Ayn Rand is one of the most influential political and social thinkers and writers, at least among the elite circles of political and economic power in the US, of the whole twentienth century. Yet, at the same time, she is considered by most serious philosophers and social thinkers to be a relatively insignificant
writer of mediocre novels which consist of nothing more than a few characters and a slender thread of
narration behind which lies a thinly veiled repackaging of unoriginal and, mostly uninteresting, philosophical theses.
I was inspired to conduct a somewhat in-depth analysis of this mysterious person’s actual philosophy
and opinions by some interesting articles which I’ve run across recently regarding the influence she, apparently, exercised over Alan Greenspan in particular, and by an article which I had recalled reading in Skeptic magazine about the “cult-like” qualities of the following that she inspired and continues to inspire.
Since I don’t have access to any of Rand’s writings, I will have to base myself on second-hand sources and, especially, on the writing of Nathaniel Braden (formerely her number two) and the Objectivist Society web site to help me along the way. Since her ideas are really quite elementary and derivative, in any case, this shouldn’t be much of an issue.
To begin with then, in the article in Skeptic magazine which I referred to above, Michael Shermer explains (or tries to):
What is it about Rand’s philosophy that so emotionally stimulates proponents and opponents alike? Before Atlas Shrugged was published, at a sales conference at Random House a salesman asked Rand if she could summarize the essence of her philosophy, called Objectivism, while standing on one foot. She did so as follows (1962):
1. Metaphysics: Objective Reality
2. Epistemology: Reason
3. Ethics: Self-interest
4. Politics: Capitalism
In other words, nature exists independent of human thought. Reason is the only method of perceiving this reality. All humans seek personal happiness and exist for their own sake, and should not sacrifice themselves to or be sacrificed by others. And laissez-faire capitalism is the best political-economic system for the first three to flourish, where “men deal with one another, not as victims and executioners, nor as masters and slaves, but as traders, by free, voluntary exchange to mutual benefit,” and where “no man may initiate the use of physical force against others” (p. 1).
These four theses, then , may be considered the heart of Ayn Rand’s philosophy as simplified and narrowed down by she, herself, in her own words. The first problem arises immediately to the notice of anyone with a minimal philosophical background: Reason is a tool or, better yet, a property that characterizes the human mind. It is not an “epistemology” (theory of knowledge). Shermer puts it even more confusingly by writing that, “reason is the only method of perceiving …reality. But, obviously, reason does not perceive anything. If it could, there would be no reason for the existence of the senses of sight, taste, touch,smell and hearing.
In order to get a clarification on what Ms. Rand could possibly mean here, I did some searching among the Objectivist Society’s web pages. Here’s the relevant passage:
The facts of reality are knowable through a process of objective reasoning that begins with sensory perception and follows the laws of logic.
In other words, we’re dealing with good old-fashioned classical empiricism in the tradition of Locke, Hume and Berkeley (to whom she regrettably and reprehensibly refuses to acknowledge her indebtness). This kind of empiricism has been in retreat for the last forty years or so after the cognitive science revolution and recent discoveries in genetic research and the neurosciences. Such discoveries have demonstrated that an enormous amount of human knowledge is innate, resulting from an extraordinarily long and complex process of natural selection that endowed the human brain with the ability to distinguish, categorize, count and, even, show sophisticated esthetic preferences for objects and events from the earliest years of life.
Indeed, so-called neurological Darwinism or selectionism maintains, with substantial evidence to support it, that the brain comes prepackaged, at birth, with every possible configuration of synaptic networks hard-wired into it and that the only role of external social and environmental influences is to provide a mechanism for selecting which networks will survive and which will die out during the process of development and learning. And the only alternative neurobiological theory of human brain development to neural Darwinism, “instructionist constructivism” also presupposes that, as Joseph LeDoux puts it, “sinaptic connections are epigenetically determined, that is to say, through the interaction of genes and environment (internal and external).”
