Toward the end of my recent interview on “The Atlasphere, Kurt Keefner asked me whether I am an Objectivist. I answered no. Comments by two readers–one brief and friendly, the other sneering and combative–asked why not. Before I give my reasons, I want to make a few remarks about the second comment, which I reprint here because I get so many like it whenever I speak or write about Ayn Rand.
“Because Heller is not an Objectivist,” the commentator writes, “she is incapable of going to fundamentals in doing a bio on Ayn Rand, other than some sort of journalistic exposition of simple facts without analysis. But even this would be compromised by the *choice* of facts to focus on.
“She doesn’t understand that you evaluate moral ideas by their relationship to reality, not [as Heller wrote] ‘evaluating their effects in the lives of those who try to practice them, particularly their creators.’ The latter, instead, tells you how well those people are *executing* the moral ideals. Heller’s approach is utilitarian. Little wonder she mentions Marx.
“She doesn’t understand that genius is defined by single-minded focus on the facts of reality, taking those facts (inductively) and extrapolating extensively into generalities and conclusions that are true. Karl Marx was *not* one of those people. Marx worked backwards (deductively) from altruistic intent (“social good”) without regard for facts, such as the efficacy of the human mind, the hegemony of individuals, the right to non-initiation of force, etc. To compare Marx to Rand belies a gross misunderstanding of fundamentals and genius.
“Why didn’t Keefner ask Heller *why* she was not an Objectivist? The answer to that question would give some indication of Heller’s own dishonesty in relation to reality and enlighten potential readers of her book of the landmines awaiting.”
I’ll assume that the reader is a so-called Objectivist. Three decades after Rand’s death, some men and women calling themselves Objectivists (a title Rand explicitly reserved for herself and a pair of early followers) have adopted a strategy adherents used in her lifetime to stave off critics and equivocators–that is, to claim that anyone not agreeing with all Rand’s ideas is by definition benighted, probably evil (“punishing the good for being good”), and not worth listening to on the face of it. A wonderful tautology! It let Ayn Rand choose not to read books she knew she probably wouldn’t like and yet publicly condemn them. It may perform the same service for my anonymous critic.
To assume that your intellectual adversary is an idiot or just plain wrong also lets you misquote or misconstrue him. Why should you treat what he says or writes with respect? Thus my critic has self-righteously given a false impression of what I intended to convey about the relationship between Rand’s ideas and her life. Here’s the full quotation from the interview:
Interviewer: How deep into Rand’s ideas do you think one has to go to understand her as a person? She was a philosopher after all.
Heller: I think you have to understand them thoroughly in order to understand anything about her. She devoted her life to ideas.
Furthermore, what is interesting about the woman is her mind; the reason I wrote the book was to find out to my satisfaction how and why her mind worked the way it did.
That said, I think the other side of the coin — evaluating moral ideas by their effects in the lives of those who try to practice them, particularly their creators — is legitimate and even necessary.
As to the ridiculous idea that a biographer has to agree with a subject’s views and methods in order to shed light on the subject’s life and works, about whom else would my critic say that? Marx? Dewey? Kant? Like them, Rand set herself up as a moral pathfinder and a secular oracle. In Intellectuals, Paul Johnson noted that he wanted to focus on the “moral and judgmental credentials” of certain modern intellectuals whose mission was to tell mankind how to conduct itself. How did they–Rousseau, Marx, Tolstoy–run their own lives? he asked. There is no reason not to ask the same of Rand.
One more thing: How are Rand’s precepts, “the efficacy of the human mind, the hegemony of individuals, the right to the non-initiation of force,” facts? They are assertions–good ones to be sure–which are considered facts by Objectivists only because Ayn Rand held them to be true. And by the way, the first two do not apply to those “subnormal” people Rand made sport of in The Fountainhead, do they? But then, as Rand wrote to Isabel Paterson in 1948, “It is possible that the entire human race, with the exception of me, might become collectivist–and I will then damn the whole bunch of them without damning man as such. I do not form any conception of the nature of man by counting numbers.” Here is Rand at her inductive (and solipsistic) best.
This is one reason I’m not an Objectivist.
Another reason is that I don’t agree that man (qua man!) is the overweening value in the universe. In this scheme of things, to demand to breathe clean air is to be anti-industry and anti-reason. To love open fields and the smell of the earth is to hate mankind. While I agree with Rand that science and the profit motive may eventually combine to resolve some of the problems that science and the profit motive have created, I don’t want children, old people, or poor people to die while we wait. I favor government regulation.
While “man” may not be–is surely not–“the means to the ends of others” [“Introducing Objectivism,” in The Objectivist Newsletter from August, 1962], neither is he “an end in himself.” Putting aside Rand’s notion that “there are no conflicts of interests among rational men” (which even Alan Greenspan renounced in 2008), this gives me license not only to litter (alongside James Watts) but also to steal (with Goldman Sachs). This is what Whittaker Chambers was driving at when, in his 1957 review of Atlas Shrugged, he wrote, “So Randian Man, at least in his ruling caste, has to be held ‘heroic’ in order not to be beastly.”
According to Rand’s now-elderly New York City doctor, Murray Dworetski, Nathaniel Branden once told him that all streets and roads should be in private hands. But how would that work? Dworetski asked. People would pay tolls, said Branden. Dworetski remembered laughing. Would each city street–61st, 62nd, Lexington Avenue, 112th Street–be owned by a separate individual charging a separate toll? Perhaps, said Branden, apparently not seeing the humor or the resulting traffic jams.
I have learned a lot from Rand–that people’s wishes are not necessarily my commands, even if I sympathise with them; that duty can be a logical trap. I appreciate her dedication to principles, to freedom, and to civil liberties. But I also like the social contract that requires that we maintain public spaces and educate everyone, including those who wouldn’t or couldn’t educate themselves, and that we not let our civil society become unbalanced by too great a division between the rich and the rest of us.