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Criticism of Ayn Rand: the Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Vegard Ottervig Ayn Rand

Review of factual, unfair and malicious criticism against Ayn Rand and Objectivism.

The Association for the Study of Objectivism (FSO) arranged a member meeting on 3 June 2019, where Vegard Martinsen delivered a lecture entitled “The Criticism of Ayn Rand: the Good, the Bad and the Ugly.”

Martinsen reviewed criticism of Ayn Rand from various commentators and critics, and according to him, Rand is part of the public debate and is often mentioned in the media. Criticism may be fine, but not everything is of equal quality. Martinsen divided the criticism into three categories:

  • Criticism that is dishonest, malicious and below any decency (“the Ugly”)
  • Criticism that is fair enough and is a reasonable starting point for factual discussion (“the Bad”)
  • Criticism that is tenable and has real content (“the Good”)

Martinsen made no sharp distinctions between the three categories. We start with the worst.

The Ugly

Social Security

A widespread “criticism” of Ayn Rand, especially on the Internet, is that she was allegedly a hypocrite because she received Social Security and Medicare. Rand was opposed to public health insurance and pension systems. That she still made use of the services, is according to some people evidence that she and her philosophy, Objectivism, are hypocritical, immoral and unrealistic in the real world.

There is a difference between being against the introduction of a program and being against using it after it has been introduced—despite one’s protests. Rand had also paid her taxes and was entitled to get public services back in any case.

Read more: Ayn Rand received Social Security »

Hickman

One of the worst attacks on Ayn Rand is the allegation that she admired the child murderer William Hickman in her journals. Usually, the lie that Rand admired Hickman is reserved for Internet trolls, but it has also appeared in nonfiction like Mean Girl by Lisa Duggan.

In his trial, Hickman acted confident, charismatic and did not care what others said. These were features that, in isolation, can be admirable in some respects—yet Rand pointed out that Hickman was indeed a monster.

She got interested because Hickman and the case against him were inspirational as material for a story. Rand, who was an aspiring writer, considered whether she could base a character in a planned novel on what Hickman suggested to her.

Vegard Martinsen pointed out that the allegation that Rand admired a child murderer is grossly inaccurate. But why is it expected that leftists think Rand was a fan of a child murderer? Leftists believe that capitalists will tear down the world and slaughter the poor. Therefore, they believe that capitalism’s foremost defender also admires child murderers.

Read more: Did Ayn Rand admire the killer William Hickman?

Obama

In a 2012 interview with Rolling Stone, President Barack Obama said the following:

Ayn Rand is one of those things that a lot of us, when we were 17 or 18 and feeling misunderstood, we’d pick up. Then, as we get older, we realize that a world in which we’re only thinking about ourselves and not thinking about anybody else, in which we’re considering the entire project of developing ourselves as more important than our relationships to other people and making sure that everybody else has opportunity – that that’s a pretty narrow vision.

Only thinking about yourself without consideration for others is not a part of Rand’s ethics. One of Rand’s foremost literary heroes, the rational egoist and architect Howard Roark from The Fountainhead, for instance paid the mortgage to his friend, the sculptor Steven Mallory:

He [Roark] paid Mallory’s rent and he paid for most of the frequent meals together.

Is this “only thinking about ourselves,” like Obama claims?

Christoper Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens was a popular leftist writer and commentator who died in 2011. Unlike most other leftists, he criticized Islam; he was also strongly critical of the conspiracy theories about September 11, 2001, and he defended, among other things, the US liberation of Iraq in 2003.

In the early 1980s, he participated in a series of debates on socialism and capitalism with the two objectivists Harry Binswanger and John Ridpath. In other words, Hitchens should have had some knowledge of Ayn Rand and Objectivism.

In the video below from a lecture years later he was asked what he thinks of Ayn Rand. He thinks the novels are “transcendently awful,” while he has a certain respect for The Virtue of Selfishness. Still, Hitchens argues that there is no need for essays arguing for selfishness among people, since most people today are selfish and we do not need to make them more so.

To claim something like that after reading the novels, The Virtue of Selfishness and having had discussions with Binswanger and Ridpath is below any standards, Vegard Martinsen pointed out.

The Bad

Unfortunate phrases from Rand?

The next post in the talk was about some phrases from Rand herself. Whether these fit in the categories “Bad” or “Good” is difficult to tell.

Anyhow: the first phrase Vegard Martinsen discussed was the following from The Fountainhead:

Man cannot survive except through his mind. He comes on earth unarmed. His brain is his only weapon.

If Man comes to Earth unarmed, how can one say that his brain is his only weapon?

