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Objectivism: System Needs Updates

ayn-rands-philosophyMost libertarians agree that Ayn Rand got some things right. Objectivism was her brainchild, a product of individualism, laissez faire capitalism, and rational self-interest. Her work, while often controversial, was widely published and it greatly influenced modern libertarian philosophy.

Born in the Russian Empire at the height of Tsar Nicolas II’s rule, Rand witnessed the fall of the Romanov dynasty, the turmoil of the October Revolution, the bloodshed of the subsequent civil war, and the rise of the communist Soviet Union. After her emigration to the United States in 1926, she realized the potential of the free market, threw herself into producing written works, and began publishing. By 1936, she had produced her first successful work, We the Living. This was shortly followed by her 1937 work, Anthem that spurred her on into a career of activism the following decade. Later, works like The Fountainhead (1943), Atlas Shrugged (1957), and The Virtue of Selfishness (1964) would come to define Rand as a philosopher – not just a novelist.

Like many young libertarians, I entered the libertarian world through exposure to Rand’s work. I have Ayn Rand to thank for finding libertarianism early in high school and becoming politically active in the libertarian movement. Even after leaving behind Objectivism for the broader libertarian community, I spent a considerable amount of time studying Rand, reading almost everything she’s written, and attending conferences about her and her work. If anything, her work is engaging. However, by the time I entered my first year of college, I already had problems with her philosophy and those problems would only continue to grow.

While textbooks can be written about Rand’s deductive shortfalls, the most glaring holes in Objectivism lie at the forefront of the philosophy – especially in the areas of epistemology and ethics.

Issues with Objectivist Epistemology:

Epistemologically, Rand presented several inconsistencies in her writings over the years; she conflates judgement formation, rejects sources of cognition on the basis that they lack rationality, and fails to understand the roles of physiological input and any questionable validity therein.

Philosopher Roderick Long does a great job of discussing Rand’s conflation issues in his work Reason and Value: Aristotle versus Rand (2000). He argues that Rand conflates formation of judgements with the justification of judgements. In essence, she assumes the integrity of sensory data without explaining how propositionally structured perception validates it.

In Rand’s The Virtue of Selfishness (1964), she discusses the role of emotions in understanding the world. She claims, “while the standard of value operating the physical pleasure-pain mechanism of man’s body is automatic and innate, determined by the nature of his body—the standard of value operating his emotional mechanism, is not.”

On one hand, we’re looking at the implied dichotomization of the innate mind – the instinctual or primal self – as it reacts to sensory input and the calculated mind, which, while also primal, justifies any subsequent output in the name of self-preservation. On the other hand, we’re looking at a position, which lacks the nuance of modern psychology and philosophy.

Putting emotion on the back burner effectively denies the human condition. However, the human condition and the supremacy of humankind’s mental processes are central points to the individualist pinnacle that Objectivism calls for. Essentially, Rand is trying to have her cake and eat it too.

Rand continues to issue delineations regarding the validity of output. In For the New Intellectual (1961), she contends, “…senses cannot deceive… physical objects cannot act without causes… organs of perception are physical and have no volition, no power to invent or to distort . . . the evidence they give him is an absolute…”

In essence, Rand argues that the physiological nature of perception lends it absolute validity. This becomes incredibly confusing when Rand begins talking about things like “optical illusions,” writing them off to conceptual errors as opposed to errors in the body’s physiological input mechanisms. All one needs to do is open a psychology textbook; the argument falls apart in the face of modern medicine.

Issues with Objectivist Ethics:

Nozick makes a great point regarding one of the inconsistencies. He points out that Rand conflates “moral priority” and “physical priority” quite casually. It’s a point I’ve been tackling for a while: that her arguments for the irreconcilable relationship between self-sacrifice and “logical behavior” are built on circular reasoning.

