Hope is a great falsifier -- Baltasar Gracian
The long and the short of it
Ayn Rand Contra Human Nature, written by Greg Nyquist, represents a new contribution to understanding Rand’s so-called “Objectivist” philosophy. Rand’s views on human nature, epistemology, history, religion, society, politics, sex and art are shown to be at odds with the findings of major scientists and scholars.
A note from Greg Nyquist:
Ayn Rand may be the most widely read American philosopher of the twentieth century. Certainly, no American philosopher has sold more books to the general public than Rand—over thirty million at last count, with over a half million being sold on a yearly basis. Rand’s legacy is widespread and enduring. Why it has not received the attention of scholars is puzzling and perhaps even scandalous. Her philosophical views, many of which are extremely controversial, literally cry out for interpretation and criticism. But little along these lines has appeared.
In Ayn Rand Contra Human Nature, I have endeavored to make up for this deficiency. My book has two specific purposes. First, I want to explain how Rand’s philosophy came into being. What were Rand’s principle motives in developing her various philosophic doctrines? What was its primary raison d’être of her entire Objectivist system? My second purpose was to determine the factual veracity of Rand’s various philosophical contentions. Does her view of man, of history, of human knowledge, of society, of art accord with the facts? Or are her views of these matters simply one vast tissue of distortion, half-truths, misinterpretations, and even downright falsehoods? In order to answer these questions, I could not settle for mere analysis of the logical coherence of Rand’s philosophy. No, that would not do at all. Rand’s views need to be tested scientifically—which is to say, by comparing them with the relevant factual evidence. The tendency with previous critics of Rand has always been to try to attack Rand with logical argumentation. I have never found such critiques to be very compelling. They inevitably degenerate into arguments about words. I have no interest in squabbling about words. What I want to know is whether Rand’s contentions about reality are true; and the only way to settle this question is through a consultation with the relevant facts. To try to settle it in any other way would be a waste of time.
In pursuing these two goals, I quickly found a common thread running through the entire Objectivist system. Rand had several times remarked that the goal of her writing was “the projection of an ideal man.” “My purpose, first cause and prime mover is the portrayal of Howard Roark or John Galt or Hank Rearden or Francisco d’Anconia as an end in himself—not as a means to a further end.” In her essay “The Goal of my Writing” (Romantic Manifesto, pp. 162-172), Rand explained how this goal led to the establishment of her philosophy:
Rand could not be much clearer in stating the main purpose behind her Objectivist system than this. Her primary motivation was to create a philosophical foundation for her “ideal man.” In pursuing this goal, she not only had to define what constitutes an ideal man, she also had to explicate the moral and political framework needed to make such an entity possible.
But almost from the start we come across a very serious problem. If Rand’s conception of the ideal man is examined critically, something soon becomes apparent. This ideal man does not correspond to any of the scientists, builders, scholars or anyone else ever found in reality. This ideal man is a product of Rand’s imagination, not a copy of any actual living being. Rand, however, wished to defend him as a real possibility. This placed her in a difficult position. Since the view of man presented by literature, history, and science contradicts Rand’s view, she had to explain why she was right and all the great philosophers, novelists, poets, historians and scientists of Western Civilization were wrong. In my opinion, this is the great question at stake in any debate over Rand’s Objectivist philosophy. Who is right about the nature of man? The great writers and thinkers of Western Civilization, or Ayn Rand?
Although Rand never explicitly confronted this issue, we find implicit manifestations of it surfacing, not only in her philosophical writings, but in her estimations of the great writers and thinkers of Western Culture. Rand had very little to say on the behalf of the cultural heritage of Western Civilization. The only great literary artists she ever said anything positive about in print were Victor Hugo, Dostoevsky, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henryk Sienkiewicz, Friedrich Schiller, and Edmond Rostand. Nor did she have any use for the work of most of the great social thinkers of Western Civilization. Rand and her leading disciples have made disdainful comments about such eminent figures in Western social science as David Hume, Edmund Burke, Alexis d’Tocqueville, Max Weber, George Sorel, Robert Michels, Frank Knight and Friedrich Hayek. The only social scientists Rand approved of were those who, like Ludwig von Mises and Henry Hazlitt, uncompromisingly supported laissez-faire capitalism. All others she either ignored or regarded with contempt.
