Objectivism, Part III: No Conflicts of Interests

This is part III of a series of posts on Objectivism.

The idea that there are irreconcilable conflicts of interests between people is an important misconception in morality. Ayn Rand argues against the idea of conflicts of interests really well. In the essay “The ‘Conflicts’ of Men’s Interests” (audio / PDF) in The Virtue of Selfishness, Rand talks about a supposed conflict of men’s interests:

A typical question runs as follows: “Suppose two men apply for the same job. Only one of them can be hired. Isn’t this an instance of a conflict of interests, and isn’t the benefit of one man achieved at the price of the sacrifice of the other?”

Throughout this post, I will quote from “The ‘Conflicts’ of Men’s Interests” and talk about the big themes. The first theme Rand talks about is reality. Here is a quote:

To claim that a man’s interests are sacrificed whenever a desire of his is frustrated—is to hold a subjectivist view of man’s values and interests. Which means: to believe that it is proper, moral and possible for man to achieve his goals, regardless of whether they contradict the facts of reality or not.

Rand analyzes the initial question as implying that someone who doesn’t get the job is having their interests frustrated because they want the job.

If you are not as qualified for a job, that is a fact of reality — you offer less value in some respect. Therefore, it’s reasonable for the employer to assume you’d create less wealth for the company. Given that, to then say that the employers’ failure to hire you would be against your interests is to say the company has to engage in altruistic self-sacrifice for your benefit. You start out wanting to claim that you have a conflict of interest with your competitor for the job, and you wind up demanding the very company you want to work for sacrifice their interests to yours. All this because you place your desire for a job over reality. The conflicts-of-interests perspective quickly leads to a demand for sacrificial victims.

The next theme in Rand’s essay is context.

A rational man does not indulge in wistful longings for ends divorced from means. He does not hold a desire without knowing (or learning) and considering the means by which it is to be achieved

A rational man knows and considers what’s involved in getting what he wants.

A business survives by offering its customers value. Since all businesses face competition — or at least the possibility of competition — they need to constantly be working to economize, reduce costs, and offer more value. One way of doing this is by hiring the most productive and able people they can afford.

Businesses relentlessly economizing is part of what creates an economy in which opportunities to earn a living are abundant. If businesses hired more based on nepotism, personal favors, or “giving the little guy who never had a shot a fair shake”, they would destroy wealth and create fewer jobs overall.

This is the context in which to consider questions like whether a conflict of interests exists if you’re bested for a job opportunity by someone more qualified. Is it in your interest to live in a world with bad policies that create less wealth and opportunity overall, just so you can have this a job (which might not even exist in such a world)? You want a particular fruit of the tree (the job in question) but you condemn as against your interests the roots of that tree.

Or do you want to win a kind of “lottery” by living in the world as it is — in which hiring criteria of private businesses is largely rational — while hoping the employer makes an error in your favor and you thus win out against a more qualified competitor? And if they don’t, you call the result against your interests? This is a bad, low-likelihood-of-success life strategy that is definitely not in your interest!

Rand says:

(b) Context. Both men should know that if they desire a job, their goal is made possible only by the existence of a business concern able to provide employment—that that business concern requires the availability of more than one applicant for any job—that if only one applicant existed, he would not obtain the job, because the business concern would have to close its doors—and that their competition for the job is to their interest, even though one of them will lose in that particular encounter.

If there was only one applicant for a job, that’s an indication of a serious problem. Why aren’t there more?

Maybe you’re the only person who wanted a job cuz the Black Death just swept through and wiped out all your potential competitors, and you got lucky and didn’t die. If that happened, then there would be fewer people producing in the world, and a smaller economy, and the business might not be able to last very long in such a situation. The Black Death making you the last man standing to get the job doesn’t actually help if the business winds up going out of business because of the very catastrophe that allowed you to get the job. In judging the desirability of a situation, you have to look at more than stuff than whether you have a short-term favorable outcome. You have to look at the broader context.

Next Rand talks about responsibility:

(c) Responsibility. This last is the particular form of intellectual responsibility that most people evade. That evasion is the major cause of their frustrations and defeats.
Most people hold their desires without any context whatever, as ends hanging in a foggy vacuum, the fog hiding any concept of means. They rouse themselves mentally only long enough to utter an “I wish,” and stop there, and wait, as if the rest were up to some unknown power.
What they evade is the responsibility of judging the social world. They take the world as the given. “A world I never made” is the deepest essence of their attitude—and they seek only to adjust themselves uncritically to the incomprehensible requirements of those unknowable others who did make the world, whoever those might be.
But humility and presumptuousness are two sides of the same psychological medal. In the willingness to throw oneself blindly on the mercy of others there is the implicit privilege of making blind demands on one’s masters.
There are countless ways in which this sort of “metaphysical humility” reveals itself.
There is the man who wants a job, but never thinks of discovering what qualifications the job requires or what constitutes doing one’s work well. Who is he to judge? He never made the world. Somebody owes him a living. How? Somehow.

