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What are some of the problems with Objectivism?
March 13, 2004 5:51 AM   Subscribe

What are some of the problems with Objectivism? I'm aware its founder may be a few sprinkles short of a frosted donut, but what's missing in the philosophy itself?
posted by casarkos to Religion & Philosophy (33 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
 
Because Objectivism's main texts aren't essays but works of fiction, the philosophy is generally criticized as having a tenuous connection with reality. By using invented characters and situations to "prove" her points, Rand is able to ignore inconvenient realities of human nature that go against her philosophy. She constructs a fictional type of society, and then constructs an ethical philosophy suited to that fictional society. That's fine, unless you are looking for an ethics suited to real life.
posted by profwhat at 6:49 AM on March 13, 2004 [1 favorite]


I'd say of the top of my had from past "debates" with objectivists:
-Their opposition to charity, anyone who isn't acting purely out of self-interest is evil in Rand's little world.
-Their insistance that since their beliefs are founded on (twisted) logical deduction, they are the only right beliefs, coming to any other conclusions is "being emotional". I've never seen any group of people quicker to resort to ad homs in debate.

Anyway, a quick google search turned up this which seems pretty chock full of critiques. *

*Although, I'm not sure it's entirely fair to group all of libertarianism with objectivism. Objectivism is libertarian, but I don't think the reverse is necessarily true -- libertarians are mostly just naive (of course corporations will think long term and realize /protecting the environment/building good road systems/helping the mentally ill/etc/etc/ is worth spending funds on!) whereas objectivists are willfully callous (fuck the poor and destitute, they just didn't try hard enough)
posted by malphigian at 7:04 AM on March 13, 2004


It's also based on a tautology, A=A, which proves nothing. Rand uses it metaphorically, I guess (in the "let's call apples apples" sense), but that doesn't cut it in the philosophical realm.
posted by The Michael The at 7:09 AM on March 13, 2004


The phrasing of your question, if it can be called one, leaves a little to be desired, frankly.

How's this: "I know casarkos is nutty as a fruitcake, but what's wrong with her, really??"

Rand was brilliant, and in her many lectures and writings which are not works of fiction, she goes to great lenght to explain her philosophy herself, in all its moral, laissez-faire capitalist glory. In fact, there are societies which continue to practice and explore her philosophy like these:

Daily Objectivist
Leonard Piekoff
Noble Soul
Objectivist Center
Ayn Rand
Faded Giant
Objectivist Center

objectivists are willfully callous

Inaccurate. Please refer to the links above. It is your responsibility to work and live for yourself and your own interests, and by doing so, help others to do the same.
posted by hama7 at 7:14 AM on March 13, 2004


i don't know what objectivism is in any detail (outside of the usa, i don't think people pay much attention to ayn rand), but you might find it useful to look at the more modern research in economics and behavioural sciences which focus on sociality, lack of information, etc (i'm currently reading gintis's "game theory evolving", which looks like it will discuss this).
posted by andrew cooke at 7:19 AM on March 13, 2004


You might want to look at Eve Tushnet's Questions for Objectivists--long dormant, with not much content, but I liked what was there.
posted by Jeanne at 7:22 AM on March 13, 2004


I believe it's more important to be good to others than to be good to myself. I believe in kindness. And when I look at Objectivist texts honestly, critically, I see no room for these moral instincts of mine.

It is your responsibility to work and live for yourself and your own interests, and by doing so, help others to do the same.

In my experience, it's this "by doing so" bit that doesn't seem to work out for the world at large.
posted by Marquis at 9:27 AM on March 13, 2004 [1 favorite]


Objectivisits see themselves as individuals first and as members of a community last. Which really goes against how humans evolved, as tribal animals.

Sure, you could get by in this world totally on your own, not relying on anyone else for help, friendship, advice, etc. but would you really be happy? I know the answer for me is no. It's important for me to have a network of friends that depend on me and which I can depend on.

In a larger sense, I think a healthy society (pick whatever scale you want) has a strong sense of community, where people see other individuals in the society as being more similar to themselves, rather than as the Other. Once you focus on the differences between you and the people around you, you start to lose the ability to empathize and sympathize, and you start to see the Other as less than yourself, and possibly less than human. This lack of empathy would, in an individual, be seen as sociopathic, but in a society is seen as admirable (at least by certain americans).

