Saturday, February 12, 2011

The Shortcomings of Objectivism

Look around this world we've made / Equality / Our stock in trade / Come and join the Brotherhood / Of Man / What a nice contented world / Let the banners / Be unfurled / Hold the Red Star proudly / High in hand

We are the priests / Of the Temples of Syrinx / Our great computers / Fill the hallowed halls

The lines above come from the seven-part rock suite comprising the first half of the 1976 album 2112 by the progressive hard rock band Rush. The story conveyed in the title song is homage to Ayn Rand’s 1938 novella Anthem, and much more firmly transplants the novella’s ideological message. The album is excellent both musically and lyrically, superior in my own estimation to Rand's novella itself. Neil Peart is a brilliant lyricist who made no secret of the inspiration he gleaned from the founder of the philosophy known as Objectivism.

Anthem has as its premise a dystopian future world in which evil collectivist overlords wield total control over society and impose strict limits on how often invention and innovation can be practiced among the populace, leading to a world society devoid of modern technology. Collectivism has permeated society to the extent that even words such as “I” and “ego” are forbidden to be uttered on pain of death, and each person living under the totalitarian system knows only to refer to him- or herself as “We.” The story follows the journey of the main character, Equality 7-2521, who rediscovers the secret of electricity during his secret underground studies and attempts to bring this great discovery to attention of the World Council of Scholars. What ensues is a poetic narrative of his struggles to realize his individuality and discover freedom in the face of imprisonment and torture at the hands of the totalitarian World Council.

The lyrical story told in the twenty-one-minute song “2112” closely mirrors the broad strokes found in the premise and storyline of Anthem. The background setting is a unified galaxy ruled by the Red Star of the Solar Federation, on a world controlled by the authoritarian priests of the Temples of Syrinx. The priests control and regulate every facet of intellectual and creative output among the world citizens. The hero of the narrative is a man who discovers an electric guitar (which replaces the electric light bulb of Anthem). In Part III of the seven-part song (entitled “Discovery”), the listener is treated to a tentatively-handled sequence in which Alex Lifeson, the Rush guitarist, begins to pluck the strings of the newfound guitar awkwardly, taking on the role of the character as he learns to play the instrument for the first time. In the space of about thirty seconds, Lifeson progresses from plucking out clumsy notes to performing an amazing solo worthy of a rock god by means of sequential figurations that become increasingly rhythmical and metrical, as the hero-character he represents discovers that he can produce music of his own. This individualistic music is very different from the music of the Temples, which is portrayed by Lee Geddy’s harsh and shrieking vocals which reach barely-attainable soprano tessitura pitch levels. In the next section (“Presentation”), the hero goes before the priests to show them his discovery and convince them of its merits. However, as in the case of the rejection of Equality 7-2521's rediscovery of electric light in Anthem, the priests condemn the hero's individualistic dabblings and refuse to tolerate his use of the device. Overall, 2112 is a great album that poetically illustrates very well the philosophy of Ayn Rand, which she herself expressed mostly through her own works of fiction.

Ayn Rand and Objectivism

Ayn Rand was born Alissa Zinovievna Rosenbaum in St. Petersburg, Russia on February 2, 1905. She was a novelist, philosopher, playwright and screenwriter in America, to which she emigrated in 1926, becoming a citizen in 1931. She is most widely known for her two best-selling novels The Fountainhead (1943) and Atlas Shrugged (1957) and for developing a philosophical system she called “Objectivism.” In this essay, I present my views on this philosophical system; while I find myself agreeing with a great deal of its basic tenets (especially its views on metaphysics), I do not agree with Objectivism at its core, which I argue is flawed for a number of reasons.

