What About Ayn Rand?
January 29, 2015
Stuart W. Mirsky

Since my high school days I've thought little of Ayn Rand. Yes, I read her as a kid and found her exhortation to live for oneself and disregard the demands and pressures of those speaking for society as a whole bracing and fresh . . . and, indeed, exciting. With a Nietszchean panache, she skewered the collectivist mentality and raised up the ideal of the SELF for itself. Her philosophy of "Objectivism," which rejected metaphysical and mystical pretensions in favor of an account based entirely on the facts as we find them, with the foremost and most basic being the fact of our lives, of our own existence (with the needs and desires which come with that), stirred the youngster I then was. It was a basic, down-to-earth, no-nonsense kind of philosophy which still seemed to soar with its promise of self-realization attained through the unfettering of the ego.

No more shall we be oppressed by the weight of others' needs and their judgments of what we want for ourselves. But that sense of a liberated ego didn't last long. It seemed to me, even back then, that we have obligations to others as well as ourselves and that, at times, what we owe others does outweigh what we think we owe to ourselves. In the end, I set Rand and her Objectivism aside, especially after going on to college and discovering the historically great thinkers of philosophy: the Greeks and, later, Descartes, Locke, Berkeley and Hume . . . and Kant, of course, and then the modern Anglo-American analytical thinkers. Exposure to the great philosophers left me thinking that Rand was something of a pretender.

And to an extent she was. According to the Stanford On-Line Encyclopedia of Philosophy (where I was surprised to find an entry on Rand, after an old correspondent of mine had defended her and so piqued my curiosity):

Her views of past and contemporary Anglo-American philosophy, . . . seem to have been based largely on summaries of philosophers' works and conversations with a few philosophers and with her young acolytes, themselves students of philosophy. Unfortunately, this did not stop her from commenting dismissively, and often contemptuously, on other philosophers' works. Contemporary philosophers, by and large, returned the compliment by dismissing her work contemptuously, often on the basis of hearsay or cursory reading.

I wasn't surprised to learn this. It reflected what I'd already come to believe about her during my college years. I recall contemptuously dismissing interlocutors back then who seemed to be foolish enough to invoke her name or ideas in debates. And yet, as the on-line encyclopedia goes on to point out:

she developed many of her views in lectures and essays and letters written in response to questions sent by her readers, but never took the time to defend them against possible objections or to reconcile them with the views expressed in her novels; and finally, her polemical style, often contemptuous tone, and the dogmatism and cult-like behavior of many of her fans suggest that her work is not worth taking seriously. Last but not least, her advocacy of a minimal state with the sole function of protecting negative individual rights is contrary to the welfare statism of most academics. For all this, however, in recent years academic appreciation of Rand's work has increased, and many philosophers now recognize it as often original, containing insights that sometimes anticipate later academic work. . . .

That surprised me somewhat but, reading further, I realized the writer had a point. She did develop an interesting epistemology, as the encyclopedia entry describes it, and, most importantly for her own work and my interests at the moment, she is finally a kind of moralist, i.e., all her philosophy thrusts itself toward defining a moral ideal. Like Nietszche before her, she rejects the morality of the group (exemplified by religiously inspired teachings but hardly limited to that for she was an ardent anti-collectivist and so condemned all forms of socialism including its radical manifestation, communism) as fundamentally oppressive and inconsistent with human nature. She argues, instead, for an ethic of self-realization which she defines as attainable only by living for oneself, something that is finally accomplished by allowing one's own talents and abilities to reach their maximum, to flourish, whether in the arts or other fields of endeavor. The heroes and heroines of her novels are artists and builders, businessmen and women.

