A Long Discussion of Objectivism
This is a copy/paste of a long post I wrote for the SomethingAwful forums, picking through the Objectivist philosophy, my experiences with it, and how I realized it was nonsense. It’s about seven years old now, so there’s a fair chance it’s problematic and gross. I’m going to make a quick edit pass but I don’t promise it will catch everything.
But if you’re curious about Objectivism and why it’s so goddamn bizarre, this might be a good starting point for you.
Also, this was meant as the first post to kick off a discussion thread, so there are invitations to ask questions and offer your thoughts. But… I’m really not looking to have a discussion about any of this at this late date. I’m all discussed-out as far as Rand goes.
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Who is Ayn Rand?
Alice Rosenbaum, immigrated from Russia to America, worked as a screenwriter for a while, then had her breakout success with her novel ‘The Fountainhead’. She followed this with another novel, ‘Atlas Shrugged’, and founded a media/education empire dedicated to spreading the word about her philosophical system, Objectivism.
Why is Objectivism relevant?
The Tea Partiers and their occasional bedfellows, libertarians, claim Rand as the source of a lot of their intellectual ammunition. They don’t seem to have a really clear grasp of what her ideas actually entailed, but then again, neither do most of Rand’s detractors, so they’re at least in plenty of company.
Because of this, the ill-informed Rand disciples and ill-informed Rand detractors are usually talking past one another. When one person says ‘I heard she was a fascist!’ and another says ‘I heard she supported Traditional American Values!’ and they’re both completely dead wrong, the conversation is essentially valueless. You can’t convince a Tea Partier to give up Rand if you don’t know anything about Rand.
What the fuck do I know?
My school didn’t offer minors, so I couldn’t actually minor in Philosophy, but I took a shit-ton of philosophy classes. I did this because I was a hard-line Objectivist, a True Believer in Rand, Branden and the Holy Galt, and I wanted intellectual ammunition with which to attack all those Other, Wrong Philosophies. I was insufferable. Once I’d gotten away from the pampered bullshit world of college, my hard-line Objectivism gave way to a laid-back libertarianism, and ultimately I had a long, hard look at what I really believed in and discovered that I was a socialist.
So when I see people bash Rand, I mostly spend a lot of time thinking ‘you’re doing it wrong.’ Her ideas are poison, but the most common criticisms leveled at her are completely incorrect. When I was an Objectivist, it was really, really easy to ignore critical comments from the left, because nearly every single leftist I argued with had clearly never read Rand, and had only a kind of pop-culture mass-media level of understanding of her ideas.
What is this post about?
I’m going to try to outline the major ideas of Objectivism. I’m not going to quote passages if I can help it, because that’s dull and also I don’t really feel like plowing back through hundreds of pages of her tortured prose. I’m also not promising that what I say would pass muster at a Leonard Peikoff lecture, or would be agreeable to the people who run the Ayn Rand Institute. I’m not current on their output, because I haven’t really paid much attention to Objectivism for almost ten years. I also haven’t done formal logic or serious academic writing since I left college 15 years ago, so if you’re looking for rigor instead of casual information, you should go read ‘Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology’ instead of this post.
I’m not going to focus much on the details of her conclusions on specific issues, because they’re often arbitrary and built of absurd rationalizations. I’m also not going to talk much about her ideas about sexual consent (namely, that Strong Men don’t need to ask for consent from women), because they’re inconsistent with the rest of her ideas, and pretty obviously wrong and even evil.
Why bother with this at all?
Because I’m tired of seeing posts that derail into incredulous discussions of Rand, especially when those discussions read like 10-year-olds talking about sex — mostly myth and oral tradition mixed with one guy who read a book one time.
The Ground Rules of Objectivism
These are the basic principles that she assumes to be true. If you disagree with these principles, you’re going to have little common ground to discuss her ideas with a Believer. That doesn’t make them true, of course, but you may want to exit here if you disagree with them.