Another phrase:

But don’t they know that if suffering could be measured, there’s more suffering in Steven Mallory when he can’t do the work he wants to do, than in a whole field of victims mowed down by a tank?

Is it feasible to say that a sculptor who is not allowed to practice his art suffers more than a group of people who are killed by a tank—than mass murder? Vegard Martinsen submitted this question to Harry Binswanger in his weekly Meeting of the Minds web meeting.

According to Binswanger, Roark’s phrase is a literary device. Suffering cannot be measured between people (only within yourself), and is a way of emphasizing Mallory’s suffering. If human suffering could be measured, the “claim” would not be true. But as a writer you have a so-called “literary license,” and the point is to say that there is pure physical pain and there is spiritual/psychological pain—to have your purpose in life destroyed.

Vegard Martinsen pointed out that the phrase is from a novel, and what is said and done by Howard Roark in the novel at any given time is not necessarily what Rand herself thinks. Roark says this because he is in despair due to Mallory not being allowed to create what he wants—it is comparable to the familiar phrase most of us say from time to time: “it’s the worst thing I’ve ever heard.” What you are referring to is probably not the worst thing you have heard, but it is a device to emphasize a point.

Objectivism, ethics and the role of axioms

Minerva no. 4/2013 included the article “Who’s Afraid of Ayn Rand?” by Conservative Party politician Fredrik Gierløff. Despite Gierløff’s claim that he has made “a deep dive into Rand’s authorship,” you can only find several misunderstandings and factual errors in the article.

For example: Gierløff quotes Martinsen from an article written for Samtiden in 2001 (which was rejected, something Gierløff does not mention). In the quote, Martinsen mentions that with all the alleged benefits we receive from the welfare state, no one could possibly oppose such a system. According to Gierløff, this is wrong because “Objectivism’s defense of freedom arose precisely from logic derived from axioms, not expectations of consequences.”

Gierløff omits Martin’s next sentence, which details precisely the negative consequences of the welfare state. In addition, he is mistaken about the teachings of Objectivism on axioms and their role. Objectivism is a reality-based philosophical system, based on observations and logic rather than logical inferences from axioms—as one does in rationalist philosophies. The role of axioms in Objectivism is to guide reality-based thinking. Gierløff’s claim is therefore unreasonable. Rand’s ethics are about following the consequences of actions and integrating them into principles—guided by reality-oriented axioms.

Furthermore, Gierløff claims that he and fellow Conservative Party member Thorbjørn Røe Isaksen earlier have pointed out errors and shortcomings in Rand’s property rights theory, citing the article “Justice and Property” in the classical liberal journal Nytt Paradigme in 2005. This article, however, revolves around the anarchist Murray Rothbard’s theory of property rights, and Rand is mentioned in passing, where her theory is supposedly similar to Rothbard’s, only more elegantly worded.

And this is supposed to be a deep dive into Rand’s writing?

Classical liberalism, Ayn Rand and academia

On Facebook, Associate Professor Pål Foss from Østfold University College made a less flattering comparison of Ayn Rand. Why choose Coca Cola and pizza when you can have a finer dinner—why choose Ayn Rand when you have “better” thinkers like Kant, Smith, Locke, Mill, Nozick, Popper, Dahrendorf and Aron?

Academics often sneer at Rand, who positioned herself outside academia and did not follow academic rules (which included her writing in an understandable manner). What academics cannot ignore, however, is the ever-growing flora of academic books on Objectivism.

Among these we find On Ayn Rand (Gotthelf 2000), Ayn Rand’s Normative Ethics (Smith 2006), Metaethics, Egoism, and Virtue (Gotthelf & Lennox 2010), Concepts and Their Role in Knowledge (Gotthelf & Lennox 2013), Foundations of a Free Society (Salmieri & Mayhew 2019) and A Companion to Ayn ​​Rand (Salmieri & Gotthelf 2016) on Objectivism, and Essays on Ayn Rand’s We the Living (Mayhew 2004), Essays on Ayn Rand’s Anthem (Mayhew 2005), Essays on Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead (Mayhew 2006) and Essays on Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged (Mayhew 2009) on the authorship.

In order to achieve liberty, classical liberal ideas must impact the culture—they must permeate academics, business people and the cultural elite. Ayn Rand is the only thinker who consistently stands for liberty, but according to Foss we should ignore it.

Foss thus wants to reject the only thinker who has a moral justification for liberty, and according to him we must instead focus on economics—it is economics that is important. But economics is secondary and only serves as a supplement to liberty.

Parasites, moochers and looters

A common allegation against Ayn Rand is that she dubbed poor people “parasites, moochers and looters.” But no actual quotes show that she mentioned poor people in this manner, according to Martinsen. On the contrary, she talks about men of power and academics.

