Monday, April 14, 2008

On Ayn Rand's Dishonest Critics

Objectivism, the philosophy of Ayn Rand, has been around now for about half a century. For most of that time, including during Ms. Rand’s lifetime, Objectivism’s influence gained steadily but mostly on the individual, personal level. Such prominent and influential people as Clarence Thomas; tennis greats Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert; John Stossel; and Ronald Reagan have been significantly influenced by Ayn Rand. But Objectivism’s influence on the culture at large has been minimal, “flying” mostly under the radar screen. This is not surprising, since fundamental ideas, especially new ones, can take anywhere from years to centuries to take hold, if at all. It took Aristotle’s ideas two thousand years to come to full fruition, in the form of the Enlightenment and the American Revolution.

In recent years, however, the Objectivist movement has begun to gain traction not only in the culture but also, significantly, in academia. Thanks largely to the work of the Ayn Rand Institute and other organizations, a small but growing number of Objectivist intellectuals and professors have published books, op-eds in major newspapers and magazines, and make regular appearances on major media outlets like CNBC and Fox News. While still relatively unknown, Objectivism must be starting to have an impact, because Rand and her ideas are increasingly coming under attack, especially by the Left. Unfortunately, the negative attention is almost completely, as far as I can determine, based on misrepresentations, distortions, evasions, outright falsehoods, ad-hominem attacks, and straw-man tactics, with a hefty dose of genuine misunderstanding thrown in. The inaccuracies range from blatant insults to subtle context-dropping. It seems that at least some among the establishment intelligentsia and media elites, especially those of the statist variety, are beginning to sense a long-term philosophical threat. Much if not most anti-Rand commentary generally seems not just to seek to discredit Objectivism, but rather is calculated to prevent people from discovering it.

None of this is to say that genuine, principled and objective critical analysis or opposition to Rand’s ideas doesn’t exist. But if it does, not much of it seems to make it into the media. The same type of virulent opposition comes also from the right. And a decent amount of positive commentary can be seen as well. But it is the dishonest attacks that seem to be growing fastest. One such hit piece (actually, two) was recently published on Deal Journal, an on-line arm of the Wall Street Journal. They’re plenty of inaccuracies in these articles, many of which were addressed by pro-Objectivist correspondents in the commentary section (there are, as one might expect, plenty of grossly ill informed or malicious anti-Rand diatribes in this section as well.).

To make my point here, I will expand upon some comments I placed under an article by Heidi N. Moore entitled Capitalism Shrugged: Should Ayn Rand Be Required Reading? The article revolves around the activities of the BB&T corporation’s charitable foundation. BB&T, a regional North Carolina bank (the nation’s 16th largest) headed by an Objectivist CEO, John Allison, makes its higher education donations contingent upon the college or university agreeing to offer courses on Atlas Shrugged. Allison considers Atlas Shrugged to be the best defense of Capitalism he has ever read (as do I). Leaving aside the debate (or controversy) on the BB&T activities, I want to focus on this statement made by Ms. Moore:

And there’s a my-way-or-the-highway absolutism about Rand’s work — “There are two sides to every issue: one side is right and the other is wrong, but the middle is always evil,” she once wrote — that may be at odds with today’s cooperative, interlocked financial system, where codependency is the rule.

The implication here is that Rand advocated an uncompromising rigidity that makes human cooperation impossible. This is blatant context-dropping. To understand the proper context of the quote, “There are two sides to every issue: one side is right and the other is wrong, but the middle is always evil,” the following crucial statement by Rand should be added:

“There can be no compromise on moral principles”

What Ms. Rand is actually saying, and what Ms. Moore apparently doesn’t want to acknowledge, is that she was referring to matters of basic principles. It is wrong, Ms. Rand is saying, to commit acts that you know to be wrong …i.e., to commit “moral treason”, as she put it. Unless, of course, one believes it is wrong to steal, except to do it once in a while is fine, just as a compromise. Or that honesty is good, except dishonesty is okay once in a while, just as a compromise. Or that freedom is good, except that it is okay to give it up, bit by welfare state bit, just as a compromise.

