My thoughts on Ayn Rand, and why I feel she is unfairly treated
I’ve currently been looking a bit into “Objectivism”, or the philosophy of Ayn Rand. This is mainly because I was curious to see how Objectivism compares/contrasts to my current belief system, and decide for myself how much both of the praise and criticism it truly deserves.
Below I will take some of the common criticisms directed at her and Objectivism, and explain my thoughts on them.
“Ayn Rand was selfish and praised greed. She preached that we should only care about ourselves at the expense of everyone else!”
This claim mainly comes from the title of a collection of essays that Rand wrote called “The virtue of selfishness.”
First off, let’s examine what is meant here by “selfishness”. Selfishness in this context means “rational self interest” or “self esteem”. Not “only care about yourself, screw everyone else”. That’s in fact, a newer definition.
Where did this belief come from?
It came from Aristotle, her favorite philosopher and the driving force behind much of Objectivism.
Aristotle once said:
“A rational pride in oneself and in one’s own moral character is when it is earned, the crown of virtues.”
Aristotle argued that self love was not only the highest love, but a prerequisite for virtuous living. This is likely where the modern expression “learn to love yourself before you love another” comes from.
Understand that Aristotle lived in the time before Christianity and most of the world’s major religions were established. (Hinduism goes back to prehistoric times.) This meant that the whole concept of “the soul” and “being selfless in order to be in paradise with God for eternity after death” hadn’t really come into existence. Aristotle believed that making the most of your life in the present was of the highest importance, as did Rand who was an atheist.
This is simply one aspect of her philosophy that was taken directly from Aristotle. I feel that it can’t be emphasized enough that much of Objectivism is Aristotelian in nature. The reason that this is important is because Rand is often attacked, called a “hack” or “not a real philosopher”, and yet most of her belief system comes from someone who is consider by many to be one of the greatest if not the greatest philosopher of all time. Saint Thomas Aquinas even referred to Aristotle as “the philosopher” in his writings.
Here’s what Rand wrote in a review of John Herman Randall’s book “Aristotle”:
“If there is a philosophical Atlas who carries the whole of Western civilization on his shoulders, it is Aristotle. He has been opposed, misinterpreted, misrepresented, and — like an axiom — used by his enemies in the very act of denying him. Whatever intellectual progress men have achieved rests on his achievements.
Aristotle may be regarded as the cultural barometer of Western history. Whenever his influence dominated the scene, it paved the way for one of history’s brilliant eras; whenever it fell, so did mankind. The Aristotelian revival of the thirteenth century brought men to the Renaissance. The intellectual counter-revolution turned them back toward the cave of his antipode: Plato.
There is only one fundamental issue in philosophy: the cognitive efficacy of man’s mind. The conflict of Aristotle versus Plato is the conflict of reason versus mysticism. It was Plato who formulated most of philosophy’s basic questions — and doubts. It was Aristotle who laid the foundation for most of the answers. Thereafter, the record of their duel is the record of man’s long struggle to deny and surrender or to uphold and assert the validity of his particular mode of consciousness.”
In addition to religions, the concept of putting self interest aside from some greater ends down the road also appeared in many of the collectivist ideologies in the twentieth century (notably fascism and communism) since it was believed that the State, “the people”, or “the common good” was the most important goal in life, not one’s own selfish interests.
Since the twentieth century was the absolute bloodiest one in all of mankind, whereas the nineteenth had been hands down the most prosperous, Rand argued that this was due to a departure from Aristotelian based philosophy. Rand also argued that the Middle Ages ended and the Renaissance (and subsequent Enlightenment) began primarily because Aristotelianism was revived via the great theologian philosopher, Saint Thomas Aquinas.
One accurate description of Objectivism that I heard was “Objectivism is Aristotelianism post slavery, post Industrial Revolution, post Scientific Revolution.”
“Why did Rand reject altruism? Didn’t she care about other people?”
Again, let’s look at what she meant in this context. This was yet another point taken directly from Aristotle.
Altruism in the Aristotelian view on friendship meant that there was no self sacrifice in the basis of a healthy friendship. If you have to sacrifice some of who you are in order to be friends with someone, that is not a true friendship.
For example: If people only hang out with me on the grounds that I spend money on them, they’re not my friends. If I spend money on them periodically because I want to and it’s not expected of me, that’s perfectly fine.
When worded in this context, I think this is a perfectly reasonable stance that many people would agree with.
Another important point here is that Aristotle and Rand believed in what is commonly known as the “golden mean” or “Aristotelian mean” when it came to certain characteristics, such as courage. It’s the fine point between deficiency vs excess.
Too much courage, you’re what’s called “foolhardy”. Too little courage, you’re a coward. This principle regarding courage applies to friendships as well.
