Sunday, July 04, 2004

The Cynical Defense of Objectivism

My friends at The Cynic's Corner have posted a defense of Objectivism (or more accurately, reprinted Rand's own defense of her brain child) as the very first entry on their site. You can find the post here. I'm going to reprint parts of it along with my thoughts:

"Thousands of years ago, the first man discovered how to make fire. He was probably burned at the stake he had taught his brothers to light. He was considered an evildoer who had dealt with a demon mankind dreaded. But thereafter men had fire to keep them warm, to cook their food, to light their caves. He had left them a gift they had not conceived and he had lifted darkness off the earth. Centuries later, the first man invented the wheel. He was probably torn on the rack he had taught his brothers to build. He was considered a transgressor who ventured into forbidden territory. But thereafter, men could travel past any horizon. He had left them a gift they had not conceived and he had opened the roads of the world.

It is fitting that Rand starts her defense with a romanticized, but mythical view of history. While we like to overstate the impact of a few visionary geniuses, in reality most inventions are the collective work of a series of great men and women. Jared Diamond, Professor of Physiology at the UCLA Medical School, writes in his Pulitzer Prize winning book "Guns, Germs, and Steel"
The commonsense view of invention...overstates the importance of rare geniuses, such as Watt and Edison. That 'heroic theory of invention,' as it is termed, is encouraged by patent law, because an applicant for a patent must prove the novelty of the invention submitted. Inventors thereby have a financial incentive to denigrate or ignore previous work.
In reality, even for the most famous and apparently decisive modern inventions, neglected precursors lurked behind the bald claim 'X invented Y.' For instance, we are regularly told, 'James Watt invented the steam engine in 1769,' supposedly inspired by watching steam rise from a teakettle's spout. Unfortunately for this splendid fiction, Watt actually got the idea for his particular steam engine while repairing a model of Thomas Newcomen's steam engine, which Newcomen had invented 57 years earlier and of which over a hundred had been manufactured in England by the time of Watt's repair work. Newcomen's engine, in turn, followed the steam engine that the Englishman Thomas Savery patented in 1698, which followed the steam engine that the Frenchman Denis Papin designed (but did not build) around 1680, which in turn had precursors in the ideas of the Dutch scientist Christiaan Huygens and others...Similar histories can be related for all modern inventions that are adequately documented.

While Ms. Rand is undoubtedly correct that many societies have opposed and oppressed their inventors, this does not change the immense value and importance of society in facilitating inventions either. Had society maintained itself as a collection of isolated tinkermen, we'd be lucky to invented much at all.
But the mind is an attribute of the individual. There is no such thing as a collective brain. There is no such thing as a collective thought. An agreement reached by a group of men is only a compromise or an average drawn upon many individual thoughts. It is a secondary consequence. The primary act--the process of reason--must be performed by each man alone. We can divide a meal among many men. We cannot digest it in a collective stomach. No man con use his brain to think for another. All the functions of body and spirit are private. They cannot be shared or transferred.

This makes for far better prose than it does for an argument. People "think" for each other all the time. Any invention which is multi-disciplinary (IE, most) will most likely require various experts contributing their knowledge on specific areas of study to the greater whole of the invention. For those of you who have seen the movie "Wild Wild West" you know of what would be an incredible invention (if it wasn't fictional), Dr. Loveless' giant mechanical spider. Now, while Dr. Loveless is without a doubt an evil genius, there is no way he could have done all this himself. Indeed, Jim West says himself "Loveless kidnapped two chemists,
that means there's gonna be explosives. He's got a metallurgist, so there's gonna be heavy armor. And he's got...the world's foremost specialist in hydraulics. Which means, whatever it is, it's gonna move." The work of many minds all going into the creation of one invention. Fascinating.
We inherit the products of the thought of other men. We inherit the wheel. We make a cart. The cart becomes an automobile. The automobile becomes an airplane. But all through the process what we receive from others is only the end product of their thinking. The moving force is the creative faculty which takes this product as material, uses it and originates the nest step. This creative faculty cannot be given or received, shared or borrowed. It belongs to single individual men. That which it creates is the property of the creator. Men learn from one another. But all learning is only the exchange of material. No man can give another the capacity to think. Yet that capacity is our only means of survival.

