What's wrong with Randroids?
October 7, 2005 11:08 AM   Subscribe

PhilosophyFilter: Can someone explain the philosophical errors of Ayn Rand/Objectivism?

I've read Atlas Shrugged and have done some Google searches, but most of what I've read seems to start from the premise that Rand had made philosophical errors.

My philosophical education is limited (a few electives as an undergrad and my own reading since), so I'm struggling to build my own case against Objectivism. My intuition is that it is bogus - mostly because of Rand's tendency to erect straw men, reduce issues to black/white and grant her protagonists some sort of super-rationality. And, also, a lot of people whose beliefs I respect refer to her with such spite that I wonder what is at the root of it.

I promise I'm not trying to use AskMe to do my homework for me, I'm just curious.
posted by mullacc to Religion & Philosophy (29 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
My issue with her has really always been an issue with her followers who (rather Bible-like) follow the principles with an eye to the letter rather than the spirit and end up finding justification for every selfish desire they can think of.

But, I can't answer your question further than that. I decided long ago that the small amount of Ayn Rand I read was too much and it wasn't worth my time or energy devoting more time to it.
posted by Kickstart70 at 11:37 AM on October 7, 2005

Just some real quick ideas from reading a few of webpages (1, 2, 3) and reacting:

1) the claim that objectivism's "metaphysics is objective reality" completely brushes aside the entire Kantian metaphysics of the phenomena/noumena distinction. You could argue that this distinction is crap and Kant's metaphysics along with it, but the objectivist "proof" -- that "there is a real world because we sense it" -- is a bit summary to say the least. Do you see the problem with relying on the objective truth of everything we sense? Pardon me, do you perceive the problem?

2) By the time we get to the "ethics of rational self-interest" they seem to like Kant again, claiming that the ethics of rational self interest flows from his categorical imperative. This is a bit of a misrepresentation of that philosophy, which really says something more like "the right thing to do is what you'd like to have everyone do all the time," and there's plenty of room in there for other-directed actions (kind of a "do unto others" vibe, which is not exactly what the categorical imperative says, but is close to it). It's flat out inaccurate to identify the categorical imperative with selfishness; it's not just a matter of hand-waving over the details.

For another, quite different modern take on the Kantian imperative, see Rawls, "A Theory of Justice."

3) I realize that they claim to be founded on the philosophy of Aristotle and all this yammering about Kant may not seem relevant, but lots of objectivist material (including link #1 above on the damn Ayn Rand Institute's site, for god's sake) phrases it in Kantian "man is an end, not a means" language. Though it's not proof, this supports the idea that objectivism is really just a philosophical mish-mash that's not especially tightly bound together. Which wouldn't be such a crime except that it claims to be so airtight, it's a little amusing.

4) At any rate, "rapacious capitalism is the pinnacle of economic organization" doesn't follow from any of the other premises and in fact kind of feels like something from left field. This seems most readily explained by the fact that Rand was a refugee from the bad old days of Soviet Communism, and her (entirely appropriate) distaste for that system turned her into a shameless apologist for its diametric opposite (at the time), American corporate capitalism. I think objectivism is best viewed as a post-hoc attempt at a philosophical underpinning for that apologia.

5) Of no strict logical significance, but giving the whole thing a bad smell, is the fact that the early Randroids (including Rand herself) were about as cliquish as a bunch of 7th graders and vehemently ejected anyone from their social circle who dared to question, let alone stray from, The Philosophy. See Jeff Walker, The Ayn Rand Cult (not widely available but only $5 used on Amazon).

Wow! I didn't know I had that in me, I just knew objectivism didn't sit right. Hope that helps.
posted by rkent at 11:40 AM on October 7, 2005 [2 favorites]

Ayn Rand tried to deconstruct all the major philosophers (Kant, Humes, I think everyone but Aristotle). Basically she believes in extreme laissez-faire capitalism and when our society reached laissez-faire levels there was all kind of egregious abuses of the working class and a huge disparity between the rich and the poor.

