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Our Editorial Board, which has been in operation for since 2011 has been very careful that such incidents never happen again. We have kept this post up in the interest of transparency.
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I seem to encounter a recurring discussion about Ayn Rand and Objectivism but I only had a vague idea what it’s all about. And so, I made some research to find out about it. After reading works of Ayn Rand and Objectivism (Fountainhead, Atlas Shrugged, Virtue of Selfishness), I think I now understand why Rand’s philosophy has such a cult following. To begin with, I found out that Objectivism is just pure philosophy, it’s not science. There is no evidence to support its claims and therefore it is not scientifically justifiable. Let me emphasize that again — it is NOT SCIENCE. It claims to be committed to reason, but without science and evidence to back up its claims, it’s just another belief system — just like any other cult or religion. Pure reason is not enough and it is dangerous. When you have a belief system that claims to know the ABSOLUTE standards of right and wrong, you now have a belief system that is INTOLERANT. And hence, the end of reason and rationality. Absolutism and intolerance are the defining characteristics of a cult, religion, or any other group detrimental to individual freedom (Shermer, M.Why People Believe Believe in Weird Things. 1997 ).
Who is Aynd Rand and What’s Objectivism?
The story of Objectivism starts with Ayn Rand (1905-1982), who is known for her two best-selling novels Fountainhead(1943) and her magnum opus, Atlas Shrugged(1957). As far as anyone is concerned, Objectivism refers to the work of Ayn Rand,exclusively. And followers of her philosophy call themselves – Objectivists. With the death of Rand in 1982, Objectivism became cast in stone. All knowledge of this philosophy came from Ayn Rand, end of story.
Basically, her philosophy advocates that man should abide by certain thoughts and actions to live a proper life. The basic principles of objectivism are objective reality (facts are facts), reason (man’s only means of obtaining knowledge), self-interest (happiness as the highest moral pursuit), and pure capitalism. In a nutshell, you owe it to yourself to be happy.
Where Ayn Rand Came From and How She Lived
The thoughts of Ayn Rand cannot be separated from who she is and how she developed as a person. According to Wikipedia:
Rand was born in 1905 into a middle-class family of non-observant Jews in Saint Petersburg, Russia. Her father was a chemist and became a successful pharmacist who eventually owned his own pharmacy and the building in which it was located.
Rand was only twelve when the Russian revolution arrived in 1917. When she grew up, she was opposed to the Tsar. Her family life was troubled by the rise of the Bolshevik party, and her father’s pharmacy ended up being confiscated by the Soviets. Her family fled to the Crimea (initially under the control of the White Army during the Russian Civil War), and there, her family started a new life.
Ayn Rand determined that she was an atheist while she was in high school, and she graduated from high school in the Crimea. She held there for a short period a job teaching Red Army soldiers to read, and she enjoyed the work very much. During her work, she observed that the illiterate soldiers were eager to learn and respectful of her.
At sixteen, Rand returned with her family to Saint Petersburg. She enrolled at Petrograd State University, where she studied in the department of social pedagogy, majoring in history. At the university she was introduced to the writings of Aristotle and Plato, and she studied heavily the philosophical works of Friedrich Nietzsche. Her formal study of philosophy amounted to only a few courses. Along with other non-Communist students, Rand was purged from the university shortly before graduating. However, after complaints from a group of visiting foreign scientists, some of the purged students were allowed to complete their work and graduate, which Rand did in October 1924. She subsequently studied for a year at the State Technicum for Screen Arts in Leningrad.
In the fall of 1925, she was granted a visa to visit American relatives. She left Russia on January 17, 1926, and arrived in the United States on February 19, entering by ship through New York City. After a brief stay with her relatives in Chicago, she resolved never to return to the Soviet Union.
What’s So Wrong with Objectivism?
Now, what’s wrong with Ayn Rand’s Objectivism? Well, essentially everything. Firstly, Objectivism’s claims are simply asserted as self-evident philosophical truths. Without any evidence, assertions are meaningless. Christopher Hitchens said it more elegantly – “What can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.”
The premise of Objectivism’s claims seems to be reasonable but after following their reasoning, assumptions start to begin. And these assumptions are embraced as unquestionable truths which then lead to erroneous conclusions. To make things short, the philosophy derived human nature from a small set of axioms.
