« Home Theater | Main | Sweet »

04 December 2003 — Who is John Galt? (14)

Aimee brought up Ayn Rand in the Cinnamon Bear thread. Okay, she didn't really bring up Ayn Rand, but through the convoluted twistings of my mind, her comments led me to Ayn Rand. (Note: Ayn rimes with "mine", not "man".)

I went through an Ayn Rand phase once, soon after I graduated from college. It was early 1992, and I was working as a salesman for Custom Box Service. As I drove around the industrial areas looking for leads, I listened to Rush Limbaugh. (Believe it or not, he actually used to be funny. I never agreed with much of what he had to say, but he was very entertaining. Then he became vitriolic and single-minded: "Clinton sucks!" I was no Clinton fan, either, but I couldn't understand why Rush was so keen on forsaking all else in a blind hatred for the man.)

One day Rush had a caller who lauded the virtues of Objectivism, the pseudo-philosophical school of thought spawned by Rand and her novels. The caller believed her views meshed well with conservatism. Rush blasted the guy. He blasted Ayn Rand. He disavowed any connection between her and conservativism.

Soon after, in an issue of National Review (see, I really was on a conservative streak, wasn't I?), an entire article was devoted to debunking Ayn Rand's viewpoints. The writer even went so far as to make fun of her because she once cried when an editor of National Review challenged some of her positions. (That story's a little fuzzy; I may not be completely correct on the details.)

What, I wondered, could this woman have written that made these men so adamant that she was not one of them?

I'd read Anthem seemed slight, and obvious, with a simplistic moral against which few people would argue. It was a poor man's 1984. I'd made a go at The Fountainhead, but had given it up when I found the writing impenetrable. I spoke with Nick about Rand, and he suggested I try Atlas Shrugged (FAQ, her thousand page opus in which she posits a world in which the men of industry go on strike and civilization grinds to a halt.

I read Atlas Shrugged, or most of it. The writing was awful. The characters were one-dimensional in the worst possible way. Yet, through it all, Rand's philosophy emerged as something compelling and worth considering, perhaps not in its entirety, but at least as a starting point for conversation or deep thought. In the context of the period in which it was written, Atlas Shrugged is an important book.

I remember sitting in Dane's apartment discussing Ayn Rand and her views. "I don't like her," he told me. "I donít agree with her philosophy."

"What is it you don't agree with?" I asked, but he couldn't say. He'd never read any of her stuff himself, but he had a friend in high school who had, and Dane thought he was worse for it. "Why don't you read something of hers and tell me what you don't agree with," I suggested.

"I don't have to read her to know I disagree with her," he said. This was one of the only times I've been gravely disappointed with Dane/Dana. (It's awkward to write about Dana in this case, because she was Dane at the time, but is Dana now. Which name and pronoun do I use in which sentences?) It seemed frivolous for him to argue against a position with which he had no familiarity. (The only other time I can remember being disappointed with him is when he swore up-and-down that Charles Schulz' son was drawing Peanuts, when in fact this was not the case.)

I carried Atlas Shrugged around with me for weeks, reading it in my car on breaks, in restaurants at lunch. The going was slow. Then, in the middle of John Galt's momentous speech (excerpt), I gave up. I've never gone back to it since.

Sometimes I think I'd like to give the book another chance, but every time I try to reread it, I'm put off by the poor writing. Too, I always think of what Nick has to say about Atlas Shrugged: "Poor Eddie." When Dagny Taggart goes off to join the cabal in Colorado, she leaves behind her trusting assistant, Eddie. He may not be a railroad baron, but he's a pure and noble fellow, not worth of Rand's scorn.

So, why do Rush and the conservatives hold Rand in such low esteem? I think it's for those things that I find good about her philosophy. Her central tenet is this:

Man — every man — is an end in himself, not a means to the ends of others; he must live for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself; he must work for his rational self-interest, with the achievement of his own happiness as the highest moral purpose of his life.
This, too, is the central tenet of my life. "The achievement of his own happiness [is] the highest moral purpose of [a man's] life." Amen.

