Objectivists, Check YOUR Premises
I find I really can’t get anywhere with Objectivists. Ever. My one and only hope (outside of them hitting rock bottom and finally being open to new ideas) is to ask them to check their premises—about reason itself.
No matter what I do or say, Objectivists typically won’t accept my challenge. Even after they read (the first version of) this book, I was told that I “raise some interesting points.” But not enough to challenge the mighty Rand. They say the good ideas I present about emotions (in Part II) can be happily folded into the philosophy. I get told my argument is some unimportant nuanced thing. Or something.
You see, at its core, Objectivists believe they have just a basic foundational philosophy from which all good things flow. Objectivists believe that Objectivism simply means “reason.” They think it means “think on your own,” and so therefore any and all life conclusions are based on the reasoning mind and can change with new information or context. Therefore, if someone comes along and says something like, “Relationships are the key to human happiness,” they think this is just a new reasoned conclusion that one can simply adopt into their life.
But, you see, it cannot. It directly conflicts with Objectivism’s very specific views on happiness.
Every man will stand or fall, live or die, by his rational judgment. (Atlas Shrugged, 978)
Objectivism does not just mean “reason,” as to mean “good ideas are adopted after study.” I find the issue is that two different definitions of “reason” are being used, constantly being conflated. If we needle out what these two definitions are, we might get somewhere.
Definition of Reason #1: Study to draw conclusions
The first definition of reason is what everyone think it is and is meant: you study to come to a conclusion. It’s a way to understand the world. If you’ve taken all data available to you and figured out that Mars orbits the sun in an elliptical pattern, you’ve done this. If you sat down to study child development, comparing stories at age-related times, you’ve done this. If you’ve got a map out to plan a trip, you’ve done this. Study, come to a conclusion, totally loyal to all available facts before you. As Objectivists always admonish, “A is A!”
Definition of Reason #2: The cognitive mind should be in control for all decision making
The second definition of reason is that the cognitive mind should be in control at all times. It is a way to be. It’s what Rand directly intends. She writes:
The virtue of Rationality means the recognition and acceptance of reason as one’s only source of knowledge; one’s only judge of values and one’s only guide to action. It means one’s total commitment to a state of full, conscious awareness, to the maintenance of a full mental focus in all issues, in all choices, in all of one’s waking hours. (28, emphasis mine)
With this definition, you use your cognitive mind—not any gut feel—to make all decisions in life. “Reason” is “one’s only guide to action.” You don’t just use reason to plan a trip or build a lunar lander. You also use it when deciding if you want to break up with someone or quit your job. You do a rational analysis for all—Rand’s word—choices that you make. You use it during all waking hours—Rand’s description. Relying on gut feels, intuition, or instincts is blasted by Rand and her followers as “mysticism.” In Objectivism, your heart’s desires (your inner core) are trumped by your mind’s desires (your ego), always.
Nathaniel Branden writes that this was one of his biggest regrets when promoting Objectivism: the dismissal of what emotions might be trying to tell a person. He writes,
No one pointed out that feelings or emotions might sometimes reflect a more accurate assessment of reality than conscious beliefs. In other words, nobody asserted that the subconscious mind might be right while the conscious mind was mistaken. (My Years with Ayn Rand, ch. 9)
Branden writes in My Years with Ayn Rand that the issue of “the mind versus the heart” was the most important issue to Rand. It itself was tied in her mind to “the supreme importance of reason in human life.” He writes that when he met her for the very first time,
She wanted to know what I thought about “the mind versus the heart,” thinking versus feeling, and did I agree that feelings by themselves were not a reliable guide to action? Of course I agreed.