To demonstrate, let us look at its most basic tenet, its so-called “axiom of existence”, which states that “existence exists”. If you think about it, you’ll realize that it is flat out wrong. Try that statement to different words – “abstinence abstains, difference differs, excellence excels, obedience obeys, persistence persists, life lives, etc…“. Do any of these statements make sense? Of course not. That is to say, you exist, I exist, the universe exists— but existence doesn’t exist. This is because as even Rand herself admits in her writings, only concretes exist. And existence is clearly not a concrete, because you cannot ascribe any specific characteristics to it. Existence, out of context means nothing, and hence, to say out of any specific context that “existence” exists is to effectively say that nothing exists. Every other philosopher has realized that the assumption is not only meaningless but outright false (What’s terribly wrong with Objectivism?). It’s ironic that Rand is also famous for saying the words — “Check your premises…”
Another fundamental tenet of Objectivism is the axiom of identity: “A is A”. As it is, that statement is incapable of explaining anything. This axiom of identity seems to be the first indication of Objectivists’ overuse of deductive reasoning. The law of identity was used to assume that there are some truths that are absolute. Objectivism’s truth claims seem to be entirely built around this idea. It starts with a few axioms, and from these axioms, everything else is derived – gender roles, the right kind of music, capitalism as right form of economic system, selfishness as a virtue, and so on. From the premise “A is A”, everything else follows. There’s a Ayn Rand quote to that effect:
“I am not primarily an advocate of capitalism, but of egoism; and I am not primarily an advocate of egoism, but of reason. If one recognizes the supremacy of reason and applies it consistently, all the rest follows.“
Another apparent big mistake of Objectivism is that every idea can be derived from deductive reasoning, wherein all its conclusions leave no room for errors, which is simply false. The vast majority of other knowledge requires inductive reasoning which involves reasoning from a set of specific facts to arrive at general conclusions.
What is it about Rand’s philosophy as presented in her novels that engendered it to have a cult following? Well, some of her ideas are very powerful and appealing – individualism, excellence in one’s own work, personal responsibility, etc. Both of her novels have protagonists that were always rational, productive, and individualistic; all the other characters where irrational, second-raters, and always dependent on the productiveness of the main characters. All the decisions that the characters had to decide were either always absolutely right or absolutely wrong. Followers of Objectivism never seem to realize that real people aren’t characters, that there are other factors that affect human nature which simply cannot be deduced from a small set of axioms. (My Country ‘Tis of ME–The United States of Ayn Rand)
Objectivist Morality and the Virtue of Selfishness
In terms of morality, what would seem to be one big flaw in Rand’s philosophy is the belief that morals can have an absolute standard of criteria, which is simply not scientifically supportable. Morals don’t exist in nature and so, it cannot be discovered (The Science of Good and Evil. Shermer, M. 2004 ).
Morality is subject to culture and human experience and it is constantly evolving. A few centuries ago, slavery was widely accepted but it is now generally abhorred. Different social groups and different time periods have claims on what is regarded as morally right or wrong. And this phenomenon alone tells us that morality is not absolute. When a social group claims to know the absolute right and wrong, you now have a group that is very similar to religion or ideology that is intolerant of differing ideas. This absolutism and intolerance, I think, could be the biggest flaw of Objectivism. The historical decline of Objectivism confirms this observation.
The Objectivist ethics proudly advocates and upholds rational selfishness, which tells a man to be concerned with one’s owns interests. It considers altruism as evil because it permits no concept of a self-respecting, self-supporting man – a man who supports his life by his own effort and neither sacrifices himself nor others (Virtue of Selfishness, 1965). The 1964 murder of Kitty Genovese in New York, where 38 of her neighbors did not intervene while she was being raped and murdered for about half an hour, perfectly demonstrates how an Objectivist would act improperly. If one would follow John Galt’s oath (Atlas Shrugged, 1957), he would certainly not sacrifice his life for Ms. Genovese. This act of nonintervention for selfish reasons is clearly appalling and self-defeating for any self-respecting individual. (The Vice of Selfishness)
Why Most Objectivists are Hostile
You would notice that whenever you encounter an Objectivist, they would always seem to start with questions followed by countless moralizing and condemnation. Such behavior is personally supported and advocated by Aynd Rand herself, Leonard Peikoff, and many of their followers. Most often, Objectivists that you will encounter online could just be Ayn Rand copycats. (The term – ‘Randroid’, a blending of ‘Rand’ and ‘android’ – has been used to evoke the image of “the John Galt-imitating robots produced by the cult). They start with questions and then they will insist on attacking your honesty, integrity, and character. This is the approach how Ayn Rand argued with her critics. When you are familiar with her essays and interviews, you will notice that those of the Objectivists just follow her technique, the same way religious fanatics follow their leader.
