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The Fatal Flaw in Objectivism and in Ayn Rand - jordan179
March 22nd, 2009
07:21 am

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The Fatal Flaw in Objectivism and in Ayn Rand
I have sometimes been accused of being an Objectivist. I was once, of course, and there is a certain sense in which I still am one -- and a sense in which I am certainly not.

In terms of the primacy of objective reality over subjective opinion, I'm as much an Objectivist as Ayn Rand was ever. My point is subtler: it's that we can't always count on our minds and sensoria to accurately perceive objective reality, because they are not perfect reasoning instruments but rather merely the best that evolution has happened to give us. They can be and often are fooled (indeed, there are whole lists of standard tricks that work against them), especially in situations that they would have rarely encountered during our history as hunter-gatherers.

Thus we need a certain humility about our own conclusions, because we can make errors. This does not mean that we should turn to some anti-rational or mystical means of perceiving reality. It does mean that we should not assume that, just because we have induced or deduced something, it is automatically and certainly true.

Ayn Rand's fatal flaw was vanity. She was a highly intelligent and well-educated woman, and hence tended to be right more often than were most of her contemporaries. From this she concluded that she was always right, that all her ideas were automatically and certainly true. Both reason and painful experience have taught me that, when you feel like this, you are almost certainly missing something vital.

She got to the point where, not only was she treating any serious disagreement with her as proof of the "evil" of the dissenter, but she began to treat even trivial disagreements with her that way -- for instance, preferring the "wrong" sort of art or music. Ultimately, she decided that she was not bound by the normal human laws and practicalities of sexual morality, and that she could take Nathaniel Branden as her lover while everything would remain perfectly fine with her own husband and Nathaniel Branden's wife.

That was the beginning of the end of her movement. The predictable consequence ensued: Nathaniel Branden ultimately broke up with her, but Branden's own marriage was shattered and Ayn Rand badly hurt her husband. Ayn Rand was forced by her own arrogance to conclude that this was everyone's fault but her own and that Nathaniel Branden was "evil" for not continuing to do what she wanted.

Ayn Rand had of course been fooled by the human tendency to rationalize whatever we emotionally want as logically valid. But of course she couldn't admit to this, even to herself, because she had gone too far in classifying logical errors as "evil." And the unadmitted error cannot be rationally corrected.

Thus fell her movement, which had accomplished many good things, and could have accomplished so much more had Ayn Rand understood the falliblity of all human minds -- including her own.

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From:haikujaguar
Date:March 22nd, 2009 02:29 pm (UTC)
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I remember reading about that affair with a certain sense of watching a train wreck in slow motion... in the past, long after I could even witness it in person.

And thinking, "Oh... my."

(Or maybe better: OH JOHN RINGO NO. Maybe we need an OH AYN NO to go with it.)

But then, when I was reading Atlas Shrugged, the most unbelievable part of it was how well all the men took Dagny turning from them to be with John Galt.
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From:jordan179
Date:March 22nd, 2009 02:51 pm (UTC)
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But then, when I was reading Atlas Shrugged, the most unbelievable part of it was how well all the men took Dagny turning from them to be with John Galt.

Dagny Taggart is a total Mary Sue. She's beautiful, but unaware of it. She winds up being loved by three admirable men, and having the difficult task of choosing between them. And of course none of the three in any way, shape or form resent the others, or Dagny's interest in the others, because they are all just too perfect for that.

Ayn Rand was in part reacting against the trend in "serious" fiction of the day to have increasingly repulsive protagonists, by creating admirable heroes. But she might have done better by allowing her main characters to be human -- and the specific behavior: the conspicious lack of jealousy and ill-will resulting from that romantic quadrangle -- are predictive of the most serious mistake Ayn was to make personally.

Humans really aren't like that.
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From:polyanarch
Date:March 22nd, 2009 02:54 pm (UTC)

making people "better." I don't hold to that

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What it comes down to in the end is that people have a right to be wrong. That's the nature of free will. Nobody ever has the right to step in and judge actions of others when force wasn't initiated upon anyone else.