“Nobody would seriously maintain, today, that the brain is a blank slate, a tabula rasa waiting to be written on by experience.” Experience should be thought of as just another mode, along with genetic evolutionary factors, of connecting synapses in the brain. And, that being the case, the supposed dichotomy between nature and nurture becomes meaningless because it is impossibe to determine where nature breaks off and nurture begins to take over.
So, it is clear that the kind of extreme empirism that Ayn Rand espoused and promoted is:
- absolutley unoriginal and bears ancient roots which reach as far back as Democritus and which she doesn’t even bother to acknowledge.
- very probably falsified by modern evidence of the sciences as well as arguments such as Chomsky’s poverty of stimulus justifications for the innateness of language universals.
Rand calls her ethical system a system based on self-interest. Here again she seems to be claiming credit for the discovery of ideas which sail back into the winds of time all the way to Epicurianism and the ancient Greek hedonists. In most philosophical discussions, however, the term self-interest is commonly replaced nowadays by egoism. There are two different categories into which all egoist theories are divided: psychological (or descriptive) egoism and ethical (normative) egoism. Rand seems to adhere to both and, often, confuses the two by failing to make the distinction betwen them clear.
The fundamental failing with psychological egoism has to do with the question of sacrifice. If men are only interested (consciously or unconsciously) in enhancing their own welfare in the long term, how is it possible to explain the common occurence of an individual, who cannot swim, throwing himself into a stream in order to save the life of a complete stranger. The principle of reciprocal altruism (long-term cooperation) is ruled out because the individual making the sacrifice knows with a high degree of probability that he or she is going to die and therefore cannot be looking forward to benefiting in any way by commiting the action. The egoist might respond that the individual is not certain of his death and that he acts in his own interest by sparing himeself the guilt that would inevitably have arisen later on if he hadn’t acted sacrificially. But, the concept of guilt itself presupposes that the sacrificer had non-self-interested moral motivations in mind to start out with.
If the egoist continues to argue that the sacrificer is acting in his own interest because he is doing what he wants or prefers to do, then all intentional human action can be defined as self-interested and psychologial egoism becomes a trivially true, unfalsifiable thesis. If it’s trivially true in this manner, then it bomes impossible to distinguish morally between the case of a soldier who throws himslef on a grenade to prevent harm to others and another soldier who throws someone else on a grenade in order to save himself, since they are both acting according to perceived self-interest and are therefore equally morally justified, according to Rand’s version of ethical egoism.
But Ms. Rand seems not exactly sure of just where she stands on ethical issues, since she sometimes justifies her ethical egoism by invoking the Kantian principle that “all human beings should be treated as ends and never as means.” As usual, she refused to acknwledge her indebtedness to Kant for this fundamental principle. As Kelley L. Ross writes:
While Rand’s apologists now want to say that she knew this was from Kant, I haven’t yet heard the citation where she said so. Indeed, Rand typically never credited anyone but Aristotle as a worthy precedessor to herself. And although she had many reservations even about Aristotle, and while she condemned the ideas of many historical philosophers by name, referencing other philosophers from whom she may have derived ideas as much as from Aristotle never became part of her methodology. Kant is never mentioned in her writings except with demonization and caricature. Critics of Rand regard her manner, at times, as approaching plagarism — it certainly often involved ingratitude, as with her lack of tribute to Isabel Paterson, from whom she may have derived much knowledge — both Nathaniel and Barbara Branden note that Rand actually didn’t do much reading in philosophy herself (though now Rand apologists tend to say either that this is a lie or that Rand had already done as much reading as was necessary).
Moreoever, it is not clear, to me, how she reconciles this principle with her ethical egoism. It may quite often, and does quite often, serve one’s interest to act as a means to the facilitation of some desirable objective that benefits others and also oneself. Take the case of a diplomat who tries to negotiate the end of hostilities between his own nation and another with which it is at war. Surely an end to hostilities which benefits his own nation also benefits himeself. Even if it doesn’t benefit the nation, he still benefits, personally, by being rewarded financially and socially for attempting to act as the means to a resolution of conflicts.
