I have never read Atlas Shrugged. Nor The Fountainhead. In fact, other than in quote form, I think it is safe to say that I have never read a thing that Ayn Rand ever wrote. Like Twilight or Mein Kampf (that’s right, I just compared the work of history’s greatest monster to one of the foundational tomes of Nazism), I don’t feel any appreciable hole in myself for having not ingested these “seminal” works of literature.
For me, I care very little about what Objectivism stands for in its Platonic form, the way Rand intended it. In debates, one is often chided to contend with the best form of the argument, but if that form isn’t practiced in the real world, it’s meaningless. A debate on purely philosophical levels is masturbatory. If I’m going to engage with someone in a debate, I’m only interested in their philosophy in so far as it shapes their actual thoughts and actions.
I say all of that as a preamble to this post because I intend to talk about the philosophy of Objectivism in this post, knowing full and well that I am a noob when it comes to Rand’s literary output. However, this philosophy has grown in popularity among Conservatives in recent years (as can be evidenced by all the pundits and talking heads referencing Rand and her books), and so I feel like I can comment on the philosophy as it is being preached today, whether or not it truly represents Rand’s original intentions.
Objectivism As I Understand It
“My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.” ~ Ayn Rand
If one portion of the quote were to be bolded, highlighted and festooned with bachelorette party, penis-shaped hats, it would have to be “with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life.” That is certainly the portion of the philosophy that has become the rallying cry of conservatives. The ‘productive achievement’ aspect ties in with the whole notion of Free Market Capitalism, but it’s hardly a matter of grave importance to the modern Objectivist (at least, not in comparison to the personal happiness aspect). And ‘reason’ as the only absolute? Psh. Tell that to the evolution-denying, climate change-denying members of the Conservative wing.
No, happiness is all that really matters. It ties back into Jefferson’s most quoted line: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
It’s the foundation of our nation, after all, pursuing happiness.
Objectivist Christians: Oxymorons or just morons?
I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ. ~ Mahatma Gandhi
The sad irony of the rise of Objectivism in the last decade is that it’s not just popular with Conservatives, it’s popular with Conservative Christians, despite the fact that it was a philosophy developed by an atheist with an atheist’s focus on the material world. You couldn’t develop a philosophy that stands in starker relief to Jesus’ teachings than Objectivism, but it’s being preached from pulpits and being upheld as a foundational pillar of America in the same way people like to assert that we’re a Christian nation.
Well, if so-called Christians want to claim that the selfish, all-consuming pursuit of personal happiness is the most important facet of their lives, godspeed. In fact, I’m all for it. The one thing that religion offers that keeps it alive and beneficial is its sense of community and concern for those in need. If Christians start stripping their faith of those admirable traits, I foresee the whole enterprise crumbling within a hundred years. Good riddance.
No, I don’t give a sixpence about selfish Christians. Let them clean their own house.
I’m here to raise my objections to Objectivism as an atheistic philosophy.
Objectivism is atheistic to its very core. It cares nothing for life after death. It’s not worried about everlasting punishment or consequences for actions other than one’s own happiness (this presumably extends to the happiness of your loved ones, or maybe not?).
But just because it fits with the general godless view does not mean it is the only philosophy for atheists, or even a good one.
As atheists, we should take care of our fellow humans. We should be concerned with the well-being of the poor and downtrodden. We should put the happiness and welfare of others on the same plain as our own. We should not be only interested in the pursuit of our own happiness.
And the reason should be obvious to any atheist who’s come to their non-faith by process of logic and reason and not just because they’re one of those annoying people who get off on being a contrarian.
The survival of our species requires corporation. Our sense of community evolved not because we survived long enough to develop it, but because without it we wouldn’t have survived. Objectivism in the wild is going to get you killed. That’s also the reason religion evolved, to help enforce a mode of behavior that was beneficial to our continued existence. I’m no defender of religion, but I understand the important role it played in our survival (a role it now only tangentially fulfills).
Social Darwinism is the erroneous idea that Charles Darwin’s “Survival of the fittest” concept was an ideal and not simply a description of reality. Those who are strongest survive, fact, but that doesn’t mean we should try to govern with that sort of philosophy. Social Darwinists would argue that helping the weak survive is detrimental to the species’ survival, because we’re ensuring the continued existence of that weakness in the gene pool. But that’s a complete misunderstanding of Natural Selection.
If we see a bird with a long pointed beak pecking into a tree for bugs, we understand that the natural force of evolution selected his ancestors for survival because they were better adapted to retrieving hard to reach food. But in another environment, with different vegetation, a long beak may not be helpful, and could even be detrimental.
In the same way, our long, often regrettable history has helped shape a modern society in which some people thrive and others falter. It’s not a matter of strength or weakness (as if Mitt Romney being born into money proves his worth). Out in the wooded wilds, a hunter would survive longer than a computer programmer, but no one is going to claim Bill Gates is a weak member of our species.
How about alcoholics? Or manic-depressives? Or schizophrenics? Those are clear weaknesses, right? If those kinds of people fall between the cracks, wouldn’t we all be better off?
I must ask: How many of our greatest artists have been addicts? How many of our greatest thinkers, inventors, creators and philosophers have been plagued with mental illness? If we had been able to wipe out such afflictions, how many of our treasured works of art and science would be lost? How many will be lost?
But the better question is, how much can be gained by fostering a society that cares for its fallen?*
Just because one does not believe in God or eternal consequences doesn’t mean one must necessarily think only of one’s self. If an atheist can understand the logic in not murdering or raping, they can understand the benefit in living for others.
No, selfishness isn’t a viable philosophy, especially not for those of us who put no stock in gods or the supernatural and, instead, concern ourselves only with our physical world and the natural process by which we evolve to survive. A species that favors variety in its ranks and does not willfully allow its own to perish is a species that will continue to survive. That’s as Darwinian as it gets, and any atheist worth their salt has got to appreciate that.
Think of it as the successful implementation of Game Theory. Call it a Welfare State or just call it humanity, but however you see it, if your happiness isn’t directly tied into the happiness of your fellow homo sapiens you are unfit for survival.
And in that sense, Jesus got it right, even if his followers don’t.
*I will leave the discussion of how for another post, but I’ll just say here, I absolutely believe the government should be a player in the game.