What Is Individualism?

Many people hold a confused view of what individualism means. In this short talk, I seek to clarify the concept. Individualism does not mean becoming a loner or failing to help others; it does mean thinking independently and seeing the individual human being as the fundamental source of moral values. Obviously there is much more to be said on the topic, but I this was a good start for four minutes. (The original September 24 talk, delivered at a Toastmasters event, also included an introduction and ending, but those were too audience-specific to be of general interest.)

I mention the CNN debate in which Wolf Blitzer asked Ron Paul if “society” should let someone die who gets sick without health insurance; I have written on that topic elsewhere.

Let’s Smear Ayn Rand!

With the release of the mediocre Atlas Shrugged film, smearing Ayn Rand has practically risen to a national pastime. No other literary figure I can think of has been subjected to such relentless and dishonest attacks. Usually, those who most viciously smear Rand display the least understanding of her ideas.

There are basically three reasons why Rand is the target of such nasty smear campaigns. First, because Rand was an atheist, she is hated and condemned by much of the right. The most notorious, and probably still the most blatantly dishonest, attack on Rand was published by National Review. Second, because Rand was an arch-capitalist, a defender of laissez-faire, and a harsh critic of the Soviet experiment, she is hated by most of the left. Third, the two early biographies about Rand were written by Barbara and Nathaniel Branden, hardly objective sources given their personal spat with Rand, and arguably vicious liars. Unfortunately, those two distorted biographies continue to set the tone for many of Rand’s detractors.

It is almost comical how people who otherwise have little in common nevertheless manage to create echo-chambers of anti-Rand smears. Consider the following line by Mark Moe from the Denver Post: “If this [alleged description of Rand’s ideas] sounds like 4th grade tantrumspeak, well, conservative columnist Michael Gerson agrees. Recently he called ‘Atlas’ a product of ‘adult onset adolescence.'”

Indeed, I find it baffling why an otherwise-respectable newspaper would publish a smear-job that so blatantly misrepresents Rand’s basic ideas that it almost reads as parody. Moe writes, “[T]hough Rand’s monomaniacal philosophy of Objectivism can be boiled down into a few simple axioms, her style is a study in verbose bloviation by characters who are little more than cartoonish megaphones for her stunted worldview.” Okay, then! Apparently enough smears strung together can substitute for an argument.

Or consider right-winger John Andrews’s bizarre claims about Rand:

Messianism is messianism: foolish at best, hypnotic at worst. The grandiosity of Barack Obama and the will to power of Saul Alinsky cry for relief. The country must be rid of them, and soon. But the antidote is not John Galt and Ayn Rand. The messianic similarities are too close. One political panacea can’t cure another.

The novel’s final scene tells how Galt “raised his hand and traced in space the sign of the dollar,” while nearby one of his disciples rewrote the Constitution. No sign of the cross for the atheist Rand; no great reverence for the Founders either. Her secular religion, Objectivism, would improve on both. Right.

Rand is similar to Obama in that both are “messianic?” That’s just silly. “No great reverence for the Founders?” That’s just willful ignorance; Rand consistently praised the Founders for creating the greatest nation on earth. (True, Rand offered some criticisms of the original Constitution, as did a great many of the Founders.)

Even Rand’s fair-weather friends often take cheap shots. For example, the following comment from Mike Rosen has absolutely no basis in reality: “There were many challenges in converting the book to a movie. At the top of the list was the task of satisfying the Ayn Rand Institute, the objectivist high priests who keep her flame burning and whose approval was a condition of the movie rights.” Rand’s estate, not the Institute, sold the movie rights long ago, without any such conditions. (That’s unfortunate; had the Institute had any significant say in the movie, it probably would have been a lot better.)

Obviously Rand made some mistakes in her life; which novelist hasn’t? She could have a fiery temper (hardly uncommon among creative types, though she could also be sweet as a kitten), and I don’t see how her affair with Branden can be regarded as anything other than a gigantic mistake. But some of Rand’s critics seem to think that, by recounting only Rand’s flaws while ignoring her many virtues, exaggerating those flaws, completely distorting her ideas, and stacking smear upon ugly smear, they can simply ignore what Rand had to say.

