Saturday, April 16, 2005

A Post in Which I Ridicule Ayn Rand and "Objectivism"

Chill - yes, I promised I was going to put Objectivism to rest once and for all right here and that is what I'm going to do. I know that sounds like a huge yawn, dry and acedemic but I can assure you there is no difficulty in arguing against Objectivism and the clones of Ayn Rand. I'm not going to use terms like "idealism", "anti-realism" or "Identity Theory" (the usual chestnuts in this argument), you can find plenty of that elsewhere. I'm just going to argue why Rand's "philosophy" (I use quotes there because Philosophy demands the rigor of logical examination and Rand seems to think her work is immune to such scrutiny) is simplistic and appeals to the intellectually lazy, why it is untenable and insubstantial as a political theory. Yet, I feel I must address it and discount it since it is such a poisonous and repulsive bit of thought.

First of all, check out today's website (and I'll re-link it here since I'm still waiting for Jer to fix this so the forms don't clear), it's Thich Nhat Hanh's web site. I feel the best answer to Rand's stupidity is NO ANSWER, that the Buddhist principle of Love & Compassion are essential, that anything without those principles are meaningless. If you want to skip the rest of this, bookmark that site and you'll have everything you need to put Objectivism out of your mind.

I feel like I have to answer Objectivism because of its ubiquity on the internet. Some would argue, "Well it MUST be substantial if there's so much on the internet about it!" Please. There's also tons on the internet about Bigfoot, Fascist Jesus (as opposed to Revolutionary Jesus), UFO's, and Elvis-is-alive.

I first got on the internet back in 91', the days of BBS's and USENET, there really wasn't a WWW back then just message boards. Unfortunately, every discussion board for Philosophy was dominated by Objectivists, loud and virulent ludites whose ideas of discourse was simple invective. If a non-objectivist tried posting a valid question or argument they'd be met with a gang-flame but not one single cohesive reply to the poster's point. Such behavior seems to be the intellectual legacy of Rand herself and her protoge Dr. Leonard Peikoff both of whom reduced all defenses to the ad hominem, "You're just not intelligent enough to grasp the full meaning of objectivism."

I will admit that I was attracted to Rand's work for about 5 seconds when I was 15. Rand is one of the adolescent indulgences like Kurt Vonnegut, Jean Genet, listening to one style of music (rap/metal/rap-metal/punk/techno/etc) at the exclusion of other genres, or video games, something that one usually outgrows given maturity, more education, and a sense that the world doesn't revolve around us. As I mentioned earlier, Rand doesn't hold up to (or demand) intellectual scrutiny. So when a 15-year old reads "Atlas Shrugged" she/he FEELS SMART because Rand presents some ideas that are novel (excuse the pun) to the developing mind and to grasp those ideas gives said adolescent a sense of self-esteem.

Essentially, Objectivism is just an elaborate way of saying "every man for himself". That's not just untenable, it's uninteresting. And taken to it's logical conclusion, it fails. If "He who has the most toys at the end wins the game", what's left? Nothing. Not the Nothingness that Sartre says sets us adrift from the morals of social convention (because they only lead us back to our obligation to Society) nor the "nothingness" of Buddhism where the ego is rejected to embrace the One... no, the nothing at the logical conclusion of Rand's program is extinction of everything. An unreconcilable contradiction in light of Rand's idealism, since there are no perceivers left to interprate perceptions.

I won't argue the literary merits of Rand's novels (except to say they're wretched) but you can get a witty, non-intellectual (which is not to say "unintelligent") overview at this page.

Finally, you may want to ask yourself why no reputable Philosophy department teaches Objectivism? They'll cover Eastern Philosophy, Biblical Philosophy, Teleology, et al but not a single class to teach Objectivism. Likewise, no academic journals devote any space to Objectivist thought. I think this brilliant satire on Rand, "How To Become An Objectivist In Ten Easy Steps" gets to the heart of why Objectivism is the philosophy of numbskulls (why else would Dr. Laura be an adherant?).

Enough for now. I hope I've deflated some intellectual pretensions and moved some people to think about REAL philosophy and not the phony shit that Rand proposes. If I've stepped on some Objectivist toes, wah wah wah, you're a grown up and, yup, an "Objectivist" and toe-stomping is what Rand's so-called philosophy is all about. Get over yourselves.


panthergirl said...

Dr. Laura? Objectivist? That's enough for me, thanks.

I never read ANY of Ayn Rand's stuff because the people I knew who thought it was revolutionary and brilliant were assholes.

Dr. Laura. Primo Asshole. I rest my case.

lu said...

I once had a lover who wrapped up a copy of Rand's The Fountainhead in some gorgeous handmade paper and presented it to me. Proof that sometimes even the best presentation can't disguise the shit underneath. If it looks like shit and smells like shit, it's probably shit.

