While on my recent road trip, I took the opportunity in my spare time to re-read Atlas Shrugged. It’s been quite a while—over thirty years, in fact—since I first picked up Ayn Rand’s magnum opus, and was struck by how accurately the dystopian society she described over half a century ago has materialized today.
For those of you who have not yet read Atlas Shrugged, or are unfamiliar with the principles of Objectivism which the novel was written to articulate, I can tell you that, looking about on the internet, it appears many others have noticed the same thing.
First published in 1957, Atlas remains one of the most enduringly popular works of 20th century fiction. From an initial first-edition print run of 100,000 copies, Rand’s fourth and final novel not only continues to sell well, but unlike Lord of the Rings (the most obvious comparison), sales have continued to steadily increase. Amazon.com lists Atlas as its #15 work in overall sales, and #1 rated in “Fiction and Literature” category. To date, over seven million copies have been sold; this figure does not include the 400,000 copies donated annually by the Ayn Rand Institute to high schools across America. This level of ongoing popularity, achieved in the teeth of overwhelmingly critical mainstream media reaction, does beg the question, why? Today I’ll attempt a tentative answer.
I had also better warn anyone new to the work that discussing it isn’t really possible without dropping a few spoilers, so I’m going to assume everyone who reads beyond this paragraph is familiar with the work; consider yourselves warned. It’s relevant here, because Atlas has been developing an ever-increasing following among Libertarian groups as well as the conservative blogosphere.
I hasten to point out that Objectivism and Libertarianism are two very distinct ideas. The former concerns itself first and foremost with epistemology, that is, what is knowledge and how do human beings come to acquire it; it owes principally to Aristotle’s Metaphysics and—according to Rand herself—to no other philosopher, of the modern age or antiquity (though it is known she read Nietzsche in depth during her undergraduate studies in Petrograd, and debate still rages as to the degree to which she was influenced by him). The latter, conversely, is a political philosophy which deals with the rôle of the state in an ideal society.
I don’t intend a lengthy description of Objectivist epistemology here; not that I’m the best person to attempt to explain it in any case; Googling it will shower you with enough references for a rather brain-racking evening or two. For the really keen, Rand’s Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology is the definitive work (that should keep Izen busy for a couple of weeks at least!). I’ll simply state here that Objectivism holds that reality exists (is objectively real), and that existence is independent of man; that is, a thing which is, or has the property of identity, would be, even if man was unaware of it. Man’s consciousness is the process of mind apprehending that reality, while creative or productive work is the process of shaping that reality by means of reason and logic. Art, viewed by Rand as a recreation of reality through the lens of the artist’s value system, is given high prominence in Atlas, with the characters of composer Richard Halley and actress Kay Ludlow representing the projection of Objectivism’s highest values in artistic form.
According to Objectivism, our wishes and dreams, however fervently held, are not sufficient to create reality. This is a theme that recurs constantly throughout Atlas, as Rand shows character after character believing it otherwise, as they have been conditioned to do, and ultimately being disabused. Hank Rearden’s parasitic family, the most obvious example, having been trained (by Rearden himself, unconsciously) to expect a life of luxury at his expense as their birthright, before being ultimately informed that their gravy train has reached the end of the line, are a microcosm of the dysfunctional welfare society that Rand saw growing in America, even in 1957, before it had risen to become a significant element of American society.
They do complement one another reasonably neatly, though. Objectivism has implications for the establishment of a moral code, and from there, politics, economics and the organisation of society, and those implications sufficiently parallel the principles of Libertarianism that, for example, many in the Tea Party movement in the United States have adopted Ayn Rand as a kind of patron saint. Libertarianism, in its turn, lacks within itself a coherent metaphysical basis as to why the state should not intrude into the lives of citizens any further than is necessary for the preservation of life, public safety and property rights. Objectivism provides this.
