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.



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.

Reading Anne Heller on Ayn Rand

That Ayn Rand was a great woman is disputed only by those who wish to destroy her legacy and discard her ideas without the bother of having to refute them. That Rand made some mistakes in her personal life is disputed by no one. Yet Rand led the sort of life that, had she novelized it rather than lived it, her critics would have blasted as unrealistically heroic. She lived through the Russian Revolution, escaped to America, became a world-renowned author in a foreign language, and dramatically impacted the political discourse of the nation. Hers is a life whose facts read as the stuff of legend.

Obviously Rand’s greatest personal error was to get into a sexual relationship with the brilliant charlatan Nathaniel Branden, who, with his wife (of the time) Barbara, viciously deceived Rand over a number of years, as recounted by Rand herself in journal entries published in The Passion of Ayn Rand’s Critics. What is particularly perplexing to me is why Rand agreed to this affair, given that in fiction she endorsed monogamy. In Atlas Shrugged, Dagny Taggart has a romantic relationship with three men over the course of her life, and never do these overlap. While Hank Rearden has an affair with Dagny while he is married, he cuts off sexual relations with his wife when the affair begins, and he acknowledges he should have divorced his wife long before that. In The Fountainhead, Dominique Francon breaks monogamy only so long as she remains a flawed character. Notably, the great heroes of the novels, John Galt and Howard Roark, wait for their women over a span of years. I do not understand Rand’s affair, I wish her husband had stood up against it, and obviously it turned out horribly for Rand.

Notably, the first two major biographical works on Rand were by the Brandens, and the popular understanding of her remains colored by their smears.

It is therefore with mixed feelings that I witness the publication of the two new biographies on Rand. On one hand, from what I can tell both biographers are largely fair in their treatment of Rand, and both reveal important historical information about her life. Yet it is clear even given my still-limited familiarity with the books that they manifest significant problems. I have already made some limited criticisms of the introduction of Jennifer Burns’s book, Goddess of the Market. Robert Mayhew has written a much more thorough critique.

While I am interested in Rand’s biography, I am quite busy with other projects. Yet, though I had put Anne Heller’s book Ayn Rand and the World She Made back on the shelf, today I took it down and read a few pages, and I remembered my idea of jotting down some notes as I read along. Now, given that I have the book out and want to read it, I’ll proceed with that plan, though slowly.

I’ll read the book in fits and starts and record my reactions accordingly. This post, then, will grow over time as I write down notes in the order of the book’s presentation. My early questions and criticisms may be answered as I read further along. I may update previous entries as I discover new information or consider additional points. Readers with pertinent information are encouraged to send it to me via email. Perhaps my approach, though disorganized, may at least reveal some important revelations and problems in the book.


xi. I find it interesting that Heller was introduced to Rand by Suze Orman, who handed Heller a copy of Fransico d’Anconia’s “money speech” from Atlas.

xii. Heller writes that Rand “had often presented this long passage [the money speech] to potential new disciples, including Alan Greenspan.” Why does she use the term “disciples,” which has an obvious religious connotation, rather than “supporter,” “student,” or “follower?” Already on the second page of the text Heller seems to be planting the dubious notion that Rand was somehow a cult-like figure, a claim cultivated by the Brandens. I’ll be interested to see how Heller returns to this theme.

xii. Heller writes that Rand “became the guiding spirit of libertarianism and of White House economic policy in the 1970s and 1980s.” I will be interested to see how Heller will treat Rand’s frequent and pointed protestations that she was no libertarian, though obviously many libertarians loved her works and continue to value them.

