December 31, 2010
Part 32 in a series of posts blogging the experience of reading Atlas Shrugged for the first time. I’ve now finished the book, and this final post and the one preceding summarise my thoughts on the work. You can find the first post in the series here.
In the preceding post I discussed the possibility of Rand intending to subvert the judgement of the individual with regard to morality; to shackle the unskilled to altar of the rich by means of an internalised ethical system. It seems clear to me that regardless of what one believes Rand’s intent to have been, this is a necessary outcome of the non-aggression principle inherent in libertarianism: the shutting down of the one mode of competition available to the unskilled and condemning them to lose for reasons beyond their control. This is the direct counterpart of the shutting down of capitalism advocated by socialism; competition by means of the mind is forbidden in favour of competition for power, through means of political skill, charisma and force.
I reject both; all forms of competition – all freedoms to demonstrate one’s excellence in judgement – must be available to all within a truly free society. The obvious response is that not all freedoms can coexist; the freedom to use force is not consistent with the freedom to utilise one’s property. However, it’s not clear that the use of force in itself is a freedom of judgement; rather, the practical implications of judgements that involve force can be cashed out in ways that do not involve violence. I will explain this later in this post, but first I would like to bring to the fore a notion of judgement very similar to the one that Rand prizes, because her understanding of phronesis, or practical wisdom, is one of the most attractive parts of her philosophy. Needless to say, it’s one of the parts she ripped wholesale from Aristotle.
In order to do so I will draw on the work of Fleischacker, who has advanced a ‘Third Concept of Liberty’ which I have previously discussed. I will be repeating significant chunks of that discussion here, so previous readers can skip ahead to the section ‘A Transcendental Society’.
Fleischacker aims to demonstrate that there is an understanding of liberty, based on the works of Kant and Adam Smith, which falls between Isaiah Berlin’s famous distinction between the negative liberty of freedom from interference and the positive liberty of freedom to achieve goals. The former is the type of liberty espoused by right-wing libertarians like Rand and relies upon the simplistic notion of ‘revealed preferences’ as a guide to the choices of individuals. The latter can be understood as the capability of an individual to achieve particular outcomes being the crucial consideration when determining the extent of that individual’s liberty.
Fleischacker argues that the two concepts given above are insufficient to cover the most crucial form of liberty, which constitutes one’s freedom to determine the principles by which one makes judgements. To unpack this notion, allow me to introduce you to a crucial part of Kant’s philosophy.
Kant, unlike his Germanic descendants Hegel and Heidegger, was very much a liberal. His essay ‘What is Enlightenment?‘ remains a classic of liberal thought. The key to understanding his work (and the concept of liberty that flows from it) is to understand the notion of a transcendental argument. An argument is transcendental if it concerns itself with the conditions for the possibility of that which is under discussion. To give an example, the conditions for the possibility of the nice cup of tea sitting on my desk are various and many, including the domestication of cattle, the cultivation of the tea plant and discovery of pottery. The beauty of a transcendental argument is that understanding the conditions for the possibility of thing gives us a deep understanding of its nature. It is the conditions for the possibility of choice, of judgement, with which Fleischacker is concerned, and hence the nature of liberty itself.
What do we do when we make a judgement? What do we do when we decide whether to go to the shops, pursue a burglar or decide who to vote for? The answer is that we particularise a principle or principles; we bring the situation in which we find ourselves under one or more concepts and act accordingly. Our choice of action is determined by the principles we select as appropriate to a situation. It may sound odd to hear that we consult our principles on whether we should go to the shops or not, but here ‘principle’ is used in the broader sense of ‘concept’; the formalisation – the rule-making – of our experiences. When deciding to go to the shops, you select appropriate concepts relevant to the situation that ‘I am hungry’. These concepts will include ‘Food is available at the shops’ and ‘Money is used to purchase goods at shops’ but will not include ‘Elephants are grey’. It is with the proper selection of concepts that judgement is concerned.
How does this proper selection come about? It comes about by the individual’s assessment of those concepts against experience and against their desires, ‘desires’ here to be understood as incorporating what some would call rational desires to e.g. be moral. It is this assessment, this ordering of concepts and principles, which is a condition for the possibility of judgement, and as a consequence it is the free engagement in this exercise that is a condition for the possibility of liberty. You cannot say that you’re free unless you’re free to determine the principles by which you make your decisions for yourself.
This immediately excludes the narrow concept of freedom promulgated by right-wing libertarians; their emphasis on the sanctity of property rights excludes concepts which do not incorporate it. Expressed preferences in themselves do not demonstrate that an individual is free to determine their own principles. It also excludes the ‘positive’ concept of freedom but in a far more subtle fashion.
The development of one’s own set of principles as a guide to action is dependent on testing those principles against the world. If you prevent someone from learning the consequences of the concepts under which they make their judgements, you’re actively preventing them from deciding how they’re going to live their life. A focus on outcomes for individuals seeks to shield individuals from the consequences of their choices, and so removes their freedom to determine their own principles.
