Read Rand, Only To Know How Philosophy Can Go Wrong

Ayn Rand, when asked how she would summarize her philosophy of objectivism, she responded with a very clear summary herself [1]:

  1. Metaphysics: Objective Reality
  2. Epistemology: Reason
  3. Ethics: Self-interest
  4. Politics: Capitalism

Majority of this article will be about tackling the first three definitions, since at face value they look very straight forward, but, according to me, it has major flaws that Objectivism fails to address. Capitalism, in itself is a very vast concept, and a debate in itself, and therefore beyond the scope of this discussion.

The keyword when the metaphysics [2] is concerned is the word ‘objective’. According to Rand, and to Objectivists, reality exists outside of consciousness and that a human’s perceptions have little to no role to play in how reality inherently exists. Basically, humans can perceive reality through their senses and then, through inductive logic, can decide upon a morally desirable decision. This means that moral propositions are equivalent to propositions of biology, mathematics, chemistry, physics et al, such that it is independent of emotions and feelings. Fundamentally, my thoughts are driven by Cartesian doubt, which asserts that (as Descartes philosophized) there is no objective reality, and we all only just perceive reality. The human mind is a weak, albeit treacherous, thing. It can convince people of seeing things that do not exist, so that there can be simplicity that is maintained in its functioning. Whether this is convincing a person to think they have limbs when they really don’t, or that they are really experiencing whatever it is that they are experiencing when they are actually dreaming, the mind can fool itself. The real life that we are talking about now, may not be real at all.

For example, the simplest form of perception is how we perceive colours. When I imagine the colour blue, I imagine a certain ‘colour’. It is possible that what is blue for me, is actually perceived as red by you. It is not necessary that either of us be correct, but that it is a possibility.

What the main point of this argument is, and which I find myself disagreeing with, is that Rand assumes that there is an objective reality, which might simply not be true. There is also a possibility that the Randian objectivist is correct, and that there is an objective reality, but there is no proof of it. Rand also was an atheist, a stance that is often an objectivist characteristic. Regardless, atheism has its own flaws and truly so, not much different that asserting that there is, in fact, a super power controlling us.

Rand has asserted, and so have her successors, that there are some things that are ‘reasonable’ and some things that are not. Whatever that fell under her line of thought was rational, and the rest was simply ‘irrational’. This was one of her most popular, and defensive, of criticism of her opponents, albeit an unexplained one. Most of what Rand believed about irrationality was poured into bad literature. She never defined irrationality as such, but left us with the dictionary meaning of the word; decisions driven by “weak” human emotions.

Coming to the other aspects of objectivist metaphysics, there is an assertion about free will and determinism.

These are two very important schools of thought when it comes to how causation occurs. Determinism believes that the outcome of the future has only one possible outcome, and is inevitable. This means that other than human actions (we will come to this later), nothing will really affect the outcome of a situation. On the other hand, libertarian view tells us that a human being is free to choose whatever action he/she desires to choose, and it asserts on the concept of free will. Rand believed in both of these simultaneously.

Leonard Peikoff, a prominent objectivist, claims (and Rand approves) that any entity (non-human) will have a certain nature that will let it choose a certain position in a situation, and no other. But this directly means that (i) either human is not an entity in this scenario or (ii) Rand is contradicting herself. A human not being a forceful entity when it comes to decided how future events unfold is not just incredulous, but also quite uninformed. It was attempted to correct this error by Rand claiming that humans not being such entities actually means that humans have a variety of choices when it comes to decision-making, and the person will choose the outcome most in accordance with his/her nature. So basically, Rand is telling us that people just act the way they act, which is not only not a strong philosophical statement, but also quite a useless one. I say this vehemently because the statement that ‘a person will act according to their nature’ is a logical fallacy. It is, in fact, begging the question. If a human acts differently, that becomes part of their nature, thereby making the statement nothing but an empty truism.

Rand’s epistemology said that her philosophy of Objectivism was based on reason, and that reason was enough to deduce and understand morality. The problem is not her thinking that; the problem is that she never defined what ‘reason’ really was. Being reasonable is objective in people’s mind. Most humans do things that seem reasonable to them, and Rand decided that her reasoning was the most accurate because it relied on perception of reality, which may be false in itself. People are always reasonable; their reason just does not conform to someone else’s.

Ayn Rand contradicted herself again and again throughout her life. She believed that emotions were uncontrollable and could not form the basis of cognition. This also meant, that like most emotions, sexual attraction is also uncontrollable, and this Rand agreed with. She meant numerous times that the basis of love must not be physical attractiveness but the strength of the mind. On the other hand, she believed in love at first sight, which is what happened with Dominique and Roark in “The Fountainhead”. Dominique decided she loved him before having really talked to him, and Rand defended this by saying that people of similar premises will find similarities in each other just after looking at them. This is, apparently so, rational.

