Shrugging Off Ayn Rand

Years ago, if anybody ever asked me about my intellectual views, I had a ready answer. I was an Objectivist. In fact, I had a ready answer for just about any intellectual, metaphysical, political, ethical, or aesthetic question that might come up. I had read Ayn Rand's books - novels like The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, nonfiction works like The Virtue of Selfishness and Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal - and I had absorbed her philosophy, Objectivism. I believed it, I advocated it, and I tried to live by it.

And now, two decades later, I find that Ayn Rand plays almost no role in my thinking, that I never look at her books, and that her ideas strike me as irrelevant and, in certain respects, downright disagreeable. Something has changed. But what?

Before we get into that, let's take a look at what Objectivism is all about. Briefly, Ayn Rand starts with the assumption - or “metaphysical axiom,” as she would say - that reality consists exclusively of what is perceivable by the physical senses. This rules out God and any supernatural dimension. She goes on to argue that only reason can integrate sensory data and arrive at objectively valid conclusions. Thus all human action should be predicated on reason, including the class of human action that falls under the heading of ethics. An objective, rational ethics is therefore a necessity of human existence, and Rand proceeds to define one - an ethics of rational self-interest from which any altruistic motives or duties are excluded. There follows a defense of pure laissez-faire capitalism, the only socioeconomic system that gives free rein to profit-seeking selfishness.

Reason, egoism, individualism, capitalism - Objectivism in a nutshell.

All of this was intensely exciting to me when I was a teenager looking for answers to life's big questions. Rand served up those answers in easily digestible essays and exciting fiction. She could be fiery and shocking, or analytical and precise, as circumstances warranted. She seemed to combine the passion of idealism with the rigor of intellectual disputation. I read all her books, and reread most of them several times. And from when I was seventeen until at least my mid-twenties, Ayn Rand was the dominant intellectual influence in my life. I met many people who felt likewise, fellow Objectivists who had experienced the same excitement, the same sense of discovery and liberation, when encountering Rand's books.

Over time, however, I began to notice a downside to this movement and this system of ideas that had meant so much to me. Eventually I started looking elsewhere for intellectual sustenance. Today, if someone asked me to define my intellectual position, I would not be able to do so with a one-word answer - and I'm glad.

What was it that gradually altered my point of view? The simplest answer is that while practicing Objectivism, I didn't attain the contentment, the sense of being comfortable with myself, that ought to be the hallmark of a successful philosophy of life. Instead, I found I'd developed character traits that made me unhappy - and which were probably unhealthy, to boot.

For one thing, I felt that my creativity was somewhat stunted - I had trouble thinking "outside the box," in the current parlance. Rand's books and ideas had etched such a deep impression in my mind that I had difficulty getting past them to discover my own voice and my own vision. And if I did begin to depart from Rand's way of looking at things, I worried that I was "compromising" or "selling out."

Then there was my attitude toward new ideas and alternative points of view - an attitude that was, in a word, unreceptive. I had become inflexible, intolerant, narrow in my outlook, with ready-made opinions set in stone. Rand had explained the world with such clarity, in such bright colors and vivid images, that I could see no merit in any contrary opinion. I became judgmental, stubborn, and a bit self-righteous - hardly qualities likely to "win friends and influence people." But of course an Ayn Rand hero - or Ayn Rand herself - would have had only contempt for that Dale Carnegie phrase. Ayn Rand never won any popularity contests, and never wanted to.

I felt distanced from my own emotions. Suppressing my feelings was a sign of strength - like the hero of The Fountainhead, Howard Roark, blasting away at a granite quarry to numb his inner pain. Acknowledging feelings was a weakness. I pushed down most of my feelings and tried to rationalize the ones I couldn't ignore. I was largely cut off from the emotional part of myself.

In consequence, I had trouble relating to other people. I felt socially inept. So much of social interaction is based on the wordless ebb and flow of emotions, and on other nonverbal cues like facial expressions and body language. All this was unexplored territory to me.

Not surprisingly, I wasn't exactly knocking the world dead in my career, either. Why would I? I was creatively blocked, emotionally repressed, socially awkward - not exactly a package likely to make me a superstar in any field of endeavor I can think of.

