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.
Let’s consider a few ways Klavan and Whittle misinterpret Rand. First, in answer to a viewer asking why Ayn Rand is “nonsense,” Klavan states:
She’s nonsense because… for several reasons. I mean, one, because she’s an atheist and yet she thinks there is an absolute moral standard by which to live, which is the absence of force. Everyone from Nietzsche to Marquis de Sade understood that, once you remove God, you’re living in a relativist universe. There’s just no way to make [the contrary] case.
Yet that’s precisely what Rand accomplished, and the reason she will properly be noted by history. Rand discovered something which Nietzsche and Marquis de Sade were not privy to.
There was a time when suggesting the Earth is round rather then flat was a radical idea, until facts were discovered which invalidated the old premise. Likewise, Rand found that absolute morality is evident without reference to God. Her proof cannot be summarized here. Suffice it to say, the requirements of human life point the way toward what we should do to survive and thrive.
As Christians, this should not surprise us. The apostle Paul wrote in Romans 1:19-20:
For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.
Creation provides general revelation, so much so that Paul tells us we are without excuse for any immoral decision-making. In other words, you don’t have to believe in God to know right from wrong, and thus stand accountable. Ironically, the popular assertion from many Christian apologists that there can be no morality outside theism falls flat with atheists because God created a world which reveals his nature even to those who deny Him.
The major thing is that she confuses selflessness, which is a nonsense, with altruism, which is a good… She starts out by saying to you [that] self does best through enlightened self-interest. And that is true, up to a point. But there is a point where people act – not selflessly – but they act altruistically.
The difference between selflessness and altruism is that selflessness doesn’t exist. Everybody is acting for personal gain, even if that personal gain is joy. And one of the things that I think most Christians understand is that, when you do good for people, you experience joy. And there’s nothing wrong with doing good to experience the joy. That is the self-interest that you find…
I think [Ayn Rand] mistakes the vast array of altruism, the vast array of joys that arise from altruism – from helping each other and from standing together and not always necessarily acting by yourself – she mistakes that for the nonsense of selflessness…
Ironically, Klavan vindicates Rand here. He essentially articulates what she called egoism. Indeed, Rand advocated cooperation, charity, and relationship, recognizing each as deeply held human values. Helping others is not necessarily altruistic, particularly if doing so brings joy or satisfaction. Advocates of true altruism, of which there are many, will tell you that charity proves inadequate because it is voluntary. In order to be “good,” in order to be truly altruistic, one must give without utilizing judgment or (worse yet) in defiance of it.
Whittle expounds upon Klavan’s point:
I see people occasionally saying things like, “Oh, you shouldn’t have helped that [fallen] runner [back] up, because that’s altruism and it’s bad…” It’s a little bit silly. There is a rebound against so much stuff that is being coerced upon us that certain things that are in fact sensible, decent, good and fundamentally human are also being demonized by conservatives…
Whittle’s illustration provides us with an opportunity to demonstrate how the same action can be egoistic or altruistic in different contexts. If you stop to help a fellow runner get up after they trip and fall, it’s likely because you recognize a shared value – like the pursuit of the same goal – which you seek to affirm through your aid. That’s egoistic and selfish, but also sensible, decent, good, and fundamentally human. But if the runner fell due to negligence or after attempting to sabotage you, thus evidencing a different set of values from your own, you probably wouldn’t be so willing to help.
Whittle concludes with a common accusation against Rand:
I think this idea that some kind of an anarchy is the answer… you know, this idea that if we could all just be left alone, we’d all act in our self-interest and no building inspectors would be needed because it would be in the best interest of every single landlord to maintain his elevator because, if he did, then there wouldn’t be lawsuits that follow. And you get this argument sometimes.. and it’s as utopian as communism is… It’s assuming that everyone will behave virtuously all the time. And they don’t.
There’s a couple massive errors here. First, Rand was no anarchist. She was explicit and thorough in her critique of anarchism, and advocated for a government fully equipped to act justly in defense of individual rights. Secondly, the argument against something like a government building inspector has nothing to do with a utopian expectation of virtue. The problem with government building inspectors is the notion that government may properly intervene in the use of private property when no third party has been harmed. In the event a bad landlord fails to maintain his elevator, and someone gets hurt as a result, the case goes to court, which is government, not anarchy.
It’s worth noting that Klavan reports having read nearly all of Rand’s writings. Yet he does not understand much of what she sought to convey. It demonstrates how difficult it is to understand Rand without first challenging preconceived premises. It’s so much easier to twist Rand’s ideas into conformity with those preconceptions, and then disagree with the distortion. We owe it to ourselves to take a more thoughtful approach to Rand’s ideas, to understand her accurately before deciding whether we agree with her or not.
(Today’s Fightin Words podcast is on this topic available here. 24:44 minutes long; 23.82 MB file size. Right click here to download this show to your hard drive. Subscribe through iTunes or RSS feed.)