I admit that this is true. I began this exercise because I pay close attention to the political debates going on today in my country between liberals, conservatives, libertarians, Tea Partiers, and (most often of all) disaffected and disgusted citizens who are just sick of all the noise. I’m sick of the noise too, and I think it’s unfortunate that our public debates (on TV and cable news, on radio talk shows, in newspapers, on blogs) are so pigheaded and thoughtless on all sides. We’re missing the chance for real debates on real principles.
Ayn Rand, it happens, was also a big believer in intelligent debate and principled argument. This is the biggest thing Ayn Rand and I do agree on. Debate matters. Debate is everything. I love this quote of hers:
Contradictions do not exist. Whenever you think you are facing a contradiction, check your premises. You will find that one of them is wrong.
I believe this too, and I always have. “Check your premises”. All the noise in the world cannot be loud enough to make me stop thinking logically. The reason I find Ayn Rand an exciting and important writer is that she had an absolute affection for rational, structured, methodical debate, grounded in rules of fair dialogue, unclouded by emotion or prejudice.
So I agree with Ayn Rand about this, but I disagree with her on almost every issue in the world. She was a principled political conservative, and I am a principled liberal. She is popular today among other principled conservatives — Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, for instance, says that he was not named after her, but also mentions that he admires her work. She’s especially popular among today’s rambunctious Tea Partiers (whatever, exactly, that means), who find her extreme individualism very compatible with their call for smaller government and lower taxes.
Some Tea Partiers may differ with Ayn Rand on the question of religion, though. I disagree with Ayn Rand’s extreme atheism for my own reasons. On a philosophical level, I disagree at the most basic level with Rand’s belief in egoism, the doctrine that humans are only capable of acting in their own individual self-interest. The principle of egoism, I believe, is Ayn Rand’s bad premise, the one that needs to be checked. Did she ever check this premise? I have read many of her philosophical essays, which are always well-written, but I never found a direct defense of egoism itself. I believe, in fact, that egoism has only a weak claim to scientific authority on any philosophical or psychological level, and this is the basis of my own essays in this series.
I don’t think it’s very hard to take down Ayn Rand, who leaves herself vulnerable to refutation by making bold claims about the absolute inevitability of her ideas. She openly and repeatedly declares that her beliefs are self-evident, and that anyone who disagrees with her must be thinking irrationally. By declaring this, Ayn Rand set a high bar for herself. To refute her philosophy — to cut it off at its fountainhead, so to speak — I only have to prove that egoism is not self-evident. I don’t have to prove that it’s false — I only need to prove that it is possible for a rational, fully informed and intelligent person to reject the doctrine of egoism (as I personally do).
Egoism provides the philosophical justification for individualism, which is the foundation of all her work. A fascinating 1969 essay called “Apollo and Dionysus” (you can listen to it here) contrasts the great achievement of Apollo 11’s moonshot with the (as she saw it) degraded spectacle of the Woodstock concert that same summer. I can find no better capsule example of Ayn Rand’s exaggerated reliance on individualism than her straight-faced claim that the Apollo moonshot was evidence of the greatness of the individual spirit.
In fact, the trip to the moon was the best example of teamwork in the history of the planet Earth. Individualism? Thousands of people had to work together to put Neil Armstrong on the moon, and by all accounts they did so with little concern for personal glory. Their glory was a collective achievement.
I do share Ayn Rand’s love of personal liberty, as well as her horror for totalitarian governments. I appreciate the fact that she escaped from St. Petersburg, Russia as a teenager after witnessing the Russian Revolution, giving her a closer brush with tyranny than I have ever faced. As a liberal, I often have to explain to conservatives that I am absolutely against tyranny, that I am not a statist, that I don’t want the federal government to have a bigger role in my life. When I write about the importance of the collective self, I am usually talking about a married couple, or a family, or a group of co-workers, or a baseball team — not the federal government.
I also share Ayn Rand’s distaste for the herd mind of modern media, publishing and academia. As a very successful novelist in a “heroic” genre, she was often ridiculed by the intelligentsia. Her books usually got terrible, mean-spirited reviews, even from her fellow conservatives (Whittaker Chambers famously suggested that her ethical philosophy led to “the gas chambers”, a really unfair swipe). She was an incredibly brave writer, and her countless fans must have buoyed her spirit. Still, in her later years she gradually gave up on the dream of being taken seriously by mainstream media. She told her philosopher friend John Hospers in the early 1960s:
I am not looking for intelligent disagreement any longer … What I am looking for is intelligent agreement.
One could read monstrous bull-headedness into this statement, but in fact I think the witty Ayn Rand was speaking wryly here. She was so tired of hoping for intelligent disagreement that she was beginning to give up on that dream.
But I think too many of my fellow liberals and anti-egoists have also given up on the dream of rational debate, and well-known liberals have really done only a shabby job at refuting Ayn Rand’s ethical philosophy. Our opposition deserves better. That’s the purpose of my series on Ayn Rand. This is the sixth, and the next to last entry in this series. Next weekend I will present the conclusion, a summary of the primary arguments against the principle of egoism, the principle that underlies all of Ayn Rand’s work.
Thanks again for all the great feedback this series has gotten so far, and I hope you’ll read and respond to my closing statements next weekend. There’s much excitement to come.
Ayn Rand may have given up on ever finding intelligent disagreement, but she hasn’t met me yet.
(Appropriately, with all this talk of liberty, I visited Washington DC’s cherry blossom festival today with Caryn. Her photo of the Jefferson Memorial is above, and here are a few more from the day.)