Sunday, July 02, 2017

Analyzing Ayn Rand

With Ayn Rand, either you love her or you hate her. I have read a number of her books. What follows is an analysis of she was right about and what she was wrong about.

First, what she was wrong about.

Probably her most destructive stance was her condemnation of environmentalism. She saw nature as only resources for human consumption and thought that environmentalism was against progress. While there are some in the environmentalist movement who are in fact against technology, any number of others aren't; and I am friends with a scientist and an engineer named Arindam Banerjee who has a pioneering energy technology invention ( There is no contradiction between environmentalism and progress; a progress toward smarter technologies will allow people to have everything that they have now and more while making the burden lighter on nature. An argument that needs to be made is that people have not created nature or anything approaching nature in intricacy or complexity; and it is wrong to blindly plunder the magnificent masterpieces in the forms of animals and forests that one cannot recreate. I have not seen this obvious argument being made; but if nobody else wants to make it, I will.

Another wrongful stance was claiming the government to be the sole source of tyranny and corruption. In fact there are many entities that are capable of tyranny and corruption. There are corrupt and tyrannical bosses; corrupt and tyrannical parents; corrupt and tyrannical religious sects; corrupt networks in law and medicine; all sorts of shady organizations. In Western democracies, governments are elected, official, accountable, checked and balanced; these other entities are not. And this allows them to get away with greater acts of tyranny and corruption than are allowed Western democratic governments.

Still more wrongful was her equation of the totality of rational interest with economic self-interest. In fact there are many forms of rational interest. A scientist who is driven by interest in acquisition of knowledge, or a teacher who is driven by interest in nurturing the minds of future generations, is coming from completely rational considerations; and it is wrong that such people be seen as less rational or responsible than people who are driven by money.

Also wrongful was her equation of altruism with totalitarianism. This is confusion between a legitimate value and its misuses. Anything that has appeal to people – and that includes things that have moral appeal – will see some scoundrel or opportunist wanting to use it for wrong. That does not mean that the value is wrong in itself. Patriotism can be used for wrong, but that does not mean that patriotism is bad. Money can be used for wrong, but that does not mean that money is bad. Peace, justice, beauty, you name it. That Stalin appealed to altruism to create a totalitarian state does not impugn altruism; it impugns Stalin. I am acquainted with a number of altruistic organizations such as Salvation Army and Medicins Sans Frontiers, and none of them are remotely totalitarian.

She was wrong to portray psychology as a pseudoscience. Psychology has become better in recent years than it was at her time, and now even conservative people in business constantly use psychology in marketing, management and human relations.

She was also wrong to dismiss out of hand religion and spirituality. I started out as an atheist just like her; but reality has proven me wrong on that count. I have had any number of experiences with less than a billionth chance of happening whose only explanations were spiritual; and so have any number of credible people I know, including successful entrepreneurs, distinguished scientists and successful highly educated professionals in fields from software to medicine.

Now on to what she was right about.

She was very spot on in describing the situation that is encountered by people with original ideas or original contributions. Her depictions of that in Fountainhead were brilliant.

She had very useful insight on love and relationships. Her definition of love – a passionate approval of the next person with your whole being – is probably the best that I have ever encountered; however it is not only about approval. You also care about the person, and you also want her best interests even if it's not the same as your own interest – a concept which is alien to Ayn Rand.

She was right to affirm reason and to confront ideologies such as relativism and Kantianism. Reason is very important once you do away with anti-spiritual and anti-emotional bigotry that is practiced by many people claiming to be rational. Probably her most useful and most original contribution is the claim that there is a rationality to feelings that is a function of what the person is. To the best of my knowledge, this argument is original to Ayn Rand. It is a very important argument.

She was right to stick up for the entrepreneur at the time that held a low view of private enterprise. There are plenty of highly decent people in business, and I have a high view of most of the bosses that I have had. I would especially single out for that Page Basheer and Dave Petersen at Retrieval Systems; Milan Bhatia and Manju Juneja at Oracle; and Ron Kahlow at Business Online. The anti-entrepreneurial attitude that was had by many intellectuals at the time was wrong, and it has discredited intellectuals. Ayn Rand was an intellectual who did not have that ruinous attitude, and she has influenced me not to have it either.

She was right to affirm ego in face of ideologies and religions that demonized it. The statement that an individual's ego is a bulwark against tyranny is correct. Fascist ideologies of the time wanted to subsume individual's ego under the ego of the totalitarians; and affirming the individual's rightful prerogatives was the correct solution to that problem.

She was right to state that there is no inherent contradiction between idealism and realism. There are realistic ways to achieve positive outcomes, and there are ways to inform ideals with better understanding of reality. This is likewise a highly original argument, and one that is uniquely right.

On sacrifice she was both right and wrong. There are many situations in which sacrifice really is evil and something that tyrants want. There are other situations however when neither is the case. There are many people who sacrifice themselves willingly for their children or for causes or people they care about. In these situations sacrifice is neither an act of tyrants nor evil.

After she published her bestseller Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand was disappointed at all the shallow readings of her work. Most people who have taken interest in her work are interested primarily in her defense of capitalism; but they overlook the more profound elements of her work. I am interested in these profound elements, and I find her most widely read concepts to be incorrect ones. Her more profound elements have value for many and should be communicated to others. Whereas those of her followers who use her work for wrongful purposes should be confronted with refutations such as the ones that I made above.


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