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Is Objectivism Hopelessly Naive

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Swerve of Shore
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Despite the purposely provocative title, this post is intended to provoke serious discussion. In a discussion in another thread, I said that I found Objectivism to be too simplistic and that this view underlies most of my posts. Here I will make it explicit.

My jumping-off point was a discussion of the “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” maxim. As a teenager, this maxim had significant resonance for me, but I have since realized it was derived from an overly simplistic worldview. I find Objectivism to have much truth within it, but to suffer from the same fault of simplicity (though obviously in a different direction).

Far from being the outgrowth of “monstrous evil” as Ayn Rand argues, the maxim reflects a hopelessly naive view of mankind’s nature and altruistic instincts. The “monstrous evil” that does, I agree, result from this maxim and other Communist ideas is, I would argue, a certain but unintended consequence of this naivety.

But, first, a digression: while I believe the maxim reflects an overly optimistic view of human nature, it also reflects an extremely pessimistic view of human potential. That is, the maxim essentially assumes that there will be no “surplus” created by human endeavours. It assumes that the full realization of everybody’s abilities still creates only enough to satisfy everybody’s needs. There would be no surplus that can be used to satisfy people’s wants and desires.

First, the maxim is naive in assuming that everybody would desire to work to their full abilities without any incentive to do so other than seeing their needs and everyone else’s being satisfied. As such, it saps the creative vigour of healthy competition and drains the very desire to work. The “pie” that is created will necessarily be less than the one that could be created. Second, the maxim is naive in assuming that there is some objective or natural way to determine whether people are fulfilling their abilities or what people’s true needs are. Rand’s parable of Twentieth Century Motor Company in Atlas Shrugged (AS) – as well as Orwell’s Animal Farm (AF) – show the monstrous evil that results: there is no need for me to spell it out here. The opportunistic and immoral (like AS’s Gerald and Ivy Starnes or the pigs in AF) will always take advantage of this naivety. But even the hardworking ordinary people, like the TWMC workers in AS, will necessarily be corrupted by trying to make these impossible determinations (although Boxer, the horse in AF, never was corrupted).

Now, I come to the title of my post. I think that Objectivism’s worldview is equally naive and simplistic. It assumes that, left to their own in a laissez faire environment, the “best and the brightest” will compete and achieve in a fashion consistent with Objectivist morality. Hank Reardon is AS’s Boxer the horse. He is never corrupted by the power that he could wield using his phenomenal intellect, but instead always focuses on his work. He will not collude with his competitors or lobby for legislation that favors his industry. But how does this compare with what the titans of industry do in real life? The Robber Barons were clearly men of great intellect and capability – the railroads could never have been built without them. But they used collusion, bribery, violence and many other vices – vices that Objectivism soundly condemns – to further increase their fortunes and their power.

My argument is two-fold. Objectivist or capitalist principles are necessary and proper in order to create the surplus that mankind is capable of creating while giving people meaning for their exertions. But collectivist principles (e.g., democracy itself) and regulation are necessary to tame the excesses that will naturally result from giving unrestrained power to the elite and to ensure a fairer and more just society. Both Objectivist or Collectivist philosophies alone are overly simplistic and necessarily will result in injustice and evil.

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My argument is two-fold. Objectivist or capitalist principles are necessary and proper in order to create the surplus... ...
Your argument really attacks the typical conservative viewpoint, not Objectivism. The typical neo-con will tell you two things: first, that altruism is natural and good; and, second, that governments should organize their economies in a way that maximizes the common good and overall wealth. Objectivism says neither.

Objectivism says that altruism is evil and that the sole purpose of governments is to protect individual rights.

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Your worry is, if I understand it, that Rand was naive to think that her vision of capitalism accurately reflects the reality of everyday life, or of historical capitalism. Okay, I would agree with this statement insofar that I would agree that a freed market would not resemble the current system or historical abuses. But that hardly seems to me a strike against the objectivist ideal, unless you make the mistake of thinking objectivist principles justify those features of the current and historical capitalist systems which were actually the result of government privilege rather than market factors.

You seem to be conflating both conditions together under the single term of "capitalism" throughout your post.

Edited by 2046
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The idea that 'politics' or 'economics' are some how separate and malliable is a naive idea. Rand's greatest philosophic accomplishment may well be the extend to which her thinking recognized and integrated human nature throughout her entire philosophy. I think the hardest aspect to recognize in her thinking is the revolutionary theory of concept formation along with how reason 'works'.

