For a time, I was a devotee of Ayn Rand’s ideas. Now I see what a pernicious philosophy rational egoism is – and how dumb!
Ayn Rand is one of those people whom you just want to go away, but won’t. I say this not with hate or ignorance, but with deep familiarity. When, as a self-absorbed college freshman, I first came across the Russian emigre author of The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, she seemed like the coolest thinker ever – what selfish person doesn’t want to hear that being selfish doesn’t just feel good, but actually is good, too?
I quickly devoured nearly all of her atrocious tomes with a sort of blind hunger – that ferocious pseudo-intellectual reading you do only to confirm your beliefs, if you will. Indeed, I devotedly hung on her every word, even becoming an officer of my university’s Objectivist club. At one point, I may even have been president. Much to the lament of my philosophy classmates, I was that girl who frequently (and loudly!) argued in favor of Rand’s illogical claims that altruism doesn’t exist; that selfishness is a virtue; and that “rational egoism” is the only right way to live.
Thankfully, I grew out of that phase. Not surprisingly, but a few years of minimum-wage work cleaning up cat faeces, without benefits, and other thankless, unstable odd jobs made me question Objectivism’s foundations and rekindled an earlier interest in anarcho-syndicalism.
Eventually, leaving Rand was no more different or difficult than, say, leaving a friend who had grown to annoy me over time – sure, I was very intimate with her ideas, but that just gave me more insight into their outright dysfunctionality, and the strength to say “sayonara!”
What’s scary is that so many Americans have not grown out of that mentally puerile phase. Instead, this contingent – now largely comprised of Tea Party radicals – remains mired in her pop philosophy.
(Only now has Republican Congressman Paul Ryan, perhaps realizing that supporting an atheist adulterer might hurt his veep chances, changed his tune from Objectivist fanboy to follower of Thomas Aquinas.)
Granted, it’s doubtful that any political group so suspicious of the intelligentsia would actually read Rand’s 1,200 page magnum opus, Atlas Shrugged, but her ideas are clearly being used to justify inequality, giving credence to institutionalized wealth-based elitism.
This has to stop, and stop now. But not just for the reasons that typically get brought up. Anti-Rand commentators have long pointed out both the pragmatic and personal problems with Rand. As evidenced by the Great Recession, for example, anything even remotely close to the unfettered capitalism advocated by Rand plainly does not work.
Also, as evidenced by her personal life, she was more a hypocritical, questionable character than a moral role model. As a teenager in Russia, “she watched her family nearly starve while she treated herself to the theater.” She railed against government benefits but cheerfully collected social security and Medicare. She championed integrity, but bastardized Nietzsche’s best ideas.
And her writing skills aren’t just mediocre; if anything, her penchant for 200-page monologues and wooden characters suggests that they’re non-existent. And she has this thing for rapey scenes; and her approach to BDSM goes for a Mad Men-esque chauvinist chic – not healthy sex positivism.
Of course, all that doesn’t actually say anything about her “philosophy”; it just makes the case that she’s a jerk and a hack. That said, her theory – and summarily, its corollaries – are belied by the abject sketchiness of their most basic premise: rational egoism. Far smarter, more articulate people than me have pointed this out, but what needs to be emphasized is that Rand conflates descriptive psychological egoism (people act in their self-interest) with normative ethical egoism (acting in self-interest is the right thing to do). Part of this “ought-from-an-is”-type assumption is that altruism does not exist – very much the backbone of her belief system.
West Valley College’s Sandra LaFave does a great job following this line of thought and pointing out why it doesn’t work. The basic claim of egoists, LaFave notes, is that people “always and invariably act in their self-interest”. However, most moral codes call for altruism, which, in egoists’ account, is “demanding the impossible”. Moral codes, so egoists’ thinking goes, should not demand “the impossible”, so we should take up a “more realistic” system such as – ta-da! – ethical egoism.
To accept this conclusion, you have to accept the premise that psychological egoism is a given fact in the first place. To date, neither Rand nor anyone else has been able to prove definitively that the proverbial soldier who dives on a grenade acts selfishly, not altruistically.
Even if, for the sake of argument, we accepted that all acts were selfish, there certainly seem to be a great many unselfish-looking selfish acts (diving on the grenade to save your comrades), as well as selfish-seeming selfish acts (blowing your kid’s college tuition money on a shopping spree.) LaFave points out that this “empirical distinction” renders across-the-board selfishness more of a semantic trick than something that meaningfully describes ethics. Go ahead and claim all human acts come from self-interest, fine. This seems kind of silly, however, when the morality of said selfish acts will still be measured by how altruistic they seem.
Another key concern is that psychological egoism might not be final stage of an individual’s ethical development. We start off selfish, say some theorists, but we must move beyond convention and toward post-conventional social contract and conscience for true moral growth. Even if we were to concede that these foundational problems do not deal a death-blow to Objectivism – which would be very generous of us (yet generous in a selfish way, of course) – it still seems perverse to peg so much on so shaky a foundation.
The kernel of this belief system is nothing more than a philosophically hollow shell. It should absolutely not play a role in policy-making – especially when the end result would be disastrous. I outgrew Rand; now I wish America would, too.
• This article was amended on 11 June 2012 because Ayn Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged is 1,200 pages long, rather than 1,200 words. This has been corrected.