Saturday, August 13, 2011

Answering Ayn Rand

Well kiddos, today is Saturday, which means that ol' Enigma has another college-level dissertation lined up for you. Today's bull's-eye is painted in bright red around an ideology that everyone loves to mock - including yours truly - but not one I'm sure everyone understands.

That's right - today I'll be answering Ayn Rand, and criticizing and deconstructing her philosophy, called Objectivism. Objectivism and Rand's philosophy are sorely misunderstood on the Internet. Everyone loves to mock the Randroids, but not everyone understands what it means to be one. While I've savored taking apart fundamentalism in the past, religious fundamentalism - especially the American Protestant Evangelical version - is not nearly as well thought out or planned as Rand's is.

Make no mistake. Rand's philosophy sits squarely with the rest of the Enlightened philosophies, which is why I chose to answer her today. Rather than the usual Enlightenment verses Romanticism theme or Enlightenment verses Postmodernism, today you get a ringside seat to Enlightenment verses Enlightenment.

First, why do I say Rand's philosophy sits on the Enlightenment side of the scale, and why on Earth would I ever align myself with any side that would include Rand's philosophy among them? Well, first, let's try to understand what Rand's philosophy is first.

Rand's philosophy, like any philosophy, has four different parts to it. They are: Metaphysics, Epistemology, Ethics and Politics. According to the Ayn Rand Institute (who I suppose would probably be a decent place to get this information from), they go as follows:

Metaphysics Objective Reality
Epistemology Reason
Ethics Self-interest
Politics Capitalism
What that means is this: the Metaphysical aspect of Objectivism is that reality is objective, not subjective. The collective reality we all experience is the real deal. This is the Metaphysical aspect of atheism as well - and make no mistake, Rand was an atheist. This objective view of reality is also one rooted in skepticism and the scientific method, and it's this that sets Rand's philosophy apart from the Postmodernists, who have this awkward notion that reality is totally subjective (After all, science is just another way to shuffle reality's deck, and there's no objective truths like gravity. It's also prone to misunderstandings because of old dead White men like Marie Curie, Sarah Josephine Baker, Mileva Einstein-Maric, Yvonne Barr, Walter Hawkins, Benjamin Montgomery, and Neil deGrasse Tyson). I align myself rather firmly with the Objectivism metaphysics; I do believe reality is objective, and that the materialist approach to metaphysics is best for understanding the objective nature of reality. Worth noting here is that the belief that reality is objective is what gives objectivism it's name; lower case objectivism is just that belief; most atheists, materialists, scientists, skeptics and rationalists will adhere to the belief some form of objective reality. Objectivism with a capital "o", on the other hand, adds the other three parts I'm going to look at.

The next part of that is the epistemology. I've done an examination of epistemology before; what this means is that Objectivism takes the same approach to epistemology that I do: just because you want something to be true doesn't make it true. To Rand, the method of gaining knowledge did not include "feelings," which you'll recall were big in the Romantic circles (their philosophy was one based on intuition, feeling, and imagination); instead, it's achieved through existence and reason; this is what lands her philosophy on the Enlightenment side of the board. Rand also believed that faith, rather than being a shortcut to knowledge, short-circuited knowledge and destroyed it. I have no major qualms with the bulk of Objectivist epistemology.

The next two parts aren't all that difficult to understand, especially to an audience versed in American politics. The Ethics (if they could be called that *badumtish*) of Objectivism take the form of what Rand called "rational self-interest". This is perhaps the most misunderstood part of Objectivism; rational self-interest, not blind self-interest. However, far too many times, even Objectivists confuse the two. So here's what Rand herself has to say on the matter of morality, and what morality is:
"a code of values to guide man's choices and actions—the choices and actions that determine the purpose and the course of his life. [...] If [man] chooses to live, a rational ethics will tell him what principles of action are required to implement his choice. If he does not choose to live, nature will take its course. Reality confronts a man with a great many 'must's', but all of them are conditional: the formula of realistic necessity is: 'you must, if -' and the if stands for man's choice: 'if you want to achieve a certain goal"
The summation here is that if a person wants to live, your primary moral obligations are to yourself. Worry about yourself and your own interests first and foremost, and don't concern yourself with the interests of others unless they impact your self-interest in some way. "To live," says Rand, "a man must hold three things as the supreme ruling values in his life: Reason, Purpose, and Self-esteem." Rand rejected the doctrine of altruism, claiming that it was living for others when really, you should be living for yourself:
"Reason is man's only proper judge of values and his only proper guide to action. The proper standard of ethics is: man's survival qua man--i.e., that which is required by man's nature for his survival as a rational being (not his momentary physical survival as a mindless brute). Rationality is man's basic virtue, and his three fundamental values are: reason, purpose, self-esteem. Man--every man--is an end in himself, not a means to the ends of others; he must live for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself; he must work for his rational self-interest, with the achievement of his own happiness as the highest moral purpose of his life."
Aaaaaand this is where we split. See, like most liberals, I tend to see that a man is not an island unto himself. We are part of a greater organism - a superorganism, as it were - called "humanity." Each individual human is a separate entity, but there is nothing you can do that can split us from the greater whole. Living for yourself, in the long run, hurts yourself and everyone around, because there is not an action that you can do that doesn't impact people along the way - including separating yourself from society. The "rational" in rational self-interest should even dictate that; for your own self-interests to be fulfilled, you have to help others help you - that is, helping yourself through helping others. No man is end to himself; you are a means of others because you share a society with them, just like others are a means through you. That's the nature of being a society; it's collective agreement that we'll use each other in an effort to make our collective lives better, because living a hunter-gatherer existence worked so well.  I'll give you an example of what I'm talking about:

