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The simplistic flaw in Ayn Rand's philosophy

A philosophy professor dissects the faulty logic in the libertarians' favorite deep-thinker.
Ayn Rand looms large in American "philosophy."

Ayn Rand looms large in American "philosophy." tvtropes.org

As a professional philosopher, I should be grateful to Ayn Rand.  As Leonard Peikoff put it, she was “the greatest salesman that philosophy ever had.”  Indeed, it seems as if it is only when Rand’s name crashes in again on the political scene, as it did with candidacy of Ron Paul, or now Paul Ryan, that philosophy is given an opportunity to shine, as a discipline, in the media.

Rand’s 1974 speech at the United States Military Academy at West Point was entitled, “Philosophy — Who Needs It.”  Notice that this title is not posing a question.  Rand is telling you who needs philosophy: you do, and the students at West Point need it — in a pitched battle against ignorance, relativism, ideology, and absurdity that is every bit as vital as the one that these soldiers may one day wage with arms.

Everyone needs philosophy, Rand argues, and what she means by philosophy is not just some set of commonsense maxims.  Everyone needs to wrestle with the great questions of knowledge, truth, and reality that have occupied the greatest minds for centuries.  As a teacher who is daily in the classroom making the same case, I should appreciate Rand’s gallant provocation to a culture that habitually cares little for the concerns of philosophers.

But I must confess that I am somewhat sheepishly ungrateful for what Rand hath wrought.  Her watchwords are “reason,” “logic,” and “objectivity,” but when I scrutinize the ideas for which she has been most influential — her ideas on political economy — I find that they are logically fallacious to the point of unreason.

I see that Rand does not tolerate the philosopher’s patient tarrying with differing points of view but moves in quickly for the rhetorical kill.  She seems to be moved by a passion — the libido dominandi, the desire for control — far more than by the gentle art of thinking.  It is always astounding to me that some of the most educated members of our intellectual elites should swallow her arguments so gleefully, and I have to believe that it is more a function of their elitism than their intellectual capacities.

We need to focus our attention on the central flaw in Rand’s reasoning because it parallels, and partially encourages, the confused thinking that is generating some of the impasses in our current governmental debates.

The fallacy that is at the heart of Rand’s political-economic philosophy is the fallacy of mistaking a necessary condition for a sufficient condition.  This is elementary logic.  A necessary condition is something that is needed in order to make something else happen.  A plant must have water, for example, in order to thrive.  But a necessary condition is not the same as a sufficient condition — that is, something that provides everything needed for something else to happen.  Water is not sufficient to make a plant thrive. Other ingredients are needed, like soil and sunlight. 

Ayn Rand’s philosophy is above all a defense of the entrepreneur.  The economic value of goods and services that we find on the market is created by entrepreneurs — people who had the idea, pursued the vision, marshaled the resources, managed production, and shepherded products to market.

One can agree with this point by saying that the entrepreneur is a necessary condition for the creation of economic value. But Rand treats the entrepreneur as a sufficient condition.  The entrepreneur creates the value of goods and everyone else gets in his way (in Rand the pronoun is always “he,” even when he is a woman).  Governments are leeches on the value he creates; organized labor siphons off more of it.  Who could blame the hero of Atlas Shrugged, John Galt, and his like if they should take their marbles and head off to form their own society, leaving the parasites behind?

But in truth the entrepreneur, though very much a necessary condition for the production of economic value, is not a sufficient condition.  An entrepreneur will get nowhere without a capitalist or a government agency in charge of a budget to finance his or her ideas; the production will require a labor force; it will need to make use of public infrastructure and a framework of the rule of law; and the fruits of the production will be of no value if no one wants them.  Thus the creators, entrepreneurs, investors, taxpayers, legislators, jurists, workers, and consumers are all necessary conditions for the production of the value that we find in the marketplace; but none of them, including the entrepreneur, is a sufficient condition: none can make it happen alone.


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Comments:

Posted Mon, Aug 27, 5:18 a.m. Inappropriate

For a "professional philosopher", this author seems to deliberately take a distortive and overly narrow interpretation of what Ayn Rand actually meant by centering her virtue ethics around the productive members of society, which the "entrepreneur" is an essential part but obviously not the whole.

Ayn Rand's philosophy is above all a defense of reason and of productiveness and she uses the entrepreneur as an archetype in her literature as an extreme example of the people in our society that are the most productive but Ayn Rand never states or implies that this is the ONLY person in society who is productive. Indeed, her books are filed with all kinds of people who she regards as moral and productive but who are NOT entrepreneurs (e.g. Eddie Willers in Atlas Shrugged).

