Blank slate theory has been wreaking havoc on parenting and people for decades. It says we MOLD our inner world instead of LISTEN to it. With children, it means we consistently “suppress” their “whininess” or “crying” so they learn not to do that. NO. These emotions are FEEDBACK. Our inner world and all of its rhythms MATTER and DEEPLY to our health and well-being. I passionately argue against ALL philosophies that advocate “tabula rasa” blank slate theory. This book formally challenge Objectivism, the philosophy of Ayn Rand
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Towards Liberalism: A Challenge to Objectivist Ethics
Better thoughts on how to thrive as a human exist–and Objectivism is in the way. Objectivism puts a disciplining ethics on a person; Rand’s idea of “rational self-interest.” It is based on the idea of “tabula rasa”: that a person can and in fact must go in and set their “emotional mechanism” correctly with the proper values. This ethics does more damage than good.
Tabula rasa, what Objectivism rests on, has been thoroughly refuted in recent years in the field of neuroscience. Humans are already designed well. We don’t have to override our emotional mechanisms; we need to understand them. This has major implications in many areas. In Towards Liberalism, it is argued that happiness is primary (always present) not secondary (an achievement); that emotions are feedback, not programmable; that children should be well understood not “transformed” into any ideal (including that of a rational producer). Any system designed around tabula rasa naturally leads to behavior modification. Behavior modification, almost always enacted by shame and punishment, can be all but totally rejected.
Liberalism as presented in this book is the full study of human nature and a rejection of all punitive means, political and personal. Humanity already pulses with vitality and goodness—if we just respect it.
Why did I write this challenge to Objectivism? Because the inner world matters. We are not born tabula rasa. We do not need this civilizing ethics put on us. Our emotional mechanism is already designed well—as long as we respect it. Short video here.
See my 5-part video series, each video one minute each, on the Objectivist view on emotions below.
I raise and discuss these issues in Towards Liberalism that deal with emotions:
- Are the emotions you feel metaphysical (cannot be changed) or man-made (can be altered)?
- Is happiness a result of your achievements (secondary) or a mostly unalterable well inside you (primary)?
- What is reason’s role in life: to understand reality or an all-encompassing guide for every waking hour of one’s life?
- What role do emotions play in learning from life experience?
- What is the purpose of education: to transform a child into the rational ideal or put a child in touch with their authentic strength?
- How are women differentiated from men and what is their unique identity, value, and needs?
- On a scale of 1-10, how important is child rearing to human survival? On a scale of 1-10, how much emphasis is it given in formal Objectivist ethics?
As well as some implications that the answers have such:
- Who owns land: who got to it first, who fights for it, or based on some other moral paradigm?
- How can the environment be effectively sustained? Does it even matter?
- Do private citizens have the right to use firearms for self-defense?
The Objectivist View on Emotions
In my experience, there is nothing I personally can say to convince Objectivists of the error of Rand or the truth of my argument. They accuse me of lies, “logical fallacies,” straw mans, etc. immediately. This most often happens when I say Rand directly messes with your emotions. This is my main argument against Rand: instead of listening to your emotions as feedback, she actively contorts your inner world as to make it do what you want it to for you in your “objective survival.” It’s only the entire point of the Objectivist ethics. As nothing I can say can convince them, here are some relevant quotes from Rand. I leave them here, as is, for you to tell me what they mean. Unless otherwise indicated, they are from “The Objectivist Ethics”:
“Man is born with an emotional mechanism, just as he is born with a cognitive mechanism; but, at birth, both are “tabula rasa.” It is man’s cognitive faculty, his mind, that determines the content of both. Man’s emotional mechanism is like an electronic computer, which his mind has to program—and the programming consists of the values his mind chooses. (30)”
“The enormously powerful integrating mechanism of man’s consciousness is there at birth; his only choice is to drive it or be driven by it.” (TRM, 27)
“Man has no choice to feel that something is good for him or evil, but what he will consider good or evil, what will give him joy or pain, what he will love or hate, desire or fear, depends on his standard of value.” (31, emphasis original)
“Happiness is that state of consciousness which proceeds from the achievement of one’s values. If a man values productive work, his happiness is the measure of his success in the service of his life.” (31)
“An emotion as such tells you nothing about reality, beyond the fact that something makes you feel something. Without a ruthlessly honest commitment to introspection—to the conceptual identification of your inner states—you will not discover what you feel, what arouses the feeling, and whether your feeling is an appropriate response to the facts of reality, or a mistaken response, or a vicious illusion produced by years of self-deception. (17, emphasis mine)
“But the relationship of cause to effect cannot be reversed. It is only by accepting ‘man’s life’ as one’s primary and by pursuing the rational values it requires that one can achieve happiness—not by taking “happiness” as some undefined, irreducible primary and then attempting to live by its guidance. If you achieve that which is the good by a rational standard of value, it will necessarily make you happy; but that which makes you happy, by some undefined emotional standard is not necessarily the good. To take ‘whatever makes one happy’ as a guide to action means: to be guided by nothing but one’s emotional whims.” (32)
“But if a man values destruction, like a sadist—or self-torture, like a masochist—or life beyond the grave, like a mystic—or mindless “kicks,” like the driver of a hotrod car—his alleged happiness is the measure of his success in the service of his own destruction.” (31)
5-Part Video Series on The Objectivist View on Emotions
This is a 5-part video series explaining Rand’s views on emotions. Each video is less than a minute. View and share this video series on Youtube with this link: The Objectivist View on Emotions.