Which brings me to Rand’s philosophy of economics, such as it is. Rand’s actual ideas of free-market capitalism are based on a fundamental misundertanding of the doctrine of classical liberalism as originally formulated by Adam Smith, and restated by F.A. Hayek among others. Rand’s market actors are not the normal citizens with limited knowledge liable to selfish and irrational considerations who end up being disciplined by the rationalizing invisible hand of the market through voluntary exchange. Rand’s brand of capitalism is much more utopion and profoundly elitist. The system, in order to work, must involve hyper-rational demigods thoroughly steeped in Randian doctrines and teachings.
As she has her paradigmatic capitalist superhero John Galt put it in Atlas Shrugged:
Man cannot survive except by gaining knowledge, and reason is his only means to gain it.
It follows, therefore, that those with the most knowledge are most likely to prosper in Rand’s ideal laissez-fair economic system. Those who are ignorant cannot even survive, much less go on to acheive financial success. Rand removes the rationality from the market, as in traditional neo-liberal theories, and places it instead in her mecchanical/maniacal robot-like financial Ubermenschen.
In her later years, Rand came to the realization that minimal laws are needed in order to allow the market to function without distortion and fraud. In other words, she came to the realization that the market is not, after all, an infallible mechanism for human salvation. From their to the realization that the market model is, in many cases (health care being the starkest example), completely inappropriate and counterproductive becasue it rewards the succesful treatment and amelioration of ills and discourages their prevention, would not have required all that great of a stretch of even her extremely closed mind.
Coming, finally, to Rand’s infallibilist epistomology, some excerpts from Michael Shermer’s article In Skeptic magazine are telling:
The cultic flaw in Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism is not in the use of reason, or in the emphasis on individuality, or in the belief that humans are self motivated, or in the conviction that capitalism is the ideal system. The fallacy in Objectivism is the belief that absolute knowledge [epistemological infallibilism]and final Truths are attainable through reason, and therefore there can be absolute right and wrong knowledge, and absolute moral and immoral thought and action. For Objectivists, once a principle has been discovered through reason to be True, that is the end of the discussion. If you disagree with the principle, then your reasoning is flawed. If your reasoning is flawed it can be corrected, but if it is not, you remain flawed and do not belong in the group. Excommunication is the final step for such unreformed heretics.
The doctrines of the Rand “Collective”, in other words, are permanently engraved in stone and unalterable, like the Ten Commandments. Once Rand has discovered a Truth, it is no longer subject to correction, modification or reevalaution, but obtains immediate nomological status as a law of nature which surpasses even the meager approximations of the physical sciences and mathematics.
More from Shermer:
One of the closest to Rand was Nathaniel Branden, a young philosophy student who joined the Collective in the early days before Atlas Shrugged was published. In his autobiographical memoirs entitled Judgment Day (1989), Branden recalled: “There were implicit premises in our world to which everyone in our circle subscribed, and which we transmitted to our students at NBI.” Incredibly, and here is where the philosophical movement became a cult, they came to believe that (pp. 255-256):
* Ayn Rand is the greatest human being who has ever lived.
* Atlas Shrugged is the greatest human achievement in the history of the world.
* Ayn Rand, by virtue of her philosophical genius, is the supreme arbiter in any issue pertaining to what is rational, moral, or appropriate to man’s life on earth.
* Once one is acquainted with Ayn Rand and/or her work, the measure of one’s virtue is intrinsically tied to the position one takes regarding her and/or it.
* No one can be a good Objectivist who does not admire what Ayn Rand admires and condemn what Ayn Rand condemns.
* No one can be a fully consistent individualist who disagrees with Ayn Rand on any fundamental issue.
* Since Ayn Rand has designated Nathaniel Branden as her “intellectual heir,” and has repeatedly proclaimed him to be an ideal exponent of her philosophy, he is to be accorded only marginally less reverence than Ayn Rand herself.
* But it is best not to say most of these things explicitly (excepting, perhaps, the first two items). One must always maintain that one arrives at one’s beliefs solely by reason.
