Monday, October 26, 2009

Ayn Rand & Philosophy

Tibor R. Machan

London, UK. My assignment at the conference in London, held at the National Liberal Club, was to discuss whether Ayn Rand's ideas had the kind of philosophical meat worth the respect of those who take the discipline seriously. Rand, most people know by now, was the Russian born best selling American novelist and non-academic philosopher who wrote The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, two blockbusters, as well as We The Living and Anthem, less popular but very good reads. And she has claimed that she is an innovated philosopher who has challenged 2500 years of philosophy with her work, including such non-fiction books as The Virtue of Selfishness, Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, For The New Intellectual, Philosophy: Who Needs it, and a technical monograph, Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology.

What I said, in a nutshell, is that Rand has made significant contributions to philosophy, especially with her theory of concept formation and her view of the nature of human knowledge, as well as her ethical egoist ethics and her libertarian politics (which she liked, later in her life, to call "radical capitalist"). I showed how in fact there are bits and pieces of her thinking evident in the works of many highly respect academic philosophers, starting with the likes of J. L. Austin, of Oxford University, all the way to Philippa Foot, another Oxford philosopher. Austin's famous essay, "Other Minds," advances a view of human knowledge similar to Rand's in that both believe that for someone to know, it is required to be most up to date in one's understanding of the topic at hand without, however, needing to have some (impossible) final, finished account. This last has been very influential ever since a certain reading of Plato's view of knowledge gained prominence in ancient Greece and it has given support to all sorts of skeptical ideas about the human capacity to know anything at all. Rand has also reaffirmed a view of human free will in line with which persons are causes of their conscious actions and aren't merely being moved by impersonal forces around them.

The most controversial idea Rand has advanced is, of course, that laissez-faire capitalism, the pure free market, with no government intervention at all--whereby government is just what the American Founders stated it is supposed to be, an institution that's to secure the rights of the citizenry--is a morally superior political economic system to, say, socialism, the welfare state, fascism and other statist systems. (Her complicated demonstration of this position made some waives recently because Alan Greenspan, the previous head of the Federal Reserve Bank was associated with her and is thought to be supporting capitalism as Rand did [which, sadly, he is not].)

Another area where Rand's ideas are provocative, even outrageous by some accounts, is ethics or morality where she defends the idea that it is a moral virtue to be selfish--by which she means, to be a conscientious promoter of one's interest as the human individual that one is. Often misunderstood to be advocating simple self-indulgence, this ethical view is actually quite close to that of Socrates and Aristotle, both of who held that a morally good person is one he makes the very best of his or her life. In one of his many philosophical dialogs Plato relaid an exchange between Socrates and Crito, with the latter asking, "When you are gone, Socrates, how can we best act to please you?" and Socrates replying: "Just follow my old recipe, my friend: do yourselves concern yourselves with your own true self-interest; then you will oblige me, and mine and yourself too." And, of course, Aristotle's believed that ethics has to do with the pursuit of a life of human happiness or eudaimonia.

What is interesting is that while Rand has received a lot of flack for supposedly championing reckless egotism and wild capitalism, she has, in fact, defended the very same political system we find sketched in the Declaration of Independence and her ethics is actually quite in line with commonsense: decent people take good care of themselves first and foremost--they practice the virtue of prudence--while also showing generosity to those who need and deserve help.

The one matter on which Rand had never appealed to most intellectuals, including the vast majority of academic philosophers, is in her steadfast opposition to coercing other people to do the right thing, including sharing their lives, labors and resources with others. This must be done, when and if it should be at all, voluntarily, otherwise it can have no moral merit whatsoever. And Rand has also never been forgiven her prescient condemnation of the Soviet Union as a system of slave labor and misanthrope. Intellectuals flocked to the phony claim that the USSR was to be a workers' paradise and she, who grew up there, made clear that they were deluded. This she paid for dearly.

Rand was also an unflinching unbeliever, someone who could not abide by the idea that human beings ought to trust a clergy on the basis of faith. Reason is the only guide to understanding the world, she taught. She was besmirched by Left and Right alike. This despite the fact that many of her very best ideas were actually shared by some of the stars of contemporary philosophy, often many years after she has put them on the record.

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