Objectivism, Part II: Second-handedness

In my last post I discussed some of the core positions of Objectivism in various subdisciplines of philosophy. In this post I will begin discussing some concepts where I think Objectivism has something especially interesting to say. I have decided that I will do this across multiple posts. I begin below with some discussion of second-handedness. Some of the below is adapted from a previous post of mine on the Fallible Ideas list.

Second-handedness and social metaphysics are two equivalent terms for describing the same concept: a way of living without your own values, where you live according to the values, and for the approval, of other people. The best discussion of second-handedness can be found in Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead.

Here is an explanation of second-handers (using the term “social metaphysician”) offered by Rand in The Virtue of Selfishness in the essay “The Argument from Intimidation”:

A social metaphysician is one who regards the consciousness of other men as superior to his own and to the facts of reality. It is to a social metaphysician that the moral appraisal of himself by others is a primary concern which supersedes truth, facts, reason, logic. The disapproval of others is so shatteringly terrifying to him that nothing can withstand its impact within his consciousness; thus he would deny the evidence of his own eyes and invalidate his own consciousness for the sake of any stray charlatan’s moral sanction. It is only a social metaphysician who could conceive of such absurdity as hoping to win an intellectual argument by hinting: “But people won’t like you!”

If you go by things like truth, facts, reason, and logic, you have to see and understand the point of stuff yourself. You can’t, say, be persuaded by a logical argument with no understanding of logic! But if you go the opinions of others, then you don’t have to understand things like logic for yourself. Instead of logic, you can learn things like how to pick up on the opinions of others and rebroadcast them as your own.

Since you don’t think things through yourself, the “ideas” you have are the stuff you’ve uncritically accepted from other people. But if most other people are also second-handers, then it’s just a bunch of people rebroadcasting what’s popular, right? Well, largely, but the ideas still need to come from somewhere. Where? The intellectuals. This gives the intellectuals great power. And some of those intellectuals want to be your rulers.

A community of first-handed people, no matter how “uneducated” and low-status they might be, is pretty hard to rule tyrannically, since they always want to know things like “why?” and “what for?”. But a society of second-handers is much easier to rule. The villain of The Fountainhead, Ellsworth Toohey, explains this in a speech:

You’re afraid to see where it’s leading. I’m not. I’ll tell you. The world of the future. The world I want. A world of obedience and of unity. A world where the thought of each man will not be his own, but an attempt to guess the thought in the brain of his neighbor who’ll have no thought of his own but an attempt to guess the thought of the next neighbor who’ll have no thought—and so on, Peter, around the globe. Since all must agree with all. A world where no man will hold a desire for himself, but will direct all his efforts to satisfy the desires of his neighbor who’ll have no desires except to satisfy the desires of the next neighbor who’ll have no desires—around the globe, Peter. Since all must serve all. A world in which man will not work for so innocent an incentive as money, but for that headless monster—prestige. The approval of his fellows—their good opinion—the opinion of men who’ll be allowed to hold no opinion. An octopus, all tentacles and no brain. Judgment, Peter? Not judgment, but public polls. An average drawn upon zeroes—since no individuality will be permitted. A world with its motor cut off and a single heart, pumped by hand. My hand—and the hands of a few, a very few other men like me.

Being second-handed means delivering yourself into the hands of someone like Toohey. Being second-handed means your mind can’t serve as a check on some philosopher’s bad ideas — instead you become an amplification device for the bad ideas. You become part of a mob.

Lots of people would dislike what Rand describes as social metaphysics in at least some cases. Most people have some recognition of the fact that integrity to one’s values is a virtue and crowd-following is not a virtue. What people don’t realize is how pervasive second-handedness is, including in lots of situations people think of as totally mundane and unobjectionable. Example: when a professor is introduced before giving a lecture at an event, and the person doing the introduction gives a lengthy list of the professor’s honors, awards, books, accolades, etc., that is second-handedness in action. That list of stuff is not providing useful information to would be listeners — they are not seriously deciding whether or not to listen to the lecture on the basis of whether the professor’s publication background seems interesting. Even if they are particularly interested in further reading of the professor’s work, they do not need a recitation of a bibliography that is available online. The purpose of the list is to impress the listeners by telling them how prestigious the person in front of them is, and to flatter the professor by showing a socially appropriate respect for his prestige level. The purpose of the list is that you give more weight to the professor’s statements based on his prestige. By asking that of you, the list is not appealing to your reason, but to your willingness to be awed by demonstrations of social status. The social game to acquire the social status with which to awe others is a full time job that people work at, to the exclusion of more productive activities. And the people that win at it are definitely not the most competent on the merits in their field.

Some other examples of second-handedness in action:
– Name-dropping
– Laugh tracks (asking you to find something funny cuz other people find it funny)
– Advertisements that encourage you to buy fancy cars to impress others
– Social pressure to go to university cuz “what will your parents/people think” if you don’t
– Christmas card family photos (showing off your “perfect” family to other people; or alternatively, showing off how quirky and “weird” you are to other people)

Second-handedness is not just about trying to win over other people by doing stuff they like. It’s much more insidious than that. Second-handedness leads to value corruption, where the people being second-handed take on the values they were initially imitating for the sake of pleasing other people. This can be a much deeper problem than refraining from overt status-seeking behavior, since the issue is not putting on airs to impress others, but what one has (second-handedly) accepted as desirable and good. This shows the dangers of secondhandedness. Your values are about how you live. If you suppress your values and put on airs to impress others, it is much easier to keep that going if you internalize as good the show you are putting on for others. It’s a lot of work to maintain a split in your mind — so in a sense, it’s much easier to be a consistent and thorough second-hander and wipe yourself out of existence.