Metaethics: Animals

In 2018, former Objectivist Ari Armstrong published the book What’s Wrong with Ayn Rand’s Objectivist Ethics. There is a lot to be said about this book, and Don Watkins has written a very good critique called “Atlas Neutered: Ari Armstrong’s Straw Man Attack on Objectivism”. However, Vegard Martinsen addressed four metaethical issues from the book.

The first problem is about animals and metaethics, which can be included in a larger tradition of discussions in Objectivist circles. In the essay “The Objectivist Ethics” Rand writes:

Only a living entity can have goals or can originate them. And it is only a living organism that has the capacity for self-generated, goal-directed action. On the physical level, the functions of all living organisms, from the simplest to the most complex—from the nutritive function in the single cell of an amoeba to the blood circulation in the body of a man—are actions generated by the organism itself and directed to a single goal: the maintenance of the organism’s life.

Plants and animals act automatically to survive, while humans should act to survive. By referring to biology, Rand shows that an egoistic ethics can be integrated with internal processes in real, living beings. According to Rand, individuals act to survive, but well-known biologists like Richard Dawkins argue that individuals often die to spread their genes—individuals act as machines to spread genes.

But what about well-known cases like:

  • Animals that sacrifice themselves for their offspring
  • The spider that is eaten after the sexual act
  • Bees that have one task: to sacrifice their lives for the hive
  • Bird mothers risking their lives to trick predators away from their children (Binswanger, The Objectivist Forum, February 1984)

On page 99 of A Companion to Ayn ​​Rand, Greg Salmieri writes that “there are sometimes ambiguities about whether the individual organism or the species (or family) is the unit of life.”

It is in this context that Armstrong delivers his critical input. According to Rand, life is the standard of moral value, and what makes life bad is to be considered as anti-values. However, Armstrong believes that “the fact that we experience many values ​​as valuable for their own sake” invalidates Rand’s view of survival as the ultimate goal of living organisms.

If you like to do things without thinking about whether it promotes your life or survival, it apparently makes Rand’s ethics wrong—like listening to music, watching your child grow up, eating a good meal, watching a beautiful sunset and so on.

One does not usually choose in order to survive, but all good choices enhance or contribute to survival as a human being. We choose many things because it makes our lives better, which is in line with Rand’s arguments about purpose. Such purposes make life worth living and contribute to survival. We would have been bored to death without such values, which is why Armstrong is completely wrong, according to Martinsen.

But what about animals that sacrifice themselves? A duck, for example, lures away a predator from its offspring. Does the duck know what it is doing? Does it know it is dying? Animals have a limited awareness and are unable to interpret the complete situation. They become so preoccupied with fighting that they forget the context and fight until they die. In the choice between their young and themselves, letting the children survive is not an example of altruism, since the animals have invested so much in their offspring (in biology, altruism is used in a different way than in ethics).

What about the spider being eaten? Does the spider know this in advance? Does he know what fate he’s up to? No.

What about the bee? The bee does not know what will happen either. It is by its nature programmed to do the job it has—to defend the hive.

Metaethics: Slavery

Another metaethical problem Armstrong addresses is the question of slave owners and slaves. Would an egoist really free his slaves—will he not suffer more hardship than before? Or a more realistic example: If you grow up in a rich home and when you’re an adult you discover that your father is a criminal, that all your wealth is due to illegal activities—what then?

Releasing the slaves would harm the slave owner, according to Armstrong, and this apparently shows that Rand’s defense of individuals’ rights is weak.

Vegard Martinsen, on the other hand, argues that one should get out of slave ownership or a criminal family as soon as possible. For example: Slave rebellions occurs occasionally, this is something we know from history. In other words, your slaves can kill you tomorrow.

Another thing I want to point out is that freed slaves become a positive and productive resource that will ultimately make your life better with increased prosperity.

Metaethics: Children

A third metaethical problem is children. Is it selfish to have children? It is obviously tiring and stressful with children at times, but most parents can testify that they get immense joy and benefit from children—children make life better. Therefore, it is not tenable to say that it is selfish not to have children.

Metaethics: When rights violations are not discovered

A fourth metaethical problem revolves around rights violations not being detected. Is it selfish to refrain from violating rights as long as one is not discovered? For example, is it right to steal money from someone who will probably never discover the theft?

This point is unsustainable, according to Martinsen. Honesty is a principle, and rational, productive people have respect for rights and honesty integrated into their personality. It is impossible to violate a principle that you have lived by for years. In addition: You never know in advance if you will be discovered or not.

