Monday, July 23, 2018

What was Ayn Rand Wrong About?

What follows is my answer to a question posed on Quora: What was Ayn Rand Wrong About?
On the technical side of things, Rand was wrong about (1) the need to validate man’s knowledge—i.e., foundationalism; (2) that concepts require definitions and that definitions can be true or false; (3) that emotions are automatic effects of man’s value premises; (4) that abstract philosophy determines the course of history; (5) and that emotions are not “tools of cognition.” If we wished to really get into the philosophical weeds, we could probably ferret out even more technical errors, but beyond a few hard-core Rand acolytes, I doubt that anyone really cares about any of these largely technical issues. Nowadays Rand is mostly known for her zealous affirmations of egoism, “selfishness,” and laissez-faire capitalism, and her concomitant denunciations of altruism and all forms of government interventionism. Perhaps her most influential contention is that freedom and capitalism require a moral foundation, by which she meant: convincing philosophical arguments on their behalf. This conviction is based, however, on faulty assumptions about moral philosophy, human reason and psychological motivation.
Rand believed that people derived their sense of right and wrong from moral philosophy. This would be true, Rand contended, whether they read moral philosophy or not. She assumed that moral evaluations had to arise from ideas about morality. These ideas had to originate in someone’s mind. So if an individual didn’t form his own moral ideas, he had to get them from someone who did. That someone, Rand argued, had to be a philosopher, probably one of the great philosophers of the Western tradition (e.g., Plato, Aristotle, Kant). Rand presented no real evidence for this view, and, as it so happens, most of what we know from the scientific study of human behavior and thought contradicts Rand’s largely baseless theory.
According to experimental psychology (see James Q Wilson’s Moral Sense and/or Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind), “people have a natural moral sense, a sense that is formed out of the interaction of their innate dispositions with their earliest familial experiences.” In other words, moral judgments, distinctions, and evaluations are not the product of abstract philosophy. Nor could they be, given the general nature of abstract moral principles. Rand saw morality as a code to guide behavior. But as it turns out, the moral principles of nearly every philosophical system of ethics out there are too abstract and topical to be followed in daily life. Consider, as just one example, Kant’s famous categorical imperative, the first formulation of which is: “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law." The trouble with this formula is that it’s useless as standard or guide for behavior or moral evaluation. Indeed, to the extent that you can draw any specific meaning out of it, it is absurd. What would it mean to say that something becomes a universal law. Does it mean that everyone must abide by it? If so, then the desire to become, say, a computer programmer would violate Kant’s maxim, for the simple reason that, if becoming a computer programmer was a universal law that everyone had to follow (i.e., everyone had to become a computer programmer), everyone would starve. These absurdities aren’t noticed because, in moral philosophy, people reason on the basis of sentiments, not logic, and they unwittingly use philosophical principles to rationalize whatever their intuitive moral sense tells them is right or wrong. Moral evaluations are not the product of philosophical reasonings. The human mind does not, nor can it, work that way.
I once heard a debate on morality between an orthodox follower of Ayn Rand and a libertarian critic of Rand’s ethics. The two debaters, oddly enough, did not argue over what might constitute moral conduct. More or less, they agreed on what was moral and proper. Where they differed is on the question of how to describe whatever conduct they regarded as ethically justified. If I remember correctly, they both admitted that it could be morally right to save someone from drowning (provided there was no serious risk in doing so). The orthodox follower of Rand insisted that such behavior must be described as “egoistic” and “selfish.” The critic of Rand thought this was absurd, and that the behavior in question was clearly altruistic. Neither debater made any attempt to explain why they thought the conduct in question good and proper. They simply took it for granted, because it accorded with their moral sense. They were merely arguing about how to rationalize the conduct that arose from their moral intuitions. They were, in short, arguing about how to use language, rather than on how to behave.
Rand’s politics suffer from the same issues as her morality. She seems to have believed that political systems are based on abstract philosophical principles. As a matter of fact, this is not the case at all. Political systems more accurately could be described, in the words of Evelyn Waugh, as “an arrangement.” Societies are made up of individuals of varying talents, initiative, sentiments, interests, personality, intelligence and charisma. Out of this maelstrom of diversity, passion and semi-rational calculation various factions emerge, each with its own set of ideologies. How, from so many disparate elements, is it possible to form a government and conduct public policy? In times past, factions would form alliances and then through violence they would force their will on the rest of society. This led to a great deal of bloodshed and death, so over time various other mechanisms were developed so that a heterogeneous populace could live in a civil society. What is broadly called democracy, which is a kind of game factions play to determine public policy, has turned out to be the least worst of the options facing mankind. Out of this game, it is very implausible that any specific ideology, particularly one like Rand’s “laissez-faire capitalism” which is in important respects at odds with the sentiments and interest of the vast majority of human beings, will ever dominate over the rest. It’s just not how democracy (rule of “constitutional” government via elected representatives and permanent bureaucracy) works, or ever can work. If you understand human nature and the nature of society, you will realize the gross implausibility of Randian “laissez-faire.” Even if by some elaborate form of reasoning you could (per impossible) “prove” that laissez-faire capitalism was the only “proper” system of social and economic intercourse, that would constitute a purely theoretical and ultimately Pyrrhic victory. Social systems are not determined by the cavilings of philosophers. Ayn Rand was wrong to think otherwise.