An example of internalized second-handedness: if a couple is at a “nice” dinner, and one of them spontaneously says “this is really nice, isn’t it?” and they MEAN it, and the other person replies “Yeah, it IS nice!” and they MEAN it, this is seen as a nice thing. It would be portrayed positively on a TV show, even if the judgments about the niceness were the result of uncritically-accepted cultural judgments related to the ambiance and expense of the meal. I have referred to this sort of thing as living for the sake of an idealized “image.”

This is my guess as to what the process is like for those who internalize second-handed values:

  1. A child has their MIND AND SOUL CRUSHED FOR YEARS BY PARENTS AND SCHOOL, and is told that being too into their own interests is weird/a mental illness/will lead to a miserable life etc.
  2. The crushed kid learns to let the judgments of others shape and guide their values (second-handedness).
  3. The crushed kid (now somewhat older) internalizes a bunch of these values and actually wants them now.

One illustration of going from 2 to 3 is this: a girl might initially put on makeup because of the positive reactions it gets from other people, even though she has some problems with it (its annoying, its expensive, it runs off in certain situations, it takes time to apply). But over time it becomes a part of her self image, she actually likes makeup, learns a lot about it, can’t imagine not using it, the drawbacks don’t seem important or even worth thinking about, etc.

Below I quote from Rand’s The Fountainhead, which heavily focuses on the theme of second-handedness. Howard Roark is an architect and the hero of the novel:

Mr. Robert L. Mundy, who came to Roark’s office in March, had been sent by Austen Heller. Mr. Mundy’s voice and hair were gray as steel, but his eyes were blue, gentle and wistful. He wanted to build a house in Connecticut, and he spoke of it tremulously, like a young bridegroom and like a man groping for his last, secret goal.
“It’s not just a house, Mr. Roark,” he said with timid diffidence, as if he were speaking to a man older and more prominent than himself, “it’s like … like a symbol to me. It’s what I’ve been waiting and working for all these years. It’s so many years now…. I must tell you this, so you’ll understand. I have a great deal of money now, more than I care to think about. I didn’t always have it. Maybe it came too late. I don’t know. Young people think that you forget what happens on the way when you get there. But you don’t. Something stays. I’ll always remember how I was a boy—in a little place down in Georgia, that was—and how I ran errands for the harness maker, and the kids laughed when carriages drove by and splashed mud all over my pants. That’s how long ago I decided that some day I’d have a house of my own, the kind of a house that carriages stop before. After that, no matter how hard it got to be at times, I’d always think of that house, and it helped. Afterward, there were years when I was afraid of it—I could have built it, but I was afraid. Well, now the time has come. Do you understand, Mr. Roark? Austen said you’d be just the man who’d understand.”
“Yes,” said Roark eagerly, “I do.”
“There was a place,” said Mr. Mundy, “down there, near my home town. The mansion of the whole county. The Randolph place. An old plantation house, as they don’t build them any more. I used to deliver things there sometimes, at the back door. That’s the house I want, Mr. Roark. Just like it. But not back there in Georgia. I don’t want to go back. Right here, near the city. I’ve bought the land. You must help me to have it landscaped just like the Randolph place. We’ll plant trees and shrubs, the kind they have in Georgia, the flowers and everything. We’ll find a way to make them grow. I don’t care how much it costs. Of course, we’ll have electric lights and garages now, not carriages. But I want the electric lights made like candles and I want the garages to look like the stables. Everything, just as it was. I have photographs of the Randolph place. And I’ve bought some of their old furniture.”
When Roark began to speak Mr. Mundy listened, in polite astonishment. He did not seem to resent the words. They did not penetrate.
“Don’t you see?” Roark was saying. “It’s a monument you want to build, but not to yourself. Not to your life or your own achievement. To other people. To their supremacy over you. You’re not challenging that supremacy. You’re immortalizing it. You haven’t thrown it off—you’re putting it up forever. Will you be happy if you seal yourself for the rest of your life in that borrowed shape? Or if you strike free, for once, and build a new house, your own? You don’t want the Randolph place. You want what it stood for. But what it stood for is what you’ve fought all your life.”
Mr. Mundy listened blankly. And Roark felt again a bewildered helplessness before unreality: there was no such person as Mr. Mundy; there were only the remnants, long dead, of the people who had inhabited the Randolph place; one could not plead with remnants or convince them.
“No,” said Mr. Mundy, at last. “No. You may be right, but that’s not what I want at all. I don’t say you haven’t got your reasons, and they sound like good reasons, but I like the Randolph place.”
“Just because I like it. Just because that’s what I like.”

Mr. Mundy actually likes the Randolph place. That’s his image. The bit about “there was no such person as Mr. Mundy” is telling us that this is an example of second-handedness in action. Mr. Mundy uncritically accepted the vision of this house as a thing to strive for. Roark tries to talk him out of it, but it’s no use. Lots of people, not grasping the concept of second-handedness or its insidious effect on people’s lives, would read this scene and see an uppity architect getting into an unnecessary argument with a potential client. What’s going on is almost more akin to a priest trying to save someone’s soul and then realizing in bewilderment that there’s no soul to be saved.

Ceasing to be an active, approval-seeking second-hander won’t help fully resolve the bad stuff you’ve already internalized as valuing and being good. It’ll help a bit — the bad stuff won’t be getting certain kinds of positive reinforcement from other people if you stop being actively second-handed. But you’ve actually got to go and address your valuations of that stuff directly.