And with all these negatives in my life, I was increasingly pessimistic. I wasn't getting anywhere and never would. Other people were a mystery I couldn't solve. The programs and policies consistent with Ayn Rand's political philosophy weren't being implemented, and it seemed unlikely they ever would be. She had taught me that in the absence of those political developments, civilization was doomed. I held out little hope either for myself or for society. Maybe if the world could be converted to Objectivism ... but other people, those mysterious, irrational beings, were impervious to logic - too stupid, I began to think, and too damned ignorant to see what was so plainly necessary. The mass of people were irrational, I decided. They were mindlessly nonintellectual. They were "social ballast," to use Rand's own phrase.

As you can see, I wasn't exactly the happiest person on the face of the earth. I was rigid, judgmental, emotionally stunted, socially alienated, deeply pessimistic, and going nowhere.

Was it just coincidence that these particular character traits developed - or at least came to full fruition - only after I had embraced Objectivism? I don't think so. Gradually I came to think that the changes in me were a direct result of the basic approach and style of this philosophy itself.

To see why, let’s take a step back and look at Ayn Rand's philosophy from a different perspective. The best one-line critique of Objectivism I ever heard was leveled by a friend of mine, who said, "Ayn Rand was the ultimate spokesman for the left hemisphere of the brain." The left hemisphere is conventionally associated with methodical reasoning skills, which are obviously a crucial part of what it means to be human. But there is also the vast spectrum of thought processes linked to the right cerebral hemisphere - the ability to think in terms of nonverbal associations, symbols, metaphors, images, poetry, myth, music, shapes, and holistic patterns, and to generate intuitive insights that cannot be reduced to linear reasoning. There is the mysterious realm of emotions and personal interactions, the unconditional love of a parent for a child, the willingness to sacrifice for a cause greater than oneself. Little of this finds its way into the sterile, airless terrain of Rand's philosophy.

Objectivism’s narrow emphasis on reason and logic might be helpful to a certain kind of person - a person whose right-hemisphere functions are overdeveloped, who is intuitive to the point of being flighty, spontaneous to the point of being scatterbrained, someone who is wildly emotional and has difficulty with linear reasoning. For this sort of individual, Objectivism might serve as a helpful counterbalance and corrective. The problem is that this is precisely the sort of person who will be turned off by Rand's philosophy and will be unlikely to pursue any serious interest in it. The person who is drawn to Rand is typically someone who is already highly left-brain dominant, somebody with a propensity to think rationalistically, to suppress or distrust emotions, and to render moralistic judgments in terms of absolutes, without acknowledging ambiguities. I certainly fit this profile. When I became an Objectivist, my pre-existing tendencies were encouraged and amplified, and instead of becoming more well rounded, which is the kind of personal development I needed, I became even more one-sided.

Believe it or not, there are people even worse off than I was. In the most extreme cases, ultra-rationalistic Objectivists can become outright caricatures, spouting quotations from Ayn Rand's writings and posturing as thin copies of her fictional heroes. It is for these people - robots programmed by Objectivist dogma - that the libertarian essayist Roy Childs coined the wickedly accurate term “Randroids.”

Excessive left-brain dominance typically manifests itself as inflexibility, righteousness, hypervigilance, and mistrust of others. Rationalistic left-brain types are uncomfortable with emotions – their own or other people’s – and prone to explaining away their feelings or burying them under tortuous layers of self-justifying logical analysis. They often have difficulty relating to others, and so feel alienated and frustrated. These feelings can translate into a negative opinion of people in general. Sound familiar?

The attitudes inculcated by Objectivism, I finally came to see, are simply an offshoot and a reinforcement of the psychological tendencies that attract people to Objectivism in the first place. The philosophy draws in rationalists and makes them even more rationalistic. This is not true of absolutely everybody who spins into Ayn Rand's orbit - but it was true for me, and I know I'm not unique. All too often, Objectivism limits a person's self-development to a narrow, artificial persona dictated by the demands of "reason" - as defined by Rand.