Like the ancient Greek moral naturalists, who defined the good for human beings as the attainment of eudaimonia, the condition of thriving that is appropriate to the entity in question (exemplified by living up to one's nature), Rand's moral philosophy identifies the good with what is best, on her account, for individuals. This she finds in the individual's need to survive and in the capacities of the individual to advance that fundamental goal of survival. Maximizing one's talents and abilities is necessary then because 1) it is that which most fully enables individual survival and 2) it makes one's survival more than merely getting by, merely persisting as a living organism in the world, but surviving at the level on which an organism like ourselves is constructed to operate.

This isn't new, of course. It finds its origin in very archaic forms of philosophical thinking but Rand gives it a fresh twist by grounding her claims in what she counts as the objective (and so objectively knowable) world (which is where her somewhat original epistemological account kicks in). Just the facts, she seems to say -- that's all that counts in determining what we should do, and those facts include the facts of our own being and its nature. This led, of course, to her glorification of selfishness, the being for itself, in contrast to the demands of the herd which call, in her account, for the individual being to be for it. The Stanford Online Encyclopedia of Philosophy again:

Rand's defense of “selfishness” and rejection of altruism are part of the reason both for her popularity with the general reader, and her unpopularity with philosophers and other intellectuals, although some would no doubt agree with her rejection of abject self-sacrifice and her recognition of proper concern with the self as moral (Falk 1963; Gilligan 1982; Hampton 1993; Badhwar 1993a). The general reader who responds positively to Rand's work finds, for the first time, a moral justification for pursuing a life of her or his own and a liberation from “unearned guilt”. The philosopher who responds negatively to her work finds many biased and simplistic interpretations of philosophers and philosophical doctrines, including her claim that she is the first to consistently defend a morality of rational self-interest, all other philosophers having defended either altruism or mysticism (Pojman 1995). Her critics also challenge her equation of altruism with abject self-sacrifice (Rachels 2000, Flew 1984), and her claim . . . that there is no conflict between people's rational interests (Flew 1984). An adequate interpretation of her views, however, requires attention both to the fact that, in the absence of special obligations created by bonds of love, contract, or family, she regards others' needs as making no claim on us, and to the fact that she is an uncompromising defender of justice, honesty, and respect for others as ends in themselves.

So how does this serve as a moral account? To the extent that she argues for self-realization one can hardly fault her. Yet, as Nathaniel Branden, a one time disciple and later critic of Rand wrote:

By treating the issue of help to others almost entirely in the context of self-sacrifice and/or in the context of government coercion, Rand largely neglects a vast area of human experience to which neither of these considerations apply. And the consequence for too many of her followers is an obliviousness to the simple virtues of kindness, generosity, and mutual aid, all of which clearly and demonstrably have biological utility, meaning: survival value.

Her philosophy, that is, in particular the ethical side which is its most important component, seems to overlook one rather important fact about ourselves: That not only do we sometimes act for others' interests but we sometimes do so thinking it's right. An account which is entirely grounded in self-realization, however defined, and which takes that self-realization to be a matter of satisfying the individual's own needs before everything else seems to present us with a serious gap in its moral picture. Without rejecting the rightness of seeing to one's own interests, it's still necessary to know why we sometimes think it's the right thing to do to help others when nothing is to be gained for ourselves or when something may actually be lost (e.g., sharing the last bit of food we have with another hungry person or risking our lives to save another with whom we may have no familial or comparable relation). On a purely Randian view it looks like there can be no reason to do such things and yet not only do human beings sometimes do them, they often think they are the right thing to do and admire those who do them, urging others or themselves on to such behavior in some circumstances.