Insulation from consequences insulates you from both success and failure. Without these cues, it is impossible to assess whether your concepts are accurate, whether your approach to conversation or to work produces the results you would want. Therefore, this concept of liberty requires us to do something which is currently so far from the political vogue that even raising it may appear scandalous: we need to rehabilitate failure. Failure is currently understood as something that we seemingly can’t allow anyone to suffer, and something that you should feel deeply ashamed to experience. This is wrong. Failure is glorious. Failure is how we determine which principles we should continue to apply and which we should discard. I have failed repeatedly in my life, and I expect to fail many more times in the future. Failure is the key to learning, and the bizarre arguments put forward by the left against, for instance, grammar schools – “We can’t allow children to think of themselves as failures at 11″ – confuse the system with the individual. You don’t fail as a person when you don’t pass an exam, you only fail when you don’t apply that result to your principles.
However, it’s clear that not all failure is the result of bad judgement, and some will be the result of bad luck – which in itself is not useful. Breaking your leg accidentally, or developing a serious illness, are not learning experiences. The US healthcare system, which allows people to go bankrupt through healthcare costs, is clearly inimical to this concept of freedom. Similarly, poverty so extreme that you’re incapable of feeding yourself or affording shelter prevents you from developing judgement; the same applies to mental illness and physical disabilities. It’s also clear that avoiding the possibility of failure by virtue of the good fortune of having rich parents is in itself an impediment to the development of judgement.
We therefore have the outlines of what a state set up under this transcendental notion of liberalism would involve: the conditions for the possibility of the development of good judgement.
A Transcendental Society
Let’s begin with an exploration of how judgement itself is already a powerful force within our society – albeit a force that has strong obstacles in its path. Judgement, in the sense given above, covers nearly every endeavour within our society. A mechanic determining how to fix a car exercises judgement; a footballer exercises judgement when kicking a ball, a scientist uses their judgement when identifying whether experimental evidence satisfies a given hypothesis or not. It can been seen that judgement is both cognitive and non-cognitive, at least in the instance of its application – whether a footballer scores a goal or not is dependent on their understanding of the reaction of the ball to their foot or head, which will have developed over much practice. The concepts that they have which are utilised in the moment of judgement are not the product of chance, but rather of willed development. And there is much pleasure to be had in the successful application of concepts; our language is stuffed to the adverbs with words for it, be it achievement, success, victory, winning, completion, fixing, beating, accomplishment, building, mending, scoring, understanding, and many, many others. We know what successful judgement entails; the satisfaction of our wants and needs by means of the accuracy of our judgements against the world and in the context of social relationships.
It is the latter which helps us illuminate a key difference between a transcendental society and the sort of society advocated by Rand: Rand only applies excellence in judgement to areas of endeavour that can be used to make money, while the transcendental society sees excellence as a goal in any possible field of human endeavour. Excellent friendships, cultivated over many years, are understood as a good thing within a transcendental society inasmuch as they are the result of an individual’s judgement. To develop friendships you must develop an understanding of appropriate actions to be taken in conversation and with regard to your friend, and the concepts which generate those. Not in the least, you must understand the application of which concepts are likely to make them want to punch you.
This reference to violence presents an important point: destruction, in the sense of impeding someone’s ability to make judgements (by, say, rendering them unconscious or crippled) is not necessarily a useful thing in the context of a transcendental society. Nevertheless, as discussed above we need to be able to capture the failure implied by others wanting to commit violence on your person. This, then, can be the role of the justice system: to provide a non-destructive means of indicating the types of failure of judgement on the part of the individual within a given society that may otherwise lead to violent redress. It is clear that this must involve both adequate indication of failure and scope for that individual to develop their concepts based on that failure. One could call that punishment and rehabilitation, if one wished.
Of course, one could argue that this merely leaves the individual to the whim of society; if the rest of society is willing to commit violence against your person for a judgement you have made, then regardless of the excellence of that judgement you will suffer. This is clear; one can be an excellent burglar. But this, again, is to interpret freedom of judgement within the narrow Randian sense: your social judgements are as critical as your economic ones. If you are unable to persuade through the use of good judgement in the social sphere, then you should not be too surprised that your only avenue to pursue freedom of judgement is to make war on the rest of society. This is why Rand’s moral disempowerment of the economically incompetent is important: it prevents them from using their capability of force on the rest of society – in a democracy, this force is implied at the ballot box. Inasmuch as Rand’s non-aggression principle does this, it restricts their freedom to make judgements. If a society, which based on what we have discussed so far we can define as a loose set of agreed principles, attempts to determine an individual’s freedom to agree to those principles themselves, then it likewise attempts to restrict their freedom to make judgements.
This seems like an appropriate point to move onto education. Education is often seen as a great liberal dilemma, inasmuch as public education will necessarily involve the promulgation of a particular viewpoint. However, in a transcendental society this is less of an issue. Public education is still a clear necessity – the loose set of principles that comprise a society have to be understood by those born into it, to give them the scope to decide whether they wish to leave or to seek changes to those principles within the framework of that society. For example, Britain as a society is comprised of an extremely loose set of principles which govern areas as disparate as investigations of the natural world, the election of governments, modes of developing friendships, different types of sexual relationship, and the culinary arts. It’s perhaps best if one thinks of these sets as a Venn diagram; circles within circles, some which interlock, some which do not, some which have multiple instances of rules for a given occasion, and many more besides. The negotiation of this conceptual landscape is the task of an individual’s social and economic judgements; and that individual’s reflection upon which concepts he or she wishes to use is the freedom under discussion.
