Ayn Rand and Objectivism.

I’m going to throw a curve-ball into this forum which has so far been impeccably liberal and politically correct. My fascination with Ayn Rand’s ideas and ideals is the nearest I will get to a sado-masochistic relationship with someone devastatingly attractive but utterly unsuitable.

 

Ayn Rand and her philosophy that she called Objectivism were progenitors of the neo-conservative "small government, Free Market" philosophy in the USA. She is far more of a household name in the USA than the UK, though I suspect her followers exaggerate her influence compared with better-known Right-Wing Libertarian Free Marketeers such as Milton Friedman and Murray Rothbard, She cited both as influences but later fell out with them over minor nuances of doctrine.

 

Briefly, some background: She was born Alyssa Rosenbaum to a well-to-do family in St .Petersburg, Russia in 1905. The family had all their wealth confiscated after the Revolution which left her with an abiding hatred of Communism, which she widened to incorporate any kind of collectivism. She managed to get permission to visit the United States in 1924, and was instantly dazzled by the wealth, freedom and dynamism that she found there, and became a leading advocate for Capitalism as a force for the liberation of humanity from poverty and oppression. She would have witnessed the poverty of many citizens but believed that Freedom and initiative were all that was necessary to get out of it. She worked as a script-writer in Hollywood, and managed to get married and therefore gained US citizenship and permission to stay there. She stayed married to her husband, an artist named Frank Connor, for the rest of his life despite at least one affair on her part, but he played very little part in her philosophical or literary life. She published several novels and plays, hit the big time with “The Fountainhead” in 1943, and gained the peak of her influence with her magnum opus “Atlas Shrugged” in 1957, which has sold 30 million copies. One survey found that Americans cited it as the second most influential book after the Bible (which has quite the opposite message). Essentially, it is a dystopian fantasy with science fiction elements, where the heroes are capitalist entrepreneurs and the villains are anyone who tries to limit their freedom. She was the centre of a group of disciples who helped disseminate her ideas into American politics. She had celebrity status and was in great demand as a speaker. She died in 1982 in New York, from lung cancer that was probably consequent to her belief that cigarettes symbolized Man’s conquest of fire.

 

I went through a phase of reading up on her a few years back; I read "Atlas Shrugged" and some of her books of essays. Objectivism appealed to me due to its emphasis on the heroic individual (I have always suspected that I am too much of an individualist to be a true socialist!) and due to its emphasis on the supremacy of Reason. She twisted these ideas into a belief that "Ethical Selfishness" is good and that unfettered Capitalism is a force for good that will benefit the whole of humanity. I was almost seduced by this way of thinking, but soon became disillusioned by it's limitations. She certainly believed in the trickle-down theory of wealth generation which has signally failed. Regarding Reason, for instance her argument against State Healthcare would be: “If Mr. X, who I don’t know, has cancer, why should the government take money from me via taxation to pay for his treatment?” Using Reason alone, this seems like a valid argument, but it ignores the fact that human beings are emotional creatures, and the element of Reason that is left out is that almost all species including humans have evolved to find that co-operation is good for their survival and well-being. The balance of collectivism against the freedom of the individual is probably the basic question that underpins all politics and much of philosophy.

 

