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Rand's Objectivism Critiqued by Kelley L Ross, Ph.D. [ via @Intellectual Conservative Icons]

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Conservative criticism of Ayn Rand's philosophy   at the collection of great thinkers listed at
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Man is not the best of things in the universe.

Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Book VI, Chapter vii; 3-4 (H. Rackham, Loeb Classical Library, 1926, 1982, p. 342)

Ayn Rand (1905-1982)

Ayn Rand (born Alice Rosenbaum) is a fascinating person and an inspiring advocate of freedom but a very mixed blessing philosophically. Her novels The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged are still best selling introductions to the ideas of personal freedom and of the free market. As literature they may have drawbacks, but they are compelling "reads," which is certainly what Rand would have wanted. Rand's passionate and moralistic tone, while off-putting to many, is nevertheless probably a real part of her appeal and is no less than an equal and opposite reaction to the self-righteousness that is still characteristic of leftist rhetoric. Few writers convey an irresistible ferocity of convictions as Rand does. To many, including the present writer, raised and indoctrinated with the standard disparagements of capitalism, a novel like Atlas Shrugged can produce something very much like a Conversion Experience. At the same time, the harsh certainty of an autodidact and self-made person, and the high handed authoritarian manner of Rand's personality, worked against her case, her cause, and her life.

Although David Kelley, Leonard Peikoff, and others now try to develop her thought into a complete philosophical system, nothing can hide the relative shallowness of her knowledge:  She despised Immanuel Kant but then actually invokes "treating persons as ends rather than as means only" to explain the nature of morality. Perhaps she had picked that up without realizing it was from Kant [note]. At the same time, the Nietzschean inspiration that evidently is behind her "virtue of selfishness" approach to ethics seems to have embarrassed her later:  She very properly realized that, since the free market is built upon voluntary exchanges, capitalism requires firm moral limits, ruling out violence, coercion, fraud, etc. That was certainly not a concern of Nietzsche, but it was very much a concern of Adam Smith, who realized that, in a context of mutually voluntary exchange, people will always go for the best deal, producing the "invisible hand" effect of mutual and public goods being produced by private preferences. This confuses people enough in regard to Smith; and that makes it all the easier to mistakenly see Rand as advocating a view of capitalists as righteous predators -- especially unfortunate when the popular vision of laissez-faire capitalism is already of merciless and oppressive robber barons. A careful reading of Rand dispels that idea, but her rhetoric works against a good understanding.

Rand also confuses her case with her emphasis on individuals being deliberately "rational." That sets her against the Austrian and Chicago principles of economics that the free market is the means of coordinating limited knowledge, not some place where rationalistic supermen (e.g. the John Galt of Atlas Shrugged) display superhuman intellectual and moral powers. That makes it sound like the free market works just because such supermen exist to control it. Rand herself was actually aware that was not true:  At her best moments she asserts only that capitalism is superior because it automatically, through the "invisible hand," rewards the more rational behavior, not because some superrational persons must exist to hand out those rewards. That would have been F.A. Hayek's "intentionalistic fallacy." Nevertheless, one is left with the impression that Rand and her "Objectivist" successors do commit Hayek's "fatal conceit" by supposing that heroic characters will exercise a superrationalistic control over themselves and the economy, and that capitalism is not really a way of coping with ignorance, or with dispersed knowledge.

Rand certainly tried to exercise a superrationalistic control in her own life, with disastrous results:  Her psychological understanding of people, and even of herself, was clearly and gravely limited. Thus she engineered the marriage between Nathaniel and Barbara Branden, even though (according to Barbara, in The Passion of Ayn Rand) they weren't all that attracted to each other -- their unease was "irrational" to Rand. Then she decided that she and Nathaniel should have some sort of "rational" love affair, like characters in her novels. That Nathaniel was not comfortable with that, especially since they were both already married, does not seem to have mattered. When he finally refused to continue their relationship, Rand furiously expelled him from her "movement" and then scuttled the "movement" itself. That was, curiously, all for the better, since under her control the Objectivist movement was taking on more and more of the authoritarian or totalitarian overtones of the very ideologies it was supposedly opposing.

In another incident, related by the columnist Samuel Francis, when Rand learned that the economist Murray Rothbard's wife, Joey, was a devout Christian, she all but ordered that if Joey did not see the light and become an atheist in six months, Rothbard, who was an agnostic, must divorce her. Rothbard never had any intention of doing anything of the sort, and this estranged him from Rand, who found such "irrational" behavior intolerable.

