Many articles have been written about what’s wrong with Ayn Rand’s philosophy. But, to my knowledge, none of them presents her ideas accurately. So I thought it would be helpful to write one that does.
Here’s what’s wrong with Rand’s ideas:
Rand held that “existence exists,” that reality is real, that there is a world out there, and that we are conscious of it. She held that everything in existence is something specific; everything has a nature; a thing is what it is. (A snake is a snake. A woman is a woman. A pillar of salt is a pillar of salt.) She held that a thing can act only in accordance with its nature. (A snake can slither; it cannot speak. A woman can speak; she can’t become a pillar of salt.) And Rand held that there is only one reality: the one we perceive, the one we experience, the one in which we live.1
Where to start with all of the problems in just that one paragraph?
To begin with, the idea that “existence exists” excludes the idea that existence doesn’t exist. It denies the subjectivist, pragmatist, postmodernist view that reality is an illusion, a mental construct, a social convention. Obviously, people who insist that reality is not real are not going to buy in to a philosophy that says it is real.
So that’s one huge problem with Rand’s philosophy.
Now consider her view that only one reality exists. This excludes the notion that a second reality exists; it excludes the idea of a “supernatural” realm, the realm of “God.” Likewise, her view that everything has a specific nature, that a thing is what it is, excludes the possibility that some things are not what they are. For instance, it excludes the possibility that a dead person can be alive (life after death), the possibility that wine can be blood or that bread can be flesh (transubstantiation), and the possibility that the Earth came into existence hundreds of thousands of years after the first Homo sapiens roamed it. Similarly, the idea that things can act only in accordance with their nature excludes the possibility of miracles—so: no Immaculate Conception, no virgin birth (of Jesus), no living inside a whale for three days, no walking on water, no faith healing, and so on.
Needless to say, people who insist on the existence of God, life after death, creationism, and miracles will not buy in to a philosophy that leaves no room for such things.
The problems with Rand’s philosophy are mounting rapidly—and we’ve just begun.
Another major problem is Rand’s view that man acquires knowledge by means of reason, the faculty that identifies and integrates the material provided by his senses. According to Rand, insofar as a person observes reality via his senses; integrates his observations into concepts, generalizations, and principles; checks his thinking for contradictions; and checks his conclusions for consistency with his ever-expanding network of observation-based integrations—he can acquire knowledge. Indeed, according to Rand human beings have acquired massive amounts of knowledge, which is why science has advanced so far and man has accomplished so much.2
Well, that view will not go over well with skeptics, pragmatists, and postmodernists who argue that man cannot acquire knowledge—at least not knowledge of reality. Because man’s sensory apparatuses process all incoming data before it reaches consciousness, these skeptics argue, man is conscious not of an external reality or a world out there, but rather of internal modifications or distortions.
“No human being has ever experienced an objective world, or even a world at all,” writes Sam Harris. “The sights and sounds and pulsings that you experience” are consequences of processed data—data that has been “structured, edited, or amplified by the nervous system.” Thus, “The world that you see and hear is nothing more than a modification of your consciousness.”3
This fashionable view is rooted in the ideas of Immanuel Kant, who wrote: “What objects may be in themselves, and apart from all this receptivity of our sensibility [i.e., perception], remains completely unknown to us.” Once we understand this, Kant says, we “realise that not only are the drops of rain mere appearances, but that even their round shape, nay even the space in which they fall, are nothing in themselves, but merely modifications” within consciousness. In principle, Kant says, the actual object—the object as it really is—“remains unknown to us.”4
Indeed, says Kant, it is an error even to regard “external objects” as “things-in-themselves, which exist independently of us and of our sensibility, and which are therefore outside us.” The truth, he says, is that “external objects” are “mere appearances” or “species of [internal] representations,” and the things we perceive “are something only through these representations. Apart from them they are nothing.”5
When philosophers or intellectuals claim that we cannot know reality because our sensory apparatuses distort the data before it reaches consciousness, they may sound profound or impressive (at least to each other). But, then, along comes Ayn Rand, who points out that such claims amount to the view that “man is blind, because he has eyes—deaf, because he has ears—deluded, because he has a mind—and the things he perceives do not exist, because he perceives them.”6
As you might imagine, such straightforward clarifications, which abound in Rand’s works, can make skeptics feel as ignorant as they claim to be. So that’s another problem with Rand’s philosophy.