Fortunately, Rand’s audience has never been those who let other people’s smears substitute for their own thinking. So read Atlas Shrugged for yourself, and evaluate its literary merits, and its ideas, by your own reasoned judgment.

***

Neil Parille commented May 11, 2011 at 5:18 AM
Nathaniel Branden didn’t write a biography of Ayn Rand. He wrote two memoirs (actually one memoir which he revised). There is a little too much anger in the books.

Barbara Branden’s biography of Rand was good. In fact, the 2009 biographies have more or less confirmed the Branden accounts. Jennifer Burns said she found no significant errors in the Branden books and she had almost complete access to the Ayn Rand Archives.

Thus I think your claim that the Brandens are “arguably vicious liars” is untrue, at least when it comes to their accounts. They both lied to Rand during the affair, although much worse in the case of Nathaniel.

Valliant’s book misrepresents the Brandens and other sources. I’ve discussed it in detail.

Anonymous commented May 11, 2011 at 5:18 AM
How is criticism of atheism any more degrading than your constant bashing of Christians?

Neither action helps the cause of freedom.

A proper implementation of government would allow both belief systems to operate simultaneously .

Anonymous commented May 11, 2011 at 7:03 AM
Ari, please don’t confuse “smear” with “criticism.” And fer dog’s sake, stop reading Mike Rosen – a more superficial opinionator would be hard to find.

ReplyDelete

Ari commented May 11, 2011 at 9:28 AM
I never said criticizing Rand’s atheism counts as smearing! Rather, my point is that some who hate Rand’s atheism smear her because of it. Criticizing a view with which one reasonably disagrees is not “bashing,” it is making a reasoned argument. A proper government allows complete freedom of religion, and more broadly complete freedom of conscience, as consistent with the rights of others. (E.g., you can’t sacrifice somebody as part of your religion.)

bil_d commented May 11, 2011 at 11:43 AM
Ari,
Ayn Rand gets smeared predominantly because of other people’s religion, not as a direct result of her lack of it. A fine point, perhaps. Nevertheless, revealing..

It is due to the requirements of mystic belief systems (pick your flavor, it matters not) that when a follower of one runs into Ayn Rand they are put into a position of having to engage in all sorts of tortured defense mechanisms. And smearing her is almost involuntary.

Sad, but true.

Hsieh Explores Atlas Shrugged’s Deeper Themes

Philosopher Diana Hsieh, who recorded a wonderful series of podcasts about Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, discussed some of the novel’s deeper themes April 6 at Liberty On the Rocks, Denver. As her main example Hsieh focused on the psychological destruction of the scientist Robert Stadler.

(Be sure to read all about my financial links to Hsieh, as the FTC unjustly requires me to post, and which illustrates why the agency should be abolished.)

Project Reason Videos Released

Project Reason has announced the finalists for its video contest.

In my view, the best of the bunch is “Think,” an elegant silent cartoon about succeeding through reason:

My second-favorite video is “The Tutor,” about a woman who tells children some lesser-known Bible stories:

I also enjoyed “New Age Medic,” which pokes fun at some of the sillier forms of “treatments” on the market:

While I too submitted a video to the contest, I had no illusions I would become a finalist. (Because of delayed permissions, I didn’t actually start the video until the day it was due.) My cinematography leaves much to be desired, and several people have been quick to point out that my handwriting is atrocious. However, the content is interesting.

What inspired me to make the video is that, though Ayn Rand preceded Sam Harris in attacking moral skepticism and relativism by half a century,Harris’s book contains not a single reference to Rand, not even in a footnote, judging from Amazon’s “Search Inside This Book” feature. And Harris’s moral theory suffers myriad weaknesses that Rand corrects.(Project Reason “was founded by Sam Harris and Annaka Harris.”) So I submitted a video not to try to win the contest, but simply to point out to Harris and others that, if they regard well-being as central to morality and see moral relativism as dangerous, they ought to take a look at what Rand had to say on those matters.

