Sam Anderson, in a review of Anne Heller's biography of Rand, notes: "Eyewitnesses say that [Rand] never lost an argument." Given the poor quality of many of Rand's actual arguments, as one finds them embalmed in her writings, this is a bit of anamoly. The written evidence, such as it is, demonstrates no very great arguing skill on Rand's part. Quite the contrary, Rand, when she deigns to offer any sort of arguments at all, produces rather poor ones, afflicted with yawning gaps and blistering equivocations. How then could a philosopher who produced such wretched arguments in print be a veritable Hercules of disputation when relying, not on her pen, but on her tongue?
There are several factors which contribue to explaining this anamoly. Rand depended on at least five such factors to provide the varnish of irrefragibility over her otherwise hollow and empirically impoverished arguments. Those factors are:
- Inability of individuals to evaluate the quality of arguments made on behalf of conclusions they agree with.
- Intimidation tactics
- Selection of debating opponents
- Reliance on explicit articulation of views
- Avoidance of empirical tests in favor of verbalism
(1) Cognitive science and experimental psychology have uncovered reams of evidence that people are not very good at evaluating arguments when they agree with the conclusions. A smoker, when challenged as to the dangers of his habit, will sometimes reply "Well, everybody dies" and believe, quite sincerely, that his verbalized rationale for smoking is both wise and irrefragible. Devotees of Ayn Rand sincerely believe that the Objectivist metaphysics, although based on little more than empty tautologies and other such empirically vacuous truisms, represents the very acme of logical soundness. People tend to believe what they want to believe, and then accept the "best" arguments easily at hand for those beliefs. Best, in this sense, is entirely relative. If only bad arguments are available, they will gravitate toward the best of the bad.
Most people become attracted to Objectivism when they are young and without experience either of the world or of philosophical arguments. Rand's Objectivist philosophy provides an intriguing set of rationalizations defending an extreme form of secular individualism and egoism coupled with common sense view of reality. A young person sympathetic with these positions will have difficulty evaluating the actual quality of the arguments Rand presents on behalf of her doctrines. Rand's passionate lip service on behalf of "reason," objectivity, and reality will further disarm whatever nascent critical thinking might still exist with new convert.
(2) For Rand, intimidation became central to maintaining her intellectual dominance over disciples. John Hospers noted of Rand:
I learned ... that it didn't pay to be confrontational with [Rand]. If I saw or suspected some inconsistency, I would point it out in calm and even tones, as if it were "no big deal." That way, she would often accept the correction and go on. To expose the inconsistency bluntly and nakedly would only infuriate her, and then there would be no more calm and even discussion that evening. I did not enjoy experiencing her fury; it was as if sunlight had suddenly been replaced by a thunderstorm. A freezing chill would then descend on the room, enough to make me shiver even in the warmth of summer. No, it wasn't worth it. So what, if a few fallacies went unreported? Better to resume the conversation on an even keel, continue a calm exchange of views, and spare oneself the wrath of the almighty, than which nothing is more fearful.
Alan Blumenthal noted:
Many of my patients used to tell me that they were terrified to ask questions because of the way Miss Rand might respond to them. They knew that the answer might be that the question revealed a bad psychoepistemology or an immoral value system. Or she might say "Can't you read? That's not what I said," In answer to an unfortunately phrased question like "Don't you think your characters are unrealistic?" she would say "I don't answer questions like that!" when she might have taken the opportunity to explain what is and is not required of fictional characters so the questioner might learn something.
And Robert Hessen:
I remember many occasions when Rand pounced, assuming that a question was motivated by hostility to her or her ideas, or that the questioner was intellectually dishonest or irrational, or had evil motives, or was her "enemy." The key, I believe, to Rand's reaction was an assumption that every question was unambiguously clear, so she never asked anyone to clarify or rephrase a question that appeared to be critical [of Rand]....
My earliest memory goes back to Ayn Rand's appearance at Yale University in February 1960. The morning after she gave a public lecture, she spoke to a small philosophy class and invited questions from the students. A young man asked if her brief characterization of Immanuel Kant's philosophy was accurate, and she exploded that she had not come here to be insulted. I was surprised at the heated tone of her response because he was not antagonistic to her and he had, as I watched him, no glimmer of malice or "gotcha" in his eyes.
