Philosophy Weekend: Taking Down Ayn Rand

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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

The ethical principle Ayn Rand describes here was hardly her original discovery. She expressed it so clearly and succinctly that it may be useful to call it the Ayn Rand principle, though we could just as accurately call it the Thomas Hobbes principle (except he lived 400 years ago, and freshness is all). Friedrich Nietzsche wrote of "divine selfishness, of how it was once possible to be alone, undisturbed, unloved, hated, despised on earth, and whatever else may characterize the utter baseness of the dear animal world in which we live."

Various trends in modern political and economic theory can be mapped back to the Ayn Rand principle, especially (but not exclusively) among conservative thinkers. The vigorous capitalism preached by influential economists like Milton Friedman and Alan Greenspan is often described as Randian (the Friedman/Greenspan laissez-faire attitude took a beating when the American financial system collapsed in 2008, but no competing modern theory of economics has emerged to clearly oppose it). The Randian embrace of self-interest and power politics is also visible in the muscle-bound approach to foreign policy proclaimed by politicians like John McCain, Sarah Palin, John Bolton, Henry Kissinger, Dick Cheney, and George W. Bush. Ronald Reagan, whose 100th birthday is being celebrated this weekend (not by me, but by many others) has notably called himself an admirer of Ayn Rand.

Ethical principles come into play in our personal lives as well as our political and economic lives. The Ayn Rand principle of self-interest must influence how we think about love, marriage, family, friendship, neighborliness. These are some of the reasons why it's important for each of us to decide whether or not we agree with the Ayn Rand principle, and I'm disappointed that many professional or amateur philosophers who do not agree with it have not been able to express themselves clearly and powerfully enough to be heard. For those of us who don't see rational self-interest as the primary motivating force of life, there is an inclination to express our distaste for the Randian principle by ignoring it rather than refuting it. Unfortunately, this may leave the impression that the principle itself is solid, that it is the "harsh truth", that the only question remaining for modern ethicists is whether or not to sugar-coat the harsh truth, and how best to do so.

This is unfortunate because, in fact, the Ayn Rand principle is dead wrong. We ought to respect the clarity of her statement, but we must also recognize that its underlying logic is flimsy at the core. The idea of individual self-interest as the core of human experience doesn't stand up to close examination at all, but rather depends on confusions of language that can be easily pointed out.

Of course, the brutal, selfish nature of life often feels to us like a harsh reality, especially when we run up against it in our everyday lives. This is one reason why the Randian principle has so much appeal; we see selfishness everywhere. This is why it's so important for us to examine the principle itself, and point out the many ways it fails to truly describe who we are and how we live.

I have a pretty good idea of where to begin refuting Ayn Rand's principle of selfish ethics, and I'm actually so excited about this mission that I'm planning to construct an argument over several blog posts during the next few weekends. The purpose of today's post is to introduce the question, and to begin to enlist your help. I'd like to survey all readers of this blog about the Ayn Rand principle, about the idea of selfishness as the core of human ethics and morality. Do you believe that we are primarily motivated by individual self-interest? Do you think Ayn Rand was right or wrong? I'd love to know what you think about this.

Myself, I hope I don't seem over-confident when I say that I'm sure we can tackle the Ayn Rand principle together, and that I expect we'll leave it wriggling and gasping for breath by the time we're done. We can start by analyzing the words we're using, and we should certainly pay special attention to the word 'self' (another recent post of mine offers a hint as to where I think we ought to begin). Of course, many of you may believe the Ayn Rand principle to be essentially correct. If you do, I hope you'll join the argument as well.

This article is part of the series Philosophy Weekend. The next post in the series is Philosophy Weekend: The Ayn Rand Principle and the Two Senses of Self. The previous post in the series is Philosophy Weekend: The Innocence of a Crowd.
41 Responses to "Philosophy Weekend: Taking Down Ayn Rand"

...good morning...looking forward to the rand discussions. truly amazing how one word could change the 1962 quote that led your introduction. take out 'must' and change with 'does', and she might have been on to something, depending on what came before and after the quote. however, to condone the morality of this obvious self absorbtion is absurd. there is nothing moral about self interest. self interest, at its core, is immoral. that's the issue with rand's encouragement of a self interested economy and culture. conservatives and liberals alike have been snared in one way or another. constant excess, money, stimulents, greed as gordon gecko put it. then, immorality actually knocks is down. the immorality of entitlement brought it down in '08. the morality of fighting your own battles would bring us out of the sand.....

overall, we can, and should, overcome our selfish instincts to make better moral decisions regarding economics, culture, and politics.

by Claudia on

I think Ayn Rand proposes an extreme form of individualism that can be very dangerous. I see her as the literary and philosophical proponent of egoism, in a more popular and easily digestible form than can be attributed to more complex philosophers, like Nietzsche or John Stuart Mill.

Greetings! I would like to join this discussion! I will attempt to provide the contrary point of view.