One of her disciples was Alan Greenspan who was later chairman of the US Federal Reserve under Ronald Reagan, and a leading light of neo-liberalism. I haven't been able to find a direct link between her thinking and Margaret Thatcher's but clearly many of their ideas were the same ("there is no such thing as Community, there are only individuals and their families"). Sajid Javid has cited her as an influence (and he was the Health Secretary!). Ayn Rand's heyday was in the late 1950s and the 60s, and when I read her stuff Obama was POTUS and her ideas seemed to be more or less of historical interest only. But with the rise of Trumpism and the polarisation of US politics her ideas, if not her actual influence, are relevant again: the idea that free state healthcare is socialism and therefore evil; the fear of Big Government; the right to carry guns, etc. All these ideas seem weird, even alien, to the European mind, but are perfectly normal to many Americans, and a reading of Ayn Rand will help to understand the mentality of the US Republicans. Not in every respect though; she was an atheist, and her libertarianism led her to support the removal of restrictions on homosexuality and abortion, none of which would go down well with the Religious Right, and as a Jew she also wouldn't be welcome in some sections of White America. Also, many of the villains in her books are not socialists, but businessmen and politicians who get their wealth and influence from their contacts and their devious and corrupt political dealings, so I am not certain that she would have approved of Trump. His concept of “false facts” is completely antithetical to any concept of Reason, from Rand or anywhere else, and she would have (rightly in my view) deplored the retreat from Reason that we see in the West. Elon Musk is much more like the heroes of Atlas Shrugged; and I confess that I have mixed rather than negative feelings about him: he is a man of vision for the future of humanity who gets things done rather than talk about it.

 

Having said all that, for all her championing of Absolute Freedom and Absolute Reason, she was not particularly receptive to deviations from her beliefs among her followers, and the Objectivist Movement developed into pretty much of a cult; it still exists, but her followers have elevated her to a Kim Il-Sung type figure, and they have a massively inflated sense of their importance. She made a distinction between her Objectivism on one hand, and Libertarianism and Anarcho-Capitalism on the other, for reasons that are hard to fathom except that people thought of the last two before she did. Her movement, before and after her death, suffered schisms over obscure points that mirrors splits among the Protestant Churches especially the Plymouth Brethren, and ironically also the splits among Marxism-Leninism. For me, the Covid restrictions were the final nail in the coffin for a position that says the government has no right to tell us what to do. An absolute belief in Libertarian-type freedom was what led to the anti-vax and anti-mask position, but when you apply Reason properly, the science tells us that masks and vaccines should be compulsory for the greatest good of humanity and the survival of individuals.

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  • My first reply to this blog touched on the subject of reason, but tried to say too much too briefly.  I have filled out the details in a new article (https://just-human.net/articles/reason) and hope it is clearer.

     

    Reason
    Neither science nor reason can guide anything, from individual choice a national strategy. Science can tell us the fastest way to get from A to B, b…
  • I'm fascinated by Ayn Rand, but have to admit that I have never read any of her books.  I seem to recall that Atlas Shrugged was close to the top of my 'read-this-next' pile for a while, but it never reached the top.   This seems like a fair response to her celebration of selfishness:

    I have never understood the way some writers champion Absolute Reason - Rand has a lot of company here.  It is a dreadful and absurd idea, just like when the PM claimed about his response to the pandemic, "at all stages, we have been guided by the science".

    Neither Science nor Reason can guide anything, from individual choice a national strategy.  Given an objective, a context, a set of resources and a metric, then Science and Reason can tell us the best way to achieve the objective.  Science can tell us the fastest (or cheapest, or most energy efficient...) way to get from A to B, but it cannot tell us if we should go there.  It can tell us the likely consequences of an action, but it cannot tell us if the action is good, kind or loving.

    Reason can't even be used to justify Rand's fixation on selfishness: tao make selfishness a reasonable strategy, you have to add in a whole bunch of beliefs about the world, about the functioning of social organisms, and about human nature - and that is before you get to any consideration of morality or ethics.  And if you need to promote your choice of a particular set of beliefs, you need a stronger argument than 'they seem reasonable to me'.

     Of course, Rand's beliefs were (are?) not popular because they were persuasive or appeared to be self-evidently true - they were popular among some people because they were useful - she told those people what they wanted to hear, and that is generally a good way to gain success.

