Objectivism: A Reader Comments and Heller Responds

Two weeks ago, in through the transom came a long and thoughtful comment by a reader calling himself Michael M. His purpose was to point out mistakes he thought I had made in my critique of Objectivism and the Objectivist movement (“Why I am Not an Objectivist,” 4/20/2010). Another mistake policeman! I thought. And another one who apparently hadn’t read the book I wrote before hauling me off to duffer’s jail! Still, the writer made many interesting, if orthodox Objectivist, points. Here is his letter, in full, and  his letter with my responses below it. I’d like to hear from anyone who wants to chime in.

12 Reasons the Author Cannot Be an Objectivist, by Michael M.

2010/5/10 at 4:26 pm

Ms. Heller,
Here are 12 different reasons why you are indeed not an Objectivist that you should deal with if you ever intend to publicly defend your position again:

1. “… 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) The thoughts and actions of “some men and women calling themselves Objectivists” are not relevant to the validity of Rand’s philosophy. It consists of a specific body of ideas each of which is valid or not solely on the merit of its content.

b) In one of the earlier TV interviews of Rand making the rounds on YouTube, the interviewer stumbles over what to call her followers, and she volunteers, “Objectivists.” Much later, grasping no doubt the dangers of an explosion of self-styled spokes-persons, she made the distinction between herself, the creator of the philosophy plus the few whose writings and speeches were subject to her approval and the rest of us who were just “students of Objectivism.” The utility of that distinction was rendered meaningless by her death, since at that point, the philosophy became forever a closed body of ideas to which no one could add anything more.

c) There is nothing in Objectivism to suggest that a failure to agree with every tenet makes one benighted or evil. To the contrary, all of Rand’s intellectual heroes whose achievements she urged us to emulate agreed with all of her ideas: in philosophy, Aristotle and Aquinas; in literature, Hugo and Dostoevsky; in music, Rachmaninoff and Chopin; in art, Vermeer and Salvador Dali. The hallmark of objective judgment that was her first great lesson to me was to formulate one’s judgments in terms of “because of” and “in spite of” to account for each aspect as consistent or contradictory to reality. The term “evil” was reserved for those who were consistently and consciously committed to anti-life positions and actions. That you felt it necessary to camouflage your accusation in the anonymous “some men and women” reduces your conflation of disagreement with evil to a cheap shot.

2.”… 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.”

…as long as you remain aware that not even the actions of Ayn Rand herself bear on the validity of the ideas that are the content of her philosophy. I repeat: ideas stand or fall on the merit of their content alone, not on what others do with them.

3. “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.”

a) Casting doubt on the efficacy of the human mind is self refuting, since the mind that casts it implicitly admits to its own lack of efficacy first.

b) Objectivism does not advocate the hegemony of individuals as a fact. It advocates as a fact the right of human beings to be free from hegemony if they so choose.

c) That human beings survive and thrive solely by applying reason to action in the service of life is a fact. That humans are volitional and therefore fallible is a fact. That physical force is the only means to interfere with the volitional application of reason to action is a fact. That the freedom from coercion by physical force or the threat thereof initiated by other fallible men in applying your own reason to your own actions in the service of your own life is a right precondition for human life is a fact.

d) No Objectivist has ever considered anything to be a fact only because Ayn Rand held it to be true, because entertaining such a notion would disqualify one from being an Objectivist in the first place. The philosophy specifically condemns such other directed standards and demands that everything anyone accepts to be true be independently validated. One cannot violate that principle and simultaneously claim to be its advocate.

4. “‘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 has already been refuted by two commenters above. Ditto.

5. “Another reason is that I don’t agree that man (qua man!) is the overweening value in the universe.”

The single most fundamental choice facing a human being is life or death. The choice to pursue life instead of death implicitly establishes life as the overweening value against which all other values shall be measured. But given the fact of volition, there are two possible definitions of “life” qua standard: 1) life that is consistent with and fulfills the potential of what a human being essentially is — i.e., one’s human nature (qua man), or 2) life contrary to and in defiance of one’s nature. There are no other alternatives, and I wonder what led you to prefer the latter and what you expect mankind to gain from lives of self-contradiction.

6. “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.”

Your slanderous hyperbole aside, your failure to comprehend the moral imperative to refrain from initiating physical force (as in 3c above) to gain, withhold, or destroy the values of other men makes your ends-justifies-the-means support of government regulation a forgone conclusion. It has obviously not yet occurred to you that absent government regulatory coercion, men would be amply able to establish other means of non-violent persuasion and protection. That does not easily occur, of course, to someone who doubts the efficacy of the human mind; but what pray tell makes the minds of government regulators any more efficacious?

7 “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.”

If Rand is correct in naming life v. death as man’s most fundamental alternative, one’s choice to pursue life — one’s own life — makes it the end goal and highest value. If you think that is incorrect, you need to name a more fundamental alternative that could establish some other end as primary. Your position, as it stands now, is just a wish to have it both ways at the same time.

8. “Putting aside Rand’s notion that “there are no conflicts of interests among rational men” (which even Alan Greenspan renounced in 2008), …”

And why would you put that notion aside? If you are thinking of differences in concrete interests instead of differences in principle, you are in the wrong context.

What Greenspan renounced in 2008, was his own fantasy that liberty would engender a kind of virtuous omniscience in men. I do not know where he got that idea, but it certainly was not from Ayn Rand.

9. “… 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.’”

How precisely does holding your own life qua man as your goal and standard of value give you a license to litter and steal? You have failed to grasp the most elementary fact about individual rights that permeates Rand’s writings throughout. Namely, that rights protecting the autonomy of individuals impose on each of them the imperative to refrain from violating the same rights of other individuals.

10. “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.”

You are hopelessly concrete bound. “How would that work” is an interesting question not only when asked about the task of supplying roadways without resorting to the threat of physical force to finance them, but also for every other possible supply and demand problem one can imagine in a society of men. None of such questions nor their answers have any bearing on the question of whether or not human interrelationships — including their exchanges of values — should be voluntary or may be compelled by others.

So here you are again implying that the ends justify the means when the means require the taking of values by force from your fellow human beings in order to get the results that you want. And once again you have assumed the worst consequence that no one would ever tolerate and underestimated the capacity of men to provide roads for the cars that they somehow miraculously can provide without government coerced financing. You haven’t even bothered to recognize how complex is the problem of connecting the population of earth with instantaneous exchange of ideas like the one we enjoy in this blog, how little it costs, and how smoothly it runs — not to mention the notion that it only exists because governments have for the most part kept their distance from this achievement.

11. “But I also like the social contract that requires that we maintain A) public spaces and B) 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 C) division between the rich and the rest of us.”

And how did you answer Rand’s question, “at whose expense? and by what standard?” There is no social contract that would justify the imposition of unchosen obligations on any human being — not individually, not by majority, not even by unanimity. You have no basis to claim that right over the lives of others except your own inability to imagine how problems could ever be solved without resorting to coercion. That does not suffice. Warm fuzzy feelings are no base for a moral politics.

12. In sum, you have grossly underestimated the depth of Objectivism. The necessity to focus in your task on the dates and details of Rand’s life left you insufficient time for a serious effort to understand her philosophy. Your attempts to apply it to everyday life are perforated with your own false assumptions. You have succumbed to the most common error of all in considering it. This error was perfectly stated above in the comment by Jeff Montgomery (emphasis added):

“However, I also don’t hold non-Objectivists to the same philosophical standard as those who have been studying the philosophy by itself for an extended period of time. Even some alleged Objectivists don’t understand her philosophy, and apply it poorly. It is deceptively simple, yet actually profound, and confounds anyone who views it through the lens of common premises and colloquial definitions.”

Some Reasons Why the Author Doesn’t Want to Be an Objectivist: A Dialogue

MM:
Here are 12 different reasons why you are indeed not an Objectivist that you should deal with if you ever intend to publicly defend your position again:

1. “… 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) The thoughts and actions of “some men and women calling themselves Objectivists” are not relevant to the validity of Rand’s philosophy. It consists of a specific body of ideas each of which is valid or not solely on the merit of its content.

