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Ayn Rand’s Reality-Based Philosophy vs. Cass Sunstein’s Fantasy

This essay is part of a compilation ebook, Objectivism, available at Amazon.com or free with any subscription to TOS.

That Cass Sunstein has no idea (or chooses to misrepresent) what Ayn Rand wrote, believed, and advocated is obvious from his recent, concerted smear of Rand. Among other absurdities:

  • Sunstein claims that Rand believed that “people’s happiness” has nothing do with “anything spiritual,” when in fact Rand recognized that happiness is precisely a spiritual result of the achievement of one’s values. (Rand distinguished real spiritual values from the ghosts and demons of supernaturalism.)
  • Sunstein claims that Rand shared with Marx a belief in materialism—the notion that only matter exists, that consciousness and free will are a myth, and that man’s actions are driven by external forces—when in fact Rand recognized that the existence of consciousness and free will is axiomatic and that each individual must choose whether to be governed by his reasoning mind or his unchecked emotions.
  • Sunstein claims that Rand created characters in her novels who were “either all good or all bad,” when in fact she populated her novels with people of mixed character (among many, see Catherine Halsey in The Fountainhead and the “wet nurse” in Atlas Shrugged) as well as with pure villains and heroes.

But Sunstein’s most egregious error is ascribing to Rand “a top-down theory . . . wielding a series of abstractions and a priori truths.” “A priori” means prior to experience or sense perception. Sunstein’s claim here is that Rand’s method consists in closing her eyes to reality and “reasoning” in a vacuum. In fact, Rand explicitly dismissed the possibility of so-called a priori truths and recognized that all knowledge derives from perceptual observations of reality and proceeds by means of conceptual abstractions and logical inferences therefrom. Rand defined reason as “the faculty that identifies and integrates the material provided by man’s senses”—and she built her entire philosophy, not from alleged “a priori truths,” but from perceptual observations and mental integrations of reality, history, and the requirements of man’s life on earth.

That Sunstein purports to be familiar enough with Rand’s ideas to criticize them in a major media outlet and yet got such fundamental aspects of her philosophy so patently wrong—and that an otherwise-serious publication (Bloomberg) chose to publish his nonsense—is remarkable, to put it mildly. For his part, Sunstein’s own philosophy provides him with an excuse: Perhaps no one “nudged” him in the direction of intellectual honesty. As for Bloomberg’s part, perhaps its readers will “nudge” the publication economically for this breach of journalistic integrity.

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