Ayn Rand's philosophy of Objectivism is based on three axioms: existence, identity and consciousness. The axiom of existence states that “Existence exists” (“Existence” here refers to the sum of all existents, whether an object, attribute or action). This axiom pertains to whether something exists or not; that which lacks attributes and thus a specific nature does not and cannot exist. To be is to be an entity composed of specific attributes that form a specific nature. This implies the axiom of identity. The law of identity states that “A is A,” and pertains to the fact that objects are always equal to themselves and that a distinction necessarily exists between objects of different natures. As Rand expressed it, “A leaf cannot be a stone at the same time, it cannot be all red and all green at the same time, it cannot freeze and burn at the same time . . . You cannot have your cake and eat it, too.” The axiom of consciousness is “Consciousness exists,” a statement which follows necessarily from the human ability to perceive that the axioms of existence and identity are true. Consciousness is “the faculty of perceiving that which exists.” Consciousness cannot be possible in the absence of an objective reality which exists independently of consciousness for it to be conscious of. Thus, a world without conscious beings is possible. But consciousness is inherent in the awareness that something exists and that objects are equal to themselves. To be conscious is therefore to be conscious of something.

The statement “There is something I am aware of” is an expression inherent in one's grasp of any object. “There is” denotes existence, “something” denotes identity, “I am aware of” denotes consciousness.

The fact that these three tenets are axioms should be emphasized at this point. Ayn Rand defined an axiom as “a statement that identifies the base of knowledge and of any further statement pertaining to that knowledge, a statement necessarily contained in all others, whether any particular speaker chooses to identify it or not. An axiom is a proposition that defeats its opponents by the fact that they have to accept it and use it in the process of any attempt to deny it.” As axioms, the Objectivist understandings of existence, identity and consciousness are in fact assertions that are self-evidently true, and as such they cannot form the foundation of any philosophical system that is particularly insightful or new. All we are presented with so far as a starting point is that whatever exists actually exists, that whatever exists is what it is, and that one is aware in whatever form one is aware. The very act of perceiving and asserting the truth of these axioms serves to validate them. Ayn Rand was a strong atheist on the basis of these axiomatic position statements, which she declared as foundational to her philosophy in order to clearly separate her views on objective reality from the concept of supernaturalism. The Randian argument for the non-existence of the supernatural is one brilliant aspect of Objectivism to which I stand in complete agreement. But in further developing her philosophy, Ayn Rand progresses beyond these three self-evident axioms to a series of assertions that are not self-evident at all, or in some cases not even true.

In a column published in the August 1962 issue of The Objectivist Newsletter, Rand presents just such a series of assertions as she describes the four basic principles of Objectivism. They are as follows:

1. Reality exists as an objective absolute - facts are facts, independent of man's feelings, wishes, hopes or fears.
I am in full agreement with the metaphysical worldview described here. However, we must examine what Rand has in mind when she speaks of “objective absolutes.” Philosopher Leonard Peikoff, a devoted disciple/evangelist of Ayn Rand and the heir of her estate and intellectual property, provides us with an explanation of the Randian view of objective reality in his 1991 book Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, the first comprehensive and systematic statement of Rand's philosophical system ever published, in a sense the definitive textbook on Objectivism. He writes,
People often speak of “objective reality.” In this usage, which is harmless, “objective” means “independent of consciousness.” The actual purpose of the concept, however, is to be found not in metaphysics, but in epistemology. Strictly speaking, existents are not objective; they simply are. It is minds, and specifically conceptual processes, that are objective – or nonobjective.
Peikoff here appears to be saying that the external world is not necessarily objectively real, but that minds are necessarily real. But it makes no sense to portray conceptual processes of the mind as being objective or nonobjective, while excluding external existents from this context. This treatment of objective reality is completely backwards. To be as fair as possible, when Peikoff states that “Strictly speaking, existents are not objective,” he may be trying to suggest that existents are not “objective” in the ontological sense understood or implied by colloquial usage. When he says “they simply are,” it is clear he is alluding to the law of identity, which states that “A is A.” On this point, as well as on the point of reality being independent of consciousness, I am in full agreement; A is definitely and certainly A regardless of one's feelings, wishes, hopes or fears. Existence does indeed hold primacy over consciousness.

