Our understanding of what constitutes “human nature” can come from at least three sources: personal experience, literature, and scientific investigation. I knew early on that Rand’s view of human nature had serious problems. I had read Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment and The Idiot right before I read Atlas Shrugged, and I couldn’t help noticing how shallow and tendentious Rand’s view of human nature is compared to Dostoevsky’s. The human beings who populate Atlas are little more than ideological caricatures. They is little, if any, of the stuff of real life in them. They are all gesture and speechifying, ---- mere empty vessels, bloodless and without soul.
But how does one demonstrate such a thing? Human nature, in the traditional conception passed down to us by the great poets, historians, and philosophers of Western Culture, consists of innate tendencies of behavior—tendencies which Rand explicitly denies in Galt’s speech—but which are distributed unequally and in varying degrees throughout the species. One trick Objectivists use to dismiss the traditional conception of human nature is to try to interpret it through the prism of their unique versions of essentialism. Rand believed that the objects of knowledge, what she called concepts, where defined by “essential characteristics without which the [existental referents of these concepts] would not be the kind of existents they are.” Rand’s doctrine of essentialism can be a little confusing because Rand regarded essences as “epistemological” rather than “metaphysical.” They were products of thought rather than reality; yet they somehow referred to objects and attributes in reality. The upshot of this essentialism, whether “metaphysical” or “epistemological,” is that the attributes that make a thing what it is have to be universal. They have to apply to every manifestation of the concepts’ real world referent. Rand regarded “rationality” as the essence of the concept man because all men were, she claimed, rational (at least potentially). Now the tactic used in regards to human nature is to claim that if a given innate tendency of behavior isn’t shared by absolutely everyone, then it can’t be part of human nature. And since not many innate tendencies of character are shared by everyone, that leaves the concept high and dry.
We can see how this works out in practice by providing an illustrative example. The desire for status is generally regarded as a part of human nature. But this desire does not exist in equal measure in all individual human beings; and there may exist some human beings, likely a small minority, in whom the desire is altogether absent. What a typical Objectivist would contend is that if this particular desire for status is not universal, if it does not exist in all individuals, then it can’t be considered a part of “human nature.”
This, however, is where the essentialism of Rand and the Aristolean tradition she supposedly exemplifies breaks down. Ideas aren’t always so simple as Rand imagines them. There’s the famous example of the concept “game” which Wittgenstein wrote about:
Consider … the activities that we call "games". I mean board-games, card-games, ball-games, Olympic Games, and so on. What is common to them all?—Don't say: "There must be something common, or they would not be called 'games' "—but look and see whether there is anything common to all.—For if you look at them you will not see something that is common to all, but similarities, relationships, and a whole series of them at that. [from Philosophical Investigations]
The point of Wittgenstein's “investigations” into the concept game is not, as Rand seems to have believed, to provide a perfect example of “a mind not in focus,” but to suggest that the Aristolean view of concepts (i.e., “essentialism”) is an inadequate theory and that conceptual representation of reality is far more complicated than Aristotle originally assumed.
These very complexities present all kinds of difficulties to the critic of Objectivism. Anything that requires appreciation of nuance, subtlety, complexity—in a word, anything that requires judgment becomes a ripe target for the scorn and dismissive sneering on the part of Randian apologists. If to grasp the traditional conception of human nature as it has been passed down to us in literature and history requires a sophistication that goes well beyond what the typical Objectivist is capable of, how then does the critic go about explaining why Rand is wrong on this issue?
This was just one of the many challenges I faced when I embarked on the book Ayn Rand Contra Human Nature. That entire work was conceived, not merely as a refutation of Rand’s conception of man, but as an in depth analysis of why this mattered. Getting human nature wrong is not something that can be casually brushed aside. No defender of Rand can say, “Well, maybe she was wrong about human nature, but she was right about everything else”—because if Rand was wrong about human nature, it’s just not possible, logically and/or empirically, for her to have been right about everything else. Getting human nature wrong spreads error throughout her entire philosophy. It completely invalidates her philosophy of history; it causes serious problems for several of the Objectivist virtues, especially pride; and it upends the Objectivist politics by removing the means by which minarchism and laissez-faire can be attained.
But before I could demonstrate the dependence of Rand’s ethics and politics on her view of human nature—a dependence not always fully appreciated by Rand’s apologists—I had to actually demonstrate that the Objectivist view of man was deeply flawed and in many important respects erroneous. How was this to be done? My own view of human nature had been formed by observation and immersion in history and great literature. But I knew that would not be good enough. I would need stronger evidence, which meant I had to investigate the testimony of science on the matter. I began my effort to build a stronger case against Rand by immersing myself in the historical sociology of Vilfredo Pareto.