I have been attempting to understand Ayn Rand's Objectivist philosophy for about 25 or so years. I am a student of Objectivism. I grew up in a rather liberal household, city, and state, and those who were not were religious. So it was a rather Herculean task to get as far as I have gotten. Looking back it is no wonder that it took so much effort.

I should point out that I have never taken a class, and am not affiliated with any Objectivist organization, and to not represent them.

Objectivist rational self interest means that the justification of man's life is man. Man's life is not justified by the state, or the king. Man's life is an end in itself.

Contrast this with the Divine Right of Kings in which the justification of man's existence was the pleasure of the king. The idea was that if the king fell, the country would fall into dissaray and anarchy. Without an ordained ruler a country would fall into civil war. With no divine right to rule there would be no right to enslave, and no laws, such as the ten commandments, could be enforced. Neighbor would murder neighbor. There would be no end to the madness until every last person was dead, because that's what people do due to their sinful nature ever since Eve ate the apple.

Europe was ruled under this code until John Locke raised the question of pirate communities forming in the Bahamas. Why didn't they all kill each other? They had no magistrate. Had they formed their own government for their own purpose? For their own survival?

This reason had never been suspected to be important enough to form a government. Self survival had always been, and as I see from the comments above often still is, considered to be a shabby, lowly, and immoral reason for doing things.

Ayn Rand's view of rational self-interest DOES NOT mean that we should see no value in other people. Objectivists see enormous potential value in other humans. But not as slaves. Slavery destroys the potential value in other people. So an Objectivist will never act as a slave for others, or asks others to produce as a slave to them, such as under the Divine Right of Kings or the more modern Divine Right of The People.

I look forward to a great discussion. Take your time with all of this. Much of this has come together for me just in the last year or two. My goal is not to "win" some argument, but to come together on a tera firma of understanding, a common ground.

Thanks for your time.

by Dharmabum on

Anthropologists have studied hunter-gatherer society's and cooperation appears to be a common trait. Cooperation generates civilization which gives humans a distinct evolutionary advantage compared to our Randian living fellow creatures. Perhaps the Rand philosophy leads to devolution.

Anthropologists have not just found cooperation, they have found trade. Stone tools made by one tribe have been found hundreds of miles beyond their territory. Ancient roads are being found that indicate ancient trade routes.

Ancient tribes did not just fight wars. The successful ones traded.

Ayn Rand has never been against trade. She is it's greatest proponent. She produced an entire, even a "complete" philosophy with trade at the center of human interaction.

She did not just make some amorphous, blurry statement that large numbers of people can do more than small numbers. She didn't just say people get farther if they work together.

She stated a clear and concise method of exactly on what principles people should work together to achieve their goals. She called it the Trader Principle.

It is not just esoteric, ivory tower philosophy. It is every day, you and me philosophy.

The Trader Principle is that you should never seek unearned profits from the productive work of someone else, which is slavery. Traders are those who live by values, not by loot.

Ayn Rand HAS NEVER said that people should not work with other people. She has made explicit the moral code by which people can expect to work together.

"Capitalism is a society of traders—for which it has been denounced by every would-be gunman who regards trade as “selfish” and conquest as “noble.”" --Ayn Rand

by Levi Asher on

Thanks for comments so far. I especially appreciate Mark Stouffer's dissenting view, because he makes a good point -- if you come to it from a certain type of dogmatic background, Ayn Rand's simple moral formula can be very liberating.

To the extent that Rand's philosophy can be liberating, I understand its appeal. But from a different vantage point, Rand's ideas are not liberating but confining -- and that's the aspect of this I'm focusing on here. It's great to hear impressions of this question from so many different angles, though.

by Dharmabum on

Thanks Mark, For the Interesting background on Rands trader theory. I find it a bit ironic that
Wall Street Banks and Traders following the pursuit of individual self interest manipulated the economy and "gamed" the financial system to its near ruin back in 08. If no concern other than self interest operates then I fear for society's future.Individual self interest neglects The interconnection between all parts of a system. The gain of a a small segment may spell the ruin
of an entire population.

by Paul Ray on

Regarding America's foreign policy: It didn't start with GWB, or McCain, or Palin, and it certainly isn't a Republican-only virtue. It began after WW2 (Or maybe before) and continues to this day with Obama. The idea that America must play global policeman and enforcer to bring "freedom" (translation: protect our interests) is truly a bi-partisan view among our politicians. I don't know if Ayn Rand supported that sort of foreign policy, but I have never encountered any of her supporters, or libertarians, who support it. In fact, they are the few that denounce it- it seems that Republicans and Democrat voters alike see it as necessary, while denouncing each other's particular flavor of imperialism. Which is what our foreign policy is, whether overt or benign.

by Baroque on

The divine right of kings is a theory of government, not of man. Locke-- who you mentioned, Mark-- and other writers were instrumental in supplanting the divine right theory with a 'social contract' model for government-- which is much more conducive to democracy and rights protection-- centuries before Rand began writing.

