Human Nature

Let’s Take Objectivism Back from Ayn Rand

A creed that is just like religious fundamentalism

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By David Sloan Wilson

In George Orwell’s classic dystopian novel 1984, a totalitarian state has created a language called Newspeak designed to limit freedom of thought, often by inverting customary meanings. How ironic that Ayn Rand, self-appointed defender of economic freedom, should add the term “Objectivism” to the lexicon of Newspeak.

Here is the definition of Objectivism provided on the website of the Atlas Society, which is dedicated to the promotion of the creed.

Objectivism holds that there is no greater moral goal than achieving happiness. But one cannot achieve happiness by wish or whim. Fundamentally, it requires rational respect for the facts of reality, including the facts about our human nature and needs. Happiness requires that one lives by objective principles, including moral integrity and respect for the rights of others. Politically, Objectivists advocate laissez-faire capitalism. Under capitalism, a strictly limited government protects each person’s rights to life, liberty, and property and forbids that anyone initiate force against anyone else. The heroes of Objectivism are achievers who build businesses, invent technologies, and create art and ideas, depending on their own talents and on trade with other independent people to reach their goals.

The part that I have colored in red comes close to the face value definition of the word objective—something rooted in the facts of reality. Everything else might or might not be correct, depending upon the results of rational (which includes scientific) inquiry.

  • Objectivism holds that there is no greater moral goal than achieving happiness.” From an evolutionary perspective, happiness is a proximate psychological mechanism designed to reward actions that enhanced survival and reproduction in the “environment of evolutionary adaptation.” It is not a worthy moral goal to maximize happiness without considering the consequences that result from the psychological state.
  • Happiness requires that one lives by objective principles, including moral integrity and respect for the rights of others”. This is an empirical claim that is highly problematic. Many worldviews that depart from factual reality make people happy and lead to healthful and sustainable actions. I hope that a worldview anchored in factual reality can do as well as worldviews that depart from factual reality, but there is nothing axiomatic about it.
  • Politically, Objectivists advocate laissez-faire capitalism.” It is empirical question whether laissez-faire capitalism, however defined, benefits the common good. There is certainly no logical proof for it.

In short, a true objectivist, who is dedicated to creating a moral system based on a rational respect for the facts of reality, including the facts about our human nature and needs, would be willing to change his or her mind on these points based on the results of rational inquiry. But Ayn Rand treated them as axiomatic and so do most of her followers. There is no freedom of thought, which inverts the customary meaning of “objective” and makes Ayn Rand’s creed as restrictive as the Newspeak of George Orwell’s fictional totalitarian regime.

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Another comparison is with fundamentalist religions, which also restrict freedom of thought. A fundamentalist religion portrays all actions as either good for everyone or bad for everyone. That’s false as an objective description of the world but it is highly motivating, hurling the true believer away from ruin and toward glory in his or her own mind. In an academic article that I wrote long ago, I showed that Ayn Rand’s creed has exactly the same linear structure as a fundamentalist Christian creed (go here for a popular account). The only differences are that “glory” is the unrestricted pursuit of self-interest, “ruin” is conventional virtue and stupid forms of selfishness, and Rationality replaces God as the authority that is supposed to justify the whole system. There is no room for authentic rational inquiry and it is no secret that the Ayn Rand movement had all the earmarks of a cult.

What would a movement worthy of the name Objectivism look like? It would have a moral component, presumably oriented toward benefitting the common good. And it would be committed to methodological naturalism and scientific inquiry in achieving its social goals. That sounds a lot like the perspective featured on Evonomics.

1.Wilson, D. S. (1995). Language as a community of interacting belief systems: a case study involving conduct toward self and others. Biology and Philosophy, 10, 77–97.

2.Branden, N. (1989). Judgment Day. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

28 November 2015

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