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The Errors of Ayn Rand
Why I No Longer Consider Myself an Objectivist
I was, as teenagers tend to be, suspicious. And the cover jacket seemed to suggest this was a book about… a motor that didn’t work? a missing person named John? A woman who liked trains? Not exactly my usual fare. But years earlier, my mother had introduced me to Tolkien, Howard, Heinlein, and Asimov; she had truly never steered me wrong. So I read Atlas Shrugged.
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Rather, I consumed it. I devoured it. I emerged three days later from my second-story bedroom, having barely slept, wild-eyes and shaggy haired, and I found the nearest dollar bill I could find and knelt before the holy sign of $.
Thus began my decades-long era as an Objectivist. By the time I was 18 and off to West Point, I had already read The Fountainhead, We The Living, and Anthem and moved on to her philosophical work, Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, For the New Intellectual, The Virtue of Selfishness, The New Left, The Return of the Primitive, Philosophy: Who Needs It? and The Romantic Manifesto. Discovering that there had once been a “collective” devoted to promulgating Objectivism, but was no longer, I read The Passion of Ayn Rand and My Life with Ayn Rand to find out how it had all gone wrong. I even bought Rush records because they were based on Ayn Rand and listened to 2112 while I re-read everything.
At Harvard Law School, I had the remarkable good fortune to be taught Philosophy and Law by Professor Robert Nozick just before his untimely death, and was thus able to discuss Ayn Rand with the greatest-living libertarian philosopher on the planet. I also struck up a correspondence with Professor George Reisman of Pepperdine, an Objectivist professor of economics who had known both Ayn Rand and Von Mises personally. I have cited his epic treatise Capitalism previously here on Tree of Woe (in my article “Solving the Profit Puzzle”).
While working at Wachtell, Lipton after graduation, I had the good fortune to be mentored by a partner there who had (if I recall) a Philosophy PhD with a focus on Aristotle. He revealed to me the underlying Aristotelian basis of Ayn Rand and suggested a number of other writers to me — Tara Smith’s Viable Values and Alasdair Macintyre’s After Virtue being particularly influential on me. Indeed, the latter book has probably influenced me more than any other work of non-fiction I have ever read; it was the seed of my awakening to the problems of modernity and liberalism. My time at Wachtell, Lipton (otherwise a horror show of drudgery and unpleasant tedium) thus broadened my mind to the entire corpus of classical philosophy.
Slowly, over the years, I read more and more. And one day I realized I wasn’t an Objectivist anymore — not by Rand’s exacting standards for that title, anyway. I had become something different, something unnamed.2
I share these facts so that you can properly situate the critique of Ayn Rand which I offer in today’s Contemplation. They come from a place of deep respect and affection. I still consider Rand to be one of the most important and influential novelists and philosophers of the 20th century, and hold her works as far superior to the dreck that passes for philosophy in our postmodern academy.
And yet, even so, I can no longer readily fly the banner of the dollar over Atlantis.
A (Very) Brief Summary of Objectivism
Ayn Rand started with the axiomatic concepts - existence, consciousness, and identity. The axiom 'existence exists' means that there is a reality, and it is independent of any consciousness. 'A is A' stands for the Law of Identity, suggesting that things are what they are, holding their identity.
Rand asserted that consciousness is the faculty of perceiving that which exists - it is inherently relational, having no content or actions of its own, it is the faculty of perceiving what exists. It's a tool for humans to understand and interpret reality.
The concept of "value" arises, Rand argues, only in the context of life. Life is a certain kind of process that involves goal-directed action to maintain itself, and it's only in the context of this process that things can be evaluated as being of value, as being good or bad for the organism. Things that support the organism's life are considered "good," and those that harm it are considered "bad."
From this, she argues that life is the ultimate value, the standard of all values, because it is the fundamental phenomenon that makes all values possible. An organism's life is its ultimate value because it's a precondition for all other values, and without it, no other values could be pursued or achieved.
In the context of human beings, she argues that the kind of life that is appropriate for humans is a life lived in accordance with reason. Man's basic tool of survival is his rational faculty—his mind. To live, humans must use their minds to understand the world and figure out how to achieve their values in it. Therefore, a life proper to a rational being is the ultimate value for humans.
As a result, each person should pursue his or her own life and happiness, leading to her advocacy of ethical egoism, the idea that individuals should act in their rational self-interest.
On a societal level, the protection of these rights leads to her advocacy for laissez-faire capitalism. If individuals are to pursue their own lives and happiness, they require a social system that protects their rights to do so. Rand sees capitalism as the only system that fully respects individual rights.
