This article is from The Objective Standard, Vol. 5, No. 2.
In his recent New Criterion article “Ayn Rand: Engineer of Souls,”1 Anthony Daniels, better known by his pseudonym Theodore Dalrymple, attacks the well-known novelist/philosopher as being, among other things, prone to “crude” errors, a “rationalist who was not entirely rational,” “adept at self-deception,” “incapable of seeing the contradictions in her own work,” and “seriously deficient in sensibility and discrimination across a wide range of important human activities.” But Daniels’s portrayal of Rand and her ideas is a series of gross misrepresentations and smears.
For instance, Daniels writes of Rand’s “rejection of compassion” and claims that this rejection stems from her “insight that the allegedly compassionate sometimes use the existence of the weak and needy as a tool for their own social ascent and attainment of power.” This, says Daniels, “is an elementary error.”
From [this insight] it does not in the least follow that there are no people in need of assistance or that compassion for them is ipso facto bogus and a cover for the will to power. From the insight that government assistance to the unfortunate increases the number of the unfortunate, often imprisoning them in their misfortune, it does not follow in the least that it is right for human beings to be utterly callous and indifferent to the fate of the unfortunate.
Indeed, the fact that some use compassion as “a cover for the will to power” does not invalidate that emotion, any more than a bank robber wearing sneakers invalidates footwear. On what does Daniels base his claim that Rand held otherwise? He does not provide a quote or citation in support of his claim—because Rand never said or implied any such thing.
Nor did Rand reject compassion out of hand, as Daniels suggests. Rather, she clarified the circumstances under which compassion is appropriate.
I regard compassion as proper only toward those who are innocent victims, but not toward those who are morally guilty. If one feels compassion for the victims of a concentration camp, one cannot feel it for the torturers. If one does feel compassion for the torturers, it is an act of moral treason toward the victims.2
The assertion that Rand rejects compassion out of hand, that she calls for being “utterly callous and indifferent to the fate of the unfortunate,” is absurd. What Rand did reject was altruism—the morality of selflessness—and the nonjudgmental compassion that accompanies it.
The injunction “don’t judge” is the ultimate climax of the altruist morality which, today, can be seen in its naked essence. When men . . . react with instantaneous compassion to any guilt, to the perpetrators of any atrocity, while turning away indifferently from the bleeding bodies of the victims and the innocent—one may see the actual purpose, motive and psychological appeal of the altruist code. When these same compassionate men turn with snarling hatred upon anyone who pronounces moral judgments, when they scream that the only evil is the determination to fight against evil—one may see the kind of moral blank check that the altruist morality hands out.3
Rand held that one should not dole out compassion indiscriminately, that one should judge people rationally, by the standard of the requirements of human life, and offer compassion only to those deserving of it—a policy that altruism forbids.
Rand’s advocacy of egoism and repudiation of altruism is well known, and her writings on the topic are extensive and easily accessible. Daniels, a committed altruist, could have made an effort to present Rand’s ethical views and counter them. But, instead, he chose to misrepresent her view of compassion. One wonders why.
In related fashion, Daniels denounces Rand’s “hardness of heart,” her alleged failure to express “any sympathy or understanding for the weak or ill, always referring to them with disdain at best and eugenicist hatred at worst.” Rand, writes Daniels, holds “that people are to be judged mainly by reference to their brain power.” Although it is true that Rand greatly admired intelligence and saw no virtue in stupidity, she never wrote nor even suggested that men should be judged “mainly by reference to their brain power”—which, again, is why Daniels was unable to provide any quote or citation in support of his claim. Rather, Rand held that a man should be judged “according to the moral character [he has] actualized,”4 by which she means “on the basis of his actions, his statements and his conscious convictions.”5 Rand held that a man’s intelligence has limited bearing on his moral character, something concretized in her novels by highly intelligent yet evil characters on the one hand (such as Ellsworth Toohey and Robert Stadler), and noble characters of average intelligence on the other (such as Eddie Willers and Mike Donnigan).
Daniels makes further claims about Rand’s “hardness of heart.” In one instance, he chooses to present a smattering of her words—completely out of context.
Rand treats the physically ill as if their misfortunes were always their own fault, and a sign of their moral and human worthlessness. In The Fountainhead, for example, she compares “the bright, the strong, the able boys” of Ellsworth Toohey’s class during his childhood with Skinny Dix, who “got infantile paralysis, and would lie in bed.” This comparison is indicative of a truly loathsome and disgusting hardness of heart. . . .6
But in the passage from which Daniels quotes, Rand is not comparing “the able boys” and Skinny Dix on any basis, much less their moral and human worth. Rather, Rand is depicting Toohey, a power lusting villain-in-the-making, mentally preying upon a handful of pitiable boys—of whom Skinny Dix is but one.7 The impropriety of such context-dropping is a basic principle of journalism. Why did Daniels violate this principle?
