Thursday, July 31, 2008

Objectivism & History, Part 2

Metaphysical presuppositions 1. In the Epilgue to Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, we find the following curious assertion:
Philosophy is not the only cause of the course of the centuries. It is the ultimate cause, the cause of all the other causes. If there is to be an explanation of so vast a sum as human history, which involves all men in all fields, only the science dealing with the widest abstractions can provide it. The reason is that only the widest abstractions can integrate all those fields.

One of goals of philosophical criticism is to investigate the various implications of a given theory. Often the deviser of the theory is not aware of these implications and may not even endorse them. But they are there nonetheless. Now this passage contains one very odd metaphysical implications which, to further complicate matters, is expressed as a conditional. Peikoff writes “If there is to be an explanation of so vast a sum…” This suggests the possibility that there may not be an explanation. It also produces a dichotomy which gives but two choices: (1) Philosophy is the “ultimate” explanation of history; (2) or there is no explanation of history. Since most people (and all Objectivists) would be loathe to accept (2), the first solution wins by default.

There is another way of approaching this subject that allows us to escape the false dichotomy introduced, via implication, by Peikoff. Consider, as a point of contrast, what Herr Nietzsche has to say on the subject of “wide abstractions”:

The other idiosyncrasy of the philosophers is no less dangerous; it consists in confusing the last and the first. They place that which comes at the end—unfortunately! for it ought not to come at all!—namely, the “highest concepts,” which means the most general, the emptiest concepts, the last smoke of evaporating reality, in the beginning, as the beginning…. Moral: whatever is of the first rank must be causa sui… That which is last, thinnest, emptiest is put first, as the cause...

Now Nietzche’s target in this passage is, of course, the wretched ontological argument for God (with a few digs at the cosmological argument thrown in for good measure); yet the extent to which it can be applied to the Objectivist philosophy of history is quite extraordinary—a demonstration of the close kinship between theology and metaphysics. Philosophy, asserts Peikoff, because it deals with the widest abstractions, must be the “ultimate” cause (where ultimate cause = causa sui). Yet is this really true? Do wider concepts really have more explanatory power? Do they really tell us more about reality? Existence is one of the widest concepts of all. What does it explain? Nothing. It is merely descriptive of some entity, object or quality.

The main problem with wide abstractions is that they miss details that are often of great importance to understanding something as complex as history. This is why Nietzsche ridicules “high” or “general” concepts for being “empty” and “the last smoke of evaporating reality.” By including everything, a wide abstraction ends up including nothing. This provides ample room for equivocation, so that the resourceful metaphysician may deduce anything he damn pleases from his general concepts.

Note the equivocation in the Peikoff’s argument. Peikoff does not deny that there are other causes to history: economic, political, sociological, what have you. He merely denies that they are “primaries.” Philosophy, by virtue of the fact that it deals with “wider” abstractions than politics, economics, subsumes (or, if you prefer, “integrates”) these narrower fields, and is therefore the “ultimate” cause of history.

It is wonderful what can be done, polemically, with this equivocation. If the critic complains that Peikoff denies the role that economics or politics or sociology play in history, the Objectivist apologist can claim: “No, Peikoff does not deny a role to these other things.” But when the critic attempts to find out what the role of these other elements actually is, he finds them conveniently subsumed under philosophy as the “ultimate” cause. With the right hand Peikoff giveth; with the left he taketh back.

Hoisted from Comments: Greg Nyquist Quote of the Day

"Now when pointing this out, I am not criticizing Rand. I disagree with the object of Rand's religious-like emotions. But I regard Rand's incorporation of such emotions as a positive thing, something she can be praised for. Indeed, it is an important source of whatever merit Rand has a philosopher. If Rand is still read and appreciated 100 years from now as a philosopher (rather than just as a novelist), it will not be for her technical philosoph[y] (which was always rather shoddy and has become increasingly dated), but for her ability to project a philosophy that has a vision of things. This is something that only a handful of philosophers have managed to pull off, so it's no mean feat. Now I don't happen to agree with Rand's vision: I think it's in many respects profoundly mistaken. But it's only her ability to project a vision that makes her worth the trouble of criticizing." - Greg Nyquist, in comments, Objectivism and Religion Pt 18

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Objectivism & History, Part 1

”Philosophy” of history. Leonard Peikoff begins his lecture “Philosophy and Psychology in History” as follows:
My subject today is the philosophy of history. The philosophy of history asks: why did men act as they did in the past? What is the cause and the meaning of the key developments of previous cultures and centuries, up to an including our own? What is the fundamental factor, the prime mover, shaping the course of human history?

