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.
Spencer, who coined the phrase “survival of the fittest,” thought about natural selection on a grand scale. Conceiving selection in pre-Darwinian terms — as a ruthless process, “red in tooth and claw” — he viewed human culture and human societies as progressing through fierce competition. Provided that policymakers do not take foolish steps to protect the weak, those people and those human achievements that are fittest — most beautiful, noble, wise, creative, virtuous, and so forth — will succeed in a fierce competition, so that, over time, humanity and its accomplishments will continually improve.
In referring to "ruthless" and "fierce" competition, and to bloody teeth and claws, Kitcher understands violence to be a component of Social Darwinism, yet Ayn Rand wrote that "The basic political principle of the Objectivist ethics is: no man may initiate the use of physical force against others." It is the coercive political systems Ayn Rand opposed that incorporate physical force, including those that do so with the expressed purpose of engendering competition, writing "The concept of free competition enforced by law is a grotesque contradiction in terms. It means: forcing people to be free at the point of a gun."

Kitcher refers to not taking actions to "protect the weak" so that the "fittest succeed," but what kind of weakness and what kind of success is he referring to? He's employing an equivocation between competition among those "strong" enough to "succeed" at producing enough value to exchange for a given other value (e.g. under capitalism), and competition among those "strong" enough to win conflicts of force and "succeed" at surviving (e.g. that takes place under opposite political systems). Ayn Rand, in addition to rejecting physical force, didn't believe the relatively "weak" at producing would fail to survive under capitalism, and herself addressed this equivocation in her work: "But you say that money is made by the strong at the expense of the weak? What strength do you mean? It is not the strength of guns or muscles. Wealth is the product of man’s capacity to think. Then is money made by the man who invents a motor at the expense of those who did not invent it?"

Even if the implication of violence wasn't intended by Kitcher, a society of "fierce competition" at least indicates that people's interests and well-being are set against each other, and that they must seek to sacrifice other's values and interests to their own somehow, even if not through violence. Ayn Rand rejected this as well.
Just as I do not consider the pleasure of others as the goal of my life, so I do not consider my pleasure as the goal of the lives of others. Just as there are no contradictions in my values and no conflicts among my desires—so there are no victims and no conflicts of interest among rational men, men who do not desire the unearned and do not view one another with a cannibal’s lust, men who neither make sacrifices nor accept them.
Far from advocating "dog-eat-dog" relationships, she specifically argued that capitalism was the opposite and that the social philosophies she opposed were "dog-eat-dog."

Kitcher mentions that Social Darwinism "has often been closely connected with ideas in eugenics" and with "theories of racial superiority," but stipulates that "these are not central to the position." But given that Spencer's whole theory was based on the genetic competition that takes places during actual Darwinism, and given that the rejection of eugenics and racism was the major reason why Social Darwinism became an object of universal contempt, they seem to be quite central to it, which reflects badly on an attempt to compare it to ideas that don't share those positions.

What does Kitcher consider "central" to Spencer's ideas, then? He writes:
The heart of social Darwinism is a pair of theses: first, people have intrinsic abilities and talents (and, correspondingly, intrinsic weaknesses), which will be expressed in their actions and achievements, independently of the social, economic and cultural environments in which they develop; second, intensifying competition enables the most talented to develop their potential to the full, and thereby to provide resources for a society that make life better for all.
Rand did not consider human ability to be intrinsic. She argued extensively for the existence of free will, for the premise knowledge and ability are the product of the choice to engage in dedicated self-improvement, and against the premise that either are the product of "instinct." Rand wrote that free will "is your mind’s freedom to think or not" and "controls all the choices you make and determines your life and your character." She wrote that "An instinct of self-preservation is precisely what man does not possess" and that "Man has no automatic code of survival. He has no automatic course of action, no automatic set of values." 

