Objectivist at 15, Bishop at 53…

July 1, 2011

I found this article in Christianity Today: “Ayn Rand led me to Christ” by Bishop Edward S. Little II of the Episcopal Diocese of Northern Indiana. It caught my attention because I also read a lot of Rand in my teens,  was attracted to her thinking for a while, and found it ultimately unsatisfying; but unlike the good Bishop, I veered off in a very different and in some respects opposite direction.

I started out with a vaguely theistic, Platonic, and moral-absolutist way of thinking; Rand challenged some of this, in healthy ways. Whereas Bishop Little went from Rand and Aristotle to Plato and Jesus, I went from Plato and some notion of God, through Rand and her notion of Aristotle,  to points beyond, David Hume maybe as much as anyone… To be precise,  it’s not so much that when I was young, before I discovered Rand, I really believed in a God or absolute or any transcendent thing in particular; it’s more that I felt there should be such a thing, that life was meaningless without one, and I was constantly disappointed that no one could give me a coherent plausible account of one. Rand was the first thorough, consistent atheistic writer I encountered in depth, and it was very useful for me to see that such a world view could be maintained and spelled out, that a clearly intelligent person could have it and be content with it. I no longer felt the same need to keep looking for a persuasive theism, I could resign myself to the possibility that there might not be one. Eventually, at 20, I was able to take the plunge and let my mind entertain the idea of a totally material, scientifically explicable universe, found that I could live with it, and was able to accept it as my default view pending convincing evidence to the contrary – which I still haven’t found, another 40 years later.

But by then I had left Rand behind too, because she never quite convinced me of one of the things the Bishop found particularly attractive about her, namely her insistence on moral absolutes.  Remember, my earlier vague wannabe-theism included a sort of wannabe-absolutism.  Just as with the God question, I thought it should be possible to come up with a coherent demonstration that there was such a thing as objective right and wrong, and was constantly frustrated by the failure of anyone to meet my standards of coherence. So I wanted to find Rand persuasive; but in the end I did not, and the desire for a moral absolute went down in a tumble together with my desire for an objective God. I found I could live without either, and therefore I didn’t have to keep straining at gnats of unpersuasive evidence.

Her egocentrism on the other hand, which grates on the Bishop, doesn’t bother me much at all. I can live with the idea of an egocentric universe. What I don’t get is how this leads to an objective morality, to say nothing of how this implies the necessity of laissez-faire capitalism. Let us accept that for each human individual his/her own life as a rational human is the one basic source of value. I do not see how this leads to a standard of behavior that allows for the sort of objective judgment Rand insists we must make. Yes, like the Bishop I agree with her insistence on objective material reality; I agree that there are such things as facts, that there are things that will objectively either kill people or promote their survival regardless of anyone’s feelings or opinions, and therefore it is vitally important to think scientifically about what these things might be; and if I believed (as I do not) the claim of laissez-faire economists like Hayek that the free unimpeded market is the only way to promote human life and flourishing, I’d say OK let’s go with that. But Rand tries to make a moral claim, above and beyond the practical economic arguments (which I don’t believe) – namely that true egoists must value their rationality and freedom (understood as including “economic freedom”)  in such a way that it is logically and morally impossible for them to even consider infringing the freedom of others, including the infringement of “economic freedom” which Rand and Hayek alike see as perpetrated by modern government. The Objectivist hero apparently reasons as follows: I value my survival; my survival requires my freedom of action and my best possible use of reason; therefore freedom and rationality are such valuable goods that I should not wish to give them up even in the interests of survival. Which is fine, I can respect that, but it still seems to me a subjective choice, not the logical necessity Rand makes it out to be. Quite apart from the fact that I simply do not think the “free market” is a transparent manifestation of everybody’s rationality and freedom, not by a longshot. But that’s another matter.