1. Reality exists. Rand believed that the world as we perceive it is pretty much what it is. Sensory data is, by and large, trustworthy, and reports on an external state that is the same for every person experiencing it. This is where ‘Objectivism’ comes from, partially: there is an objective reality that is independent of the observer. You’ve probably seen this formulated as ‘A is A’.
A corollary of this principle is that ‘truth’ and ‘falsehood’ are absolutes. A statement either conforms to the real, objective reality, or it does not. Rand hated the phrase ‘true for me’.
2. Humans are rational animals. Rand extended her idea of objective external reality to objective internal reality, and generalized that to all people. So we’re all conscious beings, and our internal states are just as real as the external world we all share. As well, though you can’t perceive another person’s thoughts and emotions, you can assume they have them, because you have them.
‘Reason’ and ‘rationality’ is something that comes up frequently in her writing. When she talks about ‘reason’ she means something specific: the application of Aristotelian logic to observed reality. She calls observed reality ‘concretes’ and ephemeral ideas ‘abstracts’. Proper application of reason allows the construction of abstracts from concretes, which then have the same truth status as concretes themselves. There’s a lot of stuff under the covers of the word ‘proper’, there, but you can assume she meant a strict algorithm by which it’s possible to infalliably build mental ‘objects’ with the same reality as physical, observable objects.
‘Man is a rational animal’. There are two assertions here, and if you’re not objecting to the ground rules, above, this is probably where Rand will lose you.
First, ‘Man is an animal’. Rand asserts that animals are driven to fulfill their purpose, survival, and they do so with the tools they have available. For almost all animals, these tools are physical capacity and instinct. A shark uses its speed and aggression to kill other animals and survive. Sharks might do other things that aren’t killing other animals to survive, but when Rand talks about a shark in its role as a shark, as opposed to any other role it might be fulfilling, she’s talking about speed, aggression, and killing. She’ll often use ‘qua’ for this form, if she felt like being explicit: ‘a shark qua shark’, meaning ‘a shark, fulfilling its purpose as a fast aggressive animal-eating survival machine’.
So what she means when she says that ‘man is an animal’ is that humans are also driven to survive, using their available tools. Humans might do other things aside from try to survive, but when they’re using their tools for survival to try and survive, they’re acting as ‘man qua man’ (a particular construction you’ll see all over Rand’s work). When she says ‘man qua man’, she means ‘humans as rational beings using the power of their intellects to survive.’ We’ll talk about ‘values’ in a moment.
Second, ‘Man is rational.’ She asserts that there’s only one real tool that humans have for survival: reason. And remember that by reason, she means the ability to use Aristotelian logic to build abstract concepts and arrive at abstract conclusions from concrete sensory data. Animals use instinct; humans use reason.
There are a lot of other concepts she’s introducing when she says ‘reason’, including language, memory and transmitted knowledge, emotional states, and so forth. Getting at the core of what she means when she says ‘reason is man’s only tool for survival’ is probably beyond the scope of this post. All of them, though, derive from humanity’s unique ability to build abstractions and then treat those abstractions as though they were concretes. We don’t know that the rumbling sound down-river means a waterfall and a drop from a deadly height, but we can logically deduce that the waterfall exists, and act as though it was something we’d actually perceived.
Rand believes these things are axiomatic, and that any disagreement with them is counterfactual nonsense.
So, we’ve talked about survival. Survival provides the foundational value of Objectivism. Living organisms value that which allows them to survive. Sharks, from our earlier example, ‘value’ tasty fish and seals. Humans, however, are a special case, because humans don’t have instinct to provide them with inherent values. Humans have to acquire their values, beyond the range-of-the-moment needs for food. And humans also have to decide to pursue their values, or ignore them. This is Rand’s basic formulation of free will: that humans, uniquely, can decide to survive, or not survive, as they see fit.
There’s a diference, though, and it’s a really important one to understanding how this fits together, between ‘survival’ in the sense you might normally think of it, and ‘survival’ in the sense that it’s meant here. She’s not talking about simply eating food and getting sleep. She means the whole enterprise of pursuing values using reason. If you’re just eating food and shitting and sleeping, you’re not really acting as a human. You’re doing the ‘animal’ part of ‘rational animal’.