Further, Rand holds that reason is man’s only means of gaining knowledge.7 This excludes the possibility that revelation, faith, feelings, or extrasensory perception (ESP) is a means of knowledge. On her view, to embrace ideas not supported by evidence is to err. Thus Rand sees all forms of mysticism—all claims to a non-sensory, non-rational means of knowledge—as baseless, arbitrary, illegitimate.
That, of course, will not fly with religionists, subjectivists, psychics, or others who claim to acquire knowledge through non-sensory, non-rational means.
And then there are the myriad problems posed by Rand’s conception of free will.
Rand holds that people do indeed possess free will—and that it resides in a fundamental choice: to think or not to think, to focus one’s mind or not to do so, to go by facts or to go by feelings.8 The problems with this idea manifest on several levels.
For starters, if people have free will, then not only are their choices their responsibility, so too are the consequences of their choices. If a person characteristically chooses to think, and if his thinking guides him to build a business and make a lot of money, then the business and the money are his achievements. Likewise, if a person characteristically chooses not to think, and if his non-thinking renders him poor and miserable, then his poverty and misery are his fault.
Well, egalitarians, socialists, communists, and the like are not going to accept that for a minute. People who want to organize society in a way that ignores or denies personal responsibility will not accept a philosophy that upholds the very principle that gives rise to and necessitates personal responsibility.
Nor will Rand’s conception of free will jibe with Jews, Christians, or Muslims who take their religion seriously. If people truly choose to think or not to think, then the notion of an omnipotent, omniscient “God” goes out the window. Think about it: If people are free to think or not to think, then whatever powers an alleged God is said to possess, he can’t know in advance which alternative people are going to choose. If God existed and knew in advance how people were going to choose, then their “choices” would be preordained—thus they wouldn’t be genuine choices. Likewise, if people are free to think or not to think, then God can’t make them choose to think. Nor can he make them choose not to think. You see the problem.
In short, Rand’s view of free will leaves no room for the existence of an all-knowing, all-powerful God. This will not sit well with anyone who insists that such a God exists.
And that’s still just the tip of Rand’s free-will iceberg. Her view of volition leads to a whole host of additional problems. Consider a few more.
If people choose to think or not to think, then they choose all of their actions that are governed by that fundamental choice as well. For instance, on Rand’s view, a person can choose to be honest or dishonest. He can refuse to pretend that facts are other than they are—or he can choose to engage in such pretense.9 Importantly, Rand’s views on honesty and dishonesty are not merely about telling the truth versus lying. Rand holds that if a person knows something to be true but pretends that he doesn’t know it, then even if he doesn’t lie about it—even if he maintains the pretense only in his own mind—he is being dishonest. For instance, on Rand’s view, if a person knows that a friend has acted unjustly but pretends that he doesn’t know it, he’s being dishonest. And if a person knows that he owes someone an apology but doesn’t extend it, he’s being dishonest. In such cases, although the person has not lied, he nevertheless is pretending that facts are other than they are.
Well, people who choose occasionally to pretend that they don’t know what they do know—and who want to continue in this fashion—will not embrace a philosophy that says they are able to stop deluding themselves and morally corrupt if they don’t. (Of course, they might pretend to embrace it, but that’s another matter.)
Likewise, on Rand’s view, a person can choose to think for himself, or he can turn to others and expect them to think for him. In other words, he can engage in independent thinking or in what Rand termed “second-handedness.”10 (An example of independent thinking would be someone reading a philosopher’s works and deciding for himself whether they make sense. An example of second-handedness would be someone turning to others to see what they say he should think about the philosopher’s ideas.) Rand’s insistence that people should face reality and think for themselves as a matter of unwavering principle is a problem—because many people are afraid to think for themselves. Many people prefer to avoid that effort, to shirk that responsibility, and to passively accept the ideas of their group, their leader, their tribe. Such people will not embrace a philosophy that upholds independent thinking as a fundamental virtue.
This brings us to the mother lode of problems with Ayn Rand’s philosophy—and to the point of the whole thing.