It is revealing that as Rand refined her idea of the heroic personality from the Howard Roark of The Fountainhead to John Galt in Atlas Shrugged, the type became steadily drained of, indeed, personality. Galt seems little better than a robotic mouthpiece of merciless ideology. Howard Roark was already peculiar enough, since he would just sit staring at the phone while waiting for work. He might at least have read magazines. Subsidiary characters, like Hank Rearden and Dagny Taggart, possess something more like real personalities. This deadness of such central characters is an excellent warning that Rand had passed beyond a desire for mere human beings as her ideals. (Jung probably would have detected an animus projection.) This was an unhelpful bit of falseness, not to mention humorlessness, with which to burden her case for capitalism.

One drawback of Rand's literary method to present her ideas, although it follows in the great Russian tradition of philosophical novels, is the manner in which it sometimes obscures historical realities that would reinforce her argument. Thus the Taggart Railroad of Atlas Shrugged may strike someone with an average knowledge of American history as the kind of thing that never existed. Most people know that the transcontinental railroads were built with federal subsidies and federal land grants. They may also know that such railroads were tangled up in hopelessly corrupt, politicized financial schemes and in the end were so badly run and managed that they all (Union Pacific, Southern Pacific, & Northern Pacific) went bankrupt in the Panic of 1893. It takes somewhat better knowledge to know about James J. Hill, who built his own transcontinental railroad, the Great Northern, without public subsidies or land grants and often with the political opposition and obstructionism of the rival Northern Pacific and its political backers. Some of Rand's stories about the Taggart, for instance the challenge of building a Mississippi bridge, seem to have been inspired by real incidents in the building of the Great Northern. Unlike the other transcontinentals, Hill's railroad was financially sound; and after they went bankrupt, he was able to buy the Northern Pacific and also the Burlington. Hill, sadly, had to end his days furious and frustrated with the ignorant manipulations of the Interstate Commerce Commission. By merely fictionalizing Hill, Rand did not help combat the standard, biased history of American railroads (cf. Albro Martin, Railroads Triumphant, The Growth, Rejection & Rebirth of a Vital American Force, Oxford University Press, 1992).

Rand's respect for philosophy is one virtue of her system, but her epistemology and metaphysics miss much of the point of modern philosophy. Indeed, her ideal, rather like Mortimer Adler, was Aristotle. This could be good, since Aristotle's view of substance steered Rand away from a reductionistic materialism. Her development of Aristotle, on the other hand, ends up with something rather like Leibniz's view of concepts:  Concepts refer to every characteristic contained in every individual of their kind. This was not an improvement on Aristotle, who realized that if there are natural kinds, then there are both essential and accidental characteristics of those kinds. The meaning of concepts would be about the essential characteristics. For Leibniz's view of concepts to work, one would have to have, as Leibniz well understood himself, the infinite knowledge of God:  It would be impossible for our finite understanding to encompass all the characteristics of all the individuals of their kind. One suspects that Rand was not one to let God claim some superior status to human (or her) comprehension and knowledge.

Rand's description of "concept formation" seems more sensible. Qualities are "abstracted" from experience and formulated into concepts. Rand shoots for a "conceptualist" theory of universals, which avoids an Aristotelian "realism" of substantial essences on the one hand and the subjectivism of "nominalism," where universals are just words, on the other hand. However, a conceptualist theory cannot be consistently maintained (and this is not just a problem for Rand). Even if concepts may be conventional and arbitrary in many ways, they can only be connected to reality if they are based on some abstract features that are really in the objects. Thus, as soon as Rand allows that the terms for features "abstracted" from experience refer to features that are really there, then she has let in some form of Aristotelian realism, whether she wants to or not. And if there are indeed natural kinds, then there must be natural, and real, essences. Otherwise her theory is nominalist and subjectivist. Evidently aware of that tension, we have the motivation for Rand's idea that concepts refer to everything in the objects. That preserves the objectivism of her theory, and so the appropriateness of "Objectivism" as the name of it, but, as we have seen, it leads down the paradoxical road of a Leibnizian theory of concepts.

Rand's theory of concepts, regarded by both Rand and her successors as the centerpiece of her thought, leads, as in Leibniz, to a view of all truth as essentially analytic. Such a theory, in turn, is pregnant with the potential for speculative dogmatism, ultimately relying, as it must, on a Rationalistic (and Aristotelian) sense of the self-evidence of first principles. Rand's "Objectivism" is, indeed, Rationalistic metaphysics. A good indication of this is that the principle of causality is itself viewed as a corollary of the principle of identity. Identity (either (x)x=x or P->P; stated by Rand as "A is A") itself is a tautology of no positive content, overinterpreted by Rand as the basis of various substantive propositions. Few philosophers since Hume, apart from speculative metaphysicians like Hegel, have regarded causality as logically related to any tautological or analytic truth. The watershed insights of Hume and Kant are thus overlooked and their theories denigrated. Peikoff ("The Analytic-Synthetic Dichotomy," in Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, Meridian, 1990) even confuses Kant's definition of synthetic propositions with the Logical Positivist interpretation that all synthetic propositions are contingent. Since Kant would not accept such a trivialization of his theory for a minute (he would even regard it as a misunderstanding of Hume), Peikoff cannot even begin to address the substance of the issues that Kant considers. "Objectivist" epistemology has not been awakened, as Kant was by Hume, from its "dogmatic slumber."

