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Ayn Rand

Ayn Rand is one of the most influential authors of American thought in the late twentieth century.  It’s hard to find any college educated person under 40 years old who hasn’t had at least a brush with her works and the philosophy of Objectivism.  This is fascinating given how little serious critical attention has been paid to her work and how largely unknown it is in other nations.  She is the leader of a strong but underground movement, highly cultural and generational.

Rand finally bubbled into parts of the mainstream with the arrival of Paul Ryan, a one-time advocate of her work who advised staffers to read up on their Rand when he was a young congressman.  His later disavowal of Rand’s philosophy smelled like a rat to some, who wanted to make an issue out of it.  Bad move.  Rand and Objectivism do not lend themselves to sound bites or anything remotely simple.  The enticement of this mind candy is strong and deep.  But what is it?

It would never make sense to speak of Rand without being at least somewhat personal, given the nature of her philosophy.  I was attracted to Libertarianism as a young man, and still proudly talk of that streak when cornered to describe my political bent.  But reading The Fountainhead frankly put me off both modern architecture and all things Objectivist forever.  It seemed terribly cold, sterile, and simply not much fun.  But the attraction remains strong, especially for young men, because it stresses the importance of achievement and reason.

Here is how Rand herself described Objectivism in 1962, trimmed down a lot:

1. Reality exists as an objective absolute—facts are facts, independent of man’s feelings, wishes, hopes or fears.
   2. Reason (the faculty which identifies and integrates the material provided by man’s senses) is man’s only means of perceiving reality, his only source of knowledge, his only guide to action, and his basic means of survival.
   3. 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. The pursuit of his own rational self-interest and of his own happiness is the highest moral purpose of his life.
   4. The ideal political-economic system is laissez-faire capitalism. It is a system 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.

That’s what it’s all about with the speechifying and sex scenes bordering on rape that dominate her popular fiction.  The flaws stand out immediately.

This definition of reason is simply wrong on so many levels.  Humans survive with a combination of cunning and instinct, an ability to formulate a plan as well as a gut that reacts to danger.  The idea that the head alone can or even should rule our actions is ludicrous – it removes everything that is fun or heartwarming or sexy from our lives.  But it’s also simply wrong in a very fundamental way.  A complete human has an ongoing conversation within themselves between heart and brain that guides all action.

Where this gets even more strange is the idea that self interest is the “highest moral purpose in life”.  You can see the appeal to young men here – strong minds and arms ready to go forth and achieve great things in life.  But morality itself is inherently a social concept – a value agreed upon as a way of organizing things.  There’s a complete dichotomy inherent in this statement that makes no sense if you think about it long enough.

The fourth point I actually tend to agree with – after realizing that a free market where everyone has equal access and can perform to the best of their skills is often an abstract ideal.  Change that from “capitalism”, where money finds its own way, to a people based system centered on skills and desires, and I’m with you.

Generally, the philosophy of Rand is both an expression and a reaction to Existentialism, the belief that all philosophy starts with the personal perspective and radiates out from the individual.  Objectivism is little more than an American version taken to an extreme.

This ignores much of the appeal of Rand, however, because our selfish world  desires a guiding philosophy.  The power of Objectivism comes when it validates what people already feel – screw what others say is “moral”, I have my own way!

Most rejections of Rand are based on either the outcome of her philosophy or the stilted writing style that marks her fiction.  It’s much easier to find that there are some serious problems right at the core and move on.   Paul Ryan apparently did, as do most people who are attracted to Objectivism.

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14 thoughts on “Ayn Rand

  1. Addendum: It didn’t belong in this post for reasons of both space and unity, but here is Stan Rosenthal’s translation of Tao Te Ching chapter 5 – IMHO a much more interesting way to approach issues of perspective and morality:

    Nature acts without intent,
    so cannot be described
    as acting with benevolence,
    nor malevolence to any thing.

    In this respect, the Tao is just the same,
    though in reality it should be said
    that nature follows the rule of Tao.

    Therefore, even when he seems to act
    in manner kind or benevolent,
    the sage is not acting with such intent,
    for in conscious matters such as these,
    he is amoral and indifferent.

    The sage retains tranquility,
    and is not by speech or thought disturbed,
    and even less by action which is contrived.
    His actions are spontaneous,
    as are his deeds towards his fellow men.

    By this means he is empty of desire,
    and his energy is not drained from him.

