Ayn Rand on Racism

 Posted by on 19 August 2005 at 7:01 am  Uncategorized
Aug 192005

At last Saturday’s FROG meeting, we discussed the essays from Return of the Primitive under the heading “The Politics.” I lead the discussion on Ayn Rand’s “Racism” article, also found in The Virtue of Selfishness. In my introductory comments, I contrasted some of the standard arguments against racism offered by philosophers today with Ayn Rand’s views. I’m going to do the same here, only in reverse order.

Ayn Rand begins the “Racism” article as follows:

Racism is the lowest, most crudely primitive form of collectivism. It is the notion of ascribing moral, social or political significance to a man’s genetic lineage–the notion that a man’s intellectual and characterological traits are produced and transmitted by his internal body chemistry. Which means, in practice, that a man is to be judged, not by his own character and actions, but by the characters and actions of a collective of ancestors.

She then analyzes the primitive forms of determinism and collectivism which underlie racism. Regarding determinism, she writes:

Racism claims that the content of a man’s mind (not his cognitive apparatus, but its content) is inherited; that a man’s convictions, values and character are determined before he is born, by physical factors beyond his control. This is the caveman’s version of the doctrine of innate ideas–or of inherited knowledge–which has been thoroughly refuted by philosophy and science. Racism is a doctrine of, by and for brutes. It is a barnyard or stock-farm version of collectivism, appropriate to a mentality that differentiates between various breeds of animals, but not between animals and men.

Regarding collectivism, she writes:

Even if it were proved–which it is not–that the incidence of men of potentially superior brain power is greater among the members of certain races than among the members of others, it would still tell us nothing about any given individual and it would be irrelevant to one’s judgment of him. A genius is a genius, regardless of the number of morons who belong to the same race–and a moron is a moron, regardless of the number of geniuses who share his racial origin. It is hard to say which is the more outrageous injustice: the claim of Southern racists that a Negro genius should be treated as an inferior because his race has “produced” some brutes–or the claim of a German brute to the status of a superior because his race has “produced” Goethe, Schiller and Brahms.

Determinism and collectivism are the rotten philosophical roots of racism. The consequence of racism is horrible injustice on an individual scale and mass slaughter on a social scale. That’s just a quick taste of Ayn Rand’s article, but hopefully enough to jog your memory.

Now, consider the analysis of the evils of racism offered in Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy by philosopher James Nickel, under the heading “What makes discrimination wrong?” Just for fun, I’ll note the basic philosophic premises of his four arguments in brackets like this [DMH: Oh, how idiotic!].

Consider a clear violation of the anti-discrimination principle, such as an employer prejudicially refusing to hire or even consider blacks for work in a restaurant. What is wrong with such an action? First, it is insulting to blacks because of its underlying premise that some racial groups are less worthy than others. [DMH: That's collectivism, since it concerns insults to racial groups rather than to individuals.] Second, it is harmful to blacks because it often reduces self-esteem and produces a sense of inferiority, and because it deprives people of opportunities that would have allowed them to live better lives and make greater contributions to society. [DMH: First, it's subjective concern for feelings, then altruistic concern for the lives of others, then collectivist concern for social contributions.] Discrimination in education and employment will tend to reduce a group’s aspirations and productivity by reducing the payoff of investments in education and work experience. [DMH: More collectivist concern for the group.] Third, discrimination is often irrational. It frequently relies on unjustified beliefs and stereotypes, and selects people on irrelevant and arbitrary grounds. [DMH: Oh this sounds promising!] Although it is not in general morally wrong to act irrationally, irrational actions that distribute important goods in ways that harm and disadvantage other people may indeed be wrong because they are unfair. [DMH: Oops, nevermind. Irrationality is A-OK so long as it doesn't harm others. That's altruism again.] Finally, the most important reason why discrimination is wrong is that it is unfair. Victims of racial discrimination in employment, for example, can legitimately complain that as full members of society who have done their part in preparing to participate in and contribute to society it is unfair for them to be handicapped in areas such as education, employment and politics by discrimination flowing from other people’s prejudices. [DMH: That's more collectivist and altruistic concern for social contributions, in good Rawlsian fashion.]

That’s just lovely, no?

Actually, those four terrible arguments aren’t all that bad when compared to the egalitarianism of Peter Singer and Tom Regan, both of whom argue that the evils and racism and sexism can only be eliminated by refusing to acknowledge any moral differences between people.

To that kind of irrationality, all I can say is “Thank God for Ayn Rand!”

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