Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Books: My objections to objectivism - on Ayn Rand's the Virtue of Selfishness

this is an essay in response to the book The Virtue of Selfishness by Ayn Rand, Originally I wrote this essay as a book response paper for a graduate school class. Later I posted it to the Metaphoratorium in 1997 where it was indexed by an Objectivist website. It existed at several incarnations of my website, and on the my blogs Puzzled Dragon and ArtsAttic.  Though I admire Rand's novels, and her atheist philosophy, there are a few major points I find problematic.

The foundation of Objectivism as argued in The Virtue of Selfishness, is Ayn Rand’s assessment of “Human” nature. She argues that the essential human quality is logic and that it is this ability which separates us from “the brutes.” Further she argues that human beings must fly solo as individuals and to blend one’s self-interest with that of a group is a self-destructive enterprise tantamount to the abnegation of the self and to death.These foundation premises seem to me to be the most vulnerable part of Ayn Rand's philosophy. If the essence of man is not logic, if for instance, man is a essentially a part of nature, a complicated social animal who reasons when it's convenient, then the parapets of Objectivism tumble. If overlapping our self-interest with that of a group is a part of our essential nature as human beings - then it is the isolated existence which is akin to death - no matter how logical. Can it be coincidental that some researchers cite isolation as a risk factor for heart disease and other ailments?

Altruism - illogical and anti-life?

Rand says ethics must be based on rational self-interest. Values must be chosen by logic alone. Human exchange should not involve self-sacrifice but logic-based value-for-value trading. As a general rule of thumb in life, few would argue with the idea of value-to-value exchange. But Rand decrees it - all or nothing! Any degree self-sacrifice or altruism is condemned repeatedly as anti-life. After waving this red flag and handily setting up her philosophy as uncompromisingly controversial - she later argues that some sacrifice is okay if it is a logical choice. It’s permitted for a man to risk his life to save his wife for she is important to his happiness. It’s okay to give money to a friend for food instead of buying some inconsequential gadget for one’s self. But a man is not permitted an instinctive response nor the luxury of sloppy compassion - this must be a logical decision arrived at by weighing relative values.When it’s suits her, Rand borrows analogies from nature - saying that in nature individuals must provide for themselves as a condition of life. She uses this as an argument why altruism is anti-life. She conveniently fails to note that in nature, groups of individuals sometimes work together and in some species a single breeding pair is tended by the entire group. Such behavior isn’t necessarily in their individual self-interest - but it is in their genes.

Rand steps carefully around the topic of parenthood - particularly motherhood. She makes no reference to the effort necessary to nurture and raise human offspring - an activity that generates lots of self-sacrifice. Judging by this book, a society ruled circumspectly by Rand’s logic would die out in a single generation. Why not just skip kids so nobody’s rational self-interest will be interrupted? In practice, biology and logic wrestle. Just try putting a lonely, logical, Objectivist guy-scientist into a room of desirable, intelligent girl-scientists. “Say, have you read David King’s writings on Objectivism?’’ he might say awkwardly wiping clammy palms on twill. Quite often biology finds in logic a handy tool for its own purposes.

Mysticism - a sign of mental illness? Maybe....

Rand regards the mystic as a most dangerous individual. Mystics act on faith and commit themselves to beliefs for which they have no sensory evidence nor rational proof  I have to admit she has a point here. The danger she finds in mysticism is as an implicit threat to the overall function of the consciousness as the preceptor and integrator of an individual’s reality. Since human consciousness processes sense impressions and integrates them with past experience - inserting a non-sequitor on mere faith might upset the apple cart, Rand says.  This assumes though, that scientists and skeptics are universally logical and operate 100% of the time,in a logical way.  However all human beings have unconscious motives, and inconvenient emotions from  the slippery rat brain.  It's what you do with your brain states, mystical and otherwise, that counts, not just having the odd fit of diffuse warm fuzzes.

Perhaps physicists  felt a little queasy when one of their number announced the existence of the photon == and light’s contradictory existence as both a wave of energy and as a particle of matter. In the long run, tolerating the ambiguity meant a new understanding of matter’s existence as energy. By the same token, religion sheds light on society (not a god light, just a human light). What ever we think of a particular religion, its structure can usually provide a valuable metaphor for understanding its adherents' society - even if ultimately the entire construction is  just another incredible act of human imagination.

Mysticism and altruism seem to have a wide variety of interpretations and applications in the general understanding, but it struck me in reading this book just how much of an “ism” Objectivism is. According to Rand, Objectivism and egoism are not subject to partial practice - it’s all or nothing. She views altruism and mysticism as all-or-nothing propositions as well. However, individual Objectivists do seem to put a high value on freedom, so naturally the on-line content available on the subject seems to indicate there is an orthodox version and several heretical strains. It’s also interesting to note that Rand or her admirers capitalize “Objectivism” much as one might capitalize Catholicism or Buddhism.