     

    Ayn Rand’s ‘Atlas Shrugged’ has been completely unraveled by the pandemic
    Now that public health and robust government investment has COVID-19 on the run, can we finally admit that libertarianism is a joke?
    • Paul: I agree that the practical implications of Ayn Rand’s Objectivism test the limits of Reason, just as Libertarianism, as espoused by her and others, was tested and found wanting by the Covid pandemic. Ironically, at least some of the anti-vaxxers and anti-maskers were “woke” left-wingers who were politically diametrically opposed to her Capitalism. What they did share was a view of Central Government as something malevolent and secretive. Some may have called themselves Left-Wing Libertarians, and she would have said that Left-Wing Libertarianism is a contradiction in terms, because Left-Wing politics implies a belief in state control in order to impose taxes and transfer wealth away from the rich. The likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg and Nadine Dorries are Right-Wing Libertarians who believe in minimal interference with the rich, and whose attitude to mask-wearing was highly ambivalent.

       You say: “Neither Science nor Reason can guide anything, from individual choice to a national strategy.  Given an objective, a context, a set of resources and a metric, then Science and Reason can tell us the best way to achieve the objective.  Science can tell us the fastest (or cheapest, or most energy efficient...) way to get from A to B, but it cannot tell us if we should go there. It can tell us the likely consequences of an action, but it cannot tell us if the action is good, kind or loving.”

       Apart from the fact that the first sentence somewhat contradicts the rest of the paragraph, I agree with this. Science is potentially a reliable and unbiased source of information – but we don’t know all the science. Reason has the potential to be a mathematical absolute, but again it would need a perfect understanding of all knowledge for that to be true. Reason is perverted by people who use it to justify what they want to believe - and Ayn Rand’s defence of uncontrolled capitalism is an example of that – though most of us have done it to some degree. It is difficult to factor in human emotions to an argument from Reason, except by acknowledging that emotion is a factor. Sexual abusers of children will say that if they are not physically harming the children, what is the problem? But it so happens that humans are wired in such a way that unwanted sexual attention of any kind is extremely distressing and will cause them mental pain for possibly the rest of their lives: so an assessment of right and wrong has to take non-physical harm into account. And sometimes “the obvious” can seem like Reason, but there are usually too many variables for the obvious to be true: “if everyone on earth got rid of all their weapons there wouldn’t be any war”: yes, but only if we can be sure that everyone has got rid of their weapons and wasn’t building any more.

       It is the errors and differing interpretations of human thinking that prevent Reason from being a perfect guide: otherwise everyone would come to the same conclusions about everything. There is a parallel here in Theology – Christian or otherwise. Different religious traditions have differing views on divine revelation: but many believe that the Bible (or Koran) is the inerrant Word of God and this divinely inspired book takes the place of Reason and Science among secular thinkers: but theologians and denominations still manage to disagree on major issues according to how they interpret (or want to interpret) the Word.

       Having said that, I believe that Reason is still the least worst way of assessing a situation or a piece of information, in the same way that Democracy is probably the least worst form of government. It is more reliable than “this is what we have always believed/ we have always done it this way”; than Religious writings and traditions (unless you can be absolutely sure that divine inspiration is true) or to some bloke on YouTube.    

    • Interesting. I spent a large part of my career dealing with Reason and Logic as part of my working life in one form or another. This involved mathematical logic, AI, theorem proving, and programming language design and implementation. Now, (formal) Reason requires two main ingredients - a set of rules and axioms. The rules transform given statements into further statements, and the axioms provide the starting points from which statements are derived. The aim of Reason and Logic is to transform known facts into statements supported by those facts in a correct manner - there is simply no other way to do this reliably.

      The aim of mathematical logic is to provide, via formal reasoning, a precise way to characterise mathematical truth. The basic problem is that we can easily come up with all sorts of Reasoning systems i.e.sets of rules and axioms - which don’t necessarily characterise mathematical truth. They may easily produce a mixture of right and wrong answers.

      The solution to this conundrum is that a third ingredient is needed in addition to rules and axioms, and that is a characterisation (or mathematical semantics) which says what it means for a statement to be mathematically true. With this, one can be sure that whatever statements are derived in accordance with the semantics, they represent a mathematical truth. Unfortunately, every such characterisation is necessarily incomplete.

