Tuesday, July 24, 2012


"He that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom."
-Gandalf, The Two Towers

Rand Gravesite
Ayn Rand's influence on America and elsewhere has been profound for a single writer of fiction. Few authors have spawned such a significant following and had such an influence on thinking and politics as this small Russian immigrant. Her philosophy of Objectivism has been seized on and embraced by many who find the ideas she wrote about to fit their inclinations or to make sense of the world around them that no other sufficiently does.

Objectivism has influenced and is claimed by a wide variety of people across the nation, such as comic book artist Steve Ditko (creator of Dr Strange and co creator of Spider-Man), Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, and former Fed chairman Alan Greenspan. Although libertarianism is a separate movement, most libertarians are strongly influenced by Rand's ideology, and objectivism is very popular among most libertarians. Ayn Rand was very critical of libertarianism, however, because it is almost exclusively focused on public policy rather than a whole worldview. Further she believed that libertarians were not natural defenders of capitalism, only personal liberty.

Objectivism has its good sides, as I've written about before. The elevation of reason above emotion, the focus on what is absolutely true and good over relativism and subjective thought is certainly a positive idea for America and the west. Objectivism absolutely rejects statist and collectivist ideas, insisting on personal responsibility and the need for liberty.

So where's the problem? I have tried to be as fair as I could in this series, but I've not spent hours and days studying Rand, so there is always some I might have missed or misunderstood.

Part of it is Rand's fixation on reason, and part of it is a reaction to collectivism. Often, when someone has been very powerfully affected by something bad, they tend to be excessively sensitive and focus on that bad. If you were raised by someone who was abusive, you tend to see abuse where it might not be intended or actually taking place, for example. Feminists saw sexism and chauvinism where there was simply distinction between genders or chivalry.

And here I believe Ayn Rand got into trouble. Ayn Rand was so shocked and harmed by collectivist ideas that she saw it as the great evil in the world, and further she saw its creeping evil in places where it was not necessarily the case.

As I noted in the first piece on Ayn Rand, one form of collectivism and statism is religion, where theologically liberal Christians tried to impose their ideas of charity and piety in the United States through the federal government, often in direct violation of the US Constitution. Prohibition, Social Security, Medicare, and so on were all the children of these liberal Christian activists, most around the late 19th and early 20th century. Building on the great revivals of the 1800s, these Christians sought to not only do good in their neighborhoods, but for doing good to become federal policy.

Ayn Rand saw this as an evil, because it violated liberty, corroded the culture, and made people vassals to the government. However, she also seemed to understand that all religious thought followed these patterns, that Christianity necessarily was statist, and that faith led people to collectivism. She wrote often in strong criticism of Christianity and its influence on the society.

There is another form of Christianity, one that is much closer to what the Bible teaches and Jesus practiced as example for His followers. That Christianity teaches that we ought to help those in need, but that it is a personal, individual choice, not collective need. The Bible does not tell anyone that they must give to a common pool to be disbursed by a governing body. Nor does it say that you must help and do good to others in order to be saved. Unlike, say, Islam, there is no compulsion to carry out charity - for to do so would render it no longer charitable (loving) but simply duty and obedience.

Christians are free to help others selflessly, and do so out of gratitude for the immense sacrifice and love demonstrated to them by God through Jesus Christ. The motivation is not fear of punishment or hope of reward but a loving reaction of thanksgiving. Christians will not be lost if they fail to do good, they will hurt the one they should love over all others, and who loves them more than any other possibly can attempt. Ayn Rand was completely unaware, or rejected, this principle. And even if she was aware of this selfless and spontaneous desire to help those in need, she would have rejected it in any case.

Because Ayn Rand's driving worldview was of rational self interest, or even "selfishness" as she often put it. For her, everything a human did or thought should be driven by how it affects or hurts them, through the lens of reason. There was neither reason or interest in helping others for the sake of helping them. In fact, she considered anyone who would accept assistance at the cost of their own liberty and self-interest evil because they were contributing to a system she called evil. This she termed the "Sanction of the Victim" in Atlas Shrugged.

