Objectivism: How Ayn Rand Suckered the U.S. with Selfishness

Ayn Rand’s philosophy of objectivism has four central tenets, one of which is that reality is objective. As she notes in a 1962 Los Angeles Times column, aptly titled “Introducing Objectivism”:

“Reality exists as an objective absolute–facts are facts, independent of man’s feelings, wishes, hopes, or fears.”

The ethical component of Randian objectivism is self-interest, which, in Rand’s words, means man “is an end in himself, not the means to the ends of others.” Man exists “for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself.” To Rand, the “pursuit of [man’s] own rational self-interest and of his own happiness is the highest moral purpose of his life.”

Rand also states that altruism is the destroyer of America’s implicit moral code — one man’s right to exist for his own sake.

I call shenanigans on grounds that the Randian objectivist manifesto contains a glaring logical flaw.

Consider, for a moment, someone who finds enjoyment in altruistic acts. This person beams with pride and a sense of justice when they give to those less fortunate. Even if this altruistic act has an outcome that appeals to a person’s self-interest, Rand would argue the act is not just. How could this be so? If the person’s altruistic act services what Rand would consider to be the “highest moral purpose” in life, then how can she logically justify her aversion — in the degree by which she refers to social evil — to altruistic actions? Rand would probably argue that being altruistic is not rational, at which point the burden of proof would rest on her to justify why an altruistic act, particularly one that appeals to the person’s self-interest, would be irrational.

I do not recall her ever doing that in her writings.

Secondly, since her ethical foundation rests on the self (self-interest), if someone can rationally come to the decision to kill, then if Rand’s objectivist ideas are to remain consistent, then this resolution to commit murder would be just. However, socially, we do not have that philosophy. Even if we were to remove arbitrary social components, human conditioning has evolved to the point where murder is unjustifiable. Even if the decision to kill someone were made for what would be considered a virtuous reason (such as preventing someone from committing a future homicide and as such, saving a life), as a species, we have determined such arbitrary acts of murder to be unjust. Furthermore, the assertion of justifiable murder (such as in the sense of preventing future homicide and thus, saving a life) can be considered altruistic, since the motive in doing so is, effectively, prosocial. In Randian objectivism, this cannot be rationalized.

To my view, this is the biggest takeaway from Ayn Rand’s junk philosophy. The context of absolutism (namely her vicious disposition toward altruism) within the manifesto presents logical issues. In the first tenet, she mentions that “reality exists as an objective absolute.” Even though we know this to be true, at least to an extent, it presents a logical problem with the third tenet, as well as the second — “reason is man’s only means of perceiving reality” — and the fourth — “the ideal political-economic system is laissez-faire capitalism.”

In regards to the first tenet, sense dictates that reality is actually subjective. Even though we may all “know” that a table is a table, if to invoke Bertrand Russell, not everyone sees the table the same way (whether it be through different viewpoints, lighting, etc). In effect, there is no unique qualifier to the arbitrary name “table.” No aspect of the composition or viewership of the table uniquely makes it a table, thus the name “table” is arbitrary, as are the “qualifications” that make a table a table. The same can be said about things such as the sky, or coffee, or cell phones, or even humans.

In regard to the second tenet, reason is not the only means by which people perceive reality. While reason is likely the most effective way (at the very least, unbiased way) by which people perceive reality, Rand makes no such distinction. She words tenet two as an absolute — the only way. As such, people who react emotively or appetitively to stimuli are thus not reacting objectively. But, did Rand not say that the “pursuit of [man’s] own rational self-interest and of his own happiness is the highest moral purpose of his life?” Who, outside of pre-Enlightenment philosophers, made rational arguments against appetites and emotions? Rand must further prove that emotive and appetitive reactions to stimuli — an emotive or appetitive reality — are irrational. David Hume would argue that emotions and appetites are just, as they form “sentiments,” which ultimately determine our moral basis. In going back to the example of murdering someone, our social revulsion to it is not inherent, but merely a product of sentiments. For murdering someone to be considered a heinous, unjust offense, it had to have been not thought of in that context previously. This means that at one time, either murder was condoned or, at the very least, tolerated. The negative sentiment toward murder would have to develop.

