A Message on Ayn Rand, Compassion, and Individualism vs. Collectivism

Ayn Rand

Ayn Rand

A user on reddit posted a question to the subreddit, /r/askphilosophy, which I reprint below. I have also reprinted my response in a private message below that.

The question posed:

So I’ve read many of Ayn Rand’s work and have been frequently reading Libertarian articles and stuff. I’ve read Atlas Shrugged, The Fountainhead and The Virtue of Selfishness. [Links added in reprint.]

When I read Atlas Shrugged it was something quite new to me. I was a Philosophy undergraduate back then and her ideas were very different from all of the things I’ve been in contact with. Mainly her individualist ethics and capitalism.

As time went by I kept reading other books, articles, as well as debating with a few people and reflecting about all of those concepts. As for today, I really appreciate how well Rand’s ethics value the subject and how fair laissez-faire capitalism seems to be. However, I’ve seen many flaws in her ideas.

Concerning ethics, I think her ideas lack a lot of compassion and put collectivism to a zero. Individualism is great, but we are all part of social groups, aren’t we? And concerning politics I don’t see how a TRUE free market would be possible in any time soon, since it would require anarchy or minarchy to happen. (about economy, I am in favor of capitalism as an economic system, even though I disagree of how it is like right now)

So as it’s been a while since I’ve started this path, which was fairly opposite to the extreme-left I had taken when I got into Philosophy, I’d like to read some authors and books that have ideas that oppose Rand’s. I don’t want books that argue directly with her, such as “Ayn Rand Nation”. Instead, I’d like to read opposite opinions.

According to the Political Compass I’m a Right Libertarian, so I’d like to read some authors of the Left Libertarian. The Political Compass mentions Pyotr Kropotkin, Noam Chomsky and Emma Goldman in this area. (I’d like to read the Left Libertarian authors since I’m not that pro-government at the moment)

So what authors/books would you suggest me?

My response:

In your OP, you say:

Concerning ethics, I think [Rand’s] ideas lack a lot of compassion and put collectivism to a zero. Individualism is great, but we are all part of social groups, aren’t we?

First, in regard to compassion: that is an emotional response, and emotions are displayed by people, not ideas. Principles as such can neither be compassionate, nor uncompassionate. They can be true or false, justified or unjustified by evidence and argument.

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One Internal Contradiction in the Christian Worldview: God’s Omniscience vs. Free Will

Unjust God predestines people, yet judges them morally for actions. I recently found a blog post where a Christian reprints a debate he and his friends had on Facebook with an Objectivist. It’s a very long discussion where a lot of words are written, yet very little actual debate seems to be accomplished. In skimming this wall of words, one point caught my eye: the Christian participants are claiming that what distinguishes the Christian worldview from others–and what makes it the true worldview–is that it is internally consistent, whereas other worldviews are not.

In epistemology, this view, that what makes something true is (solely) its logical consistency with an overall structure of knowledge, is called the “Coherence Theory of Truth.” To say that this epistemological view is problematic is an understatement; it really is a non-starter. My theory of truth is a version of the Correspondence Theory: the only theory I consider tenable.

But my point here is not to attack coherentism or defend correspondence. Beyond the problems of coherentism, the claim that the Christian worldview is internally consistent is blatantly false. There are several places where I could show logical contradictions, but I only need one irreconcilable contradiction to demonstrate internal inconsistency. So I will confine myself to one: the contradiction between God’s supposed omniscience and human free will. (1)

Free will vs. God’s Omniscience

Most Christians are committed, implicitly, if not explicitly, to what I regard as genuine free will. This is the idea that a person’s choice in a given situation is not necessitated by antecedent factors, but represents a selection among alternatives that could also have been chosen in the same circumstance. (In contemporary philosophy, this is called “libertarian free will” as opposed to the alleged alternative, “compatibilist free will.” I will discuss Christians who hold compatibilist views after dealing with the libertarian version.)

Christians also generally believe that God is omniscient, such that he knows the future outcome of people’s choices and can infallibly implement his divine plan. But if God currently knows, with certainty, the outcome of future choices, then this means that there must be a current fact about those outcomes for him to know. If there is a current fact about the outcome of future choices, then those choices are already predetermined. This means that those “choices” are not genuine choices, because there is only one thing that will happen, with no alternative possibilities. Any “choice” is purely illusory, and thus, there really is no free will. So Christians are logically committed both to the position that humans have free will, and to the position that they do not.