In other words, if you live on food stamps, you're helping the collectivist tyranny develop and crush everyone else. You are contributing to the slavery that all are being incrementally burdened with, you're helping liberties be taken away. Everyone has not just reason to want to be selfish, but the moral duty to be so, in Rand's ideology.

In her writings, she came very close to Friedrich Nietzsche's ideas of how charity and kindness was weak and destructive. Again, it isn't that Rand was opposed to helping others, its that she felt doing so was totally self-focused. You help others when you choose to because it helps you personally, not out of any altruism.

For Rand, altruism was foolish and nonexistent, because she defined altruism incorrectly. Altruism is doing good because it is good and for no selfish gain. It is doing the right thing because that is sufficient cause in and of its self. Altruism is pure good; and since we're sinful humans, none of us are purely good. in that sense, no one is truly altruistic.

But Rand defined altruism as being compelled by others to help someone else. She defined it as coercion and tyranny rather than selfless good. Ayn Rand argued that whatever you call it, if you're helping others because you are supposed to, you are being tyrannized by others instead of being self-focused and self-interested.

She built an entire ethical system around selfishness, believing that if everyone was sufficiently rational and self-interested then poverty, need, and want would all vanish. People would take care of themselves instead of worrying about each other. People would stop fighting wars, stop being criminals, stop taking away liberty. All we have to do is simply care about ourselves and no one else, and our troubles go away.

The flaws with this are obvious: the most glaring is that rational self interest will lead people to want to take what others have. Merely being rational does not negate the desire to have what others do - indeed it may exacerbate this. Now Rand would call this wrong because it means attaining what you have not created, but it need not take the form of mere theft. After all, is not being a skilled, capable warrior and general a form of creation and production? You produce tactics, logistics, and victory. One cannot argue that production must always take the form of physical structure - Ayn Rand spoke at great length on philosophy, which has no physical presence whatsoever.

The arts are largely reduced to sculpture, architecture, and similar devices in Rand's books due to this focus on production, but even her heroine Dagny Taggart loved to listen to Richard Halley's music. Music has no form unless you write it down or record it - music is simply sounds which cannot be given shape. Clearly Rand was not opposed to intangible or abstract production. So how is war bad, again? Because it violates another's rational self interest? Well that's their problem, isn't it? One could even make a good case that a very skilled, capable burglar carrying out their task of stealing from others is producing as well. And they're certainly serving their selfish interests.

Another major flaw is that not everyone is capable of caring for themselves. Some are so weak, or damaged, or sick, or small that they are incapable of this level of independence. A student of Rand's books may have noticed something: they're almost entirely devoid of children. We, The Living is told from the point of view of a child, and there are a few scant mentions of children in the other books, but they are almost entirely missing from her entire, large body of work. Her heroic women not only have no children but evidence zero interest in children whatsoever.

Why? Well think about it: where's the rational self interest in sacrificing your time and efforts to raise a helpless child? Children tyrannize their parents by taking time, energy, years, and money away merely to survive. Children violate nearly every principle of rational self interest that Ayn Rand taught. Ayn Rand herself had no children, although we do not know the exact reason.

Someone who is very ill and unable to work enough to feed themselves or earn money must either depend on others to survive... or die. Rand's work does not particularly address this problem, and rational self interest will not tend to provide enough support for such a person for them to live in Rand's world. There's a reason all her main characters - particularly her heroes - are such physical specimens. They are superbeings of towering intellect, integrity, willpower, and physical might. They do not get sick. They do not need care. They do not age. They never reach a point of infirmity they require the care of others to live. In fact, there's almost no mention of this sort of person existing in Rand's writings whatsoever.

The rejection of doing good to help others is what leads many to the conclusion that Rand's philosophy is cold and heartless. And it is easy to see why that would be so. Many people who personally embrace this philosophy are cold and heartless, taking Rand's concept of self interest and emotion as expressed reason to heart.

This is caused, I believe, by following through on the principle that you are to care about yourself first, and others are to care for themselves, not you. That if you are burdened with concerns for others, then you are being tyrannized by the collective and not free. That if you are compelled to help or worry about others, then you are being victimized by them. So you live your life and shrug at the problems of others - that is, indeed, their problem and not yours. As a result, compassion is lost and sympathy disappears. And the otherwise heroic stature of all Rand's main characters is significantly damaged by this trait. They come across as very strong willed and full of basic integrity, they seem intelligent and capable but almost robotic in their lack of humanity.