So, I really don't think Rand was an important figure for establishing that people should be treated as ends in themselves, should not be enslaved, etc. I would thank Locke and especially Kant for that.

I am already enjoying this discussion immensely and look forward to more.

My first exposure to Ayn Rand, and thus my outlook on Rand's philosophy, is rather neutral. Or should I say, conflicted.

During the 80's, I was living in what might be over-dramatically described as "self-exile" from the good life, but not for political reasons. I was attending college part-time, tuition paid for by the GI Bill, working part-time as a truck-loader for UPS, and playing bass guitar in a rock band. The drummer and I lived in the same warehouse where the band practiced because we couldn't afford to live elsewhere. There was no television, microwave, air conditioner, or heater. For that matter, there was almost nothing. We boiled coffee like hobos. I pictured myself as a post-hippie bohemian, flying under the radar of Ronald Reagan's war on drugs. I "just said no" to food and shaving most of the time. The good citzens of Jacksonville, FL probably regarded me as one of the destitute mental patients recently turned out onto the streets by the Reagan Administration. The point is, I wasn't blaming the Republicans for my lowly position in life. It was by choice (I could always go back up to Virginia, to my parent's house, if rats began coming out of the walls).

Having no TV or Internet gave me lots of time to read. It was during this time I bought a lot of books for ten cents or a quarter each from thrift stores, flea markets, and garage sales. One of those books was Atlas Shrugged. First and foremost, I thought of it as an exciting mystery novel, and an indictment against wasteful government bureaucracy. And a romance between smart people. I also liked the fact that Hank Reardon lived his work - that is, his job wasn't just an artificial 8 to 5 gig - the man dug making things out of iron and steel! If you loved your work, you WANTED to take it home with you. The fancy dinner party crowd didn't understand him. That's how I felt about writing and playing music. And I thought the barter thing was cool. Somebody grew tobacco and made their own cigarettes and sold them or traded them for a fraction of what the supermarkets would charge. It was like the pioneers, trading peach preserves for kerosene , or something.

Anyway, fast forward to the present. I am now a liberal Democrat. I think everyone should have health care. I believe in separation of church and state. I now understand why my fellow liberals are so down on Ayn Rand, because they say she favors the self-interest of big corporations over the little, powerless people. They are probably right, but I still have a warm place in my heart for that scene, near the end of Atlas Shrugged, of the airplane's glowing instrument panel against a the black night as the city's light went out.

by Paul Ray on

"I am now a liberal Democrat.....I now understand why my fellow liberals are so down on Ayn Rand, because they say she favors the self-interest of big corporations over the little, powerless people."

You mean as in corporate welfare? As in taxpayer bailouts for big corporations? Ummmm....a bit of disconnect here, as most Democrats politicians (not excluding Republicans) supported the big bailouts of recent past. Again, I don't know what Rand's view on using taxpayer dollars to support corporations was, but I can't imagine that she would support it. I certainly don't- but it has nothing to do with the existence of corporations, whose "self-interest" is no different than the "self-interest" of small business owners, or anyone else who must work to support themselves and family and friends. My complaint is that it's unfair to take our money and turn around and give it to a business- a select few businesses, I might add, while ignoring the rest.

Again, corporate welfarism isn't a Republican virtue, and I don't understand why Democrats believe that Republicans support a free-market "dog-eat-dog" ideology- they don't.

by Levi Asher on

I think your points are good ones, Paul. I tried to anticipate this in the main post above when I wrote that that Rand's philosophy is associated with conservative thought, but not exclusively. There's a whole lot of gray area here. Some conservatives are not Randians, and some liberals are Randians -- and this is true in terms of both foreign policy and economics. We should not oversimplify by claiming that there is a strong definite connection between political conservativism and Ayn Rand's philosophy.

With that said, Paul, wouldn't you agree that it is a trend among modern conservatives and Republicans to oppose government regulations in areas like finance, environment, etc.? This can be traced back to Ronald Reagan's "get the government off our backs" message -- a message that still resonates strongly among conservatives today, and that seems very consistent with Ayn Rand's philosophy.

There was a strong movement towards deregulation of banking and finance in the 80s and 90s and early 2000s (spanning the presidencies of Reagan, Bush, Clinton and Bush). At the peak of this deregulation craze, the idea was even taken seriously that we should entrust Social Security to the open market. When the market crashed in 2008, a very un-Randian taxpayer bailout occurred. I agree, Paul, that there is nothing Randian about the taxpayer bailout. However, the craze for deregulation and the over-confidence in the open market that led to the 2008 crash was, I think, very Randian. The sickness was Randian, even if the medicine wasn't.

Paul, I agree with you about the problem of America always trying to play global policeman. I was really irked by a sound bite I heard on NPR of Hillary Clinton saying "Egypt MUST" do this or that.

