking point – which will differ by individual. Exercising in such a manner that gradually pushes one’s sphere of abilities outward will help render the probability of reaching a breaking point – the failure of any bodily system – increasingly remote. For instance, gradually building up one’s running ability can eventually enable one to run an ultramarathon without adverse consequences. However, if an overweight and completely sedentary person were to attempt to run an ultramarathon without any prior running experience (and did not give up after a few miles), the results would be disastrous. Likewise, it is possible to lift large weights safely, but only if one begins with smaller weights and gradually works one’s way up.
For virtually all individuals in the Western world today, no harm can arise from the increase in the absolute amount of physical activity, as long as the exercise is performed in a safe environment and with safe form. Immoderate kinds of exercise would include extreme sports (those which entail a significant danger to life), any sports in extreme weather, or any exertion at the boundary of the current tolerance of one’s heart and other muscles. Most people, however, can easily find activities – ranging from simple walking to light lifting and body-weight exercises – that would pose no such risks and would unambiguously improve health.
Diversification in exercise, as with diet, is superior to exclusivist fad regimens. While any safe exercise is superior to none, it is completely unfounded to insist that only one particular type or genre of exercise is “good” while all the others are “bad”. The currently fashionable “no cardio” camp is a particularly glaring example of absurdity in this regard, eschewing some of the most effective ways possible for burning calories, maintaining cardiovascular and muscular health, and preventing diabetes and many types of cancer. But it would be similarly unreasonable to reject all weight lifting or all flexibility training due to some dogma regarding “ideal” kinds of exercise. It is best to perform a variety of exercises, each of which emphasize different facets of health. That being said, the exact mix would depend on the attributes and preferences of a given individual, and appropriate diversification could still involve a heavily emphasized preferred type of exercise, in addition to various auxiliary types that enable one to also improve in other areas.
Again, it is important to emphasize that, while regular exercise can improve one’s likelihood of surviving to current “old age”, it cannot, by itself, protect against the ravages of senescence beyond perhaps slightly deferring them. The best case for regular, moderate exercise is that it can raise one’s chances of surviving to an era when medical treatments that reverse biological senescence will become available and widespread.
Because exercise should be pursued with the intention of maximizing health and improving one’s likelihood of long-term survival, great care must be taken not to allow the competitive aspects of any exercise to overwhelm the health aspects. For instance, the taking of steroids and other “performance-enhancing” substances in order to set athletic records or beat one’s competitors is counterproductive to the maintenance of good health and is often worse than doing no exercise at all. Likewise, engaging in sports such as American football, rugby, boxing, or lacrosse, which involve a high degree of physical contact and therefore a great likelihood of injury, is counterproductive to the goal of health preservation.
Supplementation, or Lack Thereof
Overall, it is important for the human body to obtain adequate quantities of essential nutrients – such as vitamins, minerals, amino acids, and fatty acids – in order for healthy function to be sustained. Because these nutrients are not automatically produced by the body in adequate amounts, they must be consumed from external sources. However, excessive amounts of many such nutrients can be toxic. Moreover, contemporary science has not discerned any regimen of extraordinary supplementation (over and above medically recommended daily values) to reliably result in longevity improvements for those who are already healthy. Worse yet, enough research exists to suggest that supplementation with vitamins and other common substances, significantly in excess of medically recommended daily values, could increase the risk of early death. Again, the evidence points to the desirability of a moderate intake of vitamins and other essential nutrients – but none of them becomes a panacea when consumed in doses significantly above the moderate ones found in foods routinely available to virtually everyone in the Western world. Mild vitamin and mineral supplements are probably not harmful and may be helpful if one’s diet indeed lacks some essential nutrients, but mega-doses of any substance should be approached with great caution.
Supplementation with drugs and hormones – absent the clear and medically determined need to treat a specific health problem – is even riskier for a healthy organism; the side effects could be great, and the benefits are dubious at present. No “magic pill” for life extension has yet been discovered, and rejuvenation therapies are decades away even if billions of dollars were poured into their research tomorrow. Even when they are necessary to treat an illness or injury, many commonly used prescription medicines can result in severe side effects, implying that they should be used with extreme caution and awareness of the risks, even when they are prescribed. The time has not yet arrived for individual self-medication with the aim of life extension. As the details of the human body’s metabolism and its effects on senescence are far from fully understood, there are no guarantees that introducing any particular substance into the immensely complex machinery of the human organism will not do more harm than good. Most people will be much safer by adopting the heuristic of not fixing that, which is not obviously broken, while avoiding harmful habits, obtaining regular medical checkups, and following the advice of evidence-based medical practitioners.
Someday, hopefully in our lifetimes, medical science might advance to the point where it might be possible to inexpensively develop a deeply personalized supplementation regimen for each individual – a more compact, precise, and targeted version of what Ray Kurzweil does today at the cost of immense time and effort. Until then, Aristotle’s golden mean is still the best heuristic to enable most of us to survive for as long as possible, which will hopefully be long enough for improvements in human knowledge and health-care delivery to usher in the era of longevity escape velocity.