Because man is a social animal, like it or not. We are designed to work with and be with others. Humans cannot live entirely to and of themselves, nor should we. We are enhanced and uplifted by others around us through humor, their gifts, and their weaknesses. And it is by reaching out and helping others in their weakness that we become better people ourselves. Lacking this social nature makes someone into less than human, not more. Humanity is not defined by its unique ability to produce, but by our souls. Our reason is an expression of our nature, not the definition of it.

One of the most useful and fundamental concepts to understand this principle is the "social contract" which I have written about many times before. This is the idea that when humans gather into a culture or grouping, they each give up a little of their potential liberty and expression in order to gain much as a whole. While this principle is somewhat collectivist in its nature, Ayn Rand never seemed to understand that not everything is individual nor should it be. It is simply impossible for humans to live entirely isolated and for themselves. Objectivists collect together with like-minded individuals to form a united whole. Rand was so hurt by the scathing, contemptuous reviews she wept over them. She understood the social nature of humans at some level.

Ayn Rand made the same basic philosophical error as the logical positivists: she presumed that all that exists is what can be measured, sensed, and analyzed through science. Yet coming to that conclusion she demands we use reason which cannot be measured, sensed, or analyzed through science. Rand tries to get around that by defining production as reason given form and purpose, but she used reason as an abstraction to reach that conclusion. Like Logical Positivism, Rand's philosophy is self defeating, it suicides upon its main axis of reason.

There is much of life which defies reason as well. Love, for example is undeniably true yet cannot be expressed through reason or science. Rand tries, by defining love and relationships through the lens of personal benefit:
"A man's sexual choice is the result and the sum of his fundamental convictions.... He will always be attracted to the woman who reflects his deepest vision of himself, the woman whose surrender permits him to experience a sense of self-esteem. The man who is proudly certain of his own value, will want the highest type of woman he can find, the woman he admires, the strongest, the hardest to conquer--because only the possession of a heroine will give him the sense of an achievement."
The problem is even she knows that's not genuinely true and that no relationship can survive the coldly selfish approach she expresses. For her, sex is fulfilled by finding someone whose intellectual and moral values match your own, given the fullest expression of that connection. In other words, its all about you, again.

In We, the Living, Ayn Rand's main character condemns warfare and struggle to help others as wrong, because we're merely supposed to live for ourselves.
You see, you and I, we believe in life. But you want to fight for it, to kill for it, even to die -- for life. I only want to live it.
That sounds terribly nice and it was sentiments of that sort which probably made her quite popular on college campuses and with young people in the early 60s, but the truth is, sometimes you have to fight to protect and build. Condemning war as awful and nasty is easy - and true - but does not deal with the need to oppose evil and stop it. Merely not being evil yourself is not enough.

Rand's ideology, like so many others, presumes that man is not innately flawed or troubled, only that we're misguided and misled. That if only we'd think right, we'd do right and the problems we face would go away. Yet where did those who mislead come from in the first place if there is no innate flaw in humanity? And if not everyone is rationally capable of living right, then being entirely self-interested is not sufficient. You will have to deal with these evil people, and "going Galt" will not stop the barbarian at your gate. Non violent resistance and withdrawing only works against a civilized foe who uses non violent means. You cannot "just live" if there is evil in the world, and only a fool would think there is not.
"There are no evil thoughts except one: the refusal to think."
Ultimately, Rand's entire philosophy is based on the principle that everyone should be like her, and that she was good. Being intelligent, rational, and self-interested were all defined as "good" by her, without any other basis than the argument that reason is good and this leads to self interest. She had no basis for her philosophy other than insistence and the argument that reason is self evidently good. In the end, this argument ends up being wholly pragmatic: reason is constructive and physically useful, hence it is good. Production is constructive and physically useful, hence it is good.