Yet this flies in the face of Christianity and most other modern religions. The conservative movement in the United States is tightly entwined with Christianity, so despite the other similarities Rand shares with conservative thought, her central tenet (and her professed atheism), earn contempt from the Right.

Rand's books are certainly food for thought, and it's quite possible that someday, perhaps soon, I'll choose one for our book group discussion.

Assorted Ayn Rand links, from googling:

Have you read Ayn Rand? What do you think of her?

On this day at foldedspace.org

2002Chasing the Sunset   The sky is on fire: the clouds blaze electric pink against a pale purple field. The color is so intense that I lose my balance. I stare open-mouthed in awe.

Comments
On 04 December 2003 (11:25 AM), Dana said:

Well, you're overly simplifying my Ayn Randian position.

There are things there that I agree are useful. What I don't find all that great are the ways in which her rabid fans (ie, several of the people I knew in HS and College, not just one) seem to narrowly focus in on the idea that Altruism doesn't exist, and that they should therefore not bother trying to help other people.

From a philosophical point of view, I can discuss Ayn Rand's ideas with people without having read her specific texts. The arguments most fans of her texts have made don't seem all that compelling to me, and that has never lead me to be interested in reading them. Judging by your analysis of her writing, it sounds like the ideas are rather more important than the actual story, and so I feel a bit justified in thinking the ideas are more crucial here.

Lets take that quote, above.

I agree with part of it, and disagree strongly with the rest.

I agree with this bit: "Man ó every man ó is an end in himself, not a means to the ends of others; he must live for his own sake..."

I disagree strongly with this bit: "he must work for his rational self-interest, with the achievement of his own happiness as the highest moral purpose of his life."

More context is necessary here. Without more context, how is this different than the pursuit of naked barbaric hedonistic abandon and crass navel-gazing selfishness?

Most Ayn Rand supporters that I know seem to think this sort of anti-societal "me first" approach is good and justifiable. Now, perhaps Ayn Rand doesn't mean it in this way. I've seen it argued that she did -- a mad dash for total capitalistic greed, and hang any sort of compassion or action that might be motivated by something other than simple self-interest. Blech.

We're all in this together. Do the best you can with what you've got. Try to be as nice to others as you'd like others to be to you. Share and share alike. The freedom to swing your arms ends where other people's noses begin. That's what I think, anyway.


On 04 December 2003 (11:34 AM), Dana said:

Here we go:

...liberals oppose her philosophy because it advocates self-interest and capitalism and therefore condemns collectivism and the welfare-state, while conservatives oppose her philosophy because it advocates reason and science and therefore condemns faith and religion. And moderates don't like her philosophy because it advocates absolutes and doesn't abide fence-sitting.

Being basically a moderate liberal (I think), I have these exact problems with what I have learned of her ideas. I'm not bothered by the condemnation of faith and religion in favor of reason and science, but I do disagree about absolutes (being a relativist) and the promotion of self-interest and capitalism as being somehow morally superior.

Basically, I think Ayn Rand's approach is even more depressing than Existentialism, if that makes sense. And Existentialism can be pretty darn depressing when you first start thinking about it (although I suspect that I'm fairly close to espousing it in my personal approach to things).


On 04 December 2003 (12:06 PM), J.D. said:

Dana said: How is this different than the pursuit of naked barbaric hedonistic abandon and crass navel-gazing selfishness?

First of all, what do you mean by "naked barbaric hedonistic anbandon and crass navel-gazing selfishness"? I can't answer your question in less I know what you mean.

I disagree that the pursuit of happiness is anti-societal. It is if this pursuit comes at the expense of others, but a corrolary to Rand's position is that if you're imposing your will on others such that you limit their happines, then you are not behaving rationally. She's of the "pursue your desires so long as they don't interfere with others" school, as am I.

Don't get me wrong. I certainly disagree with much of what she has to say; but I find this particular aspect of her philosophy compelling.

Her characters do lack compassion, and that is a problem. They take her philosophy to an unplatable extreme. They create "the Eddie Problem". But it does not have to be this way.

Or maybe what I advocate is something altogether different...

Re: conservative and liberal viewpoints of Objectivism

I read in one of Rand's books the following generalizations: liberals are mystics of muscle, conservatives are mystics of the mind.

