Philosophy Weekend: The Cage Match Between Ayn Rand and Carl Jung

Existential History Psychology

I began this five-part series (informally titled "Why Ayn Rand Is Wrong" -- the previous four sections are here, here, here and here) by quoting Rand's own succinct summary of her ethical philosophy, and I'll repeat it today:

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.
--Ayn Rand, 1962

I believe this is terrible advice, yet I know Ayn Rand's ideas have become increasingly popular. What you've seen here in the past four weekends is me struggling to articulate why I think Ayn Rand is wrong. I have a particular argument in mind, but I feel a bit flummoxed by the fact that I can't find another major thinker who has expressed the argument I wish to express, which leaves me in the ironically Randian position of having to stand here alone, supported by nobody else, screaming my argument to the skies.

And that's fine with me, because I've always been an independent and self-reliant person (no less, I hope, than the heroes of Rand's novels The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged) and I fully understand the appeal of the lone brave voice against the mob. My problem with Ayn Rand's individualistic ethical philosophy is not that it has no appeal, but rather that it's too simplistic to be taken seriously. It pretends to be much more than it is.

Telling somebody to "live only for yourself" is like telling somebody to walk straight north until they reach the North Pole. They can try, but they'll find themselves blocked soon enough.

"He must exist for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself." Sure. Just try, and let me know how it works out for you. In fact, if we examine the ways we behave in our everyday lives, we quickly realize that the goals and purposes we strive for rarely involve our individual, atomic selves in isolation. Rather, we regularly morph through various layers of collective self -- family, neighborhood, workplace, ethnic group, nation -- during the course of our regular routines. The relationships we care about and the groups we belong to are buried deep, deep within us. To try to isolate our individual motivations from our collective motivations would be like trying to remove the flour from baked bread. To be self-interested, it turns out, is to be group-interested; we couldn't remove our relationships from our lives without losing our own personalities.

This point seems absolutely clear to me, and yet when I look to refer to other great thinkers who might have developed this idea I come up surprisingly empty. The idea that our communities form and define our selves is hardly alien to our way of thinking -- much of popular religion and politics revolves around this fact, and the essential structures of the modern family and the modern workplace are based around communal motivation -- and yet I have not been able to find a well-known thinker or philosopher who has expressed this idea as clearly and directly as Ayn Rand (or, for that matter, Thomas Hobbes, or even Friedrich Nietzsche) has expressed the opposing view.

In the cage match of popular ethics and morality, who will challenge Ayn Rand? For lack of a better candidate, the best choice may be Carl Jung, a pioneering psychologist and contemporary of Sigmund Freud who built his work around concepts such as individuation, synchronicity and the collective unconscious. Jung was particularly interested in the origin of our collective archetypes. Here's a typical Jungian passage, from his 1928 book Two Essays on Analytical Psychology:

The form into the world into which [a person] is born is already inborn in him as a virtual image. Likewise parents, spouse, children, birth and death are inborn in him as virtual images, as psychic aptitudes. These a priori categories have by nature a collective character; they are images of parents, spouse, and children in general, and are not individual predestinations. We must therefore think of these images as lacking in solid content, hence as unconscious. They only acquire solidity, influence and eventual consciousness in the encounter with empirical facts, which touch the unconscious aptitude and quicken it to life. They are in a sense the deposits of all our ancestral experiences, but they are not the experiences themselves. So at least it seems to us, in the present limited state of our knowledge.

Carl Jung's work provides an excellent starting vocabulary for anyone wishing to study the ways we exist as collective selves, though his writings tend to raise more questions than they answer. I wish there were a wider variety of philosophers, psychologists and sociologists following in his footsteps and doing original work for popular audiences in the field of relational philosophy and psychology, and I'd like to know if anyone has other references to suggest. I recently began reading a book called Connected: The Surprising Power of our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives by Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler, both professors at Harvard University, that makes bold claims for the subliminal power of group psychology, and this type of research certainly seems relevant to questions we've been discussing. The field appears to be wide open, and maybe we can even come up with some worthwhile conclusions here in our discussions on Litkicks.

* * * * *

I began this blog series hoping to get vigorous feedback from readers with their own strong opinions about the Ayn Rand approach to ethics, and I was very happy with the results, even when I got responses like this one, from a commenter named Don Kenner:

None of this has any relationship to the ethics of Ayn Rand's Objectivism. Like it or hate it, it is not a theory that falls apart when confronted with a situation of "shared interest." This is a sophomoric objection to a complex ethical theory. It wouldn't be so bad, except that the ACTUAL theory is readily available in printed form.

