Column on Ayn Rand & Philosophy

Ayn Rand & Philosophy
Tibor R. Machan
London, UK. My assignment at the conference in London, held at the
National Liberal Club, was to discuss whether Ayn Rand’s ideas had the
kind of philosophical meat worth the respect of those who take the
discipline seriously. Rand, most people know by now, was the Russian born
best selling American novelist and non-academic philosopher who wrote The
Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, two blockbusters, as well as We The
Living and Anthem, less popular but very good reads. And she has claimed
that she is an innovated philosopher who has challenged 2500 years of
philosophy with her work, including such non-fiction books as The Virtue
of Selfishness, Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, For The New Intellectual,
Philosophy: Who Needs it, and a technical monograph, Introduction to
Objectivist Epistemology.
What I said, in a nutshell, is that Rand has made significant
contributions to philosophy, especially with her theory of concept
formation and her view of the nature of human knowledge, as well as her
ethical egoist ethics and her libertarian politics (which she liked, later
in her life, to call "radical capitalist"). I showed how in fact there are
bits and pieces of her thinking evident in the works of many highly
respect academic philosophers, starting with the likes of J. L. Austin, of
Oxford University, all the way to Philippa Foot, another Oxford
philosopher. Austin’s famous essay, "Other Minds," advances a view of
human knowledge similar to Rand’s in that both believe that for someone to
know, it is required to be most up to date in one’s understanding of the
topic at hand without, however, needing to have some (impossible) final,
finished account. This last has been very influential ever since a certain
reading of Plato’s view of knowledge gained prominence in ancient Greece
and it has given support to all sorts of skeptical ideas about the human
capacity to know anything at all. Rand has also reaffirmed a view of human
free will in line with which persons are causes of their conscious actions
and aren’t merely being moved by impersonal forces around them.
The most controversial idea Rand has advanced is, of course, that
laissez-faire capitalism, the pure free market, with no government
intervention at all–whereby government is just what the American Founders
stated it is supposed to be, an institution that’s to secure the rights of
the citizenry–is a morally superior political economic system to, say,
socialism, the welfare state, fascism and other statist systems. (Her
complicated demonstration of this position made some waives recently
because Alan Greenspan, the previous head of the Federal Reserve Bank was
associated with her and is thought to be supporting capitalism as Rand did
[which, sadly, he is not].)
Another area where Rand’s ideas are provocative, even outrageous by some
accounts, is ethics or morality where she defends the idea that it is a
moral virtue to be selfish–by which she means, to be a conscientious
promoter of one’s interest as the human individual that one is. Often
misunderstood to be advocating simple self-indulgence, this ethical v iew
is actually quite close to that of Socrates and Aristotle, both of whom
held that a morally good person is one who makes the very best of his or
her life. In one of his many philosophical dialogs Plato relayed an
exchange between Socrates and Crito, with the latter asking, "When you are
gone, Socrates, how can we best act to please you?" and Socrates replying:
"Just follow my old recipe, my friend: do yourselves concern yourselves
with your own true self-interest; then you will oblige me, and mine and
yourself too." And, of course, Aristotle’s believed that ethics has to do
with the pursuit of a life of human happiness or eudaimonia.
What is interesting is that while Rand has received a lot of flack for
supposedly championing reckless egotism and wild capitalism, she has, in
fact, defended the very same political system we find sketched in the
Declaration of Independence and her ethics is actually quite in line with
commonsense: decent people take good care of themselves first and
foremost–they practice the virtue of prudence–while also showing
generosity to those who need and deserve help.
The one matter on which Rand had never appealed to most intellectuals,
including the vast majority of academic philosophers, is in her steadfast
opposition to coercing other people to do the right thing, including
sharing their lives, labors and resources with others. This must be done,
when and if it should be at all, voluntarily, otherwise it can have no
moral merit whatsoever. And Rand has also never been forgiven her
prescient condemnation of the Soviet Union as a system of slave labor and
misanthrope. Intellectuals flocked to the phony claim that the USSR was to
be a workers’ paradise and she, who grew up there, made clear that they
were deluded. This she paid for dearly.
Rand was also an unflinching unbeliever, someone who could not abide by
the idea that human beings ought to trust a clergy on the basis of faith.
Reason is the only guide to understanding the world, she taught. She was
besmirched by Left and Right alike. This despite the fact that many of her
very best ideas were actually shared by some of the stars of contemporary
philosophy, often many years after she has put them on the record.

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