Bryan Caplan  

Ayn Rand, Wise Philosopher Despite Some Bad Arguments

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Ayn Rand has some lame philosophical arguments, including a tortured "proof" that "life is the standard of value" and an odd effort to base individual rights on ethical egoism. So how can I maintain that Rand the philosopher is worth reading?

To answer this, I have to let you in on philosophy's dirty little secret: Almost all of its big names commit logical fallacies by the truckload. Try reading Descartes' Meditations. The clarity of his writing makes it easy to see the flabbiness of his arguments, but he's far from the worst offender.

Once you digest this hard truth, it is only natural to wonder: Why do smart philosophers make silly arguments? This deep question was best answered by the 18th-century philosopher Thomas Reid. Long story short: Philosophers are embarrassed to just say "It's obvious," so they hide behind convoluted thirty-step arguments that they construct after the fact to rationalize their intuitions. As Reid puts it:

[W]hen we attempt to prove, by direct argument, what is really self-evident, the reasoning will always be inconclusive; for it will either take for granted the thing to be proved, or something not more evident; and so, instead of giving strength to the conclusion, will rather tempt those to doubt of it who never did so before.

Of course, once some philosophers start trying to prove the obvious, others make even more bizarre efforts to prove the absurd.

Admittedly, a philosopher can be brilliant and creative without appreciating any of the above. But for a philosopher to be wise, to have informative things to say about the Big Questions, it's essential.


Ayn Rand is one of the wise philosophers. Despite some low-quality arguments, she largely sticks to promoting obvious truths, and ridiculing others' absurdities. The payoff: Genuine progress on the Big Questions.

When Rand wrote her major works, movements like logical positivism, Marxism, and Existentialism were all the rage, and obvious truths were out of fashion. Obvious truths like: There is a real world out there, and old-fashioned bourgeois reasoning is the best way to understand it. Her rejection of the contrary view is sharp but not shallow:

"We know that we know nothing,' they chatter, blanking out the fact that they are claiming knowledge–"There are no absolutes," they chatter, blanking out the fact that they are uttering an absolute–'You cannot prove that you exist or that you're conscious,' they chatter, blanking out the fact that proof presupposes existence, consciousness and a complex chain of knowledge: the existence of something to know, of a consciousness able to know it, and of a knowledge that has learned to distinguish between such concepts as the proved and the unproved.

When Rand moves from epistemology to ethics, she adds originality to her common sense. Many ethical teachers - whether Jesus or J.S. Mill - enjoin you to love your fellow man. Rand, like the child in "The Emperor's New Clothes," essentially retorts "Have you met these people?" Love everybody? Most people simply don't deserve our love. Even an extremely likable stranger would be out of line to demand your help, and most of your fellow men fall well below that threshold. Furthermore, harping on the creepy duty to love everyone makes it easier to forget our primary duty to our fellow men: to leave them alone.

These ethical truisms are the base for Rand's critique of the welfare state. Why exactly are we supposed to pay taxes to help the poor? We aren't legally obliged to help our siblings or friends, so why are we legally obliged to help perfect strangers? And in the process of forcing people to pretend they love poor people they never met, don't we breach our far more obvious duty to leave people alone?

These are not irrefutable proofs, but they are far more convincing than anything in Descartes' Meditations.



COMMENTS (20 to date)
Peter writes:

Bryan-

Can you summarize why believing that life should be your standard of value is a "lame philosophical argument"?

Ronnie Horesh writes:

One of the reasons for helping perfect strangers is that we take actions that that hurt them. Our government subsidises a physical infrastructure that favours corporate interests but does much to destroy communities; it promotes immigration and free trade - for sound economic reasons, no doubt. But there are losers from this, and they rarely have the power of veto. They are due their compensation.

Bernard Yomtov writes:

Why exactly are we supposed to pay taxes to help the poor? We aren't legally obliged to help our siblings or friends, so why are we legally obliged to help perfect strangers?

I don't know. Maybe Dickens can help.

"Are there no prisons?" asked Scrooge.

"Plenty of prisons," said the gentleman, laying down the pen again.

"And the Union workhouses?"  demanded Scrooge.  "Are they still in operation?"

"They are.  Still," returned the gentleman, "I wish I could say they were not."

Go out into the world, Bryan. Spend a few years seeing how it works outside of nice economic models and the Marxian views of the Randite True Believers. Then come tell us how Rand combines the best of Dostoevsky, Hugo, Descartes, and presumably, in your view, Einstein, Darwin, and Van Gogh as well.

These worshipful posts are absurd.

Andrew M writes:

The last Randian response to the "chatterers" that you quote, Bryan, looks an awful lot like Descartes' famous Cogito argument (on one common interpretation): doubt that one exists is impossible because doubting is a kind of thinking, and thinking requires a thinker who exists.
So maybe old Rene wasn't such a blunderer after all!

You're a terrific economist, as far as I can tell, and an all-around smart guy. But if your knowledge of philosophy is limited to a few undergrad courses, or even a major, then you'd do better to keep mum about Rand's status as a philosopher.

