Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Answering a Critic of Ayn Rand

The buzz about Atlas Shrugged is attracting attention on the left as well. Below is a response I typed to one of Ayn Rand's many new critics out there in the blogosphere.

We have a very different perspective on Rand's philosophy. What I see at it's core is a passionate love of man at his best. Far from being soulless, it reunifies man's body and soul and delivers them from the mind/body dichotomy that we inherited from Plato.

As for emotions, they are neither denied nor ignored by Objectivism. Rand was not advocating some sort of Vulcan approach to life. She would have considered it anti-human. Emotions, according to Rand, are automated value judgments. They are the summation of our previous thinking, and a reflection of previous evaluations. As such, they are not a primary source of knowledge. They only tell us what we already think, so they are only as good as the thinking that went into creating them. If our emotions seem to conflict with reason, that's not a sign that we should chose between reason and emotion, it's a sign that we should do more thinking to find the source of the conflict. It could be that our previous evaluation needs to be revised, or it could be that we've made an error in our current reasoning.

I don't know about you, but I find that a very reasonable and sane approach to the issue of emotions and reason. It disparages neither and fits both into their proper place. It is human in the best sense, because it appreciates the value of emotions in human experience while maintaining reason as our only source of knowledge. We should be neither emotional basket-cases following wherever whim takes us, nor repressed robots ignoring our feelings.

I agree with you that those who think they can mix Christianity and Objectivism are misguided. I view that as I view the attempt to merge Enlightenment values with Christianity. It certainly improved Christianity, but in the long-term I think it undermined the Enlightenment. Watering down poison will improve one's chances of surviving, but it would be better to give up the poison altogether.

Atlas Shrugged was not meant to be a realistic blueprint for how to accelerate the collapse of society. Its theme is the role of reason in human society. In order to dramatize the effect when a society abandons reason, the events and cast of characters are necessarily compressed. It took Roman civilization 500 yrs to collapse after the abandonment of the Republic. Rand chose to show that process in accelerated fasion, and as the result of a conscious withdrawal of reason from society, rather than the slow brain drain that occurs in a society in decline. The effect is far more dramatic and exciting.

Those who understand the strike as simply a tax revolt have missed the point of the story. Those who think of it as class warfare in which the rich win, have missed the point of the story. Rand's key identification was the immorality of the initiation of force by one man against another, or by a government against its citizens. As a corollary, she rejected all the spurious justifications for such force that have been advanced over the ages: right of conquest, divine right, the superiority of an elite, racial supremacy, vox populi vox dei, the needs of the many, etc, etc. Men do not own other men, neither in part nor in whole.

That is the moral point. There is also the practical point that societies based on enslavement inevitably crumble. Force drives out reason. You force a man to work, but you can't force him to think. All you can make him do is perform a set of manual tasks that you give him. In a society run on force innovation dies. The society deteriorates to a subsitence level, which is all that slavery is capable of maintaining over any period of time. The process of deterioration might be slower or faster given other factors, but it happens. The society becomes stagnant until it is swallowed up by a more dynamic culture.

You maintain that there will always be another titan to take the place of the ones who quit, but that is emphatically not true. In a culture that makes a point of cutting its titans off at the knees, people will stop trying to rise. No one will take up the burden of such a thankless job. They won't think, "Ah! Here's an opportunity for me!" They will think, "If they did that to him, what will they do to me?" They may not know enough to walk away from their job, but they know enough to keep their heads down. They know not to offer innovation where innovation is punished, not to work harder when hard work is for suckers. Not only that, but as the burden of society shifts ever downward, from the titans to the giants to the stalwart to the weary, more and more people find themselves cast in the role of sacrificial victim for the group. Eventually, you end up with a small, elite group at the top--call them aristocrats or call them commissars--living off the labor of the overburdened masses. That is not some airy theory, it is what happened when Rome fell, and it is what happened under communism.

You are correct, though, when you say that people who talk about reducing their productivity as a way of "going Galt" are not really emulating Galt. They are not walking away completely. They are shrugging, however. They are not completely rejecting our society yet, but they are showing definite signs of apathy towards its survival. They are not the $250k/yr wage earners either. It may not be entirely accurate to call them Galts, but they feel the same thing that Galt felt when he walked away from the 20th Century Motor Company. They are tired of their lives being regarded as the property of other men. Those are the people for whom Ayn Rand wrote, not just the titans, but all of us. She gave us the words to express the idea, and the moral courage to say, "Enough!"

1 comment:

Dan said...

Should I put my response here? :)