There is a lot of misunderstanding of how emotions are treated in Objectivism. Rand has you programming–her word–your emotions. Through your “standard of value,” you set your emotions to respond the way you want: if you are happy or sad to life events. This is Pt 1 in this video series.
PT II in clarifying emotions in Objectivism. Programming your emotions is core to Objectivism. Your emotions could be ALL WRONG and you might naturally find pleasure in, say, doing drugs (i.e., “hedonism”). So you need to have the right values, such as valuing productivity, so that your emotions become a “lightning quick barometer” in your objective survival.
If we abide by “rational self interest,” what is “irrational “ according to Ayn Rand? Family picnics. Driving hot rod cars. And muddy colors. Pt III: The Objectivist view on emotions
A view that some emotions are irrational (as opposed to “rational”) is toxic. It leads to cult like behavior: you’re under constant judgment on if what you think and feel is “rational” or not. People who knew Rand describe her collective as a cult, as Murray Rothbard did in his article The Sociology of the Ayn Rand Cult. And this fear of being judged for what you felt drove it. PT IV: Objectivist Views on Emotions.
PT V and final on Objectivist emotions: Objectivism creates toxic people. It’s an entire philosophy that tells you how to think, feel, and act. Like with communism, it’s not just “bad people.” The philosophy itself has systemic problems. It assumes you and your “whims” can’t be trusted and thus puts a civilizing ethics on a person. Rand seeks to mold people. This civilizing ethics is toxic. Hence my book, Towards Liberalism a Challenge to Objectivist Ethics.
“You make a straw man against Objectivism”
This is the accusation Objectivists throw at me when they so as much read this back cover of Towards Liberalism. They reject everything I say based on nothing but the above few paragraphs. This is so very typical of them. They can’t even get past a book cover before deeming all of my conclusions wrong, a “straw man,” “logical fallacies,” etc. They can never, ever show they understand my argument. Their (very immediately drawn) issue is typically over the fact that I say Rand guts your “emotional” side. In their mind, Rand has GREAT ideas about emotions, and therefore my statement is a “straw man.” Ok. It’s not. A straw man is purposely misrepresenting an idea to then criticize the mischaracterization of the idea. I do not make any such straw man. Rand DOES gut your intuitive/emotional side. The entire essence of Objectivism, and my argument, is that Rand suppresses your authentic emotions in favor of dominating them with “reason.” Rand says the central theme of her work is the mind over the heart. This is the core of Objectivism–the reason for her all-encompassing rational morality–and the core of my challenge. I do not make a “straw man.” My book challenges the idea of tabula rasa itself: that we need to “program” our emotions. This is the core problem with Objectivism and leads to abusive, cult like behavior. See Murray Rothbard’s article about Rand, linked below. Take Rand seriously when she doubts and judges various forms of joy, such as family picnics and race cars. Her philosophy has disastrous consequences; in which you constantly doubt yourself and your possibly errant emotions.
The core issue is tabula rasa. Rand says you can “program” (her word) your “emotional mechanism” (her word again). I (as well as modern science) says you cannot. You are operating on a false premise. As such, you say I am “lying.” You don’t see any problem with “programming” the inner world. It makes sense to you. But, as I say you cannot muck with a person’s “emotional mechanism,” if you try to program it, you are gutting the authentic emotions of a person. Ultimately, it is abuse to your inner world.
You might disagree with me over how emotions should be handled. But I do not make a straw man when I say she guts a person’s emotional side. It is what Objectivism is.