Rand's fundamental law of morality, that one is never justified in initiating the use of force against others (though I am now told that this originally came from Lysander Spooner), has been adopted as the basic Principle of the Libertarian Party. This is an illuminating version of the Moral Law in that it highlights an aspect of morality, politics, and law often overlooked:  That they are about the justification of the use of force. People who casually toss around ideas about what should and should not be allowed in society, or about how much of people's income should be taxed, or what restrictions should be put on property rights, often don't seem to be aware that they are talking about sending men with guns, the police, against people who don't agree with such dispositions and who may not be willing to comply with them. Thus, since it has not seemed wise to many to "allow" people to harm themselves by freely using opiates, cocaine, or marijuana, people have shown themselves willing to harm the uncooperative with equal or greater severity by fining or seizing their wealth and property, putting them in jail for long periods among hardened, violent criminals, and denying them various rights and privileges of citizenship and commerce in addition to the natural penalties, such as they may be, of drug use -- in short, by ruining their lives in retribution for disobeying "society." Behind even those sanctions, furthermore, is the threat of death should the uncooperative choose to defend their Natural Rights to control of their own bodies by "resisting" the representatives of "authority," the men with guns, by force. Few Americans have sympathy for people who resist the police, whatever their reasons.

Despite this edifying emphasis, however, Rand's moral principle is clearly incomplete. First, it makes no provision for "privileges of necessity", which means it would be morally acceptable to let a drowning person die or a starving person starve even if it would present no burden or difficulty to rescue them. No use of force would be involved, simply a wrong of omission. Since wrongs of omission present difficulties of definition and implementation in any case, this is not too serious a fault for Rand's principle, unless it is to be insisted upon that the principle is perfect, rigorous, and exhaustive. It would be foolish to do so, though many do. The second problem with the principle is that it leaves issues of property rights entirely undefined. Is stealing someone's unattended luggage at an airport a moral wrong? It involves no obvious use of "force" against the victim's person. Therefore, if "force" is to mean any unauthorized action against property, property rights must be independently defined; and historically, among libertarians, there have been considerable differences of opinion about the scope of property rights -- including "Georgist" ideas that more property should not be allowed than can be used. Decisions in that area, however, can be no logical consequence of Rand's moral principle. As with cases of necessity, such a difficulty with Rand's theory does not discredit it but does show its limitations and incompleteness. The only really serious error would be to deny such limitations and incompleteness.

Consequently, Ayn Rand as a philosopher has relatively little to contribute to the doctrine of the Friesian School. She may be taken, nevertheless, for what she will continue to be:  An inspiring advocate for the free market and for the creativity of the autonomous individual. With her intimate, personal knowledge of the Russian Revolution, and all the loathing that it inspired in her, Rand will always be an invaluable witness to the practice and folly of totalitarianism. She is also a useful one person test to distinguish libertarians from conservatives:  Her atheism alienates most conservatives, who may even speak of her bitterly and dismissively. A defining moment in that respect was the savage review by Whittaker Chambers of Atlas Shrugged, when it came out, in the National Review. Many admirers of Rand have never forgiven William F. Buckley or conservative Cold Warriors for that attack. At the same time, Rand presents a difficult case for the Left. Since the preferred political universe for leftists contains a one dimensional spectrum from "progressive" to "reactionary," where the reactionary end is a seamless fabric of capitalism, religion, racism, and sexism, Rand is disconcertingly off the track and invulnerable to typical modes of leftist ad hominem religion and race baiting argumentation. Also, as a tremendously successful self-made woman, long before the ascendancy of political feminism, she is invulnerable to the typical feminist mode of gender argumention against "dead white males." These inconveniences make it preferable for the Left to ignore Rand, which mostly they can and have, given the minority and ignorable status of libertarianism. Rand herself and her followers have made that easier by often resenting and taking a sort of heresiological attitude towards fellow libertarians who are suspicious, as Charles Murray has recently put it [in What It Means to be a Libertarian, a Personal Interpretation, 1997], of the "well fortified" ideology of "Objectivism." Rand herself even wanted to sue Reason magazine for running a cover story on her in the late 1970's. Such conflicts and absurdities are typical in ideological movements, but it is a weakness. Rand's own seriousness about philosophy, although to her credit, was also a weakness, in that it complicated and ideologized her case for capitalism and gave her followers this heresiological attitude and a standoffishness to other advocates for freedom. That seems less of a problem for the self-made Objectivist David Kelley than for the anointed successor of Rand, Leonard Peikoff. But, like most philosophers, Rand is better taken as a goldmine for ideas than as authoritative doctrine.