Note the phrase philosophy of history. Peikoff eschews more modest phrases such as study of history or historical sociology or sociocultural evolution. The study of the factors shaping human history, Peikoff implies, can only be discovered through philosophy. Detailed knowledge of sociology, psychology, politics, economics is, presumably, not necessary. Philosophical knowledge holds the key to understanding history.

Here we touch upon the main epistemological error of the Objectivist philosophy of history, an error stemming from the tendency in Randian thought to place to much emphasis on the cognitive value of wide abstractions. People lacking detailed knowledge like to assume that one can get by merely by manipulating broad essentials. But no great insight into human nature or the human condition can be discovered through this method. History, which is a product of the actions (though not necessarily the intentions) of many human beings, often acting contrary to one another, cannot be discovered through the logical or rhetorical manipulation of broad essentials. Detailed knowledge is necessary before we can even begin making educated guesses. The reasoning-by-broad-essentials method advocated by Peikoff (see the final chapter of OPAR) can only lead to rationalization. Since many different conclusions can be inferred from broad essentials, each individual inference is entirely arbitrary. In such a case, the only governing mechanism for determining a specific inference is ideology and wishful thinking. The Objectivist philosophy of history is mere rationalization. It has no cognitive worth other than providing insight into the psychology and motives of Rand and her orthodox followers.

What, precisely, are Objectivists rationalizing in their philosophy of history? The purpose of their theory is twofold: (1) To harmonize the facts of history with Rand's view of human nature; and (2) To explain why Objectivism will triumph in the end. Let’s examine these two goals of rationalization more closely:

1. Human nature and history. Unlike most theories of human nature, which focus on proclivities of behavior observable in the human species, Rand isolated one factor, which she greatly exaggerated—namely, free will. Because human beings have free will, Rand argued, this means that man can shape “his soul in the image of his moral ideal, in the image of … the rational being he is born able to create.” But what about those inherent tendencies that make up traditional theories of human nature, such as those encapsulated in the myth of original sin? Rand denied that any such tendencies exist: “Do not hide behind the cowardly evasion that man is born with free will, but with a ‘tendency’ to evil. A free will saddled with a tendency is like a game with loaded dice. It forces man to struggle through the effort of playing, to bear responsibility and pay for the game, but the decision is weighted in favor of a tendency that he had no power to escape. If the tendency is of his choice, he cannot possess it at birth; if it is not of his choice, his will is not free.” [FNI, 168-169]

The essential point in this passage is Rand’s insistence about the innateness of tendencies. Rand does not deny that tendencies exist; she simply insists that if man has free will, his tendencies must be of his choice. That, in short, is what Rand means by free will: that we choose our tendencies. If men display a tendency to evil (and, historically, some men have displayed such a tendency), that tendency arises from their own free choice.

Although Rand denied that any innate tendencies toward evil existed in human nature, she made statements implying the existence of innate tendencies toward goodness. Consider what she says in her Playboy Interview: 

In any historical period when men were free, it has always been the most rational philosophy that won. It is from this perspective that I would say, yes, Objectivism will win. But there is no guarantee, no predetermined necessity about it.

What this statement implies is that when people are free, they will make the morally proper choice—i.e., they will choose “the most rational philosophy,” which, according to Objectivism, would also be the most moral philosophy. And this view is entirely consistent with Rand’s insistence that men have no evil tendencies: because in the absence of such tendencies, why would anyone, let alone the majority, choose the more evil option?

Yet this immediately raises the problem. Since historically, many men have chosen (perhaps most) philosophies that Rand would have regarded as irrational (and hence evil), how are we to explain this? If men can freely choose their tendencies, why have so many men throughout history chosen evil tendencies? This is the first question that Objectivist philosophy of history sets out to answer.

2. Objectivist eschatology. The other main goal of the Objectivist philosophy of history is to explain why Rand’s philosophy will win in the end. Thus speaketh Leonard Peikoff:
On the basis of the theory of history I have put forth today, therefore, it is proper to have hope for the future. I do think that Objectivism will triumph ultimately and shape the world’s course… ‘Ultimately,’ however, can be a long time [perhaps forever?]…. But if we spread the right ideas now, we each will have a share in bringing about that shining future…” [“Philosophy and Psychology in History”]

Is not this wonderful? Objectivism will triumph in the end! Of course, there is no guarantee, no predetermined necessity about it. But “ultimately” it will happen!

Note as well how it will happen: by spreading the “right” ideas—which means, practically speaking, by spreading the ideas approved of by ARI. Every one of us can help bring about a “shining future.” It’s really all very simple. It doesn’t require getting involved in politics or making a breakthrough in science or engineering or anything that requires a high degree of intellect and energy and loads of work: no, it is not difficult at all: you merely have to spread the ideas of orthodox Objectivism. The Objectivist who runs about debating and denouncing those who disagree with orthodox Objectivism is therefore helping to bring about a shining future! How blessed are they that walketh in the paths of Rand and Peikoff!