It is therefore clear that public education should be aimed at giving an individual the tools they require to navigate this landscape and reflect upon the conjunction of it and their own desires. Public education would be unnecessary if society did not already exist when that individual was born, but given that it does in order to engender the possibility of reflective judgement within it education is necessary. Therefore, in our transcendental state, an individual should be given the opportunity to learn as a minimum the aggregation of judgements that led to the present society (i.e. history & literature), the forms of acquisition of knowledge present within that society (i.e science and the humanities), and the conceptual tools necessary to unpack and reject it all if appropriate (i.e. philosophy).
This must be given to all, as it constitutes the conditions for the possibility of an individual developing their own judgement. However, the choice as to whether to accept this education as useful knowledge remains that of the individual; the first lesson to be taught is to not blindly accept anything taught unless one judges that source of knowledge to be effective. It is this criteria which places the power of judgement with the individual, and overcomes the liberal worry of the State imposing a particular viewpoint on its citizens. The State gives the individual the tools that enable him or her to reject it if they judge appropriately.
I have just outlined two requirements for the transcendental state, both of which involve public expenditure. There are others, including of course defence and health. Who funds this expenditure? It will, of course, be the members of that society. At this point, I’m sure, Randroids will be up in arms complaining about the removal of property rights being antithetical to freedom. However, this again reveals a misunderstanding of the nature of judgement by right-wing libertarians: property rights are the product of force, not of judgement.
If you decree that you have a right to your property, then unless others agree with your decree your right only extends to your ability to prevent other people from taking your property away from you. Certainly, you can hire protection for your property, but that means that property rights are conditional on being able to afford them in the first instance: you require property in order to secure property. Rand – and other right-wing libertarians – attempt to get around this by purporting a kind of naturalistic property right, based on adding value to a given piece of land or other type of property. However, in order for this to work, you need access to property to add value to. Again, we come to the circularity problem: you can only acquire property if you have property already. Rand attempts to avoid this by decreeing that your body is your property, but the existence of slavery (and multiple philosophical thought experiments around personal identity) demonstrates that you do not necessarily control your body if you are in possession of insufficient force. As such, it’s not something you can base an absolute on. Property rights are the accrued judgements of individuals, both living and dead, within your society. In this sense, your ability to convince other people to leave your property alone determines the extent of your property rights in the modern age. It is the rejection of this form of competition that, in my view, is Rand’s crucial attack on freedom of judgement.
It is therefore up to the individuals within that society to compete over different principles of payment for public services. I would argue that taxes on wealth and externalities are far preferable to taxes on consumption and income; the former penalise inactive possession and unpaid-for consequence, the latter penalise employing judgement. In this sense, the television licence is an almost perfect tax: a tax on possession of an object for which the proceeds go towards useful educational material. This has somewhat been subverted by the BBC’s expansion into other areas, but that is a matter for another day.
A constant complaint of the left is that today’s society is too materially-focused; concentrating on acquiring property rather than any real good. What they have failed to recognise is that the only way of shifting society’s focus from property is to shift the goal of judgements away from property alone and towards excellence itself. Judgement, as mentioned above, is a prime driver of society, and its goal defines that society’s shape. The abrogation of one’s judgement to the State will not make you happy; surrendering your most fundamental freedom will inevitably lead to a stultified society. However, aiming one’s judgement purely at material goods removes so much scope for employing it that it will necessarily do the same in time. Expanding the scope of judgement to every imaginable type of excellence, by freeing individuals to do so, will produce a society in which everyone, regardless of income, has the opportunity to achieve what Aristotle called Eudaimonia purely by the development of excellence in their own lives – in their friendships, in their hobbies, and in their families. I have only given a brief sketch as to how this can be achieved, but the key is to reject both materialism as the single goal of judgement, while simultaneously rejecting the decisions of any authority as a guide to one’s own life. The transcendental society is one in which excellence is open to everyone in all forms – commerce, society and the arts, for example – but in which none of those excellences are prescribed.
Nevertheless, one must pay for oneself – and in contemporary society the scope of judgement can be limited by the sheer size of one’s employer, wherein many decisions are made at a level above the employee, reducing their scope for judgement. It is therefore clear that to leave open the possibility of advancing in commerce, our State must provide the possibility of excellence in other areas of endeavour. With this in mind, I leave you with one clear policy recommendation: FE colleges, sources as they are of courses in areas as disparate as languages, plumbing and artistry, must be expanded and free passes given to not just the least well-off, but those on middling incomes too. Access to the possibility of excellence should be how we judge our society, because everything else flows from it.
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.
November 14, 2010
Part 30 of blogging my way through my first reading of Atlas Shrugged. You can find the first part here.
Chapter 30: In The Name Of The Best Within Us
Oooh, the final chapter. This isn’t over yet – I’ll do two final posts on Atlas Shrugged to sum up. In the mean time, let’s abandon the principles we’ve maintained throughout the book!
