Ayn Rand

I’m quite happy to admit that I think that Objectivitists (the followers of the Randian ‘philosophy’) are foolish in their belief that Ayn Rand expressed a cogent and coherent philosophical framework. I will even go so far as to say that such followers seem to commit themselves to adhering to an inconsistent doctrine that cannot be made fit for a society. These are all philosophical issues and, if I had the time, I would probably devote a few months to reading up on the exact minutiae of Objectivism to come up with concrete examples of just how unphilosophical Rand’s polemics really are.

I worry, though, that a great many of the criticisms of Rand and her ideas are couched in a critique of her as a person as opposed to her ideas. One can see part of the reason why critiquing Rand is a useful way to critique Objectivism; she didn’t live the ideal life of her characters and some of her views, such as endorsing the actions of William Edward Hickman, a serial killer, or advocating that all her followers smoke because the evidence that smoking caused lung cancer was communist propaganda, shows that there was something a bit off about her psychology.

Still, ad hominems, in this case, are not good arguments. Plenty of legitimate philosophers live less than ideal lives in respect to the theories they advocate; it is important to remember that hypocrites can still have a point. Plenty of doctors smoke and still tell their patients not to start, for example.

I bring this up because Rand is rather fashionable at the moment, and there are plenty of new biographies coming out about her. Today I read this review of two new biographies of Ayn Rand; Anne C. Heller’s “Ayn Rand and the World She Made” and Jennifer Burn’s “Rand—Goddess of the Market.” They seem like interesting books, but the reviewer uses it as a piece to skewer Rand the person as opposed to Objectivism.

Now, admittedly, the review is of a book about Rand the person, but the reviewer is critiquing Objectivism first and foremost. Just because Rand was a very flawed person, this does not mean her philosophy was just as flawed (although, actually, it is even moreso); it is a mistake to attack the character and then infer that this means the arguments they put forward are worthless.

Rand’s fashionability in Conservative circles is bizarre and needs explaining; here was a drug-taking, atheist woman who has become the patron saint of people like Alex Jones, Glen Beck and Rush Limbaugh (who knows a little about drugs himself). If her arguments are wrong, then they should be critiqued.

But, and it’s a big “But!” you need to be seen to be attacking those arguments rather than the originator of them.

The ad hominem is not always fallacious; if you are criticising someone’s eye-witness testimony, then you can attack the witnesses perceptual abilities; “He’s as blind as a fruit bat!” is a good reason to dismiss his testimony to the extent he saw the assailant climb the fence. However, if someone argued that, based upon evidence, inferences, and the like, that “Jones did it!” then attacking the originator of the argument for wearing plaid on a Sunday is not a legitimate criticism.

I realise that for people like Rand, who lived disquietening lives, showing that their lives do not match their philosophy looks like it should be a knockdown blow to the philosophy (especially given the hero worship of Rand), but still, we must deal with arguments. The ad hominem attack, in cases like these, gives us a reason to be suspicious of the philosophy but it does not tell us it is wrong.

Although I think it clearly is.

Still, all that being said, I did like the final paragraph:

The figure Ayn Rand most resembles in American life is L. Ron Hubbard, another crazed, pitiable charlatan who used trashy potboilers to whip up a cult. Unfortunately, Rand’s cult isn’t confined to Tom Cruise and a rash of Hollywood dimwits. No, its ideas and its impulses have, by drilling into the basest human instincts, captured one of America’s major political parties.


About Matthew Dentith

Author of "The Philosophy of Conspiracy Theories" (Palgrave Macmillan), Matthew Dentith wrote his PhD on epistemic issues surrounding belief in conspiracy theories. He is a frequent media commentator on the weird and the wonderful, both locally and internationally. On occasion he can be caught dreaming about wax lions but, mostly, it is rumoured he works for elements of the New World Order.

16 comments:

  1. In Michael Shermer’s otherwise reasonable critique of Rand, he wastes a few paragraphs comparing Rand’s injudicious affair with Nathan Branden to the sexual exploitation engaged in by many infamous cult leaders () Weirdly, he seems to be trying to use it as an example of Rand’s hypocrisy. However, the Rand – Branden affair was known to and consented to by their respective spouses – but Branden’s second affair was kept secret – thus, it doesn’t quite work as an example of hypocrisy. To me it stood out as a rather clumsy and misguided attack in what was a target rich environment.
    Ultimately, I think it’s natural to focus on the people, and not their ideas, especially since we all feel we can relate to critiques of the people, but critiques of the ideas can be quite complicated and abstract. It seems we have a lot of “built-in” mental mechanisms for judging people, and few or none at all for judging ideas. Judging the person seems the much easier path. Even though it often takes us to the wrong place.

    Just because Rand was a very flawed person, this does not mean her philosophy was just as flawed (although, actually, it is even moreso); it is a mistake to attack the character and then infer that this means the arguments they put forward are worthless.

    I think Rand would have been a much worse person if she had actually followed her philosophy. Once her advocacy of her philosophy is set aside, most of her other flaws strike me as rather small and petty things. Not somebody I would willingly associate with, but history is filled with far worse characters, many of them having had greater power.

    1. Augh, somehow one of my parenthetical comments got lost. It was:
      (though Shermer admits “exploitation” is too strong a word)

  2. Rand’s fashionability in Conservative circles is bizarre and needs explaining; here was a drug-taking, atheist woman who has become the patron saint of people like Alex Jones, Glen Beck and Rush Limbaugh (who knows a little about drugs himself). If her arguments are wrong, then they should be critiqued.