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Other People as Egoistic Values Versus Other People as Objects of Self-Sacrifice in Ayn Rand’s Philosophy

Ayn Rand, novelist and philosopher of Objectivism, a philosophy for living on Earth.

Ayn Rand

Objectivism, the philosophy of the novelist and philosopher, Ayn Rand, is well known for advocating the pursuit of your own self-interest. Many people take this to mean that Ayn Rand thought that you should ignore the well-being of other people. But this is not what Ayn Rand thought, and this is not what Objectivism says. Objectivism holds that contributing to other people’s well-being can be in your self-interest, even if they are not involved in a monetary, business relationship with you. This potentially includes helping friends, lovers, children and even strangers.

Why did Ayn Rand hold this view? How is loving and helping others consistent with pure self-interest? These are questions that this article will answer.

Objectivism Rejects Materialism and “Range-of-the-Moment” Pleasure Seeking

In order to understand why Objectivism holds the position it does on helping other people, there are a couple of common misconceptions of “self-interest” that need to be rejected.

The first is that self-interest is materialistic: that is, that acting in a self-interested way means acting only to satisfy your physical needs, without concern for spiritual (i.e. mental or psychological) values.

But for human beings, “materialistic self-interest” is an absurd idea that Objectivism rejects. If self-interest were materialistic, then going to see any movie, no matter how good, entertaining, inspiring or emotionally powerful, would not be in your self-interest. You are no better off physically after seeing a movie than you were before, so there is no physical value to the movie. The same would go for video games, museums, roller coasters, Halloween parties, and all similar forms of entertainment. Instead of going out to eat with other people, you would always be best served eating a healthy and inexpensive meal at home. Sex would best be avoided, in favor of vigorous exercise. Et cetera. Continue reading

Philosopher Greg Salmieri (of Rutgers University) Discusses Ayn Rand’s Moral Philosophy on the Elucidations Podcast

The Library Research Pavilion at the University of Chicago, whose philosophy department produces the Elucidations podcast

The Library Research Pavilion at the University of Chicago, (whose philosophy department produces the Elucidations podcast.)

The Elucidations podcast has released an interview with Professor Greg Salmieri on Ayn Rand’s moral philosophy. This is a great interview, especially for those who don’t know that Ayn Rand’s moral philosophy supports friendship, benevolence and helping other people in certain ways and under certain circumstances.

The interview also does a good job of presenting Ayn Rand’s basic approach to morality and moral thinking.

Listen here:

Elucidations, Episode 73: Greg Salmieri discusses Ayn Rand’s moral philosophy


Related Posts:

Introduction to Objectivism

Why the Philosophy of Objectivism is Still Relevant and Needed in the Age of Modern Science

Why “Selfishness” Doesn’t Properly Mean Being Shortsighted and Harmful to Others

Ayn Rand’s Philosophy vs. Abortion Bans: Why a Fetus Doesn’t Have Rights

The Wages of Altruism: Domestic Abuse

The Ayn Rand Institute’s 2015 Summer Conference (OCON) Just Wrapped Up

The Ayn Rand Institute (ARI) holds a conference every summer in a different city. Objectivists, students of Objectivism, and other people interested in Ayn Rand‘s philosophy travel from around the country to meet each other and hear talks by experts in various fields. The speakers discuss the ideas of Objectivism and their applications in life, science, and the arts, and answer questions from the audience. It is a very educational event, and a way to meet new people interested in ideas. (For the veterans of OCONs past, it’s also a chance to see old friends.) I definitely recommend it.

I went to OCON 2014 in Las Vegas, but was unable to go this year. But I look forward to videos of some of the major talks being released on ARI’s YouTube channel, as they were for OCON 2014.

There’s a fee to attend OCON, but that fee is reduced quite dramatically for current students and young adults. (Students can even apply for scholarships to cover the costs of travel and lodging.) If you are a student or young adult, I especially recommend taking the opportunity to attend at least one OCON. It’s a great opportunity to take a break from mundane things, meet great people, and learn more about Ayn Rand’s deep philosophy in a benevolent, congenial and exciting atmosphere.

You can subscribe to the Ayn Rand Institute’s Facebook and Twitter pages to see announcements when registration for next year’s OCON is open.

Here is the cvent page for OCON 2015, and here’s a list of upcoming ARI events.

