AynRand is the founder of the Objectivist school of philosophical thought.Objectivism purports that the only moral way to conduct oneself is throughrational self-interest or selfishness. In doing this, Rand puts the individualon the same pedestal that individuals have previously only reserved for Gods orlofty ideals.
Rand herself contends her system to be undoubtedly correct, goingso far as to say that other philosophers, like Immanuel Kant, were evil. Thesebeliefs were presented in her two novels ‘The Fountainhead’ and ‘AtlasShrugged’. Thefirst belief of Objectivism is that the world is truly real.
There is no roomfor metaphysics, only physics. Things in the real world are always just as theyappear to be; in other words, the world is full of facts, not opinions. ToRand, the only way by which we can know about things are through human reason.
Human reason is a quality of the individual, not of society or anyone else. Dueto this, the individual is the most important agent in Objectivism. She put itthusly: ‘The first right on Earth, is the right of the ego. Man’s first duty,is to himself’ (Rand, 1943). From this, Objectivism contends that the core ofethics also stems solely from the individual. In other words, the needs of theindividual always outweigh the needs of the society he is a part of.
Dueto this, some claim that she has setup what is essentially a zero-sum game.When everyone is acting in their own interest, inevitably sometimes they willharm the interests of others. In other words, Objectivism is a philosophy thatcannot ever be too generally accepted -lest it collapse under the weight of itsown implications. Theproblem is that this is a misrepresentation of Ayn Rand’s beliefs. Yes, sheadvocated for each individual to selfishly pursue their own ends but this wasnever to be at the expense of other people. Ayn Rand says this outright: ‘Irecognize no obligation towards men except one, to respect their freedom…'(Rand, 1943). In Rand’s world, society should be full of people trying to getahead, but never in ways that are destructive to each other.
In other words,people would cooperate because of mutual self-interest -otherwise known as apositive sum game. Thewhole of Objectivism is merely taking these core themes and extending it toevery facet of everyday life. Thus, it is these themes that need to be examinedto critique Objectivism. Ihave four main objections:? That reality is as it appears.? That reason alone is enough to knoweverything.? That Objectivism promotes a positivesum game.? That people are free to pursue whatis to their interests. Thefirst two of these will be examined through Philosophy and Logic, the rest willbe examined with Economics.
APhilosophical Critique Thebasis for Objectivism is that objective facts can be gleaned from the worldregardless of human subjectivity. This is a claim that contradicts the mereexistence of metaphysics, of things not always being exactly what they seem tobe. Furthermore, it claims that human reason can and should be able to gleanevery mystery the universe might have to offer. That is, after all, why we areputting so much faith on it to begin with.
Moreover, people are free to pursuethe truths that they want to; they just have to put in enough effort. Firstly,the prime reason we have for studying metaphysics is due to the fact that ourexperiences are not directly representative of what the world is actually like.The philosophical tradition for this goes all the way back to Plato’s theory offorms and extends all the way to Descartian Realism. Let’s analyze this fromthe perspective of Indirect Realism. IndirectRealism purports that people are not directly interacting with the world, butwith their perceptions of the world. This is because often enough ourperception of a thing is vastly different from the thing itself. Prime examplesof this are optical illusions. When people put sticks in water, they appear tobe bent.
Everybody doing this, on some level, knows that the stick is asstraight as ever and yet no amount of reason can convince ones’ eyes to see itas such. We are not seeing the real world -as Objectivists claim- but in factwe are seeing what our sense organs think the real world is. Furthermore,there are instances where a person’s perception and reality differ so much asto be genuine harmful to them. People suffering from mental trauma oftenperceive the world to be greatly different from what it actually is. Soldier’sreturning from war find themselves reliving their nightmares from the comfortof their own bedrooms due to conditions such as PTSD.
Other people sufferingfrom hallucinations find themselves seeing everything from aliens to flyingelephants. We can reasonably say that these people do not perceive reality. Itis even possible for a person to imagine entire existences that have little todo with the physical world. That’s what dreaming is, after all. Going even astep beyond that, people who are in a coma often live years of lives that havenever happened; sometimes in worlds that never existed.
