Sunday, 29 November 2015

Objectivism and Ayn Rand

by Alex Sligo-Young

“Sweep aside those hatred-eaten mystics, who pose as friends of humanity and preach that the highest virtue man can practise is to hold his own life as of no value. Do they tell you that the purpose of morality is to curb man’s instinct of self-preservation? It is for the purpose of self-preservation that man needs a code of morality. The only man who desires to be moral is the man who desires to live.” Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged

Objectivism is a philosophical concept created by Ayan Rand, a twentieth-century philosopher. Rand’s ideas were popularised in America, as her notions of individual freedom struck a chord with a society fighting against communism in the form of the Soviet Union. It is this captivation of the American psyche that brought objectivism to the forefront of modern philosophical thinking. Randian thought has given rise to the idea that individuals should care only about themselves, and that by doing so they become virtuous ‘Randian heroes’. But do these ideas hold true?

Ayn Rand was born in St Petersburg, Russia on 2nd February, 1905. She was immediately noticed for being bright; she taught herself to read by the age of two and had decided to become a fiction writer by the age of nine. However, her ideas were at odds with the mysticism of Russian culture and were more in line with European thought. In her last year of school, she studied American history, developing ideas of freedom and the power of the individual in society.

In 1925, Rand obtained permission to visit relatives in America for a short period of time. However, she never returned to Russia and went to Hollywood to pursue a career as a screenwriter. It was here that she met and married the actor Frank O’Connor. After a mostly unsuccessful career, she began to write The Fountainhead, a book that became a bestseller two years after its release and crowned Rand as a champion of individualism. Rand continued to write and published her most notable novel Atlas Shrugged in 1957 after eleven years of writing. In the novel, she dramatized her philosophical ideas into a narrative that integrated ethics, metaphysics, epistemology, politics, economics and sex.

Although she identified herself as a fiction writer, she realized that in order to create great fictional characters, she had to identify the philosophic principles that make such individuals possible. After this book, Rand wrote and lectured about the philosophy behind it, championing the idea that everyone should become ‘Randian Heroes’ by following their own desire.

One of Rand’s central ideas was that the pursuit of the virtues that we value in society is responsible for the world's decline. It is this sole reason and nothing else that the world can be seen to be in a ‘moral crisis’. This is because in achieving these virtues we make a number of sacrifices. We sacrifice justice for mercy, wealth for need and happiness for duty; but still the world is unsatisfactory. Hence, it must be seen that the immoral world we see around us is not caused by a privation of virtues, but by the negative results we create in our pursuit of them. Thus, Rand argues that it is logical to suggest that ‘the pursuit of [an individual’s] rational self-interest and of his own happiness is the highest moral purpose of his life’. If everyone adheres to this idea then we will live in a perfect society.

Rand’s book Atlas Shrugged asks what would happen if all of the people that contribute to society withdrew their labour and only the people that benefit from their work were left. Her ideas grew from her hatred of the communist regime that took her father’s store in Russia. This had a massive impact on Rand’s thinking, as she was absolutely opposed to government intervention in any way. She believed that governmental control was innately evil; this is because she was convinced that politicians and rule makers acted in their own interests to benefit from the oppression of individuals.

To combat this she proposed the ‘sanction of the victim’, which stated that any individual who is being persecuted by a moral code must refuse to endorse that moral code. Rand reasoned that people often continue to endorse the codes they are persecuted by because of a misguided sense of duty towards their fellow man. This is instilled in us through religious stories and tales of people that society deems to be heroic because of the sacrifices they made for others. It is because of this reason that Rand vehemently attacked altruism, as it is a virtue that is impossible to live by because an individual can only become absolutely altruistic by sacrificing their life. Hence, anyone that accepts the altruistic moral code has to compromise in some way to satisfy his or her basic wants and needs. However, this also means that no one should sacrifice himself or herself in anyway for you, and there should be a fair and equal relationship between individuals, unlike the ones we see present in our society where one side often gains from another. This thought culminates in the idea that ‘every man is an end in himself… he must exist for his own sake.’

However, this does not mean that no one can show benevolence to another human being; it just means that they should only do it if it is in their own self interests and not because of a moral obligation. Rand’s heroic character, John Galt from Atlas Shrugged, epitomises these ideals. He lives for his own rational self-interest and is a mouthpiece for Rand’s philosophy; “I swear by my life and my love of it that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.” In the novel the ‘men of the mind’ eventually triumph over the oppressive governmental forces demonstrating the superiority of Rand’s individualistic views and the absurdity of communism where the able are enslaved to the unable.

Many argue that Rand prophesised the situation that we now find ourselves in. Economic turmoil has led to the resurgence of governmental controls in an attempt to resurrect the economy from recession. Apparently, it is this control that has led to a further breakdown of the economy and led to even more governmental controls. It is this spiral towards communism led by the likes of Greece that will culminate in the oppression of individuals for the benefit of others. However, in reality no one will benefit, as the ‘men of the mind’ will leave the country, resulting in the dystopian country that Rand foresaw. However, I do not agree with those who subscribe to Rand’s simplistic answers to world problems.

To explain my objections to her ideas I will use to work of J.S Mill on the idea of uncovering truth. Mill believed that different views that people had contained certain levels of truth within them. For example, the Conservatives' economic policy in the UK may hold some truths whilst the other political parties may also have a similar amount in their policies. Hence, it seems ludicrous to swing between political parties in the search for a better economy, as we will never achieve our aims until we can recognise the truth hidden within different viewpoints and unite them to reveal the right way to organise the economy. This can be applied to Rand’s ideas. Rand’s was obviously deeply affected by the tyranny of a communist regime over her during her childhood; this may explain why she supported the freedom of individuals from the majority so aggressively as she did not want to return to a communist state.

However, in adopting the opposite philosophical ideal she creates a theory that is as flawed and simplistic as communism. The adoption of pure individualism would create a society as divided as during a communist oppression. This is because rent-seeking practices would quickly become commonplace due to powerful individuals seeking to maximise their rewards from work at the expense of others. Thus, it may be seen that although Rand’s support of liberty is especially relevant today in a world where governmental powers are growing, her underlying philosophy is limited by its blind opposition to communism and doesn’t uncover many useful truths as it is blinded by its intrinsic need to oppose governmental power. 

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