In fact in writing the above I just realized that the problem I have with Rand’s supposedly rational ethics is the same problem I have with another, very different recent attempt to establish a moral absolute,  that of Alan Gewirth, which I’ve been wanting to write about for some time. I cannot express fully my view of Rand without finally once-and-for-all dealing with Gewirth also. Which isn’t going to happen today. Dear readers, please bear with me, the present already-over-900-word post is a harbinger of more to come; but hopefully once I’ve got it all out it will begin to make more sense…

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4 Responses to “Objectivist at 15, Bishop at 53…”

  1. Justin Lee Says:

    and if I believed (as I do not) the claim of laissez-faire economists like Hayek that the free unimpeded market is the only way to promote human life and flourishing, I’d say OK let’s go with that.

    I think I can help make a distinction. First, Hayek took it for granted that the government would provide some level of charity for the poor. Second, Rand in particular was addressing what role the state should serve in promoting societal conditions. She thought the role of the state was to ensure that people could act morally if they choose to do so. In that way, she agreed with subjectivists like Mises and Hayek.

    The Objectivist hero apparently reasons as follows: I value my survival; my survival requires my freedom of action and my best possible use of reason; therefore freedom and rationality are such valuable goods that I should not wish to give them up even in the interests of survival. Which is fine, I can respect that, but it still seems to me a subjective choice, not the logical necessity Rand makes it out to be.

    Do you mean that valuing one’s survival is a subjective or arbitrary choice? I can’t agree. To exist or not exist means everything to a person. So while life could be considered an ultimate end, it is also a prerequisite means why which we achieve all of our other ends (or goals) as well.

    • allogenes Says:

      Justin, thanks for commenting!

      As to the market, I agree that Hayek wasn’t the hard-core “no safety net” libertarian some people today sound like; and Rand did agree that private – well, “charity” can a loaded word, let’s say “beneficence” – should always be a legal option, and in some cases might be a rational (and therefore moral) option. (Oddly, within the past two days I’ve seen two people make exactly that point, in different places, quoting exactly the same words, so it’s fresh on my mind…) The thing is that I envision, and do not consider illegitimate, a broader positive role for the state; but that’s a topic for another day. My concern here is more with the structure of moral argument.

      I don’t disagree with your other point, that “to exist or not exist means everything to a person.” By calling this subjective, I only mean that it means everything only to that person, at least directly. (Others may also value that person’s continued existence, or they may not.) Once I cease to exist, I will presumably also cease to care whether I exist; the “value” of my life isn’t something out there in the world I call “objective,” the world of rocks and trees that are there whether anyone sees them or not; it is only an attitude I have, even if it is an attitude that I more or less necessarily have. And I would say the same thing about all “values.” They are inherently relational things, not absolute independent things the way I believe (and agree with Rand among many others) the objects we perceive through our senses are. Also, we all seem to have certain “red lines” which we will not cross just to survive. John Galt I think says he would kill himself rather than be forced to watch the villains torture Dagny. To me this makes perfect sense, but I’m not sure of the way Rand makes sense of it.

      Clearly my thinking is a work in progress; stay tuned for more if you like, and feel free to chip in again!

      • Justin Lee Says:

        Thanks for your reply.

        the “value” of my life isn’t something out there in the world I call “objective,” the world of rocks and trees that are there whether anyone sees them or not.

        You are right that values and disvalues are not primary concepts. Nonetheless, I would consider them different kinds of facts, goals that play a part, respectively, in fulfilling or destroying one’s life. (Just so I am clear, I mean “objective” to mean derived from an evaluation of the facts of reality.)

        Rand would also agree that values are contextual. That is not to say that the process of evaluating which goals an individual ought to pursue is left to personal discretion, only that there are circumstances (or context) by which objective evaluations are made. For example, undergoing chemotherapy would be an important goal to achieve if one has cancer. That is not to say that chemotherapy is of the same value to a otherwise healthy individual.

        So you could very rightly call it subject-based, but subjectivist, the idea that the ultimate standard of value or values to evaluate actions is determined by each person (or subject) making the evaluation. Rand argued that the only logically consistent ultimate standard of value is each individual’s own life.

    • allogenes Says:

      The distinctions you make are helpful! Other commitments prevent me from taking the time right now to work up a detailed reply, but I hope to do so later in the week, perhaps in the form of a whole new post. I may even come over and comment on your blog; I just took a brief look over there and it confirms my sense of you as a person who really wants to think through these things consistenly.


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