Ayn Rand

by on November 3, 2009 at 7:00 am in Books, Current Affairs, Philosophy | Permalink

With two new biographies being covered in all the major newspapers, The Daily Show, and elsewhere, Ayn Rand is in the news.  Yet all of the reviews that I have seen have focused on her personal life rather than her ideas.  Nearly five years ago Tyler and I both wrote on Rand’s ideas on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of her birth.  It seems like a good time to reprise.  Here is my post with links.

Here, on the 100th anniversary of her birth, are some thoughts on Ayn Rand.  See also Tyler’s post and Bryan Caplan’s excellent series (links.)

It used to be commonly said that “Until Robinson Crusoe is
joined by Friday there is no need for ethics on a desert island.” Rand replied that it was on a desert island
that ethics was most needed because on a desert island you cannot free ride on
the virtues of others; if you are to survive you must yourself exercise the
virtues of rationality, independence, and productiveness. As her reply indicates, Rand was an exponent
of virtue ethics,
the Greek/Aristotelian idea that ethics is about how one should live. Indeed, although she does not get much
credit, Rand is the most prominent and lucid, contemporary exponent of virtue ethics.

I think Rand’s version of virtue ethics is compelling
because it is explicitly modern – where the recent literature still sometimes seems to focus
on the virtues required of a Greek olive grower, Rand’s virtue ethics is post
industrial-revolution, a virtue ethics for the capitalist world.

If ethics is about the virtuous man then politics is about
the social requirements for the virtuous man to exist (the modern literature
lags behind Rand in connecting ethics and politics). One can understand Rand’s novels as an
extended disquisition on virtue ethics and the political and social requirements
necessary to practice such an ethics. In particular, she argued that rights, a legal concept creating a protected sphere for
independent action, were a necessary condition to live a life of virtue.

One need not buy Rand’s deductive argument that laissez-faire
capitalism is the sine-qua-non of ethical action to appreciate her insights
connecting the good man and good woman with the good society. Relatedly, I do think that Rand was absolutely right to say that capitalism requires a moral
defense.  Moreover, the only plausible defense must involve the virtue of
selfishness. It is all too obvious that
capitalism promotes and rewards self-interest and, Mandeville nothwithstanding, no defense which simply
excuses this fact will succeed.

Rand’s language hasn’t done much to advance her case and
indeed it has obscured areas where her insights are now widely accepted. Today, for example, you can find many books
attacking the evil of altruism. Surprised? Of course, the books
don’t use those terms, instead they call it the problem of codependency (or
some other such). Relatedly, it’s no
accident that Hillary Clinton was once an avid Randian (recall her political
career started with Barry Goldwater) because Rand
is an important feminist
. Rand’s
portrayal of strong, independent, intelligent women is coming to be recognized
as a landmark in fiction but in addition Rand’s attacks on self-sacrifice have
special meaning in a culture that has long used the “caring ethic” to bind
women to the service of others.

Of weaknesses there are many, most of which flow from the combination of Rand as philosopher, novelist and powerful
personality. John Galt, for example, is
but one instantiation of the Randian/Aristotelian virtue ethic, an
instantiation which was created for a particular aesthetic purpose by a
particular person. Too often both Rand and
her detractors have taken the instantiation for the class thereby limiting
the vision.

Tom November 3, 2009 at 7:35 am

Ayn Rand was one of the most heinous people of the 20th Century. All this worship on the part of conservatives for Mr. Galt is pathetic, perpetuating the need for low taxes on the rich as if the rest of the world needs them. Too bad Ms. Rand wasn’t familiar with the history of Australia, where an English government sent the worst people they had to a far off land to die and instead the built one of the richest countries in the world.

Colin November 3, 2009 at 7:55 am

To me, this is one of Rand’s dumber utterances, during her 1964 interview with Playboy:

PLAYBOY: Would you actively advocate that the United States invade Cuba or the Soviet Union?

RAND: Not at present. I don’t think it’s necessary. I would advocate that which the Soviet Union fears most above all else: economic boycott. I would advocate a blockade of Cuba and an economic boycott of Soviet Russia; and you would see both those regimes collapse without the loss of a single American life.

arne b November 3, 2009 at 8:22 am

The link at the word “codependency” points to something you probably did not intend to link to.

Bill November 3, 2009 at 8:47 am

No one has talked about Rand’s sense of personal liberty and the modern conservative’s sense of limitation on liberty by having religious views mandated in public policy–limiting abortion, prayers in school, funding religion through social programs for the poor or incarcerated, ten commandments in the partk, etc. Talk about a disconnect.

daniel November 3, 2009 at 9:04 am

- the high priestness of infantile selfishness gets a praise by her “virtue ethics? cmon, did u guys wrote the kiss a** article in the economist? rand has an extreme, absolutist view of the world, with no shades of gray; sorry, evolution of any kind, to date, has involved measures of both collectivism and individualism. extremists of any persuasion dont deserve any praise.