For what it’s worth (and again, I don’t propose a lengthy explanation here), Objectivism’s logical consequences in the economic and political spheres run rather closer to anarcho-capitalism than they do to Libertarianism. The odd-bedfellows relationship becomes more pronounced when the basis for Objectivism (which is formally atheist) is juxtaposed with the motivations of Bible-belt Christians who comprise much of the Tea Party’s membership. As a matter of fact, Ron Paul (who knew Ayn Rand) remarked in this interview that she personally didn’t care for most Libertarians she’d met. Following some disagreements in the 1970s, she held a particularly damning view of the Libertarian movement in the United States of that time, regarding them as muddle-headed plagiarists of her ideas; the more do I laugh when certain posters on other blogs proclaim that they, and others of that era, are the “true” Libertarians. Well, the prophet hath spoken—more fool them 😆
In a memorable television interview in 1959 with CBS’s Mike Wallace, Rand succinctly encapsulates the principles of her philosophy. The dynamic between the two is a fascinating one. Both are Russian Jews, though of differing backgrounds, that render the tone of the interview extremely loaded, almost explosive: Wallace, despite his apple-pie looks and all-American broadcast voice, was born Myron Wallechinsky in Brookline, Massachusetts, the son of an emigré grocer; Rand, simultaneously taciturn and enigmatic, and whose often barely-intelligible, Russian-accented English makes her sound like an extra in a bad spy movie, was born Alisa Zinov’yevna Rosenbaum in czarist Saint Petersburg, and fled the nascent Soviet Union in 1925, leaving behind her family, and becoming a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1931. Time and again, during a debate in which the interviewer appears struggling to conceal his hostility towards the subject, Wallace attempts to over-simplify Rand’s arguments into easily-dispatched straw men, or throw “banana peel” questions in her path; but Rand remains implacable. If you are new to Rand’s philosophy, it is well worth half an hour of your time to watch (part one of the interview below; parts two and three here).
(Parenthetically, isn’t it rather startling these days to watch a television interview in which the participants are smoking? The Libertarian in me cheers; though I’m glad I wasn’t forced to sit in the studio with them. In fact, one of the minor criticisms I have of Atlas—and I have a couple of major ones; more anon—is the prominent symbolic status of cigarettes; all of the main heroes of the novel are heavy smokers. Oh well, I guess you could say the same about Lord of the Rings).
Ayn Rand was never reticent about exploring the political ideology that sprang from her philosophy; indeed, the climax of the novel, “This is John Galt Speaking”, a 65-page oration by the eponymous hero of the story, is a condensation of the principles of Objectivism, together with its plan of action to rescue society from ossified statism. In the years following the book’s publication, Rand, in articles, essays and interviews, expanded and clarified her reasoning:
The goal of the “liberals”—as it emerges from the record of the past decades—was to smuggle this country into welfare statism by means of single, concrete, specific measures, enlarging the power of the government a step at a time, never permitting these steps to be summed up into principles, never permitting their direction to be identified or the basic issue to be named. Thus statism was to come, not by vote or by violence, but by slow rot—by a long process of evasion and epistemological corruption, leading to a fait accompli. (The goal of the “conservatives” was only to retard that process.)
Criticism of Rand’s work can be found across the internet, and it’s quite striking (and probably no coincidence) how closely many of her most well-known and hostile critics resemble some of the villains of the book. For instance, there’s Gore Vidal, who in a 1961 review published in Esquire, sneered at Atlas Shrugged thus:
This odd little woman is attempting to give a moral sanction to greed and self interest, and to pull it off she must at times indulge in purest Orwellian newspeak of the “freedom is slavery” sort. What interests me most about her is not the absurdity of her “philosophy,” but the size of her audience (in my campaign for the House she was the one writer people knew and talked about). She has a great attraction for simple people who are puzzled by organized society, who object to paying taxes, who dislike the “welfare” state, who feel guilt at the thought of the suffering of others but who would like to harden their hearts… Ayn Rand’s “philosophy” is nearly perfect in its immorality, which makes the size of her audience all the more ominous…
The same Gore Vidal who, by 1957 at the time of its publication had himself experienced only relatively minor literary success, bears an uncanny resemblance to the novel’s character, failed author Balph Eubank, who desired the government to legislate a limit on sales of any new publication to three thousand copies, in order to give more “worthy” but less-read authors (i.e., himself) a chance. Or, to take another example, Marxist author and Soviet spy Whittaker Chambers’ airy dismissal of Atlas, printed in the National Review soon after its 1957 release, draws comparison (in intent, if not position) with the treasonous Wesley Mouch, who in the novel intrigues his way to becoming economic dictator of the nation. Whittaker, seemingly incapable of viewing Atlas within anything other than a Marxist framework, derides Objectivism as merely another form of materialism, a degraded parody of Marxism itself, before falsely claiming Rand is calling for a dictatorship of a technocratic elite.
Lesser-known critics of Atlas go further, to the far side of hysteria in fact; long on smears, short on arguments. For a classic example of a book review in which the reviewer all but admits he has not even read the work, check out this appropriately-named scribe, who seems desperate to warn you that you shouldn’t read it, either. Apparently, because it’s “boring”.
