Objectivist Ethics, a Critique

The truth will win out in the end. This is the game plan of many Objectivists: spread the ideas of Ayn Rand, and her compelling logic will eventually penetrate a critical mass of even the most thick-skulled philosophers and intellectuals. These intellectuals will then persuade the persuaders—the artists, the teachers, the lawyers—and ideas once on the fringe will become the mainstream. Liberty will become a popular political idea, no libertarian party needed. It is a beautiful dream. Too bad it’s not going to happen.

This is not to deny the power of truth. Indeed, the ethic of pure altruism that Ayn Rand so loathed is effectively dead. You can see its ghost by watching some old Bogart movies. But today it is a zombie movement consigned to graveyards such as the dreary pages of Harper’s magazine.

Truth won, but not by Rand’s top down strategy. Kantian altruism was killed by a large generation of spoiled horny teenagers more interested in doing drugs, grooving to the beat and indulging primal urges than in filling body bags in Viet Nam. Kantian philosophy was killed not by rational argument, but by the hard-wired wisdom embedded in our genes, wisdom unappreciated by deductive philosophers ranging from Rousseau to Marx to Rand.

Our hard-wired wisdom preserves at least some elements of capitalism. “Mine!” is a concept naturally grasped, as anyone with a toddler well knows. Even dogs understand property rights. But our hard-wired wisdom also contains collectivist elements, elements which can break down when society scales up beyond the village level. For ethics suitable for the modern era, we do need to invoke reason.

But not the reason of Ayn Rand. Rand was wrong, and the collectivist philosophers know it well. Her ideas will never penetrate the thick skulls of skeptics because her ideas can be easily refuted. It is only those of us who love liberty to start with, and long for an excuse to demand it from the world, who are vulnerable to the siren song of Objectivism.

The Logic of Objectivist Ethics

Get a copy of The Virtue of Selfishness and read the first essay, “The Objectivist Ethics.” Therein you will find parts of an argument that runs something like this:

  1. Existence exists.
  2. Living beings must act in order to exist. The plant seeks light, the cow chews cud, the tiger hunts, etc.
  3. Man is a rational animal.
  4. Reason is man’s basic tool for survival, just as claws are for a tiger, etc.
  5. Since man is not governed by instinct, he needs rules to live by. He needs ethics.
  6. Morals thus derive from self preservation, from self interest.
  7. Rational self-interest, however, is socially benevolent in many ways. To steal, mooch or be a useless playboy is to violate intellectual integrity, causing the mind to melt down like a computer in an old Star Trek episode, only more slowly. Rational self-interest produces a drive for productivity and trade.

The list above is an outline for an argument, not the full argument itself. “The Objectivist Ethics” contains only pieces of argument; Rand oscillated between tedious reasoning and bald assertion. I don’t know if a complete version of her argument exists anywhere. While I have read most of Rand’s philosophical works and spent many (pleasant) hours discussing and debating her philosophy with assorted followers, I cannot put my finger on a single concentrated passage where she explicitly derives her moral philosophy with no steps omitted.

Be that as it may, the list above is more than a straw man. Refutations and corrections to the above can be applied with little modification to refute a great deal of Rand’s moral arguments, and do much to explain the downright alien behavior of her fictional heroes.

The Errors in Rand’s Arguments

If you are going to derive the universe from a small number of premises, those premises must be absolutely correct, else the resulting logic can lead to ridiculous conclusions. This is a supremely difficult task, and so it is orders of magnitude easier to take apart the works of a deductive philosopher than it is to construct a robust deductive philosophy in response. Ayn Rand could thus brilliantly refute many great collectivist philosophers[1] while at the same time proposing a moral philosophy in response that even a philosophical lightweight such as yours truly can easily demolish. Let us take a deeper look at the steps in Rand’s ethical argument.

1. Existence exists. And how! I lack the brainpower to remember what I had for dinner last Thursday; hallucinating an entire world is even more challenging.[2] Rand’s flaw is in not adhering to this admirable standard. When definition and reality are at odds, don’t declare “It’s reality that’s at fault.”[3]

2. Living beings need to act to exist, to survive... True, but this step overlooks a crucial aspect of life and survival, a fact that completely undermines her combination of self-interest based ethics and atheism. I could name it here and be done, but I’ll save it for later, as the coup de grace. Let us deal with lesser errors first.

3. Man is a rational animal. Not! Come now. Ayn Rand wrote hundreds of pages of essays and fiction deriding the many examples of men and women not being rational. And if man is a rational animal, why did we need Aristotle?

Maybe man ought to be a rational animal in these days of democracy, mass communications and nuclear weapons. Maybe reason is the next step in human evolution. But that is not what Rand wrote. She said man is a rational animal, and derived conclusions based upon a straightforward reading of this statement. This is unforgiveable intellectual sloppiness.

Man is a social animal. Man is a talking animal. Man is food selecting animal.[4] Man is a pattern recognizing animal. Man is a superstitious animal. And yes, man is also capable of reasoning, and doing so with precision after some training. But the capability to reason is not the sum total of the nature of man, nor is it even the majority.

4. Reason is man’s primary survival tool... Really? Then how do stupid people survive? Last I checked, we have quite a few of them out there, surviving away. How about moochers? How about the “Atillas and witch doctors” who have ruled humanity throughout most of history? They survived rather well. How about babies? Babies somehow survive without any reasoning capability.

I’ll answer that last question. Babies survive by being cute. Adults, especially parents, get happy when babies are happy. We get alarmed and/or irritated when babies cry. It’s built in.

