But is this view in fact true? Are Rand's ethics and politics free from the contamination of her view of man? Not necessarily so. In this post, I will examine the extent to which Rand's ethics depend on her theory of human nature.
Rand's view of man contains several assumptions important to her ethics:
(1) Reason as a source of motivation. Although Rand never claimed that reason can be a source of motivation, her ethics tacitly assumes it. When Rand declares that values can be objective and absolute, free from the taint of "whims" and other natural dispositions, she is in effect declaring that human beings can be motivated solely by reason, without any reference to sentiments, desires, or innate proclivities. This position is deeply problematic: for in the absence of emotive content, how can we explain why anyone would value something? To say that a value is entirely rational and objective, free from the taint of whims and other subjective arcana, is to suggest that values can be determined without reference to emotive content. Rand never clearly explained how this was possible. And there is a good reason for this: it is not possible. Rand defines reason as "the faculty that identifies and integrates the material provided by man’s senses." Reason, in other words, is a faculty which engages in a task. It does not provide motivations, desires, sentiments, etc. At best, reason can tell you how to attain an end; but it cannot tell you why you should pursue a given end. An end must be pursued for its own sake, independent of "reason." The faculty that "identifies" and "integrates" sensory material is not the faculty that provides motivations. People are motivated, not by identification and integration, but by sentiment and desire.
Oddly, this incoherence about motives is reflected in Rand's theory of human nature by her strange doctrine of primary choice. According to Objectivism, “The choice to focus is man’s primary choice. Until a man is in focus his mental machinery is unable to think, judge or evaluate. The choice to throw the switch is thus the root choice on which all the other choices depend” [L Peikoff, OPAR, 59) What is particularly odd about this doctrine is that this primary choice is regarded as something that cannot be explained (that is why it's "primary"). Now let's stop and think about this for a moment. How are choices normally explained? Usually, in reference to some motivation. People decide to behave in a certain manner for specific reasons; and those reasons constitute their motives. To say that a choice cannot be explained is therefore tantamount to declaring that it is unmotivated. The primary choice for Objectivism, the "root choice on which all other choices depend," is an unmotivated choice. Thus incoherence, and, indeed, outright denial of motivation lies at the very heart of the Objectivist theory of human nature, just as it does at the heart of its ethics.
Why do Rand and her disciples have difficulty with motivation? Logically, the problem stems from Rand's denial of innate tendencies. Those tendencies provide motivations. If you take away those tendencies and claim that, at birth, the "emotional" mechanism is tabula rasa, then it becomes very difficult to explain how people make their first choices. If there exist no innate proclivities or tendencies from the very beginning, where do the very first motivations come from?
This is not a question Rand wished to answer, because if she had tried to answer it honestly, she would have been forced to admit that the initial motivations (and, indeed, for that matter, all motivation) must arise from non-rational innate sources. Hence the need for an unmotived first choice. If the human being is to be an entirely rational creature, free of innate proclivities, his first choices (or any of his choices) cannot eminate from non-rational sources.
(2) Homogeneity of human nature. Implicitly, Rand believed that human nature is homogenuous. That is to say, basically all human beings, in terms of natural (i.e., innate) dispositions, are the same. Every human being is a volitional creature born free of innate tendencies. This view is important to Rand's ethics in ways that are not appreciated by Objectivists. Homogenuity in human nature is required by Rand's ethics to preserve the absolute character of its norms and the objectivity of its conclusions. The moral unit for Rand is not the individual, but "man" in the abstract. For Objectivism, moral precepts apply to all individuals equally, regardless of congenital differences between one individual and another. These precepts can apply equally because Rand refused to acknowledge the verity of congenital differences. If, however, human nature is not homogenueous; if individuals differ in congenital characteristics; if the natural dispositions of human beings, their basic sentiments and desires, conflict, so that the pursuit of one man's "rational" self-interest conflicts with the "rational" self-interest of other men, then Rand's ethics is based entirely on a mirage.