21 comments:

Anonymous said...

Off topic, but Shoshana Milgram, who is or was the authorized biographer of Rand, appeared on Strive Face Book page yesterday for an interview on her biography (which will be up to '57). No mention of when the book will be published (although I didn't hear the last 15 minutes or so of the show.

NP

Uriel said...

Greetings,
Watching my thoughts while reading this article, I figured that I do not seem to understand something/s.

1st: Agreement to the 2nd paragraph concerning the representation of Rand's view. But I am unclear about the statement "That someone, Rand argued, had to be a philosopher..." The "had to be" part is what eludes me: Is it meant in the descriptive ("cannot be other than") or in the normative ("better should be so") way?

2nd: In the third paragraph, why Kant's cat.imp. as example? It is famous, but still fought over, both concerning its meaning and value (plus, Rand agreed that Kant is useless. I disagree, because his texts are a great subject to study German grammar on). Some of Rand's maximes as example would maybe have gotten the point better across.

3rd: Is it justified to assume that the argument about ethics leads to the conclusion that moral philosophy is basically more about rationalizing dicisions rather than guiding decisions?

gregnyquist said...

The "had to be" part is what eludes me: Is it meant in the descriptive ("cannot be other than") or in the normative ("better should be so") way?

For Rand, that is a descriptive statement. See For the New Intellectual for greater clarification. Peikoff, in his writings on history, presents the most extreme development of this basic view.

why Kant's cat.imp. as example?

I chose Kant to show that Rand is not alone in making this error. And while it's true that people argue over the meaning of the Cat. Imp., that's precisely part of the problem: if taken in its most literal sense, the principle leads to absurdities, which causes people to assume Kant must have meant his principle in some more obscure or nuanced way. But the problem here is deeper than that. The fact is, moral judgments are often far too subtle and nuanced to be adequately summarized in broad articulable principles. When people to try express their moral sentiments in terms of abstract principles, the inadequacy of those principles soon becomes apparent to more intellectually fastidious critics.

Is it justified to assume that the argument about ethics leads to the conclusion that moral philosophy is basically more about rationalizing dicisions rather than guiding decisions?

When philosophers are using different arguments to justify the same conduct, it does raise the suspicion that moral philosophy contains a large component of rationalizing and casuistry. However, the evidence in support of that view is taken from empirical research, not from any one argument. See Jonathan Haidt's The Righteous Mind.

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Anna W. said...

To the author :
--------------------------
Thank you for writing this post; your writing is clear, succinct, free of psychologizing polemics and focused on fundamentals; intellectually honest(for the most part) critics of Ayn Rand are rare.