To compromise… i.e., to seek a middle ground… is acceptable, according to Objectivism, when dealing with specific, concrete issues that don’t involve violation of one’s principles. For example, negotiating the terms of a contract on the sale of a property, or deciding which movie or restaurant to attend with a spouse or friends, or determining the choice of a job, etc. The “absolutism about Rand’s work” involves basic principles and fundamental moral issues. Would you say that there is a middle ground between a life of theft and a life of productive work? Or between honesty and deception or fraud? Or between freedom and slavery? On basic principles, “the middle is always evil” because it implies that there is no distinction between right and wrong. “In any compromise [middle ground] between good and evil,” Rand writes, “it is only evil that can profit.” (For a wider discussion on this, see Rand’s essay “Doesn’t life require compromise?” in her book, The Virtue of Selfishness.)

For the record, here is the full meaning, in Rand’s own words, from which the out-of-context quote was taken:

There are two sides to every issue: one side is right and the other is wrong, but the middle is always evil. The man who is wrong still retains some respect for truth, if only by accepting the responsibility of choice. But the man in the middle is the knave who blanks out the truth in order to pretend that no choice or values exist, who is willing to sit out the course of any battle, willing to cash in on the blood of the innocent or to crawl on his belly to the guilty, who dispenses justice by condemning both the robber and the robbed to jail, who solves conflicts by ordering the thinker and the fool to meet each other halfway. In any compromise between food and poison, it is only death that can win. In any compromise between good and evil, it is only evil that can profit. In that transfusion of blood which drains the good to feed the evil, the compromiser is the transmitting rubber tube …

When men reduce their virtues to the approximate, then evil acquires the force of an absolute, when loyalty to an unyielding purpose is dropped by the virtuous, it's picked up by scoundrels—and you get the indecent spectacle of a cringing, bargaining, traitorous good and a self-righteously uncompromising evil.
(from Ayn Rand’s book, For the New Intellectual)

Of course, it is the moral absolutism of Ayn Rand’s philosophy that must be discredited by power-lusters and seekers of the unearned. It is the Objectivists’ absolute, uncompromising, and selfish defense of the moral principle of inalienable individual rights that threatens the steady growth of welfare statism in America. It is the middle-of-the-roaders seeking compromise between government controls and inalienable rights who are responsible for the erosion of freedom and subsequent growing social and economic problems in America (which is no longer a Capitalist, but a mixed economy)

It has now been some 40 years since first reading Ayn Rand, and I have discovered that there is one common tactic shared by most of Rand’s critics. And this tactic is pervasive. The tactic amounts to…First misrepresent, then attack, her views. Heidi Moore is a master at this.

It seems very few people are willing (or able) to present her ideas honestly and objectively before critiquing them.


Favela Cranshaw said...

The principles of Objectivism will always be under attack since, to grasp them, people must be able to set aside their feelings. Many, many people have organized their thinking around false premises by refusing, from childhood, to apply logic to the problems they are called upon to solve. These folks are essentially lost to the cause of establishing a rational society. Now, with the onset of the internet, their insolent ignorance is constantly in our faces. But Objectivism is out of the bottle, so to speak, and ain't going back in. What's fun is throwing cold water in the faces of these haters of the good.

robert574 said...

Excellent article. As a student of Ayn Rand's philosophy, I have observed this technique used against her ideas many times. It was Rand who taught me how to think "in context" and I'm glad to see someone else actually doing it too.

Michael M said...

I too first read Rand 40 years ago and never stopped learning from her work. Your analysis of the current contra commentary is on target, but rather than being distressed by it, I am actually enjoying it.

Having drifted away from the forums for lack of time, I have been drawn back into the fray by the blogs and by Google's Alerts beta. I am now able to set a Google Alert for "Ayn Rand" and "Objectivism" and get 3-10 emails a day leading to articles featuring those words (as I was lead to this one).

It enables me to dart in, drop a comment in rebuttal, and leave if there is no sign of intelligence without wasting a lot of time. I can foresee that when young honest minds compare the comments of Rand's supporters with the garbage thrown by the opposition, the contrast will become one of our most powerful tools of persuasion.

Louis Cypher said...

