Monday, March 31, 2008

"You know, we're living in a society!"

Over the last two semesters I have been participating in two seminar classes offered within the Center for Microelectronics & Photonics at the University of Arkansas. The center offers interdisciplinary graduate degrees, and I have gotten to know the first and second year students in the program pretty well by going to these seminars. The most intriguing class thus far was the discussion of the responsibilities of a scientist or engineer in the society at large. Here is the essence of the question that started the discussion: Do we as technologists have an "extra" duty to society because of our training and talents? Or, said another way, what do we "owe" society based on our talents, education and employment opportunities?

As you might guess, the first comments by the students were something like, "We should give back to society because of our successes." When I heard this, I saw an opportunity to challenge this notion that has become conventional wisdom. In reality, these extremely bright students had not been GIVEN anything. They had to EARN their degrees and admission to graduate schools, and later, when they apply for jobs they will EARN a salary. It won't be GIVEN to them out of the goodness of the employers heart.

So, I simply asked what does it mean to live in society and what giving back actually means. When I asked the question, I was thinking of Ayn Rand's Objectivism philosophy, "Man - every man - is an end in himself, not the means to the ends of others. He must exist for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself." Rand put forth the idea (in Atlas Shrugged) that creators of intellectual property more than pay their way in society by their innovations. Essentially, she would say that the idea of "giving back" is fallacious because the intellectual labor of creators gives value to society well beyond what the creator can utilize.

I am drawn to the another Objectist idea that men should deal with one another by voluntary free exchange with mutual benefit. That is why I want to scream when someone says, "That house is too big," or "You shouldn't drive an SUV." How someone chooses to spend their money should be of no concern to anyone else unless it is illegal. Only a collectivist (socialist, communist, or fascist) believes that it is his right to tell his neighbor how to spend his money. Although my relationship with the Creator tells me that much is expected from whom much (money, talent, etc.) is given, I don't believe that I have the right to force that view on my neighbor.

To this day, this is the only discussion that has continued for some time after class. That is noteworthy because the class ends at 4:30 on Friday afternoon in a college town. I think the reason for this is because Rand's views of society are in such conflict with the prevailing "wisdom" of our society. Hopefully, the next time someone screams at these students "You know, we're living in a society. We're supposed to act in a civilized way!" the response will be "Who is John Galt?"


DePriest Family said...

I'm fine if intelligent people don't want to leave their mark on society, but is there anything we can do about people that we don't want to leave their mark but do anyways? (Paris Hilton, Brittany Spears, et al) Do you realize that tens of Americans wasted hours a day watching or talking about Anna Nicole Smith or her affairs for months after she died even though nobody cared about her when she was alive? It reminds me of a quote from Field of Dreams when Shoeless Joe was talking about Ty Cobb, "Nobody liked the son of a gun when he was alive, so we told him to stick it."

I'm not sure any of this applies or even makes sense, but that's the best I could do for a comment. :)


Kritter Krit said...

I liked your comment, Adam. =)

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