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August 07, 2007

Rand v. Utilitarianism

Reading this perfectly serious attempt to lay out Ayn Rand's objections to utilitarianism, I'm reminded of how utterly astonishing I find it that anyone takes her seriously. Listen to this stuff: "The irreducible primary of altruism, the basic absolute, is self-sacrifice - which means: self-immolation, self-abnegation, self-denial, self-destruction - which means: the self as a standard of evil, the selfless as a standard of the good."

Do people really find that compelling?

August 7, 2007 | Permalink

Comments

Do people really find that compelling?

I did, when I was 17. As a picked-on geek, and as one bombarded with what by that time I thought was silly religious dogma, I found her celebration of intellect and her unabashed atheism a godsend (pardon the expression).

But I grew out of it, thankfully.

Posted by: Glenn | Aug 7, 2007 11:44:05 AM

Rather reminiscent, in an impressionistic way, of Nietzsche talking about Christianity.

Posted by: Sanpete | Aug 7, 2007 11:51:30 AM

Alan Greenspan found it compelling.

Posted by: Garuda | Aug 7, 2007 11:51:38 AM

Well, I was about to buy you something from your wish list, but after reading that, I realized it would be wrong.

Posted by: SP | Aug 7, 2007 11:56:15 AM

Ayn Rand does seem to have her greatest following in the young nihilists who believe themselves to be the smartest person they've ever met. Her philosophy fits well with the "pox on both houses" mentality that above-average teenagers and 20-somethings possess.

Posted by: Cody | Aug 7, 2007 11:58:59 AM

An excuse to be selfish and a way to ignore the resulting guilt is always popular with the selfish and guilty.

Posted by: Jim 7 | Aug 7, 2007 12:00:31 PM

Jane Galt does,

As do sophmores in college, people you find yourself sharing a joint with in some dark dormroom, your mind reeling as they dart over to their bookcase in search of the book that will "totally change your life," and you know you must runaway, fast, as they press the book on you and proclaim that the book taught them how to be happy and guilt-free, their eyes full of sadness and longing.

Posted by: david mizner | Aug 7, 2007 12:01:02 PM

Even more stupifying, after reading her mode of argument, is to learn that she thought of herself as an Aristotlean.

Posted by: WB Reeves | Aug 7, 2007 12:02:02 PM

The only Objectivist (Randian) I've known well was a philosophy grad student who was very bright, not at all obnoxious or selfish in the conventional sense, and very much in tune with the Aristotelian interpretation of the arguments. He wasn't the kind of person I would have expected. I'm not very sympathetic with Objectivism, but I learned enough from him to know that it doesn't mean what the quote above might seem to indicate.

Posted by: Sanpete | Aug 7, 2007 12:09:35 PM

Does anyone else remember seeing Ayn Rand on Donohue? Phil was doing his running around the audience thing and came to some young woman who pretty much told Rand what Glenn and Cody said. When I was a teenager I believed in your philosophy, but then I grew up. Rand turned away and wouldn't respond to whatever question the young woman asked and generally acted like a spoiled kid. Not surprising for the developer of a philosophy that's perfect for 16 year olds.

Posted by: SteveH | Aug 7, 2007 12:09:45 PM

I did, when I was 17.

that seems to sum it up quite nicely.

similarly, god save us from college freshmen who've just discovered post-structuralism......talking to one of them on site at one of my many temp jobs almost caused me to spontaneously combust. [not that there's anything intrinsically bad about post-structuralism....it's just that the smugness with which a certain 19 year old took it as a refutation of anything anyone else tried to say to her was noxious. would it be bigoted of me to mention that she was a big Burning Man fan?]

if i had to choose between sitting next to somebody on the bus reading "atlas shrugged", "battlefield earth", "ender's game" or "the watchtower", i am honestly not sure which one i would choose. [/okay, i know i just set myself up for serious flame with that "ender's game" comment....]

and it's true - i am probably the worst kind of antisocial personality for not wanting to sit next to certain people on the bus because of what they are reading.

Posted by: r@d@r | Aug 7, 2007 12:21:27 PM

I've long felt the same way about Nietzsche (and existentialism more broadly to some degree), as regards prime audience.

Posted by: Sanpete | Aug 7, 2007 12:23:06 PM

I'm not very sympathetic with Objectivism, but I learned enough from him to know that it doesn't mean what the quote above might seem to indicate.

I, on the other hand, have known quite a few people who had Rand as their personal philosophical and ethical lodestar, one of whom remains a personal friend. Such persons range from princes of character (such as my friend) to venal buffoons of the lowest rank.

That a Philosophy grad student under Rand's influence would accept her presentations vis a vis Aristotle is neither remarkable or definitive.

Posted by: WB Reeves | Aug 7, 2007 12:28:51 PM

I don't want to pick a fight (really!) but can I just agree with the Ender's Game comment? Ai, am I sick of having that bit of violence-porn raved over. It's nothing but a I-was-always-the-best-kid revenge fantasy dressed up with judas-goat moral idiocy. Yuck.