Heller’s claim about the “1970s and 1980s” is, at best, imprecise. Nixon served as president until August of 1974, and his policies were the opposite of what Rand endorsed. Gerald Ford was more on board with Rand’s agenda. Carter served from 1977 through 1981. What about Reagan, who defined the politics of the 1980s? Rand wrote, “I urge you, as emphatically as I can, not to support the candidacy of Ronald Reagan.” Of course Reagan did nominate Greenspan, Rand’s “disciple,” to the Fed, an institution which Rand opposed. George H. W. Bush, who rounded out the ’80s, was an even worse disaster by Rand’s standards.

xii. Heller incorrectly refers to “…Libertarian Party founder John Hospers…” The LP was founded by a group of Colorado political activists that included David Nolan, whom I’ve interviewed on the matter. I notice that Heller correctly notes on page 330 that “Hospers… became the first Libertarian Party candidate for president of the United States in 1972…”

xiii. Heller writes, “‘No one helped me, nor did I think it was anyone’s duty to help me,’ [Rand] wrote in an afterword to Atlas Shrugged. In fact, many people helped her.” Yet Heller is taking this quote out of context. In the same afterword, Rand acknowledges Aristotle and her husband. Elsewhere she lavishes praise on those who helped get her books published. The sentence immediately preceding the one that Heller quotes is this: “I had a difficult struggle, earning my living at odd jobs, until I could make a financial success of my writing. No one helped me…” Obviously, then, Rand’s claim is that she earned her own living.

xiii. Heller writes, “Rand wanted to be the architect of an American utopia that looked backward to the gilded age of American industrial titans.” It is true that Rand legitimately saw late 1800s America as the freest period in history. But she recognized that the area remained tainted by bad philosophical premises as well as various political controls of the economy. She looked forward to a future of liberty and unfettered prosperity. Rand, who lived through the Russian Revolution, obviously knew the meaning of utopia (literally “no place”), and the political ideas she advocated, rooted in the facts of human nature, show little similarity to utopian theories. Certainly she wanted a better world, a freer world. But she saw clearly that no political system can wipe out human error, and she wrote at length about the long and continuous political struggle necessary to achieve an incrementally freer society.

xiii. Helller writes that Rand “was a far shrewder social critic than she was a visionary.” Granting that Rand was a superb social critic, I will simply state my disagreement with Heller’s unfounded remark about Rand’s alleged paucity of vision.

xiii. I find Heller’s comparison of Rand to Charles Dickens, in terms them being social critics (though with dramatically different ideologies), interesting.

xiv. Heller writes, “Because I am not an advocate for Rand’s ideas, I was denied access to the Ayn Rand Papers at the Ayn Rand Institute [ARi] in Irvine, California, where copies of her unpublished letters and diaries, calendars, photographs, and other documents reside.”

Heller’s comment here is, at best, incomplete. Burns was granted access to the archives, despite the fact that Burns is “not an advocate for Rand’s ideas.”

My understanding is that Heller was denied access to select papers, not because of Heller’s views of Rand, but because the owners of those papers have decided to give another biographer first crack at them, after which they will become generally available.

I have asked Jeff Britting of ARI to clarify the Institute’s handling of Heller’s requests, but Britting has not responded to my inquiries. I have just asked Heller to provide details about the matter, and I’ll be happy to publish her response. [January 6 Update: Today I received an e-mail from Britting, who explained a bit more about the situation with the archives but said his e-mail is not intended for publication. He pointed me to the archives page and said he’d be publishing more on the matter in the future. I have not heard from Heller at this time.]

xiv. Heller lists the following sources of information for her book:
* Russian government archives, accessed “by a Russian research team”
* “Unpublished tape recordings” presented by ARI
* Taped interviews of Rand by Barbara Branden
* Freedom of Information Act documents
* “Interviews with Rand’s friends” recorded by Jeff Walker and Marc Schwalb [January 6 Update: William Scott Scherk claims in the comments that Schwalb did not personally record interviews, but instead purchased recorded interviews from Barbara Branden. Heller writes, “Journalist Jeff Walker and collector Marc Schwalb let me listen to privately recorded interviews with Rand’s friends…”]
* “More than fifty interviews” conducted by Heller with people who knew Rand, including Nathaniel Branden
* “Letters to and about Rand” in libraries and archives around the country

More will be posted sporadically.

