1) There are two basic conceptions of human nature: utopian and naturalistic. The utopian considers how man “should be”. The naturalist considers how he is. I argue that Rand’s view of human nature is utopian to the core, and her philosophy is a mere rationalization of her romantic notions about how man “should be”.
In an interview with Alvin Toffler, he asked “Do you regard philosophy as the primary purpose of your writing?” Rand replied, ”No. My primary purpose is the projection of an ideal man, of man ‘as he might be and ought to be.’ Philosophy is a necessary means to that end.”
To admit that philosophy is a means to some end other than discovering the truth is to admit that one is merely rationalizing one’s existing beliefs. This, in essence, is what Objectivism is all about. And it is in the vast gap between the Randian ideal of Howard Roark or John Galt and real human beings that the rationalistic, utopian nature of her philosophy becomes most striking.
2) Rand’s theory of human nature is based on the idea that the human mind enjoys complete sovereignty over the body and the will. “Everything we do and are proceeds from the mind,” Rand once declared. ”Our mind can be made to control everything.” Man, we are told, is given his body, his mind, and the “mechanics of consciousness.” The rest is up to him – “he must create himself.” This suggests that man begins as a sort of of empty vacuum which through some mysterious process creates a specific character ex nihilo – out of nothing!
This conviction that man creates himself is fundamental to her entire philosophy. In order for a man to be genuinely ideal in Rand’s eyes, he had to be able to take full credit for all his characteristics. He couldn’t merely have been endowed with them at birth – no, he had to create them out of nothing with his own unaided effort, like Baron Munchhausen pulling himself out of the mire by his own hair.
The most interesting part of this unlikely theory is its moral and psychological consequences – for as a result, man must be entirely responsible for what he becomes. Everything about his character, including his emotions, impulses, desires, motivations, passions is the product of his own choices. So if a man feels improper emotions or immoral desires, it is his responsibility to make the effort to change them by reprogramming his subconscious using reason. “Nothing less than perfection will do,” she declared. This personal Nirvana was what she called being “fully integrated” – where one never experiences any inner conflicts between what one thinks and what one feels, a blessed state where “mind and emotions are in harmony.”
This emphasis on ideas necessarily preceding emotions, when combined with her rejection of the existence of innate ideas, forces Rand into a number of absurd positions – for example, that people have no pre-existing emotional dispositions. One also must conclude that babies have no emotions at birth! There is also the impossible situation of how man makes any fundamental choices, seeing he has no existing motivations. This leads to the rather desperate measure regarding what Leonard Peikoff calls “primary choice” – “…the root choice, the choice on which all others depend…the choice to focus one’s consciousness.” But if man has no existing predispositions, why would he make this choice, one way or the other? Peikoff’s reply: Don’t ask! “It is invalid to ask: why did a man choose to focus? There is no such ‘why.’" This is simply a causa sui – something that causes itself, and is a typical mystical argument, used in defence of the Deity. It is, in short, a miracle; thus to defend this theory, Peikoff has had to resort to the miraculous.
Similar problems affect her version of “free will.” Since man is born completely tabula rasa there can be no innate psychological tendencies. In other words, to the neutral consciousness at birth, one choice is just as likely as another. Thus all human behaviour arises as a result of habit and accident, and therefore is completely inexplicable and unpredictable. Since no-one, including Rand, actually regards human as utterly inexplicable, this position is hard to take seriously.
3) A theory stands or falls on whether it can be corroborated by empirical reality. So we must ask: what is the evidence for Rand’s theories of human nature? We will look at three issues:
- Do innate predispositions exist? All scientific evidence to date suggests it does. There are general emotional predispositions, such as aversions to incest, general cognitive predispositions, such as the tendency to learn language, and individual predispositions, such as handedness. ARCHN contains a lengthy summary drawn from scientists such as E.O. Wilson and Steven Pinker. In contrast, what evidence does Rand bring in support of her theories? Nothing whatsoever.
- Are emotions purely the products of thinking? While this view may contain an element of truth, it is wildly exaggerated. Not only that, it entirely ignores physiological effects - such as hormones - on human emotions. There is also the fact that newborn babies experience emotions, yet clearly have little in the way of ideas. She even claims man’s thinking “determines his desires” – as if the desire for food was the product of rational cogitation. Once again, we look for her evidence in support of this theory and find nothing.
- Finally, is it possible for men to subject every aspect of their lives to the dominion of reason? Rand is simply confused. She advocates the “supremacy of reason”, whilst at the same time regarding it as a “tool” of knowledge. But no man can live for the sake of a hammer or a broom. She has muddled means and ends. Reason, being a mere tool, can never originate the desires it serves. At best it allows some method of adjudicating between our competing desires.
(Summary of "Ayn Rand Contra Human Nature" by Greg Nyquist, Chapter 1)