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.

In Praise of Some Great Objectivists

In light of recent controversy regarding the resignation of John McCaskey from the board of the Ayn Rand Institute, I thought it was worth stepping back and remembering the strong virtues of the parties involved, and the value of these people to me personally. I also urge other observers of the dispute to tone down the fiery rhetoric and remember that judgment ought not be confused with bitter denunciations.

Leonard Peikoff has written the most comprehensive review of Ayn Rand’s philosophy of all time, with Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand. It was a great achievement to systematize Rand’s ideas and integrate them into a single volume. Peikoff also wrote a philosophical analysis of the Nazi terror (The Ominous Parallels), and he is working on a book that I believe will be profoundly important: The DIM Hypothesis.

For me personally, however, Peikoff’s most important work is his lecture series, “Understanding Objectivism.” Frankly Objectivism was too dense — written at too high a level of abstraction — for me to understand well as a young adult. (A single volume on an entire system of philosophy is necessarily very condensed.) I understood the book superficially, but I thought I understood it so well that I knew all the points where it went wrong. “Understanding Objectivism,” on the other hand, seemed to be recorded specifically for me: the errors of rationalism that Peikoff described fit me uncannily well. This lecture was a wake-up call for me, and I have been striving ever since to make sure my ideas are firmly grounded in reality, not in “floating” deductions.

Beyond his published works, Peikoff spent years working closely with Rand to learn her ideas, and he founded the Ayn Rand Institute, which has gone on to achieve many great works.

John McCaskey I do not know well. I’ve heard him speak, and I really appreciated his talks about historical misinterpretations of Aristotle and about the history of science. My impression of him was highly favorable; he was friendly and obviously passionate about his academic work. Moreover, from what I understand, he has done impressive work with the Anthem Foundation in terms of promoting Rand’s ideas in academia.

Diana and Paul Hsieh I know very well, as we live in the same part of the country and frequently socialize. Paul, of course, is a co-founder (with Lin Zinser) of Freedom and Individual Rights in Medicine, an organization devoted to restoring liberty in health care. Paul has written innumerable op-eds, and he blogs continuously about the issue. While the Democrats successfully rammed through ObamaCare, there remains a very real possibility of eventually overturning that legislation — and mitigating its harm in the interim — to a large degree because of Paul’s work. Those who value their health and their liberty owe Paul a debt of gratitude for fighting relentlessly for free-market reform in medicine.

Diana and I, of course, co-authored a groundbreaking paper on abortion, “The ‘Personhood’ Movement Is Anti-Life
Why It Matters that Rights Begin at Birth, Not Conception.”
I can call the paper “groundbreaking” without sounding conceited because the most interesting theoretical parts of the paper were written primarily by Diana. Any woman who values her right to control her own body — and any man who values the legal security of women — owes Diana a debt of gratitude.

Diana also blogs frequently and hosts a podcast. She wrote a remarkable thesis on “moral luck” (the summary of which I’ve read) to earn her doctorate in philosophy. She also recorded an amazing podcast on Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, which constitutes an immensely helpful guide to the novel.

In addition, Diana has also poured many, many hours into helping to organize and promote Front Range Objectivism.

Craig Biddle wrote Loving Life, an accessible recounting of Rand’s ethical theory. I reviewed his book a few years ago, and I look forward to re-reading it to see what more I can glean from its pages.

Of course Craig also founded The Objective Standard, a journal from which I have learned a great deal about foreign policy, health policy, science, and more. Indeed, perhaps ironically, Craig has published portions of David Harriman’s book, the source of the controversy leading to McCaskey’s resignation. It is not a stretch to claim that Craig played some minor role in the publication of that book, insofar as he played an editorial role in the text’s publication in the journal.

I have written a first and second article as well as a book review for Craig’s journal. I have to say that Craig as an editor sometimes drives me crazy. But I have learned an enormous amount from him, and he has made me a more disciplined writer (though I still have further to travel down that road). As an aside, I will note that Craig reads things in a hyper-literal way — a virtue in an editor as he excises ambiguities from an article — but perhaps a personal characteristic that allowed him to read more than intended into an off-the-cuff remark by Peikoff about McCaskey.