I had noted this aspect of Rand’s writings before I wrote my critique of her philosophy. But I had regarded it as simply the byproduct of Rand’s dogmatic politics and, as such, not to be taken too seriously. Only after I stumbled upon Rand’s statement regarding the principle motive behind her philosophy did I realize that Rand’s hostility to humanistic knowledge went beyond mere political fanaticism. Rand rejected humanistic knowledge because it contradicted the most basic principles of her philosophy, which she regarded as more important than the cultural heritage of Western Civilization. This cultural heritage must make way for a new Objectivist culture based on a dubious form of hero worship and “reason.” Shakespeare and the Bible, Tocqueville and Edmund Burke would have to take a second seat to Atlas Shrugged and Ian Fleming.
I realize that this might strike Rand’s admirers as something of an exaggeration. Publicly, Rand always presented herself as a champion of Western Civilization. But this did not prevent her from privately denigrating Shakespeare or the Bible or Tocqueville or any other major writer she disliked. If we examine Rand’s record, there can be little doubt that she was opposed, on principle, to the cultural heritage of the West. This includes not only most of what passes for great literature, but most of what passes for important social science as well.
I wrote Ayn Rand Contra Human Nature primarily with this aspect of her philosophy in mind. I wanted to defend humanistic knowledge against Rand’s attempt to dismiss it out of hand. I wanted to show that Rand’s view of man was entirely baseless, that neither science nor the "great books" supported it. Rand was an enemy of Western culture and science. The fact that she pretended to be a defender of culture and science is irrelevant. Her pretense, even if sincere, is not convincing. Science and culture say one thing about man, Rand says something entirely different. If Rand was a genuine defender of science and culture, she would not have opposed the view of human nature propagated by scientists, men of letters [and the Bible].
These remarks should clear up any confusion about the title of my book. While Ayn Rand perhaps did not oppose human nature per se, she certainly did oppose the conception of human nature that has been passed down to us from the cultural and scientific heritage of Western Civilization. It is in this sense Rand was opposed to human nature. If my title were perfectly accurate, it would have read something like Ayn Rand’s Conception of Human Nature Contra the Conception of Human Nature Developed by Western Literature and Science. But since this is a mouthful, I condensed it to Ayn Rand Contra Human Nature. In this abbreviated form, it sums up the central theme of the book.
My book does not confine itself only to Rand’s conception of human nature. I also cover her theories of history, knowledge, reality, ethics, politics and art. What separates my book from others critical of Rand is that I emphasize the empirical and practical side of philosophical questions. I have little interest in purely technical philosophy, believing, with George Santayana, that most technical problems are best solved by never being raised in the first place. The central point at issue with Rand is not whether she is right about this or that abstruse philosophical problem, but whether her philosophy as a whole accords with factual reality. In judging any philosophical system, its factual veracity has to be the primary consideration. Moreover, it is precisely on the empirical side that Rand is most vulnerable. Her writings contain numerous empirical assertions that are at odds with the relevant factual evidence. A philosopher who took as many controversial positions as Rand should not be allowed to get away with taking such enormous liberties with the facts.
