Philosophy Weekend: Check Your Premises

American Existential Politics

A friend recently called me out on a problem with my series on Ayn Rand: I was using Ayn Rand as a straw man, she said, for a general argument that is about more than Ayn Rand.

I admit that this is true. I began this exercise because I pay close attention to the political debates going on today in my country between liberals, conservatives, libertarians, Tea Partiers, and (most often of all) disaffected and disgusted citizens who are just sick of all the noise. I'm sick of the noise too, and I think it's unfortunate that our public debates (on TV and cable news, on radio talk shows, in newspapers, on blogs) are so pigheaded and thoughtless on all sides. We're missing the chance for real debates on real principles.

Ayn Rand, it happens, was also a big believer in intelligent debate and principled argument. This is the biggest thing Ayn Rand and I do agree on. Debate matters. Debate is everything. I love this quote of hers:

Contradictions do not exist. Whenever you think you are facing a contradiction, check your premises. You will find that one of them is wrong.

I believe this too, and I always have. "Check your premises". All the noise in the world cannot be loud enough to make me stop thinking logically. The reason I find Ayn Rand an exciting and important writer is that she had an absolute affection for rational, structured, methodical debate, grounded in rules of fair dialogue, unclouded by emotion or prejudice.

So I agree with Ayn Rand about this, but I disagree with her on almost every issue in the world. She was a principled political conservative, and I am a principled liberal. She is popular today among other principled conservatives -- Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, for instance, says that he was not named after her, but also mentions that he admires her work. She's especially popular among today's rambunctious Tea Partiers (whatever, exactly, that means), who find her extreme individualism very compatible with their call for smaller government and lower taxes.

Some Tea Partiers may differ with Ayn Rand on the question of religion, though. I disagree with Ayn Rand's extreme atheism for my own reasons. On a philosophical level, I disagree at the most basic level with Rand's belief in egoism, the doctrine that humans are only capable of acting in their own individual self-interest. The principle of egoism, I believe, is Ayn Rand's bad premise, the one that needs to be checked. Did she ever check this premise? I have read many of her philosophical essays, which are always well-written, but I never found a direct defense of egoism itself. I believe, in fact, that egoism has only a weak claim to scientific authority on any philosophical or psychological level, and this is the basis of my own essays in this series.

I don't think it's very hard to take down Ayn Rand, who leaves herself vulnerable to refutation by making bold claims about the absolute inevitability of her ideas. She openly and repeatedly declares that her beliefs are self-evident, and that anyone who disagrees with her must be thinking irrationally. By declaring this, Ayn Rand set a high bar for herself. To refute her philosophy -- to cut it off at its fountainhead, so to speak -- I only have to prove that egoism is not self-evident. I don't have to prove that it's false -- I only need to prove that it is possible for a rational, fully informed and intelligent person to reject the doctrine of egoism (as I personally do).

Egoism provides the philosophical justification for individualism, which is the foundation of all her work. A fascinating 1969 essay called "Apollo and Dionysus" (you can listen to it here) contrasts the great achievement of Apollo 11's moonshot with the (as she saw it) degraded spectacle of the Woodstock concert that same summer. I can find no better capsule example of Ayn Rand's exaggerated reliance on individualism than her straight-faced claim that the Apollo moonshot was evidence of the greatness of the individual spirit.

In fact, the trip to the moon was the best example of teamwork in the history of the planet Earth. Individualism? Thousands of people had to work together to put Neil Armstrong on the moon, and by all accounts they did so with little concern for personal glory. Their glory was a collective achievement.

I do share Ayn Rand's love of personal liberty, as well as her horror for totalitarian governments. I appreciate the fact that she escaped from St. Petersburg, Russia as a teenager after witnessing the Russian Revolution, giving her a closer brush with tyranny than I have ever faced. As a liberal, I often have to explain to conservatives that I am absolutely against tyranny, that I am not a statist, that I don't want the federal government to have a bigger role in my life. When I write about the importance of the collective self, I am usually talking about a married couple, or a family, or a group of co-workers, or a baseball team -- not the federal government.

I also share Ayn Rand's distaste for the herd mind of modern media, publishing and academia. As a very successful novelist in a "heroic" genre, she was often ridiculed by the intelligentsia. Her books usually got terrible, mean-spirited reviews, even from her fellow conservatives (Whittaker Chambers famously suggested that her ethical philosophy led to "the gas chambers", a really unfair swipe). She was an incredibly brave writer, and her countless fans must have buoyed her spirit. Still, in her later years she gradually gave up on the dream of being taken seriously by mainstream media. She told her philosopher friend John Hospers in the early 1960s:

I am not looking for intelligent disagreement any longer ... What I am looking for is intelligent agreement.