Friday, July 25, 2008

Objectivism & Religion, Part 18

Conclusion. In Reason in Religion, the naturalist philosopher George Santayana sought to show how religion could be the “embodiment of reason.” At the conclusion of the work, he presented a view of religion that is both eminently fair and nuanced, distinguishing with great sensitivity the good from the bad:

The preceding analysis of religion, although it is illustrated mainly by Christianity, may enable us in a general way to distinguish the rational goal of all religious life. In no sphere is the contrast clearer between wisdom and folly; in none, perhaps, has there been so much of both. It was a prodigious delusion to imagine that work could be done by magic; and the desperate appeal which human weakness has made to prayer, to castigations, to miscellaneous fantastic acts, in the hope of thereby bending nature to greater sympathy with human necessities, is a pathetic spectacle.…

No less useless and retarding has been the effort to give religion the function of science. Mythology, in excogitating hidden dramatic causes for natural phenomena, or in attributing events to the human values which they might prevent or secure, has profoundly perverted and confused the intellect; it has delayed and embarrassed the discovery of natural forces, at the same time fostering presumptions which, on being exploded, tended to plunge men, by revulsion, into an artificial despair….

Through the dense cloud of false thought and bad habit in which religion thus wrapped the world, some rays broke through from the beginning; for mythology and magic expressed life and sought to express its conditions. Human needs and human ideals went forth in these forms to solicit and to conquer the world; and since these imaginative methods, for their very ineptitude, rode somewhat lightly over particular issues and envisaged rather distant goods, it was possible through them to give aspiration and reflection greater scope than the meaner exigencies of life would have permitted. Where custom ruled morals and a narrow empiricism bounded the field of knowledge, it was partly a blessing that imagination should be given an illegitimate sway. Without misunderstanding, there might have been no understanding at all; without confidence in supernatural support, the heart might never have uttered its own oracles. So that in close association with superstition and fable we find piety and spirituality entering the world.

Rational religion has these two phases: piety, or loyalty to necessary conditions, and spirituality, or devotion to ideal ends. These simple sanctities make the core of all the others. Piety drinks at the deep, elemental sources of power and order: it studies nature, honours the past, appropriates and continues its mission. Spirituality uses the strength thus acquired, remodelling all it receives, and looking to the future and the ideal. True religion is entirely human and political, as was that of the ancient Hebrews, Romans, and Greeks. Supernatural machinery is either symbolic of natural conditions and moral aims or else is worthless.

Now my primary argument against the hostility toward religion manifested in Objectivism and other brands of uncompromising or intolerant atheism is that it clouds the understanding. Disbelief in God becomes bigotry against all forms of theism and most adherents of religion. It introduces into the intellect a pernicious astigmatism which causes the individual to see far more of the bad than the good side of religion. Religion, when seen through this astigmatism, becomes a kind of bogeyman. A form of unbelief that began in rationality terminates in a kind of prejudice and dogmatism that is contrary to the scientific spirit. Atheism soon becomes a kind of obverse religion. In its zeal, it adopts some of the most extreme views found in the rubbish heap of outmoded scientific theories, such as physicalism, determinism, and a dogmatic form of Darwinism that would turn natural selection into the sole principle behind the evolution of human life.

While Rand and her apologists managed to avoid the absurdities of the materialistic atheists, this did not prevent them from stumbling into other absurdities, the worst of which is Rand’s ideal man, who experiences “no inner conflicts” and whose “consciousness is in perfect harmony.” The ideal man was the object of Rand’s religious worship. Her fictional heroes were her gods, the principle objects of whatever piety existed in her.

Although she disliked religion, Rand nonetheless appreciated religious emotion. She recognized its importance. Yet one must question the objects to which she addressed these emotions. Consider Santayana’s view of the rational elements of religion. He identifies piety, which he describes as “ loyalty to necessary conditions,” as one of the two phases of rational religion. Santayana’s piety, then, his religious emotions, are focused on the sources of his being: on nature, the past, his innate talents and abilities, and his “mission” in life—the goals to which his organism are naturally directed. In short, Santayana’s piety is focused on things that are real. Rand’s piety, on the other hand, is focused on a figment: on her ideal man as portrayed in such extravagant works of fiction as The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged.

By remaining friendly to religion, Santayana was able to recognize those aspects of religion that could enrich his naturalist philosophy. In the essay “Ultimate Religion,” Santayana outlined his basic method, which involved, as he put it, an “examination of conscience” in which he found “a sort of secret or private philosophy perhaps more philosophical than [my public philosophy]: and while I set up no gods, not even Spinoza’s infinite Deus sive Natura, I do consider on what subjects and to what end we might consult those gods, if we found that they existed: and surely the aspiration that would prompt us, in that case, to worship gods, would be our truest heart-bond and our ultimate religion.”