Critics of Rand are often accused of misinterpreting her work. The underlying assumption of this view is that anyone who dares to question Rand’s authority must be guilty of willfully distorting Rand’s views. I don’t see how this criticism could apply to Ayn Rand Contra Human Nature. I have merely taken Rand at her word. She claimed that the primary motivation of her writing was the projection of an ideal man, and that everything else, including her philosophical principles, are secondary consequences of this one great goal. How can anyone object to taking this confession seriously and using it as an interpretive touchstone to understand her system of thought? What I find most surprising is that no one else has thought of examining Rand from this vantage point. Rand’s critics have focused their attention almost exclusively on her theories of knowledge, morals and politics. A few of her critics have noted her rather strange theory of human nature, but none of them have given it more than cursory treatment. I believe this constitutes a serious oversight in Randian criticism. Rand’s theory of human nature is the most fundamental point of her entire philosophy. It explains not only the motivation behind her thought; it also helps us understand some of problems she faced in the development of her system. Since Rand’s view of man does not accord with the facts, her defense of it led to a number of difficulties which needed to be explained away. Some of Rand’s most peculiar philosophical positions can be accounted for on this basis alone. Her theory of history, for example, can be seen as an attempt to explain why the evidence of history does not support Rand’s view of human nature. This is important, because Rand’s theory of history leads directly to her theory of knowledge. If you want to know why she considered the problem of universals as the most critical in epistemological philosophy, you have to understand her theory of history. But her theory of history is inexplicable without her theory of man.
Ayn Rand Contra Human Nature can be read on a number of different levels. It can be read merely as criticism of Rand, or as criticism of dogmatic rationalism, or as a defense of the traditional view of human nature advanced by religion, literature and science. No special knowledge of Rand’s Objectivist philosophy is required to understand the book. Extended summaries are provided of every relevant doctrine in Objectivism. And, in an effort to make Rand’s philosophy more comprehensible, I have tried to explain the motivational logic behind her views. If the reader can grasp the underlying psychological motivation behind Rand’s doctrines of history, human knowledge, ethics, sex, and art, he should have no trouble grasping the arguments Rand advanced in defense of these doctrines.
To provide a more exact idea of the nature of my book, this site offers sample excerpts. The first excerpt introduces Rand and explains her significance as a cultural figure. The second and third excerpts are taken from the first chapter, which examines Rand’s theory of human nature. Next are excerpts from chapters on Rand’s theories of metaphysics, ethics and politics. The bibliography is provided to give the reader an idea of the sources that went into the book.
For many years, Ayn Rand’s pretensions as a philosopher were scarcely taken seriously by either the academic or cultural establishments of this country, both of which dismissed Rand’s “Objectivist” philosophy as simplistic, shallow, mean-spirited tripe. Most establishment critics and scholars considered Rand’s philosophy the work of a mere amateur whose ideas were hardly worth the trouble of refuting. Some of her critics even went so far as to accuse Rand of trying to rationalize rapacious and exploitative behavior. Gore Vidal accused Rand of having “a great attraction for simple people…who object to paying taxes, who dislike the ‘welfare’ state, who feel guilty at the thought of the suffering of others but who would like to harden their hearts.” (1961, 26) During her lifetime, Rand, despite the financial success of her books and a large, adoring audience, was a persona non grata among the cognoscenti. The liberal and radical left intellectuals who dominated the Universities and the media wanted no part of Rand. Her ideas frightened and shocked them.
Since her death in 1982, Rand’s stock has somewhat risen. Although most intellectuals still do not take her seriously as a philosopher, her importance as a cultural figure has been established beyond all doubt. The publisher Twayne has included Rand in its series of books on important American authors, and Barbara Branden’s biography of Rand, which, though critical of Rand’s character, praised her accomplishments as a thinker and writer, was well reviewed by the press and briefly appeared on several best seller lists. Rand’s books continue to sell over a half-a-million copies each year, making her one of the most enduring American writers of her (or any other) generation. Her philosophical books alone have sold well enough to make her one of the most widely read philosophers of the twentieth century. And while her ideas may not yet enjoy an extensive influence over society at large, they have been very influential over that segment of the population which has read her novels and philosophical essays. Rand had a unique talent for inspiring cult-like devotion in her admirers. And although these admirers do not make up a particularly large percentage of the total American population (probably less than 0.5% of the adult public), they nevertheless can be found in nearly all walks of life, including even in academia.