A common criticism of Objectivism, with its emphasis on self and the view of man as a heroic creature whose aim should revolve around his own happiness, is that it is “Nietzsche for dummies”, with John Galt’s character being the ultimate representation of the übermensch; many of you may be familiar with this rather cheap shot, attributed to Kung Fu Monkey;
There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.
The only response to which I can possibly make is, that as a bookish fourteen-year-old, I had already read both titles, the former (LOTR) several times; and of the two, it is the latter which (along with Thomas à Kempis’ The Imitation of Christ, Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man, and M. Scott Peck’s The Road Less Travelled—not novels) had the most formative influence upon my youth. As it turned out, I actually didn’t get around to reading Nietzsche’s Also Sprach Zarathustra until quite a few years later, so any comparison of mine between the two would probably tell you more about me, and the differing ages at which I first read them, than it would tell you about them.
Which, it should strongly hint to you, that—from a personal point of view at least—I don’t accept Objectivism unquestioningly. Perhaps it’s my inability to escape completely my own upbringing and intellectual roots, which lie squarely in the Christian tradition. One of the closest approaches to a valid criticism in the attacks on Rand I have cited above came from Vidal who, writing of Objectivism’s morality based on self-interest observed, she has declared war not only on Marx but on Christ. At first glance, this charge appears substantial, and damning. Compare the peroration in John Galt’s explication of her philosophy,
You will win when you are ready to pronounce the oath I have taken at the start of my battle—and for those who wish to know the day of my return, I shall now repeat it to the hearing of the world:
“I swear—by my life and my love of it—that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine”
with the words of the Prince of Peace:
Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. (John 15:13)
The solution to the paradox is contained in the CBS television interview above. Rand is hardly the first philosopher to point out that pure altruism is a mirage. Notwithstanding her lifelong atheism, Christ himself, Rand would have argued (and somewhere probably did), hoped to gain something for himself by His passion, death and resurrection: the fulfillment of His father’s plan for the salvation of man, His victory over Lucifer, over temptation and death, and the satisfaction these would have brought. Whether in the sphere of society, of friendship, of sexual relationships, of economics, of politics, no-one ever does anything to benefit another, without at least some hope of eventual gain for himself; all so-called altruistic acts are underwritten by motives that give the lie to that description.
Show me an “altruist” and I’ll show you a motive. The missionary who spends a lifetime tending the sick and starving in Africa harbours a hope to gain thereby an eternity in Paradise; the billionaire who places the bulk of his fortune into a foundation named after himself is feeding his ego. Each is, in the final analysis, a trade; Rand is simply saying, let’s be honest about this. So, apart from the rather distasteful augmentative tactic of surrounding himself with unwilling allies, Vidal is, in fact, being somewhat disingenuous; a man of his undoubted intelligence would (or at least should) have had a better understanding of Rand’s philosophy than that.
From the simple viewpoint of literary fiction, there are a number of other problems with Atlas which continue to hold it back from a wider audience than it currently enjoys. Character development is limited—understandable, given that the author’s motive is the articulation of a philosophy, as opposed to the telling of a story; but it leads to some rather annoying clashing of gears in the novel’s machinery. You could say that Atlas Shrugged doesn’t have characters, so much as it has archetypes; I would say that Eddie Willers, the honest mediocrity, who appears to exist in the novel as a sort of intermediary between the reader and the heroic figures who form the lead parts (much like Sam Gamgee in LOTR), is the only character the author allows to become even remotely human. Did Ayn Rand fear that if she showed us Hank Rearden picking his nose, or revealed that Dagny Taggart did in fact use a bathroom, or floridly express her disgust at her simpering brother, the reader would view them as less than through the lens of perfection she tries to interpose between us and them?
The only genuine character flaw Rand allowed any of her heroes—namely, Hank Rearden’s sexual repression, of which he cures himself in the course of the narrative—is there precisely to explicate Rand’s theory of sex as an expression of shared values; however, the implausibility of each of Dagny’s lovers in turn gracefully accepting her embrace of a new “source of values”, may have some parallels in Rand’s own life (married to actor Frank O’Connor for many years, she maintained a string of younger lovers) but jars with this reader, at any rate, as sailing very close to the exact same altruism she denied in all other aspects of living.