I put "reason" in quotes because - although Rand presented herself as a champion of rationality, and her philosophy certainly encourages its adherents to follow reason unstintingly - her own arguments are far from faultlessly logical. As I obtained the perspective necessary to take a fresh look at Rand, I discovered that her philosophical writings, which had seemed so impressive to me, are actually riddled with lapses of logic. She committed numerous fallacies, most commonly equivocation, question begging, argument from intimidation, appeal to emotion, ad hominem, and false alternative. These failings are exhaustively analyzed in Without a Prayer: Ayn Rand and the Close of Her System, by John W. Robbins, which is worth reading for its acute analysis of Rand's errors (although the author is much less persuasive when it comes to expounding his own philosophy, a variant of Calvinism). Please understand that I’m not saying Rand was ever intentionally deceptive. I doubt she was even aware of the mistakes she made. Had she been more open to criticism, she might have corrected many of them.

Rand liked to number herself among the greatest philosophers of all time. She once told an audience of admirers, in a tape-recorded question-and-answer session following a lecture, that in philosophy there were "the three A's - Aristotle, Aquinas, and Ayn Rand." Quite an assertion - but it is matched by the claims of her fans, who frequently assert that Rand was the greatest genius of the past two thousand years. In actual fact, however, her philosophical accomplishments are slim.

Rand herself always cited one of her signal achievements as the solution to the so-called “is-ought problem,” by which she established a purely objective, scientific basis for ethics. Had she in fact succeeded in this aim, it would indeed have been a historic achievement, since philosophers have been trying to place values on a strictly objective foundation for centuries. But her argument (presented in the lead chapter of The Virtue of Selfishness) is a tissue of fallacies, as Robbins and others have pointed out. Among other things, she equivocates on the key term "life," first using it to mean “that which is required for the organism’s survival,” but later, when human life enters the discussion, using it to mean “the life proper to a rational being.” These two meanings are in no sense equivalent, and the leap from biological survival to rational propriety is in no way justified, leaving the argument fatally undermined. Besides, any talk of “the life proper to a rational being” constitutes question begging, inasmuch as the term “proper” implies a system of moral values – a system for which Rand, at this point in her argument, is still laying the groundwork. To say that morality is founded on what is "proper" is to beg the question, or to argue in a circle.[1] In this essay, as in most of her philosophical writings, Rand reveals herself as something of a dilettante, whose grasp of the points under dispute was too sketchy to allow for the rigorous logical proofs she intended.

In truth, it isn’t the logic of Rand's arguments that attracts her supporters, most of whom, when drawn into Objectivism, are too young to be widely read in philosophy, history, literature, or other relevant disciplines, and so are in no position to engage in a serious analysis of her arguments. What attracts them - what attracted me as a teenager - is first of all Rand's certainty, her absolute self-assurance in a world of intellectuals who seem afflicted with perpetual self-doubt. Then there is her humanistic idealism, her utopian certainty that if only human beings will follow the right (egoistic) principles and establish the right (capitalist) institutions, a kind of perfection can be achieved on earth. (A key chapter in Atlas Shrugged is titled "The Utopia of Greed.") There is also her ability to glorify the alienated, unsocial individual, the lone outsider who challenges authority and tradition, as almost every teenager would like to do. Alienation and a gnawing frustration at the imperfections of the adult world are characteristic of most people's adolescent years, and Rand speaks to these emotions and gives them a philosophical context and a powerful universal meaning. She once said that The Fountainhead was written to honor the spirit of youth, and she was right, but it is specifically the spirit of rebellious youth - the same spirit that can respond positively to Nietzsche’s paeans to the Superman. John Galt, hero ofAtlas Shrugged, preparing to come down from the mountains and save the disintegrating world, has more than a little in common with Nietzsche's Zarathustra, the prophet descending from on high to redeem the ignorant, helpless masses.

Objectivists protest when their philosophy is compared with that of Nietzsche. They point out that Nietzsche was an irrationalist, while Rand was a staunch defender of reason. This is true. Still, by her own admission Rand was profoundly influenced by Nietzsche, and much of her ethical viewpoint echoes Nietzsche's contempt for altruism and his celebration of the exceptional man. To read Nietzsche, particularly in his later works like The Antichrist, is to read Ayn Rand with the gloves off, and the furious torrent of hatred and disdain that cascades out of him, directed at "the weak and the botched," who "shall perish ... and one should help them to it," is to glimpse the ugly side of Rand's utopianism. These views were watered down in Rand's own writings, but to say that there is no trace of them in Rand is to read her work with blinders on. One example: inAtlas Shrugged there is a pivotal sequence in which a trainload of passengers dies in a tunnel accident. The scene closes with the narrator, speaking for Rand herself, imperiously cataloging the philosophical errors of all the passengers - every last one of whom had failed to achieve rationality as she defines it. Being imperfect, they deserved to die – or so it is implied. Passages like this confirm that in Objectivism, the spirit, if not the letter, of Nietzsche's philosophy lives on.