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The act of living like a man in accordance with his nature is not simplistic. It is likely the hardest thing I see people do, since it requires a conscious choice to do so, scrupulous honesty and reason to determine what to do, and the will to act on it. It is easy to take a short cut and the crime of today is that we have collectivists piling up to demand that those who live like individuals should be forced to help those who don’t. Punting the act of living like a man to someone else so you don’t have to do it is the ideology that is simplistic which is likely why it has dominated mankind’s history.

It is hard to be a thoughtful adult that lives like a man and way to easy to be a clever child of any age.

Edited by Spiral Architect
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I'm not clear what you're referring to. Are you saying the OP suggested that these two are separate? That Rand did?

I meant the OP seemed to me to not understand Rand's philosophy as it concerns the role of integration, as the argument seems to be based on a very loose idea of society. I understand the concept society to refer to the idea that society denotes all the generalities concerned with describing a group of individuals that live in geographic proximity and follow similar laws and customs. Not society as an existencial existent apart from such a description. It then seems the OP also has the same notion of what concepts like capitalism, communism and altruism refer to.

I think it shows the failure of the understanding of integration in Rand's philosophy and also highlights how revolutionary her ideas are.

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Capitalism is in a sense metaphysical, it describes actions of entities that act in the most efficient means possible. Without anthropromorphising one can describe rabbit metabolism as capitalistic in that the calories gained by eating are greater than the amount expended to find food sources. Even if man existed separately on individual isolated habitats the nature of survival is based on efficiency. If one had to physically produce every item needed to sustain their existence the achievment of that goal would be based against how efficient were their actions. There would be no benefit to producing n twice as much food needed for sustenance nor a fourth of that amount.

Edited by tadmjones
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In a rational society the voluntary trade of value for value between individuals is capitalism, a quantitative analysis of the units of the store of wealth in an 'advanced' division of labor society would be termed economics with the understanding one was describing an aspect or characteristic of the actions of individuals taken as an aggragate.

Edited by tadmjones
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Now, I come to the title of my post. I think that Objectivism’s worldview is equally naive and simplistic. It assumes that, left to their own in a laissez faire environment, the “best and the brightest” will compete and achieve in a fashion consistent with Objectivist morality.

This is not correct. It is not a natural or default behavior to be be moral, it must be learned. Many lessons must be learned before learning to be moral.

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This is not correct. It is not a natural or default behavior to be be moral, it must be learned. Many lessons must be learned before learning to be moral.

I don't see the OP saying Rand thought moral behavior was a default behavior, I interpreted him as saying something like he takes Rand to believe that if we don't have governmental regulations of business, then we essentially are blindly trusting or assuming the wealthy and powerful elite will act in a non predatory way, like Rearden; whereas he thinks this naive, and so supports governmental regulations to control this unethical behavior.

In this case, I think he conflates two different meanings of capitalism, and possesses what I would consider a naive view about governmental regulations actually achieving his goal, rather than existing for the exact opposite reason.

Edited by 2046
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On the contrary, I take his charge to be essentially that a lassiez-faire capitalist (LFC) society is a form of utopianism, and so is marxism. But I reject that, an LFC society will be populated by both good and evil people, and a mass of mixed premises people who perform both good and evil acts. The point of a free society is to be free, which is not the same as well-fed or happy or just. Just as atheism is merely the negation of a particular kind of mistake, an LFC society simply rules out a set of political errors which are a major source of injustice. There are other sources of injustice besides government.

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I think others already have the "why Objectivism isn't naive/too simplistic" thing being taken care of, so I'm just commenting on something I haven't seen anybody mention yet. The problem with Marxism isn't that the idea it is based on is too simple but instead that the idea is just incorrect. Simple and wrong do not always overlap. In the case of Marxism I don't think the problem is primarily that the ideas it is founded upon are leaving out information but that they are based on false information.

Mistake 1:The amount of value in existence is neither unchanging nor at some set ratio.

The unchanging view of value as far as I've seen is typically based on failing to distinguish between matter/energy and value. Yes, we can't create matter and energy, but we can get increasingly efficient in how much use we can get out of what matter and energy there is. Value is not an innate property of objects, it depends on what we can come up with to do with them (not to mention that not everybody will have the same goals --> not everybody will have the same stuff they intend to do with things --> varied utility of objects from person to person --> different value of the same thing from one person to another.) Where a sort of ratio idea may come from, like on average each person can only produce X amount or X percentage of what is made, I have no idea. Certainly it isn't based on observation. I'm guessing now, but it probably is related to the equating of value and matter/energy thing and maybe it involves some failure to distinguish between all people having the same basic nature qua humans and what each individual person may do given that nature.

