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Misconceptions of Objectivism/Ayn Rand

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I'm trying to compile a list of common misconceptions of Objectivism. I find so many people have misunderstandings (or maybe purposeful 'misinterpretations') on different forums, I'd like to have an easy to access reply. This is what I have so far, please critique, add, and everything else :(

Misconceptions of Objectivism

1. Self-sacrifice

A true objectivist would never stop to help a stranger who has a flat tire on the side of the road, he would never donate money to help starving children in Africa, and he would never jump in front of a bullet to save another's life. Because all these constitute self-sacrifice, right? Wrong. Ayn Rand defined sacrifice as "...the surrender of a greater value for the sake of a lesser one or of a nonvalue."1 Most people understand this to mean a dollar value or a material value, this is wrong. Let's look at the first example, stopping to help a stranger on the side of the road. This does not necessarily constitute a sacrifice, helping people can give one a sense of value; it can make you feel good about yourself. Because of me someone will get home to their family, I was able to turn a negative situation around for someone and that makes me proud of myself. Now, let's say you are rushing to get your injured or pregnant wife to the hospital, and you see a stranger stranded on the side of the road. Stopping then obviously WOULD constitute a sacrifice and would be anti-objectivist.

2. Selfishness

"Selfishness" to most people means thinking only about yourself and happily stepping on others to get what you want. This is not the "rational self-interest" Ayn Rand meant. To an objectivist, the right to pursue your own happiness also means respecting another's right to do the same. Ayn Rand said: "If [a Machiavellian type] decides to follow his own self-interest but to respect nobody else's, he is no longer on an objective moral base, but on a hedonistic, whim-worshipping base. If so, he has disqualified himself; he is claiming a contradiction. If he wants to maintain rationally his own self-interest, and claim he has a case for his right to self-interest, then he must concede that the ground on which he claims his right to self-interest also applies to every other human being."2 Another clarifying passage: "The Objectivist ethics holds that human good does not require human sacrifices and cannot be achieved by the sacrifice of anyone to anyone. It holds that the rational interests of men do not clash—that there is no conflict of interests among men who do not desire the unearned, who do not make sacrifices nor accept them, who deal with one another as traders, giving value for value."3

1. “The Ethics of Emergencies,” The Virtue of Selfishness, pg 44.

2. Ayn Rand Answers, pg 110.

3. “The Objectivist Ethics,” The Virtue of Selfishness, 31.

Not much so far, I hope you guys can add to this...

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Emotion

Many people assume that because Objectivism says emotions are not ways to make a rational decision, that Objectivism necessarily discards emotion. The idea of a robotic-Objectivist unable to experience happiness, love, etc. is prevalent. However, Objectivism holds that emotions are proper - contextually. "Your subconscious is like a computer—more complex a computer than men can build—and its main function is the integration of your ideas. Who programs it? Your conscious mind. If you default, if you don’t reach any firm convictions, your subconscious is programmed by chance—and you deliver yourself into the power of ideas you do not know you have accepted. But one way or the other, your computer gives you print-outs, daily and hourly, in the form of emotions—which are lightning-like estimates of the things around you, calculated according to your values"

-Ayn rand, “Philosophy: Who Needs It,” 5.

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This thread should be of help to you. It's a discussion on the reasons why people leave Objectivism behind them, and highlights some very prominent misconceptions.

I have observed a misconception that comes when a non-Objectivist hears that an Objectivist measures all values by a scale of his own life, and places nothing above the standard of his life. They think this means that, therefore, since everyone is 'worth less' than yourself, everyone else must be 'worthless' or at least not as good as you. The extension, that I suspect they think this leads to, is that therefore, you are better than everyone else, are a complete egomaniac, and can do with anyone else what you wish (force-wise).

The confusion here is between two different measures of worth. You can measure someone by their value to your life and say they are worth so much in relation to you. Or, you could measure someone by some other standard, maybe by how productive they are, or just how moral they are, and there, you could proclaim someone to be worth more, by that standard, than you. But the ultimate standard, of personal moral worth remains, and one cannot claim another person's existential worth to be more than oneself, without destroying the very meaning of value.

Essentially, it's a kind of bait and switch. You believe that, ethically, it is impossible for anyone to be worth more than yourself, and then they remove the 'ethically' bit and make it out that Objectivists simply think they're 'better' than everyone else, without mentioning by what standard Objectivists - and why they think everyone should - think themselves 'better' than everyone else.

Edited by Tenure
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  • 1 year later...

*** Mod's note: Merged with an earlier topic. -sN ***

I thought it would be cool, and useful, if we could possibly make a list of numbered points (i.e. 1. 2. 3., obviously put into proper, encompassing categories/subjects) that clarified points about Objectivism or Ayn Rand herself in regards to common misconceptions, falsehoods, and so on. An easy example would be where people think that Ayn Rand's philosophy of selfishness means charity is bad, when this is not true.