Rand has not made great inroads into the academic establishment, in part because of whatever philosophical and literary weaknesses she possesses, but in part also because of the liberal bias of humanities professors. Nevertheless, she continues to appeal to new generations of young people. Some of them will drift away after a while. Others will hang on for life. In bookstores, her novels are often shelved with the classics, and while I have to say I dislike seeing them there, I can't complain. As James M. Cain observed, the only critic whose opinion ultimately matters is Old Man Posterity - the test of time. So far, Rand's books have passed that test. The Fountainhead has been in print for sixty years, and Atlas has been shrugging for more than four decades. Books that live that long must be considered modern classics.

Will they continue to hold that status fifty or hundred years from now? No one can be sure, but if I had to venture a guess, I would say no. I suspect that Rand's influence will gradually wane. In this respect, as Jeff Walker points out in The Ayn Rand Cult, her role in history may be similar to that of Edward Bellamy, who authored the socialistic utopian novel Looking Backward in 1888. The book created quite a stir, especially among young intellectuals, and led to discussion groups and political activity. As late as the 1930s, fans of Looking Backward were still active in politics, some serving in prominent positions under Franklin Roosevelt. But today Looking Backward is all but forgotten, few people read it, and those who do find it a quaint curiosity. (I've read it myself, or to be more accurate, half of it - it is a didactic and tedious book.)Looking Backward was doomed to eventual obscurity because the political ideas it espoused became obsolete after their failure was repeatedly observed in practice. In the case of Rand's writings, I suspect that their eventual obsolescence will stem from the fact that her views are implicitly grounded in a 19th-century scientific paradigm - the Newtonian mechanistic reductionism of the heyday of classical physics. Now that this paradigm has been exploded by developments in quantum physics, complexity theory, and parapsychology, among other emerging disciplines, Rand's worldview will, I think, gradually be seen as antiquated and irrelevant.

In the meantime she will continue to attract support and to garner zealous admiration. Certainly there are worse intellectual influences in our culture. There are professors and literati who sing the praises of Marxism, others who excuse and exonerate terrorists, and still others who fan the flames of racial antagonism. Rand’s vision is more rational and more positive than many of the alternatives.

Still, if I had a teenager in my household who was getting hooked on Rand, I would sit the kid down for a friendly but serious talk. I would say that any attempt to explain the world in simple, absolutist terms is bound to fail - and, more important, is bound to constrict an individual’s intellectual and personal growth. I would say that a philosophy, like any theory, is only a road map, and a road map can never be more than a thumbnail sketch of the reality it represents, a rough approximation, with nearly all of the details, texture, subtleties, and ambiguities omitted. I would say that we learn the meaning of life not by acting out the lives of fictional characters or swallowing the predigested conclusions of another thinker, but rather by living our own lives, making our own observations, having our own experiences, making our own mistakes, and coming to our own conclusions in the fullness of time.

And I would say that while it can help to have a guide in this journey, there are better guides to choose than Ayn Rand.

P.S. (June 30, 2004): A Usenet discussion prompted by this essay can be read here. I participate briefly (message #48). Since the other participants are mostly Objectivists, the response to my opinions was not too positive. One valuable criticism involved my inaccurate wording of a particular sentence, which I've now changed. For the most part, however, the critical posts consisted of the standard Objectivist arsenal of invective and ridicule. Your humble essayist was inveighed against as a liar, a fool, an ignoramus, a loser, a "social metaphysician" (Randspeak for a non-objective type), a messed-up adolescent who had no friends, an "insect," and worst of all, a pretender who never even read Rand's books! (On the last point, I can only say, "Would that it were so ...")

But remember - it's a philosophy of reason and benevolence!

