Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Was Ayn Rand a "Social Darwinist"? Did Ayn Rand believe in "dog-eat-dog" relationships?


Ayn Rand advocated the opposite of "dog-eat-dog" relationships - mutual self-interest - and Objectivism is in opposition to the various other tenets of Social Darwinism as well, such as the premise human ability is rooted in one's intrinsic biological nature.

Despite this, a USA Today article writes about "Rand's dog-eat-dog philosophy." A Huffington Post blogger refers to "Ayn Rand's Social Darwinism" and Newsweek's online partner to "Rand's blend of Social Darwinism and atheism." But these frequent claims don't stand up to the ideas Rand actually expressed.

"Social Darwinism" is a theory presented by 19th century philosopher Herbert Spencer, who created the term "survival of the fittest" (sometimes incorrectly attributed to Charles Darwin himself) and sought to apply the "competition" that takes place in natural selection to social policy. While the connection between Ayn Rand and Spencer is usually applied as a matter-of-fact smear, an April New York Times editorial by one Philip Kitcher did us the favor of actually attempting to explain and justify the comparison. While it refers to Republicans more frequently than to Rand, it can serve as a model of what those making this comparison interpret Spencer's work to advocate and what sorts of connections might be made between Spencer and more presently relevant thinkers.

Friday, 26 October 2012

Myth-Peddler in Focus: The Huffington Post

If there is a global leader in saying false things about Ayn Rand, it is most likely The Huffington Post. The liberal news website hosts numerous political bloggers, and hit pieces on Ayn Rand are one of their favorite subjects, typically in order to put Republicans known to like her work in a bad light. Ayn Rand wasn't a conservative and had less in common with Paul Ryan than many think, but there is far, far more to the falsehoods than that. I'm going to take a sample of Huffington Post articles from the last month or two to serve as an example, and see how they hold up against the truth.

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Was Ayn Rand a libertarian? Is Objectivism a form of libertarianism?

Not, at the very least, by the definition of "libertarian" Ayn Rand used. While mainstream media sources will often refer to Ayn Rand as a libertarian writer, Rand was consistently very critical of "libertarianism" whenever it was brought up, including the U.S. Libertarian Party and notable libertarian writers and organizations of her time. Rather than leaving it at that, however, I would like to provide some explanation of how Objectivism conflicts with libertarian political ideas and some of the context I think should accompany quoting what Rand said.

The aspect of Objectivism essential to understanding how it relates to libertarianism is that Objectivism is not merely a set of political views, or even a political philosophy, but a full philosophic system, with interdependent positions on epistemology, ethics, and other branches of philosophy. Ayn Rand argued that political views are ultimately derivative of more fundamental philosophic issues and thought about politics in those terms. Libertarian is a purely political designation describing a certain set of political beliefs. Sometimes it is said that libertarianism, therefore, describes the Objectivist politics but merely doesn't include the other aspects of Objectivism. But these "other aspects" are essential to Objectivism's politics and leads to various concrete political differences between Objectivists and libertarians.

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Did Ayn Rand believe altruism is impossible? Does Objectivism hold that "people invariably act in their self-interest"?

No. According to Ayn Rand, man should act in his rational self-interest, but it is not automatic, and he needs a moral code to help determine what is in his self-interest.

That Ayn Rand held selfishness to be innate is one of the strangest and most arbitrary myths, and most straight-forward to explain. Objectivism holds that man possesses free will, that he requires morality, which is a "code of values to guide man’s choices and actions." It holds that he can choose the code of morality that he can practices and that if he chooses the incorrect one, such as altruism, this will be harmful for him.

Monday, 1 October 2012

Did Ayn Rand oppose behaving based on a code of ethics? Did Ayn Rand advocate doing "whatever you feel like"?

No. While Ayn Rand rejected the codes of morality that had been offered previously, she did not eschew ethics but rather presented a new, different moral code based on her own idea of the basis and need for morality. And, far from advocating emotionalism, the primary virtue of Ayn Rand's system of ethics is rationality.