ACH:
Well said. However, I was responding to an Objectivist letter writer whose tone of contempt I was describing in its historical context. This was not a condemnation of Rand’s ideas, as the sentence makes clear. It was a note upon the unsavory company in which members of the Objectivist movement must often find themselves, which is one reason I am not an Objectivist.

MM:
b) In one of the earlier TV interviews of Rand making the rounds on YouTube, the interviewer stumbles over what to call her followers, and she volunteers, “Objectivists.” Much later, grasping no doubt the dangers of an explosion of self-styled spokes-persons, she made the distinction between herself, the creator of the philosophy plus the few whose writings and speeches were subject to her approval and the rest of us who were just “students of Objectivism.” The utility of that distinction was rendered meaningless by her death, since at that point, the philosophy became forever a closed body of ideas to which no one could add anything more.

ACH:
b) On the contrary. Upon her death, Rand’s novels, essays, letters, etc. became a closed body of work. But ideas, by their nature, are open to explication, testing, expansion, criticism, and reinterpretation. This is as true of Rand as of Dewey, Tolstoy, or Freud. Your last sentence repeats a common assertion among Objectivists, but what is your authority for the assertion? And who can expect to succeed in controlling the use to which one’s ideas are put from beyond the grave?

MM:
c) There is nothing in Objectivism to suggest that a failure to agree with every tenet makes one benighted or evil. To the contrary, all of Rand’s intellectual heroes whose achievements she urged us to emulate agreed with all of her ideas: in philosophy, Aristotle and Aquinas; in literature, Hugo and Dostoevsky; in music, Rachmaninoff and Chopin; in art, Vermeer and Salvador Dali. The hallmark of objective judgment that was her first great lesson to me was to formulate one’s judgments in terms of “because of” and “in spite of” to account for each aspect as consistent or contradictory to reality. The term “evil” was reserved for those who were consistently and consciously committed to anti-life positions and actions. That you felt it necessary to camouflage your accusation in the anonymous “some men and women” reduces your conflation of disagreement with evil to a cheap shot.

ACH:
c) At her best, Rand encouraged serious, complex thinking about fundamental questions. At her worst, she had no interest in any thinking other than her own. But in the passage you quote I am not referring to Rand or her system of ideas but rather to her adherents who call themselves Objectivists. Please read some of the responses to Anthony Daniels’s essay, “Ayn Rand: Engineer of Souls” in the February 2010 issue of The New Criterion (http://www.newcriterion.com/articles.cfm/Ayn-Rand–engineer-of-souls-4385) and “The Ayn Rand Follies” in the March issue (http://www.newcriterion.com/articles.cfm/The-Ayn-Rand-follies-5175) for some colorful examples of Objectivist closed-mindedness and agitation.

MM:
2.”… 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.”

…as long as you remain aware that not even the actions of Ayn Rand herself bear on the validity of the ideas that are the content of her philosophy. I repeat: ideas stand or fall on the merit of their content alone, not on what others do with them.

ACH:
Rand called her system of ideas a philosophy for living on earth. What in the world can you mean by “the merit of their [the ideas’] content” if merit doesn’t lie in their power to guide us to a more joyful and productive, or at least more interesting, life? Does their merit lie in internal consistency?

MM:
3. “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.”

a) Casting doubt on the efficacy of the human mind is self refuting, since the mind that casts it implicitly admits to its own lack of efficacy first.

ACH:
Yes, I too have read Rand on the fallacy of the Stolen Concept, meaning (for those who aren’t familiar with the term) to use a concept or an idea while denying the legitimacy of the very same concept or idea, such as to doubt one’s own existence when existence is a precursor of doubt. (Alan Greenspan is famous for taking this stance early in his Objectivist career). Yet I don’t know of any proof that we humans are aware of every fact or law that might affirm or refute the mind’s (total) efficacy.

MM:
b) Objectivism does not advocate the hegemony of individuals as a fact. It advocates as a fact the right of human beings to be free from hegemony if they so choose.

ACH:
I think the original commentator was using “hegemony” to mean control over one’s own destiny. I was responding to him.

MM:
c) That human beings survive and thrive solely by applying reason to action in the service of life is a fact. That humans are volitional and therefore fallible is a fact. That physical force is the only means to interfere with the volitional application of reason to action is a fact. That the freedom from coercion by physical force or the threat thereof initiated by other fallible men in applying your own reason to your own actions in the service of your own life is a right precondition for human life is a fact.

ACH:
I can think of at least one exception to each of your statements of “fact.” (In some people, for example, greed or lust can interfere with reason and often does.) But each exception is probably an aberration. In general, these are important principles of human advancement, I agree.

MM:
d) No Objectivist has ever considered anything to be a fact only because Ayn Rand held it to be true, because entertaining such a notion would disqualify one from being an Objectivist in the first place. The philosophy specifically condemns such other directed standards and demands that everything anyone accepts to be true be independently validated. One cannot violate that principle and simultaneously claim to be its advocate.

ACH:
If you say so. (Have you read my book?)

MM:
4. “‘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 has already been refuted by two commenters above. Ditto.

ACH:
In this formulation, Rand is the black swan. (It is axiomatic that all swans are white—until a black swan turns up.) But if Rand perceives that she is different from the rest of her species, and thereby redefines the species, what is she using for a mirror? It’s an interesting question, as mirror imagery pervades her novels. Where she finds her mirrors is one of the lines of inquiry I follow in my book.

MM:
5. “Another reason is that I don’t agree that man (qua man!) is the overweening value in the universe.”

The single most fundamental choice facing a human being is life or death. The choice to pursue life instead of death implicitly establishes life as the overweening value against which all other values shall be measured. But given the fact of volition, there are two possible definitions of “life” qua standard: 1) life that is consistent with and fulfills the potential of what a human being essentially is — i.e., one’s human nature (qua man), or 2) life contrary to and in defiance of one’s nature. There are no other alternatives, and I wonder what led you to prefer the latter and what you expect mankind to gain from lives of self-contradiction.

ACH:
Nonsense, I say. While this is a useful abstract distinction for Rand’s overall philosophical stance, many an intelligent thinker has identified other competing values in the human universe: a reverence for custom vs. a love of change, patriotism vs. a right to life, freedom vs. security. If I cherish a value that Rand rejected—such as the free nature of affection (vs. love as “spiritual payment” for pleasure received)—does that really make me a death worshipper?

MM:
6. “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.”

Your slanderous hyperbole aside, your failure to comprehend the moral imperative to refrain from initiating physical force (as in 3c above) to gain, withhold, or destroy the values of other men makes your ends-justifies-the-means support of government regulation a forgone conclusion. It has obviously not yet occurred to you that absent government regulatory coercion, men would be amply able to establish other means of non-violent persuasion and protection. That does not easily occur, of course, to someone who doubts the efficacy of the human mind; but what pray tell makes the minds of government regulators any more efficacious?

ACH:
Slanderous? Hyperbolic, maybe. But no more so than your “forgone conclusion[s] and “failure[s] to comprehend.”

Though I may be a dim bulb who doubts the power of the human mind (as you assert), I am familiar with the idea of spontaneous order. I would argue that spontaneous order is a precursor of government, not a replacement for it. I’m of the view that government may properly be licensed to intervene in cases in which the citizenry is overpowered (meaning coerced) and there is no other form of redress. The Gulf oil spill is an example.

MM:
7. “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.”

If Rand is correct in naming life v. death as man’s most fundamental alternative, one’s choice to pursue life — one’s own life — makes it the end goal and highest value. If you think that is incorrect, you need to name a more fundamental alternative that could establish some other end as primary. Your position, as it stands now, is just a wish to have it both ways at the same time.

ACH:
I do like to have it both ways when I can. I also like this quote from Russell Kirk: “Order and justice and freedom, [conservatives] believe, are the artificial products of a long and painful social experience, the results of centuries of  trial and reflection and sacrifice.” In this sense, like it or not, we act as a bridge to the future.