In short, Ayn Rand is a Neo-Aristotelian in epistemology and ethics. She holds to a functional theory of morality where we should attempt to flourish as humans qua humans. Her meta-ethics are quite similar to those in Macintyre’s Dependent Rational Animals and Philippa Foot’s Natural Goodness.
I still find myself almost entirely sympathetic to this approach, and those of you who have been following along in my own philosophical writings have doubtless already noted the great debt I owe to her thought.
So where do I part from the grand dame of libertarianism?
Error #1: Rejection of Nous
Ayn Rand was a materialist who rejected any supernatural or non-empirical claims, including the existence of a soul or afterlife. She was a staunch advocate of reason and saw religion and mysticism as fundamentally opposed to it.
In Atlas Shrugged, she referred to mystics as "witch doctors" and contrasted them with men of reason and science:
“The alleged short-cut to knowledge, which is faith, is only a short-circuit destroying the mind. […] The mystics are not lovers of existence, but haters of reason. […] Every dictator is a mystic, and every mystic is a potential dictator. […] Mysticism is the claim to a non-sensory, non-rational, non-definable, non-identifiable means of knowledge, such as ‘instinct,’ ‘intuition,’ ‘revelation,’ or any form of ‘just knowing.’”
Rand also addressed the idea of God and the supernatural in The Virtue of Selfishness stating:
“The concept of a supernatural being is a contradiction in terms: it is a concept that subverts and contradicts the fundamental premises of human cognition. […] The concept of God is incommensurable with reason; it is an invalid, irrational, self-contradictory concept.”
I nowadays find these views in grave error, for two reasons. First, I believe she is wrong about “non-rational” means of knowing. Not only do non-rational means of knowing exist, their existence is necessary for reason to function. Rand delighted in the Age of Reason, but the Age of Reason failed to defend reason.
Professor Stephen Hicks (himself a friend to Objectivism), in his seminal book Explaining Postmodernism, has charted the disastrous consequences of The Enlightenment’s inability to use reason to defend reason. Hicks notes:
“Identifying postmodernism’s roots and connecting them to contemporary bad consequences does not refute postmodernism. What is still needed is a refutation of those historical premises, and an identification and defense of the alternatives to them. The Enlightenment was based on premises opposite to those of postmodernism, but… it articulated and defended them only incompletely. That weakness is the sole source of postmodernism’s power against it. Completing the articular and defense of those premises is therefore essential…”
I agree with Hicks on the urgency; but after years of struggling with the challenge, I think that the attempt to defeat postmodernism by better articulating modernism is doomed to failure. What is needed is a return to classical, not modern, thought. As I explained in The Rarity of Noesis:
Noesis is my preferred term for a philosophical concept that dates back to Plato. It’s derived from the Ancient Greek term nous. According to Plato, nous is the highest form of human understanding and is responsible for our ability to grasp eternal, unchangeable truths. According to Aristotle, nous was the intellectual faculty that enables us to grasp the first principles or fundamental truths of reality.
The Scholastics inherited the concept, calling it in Latin intellectio intuitio. According to the Scholastics, intellectio intuitio is that type of intellectual perception that goes beyond discursive reasoning or deductive logic. It is a direct, immediate, and non-inferential understanding of a concept or truth.
Noesis fell into disrepute after the Scholastics, but has recently been resuscitated by some heterodox thinkers. For instance, in his book The Emperor’s New Mind, Roger Penrose has implied that the existence of our noetic faculty
The faculty of noesis allows for the establishment of axiomatic foundations without resorting to circular reasoning or infinite regress. This is because those with noesis can directly perceive and understand the truth of axioms without requiring further justification. The ability to apprehend first principles noetically means that the faculty of noesis enables an individual to bypass the need for external justification, thereby resolving the trilemma.
Rand was the first person to name and identify the fallacy of the stolen concept — an invaluable contribution for which she deserves high praise. Yet, in her defense of reason based on self-evident axioms, she commits the fallacy. The fact that the axioms which are foundational to reason are “self-evident” means there is something our selves are doing that is more foundational than reason.
Error #2: Acceptance of Materialist-Monism
Although she held Aristotle and Aquinas in high regard, Ayn Rand did not embrace their hylomorphic metaphysics. There is nothing in Rand about act and potentia, about substantial form, prima materia, or any of the other features of the classical worldview.3 Instead, she was a strict materialist-monist whose metaphysics have much in common with “Fuck Yeah Science” crowd.
Her acceptance of materialist-monism was in grave error. I have already written extensively about the need for a postmaterialist metaphysics (here, here, here, and here, specifically). Perhaps the best summary of my views was in Why Has Our World Gone So Crazy:
The contemporary materialist-monist consensus of nature is incorrect. “There [may be] natural teleological laws governing the development of organization over time. This is a throwback to the Aristotelian conception of nature… The possibility of principles of change over time tending toward certain types of outcomes is coherent, in a world in which the nonteleological laws are not fully deterministic.” Source: Mind and Cosmos, Thomas Nagel.