John Galt, Rand’s monetary messiah, has been imprisoned and tortured by dreadful socialists. Her noble titans of industry, upholders of the principles of not initiating violence or achieving advantage through deception, set out to free him by lying to guards and then shooting them.
Seriously. Dagny et al free Galt by shooting and pretending to represent the Government. I suppose the ardent Randroid could claim that the Government initiated force so they’re justified in doing so, but the Government initiated force against Galt, not them. It may be advantageous to the industrial titans to free him, but that doesn’t justify breaking Rand’s principles to do it. I’ll be discussing this further in the next post.
After the ultimate victory of the Atlasocrats, they fly back to Galt’s secret mountain valley to watch civilisation collapse in comfort. Civilisation obliges.
Dagny’s faithful companion and employee, Eddie Willers, takes the last train to New York, having exhausted himself saving the last outpost of her railway. The train breaks down in the middle of nowhere, and the remaining passengers join a convoy of horse-driven carriages to seek their fortunes in what now counts as a post-civilisation world. Willers makes a last desperate effort to repair the train, and collapses sobbing in front of the engine, his tears reflecting the gleam of the train’s headlight.
Yep, the good and faithful servant of capitalism is left to die as soon as his masters have no use for him any more. Libertarians are lovely folk.
The Atlasocracy, content that civilisation has collapsed now that only poor people are left in charge, prepare for their return to the now-empty world. They rewrite the US Constitution to preclude democracy impinging on business, read Aristotle and plan their investments. Millions of people are dead – the world is mostly empty. Galt stands above the valley to announce their return, and draws the sign of the dollar over the Earth, damning it to capitalism for the rest of eternity.
Quite how they’ll construct an industrial civilisation when all their workers are dead is not quite clear. But hey, at least the ones left alive won’t be pushing for higher wages any time soon.
Part 31 is here.
October 30, 2010
Part 27iii of blogging my way through my first reading of Atlas Shrugged. You can find the first part here.
Chapter 27: ‘This is John Galt Speaking’
This section of Galt’s speech is largely concerned with how clever he was in recognising that the evil socialists who took over the 20th Century Motor Company were out to destroy him by converting him into their property; enslaving his mind in the process. This bit is actually an interesting indictment of libertarian thought: it demonstrates that libertarianism arises less from a wish to be free of the state and more a wish to be free from being responsible for the consequences of your choices on other people. This is interesting, inasmuch as it’s inversion of the charge that Rand lays against socialists: they wish to abnegate on their responsibility to deal with the consequences of their choices with respect to reality; libertarians wish to do the same with respect to the other. In this sense, ‘libertarianism’ may be inappropriate as a lable for this creed; ‘radical solipsism’ might be more appropriate.
She then continues her brief historical interlude by talking about how the Dark Ages were when the mind went on strike. Or went to Byzantium, perhaps, but we’ll skip over her utter lack of anything even approaching historical knowledge.
Rand then says: “There are two sides to every issue: one side is right and the other is wrong, but the middle is always evil.” This is interesting, inasmuch as it’s a radical departure from Aristotle’s Doctrine of the Mean, which states that the virtuous life is lived in between extremes of sin and arrogant righteousness. It’s possible that this demonstrates that Rand doesn’t realise she’s actually advocating a theory of ethics with moral components bolted on. Certainly, the rather Manichean approach she takes to the morality she judges to be her opponent would indicate this; yet more evidence that either Rand is being purposively obfuscatory or simply doesn’t understand what she’s saying. It also explains why her characters tend to one extreme or another; there is no sliding scale between extremes in AtlasWorld.
We then have the surprisingly broad statement:
“Do you ask if it’s ever proper to help another man? No—if he claims it as his right or as a moral duty that you owe him. Yes—if such is your own desire based on your own selfish pleasure in the value of his person and his struggle.”
This could mean practically anything; knowledge that one receives altruistic pleasure from helping other could constitute just cause to, say rob from the rich to give to the poor. This is another example of the internal inconsistency of Rand’s philosophy; one can use parts of it to argue for any course of action one chooses that may run counter to other parts.
Rand has an interesting pop at human rights:
“The doctrine that ‘human rights’ are superior to ‘property rights’ simply means that some human beings have the right to make property out of others; since the competent have nothing to gain from the incompetent, it means the right of the incompetent to own their betters and to use them as productive cattle.”
If nothing else, this explains the antipathy of the Right to human rights; clearly, they’re tantamount to socialism under this view.
We now come to Rand’s theory of Government:
“The only proper purpose of a government is to protect man’s rights, which means: to protect him from physical violence. A proper government is only a policeman, acting as an agent of man’s self-defense, and, as such, may resort to force only against those who start the use of force. The only proper functions of a government are: the police, to protect you from criminals; the army, to protect you from foreign invaders; and the courts, to protect your property and contracts from breach or fraud by others, to settle disputes by rational rules, according to objective law.”
There’s something interesting here, something buried so deep in the psyche and history that Rand, with her paltry knowledge of the subject, quite possibly would never have been able to dig out.
Being in the army is not like other jobs. While mercenaries do exist, throughout human history they have always been in the minority of armed forces, and every state has seen fit to maintain an army of its own. Why should this be? Surely, if this libertarian view of the market is correct, states should regularly be using hired forces in combat, the market for such producing stronger and more effective forces than state-backed armies.