- do u really have to use the word “instantiation” 3x in a small paragraph? what about not use it at all? after all, all u mean is whether there were life examples of john galt? there are now, just turn on your tv: bob nardelli, chuck prince, stan oneill, dick fudl, mozilo, john thain, franklin raines…

Ryan November 3, 2009 at 9:23 am

Rand’s works demand that the reader successfully attempt to navigate and understand long chains of deductive logic. Rand was adamant about this fact and repeated it over and over.

Rand’s ideas are good, and coherent, even if you disagree with them. As such, she delivers a pretty sound blow to the ideas of socialism, altruism, and “mysticism.” For that reason, many people will want to discredit her – even posthumously. At worst, she presented her ideas in a vitriolic way.

But that hardly seems like a shortcoming in today’s vitriolic world. I mean, just take a look at these comments.

Seward November 3, 2009 at 9:33 am

I think it would be very helpful for folks to read the aforementioned books.

Seward November 3, 2009 at 9:35 am

Ryan,

The thing about remotely controversial people is that they engender a lot of a very stupid and not terribly nuanced push back commentary.

Seward November 3, 2009 at 9:40 am

rob,

Why do some libertarians hoist high Rand? There are probably a lot of reasons, much of it having to do with encountering her work in their youth. Like a lot of libertarians I didn’t go that route; I got there via Hayek and Schumpeter (though the latter isn’t strictly a libertarian).

Anyway, I’m a very avid reader of Thoreau (I can think of few better books than “Walden”); I’m also a libertarian.

Jeremy November 3, 2009 at 9:44 am

Tom, you seem to be of two minds: if I read you right, you hold that we don’t need the rich; but then you measure Australia’s success by its richness.

The important point that’s gone missing in your analysis is that Rand – and minarchists more broadly – seek low taxes across the board, not just on the rich, i.e. protection of the incentives and mechanisms to *become* rich. Australia’s success (not just in wealth, but as a corollary in living standards, safety, etc.) is a further validation of that idea’s soundness.

The “tax cuts for the rich” mantra is political sloganeering in favor of maintaining a progressive tax system where the “rich” (defined in radically different ways) pay 30+% more of their income than the “poor.” That’s neither ethical nor utilitarian.

And for the record, the only true flat tax is a head tax, e.g. $500 per person; percentages by their nature are “progressive” — at 15%, Soros pays $1.3B and I pay under $10K. Get it?

Oh, and Alex, the final line should read: “TOO often both Rand and her detractors…”

Ryan November 3, 2009 at 10:00 am

Jason Brennen,

Okay, I read the links you provided. In some cases, the author makes outright straw man fallacies (such as Section 1 from the first link, where he redefines Rand’s language and then disproves the statement according to his new definition of the terms). In other cases, he takes some of her statements as outright proofs, when in fact they are assumptions used in a Socratic type of argument (such as the assumption that life and that which supports it is good – We’re not meant to see this as an incontrovertably proven fact, we’re meant to either accept it and move on or reject it and stop reading. You either agree with it or you don’t.)

I find his criticism pretty weak, actually. It’s a disproof based on technicality. It’s a “gotcha.” It’s someone flexing his philosophical muscles while missing the fundamental point of her works. Rand was relentlessly critical of people like this. Examples of such criticism can be found in “Philosophy: Who Needs It?”

So anyway… I’ve heard these arguments before, that supposedly show how “sloppy” Rand’s arguments were. But if this guy is such a big fan of “sense” and “reference,” then why does he ignore Rand’s references in the intended senses?

Silly.

Arun November 3, 2009 at 10:07 am

“The true take-away message is a reaffirmation of how the enormous productive powers of capitalism — the greatest force for human good ever achieved — rely on the driving human desire to be excellent.”

Really? Can anyone actually believe this?

D. Watson November 3, 2009 at 10:25 am

“If ethics is about the virtuous man then politics is about the social requirements for the virtuous man to exist.”

Now that is a sentence to ponder.

Ward November 3, 2009 at 10:37 am

Alex: what about Alisdair McIntyre or Michael Sandel? There are lots of other modern philosophers who talk about virtue ethics in a modern way that I cannot recall. And Sandel’s Justice (recently published) links virtue ethics to politics.

Seward November 3, 2009 at 10:48 am

josh,

Yes, most libertarians IMHO have very little patience for Rand and even less patience for Objectivists.

Ryan November 3, 2009 at 10:49 am

Jason,

Hahahaha… I actually made section-by-section notes as I read because I figured I’d undergo some sort of criticism for reading the links quickly.