MM:
8. “Putting aside Rand’s notion that “there are no conflicts of interests among rational men” (which even Alan Greenspan renounced in 2008), …”

And why would you put that notion aside? If you are thinking of differences in concrete interests instead of differences in principle, you are in the wrong context.

ACH:
Yes, I am thinking of concrete interests. What are you thinking of?

MM:
What Greenspan renounced in 2008, was his own fantasy that liberty would engender a kind of virtuous omniscience in men. I do not know where he got that idea, but it certainly was not from Ayn Rand.

ACH:
What Greenspan renounced in 2008 were the ideas he articulated in his 1963 essay, “The Assault on Integrity,” first published in Rand’s newsletter, The Objectivist, evey word of which she edited and approved. He wrote, “Capitalism is based on self-interest and self-esteem; it holds integrity and trustworthiness as cardinal virtues and makes them pay off in the marketplace, thus demanding that men survive by means of virtue, not vices. It is this superlatively moral system that the welfare statists propose to improve upon by means of preventative law, snooping bureaucrats, and the chronic goad of fear.”

In October 2008, he testified before a House committee,  saying, “As I wrote last March: those of us who have looked to the self-interest of lending institutions to protect shareholder’s equity (myself especially) are in a state of shocked disbelief,” and,  “There are additional regulatory changes that this breakdown of the central pillar of competitive markets requires in order to return to stability, particularly in the areas of fraud, settlement, and securitization.”

MM:
9. “… 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.’”

How precisely does holding your own life qua man as your goal and standard of value give you a license to litter and steal? You have failed to grasp the most elementary fact about individual rights that permeates Rand’s writings throughout. Namely, that rights protecting the autonomy of individuals impose on each of them the imperative to refrain from violating the same rights of other individuals.

ACH:
Do you believe in the perfectibility of man? I don’t.

MM:
10. “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.”

You are hopelessly concrete bound. “How would that work” is an interesting question not only when asked about the task of supplying roadways without resorting to the threat of physical force to finance them, but also for every other possible supply and demand problem one can imagine in a society of men. None of such questions nor their answers have any bearing on the question of whether or not human interrelationships — including their exchanges of values — should be voluntary or may be compelled by others.

So here you are again implying that the ends justify the means when the means require the taking of values by force from your fellow human beings in order to get the results that you want. And once again you have assumed the worst consequence that no one would ever tolerate and underestimated the capacity of men to provide roads for the cars that they somehow miraculously can provide without government coerced financing. You haven’t even bothered to recognize how complex is the problem of connecting the population of earth with instantaneous exchange of ideas like the one we enjoy in this blog, how little it costs, and how smoothly it runs — not to mention the notion that it only exists because governments have for the most part kept their distance from this achievement.

ACH:
I don’t especially—or at all–want government to build roads with tax dollars. But starting from this time and place, asking the question, “How would it work?” and expecting an answer that is not merely rhetorical isn’t unreasonable. Branden didn’t answer the doctor, and you didn’t answer me. The Objectivist proclivity to impugn rather than answer is another reason I’m not an Objectivist.

MM:
11. “But I also like the social contract that requires that we maintain A) public spaces and B) 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 C) division between the rich and the rest of us.”

And how did you answer Rand’s question, “at whose expense? and by what standard?” There is no social contract that would justify the imposition of unchosen obligations on any human being — not individually, not by majority, not even by unanimity. You have no basis to claim that right over the lives of others except your own inability to imagine how problems could ever be solved without resorting to coercion. That does not suffice. Warm fuzzy feelings are no base for a moral politics.

ACH:
Oh, dear, I’m being concrete-bound again, because I am looking to past examples and writings to instruct me about how a civil society may be maintained. As I understand the term “social contract,” it both preserves rights and imposes obligations, based on the consent of the majority of the governed and on the implicit consent involved in remaining where obligations are in force. The Preamble to the Constitution states its purpose as, in part, to promote the general welfare and secure “the blessings of liberty,” which Thomas Jefferson, among others, thought required education sufficient to elect good leaders. I think it’s a good thing if the governed consent to let the government (and other parties) provide schooling for all but not a good thing for the government to shoot or jail the uncompliant.

That said, “the social contract that requires” was a little strong.

MM:
12. In sum, you have grossly underestimated the depth of Objectivism. The necessity to focus in your task on the dates and details of Rand’s life left you insufficient time for a serious effort to understand her philosophy. Your attempts to apply it to everyday life are perforated with your own false assumptions. You have succumbed to the most common error of all in considering it.

ACH:
Have you read my book? Or do you adhere to Rand’s idea that to read a book you suspect you won’t agree with is to offer your sanction to the enemy and contribute to her coffers? How do you know anything about my time? I spent six years researching, reporting, and writing Ayn Rand and the World She Made. I am not so disrespectful of myself or of the remarkable Ayn Rand as to have (grossly or otherwise) underestimated the complexity of her work and the depth of her ideas. Although I was more interested in Rand’s literary than in her philosophical achievements, Will Thomas (Objectivist expert in residence at the Atlas Society), Timothy Sandfur, Robert Hessen, Al Ramrus, Nathaniel Branden, Henry Holzer—each of whom knows Rand’s thinking well—wrote to acknowledge my presentation of her ideas as clear, rich, and fair.

MM:
This error was perfectly stated above in the comment by Jeff Montgomery (emphasis added):

“However, I also don’t hold non-Objectivists to the same philosophical standard as those who have been studying the philosophy by itself for an extended period of time. Even some alleged Objectivists don’t understand her philosophy, and apply it poorly. It is deceptively simple, yet actually profound, and confounds anyone who views it through the lens of common premises and colloquial definitions.“

ACH:
In this blog, I plan to offer news and information about Rand and, occasionally, thoughts and inquiries Rand’s life and work have raised in my own mind. I hope and expect not to confuse readers as to which is which.

Thank you for taking the trouble to write so thoughtfully, Michael. And thank you, too, Jeff.

Anne C. Heller

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11 thoughts on “Objectivism: A Reader Comments and Heller Responds

  1. Frankly, I am amazed that Michael has so much free time to write such a response, that in itself amazes me.

    This seems to be a dialog between the two of you, I can see why you are reaching out for more opinions on this blog.

    When I have time to read through all this, I’ll be back with an intelligent thought and not an emotional response.

    Carry on ~ D. Lee

  2. Anne, you know I am a huge fan and I was intrigued by this dialogue. I thought, however, that one statement you made bears further discussion, and that is: “What in the world can you mean by ‘the merit of their [the ideas’] content’ if merit doesn’t lie in their power to guide us to a more joyful and productive, or at least more interesting, life? Does their merit lie in internal consistency?”

    I always become concerned when people judge the value of ideas on their ability to guide us for the simple reason that ideas so often misguide us. Think of all the people killed in the name of Christ, whose own ideas, as expressed in the Bible, are profoundly compassionate and pacifist; or of how the Nazis used Nietzsche to justify genocide. Perhaps the misuses to which great ideas may be put have to be weighed against all their inspirational value; but perhaps, too, I’m being too literal-minded.

    Admiringly,
    Marion

    • What an interesting comment, Marion.

      Certainly, ideas can be beautiful or fascinating without being “true,” in the sense of being recommended or even possible to act upon; I would classify Nietzsche’s idea of eternal recurrence or Tolstoy’s theories of art this way. But virtue and malice reside in the individual who uses or misuses Jesus’s or Nietzsche’s ideas, do they not? Rand explicitly claimed that her philosophy would lead to happiness for those who used it properly. She defined it thus: “My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.” She told her followers, “If your ideals are rational, and your moral principles are based on reality, there’s no conflict. The moral is the practical.”

      My point is not that we should want or expectto take ideas at face value as guides to living, but rather that Rand promoted her ideas as such and that, as a system, they didn’t work for her or others, though she claimed they would. I was asking the writer on what terms her ideas can be evaluated if not on her own terms.