By this is meant that liberals are strong proponents of intellectual freedom but have little knowledge of, or desire to know, the realities of the physical marketplace (how goods are produced, the realities of labor, etc.). To them, production is something that just happens. It's mystical to them.

Conversely, conservatives are strong proponents of physical freedoms, yet have little knowldge of, or desire to know, the realities of the marketplace of ideas. Freedom of choice? Bah! Freedom of religion? Bah! Freedom of sexual orientation? Bah! To them, there are certain right and wrong ways of thought, arrived at by mystical means, and they live in a world of muscle.

Again, I'm oversimplifying, and trying to remember something I read more than a decade ago, but that's the gist of it, I think.

(The only relevant quote I could find on the internet is this, from Rand's pen:

In Atlas Shrugged, I discussed two variants of mysticism: the mystics of spirit and the mystics of muscle, "those who believe in consciousness without existence and those who believe in existence without consciousness. Both demand the surrender of your mind, one to their revelations, the other to their reflexes. " I said that their aims are alike: "in matter - the enslavement of man's body, in spirit - the destruction of his mind."
It's not wholly apt, but serves to illustrate the point a bit, I guess.)


On 04 December 2003 (01:06 PM), Dave said:

And what exactly is wrong with "the pursuit of naked barbaric hedonistic abandon and crass navel-gazing selfishness"?

Into the statement "...life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" I've always read "...my life, my liberty and my pursuit of my happiness."

But then again, when JD was reading Ayn Rand I was reading the Marquis de Sade (which was highly entertaining from a philosophical viewpoint, by the way), so perhaps my viewpoint is a bit skewed.


On 04 December 2003 (01:37 PM), Dana said:

All things in moderation.

Ayn Randian philosophy, as I've heard it espoused, seems to advocate unrestrained capitalism and self-interest.

JD says I disagree that the pursuit of happiness is anti-societal. It is if this pursuit comes at the expense of others, but a corrolary to Rand's position is that if you're imposing your will on others such that you limit their happines, then you are not behaving rationally. She's of the "pursue your desires so long as they don't interfere with others" school, as am I.

And so am I. But the difference seems to be what constitutes imposing your will on others such that you limit their happiness. I've seen Randian philosophy used to justify no social programs, for example. Does this or does this not limit those who cannot afford to pay for these services?

Where this line gets drawn seems to be a big crux of my issues with what I know of Randian thinking. How do you determine what makes the most happiness? Are we only responsible for our own happiness, with no regard for everybody else (everybody is solely responsible for their own happiness), or are we looking at a sort of global 'best case scenario' average happiness?

Randians seem to be focussed solely on the personal responsibility angle. My happiness, first and foremost. Sure, don't necessarily be evil about oppressing the masses, but caveat emptor -- if others aren't as happy as they could be, it's no skin off my nose. It's their own problem, and it's up to them to make themselves happier. And you better not make me any less happy in the process of enriching their lives!

Bah, I say. Bah!

I think one of the purposes of the 'social technology' we refer to as Society is the mediation of personal greed and self-interest. It's a way of balancing between doing what's best for us, doing what's best for the group, and not doing what's bad for others.

Perhaps this is implied or explicit in her writings. Of those I know who vociferously espouse Rand, though, I haven't seen much evidence that this message is sinking in or being perceived if it was intended to be there.

Philosophy, in my experience, tends to either be an excercise in impractical (but interesting) thought experiment or an example of extreme arrogance. Ayn Rand's stuff feels like it's heavily weighted towards the arrogance end of things. "My way is best and right, the rest of you are clueless".

Everybody I've known (aside, perhaps, from JD) who went through a deep Rand phase came out of it trying to convince everybody that this was the One True Way (in an almost cultlike way, actually), and focussing primarily on how Altruism is Evil and Selfishness is Good and Morally Right, therefore I don't have to care about anybody else. They seemed relieved and excited that someone had justified being selfish and indifferent. It has left a bitter taste in my mouth, and it reminds me mightily of the sort of weaseling that the current President is doing -- "Here's a Clean Air Act that makes the Air less clean!". Philosophical double-speak.