The thing about structured logic is that if you understand the initial statement, then the follow-up examples are a little extraneous. Those of us who make our living conducting research get accustomed to reading such things quickly. But you are free to be skeptical of how closely I read them, if you want.

How often do people really investigate links supplied in a comments section and provide a rebuttal (with examples), anyway? I thought my 24 minutes was pretty good for a casual internet conversation, but if you want me to invest a week, write a book report, and take a quiz, I’m game if you’re game! ;-)

Let’s keep this fun. Objectivism is serious business, but I have a sense of humor, and Ayn Rand did, too.

Andrew November 3, 2009 at 11:10 am

“a pretty poor advocate for what she wants”

Yeah, and Jesus was a lousy community organizer. He kept getting kicked out of town. Keep in mind, Rand didn’t want to convince liberals, she wanted to ridicule them. Probably only because it would have been impractical for her to strangle them one-by-one. If liberals are irritated, she got what she wanted.

Conservatives don’t read books, as far as I can tell, so they are irrelevant to this discussion.

john November 3, 2009 at 11:40 am

Rand’s assumption, that she and similarly minded individuals, are self sufficient, wasn’t true then, and in today’s accelerating market economy, is even more wrong today.

Once we as individuals enter into a market economy existence, we trade away whatever level of selfsufficiency we possessed, for the benefits that efficiency brings to us. We trade our ‘do everything’ existence, for the comforts that the market provides to, say, Hollywood screen writers.

Each new round of efficiencies brings with it added comfort, and also increases our dependence upon the market. Ayn Rand was no more self sufficient in her New York penthouse than a 2 year old infant.

Andrew November 3, 2009 at 11:58 am

Self-interested, but unenlightened.

And Rand didn’t say that individuals were self-sufficient. She just said that adding more parasites doesn’t make people more self-sufficient.

john November 3, 2009 at 12:06 pm

“And Rand didn’t say that individuals were self-sufficient. She just said that adding more parasites doesn’t make people more self-sufficient.”

Google lists 113,000 entries that tie her to the phrase, and some leading ones from a website dedicated to her.

Ryan Vann November 3, 2009 at 12:54 pm

I wouldn’t consider Rand my go to person for ethics, nor do I count her among my favorite authors. With that said, bashing Rand is the en vogue thing to do. More specifically, it is the default action when one hasn’t read her works. Sure, there are writers who have accomplished the same arguments as Rand, with less verbosity (Thoreau and Emerson have been mentioned) and in a more palatable manner. However, I don’t see how that warrants the hyperbolic criticisms one encounters whenever the topic of Rand comes up (worst person ever, deranged logic, etc).

It’s my view that the more vitriolic of criticism has very little to do with objective analyses of her logic, but subjective reversion to her assumptions. That many of this criticism emanates from the left, reinforces this view. To be fair, I’m sure you’d see the same sort of thing from the right when the topic is Keynes or Marx.

Bill November 3, 2009 at 1:09 pm

What has struck me about Ayn Rand is how her philosphy doesn’t accept the existence of altruism, and in fact argues that it is not good for society, yet the modern study of brain physiology–motor neurons, pattern behaviour, evolutionary dynamics–support the view that the human animal evolved precisely because of altruism.

A rigid and all encompassing philosophy doesn’t work well if it works counter to our brain physiology. Not having some altruism in your life would make you feel strange. Very strange.

Constant November 3, 2009 at 1:24 pm

What has struck me about Ayn Rand is how her philosphy doesn’t accept the existence of altruism, and in fact argues that it is not good for society, yet the modern study of brain physiology–motor neurons, pattern behaviour, evolutionary dynamics–support the view that the human animal evolved precisely because of altruism.

I really do wish people would bother to learn at least the tiniest little smidgen about something before criticizing it. For example, if you do something as trivial as google altruism and “ayn rand” together, you’re immediately sent to a lexicon that explains:

What is the moral code of altruism? The basic principle of altruism is that man has no right to exist for his own sake, that service to others is the only justification of his existence, and that self-sacrifice is his highest moral duty, virtue and value.

The lexicon then warns:

Do not confuse altruism with kindness, good will or respect for the rights of others.

and then again warns:

Do not hide behind such superficialities as whether you should or should not give a dime to a beggar. That is not the issue. The issue is whether you do or do not have the right to exist without giving him that dime.

It should be glaringly obvious that Ayn Rand’s concept of altruism, as explained at the Ayn Rand Lexicon, is not what is programmed into the human brain. Rather, it is kindness and respect for others which appears to be what you are referring to – behaviors which are neither denied nor condemned by Ayn Rand.

Bill November 3, 2009 at 3:12 pm

@Constant,
I don’t accept the definition of altruism you offer: “The basic principle of altruism is that man has no right to exist for his own sake, that service to others is the only justification of his existence, and that self-sacrifice is his highest moral duty, virtue and value.”