      Does ythis make sense? Thanks for writing.

  3. You wrote, “many an intelligent thinker has identified other competing values in the human universe: a reverence for custom vs. a love of change, patriotism vs. a right to life, freedom vs. security” as if each of these competing value pairs are equal in the hierarchy of values. Ayn Rand identified the most fundamental value: life, and the alternative for living beings, non-life or death. She was not the first to identify it. In fact, when Descartes made his historic mistake, “I think, therefore I am,” Hamlet’s soliloquy was circulating in France, unattributed to Shakespeare, under the title, “Être ou non.” For a living being, “being” is being alive; not being alive is not “being” at all.

    In Objectivism, the point is that nothing is more fundamental to living beings than life because life is conditional — meaning action is required to sustain it. Without action, the being dies. It may be self-motivated, self-initiated action or it can be action initiated by another (a parent, a caregiver) or action commanded by the initiation of force against another. If you want to debate the relative merits of a reverence for custom vs. a love of change, patriotism vs. a right to life, freedom vs. security, you have to be alive to do it.

    The purpose of limited government is to protect individuals from the initiation of the use of force in violation of their rights by other individuals, by foreign governments, and, most forgotten today, by their own government.

    Michael M. has a clear understanding of Objectivism. I applaud his thorough understanding of Objectivism and that he took the time to present these points to you. I should note that I agree with it 99%. The only exception I make is the quibble: the statement about Objectivism on Rand’s death which you did see. Rand’s work became a closed body, but the philosophy of Objectivism is necessarily open-ended, since knowledge is open-ended and concepts are open-ended.

    Human beings do not have complete and perfect knowledge of the universe. There are innumerable discoveries to make and worlds to explore. Objectivism, the only philosophy based consistently on reality, reason, productiveness and pride is the philosophy best suited for making new discoveries and exploring the universe.

    A minor point: You comment that the fact that Michael M. is did not provide a specific answer as to how people would get around New York City if the streets were privately owned (as Branden avoided answering Dr. Dworetski), is a another reason you are not an Objectivist.

    In logic, this argument is known as “argumentum ad ignorantum,” argument from ignorance. To paraphrase, since neither Branden nor Michael M. provided a satisfactory answer to you on this subject, (since they are ignorant), that is a good reason to reject Objectivism (since you can’t think of an answer either).

    If you can image for one minute that the residents of the street would open or close their street (or charge tolls) based on some principle other than government coercion, you would see that there would be room for various approaches: tolls for some streets, open only to residents for others, maintenance borne by the resident businesses (especially appropriate for commercial streets) or other entrepreneurial arrangements yet to be imagined. Can you imagine that the owner of the street and the owners of the real estate bordering the street are or are not one and the same? I can imagine both ways. I can imagine that the policy regarding the street on which you live or have your business would be something you would want to know in advance of moving or opening a business there. It would be something for which you would want quiet enjoyment in your contract of sale or lease. It would be enforceable by law. There would be rules (agreed to by the owners and prospective owners) which would be subject to change only by a process like a co-op election or shareholders meeting, etc. If you didn’t like the rules, you would live or locate your business elsewhere.

    And if you and I can’t go to a very expensive section of the city without paying a fancy toll, then only the very rich will go there. But if the very rich do not like paying to go there (they may be stingy with their money), then the only alternative would be to lower or eliminate the toll so that more people could go and get money to maintain the street a different way. Oops! They can’t get the money from people who don’t go there, don’t want to go there, or never even heard of that street. Such is the power of capitalism: the individual makes the choice, not the government.

    It certainly seems to me that neither Branden nor Michael M. answered the question specifically because they were flabbergasted by the overwhelming number of possible answers and didn’t know where to start.

    Basically, you are saying that just because these two people didn’t answer such a question, there must not be an answer, so that is a good reason not to be an Objectivist. Lack of an answer to any question does not prove that the question is either unanswerable or unthinkable, which is what you imply.

    In summary, I believe that you are not an Objectivist because you do not see the need to be consistent in your views. One either has principles and tries to follow them as best as one can (acknowledging that infallibility is as much a myth as God), or one is a pragmatist, wanting to grab whatever seems to work along the lines of the “practical” ways that “practical” people deal with things without having to think too deeply about them.

    I think that any Objectivist reading your blog will be grateful for one thing especially — that you have the candor to say honestly that you are not an Objectivist, even if your reasons reveal your feelings, but certainly do not refute Objectivism as a philosophy.

  4. ACH: > tone of contempt

    one of the things i dislike about some objectivists is precisely the evident belief that speaking in tones of instant personal contempt, withdrawl, or haughtiness instances their morality. they should read AR’s letters – even as published – and see how politely she dealt with disagreement in the 40’s and 50’s and how much leeway she gave her correspondents. as she said in her final public address, “i subscribe to the principle, ‘present company excepted.” (i quote from memory. she also said, “however, if the shoe fits, wear it with my compliments”) even leonard peikoff has spoken out against inappropriate anger and judgment. most unfortunate, as in fact that’s one of the things that prevents objectivism from being taken seriously (and does have its roots in aspects of rand’s ideas, writing, and behavior).

    ACH: > ideas, by their nature, are open to explication, testing, expansion, criticism, and reinterpretation.

    true. but in a certain way that renders them outside a fixed body of work. (not a bad thing, but we have to stay clear about where an idea is placed – inside our outside a paradigm, including connotative/emotive baggage not always easy to detect). thus, for instance, a physicist who was not an objectivist might agree with some of her ideas on time, motion, or measurement and do work on/with them, but that would not affect the formal structure of her philosophy. in that sense, every philosophy worthy of the name is a “closed” system. (this does not mean i agree with rand’s system.)

    ACH: > controlling the use to which one’s ideas are put from beyond the grave?

    i think the concern on their part is controlling the purity of the fixed system. a concern across various domains, among objectivists. (the same concern, for instance, exists in what they want their selves to be. that’s how her heroes and villains are: basically fixed.)

    ACH: > What in the world can you mean by “the merit of their [the ideas’] content” if merit doesn’t lie in their power to guide us to a more joyful and productive, or at least more interesting, life?

    their main belief is that objectivism is true. and not only that it is true, but that it contains the necessary keys to human happiness and achievement. this cannot be underestimated in understanding objectivists: it is a fundamentally ethical/values-based vision (as we see from the progress of rand’s life).

    ACHH: > Does their merit lie in internal consistency?

    objectivists would reject that, rightly, as rationalism in the philosophical sense. but they do believe objectivism is the only consistent philosophy (consistency being understood non-rationalistically).

    ACH: > any proof that we humans are aware of every fact or law that might affirm or refute the mind’s (total) efficacy.

    i don’t think omniscience is required for any proof on earth or elsewhere. in rand’s sense, i’d say she was right, but her conception of mind was factually incorrect, really from the ground up. for instance, reasoning minds exist in homo sapiens bodies, and homo sapiens has an (evolved) nature that includes psychological stuff that has approximately zero to do with premises, such as sexual inclinations or testosteronization in utero. indeed, we can reason and feel at all because of evolution. the reasoning mind didn’t build itself.

    ACH: > In general, these are important principles of human advancement, I agree.

    if rand could have ridden herself of inappropriate binary thinking, and instead said in a positive and emotionally benevolent fashion that reason needed to be emphasized *more*, that reason and free markets have led to *more* amazing things than they are credited for (and indeed are linked), that self-interest doesn’t *have* to mean attila, and so on, she would have been happier and done more for the values she held. some objectivists – and i must say this includes AR – have difficulty in accepting the power of such things as non-verbal communication. saying “benevolence and joy” in a stiff, hard voice will not inspire most people, because it *properly* invokes non-verbal reactions based on evolved pattern-recognition. note again that rand criticised gary cooper for his stiff, repressed delivery as howard roark.

    MM: > No Objectivist has ever considered anything to be a fact only because Ayn Rand held it to be true

    the historial record shows this not to be the case. the problem here is that MM is confusing what one believes to be one’s reasons with one’s actual reasons. some objectivists have a problem with acknowledging the subtlety of the human psyche.

