Ayn Rand Is the Anti-Trump

Recently the Washington Post has published numerous stories that worry about “fake news” (see a first, second, third, fourth, fifth, and sixth example out of many articles on the subject). It seems odd, then, that the paper also published the ludicrous claim that Donald Trump is an “Ayn Rand-acolyte” and an “objectivist” who follows Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism. In fact, there is zero evidence that Trump understands any aspect of Rand’s ideas and much evidence that in the main he flatly rejects them. Continue reading “Ayn Rand Is the Anti-Trump”

What Is Ayn Rand’s “New” Novel, “Ideal?”

Ideal by Ayn Rand
A new publication of a work of one of the 20th century’s most read (and most controversial) novelists is big news. Ideal is the work at issue; Ayn Rand is the author. So what is Ideal?

Ideal is not new; it was written in 1934 and revised as a play over the next year or two. (The play wasn’t produced until 1989.) What’s new is the publication of Rand’s early novelization of the story.

The play was published in 1983 in The Early Ayn Rand. The new publication contains the novelization which preceded the play—and which is substantially less polished—as well as a reprint of the play. The oddity, then, is that the “new” work is in rougher shape than is the previously published version of the work.

What, then, is the purpose of publishing an older version of the same basic story? Leonard Peikoff, Ayn Rand’s heir, suggests two main reasons in his introduction to the new work. First, a publication of one of Ayn Rand’s earliest works, and in two different versions at that, may offer valuable insights into her intellectual and literary development. Second, a novel offers a reader a complete, self-contained experience in a way that a play cannot.

On this latter point, Peikoff explains:

By itself, a script is not a work of art or a genre of literature. Novel and play alike, being complete, enable you fully to enter and experience the world they create. But the script by itself does not: it omits the essence in this context of literary art; it is written for perception (to be heard from a cast of actors seen on a stage), yet by itself it is detached from any such perception.

As an indication of just how substantially Rand revised the play relative to the preliminary novel, consider Peikoff’s description of a section:

In Chapter 3 of the novel, the central character is Jeremiah Sliney, an ignorant, dialect-speaking farmer. On her typescript, even before she started the play, AR slashed out the whole chapter, with ruthless lines signifying emphatic rejection. . . . Dropping Sliney from the play, she instead took the name of a son-in-law of his, who had been an incidental character, and made him the scene’s central character. In this reincarnation, Chuck Fink [the new character] has an ideological identity: he is a member of the Communist Party.

By any standard, that is a major change. Yet the “new” publication contains the original text, despite Rand’s rejection of it. Peikoff writes, “Despite [Rand]’s deletion of Slinky, I have left him in the novel just as he was in its first draft.” Peikoff puts readers on notice, then, that this novelization does not reflect a polished, final work that Rand herself approved. Rather, it reflects a work in progress.

Why did Rand develop the material into a play rather than into a revised novel? I had assumed that the reason had something to do with Rand’s anticipation of getting a play produced. But Peikoff suggests literary reasons. First, Peikoff suggests, the beauty of the central character is integral to the story, and that is probably better shown than described. Second, the play format seems to have allowed Rand to introduce a wide array of minor characters more perceptually and therefore more briskly.

What is Ideal about? Peikoff offers a good summary in notes published with the 1983 version:

[Ideal is] a story in which a famous actress, so beautiful that she comes to represent to men the embodiment of their deepest ideals, actually enters the lives of her admirers. She comes in a context suggesting that she is in grave danger. Until this point, her worshippers have professed their reverence for her—in words, which cost them nothing. Now, however, she is no longer a distant dream, but a reality demanding action on their part, or betrayal.

“The theme is the evil of divorcing ideals from life,” Peikoff writes there.

That is a theme well worth contemplating in novel form, even if the novel in question does not reflect Ayn Rand in mature literary form.

Oh, You Mean Ayn Rand Wasn’t a Rawlsian?

Image: Michael Greene
Image: Michael Greene

As John McCaskey reviews, various libertarians today are explicitly egalitarian in the vein of John Rawls. One such libertarian is John Tomasi, who claims that even “avowedly egoistic defenses of libertarianism [such as Ayn Rand advocated] recognize the moral imperative that material benefits of social cooperation reach the least well-off class.” This is as quoted by Don Watkins in his article today for the Ayn Rand Institute.

Watkins offers a pretty good summary of why Rand was not Rawlsian, even implicitly, even a little. (As an aside, she was not a libertarian, either, and did not consider herself to be one.) He writes:

Rand would say we shouldn’t evaluate institutions by how they affect any group. It’s wrong, she thinks, to approach political questions by thinking in collectivist terms like “the rich,” “the poor,” or “society.” The question is not which social system benefits which groups, but which social system is geared toward the life of an individual human being.

