Celebrating Ayn Rand

 Posted by on 23 March 2005 at 8:14 am  Uncategorized
Mar 232005

As some of you might have noticed, I didn’t post anything on the Ayn Rand centenary. I didn’t link to Onkar Ghate’s lovely op-ed on the enduring appeal of Ayn Rand. I didn’t even make a single snide remark about Cathy Young’s horrid smear job for Reason.

Now perhaps my silence isn’t all that surprising, given that I’m generally bad about blogging events. (I still haven’t written on Tara Smith’s very good, very explicitly Objectivist colloquium at Boulder on egoistic friendship. Shame on me!) However, in the case of the 100th anniversary of Ayn Rand’s birth, I had every intention to posting a short blog entry.

Unfortunately, that day was pretty much thrown into complete disarray when some unscrupulous undergraduate stole my keys from the ladies room. I put them down next to the sink as I was washing the chalk off my hands after teaching my early recitation. The next thing I knew, my keys were gone. (I posted pleas to return them, checked lost and founds, and so on, but they were never returned.) So I spent that day getting my car towed from Boulder to a dealership in north Denver in order to get new keys made. It was an expensive, exhausting, and time-consuming procedure. I must say, it was particularly annoying to spend Ayn Rand’s birthday coping with the effects of petty theft.

So let me finally offer my belated “Happy Birthday!” to Ayn Rand. Sadly, not all those who claim to honor her actually do so. Case in point: Ed Hudgins, the future Executive Director of The Objectivist Center, wrote TOC’s op-ed for Ayn Rand’s centenary, titled Ayn Rand at 100: The Moral Defense of Freedom. Let me comment upon a few passages.

Rand is best known as a logical yet passionate advocate of individual liberty and laissez-faire capitalism who stands out from others because she was principally a novelist. In Atlas her heroes were businessmen and -women, productive individuals whose achievements were responsible for the country’s prosperity. This is in stark contrast to the usual portrayal of business executives as villains in books, movies, TV shows, sermons and political pronouncements. Rand didn’t simply explain her perspective; her stories showed us her characters’ love for their work; it was exciting to read about how they strove with zeal, using their minds, independent judgment, integrity and strength to produce railroads, oil wells and steel mills.

Apart from the boring, insipid, and vague prose (as in “Rand didn’t simply explain her perspective” and “it was exciting to read”), this paragraph is just bizarre. Does Ayn Rand really stand out from those unspecified “others” in virtue of being a novelist? Is that a fundamental difference between her and Milton Friedman, for example? Is Atlas Shrugged most noteworthy for its positive portrayal of businessmen? Does that constitute a fundamental difference between it and modern books, movies, tv, politics — and SERMONS?!? Hudgins’ relentless focus on non-essentials is typical — and reveals (once again) his lack of understanding for and appreciation of Ayn Rand’s accomplishments.

Even more important, in her novels and her non-fiction works she developed a philosophy — Objectivism — that provided a moral defense of free markets. Rand began with the observation that since the ultimate alternative for human beings is life or death, the ultimate moral goal for each individual is survival. That might not seem so radical, but Rand went on to observe that because we are humans, the goal is not just physical survival; it is a happy, joyous and flourishing life. Further, the means by which we discover how to achieve this goal is our unique rational capacity, not instincts, feelings or faith. Thinking allows us to produce food, clothing, shelter, medicine, printing presses, computers, rockets and theories to explain everything from atoms to galaxies.

In the first sentence, Hudgins presents Objectivism as little more than a philosophy (only an ethics, really) for defending free markets. Contrast that with Ayn Rand’s own characterization of her philosophical commitments: “I am not primarily an advocate of capitalism, but of egoism; and I am not primarily an advocate of egoism, but of reason. If one recognizes the supremacy of reason and applies it consistently, all the rest follows.” Objectivism is certainly a philosophy that provides a moral defense of free markets, but it’s not only that or even primarily that. It is a philosophy for living on earth. Given that this is an op-ed on the Ayn Rand centenary, Hudgins ought to focus on the essentials of Ayn Rand’s achievements. By focusing only on one derivative aspect instead, he undervalues those achievements.

The two-sentence summary of Ayn Rand’s metaethics is far worse. Because Hudgins first characterizes the “ultimate moral goal for each individual” as “survival” rather than life, Hudgins must then hastily add that survival doesn’t mean “just physical survival,” but rather “a happy, joyous and flourishing life.” To those unfamiliar with Ayn Rand’s actual meta-ethical argument, that must seem like an arbitrary abuse of ordinary language. In addition, Hudgins’ suggests that survival as the “ultimate moral goal” is not so radical, but that flourishing as that goal is. (Are you kidding me?!?) Apparently, Ayn Rand’s idea that the basic source of moral values is the fundamental alternative of life or death is just common sense, but people reject her ethics because she advocates happiness in addition to physical survival. (Are you kidding me?!?)

In his discussion of reason, Hudgins’ wordy description of reason as “the means by which we discover how to achieve this goal” is noteworthy. Objectivism holds that reason is our only means of sustaining life; it must be thoroughly action guiding, not just sometimes or in some areas of life, but at every moment of every day. Yet Hudgins’ characterization of reason as the way in which we “discover how to achieve this goal [of life]” seems to give reason a more background role, as if it merely establishes the general means of achieving life, which then may be implemented by “instincts, feelings or faith.” A clear statement of the Objectivist view was possible, yet Hudgins offered a convoluted, misleading mess instead.

Rand developed an ethos of rational self-interest, but this “virtue of selfishness” was not an anti-social creed for predators. Instead, it led Rand to her great insight that there is no conflict of interest between honest, rational individuals. Since individuals are ends in themselves, no one in society should initiate the use of force or fraud against others. All relationships should be based on mutual consent. This became the credo of the modern libertarian movement, found today in think tanks, publications and public policy proposals.

Ah yes, let us honor the 100th anniversary of Ayn Rand’s birth by blithely connecting her to the openly subjectivist libertarian movement that she repeatedly denounced during her lifetime.

As I’ve said before: With friends like these, who needs enemies? Ed Hudgins — unlike many in and around TOC — may mean well. But that’s not good enough.

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