I was kind of taken back by the incredible apathy mainstream philosphers take in Ayn Rand. It really turned me off to her. Perhaps scientists should do the same with creationists. Instead of fighting it they should simply ignore it and it'll drop to oblivion.
posted by geoff. at 11:43 AM on October 7, 2005

I found The Ayn Rand Cult interesting. It talks a lot about how the movement is cult-like -- dogma, shunning, etc. It also talks about where Rand got her ideas from, which might shed more light on the problems with them.

A quick Google search brought me to Criques of Libertarianism: Criticisms of Objectivism (or Ayn Rand).
posted by heatherann at 11:45 AM on October 7, 2005

I hear Rand never laughed about anything. That's damning enough for me.
posted by Scoo at 11:47 AM on October 7, 2005

You might be interested in Nancy Kress' Beggars in Spain, which was written as a partial answer to Rand (and Ursula LeGuin on the other end of the spectrum) and is well worth a read.
posted by PinkStainlessTail at 11:48 AM on October 7, 2005

So one anecdotal thing that has struck me as funny-sad is that in Atlas Shrugged she depicted a future America where business was prevented from ever growing and a strange sort of irrational socialism took hold. There's one scene that shows New York City's lights turning off as the infrastructure turns to crap. Railroads are unable to run because they're not kept up, etc.

Today we have a super laissez-faire government (Greenspan is a Randian from way back) that is trying to get the private sector to do everything and we're experiencing infrastructure quickly crumbling. The lights aren't going out, at least not permanently, but that doesn't seem so farfetched.
posted by bshort at 12:09 PM on October 7, 2005

I thought EB was right-on when he described Objectivism as "the cargo cult of philosophy." There's simply nothing to it.
posted by mr_roboto at 12:13 PM on October 7, 2005

The most damning thing about Ayn Rand's philosophy is the way it appears in Atlas Shrugged. In that book, people are absolutely divided into two groups - the "men of the mind", and the "looters." All the achievers are impossibly competent, perfectly selfish one-dimensional caricatures all of whom possess extraordinary powers of creation and invention.

All the looters are barely-sentient subhumans of no worth, no ability, and no motivations save base greed. [Spoiler] As an example of ridiculous these portraits become, at the end of Atlas Shrugged the looters - while torturing the protagonist - must rely upon him to fix their torture device for them which he does willingly in order to demonstrate both personal and ideological superiority.

The primary problem with this viewpoint is that the stark contrast between the two groups paints an unrealistic and ultimately childish view of humanity. People come in all shades, and to despise charity so utterly speaks of an inability to empathize. Station is not determined by personal capability alone but rather a combination of factors including the events of one's life that are beyond control.

The philosophy of Objectivism rests firmly on the position that all economic situations are zero-sum - that is, that one person's gain is another's loss. This denies the very real principle of (forgive the buzzword) synergy, in which multiple parties all receive a return beyond their expenditure of resources in a joint venture.

The final major error in her philosophy is the ultimate denial of any interest other than self-interest being possible. Neither party in Atlas Shrugged demonstrates motivation outside of personal greed. For some reason this is 'noble' in the hands of the "men of the mind" but ignoble in the looters'. One would assume the reasoning here is that the "men of the mind" express their greed in what they create, whereas the "looters" express their greed in what they allow to decay. Collaboration for the true betterment of the whole is flatly ignored in favor of a choice between the false opposites presented in the book. This points towards Rand's childhood in Russia - supposedly the inspiration for her extreme anti-collectivist views - and the long-standing corruption inherent in the government of that country.

I'm all for reason and atheism, but self-interest as the only possible greatest good is a cannard - as is the blanket assumption of free will.
posted by Ryvar at 12:27 PM on October 7, 2005 [1 favorite]

The philosophy of Objectivism rests firmly on the position that all economic situations are zero-sum - that is, that one person's gain is another's loss. This denies the very real principle of (forgive the buzzword) synergy, in which multiple parties all receive a return beyond their expenditure of resources in a joint venture.

I agree with you that Rand's as full of shit as a State Park port-a-pot, but I don't think that she positions all economic situations as zero-sum. The opposite, really: her claim is that her ubermen create value on their own, and increase this value by trading with each other, and there's so much surplus value that the rest of us losers can live off of the scraps.
posted by COBRA! at 12:32 PM on October 7, 2005

What folks above have said, basically. Let me phrase it in my own words.

