Ayn Rand had an abysmal, pessimistic view of human nature itself, and then unforgivably set this abysmal, pessimistic view of human nature in stone by developing an elaborate moral and political philosophy around it.
Ayn Rand is most known for her two entrancing, still popular fictional novels: The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. These novels are most known for their inspiring heroic figures, who obtain enormous success in the areas of business, science, architecture, and more. After writing her fictional novels, Rand went on to develop her philosophy, “Objectivism.” Rand’s philosophy proposes that it stands on the base of reason, gives you the moral right to pursue your rationally selfish goals, and protects individual rights through the political system of capitalism.
Rand’s Objectivism is proudly hierarchal. Her politics are based on her view on morality. Her view on morality is based on her metaphysics. Her metaphysics dictates that there is an unalterable nature of man qua man. She develops a vision of what the ideal man ought to be, based on the “objective” nature in which humans survive, which is, she argues, through reason and production. Certain behaviors are held up as morally superior to others.
The problem? Rand’s 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)
This is the main quote I challenge, and the one I will pick apart mercilessly.
The mind is not born blank
I used to write that there are two things in this quote that Rand says are “tabula rasa”: a person’s cognitive mechanism and emotional mechanism, and it was the second thing—the emotional mechanism—being “blank” that I took especial issue with. (Though she mentions it first, emphasizing its importance.)
However, as I continue to research further and further, it’s clear that our cognitive mechanism is not born “blank” either. Jungian psychology decimates this idea. Living beings are born with images in their mind.
At a minimum, as a child, you were born with the idea of “breast.” Babies have a “rooting reflex,” which is far more than just a “reflex,” as if it’s just like kicking your leg after your knee is hit. A newborn child has a voracious desire to seek a breast. A breast feels right. The newborn has a basic idea of its shape, feel, and size: they have an innate image in their mind of what it should be. Without this preprogrammed disposition, the baby would die.
This is Jungian psychology. Living creatures are weighted to go seek out particular things that feel right and be repelled by things that don’t. These are “archetypes”: primordial images buried deep in the unconscious that carry an enormous amount of emotional weight, directing action for a living being. I made a (somewhat over-simplified) picture of it.
Routinely Objectivists tell me that these are “mere primitive instincts” that “don’t matter to human life.” I am really rather flabbergasted by this. However, my befuddlement is perhaps because I do highly popular child developmental research and am immersed in the actual nature of humans constantly. At its outset, nearly by pure definition, Rand, Objectivists, and many others shut down inquiry into this entire area of life. That’s what befuddles me. Man is, to them—beyond a few instincts such as running in fear from a snake—born “blank.” Born with nothing. No particularly valuable emotions, no gut instincts, nothing that might internally drive a person. Rand directly says man’s mind is like a “machine without a spark plug.” What provides that spark plug? Her ethical system. Man is essentially nothing but a cognitive mind waiting to be activated to produce material things by his will and determination. (I’ll get to this explicit Objectivist position shortly.) And Objectivists view it this way, essentially, because they won’t even study any other aspect of humanity. Tabula rasa, to them, is reason as such.
No, this stuff matters profoundly to all life on earth—even to us, as adults and to us, as humans as such. My own child developmental research caused me to develop a theory that imagination itself puts consciousness into place. In other words, the innate, hardwired images given at birth drive the formation of consciousness itself: the very ability to see the external world. Routinely, at age-related times, children project from their mind out into reality a sort of hologram. Their imaginary friends are one example of this. There are many other examples of this kind of hologram—ones that adults tend to not notice. Young children might see a “lake” on the floor that isn’t there, or, indeed, see monsters in their closet. I argue that this kicks off a certain curiosity about some part of reality. These images—hardwired somewhere deep in their unconscious and released at semi-predictable age-related times, likely during sleep—get projected out from their mind into reality. It results in what we would call “imagination.” It’s known that children see the world as a fuzzy haze upon birth. What causes them to see the external world with nuance and clarity? An amazing apparatus, I am proposing. And by shutting down these hardwired images as “mere primitive instincts”—unworthy of study—you shut down this entire potential field of study.
