Fans of Ayn Rand occasionally say in response to an argument I or someone else has made, “But Ayn Rand said . . .”—as if the fact that Rand commented on the matter or a related issue makes her the source of truth on the subject.
Such claims are, to put it mildly, not arguments.
Instances of this kind of “argument” include claims to the effect:
- Rand said homosexuality is immoral, therefore it’s immoral.
- Rand said Beethoven’s music is malevolent, so it’s malevolent.
- Rand said the concept “duty” can legitimately be used in regard to one’s responsibilities toward one’s parents, therefore it can.
- Rand wrote that a woman who would seek the presidency would by that fact be psychologically unworthy of the job, so that’s true.
Of course, few people engage in such appeals to authority that directly. Such appeals typically are concealed in additional verbiage (see below). But whether open or concealed, an appeal to authority is an appeal to authority.
Whether Rand would have maintained any of the above positions if pressed, I don’t know. But she occasionally made such statements, and some of her fans occasionally cite her to the effect that her proclamation on a given matter somehow makes her claim (or a related claim) true.
Consider, for instance, the following, which occurred on TOS’s Facebook page several months ago.
We had posted a photo of Martin Luther King Jr., with this quotation from his speech “A Proper Sense of Priorities”:
Cowardice asks the question, “Is it safe?” Expediency asks the question, “Is it politic?” Vanity asks the question, “Is it popular?” But conscience asks the question, “Is it right?” And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular—but one must take it because it’s right.
In response to that post, a commenter posted this quotation from Ayn Rand, followed by a brief comment of his own:
“[I]t is much too late to gain hope from single, out-of-context gestures, statements or events. Individual acts of rationality can be important, perhaps more important than ever, but only if they are part of a man’s consistent philosophical policy. Random items (even if they could be found) can neither save us nor inspire us today.
“I cannot communicate the extent to which I wish it were possible to publish an ‘Achievement File’ or to report more frequently on positive events. But—‘it is earlier than you think.’ Printing so-called ‘inspirational’ quotations from random sources would be worse than futile: it would imply a sanction which we cannot grant to those sources.” —The Objectivist, March 1967, page 238 of the anthology.
Ayn Rand wrote this in the same year that Martin Luther King gave the speech containing these words. Maybe something to keep in mind the next time you guys feel like sharing something said by someone whose basic philosophies are totally antithetical to Objectivism, such as Dr. King?
People throughout history have said things like “do what’s right instead of what’s popular”—taken out of context, it’s neither an original nor important statement. Why use a quotation from Dr. King specifically? If he one day mentioned that the sky was blue would you post that as well? He wasn’t an individualist moral philosopher. He delivered speeches about “conquering self-centeredness” and “loving one’s enemies.” What’s the purpose of publicly sharing this?
Although in this case—after the appeal to authority—the commenter offered something kinda-sorta resembling an argument, the essence of his claim is: “Rand would disagree with what you’ve done here, so shame on you!”
I replied as politely as I could manage:
[Name redacted], the writers and editors at TOS do not agree with everything Ayn Rand wrote or said. According to the quotation you posted from her, we should not take inspiration from or post quotations by Thomas Jefferson because he had slaves and therefore didn’t have a consistent philosophical policy of upholding individual rights.
The purpose of sharing this quotation by MLK is that it is an excellent statement by a man who, although imperfect, had some very admirable traits and virtues. (We’ve quoted Jesus too. Gasp!)
If you’re interested in assessments of MLK by some of our writers, you’ll find them in the links below.
More recently, a torrent of such non-argument “arguments” rained down following my endorsement of Ted Cruz for president.
Among the comments opposing my endorsement were several to the effect: “But Ayn Rand would disagree with you!”—accompanied by a quotation from Rand or an appeal to a position she held. In one case, someone posted a video in which Rand explained that she opposed Ronald Reagan because of his religious views and his position on abortion, along with this comment, “Ayn Rand condemned Ronald Reagan and would have NEVER endorsed Ted Cruz”—as if that showed my endorsement of Cruz to be wrong.
