Ayn Rand is the founder of the Objectivist school

Ayn
Rand is the founder of the Objectivist school of philosophical thought.
Objectivism purports that the only moral way to conduct oneself is through
rational self-interest or selfishness. In doing this, Rand puts the individual
on the same pedestal that individuals have previously only reserved for Gods or
lofty ideals. Rand herself contends her system to be undoubtedly correct, going
so far as to say that other philosophers, like Immanuel Kant, were evil. These
beliefs were presented in her two novels ‘The Fountainhead’ and ‘Atlas
Shrugged’.

 

The
first belief of Objectivism is that the world is truly real. There is no room
for metaphysics, only physics. Things in the real world are always just as they
appear to be; in other words, the world is full of facts, not opinions. To
Rand, the only way by which we can know about things are through human reason.
Human reason is a quality of the individual, not of society or anyone else. Due
to this, the individual is the most important agent in Objectivism. She put it
thusly: ‘The first right on Earth, is the right of the ego. Man’s first duty,
is to himself’ (Rand, 1943). From this, Objectivism contends that the core of
ethics also stems solely from the individual. In other words, the needs of the
individual always outweigh the needs of the society he is a part of.

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Due
to this, some claim that she has setup what is essentially a zero-sum game.
When everyone is acting in their own interest, inevitably sometimes they will
harm the interests of others. In other words, Objectivism is a philosophy that
cannot ever be too generally accepted -lest it collapse under the weight of its
own implications.

 

The
problem is that this is a misrepresentation of Ayn Rand’s beliefs. Yes, she
advocated for each individual to selfishly pursue their own ends but this was
never to be at the expense of other people. Ayn Rand says this outright: ‘I
recognize no obligation towards men except one, to respect their freedom…’
(Rand, 1943). In Rand’s world, society should be full of people trying to get
ahead, but never in ways that are destructive to each other. In other words,
people would cooperate because of mutual self-interest -otherwise known as a
positive sum game.

 

The
whole of Objectivism is merely taking these core themes and extending it to
every facet of everyday life. Thus, it is these themes that need to be examined
to critique Objectivism.

 

 

 

I
have four main objections:

?       That reality is as it appears.

?       That reason alone is enough to know
everything.

?       That Objectivism promotes a positive
sum game.

?       That people are free to pursue what
is to their interests.

 

The
first two of these will be examined through Philosophy and Logic, the rest will
be examined with Economics.

 

A
Philosophical Critique

 

The
basis for Objectivism is that objective facts can be gleaned from the world
regardless of human subjectivity. This is a claim that contradicts the mere
existence of metaphysics, of things not always being exactly what they seem to
be. Furthermore, it claims that human reason can and should be able to glean
every mystery the universe might have to offer. That is, after all, why we are
putting so much faith on it to begin with. Moreover, people are free to pursue
the truths that they want to; they just have to put in enough effort.

 

Firstly,
the prime reason we have for studying metaphysics is due to the fact that our
experiences are not directly representative of what the world is actually like.
The philosophical tradition for this goes all the way back to Plato’s theory of
forms and extends all the way to Descartian Realism. Let’s analyze this from
the perspective of Indirect Realism.

 

Indirect
Realism purports that people are not directly interacting with the world, but
with their perceptions of the world. This is because often enough our
perception of a thing is vastly different from the thing itself. Prime examples
of this are optical illusions. When people put sticks in water, they appear to
be bent. Everybody doing this, on some level, knows that the stick is as
straight as ever and yet no amount of reason can convince ones’ eyes to see it
as such. We are not seeing the real world -as Objectivists claim- but in fact
we are seeing what our sense organs think the real world is.

 

Furthermore,
there are instances where a person’s perception and reality differ so much as
to be genuine harmful to them. People suffering from mental trauma often
perceive the world to be greatly different from what it actually is. Soldier’s
returning from war find themselves reliving their nightmares from the comfort
of their own bedrooms due to conditions such as PTSD. Other people suffering
from hallucinations find themselves seeing everything from aliens to flying
elephants. We can reasonably say that these people do not perceive reality.