Also, Ayn Rand's philosophy comes down to "things are right because Ayn says they're right", which makes for a pretty good cult but a pretty shitty philosophy. After all, why should people be total individualists? The idea that if you're not solely looking out for yourself then you're seeking your own destruction is laughable, and, like other areas of her philosophy, is a false dilemma.
posted by bshort at 9:59 AM on March 13, 2004 [1 favorite]


since their beliefs are founded on (twisted) logical deduction, they are the only right beliefs

My understanding of Godel leads me to beleive that even if they were founded on flawless logical deduction, they'd still either be inconsistent or incomplete. Also, logical deduction requires an agreed set of axioms. A worldview founded entirely on logic is unlikely. You've got to be at least part empiricist.

That said, I enjoy The Fountainhead thoroughly and find a lot that rings true in it... it's a decent treatment of themes of personal integrity, and you have to take care of that if you expect to remain healthy.

Still.... I'm looking for a life that makes me bigger than my own skin, and that involves putting pieces of myself into other people, not just making myself but making myself part of something bigger that I help make. And there are times that I feel compelled (internally) to make sacrifices that I'm sure Rand and followers might disapprove of.

One interesting book I've found addresses some of the tensions that I've felt with Rand's stuff is C. Terry Warner's Bonds That Make Us Free. I've often felt it's the other side of the same mountain that Rand's climbing. Integrity to an internal guide is still a major theme of Warner's, but he spends a lot of time on how that can lead us to responsibilities towards others and how our choices make those responsibilities terrible constraints or blessings.
posted by weston at 10:16 AM on March 13, 2004


hama7, are those last two links just to test whether we're paying attention? ;o)
posted by andrew cooke at 10:26 AM on March 13, 2004


My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.
— Ayn Rand, Appendix to Atlas Shrugged


Which really goes against how humans evolved, as tribal animals.

Which is not what they are today, at least in Western society, where the rights of the individual have come first, and are written into the very fabric of the society; (if you're American) the Constitution. The individual need not be subject to the tyranny of the group.

Objectivism, individualism and capitalism are moral, and collectivist socialism is not.

Rand, and ostensibly her followers are atheist, a tenet of Objectivism which I find peculiar, but which underscores her focus on reason and rationality, rather than the supernatural, as the only absolute. To each his or her own.

hama7, are those last two links just to test whether we're paying attention? ;o)

You're right, that "Faded Giant" one is zany, if only tenuously related to the topic of books. Must cut and paste carefully.
posted by hama7 at 10:53 AM on March 13, 2004


What are some of the problems with Objectivism?

"Objectivism, individualism and capitalism are moral, and collectivist socialism is not."

That was easy.
posted by Space Coyote at 11:15 AM on March 13, 2004


One potential problem with Objectivism

It's a joke.
posted by Hildago at 11:17 AM on March 13, 2004


It's also based on a tautology, A=A, which proves nothing.

This doesn't seem to be a problem to me. Reflexivity is often an important part of mathematical proof.... I'm not sure why it couldn't be a part of philosophical.

Objectivism, individualism and capitalism are moral, and collectivist socialism is not.

Rand's on her best ground with a philosophy that has a good deal to offer individuals making choices about how to live their lives. She's much weaker commenting on societies as a whole, and more fully, how societies ought to be.

Even under a set of ideas consistent with Rand, capitalism has its troubles. The assumption that participation in a capatilist system is voluntary (or that participation in a cooperative system is not) is not correct -- and it's certainly not correct that you get to set the terms on which you start your involvement with either. Personal success in either system depends on choices and negotiation from a starting point.
posted by weston at 11:38 AM on March 13, 2004


Objectivism, individualism and capitalism are moral, and collectivist socialism is not.

Pal, I'm out here on the Crypto-Facist branch of MetaFilter members with you and I nearly choked on that statement. All I know is I saw a middle-aged woman reading Atlas Shrugged on the T once and I turned to my girlfriend and said, "Better let her get off first."

