Saturday, February 20, 2010

What the hell is an Objectivist?

I've thought for some time that I should write a little explanatory note about Objectivism, why I largely agree with it, and why I recommend it to others and write essays to demonstrate it's applicability to our current situations.

Objectivism is the formal name for the system of ideas developed and advocated by the Russian-American author Ayn Rand who lived from 1905 to 1982. The ideas were originally presented in fiction, first in 1942's The Fountainhead and then in the 1957 novel Atlas Shrugged. Rand spent the remainder of her life giving lectures, publishing articles, and proselytizing her world view in such diverse places as Playboy Magazine, the Donohue Show, and the Ford Hall Forum. Since her death, a great body of explanatory and further work has been done, with the most concentrated efforts being on systematizing the philosophy and applying it to current events and various issues.

here's the Wikipedia

Now, I understand that some folks might stop here and say "A Novelist?" doesn't that smack of L. Ron Hubbard and Dianetics and stuff like that there? And I have to honestly say yes it does. Believe me, I would absolutely love it if the ideas I hold were handed to my ancient forefathers by an angel or scratched in stone by some ancient greek with too much time on his hands. I'd prefer it if I learned the philosophy at my mother's knee or heard it in some sanctioned organization like at a church or in school. But, look. I'm not a dumb guy. I'm actually quite bright. And when I see truth I recognize it no matter where it may be found.

What are the truths I found in Objectivism?

That the world is knowable.
That ethics and morality are provable in reason.
That man has a right to exist as an individual.
That freedom and liberty are requirements of man's life and must be protected
That heroism and joy are to be celebrated in art
That it's good to love your life

Now, it's near-impossible to get into the validation and details of the position in a short note, but I can give you the essence of her universe: Ayn Rand applies reason to joy and finds they are not mutually incompatible.

Growing up, I found myself in profound disagreement to just about everything I heard. I constantly asked why- I didn't understand how people took religion seriously, I was always pointing out the contradictions in what people did vs. what they professed to believe. My loves were music and science. I sang all day and read Carl Sagan all night.

In college, a friend noticed my argumentative questioning of everything and loaned me Atlas Shrugged.

Here was a kindred mind. Atlas is a story set in an America being slowly strangled by an encroaching government and a revolution by the great minds of the nation- specifically, a moral revolution. Now, every fiction writer presents their personal philosophies in their works, even if by implication, but here was a fiction writer who was also an original theorist- telling a story of the world and its essential moral dilemmas- in which the dominant philosophies worked themselves out to their logical ends, showing them for what they are. Here was someone who saw all the same implications and contradictions I always had, and proceeded to challenge and answer them.

I found more insight in The Fountainhead, the story of a creative artist (an architect) who struggles to maintain personal and artistic integrity over a lifetime of work. It was for me as a composer and artist a profoundly personal novel.

Over the years I've read all of Rand's nonfiction and found, on issue after issue, a clear consistent point of view. I've never found in twenty years a major issue on which i disagreed. Now, on many minor issues, I have. For example, I disagree with her views on gender roles of men and women (it is a fairly minor issue- she's right on the basics- the equality of the sexes, etc but there is a strain of male chauvinism that's offputting in a woman)

So here I am- a member of a distinctly minority viewpoint in this world. I've come by my ideas honestly and independently. I apply my philosophy to life and am always looking for contradictions in my thinking- I've not found many, though there have been some.

I don't feel like a member of any cult- i don't pay money to any central organization. I don't attend any official meetings unless there's a lecture I'm interested in. There's no dues, no 'church'. I'm essentially just a lifelong student who has found in a particular author an immensely valuable resource for clear and original thinking on profound issues. I think of Rand as an innovator- not the final word by any means, but even if she did not discover the WHOLE Truth she has made a huge stride towards discovering it. Someday someone will come around with a deeper and wider theory then Rand's. If I read such a writer and he convinces me, I will be a student of his.

I've sketched the broad outlines above, but let me now explain the most crucial element of the philosophy, which is its moral code. Rand's essential insight is that there's no real distinction between moral questions and questions of fact. If your purpose is to create an object such as an automobile, you are bound by the laws of physics and the potentials of metals and plastics and fuels etc. You can't make it go fast by giving it square wheels or filling its tank with diet coke. Every rational goal requires a rational process to achieve it- a process of identifying the facts of reality, breaking the goal down into discrete steps, and then proceeding to follow those steps to reach an end. Your mind at each step performs a rational process: true or false.

In morality, your purpose is the living of life as the type of being you are, and your goals and actions are subject to the same rational evaluation as any other purpose: right or wrong? Rand sweeps aside the supposed distinction between right/wrong and true/false and presents morality as a code by which to live as a rational being. Can you live by theft? True or false? Is honesty a value? True or false? Is freedom a value? True or false? Is force justifiable? True or false, etc. She derives an internally consistent philosophy built up from observation of the nature of man and the world. She presents morality as a TOOL, not a burden. A source, not of commandments and condemnations, but of premises and principles for living a happy productive life.

The moral code she derives is one of individual independence, essentially the moral code implied by Jefferson's political right to the "pursuit of happiness"- every man as an end in himself and all cooperation between men as mutual trade to mutual benefit.

I'd be glad to discuss the philosophy in greater detail than this short sketch, and I probably will elaborate more eventually, but I thought I should put this much out there as a short introduction. If this intrigues you, I obviously recommend the source- I'd start with Atlas Shrugged or the Fountainhead. At the very least I hope I've explained my own interest in these ideas and what I find so intriguing.


-Richard Gleaves
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  1. That's a well written exposition of your views, Richard. Perhaps your disagreements with Ayn Rand are only some of her views on psychology, and perhaps some areas of art? I think there is a reasonable distinction to be made between her philosophy, and her thoughts on matters that are not really matters of philosophy. In other words, not everything she commented on, or wrote about, is part of Objectivism. The implication may be that one could have the opinion of agreeing with Objectivism 100% but not with all of her opinions outside of philosophy. What do you think?

  2. I don't feel honor bound to agree with Rand on anything besides that which I do agree with. Part of being an independent thinker is that you only agree on those things that you have thought through all the way. I have many many opinions that differ from Rands. Some things I may ultimately find that she thought through to a greater degree than I have and her argument will convince me. Some things, I may find that Rand's analysis was wrong or superficial. I don't swallow anything hook, line and sinker without thinking it through myself.

    Rand's views on non-philosophical things I take the same way -- I think, and agree when I happen to agree. But I'm never under any obligation to agree 100% as a prerequisite of calling myself an Objectivist. What matters are the fundamentals. If I disagree with fundamentals and still call myself an Objectivist I am representing myself inaccurately to others so it's not in my self interest to do so.

    I have a friend who calls herself a Christian yet is in disagreement with many of the fundamental tenants of Christianity. I say then don't call yourself a Christian. Not because you owe a duty to Christ, but because it's not rational to misrepresent yourself in dealing with others. So if I found myself adopting a position that in my judgement negated or opposed fundamentals, I would stop calling myself an Objectivist altogether- for my own sake, not Rand's. It's only the fundamentals that count, though, and only to the degree that you've actually thought things through. I think in some cases it's okay to consider yourself an Objectivist even if you do disagree with fundamentals - if it is an error of knowledge on your part. Many kids jump into philosophy without abandoning the errors of earlier thinking.

    It's a big contentious issue though, and this barely covers the subject.