I had initially learned about Pareto from Jame Burnham’s classic work The Machiavellians. Pareto had spent much of his career as a rather severe and uncompromising classical liberal whose political beliefs weren’t all that different from Rand’s. He was very much in favor of freedom, including economic freedom, which he argued for with his usual intellectual thoroughness and rigor. But over time he must have noticed that arguing for freedom wasn’t having any effect—that people in power ignored his arguments in favor of doing whatever accorded to their perceived interests and sentiments. As Giovanni Busino describes this period in Pareto’s life,
[through] his intransigence, his fight against protectionism, against armament programs, against Government Minister Crispi’s gallophobia and the malpractices of wheeling and dealing, [Pareto was] left ... on his own, a publicist without a public and without influence.
In 1890, Pareto quit his position of managing director of the Iron Industry Company and eventually became an academic, accepting a position as Professor of political economy at the University of Lausanne. His change from businessman and liberal activist to academic and social scientist led to a shift in his intellectual orientation from advocacy to objective analysis. From his own experience as liberal polemicist, he had learned that human beings, in the main, don’t respond to and are not motivated by “reason.” This led him to develop a theory of “non-logical conduct” which in many important respects anticipates theories developed by Jonathan Haidt over a hundred years later. Pareto’s great insight, later corroborated by psychological experiments conducted by Haidt, is that human beings, by and large, aren’t always rational in their behavior—that their motivations arise from non-rational sources (sentiments, emotions, instincts, etc.), and that rationalizations are concocted after the fact to give a veneer of logic to what initially was nothing of the sort.
While Pareto provides huge amounts of evidence for his basic theory (his Trattato di Sociologia Generale is a million words long), it’s the sort of evidence that requires intelligence and intellectual judgment to understand. Pareto provides hundreds of examples of rationalizations put forward on behalf of various forms of non-logical conduct. For example, Pareto shows how individuals in multiple societies and cultures all indulge in various rituals, usually of a religious nature, involving the use of water as an instrument of purification—and then he shows all the different rationalizations brought forward to justify this behavior.
Now the trouble with this sort of evidence is that it requires a certain level of intellectual judgment to appreciate it, and judgment’s is a unique cognitive ability in short supply among human beings. So during the writing of Ayn Rand Contra Human Nature, I wanted even stronger evidence that Rand’s theory of human nature was spectacularly wrong—I sought the gold standard for empirical evidence, i.e., evidence from the hard sciences—from peer reviewed experiments in biology, evolutionary psychology, and cognitive science. I combed the local libraries looking for what the hard sciences had to say on the issue of human nature, and I was somewhat disappointed in what I found. Much of the research that had been done up to that point in the sciences of human nature was still embalmed in hard to access scientific journals. For Ayn Rand Contra Human Nature, I had to rely largely on Edward Wilson’s On Human Nature, along with a few other miscellaneous sources. Much to my frustration, shortly after I published Ayn Rand Contra Human Nature in 2001, an avalanche of books on the emerging scientific consensus concerning nature of our species began coming out. The most important of these were Steven Pinkers’ The Blank Slate, Daniel Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness, David Eagleman’s Incognito, Destano and Valdeno’s Out of Character, Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind, and Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink. These books provided reams of evidence that could be used to refute nearly all of what passed for Rand’s theory of human nature and a good chunk of her epistemology into the bargain as well. In fact, the evidence they presented went well beyond what I would have expected. It was little short of devastating. If you’re familiar with this evidence and you’re a rational, scientifically educated person, you cannot in honesty be an Objectivist.
It was the evidence in these books that constituted the chief inspiration for much of the material posted here on the ARCHN Blog. I suddenly realized that, with all scientifically established facts at my command, I could now make a much better case against the pretensions of Objectivism than I had accomplished in Ayn Rand Contra Human Nature. That’s why so many of the blog posts I wrote over the years quoted from those books listed above. I was presenting a scientific case against Rand’s philosophy, particularly her views of human nature and cognition.
Yet there was another aspect of Rand’s philosophy that needed to be addressed, one that couldn’t be refuted with scientific or any other kind of “observational” or experimental evidence. I have in mind Rand’s metaphysics and the more speculative and philosophical reaches of her epistemology (particularly the part dealing with the relation between concepts and definitions). This would require its own separate philosophical investigation. It turned out that I would have to immerse myself in study of the American critical realists, particularly George Santayana and Arthur Lovejoy, to figure out and articulate where Rand had gone wrong in her metaphysical and epistemological speculations.