my first philosophy
It’s a new year, and getting close to five years since I started this blog (even though not all posts are up here yet). In that time I don’t believe I’ve ever said anything about Ayn Rand and Objectivism, or if I have it was a long time ago, so this is a good time to recap my position on it.
I first encountered Objectivism through the band Rush, specifically their lyricist Neil Peart, who adapted Ayn Rand’s Anthem for their 1976 breakthrough recording 2112. It’s hard to gauge just how “serious” he was about that, though he did express concern about how it led to attacks from journalists, in the UK in particular, where Individualism is associated with Capitalism. It made him persona non grata to Socialists. Peart’s writing has come a long way since then.
I’ve come to view Objectivism as a “starter philosophy”, or “my first philosophy”: one that doesn’t “scale” as one grows philosophically. This is not a bad thing in my view, since Objectivism serves the important purpose of introducing fundamental philosophical questions to an audience who might not think about philosophy at all.
I haven’t read all of Rand’s writings – far from it- but one important point I took away was the importance of living for oneself. At times she specifically cited pure altruism as a negative proposition, for example, and promoted a kind of “enlightened selfishness” that has clear roots in free-market economics. Take the “invisible hand” of laissez-faire economics as a principle, and apply it to ethics and actions, and the human race will improve its state and potentialities, according to Objectivist theory.
This is where philosophy collides with reality, in my opinion, since the human race has shown a distinct lack of competence in deciding just what is in its own self-interest. I’ve written, previously, on my opinion that people sabotage their own lives by excessive breeding. The growth of fundamentalist religions, especially Islam, show how people are prepared to accept restrictions and irrationality in the name of stability. (I’m just back from Dubai, where I was left wondering just how much genuine belief there was in Islam, outside the law, official statements, and social mosque attendance.)
Taking command of your personal philosophy is not a trivial matter; Christians would have you believe that morals will decline without the biblical dogma, so if you were to become an atheist, the onus would be on you to live a good life without biblical guidance, as an example to others. Can you be “selfish”, putting yourself first, while still being a good person and law-abiding citizen?
Selfishness does not preclude charity or other good works, since both benefactor and beneficiary gain something from donation. If your country is under threat, and you would suffer at the hands of an enemy, you have a reason to fight. The part that bothers Objectivists is the idea of being beholden to others where there is no benefit to you; slavery, blind faith, sacrifice in the name of duty or religion alone. If you take advantage of others, or commit crimes against them, have you – your personality and core beliefs – really benefited?
It follows, therefore, that I don’t quite understand how people can ever get so attached to Objectivism that it becomes canon or dogma. The term “Randroid” has been used to describe serious Objectivists, and there have even been “schisms” in the study and interpretation of Ayn Rand’s work. Is that what she was hoping for – a cult of personality based around her and her books? I don’t think so; in my view, this is against the spirit of free thought and personal growth she was aiming for. In her own words: “a blind follower is precisely what my philosophy condemns and what I reject”.
If living for yourself is a good thing, then so is thinking for oneself. If this takes you far away, philosophically, from Rand and Objectivism, would Rand object? If the philosophy you develop is anathema to some Objectivists, it is nevertheless yours, and if Randroids have a problem with that, it is their problem; not yours.
If I have one wish for 2007, it is that everyone in the world takes some time for serious thought, on their own behalf, about who they are, what they are doing, where they are going, and – most critically – why, without blindly accepting the word of any “authority”.