Friday, April 22, 2011

Defending Rand - Why Bother?

It looks like one Michael Gerson (of Bush administration fame) has put out a hit-piece on Ayn Rand in the advent of the new Atlas Shrugged movie (HT: Reason). The article itself is bad enough - full of poor equivalences and some glaring misunderstandings of Rand's work. He maligns her and her self-described philosophy for neglecting to embrace "society" and the Christian mantra of being your "brother's keeper" in favor of radical selfishness. Nevermind the fact that Gerson played an integral role to the build-up toward the current wars being waged in the Middle East right now...this compassion he so valiantly defends must have been a recent turnabout in his life.

I think what annoys me the most isn't even Gerson's piece - which isn't particularly innovative or nuanced as far as Rand criticisms go. I'd offer that what's really disheartening is the auxiliary criticism of commentators on the WaPo site. Here you see on display an act that you might think is rare, but really isn't; conservatives and liberals holding hands in their defense of "compassion". The frustrating part is knowing that Rand doesn't rail against compassion per se, and that if any of these people had stopped to read anything she's ever said, they'd pick up on some of the subtleties of her views. But that's just it. No one who is commenting there would know Rand from Nietzsche. Yet they feel compelled to lampoon a caricature of the woman they supposedly despise.

I ran across one comment lamenting the fact that she became a slave to the same extremism that she railed against. Really? When did she rail against extremism? I think she pretty specifically, and publicly, panned the label of "extremist" as pejorative. In fact, I'm pretty sure you could Youtube or Google up some Rand-related media and get some actual audio of her making the precise point that words like "extreme" are relative and have no meaning outside of that without the context of what they are describing. Isn't that even a core tenet of Objectivist epistemology? Saying Rand railed against extremism is like saying that Jesus railed against sacrifice. Um. No. Yet, whoever that person was felt confident enough in their position to make the supposition in the form of commentary, and now it's there for some other dolt who's never read a thing she's written to pick up on and espouse in another venue.

But let's look at the even more core issue of her views on altruism. Now, granted, I think she used this point to wrangle, confuse, and offend her intellectual opponents.....she didn't offer much insight to those who weren't willing to dig into the subject on more than superficial grounds. But at least a good part of her problem with altruism was two-fold. Firstly, she felt that doing something purely for the motivations of others is morally wrong. This is the part that gets the heat, obviously. But the second part augments the first, and without it we don't fully understand the context of the primary conjecture. The second point is that what most people view as altruistic is, in fact, not - by definition. When you help another, it's because YOU want to help them. It's literally YOUR preference that you act on. Sacrificing your effort on another regardless of YOUR preference to do so would be altruism, and when properly understood few actually engage in this although they call others to.

This secondary truth underscores another subtle point about altruism; one more closely connected with Christianity and its adherents. Even if you don't accept the premise that helping others based on your preference to do so is selfish, there is the less subtle point that most people do not engage in ostensibly selfless acts for selfless reasons regardless. To what end to many of these people engage in acts of charity? Out of the fear of an omnipotent being? In the promise of spiritual riches in the afterlife? This doesn't exactly seem selfless. And even if you don't believe in an afterlife and you're simply doing it because you like to do it - you do it, in part, because it gives YOU some kind of satisfaction. YOU value the act. True acts of selflessness, the kind we prominently try to push others into, are the source of Rand's despair and it's what she's generally addressing. But you'd have to read more than a misguided editorial to get that.

All-in-all I can't really be surprised. The vast majority of people familiar with Rand, at any level, do not sympathize with her views - or what they believe to be her views at any rate. But there's a part of me that can't help but wish to reach through the monitor sometimes to shake people and make sure they're actually conscious when they write the kind of drivel that's in the comments section of these pieces. Can we be expected to have at least a vague passing familiarity with something or someone before we declare it/them the anti-Christ? Just for once?

13 comments:

  1. I see the same thing. Its either some form of dishonesty or insanity, because when you point out how badly they distort her ideas, they are never apologetic or embarrassed. Even if you quote Rand to show them what she actually argued for, they still maintain the same misrepresentations, and repeat them again later.