    Maybe it’s just too easy, but I think Limbaugh is an especially selfish person, who admires Rand because her philosophy glorifies selfishness. I have no idea why Beck does anything, but perhaps he’s swept away by the romantic tale of a brave woman who escapes the worst sort of communism and comes to America to preach the worst sort of capitalism.

  3. Very good, I would like to add a few things though.

    First I would take criticisms of Rand’s character with a grain of salt. A lot of people’s views or Rand-the-Person come from the Brandens and their book “The Passion of Ayn Rand”, these are people whose integrity has come into question, shall we say. James Valliant wrote a book called “The Passion of Ayn Rand’s Critics” which sets the record straight:

    http://www.solopassion.com/node/4420

    You can read a bit of his views at the above link. I can’t claim to be an expert by any means, but from what I’ve gathered Ayn was just normal person who sometimes got things wrong and said silly things like the rest of us.

    I think the last paragraph you quote (and Shermer gets this wrong as well) is mistaken in likening Rand to L Ron Hubbard and cults. Objectivism was no such thing, you could take it or leave it as you pleased, didn’t worry her. She wasn’t in it to make money or to control people.

    1. I don’t think Rand was a normal person (in part because I don’t think that people who seek to promulgate views are normal; normal people tend to just make do with what they’ve inherited, and in part because I think she had misguided opinions about her own intellect and suffered from some interesting paranoias) but some of the uncontested material (her support for Hickman, her stance on smoking and vegetarianism) certainly don’t help the case of the character assassins.

      Be that as it may.

      Given that Rand wrote her books to persuade an audience and given that she spent time trying to formalise her ‘philosophy’ and organise a coterie, I don’t think it’s that far off the mark to compare her to Hubbard. Hubbard, we must remember, started Dianetics (later Scientology) as a philosophy that then became a religion. Rand, possibly to her credit, never made Objectivism a religion but she did engage in the kind of cult leader behaviour that saw her ostracise people who strayed from her path and the kind of behaviour that demanded that others of her coterie should do likewise. In that respect she desired (and had) control.

      And presumably she did want to make money from it in some way, given the tenets of her ‘philosophy.’

      1. I think the Hubbard comparison unfair. Hubbard was cynical – he told Isaac Asimov (some years before he started Scientology) that the best way to get rich was to start a religion. Rand was sincere, it seems.

        It also seems that your efforts to warn against ad hominems were to no avail. I would like to read a serious examination of Rand’s opinions, rather than the endless retelling of her biography that the very mention of her name always provokes.

        1. Outside of Objectivism itself there seems to be little critical examination of Rand; all the philosophers I know who have tried to read her give up fairly quickly; apparently the inconsistencies and the weird dislike of hypotheticals come fast and quick, thus making the enterprise seem worthless.

          There are websites devoted to dealing with Objectivist thought, though; a lot has been made of the fact that despite Rand’s insistence to the contrary, Objectivist ethics and aesthetics seem quite Kantian. Objectivist epistemology often gets trounced due to its naivety concerning introspection and the Objectivist take on Logic is about three thousand years out of date. I used to have a list of all these places one could go but it seems no more. I suspect Google knows. It knows a lot.

        2. Although I know ‘Bare-faced Messish’ pleads otherwise, there are some reasons to think that Hubbard might have been sincere as well. Like Rand, he was a drug-abuser and the imagery of Scientology, which is just Golden Dawn material dressed up in spacesuits, is what one might call ‘classic revelatory imagery;’ it’s quite possible Hubbard believed, at the time, in the visions he received. It certainly makes sense of some of his activities when we take into account what he was on.

          Which brings us on to the Asimov quote. Although its widely attested to, the source is Asimov, who wasn’t exactly known for his honesty or recall. It’s possible Hubbard said it, but that doesn’t mean Dianetics was started as a deliberate fraud; it (the precursor to Scientology) fits in perfectly with the other SF-tinged hippy notions going on at the time and Hubbard staked a lot on the book. What it became might be another matter, of course. I’m certainly not defending Hubbard; he was an awful man with terrible ideas.

          1. Most reputable collections of Asimov quotes do not include any such quote from Asimov .
            I have seen the story about Hubbard claiming the best way to make money was to start a religion attributed to nearly every big-name SF writer who was in touch Campbell at the same time Hubbard was. Yet often times, reputable quote collections from those same authors do not list it. I’m very skeptical of that quote, even though it seems unsurprising that a man who would encourage his followers to break into IRS buildings and steal legal documents from the IRS would say such a thing. See also the way Hubbard manipulated his own wife into taking the blame for Scientology’s numerous anti-IRS criminal activities. To me, its things like that, rather than the quote, which indicate to me that Hubbard was a deliberate charlatan.

            As for Asimov not being known for his honesty or recall, I have read in many places that he was indeed known for both his honesty and his recall. Hubbard, on the other hand, is remembered in quite the opposite manner.

          2. Strange; I had read that Asimov was always ready to play up his role and importance in any affair. I can quite imagine that Asimov claiming Hubbard said that the best way to make money was to start a religion, but if the quote can’t be verified it’s probably a (legit?) smear against Hubbard.

  4. I suppose I should not have mentioned the Asimov anecdote, because one should evaluate Hubbard’s beliefs regardless of what we know of the man. The same principle holds for Descartes or Heidegger, whose lives were less than perfect. I think examination of Hubbard’s claims will reveal them to be absurd. Whether the same can be said of Rand is another matter; at least she does not talk of spaceships. But her personal life should not determine what one thinks of her thought.

    1. Which was my argument (although, as Scott likes to point out, the attitudes of an individual can give you reason to suspect that something might be up). Hayden then proposed the argument that Rand was just a normal person, which doesn’t seem to be immediately obvious to this outside observer.

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