Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Faking reality: a moral review of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged

Jewish date:  15 Shevaṭ 5772 (Parashath Yithro).

Today’s holidays:  Ṭu biShevaṭ (Judaism), Feast Days of Jerome Emiliani and Josephine Bakhita (Roman Catholicism), Feast Day of St. Teletubbie/Homosexual Anxiety (Church of the SubGenius).

Faking reality:  a moral review of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged
by Aaron Solomon Adelman

Atlas Shrugged is Ayn Rand’s magnum opus, a novel of over 1,000 pages describing a world being destroyed by altruism (of all things), and the only hope for the future is a small, secretive group of extremely talented, competent, and mostly rich selfish people led by the mysterious John Galt.  The selfish people (metaphorically Atlas), rather than allow themselves to be taken advantage by altruists, go into hiding in a valley in the American West and let civilization collapse around them (metaphorically shrugging).  And this a priori improbable work is somehow the favorite of a number of Republican politicians today, so I have little choice but to review it.

Ayn Rand fails to discuss theology completely, despite having some nominally religious characters.  The closest she comes is calling gods “imaginary”, which is a mere assertion and not a theological proof.  She also considers religion a tool to allow people to take advantage of each other; while it can be and historically has been used this way, this does not automatically mean that atheism is correct.  Rand cannot even be bothered to put bad theological arguments into the mouths of characters representing views she does not like.  On the other hand, Rand is obsessed with morality.  Hence this is a “moral” review and not a “theological” review.

Rand has an unusual esteem for reason and reality, and she really hates when people pretend that something is real other than what is actually real (“faking reality”).  This is a good thing, as too many in the past century have eschewed rationality, especially in religion and morality.  Sadly her implementation is faulty.  She makes three big errors in reason and reality, tied up in a tight knot, which need to noted before dealing with anything else:

1) Rand’s epistemology (how she claims to know what she claims to know) is inappropriate.  The way she reasons is in terms of Aristotelean philosophy:  she sets down axioms and makes deductions based on them.  Even when done properly, the results can be wrong if the axioms are wrong.  For example, “the sky is always blue” is a bad axiom, as the sky is sometimes gray, sometimes black, and sometimes even other colors.  As we do not know the axioms on which our universe is based, Aristotelean philosophy is an insufficient epistemology.  The current paradigm, the scientific method, includes checking one’s beliefs against reality.  Rand shows no awareness of this paradigm at all.

2) Rand is weaker on logic than a philosopher should be.  Central in her thinking the false dilemma (also known as the false dichotomy), a formal fallacy in which only two possibilities are considered when there are actually more.  For example, one may validly classify all single-colored objects as “black” and “not black”.  It is not valid, however, to assume that all “not black” objects must be white—yet Rand regularly makes this sort of mistake.

3) Despite detesting “faking reality”, Rand repeatedly gets her facts wrong, especially about humans.  To illustrate just how unrealistically she portrays humans, let us review some of more egregiously illogical behavior in Atlas Shrugged,:
  1. The government of the United States encourages citizens to behave in ways which are inconsistent with the known behavior of humans and difficult to believe that anyone could realistically perform, such as demanding that they never think and forcing them to spend exactly the same amount of money every single year.
  2. All of the countries on Earth besides the United States have gone communist, and the United States government is propping them up so they do not collapse completely.
  3. The government of the United States does what it can to wreck the country and make everyone desperate and miserable, which entails the obvious risk of revolt.
  4. The government of the United States seeks to nationalize every business, thus giving themselves more work to do, rather than simply collect taxes.
  5. Giants of the business world are passive-aggressive.  Rather than try to exert influence on the government, many instead destroy their own businesses rather than try to effect changes in government.
  6. The government seeks to destroy functioning businesses and coerces businesses into agreements aimed at destroying business.  This is an obvious recipe for wrecking the economy and sharply reducing tax revenues.
  7. The government interferes with the functioning of science, as if it had the power to dictate reality, and promotes the idea that truth is purely subjective and other such blatant nonsense.
  8. The government passes laws designed to make it impossible for people to conduct business without breaking the law and engaging in corruption to stay in business.
  9. Trials are conducted by kangaroo courts.
  10. The court is under the impression that punishing violators requires their consent.
  11. The central character, Dagny Taggart, despite being one of the most competent and intelligent of the characters, seems completely unaware that sex has consequences and risks.  She is sexually very passive to the selfish male characters.
  12. The government does nothing to stop the pirate Ragnar Danneskjöld.
  13. The government somehow collectively thinks that everything can go on exactly the same year after year.
  14. The heros are incapable of properly interpreting anything from religious literature, legend, history, or fiction.  Atlas is misinterpreted as holding up the Earth, when he actually holds up the sky.  Robin Hood is misinterpreted as stealing from innocent rich people and giving to parasitic people, when he actually steals from predatory rich people and gives to overtaxed poor people.  Man in Garden of Eden is misinterpreted as he “who existed without mind, without values, without labor, without love”, despite the text of Genesis making no such claims and explicitly contradicting “without labor” in Genesis 2:5.
  15. Government appointments are made purely for political reasons, without regard for talent, ability, knowledge, and competence.  Passing the buck for failure is frequent.
  16. Anti-intellectualism, not thinking, ignorance, moral relativism, and political oppression are actively promoted as ideals.
  17. People are punished for doing excellent work.
  18. The government creates a superweapon, Project X, despite having no enemies which are a sufficient threat to merit a superweapon.
  19. The government has a third-rate hack create the superweapon based on someone else’s brilliant new physics theory without thinking.  The chances of this working in reality are practically zero.
  20. The government bigwigs presume that their enemies, specifically Dagny Taggart and the “hero” John Galt, will be happy do what they want, especially on short notice.  They also presume that they can torture people, specifically John Galt, into doing what they want.
  21. The government bigwigs, when torturing John Galt, use a complex, electrified gizmo which breaks too easily rather than a much more robust, low-technology, inexpensive, and equally effective tool, such as a crowbar.
Everyone is well-aware that humans are prone to doing stupid and illogical things.  Even brilliant people are known to make errors.  However, the prevalence and profundity of stupidity in Atlas Shrugged is probably unequalled anywhere at any time in human history.