Introducing Jennifer Burns on Ayn Rand

Jennifer Burns, a history professor with the University of Virginia, has a new book out called Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right. I don’t have time to review the entire book at this time, so for now I’ll merely make a few notes about Burns’s introduction.

The first thing to note about Burns’s book is that it is a thoroughly researched, scholarly book. It was published by Oxford University Press, among the most respected academic publishers in the world. Burns includes an eight-page “Essay on Sources” (pp. 291-298). Her notes consume another 45 pages, and her bibliography takes another fifteen pages. Clearly she’s worked hard on it.

Unfortunately, Burns seems to have a superficial understanding of some of Rand’s main ideas. However exhaustive her historical research, Burns is not likely to shed as much light on Rand as she might with a better understanding of what Rand was about. I’ll address a few quotations from Burns’s introduction in the order they appear. Please note that my purpose here is to point out some of Burns’s missteps, so I don’t review the great lines from the introduction. And of course I readily acknowledge that Burns may fill in some of the needed context further in her book. Again, this is only a first and limited take.

“Ideas were the only thing that truly mattered, [Rand] believed, both in a person’s life and in the course of history,” Burns writes (p. 1).

Rand certainly believed that one’s explicit and implicit ideas basically set the course of one’s life, and that similarly the dominant ideas of a culture basically set the course of a society. Yet Burns overstates the point. One’s friends, one’s romantic love, one’s career — these are not ideas, they are values. And they are of central importance to a person’s life. Ultimately, for Rand, the entire point of developing sound ideas is to help us achieve the values we need to live successfully. Burns’s comment on the point is not wildly misleading, but neither is it a careful summary of Rand’s beliefs.

On the second page, Burns writes:

Along with her most avid fans, she saw herself as a genius who transcended time. Like her creation Howard Roark, Rand believed, “I inherit nothing. I stand at the end of no tradition. I may, perhaps, stand at the beginning of one.” … The only philosopher she acknowledged as an influence was Aristotle. Beyond his works, Rand insisted that she was unaffected by external influences or ideas. According to Rand and her latter-day followers, Objectivism sprang, Athena-like, fully formed from the brow of its creator.

While again Burns’s comments reveal grains of truth, on the whole they mislead. Rand correctly thought that she made important and original contributions to philosophy. But the notion that she thought she “transcended time” in the sense intended is silliness. She thought no such thing. All Burns is doing here is parroting unfounded smears she’s heard others make.

Now, there is a sense in which Rand saw any authentic, consistent creator as timeless. Steven Mallory says of The Fountainhead’s Howard Roark:

I often think that he’s the only one of us who’s achieved immortality. I don’t mean in the sense of fame and I don’t mean that he won’t die some day. But he’s living it. I think he’s what the conception really means. You know how people long to be eternal. But they die with every day that passes. When you meet them, they’re not what you met last. In any given hour, they kill some part of themselves. They change, they deny, they contradict – and they call it growth. At the end there’s nothing left, nothing unreversed or unbetrayed; as if there had never been an entity, only a succession of adjectives fading in and out on an unformed mass. How do they expect a permanence which they have never held for a single moment? But Howard -– one can imagine him existing forever. (page 452 of the small paperback)

However, we should also remember here that Roark purposefully entered the tutelage of architect Henry Cameron, and Rand herself found inspiration for the novel in the work of Frank Lloyd Wright.

Rand makes a similar comment regarding her own literary timelessness in her introduction to The Fountainhead. She quotes Victor Hugo: “If a writer wrote merely for his time, I would have to break my pen and throw it away.” She writes that Romantic art “deals, not with the random trivia of the day, but with the timeless, fundamental, universal problems and values of human existence.” Rand then paraphrases Aristotle that art properly concerns itself “not with things as they are, but with things as they might be and ought to be.” Notice here that, in a single page, Rand acknowledges three of her influences, Aristotle, Hugo, and the Romantic school generally.

