When I first encountered Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism, I found it to ring true. It just made so much sense, and was very logically precise. I found that those who were critical of it often failed to grasp the broader implications of what she was saying, focusing instead on proximate conclusions and not the substance which led to them. Yet, as I began to explore that substance, I came to conclude that Ayn Rand’s philosophy relies on a number of unspoken assumptions. I felt that her philosophy was essentially correct, but that it could also be developed and clarified. Her followers seemed to greatly resist this.
Their excuse was always a call not to adulterate the work of Rand. They said that divergent, or novel philosophies needed to be treated as distinct. And yet, they had little willingness to consider novel thinking that built upon Objectivism. This led me away from Ayn Rand, but today I think I grasp why this whole situation exists. Objectivism itself isn’t wrong per se, but rather it relies upon important unspoken assumptions. Unaddressed, these assumptions sink the philosophy. That’s why contemporary adherents to Objectivism have become so attached to orthodoxy: addressing the questions posed by the very makeup of Objectivism would mean having to reject it.
I propose that Objectivism is just a modernist streamlining of Scottish Common Sense thinking, one which extends deep into the political realm, and within the modernist aesthetic. I would contend that the Scottish School was the primary influence upon continental Classical Liberalism, and American colonial political theory. Rand, as a descendant champion of the spirit of both movements, would necessarily follow the general vein of the Scottish School, implicitly.
Objectivism presents a precise, deductive set of ethical and moral principles which are derived from a small set of rigid but clear axioms. These are:
- Existence exists.
- Identity exists.
- Consciousness exists.
Rand invokes a proof by argumentation to suggest that no statement or principle can be formed that contradicts these axioms. Therefore, they must be held to be true. Having established this, Rand deduces her entire philosophy. This philosophy includes a morality and ethics established by reason alone. Famously, it is an ethics of rational self-interest. Her philosophy goes so far as to insist upon certain art forms and sexual habits as irrefutably superior.
You can see what she has done, in oversimplifying then overextending. Rand starts with her axioms, and then correctly deduces many principles of human moral action from them. This is very convenient, because it makes her system tight, orderly, and easy to mass produce. Her cult of personality was compared, ironically, to a collective. Despite her emphasis on individuality, Rand demanded conformism within her group. I would say that this is because her approach is modernist. She has a set of principles which she has developed, and now she wants to make them sleek, clear, ready for mass market. Mass, scientific, industrial morality. I would say this flavor of modernism is more within her style than her substance, however.
The substance of Rand’s thinking is mostly correct, in my opinion. As I claimed, her style is the problem. She wants to start with her axioms, and then ignore everything else. She wants us to conveniently forget about the larger metaphysical questions. Her axioms are solid, maybe sufficient, why worry about the rest? She’s like the industrialist who has optimized his production process, cut out the chaff, and so forth.
Earlier, I referred to unspoken, implicit assumptions. One place where many fail to grasp Rand is in her establishment of morality from reason alone. Even back to Hume, the presence of an “is-ought” dichotomy has suggested to philosophy that reason cannot produce moral conclusions. Rand explicitly rejects this, attacking “is-ought” itself. Her reasoning goes over the heads of many people, but as I said, you have to consider the unspoken to get it.
Rand’s morality begins with a statement: “If a man chooses to live.” If a man chooses to live, then the actions necessary to sustain life become a necessary priority in his choices. An overriding priority. Because man lives by choice and rational action, then a man’s choices and behaviors have to be organized in a way that prioritizes both the sustaining of his own life, and also an orderly pursuit of that object. From this principle, we get the idea that doing homework on a Friday night might be “more moral” than attending a binge drinking party – for example. We also get political principles such as the notion that rational humans ought to support a framework for the defense of individual rights within their respective political societies. There is no “ought” here. But, there kind of is.
What if a man chooses not to live? To Rand, it is a moot point. Those who don’t choose life will die, and become irrelevant. Only living people act, so we only need to worry about the actions of those who do make the fundamental choice to live. Her reasoning is completely solid, and her critics are wrong to dismiss it so readily. The unspoken element is that we do assume the existence of the choice, “to be or not to be”, and we take completely for granted (for a justifiable reason) that only one outcome of that choice really matters.
It has taken a decade of life experience since I first was reading Rand to understand how her thought process was incomplete. The choice, “to be or not to be”, is not, in reality, so starkly rational. To explain, let me offer some exposition on the Scottish School of Common Sense philosophy.
Common Sense philosophy differs from other enlightenment philosophies most notably by incorporating one feature: the willingness to take certain things for granted. In Common Sense, much of the inputs which comprise our experience, and are sorted to produce rational concepts pertaining to common principles, are treated as non-logical. The sensation of pain is not a phenomenon subject to logic. We experience it as what it is. We are forced to take it for granted. But, pain itself can be associated with other phenomena and occurrences to generate concepts and principles which then can be subjected to logic and reason.
At this point, it is difficult to really delve into Common Sense because the language it uses is identical to other philosophies of the era. It’s easier if you read Thomas Reid – its founder – yourself. But, I can summarize the key difference in thinking.