Why is this so? This is because the Objectivist ethics (The Objectivist Ethics. Rand, A. 1961) have extensive claims about concepts in human psychology that can never be proved or defended (The Peikovian Doctrine of the Arbitrary Assertion, 2008). These claims are simply assumed to be true. Again, no evidence to back up these claims, just assumed to be true. And these claims fall into three main categories: Inherently Dishonest Ideas, Evil, and Evasion.
These psychological concepts of ‘evil,’ ‘evasion,’ and ‘inherently dishonest ideas’ do not belong to philosophy. Objectivists appear to use these concepts to morally condemn other people without restriction. As a result, the Objectivist movement has remained a tiny group for the past forty years, and has hardly been ever taken seriously in the academic world. And since most Objectivists appear to be honestly convinced that an intellectual opponent is holding an inherently dishonest idea, they end up insulting them.
They have a technique called ‘guessing‘, which Objectivists appear to use to determine if an opponent is holding an inherently dishonest idea. They seem to use this technique to declare someone to be evil and dishonest. And this is most probably why most Objectivists often start their statements with questions. Doesn’t that sound too familiar? How many times have you encountered “What is…?”-type of questions from Objectivists? Well, now you know why. Always keep in mind, they appear to be mostly Ayn Rand copycats.
To most Objectivists, they regard morality based solely on the ethical principles that people conform to without identifying the people’s actual motivations. They seem to judge other people’s morals on the basis of whether they conform to Objectivist ethical principles or not. If your morality does not conform to their principles, it appears that you can be judged by them as dishonest and evil. And hence, it permits them to morally condemn you or other people.
Other philosophy forums seem to have the same problem with Objectivists. One person noted that –”
Objectivists preach their newfound brilliance for a few months in other philosophy forums. After some time, the reasonable ones learn from other people that dissect and expose their faulty logic. The unreasonable ones become delusional and get banned or become ignored by everyone.”
The foregoing discussion showed that Objectivism is a radical belief system without evidential foundation and filled with contradictions. The most evident of these contradictions is that Objectivism, although it would seem to motivate individualism and embolden critical thinking, actually turns into a dogmatic belief system that cannot be questioned nor scrutinized.
John Galt or Howard Roark, her two famous protagonists in Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, would have never joined the Objectivist movement. There was no individualism in Rand’s inner circle. Any follower must have the same musical taste, philosophical views, ethical principles, etc. For a philosophy that claimed to be the only and best way to achieve personal happiness, it seems to be a contradiction that Ayn Rand lived a lonely, isolated life in her later years. Her followers worshipped her like a cult figurehead, which she also accepted, despite her rejection of all things religious. Her Objectivism became more than a philosophy but a religion if not a simple cult (Walker, J. The Ayn Rand Cult. 1999). The philosophy of Objectivism appears to be very dogmatic in practice and prone to different interpretations as demonstrated by the successive schisms that plagued the Objectivist movement. Several of the splits were not caused by personal or political differences, but fundamental and philosophical. Moreover, Rand’s followers treated her like a cult figurehead or Supreme Ruler. To her, there were only absolutes, be it on what was good art, music, gender roles, or views of the world (Branden, N. Judgment Day: My Years with Ayn Rand. 1989). She believed that it was more important to adhere to a principle than to live up to the expectations of society. (My Country ‘Tis of ME–The United States of Ayn Rand)
Objectivism can be compared to any other cult or religion; its equivalent holy book is Atlas Shrugged. And similar to any fundamentalist religious group, everything Objectivists proclaim is but an interpretation of their holy book. That’s all there is since it is just pure philosophy (and so it is safe to call it a belief system). It has no evidence to support its claims, and appropriately, it is not science. It used pure deductive reasoning to make a derivation of human nature without any evidential foundation and without science to test its claims. Rand herself acknowledged that she did not work out a philosophy of science (Rand, A., Binswanger, H., Peikoff, L. Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, 1990. pp. 303–304). Clearly, there are good reasons why Objectivism is not a real philosophy.
