Paul Hsieh has written a concise and effective article that I assume (judging by the type of comments) is getting very wide circulation.
There were of course a couple of negative comments and I thought I’d write a quick response to one. Often I find that negative comments about Ayn Rand are terrible and it’s very hard to restrain myself from commenting back sometimes. I usually don’t but I’m breaking that rule today to flesh out the implications of Steve’s comments.
Here is the criticism by “Steve P”.
Ayn Rand’s philosophy is bogus because:
1. It is a reactionary philosophy, and reactionary philosophies are always flawed and problematic. Consider the source -Ayn Rand was a wealthy girl who sadly got all her money taken away by Russian Communists. So she grew up hating wealth distribution and started a whole movement around it. Like a scientist, a philosopher should seek knowledge without any preconceptions. Preconceptions will always skew your conclusions. Ayn’s preconception was that any redistribution of wealth or curtailing of individual freedom = evil. So therefore her entire philosophy was already loaded from the start. It’s as if Newton, in his observations of gravity, started with the preconception that only certain apples can fall to the ground. The greatest irony of Objectivism is that, by scientific standards, it is not objective.
2. Ayn Rand was not a biologist or anthropologist, yet she claimed to have authoritative insight into the human condition. She argued that the human animal is an individual by nature, and that human happiness and virtue can only really be gained by living a rationally self-interested life. However, if you ask any modern day biologist about the true origins and characteristics of the human species, he would laugh at Rand’s judgment. The human animal, like all mammals, is a pack animal that has for the 2 million years of his existence (and millions of years before that) lived in communal, hierarchical environments like chimps and gorillas. An early human who lived a “rationally self interested life” would soon find himself ejected from his tribe and left to fend on his own, where he would be an easy target for predators and other tribes. The community, and the safety and comfort it offers, is the basis of our ‘civilization’ and has been for millions of years. Go look at other primates, and see how many of them are “rationally self-interested”. But Ayn Rand comes along and argues that now that we have money, millions of years of evolution are now out the window because we can buy the things that the community used to provide for free. Obviously, Ayn Rand is not a scientist.
3. No civilization would ever freely accept the system that Ayn Rand advocates. It’s a step away from anarchy. It would have to be forced upon a populace. And the act of forcing this system upon free people would be totally counter to the philosophy.
I enjoyed reading Atlas Shrugged as much as the next guy, but it’s really important to remember that at the end of the day the librarian has to stack it under “Fiction”.
Obviously this guy never grasped the core ideas of Atlas Shrugged. He obviously didn’t bother to investigate Ayn Rand or Objectivism further even though he claims to have enjoyed the book – perhaps he even did on some superficial levels?
Typically criticisms against Objectivism fall into the straw man category. These criticisms do not but they are still very poor. Now for my responses:
1) How is having personal experience of something such as forced wealth confiscation, a deterent to understanding it? What a ridiculous idea! Surely this would motivate you to become more knowledgable on the subject.
I suspect Steve P has some funny ideas about epistemology. When I read something like this I suspect that the author believes that the optimal way for obtaining knowledge is to be an outside observer and perhaps even believes omniscience is required. These are both false premises and the later is definitely impossible. A truly independent observer is also impossible by my understaning because how can you observe from outside reality and your context of knowledge?
In addition, Steve P seems to be implying that Ayn Rand’s entire philosophy was based on the evils of wealth confiscation. I disagree with this statement. I think it’s fairly obvious that Objectivism rests on primaries such as the axioms that existence and consiousness exist.
To discredit someone based on an ad hominem style argument such as this is appallingly lazy.
2) It appears that Steve P is assuming that human nature can be explained soley by biologists! This is laughable. Not everything we do can be explained by evoluntionary theory (biologists and anthropologists) or even by environment (psychologists – which Steve P doesn’t even mention). Humans are volitional. Firstly today’s world is vastly different to that of cave men. Secondly a rationally self interested man finds many reasons and immense value in living in a society with other people. And thirdly, I suspect Steve is implying morality is innate or based on intuition – a highly tenuous thoery. Because this obsoletes the role of volition in morality and it would seem there’re a lot of different intuitions going around.
In addition, so what if Ayn Rand wasn’t a scientist? Why would you want an author and philosopher to be a science expert! What a weird criticism. Ayn Rand was quite careful not to cross over into the world of science.
3) Unbacked assertion. I suppose Steve P means that this type of political system would be contrary to human nature. However objectivist ethics and politics are explicitly built on human nature, the requirements for man’s life etc. This type of comment is probably based on a typical Christian-type way of thinking. That human’s are doomed, born evil etc, and that there is a constant conflict between the mind and body – temptation etc.
It is interesting that true capitalism and individual rights protections are definitely very uncommon in human history. However the 19th century in the US was pretty close to this system and it worked wonderfully compared to the monarchies of the day – the brave new world, land of the free – there’s a good reason so many people rushed to a new life in the US.
In addition it is logically false to say that just because something hasn’t happened in the past (especially in the realm of politics) doesn’t mean it cannot happen in the future.
Also, Judeo-Christian ethics have dominated for the last 2000 or so years. This is the influencing factor that has led to anti-human life politics and this fact is ignored by Steve P.
Lastly, Steve P has a dig at Ayn Rand for writing fiction! Of course Atlas Shrugged was deliberate fiction. What does this comment even mean? Of course Ayn Rand wrote a lot of non-fiction too, but I guess Steve P hasn’t bothered to read this. If he is aware of works such as “Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal” (a specifically political work) then he is displaying dishonesty with this comment.
Ayn Rand (influenced by Aristotle) talks about the power of fiction:
The most important principle of the esthetics of literature was formulated by Aristotle, who said that fiction is of greater philosophical importance than history, because “history represents things as they are, while fiction represents them as they might be and ought to be.” – The Romantic Manifesto.
If only people criticising Ayn Rand could grow a brain first. Then we might be able to gain knowledge and have a valuable discussion instead of having to simply ignore ignoramuses. Incidentally I suspect that Ayn Rand critics usually don’t care about actually gaining knowledge. And that’s exactly why they should be ignored.
I have come across many Ayn Rand critics, but never come across a good one. I’m sure there must be some interesting discussion out there but it’s definitely lacking. People like Steve P are actually (contrary to their intentions) a good advertisement for Ayn Rand and Objectivism. I just hope average Jo is smart enough to see through the laziness and ignorance behind comments like Steve P’s.