In other words, theology, for Santayana, becomes a Socratic exercise in determining what we really value. If a God or gods did exist, what kind of ideals would they represent? What kind of ideals would they wish us to pursue? Those theists who look to theology to provide matters of fact about an existing God or gods, and those atheists who are hell-bent on denying the factual claims of dogmatic theists, have both missed the point. Theology is not about facts, it is about ideals and plumbing the depths of the human heart. But it requires a true naturalist who harbors no animus against religion or religious believers to understand and appreciate the extent to which religion, when surveyed rationally and without rancor, can enrich one’s existence and deepen one’s philosophy.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

The Madness of King Leonard

Leonard Peikoff weighs in with a truly bizarre post-9/11 performance on Bill O'Reilly's show.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Binswanger:"The Universe Is All About Me"

Objectivism's fondness for egoism and introspection leads naturally, if unwittingly, into solipsism and subjectivism. For an example of this tendency, here we have Harry Binswanger from his July 08 Monthly Enticement (a free email essay to draw paying customers to his subscriber-only list):
Binswanger: Since the theme here is anti-selfishness, I'll close in my own, selfish voice. Ayn Rand showed me that it *is* all about me. "When I die," she said, quoting an Ancient Greek philosopher, "the universe goes out of existence." And though that is false, "from the outside,"it is absolutely true "from the inside." When my life ends, there's nothing *for me*. The universe is all about me. So you'll forgive me if I'm not only addicted to oil, but to money, values, life, and, at root, addicted to existence.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Objective "Immoralist" of the Week

One of the most unusual teachings of Ayn Rand's confused ethics is that to risk one's life for a stranger is profoundly "immoral" - a symptom of a "lack of self esteem", a "lack of respect for others" and ultimately a product of the corrupting influence of altruistic premises on society as a whole.

In that spirit, the ARCHNblog presents an occasional series of such "immoralists." Today: 

Perhaps worse still by Objectivist lights is the media which, in a symptom of the perverse corruption of their underlying philosophical premises, consistently treat such "immoral" people as heroic.

Now it seems obvious that Objectivists, who are also compelled by their philosophy not to withhold judgement in the face of immorality, should strongly protest against such moral travesties and their media enablers. Where are the press releases, the stern letters to the editor etc?

Objectivism & Religion, Part 17

Abortion. Rand and her followers tend to be unapologetic defenders of abortion, including abortion right up to the moment of birth. Objectivists are not only uncompromising on this issue, they also give it a high priority as a cause to champion. According to the Objectivist site, “Any one who advocates the outlawing of abortion (especially in the first few months of pregnancy)—like Steve Forbes—is an enemy of individual rights in principle, and thus an enemy of capitalism.” Since many advocates of the free market are opposed to abortion, the uncompromsing stance of Objectivism on this issue serves merely to prevent Rand’s followers from making alliances with other pro-market forces.

The issue of abortion rests on whether the fetus is regarded as a human being. Peikoff recognizes this in his article celebrating the Roe vs. Wade decision. “[A]bortion-rights advocates [should not] keep hiding behind the phrase ‘a woman's right to choose.’” Peikoff wrote. “Does she have the right to choose murder? That's what abortion would be, if the fetus were a person.” Objectivists are certain that a fetus is not a human life. How do they know this? Because, as Rand argued, a fetus is only a “potential” human life. But why is it only a potential life? To say that a fetus is only a potential, rather than an actual life, is merely to repeat that it is not an actual life in other words. It is, in short, to assume the point at issue. If we are to be strictly honest about his issue, we have to admit that it is not obvious whether a fetus should be regarded as a human life or not. At the stage of conception, it is only a few cells—and how can a few cells consitute a human life? Quickly, however, in the matter of a few weeks, it develops into something more interesting and substantial, gradually taking on human form and characteristics. Perhaps the most reasonable position would be to regard a fetus as an emerging life. Granted, this would mean that we couldn’t quite determine when a fetus becomes a human life. Abortion would thus remain what it is for most people: morally problematic. That, indeed, appears to be the attitude of the majority of Americans who, while regarding abortion as immoral, nevertheless believe it should remain legal in the first (and possibly second) trimester(s). Where many Americans differ decisively from Objectivism is in their view that late term abortions (i.e., partial-birth abortion) should in most instances be illegal.

Objectivists in their own way are every bit as unhinged and extreme on the issue of abortion as are those “pro-lifers” who would charge those who have abortions with first degree murder. They are constantly comparing fetuses to tissues, useless body organs, collections of cells, etc. Peikoff goes so far as to describe a fetus as a “cluster of lifeless cells”—a contradictio in adjecto if ever there was one! Such descriptions, besides betraying an imbalance of mind, are in bad taste. Whether we are for or against the criminalization of abortion, surely there is no reason to regard a fetus as only a clump of meaningless cells!