I say again, Bah!


On 04 December 2003 (02:19 PM), Dave said:

I've seen Randian philosophy used to justify no social programs, for example. Does this or does this not limit those who cannot afford to pay for these services?

It does limit those individuals, much like the fact that I do not possess Green Lantern's power ring limits my ability to create glowing green energy shields. It does limit those individuals much like the fact that Cindy Crawford still refuses to have sex with me limits my ability to have sex with those I would prefer to have sex with. It does limit those individuals much like the fact that the government refuses to give me a nuclear (pronounced noookuular, say it with me, "noookuular") bomb when I think that I really want a nuke to make me happy.

This line of argumentation is just silly. Why? Because the fundamental assumption is that you are somehow interfering with a person's right to liberty or happiness by not providing them with "x" service, or "y" amount of money, etc. The point is not that society is going to give you happiness (bread and circuses!!), but rather that the social contract says that no one has any better right than you to try to create or find their own happiness.

I'm not sure how a Randian would answer your argument (not being one), but here's the de Sadian view: We have the right to possess property because we possess property. If someone is capable of taking it from you, by hook or by crook, then their right is superior to yours and they should therefore take the property. In other words, pay attention to what is yours or someone will take it from you and that's ok. Ditto for happiness. If it makes me happy to bugger you, then I'm all for it. You might not be, but then that's not really my problem.

It seems to me that this position would pose a much larger problem for you than the (apparent) Randian position. Obviously Sade proved to be quite unpopular with the star bellied sneeches and equally popular with the plain bellied sneeches, which is probably why he was locked up. Anarchist!

I can't believe I just used de Sade and Dr. Seuss in the same paragraph.


On 04 December 2003 (08:12 PM), Rory said:

umm, you probably won't read this, but I recently read Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged and I really enjoyed. Yes, John Galt's seventy page oration is a little much, I skimmed. But the end is worth returning to. And her writing is not terrible by the way. The scope of her novels is amazing and well structured. Granted it is much harder to write briefly and concisely; however give her credit where it is due. Enjoy, I shall stop so as to be brief.


On 05 December 2003 (07:43 AM), Joel said:

I've always found it very difficult to untangle true altruism from selfishness. While it is true that people perform compassionate acts without expectation of material reward, they do generally expect a reward of some kind. Whether it's going to heaven, earning the esteem of your fellows, making the world a better place (for yourself), or just the warm and rosy glowing glow that one receives from performing a deed that your internal culture approves of, the Self cannot be stripped from the Act.
Which is a pretty semantic argument, as we can simply redefine an altruistic act as an act that one does without receiving a physical compensation.
Regarding social programs, they can be supported from a realist (as opposed to idealist) standpoint: it is in our (my) best interest that others receive adequate education, housing, and food. Not only will an educated and healthy population contribute to the economic well-being of society (money in my pocket), but it'll keep them from coming round, taking my property, and buggering me without my permission.
Now, my good friend Kris Gates looms in my mind. "Your 'healthy' society is a burgeoning society. Are you sure that you'll never run out of food, jobs, and space for all these grasping people? Rand's Objectivism balances on the incorrect notion of eternal earthly objects." To which I have to reply, "Um, technology will save us."


On 05 December 2003 (07:58 AM), J.D. said:

Dana's right about one thing: Objectivism does seem like a cult.

Personally, one reason I'm in favor of the pursuit of personal happiness instead of the Spock-like "greatest good for the greatest number" has been distilled by Ursula LeGuin in her marvelous The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas. Creating group happiness always comes at the expense of some members of that group. My happiness need not come at the expense of anyone else.


On 05 December 2003 (09:34 AM), Dana said:

I'm not sure if Dave is being facetious or not, but here's a bit more of my thinking on 'preventing other people's happiness'.

In my experience, a lot of philosophy and sociology devolves to various versions of the Prisoner's Dilemma when you start applying them to the Real World. For example....

Consider a situation with two people, A and B, and some finite resource C that they both desire.

