Food for Thought #13: John Galt, Idiot

As this blog finally takes on John Galt’s infamous speech, it’s worth tying together all we’ve learned about Ayn Rand and Objectivism so far:

The Atlas Society, Washington’s most explicitly Randian think tank, declares on its website that Rand’s work

was credited by stunned intellectuals as having single-handedly solved an ancient philosophical puzzle.

Sounds impressive! Except not only does Ayn’s writing fail to actually do this, but she is ignored as a crackpot among mainstream philosophers. Why oh why might that be?

The plot of Atlas is a riff on F.A. Hayek’s road to serfdom argument. But Hayek’s belief in the moral superiority of laissez faire capitalism was based on the premise that it produced the best humanitarian outcomes — a consequentialist moral logic. By this reasoning, Hayek tempered his libertarianism by admitting that some form of universal health insurance and a bare-bones social safety net would be wise for human stability and prosperity.

By contrast, Ayn argues for her even more radical libertarianism — really, anarcho-capitalism — in morally absolutist terms. In contrast to Hayek’s consequentialist ethics, Rand’s are deontological, or rule-based. Hey, you know what system of thought is traditionally associated with an absolutist, rule-based morality? Yep, religious thought! Even though she is an atheist rationalist materialist, Rand’s morality is awkwardly akin to a declaration of faith — faith in what? The infallibility of her own reasoning.

But since honest faith is anathema to Rand’s sensibilities, she claims to have objectified and quantified her belief in moral justice by declaring money a measure of it.

Awkward: this is effectively synonymous with the prosperity gospel practiced by many evangelical Christians today. Man, did Ayn Rand hate Christians. Nonetheless, both she and Joel Osteen claim that adopting the right metaphysical value judgments will inevitably lead to material success.

This position of a moral law also evokes religious ideas of karma and ‘right action’ sourced from the non-theistic eastern philosophies that she hates even more than Christianity, if that’s possible. Taoism and Buddhism preach that emptying one’s self of passions and desires will make one sensitive to the true nature of the world, and thereby allow one to live in harmony with reality — what a Christian might describe as acting by the grace of God.  Similarly, John Galt warns Dagny that she will have to learn the wisdom of non-attachment to join the elect in their utopian Atlantis. Jai guru galta om?

So the mechanisms of moral reckoning and spiritual alignment in Objectivism are not all that different than those of religious tradition. It should be no surprise that the intellectual pitfalls of faith that Ayn inveighs against — denial of reality, blindness to man’s nature, epistemic closure — are all sins that Ayn herself commits.

Yet Rand doubles down! She commands her believers to mistrust all other sources of potentially authoritative knowledge. She adapts Shakespeare’s famous “First let’s kill all the lawyers,” into “First let’s kill all the teachers.” She considers science — and particularly physics, the fundamental science that investigates the nature of material reality — corrupt, as illustrated in Atlas Shrugged by the character of Doc Stadler and noted in this excellent 2009 essay by Jonathan Chait. This is the behavior of a cult leader.

In short Ayn Rand is glaringly ignorant about her own metacognition. By indiscriminately applying Aristotle’s law of the excluded middle to propositions that do not fulfill its requirements, she tricks herself into holding beliefs that are strikingly similar to the beliefs she hates most, because her logical process dictates they must be exact mirror images of each other. She fails to see that diametrically opposed points are symmetrical.

Ayn obscures her philosophical incompetence (from herself as much as from her readers) by presenting the fictional world of Atlas Shrugged as if it accurately accounts for objective reality. Never mind that her interpretation of modern and ancient history is riddled with errors and mischaracterizations, quickly disproving any equivalence between her Objectiverse and the actual universe. She seems to think she can validate Objectivism regardless by proving it true in the Objectiverse, which she created for the specific purpose of proving Objectivism true.

It’s no wonder that someone so solipsistic would wind up making criticisms of faith and ideology that apply best to her own. And no wonder that such a self-contradicting thinker would claim to champion progress and intellectual innovation while vilifying one hundred years’ worth of it. Atlas Shrugged is not the solution to an ancient philosophical puzzle; it’s a crappy pulp novel from 1957 that might have been an intriguing sci-fi novel… in 1857.

A couple of weeks ago, Jennifer Burns, author of Goddess of the Marketnoted on The Colbert Report that Ayn’s last published piece of writing was a warning about Ronald Reagan.

Ayn thought Reagan’s fusion of religiosity and political ideology would be a disaster for America. And yet that combustible mix is exactly what Ayn herself has advanced, despite a truly epic number of logical contortions adopted to avoid this self-awareness (in the psychological style of Jim Taggart, her nihilistic antagonist).

For all her nominal praise of intelligence and advancement, she expressed views that are anti-education, anti-science, anti-social, pro-greed, and pro-apocalypse. She invented an alternate reality, filled it with nostalgia for an earlier era that never existed, and then called this a prophecy and a way forward.

So when Ayn Rand darkly foretold the now-obvious long-term consequences of Ronald Reagan’s political coalition, she was just as accurately condemning herself, and the happy absorption of her beliefs into that very same coalition is the proof.

Objectivism isn’t some sound philosophy with which to disagree. It is a failure by its own standards: it is a contradiction that must be maintained by its believers to avoid grappling with an objective reality they are not prepared to deal with, in the style of Jim Taggart, Rand’s nihilistic…  well, you get the idea.

Who is John Galt? A joke.

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