The arbitrary and inconclusive nature of the Objectivist argument for abortion rights can easily be appreciated if we compare it to Objectivist-based arguments against abortion. Yes, such arguments do exist: there are indeed self-proclaimed Objectivists who delight in using Objectivist modes of argumentation to reach the opposite conclusion on the question of abortion. Mark La Vigne argues as follows:

[The Objectivist position on abortion], of all things I have read and understood of objectivism, as advocated by A.R.I., is the single most inconsistent area of the Institute's intellectual endeavors. Human life is human life. "A is A." Mr. Peikoff would lead a reader to believe that an infant developed instantaneously, at the moment of birth, into a "real human being." This defies all known logic. Rather than simply stating the facts, perhaps what is needed is a further demonstration of them:

Mr Peikoff claims that the embryo "exists as part of the woman's body." True or false? False. It is dependent upon the woman's body, but the real test of it as an integral part of her body is whether it can successfully be removed without harm to her, and implanted in another woman without harm to either the surrogate or the embryo. The answer is "yes" in each instance. Can it, at this stage, exist independent of some woman's body, other than by freezing? No. That does not, however, make it part of a woman's body.

La Vigne makes a few good points against Peikoff’s arguments, but his points hardly constitute an argument for the pro-life position. It is merely an argument against Peikoff’s bad arguments. Nor does the “A is A” reference help one jot (unless it is inserted for reasons of satire).

A more serious argument (perhaps too serious) along Objectivist lines is presented by G. Stolyarov.

The question then becomes, “When does a potential cease being a mere alternative among many?” Prior to the conception of a child, there is absolutely no guarantee that a particular genetic code will be furnished to serve as the basis for the uniquely adjusted rational faculty of a child-to-be. Therefore it is moral to prevent conception by means of abstinence or contraceptives, and the couple will therefore possess a genuine choice of whether or not to expend a substantial portion of their lives and finances on the upbringing of offspring. However, once conception has occurred, the peculiar genome is already in place, which will result in the inevitable development of a rational creature absent intervention. Granted, the fetus does not yet possess volitional consciousness, but neither does a man who is asleep. Does that grant a serial murderer the right to enter his home, loot his property and kill one whom he mistakenly judges to be “potentially awake”? The fact that that particular man (or child) will, if unhindered, be able to exercise his volitional consciousness, classifies him as a human being.

Although hardly a convincing argument, I must give Stolyarov credit for originality. A fetus is not a “potential” human life because, once conception takes place, there exists a guarantee of a particularly genetic code for a uniquely adjusted rational faculty! Okay, if you say so Mr. Stolyarov! Yet once again I must belabor the obvious: all such verbalist arguments, regardless of which side of the debate they come down on, are utterly futile precisely because no one would ever change their mind after being exposed to them. They seem effective only to those who have already made up their minds and agree with the positions asserted in them.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Objectivism & Religion, Part 16

Religion and the underclass. One of the most witty and clever critics of organized religion is Voltaire, the most popular intellectual of the Enlightenment. At dinner parties Voltaire and his guests would routinely scoff at religion. One day, however, Voltaire’s servants were setting the table when his guests began making derisive remarks about religion. Voltaire immediately rose to his feet and ordered the servants out of the room. He then turned to his guests and admonished them, saying, “If you let these people hear that, they will become savage as lions. It’s all very well for us to say these things among ourselves, but if these people hear us scoffing at their religion, they won’t obey a word I tell them because religion is what makes them good.”

Now while I suspect that Voltaire over-stated the case for the moral effect of religion on the “lower” classes, there is still an element of truth in what he said. In any case, whether Voltaire was right or wrong, the underclass represents a growing problem in the West that secularists have not solved. The British underclass, which, in the last half century, has become completely secularized, presents a chilling example of this, particularly as limned in Dr. Theodore Dalrymple’s series of sobering essays entitled Life at the Bottom. In an essay entitled “Tough Love,” Dalrymple describes the effects of sexual liberation on the underclass:

Today’s disastrous insouciance about so serious a matter as the relationship between the sexes is surely something new in history: even thirty years ago, people showed vastly more circumspection in the formation of liaisons than they do now. The change represents, of course, the fulfillment of the sexual revolution. The prophets of that revolution wished to empty the relationship between the sexes of all moral significance and destroy the customs and institutions that governed it…. [They] believed that if sexual relations could be liberated from artificial social inhibitions and legal restrictions, something beautiful would emerge: a life in which no desire need be frustrated, a life in which human pettiness would melt away like snow in spring…. The grounds for such petty bourgeois emotions as jealousy and envy would vanish: in a world of perfect fulfillment, each person would be as happy as the next.