    MM: > The philosophy specifically condemns such other directed standards

    so did buddhism, christianity, and other ethical systems. that does not mean it did not happen.

    MM: > One cannot violate that principle and simultaneously claim to be its advocate.

    again, this muddles the distinction between fact and realization of fact. (surely no objectivist would endorse bishop berkeley’s “to be is to be perceived”? yet they follow that premise in the touchy area of self-concept, and the self in general. the self is not only what it thinks or feels it is, else it would have no potentialities.) the historical record around AR in this area is well-established and not-refutable. it certainly testifies to her personal magnetism.

    ACH: > if Rand perceives that she is different from the rest of her species … what is she using for a mirror?

    i don’t think one is the prisoner of what the species is doing. we do have internal locus of control elements to us, in varying proportions over populations. she could simply have an internal self-concept. or do you mean developmentally? in that case i’d say a mix of inherited things, self-regulation, and environment.

    ACH: > mirror imagery pervades her novels

    intriguing. brings to mind the objectivist “principle of psychological visibility.” again, i’ve seen some objectivists use other people under the guise of the other “reflecting my highest values.” which kind of turns them into an instrumentality.

    ACH: > the human universe: a reverence for custom vs. a love of change, patriotism vs. a right to life, freedom vs. security.

    again we hit upon real factors in the primate known as homo sapiens that rand would not have acknowledged. that’s no crime on her part – evolutionary psychology was hardly begun.

    ACH: > love as “spiritual payment” for pleasure received

    i have to gently upbraid you on this one. that wasn’t her philosophy. hers was much less hedonic: as you know, that one loves another as the image [against that visual, distancing note] of one’s own values. she explicitly rejected the idea of a tit-for-tat bookkeepping approach in one of the donahue tv shows, and considering her long-term love for lev and cyrus, it seems to be true. since you’re her biographer, let me share something re. randian love and images. in the translation of her very early work in russian on hollywood, she briefly refers to someone as “the glittering count” [english translation, from memory] – i think it was a lover of theda bara’s. so we see that even very early on she was regarding people almost optically – and, as is known, vision is a highly differentiating sense, and one in which distance is perceived. she already had a tendency to regard people as “icons” – an obvious resonance with russian art and religion.

    > ACH: death worshipper?

    rand was certainly a creator of fictions. that is an emotion with almost no empirical correlate, as with a modern symphony’s “hatred of existence” in “atlas.” again, regarding people as not-homo-sapiens entities. it was more a construct needed to explain things she could not make hide nor hair of in her system, rather like freud’s “death instinct” and wilhelm reich’s “deadly orgone.” all these vitalistic systems require an anti-vital force. again, evolutionary psychology does a better job.

    > ACH: spontaneous order is a precursor of government, not a replacement for it

    interesting concept. i’m partial to the buddhist causal idea of “mutual arising.”

    ACH: > we act as a bridge to the future.

    even AR said she was concerned with future rational minds. and peikoff (somewhat contradicting one of AR’s letters, by the way), recently spoke on his podcast about one’s child being a version of oneself.

    ACH: > I am thinking of concrete interests.

    it’s a general pattern in some objectivist argument to attempt to kick it further and further up the cognitive ladder until we get to A is A, even if it doesn’t belong there. again, logical enough, given the belief that the philosophy is completely true and whole.

    ACH: > Greenspan

    i think it’s clear his [explicit] renunciation was not wholesale, even in 2008. he was saying there’d been a failure, one he was not able to theoretically explain.

    ACH: > Do you believe in the perfectibility of man? I don’t.

    consistent objectivists do, at least in principle. perfection defined, of course, a la rand. as with so much, she has specific meaning and definitions of things, as you point out. which makes it interesting – a “world she made” indeed – and difficult, all at the same time. and inhibit scholarly discourse, while probably ultimately being a fertile source of study a few generations from now.

    ACH: > roads with tax dollars

    i’ve mused on the roads thing for some time. i see nothing anti-minarchist in government roads for defense, so long as private property is respected in their construction and private road business is not usurped needlessly. people would be allowed to drive on the defense roads as a privilege. 🙂

    ACH: > “social contract”

    again, a gentle disagreement: the social contract is a fiction. there is no such contract, in any of the senses of contract. such contracts can claim that one consented to anything. (interesting how the importance of consent is recognized, so much so it must be shoe-horned.)

    ACH: > on the implicit consent involved in remaining where obligations are in force

    this is a place where (non-atomistic) individualism’s appropriate. on the basis of natural rights alone, the state is not primary. it’s a sort of shared illusion when it transcends the individuals who make it up. woodrow wilson, for instance, was living in a crazy dreamworld.

    ACH: > contribute to her coffers?

    for those who don’t want to “sanction” you, there’s always the [public!] library. incidentally, objectivists used the whole elaborate structure of sanction and non-sanction for many decades without there being any validation of it whatsoever. if it was discussed much at all (and not simply handed down from on high), it’s not in the written tradition of objectivism. and i’m unaware of any discussion or validation of the idea, despite its enormous importance and how many breaks and such happened, as with the famous peikoff/kelly split. (peikoff on this issue seems on difficult personal ground, given that he attended an honorary dinner thrown by laissez-faire books when “the ominous parallels” came out.)

    ACH: > the remarkable Ayn Rand

    there is a profound difficulty for some in understanding that rand can be admired and found fascinating even by people who disagree with objectivism tremendously. even objectivism can be looked upon that way, as it was by hiram haydn, who said that it was the most impressive synthesis since aquinas though he thought it very false in its premises. i disagree with rand tremendously in all sorts of areas, and think i can disprove her quite handily by purely rational means in their actual sense – she’d probably look upon me as an enemy in some ways – yet i profit from her every day, and think she was a person of staggering creativity and originality. and i love her dearly as a person, even while i want to kick her in the behind for a great deal of her behaviors – and see her influence as a mix of terrible and wonderful.

    ACH: > the complexity of her work and the depth of her ideas.

    i think she has yet to be well-understood. i plan to write a book on her though to hopefully beat all the rest. not counting yours, of course, or barbara’s, since it won’t be a bio!

  5. Anne, thanks so much for devoting this space to our discussion. I hope that my explanations of Rand’s ideas, as I understand them, can be of help to you and your readers in attaining a deeper and clearer understanding of the specific topics we discuss and a better overview of the philosophy as a whole as well as the context within which one should consider it. That includes me too, as my primary goal and benefit from debating these points over four decades past has been (and still is) to fully understand and validate on my own the principles and applications of Objectivism for my own sake.

    As any seasoned Objectivists will tell you, integrating the philosophy into one’s life-system is a grand adventure. At the outset — usually before one is thirty — there’s that rush of excitement and enthusiasm for the discovery of pure, unadulterated efficacy, accompanied by a flaming impatience to share it with the rest of one’s world (much to their chagrin). One passes then through the archetypal obnoxious-Objectivist-newbie phase. If philosophy is not one’s profession, it can be a decade or two before one fully grasps that Rand’s greatest gift to our generation was not an impending cultural revolution of the kind we had imagined, but rather that enormous expansion of our capacity to understand our universe that enabled us to live rational daily lives in a thoroughly irrational world.

    At that point, one’s craving for the fruits of proselytizing wanes and the target of one’s comments and arguments becomes that anonymous potential ally, the lurking, honest mind. That is, after all, the one ticket without which no one can get into Objectivism: a relentlessly honest mind, fully engaged in a compulsive quest for absolute truth.