Rand gives us the answer, although she does not know it. I gave her description of her opposing morality in the previous post as ‘A moral system which applauds the surrender of value for no return reaches its apotheosis in the ultimate surrender of values which is death’.
Her morality is based on the notion of trading; hence, the transfer of value for no return is anathema. Her concept of value is tied into living and existence – for her, zero is death. And herein lies the answer to the above: there can be nothing worth receiving in return if your offer includes the possibility of death. One can express this mathematically: any number, any value multiplied by zero is always zero. It will only ever be worth someone’s while to join the army if they are threatened with death or their return is somehow infinite. We can therefore assume that any properly libertarian army will surrender at the first possibility of defeat; any value specified in a contract cannot overcome the zero equation.
There is, however, something that can motivate one to join the army, and that is the unconditional. Only unconditional love can motivate a father to fight to the death for his family; only unconditional love can motivate a man to fight to the death for his nation. It is worth pointing out that the social policies implemented in the aftermath of the Second World War were aimed at ‘winning the peace’; demonstrating to the returning troops that the state they’d fought for was, indeed, worth dying for. This is because they now represented the conditions for the possibility of that state remaining existent; economies tend to be rearranged to serve those responsible for their survival. In this sense, Rand’s version of libertarianism does not reflect America in the 50s so much as a strongly isolationist America that did not require the mobilisation of its population to defend it, in which the industrialists did represent the grounds on which that economy progressed. The general rightward trend in world politics can be seen as representative of the fact that the advent of individualised weapons of mass destruction means that the masses are no longer required to defend the state, indeed, they have become a liability in this regard. If one wished to be really suspicious, one could argue that the Right’s deep and abiding love of Trident has less to do with an uncertain future and more to do with its placing of the defence of the realm in the hands of the elite and not the masses, with the consequent economic effects.
Rand goes on to point out that the economic success of an enterprise is driven not by the workers within but by the mind that designed the machines and identified the goal, thus providing the conditions for the possibility of the enterprise. My use of that Kantian term indicates that I think Rand is partway right here, but she ignores the aggregate judgements made by workers employed by that mind, who add to the value of the enterprise. It is not a single judging mind that makes a company, but many; semi-skilled and unskilled workers use their minds too.
We then have Rand’s indictment of state-funded science as aiming at some non-useful truth and thus employing the mind to identify truths but not functional truths. This is a gross perversion of the mind, apparently. This argument would perhaps have some traction if not for a single word: ‘specialisation’. Blue-sky research may require a lifetime to produce results that are useful in practical terms – to claim that someone is evil because their work does not produce such during their lifetime is just stupid.
Rand then calls on the remaining ‘minds’ in the world to set up their own libertarian communes and await Galt’s arrival, like the vengeful messiah he is. After a repeat of the libertarian oath: “I swear—by my life and my love of it—that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine,” the chapter thankfully closes.
Part 28 is here.
October 20, 2010
Part 27ii of blogging my way through my first reading of Atlas Shrugged. You can find the first part here.
Chapter 27: ‘This is John Galt Speaking’
Breaking this chapter up for analysis as it’s Rand giving all of her philosophy in one handy little package.
Rand begins to develop a form of virtue ethics based on thinking as a basic virtue. This is identified with endeavouring to find the truth. Its negation is refusing to acknowledge the truth, refusing to identify something as itself. She describes this as the basic moral choice, cashing out as the decision to exist or not – thinking being fundamental to the nature of man. Suspending judgement on the identity of an object is equivalent to refusing to think.
Let’s be fair to Rand here. There are at least two ways of interpreting this: first, that Rand is making the weak claim that refusing to make a truth claim on limited evidence is always morally wrong; secondly, that Rand is making the stronger claim that you should rely on your reason to always produce the correct identity for a given object or situation.
The second interpretation is clearly false, and moves towards a quasi-religious faith in reason itself. The first interpretation could be considered an ethical virtue, stating that the ethical man always aims to provide a truth claim for a given proposition. This is not unreasonable, although Rand fails to accept that there will be cases when equivocation is necessary – for example, predicting the outcome of a coin toss.
Rand claims her ‘morality of reason’ (note: Rand is actually referring to ethics here rather than morality; a common and thus forgivable error) is contained in a single axiom: existence exists, and in the decision to live. She then proceeds to develop a system of virtues and tools by which the ethical life may be led. The virtues are rationality, independence, integrity, honesty, justice, productiveness, and pride.
It’s not clear that any of these virtues necessarily follow from Rand’s axioms; she merely asserts this. ‘Rationality’ is intended to involve the recognition that nothing can take precedence over one’s perception of reality – but simply accepting that existence exists does not entail that the reality one perceives is identical to the one that actually exists.
‘Independence’ is the recognition that sole responsibility for assigning truth values lies with the self – but taking advantage of the knowledge of others after assigning a value to their integrity does not necessarily fall under this heading.
‘Integrity’ is the recognition that you must always act according to the precepts given by your reason and not fail to follow them – but recognising existence does not entail that you should always act according to your own judgements, and nor does the decision to live. One can quite readily abrogate this responsibility to another without contradicting Rand’s axioms.
