Friday, 27 July 2012

'It is the morality of altruism that men have to reject': Why I find Rand's Objectivism Objectionable


"I swear, by my life and my love of it, that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine"- John Galt, Atlas Shrugged

Most philosophies, even those who are particularly detrimental in their consequence, have redeeming features: nihilism (broadly the idea that life has no meaning) provides an interesting criticism of the concept of meaning and anarchism validly points out that states have overreached boundaries in many circumstances. But Rand's Objectivism, cannot be redeemed as it is founded on the premise that, to quote Rand of "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". This sounds fine on the surface- why can't we be self-interested? But instead of justifying this belief in self-interest via the outcomes it produces or recognising its limitations, Rand's idea just attempts to cut off all that is good about human beings (charity, altruism and cooperation) and replace it with a cold, calculating society. Indeed, Rand is so devoid of feeling- the despondency of nihilists, the anger of reactionary conservatism or the somewhat na├»ve hopefulness of communitarianism- that it is difficult to tell on reading her whether she is talking about the same species of Homo sapiens that I interact with daily. 

I want to chart my objections to Rand on two levels: a slightly more esoteric look at why I think Rand's ideas are morally bankrupt and a pragmatic look at why Rand should never, ever be used as a basis for policy making.

'To say "I love you" one must first be able to say the "I."'- The Sterile Self Interest of Rand's Philosophy
In the Groundwork, Immanuel Kant conceived of humans as the ends in themselves- that is we should treat other people (and ourselves) as ends, rather than means to an end. Now Kant's philosophy obviously has problems- what about in purely economic transactions? Why is it silent about animals? But it brings up the important point that to be moral in any sense, we can't just aim for ourselves and ourselves alone. Yet Rand would have the individual only ever act for themselves- when it is clear that human society is based on cooperation and reciprocity. It is worth presenting a more detailed rebuttal of this kind of individualism before I get to why I find it to be morally reprehensible rather than just incorrect.

Rand argues that by choosing to think, humans can liberate themselves from the tyranny of being yoked to others, a logical consequence of a person's primary obligation which she thinks is one's own wellbeing. She believes that humans have a choice to think, and rational thought will necessarily lead them to Rand's philosophy. Setting aside this supreme arrogance, one of the examples she cites is that "He cannot obtain his food without knowledge of food and of the way to obtain it. He cannot dig a ditch––or build a cyclotron––without a knowledge of his aim and the means to achieve it. To remain alive, he must think" (Atlas Shrugged). Now this is odd- because her examples are all examples of what we need other people for - gaining knowledge and tools to survive in the world. All human societies, but especially the capitalist societies Ayn praises are rooted in trust and cooperation- because the market isn't a natural state- it relies on trust for its very survival. Indeed contra Margaret Thatcher, there is such a thing as society- it is based in the cooperative social relations of semi-autonomous semi-rational individuals with overlapping state, market and social institutions. Humans cannot reason just for themselves- both because we have evolved to be happier when other people are (so called other-regarding preferences) and because as I will later elaborate on, to do so would be a disaster.

But why is this immoral, rather than just factually inaccurate? I will borrow another of Kant's ideas as an 'intuition pump' (i.e. my argument will not rely on it, but it helps to illustrate a point), that of the 'categorical imperative' or basically that any moral law should be universal, without regard to circumstance. Now, if everyone applied Rand's morality or i.e. if Rand's thoughts were taken to be universal- the consequences would be monstrous! We have enough problems in our society as it is with self-regarding people (think of the consequences of crime or unrestrained uses of power). We would have no regard for the vulnerable, or disadvantaged- no social progression, only the inevitable march towards violent anarchy. This is important because Rand wants her principle to be universal, rather than say historically contingent on post-industrial capitalism. Even if it was contingent, this presents even larger problems for her philosophy, it is empirically true of modern society even more than every previous society that it can only function by cooperation- meaning the application of any of Rand's principles would not lead to more freedom, but rather societal collapse. 

Further, if morality is 'having a good will' or doing what is 'right', the ability to fully determine that for ourselves despite the consequences for others- seems both contradictory and downright criminal (why can we just disregard all others?- Rand is not particularly clear on this point). Now, I would not claim that everyone should follow Comte's maxim that we should all live for others, but any practical morality must include both other- and self-regarding components, otherwise in my view we may as well give up on humanity. 

But the lack of moral value aside, what briefly are the pragmatic outcomes of Rand?

"Wealth is the product of man's capacity to think"- The Practical Consequences of Randian Thinking
I want to briefly illustrate now three ways Objectivism is a real-life disaster: what would happen if some people took on Rand's worldview, what would happen if everyone did and some actual examples of Objectivists as policy-makers.

In Anthem, Rand acknowledges that the earlier is more likely as "The truth is not for all men, but only for those who seek it" (Rand also acknowledges that in various places not all people will 'think' enough to embrace her ideas). This would likely lead to Objectivists trying to manipulate others as to increase their own happiness- as without proper regard for others or society at large, many of our innate moral precepts cease to have real meaning. On a policy level, Objectivists would agitate for the abolition of 'coercive' government structures- such important social mechanisms as any kind of welfare, public goods: indeed most things that governments do. While it is their right to do so- these policies would lead to the kind of outcomes detailed in the next paragraph.

If for some horrible reason we all became Objectivists, something similar to what I discussed earlier would happen- the state would retreat into such minimalism that it could not function (Rand wants the slow abolition of all taxes) and society itself would never be able to fill the gap that the state previously had. Especially when all members of society now treat themselves as the only end to any means. But what has this looked like before?

Two prominent disciples of Rand are Paul Ryan (although he's released contradictory statements to try and hide this) and Alan Greenspan. Ryan's budget, drawing on Rand's principle of pulling back any coercion of individuals, would fundamentally wreck the balance of income distribution in the United States and would ruin the already struggling United States healthcare system. Greenspan, the former US Federal Reserve chief cited Rand as one of his primary influences in his stewardship of the US economy towards the oblivion of 2007 by pursuing ruthlessly pro-business and anti-regulation policies.

Conclusion- Where to from here?
I should note at this point that I don't find Objectivists themselves immoral- many of them are quite lovely people, partly because I've never actually met anyone who acted as Rand would have them do in real life (even if it affects their political views). But I do think that Rand's thinking is a dangerous virus that can infect the impressionable and ruin political debate with its dogmatic insistence on the primacy of individual self-interest. We should all inoculate ourselves against such thinking.

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Dan Gibbons is a third year Bachelor of Commerce (Economics) student at the University of Melbourne. He has a forthcoming publication in Intergraph: A Journal of Dialogic Anthropology (about memory and nationalism) and is currently submitting papers on the rise of modern consumerism, the role of criminology theory in literary criticism and the institutional theory of nationalism. Dan is a keen debater and public speaker.

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