Ultimately the issue is with “the heart.” There is nothing wrong with this side of us. There is in fact everything right about it: it’s what makes us, us. It’s our groove, our spark, our intuition, our life. Anyone suspicious of it, who thinks we can “program” it, likely has a severely damaged one. This is the issue–and we need to heal it not dominate it. This is where true vitality lives.
I made this graphic to explain my challenge to Objectivism , which is in the role of the #mind. Ayn Rand has you dominating your inner world, the left. She directly says you “program” your “emotional mechanism.” You TELL your emotions if they make you happy or not. I argue that emotions are feedback: the right picture. You listen to them. They do work for you. I have the subconscious as a puppy because it does work in the background. Happiness is a scholar because it TEACHES us. Feelings, good or bad, galvanize and personally edify us. Rand directly says either you drive your subconscious or it drives you; that happiness cannot be a guide; that feelings are “whims.” This has DEEP implications in MANY areas. Rand co-opted the definition of human nature ITSELF. She shuts down further inquiry into these important areas. How will you ever feel comfortable in your own skin with this kind of molding process? Towards Liberalism: A Challenge to Objectivist Ethics. Please read.
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More about the Challenge
Some short blogs about Towards Liberalism: A Challenge to Objectivist Ethics:
Objectivism versus Liberalism: A Very Short Summary: When rats are put in a cage and offered water or cocaine, they choose cocaine to the point of death. When free, they choose water. Rand assumes you are like the caged rat and can’t naturally make good decisions; therefore need her civilizing ethics.
Objectivist Blindspots: 10 Objectivist Blindspots. They don’t think their philosophy affects the behavior of its adherents; they don’t respect emotional feedback; they don’t give women their due; and more.
Objectivist Rationalizations: When you challenge Objectivism; they get really good at spinning arguments
Ayn Rand Did Not Support Gun Rights for Self-Defense: Ayn Rand did not support gun rights–or any use of force–for the purpose of self-defense
Objectivist Views on Education
Objectivism, as I accuse, attempts to mold and transform a person. This is because it erroneously believes in tabula rasa and can and must “program” people to be “rational.” Here is Peikoff stating this is the exact purpose of education:
“The idea of education is to take a tabula rasa (someone born blank) and transform him, through a systematic process across years, into a being with the skills and aptitudes necessary to fit him for adult life. (2)”
More than anything this is what I take to task. See my article, Tabula Rasa verus Child Development: Deep Views on Human Nature Matter
I am most known for my child development work. Objectivism does its biggest damage in education. How? Well it thinks children should be “transformed.” Video here.
See also The Grumpy Gorilla: Ending the Patriarchal Tyranny of ‘Disciplining’ Children: Highly patriarchal cultures, and Rand’s Objectivism is very patriarchal, engender an idea that children’s “misbehavior” needs “disciplined.” Females used to push men away to tend to their young during their highly irritating developmental stages. Now “father knows best” and instead of the men going away, young are expected to calm down and “behave.” This is the toxic effect of Objectivism and all patriarchal systems, and of all systems of thought for the past 6,000 years: they strip women of their natural intuition and power in child care. This is why the world is so broke. And Objectivists would never even be able to see it, as they just plain don’t understand women or child rearing.
Other Challenges to Objectivism
People ask me for resources that challenge Objectivism. This will be a growing list of things I find relevant.
The Sociology of the Ayn Rand Cult. This was written by Murray Rothbard–a big name in libertarian circles. I can vouch for everything he says here. I also, for instance, get put through the “you have to read Rand forever” treatment. By old cultist members? No, by young men in the year 2020. The vortex of Rand is strong and draws people to it every time they pick up Rand. It needs a direct challenge.
My Years with Ayn Rand by Nathaniel Branden. Branden coined the very term “Objectivism” and made it a movement with his lecture series and Institute back in the day. If you are going to go down the Objectivist path, it is worth it to take a look at what he said. He desists from diagnosis of Rand but it’s pretty clear she had a terrible case of Narcissistic Personality Disorder.
Shrugging Off Ayn Rand – by NY Times bestselling author and ex-Objectivist Michael Prescott. I could not agree more with his assessment that Rand disassociates a person from the intuitive part of their mind.
Romancing the Stone-Cold Killer: Ayn Rand and William Hickman – by again Michael Prescott. Read through some thoughts on how Rand praised a child murderer in her youth.