Making further claims about Rand’s “hardness of heart,” Daniels quotes a passage from a hostile biography of Rand concerning her treatment of her husband, Frank O’Connor, during the time he suffered from dementia.
She nagged at him continually, to onlookers’ distress. “Don’t humor him,” she [said]. “Make him try to remember.” She insisted that his mental lapses were “psycho-epistemological,” and she gave him long, grueling lessons in how to think and remember. She assigned him papers on aspects of his mental functioning, which he was entirely unable to write.
Daniels condemns these alleged actions of Rand as “downright cruelty,” “downright stupidity,” and “Randian brainwashing,” and claims that Rand’s views on free will and responsibility required her to regard her husband’s mental lapses as “willful and deliberate.” But, assuming for the sake of argument that the quoted portrayal were accurate, what is cruel or stupid about trying to help one’s beloved husband retain his memory and improve his waning mental faculties? And, where does Daniels get the idea that Rand’s view of free will denies the possibility of cognitive impairments that are partially or fully outside of one’s control? He certainly did not read that anywhere in Rand’s works, which is why he was, again, unable to quote or cite her to that effect.
Rand wrote extensively on the nature of man’s mental facilities, abilities, and limitations. Daniels, a trained psychiatrist, could have attempted to present Rand’s views on the subject and counter them. But, instead, he chose to misrepresent and smear her. Why?
Continuing in this pattern, Daniels suggests that Rand’s defense of capitalism contradicts certain of her other ideas, such as her concept of value. Asserting that Rand holds the “proper judge” of value to be the marketplace, he says:
Rand fails to notice that, by the standards of the marketplace, [Howard] Roark [The Fountainhead’s architect hero] is a comprehensive failure and [for much of the book] is prevented from being a success by market forces—all those supposed philistines who do not commission him, but retain instead the people whom he and Rand consider second-rate, philistine, and unoriginal. Either the marketplace is not always the source and proper judge of value, or Roark deserves his failure.
Once again, Daniels is unable to quote or cite Rand in support of his claim, because she never wrote, said, or implied that the marketplace is “always the source and proper judge of value.” Rand held that the proper standard of value is the requirements of human life. She held that a “value” is “that which one acts to gain and/or keep” and that a morally legitimate value is one that furthers one’s life.8 Applying this view of values to the marketplace, Rand identified a distinction between values that are “philosophically objective” and those that are “socially objective”—a distinction that clarifies the seeming contradiction that Daniels believes he has found.
By “philosophically objective,” I mean a value estimated from the standpoint of the best possible to man, i.e., by the criterion of the most rational mind possessing the greatest knowledge, in a given category, in a given period, and in a defined context. . . . For instance, it can be rationally proved that . . . the works of Victor Hugo are objectively of immeasurably greater value than true-confession magazines. But if a given man’s intellectual potential can barely manage to enjoy true confessions, there is no reason why his meager earnings, the product of his effort, should be spent on books he cannot read. . . .
Just as the number of its adherents is not a proof of an idea’s truth or falsehood, of an art work’s merit or demerit, of a product’s efficacy or inefficacy—so the free-market value of goods or services does not necessarily represent their philosophically objective value, but only their socially objective value, i.e., the sum of the individual judgments of all the men involved in trade at a given time, the sum of what they valued, each in the context of his own life.9
Thus Howard Roark’s designs, although objectively superior to other designs in terms of functionality and esthetics, had little value in the marketplace so long as people did not choose to buy them. Had Daniels analyzed Rand’s actual ideas rather than straw men of his own making, he would have seen not only that her theory of value is fully consistent with her advocacy of capitalism, but also that her theory of value gives rise to her support for capitalism. But he did not analyze her ideas. Why?
Daniels further claims that Rand’s advocacy of capitalism is undercut by her view of humanity. Asserting that Rand divided humanity “into heroes, creators, and geniuses on the one hand, and weaklings, parasites, and the feeble-minded on the other,” Daniels says that “it never seems to occur to Rand that her classification does not provide a very strong rationale for the limited government and free market that she claims so strongly to admire. On the contrary, it would seem to justify the reign of philosopher-kings. . . .”
This bizarre division of humanity that Daniels attributes to Rand has, again, no basis in Rand’s actual thought—which, again, is why he is unable to provide supportive quotes or citations. Rand recognized that men have varying degrees of intelligence, productive ability, and virtue, and she consistently portrayed them as such in her fiction.