Of course, when government protects each individual’s rights to think and act by his own judgment, the outcome is a prosperous society that can benefit everyone—including the least-wealthy people living in it. It should come as no surprise that what’s good for individuals is good for individuals considered as a group.

Ayn Rand, Coffee, and the Honor System

Image: Julius Schorzman
Image: Julius Schorzman

The Objective Standard just published my article, “Contra Time Writer’s Claim, Ayn Rand Did Not Advocate Mooching Coffee (or Anything Else).” Basically, Bijan Stephen claims that Rand endorses mooching any time there’s an “honor system” for payments. But his claims about Rand are ridiculous—and directly contradicted by countless, explicit comments by Rand. This “smear Rand” phenomenon is interesting, at least: Which other public intellectual born over a century ago is as routinely subjected to regular smears today?

Where Is Dave Brat’s Paper on Ayn Rand?

dave-brat-297x300Recently I wrote a blog post for TOS Blog about Dave Brat’s views (specifically, I compared and contrasted his views and those of Ayn Rand).

In that post, I quote from a summary of a 2010 paper coauthored by Brat about Rand. That four-page summary is available through Southwest Informs, under “2010 Proceedings,” “Papers Listed by Track.” (The summary was not available there until June 11, when I contacted the organization and its representatives made it available.) Unfortunately, I have not been able to locate the full paper.

Lynn Stuart Parramore also went looking for the paper:

We tried to find that paper, which was “presented and published in the proceedings of Southeast Informs, Myrtle Beach, SC, October 6, 2010,” but that publishing venue evidently doesn’t quite make the cut for Google scholar and JSTOR, so we can only guess at its contents.

But Parramore’s remarks are imprecise. Whereas Brat’s college page claims the 2010 paper was “published in the proceedings of Southeast Informs,” the paper was not actually made publicly available. When I asked Ali Nazemi of Southeast Informs if the organization has the full paper, he replied (in a June 11 email), “That [the summary] is all we have. The authors may have the full paper and may have tried to get it published in a journal.”

I have contacted Brat via email, both through his campaign and his college email address, but as of yet I have had no reply. Obviously I’m interested in reading the paper, and when and if I get my hands on it I’ll write about its contents.

Why Ayn Rand Trumps Sam Harris on Ethics

I submitted a video to the Project Reason video contest.

Following is the transcript:

What is morality?

Where does it come from?

What is its justification?

In his recent work on ethical theory, “new atheist” Sam Harris argues that morality consists of achieving well-being. Harris argues that our well-being is a matter of fact, and therefore morality can be developed as a science.

Harris adeptly argues that the secular left has fallen into moral skepticism and relativism, holding that nobody can rationally evaluate morality, and one culture’s practices must be as good as any other’s.

Harris retorts that it is obviously better to be secure, healthy, and happy than it is to be brutally raped and murdered in tribal warfare. Thus, actions consonant with achieving the first state are morally superior to actions leading to the second.

Unfortunately, Harris’s own moral theory suffers a fatal flaw. Harris depends on alleged intuitions pointing us to the greatest well-being of conscious beings, a sort of utilitarianism.

Harris’s view leads to irresolvable difficulties.

Why should cultures that value domination and the warrior ideal listen to what Harris has to say?

Does morality demand that we achieve the well-being of non-human animals, and to what degree?

[I realize that Harris does answer the above two questions, though I do not think he can adequately do so.]

Does the well-being of some require the sacrifice of others?

Harris in effect reduces his own position to absurdity. In a note, Harris grants that, under his theory, in some circumstances, “it would be ethical for our species to be sacrificed for the unimaginably vast happiness of some superbeings.” [See page 211 of The Moral Landscape.]

But an ethical theory that grants the potential moral propriety of the complete obliteration of the human race is on the wrong track.

While some might see Harris’s case against moral relativism as cutting-edge, in fact novelist and philosopher Ayn Rand beat Harris to the punch half a century ago.

Moreover, Rand outlined a moral theory based on the individual’s rational self-interests. For people that entails living virtuously and respecting others’ rights.

Whereas Harris leaves “well-being” nebulous and ill-defined, Rand clarifies that one’s well-being ultimately must be judged by the standard of life and death. The good is what advances one’s life, the bad is what harms it, as a matter of objective fact.

Under no circumstance would Rand sanction as moral the sacrifice of one’s self, or the sacrifice of one’s species, for the benefit of others.

Instead, Rand recognized that only when each individual lives for his or her own life-serving values, can people live together by reason and for mutual advantage.


oshualipana commented February 4, 2011 at 5:20 PM
Nice too see another well reasoned attack on that charlatan.

