Objectivism is the philosophy of Ayn Rand. If you want a crash course in it, there is a book called Atlas Shrugged, which outlines the philosophy through a novel. It’s also a great story. You can find many posts on the internet criticising Objectivism. At least… many posts and articles that claim to criticise Objectivism.
When people start getting interested in Objectivism, often, they want a “balanced opinion”. They see the arguments for Objectivism and want to see the other side of the coin.
And at first glance… that seems sensible, right?
But there is a problem. Many articles that claim to be criticising Objectivism… are not criticising Objectivism. They are straw man arguments. Spotting these straw man arguments can be difficult, and more often than not, they accomplish exactly what they set out to do. The arguments are trying to directly discredit Objectivism, they intend to muddy the waters so it is harder for you to understand what Objectivism is… and what it is not.
As an analogy, imagine you were starting an algebra class, and alongside being taught basic operations you can perform ‘x’, such as x + x = 2x, you were taught flawed algebraic systems that didn’t work.
You would end up being very confused… and you wouldn’t be able to properly use the system that worked.
If you learnt the correct way of doing algebra first… then seeing the flaws in those others algebra systems would be easy.
This is not to say that you should not read material that is criticising Objectivism. What I am saying is, if you do not understand the principles of Objectivism, you will not be able to determine if an argument against it is valid.
Straw Man Arguments
YourLogicalFallacyIs.com has a great definition of a Straw Man argument:
You misrepresented someone’s argument to make it easier to attack.
By exaggerating, misrepresenting, or just completely fabricating someone’s argument, it’s much easier to present your own position as being reasonable, but this kind of dishonesty serves to undermine honest rational debate.
Example: After Will said that we should put more money into health and education, Warren responded by saying that he was surprised that Will hates our country so much that he wants to leave it defenceless by cutting military spending.
Straw man criticisms of Objectivism come about from the writer either:
- drawing on second hand sources that are incorrect.
- fraudulently misrepresenting Objectivisms ideas.
For example, some philosophy courses at universities “cover” Ayn Rand’s ideas through handouts and essays that they give to students. The ideas in the handouts can contradict Objectivism outright… but the students are told that the ideas are Objectivist. They trust their professor to have given them high quality information, so they don’t do any reading of their own to validate the information they have been given.
Philosophy professors are making straw man arguments.
An Example – Criticising Objectivism Through A Straw Man Argument
Which brings me to this essay that a friend of mine forwarded to me, written by Michael Humer.:
Before looking at the main scenario he sets up, I want to take a quick look at this gem, in section 5.3.1:
Unfortunately, Objectivists usually object to the use of hypothetical examples to test moral principles, on the ground that the hypothetical examples do not represent reality.
He is sort of right. Objectivists reject hypothetical examples that do not represent reality. If a hypothetical example does represent reality… then an Objectivist will give it consideration.
Which leads to the question:
Why does Humer want us to consider ethical ideas that are not based in reality?
This sets the tone for the rest of his essay.
The main idea I want to look at from his essay, is a hypothetical scenario he outlines in Section 5.3.2:
The Case of the Hurried Objectivist
In this scenario, he is attempting to show why Objectivism is not valid. Unfortunately, the protagonist in his scenario is not an Objectivist, or anything close to one. Additionally… his scenario can only exist in La La Land. It is a total fabrication of his imagination.
This scenario is a spectacular straw man argument and demonstrates a complete lack of understanding on Objectivism. In fact, it is not criticising Objectivism at all.
Here is the scenario, quoted from his essay (although I advise you read his essay for yourself at the above link):
Suppose that I am in a hurry to get somewhere. I am walking to work, and if I am late, my boss gets mad at me. Furthermore, I like to get to work on time, because I have a lot of work that I want to get done. It is in my interests to get to work on time, but I am running a little bit late this morning. I presume no Objectivist will object to this so far – i.e., surely it will be granted that it is in my interests to get to work on time. Otherwise, there would be no reason for setting my alarm clock or walking quickly.
Now as I walk down the street, there are a lot of people in my way, slowing me down. I just happen to have in my pocket a hand-held disintegrator ray, though. The gun will quickly disintegrate any person I aim it at. It is believed that victims of disintegration suffer brief but horrible agony while being disintegrated, but after that, no trace of them is left. I hold back on disintegrating the people in my path, though, because some of them might be potential clients for my business. But then I see this homeless guy ahead, just wandering down the street. He is not threatening me, and I could go around him, but that would take a second or two longer, and I’m in a hurry. So I pull out the gun and disintegrate him, and then continue on my way.
Assume that I live in a society in which homeless people are so little respected that my action is both legal and socially acceptable. Homeless people are regularly beaten up, set on fire, etc., with impunity. Passers-by even regard it as an amusing entertainment. So I will not be punished for my action. Assume further that I dislike homeless people and don’t like to see them on the street. So I do not feel bad about seeing the homeless guy disintegrated. In fact, it amuses me. Nor will my conscience bother me, because I am an ethical egoist, and so I believe that my action was morally virtuous. Therefore, after destroying the homeless guy, I should feel proud, not guilty.