Posted by: delagar | Aug 7, 2007 12:34:27 PM

Hey, at least she inspired one of Rush's great "concept" albums of the 70's. (Rush the Canadian prog-rock group, not the AM radio blowhard).
I would love to see that Donohue clip, that would be some good laughs.

Posted by: ChowChowChow | Aug 7, 2007 12:36:28 PM

I know people in their 30s who have just discovered Rand. I know one woman, 30 something black woman, who was angry that I found Atlas Shrug both poor literature and a crappy philosophy.

What's interesting to me is that each of these 30somethins (about 4 that I can think of) think they have found some secret treasure trove, and when I've tried to point out how pedestrian it all is to me, they say I don't get it. I suppose I should ask, if I really cared what they thought, what it is they think I don't get?

Posted by: akaison | Aug 7, 2007 12:39:51 PM

Delager, A lot of people seem to have a problem with Enders Game. I didn't. It's been a long time since I read it and Speaker for the Dead but taken together they seemed to be a bit of a satire of Heinlein's Starship Troopers.

A great deal of Science Fiction has a large component of satire. This isn't always sufficiently appreciated. For example, Norman Spinrad's ,The Iron Dream, which is framed in an alternate history in which Hitler emigrates to New York and becomes a Science Fiction writer. The novel is supposedly his magnum opus. One can easily imagine the sort of misunderstandings such a conceit could engender.

Posted by: WB Reeves | Aug 7, 2007 12:47:18 PM

That a Philosophy grad student under Rand's influence would accept her presentations vis a vis Aristotle is neither remarkable or definitive.

Actually, it is remarkable, and was remarked on by his colleagues, as he was very knowledgeable of Aristotle, in one of the leading programs for that kind of thing. Not sure why you bring definitive up.

Posted by: Sanpete | Aug 7, 2007 12:48:09 PM

As a writer of sleezy pulp fiction and object of a cult of personality, Ayn Rand really belonged to the L.Ron Hubbard tradition...not the philosophical tradition of radical individualism.

Posted by: Adrian | Aug 7, 2007 12:49:23 PM

It's been a long time since I read it and Speaker for the Dead but taken together they seemed to be a bit of a satire of Heinlein's Starship Troopers.

What about the books or Orson Scott Card would give you the idea that it was satirical? By all accounts, both the book and the author are deadly earnest.

And how were there any "misunderstandings" about Spinrad's "The Iron Dream"? Everyone knew what it was about-- the satire was quite explicit. It was worth reading just for the epilogue, honestly.

Posted by: Tyro | Aug 7, 2007 12:51:32 PM

"I would love to see that Donohue clip, that would be some good laughs."

Well everything (almost) is on Youtube these days. I found the interview is loaded there in about 5 parts. And I haven't seen this since it aired sometime in the 70s, but the young woman appears at the 6 minute mark in part 4.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CLQTPEKiPzI

It's not exactly as I remember it, but it may be better as Rand denounces the young woman for taking Rand's valuable appearance on TV to present her own views. Also interesting that the option of leaving comments has been disabled for all the Donohue Rand clips.

Posted by: SteveH | Aug 7, 2007 12:53:50 PM

And who knew Rand had a sense of humor. From her testimony to HUAC in 1947:

Doesn't anybody smile in Russia any more?

Rand: Well, if you ask me literally, pretty much no.

http://www.noblesoul.com/orc/texts/huac.html

Posted by: SteveH | Aug 7, 2007 1:06:13 PM

Do people really find that compelling?

Very selfish people do.

Posted by: thehim | Aug 7, 2007 1:07:20 PM

If you place Rand into the context of her life experience -- that of someone who was born under totalitarian rule -- then that she should go on to launch a philosophy based on self-glorification and unfettered capitalism starts to make a lot more sense.

If anything I feel sorry for Rand. She was clearly an extremely intelligent and gifted woman who couldn't overcome her inner issues.

Posted by: fiat lux | Aug 7, 2007 1:08:04 PM

Tyro, I read Ender's Game when it first came out and I don't recall much contraversy about it at the time.

It's worth noting that that back in the day Card was making the rounds of Sci-Fi Cons with a performance entitled "The Secular Humanist Revival" which celebrated scepticism, "our great humanist Republic" and lampooned the religious right. I understand he has undergone quite a transformation since and I have no idea what he's about these days.

What makes you think that a satire can't be in "deadly earnest" anyway? It's not a synonym for parody after all. I thought Spinrad's satire was in dead earnest and it takes no great stretch of the imagination to realize that some folks reading it might believe that Spinrad was using the form as a means of covert endorsement.

Of course that idea wouldn't have held up once they knew anything about Spinrad the person as opposed to Spinrad the name on the cover. Recall that the epilogue was a fellow opining that what the world needed was more people with the fictional author's appreciation for discipline, resolve and will.

To be frank, I don't know what the indictment of Ender's Game consists of, though a few suspicions come to mind. Curiousity was the main reason for my post to Delager in the first place.

Posted by: WB Reeves | Aug 7, 2007 1:14:03 PM

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