This is where Rand gives a nod to the impacts of others in the creative process. But far from being ancillary or tertiary to the process, the dialogue and exchange IS the process. So long as no man is the world's foremost expert on every subject, the need for social interaction and presumably the preservation of social models which ALLOW for such interaction is essential.
The basic need of the creator is independence. The reasoning mind cannot work under any form of compulsion. It cannot be curbed, sacrificed or subordinated to any consideration whatsoever. It demands total independence in function and in motive. To a creator, all relations with men are secondary.

Again, this is little more than clever wordplay. First of all, reasoning minds CAN (and often do) work under coercion. Many artists in the Middle Ages created masterpieces while under the knowledge that failure could result in death. Second, reasoned minds can and often do subordinate their vision to other considerations. Any artist who makes a commissioned piece has to subordinate their preference to the clients preference. An architect (as Roark found out) needs for his designs to meet certain criteria spelled out by the client. And for the vast majority of artists and inventors, without a client or patron, there is no creation at all.
The man who attempts to live for others is a dependent. He is a parasite in motive and makes parasites of those he serves. The relationship produces nothing but mutual corruption. It is impossible in concept. The nearest approach to it in reality--the man who lives to serve others--is the slave. If physical slavery is repulsive, how much more repulsive is the concept of servility of the spirit? The conquered slave has a vestige of honor. He has the merit of having resisted and of considering his condition evil. But the man who enslaves himself voluntarily in the name of love is the basest of creatures. He degrades the dignity of man and he degrades the conception of love. But this is the essence of altruism.

This is what I was referring to when I talked about the paradoxical nature of Objectivism, preaching an opposition to enslavement while mandating a series of prescriptive behavioral norms. Who is Rand to tell me what my own mentality should be? While the slaves condition is evil because he didn't choose to be in that position, the altruist forms his life plan freely and in absence of coercion. At the point where Rand terms that lifeplan immoral, she is saying that man must not live in his own vision but in her own vision, a vision of selfishness. That's as oppressive a dogma as any I've heard.
Men have been taught that the highest virtue is not to achieve, but to give. Yet one cannot give that which has not been created. Creation comes before distribution--or there will be nothing to distribute. The need of the creator comes before the need of any possible beneficiary.

But yet even this can be inverted. We tend to value inventions based on some sort of teleological standard, that is, based on the value they have to our society. Rand herself implicitly acknowledges this by continually referencing the inventions that have had giant, positive impacts on our lives. She talks about fire and weapons for hunting, but (correctly) ignores the stick figure I created when I was five. Why? Because the great inventions satisfy needs, they allow us to survive when we otherwise would perish, thrive when we otherwise would die. A society that has no need, has no need of inventions. And to the inventor that invents something that cannot be given to anyone, I say "who cares?" and society would tend to come down on my side, I think.
Men have been taught that their first concern is to relieve the suffering of others. But suffering is a disease. Should one come upon it, one tries to give relief and assistance. To make that the highest test of virtue is to make suffering the most important part of life. Then man must wish to see others suffer--in order that he may be virtuous. Such is the nature of altruism. The creator is not concerned with disease, but with life. Yet the work of the creators has eliminated one form of disease after another, in man's body and spirit, and brought more relief from suffering than any altruist could ever conceive.

This is a strawman argument if I've ever seen one. No man or women wishes for affliction on others so they can be the superhero, sweeping to the rescue. Instead, people operate in a little world Rand might like to visit termed reality. In reality, there is suffering, whether we like to admit it or not. Having come to terms with that truth, and recognizing that suffering is bad, we are under the obligation to ask, how should we deal with it? The answer varies depending on how you ask, but Rand misguidedly pre-empts the question by pretending that suffering only matters if we make it matter, and that by ignoring it ceases to be relevant. A world with no suffering is better than one with it, even an altruist would admit. But in a world with suffering it is better to alleviate it than to ignore it. In such a world, the role of creators can't be ignored. But the role of those who distribute the creation, who give it life and meaning, can't be disparaged either.
Degrees of ability vary, but the basic principle remains the same: the degree of a man's independence, initiative and personal love for his work determines his talent as a worker and his worth as a man. Independence is the only gauge of human virtue and value. What a man is and makes of himself; not what he has or hasn't done for others. There is no substitute for personal dignity. There is no standard of personal dignity except independence.