People are moral or immoral. A philosophy in it's theoretical essence cannot be moral or immoral. It can only be judged by how people put it into practice. Or use it as an excuse.
posted by yerfatma at 11:57 AM on March 13, 2004


A philosophy in it's theoretical essence cannot be moral or immoral. It can only be judged by how people put it into practice.

"The moral justification for capitalism lies in the fact that it is the only system consonant with man's rational nature, that it protects man's survival qua man, and that its ruling principle is: justice." — Ayn Rand

Capitalism.org

I can believe that theoretical theft is immoral, even if I never engage in it, just as I can believe theoretical fair market purchase is moral, even if I am never able to do it. Sure there are moral and immoral theories, and sure there are moral and immoral actions. A philosophy is a "love and pursuit of wisdom by intellectual means and moral self-discipline", merely an extension, in this case, of an observation of moral truths. But I see your point; capitalism in Albania is quite different than capitalism on Wall Street. Speaking of which, I highly recommend this book by P.J. O'Rourke, a hilarious treatise on economics, (who thought that could be possible).

The Objectivist belief in individual freedom, justice, and capitalism is anathema to the suicidal socialist collective because of socialism's disregard for the rights of the individual and its immoral confiscatory policies.
posted by hama7 at 12:35 PM on March 13, 2004


I'm not sure why it couldn't be a part of philosophical.

Well, such a philosophy necessarily couldn't represent the world, since the world is complete and consistent and thus by Goedel non-axiomatixable. *wink*

Rand never based Objectivism on the axioms (read Intro to Objectivist Epistemlogy) and with good cause -- such a philosophy is untenable. It's also worth noting that the way Rand and other Objectivist texts use "identity" (reflexivity) is in terms of the properties of an object and isn't realistic in an uncertainty/quantum/God playing dice sense.

I'm not endorsing or denying Objectivism, but it's always fun to address axiomatic concerns.
posted by j.edwards at 2:56 PM on March 13, 2004


I think in a loose sense the philosophy doesn't "resonate" with most people. There is a strict sense of self-reliance and the belief that The Market will take care of many of the previous issues that have been left up to government [like environmental protection stuff, social safety net stuff, food and health protections etc] which I think doesn't ring true for people who have, especially lately, become very very disillusioned with free market capitalism of late.

It's also not popular with people who require some sort of social safety net services, like the disabled, or even people who require expensive medicine to stay alive and/or healthy. If you can't afford care or services, the only option is to hope that some benevolent philanthropist will come along and start up charities to take care of you. I'd prefer not to have to rely on charities. I don't mind spending tax dollars to spread some of that assistance around in general, sure in specifics I have some beefs with taxes. Objectivists have a tendency to be the hardier members of society in general [though not always in specific, of course] and so this approach may make sense to them while it makes no sense to me, who requires medical care from time to time.

In a broader sense, the problem is that as a philosophy, it's not so noxious if you start from square one with an all-new society knowing it's what you have to live with, but since there are many people already involved in governmental programs of various kinds, or health or car insurance, the suggestion that just leaping off a cliff into the arms of free markets might be somehow "better" rings false. It's a long way from here to there, even if you dig it. Like anarchism and socialism and any other utopian-societal-ideals that people have, there's a vast chasm between the ideal society in that paradigm and where society is now. As a result, there is definitely a "restructuring" phase that always seems like it may be worse than the place we are now which keeps more people from moving towards it. Granted, this is a critique of any philosophy that radically differs than what we have now, but it's still a valid concern.

Also, as a personal matter, my issue with Objectivism is that it attracts fanatics who won't drop it if you say you don't agree with it [preferring to call you illogical, emotional, whatever] so it's not company I'd like to find myself in, if given the choice. I'm more comfortable giving up some of my individual rights in order to have a society that values taking care of those who can't [or even won't] take care of themselves.
posted by jessamyn at 3:00 PM on March 13, 2004 [1 favorite]


I'm more comfortable giving up some of my individual rights in order to have a society that values taking care of those who can't [or even won't] take care of themselves.

I'm not. I'm no objectivist, but taking care of people who physically cannot take care of themselves is not ruled out in terms of the objectivist philosophy.

