The producers of last year’s film Atlas Shrugged: Part One, based on Ayn Rand’s controversial 1957 novel about heroic business vs. corrupt government in a mythical USA, have just announced that the second installment in the three-part series will be released in 2012. The first installment got poor reviews and failed to pack theaters, so there was some uncertainty as to whether the second and third installments would ever secure funding. But it wouldn’t be very Randian to yield to bad reviews, so I’m not surprised these filmmakers have found a way to persevere.
Ayn Rand was a hot-button topic through 2011, and there’s no sign that the fiery author-philosopher’s newly popular Objectivist ideology won’t stir up the same intense debates in 2012. An avowed Randian named Paul Ryan remains one of the most influential Republicans in Congress, and Presidential candidate Mitt Romney seems to agree with Paul Ryan’s plan to drastically cut Social Security. That doesn’t mean Mitt Romney is an Objectivist (though, we can imagine, he’d probably become one if necessary). But it does mean that the controversy over entitlements for middle-class Americans and safety nets for the poor will continue to be a gigantic topic of public debate through the upcoming election year. This is the controversy that Objectivists eat for breakfast, lunch and dinner. The ghost of Ayn Rand will continue to make herself felt in 2012.
I can tell that Ayn Rand is still hot by looking at the continuing sales of my short book Why Ayn Rand is Wrong (and Why It Matters). I’m about to pass the 1000 sales mark for this modest publication, and it’s still selling more copies each month than the month before. There are 72 comments (some of them brilliant, some of them absolutely ridiculous) on the book’s Amazon page, and several readers have also posted critiques of the book (sometimes harsh ones) on Litkicks.
I love it when readers give me negative or positive feedback about this book, and I don’t mind the criticism. I’m aware that I advance some unusual (some might even say “quirky”) ideas to support my argument, and I’m not surprised that many readers are initially put off by some of my premises or methods. (I do think, though, that the book stands up to close examination, which is why I always try to respond to a serious critique.)
If I told you how many emails I’ve now exchanged with a very smart, stubborn and sometimes infuriating Objectivist named John, a technology executive in Oklahoma City, you’d think we were both crazy. This began several months ago when he emailed me to let me know that my book was “a nice try” but a failure. Since then, we have kept a furious debate about Ayn Rand knocking back and forth, in hundreds of emails and Facebook posts. It’s been a tough wrestling match for me, and I hope for him too, but neither of us have pinned the other one yet.
One thing that always blows my mind when I argue with John is that he rejects all my classic philosophy reference points, on Objectivist grounds. He spits at the mention of Plato, or Immanuel Kant, or William James. (As did Ayn Rand. And, like Ayn Rand, he only respects Aristotle, who unfortunately I’ve always found dull and mechanical.)
John also rejects the use of metaphor in debate (it’s apparently a Platonic technique), which pretty much empties my whole bag of tricks. Still, he and I have excellent detailed arguments that often force us both to face up to unexpected challenges to the ideals we hold closest.
John’s primary attack on my book Why Ayn Rand is Wrong is about my suggestion that Ayn Rand’s entire concept of selfish ethics is based on a linguistic misunderstanding, because we do not actually use the word “self” only to refer to individual selves, but also to refer to groups we’re a part of. I give an example in the book: a Mets fan walking down a street in Queens, New York and asking a neighbor “how’d we do today?”. The word “we” is clearly a self-reference here, but it’s not a reference to an individual self. If the word “self” does not always denote a determinate thing, but rather has a fluid meaning, than the word “selfish” must also be indeterminate and fluid. Ayn Rand’s doctrine of the morality of selfishness, therefore, is shown to have less of a clear meaning than it appears to have at first glance.
John is revolted by any philosophy that entertains the idea of a “group self”, and we have challenged each other about this many times. It’s fascinating how many different ways there are to look at the question. Recently John sent me a picture of siamese-twin babies, joined at the scalp. “This is what your ‘group self’ feels like to me,” he wrote.
I admit that the concept of a “group self” is hard to wrap the brain around. It certainly has validity in some contexts (a group self certainly exists on a linguistic level, as I explain above). The idea of a “group consciousness” can also be illuminating as an explanation for certain political trends, for certain patterns of history and social development, for the distinct and sometimes untraceable ways that crowds behave. Does the concept of a group self also have any validity, then, within ethical philosophy? Do we sometimes act, not on behalf of an individual self, but on behalf of a group self? I suggest in Why Ayn Rand is Wrong that the “we” seems to have as much moral standing as the “I”, and that this is why it’s correct to reject Ayn Rand’s doctrine of selfish ethics.
John doesn’t agree, and I’ve got to admit he’s got some good arguments against my concept of a group self. But, I keep reminding him, I don’t actually need to prove that a group self exists in order to present a coherent and feasible rebuttal to Ayn Rand’s philosophy. I only need to show that she might be wrong when she says things like this:
Achievement of your happiness is the only moral purpose of your life.
Speak for yourself, Ayn! This does not describe my understanding of my own moral purpose in life. I will agree that happiness is the moral purpose of my life, but not my happiness. I seek the happiness of myself, my family and loved ones, my friends and co-workers and neighbors, even of my strangers and my enemies.
This is because I know I exist as part of some entity or entities greater than just myself — my family, my city, my world. It can be hard to explain this concept of a collective self-identity. But Ayn Rand has presented her formulations as absolute rational truth, and has declared that no fully rational person can refute her Objectivist philosophy. In order to refute and reject this, I don’t need to prove that a group self is real. I only need to prove that the idea of a group self is coherent, feasible and possible enough that a rational person can believe in it.
And in fact I do believe in it (though I sometimes have trouble even explaining what this “it” is). But I don’t have to be able to explain it or define it to be allowed to feel it, to recognize it.
I attempt in Why Ayn Rand is Wrong to explain my belief in a collective self-identity in functional or philosophical terms. John from Oklahoma City doesn’t think I do a very good job of explaining this, and the truth is that I’m still figuring out how to explain and defend some of the suggestions I present in this book. I still haven’t shown John that a group self must be a valid ethical concept, but John also hasn’t been able to prove to me that the concept cannot be meaningful or real. So I’ve still got a leg to stand on. Or maybe two.
Next week, I’d like to share with you another fascinating response I recently received to Why Ayn Rand Is Wrong, from a race car engineer and video game expert in Italy. Stay tuned …