Why I am not an Objectivist

Some time back the editors of the Modern Library listed their choices of the 100 greatest novels of the 20th century.  At the same time they polled their readers’ choices.

Ayn Rand

The editors’ top picks were Ulysses by James Joyce and The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald.  But the readers’ top picks were Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand.

The same was true of the editors’ and readers’ picks of the top non-fiction books.  The editors’ top picks were The Education of Henry Adams and William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience. The readers’ top pick was The Virtue of Selfishness by Ayn Rand, and their No. 3 pick was Objectivism: the Philosophy of Ayn Rand by Leonard Peikoff.

In my life, I have encountered more people who have read Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead than any other serious novel or philosophical work.

What accounts for the enduring appeal of Ayn Rand and her philosophy of Objectivism?  Two things, I think.  The first is that her philosophy incorporates many important truths; the second is the clarity and force with which Ayn Rand expressed her philosophy.

Ayn Rand grew up in the Soviet Union, where the language of altruism and self-sacrifice was used to justify a monstrous tyranny.  As a young woman, she moved to the United States, where she heard the same king of language being used to mask hidden agendas.

She created an alternative philosophy, based on rationality, individual freedom and respect for competence.  She told her followers to determine their own purposes in life, and stick to it, and not to try to live up to others’ expectations.  The name of her philosophy, Objectivism, was a recognition that there is such a thing as objective reality, which will catch up with you, whether you like it or not.  She recognized the contradictory nature of altruism as an ideal; as Peanuts’ Lucy once asked: if we are put on earth to serve others, what are the others here for?

All these ideas are true and important, and expressed in a way that could be understood by any intelligent high school student.  (I mean this as a compliment, not as a back-handed slur.)

The problems I have with her philosophy are:

• The conflation of actual existing capitalism with her ideal of capitalism, the unknown ideal.

• The conflation of actual existing greedy and selfish people with her ideal of the virtue of selfishness.

• Her lack of recognition that not all choices are between good and evil – some are choices between good and good, bad and bad or alternatives about which not all the facts are in.

Actual existing capitalism is not based on individuals voluntarily exchanging goods and services in a free market.  Actual existing capitalism is based on the limited-liability corporation, which enables holders of wealth to act collectively while being shielded from the full consequences of failure (that is, they are liable for what they put in to the corporation, but, unlike individual debtors, they are not liable for all their assets).

The limited-liability corporation has been an important tool for creating value.  But it also is subject to great abuse, especially when the legal system is based on the fiction that the corporation is a person with individual rights.  Corporations can be, and are, subject to being taken over by looters, who can milk them for their own benefit without creating value in return.  Ayn Rand did respect competence and the work ethic on whatever level of society it was found, but people with that ethic don’t fare well in the contemporary corporate world.

Actual selfish and greedy people seldom respect Ayn Rand’s ethic of not living for the sake of anyone else, and not expecting anyone else to live for their sake.  Rather they live as if other people do not exist or that other people exist only to serve their wishes and needs.

Even Ayn Rand’s characters and Ayn Rand herself sometimes fell into this pattern.  Her Dagny Taggert character in Atlas Shrugged breaks off a steamy love affair with Hank Rearden after meeting John Galt, because her is clearly a better man.  Hank Rearden humbly accepts this and sacrifices his own happiness for hers.  A real egotist wouldn’t do this.  He would fight for his own happiness.

In the same way, when Ayn Rand herself started a love affair with Nathaniel Branden, she expected her husband, Frank O’Connor, to meekly accept it, which he did, although it made him miserable.  A real egotist wouldn’t do this.

Ayn Rand’s idea of selfishness is to follow your bliss.  She said you should organize your life around what you value.  You should do what gives you satisfaction, what you enjoy doing, what you are good at.  That is excellent advice.  But some of her followers confuse it with organizing your life around maximizing income.  The sign of the dollar is not a symbol of the good life.

She valued producers over parasites.  So do I, but I don’t divide humanity into the thieving poor and the productive rich.  Producers and parasites are found on all levels of society, and your financial worth is not a measure of your moral worth.  Ayn Rand’s followers in public life – Alan Greenspan and Rep. Paul Ryan, for example – identify with wealth and power, without inquiring into how it is acquired.

