left biblioblography: Profiles In Atheism – The Russian Objectivist

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Profiles In Atheism – The Russian Objectivist

Cross posted @ God is 4 Suckers!aynrandstatement

Achievement of your happiness is the only moral purpose of your life, and that happiness, not pain or mindless self-indulgence, is the proof of your moral integrity, since it is the proof and the result of your loyalty to the achievement of your values. – Ayn Rand

I watched Ayn Rand – A Sense Of Life the other day. This documentary borders almost on hagiography – it doesn’t show any of her warts (as all of us have, none of us are seamless), but relentlessly catalogues her rise to fame.

Ayn Rand

Born in Russia as Alisa Zinov'yevna Rosenbaum, at the age of 12 the Bolshevik revolution wracked her family’s business, and they migrated to Crimea. Later, she enrolled in the University of Petrograd, studying the great philosophers, Plato (whom she despised), Aristotle and Nietzsche (both of whom she admired). She immigrated to the states, changed her name to Ayn Rand, and married an American actor, thereby becoming a U.S citizen.

One of the items I found interesting (one among many) was that she decide at the age of 12, that she was an atheist. This was a choice she stood by her entire life. She hated her native country of Russia, and absolutely loathed communism, and states in one of the myriad television interviews that Russia was a ‘mystical state’, whether it was religious or communist.

The Wiki entry says this of her socio-political views:

Rand held that the only moral social system is laissez-faire capitalism. Her political views were strongly individualist and hence anti-statist and anti-Communist. She exalted what she saw as the heroic American values of rational egoism and individualism. As a champion of rationality, Rand also had a strong opposition to mysticism and religion, which she believed helped foster a crippling culture acting against individual human happiness and success. Rand detested many prominent liberal and conservative politicians of her time, including prominent anti-Communists, such as Harry S. Truman, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Hubert Humphrey, and Joseph McCarthy's methods.

I’ve always liked old ‘Give ‘em Hell Harry’, and I don’t know enough about Hubert, but she wasn’t far off on the rest of them.

Jim Powell, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, considers Rand one of the three founders (along with Rose Wilder Lane and Isabel Paterson) of modern American libertarianism, although she rejected libertarianism and the libertarian movement.

Rand's defense of individual liberty almost summarizes her entire philosophy. Since reason is the competent but sole means of human knowledge, it is therefore humanity's most fundamental means of survival. Also, thus, the effort of thinking and the scrupulous use of reason are the most basic virtue of an ethics governed by the requirements of human life. The threat of coercion, however, neutralizes the practical effect of an individual's reason, and whether the force originates from the state or from a criminal, the coerced person must act as required, or, at least, direct his thought to escape. According to Rand, "man's mind will not function at the point of a gun." To put this conversely: freedom "works" because it liberates human reason. Just as freedom of expression is a prerequisite for a vibrant culture, and the development of science and art, so a free market generates new and ever better products and services, as the range of consumer goods and technological innovations in capitalist societies demonstrates, according to Rand. Thus, she argued for the "separation of state and economics in the same way and for the same reasons" as she argued for "the separation of state and church.”

Since reason is "man's basic tool of survival," Rand held that an individual has a natural moral right to act as the judgment of his or her own mind directs and to keep the product of this effort. In Rand's view, this requires that the initiation of physical force and the acquisition of property by fraud be banned. She agreed with America's Founding Fathers that the sole legitimate function of government is the protection of individual rights, including property rights. The purpose of objective criminal and civil law is to protect the individual from the coercion of others, while the purpose of a constitution and Bill of Rights is to protect the individual from the coercion of the state (historically the greatest violator of individual rights in Rand's estimation). Government may use force, that is its essence, but to do so legitimately it must never act as the aggressor––it may use force only in response to an initiation of force, e.g. theft, murder, foreign aggression. Rand did not believe that a free society, one in which all interaction was thus rendered voluntary, would make anyone rational––rationality cannot be compelled and is an exclusive capacity of the individual––but freedom does allow those who are rational and productive to achieve at their highest capacity.

Reason being a capacity of the individual, creative innovation, by its nature, requires the individual to have the freedom to do things differently, to disagree, to buck the trend or consensus, if necessary. According to Rand, therefore, the only type of organized human behavior consistent with the operation of reason is one of voluntary cooperation. Persuasion is the method of reason, a faculty which demands reality be the ultimate arbiter of disputes among men. By its nature, the overtly irrational cannot rely on the use of persuasion, cannot permit the facts to decide differences, and must ultimately resort to force in order to prevail as means of coordinating human behavior. Thus, Rand saw reason and freedom as correlates––just as she saw mysticism and force as correlates.

I can’t add much to that: but she did have some flaws in her reasoning:

Online U.S. News and World Report columnist Sara Dabney Tisdale says academic philosophers have generally dismissed Atlas Shrugged as "sophomoric, preachy, and unoriginal." In addition, Greg Nyquist has written that Rand's philosophy fundamentally misunderstands the very core of human nature. On his blog, Kant scholar William Vallicella has been scathing in describing what he calls her lack of rigour and limited understanding of philosophical subject-matter.