If you guys would like to do this I think it would be great. Just bring up some things you prefer to mention and clarify. I will slowly add them to this original post in list form. This way we can use it for easy reference or even print it out for people that show interest in Objectivism in the future. I think this would be really handy and we may learn things ourselves, or clarify certain issues better along the way.

Edited by softwareNerd
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I thought it would be cool, and useful, if we could possibly make a list of numbered points (i.e. 1. 2. 3., obviously put into proper, encompassing categories/subjects) that clarified points about Objectivism or Ayn Rand herself in regards to common misconceptions, falsehoods, and so on. An easy example would be where people think that Ayn Rand's philosophy of selfishness means charity is bad, when this is not true.

If you guys would like to do this I think it would be great. Just bring up some things you prefer to mention and clarify. I will slowly add them to this original post in list form. This way we can use it for easy reference or even print it out for people that show interest in Objectivism in the future. I think this would be really handy and we may learn things ourselves, or clarify certain issues better along the way.

I think this might be a futile exercise:

1. Objectivists should not have misconceptions; so they would not be the best contributors.

2. Non-Obj.s are not the primary focus on these forums.

3. Obj.s would have to do the work of providing the discussion about each perceived misconception. And there are not many who would do the kind of job - at least without a lot of effort - that would easily be understood by the non-Obj.s.

4. It could confuse readers into thinking that there are unclear areas of Obj., per se, rather than simply unclear thoughts of the contributors or readers.

There exists the A.R. Lexicon and other materials that are already available from which people can learn what is necessary to get past the perceived misconceptions. Why re-create?

Edited by TLD
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I think this might be a futile exercise:

1. Objectivists should not have misconceptions; so they would not be the best contributors.

2. Non-Obj.s are not the primary focus on these forums.

3. Obj.s would have to do the work of providing the discussion about each perceived misconception. And there are not many who would do the kind of job - at least without a lot of effort - that would easily be understood by the non-Obj.s.

4. It could confuse readers into thinking that there are unclear areas of Obj., per se, rather than simply unclear thoughts of the contributors or readers.

I strongly disagree.

1. While Objectivists, by definition, do not have major misconceptions about Objectivism, many of them are very well acquainted with misconceptions afloat in media/culture.

2. It is irrelevant that non-Objectivists are not the primary focus on this forum. What matters is that doubts and misconceptions are frequently, if not primarily, addressed in several topics and debates.

3. There may not be many Objectivists interested in addressing the issue of misconceptions. But there are most certainly some, as evident in the previous thread 'Howard Roark' posted above. Those Objectivists who frequently debate or teach non-Objectivists are likely to find value in addressing this issue.

4. Misconception - [noun] a false or mistaken idea or belief. (Oxford Dictionary)

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In my assessment, Objectivism makes for a much more benevolent and happy world than any other philosophy (or religion) I know of. If the competition is between altruism and egoism, then egoism wins hands down when it comes to valuing other people, because you really do value them. It's not some sacrificial thing. Objectivism is win, win, win, win all around. I also think that implicitly, at least, people who value their kids, or their friends, or even strangers to the extent possible, do so on the basis of egoism, i.e. real values to themselves. They just don't see it as selfish, because magically the word selfish is considered to be not so good.

Also, when you act on an altruistic basis you are really saying to those you "help" I don't value you, but I'll help you anyway, because that's what altruism is about, sacrifice. After all, if you are gaining a value by helping others, then that is egoistic. And the recipient of the help has to be egoistic in accepting something that helps him, so is he evil for accepting?

When you look under the hood at altruism you find it's completely anti-life, and the opposite of what it is claimed to be. Just be analytical and break it down. By the same token, when you break down rational egoism you find it to be the source of benevolence and good will.

So, you know, I'm convinced fully, and that gives me confidence to spread this valuable point whenever I can.

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I strongly disagree.

1. While Objectivists, by definition, do not have major misconceptions about Objectivism, many of them are very well acquainted with misconceptions afloat in media/culture.

2. It is irrelevant that non-Objectivists are not the primary focus on this forum. What matters is that doubts and misconceptions are frequently, if not primarily, addressed in several topics and debates.

3. There may not be many Objectivists interested in addressing the issue of misconceptions. But there are most certainly some, as evident in the previous thread 'Howard Roark' posted above. Those Objectivists who frequently debate or teach non-Objectivists are likely to find value in addressing this issue.

4. Misconception - [noun] a false or mistaken idea or belief. (Oxford Dictionary)

I see your perspective. However:

1. there are so many concepts and ideas that could conceivably go into this category, this could simply become a tutorial on Obj. overall; and that is not the purpose of this forum as I see it. I could go into the Lexicon and come up with over 100 "misconceptions"; but so could one learning Obj.

