Friday, March 14, 2008

Objectivism: Tautologies in Search of Reality

From Ayn Rand's pen to your brain, this is Objectivism. Rand's dicta (in italics) are followed by my commentary.
1. Reality exists as an objective absolute -- facts are facts, independent of man's feelings, wishes, hopes or fears.
It is true, and tautologous, to say that reality exists; that is, the real has "verifiable existence." But there are many conceptions of reality, some of them based on identical observations of the physical world. (Read about physical cosmology and quantum mechanics, for example.) There may be an objective reality, but it is trivial to say so. The reality that we perceive depends on (a) the limitations of our perception (e.g., the degree to which telescopes have been improved), and (b) the prejudices that we bring to what we are able to perceive. (Yes, everyone has prejudices.) And it will be thus, always, no matter how many facts we are able to ascertain; the universe is a bottomless mystery.

In my experience, Objectivists flaunt their dedication to reality in order to assert their prejudices (e.g., "natural rights" exist) as if they were facts. The concept of "natural rights" is an abstraction, not a concrete, verifiable reality. Abstractions are "real" only in a world of Platonic ideals. And, then, they are "real" only to those who posit them. Objectivism is therefore akin to Platonism (Platonic mysticism), in which ideas exist independently of matter; that is, they simply "are."

It would be fair to say that Objectivism is a kind of unreality.
2. Reason (the faculty which identifies and integrates the material provided by man's senses) is man's only means of perceiving reality, his only source of knowledge, his only guide to action, and his basic means of survival.
Reason operates on perceptions and prejudices. To the extent that there are "real" facts, we filter and interpret them according to our prejudices. When it comes to that, Objectivists are no less prejudiced than anyone else (see above).

Reason is an admirable and useful thing, but it does not ensure valid "knowledge," right action, or survival. Some non-cognitive precepts -- such as the "Golden Rule," "praise the Lord and pass the ammunition," and "talk softly but carry a big stick" -- are indispensable guides to action which help to ensure the collective (joint) survival of those who observe them. Survival, in the real world (as opposed to the ideal world of Objectivism) depends very much on prejudice (see Theodore Dalrymple's In Praise of Prejudice: The Necessity of Preconceived Ideas).
3. Man -- every man -- is an end in himself, not the means to the ends of others. He must exist for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself. The pursuit of his own rational self-interest and of his own happiness is the highest moral purpose of his life.
This dictum is an attack on the straw-man concept of altruism, which has no basis in reality, as I explain here and here. All of us are individualists, at bottom, in that we seek our own happiness. It just happens that some of us correlate our happiness with the happiness of (selected) others. Dictum 3 is both a tautology and a (lame) justification for behavior that violates social norms. Objectivists (like anarcho-capitalists) seem unable to understand that the liberty which enables them to spout their nonsense is owed, in great measure, to the existence of social norms, and that those norms arise (in large part) from observance of the "Golden Rule."
4. The ideal political-economic system is laissez-faire capitalism. It is a system where men deal with one another, not as victims and executioners, nor as masters and slaves, but as traders, by free, voluntary exchange to mutual benefit. It is a system where no man may obtain any values from others by resorting to physical force, and no man may initiate the use of physical force against others. The government acts only as a policeman that protects man's rights; it uses physical force only in retaliation and only against those who initiate its use, such as criminals or foreign invaders. In a system of full capitalism, there should be (but, historically, has not yet been) a complete separation of state and economics, in the same way and for the same reasons as the separation of state and church.
Here, Rand shifts gears from preaching the bed-rock prejudices and tautologies of Objectivism (dicta 1, 2, and 3) to the "ought" of Objectivism. It is hard to distinguish dictum 4 from the tenets of libertarianism, which makes me wonder why some Objectivists scorn libertarianism (e.g., go here and scroll down). It is not as if Objectivism is reality-based, as opposed to libertarianism. In fact, consequentialist libertarianism (anathema to anarchists and Objectivists, alike) has the advantage when it comes to defending laissez-faire capitalism. The facts of history and economics are on the side of laissez-faire capitalism because it yields better results than statism (see this, this, and this, for example).

I will not bother, here, to dismantle the jejune rejection of preemptive self-defense: the so-called non-aggression principle, which I have addressed in this post (and in several of the links therein). Nor is the notion of complete separation of state and church worth more than a link this post (and the links therein) and this one.

In sum, Objectivism reminds me very much of a late-night, dorm-room bull session: equal parts of inconsequential posturing and uninformed "philosophizing." Sophomoric, in a word.

Related post: "This Is Objectivism?" (01 Mar 2006)