I began this five-part series (informally titled “Why Ayn Rand Is Wrong” — the previous four sections are here, here, here and here) by quoting Rand’s own succinct summary of her ethical philosophy, and I’ll repeat it today:
Man — every man — is an end in himself, not the means to the ends of others. He must exist for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself. The pursuit of his own rational self-interest and of his own happiness is the highest moral purpose of his life.
—Ayn Rand, 1962
I believe this is terrible advice, yet I know Ayn Rand’s ideas have become increasingly popular. What you’ve seen here in the past four weekends is me struggling to articulate why I think Ayn Rand is wrong. I have a particular argument in mind, but I feel a bit flummoxed by the fact that I can’t find another major thinker who has expressed the argument I wish to express, which leaves me in the ironically Randian position of having to stand here alone, supported by nobody else, screaming my argument to the skies.
And that’s fine with me, because I’ve always been an independent and self-reliant person (no less, I hope, than the heroes of Rand’s novels The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged) and I fully understand the appeal of the lone brave voice against the mob. My problem with Ayn Rand’s individualistic ethical philosophy is not that it has no appeal, but rather that it’s too simplistic to be taken seriously. It pretends to be much more than it is.
Telling somebody to “live only for yourself” is like telling somebody to walk straight north until they reach the North Pole. They can try, but they’ll find themselves blocked soon enough.
“He must exist for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself.” Sure. Just try, and let me know how it works out for you. In fact, if we examine the ways we behave in our everyday lives, we quickly realize that the goals and purposes we strive for rarely involve our individual, atomic selves in isolation. Rather, we regularly morph through various layers of collective self — family, neighborhood, workplace, ethnic group, nation — during the course of our regular routines. The relationships we care about and the groups we belong to are buried deep, deep within us. To try to isolate our individual motivations from our collective motivations would be like trying to remove the flour from baked bread. To be self-interested, it turns out, is to be group-interested; we couldn’t remove our relationships from our lives without losing our own personalities.
This point seems absolutely clear to me, and yet when I look to refer to other great thinkers who might have developed this idea I come up surprisingly empty. The idea that our communities form and define our selves is hardly alien to our way of thinking — much of popular religion and politics revolves around this fact, and the essential structures of the modern family and the modern workplace are based around communal motivation — and yet I have not been able to find a well-known thinker or philosopher who has expressed this idea as clearly and directly as Ayn Rand (or, for that matter, Thomas Hobbes, or even Friedrich Nietzsche) has expressed the opposing view.
In the cage match of popular ethics and morality, who will challenge Ayn Rand? For lack of a better candidate, the best choice may be Carl Jung, a pioneering psychologist and contemporary of Sigmund Freud who built his work around concepts such as individuation, synchronicity and the collective unconscious. Jung was particularly interested in the origin of our collective archetypes. Here’s a typical Jungian passage, from his 1928 book Two Essays on Analytical Psychology:
The form into the world into which [a person] is born is already inborn in him as a virtual image. Likewise parents, spouse, children, birth and death are inborn in him as virtual images, as psychic aptitudes. These a priori categories have by nature a collective character; they are images of parents, spouse, and children in general, and are not individual predestinations. We must therefore think of these images as lacking in solid content, hence as unconscious. They only acquire solidity, influence and eventual consciousness in the encounter with empirical facts, which touch the unconscious aptitude and quicken it to life. They are in a sense the deposits of all our ancestral experiences, but they are not the experiences themselves. So at least it seems to us, in the present limited state of our knowledge.
Carl Jung’s work provides an excellent starting vocabulary for anyone wishing to study the ways we exist as collective selves, though his writings tend to raise more questions than they answer. I wish there were a wider variety of philosophers, psychologists and sociologists following in his footsteps and doing original work for popular audiences in the field of relational philosophy and psychology, and I’d like to know if anyone has other references to suggest. I recently began reading a book called Connected: The Surprising Power of our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives by Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler, both professors at Harvard University, that makes bold claims for the subliminal power of group psychology, and this type of research certainly seems relevant to questions we’ve been discussing. The field appears to be wide open, and maybe we can even come up with some worthwhile conclusions here in our discussions on Litkicks.