Ayn Rand’s influence is not, of course, confined merely to her diehard admirers. There are literally millions of people who, although they do not consider themselves “Objectivists,” have nevertheless been profoundly influenced by her ideas. Many libertarians economic conservatives have drawn heavily on Rand’s ideas. The Libertarian Party, which, before the emergence of Ross Perot’s Reform Party and Nadar’s Green Party, was the nation’s third largest political party, would be unthinkable without Rand’s influence. Even an establishment conservative like Rush Limbaugh has occasionally shown signs of having been influenced by Rand’s ideas, albeit indirectly, through second or third-hand sources. His attempt to defend the “greed” of the eighties borrows heavily from Rand. Before Rand, only a handful of iconoclasts and other eccentrics would have dared defend greed in public.
Her influence, then, has not been confined entirely to a small group of ardent admirers. Faint echoes of her ideas can be heard in all segments of American life. There is some evidence to suggest that this influence may be growing. Ironically, it is in academia, where hostility to her ideas has been the most intense, that Objectivist ideas have made the greatest progress in recent years. Admittedly, this progress has thus far been rather on the slow side, a mere trickle at best, but though dilatory, it has been steady. Individuals sympathetic to Rand and her Objectivist philosophy are gradually beginning to infiltrate the academic establishment, and a few colleges have even gone so far as to offer classes in Rand’s philosophy. Objectivist ideas are also beginning to appear in college textbooks and in classroom discussion. Even the American Philosophical Association, which for years would have nothing to do with Rand, now includes, as an affiliate to its Eastern division, something called the “Ayn Rand Society.” And since Objectivists have made no secret of their determination to infiltrate the academic establishment, it is not unreasonable to expect these developments to continue well into the future, until finally the Randites manage to carve up a respectable niche of their own within the academic pie.
Despite Rand’s obvious importance both as a controversial polemicist and as an American cultural figure, her philosophy has largely escaped the scrutiny of a genuinely intelligent and penetrating criticism. Objectivists would probably ascribe this phenomenon to the soundness and irrefutability of Rand’s ideas. You cannot, after all, effectively criticize true ideas, because the truth is above criticism. If Rand’s philosophy is in fact largely true, you would expect her critics to have a rough time explaining what is wrong with it. However, I do not believe this explains why Objectivism thus far has been, a few exceptions notwithstanding, so ill criticized. The reason why most of the criticisms leveled against Rand’s philosophy are weak, unfair, irrelevant, and/or invalid has nothing to do with the intrinsic soundness of Objectivism. It results, not from the irrefutability of Rand’s ideas, but from the philosophical imbecility of her critics.
As I will seek to demonstrate over the course of this book, Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism is open to many serious objections. Rand was a surprisingly sloppy and even maladroit thinker who apparently believed that matters of fact can be determined by the manipulation of logical or rhetorical constructions. Indeed, some of the most important doctrines in her philosophy, such as her theories of human nature and value, are based on nothing more than a mere play on words. But this is not the least of it. What is most astonishing about Rand is not that she made errors (all philosophers make errors), but that she made stupid errors—the kind of errors philosophers make when they are too precipitous in their judgments and haven't stopped to really think things through. Even when Rand’s philosophical conclusions are substantially correct, she is often right for wrong reasons. Her rejection of philosophical idealism (i.e., the belief that reality is primarily mental) represents a case in point. As I will explain in detail through the course of this book, none of Rand’s arguments against philosophical idealism are relevant. Yet I believe she is right to consider idealism an invalid theory. She is simply unable to explain why she is right.
Although I am sharply critical of many of Rand’s philosophical views and formulations, this book is not meant to be a refutation of Objectivism. I do not believe that philosophical systems can in fact be refuted. Every philosophical system, no matter how false or mendacious, contains at least some truth. And this is certainly the case with Objectivism. I would even go so far as to say that there is quite a bit of truth in Objectivism. The problem is that this truth is, in a great many instances, so inextricably mixed with falsehoods and errors that it is sometimes not that easy to separate the former from the latter. Objectivism is in many respects a compendium of half-truths. The failure of her detractors to recognize this is one of the reasons why their attacks against her philosophical system have so often proved ineffective. Before you can determine what is wrong with Objectivism, you must first determine what is right. Many of Rand’s most controversial doctrines, including her denunciations of altruism, superstition and the welfare state on the one side and her support of selfishness, atheism, and laissez-faire capitalism on the other, have an element of truth in them. Failure to acknowledge this element of truth can only lead to criticism that is confused and inept.