    That is not the only caveat. Objectivism is surrounded by unexpected barriers to be surmounted by potential adherents. First are the inherent barriers of a philosophy that counters all conventions with radical positions wherein the extreme becomes the norm. Second are those erected by Rand herself — her unflinching connotations-be-damned loyalty to precise words like “selfish” and “capitalism”, and her indifference to any possibility she was arming idiot critics with the Hickman and Branden incidents. Third, are the barriers that come in the baggage of the potential adherents themselves — one’s cultural and intellectual status quo, so taken for granted in one’s life to date. For instance, …

    —————————

    1) ACH:
    “Well said. However, I was responding to an Objectivist letter writer whose tone of contempt I was describing in its historical context. This was not a condemnation of Rand’s ideas, as the sentence makes clear. It was a note upon the unsavory company in which members of the Objectivist movement must often find themselves, which is one reason I am not an Objectivist.”

    MM:
    A philosophy is not a club to join or not join wherein the character and actions of the other members are important because you will be hanging out with them a lot. A philosophy is a comprehensive set of answers to the most important questions a human being can ask: what is everything anyhow? what am I? how do I know that? what is the purpose of my life? what kinds of actions will fulfill it? how should I interact with others of my species and other living creatures? Every identification, every principle, every tenet — i.e. the answers to those questions — are implicitly assertions of the facts of reality. There is only one standard of their measure: is it a true identification of a fact or relationship of existence.

    Ultimately the question of whether you are or are not an Objectivist is not very important. The significant question is whether the facts and principles about existence and human life that you have integrated into the system by which you live are true or false. So an appropriate explanation of why one is not an Objectivist should contain a catalog of the ideas of the philosophy that you can demonstrate to be false. The so-called “unsavory company” of Objectivists doesn’t even come close to qualifying as a reason.

    ————————-

    2) ACH:
    “b) On the contrary. Upon her death, Rand’s novels, essays, letters, etc. became a closed body of work. But ideas, by their nature, are open to explication, testing, expansion, criticism, and reinterpretation. This is as true of Rand as of Dewey, Tolstoy, or Freud. Your last sentence repeats a common assertion among Objectivists, but what is your authority for the assertion? And who can expect to succeed in controlling the use to which one’s ideas are put from beyond the grave?”

    MM:
    My assertion that “the philosophy became forever a closed body of works to which no one could add anything more” means that Objectivism, the personal philosophy of Ayn Rand will never include anything not written by or specifically approved by her during her life time. It is a simple, undeniable, historical fact that is equally true of Dewey, Tolstoy, and Freud if you swap the names in the assertion.

    Given what I am writing here, it is absurd on the face of it to claim that I mean by “closed” that “explication, testing, expansion, criticism, and reinterpretation” of Objectivism by others needs to be controlled. It only needs to be qualified explicitly or implicitly as “Ayn Rand’s Objectivism, as I understand it” or “my position, which I hold to be consistent with Ayn Rand’s Objectivism.”

    ————————

    3) ACH:
    “But in the passage you quote I am not referring to Rand or her system of ideas but rather to her adherents.”

    MM:
    I’m not denying that your feelings about the behavior of some Objectivists is the motivation for your choice. I am saying that those motivations do not qualify as “reasons”, because there is no reasoning involved re the validity of the ideas. If the only test of a philosophy is its truth, then the behavior of its adherents is not pertinent.

    ———————–

    4) ACH:
    “Rand called her system of ideas a philosophy for living on earth. What in the world can you mean by “the merit of their [the ideas’] content” if merit doesn’t lie in their power to guide us to a more joyful and productive, or at least more interesting, life? Does their merit lie in internal consistency?”

    MM:
    Most important, in their external consistency with the nature of existence — their merit lies in how true they are. Reliance on false identifications of the nature of yourself and reality can never lead to a more joyful and productive life in the long run. If you validate such ideas as true, integrate them into your standards, and implement them consistently, you will succeed. But your pursuit of truth and consistency must be relentless.

    ———————–

    5) ACH:
    “Yet I don’t know of any proof that we humans are aware of every fact or law that might affirm or refute the mind’s (total) efficacy.”

    MM:
    Knowledge is contextual. No one may claim to know more than the available evidence will support. In this case, it supports the validity of the senses and the capacity of the mind to hold vast amounts of knowledge by compiling sensory information into concepts. Everything, without limit, that can be experienced directly or indirectly by the senses can be known and understood. So, you can affirm the mind’s (total) efficacy once you understand what the necessary context of “total” is.

    ———————–

    6) MM:
    “d) No Objectivist has ever considered anything to be a fact only because Ayn Rand held it to be true, because entertaining such a notion would disqualify one from being an Objectivist in the first place. The philosophy specifically condemns such other directed standards and demands that everything anyone accepts to be true be independently validated. One cannot violate that principle and simultaneously claim to be its advocate.”

    ACH:
    “If you say so. (Have you read my book?).”

    MM:
    There cannot be anything in your book that would alter the truth of what I said. Someone who believes something Ayn Rand said or wrote as dogma or on faith, is by definition excluded from the meaning of the word “Objectivist.” If everyone calling himself an Objectivist that you ever encountered told you that the philosophy requires one to believe everything Ayn Rand said on the sole reason that she said it, it would still be dishonest to allege that it is a tenet of the philosophy — because it isn’t.

    —————————-

    7) ACH:
    “5. Another reason is that I don’t agree that man (qua man!) is the overweening value in the universe.”

    MM:
    “The single most fundamental choice facing a human being is life or death. The choice to pursue life instead of death implicitly establishes life as the overweening value against which all other values shall be measured. But given the fact of volition, there are two possible definitions of “life” qua standard: 1) life that is consistent with and fulfills the potential of what a human being essentially is — i.e., one’s human nature (qua man), or 2) life contrary to and in defiance of one’s nature. There are no other alternatives, and I wonder what led you to prefer the latter and what you expect mankind to gain from lives of self-contradiction.”

    ACH:
    “Nonsense, I say. While this is a useful abstract distinction for Rand’s overall philosophical stance, many an intelligent thinker has identified other competing values in the human universe: a reverence for custom vs. a love of change, patriotism vs. a right to life, freedom vs. security. If I cherish a value that Rand rejected—such as the free nature of affection (vs. love as “spiritual payment” for pleasure received)—does that really make me a death worshipper?”

    MM:
    I quoted the whole series, because this is important. If I cannot convey this, then the discussion will wind down rapidly, because the whole ethics and the politics thereafter rests on it.

    That there are many competing values is not contested. Before you can consider any competition among values at all, however, you must have a standard against which to measure them. As Ilene Skeen eloquently explained, this is not just any alternative, it is the ultimate alternative. It is the most fundamental alternative of your existence. You do not have any options about the most fundamental alternative, as it is the same for all living creatures. The difference is that other living creatures are not volitional. They pursue life by the mandate of their biology.

    Humans, however, may and must choose, and even if they do not do it consciously, their choice will be implicit in their actions. Although different actions have a different impact on one’s life, there are no actions that do not have consequences. So the preference for life implies the requirement to maximize one’s actions that contribute to it and minimize those that detract. To achieve that, life must be held as one’s ultimate goal and the standard for measuring all values that one pursues with one’s actions in the service of life.

    The word life in this instance does not refer to mere existence. It means the pursuit of life, the result of which, is a state of being consistent with one’s nature as a human being (what Rand referred to as qua man).

    The choice one makes between the fundamental alternatives to pursue life or pursue death is an individual one and made entirely within the context of one’s own life. Thus for each and every human being, the life that is properly the standard of all their values is their life qua man. Those are the facts, in a nutshell, supporting an ethics of egoism. They are the facts that require one to be selfish, in the Objectivist sense, which in turn requires one to be able to validate that an act regarded as selfish will contribute to a life qua man.

    How distant this is from the dog-eat-dog egotism Objectivists are so recklessly accused of!

    ——————–

    8) ACH:
    “Slanderous? Hyperbolic, maybe. But no more so than your “forgone conclusion[s] and “failure[s] to comprehend.”

    MM:
    No, there is a difference: you said,

    “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.”

    which misrepresents her position. She did not want to unchain science and the profit motive because it would resolve problems, but rather because she held government regulation of the economy by force to be immoral. Then you gratuitously inserted dying children etc. as an ipso facto consequence of an unflinching moral stand against coercion, which slanders all Objectivists. You have absolutely no grounds to support such an assertion. You just set it up to suit your purposes as an either use government force or there will be dying children alternative, as if no other solutions could possibly exist.