If you have to lie to other people and sacrifice your principles in order to be friends with people, that comes from a deficiency of courage and isn’t virtuous. Not only is it dishonest, it’s immoral.
Here was how Aristotle put it in the Nicomachean ethics, one of his most famous works:
“Piety requires us to honor truth above our friends.”
I find this point particularly interesting, because I have really noticed in recent times how many friendships I observe are based on superficial reasons, such as mutual conformity to popular culture, simply hanging out in the same areas, or working together. This is why there isn’t a real connection, and these friendships will end when put under even a bit of pressure. This has been a problem with many in the last generation or two.
“What other aspects of Objectivism come from Aristotle?”
Notably the metaphysics and the belief that a person’s ethic should and can be rooted in reason and objective reality, hence the title of her philosophy.
There were of course, additions to Aristotle’s philosophy due to advances in science over the last few centuries.
For example, Aristotle framed “essence” as the essential characteristics that particular items have. He might have looked at different items made from iron, and noticed that they were the same color, same durability, and all rust when exposed to water. He had some concept of “matter”, but the science didn’t exist yet to clearly explain it.
We know now, that iron is an element on the Periodic Table of the Elements, that it is made up of individual, identical atoms which can be viewed under a microscope. Again, Aristotle had a sort of intuition for this, but he didn’t have the techniques to explain it.
Rand and Aristotle believed that a republic (similar to what existed at the founding of the United States) was the ideal form of government. Aristotle was the first thinker to theorize the idea that executive, judicial, and legislative functions of government should all be performed separately. Aristotle and Rand both rejected the totalitarian ideas espoused by Plato, but also rejected direct democracy.
Rand however rejected slavery, which was the basis for the economy in Aristotle’s time. Aristotle never got to see a free market economy function. Rand believed (based on objective reality) that capitalism had produced more wealth than any other economic system, whether it be feudalism, slave based economies, mercantilism, fascism, or socialism.
Areas in which I feel that Rand was wrong, or at least off base
While some of the criticisms directed at her are wrong headed, I feel that there are some legitimate ones. Some are personal flaws, whereas others are gaps in her philosophy. I will now elaborate.
“One can’t derive an ‘ought’ from an is.”
Rand pushed back against the eighteenth century empiricist philosopher David Hume in one of his particular areas, notably his famous statement that “one cannot derive an ought from an is.”
Perhaps put in more common terms, Hume was trying to make the point that you can’t understand the way morality should work based on simply observing nature and the world around you. This has been considered by many to be the best refutation of “natural law” based philosophies. Rand tried to push back against this in different parts of her writing, notably John Galt’s speech in “Atlas Shrugged”. However, I found her arguments to be weak.
I want to thank the economist David Friedman for providing the insights which follow.
Existence is the main purpose of living organisms.
The main purpose of living organisms is to exist. Seems simple and straightforward.
However, this is flawed. Evolutionary biologists have proven that the main purpose of life and genes is not rather to exist, but to be passed on. A few examples:
- The male praying mantis mates with the female, even though she will devour him in the process.
- Sea horses, clown fish, and others can switch their genders in order to mate. Why would this function exist if they weren’t in situations where reproduction was difficult?
- Male honey bees actually lose their genitals when mating with the queen, and die shortly thereafter.
- A female angler-fish will absorb the male angler into her body, and he becomes one with her over time in order to reproduce.
- Why do human beings reproduce in cases where having more children isn’t affordable? On a purely rational level this makes absolutely no sense, but the drive is there.
Some would argue that biology and philosophy are separate disciplines, but if Objectivism claims to based on objective reality, Rand’s point doesn’t hold water.
A person’s life is their highest purpose and if it’s not, that means certain death.
This is flawed in the sense that not every course of a life is a clear cut path to a long period of prosperity, or death. There are various degrees in between, some of which might simply mean a shorter and/or worse life, but not a death sentence. This because there are many instances where a person places a particular cause over the value of their own life.
A few examples:
- A nationalist (particularly an ultra-nationalist) sees “the good of the nation” as something that is worth risking, even giving their life for. Depending on how their struggle goes they might end up dead, or live long enough to see their cause succeed.
- Most religious people are the same way, particularly prophets and saints. Not all saints were martyrs of course, but many knew that they would have to put their lives at stake for what they believed in.
- The economic school of thought known as “utilitarianism” espouses that an economy should be arranged in such a way that the greatest number of people benefit, even if its comes at the expense of some individuals. More than likely however, if some individuals support that system, they see sacrificing at least some of their own happiness as being worth it for “the good of all”.
- An organ donor shortens, but doesn’t end their own life so that others may live longer. This is in between their own life as the highest aim vs certain death.
These are just a few examples off the top of my head. There are numerous others as well.