Do you still think this is an unimportant issue that only affects childhood and not adult life? This more than plays out in adult life. When adults find themselves lost in a desert, they often see a mirage—something that is not there that they wish was there, such as a body of water. This is the mind’s image projection capability. The mind is highly weighted to see what it wants to see.
Do you still think this mechanism only matters when in the desert? Do you think maybe this plays a role in how humans communicate? In what facts they can recall correctly—important when in a court of law? Perhaps it also explains many of the mysteries and unsolved problems related to humans, especially in how we related to one another. Our unconscious is constantly doing work for us—work we tend to refuse to acknowledge or understand, demoted as “mere mysticism.” In understanding it, maybe we’ll have happier, more joyful, and even more just living.
I find Objectivists tend to continue to argue with me over this. The responses are,
- This theory is just “my opinion.” They even take to the public review processes to make sure my work is negatively reviewed. (I report this, and it usually gets taken down as abuse of the review process. Because it is.)
- That this doesn’t contradict Rand nor would Objectivism prevent such study and/or
- That I don’t understand Rand.
So, I will abandon this thought for now and continue to describe Rand’s actual position as far as how tabula rasa is used, such that I can make my case. But, for now, know that this this statement from Rand,
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. (Emphasis mine)
… is a sweeping statement about human nature that delves into what should properly belong to science, not philosophy.
Programming the emotional mechanism
However, that irrelevant formation of consciousness thing aside, it is a person’s emotional mechanism being “tabula rasa” that this book will focus on. Let me quote Rand again but this time focusing on the emotional mechanism:
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.
A person’s cognitive faculty determines the content of both—both a person’s cognitive mechanism and emotional mechanism. The stuff in it. Said another way: the cognitive mind determines the stuff in one’s emotional mechanism. She goes on:
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.
This is what I take issue with. According to Rand, you can program—her word—your emotions. You can make emotions behave as you want. You can control what life events will end up making you happy, sad, infuriated, full of pride, etc. Rand isn’t saying you can control your response to your natural emotions. She is saying you control the initial emotion itself. 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, no matter what, indeed, feel something. But what you feel—her word—is up to you. You can control, say, if you’ll be ecstatic from seeing a great heroic achievement or if you’ll be ecstatic over, say, as a totally random example, seeing a slave owner whipping his slaves. (P.S. It’s not a random example. See We the Living.) According to Rand, you can control what event from the outer world will give you “joy or pain,” what you will “love or hate,” and “desire or fear.” I’m directly quoting her here.
A profound distrust of natural emotions
You must program your emotions, according to Rand, because they could otherwise be all wrong. Here is Rand admonishing “hedonism” and why we cannot rely on our own natural emotions,
If “desire” is the ethical standard, then one man’s desire to produce and another man’s desire to rob him have equal ethical validity; one man’s desire to be free and another man’s desire to enslave him have equal ethical validity… (33)
First, why are we evaluating any and everything from a perspective of what kind of ethical framework it would be? In other words, how we ought to make every single decision in our life. This is not something the majority of people need, nor how they think. This is a premise I will be checking in this book.
But, otherwise, what Rand is saying is that if you turn inwards to learn what makes you happy, this is hedonism, and this may lead to robbery and enslavement. To avoid this hedonism-to-slavery pipeline, we need Rand’s ethical system, which doesn’t just dictate to not enslave one another, but admonishes us towards “rational” behavior and happiness. We must program our emotional core such that we respond “appropriately” (rationally) to life events.
How it works: set yourself to value the right things. Then, when such things happen, you react in an emotionally appropriate way. From Rand:
Happiness is that state of consciousness which proceeds from the achievement of one’s values. If a man values productive work, his happiness is the measure of his success in the service of his life. (31)
If you set yourself to like productive achievement—then you’ll like it! Problem solved.
Wait. What was the problem again?