Rand's anger helped shield her from effective criticism. It encouraged her disciples to be extra cautious when asking questions, which led to many important doctrines in Objectivism remaining unchallenged. This partially explains why there exists so many bad formulations and dubious assumptions in Rand's philosophy. Individuals tend to be rather poor at evaluating and criticizing their own beliefs. For this reason, criticism from others is essential for any philosophy that presumes to be rational. Indeed, criticism from others is central to rationality. That's why science and rational scholarship require peer review. Holding one's scholarship, one's research to the critical scrutiny of others makes it easier to ferret out the mistakes and errors that inevitably occur in the pursuit of knowledge. Rand's refusal to allow herself to be effectively challenged renders her system irrational and dogmatic. It also helps create the impression that she was Rand never lost an argument. After all, how could she have lost any arguments when she refused to allow herself to be challenged?
(3) Rand not only refused to engage in formal debates with other philosophers and intellectuals, she refused to have anything to do with the two groups which could have challenged her most effectively, namely, conservatives and liberatarians. She would not even allow herself to be in the same room with the William F. Buckley, the leading conservative intellectual of the fifties and sixties; and of course she would never have consented to appear on Buckley's debate show, Firing Line. Her disdain for libertarians is both notorious and perplexing. The reasons for her disdain (which include such trivial reasons as her dislike for the word libertarian) strike one as contrived and superficial, as if they were mere rationalizations. In any case, some of the best and most effective early criticism of Rand came from the liberatarian quarter. In November 1961 Bruce Goldberg published a review of Rand's For the New Intellectual in The New Individualist Review. After pointing out one contradiction after another and castigating Rand's misrepresentation of Western philosophy, Goldberg concludes:
It is not difficult to understand the attraction Ayn Rand has for the uninstructed. She appears, I suppose, to be the spokesman for freedom, for self-esteem, and other equally noble ideals. However, patient examination reveals her pronouncements to be but a shroud beneath which lies the corpse of illogic. Those who are concerned with discovering the principles of a sound social philosophy can read and study libertarian thought at its best. The ludicrously mistitled “philosophy of Ayn Rand” is a sham. To those who are travelling her road I can only suggest its abandonment—for that way madness lies.
Rand supposedly read this review (she dismissed it as "B.S."). Is it possible that at least part of her hostility toward libertarianism has its root in Goldberg's scathing criticism? In any case, Rand's hostility (and the subsequent Objectivism policy to avoid libertarians because, as Peikoff once put it, Libertarians are worse than communists) gave her a pretext for avoiding the very group which could offer the most well-informed criticism of her Objectivist philosophy. Libertarians tended to be far more knowledgable of Objectivism than other ideological groups. They could offer criticisms that came from a genuine knowledge of Rand's philosophy, rather than just a vague familiarity of it. Yet Rand kept her distance from them, as she kept her distance from conservative intellectuals. By doing so, Rand was able to protect herself from just the sort of intellectuals who could have conquered her in debate. Rand never lost an argument, not because she was a great debator, but because she never took on any challenging opponents.
(4) Many people do not know how to verbalize their basic beliefs. They have never bothered either to articulate their beliefs or find rationalizations for them. Consequently, if they are challenged to defend their beliefs, they do so very poorly, and are no match for someone who, like Rand, can articulate a set of doctrines. It should be obvious that it would not be possible for Rand to lose any argument against any individual lacking an articulable philosophy. Regardless of how poor Rand's actual arguments might be, the very fact that she could articulate her beliefs would give her a decisive advantage.
(5) In the absence of effective, empirical criticism, debates are determined by factors that have little, if anything to do with the truth. If a debate is not determined by empirical evidence, then it will be determined by other qualities that have nothing to do with the truth. Debates conducted without reference to effective empirical criticism become exercises in verbal facility, where the most aggressive, articulate, personable, and/or witty debator inevitably wins. Rand may not have always been particularly witty or personable; but she was always aggressive, determined, and articulate. She had verbal rationalizations for most of her beliefs; and when these failed, she could always throw a temper tantrum. Hence she came off as a formidable debator who "never lost an argument."