The program of the sexual revolutionaries has more or less been carried out, especially in the lower reaches of society, but the results have been vastly different from those so foolishly anticipated. The revolution foundered on the rock of an unacknowledged reality: that women are more vulnerable to abuse than men by virtue of biology alone, and that the desire for the exclusive sexual possession of another has remained just as strong as ever. This desire is incompatible, of course, with the equally powerful desire—eternal in the human breast but hitherto controlled by social and legal inhibitions—for complete sexual freedom. Because of these biological and psychological realities, the harvest of the sexual revolution has not been a brave new world of human happiness but rather an enormous increase in violence between the sexes…

[T]he reality of this increase meets angry denial from those with a vested ideological interest… Still, the fact remains that a hospital such as mine has experienced in the last two decades a huge increase in the number of injuries to women, most of them the result of domestic violence…. About one in five of the women aged sixteen to fifty living in my hospital’s area attends the emergency department during the year as a result of injuries sustained during a quarrel with a boyfriend or husband… In the last two years I have treated at least two thousand men who have been violent to their wives, girlfriends, lovers, and concubines. It seems to me that violence on such a vast scale could not easily have been overlooked in the past—including by me.

Dalrymple summarizes the condition of the underclass in the following terms:

Here the whole gamut of folly, wickedness, and misery may be perused at leisure—in conditions, be it remembered, of unprecedented prosperity. Here are abortions procured by abdominal kung fu; children who have children, in numbers unknown before the advent of chemical contraception and sex education; women abandoned by the father of their child a month before or a month after delivery; insensate jealousy, the reverse of the coin of general promiscuity, that results in the most hideous oppression and violence; serial stepfatherhood that leads to sexual and physical abuse of children on a mass scale; and every kind of loosening of the distinction between the sexually permissible and the impermissible.

The connection between this loosening and the misery of my patients is so obvious that it requires considerable intellectual sophistication (and dishonesty) to be able to deny it.

What role, if any, has secularization played in the social disintegration of the British underclass? To answer this question, we turn to French historian Elie Halevy, author of an important history of England during the 19th century. Halevy wanted to explain how Britain, despite profound contradictions, was spared a violent revolution during the 19th century. Halevy maintained that the stability of the British order came about through the stabilizing influence of evangelical religion, particularly Methodism, which enabled Great Britian to establish itself as a country of freedom, “of voluntary obedience, of an organization freely initiated and freely accepted.” The key concept here is “voluntary obedience.” In every society, there exists a class of individuals incapable of governing themselves. “Society cannot exist unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere,” warned Edmund Burke, “and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without. It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things, that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters.”

How, then, is society to deal with with those individuals of “intemperate mind” who cannot control their appetites. As usual, there is no perfect solution, but of the imperfect remedies at our disposal, voluntary religion of traditional, Christianized is as good as any, and may be better than most. After all, it worked a lot better in 19th Century Britain than secularism has worked in contemporary Great Britain. In 1815, despite difficult economic conditions, Great Britain managed to maintain a commendable degree of order despite lacking a police force, a welfare state, or any kind of bureaucratic government management. Social order in 1815 was maintained voluntarily. Yet, despite this voluntarism, there were far fewer crimes either against persons or property. What would happen today either in the inner cities of the United States or the United Kingdom if there were no police force and extensive judicial system, with its concomitant prisons and jails, probation officers and court psychiatrists?

In the last year, several houses in my neighborhood have been burglarized. A few months ago I forgot to lock my vehicle and several hundred dollars of stuff was immediately filched from it. According to statistics, ninety-nine percent of Americans will be victims of theft at least once in their lives. Eight-seven percent will have property stolen from them three or more times. This level of thievery did not exist 100 years ago, when this country was considerably more religious. While there are other factors involved in this massive demoralization of society other than religion, it would be naive to believe that religion has played no role in it at all. When Marx called religion the opium of the masses, he meant it as an attack. But perhaps Marx was right in a way he would have been loathe to imagine. Perhaps the drug-like qualities of religion are a necessary tool for maintaining a tolerable degree of social order among the underclass. In any case, secularists have not come up with anything better. Nor did Rand have anything to offer on this issue, besides the naive conviction that, since people have free will, everyone can be rational. Poppycock, however, grinds no flour. The fact remains: some people are not capable of being rational. Refuting Kant will not change this fact. What, then, are we to do with these people? Evading the problem will not make it go away.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Is Orthodox Objectivism a Religion?

