Atlas Blogged #31: The Grand Deception

November 29, 2010

Part 31 in a series of posts blogging the experience of reading Atlas Shrugged for the first time. I’ve now finished the book, and this and the one remaining post to come are intended to summarise my thoughts on the work. You can find the first post in the series here.

Catchphrases are handy things; not least in this case when I’ll be using Victor Meldrew’s catchphrase to sum up my attitude towards Atlas Shrugged: I don’t believe it.

Astute readers will have already guessed that my commitment to Rand’s purported ideals is not total, and quite possibly a very long way away from total. But saying that I don’t believe it is intended to cover more than simple disagreement; I don’t believe that Rand believes what she’s written either.

Let me explain. Over the course of these posts, I’ve been both excessively generous and unfair to Rand. I’ve been unfair inasmuch as I haven’t made it clear that Rand was writing in a very different context to the one in which we find ourselves in the present age. Back in the 1950s, the advent of the successful large corporation had led many to espouse the benefits of central planning, and it wasn’t a great step from that to say that a powerful centralised state would solve many problems in the same way in which large corporations had solved many problems of production. Before this was actually tried in practice, it was widely seen as an intellectually respectable position, and it’s this central-state socialism at which many of Rand’s jibes are aimed. In addition, it’s important to remember that Marxism was still reasonably popular amongst academics at this time, and Marxism includes what seems to us the bizarre idea that it’s impossible to accrue capital via savings and thus become a capitalist based on one’s own effort alone – rather, the capitalist class arises from the feudal landowner & merchant class. Of Rand’s heroes, although many do come from wealthy backgrounds, her paragon John Galt doesn’t come from money and has made his own.

I have been excessively generous to Rand in pretending that her work could be in any way considered ‘proper’ philosophy beyond that accessible to the A-Level student of the subject. It’s broadly warmed-up Aristotelianism with a few moral principles bolted on in a seeming effort to stop the slaves rebelling against their aristocratic Greek overlords. Her philosophical scholarship is atrocious – her interpretation of Kant is so far off the mark that one must question whether she’s read the original text. Similarly, supporting Aristotle’s tripartite division of the soul while claiming that man is only physical matter indicates someone who hasn’t properly read even her favourite philosopher. She also appears to not fully understand the distinction between a metaphysical position (i.e. A is A in Aristotle) and an epistemological one. Her set of virtues is not internally consistent, and combining virtue ethics with deontological ethics (i.e. the principle Galt swears by) is just pointless.

One can either assume Rand was arrogant enough to ignore the many stupidities littering the work (i.e. claiming that the morality practiced by her opponents was enslaving her heroes, then instituting a new morality that ensures her opponents have no choice but to consent to being at the bottom of the heap), or that she didn’t believe it. At this point it’s important to remember that Rand was actually Russian, born Alisa Zinov’yevna Rosenbaum, and only emigrated to the US when she was 21.

Imagine, for a second, that you’re committed to a communist ideology which claims that the internal inconsistencies of capitalism will cause it to collapse in on itself. How would you hasten this process? You’d try to stave off any attempts at reform that might better the lot of the proletariat, you’d encourage any legal restrictions on capitalists to be removed, and you’d be aiming to convince capitalists that they should feel that what they’re doing is morally right. In other words, you’d try to do something like the Revolutionary Communist Party – who are interesting inasmuch as they took the journey from ardent communism to ardent libertarianism in a very short space of time.

One interesting feature of Rand’s life is that she spent the majority of her time attempting to live her purported ideology to the fullest, an impressive subversion of identity to ideology which is mirrored in people who take on other identities to further a particular cause. We call them spies.

I therefore put forward two explanations for Rand’s philosophy. The first is that extreme arrogance begets extreme stupidity, and the obvious shortcomings and inconsistencies in her work were simply something she didn’t accept because her interpretation of the world was correct, damn it. The second is that Rand’s libertarianism (or Objectivism; she loathed the term libertarian, although in her day it had a slightly different colour) is the end result of an attempt to bring about capitalism’s final crisis and hasten the inevitable triumph of International Communism by a Soviet propagandist.

The second would be hilarious if true; one of history’s most delightful ironies. However, the sheer splendour of such an idea is enough to render it unlikely. Put simply, it’s too perfect to be true. I will therefore go for a third option: Rand was well aware of the shortcomings of her own work, but the intent of the work was itself to deceive in the service of furthering the aims of the richest echelons of society.

In order to demonstrate this latter position, I am going to use the reaction of Rand to other philosophers to illuminate an untenable position which could only be held if one assumes that Rand’s goal was not to prize the judgement of the individual, but rather to further the interests of an aristocratic elite – to a certain extent, the same as Aristotle.