The question is: Was my action morally right? If egoism is true, it was. I saved some time and mildly entertained myself, just as if I had disintegrated a pile of trash that was lying on the sidewalk getting in everyone’s way. The other people in my society, who are themselves also egoists, will thank me for performing this public service, just as they would thank me for removing any other kind of useless clutter from the street. On the egoistic view, a person who does not serve my interests either directly or indirectly is just that – a piece of useless clutter, getting in my way.
The Thinking Behind the Argument
The thinking behind his argument appears to be:
- Egoism is a part of Objectivism.
- If Egoism is invalid, so is Objectivism.
- Maybe I can cook up some bizarre scenario that demonstrates why egoism is wrong.
- My bizarre scenario disproves egoism, therefore I have disproved Objectivism.
Which again, at first glance reading his scenario, may seem plausible. However, when you spell it out like that and look into his ideas and the thinking behind them, we can see it starts to lose plausibility.
While egoism is a part of Objectivism, it is not the entirety of Objectivism. And just because you can fabricate a scenario in your mind, does not mean that scenario is a valid tool for investigating an ethical theory.
What Humer is attempting to do, is to take a single, out of context element of Objectivism (egoism), create a straw man argument against that element, completely ignore the context, and declare that because that element has been invalidated, Objectivism is not valid.
At no point does Humer state why the scenario he has dreamt up is valid.
Which is a typical approach that is taken to “disproving” Objectivism.
There are some key points where his argument falls down:
False Premise 1
…I just happen to have in my pocket a hand-held disintegrator ray, though.
So firstly, his argument rests on a hypothetical situation which, at least at this point in time, can not possibly exist.
So in order to disprove Objectivism… he has to manufacture an imaginary, impossible scenario. (You can see more on ideas like this with the trolley ‘problem’.)
By using an impossible scenario, the entire argument that follows is completely invalid.
We can use a mathematical example to demonstrate the flawed logic:
“I have this great theory of mathematics. First, let us suppose that the value of Pi is 17…”.
That statement is complete non-sense, right? Whatever I say following that statement, should be completely disregarded as nonsense. An argument built on invalid premise is itself invalid.
However, for the sake of arguing, lets pretend that he has some way to kill people and get away with it. This type of argument comes up semi-frequently against Objectivism and rational selfishness, so taking a look at it is useful.
False Premise 2
We move on through the scenario that Humer is describing:
Assume that I live in a society in which homeless people are so little respected that my action is both legal and socially acceptable.
That is quite an assumption.
This is his second invalid premise. He is saying that in order to prove Objectivism is invalid, we need a society where murder of a particular social class is legal and acceptable.
The only examples I can think of are regimes like Soviet Russia, the Khmer Rogue, or other implementations of Communism, Socialism and Facism.
Objectivism advocates Lasseiz Faire Capitalism, which is a system where economics and government are separate, protecting individual rights, each individual is equal from a legal perspective. I’m not sure this is a fair scenario that he is drawing up. He certainly is not criticising Objectivism.
False Premise 3
Assume further that I dislike homeless people and don’t like to see them on the street. So I do not feel bad about seeing the homeless guy disintegrated. In fact, it amuses me.
This is apparently the view point of our fictitious Objectivist.
Let me make something very clear. Anyone who holds such little regard for life and individual rights, is not, in anyway, an Objectivist. Objectivism holds life as its highest value, as the value by which others are measured.
We are starting to see that the argument is built on invalid, impossible scenarios and that the fictitious protagonist, who is late for work, is not an Objectivist.
The scenario that he has constructed has nothing to do with Objectivism. Or reality. He is not criticising Objectivism.
I start to wonder what sources Mr Humer is using for Objectivism and what books on Objectivism he has read first hand for himself.
The Objectivist Response to ‘The Hurried Objectivist’
The Objectivist approach to this scenario is to reject it. It is a scenario built on false premises with a protagonist that is not an Objectivist, in an imaginary world that does not exist.
Objectivism is very much against murdering people. Why? Because murder is a violation of their rights.
What Humer avoids thinking about here (aside from reality), is the Objectivist theory of individual rights, which is a crucial component of Objectivism. Maybe his essay is an intentional smear campaign against Objectivism. It could be a conclusion he has drawn from second hand knowledge and bad research (although, being a professor of philosophy, you would hope he had done the background reading on the subject). It’s hard to tell.
He does reference Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology (ITOE) at the start of his essay. If my memory serves me correctly, that book covers epistemology, on which rights are built, but does not cover rights themselves. ITOE looks at a very specific area of Objectivism, it does not cover Objectivism as a whole. He references the book, but does not say if he read it himself.
(As a side note – Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology is a killer book. If you ever wanted to learn how the human mind works on a fundamental level, you should read it).
Life as a Value and Individual Rights
As I previously stated, Objectivists hold life as a value, their own lives as their highest value, and adhere to the principle of individual rights. A society where murder of a particular social class is permissible, is NOT a society that values or protects individual rights.
In Objectivism, egoism and rights go hand in hand. You could (over) simplify egoism and rights as:
Do what you want without initiating force against others
In order to discredit Objectivism, Humer has used a fictitious character that is not an Objectivist, as an example of an Objectivist; in a scenario with no bearing on reality. This is not criticising Objectivism.
This is argument has no basis in reality and is a straw man argument. As such, the argument should be completely dismissed.