Rand was asked if she would take a bullet to protect her husband. She replied "absolutely I would." Does this admission blow her theory to applesauce? No.

Imagine that I told a proponent of John Rawls philosophy that Rawls' ideas were applesauce because...(drum roll).. people break contracts all the time (prolonged, tumultuous applause).

Seriously, dude. This was bloody awful.

Don Kenner is correct that John Rawls' principle of contract law does not fall apart because there are instances where contracts are broken. However, if it were the case that contracts were broken a majority of the time, one would have to conclude that John Rawls' principle of contract law does not hold much force. I don't think that's true of contract law, but I do think it's true of Ayn Rand's ethical law. The important point is not that human beings sometimes put the needs of others before themselves. It's that we do this constantly, persistently, dependably. If we think about how often we consider the needs of others over our own needs, we will be pleasantly described to discover how selfish we all are not, how selfish we have never been.

Still, stubborn responses from smart people like Don Kenner, TKG, Timothy, Mark Stouffer and Paul Ray make me realize that the Ayn Rand principle of ethics does hold a lot of force for many people, and after fielding responses for five weeks I'm pretty convinced that nothing I write on Litkicks will convince anybody who has found Ayn Rand's ideology personally rewarding that they should cease to believe in it. Perhaps there's no reason why it should.

Carl Jung's pioneering works were written during the early decades of the 20th Century, but this probing psychologist lived through the terrible cataclysm of World War II, observing both the rise and fall of Fascism in Western Europe and the prevailing victory of Communism in Eastern Europe, Russia and China. A more horrific laboratory for the worst case scenarios of collective psychology could scarcely be imagined. One of his most powerful later works, The Undiscovered Self, written in 1957, shows a brilliant mind in a state of self-doubt, grappling with human disasters that exceeded his own reasonable fears.

Since it is universally believed that man is merely what his consciousness knows of itself, he regards himself as harmless and so adds stupidity to iniquity. He does not deny that terrible things have happened and still go on happening, but it is always "the others" who do them. And when such deeds belong to the recent or remote past, they quickly and conveniently sink into the sea of forgetfulness, and that state of chronic woolly-mindedness returns which we describe as "normality". In shocking contrast to this is the fact that nothing has finally disappeared and nothing has been made good. The evil, the guilt, the profound unease of conscience, the dark foreboding, are there before our eyes, if only we would see. Man has done these things; I am a man, who has his share of human nature; therefore I am guilty with the rest and bear unaltered and indelibly within me the capacity and the inclination to do them again at any time ... Harmlessness and naivete are as little helpful as it would be for a cholera patient and those in his vicinity to remain unconscious of the contagiousness of the disease. On the contrary, they lead to projection of the unrecognized evil of the "other".

Perhaps the best reason to take a good dose of Carl Jung as a regular antidote to Ayn Rand is that he admits what he can't explain. Perhaps the worst offense of the proud Randians is not their individualism -- who doesn't love individualism! -- but their smug self-certainty. The great questions of human morality and ethics -- the same questions asked by Jesus, Buddha and Socrates long ago, and by so many other great thinkers since -- have not, in fact, been answered yet.

This article is part of the series Philosophy Weekend. The next post in the series is Philosophy Weekend: Grounding. The previous post in the series is Philosophy Weekend: What We Crave, When We Crave.
20 Responses to "Philosophy Weekend: The Cage Match Between Ayn Rand and Carl Jung"

by TKG on

"What you've seen here in the past four weekends is me struggling to articulate why I think Ayn Rand is wrong"

I think one needs to struggle in this regard because Randian "philosophy" is so ethereal. It's lightweight idiosyncratic, but fun for the fans.. cult of personality stuff rather than anything serious.

Anyone remember how bad Paul DePodesta was as Dodger GM? Your smug self certainty comment hit the nail right on the head.

The thing is that what Rand ostensibly may have been trying to get across is developed in so many other disciplines and names and in fact forms the basis for the world view of current liberal orthodoxy, especially in Britain it seems.

I learned it as sociobiology. It's more accepted as evolutionary psychology. It can be summarized with the well known term "the selfish gene".

A few weeks ago I simply posted a formula which was the kin selection formula that was later alluded to in conversations here. The idea is that people do things for others in so much as it will increase their evolutionary fitness. Not that it is conscious, but that it is ipso facto. We all are here because of this over billions of years of evolution.

The link to the biological altruism covered this and I was glad to see it being discussed.