“Moral priority,” a relatively abstract method of value assignment, is unique to “physical priority” because it can lead to grim moral choices – that is, choices that result in the individual’s death. This kind of priority is final and eliminates any possible future values the individual could have gained. “Physical priority,” a method of value assignment that Rand designates as innately logical (Virtue of Selfishness), is relatively non-dynamic, characterizing the core of Objectivism’s argument for selfishness and the integrity of one’s person.

These appear to be two types of priorities, which, in an individual’s daily life, inform each other healthily. They’re not so much ideas that should be pitted against each other; they are extremes on a spectrum that individuals use in order to assign values at any given point in time.

However, Rand integrates the two repeatedly, arguing that “moral priority” is logically informed by “physical priority” and that they’re not separate at all. In this conflation, she doesn’t incorporate a nuanced understanding of the differentiation between “measurable value” and “expected value.” [A “measurable value” is a present, definite quantifiable value assigned to making some choice based on observable data. An “expected value” is a future, probabilistic quantifiable value assigned to making some choice based on predicted data.]

Before deciding to uphold the logical supremacy of “physical priority” as the ultimate tool for decision-making, Rand should have considered the following series of premises and conclusions.

  1. “Expected value” ceases to be relevant if and once a grim moral choice is made (a choice resulting in the individual’s death).
  2. When we make logical choices, the “present self” provides the only definite quantifiable data source by which values can be assigned. We can observe and record data definitively in the present and confidently assign values based on that data.
  3. In tandem with the second statement, when we make logical choices, the “future self” can only provide a probabilistic quantified data source by which values can be assigned. Logically, an individual can only make speculative predictions about future data and assign values within a limited level of confidence, but for the predictions to be confident, the individual must use relevant data from past observations.
  4. Making logical choices based on definite quantifiable “measurable values” relies on observable data and the values that an individual assigns based on that data.
  5. In tandem with the fourth statement, making logical choices based on probabilistic quantifiable “expected values” relies on an assumption that those values will remain uniform long enough to hold BOTH accurate AND relevant at a given point further along the timeline of an individual’s life.
  6. An individual’s final choice between a definite quantifiable value and a probabilistic quantifiable value is logically derived by assessing the difference between final measurable value and the final expected value. [The “final measurable value” is the sum of the definite quantifiable value, the definite quantifiable value’s reliability, and the opportunity costs of not waiting to choose the probabilistic quantifiable value. The “final expected value” is the sum of the probabilistic quantifiable value, the probabilistic quantifiable value’s reliability, and the opportunity costs of not choosing the definite quantifiable value.]
  7. Choices made based on definite quantifiable values (measurable values) that are relatively lower can therefore override choices made based on probabilistic quantifiable values (expected values) that are relatively higher if an individual perceives that the former are more dependable.
  8. If the definite quantifiable value represents a choice of “moral priority” over “physical priority” while the probabilistic quantifiable value represents a choice of “physical priority” over “moral priority,” an individual only needs to derive that the “final measurable value” is greater than the “final expected value.” If the definite quantifiable value represents a grim moral choice, an individual only needs to derive a lower “final expected value” (including a lifetime of opportunity costs) than the “final measurable value.”

The circular reasoning comes in when Rand attempts to use the conflation of a realistically dichotomous conceptualization of priority as proof of the irrationality of non-physically prioritized behavior. In order for this conflation of ideas to be valid, it requires the assumption that physical priority is and only is the logical decision, but that’s what Rand is supposed to be proving. She never produces a consequent to qualify her antecedent before making her conclusion, so her argument crumbles and we’re left with a measly opinion.

Overall, Objectivism continues to appeal to the libertarian community for its individualist rhetoric and promotion of free market values, but if the philosophy and its adherents are to continue to remain relevant, it needs to adapt and shift.

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Mike Avi

Mike Avi is a student at Florida State University studying Economics and Portuguese. He is president of the university's College Libertarians RSO and a Campus Coordinator for Students for Liberty.

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