So, for humans, the thing you’re trying to do is survive using your reason. You might be able to survive in some other way, and you might be able to use your reason in ways that are counter to your survival, but when you bring them both together, using reason to survive, you’re being virtuous. Virtue is kind of a nebulous term here, so let’s just say that ‘good’ or ‘virtuous’ behavior is behavior in which you’re using reason as your tool to survive.
There’s a secondary assertion here which is maybe more tenuous, but which Rand steals straight from Aristotle, so I’ll toss it out there: Happiness is what happens when a rational being acts according to his rational nature. In other words, if you’re good, you’ll be happy, and if you’re happy, it’s because you’re being good. Happiness becomes a quick shorthand for ‘engaged in virtuous behavior’. It’s kind of an empty assertion, ultimately, because she’s very quick to discount anything that doesn’t fit this model as ‘not *real* happiness’. She uses the term ‘purpose’ to describe a person acting according to his rational nature. Your ‘purpose’ is the productive, value-creating thing you do (or could do).
To digress a bit about purpose: it’s self-evident that different people have different purposes. Someone who’s a great chef, and loves to cook, has a different purpose (cooking) than someone who’s a skilled engineer, who loves to write code (coding). It then follows that, in the service of each of their distinct purposes, they’ll value different things. Ultimately everyone’s purpose derives from the same root, and everyone’s values derive from the ultimate value implied by that root. But as people are different from each other, people’s purposes and values are also different from each other. (We’re going to use that concept in a moment.)
We’re about to make the jump to selfishness and capitalism, but let me try to summarize really quickly: Humans are rational animals. Animals hold personal survival as their highest value. Reason is a human’s only tool for survival. Thus the exercise of reason is virtuous, and in fact defines ‘virtue’ for a human. You are ‘good’ insofar as you consciously use your reason to pursue your purpose and values, the ultimate source of which is the ultimate value for everyone: personal survival.
Rand doesn’t distinguish between ‘good for me’ and ‘good for you’ (remember she hates ‘true for me’ and believes that reality is objective, not subjective; if an action is ‘good’ it has to be universally good for all humans, not just the actor). So in this sense she’s kind of Kantian; humans are inherently valuable, whether you’re speaking of yourself or another human, and regardless of whether you’re the actor or the other human is the actor. (This is also the first place where you may have a totally incorrect idea about Rand’s philosophy. Lots of people seem to think that she’s advocating for some kind of Nietzchean superman who rules over the weak, and think that ‘fuck you, got mine’ is encoded into her ideas. It’s the opposite: she asserts the unique, inherent value of each human being in pretty much the same terms as Kant.)
This means that ‘good’ encompasses not only me using my reason to pursue my values, but each person doing so. If I say ‘fuck reason, I’m gonna smoke weed’, that’s evil, but if I stop you from using your reason to pursue your values, that’s evil, too. This is once again the ‘objective reality’ thing: if something is good, it’s good absolutely, not good for you. If something is evil, it’s evil for everyone.
However, only you can live your life. This follows from ‘life’ being basically a mental operation; you do your own thinking, so you live your own life. If you choose not to think, nobody can make you think. Because each person can only live their own life, it follows that each person should do so. She called this ‘selfishness’. When she said ‘you should be selfish,’ she meant ‘you should go out and live your own life, and only your own life, doing your own thinking, and seeking to attain your own values and achieve your own happiness.’
Even in a pre-agricultural society, some people are going to be good at hunting, and others at spear making. They’ll have different purposes, and thus different values. I’m a great tanner, and you are a great hunter. I need some meat, and you need to get some hides tanned. We compare values: I will make my skill at tanning available to you, in exchange for your skill at hunting.