One could read monstrous bull-headedness into this statement, but in fact I think the witty Ayn Rand was speaking wryly here. She was so tired of hoping for intelligent disagreement that she was beginning to give up on that dream.

But I think too many of my fellow liberals and anti-egoists have also given up on the dream of rational debate, and well-known liberals have really done only a shabby job at refuting Ayn Rand's ethical philosophy. Our opposition deserves better. That's the purpose of my series on Ayn Rand. This is the sixth, and the next to last entry in this series. Next weekend I will present the conclusion, a summary of the primary arguments against the principle of egoism, the principle that underlies all of Ayn Rand's work.

Thanks again for all the great feedback this series has gotten so far, and I hope you'll read and respond to my closing statements next weekend. There's much excitement to come.

Ayn Rand may have given up on ever finding intelligent disagreement, but she hasn't met me yet.

* * * * *

(Appropriately, with all this talk of liberty, I visited Washington DC's cherry blossom festival today with Caryn. Her photo of the Jefferson Memorial is above, and here are a few more from the day.)

This article is part of the series Philosophy Weekend. The next post in the series is Philosophy Weekend: The Case Against Egoism. The previous post in the series is Philosophy Weekend: The Elusive Self.
8 Responses to "Philosophy Weekend: Check Your Premises"

by frsh on

In the end Christianity and all the schools of thought that were born from Judaism are a threat to neo-liberalism because they have a God that is merciful and compassionate at the center and that God has told us that the only way to love Him is to love our brothers and our brothers are not our "relatives" but each and every human being past, present and future.

We can't "own" creation or parts of creation. Creation was made for all of us to be happy.

Nazis failed but the people who worship "mammon" (money) still want to get rid of Judaism by making humanity forget and even hate the God of Love with today's childish, angsty and intellectually poor atheism.

by Robert W on

That's a beautiful photo; my dear friend will be moving to Arlington this summer, and I really look forward to visiting he and his soon-to-be-wife during the cherry blossoms some time.

Thank you for sharing your insightful and very thoughtful writing. It's liberating to see such fresh perspective so regularly on this website. I have little constructive feedback (yet?) but I am looking forward to issue 7.

Robert

by javydavyjota on

Ayn Rand's characters speak in paragraphs. Ugh. Her characters are stock talkers. Everyone speaks and nobody listens.

Levi, you're in good form on this one, boy - a pleasure to read!

I think you're correct about Rand being wry when she pined for "intelligent agreement." By the time she said that, a lot of people who liked her didn't really know why; they simply understood her to represented what they saw as "their side." It reminds me of the difference between a thoughtful William F. Buckley and a rah-rah, get-on-the-team Rush Limbaugh.

I might add, Rand probably felt like Kerouac did when people showed up always wanting to get stoned and drunk with him, and half of them probably couldn't discuss literature and the themes & authors that Kerouac himself had studies - they were big fans of kerouac because he wrote about "partying."

by Levi Asher on

Yeah, good analogy, Bill. If you do say so yourself.

And, dear davyjavyjota -- you may be right that her novels appear clunky today. However, I've been reading many of her late essays -- 1960s and 70s -- as I work on these blog posts, and I'm happy to report that she was quite skillful, often funny and even subtle in these late period essays.

Everybody deserves the right to improve as a writer. In the 1950s, I'm not sure if Rand could hold her own against, say, William F. Buckley as a writer. By the end of the 60s, I think she definitely could. These late essays are probably her best writings. Even "Apollo and Dionysus", which I criticize here, is an excellent piece. (Though I completely disagree with her opinion of Woodstock. She was obviously not a Hendrix fan).

by Thom G. on

All living things put selfishness or self-interest first. Almost all people innately put self-interest first, but deny it because of cultural reasons. I would much prefer to receive a gift, make love, be served by someone who acts out of self-interest than someone who may not want to act in that way, but duty calls them to do so. There is no such thing as enlightened self-interest. If it is not enlightened it is not self-interest. We know that someone who is kind, compassionate, honest, serving, etc. has a better physiology and chance at success, happiness and joy than they would have being angry, dishonest, hurtful, etc. I try to forgive, serve, love and create because of what it does for me and to take an attitude that I have no claim of any kind against any recipient of anything that I might do. I don't agree with everything Rand writes, but I believe that this premise is logical and practicable.

Add new comment