Rand once wrote an admiring preface to a reissue of Victor Hugo’s Ninety-Three, a novel of the French Revolution.  Hugo’s characters, like Rand’s, were larger than life, but the interest of the novel was in their conflict.  Hugo’s sympathies were with the democrats, but he gave good lines to both aristocrats and democrats, and showed them both going all the way for their convictions.  Ayn Rand did the same for the idealistic, misguided Communist in We the Living. She didn’t do it in Atlas Shrugged. There is no real conflict in the novel.

Ayn Rand’s characters are clearly good or evil.  Their choices are between good and evil.   The only conflict is that some of the good characters are befuddled into acting against their own self-interest, until they see the light.

Real life doesn’t always present such Either/Or choices.  Most human beings are partly good and partly bad.  Many choices are between alternatives that are both bad, or both good, or both partly good and partly bad.  Real life means making decisions in the fact of uncertainty.

I am not an altruist, but I acknowledge moral obligations.  I recognize that I am part of a society, and have responsibilities as well as rights.  I accept the obligation of citizenship in a free country, which means obeying the law and the Constitution, paying taxes, trying to vote intelligently and serving my country when needed in uniform (since I am not a pacifist).  I believe in keeping my promises, doing my job and showing kindness to others as I have been shown kindness.

Although I am not an Objectivist, I do not deny the merits of this philosophy.  It is merely that it is clearer than reality.  On the way home from seeing the Atlas Shrugged movie, I noticed the car in front of me at the expressway exist had a license plate frame with the words, Who Is John Galt.  The same car had a bumper sticker saying torture is a crime against humanity.  Whoever the driver of that car may have been, he or she is a kindred spirit.

Click on The Ayn Rand Institute for information on Ayn Rand’s life and thought by her intellectual followers.

Click on Ayn Rand Quotes for some of her aphorisms.  It doesn’t include my favorite, which is to the effect that it is possible to ignore reality, but it is not possible to ignore the consequences of ignoring reality.

Click on Who is Ayn Rand? for a review of two Ayn Rand biographies by conservative writer Charles Murray.

Click on Modern Library 100 Best Novels and Modern Library 100 Best Non-Fiction for their lists.  L. Ron Hubbard, incidentally, has one of the top three spots on both lists.

Click on Bennett Cerf Discusses Ayn Rand for an interview with the publisher of Atlas Shrugged and For the New Intellectual. Bennett Cerf was the publisher of Random House, which owns the Modern Library.

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5 Responses to “Why I am not an Objectivist”

  1. MichaelM Says:

    How rare it is to find a post critical of Objectivism, but devoid of ad hominems, slurs, and sarcasm—and intelligently written to boot. Thanks!

    Now lets look at your “problems.”

    1) “The conflation of actual existing capitalism with her ideal of capitalism, the unknown ideal.” … and … “Actual existing capitalism is not based on individuals voluntarily exchanging goods and services in a free market.”

    Nowhere does Rand conflate her radical capitalism with any existing political system or pre-existing political conglomeration. Objectivist writings by her and her followers abound that clearly point out that her radical capitalism has never existed anywhere. The current mish-mash of capitalism and socialism is commonly referred to by Objectivists as “crony capitalism.” And she did not even conflate it with the politics of libertarians who advocate virtually identical policies, because their advocacy is not morally grounded (they are pragmatists).

    Your choice to bad-mouth the limited liability corporate model betrays a lack of understanding of radical capitalism. The corporate model is a product of governments. In her capitalism, the government is as separate from economic models as religions are. Your models are whatever you can get someone else to voluntarily contract for. If corporate executives milk a corporation, that is not not selfish by Rand’s standards; but so long as they have a contract to which the company and its shareholders consent, it is immoral but not illegal, and those who invest in and own such a company will get what they deserve.

    It is not the expectation of Objectivism to make men infallible or perfectly moral. Men are and always will be volitional. It is rather the expectation that the consequences of evil behavior will be corralled in the ranch of the participants and accessories thereto.

