This is the first chapter, offered for free, of The Moral Bias of Objectivism
Chapter 1: The Challenge: Rand’s Faulty View of Human Nature
Ayn Rand has a faulty view of human nature itself, and then builds an elaborate morality and philosophy around it.
Ayn Rand’s Objectivism is proudly hierarchal in nature. Rand’s politics are based on her view on morality. Her view on morality is based on her view of man. Her view on man is based on her metaphysics: the unalterable nature of who man is qua man. She develops a vision of what the ideal man ought to be, based on the “objective” nature in which he must survive. Certain behaviors are held up as morally superior to others. The problem? Her view of man is based on a faulty view of human nature itself: tabula rasa.
Rand writes in “The Objectivist Ethics” in The Virtue of Selfishness:
Man is born with an emotional mechanism, just as he is born with a cognitive mechanism; but, at birth, both are “tabula rasa.” (30)
There are two things in this quote that Rand says are “tabula rasa”: a person’s cognitive mechanism and emotional mechanism. It’s the second thing I take especial issue with: that a person’s emotional mechanism is “tabula rasa.” I do child development work and it does seem like some children are born with natural, intuitive skills, such as counting at very early ages, such that a person’s “cognitive mechanism” is not entirely “tabula rasa.” However, that aside, it is a person’s emotional mechanism being “tabula rasa” that I take issue with. Finishing the quote above, Rand elaborates on what this means:
Man is born with an emotional mechanism, just as he is born with a cognitive mechanism; but, at birth, both are “tabula rasa.” It is man’s cognitive faculty, his mind, that determines the content of both. Man’s emotional mechanism is like an electronic computer, which his mind has to program—and the programming consists of the values his mind chooses. (30)
This is what I take issue. According to Rand, you can program—her word—your emotions. You can tell your emotions how you want them to behave. You can program your emotions such as to control what life events make you happy and what ones infuriate you. She writes:
Man has no choice to feel that something is good for him or evil, but what he will consider good or evil, what will give him joy or pain, what he will love or hate, desire or fear, depends on his standard of value. (31, emphasis original)
Rand says you will, indeed, feel something. But what you feel—her word and emphasis—is up to you. You can control what will give you “joy or pain,” what you will “love or hate,” and “desire or fear,” based on your “standard of value.” The best metaphor I can give for the Objectivist view on emotions is that emotions are seen as like a wild horse that bucks around that you have to go in and tame. It is perhaps best summed up by what an Objectivist wrote to me once,
“Rand doesn’t argue that people are born emotionless …”
Yes, I know that.
“…but that emotions don’t exist outside of (prior to) values and that therefore you can change your emotions by changing your values.”
Yes, that’s what I challenge. I do not think a person can—at least shouldn’t—“change their emotions by changing their values.”
This is heavy stuff. Whether or not we can go in and program our emotions—our inner core—is huge. The implications are enormous.
Rand preaches objectivity, but her study of human nature itself—what her entire system is predicated upon—is not objective. She came up with this idea of “tabula rasa” without studying humans in any disciplined way—certainly not in a successful way, as Carl Jung did in his successful psychology practice (and Jungian analysts reject blank slate theory, i.e., “tabula rasa”). It was, at best, the predominant view at the time. But she goes on to build her entire Objectivism around it. Since man “has no” reliable instincts, as she argues, he needs her philosophy of Objectivism, a “philosophy for living life.” It has an entire ethics, meant to be applied “in all of one’s waking hours,” for all decisions, guiding a person towards productivity (a “standard of value”), and in which productive success itself makes one happy. There is a certain hyper vigilance brought to all of one’s thoughts and actions that in and of itself has detrimental effects—of which I will discuss.
But my main challenge is this: I accuse Ayn Rand of Moral Bias. It is when one’s moral “ideal” clouds the objective study of human nature itself. And Rand’s system does exactly this. She develops the “ideal” man—and it shuts down further inquiry into human nature itself. The impact is profound.
Rand’s system is very hierarchical. Her morality is based on her metaphysics. Her politics are based on her morality. The many, many judgments she makes are deeply rooted in her view of the ideal man. And her view of human nature itself is wrong. Challenge tabula rasa, and Objectivism comes tumbling down like a house of cards.
Amber was an Objectivist for 10 years until she had had it with the narcissistic abuse routinely dished out in Objectivist circles. She has since found much better thoughts on how to have a good life. See her book The Moral Bias of Objectivism.