I consider myself an Objectivist(~10 yrs since I discovered AR); I disagree with your conclusions, but it helps me to know explicitly, what I have supposed are commonly held but unverbalised conclusions about Objectivism.

Also, I sympathize, i.e. I can see the origin of your errors; the presentation and dissemination of Ayn Rand's philosophy(much as with Aristotle's) has been handled poorly from the beginning(starting with AR); a situation little improved by ARI and its current advocates(let alone the mediocrities on YouTube).

To the general reader :
--------------------------
The author presents a confused and irrationally biased grasp of Objectivism.
If you feel frustrated by your lack of progress in understanding Objectivism, don't blame yourself; most of the fundamentals are poorly explained, scattered and dishonestly\ignorantly presented as complete\valid.

As a starting point, I recommend the following course:
After AR's "Philosophy: Who needs it",
I highly recommend all of Edith Packers lectures on Psychology,
also listen to Dr.Ellen Kenner's radio show,
Leonard Peikoff's course "Understanding Objectivism".
Nathaniel Branden's "The Psychology of Self-Esteem" as well as his "Basic Principles of Objectivism", both authored while under the tutelage of AR, are highly recommended.
Barbara Brandens course "Principles of Efficient Thinking" is also outstanding.

Finally avoid the temptation of a quick 2nd-hand answer; do not treat the material dogmatically, if you cannot prove the idea to yourself(or know what "prove" means), reserve judgement, form an explicit verbal hypothesis, and work to verify it.

Anonymous said...

"If you feel frustrated by your lack of progress in understanding Objectivism"

Somehow I feel this is a situation that almost never happens.

Uriel said...

@gregnyquist: Thanks for the answers. And sorry I'm late. Just today remembered the article (and honestly did not expect anything). Will have to reread "For The New Intellectual" (the essay, I take it) to make up my mind about that detail.
For the rest, well, not the greatest of news to recieve (but they explain a thing or two).

Uriel said...

@Anonymus:
"'If you feel frustrated by your lack of progress in understanding Objectivism'

Somehow I feel this is a situation that almost never happens."

Which might be the root of most troubles: We always think we understood adequately -- but it's invariably an interpretation (including this statement), be it of a text or of a perception of reality. Then we come across some different interpretation (read: understanding) of the same thing (and subsequently have to understand/interprete it in turn) -- a big, ugly clusterffffffff-oxtrott waiting to happen.
Which is why I remind myself at time that a hundred years from now, we'll either all be immortal -- or dead. So not much point in being angry with each other^^

gregnyquist said...

I disagree with your conclusions, but it helps me to know explicitly, what I have supposed are commonly held but unverbalised conclusions about Objectivism.

I rather doubt that my critique of Objectivism can provide clues or insights on commonly held unverbalized conclusions about Objectivism. Most people would judge Objectivism as they judge everything else, by comparing to their own ideological and moral preferences. My critique of Objectivism is based in large part on empirical research of cognitive and psychological science.

the presentation and dissemination of Ayn Rand's philosophy(much as with Aristotle's) has been handled poorly from the beginning(starting with AR); a situation little improved by ARI and its current advocates(let alone the mediocrities on YouTube).

When an ideology fails to gain traction it's always tempting to find some facile explanation, such as poor presentation or lack of opportunities for exposure. But this is an outcome of a naive and empirical impoverished understanding of how these things work. The role of an ideology is to serve as rallying agenda for various factions competing for power in society. Ideologies will flourish to the extent that they help whatever factions enlist them attain positions of power and influence for their leaders. From this point of view, Objectivism would have to be regarded as a poorly equipped ideology, since it seeks to inflict its views on the world, not by helping its leaders attain positions of eminence and political power in society, but by quibbling about points of abstruse philosophy. In that sense, Objectivism serves to weaken its leaders and followers alike, which is likely the main reason why it hasn't gain much traction in society. As an ideology, Objectivism is almost completely useless.

