Reason as the Leading Motive

Are You Afraid of Ayn Rand?

Posted by Jerry on January 7, 2008

It is well-known that Ayn Rand’s name elicits sharp and extreme reactions–either positive or negative. But the extremely dishonest lengths to which those who hate Ayn Rand go to smear her name, attack her philosophy, and discredit her impact is simply puzzling. Are these people actually afraid of Ayn Rand? Are they afraid of identifying what their reaction to her philosophy reveals about themselves?

The National Review has had a history of spreading lies about Ayn Rand; they are committed to smearing her legacy–this seems to be their raison d’etre. Here is their latest attack by Michael Novak, writing about atheists and their various beliefs:

Those relativists and nihilists who do believe, as Nietzsche warned, that the “death of God” has also meant the death of trust in reason and science and objective rules of morality. Such atheists, therefore, may for arbitrary reasons choose to live for their own pleasure, or for the joy of exercising brute power and will. This is the kind of moral nihilism that communist and fascist regimes depended upon, to justify the brutal use of power. It appears, also, to be the kind of atheism that Ayn Rand commended. [bold added]

Let’s take this point by point:

According to Novak, the kind of atheism Ayn Rand advocated had no “trust in reason and science and objective rules of morality.” However, here’s just a sample of what Ayn Rand in fact had to say about reason, science, objectivity, and morality:

I am not primarily an advocate of capitalism, but of egoism; and I am not primarily an advocate of egoism, but of reason. If one recognizes the supremacy of reason and applies it consistently, all the rest follows.

This—the supremacy of reason—was, is and will be the primary concern of my work, and the essence of Objectivism. 

To live, man must hold three things as the supreme and ruling values of his life: Reason—Purpose—Self-esteem.

Reason is the only objective means of communication and of understanding among men; when men deal with one another by means of reason, reality is their objective standard and frame of reference. But when men claim to possess supernatural means of knowledge, no persuasion, communication or understanding are possible.

Ethics is an objective, metaphysical necessity of man’s survival

The concept of objectivity contains the reason why the question “Who decides what is right or wrong?” is wrong. Nobody “decides.” Nature does not decide—it merely is; man does not decide, in issues of knowledge, he merely observes that which is. When it comes to applying his knowledge, man decides what he chooses to do, according to what he has learned, remembering that the basic principle of rational action in all aspects of human existence, is: “Nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed.” This means that man does not create reality and can achieve his values only by making his decisions consonant with the facts of reality.

Then, Novak declares that Ayn Rand’s philosophy is a mixture of nihilism and hedonism, where people may choose to live for any arbitrary reason, or for the “joy of exercising brute power and will.”

Here is what Ayn Rand actually states about hedonism:

I am profoundly opposed to the philosophy of hedonism. Hedonism is the doctrine which holds that the good is whatever gives you pleasure and, therefore, pleasure is the standard of morality. Objectivism holds that the good must be defined by a rational standard of value, that pleasure is not a first cause, but only a consequence, that only the pleasure which proceeds from a rational value judgment can be regarded as moral, that pleasure, as such, is not a guide to action nor a standard of morality. To say that pleasure should be the standard of morality simply means that whichever values you happen to have chosen, consciously or subconsciously, rationally or irrationally, are right and moral. This means that you are to be guided by chance feelings, emotions and whims, not by your mind. My philosophy is the opposite of hedonism. I hold that one cannot achieve happiness by random, arbitrary or subjective means. One can achieve happiness only on the basis of rational values. By rational values, I do not mean anything that a man may arbitrarily or blindly declare to be rational. It is the province of morality, of the science of ethics, to define for men what is a rational standard and what are the rational values to pursue.

To declare, as the ethical hedonists do, that “the proper value is whatever gives you pleasure” is to declare that “the proper value is whatever you happen to value”—which is an act of intellectual and philosophical abdication, an act which merely proclaims the futility of ethics and invites all men to play it deuces wild.