As far as I can tell the evolutionary psychology view is the accepted paradigm today and has supplanted Biblical tradition for the basis of determining morality and understanding behavior.

I don't think the establishment that push this worldview really understand it so it is convoluted and out of context in how it is presented. But it does dominate now.

As far as Jung, you guys were also talking about "mirror neurons" and I think concepts and understandings of central nervous system structure and function are interesting in terms of Jung's ideas.

by TKG on

Hi Levi,

One more:

You wrote, "To be self-interested, it turns out, is to be group-interested"

I want to ask a broader question about this entire topic/discussion.

How do you know there really is a difference between the Randian view you argue against and your view?

How do you know the difference is not purely semantic?

by Dharmabum on

No man is an island entire of itself; every man
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe
is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as
well as any manner of thy friends or of thine
own were; any man's death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

John Donne

by mtmynd on

Re: "The pursuit of his own rational self-interest and of his own happiness is the highest moral purpose of his life."

This one line could easily be interpreted as "following your own bliss", which is not exactly selfish. The key word, 'rational,' I see as pursuing one's self-interest in a morally decisive way that brings no harm to others in order to attain the ideal of 'happiness.'

But I do believe that at least two facts of Ayn Rand's life must have certainly influenced her overall philosophical 'doctrines' - (1) no children and (2) early influence of the Russian Revolution which brought about an attempt to create a Utopian society which was known as (ultimately) Communism. How many believe to live in a Communist-ruled society would require a complete selflessness for the participants of such a social endeavor? 'Tis the rare individual that can live their complete lives selfishly without at least once struggling with the question: is selfishness necessary for survival, much less 'happiness'?

As all things in life, balance is the most preferred choice to maintain one's contentment and health, both physically and mentally.

by Dharmabum on

Levi,Thanks for a great article! Since you are on a search for responses to Randian thought
please check out the entire Mahayana Canon of literature. Thinkers such as Buddha,Dogen,Hui-Neng,and many others have spent lifetimes working through this issue.

Many of the Beat writers have added to this debate. Among just a few check out any work by Gary Snyder,"Some of The Dharma" by Jack Kerouac, and many works by Alan Watts .

The relentless pursuit of self interest has been seen as a central cause of misery by many of these thinkers.

by Levi Asher on

Love that poem, Dharmabum, thanks a lot for posting it here.

Agreed about the Buddhist and Beat texts. Agreed also, Mtmynd, about the influence the Russian Revolution (and its disappointing antecedents) must have had on Ayn Rand, who was 12 when the Bolsheviks took St. Petersburg.

TKG, I can think of many ways to answer your question. I don't think the difference between my ethical viewpoint (or Carl Jung's) differs only semantically from Ayn Rand's, but I do think there must be many touchpoints between the two ideologies. The difference may ultimately reside in temperament more than anything else. Well, one thing Ayn Rand and I agree on is that her ideas should be taken seriously. But she thinks they should be seriously accepted and I think they should be seriously rejected.

Well, in a market economy (which is based on co-dependence), the very thought of taking Ayn Rand seriously can lead to....hem...economic crisis? Great articles Levi, I posted links to the whole series on my blog.

by John W on

Islands don't think.

by Mississippi Bennu on

Salutations Levi,

I've found the last five articles on Rand fascinating, it's a rarely experienced delight to hear someone well versed in philosophy share ideas similar to my own about Rands particular view.

The best thing about Rand's philosophy, or at least what I think has so many people attracted to her view, is that her philosophy possess a kind of frankness. People just do, they just want, and the inner consciousness is infinitely more important than what we do as a collective. The simplicity of it is what works, but also why I feel it is incorrect. I think answers in philosophy (not that there are answers, but epiphanies maybe, and only ever personal) should be like difficult cliffs. Seemingly impossible to scale up, but with a clarity of vision at the top.

But enough of my improbable metaphors. I think the best philosopher to turn to when bucking Rand is Carl Rogers. He shares Rand's focus upon the actual, but . .

"For Rogers, "self-actualization" is a natural process, yet it requires the nurturance of a caregiver. This is a contradiction in Rogers' theory, which may or may not be obvious. If "self-actualization" is merely a natural process, then why must it depend on a caregiver for it to occur? In defense of Rogers, this paradox at least shows that, despite his individualistic bias, he understood deep down that people need people, that we are radically dependent on others for our existence, and that so-called "individuation-separation" involves a more differentiated and mature relationship with others rather than a lack of interdependence with others.