I may have over-generalized when talking about Republicans and Democrats. All I'm saying is, it is my observation that people who identify themselves as "liberal" don't generally like Ayn Rand's philosophy.

by Paul Ray on

"With that said, Paul, wouldn't you agree that it is a trend among modern conservatives and Republicans to oppose government regulations in areas like finance, environment, etc.?"

Perhaps conservatives of the days past, but certainly not modern Republicans (I am speaking of the politicians, not the voters). There is also a disconnect between the rhetoric of Republicans and their actual legislative actions. Republicans talk a good game (especially now since the Tea Party movement captured the attention of the GOP) but looking at the last few years, it's hard for me to see Republican politicians actually putting this hot air into action.

by Levi Asher on

Well, Paul, it sounds like you're focusing on the fact that Republican politicians often don't live up to their rhetoric. I'm sure you're right about that, but I still think my point stands: it is definitely part of the current conservative/Republican platform in the USA to support fewer regulations on small business, big business, finance, insurance, energy production and manufacturing. This is no secret -- it's explicitly stated in most Republican platforms, and I think many conservative voters support this stance.

The fact that many Republican politicians betray this position once elected is worth mentioning, sure, but it doesn't change the fact that deregulation is a key part of today's conservative/Republican platform.

But I agree that we shouldn't draw overly partisan lines here -- that's not what this discussion is meant to be about. Ironically, the biggest example of deregulation leading to the 2008 crash was the repeal of the Glass-Steagal act, which maintained critical safeguards between investment and banking. This repeal was a Republican initiative, but it happened with the cooperation of Bill Clinton, a liberal Democrat.

With that said -- let's not fixate on party politics here, or we'll never get past it.

I have only finished 'The Fountainhead,' having been unable to get more than half way through 'Atlas Shrugged.' The latter is perhaps the worst novel I've ever put down half way through.

But I never really got the impression that Rand was totally serious about her philosophy. I got the sense that she was mainly sending out a powerful signal or call to the self - to the selfish part of an individual that really must be protected from total absorption into the political or larger world - the crowd. I suspect that her books mainly appeal to young readers - teenagers. There's something useful about her ideas at a certain point in life when one is trying to separate and to find out how to be an individual. There are times when it is very valuable to be able to present the outer world with the finger and carry on as one's self without regard for the cares of others. We all need that at times.

But beyond that, I think her ideas are childish nonsense.

Rand's philosophy is not a novelty. She is not the first to discuss these issues. She does not create it out of nothing.

Objectivism is based on objective reality, which is open to anyone's inspection. It should not be surprising that people have discussed portions of reality before.

What Ayn Rand did do, that is new, is describe objective reality, including our ability to perceive it, without contradiction, and without reliance on a sidereal, nuominal world.

This is what Immanuel Kant did not do. He relied on a nuominal world, a leftover from Plato's world of Forms, and this lead him to believe in man's devotion to duty as the only standard of virtue.

Actions performed by duty to some higher power must be performed without concern for cause or consequence.

"“Duty” destroys reason: it supersedes one’s knowledge and judgment, making the process of thinking and judging irrelevant to one’s actions.

“Duty” destroys values: it demands that one betray or sacrifice one’s highest values for the sake of an inexplicable command—and it transforms values into a threat to one’s moral worth, since the experience of pleasure or desire casts doubt on the moral purity of one’s motives.

“Duty” destroys love: who could want to be loved not from “inclination,” but from “duty”?

“Duty” destroys self-esteem: it leaves no self to be esteemed."
-- Ayn Rand

by Dharmabum on

The concepts discussed by Rand are beyond political party affiliation. The human drive to satisfy selfish desires is a reality across all walks of life and cultures. Whenever enough individuals in a population start to live life as Rand advocates that group is sure to suffer.
All beings are interconnected and the selfish denial of that connection is a source of much human misery. History is awash in the damage done by Randian thinking and practice. We need look no further back than the last century for many examples!

by Levi Asher on

Really impressed by these comments so far. Thanks. A few responses to the responses:

Mark Stouffer, that video is well worth watching. I think anybody who watches this video will have to agree that Ayn Rand was a sharp, highly independent, highly original thinker.

I want to make it clear that, though I jestily titled this post "Taking Down Ayn Rand", and though I disagree strongly with her ethics, I do respect her methods and her style. This is not about trashing Ayn Rand. If I could meet her, I'd be very proud to shake her hand and very eager to sit and listen to her talk. But even so, I still think she was dead wrong about how we should live our lives, and about how we *do* live our lives.

And, Mark, it's not about duty. It's about what it is that truly and naturally motivates us in life. I just don't think, having closely observed myself and others, that we are as motivated by individual self-interest as we tend to think. This is what I'm looking forward to writing about next weekend.

by Paul Ray on

"History is awash in the damage done by Randian thinking and practice. We need look no further back than the last century for many examples!"

Just as well, we could also look at the last century for examples of what Rand stood in opposition to and look at the damage done. How many lives has "Randian" thinking cost? Has it ever been practiced by a large group of people? How many lives did the failed attempts at collectivism cost?

