I recently had a conversation with a long-time friend that led to yet another discussion of Ayn Rand. I say “yet another” because her work seems to have become a rallying cry for a large swath of people in this election year. What fascinates me is the fact that very little critical assessment of Rational Objectivism takes place by those professing its merits. Inflated notions of personal freedom and responsibility are invoked, but very little serious thought seems to be given to the flaws in the “philosophy” preached. Objectivism becomes code for license rather than freedom and what amounts a sociopathic worldview to the culture at large. So, whereas my friend proudly declared, “I am John Galt,” I happily pronounce that I am not.
The central problem is, fundamentally, that the philosophical premise of Rand’s argument runs counter to what makes us human. Most people usually measure the progress of civilization by discerning how well its members look after each other. Indeed, the thing that draws us to the conclusion that our ancestors had become something akin to what we are today isn’t tool use, it’s how they cared for the infirm and buried the dead. Neanderthals are talked about in detached terms until we start speculating on how they looked after each other. The Sima de las Palomas in Murcia, in Southeast Spain, is a marvel because it demonstrates how they buried their dead, not how they organized to hunt down mammoths. And while some limited altruism has been documented outside the human family, conscious altruism can fairly be described as an invention of human beings. It is one of the hallmarks of who we are.
So, John Galt’s pronouncement 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.” Is more than a little absurd. Rand’s underlying assertion is that altruism, in any manifestation, will eventually strip away the productive effort of the real men of worth which will in turn lead to the collapse of civilization. Only purely self-interested individuals unburdened by the needs of those around them will keep civilization moving forward. The problem is that the Rational Objectivist’s inability to “live for another’s sake” is both intuitively unethical ultimately self-defeating. “But, that’s is a moral argument and morals are purely subjective,” one might counter. Unfortunately, as we no longer take the time in our society to study philosophy, logic or ethics we often assume such topics are fluff. This is hardly the case. Being able to respond to and/or adopt a philosophical stance means being able to work through it’s fine points. Without doing that, the self-declared Rational Objectivist is simply bowing down to dogma. Hardly the figure John Galt fans want to cut. So, where are the flaws in the Rand argument?
Rational Objectivism not only prohibits helping other people for purely altruistic reasons, it also does not prohibit the harming of others for purely self-interested motives. In other words, Do What Thou Will Shall Be The Whole Of The Law. But if we look at John Galt’s pronouncement it means being unable to come to any form of consensus. People are in a constant struggle for dominance, jockeying for position and power. One has to assume that they are a threat as they seek to gain advantage. Even if they are not seeking advantage, it is fair to assume that they will in no way lift a finger to help you for any reason. That would be counter to the Objectivist approach to life Thus, the Objectivist will be driven by self-interest to harm others in situations in which such action is either intuitively wrong, eventually self-defeating, or both.
The recent market meltdown (well, not so much recent as prolonged) provides a good example of how Objectivist self-interest can harm others as well as the self. People involved in dubious trades, unethical investing and flat out illegal activity nearly destroyed the economy, and most certainly destroyed the lives of thousands, perhaps millions. But to an Objectivist, the profit inherent in the activities that led to a collapse is fundamentally reasonable. Self-interest trumps what is good for the masses. A good Ayn Rand fan would claim, no doubt, that this is an exaggeration, but I would have to ask how so? It is precisely what happens when self-interest is the defining moral code for any length of time. Lacking anything other than self-interest leads ultimately to Nihilism and the abandonment of any moral code of conduct.
Objectivism, at least as it is presented through our good friend, John Galt, overextends the otherwise reasonable repudiation of rewarding people without merit to the absurd. Based on the logic Rand lays out in her numerous tracts, not just Atlas Shrugged, we are prohibited from even helping those in need unless we gain something in return.
There are a variety of individual actions which fall under the category of intuitively wrong and, perhaps, self-defeating. Could a business openly lie to people about the adverse affects of their product in order to make a profit? Is it reasonable to employ slave labor if it means cheaper goods? Could an Objectivist businessman hire someone to kill his competition, assuming he wouldn’t get caught? Could the sanctity of the business contract be breached whenever the opportunity arises, destroying the ideal business community Rand fictionalizes in Atlas Shrugged? It’s worth remembering that Allen Greenspan was a devotee of Rand’s Objectivism. As this recession has demonstrated, absolute self-interest and the lack of policing by people working under Objectivism’s tenets leads to disaster for all. Well, perhaps not all, but the 99%.
In each case mentioned, pure self-interest dictates the intuitively wrong decision and creates a social situation that would be ultimately self-defeating to all. And therein lies the utter stupidity of the Objectivist argument as preached by Ayn Rand. Rand, and her character Galt, are a Pollyannaish bunch. The Objectivists portrayed in that novel are honorable precisely because of their understanding of the value of life and dignity, a value that stems from the larger society’s cultural construct of the intrinsic value of altruism and shared responsibility for each other. Both Rand and the characters in the novel put great emphasis on truth and responsibility, but John Galt’s pronouncement oath lacks any such guiding nobility. It is simple self-interest alone and is ultimately destructive, both to others and to the self.
Taken to the logical extreme Rational Objectivism contradicts itself. It is simply unable to stand as a long-term ethical paradigm for government, interpersonal interaction and business. While Objectivism points rightfully points out the lack of fairness in a “welfare” system, it does nothing to address how we might overcome institutionalized poverty, racism, etc. It ignores the fact that absolute self-interest leads to exploitation, revolution and the complete breakdown of civilization. It confuses freedom with license. Ultimately John Galt should remain a bit of fiction, not a symbol to be adopted. No, I am not John Galt.