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Who is Ayn Rand?


She was born in Russia and immigrated to the US in 1905 at the age of 21. She wrote a bunch of interesting books in her time. I discovered Ayn Rand when I was in college in the 1980's. I read a pile of her books, and passed them on to my friends. The Fountainhead was the first that I read, followed by Atlas Shrugged and then plodding on through a few more before I burned out. In these novels she began to develop Objectivism, her very own philosophy. She became quite famous later in life and was associated with Alan Greenspan and a host of other intellectuals.

I find it interesting that these days people scoff at Ayn Rand in much the same way that they scoff at Ron Paul. As if they were the lunatic fringe, not the sanest people around. Anyone who has not read at least one of Ayn Rand's books has no right to denigrate her ideas. And I pity the fool who dismisses Ron Paul before they really listen to him speak about what is happening in our country today.

It is true that Objectivism does not address the decimation of Earth's resources that we are now facing. But Rand's philosophy does insightfully assess many assumptions in our culture that continue to cause trouble. For example, Rand observes that "values" in our culture involve not so much specific codes of behavior as the idea that one's actions are right and good if they are done for someone else. Acting for yourself is not seen as being righteous. Acting for others will get you into heaven. Rand reintroduced the idea of rational self interest. In our culture we go to great lengths to appear unselfish, because to be selfish is the greatest sin of all. But to be a self with needs is to be selfish. So to deny our inherent selfishness is to deny our very selves. There are deep problems associated with the religious-unduced selflessness slant of our culture. Objectivism seeks to be objective about what is happening and why. I appreciate that.

It appears that someone is trying to get Rational Self Interest back into college curriculums, by appealing to the self interest of Universities. According to The Week at least 17 universities accepted a million buck donations under the condition that Atlas Shrugged be required reading in a course on capitalism from a moral perspective. That should be an interesting course.

I didn't know it until just now, but Anglina Jolie and Brad Pitt are working on putting together a movie version of Ayn Rand's book Atlas Shrugged. It's on the shelf for now, because they want to do it right and until the pieces come together they won't touch it. I look forward to that one coming through.

Apparently Ayn Rand blocked a number of attempts to make her book into a movie, fearing perhaps that Hollywood would be completely oblivious to Objectivism and misconstrue her lifework. I wouldn't doubt it.

The Youtube video below is by a serious young man who purchased Greenspan's recent autobiography The Age of Turbulence and reads a portion of it so us that considers Ayn Rand.


words

Comments

liveonearth
Apr. 8th, 2008 03:46 am (UTC)
People pretend to act for the benefit of others while they are surreptitiously manipulating circumstances to suit themselves. It is this hypocrisy that I find distasteful in our society. True service is rare and notable.

It appears true to me that one must love onesself first, before one is capable of loving others. I think we lack self love in this culture because of our dualistic religious background that tells us it is bad to love ourselves. This inability to connect with our own internal power, spirit, soul, energy, whatever you want to call it, is IMHO the cause of the modern western malaise.

The only person that you can control is you. I control me. Our first responsibility is to take care of ourselves, to develop ourselves, to become our very best happy selves, for the benefit of ourselves and everyone around us. If we neglect ourselves in service to others, we quickly decline into nothingness. We must respect and care for ourselves at some minimal level just to survive, but to truly serve, we need to give ourselves what we need to thrive. This is not "selfish", it is simply BEING a self-actualizing self.

So no, I do not agree that selfishness is a major root of society's problems. I think hypocrisy is. The subjugation of the self causes us to deny ourselves first, and others later, when they do not succumb to the social pressure to be selfless like us. It creates a culture of blackmail and bullying, which is precisely what we have going on. If we put more energy into nurturing ourselves we'd naturally give more goodness into the world. Neither the Christian nor the Objectivist version is complete. The flow of energy/love is circular and infinite. By loving ourselves we open the door to true generosity, instead of forcing it because we think we "should" be "selfless".

It's paradoxical.
gavin6942
Apr. 8th, 2008 04:56 am (UTC)
I like that response. It was very well thought out and makes me think.... much better than Rand's writings.