I should also note that Craig offered some useful editorial advice for my own book, Values of Harry Potter. Originally I had conceived the project as a series of articles for Craig’s journal, and, while that plan didn’t work out, it did allow me to get some excellent feedback from Craig on portions of the text.

Yaron Brook, president of ARI, is another man for whom I have profound respect. Yaron has played a large role in my rethinking of foreign policy, as I cast off the non-interventionism of libertarianism while avoiding the “nation building” of neo-conservatism. Yaron helped me understand that a proper foreign policy restricts itself to defending American lives and rights, but that it properly does so aggressively. Moreover, I have heard Yaron speak about a number of issues, and I have found him consistently impressive as a public speaker. I consider him a model for public intellectual advocacy.

Morever, ARI has helped send various speakers to Colorado, and I have learned a lot from them. And ARI organizes the “books for teachers” effort. In these ways, and many more, ARI has benefitted me and contributed to my values.

I am pained that these personal heroes of mine, along with various other acquaintances of theirs and mine, have fallen into a heated personal dispute. Those interested can read the comments of McCaskey, the Hsiehs, Biddle, Peikoff, and ARI.

For what they are worth, here are my brief comments on the matter.

1. I understand that McCaskey’s criticisms of a major project of ARI — Harriman’s book — created tension between McCaskey and the board.

2. I don’t know the issues well enough (and, frankly, neither do many of the other people commenting on the matter) to know whether McCaskey’s criticisms of the book are legitimate, and, if so, to what degree. Are there, in fact, some historical inaccuracies in the book? If there are, do these inaccuracies point to a need to tweak the theoretical conclusions in some way? These are questions of fact, and there are right and wrong answers to them, even though I don’t personally know the answers at this point. But getting mad at people is no substitute for evaluating the facts, and I fear some people commenting on the issue are forgetting this basic point.

3. I fear that both sides of the dispute have at some points failed to understand the concerns of the other side. I also fear that both sides have at some points misattributed certain motives to the other side.

4. We should bear in mind that these sorts of disputes are hardly unique to the Objectivist movement. Indeed, one would be hard pressed to point to any organized movement, whether political, religious, philosophical, or other, in which these sorts of disputes never arise. Whenever you bring together independent-minded, strong-willed personalities, there are just going to be some disputes and fallings out. The rest of us shouldn’t let such disputes hamper our own efforts to achieve positive values. Let us remember that we are in the middle of a profound cultural battle to restore liberty in America. I for one plan to stay the course, and I urge my friends to do likewise, even if we’re not all holding hands along the way.

***

Comments

Anonymous November 12, 2010 at 2:02 PM
I agree. The disputes here are not between Kelley-ites and real Objectivists. There are real, honest and good people on both sides. (There is also witch-hunters and ad hominem-users on both sides, but they aren’t the leaders, nor are they significant). I really think that the entire thing is a result of a misunderstanding–whether or not Peikoff’s email implied a public moral condemnation, which, apparently, it didn’t–that should not create a fissure in the Objectivist movement. Biddle and the Hsieh’s are invaluable contributors to the intellectual battle, and such an insignificant disagreement should not drive a wedge in between them and the rest of the Objectivist “community”. Hopefully it gets put aside so that we can direct our energies against the real enemies–those who are actively working to obliterate our country.

Anonymous November 15, 2010 at 12:50 PM
I loosely quote Peikoff, “Objectivism is not compatible with pragmatism.”

I want explanations before placation. They made this a public controversy by their own actions, so it’s up to them to end it properly. Any person interested in justice and objectivity can demand no less. It’s not proper to ignore bad actions.

Ari November 15, 2010 at 12:56 PM
I’m not arguing that people should be pragmatic, I’m arguing that they should not be complete jerks to good people.

As for who “made this a public controversy,” I think there’s plenty of blame to go around. However, to a degree, the actions of a non-profit board are inherently “public,” so it can be wholly proper to discuss the board’s public actions in public forums.