One significant exception to the general lack of attention paid to Rand in academic philosophy is the essay "On the Randian Argument" by Harvard University philosopher Robert Nozick, which appears in his collection, Socratic Puzzles. Nozick is sympathetic to Rand's political conclusions, but does not think her arguments justify them. In particular, his essay criticizes her foundational argument in ethics—laid out most explicitly in her book The Virtue of Selfishness—which claims that one's own life is, for each individual, the ultimate value because it makes all other values possible. Nozick says that to make this argument sound one needs to explain why someone could not rationally prefer dying and thus having no values. Therefore, he argues, her attempt to defend the morality of selfishness is essentially an instance of begging the question. Nozick also argues that Rand's solution to David Hume's famous is-ought problem is unsatisfactory. Tara Smith responds to this criticism in her book Viable Values. Philosophers Douglas Rasmussen and Douglas Den Uyl have also responded to Nozick's article, arguing that there are basic misstatements of Rand's case on Nozick's part.

Rand has also been accused of misinterpreting the works of many of the philosophers that she criticized in her writing. According to Fred Seddon, author of Ayn Rand, Objectivists, and the History of Philosophy (2003), Nathaniel Branden alleged that Rand never read The Critique of Pure Reason by Immanuel Kant. Seddon argued that Kant was not the "mystic" that Rand portrays him as, and presents David Kelley's The Evidence of the Senses: A Realist Theory of Perception complimentarily but critically as "...the book on epistemology that Rand promised but never wrote." Kelley responded to Seddon criticizing him in turn for having missed not only the essential point of his book but also that of the Objectivist epistemology, while Edward Younkins and others have defended Rand's interpretation of Kant's ideas.

Some of the more scathing critiques:

Left-wing linguist and analytic philosopher Noam Chomsky declared Rand to be "[o]ne of the most evil figures of modern intellectual history." Conservative commentator and founder of the National Review William F. Buckley declared: "Ayn Rand is dead. So, incidentally, is the philosophy she sought to launch dead; it was in fact stillborn."

In a 1984 article called "The Benefits and Hazards of the Philosophy of Ayn Rand", Nathaniel Branden, while noting that he was still in general agreement with her ideas, criticized Rand for her "scientific conservatism" and alleged indifference to "anything more recent than the work of Sir Isaac Newton," reporting his "astonishment" at hearing her describe the theory of evolution as "only a hypothesis." In contrast, another associate of Rand, Harry Binswanger has argued in The Biological Basis of Teleological Concepts that natural selection exemplifies Rand's understanding of biological activity. Branden has also stated his belief that Rand was "closed minded" to subjects such as ESP. Her insistence that Objectivism was an "integrated whole," the departure from which necessarily lead one into logical error, led Branden to conclude that her philosophy was "for all practical purposes" a "dogmatic religion". Since the publication of Rand's private journal entries regarding Branden, however, it has been shown that Rand had warned Branden himself against treating her as a "goddess."

I don’t know what to make of Branden: some of it devolves to ‘he said/she said’, but it sounds like her personal life was excessively messy at some points. (But hey, who doesn’t go through that stage?) I’d have to have an actual citation or sound bite, because I’d be willing to be there was more to it than that quick toss-off (and no, a hypothesis is NOT synonymous with theory), and it sounds like her concerns were more with ‘pure’ philosophy than with scientific acumen. And, as ESP hasn’t withstood the rigors of empirical research, that’s a big thumbs down, baby.

I recall having read Atlas Shrugged back in High School, but only vaguely: it didn’t make much of an impact (I was more enamored of Poe and Lovecraft), so I suppose I’ll have to add it to the reading list. It has become popular again, but the film adaptation is a long time in coming. Hopefully no one will muddle it up with gratuitous sex and violence, but I shan’t hold my breath.

The documentary I’ve mentioned is well worth seeing. There are numerous talk-show excerpts (even when she was on Donohue, from the time before he was a ratings whore), and she speaks in a clear, rational fashion that is fascinating to behold.

For those of you who are further interested, here is the website for the Ayn Rand Institute. For a shorter encapsulation:

  1. Reality exists as an objective absolute—facts are facts, independent of man’s feelings, wishes, hopes or fears.
  2. Reason (the faculty which identifies and integrates the material provided by man’s senses) is man’s only means of perceiving reality, his only source of knowledge, his only guide to action, and his basic means of survival.
  3. Man—every man—is an end in himself, not the means to the ends of others. He must exist for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself. The pursuit of his own rational self-interest and of his own happiness is the highest moral purpose of his life.
  4. The ideal political-economic system is laissez-faire capitalism. It is a system where men deal with one another, not as victims and executioners, nor as masters and slaves, but as traders, by free, voluntary exchange to mutual benefit. It is a system where no man may obtain any values from others by resorting to physical force, and no man may initiate the use of physical force against others. The government acts only as a policeman that protects man’s rights; it uses physical force only in retaliation and only against those who initiate its use, such as criminals or foreign invaders. In a system of full capitalism, there should be (but, historically, has not yet been) a complete separation of state and economics, in the same way and for the same reasons as the separation of state and church.

Any questions? Discuss.

Till the next post, then.

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