Sunday, October 1, 2017

The Benefits and Hazards of the Philosophy of Ayn Rand

In the epilogue to The Vision of Ayn Rand: The Basic Principles of Objectivism (titled “The Benefits and Hazards of the Philosophy of Ayn Rand,”), Nathaniel Branden says that the followers of Ayn Rand have a very poor understanding of real world and psychology.

Many Objectivists think that Ayn Rand’s “fiction novels” are a perfect guide to living on earth. There is certainly a lot of good ideas in Rand’s fiction, but Branden points out that these works encourage emotional repression and self-disowning, and often deepen the readers’ sense of self-alienation.

The problems in Objectivism that Branden has identified in his article are real. Objectivism is not 100% correct—for instance, its understanding of human nature and society has some critical flaws. It is also not a complete system of philosophy—there are many issues in philosophy for which Objectivism has very little to offer. 

Here are 12 thought provoking quotes from Brandon’s article:

1. Another aspect of her philosophy that I would like to talk about—one of the hazards—is the appalling moralism that Rand practiced and that so many of her followers also practice. I don’t know of anyone other than the Church fathers in the Dark Ages who used the word “evil” quite as often as Ayn Rand.

2. Of all the accusations of her critics, surely the most ludicrous is the claim that Rand encouraged people to do just what they pleased. If there’s anything in this world she did not do, it was to encourage people to do what they pleased.

3. She taught that “Man’s Life” is the standard of morality, and your own life is its purpose; but the path she advocated to the fulfillment of your life was a severely disciplined one. She left many of her readers with the impression that life is a tightrope, and that it is all too easy to fall off into moral depravity.

4. In other words, on the one hand, she preached a morality of joy, personal happiness, and individual fulfillment. On the other hand, she was a master at scaring the hell out of you, if you respected and admired her and wanted to apply her philosophy to your own life.

5. The most devastating single omission in her system, and the one that causes most of the trouble for her followers, is the absence of any real appreciation of human psychology and, more specifically, of developmental psychology, of how human beings evolve and become what they are, and of how they can change.

6. Rand’s novels leave you with this picture of your life: You either choose to be rational, or you don’t. You’re honest, or you’re not. You choose the right values, or you don’t. You like the kind of art Rand admires, or your soul is in big trouble.

7. Let’s suppose a person has done something that he or she knows to be wrong, immoral, unjust, or unreasonable. Instead of acknowledging the wrong, instead of simply regretting the action, and then seeking, compassionately, to understand why the action was taken and what need he was trying, in a twisted way, to satisfy—instead of asking such questions, the person is encouraged to brand the behavior as evil and is given no useful advice on where to go from there.

8. Enormous importance is attached in Rand’s writings to the virtue of justice. One of the most important things she has to say about justice is that we shouldn’t think of it only in terms of punishing the guilty, but also in terms of rewarding and appreciating the good. Her emphasis of this point is enormously important.

9. To look on the dark side, however, part of her vision of justice is urging you to instant contempt for anyone who deviates from reason or morality, or who may appear to deviate. Errors of knowledge may be forgiven, she says, but not errors of morality.

10. But even if what people are doing is wrong, even if errors of morality are involved, even if what people are doing is irrational, you do not lead people to virtue by contempt. You do not make people better by telling them they are despicable. It doesn’t work. It doesn’t work when religion tries it, and it doesn’t work when Objectivism tries it.

11. Besides, people are not forever damned by errors of morality. They can and do change every day. They learn, they evolve, they make different choices, they grow. The bank robber becomes an upright citizen. An out-of-context contempt for the former bank robber is not rationally justifiable.

12. In the Objectivist frame of reference… there is the assumption, made explicit in John Galt’s speech in Atlas Shrugged, and dramatized throughout the novel in any number of ways, that the most natural, reasonable, appropriate response to immoral or wrong behavior is contempt and moral condemnation. Psychologists know that that response tends to increase the probability that that kind of behavior will be repeated. This is an example of what I mean by the difference between a vision of desirable behavior and the development of an appropriate psychological technology that would inspire people to practice it.


Ultimate Philosopher said...

Branden's lecture is 35 years old now, and various things have happened since then, like Peikoff's Understanding Objectivism course which addressed the very problems that Branden points to. Note that he doesn't really make any substantive critique or rejection of the philosophic content of Oism (and his subsequent publication of The Vision of Ayn Rand based on his Basic Principles course also confirms that he has no real issues with the philosophy itself). It's hard to assess his claim about Oism's "devastating omission" (re psychology) without elaboration from him; all we have is the rest of his lecture to go on. The implication here is that Rand - and basically any other philosopher who does a *specifically philosophical* treatment of the human psyche - was seriously inadequate in the inductive methods she had used to arrive at her generalizations about humans.

Is the claim basically that Rand's (stylized) fiction characters weren't psychologically realistic enough? The willful irrationality displayed by the villainous characters are too over-the-top? How would that square with how she does cultural analysis in her nonfiction, where she documents any number of instances of blatant irrationality? 'The New Left' is her best polemical work; have you observed how shabby an intellectual shape the Left is in nowadays? Have you noticed all the evasions and irrationality involved when they discuss Rand and/or capitalism? I take her depictions of villainous behavior in her fiction as stylistically embellished versions of that. Note further that in her day blatantly irrational and evil totalitarian ideas were on the march around the world.

But most of all I'd like to hear your view on how UO relates to the themes and charges in 'Benefits and Hazards.'

Anoop Verma said...


I have a very positive impression of Understanding Objectivism lecture by Peikoff. I think this is the best work that he has done. He explains the philosophy very well and also addresses some of the concerns in it. I think in UO, Peikoff has done a much better job than even Ayn Rand in formulation and explaining the basic principles of Objectivism.

But after UO something happened and he wrote Fact and Value in 1989 and since then everything has gone downhill for Ayn Rand's system.

UO was a good start for making Objectivism a system of thought that could inspire many people. But the UO project was not carried forward. It was abruptly halted and since 1989 we are having a version of Objectivism that is quite different from what Peikoff preached in UO. This new version of Objectivism has many of the problems that Branden has enunciated in his article.