Many commentators make this assumption because Ayn Rand advocated self-interest, and titled her anthology on ethics "The Virtue of Selfishness." But in doing so they are making two assumptions: that "morality," by definition, refers to altruism and self-sacrifice; and that unprincipled, emotionalist action is in fact in one's self-interest. Ayn Rand rejected both of these premises.

Friday, 28 September 2012

"How Ayn Rand is wrecking football" from Salon.com


Introducing a new feature wherein Friday's posts will be, not the answer to a question on a given issue, but a somewhat more analytical and reactive look at how Ayn Rand is being described in the media.

Twitter was buzzing Wednesday morning with references to one of the most absurd articles attacking Ayn Rand I've read in a while, and that - to use a stronger tone than usual - is saying something. The NFL's usual referees had been on strike through the first 2 - 3 weeks of the season and Salon.com writer Paul F. Campos accused Ayn Rand's ideas of being responsible. The story was re-Tweeted by a few celebrity accounts, such as that of movie critic Roger Ebert and MSNBC personality Melissa Harris-Perry, and Rand's detractor's were very enthusiastic about the relatively novel way of demonizing her.

Campos's explanation is this: Ayn Rand believed that rich people are all great and non-rich people are all horrible; Ayn Rand advocated being principled and uncompromising; the NFL owners are rich; the NFL owners are refusing to compromise with people who aren't rich. Therefore, they must be not giving the refs what they want because Ayn Rand told them not to.

Putting aside how plain bizarre that method of deduction is, both of his premises regarding Ayn Rand's ideas are greatly inaccurate. The first (about the rich) is plain false, and the second (about principle) is badly twisted and misrepresented. Further, the article as a whole has such a high density of dishonest smears that it serves as a useful model of the nature and frequency of those spread about her today.

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Was Ayn Rand a conservative?

Ayn Rand was not a conservative, and Objectivism is not a conservative philosophy.

The primary thing Ayn Rand and conservatives have in common is that they each advocate less government interference with and redistribution of private property than those on the left do. Rand is called conservative because economics is the first dimension that political beliefs are typically categorized with, and because Republicans are more likely to cite her as an influence than Democrats. But the difference between Ayn Rand's philosophy and the conservative movement - now and earlier - is massive. Ayn Rand was a critic of conservatism just as she was of the left.

Monday, 24 September 2012

Was Ayn Rand's main subject politics? Is Objectivism just a political philosophy?

Ayn Rand's main interests in her writing career were creating novels as art, and fundamental philosophy, not politics. Objectivism is a full philosophic system of which politics is just one section.

The media's main interest in Ayn Rand, unsurprisingly, is her work as a political thinker, and her influence on modern politics. Often this translates into treating it as though that had been Ayn Rand's main interest as well. Journalists will matter-of-factly refer to Ayn Rand as a "political philosopher." Others will go so far as to claim, falsely, that her novels are mere vehicles for her political views. But Ayn Rand, judging both by her stated intentions and her body of work, was above all a novelist and a philosopher, not a political activist.

That her political writing is so original and expansive likely makes it easier for many to believe this myth. But that merely goes to show how much more original and expansive her writing is as a whole. A simple survey of her body of work makes it clear enough that politics was only a fraction of it. Of her two longest and most famous novels, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, the first is the story of a man's career and romantic life, with themes of character and morality, that hardly references politics at all. The second, while more political than the first, has a moral theme that is equally or more prominent. Indeed, on one level, the actual theme of Atlas Shrugged is neither political nor moral but metaphysical: "the role of man's mind in existence."

Friday, 21 September 2012

Is Objectivism's political philosophy anarchist? Did Ayn Rand advocate "anarcho-capitalism"?

While Ayn Rand advocated a highly limited government, Objectivism is anti-anarchist and Rand strictly opposed any variation of anarchism. Rand advocated a stable central government but that is limited only to the function of protecting individual rights and strictly restrained by the rule of law, very similar to that laid out by America's founding fathers.

As is typical, this myth exists even though Ayn Rand's statements on anarchy were quite unambiguous.
Anarchy, as a political concept, is a naive floating abstraction: . . . a society without an organized government would be at the mercy of the first criminal who came along and who would precipitate it into the chaos of gang warfare. But the possibility of human immorality is not the only objection to anarchy: even a society whose every member were fully rational and faultlessly moral, could not function in a state of anarchy; it is the need of objective laws and of an arbiter for honest disagreements among men that necessitates the establishment of a government.

