Breeched Wales Bloviating in the Hot Sun

Location: Long Island, New York, United States

Monday, January 03, 2005

A Little on Ayn Rand

I thought I would write a little criticism of Ayn Rands philosophy. I have read most of her non-fiction philosophy books, some from her anointed followers philosophy books, and also David Kelly. I found a lot of the stuff interesting. She does a good job of cutting down the arguments of many other philosophies. Although I am not sure how much of it originated with her.

The main problem I have with her philosophy however is that it is foundationalist. I don't think that one can take a core set of axioms and deduce your entire moral philosophy from it. The world is just too complex for that to work.

On first contact with Rands philosophy it seemed reasonable to me on most points. I think because it arrived at many of the same conclusions I had come to but by different means. There were certain problems however. I did not see how one could arrive at every conclusion deduction from axioms. Her axioms were compatiable with her conclusions in the books but I think they are compatible with many other possibly conflicting conclusions.

At first I thought this was a minor problem. I thought when she was using phrases like "The virtue of selfishness" she was just being provocative for the sake of book sales. Her long winded defintion of what she meant by "selfishness" was not something that seemed objectionable. She was defining it as enlighted self interest. Which really isn't something so objectionable. However when I learned about the plots of her books, her Objectivist organization, and aspects of her personal life, I realized that she was equivocating on the definition of selfishness. Sure selfishness could refer to enlightened self interest but she also applied the term to the unenlightened kind.

Let me give you an example. I have not read her fiction but I am familiar with some of the plots through other writings, and her movies. So forgive me if I get anything wrong. I found the plot of the movie "The Fountainhead" preposterous. I did not find the main characters actions in blowing up the public housing to be moral. He gave his ideas for free to someone he knew was a weak willed fool. He knew that other people who were not privy to his secret arrangement had a stake in the housing project. I cannot fathom how Rand deduced that he had any property rights in the public housing at all. Any reasonable person would have realized in this situation that the building wasn't going to get built the way he wanted. The idea that a jury would have let him off for this was laughable.

I have "Atlas Shrugged" and "The Fountain Head" but frankly, I found her fictional writing style not to my tastes. I started each book but was not the least interested reading past the first few pages. They didn't keep my interest.

Now the funny thing is that I accept many of her philosophical premises. For instance I believe in private property, that "ought derives from is", that the material is primary and that consciousness is secondary. However, I don't see that these along with the other beliefs of Rand's can be used to justify her plots, or her personal behavior.

As another example I don't see how she could combine the following:
1) Her beliefs in living up to ones contractual agreements
2) That she was married (a contractual agreement)
3) Her personal values which included her respect for her husband (which should include his emotional well being)
4) Her screwing around with Nathaniel Brandon.
These behaviors just aren't rationally compatible in my mind. In fact it smacks to me of just plain old unenlighted self interest. Which was something I mistakenly believed she was not advocating.

I guess that is what you get when you try to redefined settled words. Selfishness, as in "unenlighted self interest" is a known moral bad. Acting on short sighted self interest is harmful to the individual behaving in this fashion. This definition is fully compatible with the notion that "is determines ought". Using the word "selfishness" to also refer to the "enlightened" kind of self interest can only lead to confusion. Firstly, it is a barrier to communication and secondly it can lead to equivocation between the two meanings, one good the other bad.

In fact, I think Rand herself fell into this trap. She convinced herself that selfish behavior is good via equivocation. I'm not sure if she even realized that she was behaving against her more broad self-interest as she alienated her friends and her family. Somehow she thought her reputation, friends and family were not part of her self. This is not the case. Humans are social creatures and our identities are partially defined by our social relationships. That's why if she was asked who "her husband is" she would not respond with the name of some other "selfs" husband. Social relationships are indeed part of the self. By acting on her whims with regard to her relationship with her husband she was effecting herself, more specifically her 'self', and not in a good way.

This does not exhaust the problems I have with Rand's philosophy but this is a blog and frankly it isn't in my self interest to spend too much time on this.

Note: It's late, I'm posting this as is for now but will do some proofreading and editing tomorrow. That is, I reserve the right to modify this post in order to make the writing more clear.