Rand continues: "There are three interrelated arguments used by today’s “conservatives” to justify capitalism, which can best be designated as: the argument from faith—the argument from tradition—the argument from depravity."
In this post, we will concentrate on Rand’s analysis of the argument from faith. Rand’s analysis is as follows:
Sensing their need of a moral base, many “conservatives” decided to choose religion as their moral justification; they claim that America and capitalism are based on faith in God. Politically, such a claim contradicts the fundamental principles of the United States: in America, religion is a private matter which cannot and must not be brought into political issues.
It is important to reiterate what I have stated in previous posts: all these “moral-base” arguments are mere rationalizations covering a complex blend of motives, interests, and sentiments that could never be summarized in a handful of broad moral injunctions. Rand commits the error of greatly exaggerating the influence of moral-base arguments. Her remarks about faith-based rationalizations must be seen in this context.
Are the “fundamental principles of America” contradicting by the claim that capitalism and freedom are based on “faith in God”? Well, that all depends on what one means by such vague phrases as “faith in God” and the “fundamental principles of America.” If, however, we frame this matter somewhat differently, in terms that are more empirical and testable, we will come closer to what a more sophisticated conservatism asserts when it attempts to link religion with capitalism and freedom. It is a fact that capitalism, in its early stages, had a “link” of sorts with religion. As the sociologist Max Weber noted: “As a matter of fact it is surely remarkable, to begin with a quite superficial observation, how large is the number of representatives of the most spiritual forms of Christian piety who have sprung from commercial circles…. Similarly, the remarkable circumstance that so many of the greatest capitalistic entrepreneurs—down to Cecil Rhodes—have come from clergymen’s families… Even more striking … is the connection of the religious way of life with the most intensive development of business acumen….” [The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, 43-44]
Note that Weber does not claim that there is a connection between religious “doctrine” [i.e., religious rationalizations] and business acumen; no, Weber specifies the connection exists between the “religious way of life” and business acumen, a different matter altogether. The religious way of life is rarely, if ever, entirely consistent with religious doctrine. How could it be? Religions contain dogmas which, if taken literally, would overstep important practical realities. Such doctrines have to be reinterpreted to fit the practical demands of everyday life. The effect of religion is not in all cases as irrational as Rand would have us believe. Religion may, and often will, leave plenty of room for practical success in life. This does not mean that the “non-practical” (or “irrational”) side of religion has no effect at all. But the so-called “irrational” side of religion tends to display itself in various non-practical pursuits, such as worship and ritual. To a non-religious person, the amount of time and effort spent by intensely religious people in practicing their faith may seem like a horrid waste of time. Yet, ironically, there may exist positive benefits from this sort of non-logical behavior. Ritual and worship, whatever might be said against them, are entirely consistent, and in some measure may promote, some of the virtues necessary to succeed in business, such as sobriety, monogamy (divorce, mistresses, adultery are expenses the frugal businessmen can do without), self-discipline, etc. In any case, it is simply a fact that, in the early stages of capitalism, the business class tended to be dominated by the intensely religious. This fact can hardly be elucidated on the basis of Rand’s doctrinal view of religion, which attempts to explain the behavior of religious people on the basis of the “fundamental” premises of religion. Neither human nature nor religion work in so simplistic a fashion.
Ignoring these important facts, Rand resumes her harangue against “faith”:
Intellectually, to rest one’s case on faith means to concede that reason is on the side of one’s enemies—that one has no rational arguments to offer. The “conservatives’” claim that their case rests on faith, means that there are no rational arguments to support the American system, no rational justification for freedom, justice, property, individual rights, that these rest on a mystic revelation and can be accepted only on faith—that in reason and logic the enemy is right, but men must hold faith as superior to reason.
Consider the implications of that theory. While the communists claim that they are the representatives of reason and science, the “conservatives” concede it and retreat into the realm of mysticism, of faith, of the supernatural, into another world, surrendering this world to communism.
Here Rand reverts to one of her favorite strategies: polarization. An individual either believes entirely in “faith” or entirely in “reason.” Given that Rand claimed to admire Thomas Aquinas, she should have known better. Most religious conservatives do not regard “faith” and “reason” as opposites, but as supplementary. No conservative would claim that his case for capitalism and freedom rested solely on faith. Faith is merely used as a way to circumvent Hume’s is/ought gap in conservative rationalizations about morality. In this sense, there is a point in common between conservatism and Objectivism in that both rationalize their way around Hume’s gap. The main difference is that the conservatives are more honest about it and talk about “faith,” whereas Rand claims she gets around it (per impossible) through “reason.”
At the core of Rand’s criticism is the implicit claim that her moral rationalizations are superior (i.e., more convincing) to those of conservatives. Yet this goes against a very well established fact—namely, that there are a great many more conservatives than there are Objectivists. Of course, such rationalizations are only persuasive to those already inclined to believe them; which is why Rand’s complaints on this score seem much ado about nothing. Claiming that the moral base for capitalism is religious faith may not sound very convincing to the secular enemies of the free market; but Rand’s "reason"-based rationalizations have not been a jot more convincing to such individuals. Changing people’s minds through arguments (i.e., rationalizations) is very difficult and not very effective. Especially ineffective are broad arguments based on abstract moral principles. Most human beings instinctively sense that such arguments are hollow and not to be trusted. Moreover, because of their vagueness, broad, abstract principles do not yield any clear specific guidelines for practical actions, but can be interpreted to fit a variety of specific guidelines. So people tend to follow, instead, the complex web of strategies for navigating through the problems of life that they have learned and absorbed through years of trial and error experience.