Thus, the necessary/sufficient conditions of which this author speaks is a deliberate straw man erected for the sole purpose of refuting an idea that has nothing at all to do with anything Ayn Rand said or implied.

dogmai

Posted Mon, Aug 27, 8:56 a.m. Inappropriate

Is deliberate distortion a "philosophy"? If so no wonder its practitioners are so easy to dismiss.

Posted Mon, Aug 27, 9:17 a.m. Inappropriate

Kidder needs to read up more on his Rand. "[Productiveness] means the consciously chosen pursuit of a productive career, in any line of rational endeavor, great or modest, on any level of ability. It is not the degree of a man’s ability nor the scale of his work that is ethically relevant here, but the fullest and most purposeful use of his mind." _The Objectivist Ethics_.

Well said dogmai.

Posted Mon, Aug 27, 9:17 a.m. Inappropriate

This is a classic battle that would serve us better as a competition! Rand influenced so many of us design types because of her total obsession with self determination and egoism. It's always me against the world and if you are objective than you are all that matters and there is virtue in the lion ripping apart bambi. This is a very interesting philosophy that serves best as the opposing team to subjectivity and wonder, manifest destiny and fate. It is apparent in this Presidential election but clothed in religion, an anomaly for sure. Paul says it best by recognizing the "we" in any single worthwhile endeavor. It's been decades since I picked up a Randian book or attended Randian lectures in Boston but I always felt somehow this was a cult a pathway leading to a life like the dinosaurs enjoyed. I prefer the wonderment of the stars and a tear for the helpless as we build a world along with the objective.

chuck

Posted Mon, Aug 27, 10:14 a.m. Inappropriate

Chuck,

Your comment is a bit confusing. Ayn Rand regarded competition as a byproduct of productiveness i.e. of creation and most emphatically NOT of predation so it's unclear how you can equate a person like say, Steve Jobs, who is generally recognized as taking an intensely personal and selfish interest in the creation of his products to provide values to his customers with a predator type of person like say, Bernie Madoff, who produced nothing but an elaborate fraud that deprived his victims of values.

It should be pretty clear to anyone who looks beyond the superficial that the former is a pretty goog real life example of self determination and of egoism that was virtuous because it DID NOT require anyone's sacrifice while the latter is pretty good example of deception, sacrifice and self destruction, the kind of behavior that Ayn Rand explicitly condemned as fit for only a pre-historic jungle of primordial mysticism and predation.

dogmai

Posted Mon, Aug 27, 12:40 p.m. Inappropriate

The author's contention that Ayn Rand's heroes exist in a vacuum, devoid of government, law, society and, above all, customers, suggests a superficial knowledge of her writings. Rand created in integrated philosophical system based on the belief that a person is doing his greatest and best work when he follows his enlightened self interest. Unlike other moral constructs, which are based on an appeal to authority ("better not do that or you're going to [ hell | jail | exile ]"), Rand's was based on the belief that rational people know the difference between right and wrong, and are capable of behaving rightly, because such behavior is the most beneficial to everyone. The key tenet of her philosophy is that no person, or group of people, has the right to initiate the use of force against another. Voluntary cooperation among people is necessary for such a society to exist. Far from being apart from society, people need society to thrive. But society needs to protect rights and property, arbitrate disputes fairly, and and keep the parasites at bay. When society itself becomes parasitic, the only way to get anything done is through the use of force, and that is pretty much the world we live in today.

dbreneman

Posted Mon, Sep 3, 5:23 p.m. Inappropriate

It would be hard to get more objective than voluntary cooperation turning out to be promoted by a common molecule, so let's hope that thirty years hence that people (if still around) will have moved past Rand and on to arguing about how best the virtuous circles of oxytocin can be substituted for the hair triggers of testosterone—see "The Moral Molecule, Source of Love and Prosperity," Paul Zak, 2012.

"Most significant and determinant of kids achieving their educational potential is bottom up— namely, whether they have stability and love at home."

afreeman

Posted Tue, Feb 25, 8:59 p.m. Inappropriate

If "Rand's [moral construct] was based on the belief that rational people know the difference between right and wrong, and are capable of behaving rightly, because such behavior is the most beneficial to everyone." Then the flaw there is that people who know the difference between right and wrong are also capabler of behaving 'wrongly', and often do. Such behavior is and has been most detrimental to everyone. See Enron. It's not 'society' itself that has become parasitic, but those following their enlightened self interest who have learned to feed off it. And that's pretty much the world we live in today.

I'm not a philosopher because being one serves no practical value, only self interest.

Blood

Posted Mon, Aug 27, 8:03 p.m. Inappropriate

I always like to read articles by those who say they have found a flaw in Objwctivism. Who knows? Maybe Simeon will someday and I would certainly not want to follow a debunked philosophy.