Despite my low opinion of Rand’s philosophical expertise, I nevertheless regard Rand as an important and perhaps even a great thinker. For even though her philosophy is riddled with non sequiturs, over-generalizations, incompetent formulations, pseudo-empirical inferences, and other palpable bunglings, this does not mean that she cannot in fact be regarded as a great philosopher. Many a philosopher considered great by the denizens of academia is every bit, if not more, culpable of the sort of violations of logic and evidence which characterize Rand and her disciples. Think of all the fallacies and other blatant absurdities to be found in the philosophical systems of Plato, Plotinus, Leibniz, Berkeley, Kant, Fichte, Hegel, Russell, Whitehead, Husserl, Heidegger, and Sartre! Schopenhauer believed in phrenology; William James believed in spiritual mediums and ghosts. Nearly every great thinker has embraced at least one appalling absurdity, and several have embraced scores of them. Regrettably, the greatness of a philosopher rarely has anything to do with whether his philosophy is faithful to the elemental facts of reality. On the contrary, in many instances, the more a philosopher departs from reality, the greater will be his reputation as a thinker of genius. The reason for this paradox is not hard to fathom. The greatness of a philosopher is usually determined by intellectuals—in other words, by that very class of individuals who are most afraid of reality. This being the case, is it at all surprising that mendacious cranks like Plato and Hegel should be regarded as great philosophers? What your typical intellectual seeks in a philosophy is not insight into reality, but a way out of reality.
In a confused sort of way, Rand understood this. She knew that many philosophers and intellectuals resented reality and sought to rationalize it away. Yet this did not prevent her from indulging in her own mendacious rationalizations. And I must say—in all fairness to Rand—she could rationalize with the best of them. Her philosophy might not have been as beautiful and poetic as Plato’s, or as complex and imaginative as Hegel’s, but if you feel any sympathy with its basic premises, you will have a devil of a time resisting its allure. It is not surprising that Rand is the one of the most widely read and discussed philosophers of the twentieth century. She was a brilliant polemicist and an ingenious sophist. Her method consisted of having a seemingly cogent answer to all the major philosophical problems. Whether the issue dealt with abortion, the problem of universals, the fact-value dichotomy, or the standard of rights, she always had something to say about it that sounded logical and apposite. Of course, what she said was never as logical and apposite as it may have sounded, but only someone with a great deal of philosophical acumen would be capable of realizing this. Since most people are philosophically illiterate (including many contemporary philosophers), they cannot detect the numerous empirical and logical shortcomings in Rand’s arguments. Even those individuals who, because of their greater experience of men and the world, know that Rand is wrong, are often unable to explain why she is wrong. In polemics, articulation is everything. Merely being able to verbalize one’s point of view in semi-cogent fashion is often all that is necessary in order to seem like one knows what one is talking about. Rand was clearly an absolute master of this method, and for this reason it was very difficult for anyone to get the better of her in debate. Like Socrates in Plato’s dialogues, she would spin a verbal web in which her antagonists, unable to articulate a semi-cogent response of their own, would find themselves inextricably entangled. [Paragraph starts here:] But the truth of a philosophy is not gaged by how well it can be used in a debate. The ability to articulate a point of view and defend it against those who raise objections to it says little, if anything, as to its truth. Truth, especially in its deeper manifestations, can often be so inordinately complex that it defies articulation. This is the trouble with all these philosophies which, like Objectivism, seek to reduce the entire universe to a handful of rhetorical constructions. They assume that all truth, regardless of how complicated it may be, can ultimately be expressed by a few pithy phrases. I regard this assumption as fundamentally mistaken. It derives from a false view of knowledge—one which equates knowledge with articulation. But it should be obvious from everyday life that articulation is not a necessity of knowledge. Knowledge comes, not from words, but from experience. The knowledge of any complex skill, whether it is cooking, judging the motives of other people, or writing a novel, can only be learned from immersing oneself in the activity from which the knowledge springs. To learn how to cook, you go into the kitchen; to learn how to judge the motives of other people, you begin by sharply observing those around you; to learn how to write a novel, you read other novels and attempt to