Once we know for a factthat there is some disconnect between my eyes and what I am seeing with them,how do we know how big that disconnect really is? Thesecond claim about people being able to gleam the secrets of the universe isproblematic even if they directly perceived it. If every man had the ability tounderstand objective reality, why are people sometimes wrong? Why do people sooften have different opinions on things? Theentire works of Plato are quite literally arguments between people who havediffering opinions. Furthermore, they are between people who truly believe thethings that they espouse. People who have, by their own reason, went wheretheir minds took them. If there was a key truth of the world -one that could befound by any man provided he tried hard enough- then philosophy should haveended at or before Socrates and societal progress should have ended with thefirst hunter gatherer tribes. Thecrux of progress is the fact that people gradually learn more about the world.The crux of learning more is acknowledging that what we thought before had beenwrong.
This might be fine for the life of one person. An Objectivist couldargue that some people just gain the ability to see more rationally over thecourse of their lives. That’s why their opinions change. Man can see all thatthere is to see, it just sometimes takes a little while to do it. Whatabout truths that eluded people their entire lives? What about truths thateluded entire generations for centuries? Up and until the first airplanes wereinvented, the entirety of humanity lived and died believing that a person wasnever meant to fly.
Were all of these people incapable of seeing the truth ofreality despite what Objectivists claim? I suppose you could argue that many ofthese people simply had never tried hard enough to glean the truth of flight.Such an argument would likely be right. However, it is unfathomable to thinkthat the Wright Brothers really were the worst to dedicate their lives tomaking people fly. Furthermore,people are littered with inherent biases and fallacies that keep them fromusing their reason to their full potential. People rationalize, sometimesthey’re motivated to see things a certain way so strongly that the world reallylooks that way to them. People gripped by paranoia see conspiracies in everynews story and assassins in every shadow. Many of these people spend theirlives gathering more and more elaborate evidence for what they believe. Many ofthese people also believe things that directly contradict what someone else hasalso spent an equally ridiculous time believing.
In cases like this, who isright? The government cannot both be aliens and Illuminati at the same time,after all. Inaddition, there are things are things that humans might simply never be able toexperience or glean any knowledge about directly. What happens after death? Noamount of effort can let anyone peer past the veil of life to the veil ofdeath. Instead, we are left to flounder and reason and come to a hundredconclusions about the afterlife.
Letme some all of this up with an analogy. Supposea Physics professor decided to conduct an interesting kind of test. He suspendsa ruler and hangs it next to a candle flame such that only one of its sides isdirectly facing it. Right before its time for class, he flips the ruler so thatthe colder end is now facing the candle. The students come in and he asks themto touch the farther end and explain why it is hotter than the other end.
Thestudents examine the flame and the ruler and scratch their heads. They come upwith all sorts of explanations that sound clever. Some of them say words like’because of conduction’ or ‘because of the properties of wood’. They spend agood while thinking about it carefully; their grade depends on it after all. Now,whether or not one brilliant student figures out the riddle is beyond thepoint. The fact is that most kids will try just as hard and never suspect thattrickery was involved.
Those students are the same as Rand herself, fumblingabout in a game that through no fault of her own, might simply be beyond hergrasp. AnEconomic Take On Objectivism ObjectivistEthics are only reasonable so long as they promote a positive sum game. So longas people pursue what they want keeping in mind the freedom of others, societyis bound to flourish. It is no wonder why Rand was so lofty in her praise forcapitalism -which honors the same rational self-interest that Objectivism does.
The idea is that people are under no obligation to take on burdens that they donot want to, while being forbidden from harm. At best, Objectivists will makethe world a better place; at worst, the world will be no worse for them.Thisis the point where Objectivism rams head-first into multiple subfields inEconomics. Onesuch area is that of Game Theory. The premise behind Game Theory ismathematically analyzing exactly what happens when people pursuingself-interest collide in the real world. For our purposes the question is, doesthat create a zero sum or positive sum game? The first example that pops out isalso the first one taught in any Game Theory classroom; that of the Prisoner’sDilemma.