‘Honesty’ is the recognition that the unreal is unreal and so can have no value; therefore acquiring value by exchanging it for something with no value (i.e. fraud) is to put yourself in hock to someone else’s lack of reason. There is no connection between this virtue and Rand’s axioms; the man who decides to live may choose to do so by defrauding others without contradicting his recognition of reality.
‘Justice’ is the requirement to recognise the virtues of others, to judge their moral character in the same way as you do the identity of objects, and to treat them accordingly – to do otherwise is to reward vice and punish virtue, leading towards death. This may be the case for wider society, but not the case for the individual – the individual may acquire value in this manner.
‘Productiveness’ is the forming of the world around one’s thinking, necessarily in a creative fashion as a consequence of that thinking. But it is not necessary to be creative to maintain one’s existence, even on Rand’s model of the mind – animals achieve it through ‘automatic knowledge’.
‘Pride’ is the mental equivalent of productiveness; one has to form one’s own mind into the values appropriate to match Rand’s morality. Quite clearly, if Rand’s other virtues don’t flow from her axioms, neither does this one.
Rand goes on to claim that the two ‘fundamental emotions’ are joy and suffering, which reflect the values she espouses – actions which further your life bring you joy, and so on. Happiness is only possible to the man who feels joy which contradicts none of his values.
So you can only be happy while doing things that further your life. Look at that claim right there for an indication of how daft a lot of this chapter is. Then go out and get drunk with your friends, and see if the happiness you feel has anything to do with furthering your life or contradicts your values.
Rand rants for a little while about how traders are only moral individuals, before breaking out the old libertarian moral claim, which is that the one fundamental moral principle (not ethical, I should point out; Rand appears to be advocating a peculiar combination of ethics and morality; a strange fusion of Aristotle and Christianity) is that no man may initiate force against another, because it invalidates their mind.
This claim, right here, is how libertarianism changes from being a morality of productivity to a morality to a morality of control – in exactly the way in which Rand claims to despise in the morality of the looters. The looters are unable to compete on the grounds of commerce with Rand’s titans of business, and so use force to obviate competition. The titans are unable to compete with the masses on the grounds of force, and so use commerce to obviate competition. Following either morality without exception involves the subjugation of one part of humanity in the name of the righteous. Both are wrong; a morality that discriminates against any form of competition – either in the fields of force or commerce – discriminates against mankind as a whole, as both capacities are present in some form in every person.
Rand goes on (and on) to detail how she believes this morality came about. This is done in such abstraction, without recourse to actual facts, that it’s entirely irrelevant for this discussion. She sketches a schemata for the system of values she identifies as her opposition, based on a notion of sacrificing value – value, in Randian eyes, being that which sustains life, and is exemplified in money. A moral system which applauds the surrender of value for no return reaches its apotheosis in the ultimate surrender of values which is death. This is an important move, and one which we will return to later.
She then accuses the ‘mystics’; broadly, the religious who espouse a Christian attitude towards charity, giving, and self-worth of seeking to deny that A is A and to wish that the world was other than it is. Again, we come to the odd contradiction that Rand appears to not recognise: she values knowledge, but fails to recognise that the question, ‘What if A were not A? What if the world were other than I have been led to believe?’ is a consequence of not blindly accepting the world at face value, and is the key that unlocks scientific understanding of the world. ‘A’ may be ‘The Sun moves about the Earth’, but unless one is willing to question it, one will never find the truth of the matter.
Rand goes on to detail her philosophical ignorance: “Those who tell you that man is unable to perceive a reality undistorted by his senses, mean that they are unwilling to perceive a reality undistorted by their feelings.”
Again, this is clear evidence that Rand has never really understood any philosopher beyond Aristotle, and perhaps not even him. This is a pop at Kant and to a certain extent the empiricists preceding him, and it’s a bad one: encountering the world through the conditions of the possibility of perception is NOT encountering the world through one’s senses. The two are very different.
All that being said, the following paragraph has a great deal of merit:
“Whenever you committed the evil of refusing to think and to see, of exempting from the absolute of reality some one small wish of yours, whenever you chose to say: Let me withdraw from the judgment of reason the cookies I stole, or the existence of God, let me have my one irrational whim and I will be a man of reason about all else—that was the act of subverting your consciousness, the act of corrupting your mind. Your mind then became a fixed jury who takes orders from a secret underworld, whose verdict distorts the evidence to fit an absolute it dares not touch—and a censored reality is the result, a splintered reality where the bits you chose to see are floating among the chasms of those you didn’t, held together by that embalming fluid of the mind which is an emotion exempted from thought.”
Small concessions to unreason can have a devastating effect on the psyche; they leave one open to having the foundations of one’s mental world kicked away from beneath it. All the more reason, therefore, to not ignore really quite important philosophical ideas in your conviction that you’ve discovered the way in which reality works. Egotism and arrogance are not correlates of reason; you must be always willing to accept the possibility of error.
Rand goes on to detail Aristotle’s theory of causation and of science, ignoring the objections that’ve been lodged over the past few thousand years, not least that it rests upon you already knowing what causes what before you form a theory. This circularity flaw runs through Rand’s work.