Consider that what is meant by reality, and what is meant by truth, are two different things. Truth is that which results from irresistible logic. Reality is that which we happen to experience, and the substance upon which our experience depends.
Truth is tautological, it is derived from a finite, fixed data set, and can only have one answer. Reality can seem – if judged from past experience – to be one thing, but then turn out to be another thing. Metaphysically, whether something is “really real” is a moot point. Reality might not be really real, but it is that thing which has provided the sum total of all our experiences. It is not something that we know or can know, but it is the thing that causes our knowledge to exist. We call it reality, and not “just some stuff”, because our experiences depend on reality. We don’t know why or how we have the experience of pain, in our conscious mind, but we know that sensations and perceptual experiences like it form the very foundation of what we know. We couldn’t have knowledge without these experiences, and as far as we can tell, the experiences can often occur without any direct input or influence from our conscious mind. The thing which we depend on for these experiences, which appears to be bigger than us, we can call “reality”. Though, we would be wrong to attach too many more laws to reality than the basic few which I’ve just described.
The reality of existence, identity, and consciousness we take as “self-evident”. That is, all our experience up to this point comports to these conclusions, and indeed all our knowledge depends on the reality of these conclusions – for now. But it is not through argumentation that we know the reality of these principles, but rather through intuition. We can indeed then apply logic and confirm inductively the truth of these principles, but what good is it to box out reality in favor of a tautological cave. Allow me to elaborate how this matters.
“If a man chooses to live” is a very loaded statement. The choice to live is not binary, because man – a rational animal, per Rand – does not in fact interpret reality through reason alone. Man interprets reality through experience and then reason.
Rand upholds that whatever instinctual or irrational motives man brings to the table – again, one of her unspoken principles is that she doesn’t off-hand reject man’s animal nature – he must at some point use reason to survive. She then concludes that man must therefore, by necessity, prioritize reason. This is her hand-wave trick to ignore the intuitive.
As a follower of Common Sense thinking, I don’t believe that the universe has some transcendental or magical existence beyond reason. I suspect that the universe is a logical construction, most of the time, that it is subject to consistent rules which can be described by reason. So, I’m not arguing that Rand’s flaw is that she didn’t make room for the magical or spiritual.
Instead, consider how a human perceives life. Our conception of reality is not, in fact, the end result of a deductive process. We conceive the solidity of a table, for example, because this property of matter is intuitively clear to us via our experience. Matter and solidity are linked in our very notion of the one and the other, both concepts coming from experience. We did not deduce this notion, because in order to do so we would have to have started with a notion of matter apart from the notion of solidity. We would have to have had an abstract notion of difference – solid and fluid – and an abstract notion of hypothesis. Then, we could conclude from the available data – especially as we learn the mechanics of molecules and atoms through science – that matter in certain conditions will be solid. And yet, that’s not at all how these concepts come into our mind in the first place. Matter and solidity are associated first, the two concepts defined off of each other, and then we build a web of reason out of these intuitive categories.
This matters because classical philosophy has not been widely aware of human instinct, and evolutionary psychology.
I’m one who believes that instinct is real. Instinct manifests emotional states, which in turn produce strong impressions of reality in our minds. For instance, a young person in love would have a strong sense that winning the heart of their crush would result in the world simply being a better place. Normal obstacles and difficulties appear to become less worrisome next to the prospect of an ideal relationship with one’s wee bonnie lass.
Humans, I maintain, will change their decision making process simply because of hormonal changes which produce emotional states in the mind. This is because our sense of life and reality are not deductive, but intuitive.
Rand’s axioms are sensed intuitively. The notion that these are established by argumentation is false. Indeed, their “reality” is well established intuitively. But then, the reality that Mr. Popular, 6-figures, 6-foot tall will abolish all problems from the life of a young woman who has a crush on him is also well established intuitively – in her mind.
Here Rand would say that she has accounted for this. Of course we’re capable of irrationality. Again, because reason is ultimately necessary for our survival, we must prioritize it. It might be difficult to do so. Moral, heroic people are capable of binding intuition and instinct, and disciplining their lives underneath purely deductive decision making.
My contention against her is that because of her stylistic, modernist desire to streamline her philosophy, she is too quick to over look the intense importance of intuition to human thought.
I would contend that intuitive, experiential thinking is the primary means by which we understand the world. To the point where logic and reason are actually rather rare, and perhaps even virtual. That is, our minds only appear to be logical. This is where a more technical understanding of philosophy comes into play. Suffice it to say that logic might simply be something of shorthand we use to describe a posteriori what has happened in our minds, and that it can therefore be a useful a priori tool in many cases. What our minds are doing is sorting through statistical distributions of what it is we have experienced, drawing distinctions, and presuming consistent outcomes.
It could be possible for someone to use logic, as a tool, to condition themselves very carefully, to purge the animal and emotional instincts from their life. There’s a problem here. First, why do this? Why not go all the way and conclude life must have no meaning, and commit suicide? Why shed some instincts, but then retain others (the desire to live)?