I began this blog series hoping to get vigorous feedback from readers with their own strong opinions about the Ayn Rand approach to ethics, and I was very happy with the results, even when I got responses like this one, from a commenter named Don Kenner:
None of this has any relationship to the ethics of Ayn Rand’s Objectivism. Like it or hate it, it is not a theory that falls apart when confronted with a situation of “shared interest.” This is a sophomoric objection to a complex ethical theory. It wouldn’t be so bad, except that the ACTUAL theory is readily available in printed form.
Rand was asked if she would take a bullet to protect her husband. She replied “absolutely I would.” Does this admission blow her theory to applesauce? No.
Imagine that I told a proponent of John Rawls philosophy that Rawls’ ideas were applesauce because…(drum roll).. people break contracts all the time (prolonged, tumultuous applause).
Seriously, dude. This was bloody awful.
Don Kenner is correct that John Rawls’ principle of contract law does not fall apart because there are instances where contracts are broken. However, if it were the case that contracts were broken a majority of the time, one would have to conclude that John Rawls’ principle of contract law does not hold much force. I don’t think that’s true of contract law, but I do think it’s true of Ayn Rand’s ethical law. The important point is not that human beings sometimes put the needs of others before themselves. It’s that we do this constantly, persistently, dependably. If we think about how often we consider the needs of others over our own needs, we will be pleasantly described to discover how selfish we all are not, how selfish we have never been.
Still, stubborn responses from smart people like Don Kenner, TKG, Timothy, Mark Stouffer and Paul Ray make me realize that the Ayn Rand principle of ethics does hold a lot of force for many people, and after fielding responses for five weeks I’m pretty convinced that nothing I write on Litkicks will convince anybody who has found Ayn Rand’s ideology personally rewarding that they should cease to believe in it. Perhaps there’s no reason why it should.
Carl Jung’s pioneering works were written during the early decades of the 20th Century, but this probing psychologist lived through the terrible cataclysm of World War II, observing both the rise and fall of Fascism in Western Europe and the prevailing victory of Communism in Eastern Europe, Russia and China. A more horrific laboratory for the worst case scenarios of collective psychology could scarcely be imagined. One of his most powerful later works, The Undiscovered Self, written in 1957, shows a brilliant mind in a state of self-doubt, grappling with human disasters that exceeded his own reasonable fears.
Since it is universally believed that man is merely what his consciousness knows of itself, he regards himself as harmless and so adds stupidity to iniquity. He does not deny that terrible things have happened and still go on happening, but it is always “the others” who do them. And when such deeds belong to the recent or remote past, they quickly and conveniently sink into the sea of forgetfulness, and that state of chronic woolly-mindedness returns which we describe as “normality”. In shocking contrast to this is the fact that nothing has finally disappeared and nothing has been made good. The evil, the guilt, the profound unease of conscience, the dark foreboding, are there before our eyes, if only we would see. Man has done these things; I am a man, who has his share of human nature; therefore I am guilty with the rest and bear unaltered and indelibly within me the capacity and the inclination to do them again at any time … Harmlessness and naivete are as little helpful as it would be for a cholera patient and those in his vicinity to remain unconscious of the contagiousness of the disease. On the contrary, they lead to projection of the unrecognized evil of the “other”.
Perhaps the best reason to take a good dose of Carl Jung as a regular antidote to Ayn Rand is that he admits what he can’t explain. Perhaps the worst offense of the proud Randians is not their individualism — who doesn’t love individualism! — but their smug self-certainty. The great questions of human morality and ethics — the same questions asked by Jesus, Buddha and Socrates long ago, and by so many other great thinkers since — have not, in fact, been answered yet.