Anna W. said...

gregnyquist said... : When an ideology fails to gain traction[...]
My goal is to enjoy this life, on this earth, in this life-time; I study philosophy toward this end, and judge the value of philosophical ideas by this standard.

Anonymous said...

>Ideologies will flourish to the extent that they help whatever factions enlist them attain positions of power and influence for their leaders. From this point of view, Objectivism would have to be regarded as a poorly equipped ideology

I agree with the technical analysis of Objectivism that you present in your book, but to play devil's advocate here, are we certain that O has not helped its leaders--or some of them--to attain positions of power and influence? Who is Alan Greenspan? (It does no good to quibble over abstruse details like the Peikoff/Greenspan schism. Clearly Greenspan ended up where he did because of the influence that Rand's ideas exercised on him; and clearly it was a position of great power.)

One might also argue that the ascendancy of "The Washington Consensus" was in part driven by ideas which are best expounded/sanctioned by O. In his NYT op-ed, the recent Trump White House defector, an avowed representative of the "steady (deep) state," named his moral lodestar: "free minds and free markets." Paul Ryan, that boyish fan of spreadsheeting our way to freedom from social safety nets, was brought up intellectually by Atlas Shrugged. "The Washington Consensus" is full of people more or less swimming in Rand's intellectual wake, as hard as that is to stomach. That their day may have passed is no argument that they never had their day.

On a lower level of power and influence, look at Yaron Brook and some principals of the ARI. One criticism of the ARI is that such individuals made a mint out of it. Brook still runs around giving paid speeches and writing op-eds for USA TODAY. So even if only in the meanest sense, O. enabled *some* individuals to pole-vault their way to "positions of power and influence." Again, that the gravy train may be hitting a fatal bump now is no argument against this point.

Thus, not an "almost completely useless" philosophy.

(End of devil's advocacy.)

Anonymous said...


I suspect that Greenspan would have made it without AR.

In fact, if he had followed AR he would never have accepted the Fed chairmanship.

See his GOLD & ECONOMIC FREEDOM where he advocated the abolition of the Fed!

Anon "devil's advocate" said...

>I suspect that Greenspan would have made it without AR.

She injected a lot of confidence in him, though. The following is from a long profile in The New Yorker in 2000. "When Greenspan met Rand, he saw himself as a logical positivist, believing that all moral codes were arbitrary human constructs that cannot be verified. Rand regarded logical positivism as a dead end. In her controversial philosophy of objectivism, she argued that capitalism was innately superior to other socioeconomic systems, such as feudalism and socialism, because it was based on voluntary exchange[...] Greenspan has never been shy about acknowledging his intellectual debt to Rand. 'What she did—through long discussions and lots of arguments into the night—was to make me think why capitalism is not only efficient and practical, but also moral,' he told a reporter from the [New York] Times in 1974." https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2000/04/24/the-fountainhead

And AR cheered his going to DC to be an economic advisor to Presidents Nixon and Ford. Here she is with Greenspan in Ford's Oval Office: https://tinyurl.com/y93rfk9o

Would she have cheered his later acceptance of Fed chairmanship? Unknown. But one thing *is* certain: Lenny Peikoff blew a gasket about it.

Anon "devil's advocate" said...

*Lenny Peikoff blew a gasket about it.

Not publicly at the time, but he issued a moral denunciation of Greenspan on his radio show about 10 years later.

Jzero said...

I think there's a disconnect here between "influencing" people who attain positions of power and "actually being a causal agent in the attaining of those positions", which is somewhat more difficult to establish. A lot of people cite Rand as an influence without swallowing her entire philosophy - do they achieve success because of Rand's influence, or is it incidental compared to other factors? If, for example, I am the son of a wealthy politician and I take up politics myself after falling in love with Atlas Shrugged, is it Rand that gets me elected, or the money and contacts my family provides? Does Objectivism actually provide me with a real business plan, if I should start a company, or is it more a general outlook and I have to be clever enough to figure out the mechanics of running the business myself in order to be successful?

