Saturday, June 16, 2007

The Shorter ARCHN: Chapter 2, "Theory of History"

A series of handy short summaries of the main arguments of ARCHN for those unfamiliar with the book. For more detail, you can read ARCHN online by clicking on the sidebar link

A utopian view of human nature such as Rand’s will inevitably lead to a utopian theory of history. Such a theory usually posits that man is inherently good, and that any evil he might have done throughout history is the result of some external factor. For Marx it was an unjust economic system, for Rousseau modernity itself; for Rand, the effect of bad philosophical ideas. If man had only possessed a truly rational philosophy, none of the horrors of the past need have taken place.

According to Objectivism, the most important issue in human existence is how man should use his consciousness. “In the life of man,” writes Leonard Peikoff, “epistemological, metaphysical, and moral ideas – which means: philosophical ideas – are the ruling power.” (OPAR, p451) Ultimately every decision a man makes reflects his fundamental philosophical views, and this naturally this thesis expands to cover all of history. But where do these views come from? Well, Rand believed that only a small part of the population takes the trouble to define their views through conscious deliberation; these are “the intellectuals,…the guides, the trend-setters…”, who are the “transmission belts…between philosophy and culture.” Through their own incompetence in the defense of reason, the intellectuals had lost sight of reason’s prime mover, Aristotle, and had submitted to the evil of Immanuel Kant and his destructive Critique. This resulted, ultimately, in the horrors of the 20th Century such as Soviet Gulags and the Nazi death camps.

How does Rand’s theory stack up against the facts? Since it is beyond the scope of “Ayn Rand Contra Human Nature” to empirically verify the causal factors of every period in history, three specific evidentiary claims made by Rand and her followers are examined.
1) Christianity is responsible for Dark Ages in Europe
2) The growth of statism in America is the byproduct of altruistic morality
3) German philosophy is responsible for the rise of Hitler and the Nazi death camps.
On examining 1), it turns out that as usual Rand and Peikoff provide little or no hard evidence for their contention, only a lot of vague insinuation and oratical exaggeration. It turns out that the Dark Ages are far more likely to have been the result of severe trade contraction due to the Islamic military stranglehold over Europe from 7th to the 9th centuries, combined with the Danish and Norwegian barbarians laying waste to much of the North and West, than the rise of Christian belief. Likewise, contra Peikoff’s claim that it was due to the rediscovery of Aristotle, the subsequent Renaissance can also be readily attributed to the retreat of these influences, and subsequent revival of trade and prosperity. Further, if, as Peikoff contends, the asceticism of Christianity was the decisive influence in society, we would expect to find such societies economically destitute and culturally stagnant. Yet this is quite false, as of course the Renaissance marks the apogee of Catholic Church’s dominance over Europe.

As to 2) we again find that this is undercut by a fundamental fallacy – that institutions such as governments are always the product of conscious moral design. In fact, we find the expansions of state power in America was largely brought about by unintended developments in the institutions of the Federal Government, especially Congress, such as ‘pork-barrelling’ and ‘log-rolling.’ These expansions of state power are arrangements that have little or nothing to do with ‘altruism’ or self-sacrifice, and everything to do with the exercise of politics for self-interest and mutual advantage.

Finally, turning to 3) we note once again that Peikoff offers no concrete evidence for this speculation. He is also simply incorrect in claiming Kant, and Hegel advocated “irrationality.” Some of their ideas may have been irrational, but this is hardly the same thing. Further, as the writings of the aforesaid are extremely vague, they are just as subject to the reverse interpretation – one could easily claim that they were responsible for the liberation of the death camps, so one be so inclined. It also appears that far from preaching abstruse doctrines of irrationalism, altruism and collectivism, much of the Nazi’s actually rather limited success came from standard demagoguery like “Freedom, Work, and Bread”, as well as capitalizing on the substantial underlying anti-Semitism that existed in Germany as it did in much of Europe. Even then this did not capture a majority for the Nazis, and Hitler’s subsequent ascent to Chancellor owed more to standard backstage political manoeuvering than the advocacy of any specific philosophical doctrines.

To conclude, it seems that the Randian historical narrative is merely an exaggerated romantic invention, which on examination turns out to be both shallow and factually inaccurate.

(Summary of "Ayn Rand Contra Human Nature" by Greg Nyquist, Chapter 2)

5 comments:

Jay said...

These expansions of state power are arrangements that have little or nothing to do with ‘altruism’ or self-sacrifice, and everything to do with the exercise of politics for self-interest and mutual advantage.

I think that Rand/Peikoff mean is that such arrangements are made by reference to self-sacrifice. ie, a government bureaucrat will justify a restriction "for the common good." They never come out and say "We're taking your freedom so I can have more money in my wallet." That's what they mean.

Jay said...

In fact, the quote from my last comment is not controversial to Rand or Objectivism. In "Atlas Shrugged" there is an entire subplot about the rich heirs of a factory who enacted a system for the alleged "virtue" of self-sacrifice in order to pad her own pockets with said sacrifice.

Calls for self-sacrifice are usually always thinly veiled grabs for power or money. Rand and other Objectivists have said this for decades. It's not some new insight that Objectivists missed. What Objectivists are saying is that the reason this works is because the mass public (mistakenly) thinks self-sacrifice IS a virtue.

Red Grant said...

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I think that Rand/Peikoff means is that such arrangements are made by reference to self-sacrifise, ie, a government bureacrat will justify a restriction for "common good." - jay
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Didn't Ayn Rand go beyond that?

Didn't she call concept of alturism itself is immoral?

JayCross said...

Yes she absolutely did. I was just responding to Greg's point that politicians aren't explicitly motivated by altruism. They just echo back what the public wants to hear. Many a "common man", however, do find self-sacrifice to be a noble endeavor. This makes pandering to altruist sentiments an effective political power grab.

Red Grant said...

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I was just responding to Greg's point that politicians aren't explicitly motivated by alturism. - jay
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So what do you think politicians (in general) are motivated by? If not alturism?

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Many a "common man", however, do find self-sacrifise to be a noble endeavor - jay
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Does this mean then you believe those acts of self-sacrifise made by some Germans to save the Jews during the Holocaust not be noble?

Or were those Germans being selfish by risking themselves to save the Jews?

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What Objectivists are saying is that the reason this works is because the mass public (mistakenly) thinks self-sacrifise IS a virtue. - jay
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Don't you think the reason this works is because the mass public (mistakenly) see the consequence of the selfish motivation of politicians and their lobbyists as something worthy of self-sacrifise on their[the mass public] part?

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Many a "common man",however, do find self-sacrifise to be a noble endeavor. This makes pandering to alturist sentiments an effective power grab. - jay
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Do politican get endorsement and money from the "common man" of the organized labor by pandering to their alturist sentiments?

Or

do they get endorsement and money from the "common man" of the organized labor by pandering to their selfish sentiments?