Friday, August 28, 2009

Ay, Ay, Ayn Rand

I came across a blog post on Urbangrounds the other day which piqued my curiosity: Marx vs. Rand. I've never been very fond of either thinker, but I realized most of my knowledge of Rand came from Objectivists on various discussion boards and from the film version of The Fountainhead, starring Gary Cooper, whereas I have read many of Marx's works, such as The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, The Communist Manifesto (of which I keep a copy in the bathroom to exorcise my demons), and some of Das Kapital.

My primary objections have always been towards expressions of what I consider to be a gross form of selfishness by the Objectivists I have encountered on the internet. So, I trekked down to the wonderful central library in downtown Austin to check out some of her books. Unfortunately, they were fresh out of Atlas Shrugged, The Fountainhead, and Objectivism, so I decided to make due with The Virtue of Selfishness (a collection of essays on objectivism), Anthem, The Ayn Rand Reader, and The Philosophic Thought of Ayn Rand.

After reading the essays in The Virtue of Selfishness, Rand's objectivist ideal of morality and ethics can be summed up in one word: utopian, in contrast to the distopian ideal presented in such works as Anthem. She sets her system up as a crude sort of utilitarianism in which the ultimate value of life is one's own survival with the following simple moral calculus: whatever furthers life = good; pleasure = happiness = good . In other words, whatever causes pleasure leads to happiness which is good, and thus is what furthers one's life (true, Rand does not advocate a hedonism in her utilitarian structure). Rand adds some layers to this formula, but this is the basic structure of her argument. What is pleasurable and good is arrived at as man "discovers" the rules of thought and laws of logic by which man can think for himself. Education and the accumulation of mankind's experience does not seem to be more than an after thought for Rand, who at the end of the essay "The Objectivist Ethics" says, "Man is the only species that can transmit and expand his store of knowledge from generation to generation." How this fits into her scheme of the ideal of the rational man she does not explain in this essay.

Her conjectures seem to violate what is actually objectively observable about human nature, i.e., people are informed by the experiences and customs of their ancestors. They do not come to the rules of thought and laws of logic in a vacuum, but they are taught. These teachings and customs inform our emotions and desires, which in turn informs our reason. As David Hume notes in his Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, "Reason, being cool and disengaged, is no motive to action, and directs only the impulse received from appetite or inclination, by showing us the means of attaining happiness or avoiding misery." Current studies of the brain seem to confirm Hume's thesis that emotions inform reason, rather than Rand's thesis that reason informs emotions (see Drew Westen's The Political Brain), as well as her belief that "emotions are not tools of cognition." This is what is objectively observable, whereas Rand seems to operate through an ideal which denies that anything exists which can be greater than one's self, because all love, friendship, respect, etc. is nothing more than trading based on selfishness. This rationalization of selfless feelings as selfish is not new to philosophical thought, and Rand is merely one more thinker in this line (along with Bentham and Mill whom she castigates as social hedonists). The selfless action shows the predominance of desire over reason, because the person who cares for the sick (who may not be virtuous in Rand's terms) leading to his own death is obviously violating his rational self-interest (and many more such examples), since he is not furthering his own life, but is sacrificing it. His desire could be one of many: a desire for scientific discovery, a desire to save lives, etc. This is the nature of man which Rand attempts to deny, or at best, change in order to establish her utopian vision of men living in a conflict free society based on rational self-interest. Studies of consumers and voters have shown the influence which other individuals and advertising play in a purchase or vote, and the chord they strike on an emotional level, rather than a rational level (Paul Ormerod's Butterfly Economics and Bryan Caplan's Myth of the Rational Voter). The more we study human behaviour, the more we can objectively observe that human nature is governed by desires, i.e., the irrational.

There seem to be a bundle of contradictions in Rand's work, as well as a good amount of dismissiveness (e.g., suggesting that any philosophy which posits desire as the root of action or determinant of interests as being subjectivist). By way of contradiction, she borrows from the "ethics of mysticism" which she repeatedly criticizes. In "How Does One Lead a Rational Life in an Irrational Society?," she writes, "But, in fact, a man is to be judged by the judgments he pronounces" - readily recognized as one of the "mystical" teachings of Jesus (Matt. 7:2), even as she criticizes the previous verse as an "abdication of moral responsibility." She borrows from from these ethics even as she criticizes them (and either ignores she is borrowing from them or does not recognize it). A similar judgment was made by Robert Hollinger in The Philosophical Thought of Ayn Rand: "By the same token, many views that Rand attacks have, on some variations, closer affinities with some of her key doctrines and assumptions than she is either able or willing to recognize." And are her adherents really learning the rules of thought and the laws of logic for themselves, or are they aping the path Rand has laid out? As a further contradiction, her ideal man - the rational self-actor - is also condemned to a life of pain and misery, since he must live in an irrational world, even though her own moral calculus shows pain as bad, and thus, not in furtherance of the ultimate value. In short, Rand seems to have created a superman (her own Zarathustra), a figure who must overcome the irrational world and the irrational man - saved only by their pride and self-esteem - such as her hero in Anthem, Equality 7-2521. In the end, I must say that Rand's system is not much of a system at all. It seems confused, thrown together, and not empirically verifiable.

Rand seems more concerned with what man's nature should be, rather with what man's nature actually is, and such philosophers never appeal to me, as I am more concerned with the is, because an ethical philosophy is pretty useless in my opinion unless it can explain and deal with how men actually act. A ethical philosophy must recognize man's nature and provide the proper channels for right action. It must recognize there are conflicts between all men's interests, which are determined and informed by desires, and find ways to discourage violence and, as Aristotle notes in the Nichomachean Ethics, encourage good character (which is the concern of political science), because man is a social creature and must live in harmony with his fellow man.

After reading Anthem, etc. I feel like joining Officer Barbrady in exclaiming: reading sucks.

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