Sunday, 1 October 2017

The Benefits and Hazards of the Philosophy of Ayn Rand

In the epilogue to The Vision of Ayn Rand: The Basic Principles of Objectivism (titled “The Benefits and Hazards of the Philosophy of Ayn Rand,”), Nathaniel Branden says that the followers of Ayn Rand have a very poor understanding of real world and psychology.

Many Objectivists think that Ayn Rand’s “fiction novels” are a perfect guide to living on earth. There is certainly a lot of good ideas in Rand’s fiction, but Branden points out that these works encourage emotional repression and self-disowning, and often deepen the readers’ sense of self-alienation.

The problems in Objectivism that Branden has identified in his article are real. Objectivism is not 100% correct—for instance, its understanding of human nature and society has some critical flaws. It is also not a complete system of philosophy—there are many issues in philosophy for which Objectivism has very little to offer.

Here are 12 thought provoking quotes from Brandon’s article:

1. Another aspect of her philosophy that I would like to talk about—one of the hazards—is the appalling moralism that Rand practiced and that so many of her followers also practice. I don’t know of anyone other than the Church fathers in the Dark Ages who used the word “evil” quite as often as Ayn Rand.

2. Of all the accusations of her critics, surely the most ludicrous is the claim that Rand encouraged people to do just what they pleased. If there’s anything in this world she did not do, it was to encourage people to do what they pleased.

3. She taught that “Man’s Life” is the standard of morality, and your own life is its purpose; but the path she advocated to the fulfillment of your life was a severely disciplined one. She left many of her readers with the impression that life is a tightrope, and that it is all too easy to fall off into moral depravity.

4. In other words, on the one hand, she preached a morality of joy, personal happiness, and individual fulfillment. On the other hand, she was a master at scaring the hell out of you, if you respected and admired her and wanted to apply her philosophy to your own life.

5. The most devastating single omission in her system, and the one that causes most of the trouble for her followers, is the absence of any real appreciation of human psychology and, more specifically, of developmental psychology, of how human beings evolve and become what they are, and of how they can change.

6. Rand’s novels leave you with this picture of your life: You either choose to be rational, or you don’t. You’re honest, or you’re not. You choose the right values, or you don’t. You like the kind of art Rand admires, or your soul is in big trouble.

7. Let’s suppose a person has done something that he or she knows to be wrong, immoral, unjust, or unreasonable. Instead of acknowledging the wrong, instead of simply regretting the action, and then seeking, compassionately, to understand why the action was taken and what need he was trying, in a twisted way, to satisfy—instead of asking such questions, the person is encouraged to brand the behavior as evil and is given no useful advice on where to go from there.

8. Enormous importance is attached in Rand’s writings to the virtue of justice. One of the most important things she has to say about justice is that we shouldn’t think of it only in terms of punishing the guilty, but also in terms of rewarding and appreciating the good. Her emphasis of this point is enormously important.

9. To look on the dark side, however, part of her vision of justice is urging you to instant contempt for anyone who deviates from reason or morality, or who may appear to deviate. Errors of knowledge may be forgiven, she says, but not errors of morality.

10. But even if what people are doing is wrong, even if errors of morality are involved, even if what people are doing is irrational, you do not lead people to virtue by contempt. You do not make people better by telling them they are despicable. It doesn’t work. It doesn’t work when religion tries it, and it doesn’t work when Objectivism tries it.

11. Besides, people are not forever damned by errors of morality. They can and do change every day. They learn, they evolve, they make different choices, they grow. The bank robber becomes an upright citizen. An out-of-context contempt for the former bank robber is not rationally justifiable.

12. In the Objectivist frame of reference… there is the assumption, made explicit in John Galt’s speech in Atlas Shrugged, and dramatized throughout the novel in any number of ways, that the most natural, reasonable, appropriate response to immoral or wrong behavior is contempt and moral condemnation. Psychologists know that that response tends to increase the probability that that kind of behavior will be repeated. This is an example of what I mean by the difference between a vision of desirable behavior and the development of an appropriate psychological technology that would inspire people to practice it.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

The problems in Objectivism that Branden has identified in his article are real. Objectivism is not 100% correct—for instance, its understanding of human nature and society has some critical flaws. It is also not a complete system of philosophy—there are many issues in philosophy for which Objectivism has very little to offer.
Your opinions about critical flaws and undeveloped issues might be more enlightening? Easier to engage the living than the dead...

Ultimate Philosopher said...

How does Understanding Objectivism (for example) fail to serve as an effective antidote to the intellectual maladies of which Branden speaks?

UP/CRC

Anoop Verma said...

Chris, Understanding Objectivism is Peikoff's best lecture. It does to a certain extent address some of the concerns that Branden has raised. But I think Branden is criticizing Rand whose work predates the UO lecture. So this article is not just about the present status of Objectivism, it is also a historical perspective on Rand's state of the mind. We are free to accept or reject Branden's contentions but we can't ignore him as long as we are interested in Objectivism.