Now, unrealism in a work of fiction is not necessarily a problem.  Technically speaking, all fiction is unrealistic, as by definition it must deal with events which do not actually happen.  Many enjoyable stories take place in worlds where the physics is different, allowing for magic or psychic powers, or the way that matter is arranged is different, such as with a different geography or different creatures.  Sometimes even the rules of psychology get bent to good effect, such as in Gilligan’s Island, the plays of Gilbert and Sullivan, and Phineas and Ferb.  And if all one is interested in is entertainment, it does not matter how unrealistic anything in a work of fiction is, so long as one is entertained.  However, Atlas Shrugged is supposed to be Ayn Rand’s great work laying out her moral philosophy.  She makes this clear in the introduction to The Virtue of Selfishness, so one cannot dismiss Atlas Shrugged as mere fiction.  For Rand’s philosophy to be applicable in our world, her characters have to behave like real humans.  Because they do not, any attempt at showing that following her moral philosophy leads to desirable results and that not following it leads to undesirable results is inherently flawed—even taking into account the limitations of what can be shown by writing a story.

Selfishness and the naturalistic fallacy:  Ayn Rand’s moral philosophy, the inaccurately named Objectivism, is based on the naturalistic fallacy.  Rand holds that what is good for humans (e.g., in terms of physical and mental health) is morally good for them and builds the rest of the system on this foundation.  She can define her moral system this way (I suppose), but it is objective only with regard to the question of whether behavior fits her definition, and to explain why requires taking a step back.  

Some properties of objects and actions, such as mass, electrical charge, and size, are properties of the physical world and exist whether or not anyone believes in them.  But other properties, such as ownership, marriage, monetary value, legal rights, and legality, only exist because people agree on them.  A table belongs to Ernie, because people agree he owns it, or at least he can convince enough people that he owns it.  If he sells the table to Bert, then the table becomes Bert’s by virtue that they followed a procedure (e.g., giving money) which society agrees transfers ownership of the table.  Properties of this latter kind are called social constructs, and morality is among them, and they are never objective in the same way as physical properties.  Moral systems are social constructs—ones believed in religions to be enforced by a god or karma, but social constructs nevertheless.  One can morally disagree with whatever god or gods one believes in or to argue for a moral system different from that karma enforces, but to deliberately act on such disagreement would be to invite one’s doom.

Returning to Rand:  Rand does not take the idea of deities seriously enough to even bother to argue against their existence, and she never mentions karma at all.  In a purely atheistic universe, with no supernatural reward or punishment, morality is purely a matter of opinion.  Rand can argue her definition is a useful or wise one, but anyone who does not accept her definition of “good” will find her arguments unconvincing.  To make things worse, Rand tries to make her notions of morality more attractive by arbitrary redefining terms such as “love” and “happiness” to make it impossible to non-Objectivists to feel them.

