November 2001 -- A commentary from the Navigator Special: The Assault on Civilization, revised October 15, 2001. Published in the November 2001 Navigator.
The terrorist attacks of September 11 showed us good and evil, heroism and villainy. There were people who stared death in the face and, setting fear aside, did what they thought needed doing. Firefighters and policemen strode into burning buildings to save lives. Passengers attacked armed hijackers with their bare hands. And the hijackers steadfastly flew stolen airliners into their targets at the price of certain death. Given this basic similarity, why were some acclaimed as martyrs and heroes while others were ...view middle of the document...
What we think heroic depends crucially on what we think noble. Strength is heroic if excellence of strength is noble. Self-sacrifice is heroic if service to a cause or to others is noble. The radical Islamic tradition that lies behind Middle Eastern praise for the September 11 hijackers combines the adulation of service to God with a theocratic commitment to advance the faith in political terms. In Islam, marked from the first with the conception of the holy war, the warrior in the cause of the holy is a classical hero, and his death is a martyr's death.
The concept that heroism is self-sacrifice for a noble ideal is clearly alive in the West today. It is propounded by the religious establishment and neo-traditionalists like William Bennett. But it is present even in the basically secular and hedonistic mainstream culture. Consider, for example, the 1996 blockbuster movie Independence Day, in which the self-sacrifice of Randy Quaid's boozing crop-duster pilot in a kamikaze style attack transforms him from bum to hero in the eyes of the world and even his own children.
Large segments of our culture seem to think self-sacrifice is the measure of moral worth. The press has been full of reports, since the attacks on the Twin Towers, that America has shown its moral greatness. The New York Times, in a story about how attitudes toward New York have changed in the heartland, reports on this phenomenon: "Debi Koss, a nurse, used to think of New York as a faceless, godless cinderblock. But she has revised her views. ''I've seen a lot of selflessness,' Ms. Koss said." The article also cites a factory worker who remarks that the post-disaster spirit of mutual aid contrasts favorably with the normal run of business: "'Before, they appeared to be selfish with their time.'"
Objectivism opposes the ethic of self-sacrifice. It holds that each person's life and happiness are and should be the lodestones of value for himself. It is an egoist moral code, down to the root. It is an ethic of rational selfishness and principled self-interest. And in correspondence with its ethical code, Objectivism implies an idea of the hero which we see realized not only in crises like the September 11 attacks, but also in the normal run of business, in the acts of people who are "selfish with their time."
The Objectivist view of heroism is a bourgeois, industrial-age advance from the Classical heroic ideal. The classical hero was strong or perhaps cunning. But his essential characteristic was the admirable excellence of a victor in zero-sum conflicts like war or the Olympic Games. Bourgeois heroism is exemplified in a rational, professional, and productive excellence. For example, a scientist who wins a Nobel Prize for achievements in his field is a hero to his peers due to what he has created. In the same way, someone who develops new products or opens new markets is a hero. Objectivism adds the insight that this kind of excellence is of the noblest spiritual...