In any case, Rogers felt that "unconditional positive regard" is necessary for "self-actualization." That is, human growth requires the experience of being valued for oneself regardless of the degree to which specific behaviors are approved or disapproved. On the other hand, self-actualization is thwarted by "conditional positive regard" -- when acceptance is dependent on the positive or negative evaluation of a person's actions. "Conditional positive regard," Rogers felt, leads to "conditions of worth," which, in turn, can lead to alienation from true feelings and, thus, to anxiety and threat, which blocks self-actualization."

Rand's nexus and climax begin and end at the self, for Rogers the ability to empathize with others and care for what is beyond the personal lead to actualization. Self-actualization here is the key. By actualizing others, we expand the self. In regards to the truth nestled in the choices we make I think it takes psychologist more than a philosopher.

by Rav on

I would suggest reading William James, as he argued that a person's identity is grounded in relationships.

by Levi Asher on

Funny you should mention, Rav -- William James is just about my favorite philosopher of all. I've written about him here and elsewhere, though I've never focused specifically on this aspect of his work (you're right, I should).

Another person has recommended I read Charles Taylor's "The Sources of Self", and I just ordered it.

I think Rand is as right as Jung. They see different ends of the spectrum. Actually, Defoe handled the problem brilliantly in Robinson Crusoe. All the while living for himself and being himself to the fullest, Crusoe longs for the companionship of other humans - their thoughts, words, writings. But he also loves his singularity and uses it to turn himself into a kind of human being that he could never have imagined before his isolation. The two forces war within him for years. But finally, he returns to a collective existence.

So, in a way, Crusoe sojourns with Rand but ultimately returns to the safety of Jung.

by sean on

hm. well, i think you're onto something with jung, right? what about the rest of the 20th century psychologist/philosopher gang like lacan, and the deconstructionists -- all maybe embodied by maybe zizek today -- i'm not as well or recently versed with the details as i'd like to be before spouting off on something like this, but i'm thinking that the concept of The Other as something like primary is what ultimately unravels rand's self-limiting nonsense. it IS the relationship between things that makes reality -- the self is nothing without the other, and the self as even the self perceives it can only exist in the context of the Big Other. so we can get all selfish if we'd like but even selfishness is only meaningful to the extent the Other has defined it as such. even if we pretend to ignore everything outside of us, we still require our own "other" to make sense of ourselves...which makes it not just a material reality, but a theoretical one, too. it's actually a lot more work, i think, to remove the other from the equation in order to arrive at anything close to rand's whatever-it-was, even on a practical level, much less a theoretical one (which is impossible) -- that is, if you want to come up with a complete and cohesive worldview.

she was a great writer but -- eh.

by Levi Asher on

Hi Sean -- yes, I think all of these writers are relevant, and another one is Charles Taylor, whose "Sources of the Self" was recommended to me by someone who read this article. It does seem that there are several major thinkers saying the same kind of thing I'm trying to say here, though interestingly not one of them (except maybe Jung -- maybe) has the kind of following Ayn Rand has today. I wonder what that signifies?

I think it signifies that the "extended self" is so innate we don't even think about it. Parents generally love their kids. People gain fame or notoriety by pointing out exceptions to that norm.

by Jer on

"Dharmabum" - Well quoted. Gotta love good old John Donne.

by Jer on

I know this will not be a popular idea with some, but I think Rand is popular because she tells us what we want to hear; or, to be more precise, speaking as a Christian, she appeals to the selfishness and greed in us, rationalizes it, and tells us it is alright. In essence the original Ayn Rand is the serpent in the garden telling Eve it's ok to eat the fruit, it's ok to "be yourself." I think the lie in that statement is that it is possible to be yourself without other selves (a point you and others have been making.) In fact, look what Eve did - she gave the fruit to Adam.

My problem with Ayn Rand is that so many of her disciples are selfish and greedy people. They have struck me as arrogant, self-involved, etc. It seems to me that their philosophy is a thin veil for greed and callousness. Ayn Rand may have taken a bullet for her own close friends or family, but she and her followers don't seem willing to take a paper cut for anyone else. In then end I think John Donne is right, "No man is an island," we are all connected. It's a much harder philosophy to live out; how do I feel connected to everyone, how do I act in the best interests of all? But the effort will, I believe, produce better results both for the society and the individual.

Levi wrote:
"The Randian embrace of self-interest and power politics"

I had no idea she embraced power politics. I completely reject that part of her philosophy if it's there. It seems completely at odds with "nor sacrificing others to himself". I never studied her beyond "Atlas Shrugged," but obviously, if you're right about her embracing power politics, at least in the sense that it sacrifices others to oneself, then I agree that she needs to be challenged.