This issue was so important to Rand that she almost wrote another book about it,
For some years, Ayn had contemplated writing a book about “the mind versus the heart,” her thesis being the superiority of the mind and the evil of placing the heart above it. She decided against writing the book because she felt she had covered the issue adequately in Atlas Shrugged. The intensity of her concern with this issue, which surfaced in countless discussions, became a profound if unacknowledged message to distrust emotions. (emphasis mine)
Branden describes eloquently about what Rand’s idea was—and that it was tied in her mind to reason itself,
When Ayn began discussing the idea that all emotions are the product of a person’s conscious or subconscious premises and that emotions reflect conscious or subconscious value judgments, I saw that this was a principle of enormous importance to her. It was tied in her mind to the supreme importance of reason in human life. “Emotions are not tools of cognition,” she said. She would say this often, always with great intensity. (Emphasis mine)
This was Rand’s idea of reason and the role it plays in life. It was not just “study.” It was not just that “A is A.” It was not “understand the world through your senses and logic.” It related not just to our mind and its understanding of the outer world but our mind and how we run the inner world. It is a philosophy that proposes to tell you to use “rationality” in all waking hours of the day. Your mind must be in the command and control center—not any silly emotions—making all decisions in life. This is what Objectivism, a system with an elaborate moral and political philosophy, is.
This is not reason. Frankly, I find this view of reason appeals far more to people who had caregivers in their youth who were emotionally out of control (likely Cluster B personalities: Narcissistic or Borderline Personality Disorder) than any person of genuine reason. Children from such dysfunctional homes (who might not even know they were dysfunctional) often grow up to utterly despise emotions themselves, because their caregivers used emotions in such highly manipulative ways. But deciding the cognitive mind must be in control at all times (as if it’s going to clean up all of these potential problems) is not what reason is. People of genuine reason are often highly absent-minded in everyday life. “Driving” the inner mechanism, “programming” your emotions, using your “mind” in all waking hours of the day—this is not reason. It is something else entirely. After explaining it more thoroughly in this book, I will give it a name.
Logic that goes round and round
Rand does a bait and switch. She sells you on the idea of “reason” by pointing to skyscrapers and trains. And then she switches “reason” to be “something you do for all choices you make, all waking hours of the day.” You go from supporting industry and technology to supporting an entire particular psychology in a blink of an eye. Her explanations are so fast and furious, you probably didn’t notice. So, let’s rewind and see how Rand gets to these conclusions. I want you to go back and consider how Rand even developed her ethics. This is how she opens her case for her Objectivist ethics in her article, “The Objectivist Ethics”:
Is ethics the province of whims: of personal emotions, social edicts and mystic revelations—or is it the province of reason?
Right away, reason and emotions are split. Rand immediately puts emotions on the back burner in her proof for her ethics. She lumps “personal emotions” themselves in with “social edicts” and “mystic revelations.” She doesn’t even usually call them “emotions” but demotes them quickly as “whims.” To further see what I mean, do a word study in her article “The Objectivist Ethics” for how many times Rand derides “whim,” “intuition,” or “emotions,” in and of themselves, using repetitive, hypnotic language.
Rand then develops her proof for her Objectivist ethics. It entirely rests on the premise of tabula rasa. Tabula rasa again is not just that a person is born without robust conceptual knowledge. According to Rand, again a fiction writer, a person is born without reliable emotional instincts or anything that can reliably guide him that stems somewhere internally. She argues that since man “has no” reliable instincts, unlike animals, he thus needs a code of ethics to guide his life.
So, did you get that? Studying ethics itself must be done with “reason,” which by definition, according to Rand, means, “study, independent of one’s feelings.” And her conclusion is that man must use “reason” to live, which to her means, “think and make decisions, independent of feelings.” Do you see how the very tool she uses to dissect the issue, “reason,” is also the conclusion? Do you see how some kind of bias might be at work?
Objectivists always think the proof for Rand’s ethics goes like this:
- Man is a creature of reason.
- He should use reason to survive and build things.
In actuality, the proof goes like this:
- Man is a creature of reason.
- He has no reliable natural emotional or instinctual programming.
- He thus must use reason to make all decisions in every waking hour of his life.
Step Two above is an outright false conclusion, and, as such, so is Step Three. Step Two is the premise of tabula rasa. It is what I am trying to get you to doubt as you move in and out of Rand’s proof for her Objectivist ethics.
Rand uses tabula rasa to outright crush all emotional or instinctual drivers in human life. Or, rather, any meaning they have. The result is a domineering, authoritarian way of going about life, which I will continue to discuss in sections on how this applies to everyday life and politics as well.
