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Fall 2009 -- Those who have for some time followed the decades-long course of Ayn Rand’s growing cultural influence may recall a time when Rand’s philosophy, Objectivism , was regularly misrepresented in the press and even distorted in critical treatments.
Times have changed. Nowadays, Rand’s basic ideas are usually reasonably represented. Here’s one example from The New York Times’s August 2 profile of BB&T chairman John Allison —who has put Rand’s principles to work in his bank:
Important distinctions—e.g. between looting businessmen who depend on government and independent ones who don’t—are not addressed in this characterization. Neither is it what an Objectivist would write. But what it says is accurate as far as it goes.
Today, the most common misconceptions about Ayn Rand and Objectivism are tangled up in the world-view of the person discussing Rand. Here are three misconceptions we still see.
1) Myth: Rand wasn’t a philosopher.
Reality: This notion is based on a false view that academic philosophy alone is “legitimate” philosophy.
In the New York Times article cited above, influential philosophy professor Brian Leiter was brought on as a critical voice. Leiter had put a poll on his blog asking “Which person do you most wish the media would stop referring to as a ‘philosopher’?” The answers were : a) postmodernist literary critic Jacques Derrida, darling of the Modern Language Association; b) political theorist Leo Strauss, father of neo-conservativism; and c) Ayn Rand. Seventy-five percent of the poll respondents chose Rand. (Leiter calls the respondents “philosophers,” but really, they were whoever read the blog about the poll.)
The Times quoted Leiter as saying “To describe [Rand] as a minor figure in the history of philosophical thinking about knowledge and reality would be a wild overstatement...She’s irrelevant.” Later, on his blog, he qualified this dismissal , allowing that “All joking aside, I do want to say there are several philosophers I respect who have a soft spot for Ayn Rand.”
Rand was certainly a philosopher. She wrote on philosophical topics and offered distinctive arguments in philosophy. Rand was not a philosophy professor nor a scholarly writer, and she didn’t relate her views to the academic philosophy of her time in any great detail.
Of course, for critics like Leiter, academic philosophy alone is legitimate philosophy. Therefore the measure of philosophical importance then becomes the degree to which one is cited or discussed in academic papers and books (rather than, say, how much one has influenced a culture, or whether or not one’s views are true).
In this respect, it is notable that Leiter slams Rand’s lack of influence in epistemology. Arguing her lack of influence on ethics or political thought would be much more difficult. Her ethical and political views are discussed in textbooks and have inspired members of the neo-Aristotelian school of thought and the libertarian movement. One of the most celebrated philosophy books of the late twentieth century, Anarchy, State, and Utopia, by Robert Nozick, bears the stamp of Rand’s influence. There isn’t a comparable body of work related to Rand’s views of reality and knowledge, though seminal work has been done in this field by David Kelley (founder of The Atlas Society and this magazine) and is being carried forward by noted philosophers of science James Lennox and Allan Gotthelf, among others.
And it’s ironic to note that, while much of academia denies to Rand the mantle of legitimate philosopher, it considers Friedrich Nietzsche to be a major philosopher. That would be the same Nietzsche who was no great scholar, argued for really radical ideas, presented a highly stylized, sweepingly abstract history of religion and ethics, and wrote in confusing, sometimes contradictory aphorisms. Well, he’s been dead longer.
2) Myth: Rand was a standard egoist.
Reality: No, Rand was for rational egoism.
Yes, many people still think Ayn Rand advocated a take-what-you-want-and-damn-everyone kind of selfishness. One example of this comes from one Teddy Allen, writing in the Shreveport Times, Dec 20, 2007 :
“[W]hat seems to be the natural way of human beings … is the same as in the animal world: eat or get eaten. The way to get ahead is to step on the guy in front of you. Every man for himself. Objectivism, and all that.”
But the Objectivist ethics is a form of rational egoism, where seeking happiness and dealing with others by trade are key principles. It sees positive relations with other people as key components of a flourishing life. It isn’t an ethic of live-and-let-die. It’s an ethic of live-and-let-live.
Still, many moral philosophers—most, in fact—think that egoism is no ethics at all. That’s because they define ethics as a body of principles for dealing with others. Ethics as altruism, in other words. Many think that acting for one’s own practical reasons may or may not be fine, but it just isn’t “moral.” With this way of chopping up the proper province of ethics—ethics being in fact a guide to living as a human being—many of these philosophers have trouble seeing Rand’s view for what it is.
Altruism and self-sacrifice are still the standard of ethics in the minds of much of the general public. Just read, for example, “The Ethicist” in The New York Times Magazine or listen to most religious preachers. Many people think this because they see self-interested behavior as short-sighted, unfeeling, and destructive. Their model of rational selfishness is a sociopath.
In practice, however, most people in America try to seek happiness and take care of themselves. That’s not far from the Objectivist view—and it shouldn’t be, if Objectivism outlines true principles behind successful living and flourishing. That truth will continue to be reality’s challenge to the conventional view of ethics and egoism.
Ayn Rand was no conservative.
Many Objectivists themselves identify with the Right in American politics. And the Old Right had substantial classical liberal elements a century ago. Ayn Rand herself is often called “right-wing.” And her most famous defender, Alan Greenspan, was a consultant to Republicans and was nominated to chair the Fed by President Reagan.
For this reason, commentators on the Left often ascribe to Rand conservative ideas she never held. The most pernicious of these is the idea that Rand was a defender of the wealthy. In this view, she was the Nietzschean firebrand of the country-club set.
For example, Jonathan Chait, who wrote a screed attacking Rand in The New Republic (September 14, 2009), describes Rand’s social analysis as “the ideological pity of the rich for the oppression that they suffer as a class.” In place of health care for all, Rand advocated “WealthCare” for “the rich”, Chait contends
Yet one only has to read Rand to see how wrong this is. Wealthy villains abound in Rand, from the clucking, mindless socialites of The Fountainhead to the Taggart-Boyle industrialist cartel in Atlas Shrugged . Howard Roark, hero of The Fountainhead , is from no distinguished background, and one of his best friends is a plain-spoken electrician. Indeed, Rand focuses intense skepticism on the moral status of wealthy characters. For Rand, wealth earned in a free market is a badge of honor—because it is earned through the voluntary approbation of customers, employers, and clients. But wealth isn’t happiness, and it alone doesn’t make one moral. Rand wanted the productive to unite, whatever their social class. Rand opposed economic policies that penalized the productive. She thought laissez-faire capitalism would in time destroy the old wealthy class and would create a more just and dynamic society.
In sum, Ayn Rand was no conservative. Her politics are best described as libertarian, and her cultural view was deeply opposed to traditionalism of any kind. Objectivism is also opposed to most conservatives on the issue of religious faith. And then, there’s that pesky virtue of selfishness. Ayn Rand herself was an equal opportunity offender, blasting the right and left in her essays of the 1960s and 70s. Here at The New Individualist, we are staunchly opposed to many policies of the new Democratic regime, but we weren’t cheerleaders for many of the policies and cultural views of the Bush Republicans, either.
Right and Left are confused, misleading political categories. Objectivism is of both parties, and neither.