EDIT: Read beyond the first paragraph! Also, read this to understand how to reject something without reading it.
I have never read a piece of work from Ayn Rand, beyond some paragraphs and extracts here and there on the internet. I never gave Objectivism, her system of thought, much importance.
But there are people -Objectivists- who think she is one of the greatest, or the greatest, philosopher ever (along with Aristotle, they’ll add). Sometimes, Objectivists tell people who have not read Rand to read her, so that they can become rational, and abandon their “non-Objectivist, mystical beliefs”.
I haven’t read anything from Rand because I consider that the effort won’t be worth it, as every time I’ve read something from Objectivists, I have not been persuaded that there is much to be learned from Rand. And also, there exists a critique available on the net that demolishes Objectivism. I will give reasons later why I believe the critique succeeds.
Recently, I read the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s entry on Rand. The entry is not written by Rand haters, mind you. Roderick T. Long and Neera K. Badwhar also have read Rand’s work, and in their own writings seem sympathetic to her. And yet, they admit:
Whereas Rand’s ideas and mode of presentation make Rand popular with many non-academics, they lead to the opposite outcome with academics. She developed some of her views in response to questions from her readers, but never took the time to defend them against possible objections or to reconcile them with the views expressed in her novels. Her philosophical essays lack the self-critical, detailed style of analytic philosophy, or any serious attempt to consider possible objections to her views. Her polemical style, often contemptuous tone, and the dogmatism and cult-like behavior of many of her fans also suggest that her work is not worth taking seriously.
Further, understanding her views requires reading her fiction, but her fiction is not to everyone’s taste. It does not help that she often dismisses other philosophers’ views on the basis of cursory readings and conversations with a few philosophers and with her young philosophy student acolytes. Some contemporary philosophers return the compliment by dismissing her work contemptuously on the basis of hearsay. Some who do read her work point out that her arguments too often do not support her conclusions. This estimate is shared even by many who find her conclusions and her criticisms of contemporary culture, morality, and politics original and insightful. It is not surprising, then, that she is either mentioned in passing, or not mentioned at all, in the entries that discuss current philosophical thought about virtue ethics, egoism, rights, libertarianism, or markets.
See also this on why she is not taken seriously.
Here’s a general criticism of Ayn Rand’s Objectivism: Why I am not an Objectivist and Critique of The Objectivist Ethics. There are things that Objectivists say that are true, but that does not make the whole thing true. There is a huge difference between things like A=A, existence exists, or consciousness perceives reality, and that only serving our self-interest is good, and altruism is bad. The problem isn’t all of the conclusions, either: yes, reality is objective, and capitalism is great, and one should be rational. The problem is with some conclusions, and with the arguments for those.
The author of that critique is Michael Huemer, a philosopher who has read the key pieces of the randian opus, and rejected it. From his writings, it can be inferred that he has read the Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, Objectivism, the Philosophy of Ayn Rand (Peikoff, 1991), The Virtue of Selfishness, and the Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology.
From these papers, it can be shown that he has read Atlas Shrugged, Capitalism: the Unknown Ideal, The Fountainhead, and The Ayn Rand Lexicon.
From this Cato Unbound issue, on Rand’s thought, we learn that he has also read Philosophy: Who Needs it.
He participated in a debate about Rand’s ethics (here), and the Objectivists themselves praised Huemer’s understanding of Objectivism:
Many of us may disagree with things he [Huemer] said, but he did far better than most other academics who try to analyze and critique Objectivism. Just open most any of the secondary literature on Rand written more than five years ago and you’ll see what I mean. I went up after the debate and extended him my thanks. I think others should do so, as well, perhaps by sending him emails thanking him for his participation.
Huemer did not misrepresent the Objectivist position once in the entire debate, and displayed a genuine understanding of its basic principles. That is rare and commendable. Huemer is in the unique position of being a professional philosopher who takes Objectivism seriously, even though he disagrees with it. … From what I’ve seen so far, we need more critics of Objectivism like Huemer.
Finally, as a philosopher, he has read works from Aristotle, Kant, and most philosophers you probably think are relevant for this discussion.
The fact that Huemer believes that, and that the rest of the philosophers believe that, and that there is a publicly available critique, is very strong evidence against Objectivism.
We then have Jason Brennan who points out a few particular mistakes of Rand: That she makes false claims due to not relying on empirical evidence when it is available, that she does not endorse what are logical conclusions of her own views, and that he misrepresents other thinkers, chiefly Immanuel Kant. Huemer expands on that in his previously linked critique:
Rand seriously misrepresents the history of ethics. Essentially, she leads the reader to believe that there have been only two alternative views in ethics: (a) that moral knowledge comes by mystical revelations from God, and (b) that moral principles are arbitrary conventions. Either way, ethics is regarded as “the province of the irrational.” One other position is mentioned: that of Aristotle, who allegedly based ethics on what noble and wise people choose to do but ignored the questions of why they chose to do it or why he thought they were noble and wise. Next to these alternatives, Rand’s theory looks almost reasonable by comparison.
However, the above is a gross caricature of the history of ethics, and Rand makes no effort to document her claims with any citations.
In short, Rand draws plausibility for her position by attacking straw men.
Now, perhaps the critiques linked above have been answered by Objectivists. Here there are some of the responses:
- Discussion in the Objectivism subreddit
- Philosophical thought experiments
- A Reply to Huemer on Ethics
- On nonsense and Referents
- Metacritiques of The Objectivist Ethics
Since they do not convince me and some of them are actually pretty bad, I maintain that Huemer’s critique stands, and thus my belief that Rand should not be taken seriously remains, even when I haven’t read anything she has written.
This conclusion, however, has to be qualified. Should we reject views just because others with good qualifications say they ought to be rejected, and there are no critiques of their arguments for the rejections? Usually, yes. Such combination of factors is a very good reason to reject something without reading about it. This is how we generally go about in our life: rarely we go to the depths of Physics’ journals to believe or disbelieve claims that physicists make. If a lot of people who have studied a subject for a long time agree on something, that is evidence for that something. It is not ultimate evidence, but the burden of proof is on you is you want to go against the consensus.
So defenders of ideas that are out of the consensus of relevant experts should take the best critiques that have been made against them, and refute them. It would also be nice for them to provide a brief introduction to their ideas, to reduce the cost for others of acquiring information about those ideas.
My guess about the popularity of Objectivism is that it provides a unified body of thought that answers many philosophical questions. People like unified bodies of thought. There are other thinkers around who have built philosophical systems and who have lots of fans, and they have some similarities in their way of argument, which in some cases ends up in regurgitating almost pre-made sentences all the time.
But philosophy doesn’t work like that. Go to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, and see how much debate and richness you have for every single concept. It’s hard to believe that a single person can come out of nowhere, and reject all of that without giving good arguments for the rejection, and then proceed to lay out a system of their own.
Objectivists: Publish a good rebuttal of Huemer’s critique, or stop being Objectivists.