Acting rationally leads to Objectivism by nature
Rand cites an example where a person is defrauded, and how by being caught and possibly punished, this could compel them to do the right thing.
The problem is that as in the previous point, there are various degrees of this. In different circumstances, the ability to defraud someone and get away with it is more likely. In other cases, less so.
Also bear in mind that the punishment that comes with for doing these things may vary depending on the situation and rules, which likely influences a person’s willingness to do it.. The same applies to other crimes such as theft, murder, and so on.
For example, let’s take an issue that happens a bit in food service, my industry of employment: Drinking on the job. I’ve worked in places where if someone is caught drinking on the job, they simply get a slap on the wrist. A person will continue to do it, albeit more discreetly. Other places have numerous cameras and very little privacy anywhere, keep strict record of inventory, and warn employees that getting caught doing this will mean automatic termination. That tends to keep people in check.
The point that I’m trying to make here is that while some people are motivated by what’s right (not drinking at work because it clouds judgement and is stealing from an employer), others will do what they want because they see it as being in their best interest and believe that they can get away with it. This doesn’t mean that people are inherently virtuous, and simply arrive at morality by nature.
“Ayn Rand was an elitist!”
I personally have received this charge as well, so I can relate. Here’s how I would respond:
“Aren’t we all truly elitists? Don’t we all listen to music that we consider the best? Don’t people who watch sports watch the ‘athletic elite’? On a special occasion, don’t we want to eat the best food, which is prepared by the best chefs? Aren’t the actors that we admire in movies the ‘acting elite’?”
I think that with some self reflection, this reveals itself.
“Ayn Rand had seemingly racist views toward Native Americans and Palestinians!”
I don’t defend discrimination against any people based on ethnicity, but let me explain why people say this about her.
Rand was praising Western culture, which has objectively contributed more to the history of man than most others, with the exception of some Eastern philosophies. Again, this doesn’t mean that murdering and taking land from people by force was justified, but she was trying to emphasize the importance of cultural achievements rooted in Aristotelianism. The free market, equality before the law, the end of slavery, the rights of women, etc.
Her preference for Israel over Palestine most likely came from the fact that she was raised Jewish and felt a bit of tribalism, even at a subconscious level.
You can see this same principle play out in many cases, such as when someone does something wrong or is criticized, and various members of their ethnic group automatically rush to their defense. Even in cases where that person is clearly at fault. Doesn’t make it rational or moral, but we evolved in tribes, so we’re naturally hard wired to act this way.
“Ayn Rand collected Social Security and Medicare!”
Is this inconsistent with her belief system? Not entirely. Let me explain..
Rand paid a lot more in taxes than she got back in benefits. She and others have justified this as simply claiming back what was rightfully hers.
If the Mafia extorts your business regularly, throws a block party and you go to it and eat, does that make you a moocher?
“Ayn Rand had a drug problem!”
She did take some “uppers” later in life to deal with depression which did cloud her reasoning, made her paranoid, etc. I don’t justify this, but I feel that this is a flimsy criticism being that many other great writers, musicians, and actors have abused some substance.
- Writers: Edgar Allen Poe, Jean Paul Sartre, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Aldous Huxley, Ernest Hemingway, and Stephen King and others all had various substance problems.
- Music: Kurt Cobain, Ozzy Osbourne, Whitney Houston, Amy Winehouse, Michael Jackson, David Bowie, and more.
- In Hollywood: Most of them!!
Again.. Doesn’t make it right. But if you attack Rand for this, you can’t defend the others without being a hypocrite.
Concluding thoughts on Ayn Rand
Rand ultimately failed in what she wanted to achieve. The government has grown substantially within the decades after her death.
“You can’t reason people out of beliefs that they haven’t been reasoned into”
Leonard Peikoff, one of Ayn Rand’s intellectual heirs believed that within a year or so after “Atlas Shrugged” was released, the government regulations on the economy would be dismantled. He felt the arguments were that logically powerful.
The problem is that our psyches are shaped through childhood, and damaged by neglect and abuse. This is where insecurity starts. This is why people become emotionally attached to certain views, and counterarguments to those views actually reinforce prior prejudices, not dispel them.
Creating a rational, critical thinking population will take a lot more than simply writing a novel, however persuasive it may be. Rand (and many in her camp to this day) unfortunately never realized this.
There is no quick and easy solution here. The best I can think of is that we need a stronger emphasis on peaceful, reasoned parenting, and an education system that teaches people how to do more than simply fall in line and memorize data. Talk therapy has been highly recommended by several people that I know, for adults who feel that they have unresolved issues.
Of course, these are multi faceted issues within themselves, and something that will take much effort by many different people to achieve. I hope that we can at least start to make some head way in my lifetime.
Thank you all for reading!!