The Rat Park Study
Objectivists constantly demand that I answer why any of this matters. It matters profoundly. I consider this issue—tabula rasa versus other competing views and all that they imply—to be the issue of our time. The issue is the role of the mind. Should the cognitive mind dominate the inner world, or can we trust our hardwired emotions? That’s the issue. And the implications are enormous. The best way I can explain it, as simply as I can, without going into detail of how it affects education, medicine, health, relationships, politics, and more (the topics in the rest of this book) is with the Rat Park Study.
Previous to the study using “Rat Park,” studies done on laboratory rats were conducted in which rats were given the choice of water or water that was laced with some kind of drug similar to cocaine. These studies, using caged rats, showed that the rats would pick the cocaine-laced water over plain water to the point of dehydration and death. Their inner whims were totally unreliable.
But when one psychologist, Dr. Bruce Alexander, attempted this same experiment in the 1970s but put the rats in “Rat Park,” the results were different. Instead of being caged, the rats were allowed to roam, play, socialize, and have sex. These rats, on average and over time, tended to choose the plain water (Sederer). They didn’t need the cocaine.
This could not explain my challenge to Objectivism (or modern science) better. If properly cared for, humans can be trusted. Using nothing but their own internal compass as a guide, they pick water. If denied love, comfort, and relationships, indeed their inner “whims” become unreliable. They pick cocaine.
“Rat Park” but for humans, an abundant, happy world, in which inner and outer world are in conscious, present, joyful harmony, is what I am fighting for. With it, humans tend to well. Without it, not so much. And our modern world can be described as caged rats behaving as caged rats—which ends up further justifying the need for cages.
Psychologists and even philosophers, for decades, have cited the original rat experiments, done on the caged rats, as a reason for the rational mind to dominate the “lower” parts of the brain. Rand similarly starts her Objectivist ethics by declaring that the inner world is chaotic and in need of discipline. She has elaborate thoughts on how to discipline emotions, including happiness, to do what we tell them to, which I will outline in detail next.
My basic argument is this is unnecessary and even destructive. These parts of the mind, the inner world, do not need dominated. If traumatized, people sometimes need a strong thought paradigm to program and restrain their inner world, such as the caged rats would. But if properly cared for, which is a gentle and loving pursuit, those “inner whims” can be trusted. Your natural, more intuitive choices—with happiness as the standard—will be right. This inner world is in fact a guiding light, especially when parenting and educating children. It’s the exact place where we can thrive as humans. We need to move away from highly “rational” supposed rugged individualism (which is really just control and authoritarianism) and towards proper caregiving of each other, on a personal level. And don’t confuse my argument as one for socialism or altruism. I am proposing proper caregiving.
When Dr. Alexander did this study in the late 1970s, it was rejected by major scientific magazines. It’s no wonder why. It challenged every basic premise science at the time had—and still has. It challenged the idea of a disciplining morality itself. It challenged behaviorism. It challenged our very view of human nature—and who the real oppressors were. (Read: religion). The Rat Park Study highlighted what scientists didn’t have a phrase for, but I now provide: it highlighted their moral bias. I write this book, targeting people’s ethics, entirely to shake up these stale moral paradigms that block such scientific progress and human thriving. Our cages are in our mind: it is in our moral paradigms.
Programming emotions is abuse
The relationship we have with our emotions extraordinarily important. And yet routinely Objectivists tell me that this issue scantly matters. So, we have here a group of people who have an entire system dedicated to a particular view on how emotions should be run—and believe the issue doesn’t even matter. It would be like an engineer designing the pilot controls for a pilot, and then telling the pilot that the design of the control really doesn’t matter much. Engenders trust, right?
No, this is heavy stuff. Whether or not we can go in and program our emotions—our inner core—is huge. The implications are enormous. It affects inter-personal relationships, parenting, education, our state of happiness, psychology, therapy, and more. Absolutely critical to my own personal healing (Objectivism utterly failed me) was developing a friendly relationship with my inner core. More than I write about how important this friendly relationship with one’s inner self is. It is yin. It is the feminine. It is deep self-care. It is honoring the unconscious. Some call it “the source.” And moral paradigms, which seek to control the emotional core of a person, utterly strangle it. Natural emotions and moral paradigms are at natural war with each other.
