Largely as a result of Ayn Rand's forceful, blunt personality and of her fairly extremist arguments in favor of her world view, Ayn Rand's popularity among American readers has been paralleled by an equal amount of backlash against her philosophy and against the Objectivist movement that accompanied her rise to fame. Criticisms of Objectivism have historically belonged to one of two over-arching categories. In the first category, many philosophers have either ignored or refuted Rand's arguments, contending that she has committed a number of logical fallacies in her assumptions despite her claim to perfect rationality and that she has misrepresented human nature. In the second category, others have critiqued Ayn Rand's personal application of Objectivism, as well as the cult of personality that some have alleged her Objectivist following to be.
One of Rand's major points in Anthem in particular is that when man lives only for others, he will cease to produce or know happiness. This assertion has some truth to it, as shown in the Soviet Union, where collectivization led directly to a decrease in per capita productivity. However, by expressing the idea that selfishness is good and the key to the running of society, Rand implies the complete denial of the power of sacrifice. Unfortunately, she chooses to argue against only the most extreme form of thankless sacrifice, effectively creating a straw man where an argument against extreme collectivism is presumed to be an argument against even moderate manifestations of societal altruism. In addition, a philosophy of ultimate self-centeredness could allow people to justify any action, so long as they feel it beneficial to themselves, and some such actions may be overly cruel or unnecessary.
Problems also occur if one analyzes Objectivism in terms of capitalism, the system most suited to egoism. Like Objectivism, capitalism rests on the assumption that society will benefit as a whole if each man is allowed to work for his own deserved reward. This assertion may be true to some extent, particularly if one believes Adam Smith's conclusion that the average worker will be protected by the "invisible hand" of the market. That being said, the history of the United States has suggested that unrestricted capitalism leads to an increasing gap between the rich and the poor caused not, as a reader of Rand might suppose, by the ability of the rich but rather by the tendency of the capable rich, in their own self-interest, to retain their wealth for their families and acquaintances, some of whom may not be as capable as they. Outside of Rand's novels, not all people have emotional attachments only to the capable, and what begins as self-interest can end in monopolies created by men who prize only money, rather than Rand's beloved inventors and creators. Consequently, anti-trust law and increased Federal regulation in the United States has altered the American understanding of capitalism, resulting in a more restricted system where self-interest is checked by law. These and other arguments do not entirely destroy the celebration of the individual proposed by Objectivism, but they do undercut its more extreme implications.
Another area in which Rand's views have often been considered objectionable is feminism. Whereas Randian heroes are often the creators and inventors of her novels, her heroines tend to fall somewhat short of equal to the men. Although women such as Dagny Taggart in Atlas Shrugged are capable and intelligent, they generally take a place at the male heroes' side as their lovers and disciples. Rand viewed the definition of an ideal women in terms of the ideal man; Liberty 5-3000 is an object of worship for Equality 7-2521 in Anthem, and she is an ideal woman largely because she submits to no one except the ideal man. However, their relationship is still inherently one of dominance, where the man is dominant and the woman submissive. Dominique Francon of The Fountainhead has a particularly suspect scene where her reaction to her rape by Howard Roark is one of joy as a result of her defilement. She states particularly that if Roark had treated her kindly, she would have despised him, and although Rand intends the scene to indicate that only Roark is worthy of dominating her and that only he recognizes her needs, the positive treatment of rape is nonetheless highly worrying from a feminist perspective.
Aside from the potential problems within Rand's body of work, some have suggested that Rand's treatment of Objectivism outside of her writing weakens her case. Rand seems to have deeply believed that her behavior embodied the ideals of Objectivism, and she gathered a group of disciples, which she jokingly called the Collective, who headed the Objectivist movement during the mid-twentieth century. Although her writing encouraged people to think for themselves, within the movement, her word was considered law, and disagreement tended to either be suppressed or cause schisms over the concept of ideological purity. Even her personal preferences in music were to be adopted by those within the movement, and her strong personality merely reinforced this manifestation of what some have accused to be a cult. Rand also often tended to justify her illogical desires by finding supposedly rational excuses, as when she caused the first major Objectivist schism supposedly over ideology but in reality because of her jealousy over her second-in-command's affair with another woman. Unsurprisingly, given that the Objectivists claimed to live what they preached, the facts of the Objectivist movement have also contributed to critiques of Randian philosophy.
Objectivism is a philosophy designed by Ayn Rand, a Russian-American writer. The name derives from the idea that human knowledge and values are objective. These ideologies were first expressed in Rand's fictional works, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged.