And then there’s the dialogue. To narrate a few lines of speech, only to spend the next page or so discussing the deeper meaning of the glances that pass between the speakers, may be justified in the context of clarifying a particular plot point; but to repeat the technique as endlessly as it is in Atlas, has a rather soporific effect on all but the most enduring reader (which I’m not). When applied to conversations between Dagny and her lovers, it even tends to trivialize the words spoken—like a sort of brainy Mills and Boon novel.
Regardless of whether you buy into the metaphysics or epistemology of Objectivism, the higher-level question remains: to what extent was Ayn Rand a seer? The list of those in the United States alone who believe she was, runs to leaders of business, government, and at least one Justice of the Supreme Court. Meantime, Atlas’s critics, either afraid or unable to engage directly with Rand’s philosophy, are reduced to smears and name-calling.
As the articles I referenced at the top attest, it’s plain to see the creeping collectivism and erosion of free-market capitalism she described, in the wake of the 2008 global financial crisis; in Western government becoming a collision point for Marxist social engineers and crony capitalists; the Eurozone bailouts; in the explosion of a permanent welfare class, or the introduction of spurious “carbon taxes” that do not reduce the output of CO2, but do ratchet up the intrusion of the state into every aspect of private activity.
Nor is it hard to pick out each of the villains; James Taggart, ostensibly running a giant enterprise, but in reality an influence-peddling incompetent; Wesley Mouch, the faithless lobbyist-turned-economic dictator; Floyd Ferris, the post-normal government scientist who hides reality to suit the purposes of the state, and whose skill in science runs no further than fabricating the instruments of oppression; or Mr Thompson, the glad-handing head of state who, faced with economic catastrophe, proves ineffective in any capacity beyond that of a figurehead.
I would say that not only did Ayn Rand foresee the economic decline of the early twenty-first century with stunning clarity, but—and more importantly—she was right for the right reasons; central planning, together with the decline in the acceptance of personal responsibility, the virus-like expansion of an all-encompassing state into every aspect of private life, a state which has declared victory over the individual citizen, and which punishes success and rewards failure. And all of this has occurred, and was made possible, because we, the citizenry, were not motivated to stop it; or—worse—that we have been brainwashed into not wanting to. We have given the state, by default, what Rand named the sanction of the victim.
What would occur if that sanction was withdrawn? The plotline of Atlas is an exploration of a possible answer. Is it a necessary answer? I suspect that, given the level of conditioning we have all undergone to mentally accept, on some level, the authority of the state, I have serious doubts that a sufficient number of heroic figures, led by a Galt-like visionary, would simultaneously arise, as Rand imagined them to do, and challenge the status quo. Having some years ago retreated into my own personal “Galt’s Gulch”, I eagerly await the day when I am proven wrong.
Hello Ozboy. I’ll post this here (if I can) in full, only because it is an article that appeared in Commentary magazine in September 2005 and requires a subscription, which I have, to read.
Um, sorry Amanda but republishing copyright material behind a paywall could land me in some legal troubles.
Perhaps provide a link for those who are interested enough to subscribe? – Oz
By the way, Oz, if you think this piece is unkind, I remember reading somewhere a takedown of the Roark character (in City Journal or The New Criterion, I don’t recall) that blasted him as a particular kind of bully, arrogant and self-regarding, hardly different from those he despises — and with precious little concern for how his works will affect the lives of others. Rather like the Le Corbusier epigones and ‘starchitects’ of the past 60 years, give or take.
As you wish, Oz — though I would hardly post it if I thought you were actually at risk. I doubt very much that Commentary magazine would go after an essentially private blog in Australia for posting in full what it only partly provides on its own blog, but perhaps I’m naive. Anyway, I can hardly expect your readers to subscribe for the sake of reading one article.
But, what I have read has taught me two things: 1) Rand was a forceful personality for whom a few key ideas were more important than truth; and 2) Rand was a powerful egotist, for whom her own pleasure and satisfaction of vanity were more important than truth.
And I’ll tell you this: a philosopher cares most about truth. He (she) is interested in truth, or she is interested in nothing. Though her bones crack and her lungs gasp for air, she is passionate about truth more than anything.
Feel free to quote away from the article, Amanda; it’s reprinting it in its entirety that may pose problems. As I said above, the MSM reaction to Rand is overwhelmingly negative in any case – Oz
I’m impressed you were able to slog through that tome in the space of a week on the road. My Dad prodded me into reading Atlas when I was in my late teens. I vividly remember my parents’ copy of the book. It was a hardcover, very thick and dusty with a green and white book cover. I don’t think I made it through the entire book. It became excruciatingly dull and there was a wealth of unread science fiction laying around (older brother). I guess I’ll have to buy a paperback version and try to get through it again.