Mr Kidder has not failed to do so, but he has failed rather miserably. He accuses Ayn Rand of being simplistic and tries to prove it with an incredibly simplistic argument. Ayn Rand didn't venerate entrepreneurs solely. She venerated any "producer." That is, anyone that produces material values and to the EXTENT that they produce values.

So, while she would venerate an entrepreneur like Steve Jobs more so than a paper boy, she would venerate the paper boy over a so-called entrepreneur like the founder of Solyndra, who could only operate so long as the public money flowed.

So, you're argument is invalidated that quickly, Mr. Kidder. And I'm not even a philosopher.

cmbbroker

Posted Mon, Aug 27, 9:21 p.m. Inappropriate

Ayn Rand was just a proseletyzer for laissez-faire capitalism. If she can be associated with an academic discipline at all, she was an economist of the Milton Friedman stripe.

She was no philosopher.

She was no more a philosopher than was Friedrich Nietzsche--the neurotic, stream-of-consciousness essayist whose atheism, contempt for altruism, and "ubermensch" mentality she shared.

Her novels perfectly capture the adolescent mind, and that's why they remain beloved of teens (and perpetual teens) who would like nothing better than to get rid of their parents and all social obligations.

Seneca

Posted Tue, Aug 28, 4:17 a.m. Inappropriate

Seneca,

Wow, your super intellectual argument has finally convinced me that Ayn Rand was wrong and all it took to convince me was your post, warning me that I won't be liked very much by people of the left who are so intellectually bankrupt that the only way they can respond to Ayn Rands ideas is by an argumentation from intimidation.

dogmai

Posted Sun, Dec 9, 2:08 a.m. Inappropriate

I'm with you on this. I became aware of her in my teens and it remained with me well into my late 30s. But as I attempted to truely implement the principles and philosophy and keep falling into the category she was against. I fought this for sometime and couldn't understand why I couldn't escape to being totally self sufficient, although I was and am, independant of mind and spirit. Then it dawned on me that society and all it's pitfalls and influences were ever present and dominating. If not directly upon me, it was a residual from others it had affected. Jobs, school,and social gatherings were all products of this cattle mentality, or use and abuse mentality.

grihm1

Posted Tue, Aug 28, 10:27 a.m. Inappropriate

Alan Greenspan, I recall, was an adherent, until he had it in him to admit that "he had been wrong"! I think Rand appeals to all that unhappy individualism that ends up thinking "it can, must, has no choice but TO MAKE IT by its lonely self." This IT fails to see how it became such a fraction.

mikerol

Posted Tue, Aug 28, 11:44 a.m. Inappropriate

However, Greenspan later admitted that he had been caught up in the general panic, and on later reflection he had been wrong to say he had been wrong.

dbreneman

Posted Wed, Aug 29, 4 p.m. Inappropriate

I am also a professional philosopher (having taught at C.U.N.Y. and U.T./Austin). In addition, I have been an Objectivist for 50 years now (and was an associate of Ayn Rand). I thank Prof. Kidder for making an actual argument with intellectual content. That is rare. Most opponents merely use Ad Hominems.

However, there are two problems with Prof. Kidder's piece. First, Rand of course recognizes that the innovator is not a sufficient condition for economic progress. Henry Rearden, for example, had loans from a banker (Midas Mulligan) and hired workers. The value of other productive individuals is explicitly covered in the novel. And it is up to voluntary contract, by mutual decision, who gets paid what.

But this is hardly worth discussing, because the major error is: "Ayn Rand’s philosophy is above all a defense of the entrepreneur." It is not. Not even close. Ayn Rand's philosophy is above all a defense of reason (as she herself wrote).

Prof. Kidder says "Her watchwords are “reason,” “logic,” and “objectivity,” but those are not her "watchwords," they are the essence and substance of her philosophy. I know whereof I speak (or type): I'm just doing the proofreading on a 320 page book using and to a small extent, elaborating on her views on: sensory perception, concept-formation, axioms, inference, principles, and objectivity. She defines all these terms (except "inference"), and has a very rich, fertile development of the theory of knowledge. (My book is, "How We Know: Epistemology on an Objectivist Foundation.")

Philosphers should be discussing such things as her argument for the inerrancy of the senses, her theory of concepts as based on measurement-relationships, her theory of meaning and how it leads to a (non-Quinean) rejection of the analytic-synthetic dichotomy, her view of knowledge as hierarchical and proof as reduction back down the hierarchy (to the self-evident material provided in perception), her "fallacy of the 'stolen concept', her concept of objectivity as based on the *identity* of the conceptual faculty--including that it is not automatic but volitional.