Rand says that trade of this form, where people reach an agreement in which each person gains more value than he loses in the trade, is the only ethical way for two people to interact. In fact, you can use an example like this to model almost every human interaction, from a mother nursing a child to a corporate merger. (Your mileage may vary as to how accurate you think the model is in each of those situations, of course.)
Other kinds of interactions — ones which don’t involve rational people making rational, equitable decisions about their exchange of value — are bad, and probably unethical. They’re characterized by one party getting what he thinks is a bad deal, either because he was duped, or because he was not free to decline the deal. Rand identifies these two ways in which an interaction can be unethical as ‘fraud’ and ‘force’, and they’re pretty much the foundational definition of evil in Objectivism.
This brings us, finally, to the real world. Rand believed that the free exchange of goods and services, so that each participant is able to determine for himself whether the exchange was fair and beneficial to him and act accordingly, was the only ethical means of organizing a society. She called this ‘laissez-faire capitalism’, though it’s important to point out that Rand steadfastly refused to read anything by any other author, so she probably had no idea what anyone else thought ‘capitalism’ meant.
Any person attempting to bring force or fraud into a mutually beneficial exchange is evil. This means individuals — a mugger, for instance, using a gun, or a con artist using a ruse — but also means organizations, and particularly government. So let’s talk about Rand’s view of the government.
She believed the government had only one purpose: to prevent the use of force and fraud in human interactions, by holding an absolute monopoly on the use of force. In practice, this means a proper government consists of three functions: the courts, to enforce contracts; the police, to prevent and punish the use of force; and the military, to protect the nation from the use of force by other nations. Every other possible function of the government is either directly evil — customs and border control, for instance — or indirectly evil, in that it interferes with free and fair exchanges between people. Note that ‘interference’ can be pretty indirect, and the easiest rubric to use is ‘are there taxes involved?’ We’ll talk about taxes shortly.
I’ll get more specific about some government functions and her take on them in a moment, but let’s position Rand relative to her closest neighbors, conservatives and anarchists. She detested both groups (though she hated conservatives worse). Conservatives advocate limited government, but they do so with no underlying philosophical argument — ‘how things used to be’ is the only explanation they offer. Anarchists, on the other hand, believe that even just the police, courts and military are Too Much Government. Because of the special place in her pantheon of evil that ‘force’ holds, Rand was contemptuous of the idea of private military forces and private police forces, suggesting that the right word for such a thing was ‘gang’.
Briefly: Rand argued that the only real rights were negative rights — a right to be free from something. She argued that rights came from inherent properties of a person. A person must think to survive, so they must therefore have the right to think. A person must be able to exchange with other people, whether ideas, money, goods, services, or bodily fluids; therefore people must have the right to travel, freely assemble, and exchange. And so forth, and so on. She absolutely did *not* believe in positive rights, because they could not be self contained within the nature of one person. It’s not possible, for instance, to have a ‘right’ to shelter, if there’s no-one to provide that shelter. And even if there is someone to provide it, your ‘right’ cannot, by definition, violate someone else’s rights, and if I’m compelled, directly or indirectly, to provide you with shelter, I’m having my rights violated.
Ok, let’s talk about what Rand believed about specific issues. I want to make a point here that’s important for understanding her belief system, and why it’s so utterly incompatible with the Tea Partiers. Rand did not ever argue from outcomes. She believed, of course, that capitalism would lead to the best possible outcome, but that’s not why she was a capitalist. It followed logically from her premises (or, at least, she believed it did) and thus regardless of outcome must be correct.
So when I say ‘Rand believed X’, keep in mind that these were beliefs she held as a result of the underlying philosophical structure she’d built. Whether the particular belief led to a desirable outcome or not was irrelevant. As well, the beliefs she held were always considered in the context of an individual. She didn’t think about ‘society’, and in fact considered that absurd, because ethical considerations are relevant only to *people*, and there’s no such person as ‘society’. All her arguments were in the context of an ideal individual actor.
So, about taxes.