write some of your own. Of course, learning in this way is difficult and time-consuming. Hence the appeal of philosophers who, like Rand, declare that knowledge comes from words. It is very flattering to think that, once one masters the vocabulary of a given subject, one has mastered the subject itself. Yet it should be obvious to anyone who has given the matter serious thought that, just because you are familiar with, say, the general concepts of cooking, this does not mean that you know how to cook. Knowledge of cooking must derive, not from the terms in which cooking is described, but from cooking itself. [Paragraph starts here:] Rand’s entire theory of knowledge is tantamount to a denial of the old adage that wisdom comes from experience. While it is true that Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism officially adopts the view that all knowledge ultimately comes from experience of the external world, this concession to empiricism turns out, on closer examination, to be shallow and unrigorous. All philosophers like to believe that their doctrines are in accord with empirical reality. The question, however, is whether this belief is justified. In Rand’s case, I do not believe it is. As I will attempt to demonstrate during the course of this book, I believe that Rand is either wrong or confused about many of the central issues in philosophy. She is wrong about the nature of man, about the role of philosophical ideas in history, about the validity of induction, about the absolute objectivity of values, about the feasibility of laissez-faire capitalism, and about the nature of romanticism; and she is confused about philosophical idealism, the nature of consciousness, the relation between ideas and the things they represent in reality, the psychology of altruism, and the issue of a benevolent versus a malevolent sense of life. In this book, I will attempt to explain, in language as lucid as possible, why Rand is wrong on the former issues and confused about the latter.
Sample chapter One
From Chapter 1: Theory of Human Nature
Rand’s theory of human nature is based on the idea that the human mind enjoys complete sovereignty over the body and the will. “Everything we do and are proceeds from the mind,” Rand once declared. “Our mind can be made to control everything.” (1995, 156) Man, we are told, is given his body, his mind, and the “mechanics of consciousness.” The rest is up to him. “His spirit, that is, his own essential character, must be created by him,” Rand averred. “In this sense, it is almost as if he was born as an abstraction, with the essence and rules of that abstraction (man) to serve as his guide and standard—but he must make himself concrete by his own effort, he must create himself. Specifically, he is born as an entity: man. But his field of action and emotion is open to his choice.” (1997, 556)
This passage presents a fair example of Rand’s method of reasoning. Notice the mixture of the banal and the incredible. Man, we are told, is not only capable of creating himself, he is obligated to do so: man must create himself! But how is it possible for an entity to create itself? How can a man create his own character? Isn’t the very notion of a man creating his own character a palpable contradiction? Doesn’t a man have to be something (i.e., have a specific character) before he can create anything? To suggest that man must create his own character before he even has a specific identity is to imply that man begins as a sort of empty vacuum which through some mysterious process creates a specific character ex nihilo—out of nothing!
Mixed in with this absurdity is the utterance of one the most banal truisms ever invented: man is born as an entity! Isn’t this wonderful? Think if man had been born a nonentity! How different his life would have been! Rand is very fond of placing such empirically vacuous truisms along side her more absurd declarations. It is almost as if she believes that the truisms will render the absurdities less glaring.
Even more provocative is her claim that man is born “almost as if” he were an abstraction and that he can only become a particular thing by his own effort. But what if he does not choose to make the effort? Does this mean he will remain “almost as if” he were still an abstraction? And what can it possibly mean to say than an individual is “almost as if” he were an abstraction? What would such an individual look like? All the individuals I know are particular and concrete. Indeed, to describe an individual as an abstraction involves an obvious contradiction. Individuals cannot be abstractions: the very fact of their individuality makes them by necessity particular. Nor does it help to qualify the statement with the phrase almost as if. Either individuals are concrete, or they are abstract. There is no almost as if about it.
The reason why Rand indulges in such blatant verbal legerdemain should be obvious: she has no empirical evidence to offer as corroboration for her theory. So she resorts to verbal trickery in order to carry a point which cannot be established on the basis of fact.
