On One Hand

January 21, 2009

Ayn Rand

Filed under: Uncategorized — ononehand @ 8:55 pm

I stumbled across an interview of Ayn Rand by Phil Donahue on YouTube, and it is the first time I’ve ever really heard her own interpretation of what she was about.

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Part 5

My main thought is that there’s nothing Earth-shattering about what she’s saying – the distinguishing thing about her is that she is rationally honest with her own values and blunt when they take her somewhere most people find morally abhorrent. That’s true for most philosophers, who end up “going there” on some issue or another, not out of a desire to go there, but because it is where they suddenly realize that their logic forces them.

I do find that she takes some components or bits of information that are factually true, and weaves them into an abstraction that could have just as easily gone in a different direction. She is a pretty typical of example of people I’ve talked to in my life who came from communist countries whose entire system of intellectual public values are based on distancing themselves rationally from communism.

Take, first and formost, her dislike for selfless acts, in exchange for her commitment to rational self-interest. Her distain for “altruism” is hardly relative to most peoples’ concept of altruism. She said that one example of altruism would be saving your neighbor’s wife from a burning building while allowing your own wife to die. Another example is choosing to be less successful to allow your enemy to succeed. I think very few people in the world actually do that. The way she negotiates personal relatoinships, family, love, kindness and compassion for people she knows is probably similar to the way most other people in the world do that. To save her value of the individual and self-interest, she could have simply re-defined altruism to say that all acts of love are altruism, and that allowing your own loved one to die to save someone else’s is not basic altruism. She could decide that selfless acts are not really selfless, because the individual benefits from an environment where he or she knows that he or she will be protected from danger, in exchange for willing to take some risk to protect others from danger.

Instead, she throws out social responsibility altogether, becuase in it is some seed that reminds her of the communist government she fled as a young woman. Her views on public policy are extremist to say the least, because of her intense need for a rational consistency. The thing that allows her to distance herself from communism is so important to her that she must take that seed of value and apply it to every possible situation, to the extent that she (and a lot of people who think the way she thinks) start beleiving that every social policy designed to help someone is a form of communism and contains in itself all the evils of Soviet communism.

I undesrstand why someone desires rational consistency – there is an appeal in that, because, if one is first a moralist and beleives that a certain moral paradigm is right, a system that is rationally consistent is more likely to be the true one than a system that takes into account multiple, competing values or objectives. Rational consistency is the root of ideology; when you beleive in complete utility of resources and equality of opportunity for all individuals regardless of ability, you gravitate toward communism as a moral paradigm. When you beleive in complete randomness of virtue and merit, you gravitate towards being a libertarian as a moral paradigm.

Ultimately, though, I think ideologies tend to value abstractions over the impact of actual harm and good. “Individualism” and “rights” and “property” are extremely useful tools for organizing society to mutual benefit, but ultimately they are abstractions, whereas pain and pleasure, sickness and health, life and death, are real. You wouldn’t, for example, try to force children to work to pay off the value of their food even though that would be rationally consistent with an individualistic rejection of unreciprocated kindness. For Rand to beleive her principles apply under all circumstances and conditions values the abstraction of her need for consistency over the real pain and harm such policies would cause to human beings. Social inequality leads to real suffering.

There is a form of rational consistency that I like, and that is pragmatism. I think pragmatism is honest and valuable and scientific; it essentially says, this tool is not always the best tool, sometimes you use a hammer but sometimes you use a screwdriver. But the correct choice in a given situation depends on your goal and it depends on the problem you are facing. I beleive in whatever works and we can test ideologies or ideological principles in the environment to see if it brings us closer to our desired goals. Total communism is a totalitarian interpritation of failed principle, but in a society where our biggest current problems involve lack of access to healthcare and achievement gaps based on race and parents’ income, Rand’s “objectivism” is a totalitarian interpretation of what would certainly be a failed principle as well. I beleive in pragmatism, and also beleive in compassion, which can be selfless but is more balanced than pure selflessness because compassion leaves room to weigh your own interests with another’s interests.

I also think that many forms of “altruism” are in our rational self-interest. The evidence for that is clear, albeit elusive; if there really is no God or spirit, as she insists, then darwinism is the only thing to explain all compulsions in human nature. And natrual selection did breed a selfless impulse into our species. It wouldn’t be there if it wasn’t beneficial.