And so with Greenspan, who seems intelligent enough to carve his path with or without Rand's influence. We can never know what path he might have taken, or whether his essential policies would have differed, had he never encountered Rand - but it's not impossible to conjecture that believing capitalism is actually moral or not would be largely irrelevant when setting up a policy that actually affects the economy.

gregnyquist said...

Clearly Greenspan ended up where he did because of the influence that Rand's ideas exercised on him; and clearly it was a position of great power.

I don't think it is so clearly obvious that Rand's ideas helped Greenspan attain a position of power. Greenspan developed short term economic prediction models that were highly accurate and that made him a candidate for high advisory positions, first in Nixon's Presidential campaign, and later in President Ford's administration. No one hired him because of his connection to Rand or supposed espousal of Rand's ideas. If he tried to conduct himself in the manner of an uncompromising Objectivist his career would've gone nowhere. But he chose to play the political game and get along with his colleagues. He gained his position as Fed chairman for his work saving Social Security. Fed chairman is sometimes regarded as the second most powerful person in the world, but this is likely an exaggeration. Technically, the fed chairman has no more voting power than other members of the board. In short, Greenspan had to play along to get along. He didn't have the power to implement an Objectivist monetary policy (whatever that might be).

Greenspan, for all the alleged power and influence he held, was hemmed in by the institutional forces that prevail in the financial markets. Remember his "irrational exuberance" comment about the asset markets and the controversy it stirred up? He was pretty much told to not say anything like that ever again (at least as Fed chairman), and he obeyed his masters.

Anon "devil's advocate" said...

Fair points about Greenspan.

However, you cannot deny my other examples. Certain individuals have made a very nice living out of Objectivism.

A sampling: http://ariwatch.com/TheObjectivistGravyTrain.htm

So you see, Objectivism--like Dianetics--is "a philosophy for living on earth." One of many. It worked.


Jzero said...

It worked - for some. The comments sections on this very blog are full of entries by people who have claimed to follow Objectivism and yet are essentially nonentities outside of Objectivist communities. If every last person who picked up Atlas Shrugged and was smitten with its ideals was shown to be a giant in their field, there might be more reason to give more credit to the philosophy. Like Dianetics, there's a lot of errant nonsense embedded in the philosophy that can be dismissed, and many successful people do so, taking what seems useful and ignoring the rest.

And then some practitioners follow the precepts closely and don't flourish, regardless. Steve Ditko, who recently passed away, is something of an example. As the co-creator of Spider-Man and a number of other super-heroes, one might think he would have been enormously successful, but although his name is well known in comics circles, he's nowhere near as famous as Stan Lee, the other co-creator of Spider-Man. As near as I can tell, he lived his last years as a recluse, alone. He refused interviews, mostly, and it's said that he actually refused to accept royalty payments for his work on Spider-Man in the past due to his regarding Marvel Comics as an unethical entity in some way. (I forget the details, and am dredging all this up mostly from memory, but I'm sure there's accounts of all it online if one cares to look.) All this stems from Ditko's adherence to Objectivism and a stark black-or-white outlook on life (Look up "Mr. A" for an example of some of Ditko's most direct expression of his philosophy in superhero form), and so in his case, at least, Objectivism stunted his success, at least in an economic/power sense. Only Ditko would know if he found his own life satisfactorily lived by other standards.

Gordon Burkowski said...

Most of the comments on this thread go back to Anna W.'s post, which offers the magnanimous observation: “If you feel frustrated by your lack of progress in understanding Objectivism, don't blame yourself. . .”

What I find most striking about that is the assumption that anyone who has a problem with Objectivism simply hasn't explored this philosophy with sufficient deepness. The many recovering Objectivists who have posted to this blog over the years will view this assumption with a weary smile.

