Silver-level articleObjectivism

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Atlas, struggling with the weight of his leaden conscience.
Thinking hard, or
hardly thinking?


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Major trains of thought
The good, the bad
and the brain fart
Come to think of it
Ayn Rand’s “philosophy” is nearly perfect in its immorality, which makes the size of her audience all the more ominous and symptomatic as we enter a curious new phase in our society….To justify and extol human greed and egotism is to my mind not only immoral, but evil.
Gore Vidal, Esquire Magazine, 1961
Conspicuous by their absence from Rand's list of virtues are the “virtues of benevolence,” such as kindness, charity, generosity, and forgiveness.
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy[1]

Objectivism is a peculiar philosophy formulated by novelist Ayn Rand. It sports a range of convoluted tenets, but is most infamous for redefining overt self-interest as the prime moral virtue - and, to take things even further, literally redefining altruism as evil. The name "Objectivism" was chosen because, as Rand was the single smartest person in the history of the world, anything she said had to be objective.[Note 1]

As one might imagine, Objectivism is very popular amongst those who already hold a "me-first" view of the world. It lets them say, "Hey, I'm not being a selfish jerk, I'm following a philosophy!". Of course, this incredibly short-sighted and narrow outlook - only seeking short-term gains no matter the cost to everyone else - will not even maximize long-term individual gains (let alone short- or long-term societal gain).

Objectivism introduces several religious elements, the likes of which were previously only accessible to atheists via the messianic shrillness of Communism (or possibly a maximally insane adherence to the Austrian School of Economics),[Note 2] viz., an inability and unwillingness to define any non-self-serving epistemology, raging pseudointellectualism on the part of faithful, and a childish fixation with simplistic solutions to all complex problems[wp].

For obvious reasons, Objectivism has been met with a hilariously lacklustre acceptance from academia. When they bother to comment on it at all, academic philosophers usually dismiss it as a rather juvenile imitation of a real philosophy. It is nevertheless very popular (a given with any theory that lends credibility to overtly cultivating the worst of self-congratulating egoism) and often informs the beliefs of a great many libertarians and other assorted whackjobs.[Note 3] Although Objectivism shares some beliefs with Conservatism, it has not had much influence on that branch of politics due to its radical, anti-traditional, atheist nature.[Note 4]

Objectivism has went on to have some life outside Rand's shadow. While its largest faction is represented by the Ayn Rand Institute, led by Rand's pet chihuahua intellectual heir Leonard Peikoff, an "open" faction exists outside of Rand's circle, led by David Kelley and his group, The Atlas Society. The debate over how much of Objectivism is dependent on Rand's writings, and how far it can go beyond that, is a fierce one that has engendered numerous purges and bitter catfights over the years. Although it may not be striking, there is a difference between what people consider to be the philosophy of Objectivism today, and Ayn Rand's personal take on it dating back to about half a century ago. No greater example of this mutually excommunicating divergence of thought can be seen than in the bitch-fighting between the Ayn Rand Institute and the Atlas Society.[2]


[edit] Philosophy

How do you read fiction and come up with a political philosophy? It's fiction!
Lewis Black[wp][3]

Rand's philosophy claims to cover "all areas of philosophical importance, including: ethics, morality, logic, language, culture, science, mathematics, physics, psychology, religion, history, politics, law, economics, business, sex, rights, government, art, literature, sculpture, metaphysics, epistemology, mind and body, measurement, free-will, truth, and many more."[4] In other words, a lot of chances for the Objectivists to get things backwards.

Rand summed up her philosophy with the following principles;[5]

[edit] Metaphysics

To exist is to be something, as distinguished from the nothing of nonexistence.
—Galt Speech, Atlas Shrugged

As a philosophy, Objectivism addresses the nature of reality, although not in a terribly original way.

Objectivism holds that reality is separate from human consciousness; no matter what a person might want to believe, a thing in reality will always be what it is with no room for subjectivity regarding its nature. The idea is supposedly based on the law of identity[wp], A is A, which Rand ripped off of Aristotle — the only one of her many rip-offs that she acknowledged.

Unfortunately, its epistemological assertions (yes, this belongs in metaphysics) that anything can be known to arbitrary precision, contradicts modern physics (see Heisenberg's uncertainty principle), which some Objectivists have decried as being based on "Kantian assumptions."

The Objectivist conception of causality rules out the possibility of "chance" events, meaning that everything has a cause, having ignored David Hume's destruction of causality as an analytic statement or Aristotle's prime mover (logical inconsistency is kept beautifully consistent by Rand).[6] This leads Objectivism into problematic territory when it comes to quantum mechanics (see below). Objectivism views free will as a cause, and so is not deterministic on that issue.