I was a devotee of Ayn Rand - at age twelve - and I still admire her exhaustive completeness and her intelligent identification and attack of really important issues. I also think that most folks underestimate the amount of influence she had over the way America developed over the last 50 years, for better or for worse.

One of the biggest problems for me is that she never laid out a rational schema for an approach to life of someone like Eddie Willers, the sort of mediocre everyman in Atlas Shrugged. He appears to be in that novel solely to provide unrequited hero-worship to her protagonists, Dagny Taggart and Hank Rearden. Unfortunately, most folks are mediocre, by definition; half of them are even below average. What are they supposed to do with themselves? Rand never answers this question.

Also, one can come away from a careful reading of Rand believing that compassion, or any expression of compassion, must always be in basic conflict with a person's self-interest. I consider this viewpoint to be erroneous and extremely harmful.
posted by ikkyu2 at 12:38 PM on October 7, 2005

but I don't think that she positions all economic situations as zero-sum.

Perhaps it would've been better to say ideally zero-sum.
posted by Ryvar at 12:46 PM on October 7, 2005

In that book, people are absolutely divided into two groups - the "men of the mind", and the "looters."

I always found that amusing: Atlas Shrugged is written on the same model as Socialist Realist works like Gladkov's CEMENT. With a few tweaks the Reardon metal bridge scene could come from a Stalin era novel about the glories of industry.
posted by PinkStainlessTail at 12:53 PM on October 7, 2005

Ayn Rand's philosophy is childish and solopsistic. She also attempts to derive her philosophy from first principles which is a) silly, since it's a post-hoc rationalization, see above and b) wrong wrong wrong.

Rand's selfish capitalism doesn't do much to explain the (real) bonds we feel with our family, our city, our country etc. Men are not purely rational beings. Assuming them to be so, at least in the state of purity or state of nature is, um, simpleminded at best and disenginous at worst. She intentionally ignores a lot of human existence and intuition about ethics / morals because they don't fit inside her model.

She is a philosopher. Just a bad one.
posted by zpousman at 1:06 PM on October 7, 2005

I'm sure you all will correct me if I'm wrong, it has been more than a decade since I read Atlas Shrugged.

Basically I agree with the above with respect to her overly simplified understanding of economics and human nature. One thing that hasn't been mentioned and struck me as bizarre is her treatment of romantic relationships. If I remember correctly isn't the main feminine protagonist only satisfied when the male protagonist literally conquers her?

Anyone who thinks that this sort of misogynistic relationship is some kind of ideal is probably just beyond redemption.

Oh and Geoff is absolutely right mainstream philosophy could not care less about Ayn Rand.
posted by oddman at 3:45 PM on October 7, 2005

She also attempts to derive her philosophy from first principles which is a) silly, since it's a post-hoc rationalization, see above and b) wrong wrong wrong.

I'll have to disagree with you there. I think building a coherent philosophy out of first principles is entirely possible - it just might not have as much to say about ethics as most people would like.
posted by Ryvar at 4:04 PM on October 7, 2005

Ayn Rand also falls into a big huge trap - one that a lot of more recent political philosophers and theorists have fallen into as well, but she fell harder and deeper, it seems.

In the Enlightenment a lot of people worked through a Cartesian exercise of radical doubt, stripping away layers to reach an irreducible core from which to build a philosophy. In terms of political theory, this took many forms, many of them imaginary exercises that posited things that we now call "state of nature" arguments. There are many important differences, but these are largely where the idea of the individual as the irreducible unit of humans comes from - from which many enlightenment philosophers built up their political theory.

What is lost is the fact that the radical individual posited in such philosophies weren't proposing that literally. It was a philosophical step used to build up the theory of a society or a political theory.

Trouble is that Rand takes it seriously. It's a really elementary error that kids make in first year political theory classes but then get over later. I don't think she ever did.

Fact is that pretty much no human in history has ever lived outside of some community of other humans, so to start with the idea of an individual is fine, but only insofar as it proceeds immediately to a discussion of individual as community-member, society, clan, caste, guild, class, or what have you.
posted by mikel at 4:27 PM on October 7, 2005

She is a philosopher. Just a bad one.
posted by zpousman at 1:06 PM PST on October 7 [!]