Randy writes:

Bryan,

Once more, theft is not wrong. Theft works. The looters must be opposed, not because they are irrational (theft is rational), but because they are the enemy of those who wish to trade freely and peacefully. Rand was wrong to oppose Pragmatism. It more effectively supports her conclusion than several hundred pages of reasoning. The looters are not wrong - they are the enemy.

Randy writes:

Ronnie,

Re; "One of the reasons for helping perfect strangers is that we take actions that hurt them."

I like that argument. If I do harm, I believe I have a moral obligation to attempt to repair that harm. It seems that a government has the same moral obligation. For example, the government is harming me and my family by taking 30% out of every pay check. Out of $40k per year, 30% really hurts. It means I can't save for retirement, or afford a decent home, or send my 3 daughters to college. I think the government most certainly has a moral obligation to give me back that 30%.

You see the problem? Do two wrongs make a right? Does the government have a moral obligation to hurt me to subsidize some farmer who isn't getting the price he'd like for his corn? - to subsidize the elderly who were unable to save for their own retirement because the government was taking 30% from them as well? Okay, so you don't think they should be hurting me, just the rich. So now I have to pay higher prices, and me, or others like me, lose their jobs. The government cannot repair the harm it does without harming someone else. Here's a thought, perhaps they should stop harming people in the first place.

Roger D. McKinney writes:

Orwell said something like "Some ideas are so stupid only intellectuals could believe them." Rand help point out a lot of those stupidities. She was great in many ways, but when it came to morality, she fell into the trap that all philosphers have fall into: Regardless of how exquisite our reasoning, any moral framework created by a human being is nothing more than one person's opinion. Others may agree or not, but it doesn't matter because they're nothing more than opinions.

As CS Lewis wrote in "Mere Christianity," when we speak of morals we usually mean something more than an opinion; we mean something that people ought to do whether they want to or not and whether they see the benefit of it or not. And this "ought" is not another person's opinion, but something required of all people everywhere at all times. For example, if one person strolling by the river sees another person drowning, the consciences of most people would say that the bystander "ought" to make some effort to help the drowning person. But how would the bystander benefit? Should the bystander risk his life? Yet our conscience rebels at the thought of walking away and letting the person drown. Where do these consciences with their pesky "ought" come from?

Unfortunately, arriving at a moral framework that incoprates these "oughts" requires instructions from outside of mankind, which leads to discussion of religion and Ms. Rand hated religion.

But to answer Ms. Rand's question, "Why should we be legally required to help the poor?" there's no reason. Without a moral framework that comes from outside of mankind, it doesn't matter if I help the poor, or eat them!

Randy writes:

Bryan,

The note above is from me, not you, oops.

[I fixed it for you, Randy!
Lauren, Editrix]

Randy writes:

Roger,

Re; "Without a moral framework that comes from outside of mankind, it doesn't matter if I help the poor, or eat them!"

Of course it matters - but not because of "morality". It matters because of "agreement". Agreement precedes morality. Agreement is codified in Law (including moral codes) which are subject to change as the agreement changes.

Bryan Caplan writes:

In answer to Peter: On the holes in the "life as the standard of value" argument, I can't do any better than point you to to Mike Huemer's careful essay.

Bryan Caplan writes:

Reply to Andrew:

You're of course right that there is a similarity with Descartes' cogito. But notice the huge difference: Rand takes the existence of the physical world as obvious, while Descartes has a tortured argument deducing the existence of the physical world from the cogito. (You may recall that a proof of the existence of God is an intermediate step in his argument!)

Roger D. McKinney writes:

Randy,
When you say "agreement preceeds morality," you're following the social contract definition of morality. But just because two people, or two groups agree on something doesn't make it moral according to CS Lewis' definition, which I think is the common definition of morals. The members of Al Quaeda have agreed with each other that Americans are evil and should be killed on site. Is that moral? So-called morality by agreement is nothing more than a treaty, which everyone knows are meant to be broken. Of course, Al Quaeda has obtained its moral code outside of humanity, which gives it the moral power that persuades many people to follow it. So even a religion-based morality doesn't solve the problem of arriving at a universally agreed upon morality, but it does shrink it some.

Duane Gran writes:

At one time I considered myself an Objectivist (the term Rand coined for a patron of her philosophy) but then like most people I abandoned it. The beliefs seem popular to those who look for a justification to look over human misery and do nothing about it. I used to parrot Rand's popular response that Objectivism would do "nothing to prevent you from helping others" while ignoring that I was derelict in my duty to humankind.

Readers of Rand will have recoiled at my use of the word "duty", but I don't mention it accidentally. She railed against the concept of duty, but we are all born into a world that has nurtured us generations ago, be it direct from a parent or on the roadways we drive or walk. The philosophy of Ayn Rand extolls people to feel morally obliged to the benefits given by our forbearers while siphoning off anything for tomorrow's generation. It is a sick viewpoint on life and I'm glad that I have nothing to do with it anymore.