In Objectivism, we need not simply have a few rules that say things like “don’t rob people” or “don’t murder people.” We need to tinker with the emotional programming of people, to avoid such disastrous fates. Further, we need to make sure people don’t do things that aren’t “rational.” So many things could be disastrous and would not aid in your rational, objective survival—such as “getting mindless kicks” out of driving “hotrod” cars. In Objectivism, all sorts of things that might bring one happiness are considered irrational. This includes family picnics, certain music, certain paint colors, and more.
Objectivists never believe me about this. Here. I’ll prove it to you. The following is found in The Romantic Manifesto, Rand’s book on art. This book is, surprisingly, the book in which she is most prolific about emotions. A “sense of life,” as according to Rand, is a set of things that all evoke a similar emotional reaction in a person, resulting in a person’s “sense of life.” To explain it, Rand offers the following two sets of things that a person might emotionally react to. The common emotional reaction to each item in a given set defines a person’s sense of life. I numbered the sets for clarity.
…  a new neighborhood, a discovery, adventure, struggle, triumph—or:  the folks next door, a memorized recitation, a family picnic, a known routine, comfort. On a more adult level:  a heroic man, the skyline of New York a sunlit landscape, pure colors, ecstatic music—or:  a humble man, an old village, a foggy landscape, muddy colors, folk music. (27)
The items in the set labeled  are basically what Rand approves of. The items in set , not so much. In more words than this, Rand describes a person who “lacks self-esteem” as finding, in the second set of items, “relief from fear, reassurance, and undemanding safety of passivity.” This includes, indeed, family picnics and “muddy colors.”
Muddy colors, by the way, are just colors that have some gray added to them. “Muddy” is an interior design term meaning “grayed,” and it is also sometimes called a “dirty” color. I learned this from reading books by color expert Maria Killam. A Brookside Moss from Benjamin Moore is slightly “muddier” than a Split Pea. And if you like this sort of thing, according to Rand, you lack self-esteem. I’m directly quoting her.
Between Rand and Nathaniel Branden, all sorts of things are considered irrational, including driving race cars, hanging out with friends whom you “feel free to be yourself” (as they have no standards), and quiet ladies parties. You must, according to them, seek a “demanding pleasure” and one intimately tied to cognitive functioning and productive achievement. Boom. True happiness. And these views are peddled as the views in alignment with reason™, objectivity, and truth.
Discipline your emotions to avoid mayhem
The explicit Objectivist view on emotions is that, in the same way you learn to walk, which becomes automatic and performed at the call of the mind, so you can—nay, you must—make your emotions behave as you want, such that they also behave in an automatic, subconscious way that aids in your life. Anything else can result in sadistic things like enslavement or irrational things like family picnics. Your only choice, according to Rand, a fiction writer, is whether you take control of this process or let it happen haphazardly. She writes,
The enormously powerful integrating mechanism of man’s consciousness is there at birth; his only choice is to drive it or be driven by it. (Philosophy and a Sense of Life, 27)
This is the relationship between the conscious and the subconscious, according to Rand. Either drive the subconscious or it drives you. It’s extremely Freudian: a person’s unconscious is a dark, abysmal place that you best not go, except to tame. Rand accuses those who don’t take the reins over this process as having a “soul like a shapeless piece of clay” (26). Ouch.
The best metaphor I can give for the Objectivist view on emotions is that emotions are seen like a wild horse that will buck around wildly and rashly. Emotions are seen as wild and unreliable—possibly dangerous. Thus, you have to go in and discipline them. 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 you can, nor ever should, “change your emotions by changing your values.”
Notice also that this Objectivist said that emotions outside of values don’t even exist.
Programming our unreliable emotional core
Otherwise, yes, Rand wants you to go in and control your emotions. She doesn’t just advise that you be aware of your emotions. She doesn’t just say that you don’t use your emotions to learn Calculus. She wants you to go in and program the nature of the very emotion itself. You control your inner world: what gives you “joy or pain,” what you will “desire or fear,” “love or hate”: what emotional response you have to life events.
