Objectivists I know and know of tend to be smart, thoughtful, balanced, joyful, successful people. They do profoundly important work in such areas as education, technology, aviation, business, law, and philosophy. In many ways their productive achievements directly or indirectly benefit my life.
Unfortunately, there is a brand of self-proclaimed Objectivist—more accurately, pseudo-Objectivist—who tends to parrot Ayn Rand’s ideas rather than seek to deeply understand them and to nastily smear both Objectivists whom they deem heretical and critics of Rand’s ideas. These pseudo-Objectivists tend to feed off of each others’ social media outrage. A friend of mine found herself the target of such attacks over months of online harassment.
To most of the world, these pseudo-Objectivists are invisible, as they isolate themselves in their tiny and mostly-irrelevant echo-chambers. To the extent that they make themselves visible—and they certainly try—they undermine the positive cultural work of actual Objectivists.
As I prepared to publish my critique of Rand’s ethics, I warily anticipated the reaction of these pseudo-Objectivists. Sure enough, they went on the attack, living down to the worst stereotypes of the enraged, dogmatic “Objectivist.”
One such fellow declared on social media, referring to my book: “An entire book entitled ‘What’s wrong with Rand’s Ethics’ is preposterous and automatically invalid on the face of it.” So, of course, he can reject the book without the bother of reading it or grappling with any of its arguments. He and another fellow seriously discussed whether I am an “intellectual psychopath” for having published the book. Yet another person accused me of advocating “biological determinism,” even though I explicitly criticize such in the book (which he refuses to read). Such attacks are pure anti-intellectualism.
Of course, I do expect serious Objectivists to take issue with my book and to offer real arguments against my position. Such is the nature of intellectual discourse.
Unfortunately, the cranks tend to run laps before the serious critics get their shoes tied. If the crankery were restricted to social media, I’d be tempted to ignore it. Unfortunately, it has spilled out visibly onto the Amazon page for my book. The first review posted—the day after I formally announced the book—is intended, not as a serious review of the book, but as a smear to suppress sales.
Because mine is a niche book with a relatively small potential audience, cranks quickly can torpedo the ratings. I replied to the review in a comment, but, unfortunately, Amazon hides replies, making them difficult for potential readers to find.
I reproduce my reply here. Quotes are taken from the “review,” which readers can find at Amazon if they wish.
Ari Armstrong here, the author: Potential readers may note that the anonymous “review” to which I respond does not actually have any substantive content. Instead, it name-calls and makes some misleading or evidence-free assertions.
Unfortunately, with Amazon reviews of niche books, such as mine, a few cranks quickly can weight the average.
I’ll leave aside the reviewer’s obvious name-calling and respond to the claims at hand.
Does my work “focus on narrow points of philosophy”? Well, it is a book about philosophy, specifically about Ayn Rand’s Objectivist ethics. So I discuss that general theory as well as “narrow” aspects of it. Would the reviewer prefer a book on Rand’s moral theory that does not discuss its details?
My first chapter (which people can read for free via Amazon’s “look inside” feature for the Kindle edition) is not just about Rand’s philosophy; rather, I seek to offer important context about Rand’s life as well as about her views on rational selfishness.
My second chapter, “Reviewing the Objectivist Ethics,” outlines the metaethical theory that Rand lays out, drawing especially from Rand’s “The Objectivist Ethics” (which people can read for free through the Ayn Rand Institute). My third chapter focuses on the broad problems with Rand’s metaethics. My fourth chapter focuses on the problems with Rand’s biology as they pertain to her metaethics. So those chapters address Rand’s moral theory generally.
True, my fifth through eighth chapters focus on narrower aspects of Rand’s theory, such as Rand’s hypothetical example of the “indestructible robot” (which she believes buttresses her case) and Rand’s theory of rights. A book such as this would have been incomplete without such discussions.
Do I typically “review . . . Rand’s philosophy” only to “decide in a paragraph at the end that there’s something fundamentally flawed” with it? No—although I do make a concerted effort to “steel-man” Rand’s case by presenting it fully. I do not merely “decide” that Rand’s theory is wrong at various points; rather, I spend a great deal of space crafting detailed arguments as to why it is wrong. People may disagree with my arguments, but to pretend that I have no arguments is unfair.