Alessandro Cima makes a good point about Rand's appeal to young people. I should add that when I read Atlas Shrugged, even in the midst of my fascination I was aware that Rand had created an artificially balanced little world. I think the word is "microcosm." For example, one of John Galt's associates is a composer. Rand wants to make it clear that the arts have their place in Galt's vision, that music is just as important as, say, a farming or building (which I agree with, by the way). So we have this scenario in which, when the day's work is done and it's time to relax, the group gathers to hear a concert by the composer. Presumably, they meet in the lobby to enjoy the tobacco farmer's inexpensive crop, and the lights are provided by an electrician who is down for the cause, and maybe an industrious distiller is tending bar, all-in-all as though nobody was jobless because it just so happened that if they only needed one plumber, there were no other plumbers standing around unused.

by Paul Ray on

I listened to Atlas Shrugged (I couldn't read it...that's some god-awful prose) but what interested me wasn't the fairy world of Galt's Gulch, but the striking similarities between the fictional government's drive for "fairness" and our own (not singling out the Obama administration), and the blind eye they turned to the consequences of "fairness." It is only "fair" to try to understand what it was that drove Rand to her belief system- what shaped it, what molded it. If you listen to her detractors, it was a lust, a drive to satiate her own selfish interests; that is, she was a rotten, selfish crone who created an ideology to justify her own personality. I don't believe this to be true- her worldview was shaped by the horrors of Stalinist Russia. Her ideology was a reaction to what she experienced, and I don't need to describe what took place there- it's well documented.

While I don't agree with the lengths to which she takes her worldview, I do wholeheartedly agree that human beings should not be cajoled, or forced, to work on behalf of other human beings. It sounds very benign, doesn't it? And reasonable, that people should work to help other people. Taken out of the context of a government, it is. But when placed within that context, it becomes frightening and many times leads to what happened in Russia, China, and Cambodia. It's not the intent itself- that people should all work together for the common good- it's the absolute power that is granted to those who implement this system on the behalf of the "people." And history shows that when absolute power over the many is granted to the few, abuse will follow. We humans really enjoy screwing each other over.

I think collectivism is a good idea- on a very small scale, practiced among people who know and trust each other. Outside of that, no thank you. Rand saw that the only way to prevent what she witnessed under Stalin was to hold the individual supreme (shades of the US Constitution). Yes, there a bad consequences. Some people will have a hard time of it (and we individuals need to help them). But I would rather live in a community where I was left to fend for myself yet never have to fear others taking control of my life, than a place where I was assured a piece of common goods and services (and it never works out that way in large scale collectivism) yet my life was under the control of a few people, acting in the name of the people. I think we could maintain our freedoms and ensure that people were taken care of if we teach each other- not threaten- that while we owe no obligation to help anyone, we should, providing that all people try as best as they can to support themselves. There was a time in this country, at least in the rural area I grew up in, when this mentality was the norm. No one forced you to take what extra food you had down to the neighbors (who were just laid off); you did it because you wanted to, knowing that it might be you in the same position one day; because it was the right thing to do. But it is an entirely different thing to allow a comparatively small group of people (who have behind them a national police force and military) with power, to do this for you, in your name. I think this is the stumbling block for many people who agree with Rand- helping people at the point of a gun.

Dharmabum says, "The human drive to satisfy selfish desires is a reality across all walks of life and cultures. "

And all species.

"Whenever enough individuals in a population start to live life as Rand advocates that group is sure to suffer.
All beings are interconnected",

And Rand shows exactly how all beings, and all existents, are interconnected; by causality. We are not connected by some kind of blue light that exists outside reality. Objectivists see the universe as a single, unified whole. We are connected by irrevocable, knowable laws. The foundation is the law of identity. a = a. It is what it is.

"and the selfish denial of that connection is a source of much human misery. History is awash in the damage done by Randian thinking and practice. We need look no further back than the last century for many examples!"

Examples? It is the causeless duty towards a self-less connection that stands out most in my mind. The Peoples Republic of China, the Soviet Socialist Republics, and the National Socialists all claimed altruistic, self-less values as their goals. Half the world was working for the "common good". They had to build a wall in Berlin "for the people" to keep them from voting with their feet. You can watch newsreel footage of the people being walled in, supposedly for their own good.

Altruism is unnecessary. Thousands of years of Platonic dominance over Aristotle has led us to worship an ideal view of the world which we can never live up to. That world sucks, first off. It's a fairy tale world and none of us would actually want to live there. Secondly, it doesn't exist. And thirdly, all the things you love, all the stories, all the values, all the things that are noble, wonderful and valuable exist in the real world right here for us to be enjoyed in reality and during our lives while we make choices with our own free will using the knowledge we gather with our valid senses.

Imagine that you don't have to be guilty for being born. Existence is not broken, but absolute. You can acquire knowledge of anything you decide to learn about. Your senses are valid. Your mind is free to choose.