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Did Alan Greenspan impose Ayn Rand's free market principles to the American economy?

Alan Greenspan unequivocally did not employ Ayn Rand's ideas during his two decades as Chairman of the Federal Reserve. He employed the opposite.

One article writes that Alan Greenspan put Objectivism's politics "into practice on a massive scale." Another, that he "applied his guru's philosophy to the letter." A New York Times article described him as the "infallible maestro of the financial system."

Though article-writers should know better, it is not very hard to see how others might find convincing the premise that he employed her ideas. Alan Greenspan did have a long-lasting personal relationship with Ayn Rand, and even wrote articles for her magazine. And most people have only the faintest notion of what the Federal Reserve does. But not only did he not employ Ayn Rand's laissez-faire philosophy, it would be impossible for the Chairman of the Federal Reserve to do so.

Monday, 17 September 2012

Did Ayn Rand oppose helping others? Did Ayn Rand consider charity immoral?

No. While Ayn Rand didn't consider charity a moral duty, she did not consider it immoral either.

Like the meme that Ayn Rand believed wealth automatically makes a person morally superior, this is one of the most widespread myths about her ideas. A Huffington Post blogger wrote that private acts of charity were "pathetic and worthless to Ayn Rand." A Salon.com article refers to her "utter lack of charity" and one book about her is even titled "With Charity Toward None."

Friday, 14 September 2012

Did Ayn Rand use government programs she'd advocated against using?

No. Ayn Rand consistently held the position that opponents of government programs still have a right to use those programs while they are present, and consistently recommended that others use them as well.

It has been brought up frequently in recent years that Ayn Rand received Medicare. While it appears by all accounts that she did, no one familiar with her positions (or - in my view - common sense) should be surprised by this.

Ayn Rand, regardless of what many hit pieces imply, never said that one shouldn't accept the payments of redistributive programs. She argued that the government should not institute such programs. These are hardly equivalent statements. Refraining from using a government program does not prevent it from being instituted, nor free you from participation in it. One is forced to pay into them regardless. So, of course, are those around you - such as your parents, potential employers, etc. - which imposes a secondary cost on you. Government redistribution is not a mere habit that certain people partake in, but something institutionally imposed on all citizens, that all citizens are part of whether they want to be or not.

Is Paul Ryan an Objectivist? Are his policy proposals consistent with Objectivist political philosophy?

Congressman Paul Ryan is not an Objectivist and, by most indications, his political philosophy is inconsistent with Objectivism.

The most straightforward indication of this is Paul Ryan's Catholicism. Atheism is a component of Objectivism and, consequently, a Catholic is decidedly not an Objectivist, as Ryan himself has noted.

Even humoring the premise that one can have major differences with the fundamentals of Objectivist philosophy but still share its political philosophy, Ryan has definite differences here as well. Objectivism calls for laissez-faire capitalism - that is, a complete separation of state and economics - and a government limited to the courts, police, and military. Ryan, to list merely the most prominent examples, voted for major government spending programs including TARP, the auto bailouts, and George W. Bush's expansion of Medicare. Yaron Brook, president of the Ayn Rand Institute, stated that he doesn't think “Ryan, even in his political philosophy, is as radical as I am or as radical as Ayn Rand would be.” Ryan is also – unsurpringly - “pro-life,” taking the opposite position of Ayn Rand on that issue.

Did Ayn Rand hold wealth as the measure of a person's moral worth?

The Objectivist ethics uphold virtues such as rationality and integrity as signs of moral worth, not how much wealth one happens to possess. Ayn Rand did not believe that economic status was proof of virtue one way or another.

The myth that Ayn Rand believed wealth was an intrinsic indication of superiority, that those who weren't very wealthy had nothing to gain from her ideas and that society should be run by some kind of aristocracy of the rich, is both one of the most pervasive and most disingenuous. Clarifying against this possible misinterpretation was not something she was exactly subtle about, so it shows perhaps more than any other myth how blatantly misrepresented her views tend to be.