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Some Flaws in Objectivism

I’m a big fan of Objectivism and Ayn Rand. As evidence, I present to you my Learn Objectivism website with an outline of Atlas Shrugged (AS) and detailed analysis of the first chapters. However, there are some parts of Objectivism that I disagree with.

I disagree with the limited communication between characters in AS and The Fountainhead (FH). Rand thinks that appearances, faces, eyes and expressions communicate more effectively than they actually do.

I disagree with some of the ideas about romance and sex, particularly given the limited communication between characters. I also think John Galt acted like a creepy stalker with Dagny Taggart. I say more in podcasts: one and especially two.

I think Galt should have given his big speech ten years earlier instead of waiting until so much harm and damage was done. I understand not giving the world his motor and other practical help. But I think it’s fine to tell them about philosophy. Philosophy is very hard to use and benefit from without actually being rational and understanding it (much harder than math, science, engineering, etc.) So I think it was basically safe to share philosophy ideas with the world. Rand partly agrees with this since Francisco gave his speech about money at a party and didn’t mind people hearing it.

So I think it was deeply unfair and unjust to destroy the world without explaining first. Explaining both allows more people to agree with Galt and take his side, and also allows people the opportunity to give counter-arguments and change Galt’s mind. This is relevant to my own career. I’m concerned that my society is too corrupt to help with e.g. a scientific breakthrough or to sell my brains to work on other people’s goals (e.g. working for a big company or government in a way that significantly and uniquely helps them, rather than in a job where I’d be easily replaceable with someone else). I’m partially on strike like Galt in AS. But I think my philosophy writing is fine and basically that bad people won’t be helped by it. It takes too much learning to use it, at which point you’d be a good person. It’s not designed for enabling shortcuts (which wouldn’t work). (Note: I’m from U.S.A but I don’t think another country is significantly better.)

Broadly, I think Roark, Galt and others should have shared more ideas and been more open to public debate. I don’t think being willing to debate gives sanction, legitimacy or help to a corrupt society. Actually I think it makes society look bad if you’re open to debate but society’s representatives or members won’t debate you. Being willing to debate, and winning or being refused, helps reveal society’s inferiority (if that’s true), especially if you debate rationally instead of treating debate as a contest for using rhetorical tricks (even if debate were a dumb contest, if an outsider wins that contest, then society looks less powerful, smart, etc.). There are exceptions, like I think it was fine for Dagny to refuse to debate the biased question “Is Rearden Metal a lethal product of greed?” on a hostile, unfair radio show. But if people were willing to have fairer debates in more neutral settings, then I think engaging in debate is good (at least enough for it to become repetitive). Similarly, I think Galt should have written and attempted to publish a book before striking (if he was unable to get it published, that’s OK – then he did his part by trying).

In real life, Rand debated more than her characters did, but not enough. But Popper and other intellectuals I like also didn’t debate enough. And I know it was much harder before the internet. Inadequate debating is a widespread problem rather than something specific about Objectivism. I find that Objectivists online seem about equally willing to debate as Popperians or various other groups. They’ll informally argue a bit but they lack Paths Forward or rational debate policies and it’s hard to get any kind of organized, conclusive debate with followups over time.

I don’t think Galt should have worked a menial job. His time is limited and precious. His friends could have easily given him the same amount of money he made from that job so he could live a modest lifestyle and spend more time doing physics research and working on the strike. And if he invented one extra thing in his lifetime, or did a better job leading the strike, that would have been more than worth the money to them.

I don’t think Howard Roark should have refused money from his friends and worked in a quarry, either. He could have lived modestly with their money and done architecture research or taken up a hobby.

I think Rand over-emphasized politics, although she did say that philosophy is more important and that Objectivists shouldn’t try to form a political party or influence elections – the world needs philosophical education not political activism. Many Objectivists have not listened and are overly into politics. I also disagree with some of Rand’s criticism of anarchy, though I agree that current anarchists and libertarians are mostly bad.

I disagree with Rand’s advocacy of induction (the mainstream, conventional philosophical idea allegedly explaining most learning), though she never said much about it and admitted that she didn’t know the details. Some of her followers have emphasized it much more than she did and have attacked the anti-inductivist philosopher Karl Popper (in unfair, unreasonable, ignorant ways).

I don’t like how dramatic, extremist and absolutist Rand’s characters are (which I think reflects on some of her own thinking). I’ll give some examples of what I mean from AS:

I would give my life not to let it be otherwise

I think that I would give my life for just one more year on the railroad

He was the only man—with one exception—to whom I could have given my life!

If I should lose my life, to what better purpose could I give it?

I think I would give the rest of my life for one year as your furnace foreman. But I can’t.

I didn’t care whether either one of us lived afterwards, just to see you this once!

if hell is the price—and the measure—then let me be the greediest of the three of us

Happiness is possible only to a rational man, the man who desires nothing but rational goals, seeks nothing but rational values and finds his joy in nothing but rational actions.

I wouldn’t approach him. The only homage I can still pay him is not to cry for forgiveness where no forgiveness is possible.

I’d give anything now to have him back, but I own nothing to offer in such repayment, and I’ll never see him again, because it’s I who’ll know that there is no way to deserve even the right to ask forgiveness.

The angular planes of his cheeks made her think of arrogance, of tension, of scorn—yet the face had none of these qualities, it had their final sum: a look of serene determination and of certainty, and the look of a ruthless innocence which would not seek forgiveness or grant it.

There’s a character mockingly nicknamed Non-Absolute. After he improves, Rearden says:

You’re a full absolute now, and you know it.

Objectivism tries to be more of a broad, complete philosophy than most of its rivals. This leads to sharing more of Rand’s ideas and therefore sharing more mistakes. Karl Popper wrote about fewer topics (though more than most thinkers) and wasn’t very good on most topics besides epistemology. Eli Goldratt, Thomas Szasz or Ludwig von Mises wrote about fewer topics than Popper, and it’s harder to find flaws in what they did write because they focused on sharing only their best ideas.

When people only write about their specialty, it hides many of their weaknesses. That’s fine. I’m not saying it’s better to cover more or fewer topics; both are reasonable. Just be careful comparing people by the flaws you can find anywhere in their writing; that isn’t fair to people like Rand who covered more topics. A fairer way to compare would be to pick only one topic, which multiple people wrote about, and then look for flaws only on that topic. And if someone made some mistakes, don’t assume they’re no better on any other topic. I don’t think people should be discouraged from writing about many topics even if they can’t keep the quality as high as if they focused only on a couple topics. Overall, I think there’s value to be gained by reading Rand’s ideas about many topics, and I’d be worse off if she’d picked only three to share publicly. I myself do write about many topics rather than only sharing ideas about epistemology.

Elliot Temple on September 27, 2022

Messages (1)

I think Rand was wrong to emphasize selfishness and egoism so much, instead of placing more emphasis on rejecting inherent conflicts of interest, seeking win/win solutions, aiming for classical liberal social harmony, etc.

curi at 3:37 PM on November 17, 2022 | #1 | reply | quote

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