How does all of this mesh with traditional definitions of the concept of “cult”? Well, here is one such definition:
a) Veneration of the Leader: Excessive glorification to the point of virtual sainthood or divinity.
b) Inerrancy of the Leader: Belief that he or she cannot be wrong.
c) Omniscience of the Leader: Acceptance of beliefs and pronouncements on virtually all subjects, from the philosophical to the trivial.
d) Persuasive Techniques: Methods used to recruit new followers and reinforce current beliefs.
e) Hidden Agendas: Potential recruits and the public are not given a full disclosure of the true nature of the group’s beliefs and plans.
f) Deceit: Recruits and followers are not told everything about the leader and the group’s inner circle, particularly flaws or potentially embarrassing events or circumstances.
g)Financial and/or Sexual Exploitation: Recruits and followers are persuaded to invest in the group, and the leader may develop sexual relations with one or more of the followers.
h)Absolute Truth: Belief that the leader and/or group has a method of discovering final knowledge on any number of subjects.
i) Absolute Morality: Belief that the leader and/or the group have developed a system of right and wrong thought and action applicable to members and nonmembers alike. Those who strictly follow the moral code may become and remain members, those who do not are dismissed or punished.
According to Shermer, Rand believed and practiced an absolutist morality in which:
Rand pronounced judgements on her followers of even the most trivial things. Rand had argued, for example, that musical taste could not be objectively defined, yet, as Barbara Branden observed, “if one of her young friends responded as she did to Rachmaninoff . . . she attached deep significance to their affinity.” By contrast, if a friend did not respond as she did to a certain piece or composer, Rand “left no doubt that she considered that person morally and psychologically reprehensible.” Branden recalled an evening when a friend of Rand’s remarked that he enjoyed the music of Richard Strauss. “When he left at the end of the evening, Ayn said, in a reaction becoming increasingly typical, ‘Now I understand why he and I can never be real soul mates. The distance in our sense of life is too great.’ Often, she did not wait until a friend had left to make such remarks” (p. 268).
In what has become the most scandalous (and now oft-told) story in the brief history of the Objectivist movement, starting in 1953 and lasting until 1958 (and on and off for another decade after), Ayn Rand and her “intellectual heir” Nathaniel Branden, 25 years her junior, carried on a secret love affair known only to their respective spouses. The falling in love was not planned, but it was ultimately “reasonable” since the two of them were, de facto, the two greatest humans on the planet. “By the total logic of who we are–by the total logic of what love and sex mean–we had to love each other,” Rand told Barbara Branden and her own husband, Frank O’Connor.
Unbelievably, both Barbara and Frank accepted the affair, and agreed to allow Ayn and Nathaniel an afternoon and evening of sex and love once a week. “And so,” Barbara explained, “we all careened toward disaster.” The disaster finally came in 1968 when it became known to Rand that Branden had fallen in love with yet another woman, and had begun an affair with her. Even though the affair between Rand and Branden had long since dwindled, the master of the absolutist moral double-standard would not tolerate such a breach of ethical conduct. “Get that bastard down here!,” Rand screamed upon hearing the news, “or I’ll drag him here myself!” Branden, according to Barbara, slunk into Rand’s apartment to face the judgment day. “It’s finished, your whole act!” she told him. “I’ll tear down your facade as I built it up! I’ll denounce you publicly, I’ll destroy you as I created you! I don’t even care what it does to me. You won’t have the career I gave you, or the name, or the wealth, or the prestige. You’ll have nothing . . . .” The barrage continued for several minutes until she pronounced her final curse: “If you have an ounce of morality left in you, an ounce of psychological health–you’ll be impotent for the next twenty years!” (pp. 345-347).
Confusion reigned supreme in both the Collective and in the rank-and-file membership. Mail poured into the office, most of it supporting Rand (naturally, since they knew nothing of the first affair). Nathaniel received angry responses and even Barbara’s broker, an Objectivist, terminated her as his client. The ultimate extreme of such absolutist thinking was revealed several months later when, in the words of Barbara, “a half-demented former student of NBI had raised the question of whether or not it would be morally appropriate to assassinate Nathaniel because of the suffering he had caused Ayn; the man concluded that it should not be done on practical grounds, but would be morally legitimate.