Far superior ideas on emotions exist. I pit Rand’s view that we dominate our emotions with one that our emotions, developed over millions of years of evolution, are here to tell us something. We cannot and should not override our natural emotional programming. It is an incredibly serious thingto try to override any life organism’s natural emotional and instinctual programming.
Programming (manipulating) emotions is, as I will argue, fertile ground for abuse. People usually dismiss this accusation of mine, that Objectivism leads to inter-personal abuse. Well, it starts here with Rand’s views on emotions. Objectivists can readily see that treating physical objects outside of the law of identity results in abuse. If you treated sulfuric acid as if it were water and drank it, you would be harmed. Rand herself writes:
Observe that the philosophical system based on the axiom of the primacy of existence (i.e., on recognizing the absolutism of reality) led to the recognition of man’s identity and rights. But the philosophical systems based on the primacy of consciousness (i.e., on the seemingly megalomaniacal notion that nature is whatever man wants it to be) lead to the view that man possesses no identity, that he is infinitely flexible, malleable, usable, and disposable. Ask yourself why. (“The Metaphysical and the Man-Made” 28)
But Rand does exactly this with the inner world of emotions. Your inner soul, your thoughts and feelings, according to Rand, are programmable—pliable, malleable, like wet clay. Who gets to do that molding? As I will argue in this book, this is how abuse work: it is through people’s moral paradigms. Abusers claim the moral upper hand and work through a victim’s own sense of shame. Tabula rasa—blank slate theory—is a necessary premise for all moralists, which means, all abusers. This is what I am putting up a fight against. Your soul need not be open to emotional programming via an ethical system. We’ve been plied for abuse through the power of morality long enough. It’s time to say: no more. Our natural emotions deserve far more respect than this.
Rand was no psychologist–but she was a moralist
Although Rand advocates using reason and objectivity to come to conclusions, she personally studied no humans in a disciplined way to make her enormous, sweeping conclusions about human nature, the main issue at the heart of her entire philosophy. Rand played psychologist, and she was lousy at it. She sets the poorest example of reason possible. Can we at least see this—that she had no disciplined study? Certainly not one in which she successfully treated people.
I will be outlining 10 Objectivist Blindspots in this book. That Rand thought she knew all she needs to know about human nature itself, when she didn’t, is Objectivist Blindspot #1.
Far worse than this, however, is that Rand then codifies her weak understanding of human nature into a moral code. And she entirely intends this all-encompassing rational morality to guide a person for every choice they make, in all waking hours of one’s life. This is bad enough—moralities come with a lot of toxic stuff, including shame, anxiety, excessive judgment, and abuse. But, in addition, in codifying her weak understanding of human nature into an all-encompassing morality, Rand shuts down an enormous amount of scientific inquiry. Whether it’s condemning “Progressive” education, certain types of music, or alternative views on happiness itself, Rand shuts down an enormous amount of curiosity—about topics utterly vital to human health and thriving.
And, no, despite being advocates of “reason,” no amount of new evidence can update Objectivist thinking. It’s been made abundantly clear that “Objectivism is the philosophy of Ayn Rand.” Leonard Peikoff’s first book after Rand’s death was of this title, entirely for this reason: what was said has been said. Outside thought is unwelcomed and will not alter the official philosophy of Objectivism. An Objectivist might update their thinking on matters relating to the outer world. But when it comes to the inner world, their views are set in stone. If someone were to say, “Emotions play a role in making life decisions,” Objectivists would be shut down to this. (I find they outright mock it.) Here is Branden describing a conversation with Rand about then recent research on depression:
When I tried to tell her of some new research that suggested that certain kinds of depression had a biological basis, she answered angrily, “I can tell you what causes depression. I can tell you about rational depression, and I can tell you about irrational depression. The second is mostly self-pity, and in neither case does biology enter into it.” I asked her how she could make a scientific statement with such certainty, given that she had never studied the field. She shrugged bitterly and snapped, “Because I know how to think.”
