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’sand/or Jonathan Haidt’s ), “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.