What of Roark’s comment that he inherited nothing? It is useful here to consider the context of that quote. Roark has just been kicked out of architecture school. The dean of the school is trying to talk (what he regards as) sense into Roark. The dean says (page 24), “Nothing has ever been invented by one man in architecture. The proper creative process is a slow, gradual, anonymous, collective one, in which each man collaborates with all the others and subordinates himself to the standards of the majority.”

To this, Roark replies, “But the best is a matter of standards — and I set my own standards. I inherit nothing. I stand at the end of no tradition. I may, perhaps, stand at the beginning of a new one.”

Here Roark is saying that, rather than subordinate one’s judgment to the standards of the majority, one should develop and stand on one’s own judgment. He is further saying that, in architecture, he does not wish to follow in any established architectural tradition, but rather create buildings of his own, unique and fitted to their site. Notably, by this time, Roark has already found inspiration in the work of Cameron, who holds similar views on the importance of independent judgment.

If we wish to adapt Roark’s insight to the realm of philosophy, we can say that one should not just blindly follow in some philosophical tradition just for the sake of belonging to that school. But, if by one’s own judgment, one finds value in the insight of some school, then obviously one should integrate that insight into one’s body of knowledge. Roark happily learned from the engineering tradition and adapted that knowledge to his own work.

The mere fact that Roark says he might “stand at the beginning of a new” tradition shows that Roark has nothing against tradition per se. In philosophy I can learn from Rand and other philosophers in the same way that in architecture Roark learned from Cameron and his engineering professors.

What about Burns’s claim that the “only philosopher she acknowledged as an influence was Aristotle?” This has better grounding: in her “About the Author” note for Atlas Shrugged, Rand writes, “The only philosophical debt I can acknowledge is to Aristotle.” Rand particularly praises Aristotle’s “definition of the laws of logic and of the means of human knowledge.” However, it is important to understand just how profoundly important Rand thought Aristotle was. Rand also appreciated and learned from thinkers like Aquinas, Locke, and Thomas Jefferson — whom she counted as essentially in the Aristotelean line. So, by acknowledging a debt to Aristotle, Rand is not cutting herself off from all subsequent thinkers; she is acknowledging Aristotle’s influence on those thinkers.

Notably, Burns here overlooks Rand’s further acknowledgment in the next paragraph to her husband, Frank O’Connor.

Beyond the realm of philosophy, Rand acknowledged the American movies of her childhood, the economist Ludwig von Mises, the authors Hugo and Dostoevsky, and many others. In her introduction to The Fountainhead, Rand blasts Nietzsche’s ideas but finds value in him “as a poet” who “projects at times (not consistently) a magnificent feeling for man’s greatness.”

Is Burns correct that Rand thought of herself as a genius? She denied it when her student and heir Leonard Peikoff called her a genius. Peikoff recounts her words on page 350 of The Voice of Reason: “My distinctive attribute is not genius, but intellectual honesty.” In answer to Peikoff’s persistence, Rand added, “One can’t look at oneself that way. No one can say: ‘Ah me! the genius of the ages.’ My perspective as a creator has to be not ‘How great I am’ but ‘How true this idea is and how clear, if only men were honest enough to face the truth.'”

Granting Rand’s penchant for dramatic statements, Burns’s talk about Rand thinking she was a genius who “transcended time” is, in the sense intended, untrue.

Next consider a strange paragraph from Burns on page 3:

[Rand’s] indictment of altruism, social welfare, and service to others sprang from her belief that these ideals underlay Communism [etc.] … Rand’s solution, characteristically, was extreme: to eliminate all virtues that could possibly be used in the service of totalitarianism. It was also simplistic. If Rand’s great strength as a thinker was to grasp interrelated underlying principles and weave them into an impenetrable logical edifice, it was also her greatest weakness. In her effort to find a unifying cause for all the trauma and bloodshed of the twentieth century, Rand was attempting the impossible.