More later…too tired tonight to comment much more.
I understand Oz. But in no way would I characterize Commentary magazine — or The New Criterion or City Journal — as ‘MSM’. They are conservative publications, counter-countercultural, if anything. The average American has no idea they even exist.
Well I never read Atlas shrugged, most of my political philosophy I picked up through osmosis by reading Robert Anson Heinlein, forgetting the scifi which is really just an excuse to explore what ifs for his protagonists. Mind you I also have been heavily influenced by H P Lovecraft, so does that make me a fascist libertarian who wants the return of the elder gods and the destruction of mankind?
I’m not sure whether Heinlein wanted a military dictatorship where only those who entered the military like Johnny Rico could vote on the principle if you were willing to die for the greater good only those people deserved a say in how the state should be run. Or the Libertarian free loving Lazarus Long one of my fondest characters of all time. Another theme he explored was the USA becoming a theocracy and turned me on to a concept called psyops.
Freaky, K: I’d never heard of Heinlein before and Mr A (A for Amanda or A for annoying, as you prefer in my case) mentioned him just last night when we were chatting.
From the Ludwig Von Mises institute on RA Heinlein….
Amanda he was and is one of my favourites to this day and if you want to examine the life of Jesus read Stranger in a Strange land or gender bending ghost story I will fear no evil. I recommend him as he reworked the American revolution in the Moon is a Harsh Mistress.
For those not acquainted with Rand’s work, here’s another post following up on a recent topic:
Like you I’ve read Heinlein too. But not Rand.
On the issue of democracy, it is historically associated with the Greeks. Who were the first people to perfect the heavy infantry phalanx. The success of which depended on unity of effort and not individual heroics. Thus no one person within the unit, has more value than the next when in actual combat. Not even the officers. This was highly successful against nations that hadn’t perfected it, but tended to be a complete stalemate when used between the city states of Greece themselves, (all things being equal.) A small advantage could tip the balance, but the main effort completely cancelled out.
It is not perhaps a surprise then, that they might prefer to settle differences of opinion with a simple headcount, one vote per man, than have to go through all the pushing, shoving and grave digging, that actual conflict required. But there was no reason for anyone to be considered worth more than the one vote entitlement….And of course, no reason for any non combatant to be worthy of a vote.
Do we still understand this principle now when we speak of democracy? Particularly when we refer back to the Greeks? Or has democracy become something a lot more confused, sometimes meaningless, sometimes dangerously absent.
I was reminded of this recently, when someone made a comment on a blog suggesting that democracy doesn’t work because half the voters were less intelligent than the other half…..Completely missing the point, that anyone who could fire a rifle was intelligent enough to vote on any issue.
Of course if combat has ended, and is never likely to be used, then we can consider other ways of deciding issues, other than Greek democracy.
I read Ayn Rand in my later teenage years and dont remember much about it, not even sure I finished it then. As others have remarked Henlein is much better at the ‘heroic’ engineer industrialist who explicates in his actions a strong individualist political philosophy. MUCH better stories and writing too… Even the E E Doc Smith series were better fictional accounts of heroic individualism.
But I remember liking the liking the atheism and exposition of the basic materialist creed of an objective reality accessible to rational inquiry. Even if it was just a restatement of Baconian methodology.
But Ayn Rand’s philosophy with its basis in Aristotle lite undermined it as an epistemology for me.
There is MUCH I could say about the serious problems with the Ayn Rand moral epistemology. The most obvious is the basic axioms of Existence, Identity and Consciousness are just imposed by fiat. Less an epistemology, more a dogma. One the points of epistemology is to try and present arguments for the validity of the basic axioms. Not just state them flatly as unquestionable absolutes.
Then there is the problem with altruism.
John Galts ‘soundbite’ of –
“I swear—by my life and my love of it—that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine”
Would seem to repudiate the care given by his parents to him as a child, and obstruct any possibility that he would propagate the species…
In biology altruism is a complex subject. The genetic ‘selfish gene’ justification is quite well established. There is also evidence that in complex social animals altruism to enhance reputation and status ‘pays off’. There are experimental results that indicate that reciprocal altruism – tit-for-tat – is an evolutionary stable strategy.
I could, and perhaps will at the slightest encouragement get into the epistemological basics, and the inherent naturalistic fallacy of deriving a moral principle – an ‘ought’ – from the observable – ‘is – that Objectivism is guilty of.
