Thursday, October 16, 2014

Second-Hand Objectivism

A short time ago we got a question about Ayn Rand’s “objectivism.”  Cutting out all the adjectives that made it rather clear that the questioner didn’t care for Rand’s philosophy, we had to ask, what, specifically, did the questioner object to?  All we had been asked was what we thought about it.

We got a quick response.  Here is the list of what the questioner objected to:

1. Altruism, or charity, is evil, and greed is good.
2. The universe is what it is, and no wishful thinking will make it otherwise.
3. Human reason is all we have, and all that’s needed.
4. Self interest, the highest moral pursuit, is your own happiness, though it doesn’t necessarily mean that you should exploit others for your own gain, and you should respect others in their pursuits of happiness.
5. The idea is that this all leads to a life of reason, purpose, and self esteem and a philosophy for living on earth.

Assuming that the summary is accurate (we did get it second-hand, so to speak), Rand’s theories demonstrate how partial and incomplete truths can mislead, and illustrate Aquinas’s point about a small error in the beginning can lead to great errors in the end.  It is, in fact, possible to refute all of her claims using the very reason she claims to rely on, and by using pagan philosophers such as Aristotle.

No. 1 is a no-brainer.  It simply contradicts common sense.  Even the pagans realized this.  “Good” is, ultimately, what conforms you to your own nature.  Now, it is true that altruism/charity is above nature (“super-nature”), but that does not mean that it is contrary to nature; contradiction is itself contrary to nature.  Rand’s error here was to assume that because charity is not, strictly speaking, natural, that it is unnatural, and therefore contrary to nature.  Not so — charity fulfills justice, it does not replace or abolish it.  The idea that greed is good follows logically from the error that charity is unnatural instead of supernatural.

No. 2 is a tautology.  Of course the universe is what it is.  What else could it be?  Humanity, however, has been endowed with reason and a morally free will (Divini Redemptoris, § 29).  That being the case, and taking into account humanity’s character as a toolmaker and a “political animal,” each human being has the capacity to shape his or her own environment — including social institutions — either individually, or in free association with others.  This is what social justice is all about: not redistribution, but reforming the institutions of the common good so that people can take care of themselves through their own efforts.

No. 3 actually contradicts No. 2.  If reason — the intellect — is all we have . . . what of the universe, the realm of the senses?  We come to knowledge in two ways, by what our senses tell us about the universe (empirical evidence), and by the functioning of our intellect (logical argument).  In No. 2, Rand claims that what we gain through the senses (the universe) is all that is, and in No. 3 that the intellect (reason) is all that is.  No, reason is not all that is needed.  The evidence of the senses is also needed, and then only if you are limiting matters to “man as man,” i.e., social ethics.  Humanity is not, however, merely human or natural.  In addition to our inherent nature, we have infused capacity for super-nature, that is, the capacity to accept grace and become adopted children of God.  The key point here, however, is that Rand contradicts herself by first claiming that the evidence of the senses is all that is, and then that the conclusions of isolated reason is all that is.  She committed what Mortimer Adler identified as one of the ten philosophical mistakes that are pretty much destroying the world: she confused knowledge and opinion, and used subjective opinion to support a claim to objective knowledge.

No. 4 is possibly the most subtle error Rand made.  Self-interest is, in a sense, the highest moral good.  It is in your own best interest to pursue the good.  Rand, however, seems to equate “self-interest” with “selfishness.”  This gets us back to No. 1.  What is good?  Aristotle said that good is that at which all things aim or strive for.  No one or no thing willingly or knowingly strives for that which is not good.  If someone goes after that which is not good, it is because he or she mistakenly believes it to be good.  Even Hitler thought he was doing good.  How do we know what is good?  By that which conforms to our nature.  Thus (to condense the argument rather enormously) happiness consists of becoming good by conforming ourselves to our own nature.  Part of our nature, however, is that we are political animals, meaning we are by nature “designed” to exist in organized society, the pólis (hence, political).  Acting as an isolated individual without taking into account others in society and considering only that which is good for you as an individual and not you as a member of society is therefore contrary to nature and acts against your own happiness.

Thus, by denying that humanity has been infused with the capacity for faith, hope, and charity (super-nature), by denying humanity’s political nature, by contradicting herself on how we come to knowledge, and by confusing knowledge and opinion, Rand’s objectivism falls apart of its own contradictions.

As we said, this analysis assumes that the summary we were given is accurate.  If you believe otherwise, feel free to post your analysis on your own blog.


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