FAQs About the Challenge
Below is a brief summary of some of my arguments. It’s in response to some of the questions I have received on social media. But this does not replace reading the book.
The Challenges to Objectivsm
The Objectivist view on emotions is that we have an emotional mechanism but we program it with our rational mind. Emotions in Objectivism are treated like a wild animal that we have to discipline. Rand says that we are bound to feel something but what we feel is up to us. If we program (her word) our thoughts correctly, we can program our happiness to drive us towards what seems so logical: outwardly rational, productive success.
The challenge made in this book is that we cannot control our emotions such as to tell us what should make us happy. It is like the feedback on the dashboard on a car. It comes prepackaged. The feedback already knows the car. We cannot override it. These emotions help us in everyday life. They speak to us and teach us. Managing these hardwired emotions, as they personally edify a person, is much more important than dominating them.
To make it more clear: Rand says you can control what makes you happy. She has you setting your values to value productivity, etc., such that you feel happy when you are productive, such as to aid in your “objective survival.” Happiness then becomes a “lightning quick barometer” in the aid of your life. She has you taming your emotions like disciplining a horse, which then goes to work for you.
My argument is that emotions don’t work like this. You cannot program what makes you happy. It’s prewired. Your body knows you better than you can override it. It knows its authentic needs. And emotions are often much more like a horse that bucks up and runs away. Knowing how to handle this is much more important in your everyday life and even in maintaining a moral composure.
This is what I mean that emotional management tools are more important than a rational morality. My main challenge is in the role of the mind. I advocate consciousness, not rationality. I advocate a patient, observant approach to emotions, not a dominating one. When any emotion arises in me, I hold it in conscious awareness, without judgment. However, I cannot control what emotions I will feel in response to life events. And that’s where Rand goes wrong: she has you judging and controlling your emotions, which is a dangerous thing to do.
Rand says that you either drive the subconscious or it drives you. The challenge made in Towards Liberalism is that the subconscious is like a puppy that works for you in the background. Its main needs are not domination and control, but sleep and play. Rand says your conscious mind should be on all waking hours of the day. But the subconscious works best when the mind can blur a little bit. It does most of its work when you sleep. It does work also when your mind is slightly spaced out, such as when brushing your teeth.
Rand says you literally “drive” your emotions (see Galt’s speech in Atlas Shrugged); that your values provide the fuel of where your internal state goes.
The challenge is that you do not have any control over this. You were likely born with a particular personality that derives pleasure in the way you were hardwired to. Some people like a good book by the fireplace. Others like jumping out of airplanes. You may indeed value productivity and profit–that’s natural–but this is not something you can program. Happiness is much more self-honored than self-created.
Rand’s views on emotions are very much like a person suffering trauma. With trauma, the body’s emotional mechanism takes on a life of its own: always trying to prevent the previous threat from harming the body. All of Rand’s views on emotions seem to be trying to control this very beast. We need to heal this out of whack internal mechanism, not try to dominate it. We need to become trauma aware.
Rand’s metaphysics are not just “study reality correctly.” It’s “study the outside world and put those whims away.” She pits feelings against an ability to study correctly. This is not in alignment with research on the topic, which shows that authentic, primary emotions aid in learning.
Rand says the purpose of morality is to teach you to be happy and enjoy your life. The challenge is that morality, by its judgmental, shame-inducing nature, cannot do that.
All performance-based moralities command a person to succeed. If a person does not, the result is shame. Performance-based moralities create shame, unease, and anxiety where they need not be. And this most definitely does not go towards the end of putting a person in touch with reality.
It is the job of science, not morality, to teach us to be happy.
“Rationality” in Objectivism isn’t just “study reality.” It’s “know your reasons for every action in your life.” If any kind of intuition drives a person, this is put down as a person acting irrationally. Further, what emotions you feel are to be judged to be “appropriate responses to reality.” Rand doesn’t allow that all of your feelings are valid. Who has the “right” feelings or who is acting “irrationally” or whose problems are “petty” or what even the definition of human nature is are huge power plays.
“Rationality” as used this way, and how it is indeed typically used, is not reason. It is authoritarianism. I reject it in favor of other terms. Reason, which I still embrace, is an act of focusing one’s mind to study something and it plays a contextual role in life. “Consciousness” is the active, gentle monitoring of the inner world and the term I prefer to denote the mind’s role in guiding the inner life. I reject totally the term “rationality” at this point.
Objectivism has an abuse problem. Rand herself was abusive, in how she was and her writing, and her adherents notoriously insult, shame, and humiliate others. I wouldn’t have hastened to write this book, except for the predatory, gaslighting, insulting, abusive behavior I’ve routinely received from Objectivists.
The good news is that people who study abuse say that abuse is a product of how a person thinks. Abusive people feel good about their abuse; they see no problem with it. Towards Liberalism identifies abusive behaviors in inter personal dealings and calls them out as immoral: insults, triangulation, humiliation, double standards, etc. This book takes direct moral aim at where it needs to be: not at selfishness or laziness–or altruism or evasion–but at abuse itself. The moral system in Towards Liberalism goes to work for you.
Much more important to human thriving than a morality of rational self-interest is properly caring for children. Properly caring for children is virtually nowhere in formal Objectivist ethics. Rand says she designed her ethical system based on human nature, but she ignored the enormous 20-year investment it takes to raise a human.
She never identifies “woman” in her system, always “man,” thus ignoring the importance of reproduction and what women are quite simply biologically designed to be superior at. That Objectivism ignores caregiving and women are Objectivist Blindspots #8 and #9.
Here is where Objectivism is extremely poor. The explicit Objectivist position is to take a blank child and transform him or her into a rational producer. You can find this exact sentiment in Teaching Johnny to Think by Leonard Peikoff. An adult is heavy handed and lecturing in doing this. Ideas like this are in the way of more progressive, alternative, better forms of hands-on education, which Objectivists routinely mock. See Tabula Rasa verus Child Development: Deep Views on Human Nature Matter
Rand famously writes, “show me what a man finds sexually attractive and I’ll tell you his entire philosophy on life.” Rand turns sex into judgment: who you sleep with is a trial of your character. Sex more than anything is where the inner world and its rhythms should be respected. Rand controls and constrains sex. Towards Liberalism greatly liberalizes this part of life. I call for the full legalization of all sex work.
Rand advocated radical capitalism. This rests on her view that everything man needs must be produced. But not everything needed to live needs to be produced, such as land. There is no solid moral underpinning for abundant wealth, like land.
“Capitalism” denotes a certain bias: in favor of capitalists as opposed to others. It also had a implicit view of how raw resources and their use are intertwined. Instead, I prefer the term “free markets” to describe proper economics. It hints that there is a hustle and bustle to market activity, with booms and busts, and things that go well and poorly.