The Individual: Man’s Rights

In advocating a free society “its indispensable foundation is the principle of individual rights,” and Capitalism (also capitalized), is the only system that can uphold Individual rights Rand says. The source of these rights she finds not in god or society but in man’s nature - which she sees as specifically as rational rather than emotional, hedonistic, altruistic or mystical. Rights are the link between the moral code of man and the legal code of society. “Individual rights are the means of subordinating society to moral law,” Rand says. In her world, moral law is to be deduced according to “human” AKA “logical” values.

The foremost rights that Rand ascribes to man are: the right to his own life, the right to own property, (if he earns it ), and the right to free trade. She see no “right” to a job, a roof, a fair wage, a fair price, an education, milk , shoes, etc., and no special rights for the old the young or the unborn. “Those who favor laissez-faire capitalism are the only advocates of man’s rights.” “Without property rights, no other rights are possible.”

Rand also argues that the rights of rational men would never clash, never incite conflict insoluble by rational means. This of course presupposes that men in general are essentially rational and function rationally in a conflict. This implies that logic always arrives at the same conclusion given the same set of facts. However, as Rand notes, facts are perceived and integrated with past experiences by the consciousness which ascribes connotative weight to each scrap of knowledge based on its past relevance to that individual. This integrative function is a personal spin-doctor for incoming sense impressions and information - a pattern -matching survival routine which checks current conditions against past conditions of danger or benefit.

Varied public reaction to the possibility of a racist police conspiracy during the O.J.Simpson trial is a perfect example of conflict that can not be resolved with logic. Because the facts were integrated with experience, the conclusions differed. Even without the connotative properties of language, the integrative functions of consciousness and the linear presentation of facts within a time context insure that no set of facts is ever communicated or percieved in an entirely objective manner.

Society: Collectivized Rights and the Role of Government
“A government is an institution that holds the exclusive power to enforce certain rules of social conduct in a given geographical area,’’ Rand says. Coercion is the sole province of the state and is reserved for criminals. In an ideal world government would be financed by voluntary contributions. (Of course in an ideal world, where all men were rational men and never had conflict they couldn’t reason out, government wouldn’t be needed at all.) Rand concedes that isn’t workable now.

“The use of physical force - even its retaliatory use - can not be left to individual citizens,” she writes. However according to Rand the doctrine of collective rights rests on mysticism and harks back to “the divine right of kings.” The rights of the group in a free society must be derived by contractual agreement, she says. Just as men can evade reality so can society, Rand says. She views any requirements of society as a whole as a “switch of the concept of the rights from the individual to the collective - which means: the replacement of the Rights of Man by the Rights of the Mob.” She feels that any notion of collectivized rights implies “that some men have the right to dispose of others in any manner please., and that the criterion for such privileged condition consists of numerical superiority.”

One notion, (which sounds quite palatable to me), is that individual rights must be placed outside the reach of public authorities so that “the lives and property of minorities or dissenters are not at stake, are not subject to vote and are not endangered by any majority decision; no man or group holds a blank check on power over others .” I hope that means that Objectivists can’t round up practitioners of illogic and force them to read Rand’s rants.

Violence, logic and the violence of logic
Though she repeatedly decrys violence, Rand holds that dictatorships and totalitarian regimes are outlaw nations which free nations have every right to invade! She says liberals stand in the way of this by conveniently advocating the idea of national sovereignty or national self determination when just as often they want to dissolve national boundaries and make “one world.” By advocating “national rights,” Rand rants that liberals are helping to spread dictatorships “like a skin disease, over the whole surface of the globe.” “Observe the double standard: while, in the civilized countries of the West the Liberals are still advocating internationalism and global self-sacrifice - the savage tribes of Asia and Africa are granted the sovereign ‘right’ to slaughter one another in racial warfare,” she says.

In the future of nations, as thronging numbers and faster communication shrink the globe until it pinches - I wonder, to what degree will groups be free to do violence to each other on principle? Or will violence be encouraged as population control by default?

Now, if two neighbors each had a Doberman and bloody conflicts ensued along the property line, separating the dogs would be an option - but allowing them to fight to the death would not. We’d consider it cruel. We’d consider the dogs too valuable to waste. Yet if the animals were not owned, if they were free and wild no one would step in to separate them. So are we domestic or wild animals when we fight? What if each side believes it is acting it its own rational self-interest, responding to the previous use of force by the other side?

Since Rand thinks it’s okay to invade - maybe we could just slip something into the water instead. Should it be a logic supplement or a just extra seratonin?