The issue of homogenuity is inextricably connected to the previous issue of motivation. The traditional view of human nature contends that the natural dispositions of human beings, those innate tendencies that Rand denied, differ from individual to individual. Since these tendencies are an important source of motivation, differences in natural dispositions will inevitably lead to differences in moral values. The only way to get around this is to deny that ethics has anything to do with natural disposition. But an ethics that would have the individual act contrary to his natural dispositions would be perverse. For what does it mean, in practical terms, to act against one's dispositions? What are the consequences of such behavior? Pain, misery, unhappiness. The voice of our natural dispositions is our feelings. If we ignore our feelings, if we insist on following some arbitrary standard allegedly based on "reason," we do so at our peril. As philosopher George Santayana warned us:
Any system that, for some sinister reason, should absolve itself from good-will toward all creatures, and make it somehow a duty to secure their misery, would be clearly disloyal to reason, humanity, and justice. Nor would it be hard, in that case, to point out what superstition, what fantastic obsession, or what private fury, had made those persons blind to prudence and kindness in so plain a matter. Happiness is the only sanction of life; where happiness fails, existence remains a mad and lamentable experiment. The question, however, what happiness shall consist in, its complexion if it should once arise, can only be determined by reference to natural demands and capacities; so that while satisfaction by the attainment of ends can alone justify their pursuit, this pursuit itself must exist first and be spontaneous, thereby fixing the goals of endeavour and distinguishing the states in which satisfaction might be found. Natural disposition, therefore, is the principle of preference and makes morality and happiness possible.
Now of course there will be admirers of the Objectivist ethics who will insist that Rand does not make it a duty to secure the misery of her followers. In point of theory and intention, they may be correct; in point of fact, they are not. Rand's refusal to accept natural disposition as the basis of morality and her constant inveighing against emotion as a necessary component of decision-making do in fact constitute an attack on eudanomism. So even though Rand acknowledges that "the achievement of his own happiness is [man's] highest moral purpose," her paranoia of the non-rational sources of morality lead her to take an anti-eudanomistic stance. Rand sets up a false dichotomy between following only reason, on the one side, and blindly following "whims" on the other. But those are not the only alternatives. Following only reason is impossible (since reason is not a source of motivation). And "blindly" following emotions is stupid. Wisdom counsels that emotions should be listened to with intelligence, since they are the voice of natural disposition. Emotions provide the data necessary to form values; "reason" (i.e., science, practical wisdom, etc.) can then be brought forth to determine which values can be achieved and the means by which that achievement can be secured. To create some artificial conflict between "reason" on the one side and "whims" on the other is to mischaracterize the ethical predicament faced by human volition.
(3) Human beings can achieve a full, "unbreached" rationality. I have already refuted this in my comments about motivation. Since motivation is non-rational, the sort of immaculate, uncompromising rationality envisioned by Rand is not possible. But rationality can be framed in less grandiose terms. While admitting the non-rational sources of motivation and moral ends, we could describe a rational person as the individual who applies rational means to the attainment of non-rational ends. Now the question arises: is this sort of rationality possible?
If experience is to be our guide in such a matter (and what other guide can there possibly be?), then the answer would be no, a full rationality, even of the second sort, is probably not possible for the majority of men. The problem here is that a large portion of human action appears to be determined, at least part, by the so-called cognitive unconscious. Conscious reasoning, when it is applied at all, functions more "like a press secretary who automatically justifies any position" taken by the cognitive unconscious, rather than as a scientist bent on discovering the truth. [see Haidt, The Righteous Mind, 91] As I noted in an earlier post in this series, rationality is an emergent property of a social system: it is normally achieved via criticism and peer review, not by individual reasoning.
