Notes & Comments March 2010
The Ayn Rand follies
On self-love, good & bad.
The Ayn Rand follies -->
Readers who peruse The New Criterion website—and we hope you are one who does—may have been arrested by the outpouring of commentary that greeted “Ayn Rand: Engineer of Souls” by Anthony Daniels in our February issue. As of this writing it has attracted 242 responses—and what responses they are! There are a handful of dispassionate comments, admiring or critical as the case may be, but the vast majority are wildly, hysterically vituperative. They make for an interesting case study. When we turned to Dr. Daniels to write about Anne Heller’s new biography of Rand, we did so because of his skills as a cultural critic. Judging by the response to his essay, we might have turned to him for his skills as a psychiatrist specializing in cases of acute megalomania, cognitive dysfunction, and kindred pathologies. Many deserve an honored place in the annals of unintended comedy, but taken en masse they will, we suspect, leave most readers torn between feelings of nausea and alarm. Consider:
[#4] This hit job comes close to matching the most dishonest review probably ever written of any book—Whittaker Chambers’ review of Atlas Shrugged …
[#19] Daniels’s article is a specimen of dishonesty and incompetence written by a man who neither knows what he is talking about, nor wants to. Like so many animosity-driven criticisms of Rand, it makes no effort to lay out her actual arguments or grapple in any honest way with her views.
[This same author returned in #20 to advise us that Dr. Daniels’s essay] is an indication of the political and intellectual desperation of people like Hilton Kramer and Roger Kimball that despite their unceasing calls for “standards” in discourse and the arts, they nonetheless stoop to publishing such trash.
[#38] That Daniels has written a cheap and dishonest smear that borders on the infantile is obvious …
[#156] A despicable hatchet job, by a clueless non entity, pretentiously posing as a degenerate scum, whilst in reality, is nowhere near that virtuous. Wasted space!
Et very much cetera. Some of the responses are long, more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger disquisitions that purport to instruct us all in the subtleties of the Randian worldview; many, maybe most, exhibit the off-my-meds hysteria patent in these specimens. We should perhaps assure our readers that, contrary to what some correspondents suggested, we did not “cherry pick” the most extreme comments. We posted every comment just as it came in. What you have here is an unretouched sampling of Randian ire.
We bring this chapter from the annals of literary psychopathology to our readers’ attention not simply for its value as entertainment, but because it offers a pertinent cautionary tale. The New Criterion is primarily a journal of criticism. Anthony Daniels’s essay on Ayn Rand is a percipient exercise in that art. This is something that Rand’s acolytes cannot abide. Never mind that, early on in his piece, Dr. Daniels enumerates what he takes to be Rand’s virtures: “She was highly intelligent; she was brave and uncompromising in defense of her ideas; she had a kind of iron integrity; and, though a fierce defender of capitalism, she was by no means avid for money herself. The propagation of truth as she saw it was far more important to her than her own material ease.” The fact that he goes on to dilate on her limitations and vices puts him beyond the pale for the Randian faithful. Dr. Daniels has assured us privately that the followers of Virginia Woolf are even more intolerant of criticism than the followers of Ayn Rand. Perhaps. If so, their intellectual sclerosis must be complete.
Commenter #4, quoted above, mentions Whittaker Chambers’s famously devastating review of Atlas Shrugged, which appeared in National Review in 1957. Among the many interesting things about it was Chambers’s acknowledgment of the fact that “a great many of us [conservatives] dislike much that Miss Rand dislikes, quite as heartily as she does.” Statism in all its many forms, the welfare state, liberal sanctimoniousness, the culture of dependency: most conservatives are at one with Rand in regarding them with a jaundiced eye. And it is precisely this element in Rand’s world view—her rejection of what Tocqueville called Democratic Despotism—that has given her work a new lease on life among “tea partiers” and others who challenge the newly regnant statism in America. Hence the widespread popularity of Rand’s character John Galt and sympathy for “going Galt,” i.e., Just Saying No to the many violations of personal liberty perpetrated by an omnivorous, socialistically inclined state.