There are at least three unwarranted assertions in that paragraph. First, that independence directly correlates with talent. Second that independence is the only gauge of human virtue and value. Third, that there is no standard of personal dignity except independence. NONE of these are supported by anything except Rand's meta-myth that one can create independent of a social context. I would instead assert a doctrine that is freer than Rand's intellectual enslavement: that one creates their own dignity, that that dignity can come in the form of self service or in the service of others, and that neither Rand nor anyone else can disparage the moral code that one freely comes to for him or herself. The only obligation one has to others is to allow them the freedom to come up with and live their own code, free from your interference. John Stuart Mill > Ayn Rand any day of the week. While the altruist is a slave to others, the egoist is a slave to him or herself. What's needed is a moral code that doesn't enslave anyone to anything, and Objectivism isn't it.
Rulers of men are not egoists. They create nothing. The exist entirely through the persons of others. Their goal is in their subjects, in the activity of enslaving. They are as dependent as the beggar, the social worker and the bandit. The form of dependence does not matter.

This is flat out false. First of all, rulers do create something, namely, they create the reality of the state they rule. Second, most rulers (or at least the tyrannical ones) aren't really dependent on their subjects at all. They usually have enough wealth and power that they can buy whatever they need through "free" contracts, though they might choose not to. They are not living for their subjects, they live for themselves and their subjects are valuable to that end OF THE SELF. This may violate Rand's tenant to not use men as means, but it doesn't make the tyrant less of an egoist. They just are egoists that Rand finds distasteful.
The 'common good' of a collective--a race, a class, a state-- was the claim and justification of every tyranny ever established over men. Every major horror of history was committed in the name of an altruistic motive. Has any act of selfishness ever equaled the carnage perpetrated by disciples of altruism?

Again, this flips cause and effect. Tyrants appeal to altruism because the majority of humans feel that altruism is a proper barometer of good. No tyrant is so foolish as to actively justify his actions on a basis that most people find evil. If people began to view egoism as the proper measure of morality, then tyrants would adjust accordingly. I can see it now: "The Jews are taking up room, money, food, and land that could be used for Germans. You, as a German, have the obligation to drive out (kill, murder, rob, rape) the Jews to better your life and your families." Oppression via appeal to self-interest. Sound familiar?
Now observe the results of a society built on the principle of individualism. This, our country. The noblest country in the history of men. The country of greatest achievement, greatest prosperity, greatest freedom. This country was not based on selfless service, sacrifice, renunciation or any precept of altruism. It was based on a man's right to the pursuit of happiness. His own happiness. Not anyone else's. A private, personal, selfish motive. Look at the results. Look into your own conscience.

I would point out that Rand is lying, again, but it just seems redundant at this point. Pop quiz: when would you prefer to live? In 1890, Industrial Revolution America, when the Gospel of Wealth and social darwinism lead to much the same conditions as Rand proposes? Or today, where morality is deigned to include service to others, where we laud the patriots who gave their lives for our country, where corporations are expected to behave honestly and serve humanity and not just the bottom line? Did Rand's turn of the century paradise yield a greater respect for humanity? Was the working man considered the equal of the Robber baron? Did we actively oppose the blatant oppression of blacks, chinese, jews, and others? Was the environment respected? Were other people respected? The answer is clearly no. And yet, the Robber Baron, admitted or not, was dependent on others. He was dependent on the men who joined the army, risking their lives to protect his factory. He was dependent on the worker, who toiled in atrocious conditions and oppressive environments so that his family might have food. The dependency of man is inalterable, all that changes is whether we suppress it or elevate it so that it can be used to serve all, not only the privileged few.

Ayn Rand, who's very presence in our country is the result of the altruism of numerous families who helped smuggle her out of Russia, creates a distorted world in favor of a false agenda. To quote an anoynmous debater, Rand's arguments "are like a baby penguin. They're cute and everything, but they just won't fly."

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