Sam Vaknin’s website. Vaknin’s website describes Narcissistic Personality Disorder. It doesn’t deal with Rand or Objectivism. I recommend it, however, to show how in alignment with NPD Objectivism is. Look through how much the narcissist wants to chase excitement, rationalizes bad behavior (e.g., smoking), and feels they have objective laser-like judgment expressly without feelings.
The Blank Slate by Steven Pinker. I have not read this book. However, it takes to ask the idea of tabula rasa. If you want a more technical argument against tabula rasa itself–which I think is THE issue of our time–here is one.
The Body Keeps the Score by Dr. van der Kolk. This book is about trauma. I believe Objectivism attracts people who have been traumatized, even if they don’t know it. This book offers better ideas to deal with it–some of which directly counter Objectivism doctrine. Visceral healing–the stuff deep in the body–is what is needed.
The Awakened Family by Dr. Shefali Tsabary. I recommend this because Dr. Tsabary has much better thoughts on emotions than Ayn Rand. She describes how good/evil thinking often inflames situations. It is a parenting book, but I can’t find these ideas in any book that isn’t a parenting book. Perhaps that is because parenting is where these skills are learned and imparted.
Psychology Books. Objectivism acts as a psychology. And yet Objectivists often want to compare it to other philosophies. I am asking you to read books by psychologists and compare them to Objectivism. Rand shuts down inquiry into psychology by describing it as being, at the time, dominated by mystics. It was not and is not. Psychology is rich with insight. Try reading books by Dr. Shefali Tsabary, Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, Dr. Elaine R. Aron, Dr. Haim Ginott, Elaine Mazlish and Adele Faber, or really any book from any person who, unlike Rand, actually studies human nature. Pick one on any topic that might directly impact or influence you, such as having narcissistic or borderline parents. The market is saturated with such books.
Towards Liberalism: A Challenge to Objectivist Ethics. Yes. My book. I attempt to go in and dismantle Objectivism piece by piece. I offer a vision of a non-punitive world, both politically and personally and a strong caregiving ethics. I have an unwavering vision of creating strong, vivacious people through proper caregiving. Please recommend it to your friends, family, colleagues, students, and reading groups!
FAQs About the Challenge
Below is a brief summary of some of my arguments. It’s in response to some of the questions I have received on social media. But this does not replace reading the book.
The Challenges to Objectivsm
The Objectivist view on emotions is that we have an emotional mechanism but we program it with our rational mind. Emotions in Objectivism are treated like a wild animal that we have to discipline. Rand says that we are bound to feel something but what we feel is up to us. If we program (her word) our thoughts correctly, we can program our happiness to drive us towards what seems so logical: outwardly rational, productive success.
The challenge made in this book is that we cannot control our emotions such as to tell us what should make us happy. It is like the feedback on the dashboard on a car. It comes prepackaged. The feedback already knows the car. We cannot override it. These emotions help us in everyday life. They speak to us and teach us. Managing these hardwired emotions, as they personally edify a person, is much more important than dominating them.
To make it more clear: Rand says you can control what makes you happy. She has you setting your values to value productivity, etc., such that you feel happy when you are productive, such as to aid in your “objective survival.” Happiness then becomes a “lightning quick barometer” in the aid of your life. She has you taming your emotions like disciplining a horse, which then goes to work for you.
My argument is that emotions don’t work like this. You cannot program what makes you happy. It’s prewired. Your body knows you better than you can override it. It knows its authentic needs. And emotions are often much more like a horse that bucks up and runs away. Knowing how to handle this is much more important in your everyday life and even in maintaining a moral composure.
This is what I mean that emotional management tools are more important than a rational morality. My main challenge is in the role of the mind. I advocate consciousness, not rationality. I advocate a patient, observant approach to emotions, not a dominating one. When any emotion arises in me, I hold it in conscious awareness, without judgment. However, I cannot control what emotions I will feel in response to life events. And that’s where Rand goes wrong: she has you judging and controlling your emotions, which is a dangerous thing to do.
Rand says that you either drive the subconscious or it drives you. The challenge made in Towards Liberalism is that the subconscious is like a puppy that works for you in the background. Its main needs are not domination and control, but sleep and play. Rand says your conscious mind should be on all waking hours of the day. But the subconscious works best when the mind can blur a little bit. It does most of its work when you sleep. It does work also when your mind is slightly spaced out, such as when brushing your teeth.
Rand says you literally “drive” your emotions (see Galt’s speech in Atlas Shrugged); that your values provide the fuel of where your internal state goes.