Second, most people have no desire to live logically, and a life like that is so beyond anything they want for themselves. Many people seem to prefer to live a life “less” than what they could otherwise achieve, in order to be able to gratify, validate, and prioritize their short-term instincts. I’m not talking about drug addicts or alcoholics (though perhaps they fall in this category). I’m talking about stupid relationship choices, or the fact that people’s tastes literally change based on which group they hope to belong to.
I’d claim that many men find it fun and thrilling to establish dominance hierarchies, and will attempt to do so for no other reason than that that it feels fulfilling. I’d claim that many women will defer to, and prefer men who upset social harmony in the name of establishing personal dominance while simultaneously complaining about male patterns of behavior. I’ve even seen women push men into creating elitist hierarchies when they didn’t at first want to, I presume because it creates a condition that gratifies some emotional longing within the woman. One could imagine how such behaviors would consistently create necessary social organizational patterns in a pre-rational environment of our distant ancestors.
Thus, emotions can simultaneously be treated as attacks upon our rational minds by a foreign power, but also as fundamental to our perception of our basic conscious reality.
The choice to live or not isn’t so stark. Why do we choose to live? Rand would have to take for granted that something in our nature compels it. In an Aristotelian sense, something constitutional to humans causes some of us to prefer life. That is why we would choose it.
But what if this same impulse to stay alive is bound up in all other kinds of impulses and instincts? And what if all these are as integral to our consistent perception of reality as anything else? The choice “to live or not” becomes suddenly very complicated, because, indeed, that’s not precisely the choice being made.
Stepping back from Rand, let’s consider Common Sense, and also the economic conclusions of Mises.
A principle of human action is that humans act to achieve what they prefer. Yet, an economist cannot say what that preference would be, whether it would remain fixed, whether it’s rational or not, and so forth. Within Common Sense philosophy, we cannot say why a man chooses to live, but we can say that the desire to remain alive is experienced as real in most humans. So humans who choose to live are not following reason, strictly. They are asserting a preference, and then employing the tools available – mostly reason – to try and attain that preference.
Is it too much to apply economic thinking to morality? I don’t think so. In fact, this is the more accurate application of Rand’s thinking.
A human will try to gratify stupid and irrational instincts. A man, on preparing for his third marriage, might think that this time she really is different, he just feels it – never mind the fact that you could mathematically measure the proportions of this woman’s body and demonstrate by scientific study a subconscious male preference for such, that you could point to the precise chemicals in the mind that are released in conjunction with visual acquisition of such features, and say exactly how these chemical affect mood and decision making.
What matters is not whether our preferences are valid or not. What matters is which of our preferences we can afford or not.
Let me invoke Thaddeus Russell again. You can’t say that someone’s desire for self-destructive hedonism is wrong. They have to choose what they are willing to pay for, and what they can afford. And you have to consider how much of their self-destructiveness, spilling over, you can afford. It’s all an economic question.
Hedonism itself isn’t the implicit answer. A strictly moral life within a religious paradigm might appeal to many people for whatever reason they have (such as just “feeling” as if God exists). Again, how far can they go with this lifestyle, economically? Suicide bombings impose costs.
Coming back to Rand, and the idea that we must use reason to survive. Yes, reason is integral to our life as human actors pursuing our values. But the precise manner in which we apply reason is to make economic calculations within an intuitive perception of reality.
This application of reason isn’t of the form, “If A then B”. Instead, I would uphold that we humans are intuitive economists, “All else equal, between choice A and B”. This is the role of reason in our lives.
Some of us will be better at making these calculations than others. Some of us might “goof up” and act contrary to our own desires because of mistakes of judgment.
Thus, Rand might get away with saying that “man must apply more reason if he wants to achieve more of his values”. But she goes way too far in making it an absolute. And thus, her system cannot be absolute.
If we concede that Rand’s system is too absolute, then I would say that it’s otherwise a good system. Prioritizing reason. Acknowledging the importance of rational self-interest at the center of our common system of values. These are important principles.
Consider that, if I maintain that by reason my values as an individual ought to have precedence over the collective’s, then I am also exactly saying that any other individual has the same prerogative. Thus, my ethical system would not be one of equity, but it would be one of inherent fairness. If we say the collective’s needs can supersede any one individual, then we say that its needs can overrule those of any, or paradoxically even all, individuals. If the individual doesn’t matter, then what is the purpose of the collective good anyway?
I think Rand’s foot-stomping insistence on rational self-interest is a proper legacy, which I don’t reject.
But reason in ethics is a matter of degrees, applied on top of our basic animal instincts – some of which might be called noble, and others less so. And what we literally can afford to get away with or not is the relevant question in ethics, even politics and law (libertarian legal order).
I think Pragmatism is a good lens for applied Common Sense. Rand’s ethics are a framework. We can apply them when it works to apply them, when they are consistent with what we are trying to do. But we don’t have to hold them as absolute.
Of course, as individuals, we are free to hold them as absolute as we can get away with in our own lives. And we are free to persuade others how we choose.
If my approach seems confusingly “loosey-goosey”, while simultaneously committed to reason and principles, well, please give Thomas Reid a look.