Navigator: In your "State of the Culture" talk, you said that it is the ideas of a society's culture which determine the other aspects of that society. Could you describe the main line by which ideas have determined the society America has today?
Kelley: I would say the main line is this. The reintroduction of Aristotelianism in the West gradually led to the demise of the medieval outlook, which stood for faith and submission to God's will in this world, plus the expectation that true happiness can exist only after death. By the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, a completely different set of ideas and values had emerged: a confidence in reason, a desire for freedom, the pursuit of individual happiness here on earth, the understanding that wealth is created through reason, and consequently the expectations of material progress. The culmination of this transformation was the Enlightenment, and America has, quite accurately, been called the nation of the Enlightenment.
Navigator: If America is a nation of the Enlightenment, why did your talk describe it as having three subcultures?
Kelley: The Enlightenment culture was America's founding culture. But today it exists as a subculture alongside the remnants of a pre-Enlightenment subculture, which the Enlightenment subculture never fully replaced, and alongside an anti-Enlightenment subculture, which is trying to oust both the Enlightenment and pre-Enlightenment views.
The pre-Enlightenment view is essentially the religious view: reliant on faith, otherworldly in its understanding of this life, and duty bound in its ethics. Today, it is found mostly on the religious Right.
The Enlightenment view is the category to which Objectivists belong. But we are part of a broader subculture comprising those people who share what Ayn Rand called "the American sense of life." Like Objectivists, such people are pro-reason, pro-freedom, and pro-individual happiness, although they may not be in agreement with us on more specific philosophical tenets.
The anti-Enlightenment culture is the reaction against the Enlightenment that was launched by intellectuals and artists in the late eighteenth century and developed fully in the nineteenth. It is anti-rational and anti-individualist. It's the culture from which Marxism arose; the culture from which modernism in art arose; the culture from which deconstructionism, post-structuralism, and other such movements arose. Politically, it is responsible for environmentalism and egalitarianism.
Navigator: If you had to name the person, now on the scene, who is the most articulate spokesman for the pre-Enlightenment culture, who would it be?
Kelley: Oh, to pick a name, I suppose it would be Pat Robertson. But different people capture different elements of it. Let me note, though, that today no American of significance is a pure representative of the pre-Enlightenment view. Contemporary spokesmen for what we call pre-Enlightenment values and pre-Enlightenment convictions generally stand for something like the ethic of productiveness. Pat Robertson is not going to lead his flock city to city, in rags, begging for their bread. Just why that is so would take us into a long discussion of the so-called Protestant ethic, but it is so. Virtually all pre-Enlightenment Americans are also advocates of hard work; some of them advocate economic freedom; and to that extent they are on our side. But they're coming at those positions from totally different premises.
Navigator: What is the standing of the pre-Enlightenment subculture in America today?
Kelley: My best guess is that it encompasses about 40 to 45 percent of the population. And given those numbers, of course, it is politically influential. But looking to the long term, I think the pre-Enlightenment view is the least influential of the subcultures, simply because it is a primitive world-view and tends not to attract intellectuals.
Navigator: But hasn't the pre-Enlightenment view gained a considerable number of educated and articulate spokesmen over the last fifty years, such as the neo-conservatives?
Kelley: I would say that, fundamentally, neo-conservativism is a reaction to the nihilism of the anti-Enlightenment. So long as the alternative is cast as "religion versus nihilism" some intelligent people will opt for religion and try to defend it. But the intellectual power and influence they exert will always be limited. The more they oppose the nihilistic anti-Enlightenment culture in the name of rationality and man's happiness, the more they make the Enlightenment case rather than the pre-Enlightenment case.
Navigator: Is this the paradox you call "religion for medicinal purposes?"
Kelley: Yes. I coined that term when I started to hear arguments like the following: Religion is important and good because religious people commit fewer crimes. Or: Religious people typically have children inside marriages. Or: Religious people don't go on welfare. In short: Religious people exhibit fewer of the social pathologies that people are worried about today. Sometimes, the argument went further still: Religious people are happier in their work, happier in their marriages, have better sex lives even, better health, lower blood pressure. And people have studies to demonstrate all these things.
What's interesting about this argument, as an argument, is what it does not say. It does not say God exists and you'll go to Hell if you don't do what He commands. It says you should believe in God and follow His commandments because it will benefit you and society in this world. In short, the people who make this argument—typically unphilosophical conservatives—have accepted our worldview and are playing by our rules. And if we're aware of that, we can use it to our benefit, by showing how much better for you truly rational values and ideas are.
Navigator: Let's turn to the Enlightenment worldview, which includes the Objectivist outlook. If you had to pick the person, now on the scene, who is the most articulate spokesman for the Enlightenment culture, who would it be?
