Saturday, March 10, 2007

Thoughts On Ayn Rand's Doctrine

Ayn Rand has always been a controversial figure, both inside and outside of the libertarian movement. While the bulk of the public never understood or favored her, she has been met with a mixture of favor and disfavor in libertarian circles. There are a number of philosophical and political conflicts that occured between Rand's camp of "objectivists" and various libertarian groups and individuals. Many Austrian economists and austro-libertarians have always contested Rand's conception of objectivism because they are bound by methedological individualism, which is ultimately a subjectivist methodology. Murray Rothbard had something of a "fall-out" with the Rand group in the 60's. Rand's own objectivist movement itself had a split not long after.

Are "objectivists" really Libertarians? It depends on the objectivist, or what particular definition of objectivism we use. While many followers of Rand have been known to come to various libertarian conclusions, they have also been known to come to blatantly unlibertarian ones in certain cases. For some reason many modern objectivists tend to favor an interventionist, militarist foreign policy, for example. It is hard to judge wether or not objectivism passes for a libertarian movement. On certain critieria, it very well may, while on other critieria, it very well may not. It's meaning may vary from objectivist to objectivist, which is quite amusing because it points to subjectivity. The question arises: which objectivists are the real ones?

A particular problem with the Rand doctrine in the first place is that it claims a monopoly on objectivism as a methodology. The idea that the universe and life is an objective reality, and that objective ethics can be formed on the basis of reason isn't something that Ayn Rand invented. It is an idea that dates back to Aristole and probably beyond; it is essentially the philosopher's stone. To her credit, she does mention Artistole as her major influence, but nonetheless Rand seems to superimpose some of her own personal whims onto objective ethics. She is entirely correct in asserting that man's rationality can be employed to discover and use objective ethics. However, the methodology that she uses ultimately is not perfectly objectivist. In short, to a certain extent, Ayn Rand anthropromorphasized objective ethics.

Is there a conflict between the idea of objective ethics and methedological individualism? To many, the answer is yes. Yet I think that both methodologies are true and work in different contexts. Both objective ethics and the Austrian economic methodology are valid. Methedological individualism is a device for analysizing economic phenomenon without making uniform judgements about collectives and their judgements. There is no good reason for these two things to be conflicting. Methedological individualism is a subjective methodology for dealing with economics; that doesn't mean that one can't hold an objective theory of just and unjust ownership simultaneously. Murray Rothbard was an Austrian economist who managed to develope an objective ethics without getting rid of methedological individualism.

The two are for different contexts. For example, methedological individualism has nothing to do with justifying property titles and has no way of doing so since it treats all actors subjectively; only an objective ethics can justify property titles. On the other hand, objective ethics has nothing to do with determining which products people should choose to buy; this is a subjective area that is treated subjectively by methedological individualism in economic analysis. The first example is an area that can be objectively treated while the second example is an area that can only be subjectively treated. The distinction being made is between an ethical judgement (which objective ethics applies to) and a judgement of personal preferance (which methedological individualism applies to).

One particularly interesting aspect of Rand's doctrine is its ardent atheism. But it isn't just atheism. It essentially holds that objective ethics cannot be formed or practised by people who aren't atheists. To be welcomed into Rand's cult, one had to aschew all of their religious beliefs. Is this not a bit too fundamentalist? Why can't religious people come to similar ethics? If these are truly objective ethics, then people can discover them through reason regaurdless of their religion or lack thereof. They cannot be objective if they are dependant upon one's group identity. This tenet of Rand's doctrine isn't based on objective criterion but by Rand's personal preferances with regaurd to religion. There's nothing inherently wrong with Rand being an atheist; what's wrong is for her to try to pass her atheism off as a necessity for objective ethics.

Rand's assertion that man must hold reason as an absolute is an agreeable one. However, she doesn't seem to consider the implication of the objective fact that all human beings are not always reasonable in all situations. In other words, human beings, even the sharpest of them, are not robots, devoid of emotion. Rand's ideal human being is unable to come to fruition because it is impossible for human beings to completely supress their emotions at all times. Followers of her creed are therefore attempting to achieve something that is impossible. Yes, of course man should try to be as reasonable as possible. But to characterize all emotion negatively in such a way is a mistake. And to hold oneself up as an example of someone who supresses all emotion in the name of reason is disingenuous, let alone to suggest that this is a possibility.

The notion that man must follow his rational self-interest is an entirely correct one. On this point in itself Rand is absolutely correct. However, she proceeds to set up a false and misleading dichotomy between altruism and egoism. Rand doesn't adequately explain how self-interest can benefit others and cause one to take actions that are also in the interest of others, rather, she gives one the impression that her definition of self-interest is complete egoism. This is a grave problem. Rand is correct in saying that the idea that everyone has a social obligation to serve everyone else is essentially evil, as it takes away one's obligations over their own self and enslaves them to others. She is correct that noone can legitimately demand or force others to serve them. However, there are plenty of times and situations when it is indeed in one's rational self-interest to help others. While Rand's critique of egalitarianism is essentially true, it is false to conclude from it that complete egoism is necessarily the correct path.

Perhaps a far more interesting and useful dychotomy would be between forced altruism/egalitarianism and charity. The two concepts are diametric opposites. The original concept of charity is that of a voluntary gift; you give because you genuinely care. Forced altriusm/egalitarianism, on the other hand, is a forced gift; you give because you feel obligated to or because you are forced to, not because you genuinely care. Unfortunately though, it would seem that Ayn Rand's doctrine doesn't make adquate considerations for voluntary gift. That is, its methodology may very well blur the distinction between charity and egalitarianism, therefore forcing charity into the "altruism" side of the false dychotomy. But a more proper dycotomy would be between so-called "welfare" and charity, or between egalitarianism and charity.

John Locke's views on the matter seem much clearer than Rand's. Locke also strongly supported man obtaining his rational self-interest, but he emphasized how the persual of this self-interest leads to net gains and "goods" on a larger, societal scale; that it also effects the self-interest of others through social cooperation. Unfortunately, Rand does not make such considerations, as she writes books nonchalantly titled "the virtue of selfishness". It would seem that Rand drew the apriori conclusion that pure egoism and self-interest are the same thing. I think that this notion is false. There are situations where being an egoist is against one's self-interest, due to the harm to social cooperation that occurs, which trickles back to the egoist themself. There are situations in which what the egoist wants is against their rational self-interest or impossible to bring about.

On one hand, Ayn Rand was bursting with good ideas. On the other hand, she didn't adequately put those ideas in context, and to an extent she tried to pass off her subjective opinions as objective reality. She mistakenly phrased things in terms of egoism vs. altruism. Her critique of egalitarianism is good, but her defense of egoism is lacking. She was correct in maintaining the basic idea of objective ethics, but others have developed better systems then hers and use more sound methodologies (see Murray Rothbard's "The Ethics of Liberty" and Han's Herman Hoppe's "The Economics and Ethics of Private Property"). Non-Randian objectivism would seem to be much sounder than Randian objectivism. Rand's system ultimately has a multitude of flaws that should be corrected by any consistant libertarian. While she puts forth some sound principles on one hand (and a few unsound ones), she tends to distort their implications on the other hand.

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