The contemporary consensus that mind is reducible to matter is incorrect. “Mainstream conclusions, deeply at odds with the must fundamental deliverances of every day experience, result from correctly perceiving what are in fact necessary consequences of the classical materialist-monist premises from which practically all of contemporary psychology, neuroscience, and philosophy derive. [But] [m]ultiple lines of empirical evidence, drawn from a wide variety of sources, converge to produce a resolution of the mind-body problem along lines sharply divergent from the current mainstream view… We find this evidence cumulative overwhelming.” Source: Irreducible Mind, Edward F. Kelly and Emily W. Kelly
The contemporary consensus that consciousness is an epiphenomenon and free will is non-existent is incorrect. “Our minds become endowed, by means of the quantum mechanical dynamical rules, with the power to influence the macroscopic properties of matter, without themselves being totally predetermined by material properties alone… The empowering message of quantum mechanics is that the empirical data of everyday life, and also our intuitions, are generally veridical, not delusional; and hence that our mental resolves can often help bring causally to pass the bodily actions we mentally intend. The role of our minds is to help us, not to deceive us, as the materialist philosophy must effectively maintain.” Source: Quantum Theory & Free Will, Henry Stapp
The contemporary consensus that human thought is merely the algorithmic activity of computation is incorrect. “The human faculty of being able to understand is something that must be achieved by some non-computational activity of the brain or mind. We…find ourselves driven towards a Platonic viewpoint of things. Our minds…have some access to this Platonic realm through an ‘awareness’ of the mathematical forms and our ability to reason about them. It is this potential for the awareness of mathematical concepts… that gives the mind a power beyond what can ever be achieved by a device dependent solely upon computation for its action.” Source: Shadows of the Mind, Roger Penrose
[Materialism] must be countered with an alternative philosophy that properly accounts for the teleology of nature, the irreducibility of mind, the non-computational nature of thought, and the freedom of the will. Natural philosophers are working to develop alternatives ranging from idealistic monism (Amit Goswami), dualism (Henry Stapp), or neo-hylomorphism (Edward Feser).
It seems to me that Dr. Wolfgang Smith’s metaphysics answer all four of these challenges, uniting (as it were) Henry Stapp’s physics with Feser’s neo-hylomorphism. Ayn Rand does not answer them at all; she simply asserts they don’t exist.
Error #3: Inability to Understand Spirituality
Because of her strict materialist-monism, Rand rejected any belief in the afterlife as misguided mysticism. As soon as one relaxes that strictness and accepts the possibility of something more, then her view that life is the necessary standard of value collapses.
If, for instance, I have an immortal soul; and my choice of whether to live a Christian life determines my salvation or damnation for all eternity; then right reason would lead me to live a life of faith, not ethical egoism. This is, of course, Pascal’s wager.
Interestingly enough, Rand seems to have been aware — at least on a subconscious level — of this weakness in her philosophy. According to her biographers, Rand originally intended to include a Catholic priest named Father Amadeus in Atlas Shrugged. He was to be a moral counterpart to John Galt, representing a form of moral absolutism that contrasted with the moral relativism of the villains and the rational egoism of the heroes. Father Amadeus was supposed to be a man who sincerely believed in and practiced his religion's moral teachings. He was to face a crisis of faith upon realizing that his teachings, taken to their logical conclusion, would lead to the kind of dystopian society depicted in Atlas Shrugged.
However, in the end, Ayn Rand decided to remove the character of Father Amadeus from the novel. Some have speculated that Rand, an atheist, didn't want to give the impression that she was endorsing any form of religious morality. I believe she excluded Father Amadeus because she could not convincingly demolish his worldview. A Catholic worldview does not lead to the same dystopia that postmodern collectivism does.
The closest Rand ever comes to introducing religion into her work is found in the Fountainhead, where the villain Ellsworth Toohey at one point considers becoming a Catholic priest before rejecting Catholicism because it was still too selfish and reasonable. This is, for Rand, praise for the religion. Turning away from God, Toohey ultimately finds his desired philosophy in a type of nihilistic altruism which demands self-sacrifice without any spiritual reward at all. She was right to consider Toohey evil, but I think she was wrong to condemn all spirituality as also evil.
Error #4: Focusing on Survival, Forgetting Reproduction
Rand asserts that life is a a process of goal-directed self-sustaining action, which is the context in which the concept of “value” arises. Life, therefore, is the standard of value.