More to the point, however, Rand’s advocacy of capitalism is not based on men’s differences; it is based on their fundamental similarities: their basic need to act rationally in order to live, their consequent need to be free to act on their independent judgment, and the need for an ethical-political principle that makes this possible—the principle of individual rights. Rand advocated capitalism because she realized that it is “the only social system based on the recognition of individual rights.”10 Had Daniels evaluated Rand’s actual ideas, he would have seen that her advocacy of capitalism is wholly consistent with—and, in fact, a logical extension of—her views on man’s nature.
Rand wrote many books in which she elucidated the philosophical foundations of capitalism. One of them is even titled Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal. Daniels, who claims to advocate free markets, could have attempted to present Rand’s actual views on the subject and counter them. Yet he did not.
Rather than critique her actual ideas, Daniels chose to misrepresent them, to attack straw men, and to attack Rand personally: “Rand’s [writing] style resembles that of Stalin” and her “treasured theory of literature . . . is virtually indistinguishable from Socialist Realism”; Rand “could not distinguish between rationalism and rationality”; Rand held the “megalomaniac notion that moral philosophy had been nothing but a tissue of sentimental error until she came along”; Rand believed that “she sprang into the world with her philosophical genius fully formed, not needing any support from any other thinker”; “Rand founded a cult around her own person, complete with rituals of excommunication”; Rand “remained deeply Russian in outlook and intellectual style to the end of her days”; and so on. None of this is true, which is why Daniels does not support any of it with Rand’s actual words.
Why, to the detriment of his own credibility, would an otherwise capable intellectual so grossly misrepresent Rand’s actual views—and do so, not at a cocktail party, but in a public forum? Although one cannot say for certain, a possible reason is that Daniels embraces a worldview to which Rand’s actual ideas are devastating. Let us consider his worldview, evidence for which can be found in his other writings and statements, and compare it to Rand’s.
Daniels denies the efficacy of reason as a means of knowing truth, holding that thinkers such as John Stuart Mill “overestimated the role that reasoning did, or very well could, play in normal, day-to-day life” and that “the majority of our factual knowledge of particular subjects” is not founded on evidence.11 Further, Daniels denies the efficacy of reason as a means of making value judgments. Invoking the skeptical authority of David Hume, Daniels concludes that “no statement of value can be derived in logic from any statement of fact,” and claims that this position “has not been satisfactorily overcome.”12 And yet, as Daniels points out, “we cannot live without evaluations.”13 In lieu of reason, Daniels holds that we should look for our values in “prejudice”—“a deeply ingrained and pre-rational disposition”14 to “traditions,” to “authority,” to “the accumulated wisdom of mankind.”15
Ayn Rand holds the opposite view—that reason is “one’s only source of knowledge, one’s only judge of values and one’s only guide to action.”16 Reason, according to Rand, “is the faculty that identifies and integrates the material provided by man’s senses.”17
Reason integrates man’s perceptions by means of forming abstractions or conceptions, thus raising man’s knowledge from the perceptual level, which he shares with animals, to the conceptual level, which he alone can reach. The method which reason employs in this process is logic—and logic is the art of non-contradictory identification.18
Truth, according to Rand, is the product of reason, “the product of the recognition (i.e., identification) of the facts of reality.”19 Because Rand holds that reason is valid (her demonstration of which can be found in Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology), she represents a threat to Daniels’s skeptical view that grounding factual knowledge in reality is impossible.
Further, Rand repudiates the notion that values cannot be grounded in fact. In her essay “The Objectivist Ethics,” Rand demonstrates that the concept of value presupposes and depends upon the concept of life. She shows that the factual requirements of human life constitute the standard of moral value—the standard by which man can judge good from bad, right from wrong, should from should not. Rand’s view of values as fact-based opposes and threatens Daniels’s view that values lack any basis in reality and therefore must be grounded in tradition and authority.
Daniels’s view of human nature is similarly threatened by Rand’s views. Although a professed atheist, Daniels holds a decidedly Christian view of human nature: that the “default setting of man is to evil and that, if not all, then many or perhaps most men will commit evil if they can get away with it.”20 “Never forget Original Sin and its consequences,” warns Daniels: “Both self-examination and my experience of others tells me that evil lurks within all of us, waiting for its opportunity to spring.”21 Daniels sarcastically counters another writer’s observation that “Man is born for happiness as a bird for flight”: “yes, if mice are born for heroism. It would be difficult, in fact, to summarize human nature more inaccurately” when so many “claim to seek happiness but freely choose paths inevitably leading to misery.”22 An accurate view of human nature, Daniels writes, is that of Ivan Turgenev, who “knew that man was a fallen creature, capable of improvement, perhaps, but not of perfection.”23
Rand, by contrast, holds that “man is a being of volitional consciousness”24 who can both strive for and achieve perfection—moral perfection.