The Good

Rand’s definition of egoism

In the introduction of The Virtue of Selfishness Ayn Rand writes:

Yet the exact meaning and dictionary definition of the word “selfishness” is: concern with one’s own interests.

Rand refers to a dictionary definition of “selfishness,” but there is in fact no English-language dictionary with this definition. The question then is how wise it is to write something like this.

In a Norwegian context, Vegard Martinsen has looked at a lexicon from 1982, which states the following about altruism: “the ethical principle that the well-being of others should be the target of our actions. The opposite: selfishness. The belief that self-interest alone can and should be the motive for our actions.”

This is closer to what Rand herself wrote. Martinsen further pointed out the correct definitions of altruism and selfishness.

  • Altruism: giving up one’s own values for the benefit of others
  • Selfishness: to act in a way that one really benefits from one’s actions in the long run

“Giving” is forbidden

In Atlas Shrugged John Galt says the following to Dagny Taggart:

Miss Taggart, we have no laws in this valley, no rules, no formal organization of any kind. We come here because we want to rest. But we have certain customs, which we all observe, because they pertain to the things we need to rest from. So I’ll warn you now that there is one word which is forbidden in this valley: the word ‘give.’

Vegard Martinsen wonders if the prohibition of the word “give” is a bit unfortunate, and questions whether he would have formulated it like that.

Definition of reason

Ayn Rand has provided at leas two definitions of “reason”—one in Atlas Shrugged and one in «The Objectivist Ethics».

Atlas Shrugged:

Reason is the faculty that perceives, identifies and integrates the material provided by [man’s] senses.

«The Objectivist Ethics»:

Reason is the faculty that identifies and integrates the material provided by man’s senses.

The word «perceives» is left out in the newest definition. Martinsen agrees that it’s correct to say that «perceive» should not be included. For instance, animals have perception, but no reason.

Privately owned vs. owned by private individuals

In Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal Ayn Rand defines capitalism as follows:

Capitalism is a social system based on the recognition of individual rights, including property rights, in which all property is privately owned.

There is also a similar definition on page 190 of the book Objectively Speaking: Ayn Rand Interviewed, but here “privately owned” has been replaced by “owned by private individuals”.

Vegard Martinsen notes that the content of publications such as Objectively Speaking, Letters of Ayn Rand, Journals of Ayn Rand, The Art of Fiction, The Art of Nonfiction and Ayn Rand Answers does not necessarily contain what Rand actually said or wrote herself. All these books were edited after her death, and most of Rand’s wordings were brought into line with what she published herself.

But “privately owned” and “owned by private individuals” are not the same. Being “privately owned” entails an exclusive owner who owns a property and does not have to be the same as an individual. “Private” is something that is not available to the public.

According to Leonard Peikoff, the state cannot own anything under capitalism, it can only rent. But Vegard Martinsen argues that if the state owns a police station or military camp, they are actually privately owned. The state must own its buildings and premises to legitimately run a state.

Spillane above Shakespeare?

In The Economist, Rand scholar James G. Lennox and David Ashton have had a debate about the moral defense of capitalism. In a letter to The Economist, David Ashton writes that he doubted that Rand would have accepted today’s global capitalism, hedge funds and free immigration. In addition, Ashton claims that Rand ranked Mickey Spillane over Shakespeare.

Martinsen mainly dealt with the last statement (although the first on economic aspects can also be discussed). It is not correct to say that Rand ranked Spillane above Shakespeare, at least not as stated by Ashton.

Spillane is a moral writer: the heroes are good, the villains are evil, and the heroes eventually win (other contemporary writers were nihilistic and leftist in relation). Spillane and Rand ended up being friends, and Spillane writes well, but to say that he is a better writer than or is above Shakespeare is plain wrong.

Shakespeare has the best language of all English-language writers and understands all power relationships in and out. Rand knew all about this. However, Shakespeare is a nihilist. There is no connection between values ​​and actions in his plays—villains can win and heroes can lose. Speaking about morality, it might be right to say that Spillane is above Shakespeare.

In any case, Martinsen thinks this shows what danger there is when you state anything—you must expect to be quoted out of context.

“Rand never read those she criticized”

In a French-language blog called De l’Objectivism, there is a lengthy interview with Rand scholar Shoshana Milgram Knapp. According to a 2011 French Rand biography, Rand never read the philosophers she criticized, such as Kant.

Shoshanas begins her answer explaining that Rand read everything by Agatha Christie. Vegard Martinsen is not sure how clever it is to begin with such an example. It gives the impression that Rand is a lightweight—Shoshana should have started with the heaviest and most difficult authors. In the interview, Shoshana eventually examines the books Ayn Rand has owned, and shows that she had indeed read Kant and more.