Classic liberalism: Taking from somebody else is not "greedy", but wanting to keep what you have earned is.
posted by hama7 at 3:16 PM on March 13, 2004 [1 favorite]


By and large, I consider myself to be an Objectivist...with some qualifications. The single largest "hole" in Objectivism (IMO) is what appears to be a serious lack of humor. I revel in humor...puns, jokes, gags, magazines, sitcoms, etc...and while I understand that some Objectivists believe humor to be anti-rational, I disagree. Apparently, Rand believed that the "punch line" of a joke was nothing more (or less) than a cruel and unnecessary twist, leaving the "rational" listener with no firm footing. I believe that aspect to be one of humor's best qualities. Besides, humor can do so much to not only entertain, but to relieve tension, explain things, and make life interesting. Having aired my chief complaint about Objectivism (or, more accurately, Rand-ism), I believe principally in the fundamental tenets of Objectivism, which hold that reason is absolute, faith & mysticism are sub-human, man is (should be) a heroic being, and productivity, achievement, and trade are ideals to be aspired to.

Now...on to some further nit-picking...

While I don't hold Rand on as high a pedestal as some of her more...uh...devoted followers, there is no doubt that what she brought forth, with force & passion unequaled, was a philosophy for LIVING - literally. Here is how I distinguish between the two camps of people who believe the same way: "Objectivists" and "Randites"

Objectivists are those who adhere to the fundamental principles of the philosophy but who account for emotion and other "frailties" of human existence; in other words, those who fuse emotion and reason into an integrated, rational approach to life. The Randites (or Randroids), on the other hand, adhere primarily to Ayn Rand; they do believe in Objectivism, but never at the expense of doubting Rand or contradicting her word.

By way of example, a true Randroid would likely condemn me for the previous sentence, and my utterance of it proves, to them, that I am NOT an Objectivist at all. I disagree. To put it another way, Objectivists are people who live life with a firm grasp of reality and a belief in reason, rationalism, freedom, and capitalism.

Randroids, on the other hand, believe in Ayn Rand first and Objectivism second.
posted by davidmsc at 4:33 PM on March 13, 2004


taking care of people who physically cannot take care of themselves is not ruled out in terms of the objectivist philosophy.

Classic liberalism: Taking from somebody else is not "greedy", but wanting to keep what you have earned is.


And your second statement (though I agree with your first) is a "classic" among those who refuse to acknowledge not all they have is a reflection of their personal merits -- an idea which is clearly not a fact. This is a universe where the rain falls on the just and the unjust (and you can view rain as fortune or misfortune and that statement is still true). It does take some measure of skill and competence to seize an opportunity, to keep a windfall, to increase the number of talents one is given.

disregard for the rights of the individual and its immoral confiscatory policies.

Socialist thought is not at all inherently opposed to the rights of the individual. It is meant to give a certain minimum level of security to each individual -- secure certain basic rights of subsistence and health. Wise socialist programs also provide a basic platform of services and utilities that encourage development and trade. There are costs involved in these things, but these costs are directly related to the creation of a commons of resources that anyone can use to build on -- and everyone does, directly or indirectly.

This is the root of why those who only want to "keep what is theirs" are seen as greedy -- because they refuse to recognize the costs they've socialized and value of the system they've inherited. And why they're sometimes seen as small minded, because there can actually be value in doing so.

We've seen the failure of societies that are really inherently confiscatory -- the totalitarian state. We have not seen the failure of the socialist democracy, and in fact they still seem to going strong. Not the strengths the U.S. necessarily has, but not the weaknesses either.
posted by weston at 8:32 PM on March 13, 2004 [1 favorite]


dmsc: Me too! ;-P I identify myself as an objectivist, but with a little o because when I want to break away from big-O Objectivism, I just do it. Conversely, the Randroids have developed such a cult of personality around her that I place them in the same category as fundamentalist christians.

I read Objectivism as positing that all humans are inherently selfish, and that clearly is not the case. I am inherently selfish, but still I recognize that many other people are not.