Ethical pragmatism is the idea that the end defines the good or bad of what you do. If what you accomplish was useful - it met your goals and achieved what you set out to do - it is declared good. And that's what Rand's basic philosophy was. Reason and production did what she thought should be done, so they were good. And hence, good is based on reason and production and that which interferes with, opposes, or stops this is bad. And that, as best I can understand her, defines Rand's entire ethical system.

She makes good arguments for the importance of reason, and she's quite right that reason triumphs over collectivism and statism. She's right that a corruption or loss of reason is the necessary foundation for tyranny and collectivism. She's right that reason is a very high feature of humanity and it is a powerful tool to help understand the world. Her arguments for basic Aristotelian logic are very true.
“Devotion to the truth is the hallmark of morality; there is no greater, nobler, more heroic form of devotion than the act of a man who assumes the responsibility of thinking.”
But none of that argues ethics. Its no more good to be reasonable than it is to be unreasonable, at an objective level. If your basis for your arguments is what works, then the collectivist is doing good, too, because they are achieving their goals. And if you base all your arguments on something with you - reason, in this case - then you have no objective, absolute basis for rejecting other peoples' arguments and ethics. They're just doing the same thing you are. Maybe they don't argue it well. Maybe their ideas end up doing things you think are bad. But they've got just as much basis and right to declare their ethics as you do yours, if you do so from a subjective standpoint.

Only an ethical system outside the person, an objective system, can possibly negate this flaw with relativism. Only a system given us by someone who came up with the entire principle of ethics and creation its self can possibly be a proper, worthy system of ethics. The one who by their very existence and nature defines right and wrong is the only one who can possibly provide us with ethics. And Ayn Rand rejected the possibility that this could even be true. Ayn Rand was a strong atheist. There was no god to her. There could not be a god. Believing in god wasn't just silly but ethically wrong to her.

Ayn Rand's system was a very impressive attempt to come up with a coherent philosophical and moral system without a deity. She did quite well, but in the end falls short for much of the same reason that they all do.

There's a reason that young people tend to really like Rand's ideas, and older people do not. Objectivists tend to view this as calcification: "you didn't grow up, you grew old" one Rand Institute member likes to day. Yet it is age that brings the wisdom to see the flaws with a system which only favors the young and healthy. Objectivism is great when you're 20 and single. Its not so great when you're 40 and have kids or grandkids, and its awful if you're 86 and need help to take a bath.

As I've said before, there's a lot of good in Ayn Rand's writings and ideas. And she's certainly been one of our best prophets warning of the dangers and horrors awaiting the path she saw America traveling. But when it comes to her solutions, they are greatly wanting, and while I respect a lot about objectivism, in the end it leads to a horror as bad as she warned about.

*This is part of a 4 part series on Objectivism and Ayn Rand.


Jonathan Cook said...

I want to thank you (again) for writing this series. I originally commented on your first part, days late, but can't find it now to copy/paste so I'll paraphrase:

For years the problem I had with Objectivism was ... Objectivists. Both in person and online, the vast majority I came across seemed like cold fish: analytical and intellectual to the point of parody, seemingly lacking appreciation for the sheer wonder and mystery of life, the universe, and everything.

It wasn't until I began reading some Christians' writings on her work, like yours, that I began to appreciate it more fully. With that newer perspective I feel the need to read more of her works.

Full disclosure: I haven't read any of her works in full directly, though I've read excerpts and literally thousands of references, critiques, reviews, expositions, etc. on her work.

Anonymous said...

I just watched the documentary on Ayn Rand on Netflix as i had always avoided her works throughout my life.

The reason? The wild-eyed fanaticism of the people who encouraged me to look into it. It very much struck me the same as the fervor of a new convert to Scientology.

After seeing the film, I can see the brilliance and provocation in her works but what was glaring obvious to me that she IS very Nietzschean in her view.

It amounts to little more than "survival of the deserving fittest" and "the triumph of the will".

It's ironic that it seems the Russian Revolution and it's aftermath pushed her into a philosophy very similar to the one she claimed to hate.

"We, the enlightened few, are fit to decide the worthiness of you, the common mindless horde".

She prettied it up and swore it was a philosophy fully eschewing the use of force but the results are the same.

Those who can't hack it are left to die and the rest of us shouldn't even be concerned or aware of it.