**************

[1] Rand scholar Chris Matthew Sciabarra has this response to the criticism of Rand’s argument as circular: "The circularity indicates that there is an identity between human life and all the values (reason, purpose, self-esteem) and virtues (rationality, honesty, integrity, independence, justice, and pride) Rand enunciates. The virtues are the means to life. However, the standard of moral values is not mere survival, but the life proper to a rational being. Life is self-sustaining action. Human life as the standard of value entails the actions that are necessary for its achievement ... The constellation here cannot be understood in its abstracted units, but only in its organic unity.” (P. 258 of his book, Ayn Rand: The Russian Radicalexcerpt online at http://objectivism.cx/~atlantis/objectivism-l/msg02905.html. This sounds like a fudge to me, but I admit that I haven't read Sciabarra's critique in context, and his argument may well be more persuasive when studied in depth. On the other hand, for a very detailed analysis and refutation of Rand’s meta-ethical position, see Michael Huemer’s “Critique of ‘The Objectivist Ethics’” athttp://home.sprynet.com/~owl1/rand5.htm.

Sources:

Edward Bellamy, Looking Backward (1888). Severely dated socialist tract that surveys the history of the 20th Century from the vantage point of the year 2000. To put it mildly, things didn’t work out the way Bellamy hoped.

Friedrich Nietzsche, The Antichrist (1888); the full text can be read online at http://www.publicappeal.org/library/nietzsche/Nietzsche_the_antichrist/the_antichrist.htm. A long and bitter screed written the year before Nietzsche was committed to an insane asylum.

Ayn Rand, The Virtue of Selfishness (1961); an excerpt can be read online at www.whatthefunk.net/TheLair/VOS.htm. Rand 's ethics, presented in a series of essays in her usual haranguing, polemical style. The first chapter, “The Objectivist Ethics,” is the one briefly critiqued in this essay.

Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged (1957). Rand’s ambitious, thousand-page story of global collapse, which dramatizes all the key elements of her philosophy - and has convinced a couple of generations of fans that our mixed-economy social system will inevitably crash and burn.

John W. Robbins, Without A Prayer: Ayn Rand and the Close of Her System (1997). A scathing dissection of logical fallacies in Rand’s writings. The author also promotes his own Calvinist agenda, but it is not necessary to buy into his religious views in order to profit from his critical analysis of Rand.

Jeff Walker, The Ayn Rand Cult (1998). A massive compilation of anti-Rand sentiments from a huge variety of sources. Walker’s scattershot approach is sometimes unfair but often enlightening – and frequently very funny. Whatever its weaknesses, this book is an absolute must-read for anyone who is now or ever has been associated with the Objectivist movement.

For more information:

Pro-Objectivist Web sites include ...

The Objectivist at www.theobjectivist.com. Very large collection of Rand-related links, including a link to this essay.

The Ayn Rand Institute at www.aynrand.org. Official headquarters of the Objectivist movement, located in Irvine, California.

Leonard Peikoff’s site, www.peikoff.com. Dr. Peikoff inherited Ayn Rand’s estate and has written books and taught courses on her philosophy.

The Objectivist Center at http://www.objectivistcenter.org/index.asp. Run by David Kelley, this organization serves as an alternative to the more doctrinaire Ayn Rand Institute.

Criticisms of Objectivism can be found at many sites ...

“Why I Am Not an Objectivist,” by Michael Huemer at http://home.sprynet.com/~owl1/rand.htm. Technical overview of errors in Rand’s philosophy. Also check out Huemer’s “Critique of ‘The Objectivist Ethics’” athttp://home.sprynet.com/~owl1/rand5.htm.

At www.noblesoul.com/orc/critics/personal.html, you can find a list of links to other essays critical of Ayn Rand.

Finally, humor at Objectivism’s expense is plentiful on the Web ...

"The Objectivist Mockery Page" at http://walkingfish.com/objectivism/ contains links to many parodies, although a few of these links are defunct.

At www.jeffcomp.com/faq/peikoff/titan2.html you can read Leonard Peikoff's remarkably obtuse review of the movie Titanic. The review was not intended to be humorous, but it is.

"My Dinner with Andy," by Chris Wolf can be read at www.jeffcomp.com/faq/dinner.html. It’s a very funny, almost farcical account of a run-in with an Objectivist lecturer. Both this page and the Titanic review listed above are part of a larger site called “FAQ: What's REALLY Wrong with Objectivism?"

Finally, I found this weird parody site hilarious: www.geocities.com/objectifism/.

 

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