 

It
is even possible for a person to imagine entire existences that have little to
do with the physical world. That’s what dreaming is, after all. Going even a
step beyond that, people who are in a coma often live years of lives that have
never happened; sometimes in worlds that never existed. Once we know for a fact
that there is some disconnect between my eyes and what I am seeing with them,
how do we know how big that disconnect really is?

 

The
second claim about people being able to gleam the secrets of the universe is
problematic even if they directly perceived it. If every man had the ability to
understand objective reality, why are people sometimes wrong? Why do people so
often have different opinions on things?

 

The
entire works of Plato are quite literally arguments between people who have
differing opinions. Furthermore, they are between people who truly believe the
things that they espouse. People who have, by their own reason, went where
their minds took them. If there was a key truth of the world -one that could be
found by any man provided he tried hard enough- then philosophy should have
ended at or before Socrates and societal progress should have ended with the
first hunter gatherer tribes.

 

The
crux of progress is the fact that people gradually learn more about the world.
The crux of learning more is acknowledging that what we thought before had been
wrong. This might be fine for the life of one person. An Objectivist could
argue that some people just gain the ability to see more rationally over the
course of their lives. That’s why their opinions change. Man can see all that
there is to see, it just sometimes takes a little while to do it.

 

What
about truths that eluded people their entire lives? What about truths that
eluded entire generations for centuries? Up and until the first airplanes were
invented, the entirety of humanity lived and died believing that a person was
never meant to fly. Were all of these people incapable of seeing the truth of
reality despite what Objectivists claim? I suppose you could argue that many of
these people simply had never tried hard enough to glean the truth of flight.
Such an argument would likely be right. However, it is unfathomable to think
that the Wright Brothers really were the worst to dedicate their lives to
making people fly.

 

Furthermore,
people are littered with inherent biases and fallacies that keep them from
using their reason to their full potential. People rationalize, sometimes
they’re motivated to see things a certain way so strongly that the world really
looks that way to them. People gripped by paranoia see conspiracies in every
news story and assassins in every shadow. Many of these people spend their
lives gathering more and more elaborate evidence for what they believe. Many of
these people also believe things that directly contradict what someone else has
also spent an equally ridiculous time believing. In cases like this, who is
right? The government cannot both be aliens and Illuminati at the same time,
after all.

 

In
addition, there are things are things that humans might simply never be able to
experience or glean any knowledge about directly. What happens after death? No
amount of effort can let anyone peer past the veil of life to the veil of
death. Instead, we are left to flounder and reason and come to a hundred
conclusions about the afterlife.

 

Let
me some all of this up with an analogy.

 

Suppose
a Physics professor decided to conduct an interesting kind of test. He suspends
a ruler and hangs it next to a candle flame such that only one of its sides is
directly facing it. Right before its time for class, he flips the ruler so that
the colder end is now facing the candle. The students come in and he asks them
to touch the farther end and explain why it is hotter than the other end.

 

The
students examine the flame and the ruler and scratch their heads. They come up
with all sorts of explanations that sound clever. Some of them say words like
‘because of conduction’ or ‘because of the properties of wood’. They spend a
good while thinking about it carefully; their grade depends on it after all.

 

Now,
whether or not one brilliant student figures out the riddle is beyond the
point. The fact is that most kids will try just as hard and never suspect that
trickery was involved. Those students are the same as Rand herself, fumbling
about in a game that through no fault of her own, might simply be beyond her
grasp.

 

An
Economic Take On Objectivism

 

Objectivist
Ethics are only reasonable so long as they promote a positive sum game. So long
as people pursue what they want keeping in mind the freedom of others, society
is bound to flourish. It is no wonder why Rand was so lofty in her praise for
capitalism -which honors the same rational self-interest that Objectivism does.
The idea is that people are under no obligation to take on burdens that they do
not want to, while being forbidden from harm. At best, Objectivists will make
the world a better place; at worst, the world will be no worse for them.

This
is the point where Objectivism rams head-first into multiple subfields in
Economics.