Rational self-interest says you should pay your taxes. Why? Because taxes pay for roads that you us, schools to educate children so they can grow up to advance society, pays for the power grid that gives your computer screen power, warms your water, and other things, and pays for prisons to keep violent criminals and offenders off the street. If you don't pay your taxes, then you give up all of those things. Society is as dependent upon you as you are society. Society will take care of you if you get injured on the job, or can't get a job, and can't work, because if we don't take care of you, what'll end up happening is you can turn to crime and violence, and end up getting killed or killing someone (in which case it would've been in the rational self-interest of the now dead individual to pay their taxes to prevent it from happening, now wouldn't it have been? And just think: that could be you. It's someone every minute of every day.) and winding up in prison where society will end up taking care of you anyway. Rational self-interest, then, dictates that so long as you're going to live in a society, it's in your interest to help that society sustain itself: it becomes an immature version of altruism motivated by selfishness for the individual - but it's still altruism to a degree, because you're concerned for the impact on you through others. By paying your taxes, you become a means to others, which you have to if you want to be an end to yourself.

Another example: It's in your rational self-interest to help individuals find a home, and to build those homes for them. Why? Because if they're off the streets and they have a place to live, then they're less likely to commit crimes - that could include killing you - which could wind them up in jail - where they live on your tax dollars anyway. Hence, rather than trying to break society and kick the "leeches" off, like so many of Rand's heroes, it'd be more rational for them to worry about those people and try to take care of them. It's helping yourself by helping others. Morality is still rooted in the helping of others, even if you are being guided by your own rational self-interest, because it's in your own rational self-interest to help others.

This isn't that complicated. Unfortunately, far too many people, Objectivists included, fail to understand that. The "I got mine" mentality was even common in Rand's works, hinting that even she didn't grasp the whole of what her philosophy entailed. See, in all of Rand's works, the main protagonist, always a male, is an Ubermensch Mary Sue (or Gary Stu) of staggering proportions. Their basic attitude is the Theme Park Version of Objectivism: "I got mine, screw you." Or, in more words: "My interest trumps everything you do, because I am perfect and can do no wrong, and because the author's bias is towards this philosophy, everything I say or do the narrative will agree with 100%".

I taught Anthem and read The Fountainhead. Don't tell me I'm wrong.

The attitude that they have isn't rational self-interest at all. Being part of a society means that the ultimate rational self-interest is altruism, but we're willing to settle for the more immature form governed by selfishness. No, they're irrationally self-interested. They're attempting to break the molds of society, blaze a new trail, and it's not that hard to do when you've got strawmen holding you down in a one-dimensional dystopia that doesn't reflect reality. There's a very simple reason why Rand fails at her own philosophy here: the Ubermensch, the archetype that Roake and Galt belong to, comes from Fredrick Nietzsche. Rand's philosophy aligns squarely with the Enlightenment in it's metaphysics and epistemology - the part that actually matters in a philosophy.

Nietzsche was not an Enlightenment philosopher. In fact, Nietzsche was the opposite of the Enlightenment; Nietzsche wasn't just a Romantic. He was counter-Enlightenment to the hilt, and his philosophies embody that - including his Ubermensch, which he introduces in Thus Spake Zarathustra. Roake and Galt are part of a Romantic/counter-Enlightenment to-the-core archetype. They break free from society and reforge it with their own moral code; one of irrational self-interest, because rational self-interest should've told them along time ago that they're better off helping others than just helping themselves. However, given the straw dystopias they live in, that'd be rather hard. One can't fault Roake or Galt because their worlds are only one-dimensional and petty "Take Thats" against philosophies the author doesn't like.

One, however, can fault the author for not understanding her own philosophy, or understanding the philosophy of others.