Mistake 2: Furthermore it seems to be founded upon an incorrect idea that people have an innate desire or obligation to do everything in their power to ensure that every other person survives as long as possible no matter what.

If they think the desire is innate, maybe somebody just had that desire and didn't know where it came from or recall a time it wasn't there so they concluded it was born in. I'm pretty sure though either this was not what was thought or else it must have included a notion of somehow getting rid of "bad apples" who weren't born with such a desire since murder happens and so obviously not everybody has such a desire. (Not saying only murderers lack such a desire of course, just that it is an obvious example. :P ) Maybe there was the thought that we weren't born with the desire but that once it was tried it was inevitably pleasurable? Still, see above about murderers though - I'm sure such people have tried at some point in their lives pre-murdering to do stuff to support other people, so either inevitable pleasure isn't the idea or the bad apples thing applies again. As for the obligation view point, that one falls into intrinsicism and it's flaws. It may be from just feeling like that obligation is part of how things are regardless of any consideration of desire. Obviously, feelings can be wrong, they aren't an argument or evidence as far as how the outside world goes on their own. Maybe it could be related though to what I mentioned above about failing to distinguish between everybody having the same basic nature qua humans and what we can and do choose to do with that nature, concluding that we're all the same thing so we must all be equally valuable (intrinsically/innately again) and have the same way we should be treated, given the same standard of living and that each person must always have the same propriety of remaining alive ("everybody is the same, so if Joe Schmo over there doesn't get enough food to eat, then you shouldn't either any more than if one block of ice melts at 33 degrees F than the same applies to another block of ice.") This sort of view though would lead to insisting on giving people the same/equal stuff and standard of living even if they did manage to get a surplus.

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I do not think that slogan is meant to capture all of Marxism. It certainly captures the egalitarian notions of Marxism, but there is a whole lot more to it than that. I do not know a great deal about Marxism, but I at least know Marx put a lot of thought into describing what he thought was how capitalism works. The issue is primarily that the facts are construed a certain way, leading to conclusions that capitalism creates misery for the working class. Those conclusions are also based on philosophical principles particularly influenced by Hegel, which would be deep enough that I wouldn't even say it's naive, even if wrong. Perhaps some people who hold that phrase as their core principle are naive, but the basis to the maxim isn't like that. It's not optimistic about human nature, that's why it's explicitly for worldwide revolution, which Russians like Lenin tried to enact. The real argument to make isn't about how realistic it is, but how it is implicitly against achievement of individuals.

Objectivism doesn't say anything about all people being rational in the Adam Smith sense of rational. Adam Smith suggests irrationality is an anomaly, thus can be ignored as far as economics is concerned. Because of that principle, capitalism is presented as a system which always produces the best results, almost by definition. Leave people alone, and they'll do what's best according to what is rational. This is not a principle Objectivism uses.

Along the lines of what Grames is saying, just as the world is populated with good and evil people, the world is filled with rational or irrational people. Objectivism doesn't make claims about either being aspects of human nature. What is fundamental is that all people are rational animals. They have a rational faculty, so they are able to think in terms of concepts, language, abstractions, etc. Doing all this isn't automatic, and certainly people can make epistemologically bad abstractions. Animals like bluejays or bees don't have that ability, even though they both do some pretty amazing stuff. At the very least, all Objectivism supposes is that in order to have the best kind of society, it is necessary for people to be able to use rational thought - even if some (or many!) people are irrational. The only thing that prevents individuals from thinking rationally initiation of force. There is no supposition that everyone will be dancing under rainbows while it rains gumdrops (living in utopia) as soon as LFC comes to be.

As for regulations to tame excesses, what kind of regulations are you speaking of? It's a very broad term, and sometimes people use it to refer to any limitation, including limitations that Objectivism would support (i.e. if you are deliberately putting poison into your cereal, that should be "regulated" in the sense that it would be legally banned).

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Marx said capitalism was necessary, and that the capitalists should be left alone to complete the work of providing an industrially based society. Then the state would take over and set the workers to establishing a paradise , ..from each.., and then the stage would be set and the state could wither away and mankind would live happily ever after. Equals brotherly love and all that

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The issue is there is no compromise with collectivism. Collectivism is the political system that resulted in the murder of 140+ million “workers” through planned peacetime policies to build the “worker’s paradise”. How do you compromise with that? How many people do you plan to control or sacrifice? There is no compromising with a body count.