Branden suggests that the answer lies in recognizing that such behavior does have survival implications, too. We are group animals and rarely if ever can we survive entirely on our own, Robinson Crusoe-like. Being embedded in a society, as we must be most of the time, demands of us some compromise between our own needs and desires on the one hand and those of others. But is even this survivalist thesis enough to save a Randian account of moral valuing? Without denying the value of looking out for one's self, the point remains that we also value it when people look out for others -- and when we do, as well. Valuing such behavior means we must have reasons for it, reasons which make actions like this the right ones to do. But even in a completely social environment it is often open to us to dissemble and mislead others as to our intentions and the actions we actually take. If we can act in ways that harm others without fear of discovery and reprisal, then, on a purely egoistic view such as Rand's, in such instances we can have no reason to act otherwise. Since we can (and some of us sometimes) do act in this fashion, when we do there can be no compelling reason to act for another's interest instead or to act with sincerity when we appear to have another's interest in mind. This not only vitiates any supposed merit accruing to apparently selfless behavior, in the moral sense, it also allows us to justify acting in ways that are contrary to the interests of others -- to the extent we can get away with doing so.

We can operate effectively within a social milieu by fooling others if we want to and often enough we can get away with it. Sometimes, as in cases like Nazi Germany, the society as a whole (in terms of the general views and behavior of its members) can turn bad. Rand would have agreed that such a society, with its collectivist ethos, is bad, of course. But to the extent it is that in the pursuit of its own conception of self-perfection, how can she condemn it? She would argue, of course, that such a conception is delusionary, that it runs counter to any true concept of self-perfection once that has been properly understood. But where is the evidence for that? We have her word on it, of course, and even perhaps our own feelings on the matter. But if the bad society's members don't share our feelings or grant the authority of her judgment, then what have we got to show against a claim that people in such a society are entitled to pursue their idea of self-perfection, even if it comes at the expense of others who are weaker than themselves? Rand would certainly argue that it is precisely because a society like Nazi Germany represses the individual drive for self perfection (through the realization of each of its member's natural talents and abilities) that makes its goals and methods wrong. But a self-oriented ethic such as she propounded, like Nietszche's before hers, can not only permit, but support, the realization of an individual's capacities at the expense of others to the extent they can be deemed of lesser worth.

A commitment to the self, by a self, can readily lead to a will to power as in Nietszche's account, a will to enhance the self at the expense of others. Rand certainly argued that such behavior is antithetical to her other firmly held belief that all individuals are equivalent because each is an end in him or herself (in the Kantian sense?). But if life is just about self-enhancement, then why should the particular place where Rand chose to draw her line be thought definitive? Why shouldn't some selves, embracing a kind of will to power, pursue their own self realization in ways they choose? And why shouldn't the Nazis, as a group, or any society embracing such an ideology, do what they choose to other groups of human beings and to other individuals within their reach?

In the end Rand's position seems to stand on an unargued premise, that because each individual sees him or herself as an end in itself they must be obliged to see others as that, too. Perhaps Rand would be okay with that position. According to the Stanford entry, she claimed that knowledge stands on basic axioms which we accept, not because they are proved or provable but because they form the foundation of everything else we may say on the matter. (Here one is reminded of Wittgenstein's hinge statements in On Certainty although he would not have likened such statements to axioms in an argument but to components in a practice within which the arguments we make count as moves in the game.) The problem with resting one's moral judgment on axioms in the end, though, is that, insofar as we have an option to accept or reject any given axiom (to the extent that they are not settled beyond the possibility of further debate) we have not yet found a ground on which all disputants must stand. To the extent the axioms are subject to consideration and rejection, they cannot end the argument about what should be done. And if so, what can we say to the Nazi (or anyone else for that matter) who asserts his or her right to self-realization by trampling others? Accept our axioms that we are all ends and not means to others' ends. But why should they join us in accepting this?

The Objectivist ethics of Ayn Rand finally seem to give us no basis for concerning ourselves with the interests, needs and wants of others beyond justifying doing so in a self-serving manner (e.g., as in cases in which we act to preserve or protect the lives of others whose continued existence can be expected to be helpful to ourselves or, perhaps, when acting to build up others' goodwill towards us against some future need). Rand's Objectivism presents us with a naturalistic ethic which is susceptible to all the usual criticisms of naturalism in moral theory. But it also finally offers no basis for certain kinds of claims and activities which we intuitively recognize as being of the moral type.

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