Ayn Rand was not an Egoist — but her Followers are

Recently, various people in the public eye, from protesters to professors, openly declared their allegiance to Ayn Rand’s philosophy of egoism, known as ‘Objectivism’. The reaction to these people is, typically, that Rand’s view are morally dangerous and selfish. I believe that this is a slander on Rand’s character.

As Andrew Oldenquist noted, Rand is wrong, but she is not selfish — she only thinks she is. She is honestly wrong about her own views, by no means a rare event. How Rand actually believed people should behave is not so bad, and in many ways admirable (however far from this ideal her own behavior often was). The danger lies in talking her theories too seriously.

One of the attractions of Objectivism — like those of its mirror image, Communism — is that is offers a complete worldview, covering everything from epistemology, ontology, and (most famously) ethics, to economics, politics, and art. There is not a single issue on which Rand (or her followers) do not have an straightfoward “correct” view: much like “The Party” or “The Rabbi” offer such a solution for everything to their fans. The second attraction is that Rand’s philosophy is explicitly egoistic — a welcome relief to some, who want a justification for their egoism.

Rand’s worldview does not really stand serious criticism. For example, her so-called “epistemology” mentions virtually none of the problems epistemologists today deal with: no awareness of Gettier problems, Moore’s arguments, the internalism / externalism debate, and so on. More surprisingly, there is no serious dealing with Kant’s epistemology, despite having Kant and Christianity as her main opponents. The same, mutatis mutandisis true for her blinkered view of ethics, aesthetics, music, economics, metaphysics, and so on. 

But merely because one is not an academic it does not follow one is necessarily wrong. There is some justice to the claim that the sort of extreme specialization philosophers undergo today, in imatitionem scientiae, stops them from influencing the hearts and minds of the public with clear arguments about important matters. So, forgetting academia’s contempt for Rand, what’s wrong with her views?

The philosopher Andrew Oldenquist asks us to consider the heros of Rand’s works, the allegedly perfectly rational and perfectly egoistic heroes, such as Howard Roark in The Fountainhead or John Galt in Atlas Shrugged. Why — asks Oldenquist — do they act as they do? Why are they are consinstently honest, upright, brave, generous, keepers of their word and promises, stickers to principles, and so on? Why are they not pirahnas, double-crossing everybody?

The solution, notes Oldenquist, is that Rand is not an egoist. She only think she is one. She is just as much a sticker to absolute moral principles as the most moralistic Kantian. She only finds some argument to explain why her characters’ honesty or bravery were “really” those of the rational egoist after the fact. All her philosophical worldview actually did, in her novels as well as (to a large degree) in her personal life, was to supply her with bad reasons to justify what she clearly already considered the right and moral thing for her heroes, or herself, to do anyway. 

But instead of admiring the kind of people and behavior she admired, and dismissing her egoistic philosophy, today’s Randians accept the egoistic philosophy — and ignore the examples of good behavior she gives. Just consider all the selfishness manuals, a.k.a. ‘self help books’, which we keep seeing in book stores. Perfectly typical and hugely popular are ‘How to Win Friends and Influence People’ (where one should form friendships with the goal of influencing people to act for one’s own advantage);  ‘Rich Dad, Poor Dad’ (where the ‘poor dad’ is dropped with contempt because he isn’t rich); ‘The Secret’ (where one can, allegedly, learn to command the universe to do one’s bidding — and then to wish for mansions or expensive cars); and so on.

Quite apart from the general childishness of these books, it is not hard to imagine that Rand herself would have dismissed them, and rightly, with contempt. But they are what naturally follows from taking Rand’s philosophy seriously — far more seriously than Rand herself actually did.

About the Author
Dr Avital Pilpel is a lecturer of Philosophy at the University of Haifa and the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya (IDC). As a hobby, he researches the history of Chess in Israel and the Yishuv