For these reasons (among others), Rand's notion of "rational" self-interest is based on a faulty view of human nature. Since most human beings are incapable of following their self-interest "rationally," to advise them to do so is unwise and perhaps even dangerous. Since natural dispositions differ from individual to individual, conflict is inevitable. If these conflicts are to be resolved amicably, without resort to fraud or violence, it helps to encourage a certain level of benevolence and even chilvary between competing individuals. Appeals to self-interest, whether "rational" or not, tend to undermine the delicate social supports that enable conflict resolution to operate smoothly, without leading to over-ruffled feathers. Since individuals often are incapable of fairly judging any issue tied to their own self-interest, encouraging self-interest inevitably leads individuals to over-rate their own claims and discount those of others. Thus the seeds of bitter feuds are sown, feuds which, in centuries past, often led to internecine warfare. Suspicious attitudes toward greed and selfishness are not the product of Kant's strange and perplexing moral cerebrations; rather, they reflect human experience, which over the centuries has observed the ill effects of ambitious individuals zealously pursing their self-interest.
(4) Human beings can be proud without lapsing into vanity. One of the most widespread congenital vices of human nature is vanity. Psychological experiments have shown (as mentioned above) that consious reasoning tends to be prostituted to the work, not of truth or justice, but of devising narratives that make ourselves look as good as possible in both our own eyes and the eyes of others. Given this state of affairs, it doesn't seem like a particularly good idea to encourage people to pursue the "virtue" of pride. While it may be true that Rand wished pride to be based on objective facts, once again Rand has proceeded on a mistaken view of human nature. Since many people are probably not capable of being objective about themselves, encouraging them to be proud is tantamount to encouraging their vanity. A wise philosophy counsels humility, not because humility is a good in itself, but because it acts as a necessary counterpoise to human vanity.
At best, reason can tell you how to attain an end; but it cannot tell you why you should pursue a given end. An end must be pursued for its own sake, independent of "reason." The faculty that "identifies" and "integrates" sensory material is not the faculty that provides motivations. People are motivated, not by identification and integration, but by sentiment and desire.
Ironically, Rand's protagonists seem entirely motivated by emotion -- whims even -- and entirely negative, destructive emotions at that. Howard Rourke spitefully blows up a building he designed (but did not own) because they deviated from his original vision*. Dominique Francon marries her rapist because she likes it rough. Francisco d'Anconia bankrupts his multi-generation copper-mining empire just so's he can punk a government he dislikes. John Galt drops out of society, keeping his free-energy perpetual-motion machine secret just so people he deems to be undeserving won't buy/use it.
All of them are motivated by anger and resentment and then methodically, "rationally," set about exacting their elaborate, self-defeating**, nonsensical revenges (except for Dominique -- who finally realizes that it makes more sense to marry, rather than destroy, the man she loves).
*What kind of architect doesn't include common and recreation areas in a housing complex? A crap architect, that's what kind.
**True, all these characters "win" in their fictional contexts, but in the real world they wouldn't have won, and even things were to turn out the manner they did in, say, Atlas Shrugged, I'd hardly call lording it over a post-apocalyptic wasteland "winning."
Oddly, this incoherence about motives is reflected in Rand's theory of human nature by her strange doctrine of primary choice. According to Objectivism, “The choice to focus is man’s primary choice. Until a man is in focus his mental machinery is unable to think, judge or evaluate. The choice to throw the switch is thus the root choice on which all the other choices depend” [L Peikoff, OPAR, 59) What is particularly odd about this doctrine is that this primary choice is regarded as something that cannot be explained (that is why it's "primary"). ...
Good point, Greg.
The incoherence around this "primary choice" gets even worse because the Objectivist ethics wants to attach a moral dimension to it. Objectivists want to say there is something immoral about going through your entire life without ever choosing to come into focus. But they can't fairly do it, since they hold that morality only applies to choices made after coming into focus. To weasel out of this difficulty, I've heard Objectivists explain that, in some undefined manner, everyone who is out of focus (and not asleep) will develop a vague awareness that they should come into focus, and it's immoral to ignore that vague awareness.