      The devastating conclusion is this: even when Reason and Logic are applied to areas like Mathematics where they might be reasonably expected to operate flawlessly on their own - they don’t. The upshot is that human choices are needed in designing the rules and the axioms for ever more expressive Reasoning systems - and these may themselves be flawed, of course. Mathematics resists automation and continues to demand intuition.

      Just because a system claims to be “reasonable” doesn’t mean it is. If these kinds of issues arise within pure Reason and Logic, it should be no surprise that even greater complexity of interpretation arises in the domains of Law and Social Governance.

      Ayn Rand (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ayn_Rand) was a consummate idealogue, very well known in the United States, and in particular within Silicon Valley. Many well-known Silicon Valley entrepreneurs such as Steve Jobs, Peter Thiel and Elon Musk are well-known to be enthusiastic supporters of Rand’s doctrines. Rand's philosophy of Objectivism has been characterised as "the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute" (see Wikipedia).

      Although Rand would never approve of this being said, it seems that Objectivism is, in reality, tantamount to an extreme form of libertarianism, taken together with laissez-faire economics. It is seemingly very common that the harshest disputes are very often between those areas that are very close in outlook and philosophy - perhaps because each suspects the other of stealing the very shirt off their own back!

      I’m clearly no fan of Ayn Rand, and certainly no fan of Margaret Thatcher either. However, I admit that Thatcher wasn’t entirely all bad. In a similar spirit of seeking an optimistic and hopeful view of Rand’s thought, Objectivism encourages the determined pursuit of one's own future in whatever way one pleases. This of course is perfectly acceptable - in a conflict-free world. One suspects that Rand would thoroughly approve of the inevitable battles for dominance and ownership - Survival of the Fittest, Winner Takes All!   Might is Right!

       

      Ayn Rand
      Alice O'Connor (born Alisa Zinovyevna Rosenbaum; February 2 [O.S. January 20], 1905 – March 6, 1982), better known by her pen name Ayn Rand (), was a…
    • Brian

      It is actually the statement you quote that appeals to me in explaining my fascination with Ayn Rand, despite it’s inherent problems: "the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and Reason as his only absolute".

      That is why I have said elsewhere that I am too much of an individualist to be a good socialist. The principle question-mark is of course the one about “his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life”. This is the opposite of the teachings of both Jesus and Marx “he who seeks to find his life will lose it”. But of course the American Religious Right also wriggle out of that part of Jesus’ teaching, instead emphasizing "the right to life, libery and the pursuit of happiness", while emphasizing Jesus’ utter condemnation of homosexuality and abortion (yes, I know…). In reality a society won’t work if everyone is completely selfish about following their own happiness [Libertarianism], but it also doesn’t work if people are forced to forgo their own happiness [Communism, Theocracy]. Elon Musk is probably the best example of a real-life Ayn Rand hero, and he is fulfilling his own personal goals while also using them for what he sees as the good of humanity (unlike Jeff Besos and Richard Branson, his space programme is about the future of humanity not just about rides for billionaires).

      As for Reason being the only absolute: you make a case for why it is not as absolute as it’s proponents assert. Perhaps I have been conflating Logic and Reason. Logic is a mathematical concept, though you have said that even that breaks down eventually. Reason does depend on axioms. In Ayn Rand’s statement, the part about happiness being the moral purpose of life is an axiom which she has assumed. Western liberal axioms include the beliefs that freedom from discrimination, and democracy are good, to the extent that we used them as an excuse to fight wars to make other countries accept them: but not all the world would agree with those axioms.

      But I continue to believe that Reason is our best guide. What else is there? It is somewhat like Newtonian Mechanics: it appears to be provable and always true, and it certainly works for most of our normal needs (designing bridges, cars, etc), but it breaks down at the quantum level, which is now believed to also break down under scrutiny. If I am arguing with a flat-earther, I will use reason to destroy his argument: though to do so I will have to make second-hand assumptions myself: I have not actually seen from space that the earth is spherical, or traveled around the globe to return to where I started. But the world would be a much better place if everyone was Reasonable to each other as far as possible.

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