    ————

    2) “The conflation of actual existing greedy and selfish people with her ideal of the virtue of selfishness.” … and …”Actual selfish and greedy people seldom respect Ayn Rand’s ethic of not living for the sake of anyone else, and not expecting anyone else to live for their sake. Rather they live as if other people do not exist or that other people exist only to serve their wishes and needs.”

    You appear to be saying here that you are not an Objectivist because there are terrible people who neither understand it nor act in accordance with it. To that I would say, no, you are not an Objectivist because you regard that is important. It is a serious error on your part to make the validity of Objectivism as a guide for your life based on what other people do or do not do with it. Rand would say that you have allowed yourself to become “other directed” to a fault.

    Rand’s characters, you should note, are not everyone a hero or heroine. Roark and Galt are the heroes whose entry into the lives of the sub-heroes generates the conflicts within them that they ultimately resolve for better or worse in the end. And Rearden is not quite the egoist Dagny needs. (egotist is a negative term most often used to mean irrational selfishness, while an egoist is one who is rationally selfish.)

    And you should not make too much of the affair with Branden. Recent accounts tell a very different story about that. In the context of your enumeration of reasons why you are not an Objectivist, that should not be included at all. Objectivism is a body of philosophical ideas. It is not in any way about the life of Rand or her followers. None of those details are relevant to the efficacy of her philosophy. Ideas stand or fall on their own validity.

    ————–

    3) “Her lack of recognition that not all choices are between good and evil – some are choices between good and good, bad and bad or alternatives about which not all the facts are in… and … “She valued producers over parasites. So do I, but I don’t divide humanity into the thieving poor and the productive rich. Producers and parasites are found on all levels of society, and your financial worth is not a measure of your moral worth. Ayn Rand’s followers in public life – Alan Greenspan and Rep. Paul Ryan, for example – identify with wealth and power, without inquiring into how it is acquired.”

    Rand never divided humanity between the thieving poor and the productive rich. She did distinguish between them, but she also distinguished between the productive poor and the thieving rich. She drew no moral line between poor and rich, but rather between the thieving and the productive.

    Greenspan was not a follower of Rand’s philosophy ever. He was a social climber and economic butterfly who flitted from Keynes to Mises and back, then after her death, he ascended to the throne at the Federal Reserve that she had erroneously hoped he would campaign with his influence to abolish. Ryan is not an Objectivist at all. He is a Catholic who, like the conservatives who are her enemies, recognizes the power of her arguments for smaller government.

    —————

    “Real life doesn’t always present such Either/Or choices. Most human beings are partly good and partly bad. Many choices are between alternatives that are both bad, or both good, or both partly good and partly bad. Real life means making decisions in the fact of uncertainty.”

    You are apparently not familiar with the contextuality of knowledge. To be certain that a conclusion is valid, it must be based solely on evidence at hand. When such evidence is not available yet, one holds a conclusion to be possible if there is nothing to contradict it and probable if most but not sufficient evidence is available to be certain. Rand not only accommodated partial knowledge, but also a number of times refused to answer a question about something for which her knowledge was insufficient.

    The either/or in Objectivism is the recognition that any assertion of fact either is accurate or is not—that the nature of reality is immutable and that real life does always present such choices. Judgments of human beings who are partly good and partly bad should be made exactly like judgments of anything else in life—good (or bad) because of this and in spite of that. Your relationship with others can be sustained because of that which is good in them while holding in abeyance a full awareness of that which is bad.

    ————–

    “I am not an altruist, but I acknowledge moral obligations. I recognize that I am part of a society, and have responsibilities as well as rights. I accept the obligation of citizenship in a free country, which means obeying the law and the Constitution, paying taxes, trying to vote intelligently and serving my country when needed in uniform (since I am not a pacifist). I believe in keeping my promises, doing my job and showing kindness to others as I have been shown kindness.”

    There is nothing to complain about in this paragraph—so long as you recognize that there shall be no unchosen obligations—that societal responsibilities are only those implicit in one’s claim to rights—that you obey the laws and Constitution, even when those are wrong, and you pay taxes, even though they are theft, solely for your own sake, because above all you need for the exercise of defensive force in a society to be objectified and known or knowable to all in advance of its exercise—that you serve yourself in uniform, not just because your are not a pacifist, but also because you would not want to live your life as a slave, i.e. you serve your country as a symbol of the freedom you have and wish to preserve, and not as a duty to it or anyone else.