The next bit is quite amusing:
“An axiom is a statement that identifies the base of knowledge and of any further statement pertaining to that knowledge, a statement necessarily contained in all others, whether any particular speaker chooses to identify it or not.”
Rand fails to recognise that she’s using a transcendental argument here; in essence, claiming that one thing cannot be identified without the presupposition of a given ‘axiom’ is the same (broadly) as saying that space and time are the conditions for the possibility of accessing the world. She’s using the same argument as her most hated philosopher without recognising that it leaves her open to accepting the consequences of his work, too.
She then claims that your senses cannot deceive you. Really. This is just stupid.
Part 27iii can be found here.
October 12, 2010
Part 27i of blogging my way through my first reading of Atlas Shrugged. You can find the first part here.
Chapter 27: ‘This is John Galt Speaking’
Welcome, one and all, to the Big Philosophical Revelation Chapter, in which Rand spends sixty pages outlining her philosophy via her ideal male, John Galt. Some may consider this a little self-indulgent for a work of fiction, especially as much of the book has included demonstrations of many of the arguments given below. Let there be no mistake: this will be a long post, to the point where I’ll probably have to break it up into several posts to avoid causing your eyes to bleed. I originally considered simply quoting vast chunks of text to avoid misinterpretation, but it’s probably far better that I provide a synopsis of Rand’s arguments as the chapter goes on, and deal with them each in turn.
The Macguffin that allows Rand to have this lengthy monologue from Galt is a speech from the anonymous President of the USA at this point in Atlas Shrugged, the painfully ordinary Mr Thompson. His speech is intended to reassure the masses as social order breaks down in the absence of the titans of industry. Galt seizes control of the airways with a ‘new type of radio waves’ and delivers his speech instead:
“For twelve years, you have been asking: Who is John Galt? This is John Galt speaking. I am the man who loves his life. I am the man who does not sacrifice his love or his values. I am the man who has deprived you of victims and thus has destroyed your world, and if you wish to know why you are perishing—you who dread knowledge—I am the man who will now tell you.”
I’m sure everyone’s very grateful, Mr Galt.
Rand first discusses the morality that has led the world to this point, a morality of duty and selflessness which requires sacrifice with no thought of return. She dubs this unjust, as the only moral exchange is one of value for like value. The credo of business, in her sense, is therefore opposed to that morality; and so businessmen have withdrawn their labours in order that the world may enjoy the fruits of this morality.
She argues that this morality was either sourced from a notion of mysticism or society that demanded this sacrifice; that one’s life belongs not to yourself but to God or your brothers.
She claims that your mind is your basic tool of survival; inasmuch as it permits one to identify a course of action that will permit one to survive. You need knowledge of food and how to get it before you can eat it. Thinking, to Rand, is an act of choice; you are a being of ‘volitional consciousness’ in this sense. You can choose not to think – to ‘escape from your nature’. This is distinguished from plants and animals inasmuch as plants cannot make choices about how to acquire sustenance and animals have ‘automatic knowledge’ which necessitates course of action; if that automatic knowledge is inadequate the animal dies.
This is an extremely odd model of consciousness. It is immediately intuitively implausible; it requires that the knowledge we get from, say, smelling good food is derived entirely from our rational assessment of the situation and not ‘automatic knowledge’ to use Rand’s term. It requires that the human mind is wholly distinct from animal minds; not merely has some additional functionality, but that it is different class of entities. It precludes the possibility of similar reasoning features to that of man being present in animals like chimps or dolphins. It also implies a very strong dualism: we know that parts of our brains are similar to those of animals, and have similar functions – but Rand seems to be arguing for a strong separation of the mind from the body in this sense, as they cannot be functionally identical. This is simply wrong. It will be interesting to see what aspects of Rand’s philosophy this informs.
Rand goes on to argue that nature does not force man to think to ensure his own survival, so man has the power to act as ‘his own destroyer’. She claims that the history of the world is the history of our flight from our own mind, as we flee the means of our survival, unlike every other form of life. We have rejected the true standard of our morality as required by our nature, and embraced a standard that calls for our destruction. This is our choice, as rational beings. If we do not hold our own life as the ‘motive and goal’ of our actions, we are acting on the motive and standard of death.
This rather ignores the entirety of evolutionary psychology, which claims that man’s nature directs itself towards the propagation of its genes, rather than his own life.
Rand then sets out an extremely constrained definition of happiness as something that can only proceed from a life lived ‘rationally’; in Rand’s philosophy this is something that only obtain if and when a man lives as if his life is his own end, and achievement of happiness his highest moral purpose. In other words, only a life lived according to Rand’s philosophy can be happy.
This is so trivally untrue it’s barely worth engaging with. It’s a perversion of Aristotle; the happiness he argued was the end of human life was not happiness in the contemporary understanding of the term, but rather eudemonia, the flourishing life. It’s worth pointing out that almost everything discussed so far comes directly from Aristotle; his division of the soul into the nutritive, the perceptive and the rational corresponds to Rand’s division of plants, animals and humans given above. Yes, Rand’s Objectivism rests upon Aristotle’s tripartite division of the soul. It’s not surprising that Rand’s libertarianism appeals to rich kids; Aristotle’s theory of distribution rewards aristocrats for being aristocrats too.