Individual rights are simplistic? Tell that to the Cambodian Killing Fields.

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A lot of good stuff here that will take me some time to digest. But let me put my comment about naivete of Objectivism in a nutshell: Galt's Gulch. It is clearly a Utopian ideal. Putting aside technological objections (e.g., where did they get the electricity), Galt's Gulch could not happen in real life because it would be impossible to find 50 or 100 or 500 (or, I believe, even 5 or 10) people who not only are genius movers-and-shakers but also would strictly adhere to Objectivist morality. My point was NOT how capitalism is a corruption of Objectivism, but rather that human beings are inherently corrupt and corruptible and that Objectivism (like Maoism) seems to think humans are perfectible.

Having rephrased the question, let me take a shot at answering it. Comments here and my own ponderings have led me to see a possible solution. I'd like to know what others think of it. Here it is: Objectivism is not expected to be a natural state of being. Rather, it is intended to be an ideal state that democratic institutions would strive to acheive if the public were to accept Objectivism as the ideal. The goal of those on this forum is to educate people to this end. The fact that nobody acheives Objectivist (or Christian or any other moral system) ideals perfectly does not mean that they should not strive to use them as the basis for institutions (i.e., the law, the police and the courts).

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Swerve, can you please explain to me what you mean when you say human beings are "corruptible?" Because it seems to me that Objectivism accepts that all people are fallible, even to the point of requiring constant focus toward understanding and implementing moral/ethical ideas.

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A lot of good stuff here that will take me some time to digest. But let me put my comment about naivete of Objectivism in a nutshell: Galt's Gulch. It is clearly a Utopian ideal. Putting aside technological objections (e.g., where did they get the electricity), Galt's Gulch could not happen in real life because it would be impossible to find 50 or 100 or 500 (or, I believe, even 5 or 10) people who not only are genius movers-and-shakers but also would strictly adhere to Objectivist morality. My point was NOT how capitalism is a corruption of Objectivism, but rather that human beings are inherently corrupt and corruptible and that Objectivism (like Maoism) seems to think humans are perfectible.

Having rephrased the question, let me take a shot at answering it. Comments here and my own ponderings have led me to see a possible solution. I'd like to know what others think of it. Here it is: Objectivism is not expected to be a natural state of being. Rather, it is intended to be an ideal state that democratic institutions would strive to acheive if the public were to accept Objectivism as the ideal. The goal of those on this forum is to educate people to this end. The fact that nobody acheives Objectivist (or Christian or any other moral system) ideals perfectly does not mean that they should not strive to use them as the basis for institutions (i.e., the law, the police and the courts).

I agree, was actually formulating a response based on this very idea, thankfully you happen to be more articulate than I.or eh me.

Edited by tadmjones
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Swerve, can you please explain to me what you mean when you say human beings are "corruptible?" Because it seems to me that Objectivism accepts that all people are fallible, even to the point of requiring constant focus toward understanding and implementing moral/ethical ideas.

I mean something along the line of the "power corrupts" axiom. When someone achieves great success, they often come to think of it as something that is natural and "owed to them". Then, even if they were not corrupt originally, they will begin to rationalize corrupt actions to perpetuate their success as rightful: e.g., my industry ought to get special protection from the legislature because it is so important to the country's well-being - or, more likely in an Objectivist context, my company ought to receive special tax breaks that are not available to others.

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My point was NOT how capitalism is a corruption of Objectivism, but rather that human beings are inherently corrupt and corruptible and that Objectivism (like Maoism) seems to think humans are perfectible.

Straw man. There is nothing in Objectivism that even comes close to that statement. There's nothing in Objectivism that an honest reader could ever interpret as that, by mistake, either.

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I mean something along the line of the "power corrupts" axiom. When someone achieves great success, they often come to think of it as something that is natural and "owed to them". Then, even if they were not corrupt originally, they will begin to rationalize corrupt actions to perpetuate their success as rightful: e.g., my industry ought to get special protection from the legislature because it is so important to the country's well-being - or, more likely in an Objectivist context, my company ought to receive special tax breaks that are not available to others.

Where are you getting your information about Objectivism from? You don't even know the Objectivist position on taxes. If you did, you wouldn't say that there is such a thing as a tax break in an Objectivist context.

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No, seriously, where ARE you getting your info about Oism? Here you say, ". . . Putting aside technological objections (e.g., where did they get the electricity), Galt's Gulch . . ." They answered where the electricity in the gulch came from. It was a rather important feature in the story.

Edited by bluecherry
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