Rand’s conviction that man creates himself is fundamental to her entire philosophy. It is not only crucial to her theories of history, epistemology, ethics, and aesthetics, but, more importantly, it serves as the philosophical underpinning of her “ideal” man. In order for a man to be genuinely ideal in Rand’s eyes, he had to be able to take full credit for all his characteristics. He couldn’t merely have been endowed with them at birth—no, he had to create them, ex nihilo, by his own unaided effort, like Baron Münchhausen pulling himself out of the mire by his own hair. None of this by-the-grace-of-God stuff for Rand. As far as she was concerned, man had to be his own God. Man’s “essential entity,” she wrote, “is his soul—and that he must create himself. There is the god-like aspect of man.” (1997, 564) Having rejected God, Rand sought to put man in His place.
The great difficulty in analyzing Rand’s philosophy arises out of the complexity of its confusions. Objectivism is hardly the coherent system of philosophy its creator believed it to be. At best, it is merely a haphazard collection of facile rationalizations thrown together for polemical purposes. Rand sought to convince herself and others that man “is a being of self-made soul.” (1961, 160) Her principle argument consists of nothing more than the assertion that man must be the creator of his own soul, because if he is not, then his soul is the helpless product of forces outside his control....
The most significant aspect of Rand’s theory of human nature involves her denial that human beings have innate predispositions. If it were possible to convince people to behave as if this premise were true, the consequences would be tremendous. In the absence of innate predispositions, the behavior of human beings would be largely unpredictable. Under such a premise, human nature would be entirely fluid. No type of behavior would be any more likely than any other type. Consequently, we would not be able to form expectations about strangers, because no single type of behavior would be any more likely than any other. Nor could we form very secure expectations about our intimate acquaintances, since at any time they could choose to alter their personalities. Even judgments made about society at large—as, for example, those found in the various theories of the social sciences—would all have to be rejected as so much sophistry and superstition. The disciplines of economics, politics, sociology, and psychology are all based on the assumption that some forms of human behavior are more likely than others. Economics, for instance, assumes that there exists an innate predisposition in human beings to buy cheap and sell dear. It is from this predisposition that most of the laws of free market economics are founded, including the law of supply and demand. Imagine trying to run a business without being able to rely on the validity of the basic principles of economics! Yet this is just one of the many radically subversive consequences that would inevitably follow if Rand’s doctrine of human nature were universally accepted and taken to heart.
Of course, in real life, it would be impossible to follow such a doctrine in practice. The necessity of believing that some forms of behavior are more likely than others is so great that no theory could ever overturn it. Even Rand herself, despite her denials to the contrary, believed in certain innate predispositions—as we shall shortly see. Nor could it have been any other way. As Rand herself admits, everything must have a nature, including man. Rand would have us believe that man’s nature is not to have a nature; but this is absurd. To have a nature means to have a predisposition to act in a certain way. The predisposition of a bowling ball is to roll when pushed. Although the predispositions of man are greatly more complex than those of a bowling ball, nonetheless the same principle must hold. One factor contributing to the greater complexity of man’s predispositions over those of inanimate objects is man’s capacity to choose between various alternatives. But before he can exercise his faculty of choice, there must exist a basis for choice. The basis of choice is preference, which must precede choice and cannot, for this reason, be a product of choice. Where, then, does this preference come from? It can come from only one source: from innate factors built into each one of us. It is from this innate, genetic endowment that human beings are able to form intuitive or rational expectations concerning the probable behavior of other members of the species.