It is true that I base part of my case on plausibility claims. For example, I do not believe that Rand’s survival-oriented metaethics can (as she believes) plausibly account for why people normally become parents; why people may commit suicide to end great suffering; or why we should consistently respect others’ rights even under a system of institutional force. In those cases, ultimately I ask the reader to judge whether Rand’s case is plausible, based on the evidence presented. But such plausibility claims are supplementary to my main arguments and should be treated as such.
Do I “equivocate” “between the terms ‘life’ and ‘survival'”? No, I do the opposite: I carefully define the role that Rand’s conception of life plays in her moral theory. As I point out, the issue of life versus death, of life in terms of survival, is central to Rand’s approach, as she explicitly says. So I do discuss the relationship between life and survival at length, both in terms of how Rand handles that relationship and in terms of how I think it should be handled. Pointing out that the term “life” can have distinctive meanings, depending on context, is the opposite of equivocation and the cure for it.
Our anonymous reviewer claims that I use “expensive words where ordinary ones will work” and that my book is “full of gross stylistic excesses.” That is silly name-calling—notice that the reviewer does not offer any examples of this. True, I do of necessity use (and define) certain technical terms, such as “metaethics” and “intrinsicism,” terms common to the subject. I hardly could have discussed Rand’s critique of intrinsicism without using the term.
A also review some technical debates about Rand’s theory that have taken place largely in academic journals. At the same time, I do the best job that I think can be done to make those academic debates accessible to the non-specialist and to those new to Rand’s philosophy. (I offer extensive footnotes and a lengthy appendix geared more to specialists.)
I readily concede that anyone looking for a puff piece on Rand has come to the wrong place.
Of course people should not begin with my book if they wish to understand philosophy or ethics generally; such is not the aim of my book. Nor is my book a “criticism of Ayn Rand” generally; I do not address Rand’s general theories of metaphysics and epistemology, for example (although I touch on those matters as they pertain to the ethics).
This book is what it claims to be: A well-developed criticism of Rand’s moral theory, in all its richness.
Another person posted a comment suggesting that Objectivists need not consider my book because other critics of Rand have produced “misunderstandings and misrepresentations of Rand’s ideas.” He adds that I should make my book available for free if I want Objectivists to read it.
People have no obligation to read my book, of course. But people who are intellectually honest and objective in their approach will not pretend to have the competence to judge a book that they refuse to read.
As for your suggestion that someone who pours thousands of hours into a book ought to work for free, such is comical coming from someone professing an interest in Rand’s ideas. Surely you are aware that Rand endorses capitalism and the earning of profits. (If you are not aware of this, I offer an overview of Rand’s views of capitalism in my first chapter, which you could read for free via Kindle’s “look inside” feature, if you were interested in serious discussion rather than just trolling me.)
Of course Rand did sell newsletter subscriptions and books while she was alive. Now, decades after the publication of her essay, “The Objectivist Ethics,” the Ayn Rand Institute publishes it for free online, as part of its overall mission to promote Rand’s ideas.
I am not responsible for the misrepresentations of others, and no actual Objectivist would suggest otherwise. (Unfortunately, pseudo-Objectivist cranks tend to be much more vocal than actual Objectivists.) I myself discuss various misrepresentations of Rand’s theory in my first chapter as well as in my appendix.
My first chapter is available for free, I have written an extensive reply to a previous comment here, I have published a new essay introducing my book at my web site (AriArmstrong.com), and I have written extensively about Rand on my own web site as well as at The Objective Standard (where you can find my articles, if you like). I will continue to write about the book, responses to it, and Rand’s theory at my web site.
Of course, some people will argue (by which I mean, actually present arguments) that I misunderstand Rand in important ways and that I do not properly interpret her theory. They are welcome to argue as much, and I will be happy to defend my position. Such is the nature of intellectual discourse.
Finally, I do not claim that my book entirely offers “a unique groundbreaking refutation” of Rand’s moral theory. Rather, as I openly say, and as my hundreds of citations attest, often I present and develop arguments first presented by others, going back to the 1960s. I do frame certain arguments in a distinctive way, and I do think my critique is the most comprehensive and well-developed one in offer.
I will reply to additional crankery here, as needed. And hopefully at some point actual Objectivists will publish some serious criticisms of the book, at which point I will be happy to engage in a substantive discussion.