She knows how to think. So, no, new evidence cannot and does not update Objectivist thinking. Not when it comes to anything related to the inner world or which threatens Rand’s idea of an all-encompassing rational morality. (Or which threatens any moralist’s anything.)
This is especially dangerous, because it’s in alternative views, especially on education, that many of the problems that come up in Objectivism can be resolved (which I will discuss in the section on how these different views on human nature play out). Rand’s intense moralizing creates intense unease, shame, and anxiety, as I will show in this book. Different ideas on emotions, education, and psychology can resolve these issues. But as Rand has condemned these other ideas as irrational and immoral, they cannot penetrate the Objectivist mind. The disease prevents the cure.
Objectivism enflames moral bias
I accuse Rand’s Objectivism of moral bias. Moral bias is when a moral ideal (a code outlining ideal human behavior) seems so obvious, so amazing, so glittering, so virtuous, that it renders one blind. It shuts down curiosity into the value of other ideas or ways of being. When a person sees other ideas as inherently evil, one will not recognize their value.
Moral bias also renders a person blind to the damage they cause in pursuing their ideal. We see this with other systems like communism, in which people notoriously could not see the damage of communist regimes in pursuing their ideal society. We also see it in religion, in which for centuries they have behaved atrociously, but people still pass it off as “organized religion not scripture,” with scripture remaining literally holy. But it’s seen in Objectivism, too, as I will outline extensively in this book.
when a moral ideal (a code outlining ideal human behavior) seems so glittering, so virtuous, so desirable that one cannot see the value lost by shutting down other theories and ways of being and cannot see the damage they are causing in pursuing it
Moral bias is like cognitive bias but worse. Cognitive bias is too weak of an accusation. It suggests the problem is solely in one’s cognitive thinking or “general world view.” Moral bias is deeper than that: it goes into people’s deep emotions, their deepest held values, who they regard as a hero or villain, and much more. This one phrase can conjure up so much about a person: What is their moral bias?
Moral bias is a serious thing to reckon with. I believe it is the very thing humanity has been grappling with, causing strife, war, and oppression, all the while we keep maintaining that it’s some random, evil, “Devil” out to get us. I’m arguing that evil is not random or unconscious. I am quite different from other thinkers. I do not think the problem in humanity is “psychosis.” Nor do I think the problem is in “feelings.” Instead, I argue that moral bias is a potentially dangerous trait built right into the human psyche. It’s in you, and it’s in me. Humans are woefully prone to its ill effects. Moral bias sits mostly latent—until triggered by fear. Then—terror happens. It usually results in unstoppable mass hysteria. When fear presents itself, humans divide themselves into groups, in which one group—they—are smart, responsible, and moral, and the other, obviously despicable group is irresponsible, irrational, and destructive. (Sound familiar?) It leads, easily, to warlike behavior. It’s horrifying, actually. I call moral bias the “Hair trigger away from war and dictatorship” trait in the human mind. And that’s exactly how war and dictatorship erupt: set to a hair trigger. Given the right cause, fear, and hero, all humans will succumb to it—including me. (And I have.)
Moral bias really is in everyone. I find even people who leave religion end up in the arms of some other persuasive, enchanting philosophy. And even “science” can be a sort of new God for these people. Moral bias really comes down to what flavor of moral ideal appeals to you. Savvy business man? Humble pious person of religion? It’s such a strong characteristic of the human mind. It is capable of horrific damage, and it’s a trait most people can’t even see. This is why I think it’s important to identify this trait, as to finally understand it and maybe even temper it.
So, I’m not entirely picking on Objectivism. But moral paradigms like Objectivism utterly enflame moral bias. My argument again is that moral bias is there, latent, in the human psyche. It was there in primitive man, and it’s here now in modern man. It’s that thing that easily riles up a person. It makes a person sit, mesmerized, as someone talks about how virtuous mankind is. It’s the thing that easily says “raze them” when a person feels a sincere threat comes around. My argument is that this is a trait that works well in the raw wild but has turned highly maladaptive in civilization. In the wild, one has to quickly focus and overcome all odds. But we are no longer tempered by the wild and the many happy obstacles it provides. We, instead, have free reign. This trait of ours never has anything to push back on it. This trait is simply totally out of control now, as modern history can easily show. Tribal cultures may have had their violent episodes, but they never had a Hitler or a Mao. To be sure, my argument is that they were capable of this. It’s just that they were limited in their technology, infrastructure, and too happily preoccupied by living to do this. They had a happy equilibrium. We do not.