My biggest personal issue with Rand's writings is that her treatment of female characters borders on misogyny. Howard Roark raped Dominique Francon. As written, Dominique clearly wanted that but she gave Roark no consent, neither explicit nor implied. Even when I first read that book at 13, I recognized that his actions were dishonorable and very much NOT Objectivist. Dominique then goes on to become such a masochist that I easily see her as potentially being the lead character in The Story of O.
posted by mischief at 9:35 PM on March 13, 2004


Ayn Rand was raised and educated in the Soviet Union. This is where her ideas about capitalism were formed. Grass, green.

Alan Greenspan says he wants to make sure that Joe America is not too secure in his employment, so he won't demand higher wages. Alan Greenspan was one of Ayn's closest followers. 'nuff said?

The logic of Objectivism leads to human slavery of the feudal variety. What starts out as meritocracy becomes aristocracy.

Some people today who spout objectivism are really only in it for the power. Some people in power have learned the trick to lead objectivists by the nose.
posted by Goofyy at 1:17 AM on March 14, 2004


Yes, yes, but what is the philosophy? All the sites quoted talk about it but really don't say what it is supposed to be. The oft-quoted Ayn-Rand-standing-on-one-foot definitions... well, they don't really mean anything, or they transpose one set of undefined referents for another. One can draw no conclusions about what Objectivism is from those sites, but only what it seems to be (which seems ironic to me). For example, talking of morality and ethics is all very well, but in order that their prioritising makes sense, they need a context, so one either needs to believe that they are inherent in the universe, that things are inherently "good" or "bad", which implies a metaphysical realm for the values to inhabit, such that one ends up with some kind of God (which appears to be rejected); or that moral codes are negotiated within and between social groups (which appears to be rejected). Too many of these "explanations" are written assuming that the reader already knows and agrees with what is being written.

Another problem is what is meant by many of these words? What is intended? Too often it seems to me to be said that things are described as "obvious" or "self-evident" and I'm sorry, but that's not rationalism, that's gnosticism.

You can say "let's call apples apples". but what do you mean by "apples"? No, really! The fruit? How do we define "fruit"? How do we come to put this fruit into the category of "apples"? What are the unique characteristics of apples that make them not pears? And anyway, the understanding we have of apples is not in the apple itself. From what I suppose would be an objective point of view, it's not primarily food (which is how a human-centric definition might view it), but rather a means by which a tree maintains itself. An apple is, therefore, not an object, not a thing, but a part of a process - the apple tree, which is in turn a part of another process which we define as "orchard' or "wood" or "forest". These are processes rather than things, since they are always in transition, are never fixed. We see them as things, but that is only the way we see them, it is not the way they are.

The point being that yes, we can go on tearing these ideas into smaller and smaller bits until they don't appear to signify anything any more, and the reason for that is not Nasty Lefty Deconstructionists but that the world does not actually contain any meaning that we don't put there. A theologian might have one idea of what "apple" means, a historian of pop music another, a computer salesman yet another. In order for any two people to have a meaningful dialogue, they need to agree on which limited area they are addressing. And it's useful for them to admit that there are other, equally valid, areas that are excluded from the discussion so that something actually gets discussed.

To me, these questions are genuinely interesting and in the modern world possibly genuinely useful. Their books may make my head hurt, but I can see how writers who engage with these ideas might be making useful contributions - so that means people like Derrida and Baudrillard, I suppose. Based on the way they present themselves I can't see the useful contributions that Objectivists can make.

So. Someone might start at first principles and explain why Objectivism might be interesting or useful, as if to someone who has no idea what it is or might mean. Because, as intimated above, outside of a tiny sliver of North American society no one does.
posted by Grangousier at 1:57 AM on March 14, 2004


The point being that yes, we can go on tearing these ideas into smaller and smaller bits until they don't appear to signify anything any more, and the reason for that is not Nasty Lefty Deconstructionists but that the world does not actually contain any meaning that we don't put there.