Another of Rand's sins against the Left and still of current interest was her willingness to testify as a "friendly witness" in the 1947 hearings of the House Committee on Un-American Acitivies (HUAC) on Communist infiltration of Hollywood. Rand's only complaint was that they didn't let her testify enough. She was the only person at the hearings who had actually lived under Communism, indeed been a witness to the entire Russian Revolution and Civil War, and she wanted to explain how anti-capitalist messages were included in many mainstream Hollywood movies. It may not be remembered much now that Rand got her real start in America working in Hollywood, living for many years in the San Fernando Valley. This is still of current interest because, after many years of hard feelings, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences in 1999 finally gave an Oscar to Elia Kazan, director of such classics as On the Waterfront (1954) -- which itself was about a man fighting with his conscience over whether to expose his gangster (i.e. Communist) friends. Kazan, after leaving the Communist Party, was willing to "name names" to HUAC in 1952.

While Communism failed and fell in the real world, in the make-believe world of Hollywood Communist propaganda succeeded quite nicely, and many people still believe that the HUAC investigations were "witch hunts" for non-existent enemies or well-meaning idealists. Well meaning idealists there were, but they were not the targets of the Committee. Instead, they became the "useful idiot" liberals, in Lenin's words, who whitewashed all the real Communists and their activities. The useful idiots are still at it, though since the 60's many of them, as anti-anti-Communists, have been all but indistinguishable from their Communist friends in Vietnam, Cuba, and Nicaragua. As it turned out, the easiest way to find the Communists in Hollywood was just to subpoena all the suspects. Almost everyone who then refused to testify or took the Fifth Amendment, it happened, actually were Party members (acting on Party orders) or fellow travelers, as we know now from many sources, including the Soviet archives that also reveal the Soviet funding and direction of the Communist Party USA and its activities in Hollywood. These were not idealists but willing agents of tyranny, murder, and crimes against humanity. Rand would have no more patience now with leftists whining about "McCarthyism" than she did in 1947 with the lying and dissimulating agents of the living mass murderer Josef Stalin.

"Why I am not an Objectivist," by Michael Huemer

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Copyright (c) 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2004 Kelley L. Ross, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved

Ayn Rand (1905-1982), Note

Thus Rand says:

The basic social principle of the Objectivist ethics is that just as life is an end in itself, so every living human being is an end in himself, not the means to the ends or the welfare of others... ["The Objectivist Ethics," 1961, The Virtue of Selfishness, Signet, 1964, p.27]

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).

As it happens, Rand makes the same mistake with her means/ends principle as many critics of Kant. On her own terms, as being essentially a trader, the good person actually is "the means to the ends or the welfare of others." This is why economic exchanges take place, to further the ends and improve the welfare of each transactor. The missing term is that no one should be forced to be "the means to the ends or the welfare of others" against their will. There is also the ambiguity of what it means for a human being to be "an end in himself." This properly means respecting the will and autonomy of others, but it could also have a substantive interpretation, that respecting their own human nature and human life imposes duties to themselves on autonomous individuals to realize their nature. This is rather like what we actually get in Aristotle and even in Kant, and it can be the basis of paternatistic laws to criminalize actions by which people do things that are simply supposed to be bad for them. It is the ground of old laws involving "crimes against nature." Is it also an implication of Rand's principles? Yes indeed, if we look at Rand's practice as well as at her teaching. People who disagreed with her, even about things that were their own business, were condemned, browbeaten, and even "expelled" from Objectivism. Apparently they weren't living up to the promise of being human, as understood by Rand.

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Pre-Emptive Fair Use!: this is posted for educational purposes -- I will further educate MYSELF to these assertions!! -- but on some future day.   Disclaimer -- sorry to post non-news, but this topic appears to be admired by

and therefore it might symbiotically illuminate several foisted-or-honest agenda concurrently. I do have on open mind.  I do question that my own current opinions could indeed be symptoms of undetected intellectual cancers!
/ "Peace to all, but death to warmongers!"  / js  aka

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