[edit] Ethics

There is one word that is forbidden in this valley: the word 'give.'
Atlas Shrugged

Objectivism holds, basically, that everyone should live by their own effort, neither accepting gifts from others nor giving them, as both actions are considered moral weaknesses. Rand does make an exception for cases where there is "rational self-interest" involved:

The proper method of judging when or whether one should help another person is by reference to one’s own rational self-interest and one’s own hierarchy of values: the time, money or effort one gives or the risk one takes should be proportionate to the value of the person in relation to one’s own happiness.[7]

It attempts to apply the principles of laissez-faire to right and wrong. For Rand the individual’s life has supreme value and self-interest determines ethics. Therefore, Objectivism holds that all forms of altruism are irrational and immoral, even if they are done voluntarily, as long as they have no material benefit to the altruistic individual. This can get to truly bizarre extremes such as refusing to believe in the right to trial by jury because there's nothing in it for the jury.

Game theory is another science that proves the gaping holes in Objectivist theory, as insisting on the Objectivist logic means that in situations like the prisoner's dilemma each Objectivist will try to benefit at the expense of the other and both will lose out. Rational individuals in prisoner's dilemma-type positions understand that cooperation and altruism is the better strategy, and both will win out.

It should be noted that Objectivism's system of morals shares many similarities with an older moral philosophy, ethical egoism, and with a formalized mental disorder, psychopathy.

[edit] Politics

The source of property rights is the law of causality.
—Galt Speech, Atlas Shrugged

Objectivism holds that free-market capitalism is superior to any other economic system, partially because it holds property rights to be grounded in "reason" just because Ayn Rand says so, and partially because capitalism is held to be the only system in which it is possible for laws to be objective (because there is only one law allowed, aka. "Don't Touch My Stuff"). Objectivist politics either disregard or are unaware of the iron law of institutions. In the case of the economy, this law states that when not constrained by regulation, people or corporations will gain money and influence at the expense of the economy as a whole (e.g., Goldman Sachs, Bear Stearns, AIG, Fannie Mae... the list goes on).

Objectivist Alan Greenspan, confronted with the 2008 Great Recession, did say "whoops sorry lol."[8]

[edit] Anti-science crankery

[edit] Quantum physics and relativity

Some Objectivists like David Harriman and Leonard Peikoff actually seem to have a problem with modern physics, especially quantum mechanics due to its probabilistic nature. The breakdown of classical mechanics-style causality at the quantum level doesn't square with Rand's vision of causality. This has led to declarations by Objectivists that modern physics is "corrupted" or "tainted" by a "Kantian influence" and "bad philosophy" in general, in addition to various crank "refutations" of quantum physics and denial of some theories like Relativity (which was Petr Beckmann's specialty).[Note 5]

[edit] Realism in psychology

Rand's notion that we can observe reality directly (known in philosophy as direct or naïve realism) is refuted by the current dominant opinion in neuroscience, psychology, and the cognitive sciences which accepts various forms of indirect or representative realism.[Note 6] In the cognitive sciences, raw input is called "bottom-up perception" and the way the brain interprets this input is called "top-down perception."

The visual, auditory, etc. cortices essentially "reconstruct" the input from their respective sense organs, meaning there is always some element of top-down interpretation of raw stimuli. Thus, we do not experience reality in some unmediated sense. A simple example of this is the fact that the image formed on your eye's retina is upside-down, but the visual cortex flips it right-side up. There are numerous other examples as well, including hallucinations and optical illusions.[Note 7]

The Objectivist may reply that the optical illusion is not an error of vision or perception itself, but an error of conceptualization. However, given what we know about how much perception and conceptualization are intertwined, it is unclear how the two can be disentangled. We cannot "unsee" many optical illusions. For example, the lines in the Müller-Lyer illusion[wp] still appear to be of different lengths even when the illusion is pointed out.

[edit] Evolution

Ayn Rand expressed doubts about the validity of the theory of evolution. What she found objectionable about it was that, according to evolutionary theory, there is no real difference between human beings and animals, or that it might dilute or downplay personal responsibility. This reminds of other right-wing criticisms of evolution. However, Rand refused to issue a final judgment on it, basing this on an admitted lack of education on the topic, saying;[9]

I am not a student of the theory of evolution and, therefore, I am neither its supporter nor its opponent.