    ————–

    “Although I am not an Objectivist, I do not deny the merits of this philosophy.”

    I have tried to show you above that your disagreements with Objectivism are mainly disagreements with ideas or positions that are actually not in line with the philosophy itself. But the least Objectivist aspect of all is being concerned with whether you are or are not one.

    That represents a profound misunderstanding of Rand’s primary view that only ideas matter. Objectivism should always be viewed as her personal philosophy that in respect to everyone else is merely a body of ideas independent of their author that one should evaluate and integrate into their own personal philosophy only to the degree that they are found to be valid. Rand herself expressly preferred that no one else refer to themselves as an “Objectivist.” That notwithstanding, in our present world of mass communications, debates, and discussions, that term is a convenient way for someone who agrees with almost all of her thinking to identify that fact. It should not be worn like a title, however.

    To the degree your ideas coincide with hers, you are an Objectivist. To the degree they don’t, you’re not.

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  2. philebersole Says:

    Thanks for your thoughtful comment.

    Are there any people in public life that you as an Objectivist view favorably? What about Alan Greenspan? Paul Ryan?

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  3. MichaelM Says:

    I presume you mean public life in the context of politics, so:

    TV PERSONALITY: Judge Andrew Napolitano and his show “Freedom Watch”- nightly at 8pm ET on Fox Business Channel. He is the only commentator who recognizes and openly states that taxation is theft. He also recognizes that while Christians believe that their rights come from God, the Objectivists (and presumably other atheists) hold that they derive from “our humanity” as he states it. These two notions merge with ease in Deism, which I view as bridge between the two factions for the religious who are drawn to Rand’s ethics and politics. The Judge is, on the other hand, a pre-Vatican II Catholic, so his views on abortion (which he mercifully never mentions) would not align with mine at all. Objectivists are adamant that there cannot be two conflicting sets of rights in the person of one individual. The fetus is not a person until born.

    ECONOMICS PROFESSOR & PUNDIT: Walter Williams, the only other public figure who it not an Objectivist, but openly explains how taxation is theft. Unfortunately, he is religious and therefore contra-abortion rights.

    CURRENT PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATES: Gary Johnson, with not a lot to go on, he has at least publicly proclaimed his intentions to reduce government spending,
    bring home troops stationed in places like Germany, Korea, Afghanistan, and Iraq, and he supports abortion rights to the third trimester (= contra partial birth abortion). I support partial birth abortion, but he presents the best combination of pro-freedom positions so far.

    IN CONGRESS: I admire Paul Ryan a lot for his courage and self-confidence in putting his ideas down in writing and standing by them. He reminds me of the Founding Fathers, and were it not for his Catholicism and likely position on abortion, he would be a contender for my choice for President (so far).

    ——–

    As for Greenspan, he has proven to be a despicable person without scruples. I also have no respect for any economist who believes that it is OK for a government to issue currency and control its value.

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  4. philebersole Says:

    Thanks for your answer. It helps me understand you a lot better.

    If Walter Williams means that taxation is literally theft, and you agree with him, we are further apart than I thought.

    Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. once said that he liked paying taxes, because he was buying civilization. This isn’t always true; sometimes taxes buy barbarism. But i do believe that civilization rests on law, law requires government and government requires taxes.

    Here are some of my thoughts on this subject in an earlier post.

    https://philebersole.wordpress.com/2010/05/28/why-i-am-not-a-libertarian/

    As for the others on your list, I don’t see much daylight between Alan Greenspan and Paul Ryan. I do respect Gary Johnson; I wish he would get half as much news coverage as the blowhard Donald Trump.

    Two of my heroes are Julian Assange and Bradley Manning. Assange’s Wikileaks has done a lot to break down government secrecy, which is the foundation of abusive power. Manning has stood up to attempts to break him and force him to incriminate Assange on conspiracy charges.

    Another great hero of mine is the late Norman Borlaug, one of the principal creators of the Green Revolution.

    Politicians I respect include Russ Feingold, Dennis Kucinich and Bernie Sanders, as well as Ron Paul.