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  2. "Sacrificing your effort on another regardless of YOUR preference to do so would be altruism, and when properly understood few actually engage in this although they call others to."

    This is a fine explanation, I think, and you are exactly right to point out its rarity. One outstanding example that comes to mind (at least for me) is Tolkien's "Leaf by Niggle."

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  3. IceManSaul - Undoubtedly. I've had the exact same experience, although I'm certainly not an expert on Rand myself. I've read enough, however, to be able to point out some glaring inconsistencies in her detractors' accusations. But even then, as you point out, it's rare that they acknowledge it. They're more likely just to tell you that she didn't really mean any of the things you point out...only the caricaturization of her ideas that they already believe.

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  4. Ken - I don't think I've read that Tolkien piece but I'll be sure to check it out.

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  6. Anti Alabama RednecksApril 28, 2011 at 2:13 PM

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  7. You lost the Civil War, so stick it!April 28, 2011 at 2:36 PM

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  8. Look, an influx of Innernet Tough Guys!

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  10. You Need Dental WorkApril 28, 2011 at 5:01 PM

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  11. @Ken -

    I haven't had a lot of time to do anything on my blog the last few days. Not sure where the influx of friendlies came from. By the sounds of it, people who might have been dismayed by a couple of posts I made at Hit & Run though. If I can judge how right I might be by the quality of my detractor's responses, I think I need to stop being so hard on myself =)

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  12. "It's literally YOUR preference that you act on. Sacrificing your effort on another regardless of YOUR preference to do so would be altruism"

    Seems like you missed Ayn Rands nuance yourself.

    She flatly denied that selfishness is anything one arbitrarily desires and she explicitly argued that there was an objective means of determining which choices and actions would benefit the self and which ones would not so a persons personal preference would be follow accordingly and in that way be "objective".

    Deviating from that was self destructive and and altruistic in the sense that ones personal preference were chosen non-objectively using some other standard, mystical, social, or emotional and in that way be "subjective".

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  13. @RS

    I don't think anything you've said here explicitly contradicts my insight(s) - at least not without contradicting hers as well.

    I think the issue is the criterion for selecting "objective" personal preferences (which is certainly a contradiction of terms in the praxeological sense). By "objective", of course, she means within one's rational self-interest. Determining what qualifies as such is a little more tedious a discussion. For certain we can say that acting, or more to the point - being forced to act, on others' preferences does not fall under the rubric of rational self-interest. This was largely the point I was making. I don't think you'd find contention with that part.

    So then I'm left to assume that you feel there's an implicit assumption I'm making that all personal preferences are in one's self-interest and are therefore not altruistic - and you find this to (explicitly) not be what she was saying.

    Admittedly, as a Misesian, I'm going to contend that it's pretty silly to look at personal preference as being either irrational or not in one's self-interest. So even if that is what Rand was ultimately saying, I don't think it follows (logically) from other portions of her philosophy. However, I don't think we have to speculate too much as Rand herself breaks down the somewhat false dichotomy in her writing on love (and also in personal interviews).

    There is a flavor of objectivism that flatly says that anything which doesn't directly benefit you isn't an objectively rational end. Well, this clearly depends on a subjective interpretation of benefit. Rand herself, for instance, supported her husband financially, but she never felt that giving to him wasn't in her rational self-interest...because she loved ("valued") him and therefore sacrificing for him was clearly rational. In that way, if I value or love my friends, neighbors, countrymen (etc), it's not clear that acting on their wants and needs is explicitly selfless (even if we ignore the subjective nature of preference in the first place). So, somewhat clearly, in the Randian universe determining whether an action on behalf of someone else is self-interested or not depends on knowing the subjective value one places on that individual. So while we can clearly parse action outside of personal preference as "altruistic", finding actions inside of personal preference as such seems somewhat more troublesome.

    To be fair, she seemed to contradict herself at times (particularly in her public rhetoric in later life), so it's easy to get confused regarding how she viewed some things. However, it's hard to look at her personal life, her writing on love, and her intermittent defense of personal charity (against the accusations of her critics) and conclude that she had a clearly "objective" (pun intended) dichotomy between selfish and selfless that was detached from specific individuals' values and preferences themselves.

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