Ayn Rand was born Alisa Rosenbaum in Tsarist St. Petersburg, Russia in 1905. Having been subjected to the Russian Revolution, she considered communism to be immoral and fled to the United States. Changing her name to Ayn Rand, she went on to write a series of successful novels, including her first bestseller, The Fountainhead, featuring an egoistic central character. Her subsequent book, Atlas Shrugged, fully defined what would become the four tenets of objectivism: reality, reason, self-interest, and capitalism.
Rand eventually selected philosopher Leonard Peikoff as her "intellectual heir" and he formalized objectivism's structure, stating that it is a closed system and not subject to change. Rand passed away in 1982, but her philosophy continues to be passed down to others in her writings, on her website, and through ongoing courses which study objectivism.
The Philosophy of Objectivism
Objectivism is a multi-faceted philosophy. The premise essentially revolves around "looking out for yourself". It maintains that if it is done properly, and practiced by everyone, the entire world could be a better place. Objectivism endorses several different ideals. The essentials are: reality, reason, self-interest, and capitalism. Let's take a look.
You've heard the expression "mind over matter" before. Basically, if you think positively, positive things will come your way - at least they're more likely to, anyway. Rand states that, "No amount of passionate wishing, desperate longing, or hopeful pleading can alter the facts... Reality is not to be rewritten or escaped, but, solemnly and proudly, faced."
This theory rejects supernatural or mystical powers, including the existence of God. Objectivism attributes all of life's occurrences to reality, and that is not something that can be changed, only endured.
Rand's theories regarding reason intertwine with the intellect. Objectivism requires people to "activate" their minds, understand all the facts of the current situation, and perform the required "next steps". Rand argues, "To follow reason is to reject emotions, faith, or any form of authoritarianism as guides in life." She considers emotion to be unstable.
Rand professes that, just because we block something out of our minds, does not make it go away. This is merely an escape from the responsibility. Rather, we must face what is with strength and dignity.
Ayn Rand focused all her writings on one basic tenet: be selfish. Selfishness has a negative connotation, however. Feelings of thoughtlessness and greed spring to mind. Rand, however, states that such negative acts are not in your self-interest. According to aynrand.org, to be selfish means:
- Follow reason, not whims or faith.
- Work hard to achieve a life of purpose and productiveness.
- Earn genuine self-esteem.
- Pursue your own happiness as your highest moral aim.
- Prosper by treating others as individuals, trading value for value.
Rand believes that humans are not born with an inherent sense of good vs. evil. She teaches her followers that, "Man must choose his actions, values, and goals by the standard of that which is proper to man - in order to achieve, maintain, fulfill, and enjoy that ultimate value, that end in itself, which is his own life."
A social system that places priority on individual freedom, such as a laissez-faire capitalist society, is the only one supported by objectivism. A society free from government control lines up with objectivism's philosophy.
Rand professes, "An individual who eagerly faces reality, who embraces his own rational mind as an absolute, and who makes his own life his highest moral purpose will demand his freedom. He will demand the freedom to think and speak, to earn property and associate trade, and to pursue his own happiness."
Examples of Objectivism in Everyday Life
- A person who works hard on a farm his entire life to be completely self-sustaining.
- A person who rejects the rules of religion and ultimate happiness with God and instead focuses on his own ultimate happiness.
- A woman who carves out a plan for the rest of her life that includes the principles of reason, purpose and self-esteem.
- A corporation that, while using ethical business practices, still has the main goal of being the absolute best in the field.
- Engaging in actions that will lead to long term happiness as opposed to short term pleasure.
- Making decisions that are based on reason as opposed to emotions and that which cannot be seen.
- If a person is attacked they should use any force or weapons available to stop the attacker.
- A person who is opposed to slavery and the practice of owning another human being.
- A person who tells a lie in order to protect his or her family, friends, or other people.
- Believing in the concept that all knowledge is reached through reasoning.
- Developing concepts of reality through language and abstract thoughts.
- Believing in the idea that there are no contradictions in the real world.
The common denominator in these scenarios is the idea that the greatest good in the world is to be happy. If each individual is happy, then the overall state of the world improves. However, that happiness cannot be achieved at the expense of another person or persons; that would not provide you with ultimate happiness.
While some of the ideologies surrounding objectivism may seem a bit abstract, they tend to have one common theme. While self-interest is supported, violent acts are not. Emotions are irrational, but an acceptance of reality is not. In a society dominated by religious and political structures, objectivism is frequently misunderstood and, oftentimes, downright rejected. What will you choose?