What Rand has isn't a fusion of philosophies, like what I do. I select various elements from post-modernism and accept them as true in some circumstances (for instance, deconstruction is a useful tool when looking at language and philosophies), and the proceed to use them against postmodernism itself or other toxic ideologies, while retaining an Enlightened outlook on things. What Rand is doing is confusing her philosophy. Where rational self-interest dictates that you should care for others because you exist as part of a society, and caring for that society means that society can care for you, she and her mouthpieces are taking the position that rational self-interest means destroying the society and attempting to blaze your own path as Ubermensch, something that can't be done and isn't remotely rational.

Her examples of the one-dimensional straw dystopias populated by straw Untermensch are, again, just a further example of how she misunderstands what philosophies are what. As an Enlightened philosophy, Objectivism has no room for the Ubermensch or the Untermensch; the objective reality being that you live in a society that has set morals, and that it's in your ethical, rational self-interest to follow those set morals and to help yourself by helping others, because if you don't help others, you hurt yourself in the long run (I go back to the example about taxes). I know it can sound like I'm repeating myself, but it's important to know that the concept of the Ubermensch is irrationally self-interested; the Ubermensch, and the subsequent archetype, have no use others. In an actual society, with three-dimensions and a multitude of different outlooks, this hurts the Ubermensch more than it hurts the individuals he's trying to leave behind or reform. Unconsciously, Rand is splitting the difference here: on one hand is a solid metaphysical and epistemological way of viewing the world, if not one that's preexistent in other philosophies. On the other hand, she tries to create this juvenile Romantic image of the self-made man who's irrational self-interest undermines his own rational self-interest, and then backs it up in her own novels, where the two are flipped: what would be irrational in the real world is rational in her books, and what is rational in the real world is irrational in her books. That's the benefit of being an author and creating (and controlling) the world and narrative: it says what you want it to say. Rand wanted it to say that the Romantic archetype of the irrationally self-interested, self-made, "screw you I got mine" man fits in an otherwise rational philosophy. It does not, and the results are a set of ethics that conflict with themselves and the reality of whom conflict with her own narrative and world.

The last element of Objectivism is the politics. The political aspect of Objectivism is linked to the ethical aspect of Objectivism. If man's rational self-interest is the drive and purpose, Rand says, then capitalism is his vehicle. Not just any capitalism, but the Heroic Capitalism of Mussolini; that is, dynamic capitalism. Unlike Mussolini, however, Rand says Heroic Capitalism does not require the state to intervene to make sure it doesn't reach "super capitalism" status; that is, one where monopolies control the market. If it's in the rational self-interest of the man behind the capitalist engine, Objectivism says, monopolies are alright. Even if, in the long run, they prove to be irrational. This goes right back to Objectivism's confused ethics; my irrational self-interest undermines my rational self-interest by going once again towards the "I got mine, screw you" ideology. Capitalism is rooted in Mercantilism, the 15th and 16th century economic philosophy that first introduced supply-and-demand. Capitalism itself is neither an Enlightened nor Romantic philosophy; it splits the difference by painting the picture of a heroic market driven by imaginative people who have big dreams and big wallets. This is where Objectivism intersects with Capitalism; it's in my rational self-interest to own property, because it's how I live, and it helps become a means to my end. I am a means to my self; a means to my own end, and not a vehicle through which I help others. Capitalism is the best economic philosophy to align with that.

Objectivism doesn't need to be attached to Capitalism, thought. It winds up that way because Rand misunderstands her own rational self-interest. It's always, for as long as you live in a society, in your rational long-term self-interest to help others. Because if you don't you're hurting yourself in the long term. And it's the long-term game that matters, not short term. Objectivism would, ironically, be better attached towards a form of socialism, simply because socialism suggests using the government as a form to help others in your own, and their own, rational self-interest.

The big break here is this "rational self-interest," as you can probably tell by now. The nature of what is an isn't rational gets confused; at the end of the day, "rational self-interest" ultimate amounts to helping others in your society and in your area, because through helping them, you help yourself. This is actually the evolutionary explanation for altruism, as explored by Dawkins in his book The Selfish Gene. It was in the interest of your continued to survival to help others, develop a society, and develop a code of ethics. Objectivism, if it's fan base would let it, square the circle for the evolutionary hypothesis of altruism, in a huge example of irony. However, it's followers, because they continually misunderstand and confuse "rational self-interest" for "blind" or "irrational self-interest," don't see it that way.

It says something about a philosophy when even the creator didn't think it through all the way and understand all the implications. And it's not good.

1 comment:

  1. I'd really like it if you would visit my blogs on Rand. As a post modern thinker by default.

    I think you'll like a lot of the posts there.