And about brute power or force:

Whatever may be open to disagreement, there is one act of evil that may not, the act that no man may commit against others and no man may sanction or forgive. So long as men desire to live together, no man may initiate—do you hear me? no man may start—the use of physical force against others.

To interpose the threat of physical destruction between a man and his perception of reality, is to negate and paralyze his means of survival; to force him to act against his own judgment, is like forcing him to act against his own sight. Whoever, to whatever purpose or extent, initiates the use of force, is a killer acting on the premise of death in a manner wider than murder: the premise of destroying man’s capacity to live.

Do not open your mouth to tell me that your mind has convinced you of your right to force my mind. Force and mind are opposites; morality ends where a gun begins.


6 Responses to “Are You Afraid of Ayn Rand?”

  1. Yay! Great post, Ergo. The National Review has hit new lows.

  2. evanescent said

    I don’t understand the hostility towards Rand and Objectivism either, Ergo. As you know I’ve encountered hostility from previous allies. And when asked to justify their arguments and explain their hostility, all I see is strawmen. It’s easy to dimiss most opponents of Rand as simply “not understanding Objectivism”, but it is actually the truth!

  3. Tim R said

    Interview with Novak and Andrew Bernstein via Prodos.

  4. Égoïste said

    The National Review sickens me. It truly does.

  5. C. Kowall said

    I am afraid of Ayn Rand’s message of the supremacy of self centered behavior.
    Those of us who study more than dime store philosophy are probably familiar with the notions Logical Positivists who contended quite convincingly that the formalism of the predicate calculus would translate into second order logic. Godel’s incompleteness of Peano arithmetic proof showed us that even arithmetic could not be grounded in pure reason. ‘Rational’ does not mean ‘reasonable’ or vice versa. If reason cannot take us as far as arithmaetic how on earth could it tell us something vague like that egoism is superior to altruism. If Rand’s respect for pure reason were sincere she would realize that very little can be done armed only with pure ‘reason’. However the notion of ‘rational’: applying measured responses in the ratio which is appropriate for some outcome, does gain some traction when applied to questions of the second order. Read Jeremy Bentham then John Nash, then try to convince yourself of the following statement:
    ‘I am not primarily an advocate of capitalism, but of egoism; and I am not primarily an advocate of egoism, but of reason. If one recognizes the supremacy of reason and applies it consistently, all the rest follows.’-Ayn Rand
    Maybe you will be cured of whatever causes one to make statements like:
    Exploit the earth or die.
    It’s not a threat.
    It’s is a fact.
    And generate rational statements like:
    Over exploit the earth and we all die.
    It’s a threat, but one we hope you will not be threatened by.
    We cannot affirm that the previous statements are fact, however for further reading Thomas Malthus is a good place to start.
    I imagine some of the critiques of this reply will center on it’s untenability in the face of ‘real’ human behavior. If you were about to write it read B.F. Skinner first.

  6. Oh PUHLEEEZE! C.K. spare us the remark about Rand’s philosophy being “dime store” when you yourself cite Thomas Malthus (whose writings on over population were debunked long ago) and Jeremy Bentham whose utilitarianism was supposed to “fix” the alleged flaws in natural rights theory but developed into a rationale for socialism.

    I would dare to argue that your deriding Ayn Rand and Objectivism is indicative of your lack of confidence in the ability of not just others, but you yourself to live and prosper.

    If you want a scientific study done on egoism you need look no further than The Evolution of Cooperation written by Robert Axelrod and was endorsed by none other than Richard Dawkins.

    Rand was not a proponent of “pure reasaon” but a proponent that human beings exist for their own sake and use their reason as a means of survival.

    The reason why Objectivism may not be taken seriously is not because of her (as you say) self centeredness, but the misuse of the term altruism.

    As Axelrod’s book points out it is egoism, not altruism (i.e. self sacrifice), that motivates people to cooperate with each other which enables us to live.

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