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  5. MichaelM Says:

    Government does not require taxes just as roads, schools, sugar, etc., etc. ad infinitum do not require government. Defense and all the products used for it are the product of people who will not be less able to perform that task in the absence of taxation. They will all still be paid for by those who do not want others to take away their freedom. And it will likely be funded by means we cannot now imagine, just as no one in 1960 could imagine how something like the internet and all of its freebies could be funded without taxation.

    You, like all others, have never known anything but a government authorized by floating majorities to involuntarily take funds from floating minorities to get what they want. Have you ever really challenged yourself to think how we could defend ourselves if we could not take the money by force? Did you ever consider the contradiction of using force to fund our defense from force?

    “Which is more important, the right of the individual to be free of government coercion, or the right of the individual to be treated impartially regardless of race or ethnicity? My answer is, it all depends, but I don’t think the first right always outweighs the second.”

    And herein lies the failure of the Libertarians and you as well—you are both at a loss to name precisely on what it depends. And because of that, you have no means to tell us when or whether one outweighs the other. And worse than that, you are nevertheless criticizing both the Libertarian position without knowing that and Objectivism itself without bothering to tell us why you think Rand’s explanation of that on which it depends is not valid.

    Here, reduced to essentials, is why taxation is theft and racists must be free to discriminate on and/or with their own property:

    1) The existence of living organisms is conditional on self-generated action in the face of alternatives.

    2) The most fundamental of all alternatives for all living creatures is life or death.

    3) Human beings are volitional, so they can and must choose which alternative to actively pursue.

    4) The choice (deliberate or implied in all other choices) to act in pursuit of life makes life one’s most fundamental goal.

    5) One’s fundamental goal is implicitly the standard of measure for all values one acts to gain or keep in its pursuit.

    6) Therefore, that which contributes to one’s life (consistent with one’s nature) is necessarily the good, and that which detracts from it is the bad.

    7) The long run pursuit of life necessitates a hierarchical code of values (= ethics) to guide (by programming emotions) one’s spontaneous choices in any alternative faced, and it requires one to opt for the higher value per that code in lieu of the lower one (= morality of egoism).

    8) Man’s singular means to fulfill these requirements of his nature in the pursuit of life is by applying the product of his reason to his actions in the production and exchange of values needed to survive and flourish consistent with the nature of the human being he is.

    9) The extension of individual ethics to the social context of an individual living in a society of other volitional (and therefore fallible) men requires that one seek to preserve one’s own autonomy over the application of one’s own reason to one’s own action in the pursuit of one’s own life (= freedom from the fallibility of others).

    10) The only threat to a man’s pursuit of his life in that context would be the initiation or threat of physical force by others to coerce certain choices of action against his will thus diminishing the above defined individual autonomy.

    11) The single most fundamental political alternative is therefore: freedom vs. force (= liberty vs. coercion, autonomy vs. servitude).

    12) The sole moral requirement for any government of a society of men must therefore be to remove the use or threat of force from human interactions and guarantee thereby that all human interrelationships shall be entered into and conducted voluntarily. (= Rand’s radical capitalism in which every individual retains his morally justified autonomy).

    13) A moral government must therefore guarantee that:

    No person shall initiate the use of physical force or threat thereof to take, withhold, damage or destroy any tangible or intangible value of another person who either created it or acquired it in a voluntary exchange, nor to impede another person’s non-coercive actions.

    Consequently, in a moral society, all interrelationships are contractual, whether implied or expressed. And there can be no unchosen obligations. No person may assert a claim to any part of the life of another. And there are no extenuating circumstances that can alter the morality of that relationship among men.

    In the hierarchy of human values, ethics must always supersede those of politics that are ultimately derived from it. Politics is the means of enabling individual ethics in a society. It is not the means of correcting irrationality or evil, but rather of isolating it to the person and property of the perpetrator.

    No person of color has a claim on the life or property of Klan members, odious as they and their bigotry are. No parent has a claim on the wealth of a childless person to educate his own offspring. No majority or even unanimity in government may bill you for your own defense without your consent. Freedom is not right because it is practical. It is practical, because it is right—it is moral—meaning it is prerequisite to the success of your human life.

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