I’ve run these obvious facts past my Objectivist friends and have gotten some interesting responses in return. It's generally something about survival of man qua man. By this reasoning babies aren’t really humans yet. I guess we can jack up the age for legal abortion to the 60th trimester at least. And that’s for the smart people. For the dummies out there, it’s open season. This line of reasoning brings to mind Whittaker Chambers’ famous critique:

From almost any page of Atlas Shrugged, a voice can be heard, from painful necessity, commanding: "To a gas chamber — go!"

5. Since man lacks instincts, he needs rules to live by...I’ll buy this, up to a point. But let us not downplay the wisdom in our genes. Humanity has survived centuries of bad science and bad philosophy, in part because our primal drives often trump our declared goals. Furthermore, our ability to overlook contradictions and thus act on unintegrated traditions and rules of thumb has allowed us to act properly on knowledge not well understood. True, we pay a heavy price for this intellectual sloppiness: stupid superstitions, unnecessary taboos, stock market gyrations, etc. But we have survived. Existence exists, and so do we.

6. Morals thus derive self-survival, from self-interest. Actually, no. But I’ll need to revisit point 2 to show why. Keep reading.

7. The need for integrity leads from self-interest to productive virtues. In the previous chapter, I argued that pure self-interest was incompatible with a free society. When the powerful indulge in self-interest, we get crony capitalism, not free markets. Study the history of post-colonial Africa or the Bush Administration for copious examples. Rand would argue that these are not examples of rational self-interest. To be a moocher or a plunderer is to apply different rules to others than to self, and thus suffer the psychic consequences of living a contradiction. You may be able to get ahead for a while wheedling, schmoozing, lying and bullying, but eventually the contradictions will tear apart your soul, rendering you a bitter husk of a person, like, say, Bill Clinton. On the other hand, if you live a life of reason, diligently integrating all your thoughts and actions into a logical whole, you achieve a life of supreme success and happiness, just like Ayn Rand.

Oops! I think I got the outcomes backwards. There’s that pesky existence thingy again, contradicting a perfectly good theory.

Ayn Rand had this much correct: the way of contradiction is the way of death. If you compartmentalize your life and live different aspects to different standards you will die.

Then again, if you devoutly follow the way of the Objectivist, integrate all your thoughts and actions, and walk the path of optimal productiveness, you too will die. And this brings us back to Point 2.

It is not the nature of living beings to survive! Millions of people die annually. The death rate stands at a staggering 100 percent. We do not have the choice between life and death. We all die. And given the second law of thermodynamics, I expect this feature to continue indefinitely, barring supernatural intervention. In other words the fundamental value upon which Objectivist ethics are derived is demonstrably false unless there is the possibility of supernatural intervention. Atheism and Objectivist ethics do not mix! And if the Christian scriptures are correct about the nature of the supernatural, rational self-interest dictates quite a bit of charity and self-sacrifice in this stage of our lives, so once again Objectivist ethics fails.

If we want to derive secular rules of ethics we need to modify Point 2 to match reality. Family trees survive, not individuals. Unless spontaneous generation is in fact occurring behind scientists’ backs, we are all descended from the original life forms. (Whether that is single celled organisms a billion or so years ago, or a variety of species rather more recently is an exercise I leave to the reader.) While family trees survive, branches thereof may be pruned mercilessly. People who don’t think babies are cute are a genetic dead end. The ancient tribe of self-interested philosophers was long ago devastated by the tribe of patriotic jocks and cheerleaders. While the self-sacrificing hero is more likely to die in battle than the practicing Objectivist, his relatives live on propagating the impulse for heroism.

Bad Ideas and Bizarre Consequences

For those who have waded through Atlas Shrugged, reconsider its plot elements in the light of what you have just read. Notice how Rand’s heroes fail to breed (save for Hank Rearden, who is thoroughly punished for such folly, and renounces his family when he achieves enlightenment.) Notice her Saturday matinee portrayal of incompetent bad guys. Notice her truly weird sex scenes which are neither romantic nor titillating. Notice her heroes who act against their inclinations to further their ideal of rational self [sic!] interest: the peaceful philosopher becomes a pirate, the scientific genius becomes a manual laborer, the wealthy scion becomes a celibate playboy.

Celibate playboy!? Where’s that existence thingy when you need it?

Rand was Wrong so...

If Rand was wrong, does that mean Kant was right? Certainly not!

! (!A) != A.

Read the exclamation points above as “not.” (I’m more software designer than philosopher, so I borrow notation from the C programming language family.)

In other words: Rand being wrong doesn’t imply that a philosophy which is diametrically at odds is correct. Actually, I should run the sentence in reverse as a criticism of Rand: just because Kant was wrong doesn’t mean all altruism is evil.

Anyway, in the chapters which follow, I intend to build up a more robust moral argument for capitalism, though the capitalism I advocate is a bit kinder and gentler than Rand’s. In the process we’ll look at what is wrong with Kant, and what is possibly right. I shall endeavor to be less strident, to avoid overstatement, and be more data driven. The result will be considerably mushier and less precise than the Vulcans in the audience might appreciate. But I am not going to try to derive the universe from a few axioms. I’d rather interpolate when possible, and keep the extrapolations short. As such I join the schools of Aristotle and Adam Smith. Rather better company than Marx, Rousseau,...and Rand.

What do You Think?

Agree? Disagree? Find an error? Join the discussion on the related blog post.

[1] See the Twentieth Century Motors sequence in Chapter X of Atlas Shrugged. This is Rand at her very best. If you can believe that Marxism is a good idea implemented poorly after reading this passage, you are truly thick, indeed.

[2] This is a paraphrase from Jack Vance’s excellent The Eyes of the Overworld.

[3] Another paraphrase, from Douglass Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy or one of its sequels.

[4] That is, humans go to great lengths to find easily digestible food instead of devoting a large fraction of our body to digestive organs as many other animals do.

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