by Kevin Nugent/Love and Rage
In the February of 1926, a Russian-born writer arrived in New York City after fleeing oppression and persecution in the Soviet Union. Under the freshly minted name Ayn Rand, this playwright, thinker and novelist would go on to become a celebrated best-selling author, as well as the primary architect of modern right-wing libertarianism in the United States.
After arriving in America, Ayn Rand created a belief system that she called “Objectivism,” and built fictionalized societies in her books to demonstrate its validity. Her most successful Objectivist novels include Atlas Shrugged and the Fountainhead. These books have had a major cultural and political impact in the United States. For example, Congressman and former Vice Presidential candidate Paul Ryan of Wisconsin deeply admires Ayn Rand and requires that his staffers read her books before working for him. Ryan believes that we are living in one of Ayn Rand’s dystopias, and that Objectivist policies are our only escape. He once said, “Ayn Rand, more than anyone else, did a fantastic job of explaining the morality of capitalism, the morality of individualism, and this, to me, is what matters most.”
Due to the notoriety of Ayn Rand and her intellectual property, it is a worthy pursuit to dissect Objectivism and evaluate its legitimacy. So then, what exactly is Objectivism? Is it a logically coherent philosophy, and therefore a legitimate basis for American public policy?
What is Objectivism?
Ayn Rand was once asked to describe Objectivism while standing on one foot; that is to say, in the shortest, simplest terms possible. In response, she broke her philosophy down into four broad areas of thought with a corresponding ideological definition for each. They are as follows:
- Metaphysics: Objective Reality
- Epistemology: Reason
- Ethics: Self-interest
- Politics: Capitalism
If you find this abbreviated synopsis of Objectivism to be lacking, Rand described the tenants of Objectivism in greater detail in an article titled An Introduction to Objectivism, which appeared in a 1962 issue of The Objectivist Newsletter. The detailed explanation can be found below:
- Reality exists as an objective absolute—facts are facts, independent of man’s feelings, wishes, hopes or fears.
- Reason (the faculty which identifies and integrates the material provided by man’s senses) is man’s only means of perceiving reality, his only source of knowledge, his only guide to action, and his basic means of survival.
- Man—every man—is an end in himself, not the means to the ends of others. He must exist for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself. The pursuit of his own rational self-interest and of his own happiness is the highest moral purpose of his life.
- The ideal political-economic system is laissez-faire capitalism. It is a system where men deal with one another, not as victims and executioners, nor as masters and slaves, but as traders, by free, voluntary exchange to mutual benefit. It is a system where no man may obtain any values from others by resorting to physical force, and no man may initiate the use of physical force against others. The government acts only as a policeman that protects man’s rights; it uses physical force only in retaliation and only against those who initiate its use, such as criminals or foreign invaders. In a system of full capitalism, there should be (but, historically, has not yet been) a complete separation of state and economics, in the same way and for the same reasons as the separation of state and church.
In laymen’s terms, Rand believed there exist observable truths or facts, which do not change based on public opinion or peoples’ wishes. She believed that the only way in which people can interpret the world is through one’s experiences, observations and intelligence. She believed that individualism and selfishness are the keys to morality, while altruism and concern for others is misguided at best and dangerous at worst. Finally, she believed that unbridled capitalism is the greatest mechanism by which to run a fair and just society. Ayn Rand claimed that all of these points are objectively and universally true.
Built into Objectivism, however, is a glaring logical fallacy. Put into a single sentence, it is this: Objectivism isn’t objective.
Objectivity vs. Subjectivity
In order to evaluate the objectivity of the Objectivist philosophy, it would be useful to first define the term “objectivity.”
According to Merriam-Webster, “objectivity” means “relating to or existing as an object of thought without consideration of independent existence…or a condition in the realm of sensible experience independent of individual thought and perceptible by all observers.” This means that for a statement to be considered objective, it must be universally and demonstrably true, and would be declared as such by all impartial outsiders.
Objectivity is diametrically opposed to subjectivity, which is defined as “relating to or being experience or knowledge as conditioned by personal mental characteristics or states [or] arising out of or identified by means of one’s perception of one’s own states and processes.” A subjective statement is defined by the bias injected from a preexisting perception of reality by the person making the initial statement or observation.
To restate the fundamental difference between the two ideas, objectivity deals in universal truths and the removal of biased human perception, while subjectivity is marked by impartiality, preconceived notions or opinions that aren’t necessarily backed by or based in reality. For example, an objective statement would be that the United States has a constitution. A subjective statement would be that the United States has the best constitution. Objective statements tend to be statements of fact, while subjective ones tend to be statements of preference or opinion.