To declare a value in your interest is a right to be earned, not a whim to be fulfilled somehow. You have to figure out how whatever you’re declaring your interest fits in the structure of society, how many there are of it, what’s involved in getting it, how realistic various plans are to obtain it, etc. You don’t get to declare that a conflict of interests exists because you have an idle wish for something and fail to do this background work.

If you do your due diligence, you will likely be able to get a job in the field you choose, even if its not your first choice. There’s no automatic guarantee of success, like Rand said earlier — but there are high-success-rate strategies.

Part of your due diligence will be figuring out which fields offer a viable career path for you. You don’t get to escape responsibility for the outcomes of your life by coming up with the best possible plan for a (generally) unrealistic career path like actor or sports star. Your responsibilities include looking at reality and context to see things like whether you meet physical requirements and how likely success is for any given person aspiring to that job.

Finally, Rand talks about effort:

Effort. Since a rational man knows that man must achieve his goals by his own effort, he knows that neither wealth nor jobs nor any human values exist in a given, limited, static quantity, waiting to be divided. He knows that all benefits have to be produced, that the gain of one man does not represent the loss of another, that a man’s achievement is not earned at the expense of those who have not achieved it.

Other people’s achievements aren’t harm to you. It’s a big world. There is lots of room for energetic, ambitious people to do stuff. If someone achieves something difficult by their own effort, that’s great. That’s another person in the world who you can trade with, who could offer you a job, who could help you out with advice and tips, etc. Even if they obtained something you wanted, they didn’t steal it from you: they earned it. We want a society in which the best producers and achievers get rewarded accordingly.

Therefore, he never imagines that he has any sort of unearned, unilateral claim on any human being—and he never leaves his interests at the mercy of any one person or single, specific concrete. He may need clients, but not any one particular customer—he may need a job, but not any one particular job.

You might say the rational man has an abundance mentality about clients and jobs (to borrow a PUA concept). He isn’t needy about having some particular client or job. He’s confident in his value and knows he has lots to offer to lots of different people.

(d) Effort. Whoever gets the job, has earned it (assuming that the employer’s choice is rational). This benefit is due to his own merit—not to the “sacrifice” of the other man who never had any vested right to that job. The failure to give to a man what had never belonged to him can hardly be described as “sacrificing his interests.”

If you want to work at a certain job, you have to make an effort to figure out what’s involved in getting and keeping it. This may include things like figuring out how to get relevant education, credentials, certifications, apprenticeships, or internships, how to do networking, how to communicate your qualifications to employers, how to be qualified and competent at the work, how to handle interviews, how to demonstrate your competence at performance reviews, how to negotiate salaries, how to maintain and improve your professional skills, etc.

If someone outcompetes you in these things and gets a certain job, their efforts earned them the job. You struggled but didn’t quite make it. As Rand says, there’s no automatic guarantee of success. If you haven’t earned something, how is it against your interest to lose it? Do you think you have the right to the unearned?

Conflict of Interests Between Apple and Consumers?

Lots of people think there is a conflict of interests between businesses like Apple and consumers. They think it is in the business’s interest to make their products go obsolete quickly, which is counter to the consumer’s interest. This is mistaken. Let’s look at a quote from a recent article by Daniel Eran Dilger at AppleInsider.

For Apple, the more existing iPhones it can keep in active use, the larger the addressable market it can count on to buy upgrades each year. Counterintuitively, rather than making its older phones break early, Apple wants to keep them working, so that even refurbished trade-ins and hand-me-downs keep serving someone with a potential to upgrade to a new iPhone someday in the future.

Existing iPhone users are far less likely to leave iOS because Apple keeps working to make its platform an attractive place to stay. Unlike Android, Apple is cultivating a rich ecosystem, not just the barest compatibility API for running shared software across the device outputs of various Chinese factories.

Lots of people seem to think the only strategy for capitalist companies is short term profit by means of sketchy strategies like crappy build quality and planned obsolescence. But that’s just not true.

Businesses need to satisfy consumers’ preferences if they want to be profitable. They need to offer customers value. The more value they offer, the more consumers will be willing to pay. This is the context every business operates in.

If your thing isn’t as nice or doesn’t work well or doesn’t do as much stuff as another thing, people aren’t willing to pay as much for it (see prices for Kindle Fire tablets vs iPads). So that means if you build relatively nicer stuff, you can charge more than your competitors.