First of all, Nietzsche. We know that Rand studied Nietzsche extensively, but rejected his work on the grounds of Nietzsche’s commitment to unreason. I won’t dig into the body of Rand-Nietzschean scholarship here, but I will concentrate on one crucial aspect of it. The main point of Nietzsche’s work is not to advocate one system of ethics in the manner of Rand, but rather to talk about different types of ethics – his famous master-slave dichotomy. An ubermensch ethic is one generated entirely by the superman himself – it does not have bearing upon external value systems, but is founded on the drives of that ubermensch.

Rand’s objection seems to be based on this system of ethics being seemingly non-cognitive – not derived from judgements but rather arising entirely from instinct. However, it’s not clear that this is the case – Nietzsche’s description of the ethics of the ubermensch is as an ‘inner law’; laws, in this sense, being clearly products of cognition regarding instincts. Nietzsche left a significant space for this sort of cognitive ethical activity for his paragons, on the grounds that creativity with respect to ethics was in itself a virtue of the ubermensch. Rand denies her protagonists this fundamental freedom, preferring to claim instead that only her morality was correct. This purposeful withholding of the capacity for ethical judgements from the individual is important.

Rand’s attitude towards Kant provides an excellent example of this. This is a quotation from the man Rand described as ‘history’s greatest monster’:

“[A]paternalistic government, where the subjects, as minors, cannot decide what is truly beneficial or detrimental to them, but are obliged to wait passively for the head of state to judge how they ought to be happy…would be the greatest conceivable despotism.

This would be a very good description of the straw-man socialist government Rand sets up in Atlas Shrugged. Why, therefore, would she criticise Kant?

The answer lies partly in her apparent misinterpretation of Kant’s epistemology, and partly in her misinterpretation of Kant’s ethics. I shall focus on the latter here.

Rand claims that Kant is advocating a system of duty which says that any act is not moral if it is not performed in accordance with duty; duty being an intuition of the good. An act is immoral if it is performed with the intention of receiving benefit as a consequence, only duty is a permissible motivation.

The lack of appeal of such an austere system of ethics is clear. The problem for Rand is that it’s not what Kant said. An act performed in accordance with duty can deliver benefits to the person performing it; the question is motivation, rather than the outcome. This will become clearer if we examine Kant’s ethics in the round. If we do see, we’ll see that Kant actually leaves a significant amount of space for the individual to determine their own actions; ‘duty’ being a very broad concept.

An act motivated by duty is an act performed with the intention of following the moral law. Kant gives various iterations of this, the most famous of which is his categorical imperative:

“Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.”

Broadly, this means that if your action wouldn’t result in contradiction if everyone else did the same (i.e. if you murder someone, then in a world in which everyone murders everyone else you wouldn’t exist to perform the act) then you shouldn’t do it, and if an action when performed universally would produce a world you didn’t like, then you shouldn’t do it. It’s not immediately apparent from the clumsiness of the phrasing, but this places tremendous emphasis on the freedom of the individual to exercise their judgement in terms of what they think is best for the world. For example, a capitalist who genuinely believed that capitalism was the best system for everybody would be free to seek out any profit he wished. Even though he benefits from the system, he can still act entirely in accordance with duty. A communist could seek to seize the means of production on the same principle; it’s pretty clear that the Categorical Imperative really only stops you from being hypocritical – you can’t have one rule for yourself and another for others. You’re therefore largely free to come up with your own ethical system.

We can therefore see what much of Rand’s ire was directed at: the freedom to determine your own moral principles. Such a freedom is the most fundamental, I would argue, and efforts to constrain it can only benefit particular individuals at the expense of others. This seems to have been Rand’s goal; the subjugation of the less skilled by the most skilled, by means of morality itself. While it’s been rightly pointed out that Rand’s knowledge of other philosophers is largely lacking and uninteresting, it’s revealing – only a supreme arrogance could’ve attempted to mould the writings of others into something one could despise from a self-constructed moral highground.

It is the latter I wish to claim Rand does not possess. For even though I disagree with her philosophy utterly, I do not wish to believe that anyone capable of writing as well as her could have been guilty of this cardinal intellectual sin. Her prose, while occasionally leaden, is in the main full of a vital angry energy, and carries the reader along gleefully. If anything, her characters, plot and philosophy are incidental to the joy of the writing which reveals them; prose itself is something to be cherished.

It is for this feeble, emotional reason that I claim Rand’s aim was subjugation, rather than freedom – not out of spite, as that would point to that monstrous arrogance, but out of appreciation. With this in mind, in my next and final post I will outline a society that runs opposite to that of Rand’s theocracy of talent – one which prizes judgement of all kinds, including that which shapes moral principles.

Part 32 is here.

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