Although Rand did not always adhere to her conviction that man is born without innate preferences, on those occasions when she did allow herself to be influenced by it, she inevitably got herself into trouble. According to Leonard Peikoff, Rand was repeatedly taken in by many of the young people who sought access to her inner circle. Yet no matter how often this happened, she refused to make, as Peikoff puts it, “collective judgments.” “Each time she unmasked one of these individuals she struggled to learn from her mistake,” Peikoff tells us. “But then she would only be deceived by some new variant.” (Rand, 1990a, 350)
In her unwillingness to make “collective judgments”—or, as I would put it, to discover uniformities in the behavior of those around her—Rand at least was consistent to her philosophy of human nature. If no form of behavior is any more likely than any other, then of course collective judgments are out of the question. But in that case we would be pretty much at a loss to know how to deal with other people. If none of us had any idea of what to expect from others, our lives would be virtually unlivable. Success in life depends on having at least some sort of idea how the people around us are likely to behave. Expectations concerning human behavior are formed on the basis of various uniformities discovered in both individual men and the human race in general. People who are ignorant of them will tend to make bad decisions in their dealings with others. Indeed, an argument could be made that knowledge of the uniformities of human nature constitutes the most important knowledge there is. Without it, we are pretty much at the mercy of others. Ayn Rand herself is an eloquent example. It is hardly surprising that a woman whose philosophy discourages making collective judgments about people should have repeatedly found herself taken advantage of by individuals eager to cash in on her fame. Anyone with any kind of insight into human nature would know that there will always be a great many people eager to profit from an association with famous writers and philosophers. An individual has to be willfully naive not to understand this.
It is my contention that Rand’s theory of human nature constitutes Objectivism’s most serious flaw. Although Rand liked to pose as an uncompromising realist who never allowed her emotions to compromise her grasp of reality, she can hardly be regarded as a realist in regards to human nature. Her theory is utopian to the core. Human beings are free, she declares, to adopt any sort of nature they please. The only possible limitation to this freedom is external reality: man, Rand admits, cannot choose to develop a moral and social nature inimical to his survival unless he is prepared to suffer the consequences. But as long as the character chosen by the individual in question is in harmony with the requirements of his survival, the sky is the limit.
From this theory of man’s nature it is possible to construct a concomitant theory of man’s secular salvation. It goes without saying that Rand, good rationalist that she was, did not believe in any kind of religious or otherworldly salvation for man. But like so many other secular thinkers eager to replace traditional religion with some sort of puerile rationalistic ideology, Rand could not bring herself to reject the fundamental impulses at the base of religion, especially those dealing with the question of man’s spiritual salvation. She, too, wanted to save man’s soul, but instead of looking to God for help, she believed she could save him all by herself. She sought to justify this extravagant hubris by developing a theory of human nature which vindicated her belief that man could achieve a state of moral and spiritual perfection in this life, here on earth. The magic formula through which man could perfect himself was philosophy. With the right ideas, a man could secure the secular equivalent of religious salvation. And what was true of man as an individual was also true of society as a whole. Although Rand adamantly denied advocating a utopian vision of society, she nevertheless believed in what, for all practical purposes, amounts to the same thing—namely, the “ideal” society of free and rational individual living under a social system of perfect laissez-faire capitalism; a society where, in the words of Rand scholar Chris Sciabarra: “People would not act on the basis of an uncritical acceptance of traditions and/or of tacit rules of behavior. They would understand the nature of their actions and the implications of their beliefs…Accepting their own uniqueness and potential, such people would have a benevolent attitude toward one another. Human communications, sexual relations, spiritual commitments, and material exchanges would not be masked by strategic lying and deceit, but by mutual trust and respect.” (1995, 367-368)
Anyone who, like myself, is sympathetic to the naturalist view of human nature must regard this particular manifestation of wishful thinking as clearly falling under the utopian standard. How could it be anything else but utopian? According to the naturalist view, before a theory of what is possible in human nature can be considered plausible, there must exist at least some historical evidence for it. Where, then, might I ask, is the historical evidence for this view? The answer is: there is no historical evidence—none exists. Throughout the entire history of mankind, there has never been a society in which human relations, whether sexual, spiritual, or economic in nature, have not been, to at least some degree, marked by “strategic lying and deceit.” Nor has a society ever existed in which individuals could dispense with “uncritically accepted traditions.” For this reason alone, if not for a multitude of others, it would appear that Rand’s ideal society is nothing more than the puerile fabrication of a mind that has lost all connection with reality.