Even assuming that what is good for humans really is morally good, Rand runs into trouble, for selfishness unrestrained easily lets people step on each other.  One can easily find abundance examples in nature of creatures selfishly taking advantage of other creatures (viruses, athlete’s foot fungus, liver flukes, tapeworms, leeches, fleas, etc.).  Why should things be any different for humans?  If selfishness is good, why not steal if one can get away with it?  Why not rape if one can get away with it?  Why not murder inconvenient people if one can get away with it?  While Rand may be selfish, she is not an idiot.  To avoid giving anyone an excuse to literally stab her in the back, she proclaims that everyone has natural rights and it is rational for everyone to not infringe on each other’s rights.  The problem with this approach is that rights are social constructs just as much as morality.  Rand can argue that it is useful or wise for everyone to respect each other’s “right” to property, but that does not mean we naturally have one or that we are morally obligated to respect such a right.

Note also that the Randian definition of “good” is questionable, as the business of life is not the good of the individual.  The business of life is for every life-form to get their genes on to the next generation.  Evolution selects for whatever increases the chances that this will happen, even at the expense of the individual.  Thus evolution frequently—and seemingly paradoxically—produces altruism among social creatures.

Altruism:  Of everything Rand gets wrong, arguably altruism is the concept she botches the worst.  Rand views all social interactions in terms of transactions, as if all life were economics.  In altruistic actions, “payment” is optional or nonexistent, which makes no sense to her economically.  She thus concocts a view of altruism which probably no one has ever believed or acted upon and, by virtue of a false dichotomy, is the diametrical opposite of her own philosophy.  The altruism which Rand opposes is a morality of ruin, in which thinking is taboo, in which one must always put others ahead of oneself no matter what, in which the goal is self-destruction and death.  In Atlas Shrugged, altruists are a bunch of spineless, neurotic doormats who are constantly taken advantage of by anyone claiming authority.  If they do the least thing in their own interests, they feel guilty of hypocrisy.  Their lives are nothing but helpless misery.  By the end of the book, they are all dead, dying, or rioting, having gone crazy and been reduced to little more than wild animals.  This, of course, bears no resemblance to altruism in the real world.  

In the real world, altruism entails benefits for the altruist, even in the most blatantly egoistic and economic terms.  Often altruism is actually reciprocity:  I scratch your back, and you scratch mine.  Someone who does not reciprocate kindness is less likely to receive kindness in the future.  Sometimes the reciprocity is generalized, with the expectation that everyone will show kindness to other people.  Needless to say, people in general would prefer to live among nice people, and being nice oneself is often considered an agreeable “price” for this.  Sometimes people are altruistic to increase their own prestige.  And sometimes altruism is meant to please one’s deity or improve one’s karma, which naturally can potentially bring one benefits.  (And to quash an possible objection before it can be made, it is irrelevant whether any god or karma is real; even if they are not, doing something altruistic for the sake of a god or karma which one mistakenly believes is real is a selfish mistake.)  In complete contrast to Rand’s claim, being altruistic can also be selfish.  Also, real altruists are not doormats; one of the easiest ways to make altruists mad is to abuse their trust.

Rand also grossly misunderstands and misuses other terms she associates with altruism.  Not understanding altruism, she refers to it in emotionally loaded terms, such as “cannibalism” and “immolation”.  But the term she completely inverts the meaning of is “sacrifice”.  In the traditional sense of the term, a sacrifice is an offering to one or more gods.  A sacrifice may be burned on an altar or eaten or pushed off a cliff, but the goal ultimately is a matter of pleasing those one or more gods—and keeping the gods happy is definitely in one’s best interests.  Thus there is a definitely selfish element in sacrifice.  Even in the more modern meaning of the term, such as in “I sacrificed so I could put my kid through college”, there is an element of selfishness; in our example sentence, one wants to have his/her kid to go to college, and thus the sacrifice is worth it.  Rand, however, grossly misinterprets “sacrifice” in accordance with her gross misinterpretation of altruism and views it as meaning destruction for the sake of destruction with a moral imperative.  Though Rand’s “altruistic” characters “sacrifice” for the sake of self-destruction, your humble blogger is unaware of anyone holding such moral views in real life.

The utopia of the selfish:  As mentioned briefly, the heroes of the story are a group of selfish people who eventually all move to a valley in the American West, Galt’s Gulch.  Galt’s Gulch is a utopia.  All the inhabitants are happy and productive, and they live in harmony as they work to rebuild civilization.