That, and not some narrow social-economic question (how much of a role do entrepreneurs have?) is what Objectivism is all about and what philosophers should be either agreeing with or refuting.

Posted Wed, Aug 29, 4:06 p.m. Inappropriate

Maybe my last comment was slightly too focused on epistemology. Philosophers should also be considering her other major positions, especially her original theory answering Hume's "is-ought" dichotomy. She claims to derive values from fact.

To date, only Robert Nozick has tried to reply to her argument (inadequately in my opinion).

Posted Mon, Sep 3, 5:05 p.m. Inappropriate

"Some of our most prominent leaders of both the private and public sectors take Rand’s fallacies as the very ideal of reason and her fictional world as the world that they most earnestly wish to create for the rest of us to live in."

There are a lot of people at this moment earnestly wishing to create a world for the rest of us to live in, and most of it is fictional. If philosophers could resort to "clear and lively" writing (just once, pleasssse) it would be helpful to know how much of it to attribute to Rand—"some" could mean anything from two to almost all.

As for naming names and counting. Commenters start the list with Greenspan, Ryan, Paul, and possibly Friedman. More, or less?

afreeman

Posted Sun, Dec 9, 1:51 a.m. Inappropriate

I've read and studied both Fountain Head and Atlas Shugged and had incorporated them into my own philosophy for decades. But I of late have discovered the shortcomings in her philosophy. The shortcoming is that she don't take into consideration of someone being purposefully held back. Her philosophy is for an individual to strive to accomplish and succeed according to their hard work and mental conditioning. You work hard and think deeply and the fruits of your efforts are your and yours alone. Well, this is true and just, but in a utopian society. Not the one we find ourselves, where some are suppressed, oppressed, and laws put in place to favor a certain group. Food, water, air, doctors, lawyers, politicians, pharmacedical companies are all corrupt, poison and design to shortening or reducing the quality of your life. If you don't have good parents, schools, nutrition, healthcare and neighborhoods that is a hinderance.

Life is uncompromising, uncaring, brutal from the cradel to the grave. You must do whatever you can to succeed, stay mentally and physically healthy, if you have the presence of mind to do so.

I pick and chose where to practice Ayn Rands philosophy, but like religion, I must bring to the future and make it applicable. Which means, sometimes you will need to look for help from others. You will need the government to assist and protect you from the greedy and selfish people. Namely those I've mentioned above.

This is a dangerous and extremely selfish world we live in so do what you must to succeed and survive.

grihm1

Posted Fri, Jul 5, 8:34 p.m. Inappropriate

A professional philosopher responds to the professional philosopher: "Philosopher Paul Kidder on Rand" at http://www.stephenhicks.org/2013/07/05/philosopher-paul-kidder-on-rand/.

Posted Thu, Jan 2, 4:49 a.m. Inappropriate

The professor who the piece offers a a straw man: “Ayn Rand’s philosophy is above all a defense of the entrepreneur.” He then argues against his claim for the rest of the article.

This is what Ayn Rand actually wrote: “My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.”

Is the professor claiming that only entrepreneurs can be heroic, use reason, and pursue happiness?

Or is he purposely trying to mislead readers because he has no arguments against Rand’s actual writings?

teddpotts

Posted Sat, Jun 14, 7:18 a.m. Inappropriate

The latter. He likely works at a state university protected by tenure from being fired and can no longer imagine a situation in which he sells his ideas on a voluntary basis to willing customers.

Posted Sat, Jun 14, 7:16 a.m. Inappropriate

As someone who works with logic all day, I would like to point out a critical error in this criticism, which is quite fundamental if you think of it. You state
"it will need to make use of public infrastructure and a framework of the rule of law; and the fruits of the production will be of no value if no one wants them. Thus the creators, entrepreneurs, investors, taxpayers, legislators, jurists, workers, and consumers are all necessary conditions for the production of the value that we find in the marketplace"

Just stating things are necessary is worse than claiming the one essential thing is necessary. Certainly if they are not. Public infrastructure is not required to bring a product to market. You can do that perfectly well on private infrastructure, probably cheaper, without traffic jams and without speed traps. You don't need tax payers either. If I want to produce an Iphone and want to sell it, I do not need someone to be the coercive slave of the president. It is like stating that for the production of cotton, slaves are required. They are not. You can do it with slaves, and it was done with slaves for a long time, but slaves are not required.
You might need a legal infrastructure, but that does by no means have to have involuntary participants.

BTW I don't think Rand claimed investors were not required, neither would she deny the need for workers and consumers. As an objectivist, she favored a legal monopoly, but wanted to fund that on a voluntary basis.

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