Demonstrating the Subjective Nature of Objectivism
Let us now break down Ayn Rand’s ideology piece by piece to pinpoint precisely where Objectivism deviates from objectivity, and instead delves into the realm of subjectivity.
- Metaphysics: Objective Reality
The first component of Rand’s philosophy deals directly with what it describes as objective reality, and this is almost certainly where her ideology gets the name “Objectivism.” Metaphysics is a branch of philosophy established in an attempt to explain the nature of being, understand, consciousness and reality. The most famous metaphysical precept is likely French philosopher and mathematician René Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am.” By this, he meant that his ability to consciously observe and analyze the world around him can be used as legitimate evidence of his existence.
Rand wrote that “facts are facts,” regardless of opinions, beliefs and feelings. This is essentially an empirical way of looking at reality, and is supported by the laws of identity and mathematics. The law of identity states that objects are the same as themselves, but different from others. In simpler terms, 1 equals 1, but 1 does not equal 2 or 3 or 4. In terms of the laws mathematics, 1 plus 1 equals 2. 1 plus 1 does not equal 0, nor does it equal 3, and this is true regardless of how much the outside observer disagrees or wishes it to be untrue. Similarly, 1 plus 1 will always equal 2, regardless of who is performing the operation, meaning it is both demonstrably and universally true. This is what Rand means when she states that “facts are facts,” and this component of her belief system falls squarely under the definition of objectivity outlined earlier.
- Epistemology: Reason
Epistemology is the branch of philosophy built around the nature of knowledge and understanding, and seeks to determine how we may best arrive at real truth. Rand argues that the utilization of reason, in combination with sensory input and evidence from the outside world, is the only way of finding fundamental, objective truth. This component is Objectivism’s most obvious manifestation of Ayn Rand’s rejection of religion. As an atheist, she does not rely on myth, superstition, spirituality, prophets or religious texts for information or absolute truth.
If analyzed from a materialistic, naturalistic or scientific perspective, her preference for evidence and reason also aligns with the definition of objectivity mentioned previously. It could be said that this component of Objectivism is in a way relying on scientific mechanisms, such as observation, experimentation, and data collection in an attempt to uncover the truth.
The scientific method, the primary tool used by the scientific community, is designed to remove human bias in order to objectively describe reality. Scientists collect data from the observable universe and use their intellect to digest the data into coherent theories and laws about the natural world. Scientific claims gain authority by systematically eliminating any potential bias-related distortions imposed by those performing the experiments, and additional legitimacy is gained by the successful replication of the initial results by outside parties.
The borderline scientific elevation of reason, observation and evidence under Ayn Rand’s philosophy also fits comfortably under the objectivity umbrella. Her philosophy is consistent, logical and truly objective thus far.
- Ethics: Self-interest
Objectivism’s ethical system revolves around the exaltation of the individual’s self-interest above all else. In Rand’s mind, selfishness is the highest moral pursuit in which a one can engage. Conversely, she regarded altruism, self sacrifice and the devotion of the self to the welfare of others as “evil.” Over the course of her life, she compared altruism to the practices of human sacrifice, slavery, cannibalism and suicide.
While there can be a healthy debate surrounding the respective morality of selfishness, this component of her philosophy is simply not objective. Rather than continuing to submit truly objective claims, Rand has put forth a subjective claim regarding the quality of societal norms and values. It is impossible to prove that selfishness is superior to altruism using testable hypotheses, observation, data collection and reason in the same way that one can prove 1+1=2. In fact, it is not difficult to use reason and observation to conclude that altruism may in fact be good or even necessary, thus moving her claim from the realm of objectivity to that of subjectivity.
The key fallacy of Rand’s Objectivist view on self-interest is that she is asserting an opinion, preference or belief as a universal fact or a truism. This has the effect of undermining or negating the idea that her ideology is in fact truly objective. This does not necessarily entirely nullify the claim that selfishness is or can be good (though many would certainly object to that claim) but rather that she is mistaken when she claims to be describing objective reality and truth.
Another problem arises in the way in which she recommends people undertake her belief system. Despite the claim that her belief system is objectively true and evidence-based, she says that people “must” pursue their own self interest. Rather than providing objective facts that would naturally guide behavior, she is instead attempting to impose rules for future action. If the unabashed pursuit of self-interest were empirically demonstrated to be the best way of living or were in fact a universal truth, it would not require rigid adherence to Objectivism based on attempted coercion of the reader. If her claims were objectively true, you could assume that people would want to subscribe to her belief system out of choice, rather than Objectivist evangelism and proselytization. Her beliefs on the individual’s self-interest seem more closely related to self-help ideologies or even quasi-religious dogma than an objective analysis of reality, which is ironic given Rand’s contempt for religion.