Rand’s selfish paradise assumes a group of selfish people who always play by the rules.  Real selfish people do not merely put themselves first; they often hurt other people in the process of benefitting themselves.  Rand thinks government should be limited to the courts, the army, and the police.  Despite this, Galt’s Gulch as depicted appears to have no real government, the nearest equivalent being a former judge who has dreams of a revised constitution.  The lack of government includes nothing in the way of consumer protection.  Any problem with laissez-faire economics (due to an absence of regulation and consumers not having enough information to make the invisible hand work properly) is inherently part of Rand’s system.  Contracts are not a solution, as anything can be put in a contract, and there is nothing to stop the choice of a provider of a product or service from being a choice among bad providers.  Rand makes no provision for public infrastructure, so how, say, public roads get built and maintained is not addressed.  Rand also makes no provision for public health.  While truly selfish people may not care if other people get sick, if they have any sense they should care if other people get communicable diseases.  If immunization is not mandatory, epidemics are practically inevitable—and epidemics hurt practically everyone, especially children before they have received all their shots.  Rand also makes a mistake common in the utopian fiction which your humble blogger has read:  there is no provision for what to do about people who do not wish to live by the rules of the utopia.  Surely one could devise a more workable utopia than Galt’s Gulch.

Spreading the message (or not):  When people think they have an important message, they often wish to spread it to others—and Ayn Rand does want people to read her book and follow her moral philosophy.  This is supposed to happen in Atlas Shrugged, too.  John Galt’s message of selfishness is supposed to be the only thing which can save the Earth.  Surprisingly, for someone who is supposed to be extremely intelligent and capable, he does a poor job at spreading his vision.  For most of the novel, he quietly recruits a few talented people to move to Galt’s Gulch—and everyone he recruits already agrees with his beliefs.  Galt only preaches his philosophy to the United States once, when society is already collapsing, too late to avoid disaster.  There are those who hold by the same philosophy as Galt who preach earlier in the book, but they preach in the wrong settings (e.g., a wedding) and in long, boring speeches.  (Actually all the preaching, both to the characters and the reader, is in long, boring speeches.)  No character is converted by any of the preaching.  Given how weak the premises and logic of Rand’s philosophy are and the rhetorically weak writing style, the only people who would likely accept the preaching for what it is would already be inclined to be selfish.  What Galt and those who think like him really do is grandstanding for the selfish, gloating, and reveling in wrecking everything.  Why are they not spending the entire novel trying to convert everyone and avert all the destruction?

Uncanny symmetry:  One of the odder aspects of this book is that the selfish people are portrayed very much like their archenemies:  United States government bigwigs.  The bigwigs, despite claiming altruism, are themselves selfish—exactly like Galt and company.  Both groups show an extreme lack of concern for other people in general.  Galt and company only show real concern for those who live by their philosophy; one of them, Henry Rearden, considers his own family to be parasites—even his own mother, without whom he would not exist at all—and abandons them to starve.  The bigwigs are so nasty that when something does not go according to plan, they eagerly place the blame on someone else, even if their victim is a loyal follower.  The ultimate aim of the bigwigs is to make everything perfect by doing everything imaginable to utterly destroy everything.  And the ultimate aim of Galt and company is... in the interest of creating a better world, to utterly destroy everything.  The only practical difference between the two groups is that Rand gives the impression that the people in Galt’s Gulch will prosper and eventually take over, but that impression could easily prove wrong.  Only one disaster, such as a drought, could wipe them out.  The promise of a great future, even if eventually realized, means little to the great masses suffering now and well into the future—but according to Rand, nobody really cares about them and they do not really matter.  For most practical purposes, there is no difference between the government bigwigs and Galt and company.

Social idiocy:  Saying “I only really care about myself” is a serious social faux pas.  Yes, we all know there are selfish people out there.  And the smart ones tend to camouflage themselves so that their selfishness is not so obvious unless they actually want to become pariahs.  Why did Rand ever publish anything ever promoting selfishness?  Why did she not remain quietly selfish?  Did she want people to hate her?

Relevance in current politics:  Multiple Republican politicians are on record as admiring Ayn Rand and Atlas Shrugged.  It should be obvious that anyone who follows Objectivism has no place in government.  By definition, such a person should be expected to put him/herself first, even to the detriment of his/her constituency.  If this means favoring big donors and ignoring the concerns of the lower and middle classes, expect him/her to do so, so long as he/she can convince enough people to vote him/her into office and keep him/her there.  Rand also explicitly opposed the government being more than the military, the police, and the courts, so expect an Objectivist in office to be hostile to and to try to eliminate or defund everything else, including Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, the EPA, the FDA, education, consumer protection, NASA, the CDC, and quite a lot of other things.  Unless you are extremely wealthy or extremely influential, expect any Objectivist in office to not care about you.

Overall classification:  Overly long, boring, and unbelievable novel.  Not only is it bad, but it does not even rise to the level of being amusingly bad.

Moral rating:  F.  Since Rand is dead and thus cannot be banned from moral philosophy for life, she is hereby banned from moral philosophy for afterlife.