The last and the most important facet of Rand’s argument was individualism and selfishness. In “The Virtue of Selfishness”, says that selfishness is generally perceived to be “concern with one’s own interests”, and that altruism is the moral ideal. This is, quite simply put, just wrong. If “concern with one’s own interests” is selfish, then brushing one’s teeth is selfish. A keyword that Rand misses out on is “excessive concern”. But, according to Atlas Society, whimsical decision making without considering the feelings of loved ones is not selfish [3]. This is because Rand specified that a person is only selfish so as long as they try to fulfill their innate psychological and biological needs, backed by rationality. As I mentioned before, the subjectivity of rationality is under question here as well. To a psychopath, rationality is to kill other people for his psychological need. Is this then, according to Rand virtuous and individualistic? Apparently not, for she refused to call such people selfish extremely whimsically, and ironically so.

In “The Fountainhead”, Howard Roark (the protagonist), destroys a building because it had been meddled with. He destroyed a building that hundreds of people had been working on, including engineers, laborers and the people Rand so loved, the investors. This is the selfishness that Rand so conveniently defined as reasonable, although to her opponents it may not be so. But then, all of her opponents were irrational, thereby making their argument void.

According to Objectivism, altruism is an evil, since the socially needy are leeching off the socially and economically rich, and that a person who is altruistic cannot be reasonable. Rand forgets, that the basic needs (psychological and biological) to make one selfish also includes a need to be social, since this is an instinctive need of humans. But this instinctive need, the animal requirement, is suddenly not a requirement anymore, since it is emotional and again, “irrational”. Altruism in itself, is a need that people fulfill in order to satisfy themselves in some way or the other. Either it will make them feel like better people, or convince themselves that they have been assured a peaceful after-life. Whatever the reason may be, Rand ignores the fact that altruism is, in fact, a very natural response. And when it is not, when a person is not altruistic, the society’s reaction is not to condemn the person, but to mostly be oblivious to it anyhow. And even if it wasn’t, it was now the individual’s choice to not care about what society has judged about him/her, and keep their resources to themselves and not share. These are choices that all individuals make and have nothing to do with moral stances.

Fundamentally, the issue with Objectivism lies in the very word “objectivism”, which means that there either a right way of doing something, or there is not. Rand looked at the world in black and white, and refused to leave room for discussion because most discussions were “irrational”. Most Objectivists that I have had the pleasure of knowing have been similar in nature – assertive, angry and adolescent. Individualism sounds good, but most Objectivists would shy away from trying to implement it. Take college placements, for instance. A person who has already acquired a job in a particular type of company, is not allowed to appear for the procedures of similar companies. In an individualistic world, this will simply not happen. The same contestants who identify themselves as individualists, might even fight for this approach to the placement process.

Therefore, not only is Objectivism contradictory and weak as a philosophy, but Rand’s poor understanding of society, law, and humanity, also makes it a tool to make hot-blooded adolescents its willing victims.

References and explanations:

  1. http://www.aynrand.org/site/PageServer?pagename=objectivism_intro
  2. Metaphysics is a traditional branch in philosophy that, in lay terms, answers two basic questions:

(i)                  What is ultimately there?

(ii)                What is it like there?

  1. http://www.atlassociety.org/virtue-selfishness
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5 thoughts on “Read Rand, Only To Know How Philosophy Can Go Wrong

  1. “Fundamentally, my thoughts are driven by Cartesian doubt, which asserts that (as Descartes philosophized) there is no objective reality, and we all only just perceive reality. ”

    What difference you are making here between reality and objective reality?
    Are you saying that”we all” are reality or objective reality?

    1. Objective reality might be something that is deemed as the ultimate truth – morality based on assumptions such as those, that an ultimate truth exists, is not acceptable to me. That’s what I am trying to say.

    1. A reality exists. I am sure of that. But in the context of being only one human being and having the experiences of ONLY ONE HUMAN BEING, that objective reality cannot be known to anyone. In that sense, objective reality is a moot point, and might as well not exist because we, as human beings, can only know so much. That’s what I think is all.

  2. That is interesting. “A reality exists. I am sure of that.”
    How do you know that? By what reasoning?

    ( By the way I am not disagreering with you, my questions are meant to explore this subject because I think that it is fundamental to all thinking. I hope that you enjoy this conversation as I am enjoying it.)

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