The "intrinsic abilities and talents" aspect of Social Darwinism is rooted in the same view of human nature as the eugenics and racism aspect. If one's abilities are the product not of choices and effort but of one's biological nature as determined by genetics, it stands to reason both a) that one's abilities are an unchanging, static feature that does not have to be developed, and b) that people's genetic background is of greater social consideration than their choices and character. Similarly, Rand's rejection of ability as intrinsic is rooted in the same view of human nature as her rejection of eugenics and racism, which she indicated herself.
Racism is the lowest, most crudely primitive form of collectivism. It is the notion of ascribing moral, social or political significance to a man’s genetic lineage—the notion that a man’s intellectual and characterological traits are produced and transmitted by his internal body chemistry. Which means, in practice, that a man is to be judged, not by his own character and actions, but by the characters and actions of a collective of ancestors. 
Racism claims that the content of a man’s mind (not his cognitive apparatus, but its content) is inherited; that a man’s convictions, values and character are determined before he is born, by physical factors beyond his control. [...] Like every form of determinism, racism invalidates the specific attribute which distinguishes man from all other living species: his rational faculty. Racism negates two aspects of man’s life: reason and choice, or mind and morality, replacing them with chemical predestination.
The other "theses" Kitcher puts at the "heart" of Social Darwinism, that "intensifying competition enables the most talented to develop their potential," raises the same question as his references to "fierce" and "ruthless" competition. What constitutes "intensifying"? The "intense competition" to survive between two brutes trying to kill each other is a universe away from the "intense competition" for market share between Apple, Google, and Microsoft. Rand, as I explained above, did not believe in "competitions" of physical force or "competitions" for one's very life. Additionally, Rand by all indications considered competition's centrality to ability and to capitalism overstated, and wrote that "Competition is a by-product of productive work, not its goal. A creative man is motivated by the desire to achieve, not by the desire to beat others."

A third aspect of what Kitcher calls "the heart" of Social Darwinism is the premise it enables the most talented "to provide resources for a society that make life better for all." Earlier, he describe's Spencer's idea that the "fittest" will "succeed in a fierce competition, so that, over time, humanity and its accomplishments will continually improve." Yet while Social Darwinism justifies its "ruthlessness" with the good of "all," or of "humanity," Rand specifically warned and argued against the idea of sacrificing individuals for the good of collectives, writing critically that "Collectivism means the subjugation of the individual to a group—whether to a race, class or state does not matter. Collectivism holds that man must be chained to collective action and collective thought for the sake of what is called “the common good.”"

Ayn Rand's philosophy evidently sharply contradicts Spencer's on all levels, in both the aspects Kitcher considers essential and those he doesn't. Despite this, Kitcher makes the connection quite glibly, stating that Spencer's work was found "profoundly congenial" by some, "just as some adolescents discover an inspiring reinforcement of their self-image in the writings of Ayn Rand." Somehow, despite being nothing alike, their philosophies are comparable because those who enjoy Ayn Rand's work want to see its values in themselves, just as those who enjoyed Spender's work most likely wanted to see its (totally different) values in themselves. Apparently according to Kitcher, encouraging and inspiring young people amounts to Social Darwinism.

Why is this comparison made, then? One reason might be Ayn Rand's focus on "self-interest." Though he justified it with its alleged social benefits, Spencer apparently believed those he considered more "fit" should "compete" in a way that involved sacrificing those they interacted with to their own interests. But as I touched on in my my post on charity and my post on hedonism, an essential component of Ayn Rand's morality is what she argued to actually be in one's self-interest, and that did not include sacrificing others, which she considered immoral. Another reason for the comparison might be Ayn Rand's focus on the ability of some to overcome, and succeed despite, their social environment. But that comparison assumes a false alternative between rooting success in a person's social environment and a person's biology/genetics. Ayn Rand rejected the primacy of either and wrote about the essentiality of individual choice. One could as easily say Kitcher is the one that agrees with Spencer because they both consider individual choice secondary.

While these mistakes surely play some role, the simpler explanation is this: Social Darwinism is universally rejected but still remembered. Those who wish to smear Ayn Rand or the political positions they (correctly or incorrectly) associate with her are willing to make the previous misinterpretations in order to associate her work with something their audience dislikes, and hopefully have them reject her without reading it. Don't fall for it.

Further Reading

Forbes: The Dog-Eat-Dog Welfare State Is Lose-Lose
The Objective Standard: President Obama: The Preeminent “Social Darwinist”