As the ARCHNblog runs its lengthy series on Objectivism and religion, regular contributor Neil Parille asks the obvious question:

The claim that Objectivism is a religion goes back to Albert Ellis’s 1968 book Is Objectivism a Religion? Calling Objectivism a religion seems upon first glance quite odd, given its atheism and anti-supernaturalism. At the same time, many critics of Objectivism have noted quite a few “ominous parallels” between Rand’s writings and religion, and between the Objectivist movement and established religious bodies. I’ll review a few here, more in this spirit of provoking conversation than in coming to any definite conclusions. (My reference to Objectivism is limited to those Objectivists associated with Leonard Peikoff’s Ayn Rand Institute.)

1. Rand saw herself as something of a secular prophet. In the first edition of Anthem, published in 1936, she wrote, “I have broken the tables of my brothers, and my own tables do I now write with my own spirit.” Rand’s writing is frequently apocalyptic as well. She begins John Galt’s sermon in Atlas Shrugged with an Old Testament-like rebuke of a sinful world facing judgment. “I am the man who loves his life. I am the man who does not sacrifice his love or his values. I am the man who has deprived you of victims and thus has destroyed your world, and if you wish to know why you are perishing—you who dread knowledge—I am the one who will now tell you . . . .”

2. Orthodox Objectivism has its official canon of scripture. As Harry Binswanger says to those who consider joining his email list:
"It is understood that Objectivism is limited to the philosophic principles expounded by Ayn Rand in the writings published during her lifetime plus those articles by other authors that she published in her own periodicals (e.g., The Objectivist) or included in her anthologies."
Pride of place goes to Atlas Shrugged, which Rand had the unfortunate tendency of quoting as if it were the Bible. Like a pastor using characters from the Bible, Rand and her followers constantly refer to characters in Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead to draw moral lessons.

3. Like religions, Orthodox Objectivism has the tendency to turn disagreements about doctrine into moral issues. For example, Leonard Peikoff once said to Rand,
"You are suffering the fate of a genius trapped in a rotten culture," I would begin. 'My distinctive attribute," she would retort, "is not genius, but intellectual honesty." "That is part of it," I would concede, "but after all I am intellectually honest, too, and it doesn't make me the kind of epochal mind who can write Atlas Shrugged or discover Objectivism." "One can't look at oneself that way," she would answer me. "No one can say: 'Ah me! the genius of the ages.' My perspective as a creator has to be not 'How great I am' but 'How true this idea is and how clear, if only men were honest enough to face the truth.'" So, for understandable reasons, we reached an impasse. She kept hoping to meet an equal; I knew that she never would. For once, I felt, I had the broad historical perspective, the perspective on her, that in the nature of the case she could not have. (Peikoff, "My Thirty Years with Ayn Rand: An Intellectual Memoir," The Objectivist Forum, 1987, pg. 12-13.)
4. As can be seen from the above quote, adulation of the group’s founder is paramount in Orthodox Objectivist circles. In particular, Rand’s sacred name is given great reverence by her followers. Rarely is she referred to as just “Rand.” She may be called “Ayn Rand,” “Miss Rand,” or “AR.” Leonard Peikoff is now commonly called “Leonard Peikoff” and “LP.”

5. Also, like many religious people, Orthodox Objectivists abhor the “backslider,” the person who appears to give assent to the truth but is working behind the scenes to circumvent it. Leonard Peikoff mentions the type of people Rand attracted in the above article:
"They absorbed the surface features of Ayn Rand's intellectual style and viewpoint as though by osmosis and then mimicked them. Often, because she was so open, they knew what she wanted them to say and they said it convincingly. Though uninterested in philosophy and even contemptuous of fundamentals, they could put on an expert act to the contrary, most often an act for themselves first of all. Ayn Rand was not the only person to be taken in by it. I knew most of these people well and, to be fair here, I must admit that I was even more deluded about them than she was."
6. Orthodox Objectivism has its official villains and heretics of the type described by Peikoff. The two most evil figures in this pantheon are, of course, Nathaniel and Barbara Branden. There are lesser fallen angels, such as David Kelley.

7. Orthodox Objectivism has its official church, the Ayn Rand Institute, which proselytizes on behalf of Objectivism. Leonard Peikoff and his small college of cardinals (Harry Binswanger and Peter Schwartz) supervise the movement. Peikoff occasionally speaks ex cathedra, as he did at the time of the Kelley break.
"Now I wish to make a request to any unadmitted anti-Objectivists reading this piece, a request that I make as Ayn Rand's intellectual and legal heir. If you reject the concept of "objectivity" and the necessity of moral judgment, if you sunder fact and value, mind and body, concepts and percepts, if you agree with the Branden or Kelley viewpoint or anything resembling it — please drop out of our movement: drop Ayn Rand, leave Objectivism alone."
Unlike many religions, however, Objectivists are intent on charging high prices for their material, which would seem to run counter to their movement’s aim. Objectivist retreats, called "Objectivist Conferences,” are quite expensive to attend.