The Prisoner’s Dilemma runs as follows: Twoprisoner’s, A and B, are both kept captive under allegations for committing acrime in opposite cells. The judge invites each of them separately and makesthem an offer. If they both testify against each other, they will go to jailfor five years. If they both choose to remain silent, their sentence will belowered to three years. However, if one of them testifies while the otherremains silent, that man gets to walk free while the other stays in prison forten years. Given that both of these people have no idea what the other willpick, what does it make sense for each of them to do? This is illustrated inthe following table: B stays silent B betrays A A stays silent Both go to jail for 3 years B goes free. A imprisoned for 10 years. A betrays B A goes free.
B imprisoned for 10 years. Both go to jail for 5 years. Inthis scenario, we can all see the best result would be both of them stayingsilent. Indeed, that is what an Objectivist would say too. However, let’s lookat it more deeply.
Both of them are making their decisions independently,caring only for their own self-interest (serving as little time as possible).From the perspective of one prisoner, A or B, there are two scenarios. Theother person betrays them, or the other person chooses to stay silent. Ifthe other person stays silent, A or B are best off by betraying them, as theywill serve no sentence at all.
If the other person betrays them, A or B arebest off by betraying them in turn, lest they serve ten years instead. This isa scenario where pursuing self-interest by its very nature turns the scenariointo a zero sum game. Prisoners Dilemmas are found everywhere in real life.They explain everything from countries having a race to see who can have themost nukes, to athletes deciding whether they should use steroids months beforethe Olympics. Thereal world is full of examples of self-interest leading to zero sum games. Itdoes not pay to not infringe on other people when they might not do the same.
It does not pay to be an Objectivist when everyone cannot ready everyone else’sminds. In fact, it might kill. Let’snow focus on the subject of free will.
Free will is at the very foundation ofObjectivism. The idea that people know what is best for them and through freewill, can pursue that however is best for them. This is a claim that BehavioralEconomics would staunchly disagree with. Economics,by and large, has been the study of what happens when rational people makechoices to maximize their self interest. This is indeed what many Objectivistswould find themselves very interested in. Behavioral Economics, a much youngerdiscipline, made waves explaining that most decisions are not made on the basisof what is optimal. In other words, that this ‘rational choice theory’ wasmisleading.
Instead,they promote what is known as ‘Prospect Theory’. Prospect theory states thatone of the things which is just as important as the outcome of a choice, is howthat choice is framed and sub-consciously perceived by the person making it. Indoing so, it not only rejects rational choice, but puts several question markson free will as well.
Let’slook at an example. Suppose you had the follow question on a test:Whenwas Hitler Born? 1892 1886 Insuch a scenario, the vast majority of people will pick the first option. Bothof these options are wrong, but the first one stands out.
It does not stand outin a way that should rationally make it more appealing -it’s just a littlebold- but that is enough to sway a vast majority of people. Interestingly, thisis exactly the result researchers found when they conducted this experiment(Kahneman, 2015). Letus take this a step further. Suppose your parents gave your brother 100$ andtold you to split the money. If you said the split was fair, both of you got tokeep the agreed upon amounts. However, if you disagreed, both of you had towalk away with nothing. Now suppose your brother decided to keep 70$ tohimself, what do you do? Rationally, the obvious thing to do would be to say itwas fair and pocket 30$.
Indeed this is what the Objectivist view of humannature would say is the correct world. This could not be farther from truth.Actual experiments often show people willing to lose money over a sense of whatwas fair and just. Experiments of this nature are known as Ultimatum Games, andare almost as popular as the Prisoner’s Dilemma (Nowak, 2000). Ifpeople acting in their own interests will do greater harm to their society, isobjectivism worth it? That is the challenge that has often been levied againstAyn Rand.
Behavioral Economics contends that people hardly know what’s in theirbest interests to begin with. After that, what leg does Objectivism have leftto stand on?