But what is simplistic here is Burns’s reading of Rand. First simply notice Burns’s bias: she presumes at the outset that Rand’s entire approach is basically wrong (“extreme,” “simplistic,” “impossible”). But Burns doesn’t really illuminate Rand’s basic approach. To begin with, we must know what Rand meant by “altruism” — and what she thought about mutually beneficial human relationships — to get any idea of where Rand was headed.

The deeper point is that altruism is an ethical doctrine (growing from certain metaphysical premises), and as such it is much broader than any political system. For instance, the altruism that Roark fights in The Fountainhead lies outside of the political system. Similarly, the altruism enacted at the manufacturing plant in Starnesville in Atlas Shrugged arises outside of any political program. While certainly Rand saw altruism as a central driving force of any collectivist political system, she attacked altruism (which she saw as inherently self-sacrificial) broadly, not merely as it pertained to politics.

Certainly Rand was influenced by her childhood experiences in Russia. But Rand’s moral theories are not merely a product of her personal experiences or the historical era in which she lived, as Burns seems to suggest. Rand’s unique moral theory of ethical egoism must be evaluated on its own terms as philosophy, not blithely dismissed as some rationalistic coping mechanism for childhood trauma.

Next, on the same page, Burns writes, “… Rand advanced a deeply negative portrait of government action. In her work, the state is always a destroyer, acting to frustrate and inhibit the natural ingenuity and drive of individuals.”

Burns’s statement here is simply false. Rand advanced a deeply positive portrait of government action that protects individual rights. She loudly praised the Founding Fathers of the United States. She vociferously denounced the anarchism of Murray Rothbard. She wrote an essay titled “The Nature of Government” in which she passionately defended the need of a rights-protecting government.

True, of her three main novels, two are set in periods in which the government has become corrupt and thus antagonistic to the requirements of human life. Yet Atlas Shrugged also features Judge Naragansett, who justly oversees the courtroom and studies constitutional law. In the Fountainhead, Roark’s enemy is not a government bureaucrat but rather villains out to destroy his reputation and career. In the end Roark is vindicated by the government-run court.

On page 5, Burns writes, “Although [Rand] preached unfettered individualism, the story I tell is one of Rand in relationship…” This statement misrepresents Rand’s theory of individualism, which has nothing to do with being a loner or avoiding relationships. Indeed, Rand’s works are filled with deep friendships, passionate romances, and respectful business alliances. By individualism Rand means that the individual is the fundamental basis of moral value, not to be sacrificed to the collective. This sort of individualism incorporates healthy relationships with others.

Burns also writes, “For all her fealty to reason, Rand was a woman subject to powerful, even overwhelming emotions.” But “fealty to reason,” despite the common stereotypes of Star Trek, does not imply that one is cut off from emotion or experiences muted emotions. Indeed, Rand believed that only a devotion to reason as the means of cognition can give rise to a life of passion and joy. I think Burns’s point here is that Rand could sometimes let her emotions get the best of her. Having watched some of her interviews, I agree that Rand could have a fiery temper. (While I share that tendency, I’m trying to overcome it.) But that’s a different issue than whether “fealty to reason” conflicts with “powerful emotions.”

Burns writes onto page 6 about Rand’s system: “… Objectivism as a philosophy left no room for elaboration, extension, or interpetation…” Yet Burns’s own bibliography disproves her statement here.

Burns correctly suggests that the social group surrounding Rand, led by the vicious and deceitful Nathaniel Branden, grew strange, unfriendly, and stultifying. I suppose that Rand would acknowledge as her greatest mistake getting tanged up with that catastrophe. The tendency Burns describes was deeply unfortunate. But it did not define Rand’s broader social relations or her ideas. Thus, Burns is unfair to claim that Rand’s “system” was “oppressive to individual variety.” (And Rand did not advocate variety as such, but variety in the context of an individual’s rational goals.)

