The Virtue of Stupidity: A Critique of Ayn Rand and Objectivism
“It is not a novel that should be thrown aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force.”
---- Dorothy Parker about Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand
The so-called philosophy of Ayn Rand, known as Objectivism, has become a rather odious cult in the United States. Europeans find it baffling, while academic philosophers use it as opening for easy jokes. If a philosophy conference is getting especially dull and grim you can simply say the name Ayn Rand and you will get at least a few amusing jabs at her. Followers of Rand are impervious to any criticisms of her work however. When one mentions the obvious problems and contradictions in her work they are greeted with an almost religious parroting of her maxims. Maxims are really all they are because Rand rarely gives justification for any of her claims but simply states her point of view as emphatically as possible and then she (or her followers) accuses anybody who disagrees as being irrational. What follows is a detailed critique of Ayn Rand’s philosophy with the work of REAL philosophers used to form a number of objections to her claims. If anybody doubts that my portrayal of Rand is an accurate representation of her philosophy then I invite you to go to aynrandlexicon.com where her philosophy is presented in great detail by Objectivists.
PART ONE: METAPHYSICS AND EPISTEMOLOGY
Objectivist Metaphysics are a complete con job. The whole point of the study of metaphysics is to try and derive objective reality from the subjective reality that human beings experience through their senses and consciousness. The three most famous approaches to this are those done by René Descartes, David Hume and Immanuel Kant. Descartes tried to prove the epistemological position of rationalism by stripping away all knowledge that can possibly be held in doubt. His conclusion from this was that only his own existence was certain (I think therefore I am) and that all knowledge must be derived from that certainty. Hume moved in the completely opposite direction and doubted that even “the self" existed, reducing human consciousness to a bundle of sense data. Kant tried to resolve these issues between rationalists like Descartes and empiricists like Hume and his complex metaphysics now form the basis of modern analytical philosophy while both Hume and Descartes still exert a huge influence.
Rand’s solution to the problems presented by these three giants of philosophy is to completely ignore them altogether. Her metaphysics are based on “objective reality” in which she states the human identity and consciousness are the basis. So basically Rand says. “what you see is what you get.” The thing about Rand’s brazen philosophy is that after side stepping the whole question of whether we can derive an objective reality and what exactly our criteria of an objective reality is, she immediately states that her metaphysics are completely objective based on reason.
The thing that is crazy about this is that she gives no argument to why this is objective at all. She claims that the facts of experience and of science are completely objective despite a huge amount of evidence to the contrary. Science itself is philosophically dominated by the school of thought called realism which says that although the scientific method gives us the best way to derive knowledge, science does not derive objective facts about reality but merely gives us data from which we can inductively infer facts about reality. Rand makes no attempt to address scientific realism in any way. She just states “A is A” and goes on about her merry way.
We have a number of problems with this. While there are facts that we can derive from a priori (before experience) means, these are very few. Kant included in his philosophy the idea of synthetic a priori knowledge. This distinction is facts that are self-evidently true but only when we understand the “language” in which they are presented, such as math problems. The rest of knowledge is a posterori (from experience) and for this to be verifiable as genuine knowledge it must be falsifiable. (testable) Rand’s concept of metaphysics is to lay the groundwork for her moral theory, which then serves as the groundwork for her political theory. The problem with this is that moral claims are not falsifiable and therefore have no validity as scientific claims.
Rand’s epistemological position is reason. She basically claims that all facts can be derived from reason alone. Immanuel Kant made similar claims but came to completely different conclusions so this makes him Rand’s chief rival. Kant also dismissed the idea that humans could ever truly know objective reality because our senses are necessary parts of our way of interacting with the world. Rand rejects this premise despite the fact that she has absolutely nothing to base it on. Kant made the claim that how we experience the world is based on intuitions. We perceive time and space a certain way from our perspective because of our intuitions but basically an alien race on another planet might perceive these same concepts differently. This does not mean that time and space do not exist only that our perceptions of them are subjective. Anybody who has read a science fiction novel, like Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, should have no problem with this concept but Rand rejects it outright with no real argument or evidence against it.
Rand makes a complete straw man of Kant, "man is limited to a consciousness of a specific nature, which perceives by specific means and no others; therefore, his consciousness is not valid; man is blind because he has eyes—deaf because he has ears—deluded because he has a mind—and the things he perceives do not exist because he perceives them." This is not what Kant is saying at all. He is just saying that human perception is limited and our way of perceiving things may not be the only way of perceiving things. Kant’s argument is that while we can know things about objective reality through reason we can never know things about that reality that is apart from our perception.
It is interesting to note that Rand could have sidestepped this whole problem by taking the approach that the existentialists took. Existentialist philosophers rejected the idea that science could present us with concrete values of how to live our lives. They based their ethical philosophies on individual human drives and desires. Rand rejects this idea, once again with no real evidence or argument made. She insists that her philosophy is completely objective and based solely on reason. Her reasons for this seem to be only so she can bully anybody who does not agree with her by saying they are irrational.
PART TWO: ETHICS
Since Rand has come to metaphysical conclusions based on false premises it should come as no surprise that she continues to establish her ethics along the same vein while basing the whole idea on her bogus metaphysics and epistemology. Rand’s philosophy is a form of egoism. She argues that self-interest is moral and that altruism is immoral. Her argument for the whole thing goes like so: “An organism’s life is its standard of value: that which furthers its life is the good, and that which threatens it is the evil.”