Rand owned herself, she was not the chattel of her husband. People NEVER own other people. She had the right to follow her own will and share her body and heart with ANYONE she wished at any time from the point she reached adulthood. Her husband had no legal or moral claim on her soul or her flesh. It also works the same way in reverse. Ayn had no legal claim on the flesh or soul of her husband or anyone else. They were all free agents. They could play nice or not play at all as that is the option of all free humans when they chose to interact with each other in a civilized way.

This set of "normal human laws" and "practicalities of sexual morality" is an artificial construct of a bunch of long-dead sheep herders and is no better or worse of a way to run one's sexual or social life than many others. That is merely subjective. It is all just a matter of opinion -opinions we all have a right to hold for ourselves but NEVER have the right to impose on others -even those we are very close to.

If Ayn's husband couldn't deal with the facts that his wife didn't have the same puritanical attitudes towards love and sex than he had then his choices were open to leave the relationship any time he wished. His hurt stems from the fact that he failed to find a partner who had the same philosophical inclination towards "sexual morality" as himself. It was not the responsibility of Ayn to conform to his puritanical beliefs. She was a free person to live her own life. She owned her own self, not he. Anything else is just slavery.
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From:jordan179
Date:March 22nd, 2009 03:41 pm (UTC)

Re: making people "better." I don't hold to that

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The question isn't whether or not Ayn Rand was a free human being with the right to choose whom she had sex with. The question is whether or not she should have rationally expected that simultaneously being married to Frank and pursuing an open affair with Nathaniel was going to wind up hurting herself, Frank, Nathaniel and Susan. Based on an understanding of human psychology, the answer is "it probably would." As it did.

Also keep in mind that the real damage to the Objectivist movement wasn't done by the affair. It was done after Nathaniel decided that he could no longer continue with the affair -- in part, because he saw what it was doing to all four of them. That was when Ayn Rand, responding in a classic, emotional "woman scorned" fashion, wrecked her own movement in order to get revenge on Nathaniel Branden.

The damage was all the worse because Ayn Rand couldn't conceive of herself being irrational. Thus, she had no capacity at that point to step out of her situation and look at it objectively -- from a detached point of view. She had invested too much, emotionally, in the idea that she was always right.
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From:kishiriadgr
Date:March 22nd, 2009 02:54 pm (UTC)
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Ayn Rand was an evil woman who demanded cult following. That being said, one can still pick through her philosophy and find gems. "Enlightened self-interest" is one of the most useful concepts I've come across yet.

I have no problems at all with non-monogamy, as long as everyone consents. Starting an affair thinking that just because it's YOU it's going to be fine always blows up.
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From:jordan179
Date:March 22nd, 2009 03:42 pm (UTC)
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I don't think that she meant to be evil or to have a cult following. I think, however, that when she finally got influence and wealth and respect, after a life which had included suffering under Soviet tyranny and trying to survive in the Great Depression, it went to her head and she didn't know where to stop. Ironically, in doing so she wound up replicating, on a small scale, the very same totalitarian irrationality that she had fled.
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From:maxgoof
Date:March 22nd, 2009 03:44 pm (UTC)
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I have not read anything by Ayn Rand, but I do have a few things that might be interesting to add to this discussion.

Arrogance is an obvious failure on Ayn Rand's part. And it is very typical of intellectuals, or those who have convinced themselves of the correctness of their views. They have reached an ultimate conclusion and no further evidence is needed. Thus, we can have a Dan Rather standing on the veracity of the forged documents. We can have Al Gore talking about Global Warming when the globe had been cooling for ten years. It behooves us to examine every piece of evidence that comes in and a humble heart to truly stay within the realm of truth.

No, people don't have a right to be wrong. Otherwise, a thief would have a right to steal. We must be careful what we call a right. People are going to be wrong about what they believe, somewhere. It is almost inescapable. But that doesn't make it a right. Nor does it mean that being wrong should always be punishable.