Except for the fact that you've just demonstrated why simulacra 101 is just so much more Nasty Lefty Deconstructionism and postmodern relativism, irrationalism, and nihilism, which is thankfully starting to smell like last week's egg-salad sandwich. But I digress.
posted by hama7 at 11:51 AM on March 14, 2004


i'm sorry grangouiser, but i can't really understand what you're saying unless you give a context, and i've a feeling that if i looked at your arguments they'd break into smaller and smaller piece until nothing is left. and when you say pieces, do you really mean pieces like i mean pieces, because i've a feeling there's an equally valid cabbage somewhere round here.

in other words, because that's kind of tedious, what pisses the rest of the world off with silly left deconstructionists is that they spend too much time telling everyone how everything means nothing (again) and how fascinating this is (again) and not anything like enough time understanding why some things do mean something. and we (those silly scientist and computer types that, you know, make things and parse languages and try to construct intelligent processes) are starting to suspect that's because working out why there is meaning is a lot more difficult that waving your hands around saying how terribly relative everything is.
posted by andrew cooke at 12:28 PM on March 14, 2004


It's been more or less mentioned above, but these discussions always seem to get distracted by discussions of Ayn Rand - or worse, her followers - rather than the philosophy itself. Based on what we know of her life, it's not difficult to put forward the argument that Ayn Rand herself was not a very good objectivist, or that likewise her followers at the ARI are also not actually objectivists.

So to examine objectivism critically, it is important to look at the philosophical fundamentals Rand laid out, not Rand herself.

I believe it's more important to be good to others than to be good to myself. I believe in kindness. And when I look at Objectivist texts honestly, critically, I see no room for these moral instincts of mine.

You see no room for them because her books (especially *all* of Atlas Shrugged) were mostly about how immoral and dangerous that is. They don't attack kindness, they don't attack benevolence, but they attack the idea of holding the entirety of humanity above yourself. In doing so, you're effectively saying that any person, any person, no matter how despicable, is to be held higher than yourself simply because they are not you. That sort of philosophy amounts only to self-hatred and only ultimately makes everyone miserable. And it's just that kind of belief that's at the root of the leftist\socialist concepts of "self-sacrifice". Atlas is about why kindness does not equate to literal self-sacrifice as contemporary conventional wisdom seems to dictate. You said you read objectivist texts - did you read Atlas? You must not have, because whether you agreed with the answer or not, the whole book was a response to your above statement.
posted by tirade at 8:37 PM on March 14, 2004


One has to give the Christians credit on one thing, and that's that if their fairy-tale version of the world came true it might actually be a place I'd want to have my kids grow up in. Now so much with the Objectivists. I wouldnt' want my younger kid to have to compete with his or her older sibling for food.
posted by Space Coyote at 9:54 PM on March 14, 2004


The problem with discussing Objectivism itself is that it leaves no room for discussion. Its basic premise is each individual should place him- or herself above all others at all times with no compromise. From this starting point, the rest of Objectivism is a tightly woven system of corollaries. For all of Ayn Rand's personal faults, she was a brilliant logician.

The debate then really is this: Can a tree of logic be considered a philosophy?

SpaCoy: Your kids already compete for food. "Hey, why did she get the bigger piece?" "Who wants the last slice of pizza?" "Who drank the rest of the Kool-Aid?"
posted by mischief at 5:40 AM on March 15, 2004


Objectivism, individualism and capitalism are moral, and collectivist socialism is not.

In defense of this statement, I think what's meant is that libertarianism/objectivism/etc. are derived from pure moral principles sans compromise (theft is wrong therefore we shouldn't take taxes, end of story) while socialism and its many variants are based on pragmatic goals (theft is bad but if we didn't have taxes people would starve in the gutter, therefore we should have taxes).
posted by IshmaelGraves at 6:24 AM on March 15, 2004


Ish: Your statement would be more accurate if you said that socialism means we should give a fuck if someone is starving in the gutter.

Socialists say: feed him.
Objectivists say: let his sorry ass rot.

(Please note that an objectivist's use of the word 'sorry' is in a contemptuous context, not a compassionate one.) ;-P
posted by mischief at 1:49 PM on March 15, 2004


Socialists say: feed him (with somebody else's money).
posted by hama7 at 2:48 PM on March 15, 2004


Socialists don't believe in money. ;-P
posted by mischief at 3:17 PM on March 15, 2004


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