If you fail to choose Rand’s way of living, you are guilty of defaulting on existence and passing the deficit to another, who must sacrifice their good for your survival. Or, if you don’t work for yourself, you must find a way of compelling someone else to work for you.
Mind you, if you can’t work for yourself, you’re a bit screwed.
Rand goes on to detail three axioms which she claims lie at the root of her moral code: that existence exists, something exists that one perceives, and that one exists possessing consciousness, consciousness being the faculty that perceives existents.
At this point it becomes clear that Rand’s philosophical education begins and ends with Aristotle. Even a cursory glance at Descartes would give her a clearer formulation of what she’s driving at that than this clumsy expression.
She then directly references Aristotle by saying that the definition of existence is to be derived from the tautology A is A, that existence is identity and consciousness is identification. You are only conscious inasmuch as you are aware of something else, but more strongly than that, you are only conscious inasmuch as you can identify something in and of itself without the potential for contradiction as to its identity – in other words, you are only conscious if it is possible for you to be aware of something without being mistaken as to its identity. The corollary of this is that one cannot identify something without it fitting wholly within one’s sum of knowledge without contradiction; sense inferences are therefore a matter of deduction rather than induction.
While this is a fair summary of Aristotle’s theory of science, which is broadly about deducing from particular causes to give us knowledge of the world, it’s immediately obvious that it is far too strong a test for a non-omniscient consciousness. If you cannot identify something without the possibility of mistakes, according to Rand you’re not conscious. Since you can never hope to encounter every single iteration of a given object in the world, no-one is conscious, according to Rand. In addition, this definition stands against the scientific method, which uses induction to identify the falsity of hypotheses – not deduction.
Rand moves to shore up this model of consciousness by bringing in a moral element, one of reliance upon one’s own reason. Reason is the tool which allows us to identify objects in the world, and so one is required to rely on it in order to live, which is the goal of Rand’s philosophy.
This is just mad. ‘Have faith in the ability of your own mind to identify objects in the world, as if there’s dispute you can check it against the world’ clearly sounded worthy to Rand, but basing an epistemology on faith will screw you over time and again. By this principle, you should test your own judgement against the world without checking to see if anyone else had tried the same thing before. This explains why many libertarians are so anti-science; reliance on the work of others to generate knowledge is clearly anathema.
Rand clearly believed her own principle, as given immediately above: she never thought to check why everyone in the world wasn’t an Aristotelian, as though 2,500 years wasn’t enough to pick a few holes in his philosophy. It’s worth pointing out – just as minimum – that if the world had used the philosophy given above since ancient Greek times we’d still be in ancient Greek times, as modern science doesn’t use anything even remotely like that in its reasoning.
Part 27ii is here.
October 6, 2010
Part 26 of blogging my way through my first reading of Atlas Shrugged. You can find the first part here.
Chapter 26: The Concerto of Deliverance
Hank Rearden has no problems, even though his workers are demanding a pay rise, his family are screaming at him to help them, and the Government wants his support for a policy that will demolish the remaining steel industry. He’s got no problems because he’s finally entirely ‘moral’ in the Randian sense; he merely has to work and be content, because no man has a claim on him.
Unfortunately his striking workers turn out to be Government stooges who launch an assault upon his steel plant with the intention of wresting its ownership away from him by force. His loyal workers are welded into an awesome fighting force by a man who turns out to be Francis D’Anconia, and the attack is beaten off. This finally convinces Rearden to abandon the world to the moochers and looters, and retreat to Galt’s Gulch.
Rearden stands up to everyone who wants to take something away from him seemingly by dint of being ‘moral’. Despite this daftness, Rand’s action sequences actually aren’t bad.
Tune in next time for the longest monologue in ‘fiction’, John Galt’s speech to America, in which Rand sets out her philosophy. Why isn’t clear; why should Galt make an effort to be popular? Why should he show compassion to the outside world? Couldn’t have anything to do with Rand wanting to pull all the threads together, of course.
Part 27i is here.
Part 25 of blogging my way through my first reading of Atlas Shrugged. You can find the first part here.
Chapter 25: Their Brothers’ Keepers
AtlasWorld grows worse and worse; the machinery of civilisation is breaking down in the absence of its motivating minds. Rand’s straw men, the moochers and looters, begin to demand that Dagny does something to save them. Rand presents this as some kind of revelation, the root of the looter, so to speak: the incontrovertible assumption that they will, in the end, be rescued by those who have the ability to produce.
It’s certainly the case that particular form of insanity exists in AtlasWorld; finding it in the real world may be more tricky. Not that would bother Rand, of course.
d’Anconia copper is nationalised by the Argies; simultaneously all the property it owns across the world is blown up by that cunning d’Anconia chap.
Something of a capitalist revenge fantasy there.
John Galt turns out to have been working in the central terminal of Dagny’s railway all along. This being Rand, there’s lots of talk of exulting in rough sex.
More country-collapsing stuff, and more revelations about how pathetic Rand’s opponents are. We’ve done all this before; one has to wonder how much more successful libertarianism would be if Rand had a decent editor.
Part 26 is here.