Yaron Brook would have the audience at the Yale Political Union believe that morality is a science.
“Your morality is not as most would have us believe … it is not to serve others, it is not to sacrifice,” the president of Ayn Rand institute — a nonprofit that aims to increase awareness of the author and political theorist — said Thursday night before a lively crowd. “Morality is the science that tells us how to live life to the fullest.”
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Although the union debated on the failed resolution “Resolved: Your Poverty is Your Problem,” Brook kept the discussion on a more basic philosophical level, arguing that all communal action must be voluntary. Although some later arguments later touched on this theme, students who spoke first focused primarily on whether the best solutions to poverty emerged from government or private charity.
Brook argued that every aspect of one own’s life is one’s own responsibility and opportunity, and that if morality is not based on building and creativity, the only alternative is “death, destruction, nothingness.” The successes of history were not created by collective action but by individuals, he said.
After outlining his philosophical underpinnings, he turned to the topic at hand.
“If you don’t want to be poor, think!” he exclaimed.
But he also argued that the poor in today’s mixed economy have justifiable grievances against others, especially the government that creates second-class citizens by imposing the welfare state upon poorer members of society — a destructive substitute, he said, offering one example, for allowing individuals to work for less than minimum wage if they so choose.
Equally destructive, he said, is a society based on force. The Internal Revenue Service agents are “thugs” who steal from individuals, as there is no difference between taxes and theft, he said. On the other hand, economics cannot be coercive, he said: Only force can be.
“You don’t even have to buy the bread if you think it costs too much,” Brook said.
Keeping with the tradition of his institution’s namesake, he argued that the best society is one composed of egoists who live first for themselves.
When questioned after his speech on how this view squared with obligations to the younger generation, he noted that parents’ responsibilities stem from the fact that they have chosen to bring into the world beings who did not ask for it.
“My children certainly don’t owe me anything,” he said. “I only owe them.”
But later speeches by students veered away from the philosophical concerns of individualism, focusing instead on how best to alleviate poverty in the context of a social community.
Whereas Brook pointed to the late 20th-century’s so-called “robber barons,” such as steel industrialist Andrew Carnegie, as examples of positive rag-to-riches stories, Noah Mamis ’08, an Independent Party member who spoke first last night, said those same individuals were emblematic of the ethical failing of such an individualistic approach.
Although much of what they did, he said, may have been within the law, that does not make it any more acceptable.
“It’s not moral to trample on the backs of hundreds” to achieve personal success, Mamis said.
Instead, he said, while private charity might be suited to deal with the symptoms of poverty, proving emergency care, food or shelter, only the government has the breadth of scope to deal with the underlying causes.
Other speakers discussed how the economic nature of poverty interacted with the social fabric of community. Jack O’Connor ’09, a Party of the Right member, said while he made his argument reluctantly, he doubted that poverty, per se, was sufficient in explaining the cycle of poverty, and that in trying to provide economic solutions to poverty, the government had displaced social institutions, like the family, which are necessary to truly escape the cycle.
“A society that lives economically through the state must consent to live socially thought the state,” O’Connor said.
Party of the Left member Dara Lind ’09 offered instead that people impoverish their own lives when they limit the assistance of others to the enumerated interactions between individuals through private charity. The government provides a way to engage the entire community, she said.
Lind is a staff columnist for the News.
Jay Schweikert ’08, an Independent Party member, was one student who did bring the debate back to Objectivism, the philosophy espoused by Ayn Rand.
Man’s greatest value is productiveness, he said, and once an individual allows another to begin to take a portion of that productiveness, there is no limit to how much may be taken.
“The question is not ‘Do we sacrifice for the poor?’ but ‘Do we sacrifice at all?’” he said, arguing that life and economics were not zero-sum games.
The debate was not all somber and serious.
At one point, Liberal Party member David Porter ’10 enlivened the debate with a somewhat-exaggerated and joking argument in the affirmative, arguing that poverty was the problem of the poor because they had “failed to take up the revolution” against the oppressive capitalist system.
He warned the mostly conservative members in the negative on the resolution: “Be grateful for the welfare state — it’s the reason you’re still here.”
Party of the Right member Andrew Olson ’08 asked Porter with mock seriousness whether he was not victimizing the poor, and whether he should not be instead offering them “hope” and “change.”
Porter tried to argue facetiously that “we can’t all just hold hands,” and Olson interrupted and shouted, just as facetiously, “Yes, we can!” The debate chamber briefly interjected either its support or opposition of presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama.
Ultimately, the union decided poverty was not only “your” problem, voting down the resolution by a 2-to-1 margin.