But where could that "vague awareness" come from? It can't be rational since the person hasn't come into focus (i.e., engaged the rational faculty). The only options I see are some sort of non-rational (or pre-rational) motivator, or perhaps some sort of instinctual response to an environmental trigger (i.e., innate knowledge). But Randian Man is supposed to be devoid of non-rational/pre-rational motivations and innate knowledge, so what does that leave? Several prominent Objectivists have managed to tie themselves in knots trying to explain this.
A similar problem of incoherence arises around Rand's "primary ethical choice" -- the choice to live. Although this choice too is allegedly pre-moral, that doesn't stop Peikoff from concluding (in OPAR, don't have the cite handy) that, absent a good reason (such as imminent death due to terminal illness) someone who doesn't choose to live is a moral monster. It's not really clear how that could be -- unless we have some sort of innate/pre-rational motivation toward choosing life.
ECE: Several prominent Objectivists have managed to tie themselves in knots trying to explain this.
Why is it that Rand, Peikoff, and most of the vocal objectivists, assume they can explain everything? They seem incapable of uttering the phrase "I don't know." They also seem to feel that doing research is beneath them -- they think they can just reason out the answer to any question.
I think this is one of the reasons objectivists end up being like trolls -- they assume they're qualified to explain anything and won't admit it when their knowledge of something is incomplete or inadequate.
@Chris: Why is it that Rand, Peikoff, and most of the vocal objectivists, assume they can explain everything? They seem incapable of uttering the phrase "I don't know." They also seem to feel that doing research is beneath them -- they think they can just reason out the answer to any question.
I suppose it comes from taking seriously the notion that "reason is man's only means of knowledge." This Objectivist maxim implies that you can know anything there is to know, if only you apply enough reasoning power to the subject in question. Admitting "I don't know" becomes tantamount to admitting "I'm not thinking," something no self-respecting Objectivist would ever do -- except Ayn Rand when asked about her views on evolution.
As for research, it's hazardous. Yes, observation is good; after all, the evidence of the senses is our only source of information about the external world. It's the starting point for reason. However, if you engage in enough first-hand study of reality (experimental or empirical research) to notice that Rand's version is a gross oversimplification, you will be guilty of failing to "think in essentials." You might even be accused of "empiricism" (a serious intellectual crime in Objectivist circles). If you rely on the work of others (library research), you're guilty of appealing to Authority, which is evil and second-handed -- unless the authority in question is Rand, in which case you're wisely allowing the greatest genius in history to help you arrive at your own independent understanding of reality.
And thus Rand remains safely shielded from all critics.
>They also seem to feel that doing research is beneath them -- they think they can just reason out the answer to any question.
It's their Aristotelianism that keeps Objectivism so firmly in the Middle Ages.
ECE, good comments as always.
Why is it that Rand, Peikoff, and most of the vocal objectivists, assume they can explain everything?
To the extent that this is true, I suspect it stems from the fact that Rand, Peikoff and others of their ilk simply don't permit criticism of any sort of their assertions. It's easy to assume you can explain everything (or at least everything you have an interest in explaining) if you never have to worry about being challenged.
The incoherence around this "primary choice" gets even worse because the Objectivist ethics wants to attach a moral dimension to it.
Yes, Rand wished to judge people: she seems to have actually enjoyed the process, depending on her moods. Rand seems to vacilate between showing people sympathy (and placing the lions' share of the blame on Kant and Hume) and being nasty with people (as in some of those "trials" conducted by N. Branden within Objectivist circles). Objectivist morality is wonderfully flexible, and can be bent to fit the needs of whomever is helming the movement.
>The incoherence around this "primary choice" gets even worse because the Objectivist ethics wants to attach a moral dimension to it.
If the root choice is pre-moral, surely all consequent choices are "fruit of a pre-moral tree" so to speak? The "morality" is inserted arbitrarily.
I think the problem they have is that the think that all answers to all the 'great' the philosophical questions are to found in the VOS.
When you ask any of them what research they have done to reach a given position that is often the only book they have read!
Given that Lenny actually think he is one of the greats, if not the 2nd greatest philospher ever, it's highly unlikely that he would say "don't know" to anything.
- Steven Johnston
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