While Rand herself was ambivalent about evolution, Objectivists at the Ayn Rand Institute have produced material critical of creationism and supportive of evolution.[10]

[edit] Environmental science

Objectivist politics and economics has the same problem with dealing with externalities that other free market ideologies have; thus, Objectivists must deny or downplay environmental externalities. In the world of the Objectivists, pollution is not a major problem, and if it does become a problem, we can simply privatize everything and let the market work its magic. As a result, anti-environmentalism is a common position among Randroids, who typically promote the usual associated pseudoscience and denialism on scientifically proven environmental issues such as DDT, acid rain, and global warming.[11][12]

[edit] Notably wacky positions

[edit] Smoking

Many Objectivists, at least during Ayn Rand's lifetime (more than three decades ago) held that cigarette smoking is a moral obligation (there's even a scene in Atlas Shrugged where a tobacconist sings the praises of cigarettes as a way for man to wield power over fire). Objectivists don't see a problem in violating the rights of others by forcing others to breathe in hydrogen cyanide, carbon monoxide, and other toxic waste in cigarette smoke. The rational self-interest of second-hand smokers is apparently of no concern to Objectivists. [13]

Rand herself was also known for denying the link between smoking and cancer. Later, she got a serving of karma after being forced to recieve treatment for lung cancer in 1974. Despite this, she vehemently refused to recant her position publicly despite urging from her followers, even though she herself had quit smoking by then - certainly for some mysterious reason that had nothing whatsoever to do with her declining health.

[edit] Art and music

Objectivism's views on art and music tend to reflect Rand's own personal tastes, seriously constructing a philosophical basis in which the art and music Rand liked is moral, while anything else is not. One wonders what some of them think of Rush (the band),[14] whose drummer Neil Peart wrote lyrics inspired by Rand but whose music was clearly not of the type approved by the ever-so-rational Miss Rand, even though she was alive when Rush were making their best, most heroic, and most individualism-celebrating music.[15]

[edit] Hatred of libertarians

Rand is often lumped in with libertarians due to their similar political views. However, Rand had a well-known hatred of libertarians and the Libertarian Party. She declared that they plagiarized her ideas when it suited them (ha!) and besmirched her name when it didn't. She resented the fact that while many libertarians endorsed her politics, they refused to swallow whole the rest of her philosophy -- epistemology, ethics, and all. She also dissociated herself from libertarianism because of the presence of anarcho-capitalists and religious libertarians within the movement.[16]

We can all rest easy knowing that Rand is turning over in her grave over the fact that Wikipedia considers Objectivism "Part of a series on Libertarianism".[17][Note 8]

[edit] Homophobia

Rand's views on gay rights are conflicted, and at times contradictory. While she opposed sodomy laws (statist interference, y'know), she also considered homosexuality "disgusting" and "immoral",[18] and believed that laws against discrimination in the private sector (goals for both gays and feminists at the time) were tantamount to asking the government for "special privileges."[19] This rather stinks of rhetoric still used by homophobes today,[20] and is one of the few positions she held with which most current followers of her ideology disagree.[21][18]

[edit] Endorsement of imperialism

Although Rand denounced racism as the "most crudely primitive form of collectivism"[22] and supported property rights, none of it mattered if you just weren't capitalist or "civilized" enough for her. Her pronouncements on this topic echo 18th and 19th century arguments for imperialism, i.e. that forcible conquest of native peoples was justified because of their alleged "savagery." It is a reiteration of the doctrine of terra nullius.[wp]

[edit] Native Americans

Rand caused a pinch of controversy when she said this about Native Americans:

They didn't have any rights to the land, and there was no reason for anyone to grant them rights which they had not conceived and were not using. What was it that they were fighting for, when they opposed white men on this continent? For their wish to continue a primitive existence, their 'right' to keep part of the earth untouched, unused and not even as property, but just keep everybody out so that you will live practically like an animal, or a few caves above it. Any white person who brings the element of civilization has the right to take over this continent.[23]

We wonder how "civilized" Rand thought it was to completely wipe out those populations for the sake of industrialization.[Note 9] Apparently, Rand's understanding of Native American cultures was derived from Westerns:

I believe, with good reason, the most unsympathetic Hollywood portrayal of Indians and what they did to the white man. They had no right to a country merely because they were born here and then acted like savages. The white man did not conquer this country. And you're a racist if you object, because it means you believe that certain men are entitled to something because of their race.[24]

[edit] Israel-Palestine conflict

Taking into account her nuanced opinions on Native Americans, her analysis of the Israel-Palestine conflict may be just as concerning:

If you mean whose side one should be on, Israel or the Arabs, I would certainly say Israel because it’s the advanced, technological, civilized country amidst a group of almost totally primitive savages who have not changed for years and who are racist and who resent Israel because it’s bringing industry, intelligence, and modern technology into their stagnation."[25]

Some Objectivists have followed in Rand's footsteps in relentlessly backing Israel, even if they don't share her Jewish heritage. While Rand was actually opposed to US intervention in every major conflict during her lifetime (including World War II!), her fans have not been so dovish, particularly when it comes to the Middle East. Leonard Peikoff and Yaron Brook have advocated for the use of military force against Israel's enemies, rather than just material support for Israel as Rand supported. Brook was a booster of the Iraq War and, along with Peikoff, voiced support for military intervention in Iran. Peikoff has also voiced opposition to the so-called "Ground Zero mosque."[26] The state cannot touch your damn property, as long as it's not Muslim.