But to say that one is wary of statism or that one is a champion of capitalism and limited government is not to say that one is a follower of Ayn Rand. Why? There are many reasons, including the cultlike intolerance of criticism that prevails among her more extreme disciples. There is also something that touches the core of Rand’s view of the world: her apotheosis of selfishness. It was always, we suspect, Rand’s effort to make a “virtue of selfishness” (as she puts it in the title of a collection of essays) that accounted for a large part of her appeal. The shocking quality of advocating something so widely deprecated guaranteed an eager audience. Most human beings do not need special encouragement to be selfish. They come by it naturally enough. How welcome, then, to stumble upon a writer of long books who, far from criticizing selfishness, as everyone from your mother on down has done, tells you that you should be as selfish as possible.
If you think it perverse that someone would propose selfishness as a moral imperative, as does Rand, you would be right. Altruism was for her a dirty word. Aristotle got to the heart of Rand’s confusion when he noted that “self-love” is not always synonymous with self-interest. Self-love can be either a term of reproach or a term of commendation. It is a term of reproach when applied to people who “assign to themselves the larger share of money, honors, or bodily pleasures… . Those who take more than their share of these things are men who indulge their appetites, and generally their passions and the irrational parts of their soul.”
But, Aristotle observed, someone who was “always bent on outdoing everyone else in acting justly or temperately or in displaying any other virtues” can also be described as a lover of the self. In this sense, self-love is a term of praise. The good man, Aristotle concludes, “ought to be a lover of self, since he will then both benefit himself by acting nobly and aid his fellows; but the bad man ought not to be a lover of self, since he will follow his base passions, and so injure both himself and his neighbor.” When we describe someone as selfish, we do not mean that he exhibits the noble self-love that Aristotle commends. We mean that he exhibits a grasping disposition that is unconcerned with the fortunes or feelings of others. This accords with the dictionary definition of selfish: concerned chiefly or only for oneself without regard for the well-being of others.
Every good is susceptible to perversion, including the good of caring for the welfare of others. But to say that a good can be perverted is not to deny the value of the good when rightly pursued. Nevertheless, people who deny the existence of altruism and praise selfishness are not simply being provocative. Nor are they simply calling attention to the abuse, the sentimentalization, of a natural good. They are also guilty of a logical mistake. This mistake was first pointed out clearly by the eighteenth-century British philospher Joseph Butler. Butler saw that many people who promulgated the selfish theory confused two very different propositions, one a commonplace truth, the other a shocking falsehood. One proposition is that we cannot knowingly act except from a desire or interest which is our own. Not only is this true: it is what philosophers call a necessary truth: it could not be otherwise. The other proposition is that all of our actions are self-interested. But this proposition, far from being self-evidently true, is patently false.
It is a tautology that any interest we have is an interest of our own: whose else could it be? But the objects of our interest are as various as the world is wide. No doubt much of what we do, we do from motives of self-interest. But we might also do things for the sake of flag and country; for the love of a good woman; for the love of God; to discover a new country; to benefit a friend; to harm an enemy; to make a fortune; to spend a fortune. “It is not,” Butler noted, “because we love ourselves that we find delight in such and such objects, but because we have particular affections towards them.” Indeed, it often happens that in pursuit of some object—through “fancy, inquisitiveness, love, or hatred, any vagrant inclination”—we harm our self-interest. Think of the scientist who ruins his health in single-minded pursuit of the truth about some problem, or a soldier who gives his life for his nation.
The fundamental logical error, as the Australian philosopher David Stove pointed out, is in inferring real-life consequences from a tautology. “If you set out from a tautological premise,” Stove observed, “you cannot validly infer from it any conclusion which is not itself tautological.” It does not follow from the tautology that “No one can act intentionally except from an interest that he has” that “No one can act intentionally except from a motive that is self-interested.” As Stove observes, this is the same sort of reasoning perennially popular, but nonetheless atrocious, that gulls people into concluding from the proposition “Whatever will be will be” that “All human effort is ineffectual.” The first is a tautology; the second is a silly falsehood.
Sensible people have a low opinion of human nature. They know that human beings are often vain, selfish, calculating, and ungrateful. But to universalize cynicism is not wisdom but folly. We might all wish there were more benevolence and altruism around than there is. But to say that is not to deny the existence or the desirability of these phenomena. The temptation is to conclude that human beings are simpler than they are. All of us are plenty selfish. Almost all of us have acted on altruistic impulses, too. The important truth to keep in view is that, as Joseph Butler observed, “Everything is what it is, and not another thing.” This, alas, is an observation that Ayn Rand and her followers have neglected.
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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 28 Number 7, on page 1
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