That’s a straw man definition. You can believe in your own right to exist for your own sake and still be altruistic.

By altruism I mean seeing someone suffer and, against your own interest, acting to relieve that suffering. Monkeys, when they see other monkeys suffer, have the same reaction.

I stand by what I said. I think Ayn Rand’s philosophy runs counter to what we are learning about human brain physiology. Deal with it.

Ryan November 3, 2009 at 3:36 pm

haha @ Bill and “Deal with it.”

Come now, when you post a public comment to a public blog, people will disagree with you and defend their own concept of what is right. If your objective is to state your opinion and then demand that others “deal with it” then why discuss these matters publicly?

Isn’t it a little disingenuous to partake of the debate and then snap shut when your ideas are questioned?

I think everyone who voiced an opinion in this comment stream was criticized or critiqued. Deal with it. (But gracefully.)

josh November 3, 2009 at 3:56 pm

george,

I know I’m feeding the trolls here but, could you be bit more specific? Wrong about what? Right about what? And what do the monetary theories of any of these individuals (does Rand have any monetary theories?) have to do with free markets?

Bill November 3, 2009 at 4:14 pm

@Ryan,

By deal with it, I meant deal with the existence of altruism that is not explained by self interest. My earlier post mentioned brain physiology and the existence of mirror neurons that make us humans sensitive to the feelings of others. Evidently, I wasn’t sensitive enough when I used that phrase, but I did want to forcefully push the point that we have to deal with people as they are. That human sympathy is something that exists, and motivates action even against self interest. And, I was also frustrated with the strawperson definition of altruism that followed that challenge.
You have to deal with the existence of altruism, and if it is something that is natural or physiological, then a philosophy that doesn’t “deal with it” has a problem because it doesn’t fit the humans as we know them.

Bill November 3, 2009 at 4:40 pm

In looking at the neurphysiological elements of empathy and altruism, you might want to read a book by a respected neuroscientist who studies the differences between humans and primates. The book is by Prof. Michael Gazzaniga formerly of Dartmouth and now of UC Santa Barbara entitled “Human: The Science Behind What Makes Us Unique” A lot of fmri, brain physiology, and primate studies. Empathy is one of the chapters. We are hard wired for it.

dissent November 3, 2009 at 6:09 pm

The notion of Rand’s “ideas” is a comic one.

She wrote novels, bad ones. The power of fiction and erotic fantasy is what carries her work.

The “ideas” are wrapped in suasion but have no substance, and cannot be argued with because they are fiction, in the terms of fiction.

If you want to talk economic ideas, spare me the notion of Randian “ideas”.

Deal with reality and social and economic science.

mrwiizrd November 3, 2009 at 6:55 pm

“The problem for Randians isn’t how to reconcile politics with ethics, all ideologies do that, but the face the reality that free market economics has been discredited, throughly and totally, in the financial crisis of the last few years.”

Wow, thanks for laugh buddy, I needed that.

glenn November 4, 2009 at 12:58 am

I read her when I was 18 and had the subsequent ‘life changing’ eureka moment. I’ve read her books a couple times since, and, being 20ish years older, shrug and laugh at my earlier immature self. I nearly abhor the (right) adults who idolize her. It comes down to this (for me): do whatever the hell you want that makes you happy. As much as I can admire and empathize with her ideal for the individual (those few individuals fortunate enough to be endowed with very valuable abilities), a society based entirely on her philosophy would be living hell.

John Galt November 4, 2009 at 5:07 am

Ayn Rand this, Ayn Rand that! Who cares?

Ian November 4, 2009 at 6:25 am

“…the Randian/Aristotelian virtue ethic…”

I hadn’t interpreted Rand as saying that there are social and political prerequisites for living an ethical life. If she did, good for her — that’s a plausible Aristotelian line of thought. I’m surprised to hear it attributed to Rand, though. (“going Galt,” emphasis on the heroic individual standing apart from society, etc.)

Also, Aristotle thought that generosity was a virtue. It would require a very unusual definition of generosity for Rand to agree.

Alex Tabarrok November 4, 2009 at 10:06 am

Ian,

Rand thought and said that generosity and charity were virtues but she said they were “minor” virtues. Why minor? Because before one can give something away it has to be produced, thus she argued that production and the virtues required for production were the primary virtues.

Best

Alex

dave November 24, 2009 at 8:52 am

it’s basic evolution theory, altruism may not be good for the individual at a certain frame of time but in the long run it is often for the benefit of the species

conservatives; rich people don’t want to become poor
poor people who believe they’ll be rich +

liberals;poor people who doubt they’ll ever be rich
rich people who remember what its like to be poor

Dan F December 26, 2009 at 5:35 pm

go to http://biggovernment.com/2009/12/24/lessons-from-john-galt/

for an interesting article relating Obama to Ayn Rand’s philosophy

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