But on reading the replies, the historical perspective from Fenbeagle struck me as a neater example of the problems with the Ayn Rand kind of political theorising.
It was a development in organisation of groups that removed the ‘heroic’ from warfare and converted it to a matter of a head count. Because the military methodology negated the significance of the individual hero compared with the weight of numbers if properly organised.
That was not the result of political ideology or a ethicaql preference for collective action over individual action. It was a inevitable outcome of search for the most effective military method.
That simplification of political/military force to a head count because the technology and organisation made individuals essentially interchangable has been a recurring aspect of the growth of large civilisations. While it gets embraced and rejected as a moral basis for action with fascism and individualism both making the naturalistic fallacy error, the logistical power of collectivism from Greek city states to the global food industry exerts its influence.
Although there ARE ways round it… collectivist military methods with the best technology money could buy can be rendered impotent by guerrilla tactics. Afghanistan is just the latest stretching far back beyond Vietnam where large scale collectivist military action could not eliminate the very LOTR type small band of ‘heroes’…-grin-
It was always possible to ‘cheat’, in conflict. (It doesn’t usually take, or hold ground though)…..Unless the ‘winners’ don’t wish to hold the ground anyway. And any technology more sophisticated than a pike, or long spear does not require ‘Democracy’ in the Greek style. Which is why it took hold in Greece, and Switzerland (the other country that adopted pikes as it’s main weapon.) Even the longbow didn’t bring democracy to England…Being a weapon that could be used effectively against the most powerfully armoured, or capably heroic, by poor skirmishers or even snipers, it brought instead a political attitude of mind, summed up perhaps by the tales of Robin Hood.
Modern weaponry and explosives do not necessarily encourage democracy.
Thanks for the recommendations, K.
Oz: Sorry about posting the article here. I recalled it and in my pleasure at having located it, I got a bit carried away. I save lots of things to my e-mail for handy reference and of course your blog is not my private e-mail. I’m sure you will forgive me because, not only did you remove it instanter, but you know that I would never want to compromise your blog.
“Even the longbow didn’t bring democracy to England…Being a weapon that could be used effectively against the most powerfully armoured, or capably heroic, by poor skirmishers or even snipers, it brought instead a political attitude of mind, summed up perhaps by the tales of Robin Hood.”
And even more succinctly by the ‘V’ sign….
Just for you… The John Stossel special episode on Atlas Shrugged”
I should have guessed Stossel would address Atlas Shrugged at some stage…
To save space I’ve linked the rest of the episode here:
Part 2 Part 3 Part 4 Part 5 Part 6
Thanks for posting – Oz
The Stossel show linked above was one of his first few after he got his new gig with FOX Business and quit ABC. In my view he has gotten better since he’s been on FOX. But some of his earlier ABC Specials were outstanding. I watched one this evening entitled “Stupid in America” which laid bare the failings of our government monopoly public school systems. As one might expect, teachers unions are at the center of the problem. This might be an entertaining topic for a future thread. There is a veritable gold mine of Stossel on YouTube – from his early days as a consumer rights reporter to his current role as a Libertarian crusader. Both he and Glenn Beck (a Mormon, interestingly) are huge fans of Ayn Rand. If you ever have a spare moment check them out.
I want to express my appreciation for the video about Heinlein. As you know I, too, am a huge Heinlein fan. Last night I set aside the novel I’ve been reading as a soporific and started re-reading my very favorite Heinlein story…one of his juvenile science fiction novels from the early 50s. Weak on science but long on great story. Thanks.
Dr Dave my favourite was Have Space Suit Will Travel I wonder if you can still buy the drugs he stocked the helmet with. Probably not, it’s been over 20 years since i read any of his works time to reread The moon is Harsh Mistress get me prepped for the coming revolution. In a latter story the Cat Who Walked through Walls it turned out that the whole thing had been instigated by an immature emotionally intelligent AI on Luna.
I am intrigued now by the article you mentioned. I suspect it is critical of Rand because her personal life does not reflect well on her espoused ethical philosophy. That can look like an ad hominem attack, but when a person is promoting a system of morality their own actions can reveal just how consistent or hypocritical they may be. As is the case with Bertrand Russell…
Perhaps you could just post a couple of selected paragraphs as a taste ?
Be warned that Heinlein may not be a sympatico read. At the risk of gross gender stereotyping, Heinlein was writing for a young male audience so the sophisticated political philosophy is subtly woven into stories that often involve a fair amount of big guns, big explosions and fantasy machismo.