Brain quality in rude audience

Ayn Rand participated in “The Phil Donahue Show” in the 1970s. In one of the episodes, Rand answers questions from the audience. When discussing women’s opportunities in the United States, a member of the audience says that she was impressed with Rand’s books 15 years ago, but that she is now more educated—before Rand interrupts.

Rand says this is the kind of statements she doesn’t respond to, and that the lady in the audience has “shown the quality of her brain”. The audience member is indeed insulting Rand, but Rand could have responded differently, according to Martinsen.

Military coup in Chile

At a 1974 Ford Hall Forum lecture, Ayn Rand stated: “Compared to Allende and the socialists in Chile, Pinochet and his people are gentlemen and scholars and giants.”

The context in this case is that President Allende and his companions in Chile expropriated US companies before a CIA-backed coup was launched. For a long time, the situation was considered a people-elected leader vs. evil United States coup makers. Thanks to the Internet, the true nature of the Allende regime was discovered later, with everything it entailed by strikes, chaos and trouble.

Pinochet, who assumed power in Chile by a coup, was influenced by the so-called Chicago school of Milton Friedman, who in turn liberalized the South American country. But calling Pinochet and his associates “gentlemen,” when they were responsible for torture and executions, is not good.

Rand on homosexuality

At the 1971 Ford Hall Forum, Rand stated that homosexuality was immoral and disgusting, but at the same time she thought the authorities had no right to ban it. Rand had friends who were gay, a brother-in-law who was gay, and had no problem with homosexuality when asked earlier, according to Martinsen.

When asked about homosexuality in 1971, she and the United States had recently experienced the most extreme cases of gay parades and hippie lifestyles. In addition: Rand grew up in arch-conservative Tsar Russia, where such conduct was unthinkable.

However, Vegard Martinsen argues that Rand’s attitude in this matter is not good. Groups have been persecuted and harassed throughout history, including gays. To formulate herself in such a manner about a vulnerable group is not good.

Received no help?

In the section about the author in Atlas Shrugged, Rand writes the following:

I decided to be a writer at the age of nine, and everything I have done was integrated to that purpose. I am an American by choice and conviction. I was born in Europe, but I came to America because this was the country based on my moral premises and the only country where one could be fully free to write. I came here alone, after graduating from a European college. I had a difficult struggle, earning my living at odd jobs, until I could make a financial success of my writing. No one helped me, nor did I think at any time that it was anyone’s duty to help me.

When Rand first came to the United States, relatives in Chicago let her stay with them for free, watch movies for free, and they provided her with an introductory letter for work. In other words, it is exaggerated to say that no one helped her, but if she talked about altruistic help it might be true.

Conclusion

When it comes to real criticism of Ayn Rand and Objectivism, the examples of Chile, Rand’s response to the audience at the Donahue show and the view on homosexuality are all Vegard Martinsen has managed to dig out. Martinsen reads all the books and articles about Rand that is published, but the common conclusion is that they are mostly malicious or unfair criticism.

In Minerva, Fredrik Gierløff wrote that if Ayn Rand is to become anything but a curiosity, other people than Objectivists must exert influence. Martinsen then cited the critical book Mean Girls, which lists not very unfamiliar names that have been influenced by Ayn Rand: Jeff Bezos, Jimbo Wales, Steve Jobs. The influence exists and is real, but we have only seen the beginning. And we must all work to increase the influence of Objectivism further.

P.S.

In the Q&A after the lecture, we discussed Rand’s views on Native Americans, a female president and the so-called “rape scene” in The Fountainhead. Below are brief summaries of these topics.

The Indians in America did not practice property rights and were nomadic. The conflict was essentially between barbarians and settlers who were cultivating the land. Conditions were peaceful at first, but the Indians eventually began attacking. According to Martinsen, there is plenty of data on this matter.

Discussing a female president, Rand’s gender role perspective was that women must always have a man to look up to. The President of the United States is commander-in-chief and, consequently, has no one over him. According to Rand, it is not that women are not skilled or good enough to take on such a role—they would technically have been better than men—but Rand’s gender role perspective was as it was.

Regarding the “rape scene” in The Fountainhead, Rand once said “If it was rape, it was rape by engraved invitation.” Dominique Francon pursues Howard Roark in scene after scene. She destroys her fireplace shelf, and when Roark sends an overweight Italian in response, Dominique gets furious and whips Roark. When the act finally happens, Dominique does not cry for help, and she does not shower afterwards. According to Vegard Martinsen, this is not rape—that is a reading not rooted in facts. The Fountainhead is a novel and must include dramatic flair.