Still, I see no need for Peikoff to make such a hair-splitting distinction between existents and the law of identity. Furthermore, it is my contention that Peikoff is not justified in shifting the concept of objective reality away from metaphysics where it belongs and applying it to epistemology. This misapplication is a crucial misstep, one that leads Objectivist philosophy to wrongly equate personal values with objective reality.

2. 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.
I have no objections to this epistemological position, which I share with Rand.
3. 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.
At this juncture, I begin to diverge from Rand’s views. While I do have serious misgivings about Rand's values, my disagreement here is not in any way a complaint directed at what she personally chose as her own values. Rather, my objection is directed at the way in which she presents it. She is not content to portray this ethical view as a value, but feels she must portray it as a basic and obvious fact or a truism.

In a number of important ways, I disagree with Randian Objectivism for much the same reasons I disagree with certain key tenets of Christian doctrine. Like Ayn Rand, many Christian theologians and ministers place a strong emphasis on the concept of objective reality. Like Objectivists, many of these theologians and ministers tell us that the postmodernist view that all things are subjective and that truth can vary from one person or realm to another is a major source of problems in the world. This is a point on which the theologians and I stand in some agreement. The problem is that most of these Christians go on to conflate their own value system with the objective reality they speak of. They are often heard claiming that it is obviously true that Christian values have an ontologically superior status to all other values, an unwarranted conclusion to which they leap from their affirmation of objective reality. While objective reality does indeed exist independent of what we may believe to be true, there also exist processes that take place inside people's heads, and these subjective processes are largely the source of our values.

Ayn Rand conflates objective reality with personal values in much the same way that Christian theologians do. Notice the dogmatic tone and the choice of language employed in her third point. To say that “Man – every man – is an end in himself,” and that he must exist for his own sake and that he must not sacrifice himself to others nor others to himself is to clearly introduce values into a definition of objective reality – which results in a definition that is incoherent at best and contradictory at worst.

Another significant flaw in this third point is closely related to the erroneous conflation and mixing of objective reality and values. The term “rational self-interest” is invoked as the justification for asserting the necessity of each man existing for his own sake. Yet “rational self-interest” is not clearly defined in this context, and Rand once again equates it with an objective truism, rather than a value that looks different depending on the individual. That which an Objectivist may consider to be in his or her best self-interest and moreover to be rational may be something to which another person objects. What if a man wants to sacrifice himself for another person? Who is Ayn Rand to declare by fiat that he cannot act on that desire? All the Objectivist can do is freely express her observation that such a self-giving man is not acting consistently with her own moral values. This observation is impotent to say anything about the objective merit of the selfless man’s values. In other words, Rand never demonstrated conclusively that her values should be considered by all as representative of what objective reality demands of us.

We now move on to the fourth principle:

4. 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.
Whether or not politics enters into the discussion, this fourth point once again resorts to the fallacy of asserting as absolute, objective fact something which is actually a value. As long as we are not progressing beyond the level of bare assertion, one could just as easily assert that the ideal political-economic system is Communism (a system I do not endorse or agree with). Rand describes laissez-faire capitalism as the “ideal political-economic system.” But to whom is laissez-faire capitalism the ideal political-economic system? The answer depends entirely on whose point of view is being examined and what the goal of that individual or group happens to be. For example, one might argue that monarchy is not an ideal system and that laissez-faire capitalism, being the elusive ideal system, should replace monarchy. But the king will obviously disagree with that claim. Tom Petty was right when he pointed out in his song that “It's good to be king.”