Taxes are theft. I own my mind, and all its products. If you want what I’ve got — my thought or the product of my thought — you have to exchange with me, and I have to be able to say ‘no’ and choose not to trade. The government uses force to compel me into the exchange. Even though I might benefit from the taxes, remember that outcomes don’t matter. If I don’t pay taxes, I go to jail; if I don’t go to jail, I get shot. So ultimately taxes are collected, in one of Rand’s favorite phrases, ‘at the point of a gun.’
So she was an atheist, right?
Rand was an absolute atheist, with no room whatsoever for compromise with religion. This wasn’t a consequence of her philosophy, it was a source of her philosophy. The only things that exist are actual observable reality, and those things that can be arrived at through deductive and inductive logic. God is not one of those things. As for organized religious practice, it fell firmly into the ‘fraud’ side of ‘fraud and force’. In short, modern conservative Christians who claim to be adherents of her philosophy are ignorant, insane, or both.
Did she hate people of color?
Racism falls into a special category that Rand talks about constantly: ‘collectivism’. Loosely, it’s the sin of treating a group of individuals as a single entity. Collectivism was the catch-all category for pretty much every political and economic ideology that Rand opposed. Racism was particularly offensive to her because she thought treating a group of people as a single entity based on something like place of residence or chosen ideology (‘the people of New York’, ‘the Democratic Party’) was awful, but at least involved categorization based on something chosen. Collectivism based on skin color or ethnicity was, in her view, the lowest and most absurd form of collectivism. Note that this didn’t mean she wasn’t a racist herself, though there’s no direct evidence that she was; she advocated the modern Republican talking point of ‘color blindness’, with all the flaws implied by that.
Did she believe weird things about women?
Rand’s ideas about the proper role of women were informed by her fascination with non-consensual sex. She thought consent was basically optional for women. So we can probably set aside most of her ideas about gender entirely.
People always call her a ‘fascist’. Is she?
Or, ‘why does Glen Beck think fascism and communism are the same thing?’ Rand didn’t have any interest in subtleties. In her view, if the state — whether that state was a fascist or communist state — could demand property, service, or lives from its people, it was an evil state. Her term for both fascism and communism was ‘statism’. Again, remember that outcomes don’t matter, only principles: it doesn’t matter who the beneficiary of the state was, or was intended to be. All that matters is the individual will have to give up property or life to the state.
Of course, this doesn’t mean fascism couldn’t be an outcome of an Objectivist state, just in the way that Stalinism could be an outcome of a Marxist state. How likely it is, relative to any other outcome, is left as an exercise for the reader.
What about the poor?
Poverty is temporary. Rand aggressively discounted the idea of ‘class’. In a free and fair market, only merit determines wealth and success. If you are good, you will get rich. If you are not good, you will get as rich as you can given your abilities. Long-term poverty is a result of an idea we talked about briefly above: that you have free will and can decide to survive or not. So if you’re poor, and you’ve been poor a long time, it’s because you’re choosing not to use your reason to pursue survival.
But what about the mentally ill, disabled, etc?
Rand liked to talk about ‘lifeboat ethics’. In lifeboat ethics, you have to throw someone overboard in a lifeboat if you’re all to survive. What do you do, and how do you decide what to do? She considered this useless, because for the vast majority of all cases, you’re not in a lifeboat, nor are you in any other immediate danger or crisis. You shouldn’t, in her view, develop a system of ethics based on special cases and crises. So if you know an actual mentally ill person, and *you* want to help them, no Objectivist will stop you — but that person’s existence doesn’t obligate you or anyone else to provide help. Not satisfied with that answer? That’s basically all you get.
Did she Love America?
Rand was a big fan of America as envisioned by the original authors of the Constitution. She believed the awesomeness of America peaked in the late 1800s, and it had been in decline ever since. There are two important caveats to that, though. First, she wasn’t a conservative, in the sense of ‘traditionalist’. She thought ‘tradition’ was a terrible metric to use in evaluating ideas. Something old wasn’t necessarily better than something new. Second, she thought that literally everything wrong with America was a direct consequence of slavery, and its enshrinement in the Constitution.