The challenge is that you do not have any control over this. You were likely born with a particular personality that derives pleasure in the way you were hardwired to. Some people like a good book by the fireplace. Others like jumping out of airplanes. You may indeed value productivity and profit–that’s natural–but this is not something you can program. Happiness is much more self-honored than self-created.
Rand’s views on emotions are very much like a person suffering trauma. With trauma, the body’s emotional mechanism takes on a life of its own: always trying to prevent the previous threat from harming the body. All of Rand’s views on emotions seem to be trying to control this very beast. We need to heal this out of whack internal mechanism, not try to dominate it. We need to become trauma aware.
Rand’s metaphysics are not just “study reality correctly.” It’s “study the outside world and put those whims away.” She pits feelings against an ability to study correctly. This is not in alignment with research on the topic, which shows that authentic, primary emotions aid in learning.
Rand says the purpose of morality is to teach you to be happy and enjoy your life. The challenge is that morality, by its judgmental, shame-inducing nature, cannot do that.
All performance-based moralities command a person to succeed. If a person does not, the result is shame. Performance-based moralities create shame, unease, and anxiety where they need not be. And this most definitely does not go towards the end of putting a person in touch with reality.
It is the job of science, not morality, to teach us to be happy.
“Rationality” in Objectivism isn’t just “study reality.” It’s “know your reasons for every action in your life.” If any kind of intuition drives a person, this is put down as a person acting irrationally. Further, what emotions you feel are to be judged to be “appropriate responses to reality.” Rand doesn’t allow that all of your feelings are valid. Who has the “right” feelings or who is acting “irrationally” or whose problems are “petty” or what even the definition of human nature is are huge power plays.
“Rationality” as used this way, and how it is indeed typically used, is not reason. It is authoritarianism. I reject it in favor of other terms. Reason, which I still embrace, is an act of focusing one’s mind to study something and it plays a contextual role in life. “Consciousness” is the active, gentle monitoring of the inner world and the term I prefer to denote the mind’s role in guiding the inner life. I reject totally the term “rationality” at this point.
Objectivism has an abuse problem. Rand herself was abusive, in how she was and her writing, and her adherents notoriously insult, shame, and humiliate others. I wouldn’t have hastened to write this book, except for the predatory, gaslighting, insulting, abusive behavior I’ve routinely received from Objectivists.
The good news is that people who study abuse say that abuse is a product of how a person thinks. Abusive people feel good about their abuse; they see no problem with it. Towards Liberalism identifies abusive behaviors in inter personal dealings and calls them out as immoral: insults, triangulation, humiliation, double standards, etc. This book takes direct moral aim at where it needs to be: not at selfishness or laziness–or altruism or evasion–but at abuse itself. The moral system in Towards Liberalism goes to work for you.
Much more important to human thriving than a morality of rational self-interest is properly caring for children. Properly caring for children is virtually nowhere in formal Objectivist ethics. Rand says she designed her ethical system based on human nature, but she ignored the enormous 20-year investment it takes to raise a human.
She never identifies “woman” in her system, always “man,” thus ignoring the importance of reproduction and what women are quite simply biologically designed to be superior at. That Objectivism ignores caregiving and women are Objectivist Blindspots #8 and #9.
Here is where Objectivism is extremely poor. The explicit Objectivist position is to take a blank child and transform him or her into a rational producer. You can find this exact sentiment in Teaching Johnny to Think by Leonard Peikoff. An adult is heavy handed and lecturing in doing this. Ideas like this are in the way of more progressive, alternative, better forms of hands-on education, which Objectivists routinely mock. See Tabula Rasa verus Child Development: Deep Views on Human Nature Matter
Rand famously writes, “show me what a man finds sexually attractive and I’ll tell you his entire philosophy on life.” Rand turns sex into judgment: who you sleep with is a trial of your character. Sex more than anything is where the inner world and its rhythms should be respected. Rand controls and constrains sex. Towards Liberalism greatly liberalizes this part of life. I call for the full legalization of all sex work.
Rand advocated radical capitalism. This rests on her view that everything man needs must be produced. But not everything needed to live needs to be produced, such as land. There is no solid moral underpinning for abundant wealth, like land. That Objectivists can’t even discuss without squirming is Objectivist Rationalization #3.
“Capitalism” denotes a certain bias: in favor of capitalists as opposed to others. It also had a implicit view of how raw resources and their use are intertwined. Instead, I prefer the term “free markets” to describe proper economics. It hints that there is a hustle and bustle to market activity, with booms and busts, and things that go well and poorly.