May 30, 2009

Essay of the week

Nathaniel Branden was a long-time companion of Ayn Rand until their bitter separation in 1968. His essay The Benefits and Hazards of the Philosophy of Ayn Rand is worth reading, and not just for his criticism of her philosophy--there are also some good parts that generally get glossed over because her political conclusions are frankly ridiculous. Of course, less-recent philosophers like Aristotle are not subject to such treatment. Though I find Rand's philosophy generally awful, I have to admit there are some worthwhile bits.

This brings me back to Gevlon, who is often called an innovative WoW blogger, often bringing new ideas to the game. What he really is, though, is an unrepentant Randian before the (likely inevitable) disillusionment. I have vaguely believed this, but not being especially familiar with Objectivism I hadn't really laid it down precisely. But Branden nails him to a T:

If you read her books, or her essays in The Objectivist, or if you listen to her lectures, you will notice with what frequency and ease she branded any viewpoint she did not share as not merely mistaken but “irrational” or “mystical.” In other words, anything that challenged her particular model of reality was not merely wrong but “irrational” and “mystical”—to say nothing, of course, of its being “evil,” another word she loved to use with extraordinary frequency.


Another aspect of her philosophy that I would like to talk about—one of the hazards—is the appalling moralism that Ayn Rand herself practiced and that so many of her followers also practice. I don’t know of anyone other than the Church fathers in the Dark Ages who used the word “evil” quite so often as Ayn Rand.


So, you are left with this sort of picture of your life. You either choose to be rational or you don’t. You’re honest or you’re not. You choose the right values or you don’t. You like the kind of art Rand admires or your soul is in big trouble. For evidence of this last point, read her essays on esthetics (Rand, 1970). Her followers are left in a dreadful position: If their responses aren’t “the right ones,” what are they to do? How are they to change? No answer from Ayn Rand. Here is the tragedy: Her followers’ own love and admiration for her and her work become turned into the means of their self-repudiation and self-torture. I have seen a good deal of that, and it saddens me more than I can say.

Let’s suppose a person has done something that he or she knows to be wrong, immoral, unjust, or unreasonable: instead of acknowledging the wrong, instead of simply regretting the action and then seeking, compassionately, to understand why the action was taken and asking where was I coming from? and what need was I trying in my own twisted way to satisfy?—instead of asking such questions, the person is encouraged to brand the behavior as evil and is given no useful advice on where to go from there. You don’t teach people to be moral by teaching them self-contempt as a virtue.


To look on the dark side, however, part of her vision of justice is urging you to instant contempt for anyone who deviates from reason or morality or what is defined as reason or morality. [emphasis added] Errors of knowledge may be forgiven, she says, but not errors of morality. Even if what people are doing is wrong, even if errors of morality are involved, even if what people are doing is irrational, you do not lead people to virtue by contempt. You do not make people better by telling them they are despicable. It just doesn’t work. It doesn’t work when religion tries it and it doesn’t work when objectivism tries it.

This last paragraph was particularly interesting for me. I had often wondered how someone who claims to be rational (e.g., eschewing any vanity mount of any sort), could often in the same post display scathing, arrogant scorn for the academia, or the continent of Africa, or the poor.

Normally one thinks of the rational person avoiding ad hominems and focusing exclusively on the factual basis of whatever they're talking about. But Gevlon can't let a single philosophical post pass without calling someone an idiot, moron, parasite, do-nothinger (kind of like the "looters" in Atlas Shrugged). Now you know why.

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