Boydstun Posted December 9, 2019 Report Share Posted December 9, 2019 New York Times - Book Reviews Sunday, April 9, 1961 AYN RAND’S PHILOSOPHY: EACH MAN FOR HIMSELF For the New Intellectual: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand. 242 pp. New York: Random House. $3.95. By Sidney Hook It is a daring writer who uses the novel primarily as a vehicle for philosophical ideas. Ayn Rand, author of “The Fountainhead” and “Atlas Shrugged,” regards herself as much a philosopher as a novelist. This is not her only distinction. A dissenter among our current hosts of dissenters, she has made them gag, and shocked them into a healthy awareness that dissent as such has no more virtue than assent. Her ideas have enraged many and at the same time won her a devoted following who are less critical than one would expect of worshipers of reason. Miss Rand’s new book is made up of philosophical excerpts from her novels and a long essay on a new philosophy for the New Intellectual. She defines the New Intellectual as “any man or woman who is willing to think,” and offers this outline of her “objectivist” system for their consideration. Pruned of its repetitions, her philosophy reduces itself to three main contentions. The first is that “all the disasters that have wrecked the world” can be traced to a disregard of the Aristotelian laws of logic, especially the law of identity, A is A. This law is not only the cornerstone of reason but the rule of all knowledge. The second thesis locates the poisoned premise of all modern ethical theory and practice in the principle of altruism, in the belief that “man exists for the pleasure of others.” The third is that capitalism and the free market are the highest expression of human reason and justice; any limitation upon them opens the floodgates of irrationalism, mysticism and force. The book is written with passionate fervor, more in the style of a prophetess of a cult than in the analytic vein of a philosopher. Despite the great play with the word “Reason,” one is struck by the absence of any serious argument in this unique combination of tautology and extravagant absurdity. Since his baptism in medieval times, Aristotle has served many strange purposes. None have been odder than this sacramental alliance, so to speak, of Aristotle with Adam Smith. The extraordinary virtues Miss Rand finds in the law that A is A suggests the she is unaware that logical principles by themselves can test only consistency. They cannot establish truth. Inconsistency is a sign of falsity, but as the existence of consistent liars and paranoiacs indicates, non-consistency is never a sufficient condition of truth. Swearing fidelity to Aristotle, Miss Rand claims to deduce not only matters of fact from logic but with as little warranty ethical rules and economic truths as well. As she understands them, the laws of logic license her in proclaiming “existence exists,” which is vey much like saying that the law of gravitation is heavy and the formula of sugar sweet. After singing Aristotle’s praises as the world’s first intellectual, whose thought is the source of all our freedom, Miss Rand is capable of writing—and in italics, too—“a free mind and a free market are corollaries”—which would locate Aristotle in limbo rather than in Athens. To do her justice, Miss Rand is resolutely opposed to a free market in which human beings are chattels, although she fails to see that this is perfectly compatible with the laws of logic, physics and biology. She is also opposed to the initial use of physical force in human affairs, but sees nothing wrong in the use of economic power to coerce men by starving them. In places Miss Rand suggests that all human beings are by nature inescapably egoistic—a psychological proposition which if true would make her ethical principle pointless. If man by his very nature always seeks his own interest, there is not much point in urging this course of action upon him as a moral duty (though he might be encouraged to improve upon nature and act more selfishly). But as psychology it is clearly false. It rests upon confusing the satisfaction one gets in gratifying any desire, selfish or unselfish, with the object or end of the desire which gives an act its moral quality. As for the ethical theory of egoism, Miss Rand does not really mean that anything desired by any self is good or that others should be sacrificed to oneself. She advocates “a rational egoism” directed not to mean and vulgar goals, but as affecting others, only to persons recognized as ends. Here Miss Rand does herself an injustice by the vehement unclarity of her writing. Her egoism is not lax and hedonistic but instead severe. “Happiness is possible only to rational man, the man who desires nothing but rational goods, seeks nothing but rational values and finds his joy in nothing but rational actions.” In the ordinary sense of these words, the statement is simply false. It is truer to say that in much wisdom there is much grief. But Miss Rand rarely uses words in their ordinary sense. She makes the rational man sound like a calculating monster or a perpetual trader, even in the realm of the spirit. She is unaware of the ambiguities of the term “rational,” and her most frequent use is more consonant with the superstitions of faculty psychology than with modern scientific thought. In some quarters Miss Rand has created a terrifying public image of herself because of her condemnation of unselfishness. But what she really means is that one should not sacrifice oneself for anyone or anything that is morally unworthy or degrading—to which none can object but saints. When we do act to relieve the distress of others or to help them, if our reason does not veto the action, Miss Rand refuses by semantic fiat to call the action altruistic or unselfish. I am confident that even at some danger to herself Miss Rand would not rush out of a burning building and leave a helpless child behind. Nor would she give the child and intelligence test before she sought to rescue it. But she reuses to call such an action unselfish because she falls back on the truism that every voluntary choice is a choice of the self, which she mistakes as an act for oneself. Despite her ferocious tone on this point, Miss Rand is a paper tigress. She is a principled opponent of Hitler and all totalitarians on the ground that it is they who expect men to sacrifice themselves to an abstraction. Logically there is little difference between always recommending a policy of rational selfishness and one of rational unselfishness. Ethically both are inadequate because commitments of this general sort cannot function as guides in choosing conflicting goods and rights. It is enough to settle, in John Erskine’s phrase, for the moral obligation to be intelligent. Ayn Rand’s third proposition about the high morality of capitalism is defended by a very old gambit: like Christianity, capitalism has never been tried! “All the evils popularly ascribed to capitalism were caused, necessitated and made possible only by government controls imposed on the economy.” Disregarding the scandalous looseness of the language, one is appalled by the reckless disregard of historic fact. For example, the horrible forms of child labor which sprang up with the industrial revolution were certainly not caused by government controls. On the contrary, they were eliminated by government controls. Miss Rand’s conception of free enterprise is so extreme that it is safe to predict she will be a serious embarrassment to many of its defenders. Her notions of the proper function of government would turn over even our roads and schools to private hands, abolish all health services, and let the unemployed rot. She has no use for historical materialism but invokes its dogmas in her claim that all public ownership necessarily is destructive of political and cultural freedom, which is logically a non sequitur and historically false. Marx’ indictment of capitalism, that “it has degraded personal dignity to the level of exchange value,” she hails as its chief moral virtue, and sees justice, not degradation, in putting a money value on all things. One does not have to be a professional philosopher to write an interesting book on philosophy, but it cannot be done by substituting denunciation for analysis and mouthing slogans instead of considering problems. Just as not all who cry “Peace! Peace!” mean it, not all who cry “Reason! Reason!” use it. The language of reason does not justify references to economists with whom one disagrees as “frantic cowards,” or to philosophers as “intellectual hoodlums who pose as professors.” This is the way philosophy is written in the Soviet Union. In a free culture there must always be room for vigorous polemic and controversy but civility of mind is integral to the concept of a civilized society. Quote Link to comment Share on other sites More sharing options...
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