Man has a single basic choice: to think or not, and that is the gauge of his virtue. Moral perfection is an unbreached rationality—not the degree of your intelligence, but the full and relentless use of your mind, not the extent of your knowledge, but the acceptance of reason as an absolute.25
Rand rejects the notion of Original Sin as a “monstrous absurdity,” recognizing that “sin without volition is a . . . contradiction in terms: that which is outside the possibility of choice is outside the province of morality. If man is evil by birth, he has no will, no power to change it.” To those who regard man as inherently depraved, she writes:
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.26
Rand holds that any man can attain moral perfection through his commitment to using his rational judgment in all that he does—a clear threat to Daniels’s view that man is a “fallen creature” with a “tendency to evil.”
Just as Daniels’s views on reason and man’s nature are threatened by Rand’s, so is his view of intellectual independence.
Given Daniels’s view of “the frailty of human reason”27 and his claim that the “default setting of man is to evil,” it should come as no surprise that he is skeptical of intellectual independence, which he damns as the “pretense that we can go naked into the world, shorn of all prejudices and preconceptions.”28 Daniels holds that any attempt to operate solely on the basis of reason (an effort he characterizes as “philosophical fundamentalism”)29 invariably leads to the removal of the “veneer [of civilization] that separates us from barbarism”30—leading “at best to [Dickens’s stern headmaster] Gradgrind and at worst to Stalin.” Thus, Daniels admonishes that reason “can never be the absolute dictator of a man’s mental or moral economy”31; and says that we must have the “humility to recognize that the world did not begin with us, nor will it end with us, and that the accumulated wisdom of mankind is greater than anything we can achieve by our unaided efforts.”32 We must turn away from our flawed rational faculties, says Daniels, and look to “prejudice” for “the standards that keep societies from barbarism.”33
Whereas Daniels holds that intellectual independence is pretentious and dangerous, Rand holds that it is life serving and thus virtuous:
No matter how vast your knowledge or how modest, it is your own mind that has to acquire it. It is only with your own knowledge that you can deal. It is only your own knowledge that you can claim to possess or ask others to consider. Your mind is your only judge of truth—and if others dissent from your verdict, reality is the court of final appeal. Nothing but a man’s mind can perform that complex, delicate, crucial process of identification which is thinking. Nothing can direct the process but his own judgment.34
Independence is the recognition of the fact that yours is the responsibility of judgment and nothing can help you escape it—that no substitute can do your thinking, as no pinch-hitter can live your life—that the vilest form of self-abasement and self-destruction is the subordination of your mind to the mind of another, the acceptance of an authority over your brain, the acceptance of his assertions as facts, his say-so as truth, his edicts as middle-man between your consciousness and your existence.35
Rand held that the “court of final appeal” is not tradition or authority, but reason and reality. One can see why Daniels might choose not to give this idea a public airing.
As for Daniels’s assertion that intellectual independence leads to such evils as those committed by Stalin, the truth is, as Rand pointed out, that man’s need for intellectual independence is what necessitates individual rights, the rule of law, capitalism—and the elimination of thugs and murderers such as Stalin.
Since knowledge, thinking, and rational action are properties of the individual, since the choice to exercise his rational faculty or not depends on the individual, man’s survival requires that those who think be free of the interference of those who don’t. Since men are neither omniscient nor infallible, they must be free to agree or disagree, to cooperate or to pursue their own independent course, each according to his own rational judgment. Freedom is the fundamental requirement of man’s mind.36
Because Rand held that physical coercion, whether in the form of a petty crime or a totalitarian dictatorship, thwarts man’s means of survival—his ability to act on his independent judgment—she advocated political and economic freedom and the principle that makes it possible: the principle of individual rights. Rand’s view of intellectual independence, contra Daniels, leaves no room for Stalin. In point of fact, as Rand made clear in her fiction and nonfiction, what gives rise to and enables monsters such as Stalin is precisely the notion—held by Daniels—that individuals should relinquish their independent judgment to some authority who allegedly knows better than they.
No one but Daniels can say for certain why he chose to systematically misrepresent Rand’s ideas. Nor can anyone but the editors of The New Criterion say for sure why they chose to publish his obscenely unprofessional screed. But one thing is certain: Ayn Rand’s actual views—including the validity of reason, the absurdity of Original Sin, and the necessity of intellectual independence—present an immense threat to Daniels and to those who share his worldview.