2. looking at the examples above, most are incomplete explanations that will raise more questions by non-Obj.s. Thus, each "misconception" becomes a thread of its own - created by Obj.s, not by people trying to learn who will still independently ask their own questions however redundant.

3. As the same "misconceptions" come up with new questions, the explanations in your list will need to be constantly updated.

But maybe there are a few who will find value in continuing this near-endless exercise.

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I see your perspective. However:

1. there are so many concepts and ideas that could conceivably go into this category, this could simply become a tutorial on Obj. overall; and that is not the purpose of this forum as I see it. I could go into the Lexicon and come up with over 100 "misconceptions"; but so could one learning Obj.

2. looking at the examples above, most are incomplete explanations that will raise more questions by non-Obj.s. Thus, each "misconception" becomes a thread of its own - created by Obj.s, not by people trying to learn who will still independently ask their own questions however redundant.

3. As the same "misconceptions" come up with new questions, the explanations in your list will need to be constantly updated.

But maybe there are a few who will find value in continuing this near-endless exercise.

These 'howevers' have no connection to your previous points, or my response to that. However(!), here is my response:

1. The OP as well as Jennifer were both concerned only about "common misconceptions" and not every instance of mis-integration by somebody somewhere.

2. Even if they "raise more questions", so what? That is not the point. The idea is to put common misconceptions for "easy reference" and clarification as OP and Jennifer suggest.

3. As far as I can tell, the "common misconceptions" have not changed much since the publication of Atlas Shrugged.

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These 'howevers' have no connection to your previous points, or my response to that. However(!), here is my response:

1. The OP as well as Jennifer were both concerned only about "common misconceptions" and not every instance of mis-integration by somebody somewhere.

2. Even if they "raise more questions", so what? That is not the point. The idea is to put common misconceptions for "easy reference" and clarification as OP and Jennifer suggest.

3. As far as I can tell, the "common misconceptions" have not changed much since the publication of Atlas Shrugged.

^---THIS

Thank you for not over analyzing this. Honestly, if you don't want to participate, then don't. Let the people that wish to do so without clogging up the thread.

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Well, if he were to replace "Objectivism fails" with "LF Capitalism Fails", which is slightly more accurate, I would see nothing wrong with his post.

Replacing "George Bush" with "Alan Greenspan" would also put that criticism on the map. You hear that one alot... "Greenspan, an adherent of Ayn Rand's Objectivism, screwed up the economy...." blah blah.

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I'm trying to compile a list of common misconceptions of Objectivism. I find so many people have misunderstandings (or maybe purposeful 'misinterpretations') on different forums, I'd like to have an easy to access reply. This is what I have so far, please critique, add, and everything else :)

Ayn Rand's attack on altruism is an attack on benevolence and good will among men.

What Ayn Rand actually did was to recognize that the principle motivating altruism is ultimately antagonistic to genuine benevolence and good will. Altruism, as the claim that one's fundamental moral duty is to serve others, places others in an antagonistic relationship to one's own well-being. I can either be selfish or moral, but not both. Such a fundamental principle ultimately breeds hatred among men. True benevolence can only be predicated on a mutual understanding of each man's own primary importance to himself. What Ayn Rand did was to detach benevolence from its companion in the popular mindset, altruism, and show that the two are actually both separable and antagonistic.

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Excuse me! I thought I was trying to prevent "clogging" by pointing out the relevance of this thread (to a detractor). I'll appreciate if you can pay more attention.

Your reply was quoted approvingly, then you were thanked. Pay attention, the general 'you' was not aimed at 'you' in particular.

On topic:

Misconception: a person's worth is equivalent to his wealth, rich people are good people and poor people are bad people.

Truth: rationality should be of great assistance in keeping a person out of the gutter, but beyond a certain point moral and economic worth are not correlated, especially in a mixed economy where political pull makes people rich.

Edited by Grames
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Are the mods going to start a separate, pinned, thread on these results? After a few false starts, some good stuff on emotions, altruism, wealth etc., is coming in.

I particularly liked Dante's rebuttal of altruism.

This is going to be useful.

Edited by whYNOT
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Ayn Rand's attack on altruism is an attack on benevolence and good will among men.

I think that must be a typo, going by what you follow it up with.

What Ayn Rand actually did was to recognize that the principle motivating altruism is ultimately antagonistic to genuine benevolence and good will. Altruism, as the claim that one's fundamental moral duty is to serve others, places others in an antagonistic relationship to one's own well-being. I can either be selfish or moral, but not both. Such a fundamental principle ultimately breeds hatred among men. True benevolence can only be predicated on a mutual understanding of each man's own primary importance to himself. What Ayn Rand did was to detach benevolence from its companion in the popular mindset, altruism, and show that the two are actually both separable and antagonistic.
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