This isn’t just an offbeat Objectivist view on a topic here or there. This is what Objectivism is. The Objectivist ethics, if you read Rand’s essay with this title, is entirely dedicated to the premise that your “whims” are unreliable and potentially destructive. You, as such, must bring discipline to them via the Objectivist ethics. The Objectivist ethics, which Rand proudly says her politics are based on and offers her view of the ideal man, is an all-encompassing “rational” morality that Rand explicitly says should be with a person for every choice they make for all waking hours of the day.
In Rand’s system, a person’s inner world, their emotions, their very core, is a blank canvas—wet clay—waiting to be programmed. And this view—that one’s inner world is an otherwise rotten, gelatinous pile of poo that must be whipped into shape by an ethical paradigm—remains a view in high alignment with the idea of Original Sin. It is this that I challenge.
An Explicit Challenge to Objectivists: Defend Tabula Rasa
I wanted to separate this thought out to highlight its importance and make a very pointed point about it.
If Objectivists do get to the point in reading my challenge, they usually tell me that they see my argument, but it doesn’t matter—because Rand was right. They have found that they personally can change their emotions by changing their values, and so she was right. Or, I have been told that I “just value emotions” while “they value reason,” and that’s ok. We can agree to disagree.
Ok, first of all, I resent being told I “just value emotions,” as if I am, as such, not a person of “reason” because I defend authentic, natural emotions. Reason can absolutely go in and identify, honor, and sort out natural emotions. This is in fact the exact thing I’ll be calling for in this book: a commitment to understanding natural emotions in daily practice and in committed, rigorous, scientific inquiry.
Second, you can’t make this argument that these are simply two different worldviews, and that’s ok. Rand says that her system is the moral system. She claims rationality and morality for herself. There is a corollary to this. Others become immoral, irrational, and so on. No. This is not science. This is not the end all, be all of what there is to know about human nature. I will not let you claim rationality, morality, reason, and science itself anymore. Someone is standing up to you, once and for all.
I am constantly berated by Objectivists that I “have no facts.” Objectivists, where are your facts? Where is your proof that this is how human nature works: that we are born tabula rasa and all that this implies? You claim this position, by default. You then demand I and others disprove you. This is a power play, and one I won’t let you make anymore.
When I’ve challenged Objectivists on this, my experience thus far is that they give me every bit of word salad in the book. I essentially get told, “Nuh uh!” They instantly start accusing me of not understanding Rand. They grossly misrepresent what I said, such as saying that I said Rand said we are born emotionless, which is not my argument. Usually, however, Objectivists just tell me they will not refute me, because that would “sanction” me. They just utterly gaslight me and others. Because they are moral and rational. And I am emotional and mystical. Yes, putting this into a moral framework has ramifications.
If I do get Objectivists anywhere near the actual argument about tabula rasa, they might tell me, “No Objectivist cares about tabula rasa anyway.” (I was directly told this.) Oh really. We’re not taking Objectivism seriously now? The Philosophy of Ayn Rand™? Or I get told “Leonard Peikoff cleared all this up already.” In a podcast. Somewhere. The entire underpinning of Objectivism—the entire emotional repression problem built right into Objectivism. It’s been cleared up. The person can never say how. But they are sure of it.
I did finally pin down one Objectivist to actually defend tabula rasa. He did at first accuse me of rambling and that I “had no studies” to prove myself. I told him Rand was a god damn fictionwriter and had no studies. (And I do. I just can’t put them out all at once. Giving time to totally explain oneself is not a courtesy Objectivists give. And, yes, I swear now. It’s the only way to penetrate them.) After he was finally on the defensive about Objectivism, he said, “Well in the absence of hard evidence, an emotional blank slate is the default.” He defended this in terms of “Occam’s Razor.” Oh really. This is what counts for valid knowledge now? Just a bunch of, indeed, “logical” arguments? This is a puff of hot air. That’s it. We’re using Occam’s Razor to identify human nature itself. Behold, your philosophy of reason and objectivity.
So, let’s now talk about what reason actually is.
Jump to >> Check YOUR Premises: About Reason Itself
Amber was an Objectivist for 10 years before she rejected this narcissistic philosophy parading itself around as happiness and freedom. Send your disillusioned friends to Ex Objectivist.