You can see how radically different this view is than those derived from the Platonic/Kantian/Hegelian philosophy that we hear every day, in every song, and in almost every movie and TV show we have ever seen.

You can see why it takes a while to reconfigure the .ini file of your brain (to use a computer metaphor).

by Paul Ray on

"Altruism is unnecessary."

Unnecessary for what?

by Levi Asher on

Mark, I think you're right that Mao's China and Stalin's Russia were horrifying examples of the incredible damage "collectivism" (whatever exactly that means) can cause. Anybody who espouses an idealistic view of an egalitarian, enlightened society based on common ideals will have to answer to the fact that unspeakable human crimes were inflicted upon the peasants of China, Russia and the Ukraine in the name of the "common good". In fact this is something I wrote about in a different recent post here:

Just like all Randians aren't conservatives, of course, all anti-Randians aren't Marxists. I'm an example, I hope, of an anti-Randian who is not a Marxist.

However, Mark, you're stretching your argument when you include National Socialism in your list of collectivist societies above. I know there's a recent trend, originating with Jonah Goldberg's book "Liberal Fascism", to blame Hitler and the Nazis on the liberal left, based on the fact that National Socialism was "socialism". But let's remember that National Socialism was, above all else, about nationalism, nativism and militarism. There was nothing egalitarian or Kantian in the Nazi Party, and just for the record National Socialism was thoroughly committed to private property, private wealth and corporate profit. Just as today's hopeful Marxists have to answer for the disaster of collectivism in China and Russia, it's today's nativists, nationalists, militarists and corporate apologists, not today's egalitarian idealists, who have to answer for fascism.

by Dharmabum on

Selfish action is to be found in every political philosophy. Right wing, Left wing, Center wing, the label does not matter. This as an issue that has less to do with "ism's" and everything to do with the individual. The harm done in the Soviet Union had to do with the selfish drive of Stalin etc. The same could be said for Mao's China or Hitler's Germany. The Randian drive for selfish gain cuts across all political and group boundaries. To a practitioner of Randian thought a political philosophy, or any philosophy , is simply a tool to reach for more and more self interest.

Levi, I like that you pointed that out. No one wants to be associated with Hitler. My mom had a heavy German accent and it could sometimes be awkward. All my childhood friends who ever tried to speak German would really just do a Hitler impersonation. I feel that I have gotten beyond it, but I forget that others may not have made peace with the specter of Hitler. I think I can finally look him full in the face and name his nature of evil.

One thing that you didn't include in your list is Racist! It really needs the capital and exclamation. Hitler's plan operated under a very German kind of "Total Racism". We need to remember that he did not start by saying he wanted to destroy Europe. He started by saying he wanted to "save" the humans. His plan was to save the humans, by exterminating the "subhumans". He was a do-gooder. He was saving the world. That's how he got "elected" and motivated his thugs.

Hitler loved Nietzsche. Around the time of the Second Reich the land we now call Germany also gave us Kant, Hegel, and Marx. Hitler wanted to defend his great nation, which at the same time was becoming a great industrial power. Hitler would save them all but they would have to swear unswerving allegiance to him. He hid his relationship with Eva Braun because he said he was married to Germany. He fashioned himself as the great warrior-savior like Freidrich the Great, William I and William II, the All Highest. In 1945 Hitler still had life-or-death control over every German citizen. He ordered them to destroy their cities and fight to the death. They were slaves.

There is a wonderful picture of Jesse Owens in the podium in 1936 winning the gold medal and saluting the flag, a free American, while all the German slaves in the background salute their savior, their master, their highest value:,_Sommerol...

Racism is racial collectivism. It is the belief that a mans values, his beliefs, his character, and his convictions are handed down to him before he is born. It is a barnyard collectivism that has been refuted by philosophy and science.

Nazism had private property and private industry, but they retained government control over those industries. Control over industries was so profound that transfer of power of A.F. Krupp, AG was specified to go to the eldest male heir. This was written into the German constitution!! This happened before Hitler. It started much earlier. Krupp built the cannons that won the Franco-Prussian war. They built the Paris-Kannon, and the Big Bertha (named after Bertha Krupp).

Hitler was anti-capitalist. That is why he hated the Jews. Remember, back in history merchants were called Jews. Jews were the only people exempt from usury laws. No one could charge interest on a loan except Jews. These restrictions on trade just made Germans poor and Jews rich.

It is worth thinking about the long term effects of the rules and regulations we pass today "for the people". I've seen, "To Serve Man". It's a cookbook!

by Levi Asher on

Hey Mark -- well, first, I agree with most of what you say (and I've done a ton of reading about this, from various angles) except for a couple of quibbles. Hitler was not anti-capitalist except in the narrow sense -- he would rant against the current capitalist system (Rockefellers, Rothschilds) because Germany had been completely excluded from the wealth. It's much more accurate to say that Hitler and the Nazis were anti-communist. That was one of the deepest bases of their ideology. Remember, even though this incident in history is not much discussed today, the roots of Weimar Germany's anarchy lay in the aftermath of Rosa Luxembourg's sad, brief attempt at a socialist revolution in Germany. (Rosa Luxembourg was, of course, a Jewish communist).

