What is Objectivism?
Posted by evanescent on 3 October, 2008
It’s October 2008, and that is significant for two reasons. Firstly, it marks exactly 12 months since this time last year, and secondly, it marks almost one year on from when I first started to study Objectivism, the philosophy of Ayn Rand.
Objectivism has many critics. Why? I will offer my personal opinions on that later.
Firstly, why Objectivism? How did I come across it and why did I bother to learn more?
Many years ago, I used to be a moderator on IIDB, and encountered my first Christian Presuppositionalist. I am not ashamed to say I was out of my depth arguing with him (Theophilus, I believe his handle was). The only poster who I saw debate and destroy (in my opinion) his arguments was an Objectivist (I can’t remember their handle but I distinctly remember the words “existence exists” – something only an Objectivist would say).
Up until 2007 I wouldn’t come across any memorable mention of Objectivism or even the name Ayn Rand. Last year I would spend hours on YouTube watching lectures by my favourite atheist intellectuals Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins; Hitchens is not a fan of Rand at all and mentioned Objectivism from time to time. But again, I thought nothing of it.
Something was bothering me though. My interests have never been confined to just atheism and science, which for me involved criticising religion and espousing the wonders of evolution. I’ve always been very opinionated politically, but as I paid more attention to politics, I realised how incredibly ignorant I was. Where did I stand politically, left, centre, or right? And why? What was the difference between communism and capitalism? Was I right to think of myself as a socialist? During this spell of questioning myself, I wondered which political party I should align myself with. The idea of partial state-ownership of land seemed reasonable, and making the world a more unified and collective state meant I favoured joining the EU. However I also strongly agreed with Christopher Hitchens and supported the war in the Iraq (something many internet atheists do not). I favoured the war in Iraq because I thought it was a noble ideal because 1. it was intended to remove the threat of terrorism and 2. more importantly, freed the Iraqi people and promised to bring democracy. Needless to say, I was also a strong proponent of democracy. (Also needless to say, the two reasons given for the war in Iraq I have cited here are fundamentally flawed, because 1. the war was NEVER intended to remove the threat of terrorism despite the claims of our leaders and 2. spreading unlimited majority rule is neither noble nor moral, but I digress…)
And then in September 2007 a good friend of mine (you know who you are) sent me a link to another WordPress blog, to an article entitled Richard Dawkins is NOT an Atheist, which happened to be written by an Objectivist, Ergo. My very first words were “I disagree.” (My comment is number 35 on this post). You will notice Yours Truly having, to put it in scientific terms, his arse handed to him. Fortunately, I pride myself on intellectual honesty, and I like to think I always have (otherwise I would never have deconverted in the first place) – which means if I am shown to be wrong by objective rational standards, I will admit it and change my opinion.
In the coming weeks, I exchanged e-mails with the blog-owner, Ergo, initially just concerning moral dilemmas. I remember asking his opinion on the Prisoner Dilemma, and his response was to my mind, unprecedented! Rather than get bogged down by which is the best percentage game to play to ensure the best for all concerned, he simply explained the following: “where force is present, morality is impossible”. Which basically means that the Prisoner Dilemma is in fact a false dilemma, and an absurd situation in which to formulate a moral code.
Sometime prior to this (last year), I had gotten myself into a debate with several theists also regarding moral dilemmas. I was rude and impolite from the start of this debate and not wishing to promote a fundamentalist blog is the only reason I haven’t linked to that discussion either. I was responded to with equal and abrupt rudeness by a fundamentalist, but most importantly I was unable to justify my position philosophically, which was also quite embarrassing. The problem is that atheism itself is not a philosophy, and none of the New Atheists (like Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris etc) had an objective basis for their positions. Modern philosophy, like science, is rooted on the empiricists’ notion that certainty is impossible and degrees of probability are all we can hope for. I knew this wasn’t good enough. Just as I knew politically I was weak, I saw a philosophical weakness in myself. Just as we all do, I needed objectivity. Of course, many atheists claim to have it and virtually everybody recognises the NEED for it, but no one and nothing I had read provided it. The best I could hope for was Ebonmuse’s Universal Utilitarianism, which for a time, provided an “objective morality” for me.
Then I started to ask Ergo about Objectivism itself – what it meant, what was different about it, and its consequences. I am very appreciative of the time and patience he took to exchange long e-mails with me.