"because you value the safety of the three other people in the car more than you value your own."
"I think we all have always known that our selves are larger than our individual bodies."
"the idea of a harmonious society built upon mutual recognition of each other's selfish needs just doesn't seem to ring true with the way we live, because our actual needs are the opposite of selfish."
"In fact, if we examine the ways we behave in our everyday lives, we quickly realize that the goals and purposes we strive for rarely involve our individual, atomic selves in isolation."

I don't see "atomic" or "individual" in the quote from Ayn Rand. I have always assumed that the value of her philosophy (at least in Atlas Shrugged) requires one to recognize all these things you have pointed out about the "self". I have to repeat TKG's question, only because I have found that promoting Atlas Shrugged (notwithstanding Objectivism itself, since I haven't gone any further than the novel) seems to have gotten people to stop stepping on each other (rather than start, which I think is what you see, and which may, in fact, be a result of Objectivism).

How do you know the difference is not purely semantic?

I assume you take on a responsibility to provide the best of the "many answers" you can think of to his question, and that you have done so when you wrote "The difference may ultimately reside in temperament more than anything else." I submit that the strength of your argument that "they should be seriously rejected" ought to be recognized by everyone as proportional to the significance of that temperamental difference.

(quoting Jung) "Since it is universally believed that man is merely what his consciousness knows of itself..."

That is remarkably interesting to me because I am well aware that I myself am certainly not merely what my consciousness knows of itself. I was under the impression that a great portion of meditation and study is undertaken in an effort to "find oneself". In that sense, I start off disagreeing with Dr. Jung, but I believe he would be with me in rejecting what is "universally accepted." When he writes "if only we would see," I interpret that in the same way that I interpret Nietzsche's "Man must overcome." It is his conscious concept of self that must be overcome. I believe all four of us (you, me, Jung, and Nietzsche) have gone quite a ways down that road. Perhaps Rand did not, and that is why you're compelled to attack.

To me, the quote from her that you use several times is a simple tautology. We ARE selfish. Let's be wisely selfish by accepting the self as having all those more collective aspects that you point out.

The danger I see in attacking Atlas Shrugged is coercion. It has been my experience that all who wish to rule will use any philosophy or ideology they can find to justify sacrificing others to themselves, which is in literal contradiction with the quote you gave. Maybe you're ok with that. I'm not.

by adam on

nice one,

i was just thinking of this after drawing an admittedly wishy washy line through the history of philosophy in my head that went from aristotle-kant-rand (sorry if that upsets someone).

my amateur interest in philosophy has lead me to over simplify the last 300 (or 3000) years to point to the crack left open for the irrational by Kant, to be slowly worked open by Hegel, jumped through by Kirkegaard and Schopenhauer, extended upon by Nietzsche, practised by Freud and then exhorted by Jung. Rand seems to be the righting of the ship for rationalists, but she unlike Kant A; doesn't leave a window ajar for a slither of the irrational, and B; doesn't admit the existence of or try to explain different types of reason.

she showed that she was angrily against Kant's ideas and gave a sole acknowledgement to Aristotle (which is nice and admitting a little help), which seems to me as if she is trying to resurrect him in lieu of the recent dabble into the irrational culminating in Jung.

a few things, would anyone know who/if Kant was reacting to? were there prominent Jungian figures at the end of the enlightenment or end of the axial model? would it be cyclical to say a heavy dose of rationality is needed when confronted with the wasteland and uncertainty of the irrational?

would recent discoveries in partical physics be a decent contest to debunk rand?
is Rand's fundamentalism, 'smug self-certainty' you called it, an indication that rationalists are at their wits end? hopefuly there wont be any more need to remind people that A=A when we universally understand that the chair is not simply a chair.

i apologise if this is complete gobbledygook.

by Hendrik on

This is an old article but it must still be noted that it utterly misrepresents Carl Jung. The psychologist promotes the individual well above the collective in a similar way to Ayn Rand. In the "Undiscovered Self" he calls the individual life the only real life.
He goes on, "The individual is increasingly deprived of the moral decision as to how he should live his own life, and instead is ruled, fed, clothed and educated as a social unit, accommodated in the appropriate housing unit, and amused in accordance with the standards that give pleasure and satisfaction to the masses." Furthermore, the theory of collective archetypes is merely that symbols from history, culture, mythology affect everyone's subconscious. Do not amalgamate influence from collective thought and a necessity of living for the collective at the risk of sounding as "sophomoric" as the so-called Kenner describes you.

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