I am proposing our cognitive mind must recognize and temper this trait of ours—and woe to be all of life if we don’t. We can reach equilibrium, but we are going to have to actively achieve it now. If we identify this trait in ourselves, we can manage it—and no longer be exposed to sudden, brutal war and dictatorship.
Defending the wild in us
We basically have it all wrong. Many have long warned about natural sin or danger in humans. We’ve long blamed emotions, selfishness, or disobedience. Feelings themselves—the sweet things they are—however, are not the problem. We don’t need to squash our mere feelings. This trait is not rooted in feelings. It’s close to, possibly inside, the rational mind. People tend to be very explicit about their moral values and their justifications for whatever punishment, war, negligence, or totalitarianism they want to inflict on their fellow man. It’s not unconscious. They are very aware of what they are doing. Abuse is in a person’s moral paradigm. Abusers think what they are doing is good. A parent who spanks their child thinks they are inflicting positive behavioral modification. Domestic abusers feel they are rightfully punishing a woman who was “running her mouth.” (Sean Connery gave this exact justification for why he would hit a woman.) Every dictator thought they were fighting for a better society. Objectivists explicitly write it’s ok to bomb innocent civilians, if it means winning a war. (See Craig Biddle’s, “Defeat Terrorism in Five Easy Steps.”) When people commit acts that are truly evil, they think they are doing something good. Really think about that.
We don’t need to reprogram people’s emotions. We need to challenge their moral values: their Gods, their Utopian visions, their justifications, their rationale. (No easy feat, by the way.) And by getting it wrong, by blaming feelings instead of moral paradigms, we continue to add fuel to the fire. We are in a despondent cycle. These moral paradigms are designed to contain sin. But they are sin itself.
Challenging blank slate theory
All power structures need blank slate theory or something similar, such as Original Sin. They need to believe that people by nature have no reliable emotional core and should be looked at with inherent suspicion. All power structures need this basic premise. They need to believe that they can, or even have to, control the emotional core of a person—the stuff deep inside us. It is a tyrant’s best ally. It allows a total onslaught against a person’s personhood: their thoughts, feelings, hopes, fears, what they should be grateful for, who they should regard as a hero, etc. All power structures arise because of moral paradigms. Power structures need moral paradigms. They need their heroes and their saints—as separated from blasphemers and traitors. From Butler Shaffer,
The concept of morality—whatever it’s specific form—is particularly suited to those who covet power over others. Advocates of any moral philosophic system share with other exponents of structured human relationships the belief that a totally inner-directed person is a threat to social order, and that people must be conditioned to accept the external direction of their value systems. Moral doctrines not only assume an essentially malevolent human nature in need of institutional restraints; but also, in this secular age, take on many of the functions of religious institutions in searching out a multitude of heresies, blasphemies, and sinful acts.
This blank slate theory, so heavily adopted in (commonplace) science now, is de facto taking us back to a time similar to when Original Sin dominated—to the Dark Ages. It distrusts, guts, and disrespects so much that makes us thrive as humans. I will explain this extensively in this book. I cannot explain it in a mere few paragraphs or how much it affects literally all areas related to human life. I need time to explain it—and a mind open to understanding it. I am all but begging you to understand this issue. The better ideas simply must win.
Tabula rasa—the idea that we have no reliable instinctual programming, such that we can and should program a person’s emotional mechanism—was, at best, simply the predominant view at the time that Rand wrote. (And I do emphasize, “at best.” Carl Jung lived before Atlas Shrugged was published. There really is no excuse.) Blank slate theory is being challenged in virtually all areas of science related to human nature (as the good ideas are allowed to surface, anyway, under the weight of power structures). We have emotional drivers in us meant to pack a punch and aid in our survival—and it’s far more than just running away in fear from a snake. Understanding this is core to understanding who we are as a species and howe can thrive.
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 the house of cards that it is.