And before we start calling people "evil" we had better define what "evil" is. Otherwise, it simply becomes our opinion.
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From:sqrrl101
Date:March 22nd, 2009 04:56 pm (UTC)
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Very eloquent assessment of the situation, and pretty much the same reasoning behind my not calling myself an Objectivist. She was indeed a very insightful woman, and Atlas Shrugged was bloody brilliant, but a lifetime of always being right left her ill equipped for when she was wrong.
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From:starblade_enkai
Date:March 22nd, 2009 05:03 pm (UTC)
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So, do you have any other means of perception, IE do you look to your 'perfect source of knowledge' for the claim that sensory information is unreliable? Or do you look to empirically investigated sciences (you know, the ones that rely on perception?) to prove that perception is misleading?
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From:jordan179
Date:March 22nd, 2009 05:22 pm (UTC)
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There is no "perfect source of knowledge." My "claim" that sensory knowledge is unreliable is a scientifically-proven fact; there has been a lot of research which has explored the ways in which our minds and sensoria, having evolved to deal with certain situations, can be tricked by certain other situations which we rarely encountered in evolutionarily-important contexts.

For instance

http://www.psychologie.tu-dresden.de/i1/kaw/diverses%20Material/www.illusionworks.com/

and

http://www.illusionworks.com/

for sensory illusions. For logical errors to which our minds are particularly prone, consider

http://www.nizkor.org/features/fallacies/

and in particularly why these fallacies are repeated. The reason is that we evolved in small communities in which everyone knew everyone else quite well, so that (for instance) ad hominem might be a perfectly valid mode of reasoning (you really shouldn't trust Shifty Joe when he claims the food is over there, but Honest Abe is reliable) in relatively stable environments (Appeal to Authority is sensible when the "authority" is the tribal elder who remembered what we did the last time the river flooded), and so on.

Or do you look to empirically investigated sciences (you know, the ones that rely on perception?) to prove that perception is misleading?

The way to get around tendencies to perceptual and logical errors, and inherent limitations, in human senses and minds is to take advantage of the "social brain," which is to say the greater effective intelligence and clarity that can emerge from certain kinds of communication. For instance, a visual illusion that may fool at a glance from one POV may disappear if you walk around it, or if more than one person is looking at it. An object too small or too far away to be seen with the naked eye may be viewed in a microscope or telescope. Both formal logic and the scientific method are powerful tools for avoiding common errors of reasoning; the whole point of the scientific method is that it lets one thinker check the work of another.

Are the conclusions arrived at by these methods perfect, and identical to objective reality? No! But they are the best ways we currently have to APPROXIMATE objective reality.

Like biological evolution, cultural evolution doesn't have to arrive at a perfect answer. Just one good enough to work better than the alternatives.
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From:richardf8
Date:March 22nd, 2009 07:08 pm (UTC)
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"Ayn Rand had of course been fooled by the human tendency to rationalize whatever we emotionally want as logically valid."

I tend to suspect that this is the way most people deploy reason, most of the time - in the quest for the post-hoc justification of a desire.

Were our minds truly able to perceive "objective reality," we would have no need of science or religion. But the best we can hope for is that our subjective realities comprise a not-unreasonable simulacrum of whatever obejective reality might be. This might seem to be relativistic, and it is. But really, until we can see beyond the veil of perception, relativism is a fact. It does not excuse those who build their realities on convenient fictions, when those fictions contradict readily available data. But it nonetheless remains a fact on the ground.
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From:writerspleasure
Date:March 22nd, 2009 07:08 pm (UTC)

recent comment about rand

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... the main logical fallacy in atlas, which unfortunately was needed to make the towering drama (that rand intended) work in plot terms: that all sufficient knowledge and competence in the world had been narrowed to an ever-increasingly narrowed field of people, all in the u.s. - basically there are the supreme heroes, and then there are people at significant stages way below them - then the common run of people. no continua, and no dynamic advancement or change.

i look upon atlas as a sort of surreal construct, like twin peaks, that by its stark and heightened manner is able to give us certain experiences we couldn't otherwise have. as a literal guide or picture of existence? no way. as with so much else, rand falls down in understanding people.