Randy writes:

Roger,

Re; "...a universally agreed upon morality"

The common definition of morality arises from our authoritarian past of gods and kings - the idea that the source of morality is some "higher power". But before gods and kings, there were small clans who reached agreement as to acceptable behavior. The "higher power" method, proved useful as larger social organizations made "agreement" impossible. Historically, moral codes first appear during the transition from clan to polis (civitas).

The Law represents a move away from "higher power" and back towards "agreement". In essence, the law is a communications tool which allows agreement between larger groups. It also reduces the need for and the power of the "higher power" method. As for a "universal morality", it is highly unlikely, as even the law has its limits.

The above, of course, assumes that morality pertains only to groups. Is there a morality pertaining to the individual? If so, I think it must come from the pragamatists; The moral works. The immoral does not. Ayn Rand was closer to this than she would probably admit.

Randy writes:

Duane,

Re; "The beliefs seem popular to those who look for a justification to look over human misery and do nothing about it. ...derelict in my duty to humankind."

As I see it, my duty is to cooperate with my fellow human beings, not to assume responsibility for them. The difference is that cooperation is possible, and assuming responsibility is clearly not.

Indeed, the idea of assuming responsibility for the needs and desires of six billion people is so clearly preposterous, that I am forced to conclude that those who spout such rhetoric are not thinking clearly, or have an alterior motive.

Ronnie Horesh writes:

Randy

I agree. Government should not harm people in the first place - at least, not without their consent. The first step is to recognise that a lot of what it does is harmful but, more importantly, is done without the consent of the people. I mean things like imposing a transport infrastructure that favours big business over small business and natural persons, and wreaks havoc on the physical and social environment. Similarly with immigration: were the people consulted about this fundamental, irreversible policy? Government and corporate interests have reshaped our entire society to favour government agencies and big business, and their interests are not congruent with those of the people they are supposed to represent. I'd like to see a government more responsive to natural persons - my website suggests a way of subordinating all policy to meaningful outcomes. Until government does so, it will have to go on compensating people in its usual random, blundering, inefficient manner, for the damage it has done to thier lives.

Duane Gran writes:

Randy said:

As I see it, my duty is to cooperate with my fellow human beings, not to assume responsibility for them. The difference is that cooperation is possible, and assuming responsibility is clearly not. Indeed, the idea of assuming responsibility for the needs and desires of six billion people is so clearly preposterous, that I am forced to conclude that those who spout such rhetoric are not thinking clearly, or have an alterior motive.

The problem with this Randian view is two fold:

1) Social responsibility doesn't obviate the need for personal responsibility. To only expect people to cooperate is the lowest common denominator of personal relations. For the living present and future who inherit the world we affect, I like to think we can do better than just keep out of each other's way.

2) The choice isn't between personal responsibility (the care taking of one) and non-personal responsibility (the care of everyone). As you would explain social responsibility, it does sound absurd to care for all six billion people, but that isn't what progressives/liberals intend. Civil society relies on the good will of charitable souls. Those who advocate social responsibility endeavor to improve the ratio between givers and takers, even if force is necessary to accomplish it.

Randy writes:

Duane,

Re; "Those who advocate social responsibility endeavor to improve the ratio between givers and takers, even if force is necessary to accomplish it."

The road to Facism.

Roger D. McKinney writes:

Randy,
You write "But before gods and kings, there were small clans who reached agreement as to acceptable behavior." How do you know that to be true? It's pure speculation. CS Lewis provides a much better explanation of morals in the fact that every human being has a conscience and there exists a remarkable agreement around the world concerning the major activities that are immoral--such as murder, theft, incest, adultery, etc.--and those that are moral--helping others, defending the weak, love. These ideas didn't come about by agreement; they're an integral part of human nature. Atheists can't explain where this moral intuition comes from; but religious people know.

By definition, the agreements you describe are called social mores, which have a lower status in societies than do morals. Laws are even further down the scale of importance because societies write laws to specify the minimum acceptable behavior, not true moral behavior. Agreements have been the problem! When groups get together and decide their survival is more important than morality, they rationalize their immoral behavior in order to murder others, e.g., Nazis, Communists, Islamists.

Randy writes:

Roger,

These ideas didn't come about by agreement; they're an integral part of human nature. Atheists can't explain where this moral intuition comes from; but religious people know.

These ideas came about by agreement because they are indeed an integral part of human nature. You've heard of fight or flight (lower functions of the brain). When it comes to relations between human beings, there is a third option, to cooperate. There's nothing intuitive about it. Its simply the brain coming up with a method for getting what it wants (upper functions). Why are cooperative ideas universal? - Because they work. Why are non-cooperative ideas also universal? - Because, perhaps unfortunately, they also work.

You are, I assume, a religious person. You therefore have a stake in assigning a higher precedence to your version of morality. Why? Because it is the method your brain has chosen for getting what it wants.

You say that atheists can't explain where this moral intuition comes from. That is incorrect. More precisely, it isn't intuition, its reason.

Finally, I want to make clear that I have no problem with the religious view of morality. If it works for you, that's fine with me. Its only your claim that your explanation is the only explanation that needed correcting.

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