You (Probably) Don’t Understand Ayn Rand Enough to Critique Her
It’s fair to bet that the contemporaries of Leonardo da Vinci had little sense of how enduring his life and work would become. Da Vinci’s friends, neighbors, colleagues, and critics may have recognized him as important in some regard. But how could they know the extent to which his name would resonate through the centuries? Surely there were many in his time thought to be more noteworthy. We tend to be nearsighted when it comes to our recognition of profound achievement.
In light of that, I believe that we today live too close to Ayn Rand to fully appreciate what she accomplished. Her ideas were so radical, so deviant from the widely accepted norm, that we cannot easily digest them without reassessing many of the premises we typically take for granted.
My first meaningful exposure to the philosophy of Ayn Rand, known as Objectivism, occurred in 2010 when I attend a lecture by Objective Standard editor Craig Biddle at the University of Minnesota. The talk was provocatively entitled “Capitalism: The Only Moral Social System.” It was meant primarily for students, but I attended out of piqued curiosity. As a professing conservative, I had always felt that my views were morally defensible despite mainstream assertions to the contrary, but lacked a firm grasp upon how to defend them.
Biddle’s presentation was brutal in its deconstruction of popular morality, and laid out an alternative based upon objective consideration of reality. Among the radical assertions was a case that altruism is wrong and selfishness is good. I stood flabbergasted, as you may now. Coupled with a rebuke of religion, these ideas were so far outside the scope of my accepted worldview that I rejected them outright. I even took to my blog at the time to refute Biddle’s claims.
In the years since, after taking the time to study and understand the philosophy which Biddle introduced me to, I have learned that my initial response was impotent. A prerequisite of disagreement is understanding, and I did not fully understand the philosophy of Ayn Rand after a forty minute lecture from Biddle.
PJTV contributors Andrew Klavan and Bill Whittle proceed under the same handicap when they criticize Rand in their most recent episode of Klavan and Whittle, embedded above. It’s tough to blame them for a clumsy handling of her ideas, because I’ve been there. Indeed, it’s fair to expect that the vast majority of people stand largely unequipped to handle Rand’s philosophy. It is so radically different from anything else before or since, and has yet to be widely taught and understood.