- in http://ericthemage.livejournal.com/470315.html
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From:polaris93
Date:March 22nd, 2009 10:37 pm (UTC)

Re: recent comment about rand

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Like so many other forms of elitism, Randian elitism seems to assume that most people are no better than unintelligent robots, less sensible than nonhuman animals supposedly are, and that they'll never change. Make such an assumption and it isn't long before you'll condone any sort of evil committed against the so-called common people (who are basically just people you don't like), because "they're worse than dumb brutes, made to be exploited." Now, what does that sound like?
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From:polaris93
Date:March 22nd, 2009 10:33 pm (UTC)
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You said it better than I ever could have. The inability to perceive flaws in oneself seems to be at the heart of a great deal of what goes wrong in the world. It's evidenced by a lack of a healthy sense of humor, which is a reflexive way of restoring perspective to one's point of view, and frequently entails honest laughter at oneself. I have to admit I've been guilty of vanity too many times to count -- and have undergone many a fall as a result. Maybe it takes one to know one, because that's the primary flaw I've always seen in Rand's work. Actually, the use of objective methods of checking on reality has always been at the core of the modern scientific method as well as Greek mathematics of the classical period, and it's a cornerstone of Western thought. Which is why we have to protect and cherish Western civilization at all costs: to lose it is to lose a way of double-checking our opinions, theories, and ideas to make sure they work, instead of substituting a sort of "mysticism" that comes down to no more than wish-fulfillment, typical of certain religious enthusiasts stemming from the Middle East.
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From:kitten_goddess
Date:March 24th, 2009 02:27 pm (UTC)
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"instead of substituting a sort of "mysticism" that comes down to no more than wish-fulfillment, typical of certain religious enthusiasts stemming from the Middle East."

There's plenty of those over here in America, too. I'm speaking of our own evangelicals and New Agers.
From:operations
Date:March 22nd, 2009 11:21 pm (UTC)
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I have long been of the mind that Objectivism was a very good idea on paper, that like all 'isms' broke down the second you added people to the equation.
From:(Anonymous)
Date:March 23rd, 2009 04:33 pm (UTC)
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Rand was an Expat from Lenin-era Russia. Like Lenin, she developed a Universal Ism.

Given her past, Objectivism became a reaction to Communism, literally a one-eighty flip from The Collective is All, the Individual Nothing to The Individual is All, Atomistic. From an ideology of forced Total Selflessness to one of Total Selfishness. A cult like Marx/Lenin/Stalin's, except with Ayn Rand as cult leader/god figure.

(In his book Why People Believe Weird Things, skeptic Michael Shermer devotes an entire chapter -- "The Most Unlikeliest Cult of All" -- to his experiences with Objectivists.

I am certain that if she were put in the same position of absolute power as Stalin, she would have built just as overbearing a personality cult of The Anointed Leader, just as totalitarian a Universal Ideology, and enforced Objectivism just as totally and bloodily. Funhouse mirror of the system she fled.
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From:polaris93
Date:March 22nd, 2009 11:27 pm (UTC)
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One thing that's bothered me for years is the way so many libertarians seem to believe that unless you were introduced to the idea of liberty by reading or meeting Ayn Rand, you could not possibly know it existed, or at least what it meant. Now me, I grew up in several abusive households. The last one I lived in was run by two people who were planning to murder me when I left for other reasons -- they owed me $600, and didn't want to pay it back. I found out about that later. Anyway, one way or another, all of my childhood and adolescence blew chunks, and entailed various kinds of slavery. I was introduced to libertarian ideas at age 9 via the fiction of Robert Anson Heinlein. I never even heard of Rand until I was around 22. Once I had been acquainted with those concepts, I wanted liberty more than anything in the world -- not out of adoration of Heinlein, but because I needed it like someone dying of thirst needs water. Even as young as around age 6 I thought endlessly about running away -- because I wanted freedom, even though I didn't know about libertarianism then. One reason I never became a Randian is that Randians have never been able to understand why or how I came to love liberty at so young an age without knowing a thing about Rand. Nor can they understand when, to the question, "What great libertarian heroes do you have?", I answer, "The founding fathers, Harriet Ross Tubman, John Brown . . ." I don't embrace the party-line, and they can't understand that, which is why I never became a Randian.
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From:gothelittle
Date:March 23rd, 2009 07:17 am (UTC)
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I've never read and barely heard of Ayn Rand myself, but I managed to pick up a decent level of libertarianism from my own family. It's strongest in my mother's side, whose ancestors include John Rogers (of the little New England Christian sect known as the "Rogerenes".. a kind of mix between 7th Day Baptists and Quakers) and Anne Hutchinson.