Actually, she was a Soviet-trained screenwriter, and, IMHO, a bad one at that, in that her books (and screenplays) reflect the mawkish, heavy handed approach you'd expect from a self-promoting hack with a cross-licensing agenda. As the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy article I've linked notes
"Her novels had expressed philosophical themes, although Rand considered herself primarily a novelist and only secondarily a philosopher. The creation of plots and characters and the dramatization of achievements and conflicts were her central purposes in writing fiction, rather than presenting an abstracted and didactic set of philosophical theses."
She remained heavily involved in getting her fictional work to the screen throughout much of her life, actively collaborating to get early versions of 2 Itailian films (originally commissioned by Mussolini as anti-Communist propaganda projects) which were both based on We The Living re-edited into a version of which she "approved." She is also said to have taken far less than customary fees and royalties in order to do the screenplay for The Fountainhead, which starred Gary Cooper and Patricia O'Neal. Her insistence on being personally involved in adaptations of her later novels may have been colored by her experiences with her early work, Night of January 16th. Purportedly, during her life, she rejected a number of offers for the movie rights to Atlas Shrugged, none of which offered her the screenplay credits and script approval she demanded, but now that she is out of the way, there is supposedly an active project to bring this book to the screen.

As to Objectivism as a "philosophy," I suggest you look into the interesting side story of Nathaniel Branden, the man to whom the first printings of Atlas Shrugged were dedicated by Rand. For years, Rand and Branden carried on an affair, with the knowledge of each of their spouses, and Rand promoted Branden heavily, making him director of her Objectivist Institute, and going so far as to refer to him publicly as her "intellectual heir." But in 1968, when Rand discovered Branden was having yet another simultaneous involvement with a third woman, she split with him publicly, and took her Objectivst circle with her. (Oedipal reversals, anyone?) Supposedly, she also spent a considerable sum of money to buy up most of the unsold stock of remaining copies of Atlas Shrugged with her dedication to Branden, removed the dedication from subsequent printings, and paid to have thousands of copies of the revised books, with a new dedication, printed for distribution.

In 1989, with Rand safely dead since 1982, Branden published a catty kiss-and-tell called Judgement Day: My Years with Ayn Rand, in which he paints her as an extremely manipulative woman, who ensnared him as a callow young man, and by offering him fame and fortune, corrupted his ethical development. Branden's book, in it's original edition, generated some interesting reviews.

In 1999, when opportunity presented itself to resume some association with the Objectivist movement as an occasional lecturer (see link for July 14, 2005 appearance at the bottom of linked page) at David Kelley's Objectivist Center, Branden pulled some of 1989 punches with a "revised" version of Judgement Day, retitled simply, My Years With Ayn Rand.

My point about all this Branden stuff (and believe me, I haven't laid out the whole story), is simply to say that, if you believe that a philosophy's principal advocates should exemplify, to the extent humanly possibly in their own lives, some measure of the philosophy they espouse, I think you'd have a hard time making the case that Rand or any of her closest followers has been a compelling personal example of the strength of their philosophical convictions.
posted by paulsc at 5:45 PM on October 7, 2005 [5 favorites]

Ryvar: I'm sorry. I think I misspoke -- my "b)" above is not meant to say that deriving a personal philosophy from first principles is wrong in the sense of impossible. Just that Ms. Rand did it so poorly. In other words, she was wrong, but the concept is not wrong-by-definition or something.

I think that mikel is definitely getting at what I find the most comedic and sophomoric about Ayn rand. The idea that "everyone is an individual." Um, yeah, that's true. But it's not true that man is only defined by being an individual. There is being a father, a mother, a lover, a fighter, a boss, a community member.