Burns reveals her fundamental misunderstanding of Rand in the closing sentence of her introduction, which posits a “clash between [Rand’s] romantic and rational sides.” If Burns had any serious understanding of Rand’s ideas, she would understand that no such clash is possible. Rand made some mistakes, but Burns doesn’t capture their nature here.

If the introduction to her book is any indicator, Burns may have captured many important details about Rand’s life, but she doesn’t capture Rand the woman or the thinker.

PJ on Antitrust

Recently I argued briefly against the Obama administration’s threat to beef up antitrust persecution.

Now Pajamas Media has offered an outstanding video, “Obama Administration Cracking Down On Monopolies.” Both Terry Jones of Investor’s Business Daily and Alex Epstein of the Ayn Rand Institute do a fantastic job summarizing the flaws and destruction of the antitrust laws. If you are one of those “conservatives” who advocates central political control of this economy in this area, it is past time for you to reevaluate your views.

Essays on Atlas

Amazon finally shipped my copy of Essays on Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. (Get the paperback, unless you’re willing to pay an exorbitant price for the hardback.) There’s a lot of good material in there, and I’ve just started to read through it. I enjoyed Jeff Britting’s chapter on adapting the novel for screen, based largely on Rand’s own advice.

The best essay I’ve read so far is Darryl Wright’s chapter on Rand’s development of ethics between her two big novels. In brief, she went from seeing independence as the primary virtue to crowning rationality. The shift places reality — one’s relationship with reality — at the forefront. And I hadn’t directly considered the fact that independence is a virtue possible only in relation to other people; without reference to others one can be neither independent (from others) or dependent (on others). That’s a big reason why rationality is primary: one must choose to think whether alone or in society.

Wright also reviews Rand’s development of the idea that morality arises only within the context of the choice to live. Good stuff.

Classic Rand Interview

Playboy has published a 1964 interview with Ayn Rand online.

In two brief answers, Rand summarizes the essence of her philosophical beliefs:

PLAYBOY: What are the basic premises of Objectivism? Where does it begin?

RAND: It begins with the axiom that existence exists, which means that an objective reality exists independent of any perceiver or of the perceiver’s emotions, feelings, wishes, hopes or fears. Objectivism holds that reason is man’s only means of perceiving reality and his only guide to action. By reason, I mean the faculty which identifies and integrates the material provided by man’s senses.

PLAYBOY: In Atlas Shrugged your hero, John Galt, declares, “I swear—by my life and my love of it—that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.” How is this related to your basic principles?

RAND: Galt’s statement is a dramatized summation of the Objectivist ethics. Any system of ethics is based on and derived, implicitly or explicitly, from a metaphysics. The ethic derived from the metaphysical base of Objectivism holds that, since reason is man’s basic tool of survival, rationality is his highest virtue. To use his mind, to perceive reality and to act accordingly, is man’s moral imperative. The standard of value of the Objectivist ethics is: man’s life — man’s survival qua man — or that which the nature of a rational being requires for his proper survival. The Objectivist ethics, in essence, hold that man exists for his own sake, that the pursuit of his own happiness is his highest moral purpose, that he must not sacrifice himself to others, nor sacrifice others to himself. It is this last that Galt’s statement summarizes.

The onslaught of bad news these days can seem overwhelming. We have political takeovers or attempted takeovers of major industries from banking to auto manufacturing to health care. Added to the dismal political news are natural problems like swine flu and earthquakes. It is, however, an opportune time to get back to fundamentals. Rand’s masterpiece, Atlas Shrugged, has been flying of the shelf because, I think, more people than ever are concerned with the direction the world is headed — and they’re looking for a rational alternative.

Read the Playboy interview — and don’t stop there.