1. You could apportion C between A and B based solely on their ability to gain it themselves. That is, if A is big and strong and can beat the tar out of B, then A gets it. This might be considered the de Sade approach =)

2. At the other end of the spectrum, A might decide that he ought to sacrifice his own desires completely in favor of B's interests, thus resulting in B getting all of C. This might be called the Martyr (or Samaritan) approach.

3. You could decide to split C right in half, giving half to each of A and B. This would be, well, the Socialist approach, I think.

4. You could decide there was some minimum quantity of C that was important or necessary for both A and B to have (food, say, or medical care) and give them both that amount, and then, assuming there is some left over, you could apportion the rest based on some other scheme, perhaps based on #1 or #2, above.

I'm sure there are other ways to slice the pie, these are just the ones that leap out at me.

In my personal experience, Objectivists seem to be very interested in using Objectivism to justify choice #1 as being Morally Superior and Righteous. I personally see it as a classic case of Might Makes Right, a philosophical approach which has been losing ground since the Magna Carta (although the current administration seems intent on undoing a lot of those historical developments).

JD said, My happiness need not come at the expense of anyone else.

How can you be sure? The US economy is based upon the idea of 'arbitrage' of labor. Buy labor and materials cheaply in the third world, sell the fruits of that labor at a markup in the first world. You are happy to buy a $6 t-shirt, but it's at the expense of the happiness of sweatshop labor.

Or think about environmental pollution. At the very least, poisoning the environment is coming at the expense of the happiness of future generations, who won't have a planet in as good a shape as we did. And before you say that you don't pollute, think about the chemical waste caused by printed circuit board manufacturing. It's pretty nasty stuff. So get rid of all transistorized electronics and integrated ciruitry, to begin with.

People in the US don't like to think about this stuff or, if they do, like to rationalize it in various ways. I'm certainly just as guilty as any other US citizen, perhaps more, since I actually have an awareness of what my nation is doing, but I'm still more than happy to reap the spoils in the form of inexpensive goods and a general blind eye to these significant problems while I deal with the vagaries of my own life, a life which is infinitely easier than the sweatshop labor my indifference allows to be exploited.

Sigh.

Okay, I've depressed myself now. :/


On 05 December 2003 (09:47 AM), J.D. said:

Objectivists seem to be very interested in using Objectivism to justify choice #1 as being Morally Superior and Righteous. I personally see it as a classic case of Might Makes Right

Dana, this is where I get cranky with you. Where do you get this? You won't read any of Ayn Rand's work, yet you seem content to interpret what she has to say, though you haven't actually read it!

Remember, I'm not saying that she's right. I don't think she is (except for in the one particular instance I mentioned above). But I don't think it's fair for you to attempt to represent her viewpoints based on invention. It's like saying "I don't like broccoli" without having tasted it.

I agree with you 100% regarding the impact of consumption on the world at large. But I don't think that's the issue here. It's a straw man argument.

Your argument seems to be that if I'm providing for myself and am happy yet John Doe is out of work and unable to afford health insurance (and thus is unhappy), then somehow I am morally culpable for his situation. That's ludicrous.

Read Dave's first two paragraphs again.


On 05 December 2003 (10:20 AM), Dana said:

Dana, this is where I get cranky with you. Where do you get this?

I get it from the actual conversations I've had with people who do agree with Ayn Rand's work. I'm not picking on objectivism per se. I'm picking on the uses to which it's been put in the conversations I've had with people who believe in it.

And those interactions have turned me off to the philosophy itself. But understand, my criticisms are aimed more towards the people I know who are objectivists than it is towards objectivism itself. Objectivism itself might be perfectly acceptable, but the uses to which I've seen it put have been anything but.

From Dave: This line of argumentation is just silly. Why? Because the fundamental assumption is that you are somehow interfering with a person's right to liberty or happiness by not providing them with "x" service, or "y" amount of money, etc. The point is not that society is going to give you happiness (bread and circuses!!), but rather that the social contract says that no one has any better right than you to try to create or find their own happiness.

We're focussing on different parts of the social contract, I think. I think my argument is far from silly, but I'm not sure I can make it coherently in a way that either you or JD will see the point I'm trying to make. Let me just add in JD's point:

Your argument seems to be that if I'm providing for myself and am happy yet John Doe is out of work and unable to afford health insurance (and thus is unhappy), then somehow I am morally culpable for his situation. That's ludicrous.