But individual life only begins when other living things initiate reproduction; and individual life comes to an end of its goal-directed self-sustaining action, living on only in its descendants. We enter life dependent on others, we exit life dependent on others, and if we do not create others in between, it all comes to an end. This is the point that Alasdair Macintyre makes so clearly in his book Dependent Rational Animals, from which he derives communitarian or republican ethics rather than libertarian ethics.
Rand, however, ignores this entire aspect of human existence. She was herself childless. Of the major characters in her three major novels, not a single one, not Dagny Taggert, not Hank Rearden, not John Galt or Francisco D’Anconia, not Howard Roark, Peter Keating, Dominique Francon, or Gail Wynand, not Kira Argounova, Leo Kevalensky, or Andrei Taganov, has or shows any interest in having children.
As a teenager flush with the vigor of youth, this is easy to miss. As an adult, it is a blinding oversight. The good life for man qua man must incorporate reproduction — or there will very soon be no men to qua. But as soon as reproductive interests are entered into the moral system, the easy libertarian answers get much harder.
Absent an embrace of reproductive success, the world of Objectivism leads inevitably to the world of Idiocracy, because the John Galts and Dagny Taggerts of the world don’t reproduce. To the extent it is practiced, ethically egoistic secular materialism leads to the abolition of reproduction.
This was actually the first problem in Objectivism that I noticed, and I began my efforts to “solve it” 23 years ago. My moral theory of reproductive perfectionism, which I’ve explored in depth here and here, was the result. But reproductive perfectionism, I have since discovered, leads us right back to traditional morality.
Error #5: Belief in the Harmony of Interests
Rand believed in something called the trader principle: a principle of interaction where parties engage in a voluntary exchange that benefits both in ways that are mutually beneficial. The trader principle, she argued, applied not only to economic transactions but also to all human interactions, including personal and professional relationships. Each party must bring value and exchange it voluntarily with the other, leading to a win-win situation. According to Rand, a trader is a man who earns what he gets and does not give or take the undeserved.
Rand rejected the view that individuals' interests are fundamentally in conflict, a perspective she saw as rooted in a "zero-sum" worldview. Instead, she argued for a harmony of interests among rational individuals. This means that in a society where interactions are voluntary and rights are respected, individuals acting rationally in pursuit of their self-interest can benefit others while benefiting themselves. There is no inherent conflict between my interests and yours, as long as we respect each other's rights and deal with each other voluntarily. Her famous quote "there are no conflicts of interest among rational men" captures this idea.
Unfortunately, it’s entirely wrong. Rand is only able to maintain the harmony of interests because she entirely ignores the necessity of human reproduction, which is a zero-sum game. Despite herself, Rand shows this in Atlas Shrugged, where John Galt, Hank Rearden, and Francisco D’Anconia all want Dagny Taggert, but only John Galt gets to have her. But rather than handle that in a philosophically grounded manner, Rand glibly allows Rearden and D’Anconia to be “friend zoned” without even an unkind word. D’Anconia has been in love with Dagny for 20 years and during that entire time has never been intimate with anyone else while waiting to tell her about Atlantis and the plan to stop the motor of the world. Dagny hooks up with John Galt the first night she meets him, and D’Anconia thinks…that’s just fine? No. Even as a 16-year old, I knew that was psychologically implausible.
Interactions between human beings are sometimes positive sum, but sometimes they are zero sum, and the line between them is not always clear cut. A Randian society cannot endure in the face of zero-sum behavior, but the human species cannot reproduce without such behavior. The zero-sum competition for status and reproductive success is both necessary and meaningful to our lives. Take it away and the result is not Randian man, but the hikikomori of Japan.
Objectivism for Actual People in the Real World
One of my friends recently described my Physiocratic project as “libertarianism for the real world.” It is perhaps better described as Objectivism for actual people in the real world.
A proper philosophic system for actual people in our real world must take into account that human faculties entail more than just reason; that existence is bigger than mere materialism; that the human afterlife might matter as much as the human life; that the flourishing of human life entails reproduction and not just survival; and that human interaction is necessarily both positive-sum and zero-sum. Unfortunately, Objectivism does none of those things.
Had Ayn Rand considered Objectivism an open system, to which subsequent philosophers could contribute, I would call myself a Neo-Objectivist seeking to improve upon the structure she built. But she was explicit that Objectivism was not open; one either agreed with her about everything, or one was not an Objectivist.
I no longer agree with her about everything. Hence, Physiocracy. Let us contemplate this on the Tree of Woe.
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Arguably, this is the origin story of how I became an internet supervillain despised by the Left for my political views.
My girlfriend at the time would say I had become a pretentious asshole. But since we broke up we can safely disregard her opinion.
I believe that this absence is one of the major reasons why Neo-Aristotelians have never felt comfortable counting Ayn Rand among their number.