The discussions got onto politics. Politics is the social extension of one’s morality. That is to say: only when one understands what is right or wrong, can one begin to ask what should be allowed in society, when force should be used, and the proper role of government. (This post is about my learning Objectivism; I will not be explaining the philosophy here). Objectivism necessitates laissez-faire capitalism, which for me led to the immediate question: without taxes, who pays for all the things that taxes do? And who cares for the disabled. After fruitful discussions, Ergo even posted the following: http://ergosum.wordpress.com/2007/11/12/who-cares-for-the-disabled/.
Rather than spoon-feed Objectivism to me, Ergo helped me understand the principles and suggest I apply my reasoning process to take me further. I ordered several of Rand’s books immediately, the first of which I read was The Virtue of Selfishness (TVOS, incidentally I would always recommend this book to any beginner with Objectivism). Next I read “Philosophy – Who Needs It?” I now own nine of her books and I still haven’t finished reading them all! The point I wish to make is this: I was committed to having a rational and objective philosophy, and I took the honest steps necessary to arrive at it. I looked to the scientists, to the empiricists, to the physicalists, to New Atheists, and even to the fundamentalists, and none of them had it. Ayn Rand did.
Many people cling to emotionalism and their preconceived beliefs. This is true for atheists as much as theists. The idea that the redistribution of wealth is evil and animal Rights are non-existence is RADICAL in today’s culture. I know from experience that a person who is very emotional when it comes to animals WILL NOT listen to reason. A person whose family member is living off state hand-outs doesn’t want to hear why the welfare state is a gross moral crime. But as I have said, an intellectually honest person accepts reason. Objectivism starts with necessary axioms of existence and (then) consciousness, and proceeds from there. I was totally won over by Rand’s rational logical approach from start to end, and once one accepts the next chain in the link through the flow of the argument, one must accept a conclusion. To put this in literal terms with an example: I COULD NOT accept that animals have Rights once I understood the correct nature of Rights, which are an extension of MORALITY, with morality being a guide to man’s actions, based on his IDENTITY and relationship to REALITY. And Reality is Existence, Existence is Identity, A = A.
Another example: if one accepts that man’s property is his own, then NO circumstances EVER violate this principle. That means that the welfare state is wrong; taxation is wrong; the redistribution of wealth is wrong. No amount of “what if?” scenarios change this. Because I understood this, it was not very difficult for me to “get” where Ayn Rand was coming from.
Have you ever read a book and found yourself smiling and nodding and saying to yourself, even out loud: “yes!”; “of course!”; “that makes so much sense!”? Such was my reaction to TVOS. And I maintain that John Galt’s speech in Atlas Shrugged is the finest passage of text I have ever and will ever read. For a long time as I was studying Objectivism and challenging it, I found myself unable to disagree or disprove any of its conclusions, because they logically follow from its foundation, which is reality itself. And who can argue with reality?
I refrained from calling myself an Objectivist for many months because I wanted to be totally sure that I could reasonably understand and defend the philosophy to myself before I spoke from that position.
When I did finally call myself an Objectivist I was embracing a philosophy. We all need a philosophy. We all have one, whether we realise it or not. The question is: is my philosophy logical, rational, self-consistent, complete, and founded upon reality? If the answer to any of these questions is ‘no’, the philosophy is useless. Objectivism explains epistemology, metaphysics, ethics, politics, and aesthetics. As an Objectivist, I can justify my knowledge base and I can account for my metaphysics. I have an objective rational morality. I have a precise and consistent ethical political ideology. I know what is right or wrong, and I know how to decide this for myself. I know where I stand politically, and why. These are the things everybody needs and most people crave, myself included. Objectivism fulfils them.
So the obvious question I asked others including myself is: why aren’t more people Objectivists and why do many people object to it? I won’t attempt to answer the first question but I will attempt the second: why do many people object to it?
Obviously the religious would object to Objectivism because Objectivism is a rational reality-based philosophy that rejects anything supernatural. But many of the people I used to identify with, atheists, and those who follow Hitchens, Dawkins, Harris, Dennett etc (The Big Four, like I used to) that I shall refer to as the New Atheists, are not Objectivists and disagree with Rand. Disagree is a weak word. I have encountered positive bile and venom towards Objectivism from the same people who accuse theists of it. The same people who would applaud me for criticising religion and theism would spit hatred when I criticised THEIR cherished political beliefs, such as the welfare state.