 

One
such area is that of Game Theory. The premise behind Game Theory is
mathematically analyzing exactly what happens when people pursuing
self-interest collide in the real world. For our purposes the question is, does
that create a zero sum or positive sum game? The first example that pops out is
also the first one taught in any Game Theory classroom; that of the Prisoner’s
Dilemma. The Prisoner’s Dilemma runs as follows:

 

Two
prisoner’s, A and B, are both kept captive under allegations for committing a
crime in opposite cells. The judge invites each of them separately and makes
them an offer. If they both testify against each other, they will go to jail
for five years. If they both choose to remain silent, their sentence will be
lowered to three years. However, if one of them testifies while the other
remains silent, that man gets to walk free while the other stays in prison for
ten years. Given that both of these people have no idea what the other will
pick, what does it make sense for each of them to do? This is illustrated in
the following table:

 

 

B stays silent

B betrays A

A stays silent

Both go to jail for 3 years

B goes free. A imprisoned for 10 years.

A betrays B

A goes free. B imprisoned for 10 years.

Both go to jail for 5 years.

 

In
this scenario, we can all see the best result would be both of them staying
silent. Indeed, that is what an Objectivist would say too. However, let’s look
at it more deeply. Both of them are making their decisions independently,
caring only for their own self-interest (serving as little time as possible).
From the perspective of one prisoner, A or B, there are two scenarios. The
other person betrays them, or the other person chooses to stay silent.

 

If
the other person stays silent, A or B are best off by betraying them, as they
will serve no sentence at all. If the other person betrays them, A or B are
best off by betraying them in turn, lest they serve ten years instead. This is
a scenario where pursuing self-interest by its very nature turns the scenario
into a zero sum game. Prisoners Dilemmas are found everywhere in real life.
They explain everything from countries having a race to see who can have the
most nukes, to athletes deciding whether they should use steroids months before
the Olympics.

 

The
real world is full of examples of self-interest leading to zero sum games. It
does not pay to not infringe on other people when they might not do the same.
It does not pay to be an Objectivist when everyone cannot ready everyone else’s
minds. In fact, it might kill.

 

Let’s
now focus on the subject of free will. Free will is at the very foundation of
Objectivism. The idea that people know what is best for them and through free
will, can pursue that however is best for them. This is a claim that Behavioral
Economics would staunchly disagree with.

 

Economics,
by and large, has been the study of what happens when rational people make
choices to maximize their self interest. This is indeed what many Objectivists
would find themselves very interested in. Behavioral Economics, a much younger
discipline, made waves explaining that most decisions are not made on the basis
of what is optimal. In other words, that this ‘rational choice theory’ was
misleading. 

 

Instead,
they promote what is known as ‘Prospect Theory’. Prospect theory states that
one of the things which is just as important as the outcome of a choice, is how
that choice is framed and sub-consciously perceived by the person making it. In
doing so, it not only rejects rational choice, but puts several question marks
on free will as well.

 

Let’s
look at an example. Suppose you had the follow question on a test:

When
was Hitler Born?

1892
1886

 

In
such a scenario, the vast majority of people will pick the first option. Both
of these options are wrong, but the first one stands out. It does not stand out
in a way that should rationally make it more appealing -it’s just a little
bold- but that is enough to sway a vast majority of people. Interestingly, this
is exactly the result researchers found when they conducted this experiment
(Kahneman, 2015).

 

Let
us take this a step further. Suppose your parents gave your brother 100$ and
told you to split the money. If you said the split was fair, both of you got to
keep the agreed upon amounts. However, if you disagreed, both of you had to
walk away with nothing. Now suppose your brother decided to keep 70$ to
himself, what do you do? Rationally, the obvious thing to do would be to say it
was fair and pocket 30$. Indeed this is what the Objectivist view of human
nature would say is the correct world. This could not be farther from truth.
Actual experiments often show people willing to lose money over a sense of what
was fair and just. Experiments of this nature are known as Ultimatum Games, and
are almost as popular as the Prisoner’s Dilemma (Nowak, 2000).

 

If
people acting in their own interests will do greater harm to their society, is
objectivism worth it? That is the challenge that has often been levied against
Ayn Rand. Behavioral Economics contends that people hardly know what’s in their
best interests to begin with. After that, what leg does Objectivism have left
to stand on?

 

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