Did she Love Are Troops?
Not really. She believed the military should be strictly defensive, and entirely volunteer. The draft horrified her as a kind of ultimate expression of what’s wrong with statism: that the state could just take your life away from you for no reason other than it wanted to.
Was she Pro-Choice?
Yes, and very much so. She took a definitional view: a human is an independent entity. A fetus that cannot survive outside the womb isn’t independent, and therefore isn’t a human, but rather a potential human. And, before it’s a human, it’s basically a parasite in a woman’s body, that she can do with as she chooses.
What about censorship?
Look at the list of three legitimate things the government is allowed in Objectivism. If it’s not clearly one of those three things, she was against the government doing it.
What about (my issue)?
Ask in the comments, and let’s discuss it.
Hey did you see that comic where she —
Why are all Objectivists such utter shits?
Because they’re trying to live their lives according to a nearly impossible ideal. They’re constantly evaluating themselves and everyone else they interact with for signs of ‘irrationality’. They’re usually repressing their emotions as ‘not rational’, even when they are. Rand also thought compromise was evil, and so they’re all going through life refusing to compromise on anything, ever. And because it’s nearly impossible to remember *why* Rand believed all this stuff, they’re also constantly re-reading Rand so they can quote her at need.
So you’re a socialist now? How did that happen? What changed your mind?
Ok, roll way back up to the top of this post. I mentioned that ‘reason is man’s only tool for survival’. That’s where I ended up disagreeing. (In short, I think ‘other humans’ are humanity’s tools for survival. Reason is nice to have, but we’re more tribal monkeys than anything else, and our communities are our real tools.)
It’s a deep, foundational disagreement, so almost everything else in Objectivism kind of becomes pointless afterwards. I still basically believe the two items under ‘Ground Rules’, but just about everything else I think is kind of bullshit.
There are, of course, lots and lots of other things you can identify as wrong in her work. Feel free to do so. There’s a reasonable chance that anything you find, some smarty-pants Objectivist has already thought of and argued against (though their counterarguments are often pretty weak, as anything Rand didn’t herself say is automatically suspect; she didn’t really like people doing original work based on her ideas).
Was she really crazy?
She was addicted to amphetamines for the latter half of her life, and she had a severe falling out (over sex) with her primary disciple. So she saw enemies absolutely everywhere. She wasn’t crazy so much as profoundly paranoid, especially when her work didn’t provoke the kind of awe-struck reaction from the world that she’d been hoping for.
I want to read more about this stuff. Where should I go?
The wikipedia article is actually surprisingly comprehensive, and doesn’t have a lot of crufty argument in it. If you want to read her actual words, try the title essay from ‘The Virtue of Selfishness’. If you want to read more about her crazy-ass life, read ‘Judgement Day’ by Nathaniel Branden (it’s a good read regardless of whether you agree with Rand or not). If you want to read her fiction, you’re probably best off reading Anthem, which is short and sci-fi, or just reading the 50-page speech from Atlas Shrugged, ignoring the rest of the book.
Some thoughts about this thread
Feel free to ask me for clarification. I’ll answer as best I can, but please keep in mind that I’m not a philosopher or even an academic. I’m a game designer with a degree in history, and so any answers I offer are going to be less than rigorous. But possibly entertaining.
It would be awesome if nobody posted ‘who cares about what she thought?’ or any variant of that. Obviously, someone cares, given how often she comes up among the wingnut right in America.
Please don’t try to convince me she’s wrong, or use me as a proxy for arguing with her. I don’t want to spend a whole thread being the devil’s advocate for this particular devil. I’ll do my best to explain her ideas, but that’s about it.
And if you’re an actual Objectivist, or a libertarian with Objectivist pretensions, I’d love it if you spoke up in this thread to tell me I’ve got it all wrong. There aren’t many places I can think of that are more hostile to your ideas, but maybe you’re like most of the Objectivists I used to hang out with, and you thrive on conflict.