Her preference for selfishness over altruism indicates that her belief system has at the very least blurred the line between objectivity and subjectivity, if not crossing it altogether.
- Politics: Capitalism
Rand further undermines her supposed objectivity by asserting yet another subjective claim as absolute truth; that lassiez-faire capitalism, sometimes called capitalist libertarianism, is the greatest political system known to man.
Rand’s claim that capitalist libertarianism is the ideal political system is an incredibly vague preposition, especially given its supposed status as absolute truth. Under libertarianism, the state is close to non-existent, with its only role being the protection of the private property and national defense. Libertarianism in and of itself makes almost no claims about the practical or logistical nature and role of government in society. This political philosophy is curiously silent on how government should be organized, what form popular participation should take, how international conflicts should be resolved, or how breaks in the social contract are to be dealt with. Journalist and intellectual Christopher Hitchens said in a 2009 interview, “What would have been a libertarian position on the Franco-Prussian War, on the collapse of czarism in Russia, on the rise of fascism, on the military industrial complex?” He went on to say, “There are so many things in which there is no distinctive libertarian position to take…it’s a bit thin.” Partly due to the somewhat ambiguous nature of her suggestion and the lack of evidence provided to support the claim, the objectivity of libertarianism’s supremacy is, to say the least, a bit suspect.
As with Rand’s view on the nature of selfishness, she has not proved in an objective, empirical way that capitalist libertarianism is in fact the best or “ideal” political system. Once again, she has submitted a subjective belief, opinion or preference as objective fact. There can be, and has been, a lively debate about the virtues of capitalist libertarianism, and it is even possible she is correct. However, not everyone would agree with such an “objective” claim, and even fewer would agree with the pure implementation of libertarian capitalism that she recommends, in which there is an utter and complete separation of the state and capitalism and where any and all economic regulations would be jettisoned, including the regulations that protect workers and consumers from corporate abuses.
The fact that there exists disagreement on these questions does not prove that she is wrong per se, but rather that it may not be an objective claim, especially when little to no evidence is provided to support said claim. It is important to note, however, that disagreement alone is not proof that a claim is subjective, as there are plenty of examples of people disagreeing with objectively true facts. Despite overwhelming evidence that the Holocaust occurred, for example, there still exists a number of people who deny the Holocaust ever happened. Again, this discord alone does not prove that the initial claim (that the Holocaust did happen) is not objectively true. However, the claims put forward by Rand are a far cry from the reality of the Holocaust, primarily due to the photographic evidence and testimonials that erode the Holocaust denier’s position. The key difference between Objectivism and Holocaust denialism is that the latter is universally rejected by nonpartisan observers after scrutiny is applied and the evidence considered, while Objectivism is not.
As Rand noted, there has never been a society in which libertarian capitalism has truly been tried, and it is unlikely there ever will be. This means that the claim that capitalist libertarianism is ideal is a non-falsifiable one. “Non-falsifiable” means that there is no legitimate or sufficient way to test a claim in order to evaluate its accuracy. The existence of the Holocaust is an example of a falsifiable claim, as one can examine the evidence in order to prove or disprove the claim, at least beyond reasonable doubt. The fact that Rand’s claims are unable to be tested and therefore non-falsifiable means that they can almost certainly be denied to be objectively true. It is easy to claim a supposition as absolute truth when there is no legitimate way to test or evaluate that claim. Coincidently, people have made similar non-falsifiable claims for the existence of God for hundreds of years, and such claims are impossible to disprove and thus difficult to rebut. It is indeed interesting that Rand, an atheist, made so-called “objective” yet non-falsifiable claims about reality in the same way that her religious opponents do when they argue for the existence of God.
My aim here was not necessarily to refute the claims that Rand has put forward under Objectivism, though I do wholeheartedly disagree with her ideas on self-interest and capitalist libertarianism. My goal was to point out that her belief system is not logically sound based on of its claims of objectivity and absolute truth, and that the latter half of Objectivist philosophy completely undermines the rules established in the first half.
In order to prove that her claims represent reality, Rand should have provided evidence to back up her suggestions, or at the very least a methodology by which one could prove that her claims are valid and true. Unfortunately for Objectivists, the only evidence she provided to support her ideology came in the form of her fictional novels, which are as much proof for the validity of Objectivism as Lord of the Rings is at proving the existence of hobbits.
Kevin Nugent is an Oriskany, NY native who is currently teaching English with his wife in South Korea. Kevin previously sat on the Board of Directors for Central New York Citizens in Action, Inc. and taught as an adjunct lecturer of Government and Politics at Utica College.
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