    Your “failure to comprehend” the non-initiation of force principle that is a pillar of the Objectivist politics made it a “forgone conclusion” that you would support government regulation, not because you are a “dim bulb”, but because you are not. You have consciously rejected the non-initiation of force principle. Since you are neither a compulsive thief or murderer, the only other reason to reject it would be to support the custom of joining with the majority gang to intervene (via the government) in the lives of others to correct perceived mistakes they are making, or to get something you want (public schooling) that you think you could not otherwise get voluntarily.

    The difference is that I was asserting facts, which you may rebut if they are wrong, but you can’t rebut them with indignation. Your statement contained no facts. It was contrived to implicitly impugn Rand and Objectivism.

    ———————–

    9) ACH:
    “I do like to have it both ways when I can.”

    MM:
    Sorry, you can’t. Ever.

    ACH:
    “I also like this quote from Russell Kirk: “Order and justice and freedom, [conservatives] believe, are the artificial products of a long and painful social experience, the results of centuries of trial and reflection and sacrifice.” In this sense, like it or not, we act as a bridge to the future.”

    MM:
    It would be fitting for this to be a conservative statement, because it supports two of their prominent flaws: 1) the trial and error philosophy of pragmatism, and 2) their epistemological intrinsicism that holds reason unable to access absolute truths, requiring the greater authority of history, or tradition, or the founding fathers, or God, or whatever.

    ————————-

    10) ACH:
    “8. Putting aside Rand’s notion that “there are no conflicts of interests among rational men” (which even Alan Greenspan renounced in 2008), …”

    MM:
    “And why would you put that notion aside? If you are thinking of differences in concrete interests instead of differences in principle, you are in the wrong context.”

    ACH:
    “Yes, I am thinking of concrete interests. What are you thinking of?”

    MM:
    I am thinking of it as Rand did — as a general social principle. Rational men recognize that one’s claim to autonomy necessitated by one’s human nature is simultaneously an obligation to grant it reciprocally to all others of the same nature. That in turn requires that all human interactions including all exchanges of values of any kind, tangible or intangible, must be voluntary if they are to be moral. Thus no obligation may be imposed that is not chosen and no sacrifice may ever be demanded. Those are the conflicts of interest that rational men do not have.

    ————————-

    MM:
    Re Greenspan, just a brief note: I am still waiting to see a citation of something Greenspan said that invalidates something that Rand said. Merely juxtaposing two quotes doesn’t suffice. The question of import to all of us is which, if any, of these statements is true and which are false. You have not addressed that question yet.

    ————————–

    11) ACH:
    “Do you believe in the perfectibility of man? I don’t.”

    MM:
    Man is volitional, giving him in every alternative the capacity to choose the alternative that will contribute more to his life qua man or the alternative that will contribute less or detract from his life. Unless you can show evidence of some limitation to man’s volitional capacity, you have no choice but to accept, at least in principle, the possibility of attaining perfection. The caveat to this is that to assert a limitation to free will one must embrace determinism and then forfeit any claims to truth. Determinists have no way to know whether their assertions are objectively true or simply determined by forces beyond their control.

    ——————————

    12) ACH:
    “I don’t especially—or at all–want government to build roads with tax dollars. But starting from this time and place, asking the question, “How would it work?” and expecting an answer that is not merely rhetorical isn’t unreasonable.”

    MM:
    It is very unreasonable; holding that question to be of great importance precludes you from experiencing and understanding one of Rand’s greatest contributions to our lives. Namely, that the science of politics is not about “what works” in the realm of achieving the values we require to lead successful lives. That is for the sciences of economics and business to explain.

    Politics is the science that applies ethics in the individual context of our lives to the social context. When ethics tells us that by our nature we need to be free from the fallibility of other men when applying our reason to our actions in the service of our lives, politics will enable that in a society by removing physical force from human interaction. In a political system compliant with that principle, taxation is excluded without exception, because it requires the use of force and/or the threat thereof to implement it. That is the end point of that issue. There is nothing else one can add to qualify that conclusion, because it is a moral issue.

    Now if you will reread my answer, you will see that I did indicate how it could work: in a manner similar in principle to the financing of the knowledge and services available on the internet that is also a predominantly voluntary process in which the young and poor are allowed to reap enormous benefits for free that are financed by the payments of those who need and use the greatest bulk of the knowledge and services provided.

    The only valid reason to show how it could work ,however, is to reinforce the understanding that in every case, one need not fear the pursuit of the moral to the exclusion of practical considerations, because in every case the moral will ultimately prove to be, in the long run, the most practical.

    There are two important caveats: 1) in the transition to a free society, voluntary financing of major functions like the government and armed forces and such would be the last change to occur. And 2), the distance from here and now to a voluntarily financed national road system is so great and the technology available at that time to facilitate it is so unknown, that speculation now can achieve no more than idle entertainment.

    And speaking of idle entertainment: a running joke in the early days among newbie students of Objectivism was to fire up a political discussion at a party just to see how quickly you could get someone to call out “but what about the roads?”

    Rand’s original contribution to the science of politics: Its not about the roads. Its about freedom v. force.

    ————————-

    13) ACH:
    “Oh, dear, I’m being concrete-bound again, because I am looking to past examples and writings to instruct me about how a civil society may be maintained. As I understand the term “social contract,” it both preserves rights and imposes obligations, based on the consent of the majority of the governed and on the implicit consent involved in remaining where obligations are in force. The Preamble to the Constitution states its purpose as, in part, to promote the general welfare and secure “the blessings of liberty,” which Thomas Jefferson, among others, thought required education sufficient to elect good leaders. I think it’s a good thing if the governed consent to let the government (and other parties) provide schooling for all but not a good thing for the government to shoot or jail the uncompliant.”

    MM:
    You are only being concrete bound if you fail to accurately identify the principles at work in history and integrate them into knowledge of a proper socio-economic system — as Rand did.

    A “social contract” can legitimize a government but cannot make it moral. To be moral, a government must secure the necessary conditions for the governed to live moral lives. In the broadest sense that task is to remove physical force from human interactions and to objectify its own use of force to achieve that. Agreeing to obey the law even when it is wrong (consenting to the rule of law) is not a social agreement. As a corollary of the necessity to objectify the use of force, it is an implicit moral requirement.

    Technically, one’s consent is not necessarily implicit “in remaining where obligations are in force.” Revolution from within would constitute renouncing consent while remaining. And “consent” in that context is only consent to live by the rule of law. It does not imply that one “condones” all of the actions of the government.

    There cannot be a justification for the governed to condone government taxation, schooling, health care, welfare, or any function other than to prevent, stop, and punish the use of physical force. Nor may the government attempt to justify any tyranny by the doctrines of “social contract” or “consent of the governed.”

    —————————-

    14) ACH:
    “Have you read my book? Or do you adhere to Rand’s idea that to read a book you suspect you won’t agree with is to offer your sanction to the enemy and contribute to her coffers? How do you know anything about my time? I spent six years researching, reporting, and writing Ayn Rand and the World She Made. I am not so disrespectful of myself or of the remarkable Ayn Rand as to have (grossly or otherwise) underestimated the complexity of her work and the depth of her ideas. Although I was more interested in Rand’s literary than in her philosophical achievements, Will Thomas (Objectivist expert in residence at the Atlas Society), Timothy Sandfur, Robert Hessen, Al Ramrus, Nathaniel Branden, Henry Holzer—each of whom knows Rand’s thinking well—wrote to acknowledge my presentation of her ideas as clear, rich, and fair.”

    MM:
    I read “Who is Ayn Rand” in 1966, because I was taking all the NBI tape lecture series and consuming every word I could find. I have not read any of the books or seen the movies about her since. It’s not that I am not fascinated by the trivia (I read the inside cover of Parade every week); it’s just not as interesting to me as the positions that people in and out of Objectivism take on important questions. To me, her philosophy and her biography are two separate subjects that are only coincidentally related.