Furthermore, Rand puts the cart firmly before the horse in this fourth precept. She declares what the ideal political-economic system is before even discussing and establishing what the goal of society should be. It is of course possible that if our goal is to institutionalize individualism and to encourage the rights of the individual over and above the rights of society as a whole, then laissez-faire capitalism may be the best system to achieve that. But this is why it is crucial to discuss what our goal is first, before evaluating what the most ideal system for society might be. However, even if we settle on instituting the precepts of individualism as our goal, it has by no means been proven or demonstrated that laissez-faire capitalism is the best system for the realization of that end. The United States of America is popularly considered to be the greatest country on earth and as a beacon of freedom. Yet America has not implemented laissez-faire capitalism as an official economic policy doctrine, despite the efforts of Objectivists and libertarians in this country who want to see that very thing happen. Thus, to the extent that implementation of laissez-faire capitalism has been seriously discussed in this country, it has been discussed within a purely speculative or experimental framework. If we as a country wish to turn from speculative to serious experimental examination of laissez-faire capitalism, a control group would be required for any scientific approach, which political scientists and economists should insist on as a means of demonstrating that such a system is viable in actuality. Ayn Rand’s most lasting “contributions” to individualistic philosophy is a series of fictional experiments that demonstrates how perfect laissez-faire capitalism is within the secondary universes of her novels.

In addition to lacking strong support by way of evidence, the central idea presented in this fourth principle is also sophomoric and short-sighted. What we are presented with is an assumption that a particular political-economic system is the best way for everybody to live because it reflects one self-centered individual’s values. It is an assumption that ignores entirely the fact that a cooperative society is required in order to make possible a system that benefits the individual. If the individual is to benefit from rights, then collective groups that form the society as a whole in which the individual lives must also be afforded those rights.

The central objection I levy against Objectivism is its dogmatic declaration that all things within reality, including values, should be considered to have an ontologically objective status. While I certainly agree that physical reality is objective and independent of consciousness, Randian Objectivism denies values any subjective status and insistently and aggressively prescribes a set of values that all people must hold. Ayn Rand’s attempt to transcend any and all distinctions between facts and values inevitably led to the downright foolish and contradictory aspects that continue to burden her organized movement, one that glorified, among other concepts, non-contradiction in all matters. Her philosophy is an implicitly authoritarian one that explicitly demands the institution of strict anti-authoritarian policies that deny “society” any organic status or meaning and instead recognizes only the self-centered individual. However, as Ayn Rand herself stated, “You can't eat your cake and have it, too.”

The fact-value distinction is a necessary one; without such a distinction, people in positions of power are enabled to enforce and institutionalize their own values in society, as if these values were divinely dictated or reflected objective reality. While I certainly am not willing to go as far as some commentators have in suggesting that Ayn Rand's ideology is fascistic in nature, Randian Objectivism certainly would have that potential if it was anything more than what it is: pop philosophy that is mostly harmless; true in some parts, but very misguided and confused in others and in most real-life applications.

NOTES

1. Durrell S. Bowman, “’Let Them All Make Their Own Music’: Individualism, Rush, and the Progressive/Hard Rock Alloy, 1976-77,” in Kevin Holm-Hudson, ed., Progressive Rock Reconsidered (New York: Routledge, 2001), pp. 183-218.

2. Ayn Rand, Anthem (1938; reprinted, Caldwell, ID: Caxton Press, 2001).

3. Chris Matthew Sciabarra, Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical (University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1995), p. 24.

4. Leonard Peikoff, Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand (New York: Dutton, 1991), pp. 4-11.

5. Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged (New York: Signet, 1957), p. 930.

6. Peikoff, Objectivism, p. 5.

7. Ibid., p. 7.

8. Rand, Atlas Shrugged, p. 952.

9. Ayn Rand, “Introducing Objectivism,” The Objectivist Newsletter 1(8) (August 1962): 35.

10. Peikoff, Objectivism, p. 117.

11. In addition to Rand's fiction, there is also an interesting semi-scientific test of Randian Objectivism in the form of a video game called Bioshock, written and designed by Ken Levine. In the game, the player-character survives a plane crash in the Atlantic Ocean and ends up discovering the underwater city of Rapture, where most of the action takes place. This secret city, envisioned by business magnate Andrew Ryan as a laissez-faire capitalist utopia, was built in response to increasingly oppressive political, economic and religious policies in the world above. But of course, this experimental format does not demonstrate Objectivism to be valid or viable as a political-economic system any more than has the novel format.

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