8. Those who are associated with the ARI must take care that they do not demonstrate their “worldliness” by fraternizing with Kelleyites and other deviationists.

No member of the Objectivist movement may associate with Kelley’s Atlas Center, for example. While an Objectivist might be permitted to publish in a mainstream philosophical journal (notwithstanding the fact that such journals routinely publish articles devoted to the destruction of man’s mind), no Objectivist may publish in Chris Sciabarra’s Journal of Ayn Rand Studies. No word yet on whether the lapsed may be restored to a state of grace.

9. It is unclear whether Orthodox Objectivism will develop an iconography of its departed saints, but at least one Objectivist artist has done so.

Friday, July 04, 2008

Former Objectivist Quote of the Day

"Whatever their source, there seemed to be rules of right and wrong for everything in Objectivism. There was more than just a right kind of politics and a right kind of moral code. There was also a right kind of music, a right kind of art, a right kind of interior design, a right kind of dancing. There were wrong books which we could not buy, and right ones which we should. Wrong books were written by "immoral" people whom we didn't want to support through our purchase; right books never were. There were plays we should not see, records we should not listen to, and movies we should not pay to watch. There were right ways to behave at parties, and right people to invite to them. And there were, of course, right psychotherapists. And on everything, absolutely everything, one was constantly being judged, just as one was expected to be judging everything around him. And if one was not judging everything that was around him, one was judged on that, too. It was a perfect breeding ground for insecurity, fear, and paranoia." - Ellen Plasil, from her autobiography "Therapist"

Objectivism & Religion, Part 15

Christian morality versus Objectivist Morality. For the rational critic of religion, it is not belief in God and the afterlife that create the chief problems. It is, rather, the conviction of many religious people that God demands that people behave a certain way. Indeed, I would go farther: I would say that the main, vital point of disagreement between religious and anti-religious is over morality. Dislike of traditional religious morality is the primary motivation of most that passes for uncompromising or militant atheism.

Most attacks against religion are motivated by a kind hedonistic antinomianism. The main target is religious sex morality. Objectivism, in this respect, represents an improvement over most secular critiques. Rand was neither antinomian nor an apologist for hedonism. Her criticism of traditional Christian sex morality is, consequently, fairly reasonable—despite her tendency to over-generalize and draw inferences from Christian doctrines that only a handful of fanatics would ever embrace. Indeed, if there is besetting weakness in the Objectivist critique of religious morality, it is the tendency to assume that Christians routinely follow the letter of Christian precept. But that is not the way Christian precepts work. Christian morality tries to counteract potentially destructive traits in human nature by presenting the opposite extreme as the ideal. Men, particularly pre-modern men, tend to be over-obsessed with status and “face,” predisposed towards violence, and short in empathy for strangers. So Christianity tells them the last will be first, the meek shall inherit the earth, that one should turn the other cheek and love one’s neighbors as oneself. Most of these precepts would be dangerous if taken literally. But, aside from a few fanatics, they are never taken literally. So the extent that they have any affect at all, it will generally be a positive one. Violent and status obsessed people will tend to be less violent, less obsessed with status, and kinder to strangers.

The most problematical element of Christian morality have to do with questions regarding sex. To our modern sensibility, the obsession by many conservative Christians with sexual behavior is pathological. Why should the militant fundamentalist be obsessed with the sexual lives of other people? Why should he care one way or another? Here we confront one of the most unedifying aspects of modern conservative Christianity. Too much weight is given to questions of personal sexual conduct. The inflexibility, the misapplied absolutism, the moralism, the intolerance with which some Christian traditionalists approach these problems represents a black mark against religion.

However, as unappetizing as sexual puritanism, in its religious guise, may be to the contemporary mind, it would be a mistake to regard it as a complete tissue of irrationality and fanaticism. Liberated attitudes regarding sex mores are made possible, not by the greater moral wisdom of contemporary man, but merely by the wealth and improved technology of modern society. In poor societies lacking sophisticated birth control techniques and effective medicines for sexually transmitted diseases, sexual puritanism becomes a necessary evil. Sexual appetites have to be reigned in when the consequences of unbridled sexual activity are so dire. This is little appreciated in the age of penicillin, planned parenthood, and the pill.

So the real problem with Christian morals is not that they were irrational from the start, but that they have outlived their usefulness. However, even here, there may exist a possible exception to this general assessment. If we examine the underclass, we find an astonishing range of blatantly irrational and dysfunctional sex behavior. It is precisely when we begin examining those individuals who dwell on the left side of the intelligence bell curve that we discover problems for which Rand and her Objectivist apologists have no realistic answers. This issue, and its possible relation with religion, will be the subject of my next post.