  2. This is the best and shortest refutation of Ayn Rand I have ever seen, brilliant! It also leaves me totally cold and I can’t see how anyone gets into this. But you described the appeal very well and that was great.

    • Thanks. It’s very common for young men who think that the world is holding them back to think that this is the answer. It’s a bit delusional, but very understandable. It’s not until you get older that you start to think that maybe doing absolutely everything is not exactly a great idea anyway. 🙂

  3. Agree as well. Part of me says that Libertarianism is not a bad idea unless you take it to the extreme. But if this is the philosophy at the center of it I can see how it gets out of hand easy.

    • Well said, and you are right. People who simply want the smallest possible government are hard to argue with, but real Objectivists are impossible to argue with. 🙂

  4. Ayn Rand is not a reaction to existentialism. Ayn Rand is the opposite of socialism and communism.

    The cold war pitted two philosphies and Ayn Rand is on the winning side. There is no Soviet Union.

    • We have two things going on here. Objectivism is very much like existentialism in some important ways. The political expression of it, Libertarianism, is different.
      Many things views opposed to the Soviet Lenninism / Communism – and it’s a damned good thing they won. But it was somewhat inevitable as it was all a terrible idea that could not be sustained. It was a question of when and how, I think, and getting it behind us sooner was ultimately a good thing. The world still does have a bit of a hangover from that sorry period, though (Syria, for example, and Iran).

  5. Erik Hare wrote: “This definition of reason is simply wrong on so many levels. Humans survive with a combination of cunning and instinct, an ability to formulate a plan as well as a gut that reacts to danger. The idea that the head alone can or even should rule our actions is ludicrous – it removes everything that is fun or heartwarming or sexy from our lives. But it’s also simply wrong in a very fundamental way. A complete human has an ongoing conversation within themselves between heart and brain that guides all action.”

    For human beings, our “gut that reacts to danger” is programmed by the thinking of our conscious mind. If someone points a gun at a tribal primitive who has never seen a gun and doesn’t know what they do, do you think he will react with fear out of instinct? Yet you almost certainly would react with fear. Where were the survival instincts of the people caught in the massacre/mass suicide at Jonestown? Most of them didn’t want to die, yet they didn’t see it coming until it was too late. Some people are perfectly fine with snakes, while others are terrified of them.

    Our emotional reactions to things (at least as adults) are the result of thought and experience. Emotional reactions to things can be changed, and they do not actually tell us facts about external reality, but only reflect our subconscious evaluations of things in reality. Those evaluations are beliefs that may be right or wrong, and the only way to check is by reason.

    This is why Ayn Rand says that “Reason (the faculty which identifies and integrates the material provided by man’s senses) is man’s only means of perceiving reality, his only source of knowledge, his only guide to action, and his basic means of survival.” Actions from emotion can only be performed safely if they are at least briefly checked against one’s rational principles, beforehand.

    With a healthy psychology, conscious, rational evaluation tends to make appropriate emotions stronger. For example, if you love someone, and they deserve that love by their character, a conscious affirmation of that fact tends to make the love more intense.

    For more detail, please see: Emotions at Ayn Rand Lexicon

    • But there remain many things that are best understood by the guts and by instinct. You can’t get away from them. There are many forms of intelligence in a human, and pure reason is simply one of them. As I said, an ongoing conversation between the different intelligences is the only path to being a complete person. Reason is definitely a part of this process with an important role to play, but it is not the only intelligence in a human.
      The emphasis on sensory input is what relates objectivism to existentialism. Both are inherently limited by their own design – they start and end with the same perspective, the self. Standing outside of yourself for a moment is beneficial for many reason, not the least of which is an incredible advantage in negotiations (always have to bring things back to the material when arguing with objectivists).
      Consider the Tao Te Ching from 2,500 years ago, as posted in the first comment. It’s a much more complete philosophy, and much shorter. And consider what it means to be outside of yourself for a moment. It’s much more interesting than being limited by your own ability to reason.

  6. just one thing, Rand never wrote for the masses… her philosophy is only for the minority that created and still creates the world as we know it, she is only the voice of that people that are to bussy to speak up their ideas, and yes they are alone, in complete selfishness, only their mind is up to their standards, so the work of Rand is only the description of the mind of the rulers of this world, the rest… yes, is social.

  7. Pingback: People, not a Machine | Barataria - The work of Erik Hare

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