If your thing breaks quickly, people can’t resell it or give it as a hand-me-down. Things like resalability or sufficient durability for hand-me-down purposes are values which increase the price people are willing to pay up front. And as Daniel Eran Dilger says above, long-lasting products can create the possibility of further customers down the line from one product.

Building low-quality crap that is designed to go obsolete quickly is a low profit strategy. You are offering lower value to consumers. Even if you lie and fool some people initially, people will find out, especially nowadays with things like Amazon reviews. And they will accordingly pay less.

A better, more-long-range strategy is to build nice things that work well, that people like, and that they are willing to pay lots of money for. It’s not easy — it can involve things like being an innovator, spending money on R&D, having good ideas about design, pro-actively solving problems consumers don’t even know they have, and being good at things like inventory management and marketing. So like I said, it’s not easy — but it is very profitable.

Apple sees how making a good product that lasts a long time is more profitable long-term: a long-lasting phone satisfies the first owner, making them more likely to get upgrades (which may be more expensive) and can also bring subsequent owners of a particular phone into the Apple ecosystem.

Apple isn’t engaged in range-of-the-moment thinking where they try to sacrifice customer satisfaction tomorrow for some more profit today. They recognize that being a profitable company requires planning for the long range. Apple acts rationally, and sees that there is no conflict of interest between them and their customers.

Comment on Feynman’s Discussion of Zeno’s Paradox


I got critical feedback on the example I came up with in this post and wrote this blog comment in response:

I think I got mixed up in the following way:

I used an everyday example that varied in some details from the Achilles-tortoise race to check my understanding of Feynman’s explanation of Zeno’s paradox. I imported some background assumptions about how bills work (like lots tend to be regularly repeating on say a monthly basis) but then made the bills deviate from how bills actually work (and also made income deviate from how it actually works) in order to try to fit the ratios of the Achilles-tortoise race. So I basically did a poor rewrite of the original Zeno’s paradox using some superficial elements from the paradox in a new hypothetical where they didn’t make a lot of sense.

original post below

From one of the Feynman lectures on physics:

8–2 Speed
Even though we know roughly what “speed” means, there are still some rather deep subtleties; consider that the learned Greeks were never able to adequately describe problems involving velocity. The subtlety comes when we try to comprehend exactly what is meant by “speed.” The Greeks got very confused about this, and a new branch of mathematics had to be discovered beyond the geometry and algebra of the Greeks, Arabs, and Babylonians. As an illustration of the difficulty, try to solve this problem by sheer algebra: A balloon is being inflated so that the volume of the balloon is increasing at the rate of 100  cm³ per second; at what speed is the radius increasing when the volume is 1000 cm³? The Greeks were somewhat confused by such problems, being helped, of course, by some very confusing Greeks. To show that there were difficulties in reasoning about speed at the time, Zeno produced a large number of paradoxes, of which we shall mention one to illustrate his point that there are obvious difficulties in thinking about motion. “Listen,” he says, “to the following argument: Achilles runs 10 times as fast as a tortoise, nevertheless he can never catch the tortoise. For, suppose that they start in a race where the tortoise is 100 meters ahead of Achilles; then when Achilles has run the 100 meters to the place where the tortoise was, the tortoise has proceeded 10 meters, having run one-tenth as fast. Now, Achilles has to run another 10 meters to catch up with the tortoise, but on arriving at the end of that run, he finds that the tortoise is still 1 meter ahead of him; running another meter, he finds the tortoise 10 centimeters ahead, and so on, ad infinitum. Therefore, at any moment the tortoise is always ahead of Achilles and Achilles can never catch up with the tortoise.” What is wrong with that? It is that a finite amount of time can be divided into an infinite number of pieces, just as a length of line can be divided into an infinite number of pieces by dividing repeatedly by two. And so, although there are an infinite number of steps (in the argument) to the point at which Achilles reaches the tortoise, it doesn’t mean that there is an infinite amount of time.

So the error is reasoning from the infinite divisibility of a particular amount of time in the abstract to the conclusion that there is infinite time in reality. Is that right?

At this point I think I’m not really “solid” on this idea so I want to CHEW it some.

Using your mind you can conceptually cut up a length of time as many times as you want, but it’s still the same total length.

It’s kinda like if you had $100, and you reasoned as follows:
When I get my next bill for $100, I’ll also get another $10 of income.
When I get a bill after that for $10, I’ll also get $1 of income.
When I get a bill after that for $1, I’ll also get 10 cents of income.
And on and on.
I will never run out of money!
In reality, you won’t have infinite time to keep getting the smaller amount of income that lets you handle the smaller bills. At some point it’ll be next month, and the big bill will be do again, and you’ll be in trouble.

Likewise with the Zeno stuff. The tortoise doesn’t have infinite time to keep getting another increment ahead. Eventually he runs out, and Achilles laps him, and that’s that.