The main way I learned it was that government should have as little a role in our personal lives as possible, and that while laws protecting other people from us may be beneficial, laws should never protect us against ourselves. In the 'second layer', society, she gave me a deep sense of family loyalty and willingness to aid members of society, as a duty to care for those in need for no other reason needed but that they are people created in God's image and they are in need. That is also part of a homemaker's job, she taught me, that since you are the one with the flexible schedule, you benefit society by watching a sick neighbor's kids or interrupting your whole day if necessary by giving her a ride to the doctor's office.

However, she also taught by example her fierce individualism, which says that we shouldn't be spending our lives with our noses in other people's businesses. If a family chooses to spend their disposable income on fancier cars instead of bigger TV's, or a pool instead of a gourmet kitchen, or if the man grows a ponytail or the woman gets a tattoo, it's none of our business to disapprove of them. Even matters of genuine scandal, she doesn't like to hear about, doesn't like to dwell on, and would prefer for them to be allowed to settle their own business.

Through the years, I've alternately identified as a libertarian or not, because I'm not really sure if I am one. I suppose in the end I'm basically a Christian on the conservative side, wishing (for instance) to replace government social programs with a sense of personal responsibility for the poor and voluntarily-funded charity for anyone in need.
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From:polaris93
Date:March 23rd, 2009 01:09 am (UTC)
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Actually, I may not have all that much room to talk about Rand's mismanagement of her personal life, considering that the novels I've been working on with a friend (http://www.iuniverse.com/Bookstore/BookSearchResults.aspx?Search=Dragon%20Drive
) have characters who have some of the weirdest interpersonal relationships on record. There are good reasons for why they came to have such relationships given in the novels, but even so, it's a weird alternate universe. The thing is, though, in that universe such relationships can work, but as we haven't yet been through a global nuclear war with consequent environmental meltdown, a catastrophic drop in both human population numbers and human fertility, and everything that goes with all that, they wouldn't work here.
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From:irked_indeed
Date:March 23rd, 2009 01:30 am (UTC)
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On the subject of Rand and her... extremes, Jordan: are you familiar with Mozart Was a Red?
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From:johncwright
Date:March 23rd, 2009 01:43 pm (UTC)

Flaws in the Reasoning Instrument

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Your thoughts about Ayn Rand mirror my own. I agree she was correct, nay, unassailable, about the primacy of reason and the objective nature of reality.

What I find interesting is that the system of mystical reasoning she rejects, Christianity, had a more accurate model of human behavior (Original Sin) than did she. On a purely practical ground, she ruined her life and damaged her movement because she did not embrace the purely practical virtue (Humility) also suggested by that system of mystical reasoning.

When mysticism arrives at more rational conclusions more accurately and more practically than abstract reasoning, abstract reasoning suggests mysticism is practical.
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From:jordan179
Date:March 23rd, 2009 01:46 pm (UTC)

Re: Flaws in the Reasoning Instrument

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Religions evolve, and systems which evolve often catch errors that designed systems fail to notice. The same is true of cultural institutions in general -- like marriage.
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From:pasquin
Date:March 24th, 2009 02:38 am (UTC)
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Yes, you nailed it. But to misquote, 'objectivism is the worst form of philosophy,except for all the others.'

My break with O'ism stems from it not inculcating the evolved animal we are. For instance, there is no logical reason why we can't have multiple, equal lovers. As she did. But human history, and cross-cultural studies seem to indicate an innate tendency to monogamy.

Reasoning that we are entities apart from our physicality strikes me now as folly.
From:operations
Date:March 24th, 2009 02:36 pm (UTC)
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My reason for not having multiple lovers is simple: I can barely keep up with my wife.
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