I rather like the film version of Starship Trooper, the first one by Voehoven(?). It presents the Heinlein universe without any concessions or acknowledgment of existing culture. The Heinlein version of a quasi-fascist military polity is portrayed quite flatly without any overt ‘ironic’ implications. While it is not strictly faithful to the book it does I think capture an essence of Heinlein a more ‘sophisticated’ version would have missed.
Well I am slightly disappointed Ozboy that neither you or anyone else has given me the slightest encouragement to deal with Rand as a source of moral philosophy.
To be honest, I think that if Libertarianism is relying on Randian Objectivism for its ethical basis it is in DEEP (or possibly shallow!) trouble.
Ayn Rand does not really provide anything like a coherent or credible basis for moral judgement.
But it an attempt to spread the issue wider I would also point to the egregious error it shares with the Austrian school of economics and in fact a LOT of modern economic and socialogical analysis.
That is the twin mistakes of assuming that people’s actions are directed by rational self-interest. A lot of ecoonomic and games theory seems to make this idiotic assumption that is swiftly refuted by a few moments reflection on the actions of people you know, and if we are honest, by accurate self-knowledge.
The second much more fundimental mistake propogated by Rand and many theoris or ideologies of social organisation is the assumption that the charateristics of the individual are sufficient to determine the behavior of the social group. Interactive complex systems ALWAYS have behaviors distinct and impossible to extrapolate from the nature of the individual elements.
Water cannot be ‘deduced’ from the charater of oxygen and hydrogen.
Waves and surf are not derivbable from the physical parameters oif an individual water molecule. The history of an ant-hill colony is not deducable from the limited behavioral options of the ant.
And social structures with their attendent moralities are not just extensions of the individual. As always with complex interactive systems ‘ More is Different’.
We have a lot more options on the Libertarian ethics menu than Randian Objectivism. Infact the present day Randians have recently come in for accusations of neo-conservatism from some libertarians.
Here are some of the other dishes on offer:
Hayek proffessed to being largely “utilitarian”, I suppose it befitted his social democrat roots.
Rothbard presents a “natural Law” perspective in his “Ethics of Liberty”
Rothbard’s closest colleague in his latter years, the ultra sharp minded philosopher turned economist, Hans-Herman Hoppe, has the very innovative “Argumentation Axiom”
Simply put, if you are arguing a position, then it is only by admitting self ownership of your own body, which you have to use to project your argument, that you are able to argue…
He actually presents a rational a-priori basis for ethics, check it out, I think you’ll like it.
I’ll catch up over the next few days
The Hoppe attempt at a moral phiolosophy is certainly MUCH more credible than the Rand effort. I must admit to a personal bias in that I would LIKE such an ethical epistemology to be cohernet, consistant and watertight. The principle of self-ownership as a solid basis for individual liberty and the foundation for a personal and social morality is one I would very much favor.
But I suspect, -I would not like to have to make a solid argument for it – that moral philosophies are similar to Mathematics. Absolute ‘Truth’ (or morality) is only valid in highly constrained contexts. Any attempt to form general rules of math or morality that are universally applicable leads to contradictions as with the Godel formula in maths.
However I am also wary of the Hoppe Axioms of action and argumentation because they are Kantian synthetic A Priors. For someone who is a strict materialist and hardline anti-Dualist such methodolgy looks like sneeking in Platonic absolutes by the back door. Even if they are much to be prefered to moral systems based on ‘Natural’ law or divine texts.
Back to the basic axiom, that of action. The claim that every moral agent owns ALL of their own voilition and none of any other ‘persons’ seems to be the fundimental claim. With the alternatives rejected because they lead to contradiction. So that if we own ALL of our own actions then we could not own anything of another because that would contradict THEIR claim to ownership.
Its neat, consistant and seductive. The trouble is that smuggled into that concept/argument is the idea that the intentional, sentient or voilitional quality is unified, absolute and indivisible. So that rocks are NOT moral agents, but all people are. This is the Platonic roots of absolute categories showing. The possibility that other entities (dogs, cats, dolphins… crows?!) may have some partial voilitional capability or moral agency is rejected without satisfactory justification. And as anyone who has cared for young children or alzheimers sufferers will be aware that unified ownership of action, or solo moral agency is NOT that clear-cut.
There is also the complexity factor. As I have mentioned before, the concept of individual moral agency or action is coherent if you reduce everything to individual persons. But actions within a society are often collective. Even in the simplest case of a trade between two persons the action, and the meaning of it are in the totality of the trade. The action of each participent can be reductively extracted but only at the expense of encompassing the full import of the trading action.
