Thursday, February 25, 2016

Ayn Rand: a continuing saga

An Ayn Rand quote:
Collectivism is the tribal premise of primordial savages who, unable to conceive of individual rights, believed that the tribe is a supreme, omnipotent ruler, that it owns the lives of its members and may sacrifice them whenever it pleases.
One thing that seems to be not well considered is that, in a state of nature, collectivism is also required for survival.  Absent science-fiction (or possibly bleeding edge tech) we all require the efforts of other people to come into existence.  After all, people all had stages with mothers and with early infant care, in which they could not reasonably be an autonomous individual. 

The author of the linked piece on Ayn Rand points out:
The fly in the ointment of Rand’s philosophical “objectivism” is the plain fact that humans have a tendency to cooperate and to look out for each other, as noted by many anthropologists who study hunter-gatherers. These “prosocial tendencies” were problematic for Rand, because such behavior obviously mitigates against “natural” self-interest and therefore should not exist. She resolved this contradiction by claiming that humans are born as tabula rasa, a blank slate, (as many of her time believed) and prosocial tendencies, particularly altruism, are “diseases” imposed on us by society, insidious lies that cause us to betray biological reality.
The trouble here is that biological reality involves dependence.  At the very basic level, people are from families and not individuals that spring into existence (a point I first heard on Youtube).  Is not a natural drive towards cooperation a key element of family?  Which doesn't mean that you can't have vicious competition, both within and between families -- consider the War of the Roses, or the fiction series a Song of Ice and Fire

Looking at animal behavior doesn't make things any better.  Most mammals have some degree of child care and assistance for offspring.  That makes a strong biological argument unlikely. 

That doesn't mean Rand is irrelevant -- it's an odd perspective and it can highlight some social conventions that need examination.  But, as a complete system, it starts out on really shaky ground.

1 comment:

  1. Joseph:

    I'm reminded of my dictum that economics today is like Freudian psychiatry in the 1950s. What's most interesting to me about your post is not the content (There's nothing you write above that I disagree with, but it's not so surprising that an eccentric novelist would come up with a philosophical system that works in the context of her stories but makes no sense in real life; one could say the same thing, for example, of the philosophy of Norman Mailer at that time), but rather that you felt the need to write it.

    It would be similar to someone writing in the 1950s, patiently explaining why Freudianism represents an interesting lens by which to view the world but that it fails as a complete system. The individualistic view (of which Rand represents an extreme version) has the sort of cultural centrality that Freudianism had, sixty years ago, hence the feeling on your part that it needs to be refuted. A feeling you probably don't have about flat-earth theories, etc.

    Somewhere else are theories such as creationism which are wildly popular but which have little effect on policy (school curricula aside).