Kelley: Well, you took away my prime choice by saying "now." Ayn Rand was the most articulate spokesman for the Enlightenment view, and Objectivism, as a philosophy, is the best embodiment of the Enlightenment view. So I would naturally look to Objectivists as the most articulate spokesmen, though we're not the best known. Beyond the Objectivist circle, there are people who are very good at articulating particular aspects of the Enlightenment culture. But I don't see any single spokesman for all of it.
Navigator: If you had to pick the biggest triumph of the Enlightenment culture during the last twenty-five years, what would it be?
Kelley: I would say that, over the last twenty-five years, the biggest triumph of the Enlightenment view is that people have grasped the concept of their own happiness as a real goal in life. You can see this in the emergence of the self-help industry. Here is a huge industry that hardly existed a generation ago. People today go to seminars, and take classes, and buy books, for no purpose except to be happier in their personal lives. Of course, a lot of it is garbage. There's a lot of self-indulgence, irrationality, and subjectivism involved. But the very fact that the self-help movement exists is a triumph for the individualist, Enlightenment outlook.
Politically, the triumph has been to stop the automatic growth of the state. And I'm afraid I must stress "automatic." The state's still growing. But at least new programs are not being started the way they once were. Moreover, there exists an active libertarian or classical liberal movement. So free-market ideas are invoked explicitly to criticize government programs. Individual freedom, including economic freedom, is represented in the political arena. It's savaged in many ways, but it's taken seriously. Twenty-five years ago, to talk about privatizing the post office, or privatizing Social Security, or completely abolishing the FDA, would have been considered a sign of advanced dementia.
Navigator: How does the Enlightenment culture stand within the American culture at large? What percentage of the population does it encompass?
Kelley:That is very hard to estimate. In fact, I have had to approach the question by subtracting the percentages involved in the other two subcultures. But I would guess maybe 30 to 40 percent of Americans are basically pro-reason, pro-individualism, pro-freedom. If these people practice religion, it's not a major part of their lives and doesn't seriously get in the way of their pursuit of happiness in this world. If they are politically liberal, or at any rate not pro-capitalist, it is because of mistaken views of freedom rather than hostility to freedom as such.
Navigator: Would you say that the factors which make it difficult to estimate the size of the Enlightenment outlook undercut its influence?
Kelley: Absolutely. Because the Enlightenment outlook doesn't have an identity, people don't see it as a cause to fight for. They may feel embattled by other ideas. They may feel alienated by the anti-Enlightenment stuff coming out of Hollywood and out of the universities. They may feel bewildered by it. And towards the pre-Enlightenment view, they probably just feel contempt. But they have no sense of their own view as a distinctive outlook on the world and as something that needs to be defended.
Navigator: Would you please trace the origin and spread of the anti-Enlightenment outlook within the broader historical framework that you mentioned earlier?
Kelley: Basically, it arose among philosophers during the mid- to late eighteenth century. Immanuel Kant attacked the idea that reason could be efficacious in grasping the world. And he attacked the ethic of pursuing happiness as an end. Kant himself was an individualist in politics. But Hegel and others who built on Kant—along with Rousseau who preceded Kant—were collectivists. So, early in the nineteenth century, you had this set of ideas and values—anti-reason, anti-individualism, anti-freedom, anti-personal happiness—that was fundamentally inimical to the Enlightenment and to all the cultural and political institutions it had created.
That outlook spread among the intellectuals and artists, who created an anti-bourgeois culture hostile to the values promulgated and promoted in the capitalist societies. In the two centuries since, the outlook has spread far beyond the intelligentsia and taken many different forms. But it hasn't changed fundamentally.
The practical results of the ideas have included the totalitarian movements of this century and all the horrors they entailed. And for that reason, some versions of the anti-Enlightenment outlook, such as socialism and fascism, have suffered setbacks. But the underlying themes have returned in the form of environmentalism and egalitarianism.
In the universities, over the last twenty years, the anti-Enlightenment culture has taken the form of a virulent nihilism, with attacks on reason, individualism, freedom, production, capitalism, Western civilization. I'm hopeful that this trend, like communism and fascism, may be playing itself out, that it's reached rock bottom. After all, the fundamental problem with nihilism is that it's nihilistic. It has nothing to offer. It can only attack. And once it has destroyed that which it was attacking, it tends to destroy itself.
Navigator: If you had to pick the person, now on the scene, who is the most articulate spokesman for the anti-Enlightenment culture, who would it be?
Kelley: Oh, I suppose Stanley Fish, of Duke University. Although he's basically a literary scholar, he's written about politics, ethics, and law. He appears regularly in intellectual forums; indeed, he sometimes seems omnipresent. At any rate, he seems to have an unerring eye for the anti-rational, anti-individualist, anti-Enlightenment perspective on any issue.
Navigator: How do you evaluate the cultural strength of the anti-Enlightenment outlook in America now?