    I recognize from the early days several of the names you cited as references to the fidelity of your presentation of Rand’s ideas, but who knows, in the wake of Greenspan’s retrocession to pragmatism, how trustworthy their witness is today without tracking down all of their recent writings. I have no reason to doubt the accuracy of your presentation, but I don’t need to consult them or your book to judge your understanding of the philosophy now anyway, because you have amply documented it in “Why I Am Not an Objectivist” and this discussion.

    I respect your qualification that your research and writing was more literary than philosophical. I had no expectations that you could have simultaneously mastered the content of the philosophy in just six years. Your reasons for why you are not an Objectivist support that. They are reasons commonly found in the blogs of persons who are entrenched in our contemporary culture and have only read her books but not devoted time to the study of the ideas..

    What they do not support is the title of the post, as they are insufficient to justify such a judgment. Nevertheless, you deserve praise for the boldness to open up this discussion. If I can upgrade the level of your (and others’) grasp of the subject, it will be worth the effort.

    It is very important to realize also that Objectivism involves more than just the conclusions we dispute in our tit-for-tat replies. It involves a whole different way of life, particularly in how we gain and implement our knowledge. It requires of one:

    a) an honest, self-critical mind relentlessly initiating challenges to the validity of its own content … in the words of a former mentor of mine, “never leave well enough alone.”

    b) a readiness to define and hold one’s positions as abstract principles distinct from the concrete instances they subsume… the truths that constitute a philosophy must be universal and eternal.

    c) a self-discipline to always think and judge from a position of absolute neutrality … to isolate the philosophy from the biography and to escape your own previous culture by purging Jeff’s “common premises and colloquial definitions” from your thinking.

    d) a fearlessness in adopting, defining, and sustaining absolute truths, radical ideas, and extreme positions on right and wrong or good and evil.

    e) a recognition that knowledge has a systematic structure in which principles are hierarchical, interdependent, and ordered by rules with which thinking must consistently comply.

  6. This blog gets more and more interesting. I would like to commend both Anne C. Heller for hosting it and providing provocative questions and especially Michael M for answering these questions point by point with such clarity. There are many sources of misinformation about Ayn Rand and I hope that people reading Anne Heller’s book and these discussions are prompted to read Atlas Shrugged and find out for themselves why Atlas Shrugged sells hundreds of thousands of copies a year, year after year.

    I would like to clarify the “perfectibility of man” mentioned in this discussion. The meaning of this term is vague and deceiving. In the morality of altruism, the phrase implies that one can attain a moral ideal and having done so, the struggle is over. Heaven is the ideal of religious (Christian) altruists and self-sacrifice for the sake of others is the ideal of altruists in general. Most people would be talking about attaining moral perfection while alive (and keeping most of their stuff). They would back off from carrying out the logic of altruism as going too far, impractical, and unnecessary, and not really what altruism means. They will accept a measure of sacrifice required by them, if they can be assured that they will receive more sacrifices from those they judge can afford it because those people are richer, younger, stronger, smarter, and prettier or need to be taken down a peg or two. Thus it is natural for altruists not to believe in the “perfectibility of man,” because to do so would require them to really explore where the morality of altruism leads.

    The morality of rational self-interest (which is a key part of Objectivism), has no such restrictions, contradictions or guarantees. Living your life to its fullest will always require you to make choices. There is no possibility of not choosing unless you are dead or in a vegetative state. Therefore, the “perfectibility of man” in that sense is meaningless: life requires action and action presumes fallibility.

    However in another sense, the morality of rational self-interest means having a moral code which guides you to celebrate your individual life, your self-worth, the people and activities which make life meaningful for you (i.e. your pursuit of happiness). In Objectivism, we know that the inalienable rights of one person do not impose obligations on others. No one has the job of making you happy but you. No one has the job of rationally defining what course of action is proper for your life, ability interests, balanced with the requirements of your survival but you.

    For living things, survival is not a given. A right to life is not a guarantee of life – for anyone. The inalienable right to life means that you can attain your survival by any means you see fit as long as you do not use force or fraud against another. How? You have to figure it out. If you use force or fraud, you should be stopped by the police, tried in a court of law, and sentenced accordingly (all legitimate activities of government).

    In a capitalist society, you trade goods and services with others to make your living. In a truly capitalist society, the government could neither help nor hinder business, any business, no matter what the size. A capitalist government would be confined to protecting its citizens from force or fraud by other individuals, (as individuals or groups), by other governments and from force or fraud by their own government. What most people don’t realize is that every government regulation empowers the strong against the weak. It empowers the government against the governed, and the large groups of people against smaller groups and smaller groups against individuals. It raises the cost of entry into the marketplace. Big companies love government regulations (although they often work very hard to get regulations they want. Big companies know they are slow, wasteful and ponderous. They need a competitive advantage to protect them from the startup entrepreneur with a new idea which would blow their business out of the water. Government regulations help them keep the little guys out of the markets.

    In summary, I believe that the morality of rational self-interest requires choice and a system of government which maximizes individual choice while protecting individual rights is in fact doable and perfectible. That system would be capitalism, which Ayn Rand called “The Unknown Ideal.”

  7. Ms. Heller, I haven’t finished your book but I’m 3/4 of the way through, and in contrast to this blog (or its responses, I should say), my view is that the book does not try to discredit Rand, but presents some inconvenient and inconsistent facts about her life which discredit her ideas all by themselves without your help.
    In many eloquent ways, responses on this blog illustrate one of the problems I have with Ojectivists (or, “students of Objectivism”), which is that there is no argument against it sufficient to satisfy its adherents. In the end, it always boils down to, “If you disagree, you don’t understand it”. But more so than that, the real argument against is that it disregards history and biology. The concept that rationality can be divorced from history and biology is ludicrous, in my opinion, and if you believe you’re one of the people who can do it, you’re delusional. That said, the ATTEMPT to be rational is ever a good goal.
    Thank you for your book, and my apologies for my (fake) name…it’s a long story 🙂
    Phyllis

  8. “your book … presents some inconvenient and inconsistent facts about her life which discredit her ideas all by themselves without your help.”

    In addition to the fact that this is an unsubstantiated characterization, it is impossible on the face of it. Ideas stand or fall on their content alone. No one’s life, consistent or inconsistent with them, can alter that content or the status of their validity.

    —————–

    “one of the problems I have with Ojectivists (or, “students of Objectivism”), which is that there is no argument against it sufficient to satisfy its adherents.”

    For this to be a flaw of Objectivists and not your own flaw, Objectivism would have to be false. To the extent that the philosophy is valid, the Objectivists would be right to be dissatisfied with your arguments and it would be immanently logical (and kind as well) to conclude that you just did not understand it. Of course since this accusation is unaccompanied by any indication which arguments they were dissatisfied with and why your arguments were sound, you leave everyone reading this with no alternative but to recognize the accusation as the cheap shot that it is.

    ——————

    “The concept that rationality can be divorced from history and biology is ludicrous, in my opinion, and if you believe you’re one of the people who can do it, you’re delusional. “

    And here is the proof that, at least in this instance, you have not bothered to understand Rand. If you had read and understood Chapter 19 of “The Virtue of Selfishness” on the fallacy of arguments from intimidation, you never would have written that sentence.

    A brief excerpt will give you the gist:

    “The essential characteristic of the Argument from Intimidation is its appeal to moral self-doubt and its reliance on the fear, guilt or ignorance of the victim. It is used in the form of an ultimatum demanding that the victim renounce a given idea without discussion, under threat of being considered morally unworthy. The pattern is always: ‘Only those who are evil (dishonest, heartless, insensitive, ignorant, etc.) can hold such an idea.'” [VOS,139]

    I was not the only intended “victim” of the intimidating terms “ludicrous” and “delusional”. All other readers were also expected to accept your ultimatum without question: “agree with me or be ludicrous and delusional.”

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