[edit] Strange definitions

'When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.'

Objectivists commonly take a word, change its meaning to fit their needs, and then complain that no one else is using their definitions. This has often led to confusion in debates, as neither side knew that they were both speaking two different languages.

Some commonly warped words include:

  • Altruism: The Objectivist definition is "...that man has no right to exist for his own sake, that service to others is the only justification of his existence, and that self-sacrifice is his highest moral duty, virtue and value."[27] It's based mainly upon Auguste Comte's (who coined the term "altruisms") definition of altruism: "Self-sacrifice for the benefit of others."[28] Translated from the jargon, Rand is trying to say that "altruism" is acting like a doormat and only working for others without consideration of one's own needs. Naturally, few people have such a view on life; even fewer actually practice it, and at that point only to get something in return. In normal-speak, altruism is simply acting to benefit humanity, without regarding it as the whole reason for one's existence. Like most straw men, the "Altruist" movement feared by Randroids cannot defend itself because it doesn't exist. While Comte did advocate something like this ("live for others"), people declined to obey his dictum.
  • Mercy: Leonard Peikoff defined mercy as "unearned forgiveness." This basically means that if your enemy is on the battlefield, unarmed, and begging for mercy, it would be immoral to let him live. In this sense Objectivism is diametrically opposed to the Christian concept of salvation by unmerited grace.
  • Reason: This one has actually at least two different meanings in Objectivist writings. One is pretty close to the usual meaning of the term. But Objectivism also argues that you must use your reason in order to be happy, which is kinda like trying to open your garage door with your driver's license. In this second, shifted ethical/political sense, it then roughly means "absence of ethical concerns regarding one's decisions." Outside the Objectivist funhouse, people who have no concern for the ethics of their decisions are called "sociopaths."
  • Mind: The mind is an essential part of Rand's justification of property rights. Alas, her argumentation is weird (it's basically bad Locke) and ends up bearing almost no relationship with the usual concept of mind. Also, taxation and redistribution are "mind enslavement," apparently. To avoid such peculiar, loaded rhetoric, many other libertarians such as Nozick rather argue in terms of "self-property" than "mind," the idea being the same but less hypocritical.
  • Evil: Because of the Objectivist ethical system, this word is given a meaning that is at least slightly different from everyday use. But Rand also used it to disparage thinkers she disagreed with, solely on the basis of their philosophical ideas. And then Randians complain that she isn't taken seriously by academia.

[edit] The ultimate problem with Objectivist ethical egoism

A criticism of Ayn Rand so obvious it's really kind of impressive that anyone follows her is based around a quote we already mentioned above:

There is one word that is forbidden in this valley: the word 'give.'
Atlas Shrugged

Again, Ayn Rand holds the position that it is immoral to give, or to receive aid to another of any kind that is not in one's own self-interest. She explains this in an interview in 1959,[29] where she specifically says that man must not live for others, and that altruism is immoral.

This can be criticized on several grounds. Firstly, this arguably means that it is immoral to be a child, or to raise a child, since a child requires constant attention and aid from the parents. This probably explains why Rand never had children, and also means that if the human species adopted this, we would be gone after one generation. One counterargument would be that passing on one's genes would certainly be in a person's best interest from an evolutionary standpoint, and justifies the effort put into raising children, although this would fall apart in the case of a child who will be unable or extremely unlikely to reproduce for any number of reasons.

Secondly, society depends on altruism to a degree. Saving a man from drowning would be an altruistic act, since you can't exactly stop to dicker over payment for your services. Letting him die, aside from being morally reprehensible, is potentially detrimental to society, since he can no longer contribute to it, and you yourself may suffer indirectly. And there is a principle of reciprocation; you expect, if you were drowning, that any decent person who heard your cries for help would intervene.

Thirdly, to continue the drowning example, if you let someone die for no good reason, other people will consider you an asshole of the highest order. If you own a shop, they may boycott it. They may refuse to sell things to you. They may let you drown. The family of the dead man may seek vengeance. It is in your own best interests to not be an asshole.