Lumnicence commented April 7, 2011 at 3:33 PM
“In a note, Harris grants that, under his theory, in some circumstances, “it would be ethical for our species to be sacrificed for the unimaginably vast happiness of some superbeings.” [See page 211 of The Moral Landscape.]”

That is a hideous misreading of the text. The comparison being made is fish to humans as it relates to Robert Nozick’s position on whether eating meat is moral or not (in Harris’s view it is, since eating meat garners a net well being for a person). He extends this analogy to beings that are to humans what humans are to bacteria. Would it be morally justifiable for them to use us to serve their utility? Is a fish morally justified in its struggle against a fisherman?

“Whereas Harris leaves “well-being” nebulous and ill-defined, Rand clarifies that one’s well-being ultimately must be judged by the standard of life and death. The good is what advances one’s life, the bad is what harms it, as a matter of objective fact.”

What do you mean by advances? Advances to what end? Or shall I give you more credit in understanding than you are willing to extend to Harris?

AriA commented pril 7, 2011 at 4:17 PM
Dear Lumnicence, I am NOT misreading Harris’s text, “hideously” or otherwise. I simply quoted it verbatim from his book. If you don’t like that text, I suggest you take it up with Harris, not me. In Rand’s theory, one’s life IS the moral end, and it can be advanced only through legitimate moral virtues. -Ari

Lumnicence commented April 7, 2011 at 7:41 PM
Dear Ari,

I know that you did quote directly (and correctly for that matter), but the meaning was either missed or disdended. By saying:
“But an ethical theory that grants the potential moral propriety of the complete obliteration of the human race is on the wrong track.”
…I’m just saying that wasn’t what was meant by the text. In context, what he meant was merely that if there were superbeings (like aliens, or whatever), we would be out of touch with their moral reality as ants are out of touch with our morality.

And I thought the objective goal of objectivism was the happiness of the individual concerned? Just as happiness avoids being pinned down in defintion, changing from person to person or even within the same person over time, well-being is also difficult to define, but no less comprehensible.

Ari commented April 7, 2011 at 7:44 PM
My problem with “well-being” is not that it is “difficult to define,” but that, in Harris’s usage, it depends on false notions of utilitarianism. The relationship between a person’s life and a person’s happiness is complex and not something I’m prepared to discuss in a blog comment. But I do think those things are intimately connected.

Ari commented April 7, 2011 at 8:02 PM
Let me clarify. My primary problem with Harris’s use of “well-being” is not that it is complex or difficult to define. Rather, my point is that Harris’s conception of “well-being” is “nebulous and ill-defined,” and cannot ultimately form the basis of a coherent moral philosophy, because it rests on utilitarian premises which are at root arbitrary and incoherent.

Anonymous commented April 27, 2011 at 9:42 PM
Great video, great logic! Would that Sam Harris read Rand before he started opening his mouth to larger and larger audiences!

Barry commented August 30, 2011 at 9:48 PM
Dear Ari,
I think Mr. Harris answered quite well the objections that he foresaw with respect to the “nebulous” nature of “well-being” when he compared it very effectively with health. Health is an equally nebulous concept, yet, would you also argue that since the field of medicine rests on the premise of health that it cannot be a coherent or moral undertaking?

Ari commented August 30, 2011 at 10:07 PM
I actually like Harris’s comparisons to health. Only I’m not merely arguing that his notion of “well-being” is nebulous; I’m arguing that it is irredeemably undefinable and indefensible, because there is no basis for his utilitarianism. (I recognize there’s much more to say to make a complete case about this.)

GeoPorcupine commented April 1, 2012 at 10:47 AM
Both are wrong, but I’ll focus on Rand since Harris was already discussed. Utilitiarianism has a lot of problems (though so does deontology), and well-being is either overly vague or tautologically good (leading to it’s moral to be good – whoopdie doo). Back to Rand…

Life and death, basically natural selection, determine what is possible, not what is good or bad. To claim otherwise is to fall into the naturalistic fallacy. All moralities will necessarily eliminate impossibilities, but may contain possibilities, even in some cases necessities, which Rand would likely object to, such as slavery and forced sterilization.

Secondly, there’s no non-value reason to grant rights to others. Individuals thrive quite well in societies where rights aren’t completely respected, so life and death have nothing to say here. While I need to respect my own values, why do I need to respect others? Perhaps people would do better in societies where everyone was completely individualistic, perhaps not. That’s a question subject to empirical study. Rand has not convinced me here, and neither has Harris.

My favorite ethical philosopher currently is Alonzo Fyfe, though he misses some important things too.