Racism is a form of collectivism -- sure, but the proposal I'm about to present (in the posts to come) is that almost every ideology, no matter where it falls on any spectrum, is collectivist. Christianity, Judaism and Islam are collectivist. Anarchism is collectivist (they meet on the streets, by the barricades). Even today's Tea Party movement, for all the individualism it espouses, appears to be collectivist. They love nothing more than to get together. It's a "Party", after all.

This conversation has been really good. As we proceed, I do want to be careful to avoid slip-sliding into the familiar arguments over the atrocities of Nazism and Communism -- as I think we all know, this can quickly suck all the oxygen out of a good conversation. Of course, so far I've been guilty of letting this happen too. Anyway, I hope all of you who have been involved in this conversation will show up again when I post the next installment (I'm already excited about it) on Sunday morning ...

"...the attitude of the State towards capital would be comparatively simple and clear. Its only object would be to make sure that capital remained subservient to the State."
--- Adolph Hitler, "Mien Kampf"

That is not capitalism. That is all the other methods that have been tried stretching back into antiquity.

by Levi Asher on

Mark, what this means is that the Nazi state was totalitarian. Capitalism was subservient to the state -- everything was subservient to the state. Underneath the totalitarian thumb, the Nazi economy was based on free enterprise, private property and corporate profit, and resembled a capitalist economy. (This became increasingly irrelevant, of course, as they began losing the war and sacrificing their economic self-interest completely -- by 1945, Germany had no economy left at all). But, yes, Hitler's Germany was certainly far from true free market capitalism -- just as Stalin's Russia was far from true people-powered communism.

I think I see where you are taking this discussion, though, Mark -- I think you are bringing up the idea that Randian individualism and free market capitalism is the only bulwark against all forms of totalitarianism and statism (whether fascist or communist). This is a talking point I've heard a lot recently, and it's often used by folks like Glenn Beck and Jonah Goldberg as an attack on Barack Obama's agenda, which they see as tipping America towards statism.

I disagree strongly with this talking point -- I am a liberal and a progressive, but I am not a "statist" and I would certainly prefer a society based on Ayn Rand-style individualism to a society based on either Hitler-style or Stalin-style totalitarianism. It might shock Glenn Beck and Jonah Goldberg to hear that all liberals and progressives or "collectivists" are not statists. But, regardless of my feelings about this argument, I do admit that this is a relevant issue to discuss when we discuss Ayn Rand, and I'm glad Mark Stouffer is bringing it up here.

At the same time, though, I want to have a wide-ranging discussion about the Ayn Rand philosophy, and this aspect is only one of many aspects we should cover. I also really value the participation of all the people who've responded here so far, and I'm worried that if Mark Stouffer and I keep taking the discussion in this direction we'll lose everybody's interest. Maybe what I can do at this point is promise to devote a whole weekend's post to the question of Randian libertarianism as a bulwark against fascist or communist totalitarianism. But I don't want this to dominate every part of our analysis of Ayn Rand. Let's be mindful of Godwin's Law and try to keep Hitler, Stalin and Mao away from the core of this discussion, because we'll never get anywhere with those three in the middle of it. At the same time, we will address the question of the lessons learned in the 20th century, and what this means for Ayn Rand's ethics, in a post to come soon. Fair deal?

I absolutely want to hear more from Dharmabum, Paul Ray and the others, so thanks for pointing that out Levi.

My view is that, when described by essential characteristics, people really want the same thing. Want to understand and know. All our arguments and explanations are really circling around the same real truth. But, it turns out, it takes some effort to get there. We have to learn.

You are doing an excellent job of moderating, Levi, and I can see some of your other posts which I will have to check out, such as your Dracula post and many others.

I have been trying to form a blog of my own but it is still a little shapeless and stream-of-consciousness. It's called LOST Completeness and it is an attempt to ascribe Ayn Rand's Objectivism to the ABC TV show LOST. LOST is really a 6 season long movie. It's an introduction to philosophies, and is set on an uncharted island. You can see what I have so far by clicking on my name.

Thanks for the very interesting conversation Levi.

by mtmynd on

Selfishness is what we are born with in order to get what we need to survive those younger years before we "fly from the nest." It's important to be selfish during those years screaming for food solely because we are physically unable to do it for ourselves.... changing our dirty clothes, getting bathed, etc...

But to remain in a selfish state as we mature is not mature at all... it's a stunted growth that never outgrows that of a child. A need to get our way at any cost in order to assure we continue getting what we needed as a child.

Certainly there are times in our lives when we are on our own that require times that demand a benign selfishness - usually time to accomplish various jobs or tasks that all people face daily, but these times are to stabilize, organize and make our lives more tolerable to give to others.