All of these relationships mean something and have some moral character (maybe each has their own, maybe it's all one... I won't hem myself in by saying). But I think that to talk about being a human means that there is such a thing as a good father, a good mother, a good lover, a good (fair? winning?) fighter, a good boss, a good shopkeeper and a good community member. I don't see how extreme and total selfishness is a good model for human conduct and its inherent sociality.
posted by zpousman at 5:48 PM on October 7, 2005

her biggest error was the strange idea that one can possibly know all the consequences of an action ... and that one's self-interest is limited to what one can percieve as immediately benefical to oneself, alone

i've noticed the randians aren't as common on the net as they used to be

oh ... as a novelist, she sucked
posted by pyramid termite at 8:42 PM on October 7, 2005

Note: there is a difference between "Randites" and "Objectivists." Similar to the difference between, say, devotees of televangeslists and followers of Christianity, if you take my meaning.
posted by davidmsc at 8:47 PM on October 7, 2005

Slight derail: Is Atlas Shrugged worth reading? My brother has suggested that I read it and I as someone sympathic to libertarianism I sometimes feel I ought to. But I was pretty turned off by Anthem. It seemed to be an almost wholesale ripoff of We by Zamiatin except she didn't have the courage to end it like We. All she had to do was say something like "I owe Zamiatin a debt of gratitude for inspiring this novel" but she didn't and that soured me.
posted by 6550 at 8:57 PM on October 7, 2005

I would say her main philosophical error (in constructing "Objectivism", not in the novels) was paying absolutely no attention to any established meaning of technical terms in philosophy (such as metaphysics, epistemology, and so on). This makes it all but impossible to evaluate her system for anyone with philosophical training. Randians take attempts by others to get clear on certain claims to be attacks. That's unproductive and usually shows you have something to hide.

But her main ethical doctrines, ethical egoism and total laissez-faire capitalism are live theories in philosophical circles. Their main "errors" are that some of their fairly immediate consequences are contrary to standard moral intuitions. That, and they have no decent way to deal with moral luck, which egalitarian theories and Rawls address with great success.
posted by ontic at 9:57 PM on October 7, 2005

6550 I found Atlas Shrugged an entertaining read. I was 19 at the time.

bshort said:
Today we have a super laissez-faire government
This is a statement so obviously wrong it boggles. Today we have Fascism. The government, the instrument of force, is involved in business. Laissez-faire totally removes government from business. Just look at regulations which give advantage to bigger corporations over smaller ones. Look at all the lobbying.

I do not believe in laissez-faire capitalism (although I once did). But I do think it is a point at which to start. But I am, today, ultimately a pragmatist, with socialist leanings. If things went hard left, I almost certainly would pull the opposite way.
posted by Goofyy at 10:08 PM on October 7, 2005

[Spoiler] As an example of ridiculous these portraits become, at the end of Atlas Shrugged the looters - while torturing the protagonist - must rely upon him to fix their torture device for them which he does willingly in order to demonstrate both personal and ideological superiority.

I am not a defender of Rand's philosophy, but in defense of her abilities as a storyteller, I thought that scene was great.
posted by bingo at 11:53 AM on October 8, 2005

My answer is here & following, in a previous mefi thread that got into a lot of these questions.
posted by mdn at 7:02 AM on October 9, 2005

Well, for one thing Ayn Rand claims that all of her philosophy is a natural outgrowth of

"a = a".

From a purely mathematical/logical perspective, that's completely impossible.

Haven't read any of her books, so I don't know all that much about the rest of the philosophy, and based on my discussions with her 'followers' I have no interest in doing so.
posted by delmoi at 9:02 AM on October 11, 2005

Is Atlas Shrugged worth reading? Sure, in the same sense that the Bible is worth reading for atheists. It gives you a perspective on society that you might not normally be exposed to. If nothing else you get to say you've read it and thus have solid grounds for dismissing Rand and her followers.
posted by oddman at 5:12 PM on October 12, 2005

Best answer: delmoi, that's not original with ayn rand - aristotle and hegel, among others, claim the principle of non-contradiction as foundational.

like I said in the other thread, I don't think it's so much a problem of her being wrong on epistemological stuff, but simply undereducated & unaware of the conversations that have and are taking place. With regard to the ethical stuff, she seems confused, as she seems to want to be both an egoist and a kantian. Her egoism does not seem to be well defined.

I had a related argument here.
posted by mdn at 7:31 AM on October 14, 2005

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