As I’ve written Towards Liberalism: A Challenge to Objectivist Ethics, I’ve gone head to head with several Objectivists about their philosophy. Some have thanked me for “helping to clarify their thinking.” While I want to take pride in doing that, I have found I am not at all helping them evolve in their thinking. Instead, I just keep hardening their own argument for Objectivism as against any outside challenge. They just keep spiraling further and further into Objectivism, explaining how it already answers all life problems and my challenge is petty and unwarranted. I’m not helping them think. I’m helping them make better arguments to rationalize their entrenched philosophical paradigm.
Here is how most of my conversations go.
1. They think they have human nature totally figured out–by definition
My most basic challenge to Objectivism is it is overreaching in its description of human nature itself. I point out to Objectivists that defining humans as “rational animal” is too narrow. This is how I typically begin my argument, which I intend to further elaborate on. Before I can get on to explain my point, they harp on me immediately, “well, that’s just a basic scientific definition separating man from animals!” I start to say that human nature involves emotions, etc., and they say, “Oh well those are the SPECIFICS. The basic definition of human nature is a rational animal. You can get into all of those nuances later.”
I’ve learned I have to hit them immediately. Yeah, but you make this entire elaborate philosophical system, defining what is moral, which Rand then goes on to build a politics out of, over this very “basic” definition. Rand, by the way, uses the word “basic” when she describes it: reason is man’s “basic” means of survival.
It’s not just that you define humans as “rational animal.” You declare this is what is objectively needed for all of human survival and therefore “rational” people are morally superior. That’s a hell of a thing. But that this is a hell of a thing is an Objectivist Blindspot that they just plain don’t understand.
The entire essence of the problem is that they conflate two issues.
- Defining human nature as “rational animal -and-
- Thinking they have merely defined “reason” such that all new knowledge simply folds into Objectivism in a contextual way
Objectivists believe they have the foundation of all knowledge because they believe in “reason.” Sure, they agree, new knowledge may present itself and we update it as we happily live our rationally self-interested life. In defining human nature as “rational animal,” they think they own this. They thus see no problem with their very definition of human nature itself. They think all knowledge can be happily folded into the Objectivist framework.
My challenge is that it can not. Objectivism doesn’t just define reason as reason. It defines human nature as reason. Objectivism dictates how a person is to behave: they are to think and produce. It has an entire, elaborate ethical system dictating this. And Rand has elaborate thoughts on emotions, happiness, and the subconscious. Outside ideas about these things are counter to the philosophy.
You cannot simply happily fold outside thought into Objectivism. This is the issue. They start with the idea that they think they simply believe in “reason” and everything after that is open. I am saying, in Objectivism, it is not. Rand has this “reason” dominating the inner world. That is my main challenge.
2. They think the controlling Objectivist view on emotions is mere introspection
My main argument lies with how Rand treats emotions. She has you judging and controlling them. She discusses at length that emotions are derivative, not primary. The Objectivist view is you have an emotional mechanism, but your rational mind programs it. It is like a wild animal that you have to discipline to do what you want for you. The explicit Objectivist position on happiness is that you should derive happiness in a cognitively “demanding” way. Anything else is smeared as irrational or as hedonism. Rand explicitly says you either drive your subconscious or it drives you. A hell of a thing for a philosopher to say about the entire subconscious of humans don’t you think? Did I mention that Objectivists have blindspots?
When I start in on my argument about the Objectivist view on emotions, I very rarely can get very far. I point out quotes from Rand about how we are to “ruthlessly” investigate our emotions. They declare that this doesn’t mean “without pity or compassion,” which is the dictionary definition. They tell me it just means being “intellectually clear.” When I press them that she is very controlling about emotions, they say, “oh, she just means to introspect.” When I point out quotes from Rand where she derides people who like racing cars or going to family picnics, they tell me I am taking the point “too literally.” If all else fails, they say, “Well Cognitive Behavioral Therapy says very similar things to Objectivism and it is successful.” Ok, CBT has good points and bad points and many psychologists have written powerful, persuasive criticisms against it. This is not the end all and be all of emotions, and some of the thoughts are extremely poor and in the way of therapy. That Objectivist is in the way of therapies that heal, by the way, is Objectivist Blindspot #6.
My entire challenge is that Objectivism is controlling of the inner world. It is so obvious that this is what Objectivism does that it becomes somehow not obvious to them.
3. They squirm out of the issue of abundant wealth
One of my biggest challenges is that Rand declares that “everything” we need to live must be produced. This isn’t true whatsoever. For most of human nature, we lived as hunter gatherers who easily got what we needed from the surrounding environment. Even in an industrialized world, not everything we need has to be produced. Plenty of wealth is abundant, such as land, the sun, etc. Objectivism has no moral underpinning to deal with such wealth.
Take the majorly important land issue. Imagine living in feudal Medieval Europe in which you were born as a peasant on land already totally owned by a king or lord. You would never, ever, have any hope of owning any land of your own. You will always be a renter. Such issues have always preceded socialist takeovers.
When I say this to Objectivists, they squirm out of it, “Oh you are saying if you have just a little bit of land you can’t do anything with it. That’s not true. Developers do amazing things with a little bit of land such as building skyscrapers.” No. Not a little bit of land. No land. At all. Nada. Ever. For as long as you live and for as far as your eyes can see.
I said that the sun is one such form of abundant wealth that disproves the Objectivist definition of “value,” which is “that which one acts to gain and/or keep.” You don’t have to “act” to gain or keep the sun. I was told this wasn’t true because in some parts of the world, there is less abundant sun and technology needs to make up for it. Objectivist rationalizations are real.
Dealing with thinkers who won’t think
I could probably go on but these 3 sum up typical Objectivist rationalizations pretty well. It can be infuriating to deal with “thinkers” who think they own thinking but won’t think. They just keep spinning further and further into their philosophy. Perhaps this is why they spend so much time advancing their philosophy, harnessing it on forums, social media, etc., never really doing much.
If you are looking for an unapologetic, unequivocal challenge to this system of thought, or are wondering how Objectivists turn people into caustic, abusive individuals, or think a better way might exist, check out my book Towards Liberalism: A Challenge to Objectivist Ethics. Human nature should be left to the people who study human nature. We can be much more contained in our selves, feel comfortable in our own skin, care for our children better, and have better relationships, with a less judgmental, more liberal outlook on life.