No, no. Okay, let me try this again.

Think about what makes you happy in life. You are free to pursue that, as long as it doesn't interfere with other's happiness. I think we all agree on that point.

Now, if a person has something that makes him happy, but that cannot be pursued without interfering with other's happiness (ie, what makes him happy is depriving other people of their happiness), then that's a pursuit that our hypothetical society can't condone (and neither do any of us). Again, I think we all agree.

But under some (perhaps many) circumstances, there is a question of what constitutes interference in another's happiness.

If an astronomer is only going to be able to pursue his happiness in an area with no light pollution, then there is a basic conflict between him and anybody with a bunch of lights who lives nearby.

This isn't active interference. Nobody is punching anybody in the nose. Just having two people with incompatible needs near each other can interfere with everybody having an equal opportunity to make their own happiness. Nobody is an island, and there are webs of interactions and ripple effects from everything we do, if not in our neighbors, then in the nature of the world which may well affect future generations and their abilities and opportunities to make their own happiness.

Objectivists, in my experience with them, are utterly uninterested in these sorts of consequences. The important relationship SEEMS to be "Me and creating my happiness". Any external consequences are only an issue if they are "obviously" a problem, like breaking someone's arm, or robbing a bank. Bad air quality? Well, not my problem. Their idea of "obvious problem" is not everybody's, and they aren't interested in dealing with that, because it negatively affects their process of creating their happiness.

Now, I want to stress that I'm talking about actual people I actually know who claim that Ayn Rand is the greatest thing since sliced bread. This is how *they* use Objectivism in their daily life as a life philosophy. And I have a problem with it.

Remember, too, that I am a bleeding heart liberal, not a strict libertarian. I really think that there are moral responsibilities if you are happily humming along creating your happiness and there are starving sick people living next door. If you belong to a society, you have a certain responsibility to that society in addition to your own enlightened self interest, In My Opinion. While we do live in the society of the 21st century US, modern 'society' is really globalized -- we are citizens of the Society of the World nowadays, which means that, In My Opinion, our societal moral obligations extend worldwide.

These opinions of mine are in rather stark contrast to the opinions that the Objectivists I know espouse. That doesn't mean Objectivism is wrong and/or bad. But it also doesn't make me very interested in looking at it much more closely than I already have, in much the same way I'm not really interested in looking at Mormonism any more closely than I already have.

Anyway, I hope this is clearer. But possibly not. And you probably all still think I'm being silly =)


On 10 April 2004 (10:18 PM), Michael said:

I've read Atlas Shrugged, but I don't know much about Ayn Rand's philosophy if it can be called that. I enjoyed the book, didn't love it, but enjoyed it. Some thoughts from the book that I like: 1. Thinking and Reasoning will always serve you best. 2. Don't expect help or charity in achieving your goals, the victory will be better experienced. 3. You don't have to feel/be miserable in order to lead a good life.
I understand that Rand takes some of her thoughts to the extreme (which isn't condusive for reasoning). But if I had to pick a hero, Eddie is not a bad choice, but I'd go with Hank Rearden. There's no compassion in Atlas Shrugged? Just look at Hank. He (and Dagney)feels sorry for Dan Conway, the wet nurse and even for his brother in the beginning. Read the book again and concentrate on the way the different characters feel and act towards others. As for the philosophy, I'm not even going to try that. Think I'll close, don't want to bore you.


On 10 July 2005 (07:16 PM), Atla said:

Ok, I did not read all of the posts so I dont know if anyone has said what I am going to say now.
It is impossible for anyone to undertand Rand fully if they have not read her NON-fiction work. It all comes down to DEFINITIONS. Most of which are explaned in her non-fiction work.

Example Given
When Rand say self-interest, she means RATIONAL self interest (example: stealing is not rational-self interest)
There are dozens of other thing where her defintions differ from what most people think when they hear it.

Don't worry Im not going to Troll here, I just stumbled apone this site during a Google search.I wont be back.


Post a comment
Name


Email Address
(required, not shown)


URL


Comments




Remember info?