While I believe Ayn Rand's conclusions are mostly correct, she used flawed premises and incorrect information to justify them. Thus, she leaves her system open to valid attacks.

For example, the quote, "In any compromise between food and poison, it is only death that can win," is patently false!
The difference between food, poison and a drug is primarily the dose. Many things help you in small amounts and kill you in larger amounts.
Some foods will kill you if eaten excessively, especially over time. Even that absolute requirement, pure water, will kill you if you drink (not inhale, drink) too much.

Ayn Rand divides us from animals using outdated, false, and somewhat arbitrary notions of biology and cognitive science. Thus she (or at least her claimed heirs) espouse inhumane treatment of animals and make false conclusions on the nature of man.

She claims reason is man's primary mode of survival when we know of cultures, lasting for hundreds of years, without any evidence of original thought. Cooperation is clearly man's primary mode of survival and it is seldom based on reason (historically).

While I want a system that supports individual rights, Ayn has not proved her case for it.
Any complete system must work with man's desire for community whilst protecting individuals from enslavement. Pack and clan behaviors are built into our biology and have (from a biological perspective) served man well. Pack values: self sacrifice, forgiveness, generosity; must be acknowledged -- not condemned as evil.

Only then can the case be made that sacrifice is only good when it is voluntary.

Mike Zemack said...

Favela Cranshaw and robert574:

Thank you for your comments.

Michael M:

“rather than being distressed by it, I am actually enjoying it… I can foresee that when young honest minds compare the comments of Rand's supporters with the garbage thrown by the opposition, the contrast will become one of our most powerful tools of persuasion.”

I agree whole-heartedly, although it can be very frustrating at times. The important thing to remember is that it is the “young honest minds” as well as anyone open to radical new ideas to whom we are speaking.

Louis Cypher :

The definition of reason, according to Rand:

“Reason is the faculty that identifies and integrates the material provided by man's senses... Reason integrates man's perceptions by means of forming abstractions or conceptions, thus raising man's knowledge from the perceptual level, which he shares with animals, to the conceptual level, which he alone can reach. The method which reason employs in this process is logic—and logic is the art of non-contradictory identification.”

Even within a pack of primitive savages, someone has to employ some rudimentary form of reason if the pack is going to survive. But Rand envisioned man surviving on a higher level than that of savages or animals. And that requires the full employment of reason, which is an attribute only of the individual (not the pack), and which requires individual freedom.

Far from disdaining cooperation, Rand recognized the enormous benefits human beings can derive from each other. Man is the only species that can pass on the knowledge discovered by individuals from generation to generation, continuously increasing man’s cumulative store of knowledge, raising man’s standard of living steadily over time. But this can occur only under certain social conditions. Progress toward a prosperous, human mode of existence is only possible when individual rights are recognized and protected, which enables the fruits of individual men’s thought and productive work to spread through society by means of voluntary trade to mutual advantage.

There have indeed been “cultures, lasting for hundreds of years, without any evidence of original thought,” and that were “seldom based on reason,” and where “self-sacrifice” to the “pack” or “clan” was the primary mode of human “cooperation”. “Historically”, that has meant grinding poverty, rule by brute force, widespread slavery, persistent tribal warfare and conquest…the all-around misery of human beings living on the level of jungle animals. If this is one’s ideal, I guess you can say that that mode of existence has “served man well.”

Self-sacrifice is, indeed, evil or immoral, according to Objectivism. But "sacrifice" must first be properly understood. Defining one’s terms is always crucial. Briefly, it “is the surrender of a greater value for the sake of a lesser one or of a nonvalue,” according to one’s “defined hierarchy of rational values.” In other words, giving up some short-term pleasures in order to save money for your child’s education or to help out a friend because you value them more highly than that which you gave up is not a sacrifice, strictly speaking.(Note; forced sacrifice is enslavement.)

Forgiveness and generosity are certainly not “evil”, according to Objectivism (I don’t know where you got that from.). But neither are they unqualified virtues. They are extended only within certain contexts, based upon one’s rational hierarchy of values.

Since you don’t define “outdated, false, and somewhat arbitrary notions of biology and cognitive science” or “inhumane treatment of animals”, these points are unanswerable.