Beyond that, rational philosophies with a more Eastern minset – which account for perceived notions of individuality and take death and impermanence into account – and acknowledge that the accumulation of wealth and power doesn’t necessarily represent the ultimate benefit or hapiness to a being who is doomed to die, and won’t be able to take wealth along. Hapiness there is in many ways about changing the instinct of desire and realizing that trying to achieve something to make you happy isn’t quite as effective toward happiness as simply learning not to want it. Many things we desire involve some form of addiction, and it is possible to think one thing leads to bliss when in reality it leads to an intensification in goalmaking. I don’t necessarily beleive completely in this principle – I’m not a monk and I don’t live forever in the present like a hippie in a commune – but it is still every bit as rational and consistent as Rand’s.

I couldn’t help but feel some compassion for her – when she talked about her late husband I was moved – and I think I understand where she is coming from rationally. I could also see why she was so annoyed by the audience, which seemed to be made of people far less self-examined than she. Ultimately, though, I have to unequivocally reject her philosophy, which in spite of all its grandiosity and humanism lays the template for a dark and depressing human civilization.



  1. Comment

    This was a great post. (It was thoughtful and fair – which I think we should all strive for).

    I agree with much of what you say on general terms – I wasn’t able to force myself to see the clip because I find Donahue’s tone to be irritating. (I should just look up the transcript).

    My own experience with Rand is limited to the Fountainhead, which I enjoyed parts of, but was turned off by – what you noted – her overzealous need for evangeliziing her principles to the point of dishonesty. For instance, she makes passing deriding cooperation in life. She says at one point that no great art or music has been created through cooperation but rather through the genius of one mind. I found this unequivocalness to be distasteful.

    One minor disagreement I had with one point was when you wrote:

    “When you beleive in complete utility of resources and equality of opportunity for all individuals regardless of ability, you gravitate toward communism as a moral paradigm.”

    That may be true for some who lean toward the abolish of property, but I have equally heard those general principles to justify libertarinism. And, I do think that is a tenable position under the following context:

    For some libetarians, it is the argument that collectivisation is doomed to inefficiency. Thus, it is their utilitarian desire for maximum efficiency that leads them to say that the private market is best. This is largely the tone of Hayek (economics of information), Mises and Friedman. Plus, most libertarians cite equality of opportunity as being principal in their ideals.

    Comment by sleepyreaderz — January 22, 2009 @ 7:27 am | Reply

    • Re: Comment

      I guess your point is the distinction between those who are libertarian morally and those who are libertarian economically. I know people have thought that the free market system would solve every social problem, but more often I hear the “life isn’t fair and it isn’t government’s job to make it fair even if it is unfair” argument. More often, though, I think people contain both views at once, even though there is really some cognative dissonance there.

      Comment by ononehand — January 22, 2009 @ 7:40 am | Reply

      • Re: Comment

        Right. Actually you bring up the matter in a more full way than I had thought of it.

        I was speaking libertarian more as a matter of economic distinction than moral, although as you say the latter happens frequently.

        It’s probably a function of the fact that 1) I lived in DC 2) I am in economics. In DC, you’re more likely to hear the economic arguments of libetarianism rather than the moral. (See Ron Paul, his whole platform is a sort of populist-ic libertarn-ish economic argument).

        Comment by sleepyreaderz — January 23, 2009 @ 5:42 am

  2. I really respect her, as it’s rare someone actually creates a logical system of belief that’s pretty thoroughly consistent. It’s something I try to do on a daily basis, and it’s not easy.

    I was a big fan of Ayn Rand for a while, and even still adopt a lot of her ideas. But I couldn’t swallow that pill whole. I can’t integrate with the rest of my philosophies. I eventually let go of the idea of absolute truth, which in turn negates anything that uses rights as a natural phenomenon.

    After reading a couple of her books, I had a much better understanding of what she meant by altruism. More than anything, I think she recognized the hypocrisy behind most self-proclaimed altruistic acts, and I agree. In fact, they are nearly all self-serving, and saying you’re doing it for altruistic reasons only makes the guiding purposes behind your actions less clear to yourself and to others.

    I’m a pretty self-serving person, and I’m proud of it. But a logically consistent self-serving person knows it’s in his best interest to create sustainable systems of mutual benefit. And that’s a much more reliable friend than a seemingly giving person who will do something “for you”.

    Also, yes, suffering is real. But from her mindset, I think she would just respond that suffering is natural and that, in the long run, it will be reduced far more through rational selfishness than through altruism.

    Comment by positron — January 22, 2009 @ 5:10 pm | Reply

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