I think Rand would disagree that taking care of ourselves is not selfish. One of her better books is called "The Virtue of Selfishness" (which, I must admit, I enjoyed). But she would say that being selfish isn't a bad thing in the way "we" tend to think that it is.

As you say, it is imperative that we provide a base level of self-nourishment. I've always admired Abraham Maslow's theory of self-actualization, which you may or may not be referencing. And in that context, yes, I do think it's important to devote much time to one's self-development. As you say, the only person we can control is ourselves, and if that's so we should try to shape ourselves as best possible.

And I also agree that hypocrisy is a definite problem in the world, particular in the West and even more so in America. I could cite any number of religious or political leaders, but you know what I mean, so I won't.

Where I take issue with you and with Rand is your opening line: "People pretend to act for the benefit of others while they are surreptitiously manipulating circumstances to suit themselves." In some cases, this is incredibly true (again, those leaders I could name). But where Rand and I differ is here: I think some people act in a kind manner to benefit themselves, but not all people, and I don't think this is moral. Rand, on the other hand, specifically ENCOURAGES us to act altruistically only if it is to benefit ourselves, which I find highly immoral.

Perhaps ironically, I have always been a fan of Nietzsche, who argued a similar line of reasoning: that we must harness our will to achieve our inner strengths and make ourselves great. But Rand goes further and says we must do so at the expense of others. I don't support hurting people to get ahead (no matter how "necessary") and I don't support capitalism, which she saw as the highest form of goodness.

Is it any more right to be altruistic because we "should" than to be egoistic because we "should"? I would argue that whichever path leads more effectively to greater happiness for all is the proper path to follow.
liveonearth
Apr. 8th, 2008 06:59 pm (UTC)
Nice comments. I don't have time to do your thoughts justice right now (1 min to class time) but I was referencing Maslow, and I am a fan of Nietzsche, and the word "should" brings up red flags for me no matter who says it. I think Rand was more a-moral than im-moral. And I agree that my opening line doesn't cover everyone, it's a huge generalization....must run. Blessed BE!
gavin6942
Apr. 8th, 2008 08:08 pm (UTC)
Replace "should" with "ought".

I look forward to your response.
liveonearth
Apr. 9th, 2008 03:40 am (UTC)
Well here I am again, and the anonymous commenter has accurately explained Rand's thinking on selfishness. My thinking is my own, and though I was greatly influenced by Rand, I do not agree with her entirely on much. I am simply glad to know that someone out there had the guts to challenge the PC version of what is "right" and who "we" are.

"Ought" and "should" are the same. My red flag flies up because I need to know WHO says I "should" do whatever, and WHO or what cause I will benefit or harm by doing what I "should". In the end I find myself quite the cynic and perhaps nearly as amoral as Rand. I do not believe that we "should" be altruistic. I'm not sure we are truly capable of it. I think it is in our most fundamental human nature to act in our own best interests, even when we disguise it from ourselves. The Gandhis of the world are serving others because it is in their best interest to have equal "rights" for all, or peace on earth, or some other aim that is self serving as well as other serving.

As for the morality of acting in a kind manner to benefit onesself instead of others, I don't understand on what basis you say that is it not moral. According to whom and for whom? And what does kindness have to do with it? What if I act with malevolence to benefit someone else?

I get confused.
gavin6942
Apr. 10th, 2008 01:16 am (UTC)
Technically, "ought" and "should" are not the same. Should implies the natural course of things, while ought is a normative claim. Unfortunately, we've let our language get blurry and we often interchange them.

I will say that I think altruism has a real grounding. The problem when you start asking about why something is right, you get to the point where you find there's very little absolute truth and no fundamental ground for ideas like "rights". (Although Rand accepted certain rights, such as property rights, mysteriously.) This invites hihilism in. I, in many ways, accept nihilism as a necessity.

However, I think if we define moral along the lines of what is in the best interest of ourselves, of society and of others, altrusism is the best option. We understand helping others -- or at least not harming them -- brings a sense of secrity to ourselves. Does this mean we're ultimately doing something to protect ourselves? I don't think so. I think it means we understand the best and most happy world is one that strives for unity and not divisiveness.

I don't know what happens if you act with malevolence to help someone else. It would have to be viewed i na grander sense to see if it was the right choice, I imagine.

