Bowing to repeated listener requests for an Ayn Rand episode, on the eve of 6/9/13 the regular PEL foursome started our discussion, got tired after a couple of hours, and recorded some more on 6/13. We plan to edit the result heavily enough to reduce the amount of frustrated kvetching (“Is that actually supposed to be an argument? Why does she think just saying that and moving on is in any way adequate?”), but it’s not going to make objectivism fans happy, I can tell you. Know that we did make an honest attempt at engaging the material, though it was hard going, and not in the way that difficult passages in Heidegger are.
Rand offers up a foundationalist system that is is supposed to be in accord with modern science and based on empirically evident premises and clear reasoning from those that anyone who isn’t being self-deceptive or otherwise dense should be able to reproduce. Every perception we have reveals to us that the world exists (thus skepticism is incoherent and impossible as a practical matter), and a properly scientific understanding of concepts will show us that all legitimate tools of thought are based on abstractions from perceptual experience of concrete objects.
Applying these principles, she argues that we can clearly see that Man is essentially a rational animal, and thus that Man’s good (his virtue, and ultimately his happiness) is the exercise of his rational faculties. Rationality is the essential tool we have for survival, and the survival instinct, when rationally interpreted, reveals that our good is not just staying alive but staying alive qua Man, living up to the potential we have as humans, which is to be maximally overflowing with Life.
But don’t think that this “Life” is just some romantic notion of raw energy: as Man, we channel our energy so that we only have (or at least act on) rational maxims. I as a clear-thinking individual should passionately pursue only realistic goals, and should not let all those irrational people out there serve in any sense as the measure of my success. This doctrine that the individual’s mind is this fountainhead of all accomplishments of value somehow entails that it would be incoherent for my good to conflict with that of any other rational mind. Yes, we might compete in some venues for the same good (e.g. we both want the same job), but the competition itself serves both of us, whichever of us wins (i.e. if there weren’t multiple applicants, then the hiring system somehow wouldn’t work). Ethics (as Nietzsche thought) is ultimately about “I will” and not “Thou shalt” — it’s a tool we need to live and thrive — but as individuals, our excellence cannot lie in others: we should neither need other’s compassion (though we can certainly enjoy it if we find virtue in the person being nice to us) nor need the subservience or others. We should not be takers, but only traders.
So it’s a neat and tidy picture that many find an inspiring alternative to all the endless debating and nitpicking that comprises academic philosophy. It’s practically oriented, encourages self-esteem and productive work, and if you’re already inclined to support laissez-faire capitalism and the idea that taxation is theft, then here’s an intellectual framework that will tell you that you’re exactly and indubitably right. But is it really a rational world-view that you can argue from the ground up, or is much of this post-hoc rationalization of a particular breed of sentimentalism best understood by examining the psyche and social circumstances of both Rand and her die-hard adherents? You decide!
Buy the books we read or mooch them online:
The Virtue of Selfishness (online version). In this book we only all read the lead essay from 1961, “The Objectivist Ethics,” which you can read here, and an essay from 1962 called “The ‘Conflicts’ of Men’s Interests,” which you can hear Rand herself read here.
We also all looked at this valiant attempt in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy by Neera K. Badhwar and Roderick T. Long to make sense of Rand, summarize some of the lines of criticism launched against her work, and relate what we read to her novels.
In preparation for the episode, I also listened to The Fountainhead, which mostly made me roll my eyes but was well-performed enough to be tolerable if you want a better idea of how Rand thinks moral psychology works.
I also took in at double speed maybe the first 20 episodes of Leonard Peikoff’s Objectivism Q&A podcast (iTunes link). As he’s her appointed successor and executive of her estate, he pretty well conveys the philosophy in a lived-in manner that’s a bit more revealing–and often less radical-sounding–than Rand’s essays.