The wise have reminded us that it is better to give than receive for good reason: it makes for a better life for all.

"A need to get our way at any cost in order to assure we continue getting what we needed as a child."

This is the whim-worship view of selfishness. The idea is that a selfish person does whatever pops into his head at whatever moment for whatever reason. It is the idea that a truly selfish person would be blind to the consequences of his actions. Such a person may eat all his food today and starve tomorrow. They would do this, it is supposed, for themselves.

An Objectivist does not view a person as a snapshot in time. Each person has a history and a future. The way to provide for your future existence is through man's faculty of reason, not whim worship.

I just spoke to a friend of mine who told me that she is still paying the price for decisions she made in highschool. We are all aware of the need of long-term planing but this context is always dropped when talking about selfishness.

"...but these times are to stabilize, organize and make our lives more tolerable to give to others. "

Yes. You must drop the method of altruism occasionally so that you can sustain your life, so that you can live, so that you can return to altruism,... which does not sustain your life. Altruism cannot be followed consistently for any length of time. It must be evaded, and suspended, for which you are to feel guilty and imperfect, because of your sinful nature.

Kant said to give is noble. To give without reward is nobler. To give when you will be punished for giving is noblest. This means that your actions should benefit others, but would be better to benefit any other part of the universe except for one part of the universe, you. And that your actions would be best if the benefited any other part of the universe, except yourself, especially if your actions injure yourself.

This is the definition of self-hate. There should be no wonder in your mind why there are so many drug addicts, suicides, and cutters. They are being self-less.


I would love to hear what you have to say. Its one thing to not agree about Ayn Rand's philosophy, its another to call it flimsy or say its caused by some confusions in language. The philosophy may have "flaws" - not dead wrong. The principle stands.

Lets start the discussion.

This article is completely wrong-headed, Ayn Rand espoused no such doctrine as claimed. Her philosophy approved rational _egoism_, and _not_ personal _egotism_. The latter she held in disdain as does the general public. Regarding this distinction, many of both her fans and critics make the same mistake, unfortunately.

by Levi Asher on

Herbert, it must be the case that nearly 100% of her fans and critics make this mistake, because I've been conducting a public discussion about Ayn Rand's ethics on this website and elsewhere for the past year, and have been in touch with many people who are very knowledgeable about Ayn Rand's philosophy, and I have never heard this from anybody else. I've also read a whole lot of her writings, and have never seen her recognize any form of egoism other than personal or individual egoism.

If it's true that I am misunderstanding Ayn Rand and everybody else is too, than the problem is much wider than just my misunderstanding. In any case, I am reacting to the Ayn Rand doctrine that everybody knows -- the doctrine of individual (personal) egoism, of ethical selfishness.

I'm not saying your rational egoism may not be a better point of view, Herbert -- but your point of view does not appear to be the Ayn Rand point of view.

Ayn Rand's concept of rational self-interest actually means one thing - that you are entitled to live your life for your own benefit. At the same time, you must respect the right of others to live their life for their own benefit.

In politics, this takes the form best stated by Herbert Spencer as the law of equal liberty - each person has the right to do anything they want, at their own expense, as long as they do not interfere with the right of any other person to do what they want.

Objectivism as promoted by Ayn Rand proposed laissez faire economics, which was in direct opposition to corporate welfare or government subsidies of private business, or government-business partnership.

In foreign policy, Ayn Rand opposed the right of a mixed-economy regime to take the resources of its citizens, or to draft young people, and go to war for the purpose of conquering another country or changing another society's social system. The purpose of government is strictly to provide defense.

Ayn Rand opposed American involvement in World War II until Pearl Harbor, even though she clearly opposed National Socialism. Ayn Rand opposed America's war in Vietnam also, although she clearly opposed Communism.

The alternative to the principle of self-interest is that you have no right to exist other than to serve others. Is that really want you propose as a moral principle?

A belief in self-interest as a fundamental principle does not mean you cannot with your own resources help others; in fact voluntary cooperation is the basis of market relations. Nor does it mean you cannot engage in charitable work - it just means that it would be voluntary.

The group who run the Ayn Rand Institute and the other "official" Objectivist institutes now promote a bowdlerized version of Rand's thoughts on foreign policy with their backing of Bush's war on terror and their support for the intervention in Iraq. Perhaps is Rand were alive today, she would express similar views for emotional reasons - but a support for pre-emptive war is a clear violation of the principle of the non-initiation of force that Rand promoted, and that guided her opposition to the War in Vietnam.

You clearly misunderstand the principle of self-interest if you think it is reflected by the foreign policy of bullying and bribing that both Democrat and Republican administrations have carried out for the entire period since the end of World War II. I hope you can begin to understand the principle of self-interest now.

by Kevin Easter on

Trade alone doesn't produce prosperity. Trade must be governed by moral principles, and economic activity, to be effective and prosperous, requires a social context within which peace and good order are ensured. Otherwise, bribery, graft and corruption could be the order of the day.

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