The problem with this is that it runs straight into the is / ought fallacy as first introduced by David Hume. Hume stated that a moral value (an ought) cannot be derived from a physical fact (an is). Rand is actually aware of this famous philosophical problem (you could have knocked me over) and this is her response.
"In answer to those philosophers who claim that no relation can be established between ultimate ends or values and the facts of reality, let me stress that the fact that living entities exist and function necessitates the existence of values and of an ultimate value which for any given living entity is its own life. Thus the validation of value judgments is to be achieved by reference to the facts of reality. The fact that a living entity is, determines what it ought to do. So much for the issue of the relation between “is” and “ought.”
Ummmmm….correct me if I’m wrong but isn’t that the same thing that she said before? It is almost like she didn’t answer the question at all but just repeated the same thing she had already said with more emphasis.
Anyway, Rand is wrong about this too. Just because you value your life doesn’t even mean that you should defend it at the cost of everything else. What about the soldier that jumps on the grenade to save the rest of his platoon? “What a loser!” Rand would say and by her philosophy not only is he a loser but he just committed an act that she judged to be immoral. Jumping on a grenade and saving everybody else’s life is an immoral act and I fail to see why it wouldn’t be using Rand’s own philosophy. She considers altruism to be immoral and you don’t get more altruistic then that.
Another important thing that fans of Rand don’t get about this objection is that there is a difference between something I value, like I value my car, and a moral value. Equality is a moral value. Liberty, altuism and justice are abstract moral values and you simply cannot derive them from physical facts about the world.
David Hume would object to Rand thusly; after he had completely destroyed her with the is / ought fallacy he would tell her that he believed that the foundation of morality is derived from moral intuitions that we as human beings all share. A person who does not share these moral intuitions is morally blind like a color blind person cannot see color. Hume would probably consider someone who lived by Rand’s philosophy with no guilt or regret a sociopath.
The funny thing is that Rand bases her own morality on one of these intrinsic human values and that value is being human itself. Both Rand and her archenemy Immanuel Kant start their moral philosophy from the same place. They both base their morality on the idea that every human being is intrinsically valuable. Kant forms the basis of his morality as acting as a free and rational person and on always treating people as not means to an end, but ends in themselves. Rand flips this on its head and says that human beings should value themselves above all other people and that altruism is allowing yourself to become the means to others ends. There is a huge logical problem with this.
Kant says that we have a duty to the rest of humanity and that duty is to help our fellow man to be as free as possible. When we treat others as ends in themselves we validate their intrinsic value as human beings and therefore validate our own value. If we treat people as Rand would have us treat them then we are invalidating the very value that she is basing her whole morality on in the first place. To not value the needs and lives of others as much as our own is to invalidate the entire idea that all human individuals have intrinsic value. We cannot say that every human being is subjectively intrinsically valuable to themselves because that is not objective and it throws Rand’s entire claims of an objective philosophy right out the window.
It is also worth noting that Rand straw mans Kant yet again when she addresses the idea of duty in her writing. “The meaning of the term “duty” is: the moral necessity to perform certain actions for no reason other than obedience to some higher authority, without regard to any personal goal, motive, desire or interest.” Ummmm…no. I just explained what the point of duty is to Kant and it is the same value that Rand based her philosophy on but in Kant’s case at least he is logically consistent. And isn’t her philosophy supposed to be based on reason only, not motives desires or interests? Sorry Ayn, you lose again.
PART THREE: POLITICS
Rand supports capitalism because it is the most free system. I don’t really have a problem with this argument per se but I do question Rand’s version of freedom. To Rand, freedom means being able to do what you want when you want to do it. There are many philosophers who share this view, including David Hume, but it isn’t the only version of freedom out there. A second version of freedom is freedom based on autonomy and that version is the idea that freedom doesn’t mean simply having your desires fulfilled but maximizing the number of options you have to pursue whatever goals you may want to pursue. I already addressed this question in my hub HOW TO BUILD A STATE or WHY SHOULD THE RICH PAY HIGHER TAXES? and I will link that hub at the end of this one so I don’t have to address that very long argument over again.
Another main problem I have with Rand’s view is that all her political arguments result from a false dichotomy. She states over and over again that you really only have two choices, capitalism and socialism. The problem with that is that you obviously don’t. If that is the case then every developed country in the world, including the United States is a Socialist country. Socialism (or collectivism if you prefer) and capitalism have co-existed in the United States government since the beginning. We have a lot of values in our society that contradict each other. We respect the rule of law but most people think that there are times when breaking the law is justified. We believe in individuality but we also believe in equal opportunity.
Rand herself has this problem in her philosophy. She says that force is unjustified but gives us no real criteria to judge this on. Then she turns around and addresses the idea of anarchy. Rand believes in a night watchman state and this basically means that the government can use force when it benefits the rich but can’t do so when it benefits the poor. This really makes no sense whatsoever. To Rand taxation is theft but then what is the debt owed for the benefits society gives us? Don’t we get some benefit from living in a society, like roads, military protection, police? Once again my previous Hub addresses this in much greater detail which is a pretty good thing because Ayn Rand never does.