As the definition of murder is to willfully take a life without consent, let’s refer back to Aristotle. In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle uses an analogy of a flowering plant to provide a visual representation of “eudamonia,” which is Greek for “flourishing.” Aristotle makes this analogy in the context of “happiness.” The flower that survives is the one who must take more of the finite resources from the other potential flowering plants. For the dominant (Nietzchean view) plant to be “happy” (Aristotlean view), the happy flower must take from its competitors, leaving them to waste away and ultimately die. Since plants, like people, are deliberately motivated, as in they act with deliberate intent, this flower must “murder” other flowers to survive. Consider further the concept of parricide, the act of killing a parent. In Hume’s view, if a tree that drops a seed that grows into offspring ends up in competition with the offspring for resources, and further the offspring wins out, the result is that the parent tree dies. In human terms, this is considered an abominable offense — killing your parent. If in a situation where X amount of food exists and a parent and child have to compete for it, social justice would still prosecute the child if they killed their parent to eat . However, our revulsion is merely sentimental, for if it were inherent, every living thing would share it. Since the opposition to parricide is socially arbitrary (meaning not inherent, but sentimental), then it is not an “objective absolute.” Thus, the first, second, and third tenets of Randian objectivism are in conflict. Reality is not absolute (logical flaw of the first tenet), reason is not the only means of perceiving reality (logical flaw of the second tenet), and rational self-interest, via the revulsion to altruism, is not the highest moral purpose in life (logical flaw of the third tenet).

But, what of laissez-faire capitalism? Laissez-faire capitalism (or “full” capitalism) is a total separation of state and economics, comparable to the separation of church and state. To Rand, laissez-faire capitalism is “where men deal with each other, not as victims and executioners, nor as masters and slaves, but as traders, by free, voluntary exchange to mutual benefit.” In laissez-faire capitalism, the governmental involvement is solely as a “policeman that protects man’s rights”; but this assignment is contradictory to laissez-faire capitalism.

The government “polices” the market through regulation. Because of various incidents that have taken place over the years in the American market, certain baselines, minimums, and regulations have been put into place for the protection of worker’s rights, such as minimum wage laws, regulations for workplace conditions, child labor laws, etc. To the laissez-faire capitalist, such regulations are the government overstepping its authority and taking control from the business owner (or trader, in this case), rendering the owner impotent in the scope of fully running their business. But, such government regulation exists for the sake of protecting man’s rights, if I am to use Rand’s own diction. Moreso, is protecting of man’s rights in the workplace not altruistic? How can Rand make statements of laissez-faire capitalism, notably the government’s role in laissez-faire capitalism, while harboring such a detrimental attitude toward altruism?

Further, wouldn’t rational self-interest dictate that the worker not be at the complete mercy of their employer? If the employer is one who demands long hours at low wages, denies benefits, and supports no regulation that abolishes a hostile, dangerous workplace, then how is it rational for anyone to work for said employer? If the economy is dire, do we not see people settling for less than ideal positions as a means to make ends meet? With this being a common-enough practice, then the argument “well don’t work there” doesn’t hold up, for it presents a logical contradiction. How is it rational to refuse to work at this company when the alternative is destitution? In this respect, tenet four contradicts tenet three.

Essentially, Ayn Rand’s philosophy of objectivism is loaded with logical contradictions and as such, is not “true and necessary” as Rand claimed in a 1959 interview with Mike Wallace. For something to be philosophically true, it must be logical, meaning it cannot be destroyed within itself. A logical philosophy cannot implode.

Unfortunately, there many who subscribe to Rand’s philosophy, despite it’s logical shortcomings. There are many who see value in it, despite it’s selfishness and problematic nature. How foolish is it to subscribe to a way of thinking that is incompatible with logic, especially if that way of thinking is considered, particularly by its founder, to be logical? How can someone believe something like Randian objectivism when the core of the belief is simply not true?

Featured image by HKDP, available under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license. 

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About Robert L. Franklin

Ah, the About Me section - social networking's excuse for you sounding like an elitist prick. Hmm... what to say? What to say?
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