Ayn Rand, who left Russia, never returned to it, and stayed in the U.S., indeed endeavored to repudiate the overly extreme altruism of collectivist communism. Her theory of Objectivism correctly points out the flaws of inefficiency and ultimate self-destruction inherent in the Russian system. But, the pure self-interest embodied in her novel Atlas Shrugged is a dangerous overreaction that both involves intuitively wrong actions and creates an untenably dangerous social situation. Clearly, selfishness is no real virtue and Objectivism is no real theory. (The Vice of Selfishness)
What makes science light years away from all other disciplines is its commitment to the tentative nature of all its conclusions. Shermer explained science in his book, Why People Believe Believe in Weird Things, in a very simple and elegant way — In science, there are no final answers, only varying degrees of probability. Even scientific “facts” are just conclusions confirmed to such an extent that it would be reasonable to offer temporary agreement, but that acceptance is never final. Science is not the declaration of a set of beliefs but a process of inquiry aimed at building a testable body of knowledge constantly open to rejection or confirmation. And that is at the center of its limitations and is also its greatest strength. Science is the best tool ever devised for understanding our world, and we should love and use it.
- Atlas Shrugged. Rand, A. 1957.
- The Fountainhead. Rand, A. 1943.
- The Virtue of Selfishness. Rand, A. 1965.
- The Objectivist Ethics. Rand, A. 1961.
- Why People Believe Believe in Weird Things – Psuedoscience, Superstition, and other Confusions of our time. Shermer, M. 1997.
- Judgment Day: My Years with Ayn Rand. Branden, Nathaniel. 1989.
- Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology. Rand, A., Binswanger, H., Peikoff, L., 1990.
- Aristotle’s Law of Identity – http://www.importanceofphilosophy.com/Metaphysics_Identity.html
- The Ayn Rand Cult. Walker, Jeff. 1999.
- The Peikovian Doctrine of the Arbitrary Assertion. Journal of Ayn Rand Studies. Campbell, Robert L. 2008.
- Ayn Rand and the Cognitive Revolution in Psychology. Campbell, Robert L. 1999. http://hubcap.clemson.edu/~campber/randcogrev.html
- Is Objectivism A Religion?. Ellis, Albert. 1968.
- Morality-Evolutionary Perspectives – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Morality#Evolutionary_perspectives
- Transcendent Morality. Shermer, Michael. The Science of Good and Evil. ISBN 0805075208. 2004
- Forty Year Decline of Objectivism: 1967-2007 – http://www.solopassion.com/node/2600
- Public reaction to Kitty Genovese’s murder – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kitty_Genovese#Public_reaction
- Bystander effect – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bystander_effect
- Ayn Rand on Feminism – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wpzDdTrw5II
- The Vice of Selfishness: A critique of Ayn Rand’s Objectivism
- Anti Rand: A Critique of pure Sophistry
- My Country ‘Tis of ME–The United States of Ayn Rand
- Critique of Objectivist Ethics by Michael Huemer
- Criticisms of Objectivism (or Ayn Rand) by Mike Huben
- The Benefits and Hazards of the Philosophy of Ayn Rand: A Personal Statement by Nathaniel Branden
- The Faulty Reasoning of Ayn Rand Types
- What’s Wrong with Ayn Rand?
Additional Resources (If you’re still not convinced):
- Leonard Peikoff Interview – Defend Objectivism all you want. But how can anyone possibly defend the head of the Ayn Rand Institute with his statements? Watch this for insanity in action.
- Ayn Rand Institute Press Release (Dec 2004) – US Should Not Help Tsunami Victims. Do not give cash. Do not send help.
- Alan Greenspan, of Federal US Reserve, making his views on laissez faire capitalism clear–he does NOT support it.