There are some pretty good critiques of the more technical aspects of Rand's philosophy: her attempt to ground her ethics in something that looks like biology is especially vulnerable, as is the Objectivist treatment of free will. But most people who become enthusiastic about her philosophy don't abandon it because of such analyses. Rather, they discard it one area at a time - until the day comes when there is nothing left to discard. Like peeling layers off an onion.

The first layer of the onion to go is often in the area of art, where Rand's attempt to divide all art into “naturalism” and “romanticism” leads rapidly to especially absurd consequences and aesthetic choices. (Who needs Rembrandt, Shakespeare, Tolstoy or Beethoven anyway?) Or for a history buff, it may lie in the notion that Immanuel Kant's teachings led to the holocaust. Or a Physicist who's checked out their bizarre views on the sciences. And if they become interested in anthropology, they will soon realize that on Objectivist premises, no such area of study is even possible.

At a certain point comes the question: if this philosophy is so brilliant, why does it lead to conclusions like this?

People don't abandon Objectivism because they haven't studied it closely enough. They do so when they come to realize how fundamentally contemptuous the whole system is of genuine empirical testing and investigation – in spite of all the pious references to “facts of reality” (as if there were any other kind of facts). But making that discovery takes time. It may even take more than Ms. W's 10 years. . .

Daniel Langlois said...

'On the technical side of things, Rand was wrong about (1) the need to validate man’s knowledge—i.e., foundationalism; ... If we wished to really get into the philosophical weeds, we could probably ferret out even more technical errors, ..'

Some feeback, I'm trying to cotton to the 'was wrong about' formulation, the 'technical errors' formulation, when it comes to issues like foundationalism. I can't manage it. I find the whole issue to be abstract and, inevitably, informally stated. I would not rush to pronounce Foundationalist Theories of Epistemic Justification to be 'wrong', because I am not a callow student. Not *that* callow. To go into this in a bit more depth, I guess that surely, a little reflection suggests that the vast majority of the propositions we know or justifiably believe have that status only because we know or justifiably believe other propositions. Thus, I justifiably believe that our garbage will get picked up tomorrow, because I justifiably believe that tomorrow is Tuesday and that our garbage gets picked up every Tuesday; and I justifiably believe that there is going to be at least some rain in the next week, because I justifiably believe that the forecast calls for a good deal of rain, and forecasts are almost always right when it comes to similar short-term forecasts in this area. And okay, many interesting and difficult questions can be raised, here. The idea is, that a foundational or noninferentially justified belief is one that does not depend on any other beliefs for its justification.

I mean, if you have it all figured out in your mind, then that's great, hypothetically, but at least, let's sound like we are aware that historically, foundationalism was very widely, almost universally accepted. If you are aware of the long history of interpretation and appropriation of Aristotelian texts and themes—spanning over two millennia and comprising philosophers working within a variety of religious and secular traditions—then fine, dismiss it all with your brilliant answers. But can I let you dismiss it all implicitly, with a wave of the hand? I cannot. Because, I know that Aristotle’s influence is difficult to overestimate. I know that a quick search of the present Encyclopedia turns up more citations to ‘Aristotle’ and ‘Aristotelianism’ than to any other philosopher or philosophical movement. Fine, so classical foundationalism has come under considerable attack in the last few decades. But it is also was once the received view. I take myself to be willing to consider the most prominent objections that target the classical view of foundational beliefs. But, I think this merits more than a wave of the hand. If it makes any sense at all to claim that Ayn Rand was wrong on this issue, then she's in great company.

How am I even supposed to guess, the primary dissatisfaction with classical foundationalism?

Anonymous said...

"Some feeback, I'm trying to cotton to the 'was wrong about' formulation, the 'technical errors' formulation, when it comes to issues like foundationalism. I can't manage it."

I think that's because you're confusing your own idea of what foundationalism is with the line that Nyquist actually wrote, i.e., the NEED to validate man's knowledge.

There is a difference between being able to justify a belief and being required to justify a belief. Most people can function perfectly well without justifying what they know to a philosophical certainty, and inasmuch as Rand might have felt such justification was critical and necessary, she was wrong.