A stunning example of this problem, especially if you're Finnish, is the case of Simo Häyhä.[wp] Häyhä was a sniper in the Finnish White Army during the Winter War against the Soviet Red Army who killed at least 505 enemy soldiers (including counter-snipers), survived temperatures as low as -40°C and numerous attempts to kill him both by carpet bombing and by assaults of infantry and mechanized units. The actions of Häyhä were instrumental in preventing the Finnish from losing the Winter War, which prevented them from being taken over by the Soviets. When asked to explain actions like these (partly since actions like these happened in Atlas Shrugged) Randroids respond with a rather dehumanizing, and frankly insulting, response that the person is not acting out of group interest, but is instead expecting to survive and is trying to gain self-respect or popularity.[Note 10]

But alas, if he didn't care enough to do such a thing Finland would have gone Red. And ol' Ayn wouldn't have liked that, would she.

[edit] See also

[edit] External links

[edit] Notes

  1. Though to be fair, she wanted to call her philosophy "Existentialism," but that was already taken.
  2. Though, Objectivism is really giving the Austrians a run for their money. Which is, in itself, just a jaw-dropping hint of the pure crank power contained within Objectivist thought.
  3. An ironic fact, considering what Rand and most modern Objectivists think about the Libertarians.
  4. See, for example, Whittaker Chambers's criticisms of Atlas Shrugged: Whittaker Chambers Versus Ayn Rand, Bloomberg
  5. See David Harriman's lecture "The Crisis in Physics and Its Cause" as well as Peikoff's Weird Science.
  6. There are heterodox approaches such as the embodied cognition supported by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson that make a partial return to direct realism, though they do not claim the infallibility of the senses as Rand did.
  7. There is, of course, debate in these fields as to the exact implications of these phenomena on the philosophy of mind, however, they tend to flatly reject the naïve form of realism. Perception and Hallucination by Charles McCreery provides further explanation and counterexamples. See also Ayn Rand Contra Human Nature's series The Cognitive Revolution and Objectivism for more criticisms relating to psychology.
  8. And to add insult to injury, even Conservapedia calls her a "libertarian activist" in the very opening sentence of their article on her. Karma is a bitch, Ayn.
  9. It reminds us of a certain person she disliked...
  10. This tactic is generally applied to any act of kindness. For example, saving your children from being hit by a car by throwing yourself in front of it is only moral because of your selfish desire to have your children live on, rather than concern for their own lives. Or what about about the doctors who gave up their lives to quarantine SARS or any other outbreak? They're not worldwide heroes, they just did what they were expected of them to do. This is the problem with psychological egoism -- it simply defines altruism away.

[edit] Footnotes

  1. Neera K. Badhwar and Roderick T. Long. (2012) Ayn Rand. Entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
  2. The Atlas Society versus Ayn Rand Institute
  3. The Green Room with Paul Provenza – Season 2, Episode 4
  6. Causality, Ayn Rand Lexicon
  7. Ayn Rand. (1963) "The Ethics of Emergencies," in The Virtue of Selfishness, p. 45
  8. Greenspan tells Congress he's shocked by credit crunch, CBC
  9. Ayn Rand and Evolution
  10. Ayn Rand Institute on evolution
  11. "Reject Environmentalism, Not DDT!"
  12. Against environmentalism, bitches.
  13. The Sociology of the Ayn Rand Cult, Murray Rothbard
  14. Why don't more Objectivists love the rock band Rush?
  15. Rush - 2112 (Live 1976), Part 1 of 2
  16. Libertarians, Ayn Rand Lexicon
  17. Objectivism (Ayn Rand)[wp]
  18. 18.0 18.1
  19. See the Wikipedia article on Objectivism and homosexuality.
  20. National Review Is To The Right Of The Kansas GOP, Andrew Sullivan
  21. Is "Cafeteria Objectivist" a thing?
  22. Ayn Rand. (1963) "Racism", in The Virtue of Selfishness, ch. 17, p. 126
  23. Q and A session following her address to the graduating class of The United States Military Academy at West Point in New York, March 6, 1974 (really) - found in Endgame: Resistance, by Derrick Jensen, Seven Stories Press, 2006, pg 220, can be found on Wikiquote
  24. Ibid. Full transcript can be found in Robert Mayhew (ed.), Ayn Rand Answers: The Best of Her Q&A. New York, NY: Penguin, 2005.
  25. From a 1979 interview on the Phil Donahue Show.
  26. Objectivists for Empire, The American Conservative
  27. Altruism, Ayn Rand Lexicon
  28. Definitions of altruism from the philosopher who coined the term.
  29. Apologies.
  30. See the Wikipedia article on LaVeyan Satanism.
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