It was the beginning of the long decline and fall of Rand’s tight grip over the Collective. One by one they sinned, the transgressions becoming more minor as the condemnations grew in fierceness. And one by one they left, or were asked to leave. In the end (Rand died in 1982) there remained only a handful of friends, and the designated executor of her estate, Leonard Peikoff (who presently carries on the cause through the Southern California based Ayn Rand Institute, “The Center for the Advancement of Objectivism”). While the cultic qualities of the group sabotaged the inner circle, there remained (and remains) a huge following of those who choose to ignore the indiscretions, infidelities, and moral inconsistencies of the founder, and focus instead on the positive aspects of the philosophy.
So, what lessons should be drawn from all of this, in my opinion?
- Epistemological infallibilism (the belief in the possibility of attaining absolute knowledge) combined with an warped ethical doctine based on alleged rational self-interest leads to a fundamentalist-like moral absolutism and totalitarianism. If absolute knowledge is possible and the contant practice of rational self-analysis is the way to arrive at such knowldege, then moral/rational self-interest dictates that the person(s) most experienced and developed in the use of such methods is/are necessarily to be considered as near- infallible with regard to morals or just about anything else.
- As Shermer puts it:
As long as it is understood that morality is a human construction influenced by human cultures, one can become more tolerant of other human belief systems, and thus other humans. But as soon as a group sets itself up to be the final moral arbiter of other people’s actions, especially when its members believe they have discovered absolute standards of right and wrong, it is the beginning of the end of tolerance and thus, reason and rationality. It is this characteristic more than any other that makes a cult, a religion, a nation, or any other group, dangerous to individual freedom. This was (and is) the biggest flaw in Ayn Rand’s Objectivism, the unlikeliest cult in history. The historical development and ultimate destruction of her group and philosophy is the empirical evidence to support this logical analysis.
What separates science from all other human activities (and morality has never been successfully placed on a scientific basis), is its belief in the tentative nature of all conclusions. There are no final absolutes in science, only varying degrees of probability. Even scientific “facts” are just conclusions confirmed to such an extent it would be reasonable to offer temporary agreement, but never final assent. Science is not the affirmation of a set of beliefs but a process of inquiry aimed at building a testable body of knowledge constantly open to rejection or confirmation. In science, knowledge is fluid and certainty fleeting. That is the heart of its limitation. It is also its greatest strength.
Finally, I would like to conclude with an observation that would have seemed shocking to me at the outset of this mini-analysis. Based on what I’ve read and learned about it so far, I have to concur with something that Whittaker Chambers wrote in his book-review of Atlas Shrugged in the 1950s: Ms. Rand’s
so-called philosophy smells of the concentration camp!!!
Since the time I originally wrote and posted this on DKos in ancient times, I’ve had the unfortunate ortunity to read through the online version of Rand’s dystopic fantasy “Anthem”. I have nothing significant to add to what I’ve written above with respect to the philosphical aspects of the work: there really are NO serious and substantive philosophical aspects of the work, period, notwithstanding pretensions to the contrary.
What Rand does is create a sort of straw-man universe of governement control over personal behavior and decisions arising out of welfarism and then proceeds to show how barren and depressing such a place would be to live in. But the univerese she creates rings hollow because this sort of control is not what welfarism and systems of social responsibility constructed along the lines of John Rawl’s idea of “justice as fairness” are all about. On the contary, the ultimate scope of limited and responsible governement intervention is to increase freedom and oppoortunity by eliminiating the barriers created by naturally distorting effects of luck and indeterminism in the markets and by class and group- orientend selection behavior in human societes (hierarchy, racism, sexsism etc..)
I find her writing to be arid and sterile to a bewildering degree. I’m bewildered, that is to say, how anyone could actually convince themsleves that this imaginationless charlatan can be put in the same category as George Orwell and the other masters of dystopia who created narratives which actually moved along dynalciamlly and brought personages to life on the printed page with powerful imagery and language.