Hmmm...he also gave me a copy of Chopin's Awakening. Wonder what he was getting at?

Mamacita said...

I liked "Anthem" but as for the rest of Rand's books. . . . well, I don't own them. And when I love a book, I own it. And when I've read it and don't own it. . . . .

chip said...

great post! And you're absolutely right about the nihilism of objectivism.

GraceD said...

In high school I was one of those sappy Hermann Hesse types and Ayn Rand simply horrified me. However, I loved Howard Roark.

Ryan said...

I mention that I found Atlas Shrugged to a be a bunch of BS in my latest blog post.

One of the initial problems I had with it is how little faith she seems to have in capitalism. If all those great industrialists and artists disappeared, wouldn't there be people willing to move in on their businesses, i.e. competitors? And they would probably do it better and cheaper.

I also had a huge problem with her anti-philanthropy resulting from her "you're either worshipping the Capitalist, or you're a full-blown Communist" rhetoric.

I've also told many of her fans the following hyperbolic criticism: "She writes at a fourth grade reading level. She must have thought people like you were idiots."

Unfriendly Pedestrian said...

A couple of thoughts...

Ayn Rand was insane. It's clear if you read her works that were not edited or hear her speaking in the later years.
In addition I think that Dr. Leonard Peikoff has twisted much of the original intent of what Ayn was trying to say and deserves to be flogged.

Despite that, Objectivism on its own is not what you make it out to be. You seem to want a quick answer or some unspecific blanket view of life that will be easy to manipulate to compensate for some other failing.

Objectivism was never designed to replace, ignore, avoid, remove or destroy Love & Compassion. Its edicts simply state that you understand yourself and those words (Love & Compassion) well enough to use them properly, which most people don't.

None of your post 'answers' Objectivism but I am glad that it exists since it is always healthy to have different points of view.

I've been using the Internet since the 80's when you had to know someone in college that worked in a school's local IT dept to get an account to access their systems. Then you needed try and wrangle an account on the next college’s system if you hoped to have access to their data.
This has nothing to do with Objectivism and does not support your argument in any way. You may think that it gives credence to your argument of other 'questionable' items you have found on the Internet such as UFOs but such things are readably noticeable by even the most novice of users.

With regards to your statement of how the members of the past boards have treated your questions; that is commonplace on the Internet and has nothing to do with Objectivism. It is standard practice for people to congregate on a board when they all share the same opinion and never venture out to examine other points of view. They feel safe spouting their own version of reality and are afraid whenever anyone encroaches on their domain. This post is vaguely similar to something that I would expect to see on one of these boards.

In reality, no basic philosophy will survive long under the scrutiny of questions born out of everyday life. It doesn't matter where it comes from because most philosophies are stagnant and life is ever evolving. Those that use a basic philosophy as a basis for their way of living but have the intelligence to know how to adapt to life are the ones that have a better grasp of what the person was trying to say when that particular philosophy was developed. You may be lucky enough to find a particular branch of a philosophy that is more adaptive than another and find that it works well for you. You can therefore feel that it is better than the rest but that is just as misguided as believing that any base philosophy is better.

Your comment that Objectivism is about "every man for himself" and "He who has the most toys at the end wins the game" is incorrect. When dealing with the world it states that you must consider yourself first, yes. It does not state or imply that you would always come before others though.
For example (You are in a relationship with a person that you consider your 'True Love'. You find out that you love is going to die without an organ transplant. You are the only possible donor that would be able to supply an organ in enough time. If you gave up this organ you take a risk of dieing or would not survive. -- You then must realize that if this person is your true love then life without them would be almost meaningless. You have identified that this person is something you want to have in your life more than anything else -a selfish feeling. If you wish to truly follow Objectivism then you would still give up this organ. It means more to YOU that this person lives than for you to live without this person. Either way the choice is YOURS; not forced upon you by another person or society.)
Another example (actually happened to me) - (I have worked more than 60 hours a week in IT for the last year busting my butt. A person came up to me the other day and started to talk to me about the band that was on the T-shirt I was wearing. I spoke to him for a couple of minutes and at the end of the conversation he asked me for some spare change. It turns out that he was homeless and had a routine for asking people for money where he tried to identify with them first rather than just ask 'Can I have some money'. I gave him the money I had in my pocket at the time, which was only about 3 dollars and he said thanks. The person with me gave me an odd look because I spout Objectivism all of the time and thought that if I believed in what I preached I should have ignored this person. I said that I gave him the money because "I" wanted to. NOT because there is some social custom that dictates that I should hand out money to some unknown mass known as 'people'.)
This main point of Objectivism is that you do not make yourself subservient to someone else. If you are able to make enough money to support yourself plus have some extra then feel free to do whatever you want with that extra money.
However if you fail to support yourself and throw your money around then you will suffer and eventually (in the worst case scenario) die. Thus you are no longer able to produce and the people that were originally depending on the little that you were originally able to hand out would suffer even more.
The people that support the idea of "every man for himself" and "He who has the most toys at the end wins the game" are usually the ‘leeches’ that Ayn speaks about and they are simply using Objectivism as a smoke screen for their actions.