In another case, a commenter attempted to post the following to the comments section on TOS Blog, under my endorsement. (This comment doesn’t show there, as we moderate posts for relevance.)
Ayn Rand opposed the candidacy of Ronald Reagan in 1976, because he opposed the right to abortion. Ted Cruz also opposes the right to abortion, as Mr. Biddle acknowledges and appropriately condemns, but nevertheless considers incidental to the merits of his candidacy. Ted Cruz opposes the right to abortion even for victims of rape and incest. He also labels forms of contraception such as the morning after pill “abortifacients,” and has repeatedly referred to contraception as “abortion-inducing drugs.” So, I don’t think Rand would have supported Ted Cruz for president either.
So, the “argument” goes, because Rand refused to support Reagan on the grounds that he opposed the right to abortion, Rand (probably) would not support Cruz; Biddle is violating Rand’s (likely) position on this matter; therefore, Biddle is (likely) wrong in supporting Cruz.
Regarding all of the above “arguments” and the countless instances like them, here’s the principle that the commenters fail to grasp: Truth is not recognition of Ayn Rand’s words; truth is recognition of reality.
Recognizing reality is often much more difficult than quoting from a book or posting a video on a given subject. For one thing, recognizing reality requires recognizing the relevant context surrounding the issue in question. That context is part of reality—it’s part of what one must account for if one’s goal is to know the truth.
In my endorsement of Cruz, I specified the relevant context at hand, and I provided myriad reasons backed by a great deal of evidence in support of the conclusion that, all things considered, Cruz is the best, most pro-rights, pro-freedom, pro-Constitution, pro-America candidate in the race. But to people who treat Ayn Rand’s words as the final authority on political matters, none of that matters.
If Rand were alive today, would she support Cruz? I don’t know. Nor does anyone else. Nor does anything hang on the answer.
But if I were to venture a guess, I’d say she likely would. And I suspect her reasoning would be similar to the argument I made in my endorsement. If, however, Rand didn’t support Cruz, I would send her my argument as to why I think she should. If she voiced disagreement with my position, I would listen to what she had to say; I’d assess her argument; and I’d see whether it rationally and conclusively countered my position. If it did, I’d change my mind; if it didn’t, I wouldn’t.
All of this should go without saying. Why doesn’t it for some people? I think part of the explanation is that because Rand was so profoundly right on so many complex issues—especially in regard to philosophic fundamentals—many of her fans have become accustomed to her being right, and they lazily turn to her rather than to reality for answers to important questions. That’s a bad habit.
People who treat Rand as though she is the final authority on matters of ethics, politics, aesthetics—or anything else (with the exception of what qualifies as part of her philosophy)—deeply misunderstand Objectivism. They also display a dangerous degree of secondhandedness and a cult-like mentality.
There is, of course, nothing wrong with quoting Rand or anyone else in an argument—if the quotation ties in with and fortifies one’s own evidence-based argument or position. Just as we might legitimately quote Charles Darwin when arguing for the theory of evolution, or Ludwig von Mises when arguing for the practicality of free markets, so too we can legitimately quote Ayn Rand when arguing for a position to which her ideas apply.
But to quote or cite Rand as if she is the final authority on some matter is to engage in the fallacy of appealing to authority. And to engage in such an appeal with the intent of shaming people into agreement is to engage in the fallacy of the argument from intimidation—which, ironically, is a fallacy identified by Rand herself.
If a person cannot support his argument with evidence and logic, then he doesn’t have an argument, and he shouldn’t pretend he does. If he quotes an alleged final authority as if that settles the matter, he is engaging in logical fallacies, and he should stop doing that.
Arguing about ethics, politics, and other complex matters requires firsthandedness, mental effort, a commitment to accounting for the relevant context, and a commitment to going by evidence and logic—wherever they may lead. This is what keeps one’s thinking tied to reality. This is what keeps one’s choices and actions in service of life. And this, not coincidentally, is how Ayn Rand developed Objectivism.