Rand’s aforementioned principles calling for people to uphold reason, to be honest, and to think for themselves are part and parcel of the moral code she called “rational egoism” or “rational self-interest.” This moral code holds that the objective standard of moral value is man’s life—by which Rand means the requirements of human life given the kind of being that humans are. On her view, because humans are rational beings—beings whose basic means of survival is the use of reason—that which sustains and furthers the life of a rational being is good (or moral), and that which harms or destroys the life of a rational being is bad (or evil).11
Further, because Rand sees human beings as individuals—each with his own body, his own mind, his own life—she holds that each individual’s own life is properly his own ultimate value. She holds that each individual should choose and pursue his own life-serving values, and that he should never surrender a greater value for the sake of a lesser value—he should never commit a sacrifice. As she puts it:
Man—every man—is an end in himself, not the means to the ends of others. He must exist for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself. The pursuit of his own rational self-interest and of his own happiness is the highest moral purpose of his life.12
Well, such a moral code clearly will not fly with people who want to maintain the traditional notion that people have a moral duty to sacrifice themselves or their values for the sake of others (i.e., altruism). Nor will it fly with people who feel that they have a moral right to sacrifice other people as they see fit (predation).
Not only does Rand regard both self-sacrifice and the sacrifice of others as immoral; she also regards the use of any form or degree of initiatory physical force against human beings as properly illegal. In her words, the essential characteristics of a civilized society are that “men deal with one another, not as victims and executioners, nor as masters and slaves, but as traders, by free, voluntary exchange to mutual benefit”; and that “no man may obtain any values from others by resorting to physical force, and no man may initiate the use of physical force against others.”13
Needless to say, Rand’s staunch advocacy of voluntary exchange to mutual benefit and her moral opposition to the use of force as a means of obtaining values from people will not fly with people or governments that want to use force to obtain values from people. Criminals who want to steal people’s belongings, commit fraud, rape people, or violate rights in other ways will not embrace a moral code that forbids them to do so. Likewise, governments that want to force people to serve “the common good” or “the community” or “the master race” or some other “master” will not recognize or uphold a morality that forbids them to initiate physical force against people. And pull-peddling businessmen who want government to forcibly control, regulate, or cripple their competitors will not recognize or uphold a moral code that forbids such coercion either.
This problem—Rand’s moral opposition to the use of physical force against human beings—lies at the very base of her political theory, where it serves as a bridge between her moral code and her political views. This is where Rand’s theory of rights comes into the picture. As she put it:
“Rights” are a moral concept—the concept that provides a logical transition from the principles guiding an individual’s actions to the principles guiding his relationship with others—the concept that preserves and protects individual morality in a social context—the link between the moral code of a man and the legal code of a society, between ethics and politics. Individual rights are the means of subordinating society to moral law.14
Rand sees individual rights as the governing principle of a civilized society because she sees rights as deriving from man’s nature and as requirements of his life in a social context. She elaborates:
A “right” is a moral principle defining and sanctioning a man’s freedom of action in a social context. There is only one fundamental right (all the others are its consequences or corollaries): a man’s right to his own life. Life is a process of self-sustaining and self-generated action; the right to life means the right to engage in self-sustaining and self-generated action—which means: the freedom to take all the actions required by the nature of a rational being for the support, the furtherance, the fulfillment and the enjoyment of his own life. (Such is the meaning of the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.)15
According to Rand, the only proper purpose of government is to protect individual rights by banning physical force from social relationships—and by using force only in retaliation and only against those who initiate its use.16
Clearly, no one who wants government to do more than that will embrace Rand’s philosophy. No one who wants government to forcibly redistribute wealth, or to forbid certain kinds of speech, or to forbid certain kinds of consensual adult sex, or to restrict freedom in any other way will embrace a philosophy that demands principled recognition and absolute protection of individual rights.
A final problem worth mentioning about Rand and her philosophy is that she wrote in plain, intelligible English and defined her terms clearly as a matter of course, so that anyone who wants to understand her ideas can do so with relative ease. Toward this end, in addition to presenting her ideas in various nonfiction works, she dramatized them in spellbinding fiction—such as her novels The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged—thus enabling people to see her ideas in practice. Well, this will not go over well with modern philosophers or academics who insist that philosophy must be written in academese, technical jargon, or impenetrable fog. Nor will it pass muster with anyone who feels that dramatizing or concretizing ideas in fiction somehow disqualifies them.
We could go on. Rand’s philosophy involves many additional problems. But the foregoing is a concise indication of the trouble it causes.
So, next time the subject of what’s wrong with Ayn Rand’s ideas comes up, be sure to share this brief sketch of the kinds of problems involved. It’s better for people to learn what’s wrong with Rand’s actual ideas than to waste time contemplating takedowns of straw men.