In trying to use the fact that a single person such as Dr. Laura believes in a philosophy as a major point in an argument against it is as useful as saying that we should give up Democracy because it didn't work when George Bush was elected.

Your use of "How To Become An Objectivist In Ten Easy Steps" is interesting since it uses other philosophies to support its arguments and attacks. This automatically taints any argument of this style since it is simply comparing one philosophy against another; it is not addressing a philosophy based on its own flaws or merits. The author of this document also fails to substantiate many of their claims.
At one part they claim "Using reason Ayn Rand discovered this theorem in 1936, but the editor of Acta Mathematica refused to publish her discovery." Assuming that this is true I would ask, "So what?” Who is this person? What were they trying to say by not publishing this discovery? Why did they not publish it? This is just another example of poor argument development and only supports your post for people that are not willing to question.

Your argument does not deflate any intellectual pretensions nor is it REAL if it considers any philosophy that it wants to address as UNREAL. However, I agree that if you have stepped on anyone’s toes and they cry then they should just shut up and go away. Any discussion about philosophy may cause strong emotions and heated debates but anyone that can not see past that and remain civil and intelligent needs to go back to their solitary posting boards and keep to themselves.

Finally, in response to RYAN.
Ayn did not have 'little faith' in capitalism. She loved capitalism and thought it a great Ideal. She believed that if the Industrialists (who were the ultimate capitalists) were removed then the current leeches (Dagny's brother) would not survive and would die off. Then when the world was ready (when all the leeches had passed), the Industrialists would emerge and help the people that had survived.
The survivors would be the people that were also capitalists but did not realize their potential because they had never had the opportunity before (the leeches had kept them suppressed). They survived because they could Produce, Create, etc and did not need to leech off of someone in order to live.

Nino the Mindboggler said...

HOLY CRAP!!! That was by far the longest comment I've ever received. Not that I didn't appreciate it, I'm just sayin'...

We'll place my arguments from authority (per how Rand is presented by nutjobs) aside; they were purely rhetorical and even I didn't consider them strong arguments against Objectivism. I would like to argue some of the more coherent points, however.

First of all, although I like the notion that any philosophical system is, by nature, static and unreliable in a dynamic universe, I do believe certain certain philosophical tenets stand up to the test of time. Plato's Mathematical Idealism and Kant's Categorical Imperitive are obvious examples, amongst many others.

Secondly, Objectivism does indeed imply subservience to principle outside of the system that Rand suggests: not only to self-interest (which is predicated on an untenable proposition of "self" as idealistic construct) but also on other philosophies (Capitalism, for starters). Given my first premise here (in these comments), am I contradicting myself? No, because I'm not advocating any kind of radical skepicism and adhering to a kind of foundational epistemology that objectivism requires to justify itself (i.e. my senses don't lie when subjected to empirical varification).

Thirdly, I can indeed reduce objectivism to "every man for himself", etc., if only because it is precisely the kind of logical rigor that Rand eschews. In order for any system to be valid it must, of course, show consistency. Your arguments of "Yes, but..." gainsay that consistency. Objectivism can't have it both (or all) ways; in the same way, Leninism is not Marxism. Given your argument, yes, I can choose to be compassionate or I can choose to be a greedy asshole and both are congruent with objectivism. As I maintained (if not completely articulated) in my essay, that's a philosophy of solipsism and completely uninteresting. And untenable.

Finally (and addressing your weak attack on a supposed fallacy of Appeal to Authority), Rand's work was rejected by Acta Mathematica not by the editor (per se) but by a peer reviewed journal and for the same reason she was ejected by the Vienna Circle - for lack of logical rigor. You'll still find members of the Vienna Circle (Karl Popper, Ludwig Wittgenstein, et al) touted in reputable philosophy departments across the globe but Rand is in disrepute and had been for over 75 years, not for politics (as some objectivists would maintain) but for her inabilty to adhere to simple Aristotelian logic.

As you yourself stated, Rand was insane; so was Nietszche. However, Nietsche was at least capable of elaborating coherent philosophical ideas and even the "Ubermensch" was connected to all things, past and present. "I am free of all social conventions because those constructs are not a product of my mind and do not benefit me" is not simply sloppy logic, it's immature.

Anonymous said...

Get the hell out of my way!

The Breig said...

I know this is an old post, but I figured I'd comment anyway. Dr. Laura is not an Objectivist. That is reference in the link
and nowhere else ever.

She wrote a book called, "he Ten Commandments: The Significance of God's Laws in Everyday Life". I doubt Rand would have approved of that.

Anonymous said...

Get the hell out of my way too.