I’d take issue with your last point – that by focussing on the “collective” aspect of the fact of a trade, you somehow either a) negate the individual aspects, which are (ideally) volitional and atomic, or unforced, or b) legitimize other forms of collective action, in many of which the voluntary cooperation of all members may not be certain. I think that in doing so, you’re confusing the issue somewhat.
But thumbs up for raising your earlier issue, that of questioning the degree of “volitional capability”. I’m not going to answer you today, because you’ve anticipated two upcoming (and currently in-construction) threads here, one on Libertarianism as it applies to families and children, the other on the abortion issue. I will say here, though, that once you accept the principle that one group of individuals have the right to determine the “volitional capability” of another group of individuals, you had better have near-unanimous support within society for such an arrangement, and iron-clad boundaries on the power it confers, or you’re on a very slippery slope – as history attests – Oz
“… I will say here, though, that once you accept the principle that one group of individuals have the right to determine the “volitional capability” of another group of individuals, you had better have near-unanimous support within society for such an arrangement, and iron-clad boundaries on the power it confers, or you’re on a very slippery slope – as history attests – Oz”
I am not sure that any group of individuals could have the ‘Right’ to determine the volitional capabilities of any other group. And as I said, in favoring ethical schema like the Hoppe self-ownership ethos I doubt any group OUGHT to have those sort of rights – at least without some very strong checks and balances as you suggest.
But looking at was IS rather than what OUGHT to be both historically and into the present there are large percentages of the population where one half claims a degree of ownership of the volitional capability of the other half. Because they posses a ‘Y’ chromosome….
Having read through the various bits of Hoppe and commentaries I could find – still reading, I had various ideas in response but had not been able to get round to posting. Posting from work means its typed a line or two at a time between things and probably ends up rather more cryptic than is intended.
And there is no spell checker on the work browser…!-grin-
The result is that you may have missed the common point I was trying to make about individual volition.
@-“I’d take issue with your last point – that by focussing on the “collective” aspect of the fact of a trade, you somehow either a) negate the individual aspects, which are (ideally) volitional and atomic, or unforced, or b) legitimize other forms of collective action, in many of which the voluntary cooperation of all members may not be certain. I think that in doing so, you’re confusing the issue somewhat.”
I dont think that by focusing on the collective aspect of human actions, whether trade or other aspects the individual aspects, which are (ideally) volitional and atomic are negated. I would always argue for the causal primacy of the sentient individual. But atomic and unforced volition is an idealised concept, a Platonic absolute.
Adam Smith has the original and one of the best metaphors for the emergent property of trade. The ‘unseen hand’. Modern advanced Math that calculates supply-demand curves is dealing with the same phenomena. It is the (idealised) atomic unforced actions of individual agents that generates the organised stability (or otherwise!) of trading systems. That system creates the environment in which those ideally atomic agents exercise their volition. Such a … ecology in which the agents within it shape by their collective action the enviroment within which their individual actions ‘make sense’ throws up real problems for any explanation of how and why individuals choose to act as they so if it ONLY looks at the the atomic level of the individual agents. The context is not arbitrary, it is generated by the individuals and in turn shapes what action is possible, or rational. With such complexities of multidirectional feedback I doubt that it even makes much sense to have a concept of independent individual volition. I think we underestimate from egotistical hubris just how much of a ‘hive-mind’ human society might be.
Two very quick responses, then we should probably leave this discussion for some dedicated threads.
First, no argument from me (as you might have guessed) re the issue you raised relating to gender discrimination. Where the point of argument will proceed from, isn’t so much the possession of a Y-chromosone, as the possession of a womb. I will summon up the courage to publish the abortion thread sometime before Christmas.
Your point regarding collectivism and a “hive-mind” harks back to something you and I discussed briefly some time ago; that is, where does cooperation end and collectivism begin? The very good example you raised at the time, of international agreements regarding radio frequencies, is probably as good a starting point as any; consider it in the works for early next year.
I didn’t intend this thread to become an in-depth forum on Objectivist epistemology (on which, as I indicated at the top, I’m no particular expert), but as is the way of LibertyGibbert, the discussion will wander where it will. As it turned out, it’s backfired on me somewhat, as you and Dave appear to be the only ones here besides myself who have read Atlas, and a long time ago at that. I have a few more book reviews planned next year, but perhaps in future I’ll hive them away in a separate section – Oz