This is why I do not identify myself as just an atheist or think of myself in the same group as other blog-writing secular atheists or Humanists. For me, there are far too many of these New Atheists out there who’ve read the works of the Big Four, understand a bit of evolution, and fancy themselves intellectuals. Unfortunately, they are totally philosophically ignorant. Some of them are even explicit subjectivists, a position I hope I don’t need to explain the ridiculous stupidity of.
The problem with these atheists is that they think calling themselves an atheist makes them rational; as if they have left the irrationality of religion behind and are now free rational beings. Some of them then become so sure of their new-found “rationality” that they become obstinate to change and develop an emotional commitment to their new beliefs: do you think there is a difference in rationality between a fundamentalist Christian and a mixed-economist? There isn’t. Are Muslim terrorists more irrational than socialists? Not necessarily. All these positions are fundamentally irrational and immoral.
And that is the fact that many people do not want to admit. And that is why they don’t like Objectivism. The problem is that most people hold their beliefs in a vacuum with no reference to reality. They have no philosophical basis on which to draw conclusions so they hold a mass of opinions and notions together without noticing that most of them contradict the others: they want all the benefits of capitalism as long as everything is subject to state control. They want to give animals the Right to not suffer but take away their Right to NOT be eaten for food. They want the government to moderate food, drink, speech, decency, until it conflicts with their notions of acceptable food, drink, speech, and decency. They want people to freely help other people, but then hold a gun to your head and demand your money for the welfare state when you “freely” choose not to. They want to make as much money as possible for themselves, but take money away from those who have “too much”.
We live in a culture that refrains from moral judgment, where anything goes, where multiculturalism is encouraged, where the wealthy are the object of envy, where firm definite statements are laughed upon, and ‘objective reality’ is said tongue-in-cheek. Objectivism is the antithesis of all these positions, and that is why some people will not accept it.
We live in a culture which tells us that morality is a “grey” issue. With Objectivism, there is no grey issue. Because morality is based on objective fact, there is always a right and wrong thing to do, although that doesn’t mean it’s always EASY to tell which is which. But if you want to believe morality is grey, and someone tells you that there are definite objective moral truths, you will most likely be hostile. It’s the same with Objectivism.
Now, there is only one other philosophy that tries to offer a complete self-consistent objective worldview: religion. Religion fails (spectacularly). But unfortunately, when the New Atheists see something that claims to be a complete self-consistent objective worldview, in a world that says that such a thing is impossible, what do they think? Cult. Objectivism has been called a cult before. Anyone who understands Objectivism can appreciate how divorced from the truth this accusation is. A cult is precisely what Ayn Rand would NEVER approve of, despite how some misguided fanatical “followers” of her have acted. Just as all religions claim that only their religion is the right way to live your life, I would also claim that Objectivism is the only right philosophy by which to live. That is the sort of claim that would make many Atheists dubious, and even aggressive, to Objectivism. But is that fair?
So the truth is, I can see why some people might see Objectivism the way they do. I do understand why some people don’t like it. And I definitely understand why some people don’t understand it. But this is not the failing of Objectivism. In my opinion it is the failing of others to be honest with themselves and rational; in short, it is the failing of those who put emotion over reason.
In a society where emotionalism and “doing whatever you feel like” is the norm, this is hardly surprising. In a society where objectivity is avoided, Objectivism is like a silver stake to a vampire. In a society where altruism is the moral ideal, rational egoism is the epitome of evil.
It was early this year that I decided I could honestly call myself an Objectivist. And although my articles have dried up of late, I am still very passionate about philosophy and politics. I wanted to take this opportunity to reflect on the past year that has probably been the biggest intellectual progression for me since I deconverted. And I also wanted to express a few thoughts I’ve been having for a while about other atheists, Ayn Rand, and why I think her work evokes some of the reactions it does.
If you’re curious about Ayn Rand’s philosophy, by all means read the blogs of Objectivists (see my blogroll for suggestions), but the best thing I can recommend is to buy and read her books yourself. Although I can’t predict your reaction I can guarantee that if you are honest and rational, what she has to say might just change the way you see the whole world.