Kelley: It dominates the humanities, though interestingly enough, philosophy seems to be the least dominated by it. But that's partly because philosophers are not dominated by any global view. They tend to be much more narrow in their focus. In the humanities generally, however, these are the dominant ideas that kids are now learning in school. The anti-Enlightenment view is also very influential in Hollywood, in large areas of publishing, in the arts. If you look at the artists who are part of the Establishment, who are supported by the National Endowment for the Arts, they are almost all driven by this outlook.
So, in effect, representatives of this outlook are manning all the posts in the cultural structure. They are dominating all the institutions that provide us with culture. Fortunately, so far, they are running into "the American sense of life." The Enlightenment culture remains very strong in America, and not just among ordinary working guys. It's also strong among many professionals, who went to school without having to go through the humanities or just slept through their humanities classes. Unfortunately, although a large number of people can see what's wrong with the anti-Enlightenment view when it gets to the extreme level, they don't understand the principles behind it. They don't understand what it represents. And they tend to have much too innocent a view of it.
Navigator: In your talk, you mentioned four strategies that Objectivism should be pursuing in the culture wars. The first was: Defund the political and cultural Left, that is, deprive it of public money. Is that something we could undertake in coalition with conservatives?
Kelley: Yes. But we'd have to be very careful to make our principle clear: Defund political and cultural outlooks as such. We would lose if, in a coalition with cultural conservatives, the politically effective argument was "These ideas are awful. Let's fund better ideas." But I do think a coalition is possible. I think that right now the conservatives would be happy just to defund the Left.
Navigator: The second strategy was to develop the technical, philosophical theory of objectivity. Why is that important, within the context of the culture wars?
Kelley: All that prevents the anti-Enlightenment subculture from collapsing is that, in various intellectual battles, the Enlightenment forces have been unable to answer the nihilists' charge of subjectivism. The nihilists ask, "How can you prove your interpretation is the correct one?" That is the key to what is happening today in law, and history, and literature, and the arts generally. Because the fact of the matter is that our pro-Enlightenment friends in the schools have no good answer. So the nihilists say to their students: "You see. Those guys can't prove their views. No one can. Everything is subjective. It's just an expression of one's—race or sex or wealth or whatever."
Of course, the Objectivist epistemology offers the fundamental answer, the fundamental explanation and defense of objectivity. But applications need to be developed for each discipline. We need to be able to demonstrate how one can make objective judgments in law and history and art. Only when we have done that will the anti-Enlightenment culture collapse.
Navigator: The third strategy you urged was to develop an explicitly secular moral code. Why is that important, within the context of the culture wars?
Kelley: This relates to the pre-Enlightenment front in our two-front war. As I mentioned earlier, in discussing "religion for medicinal purposes," the greatest strength of the pre-Enlightenment camp is that religion seems to offer the only code of morality around. Ordinary, decent people see a world collapsing from two centuries of skeptical, relativist thought. All the bourgeois values people once took for granted have been destroyed. And the result is a society that is, in many ways, pathological. Large numbers of people are rampantly irresponsible. They expect the state, or someone else, to take care of them. They go into courts expecting compensation for the consequences of their own stupidity. There are horrible stories about teenage girls having babies and throwing them in dumpsters. People look at all that and think: "My God. This is awful. I do not want my kids growing up like that. I want them to have some kind of moral structure in their lives." And where can they get that? Well, apparently only in churches or synagogues. No one else seems to be offering a practical, decent code to live by. So they turn to religion as the only game in town.
Objectivism could appeal to these people with a more rational morality than religion has to offer. But only after we have a sufficiently detailed product.
Navigator: To continue the military metaphor, we might say that your fourth and last strategy deals with the home front.
Kelley: Yes. We must get the Enlightenment subculture to defend itself.
The greatest problem here is that members of the Enlightenment subculture are not even aware they are members of a subculture. So we need to give the Enlightenment perspective a sense of self-identity. Religious outlooks are extremely well developed in this regard. You can call yourself a Christian, or a Jew, or a Muslim. The cultural Left is a looser conglomeration, but its members have code words and phrases that give them a feeling of identity and kinship. By contrast, no one today thinks of himself as an Enlightenment person. He just loves happiness and freedom and thinking things through for himself. He never says, "Hey! If that's the way I am, I must be . . ." Be a what?
So the fourth strategy is to make people aware that the Enlightenment outlook is very much a choice. Make them aware that it needs to be defended, both in their own minds and in the culture. Make them realize how precious it is and how rare historically. If we can do that, I think large numbers of people will sign on. Now, at some point in trying to give this outlook a sense of self-identity, we are going to be faced with the problem of giving it a name. And since we are the ones who understand, most fully, what the essence of the Enlightenment outlook is, I suggest we name it after that essence: Call it Objectivism.
To learn more about the Objectivist view on key aspects of the Enlightenment culture and its enemies, visit the pages below.
David Kelley is the founder of The Atlas Society. A professional philosopher, teacher, and best-selling author, he has been a leading proponent of Objectivism for more than 25 years.