I don't buy Rand as being "amoral". She spends a fair amount of time making moral claims or claims about other people's morality. To have such a vested interest in what (she thinks) is rigght or wrong clearly lands you on either a moral or immoral side. Some would say she's quite moral. But as she pushes the view, basically, that "might makes right" (good old Thrasymachus from the Platonic dialogues raises his head!) it's a hard doctrien to justify on any of the traditional grounds. We'd have to accept "moral" to mean "in our interest, but not in the greater good" which is hard to believe is a truly good motive.
liveonearth
Apr. 10th, 2008 07:42 pm (UTC)
In matters of language I am a descriptivist, not a prescriptivist. In other words, I attempt to understand what people mean regardless of how their use of words relates to the historical implications of the word. So yes, the language is blurry and the original meanings are often lost. Today, "should" and "ought" both imply that one is obligated to behave in a certain way for often unclear beneficiaries or values.

I suppose I may be a nihilist too. I have not yet found a basis for absolutes in right/wrong. I do however have an internal sense of joy/suffering, and bias my operations towards maximizing joy. Does that make me a hedonist, too?

It is interesting that Rand accepts property rights and not others. Every philosophy has assumptions that can be challenged.

As for her morality or amorality, I would have to embark on a whole new program of reading to really comment on it. My 20-year memory of her reading is that she objects to other people's valuations of things regularly. Does she make any firm statements about what is right and wrong? I don't recall.

I had no intention of falling into the position of defending Rand's positions when I made this post. I wanted to give her credit for influencing my thinking and to take note of a couple of current happenings that brought her back to mind.
gavin6942
Apr. 10th, 2008 08:14 pm (UTC)
I will respond more fully in a bit. Just wanted to say, I certainly don't expect you to be the defender of Rand. So don't worry about that. :)
gavin6942
Apr. 12th, 2008 04:53 pm (UTC)
Point taken on your use of language. I'd still stress an ought/should difference, as well as may/can lend/borrow and others. But certainly I do understand what people mean when they speak.

There's no harm in being a nihilist. I happen to find it a very respectable position. I am not one myself though I have great sympathy. If you consider pleasure to be the ultimate good and pain the ultimate evil, you could be considered a hedonist, sure.

I don't know if I want to scour the Rand books for exact quotations. But when selfishness is a "virtue", capitalism is an "ideal" and property rights are seen as the foundation of all Western rights... I'd say that's a moral system. She certainly talks the talk, at least.

Random quotations. Use of the word evil:

"There are two sides to every issue: one side is right and the other is wrong, but the middle is always evil."

Talk about rights:

"A crime is the violation of the right(s) of other men by force (or fraud)."

"Individual rights are not subject to a public vote; a majority has no right to vote away the rights of a minority; the political function of rights is precisely to protect minorities from oppression by majorities (and the smallest minority on earth is the individual)."

"Rights are moral principles which define and protect a man's freedom of action, but impose no obligation on other men."

"Since there is no such entity as 'the public,' since the public is merely a number of individuals, the idea that 'the public interest' supersedes private interests and rights can have but one meaning: that the interests and rights of some individuals take precedence over the interests and rights of others."

"The only proper purpose of a government is to protect man's rights, which means: to protect him from physical violence... The only proper functions of a government are: the police, to protect you from criminals; the army, to protect you from foreign invaders; and the courts, to protect your property and contracts from breach or fraud by others, and to settle disputes by rational rules, according to objective law."

Here I think she makes it clear she's moral (or immoral), and certainly not amoral:

"There is no escape from the fact that men have to make choices; so long as men have to make choices, there is no escape from moral values; so long as moral values are at stake, no moral neutrality is possible. To abstain from condemning a torturer, is to become an accessory to the torture and murder of his victims."
liveonearth
Apr. 13th, 2008 01:36 am (UTC)
Excellent quotes. Thanks!

I guess I'm not a hedonist either, because I do not believe in good/evil.
gavin6942
Apr. 13th, 2008 01:39 am (UTC)
Well, "good" and "bad" if you prefer (and certainly you would say pleasure is good, since that's what makes it pleasurable). I don't believe in evil, either... I tend to use it more figuratively.

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