Here are a couple of talks from last year’s OCON:


Related Posts:

Introduction to Objectivism

Why the Philosophy of Objectivism is Still Relevant and Needed in the Age of Modern Science

Ayn Rand’s Philosophy vs. Abortion Bans: Why a Fetus Doesn’t Have Rights

The Wages of Altruism: Domestic Abuse

What Caused the Financial Crisis: It Wasn’t Capitalism or Deregulation

Why the Philosophy of Objectivism is Still Relevant and Needed in the Age of Modern Science

Barred spiral galaxy in space. Represents science and philosophy.Many people distrust abstract philosophical ideas and ideals. There are a couple of related reasons for this: 1) They hold that abstract ideas “oversimplify” reality, ensuring that they always fail to properly capture it, and 2) They think that abstract ideas outside of the natural sciences are generally faith-based dogma, or “armchair” speculation. (In either case, this means they think the ideas are put forward without sufficient supporting evidence.)

In regard to Number 1, I’d like to point out that all human concepts “simplify reality” in a sense: they all ignore differences between particular objects to focus on features common to a class of objects. For example, the concept “chair” refers to every particular chair you have ever encountered or will encounter. This means that it omits the countless differences between any two particular chairs. (Even if two chairs look identical at a macroscopic level, they almost certainly have countless differences at a microscopic level.) All other concepts function in a similar way: they ignore certain differences between things, for the sake of classifying them and integrating them into a single mental unit, represented by one word (“chair,” “dog,” etc.)

Yet the similarities that proper concepts such as “chair” capture are real and important, and it is not an oversimplification to say that all things called “chairs” (without qualification or modification) are made to allow someone to sit on them. Virtually no one accuses ideas about chairs of “oversimplifying reality”: Someone who speaks of chairs typically understands that he can always give more information about a particular chair by providing a description.

Classifying and simplifying reality by means of concepts is the human way of dealing with reality in thought, and it is very powerful, when done properly. Human beings have used the simplifying concepts of the natural sciences to cure diseases, increase food production per farmhand manyfold, extend the average human lifespan by over thirty years, build skyscrapers, and land on the moon. Furthermore, there is no reason to believe that simplifying concepts stop working at any level of abstraction (breadth of generalization) or at any level of complexity. The simple principles of Einstein’s relativity are highly abstract: they apply to all physical phenomena in the known universe, (when the scale under consideration is not too small) and to all the immense complexity of gravitational interactions between visible objects and light rays in galaxies. Continue reading

Why “Selfishness” Doesn’t Properly Mean Being Shortsighted and Harmful to Others

Carpenter Working with Pencil and HammerThe definitions of the terms we use have consequences for our ability to think and communicate clearly.

Imagine for a moment that your friend told you that he defines “carpenter” as “one who shapes wood by shooting it with a gun.” You’re baffled and you ask him what word he uses for someone who shapes wood by other means, such as a saw, lathe, and/or sander. He says that he really has no word for this. He has a couple of synonyms for “carpenter,” but they also carry the implication that the person shaping the wood used a gun.

Hopefully, you can see that the problem with this hypothetical situation is not merely that you and your friend are using terms differently: shooting wood with a gun is a terribly impractical way of shaping it into useful forms. If the only concepts you have of wood shaping mean using a gun to do it, then you can’t really talk about those who shape wood using the practical methods in their profession.

Ayn Rand held that the common concept of “selfishness” is in an exactly analogous position to your hypothetical friend’s use of “carpenter.” At root, “selfishness” means pursuing one’s own interests and well-being. But the common use today adds in a second element: “pursuing your interests/well-being by means that are shortsighted and hurtful to others.” In today’s culture, the approximate synonyms of “selfishness,” such as “egoism” and “self-interest,” tend to be regarded with the same connotations of shortsightedness and harmfulness, so they are not much different.

Yet Ayn Rand rejected the idea that being shortsighted and hurtful to others is inherent in pursuing one’s interests and well-being. In fact, she recognized that the pursuit of one’s genuine interests in everyday life is specifically the opposite of “shortsighted and hurtful to others.” An individual’s genuine interests require long-term planning to fulfill, and his well-being is not served by doing harm to others. Attempting to pursue one’s self-interest by shortsighted and hurtful means is like trying to shape wood into a beautiful chair by shooting it with a pistol: utterly doomed to failure. Continue reading