See Introduction to Objectivism.

This node exists because I need only one specific, valid critique of any of Ayn Rand's fundamental points to dismiss Objectivism as an integrated system, and because I've been unable to find such a critique.

Most are along these lines:

  1. Ayn Rand is a bad writer
  2. Objectivism is a cult
  3. Objectivism is heartless

Those do not constitute meaningful criticisms of the philosophy.

  1. m_turner: "The claim is that all things other than humans automatically act for their own survival..."
    1. Your interpretation is incorrect. Ayn Rand is stressing that the human method of survival, being volitional, requires a choice to live, while an animal faces no such choice.
      1. "m_turner: Many animals choose reproductive success over survival, salmon and the male mantis being two examples."
        1. Again: Ayn Rand is saying that when animals act to survive, they do so automatically (i.e., they face no choice as to whether and how to go about it). She is not saying that animals unfailingly act to survive.
      2. m_turner: "At what point does man deviate from animal? Salmon and bees may not have any choice in the matter. What about cats? or dogs? or dolphins?"
        1. The fact that humans have volition does not depend on the question of whether animals do. Your question is thus irrelevant to this node.
  2. m_turner: "There is no specific course of action required for life such that some other course will destroy it."
    1. Ayn Rand's notion of "specific course" is broader than yours. She simply means that not all actions are equally appropriate if one is to stay alive.
      1. m_turner: Yep. So?
        1. (no comment)
  3. m_turner: "Selfish" is a bad word choice
    1. Obviously, this isn't fundamental.
      Ayn Rand says: "It is important to know when to continue using a word despite its being corrupted, and when to drop such a word. The real test is: what does the corruption of the word accomplish? For example, I fight for the word 'selfishness,' even though the word, as used colloquially, designates both criminals and Peter Keatings, on the one hand, and also productive industrialists and Howard Roarks, on the other. Here, there is an attempt to obliterate a legitimate concept--selfishness--and thus we should not give up the word."
      1. m_turner: "Selfishness is important in that objectivists have made the same flaws that were pointed out in altruists - grouping people into two groups."
        1. Objectivism does not consider grouping people into two groups an evil of altruism, nor does it maintain that it shouldn't be done.
        2. update: I found the original article which presents your argument (and most of the others you make). The author claims to have studied Objectivism for three decades, but he fails to understand its basic concepts.

          The argument is that Rand's definition of selfishness obliterates the distinction between a man who sacrifices others to himself and a man who does not, that Rand provides no way of distinguishing between the two, and that this is a cognitive mistake.

          It's false that Rand fails to differentiate between the two. She calls one irrational selfishness and the other rational selfishness. Her terms are more exact than the ones suggested here. Particularly, "aware of social context" is a floating abstraction of the type which Rand would never condone. Ayn Rand is quite explicit and clear on the point that she's an advocate of rational selfishness--not concrete-bound, hedonistic, irrational selfishness.

      2. m_turner: "Objectivist literature does not distinguish between selfishness and self-interest, thus many who follow objectivism follow 'man is the end' to the extreme."
        1. Do you mean that people who don't understand Objectivism but nontheless choose to accept its claims as out of context slogans might think that killing others is in their self-interest? But this is not a problem with the philosophy of Objectivism but with the concrete-bound mentalities which mean to use it as dogma.
Objectivists and Ayndroids
To an ayndroid, the works Ayn Rand are dogma - they sum up the entire works of objectivism. Objectivism itself is a tool in looking at the way things work. It is not necessarily the Truth about the way things work. Just as platonic forms are a tool for looking at ideas and concepts and how we deal with them. It is true that Rand has made useful points about certain principles of philosophy - however she is not infallible. Neither are her mistakes to be taken as proof contrary to objectivism. What does confuse the issue is her moving of personal preferences to philosophical principles.

Androids: Objectivism is not dogma
Objectivism and the works of Ayn Rand are not necessarily the same. It is a tool, like the scientific method. It is an open ended set of principles, not a dogma. Accept the work of people who are working to develop the implications of Objectivist Ethics.

Types of Self
There are several classes of people, and different ways to look at selfishness. For comparison, the

  1. Selfish: Those who are concerned with their own advantage without care for others
  2. Selfless: Those who live for others, with little concern for the self
  3. Self-interested: Those who are concerned with self benefit, but are also aware of social context.
The use selfish to designate the third group is bad word choice. It leads to misconceptions. In using selfish to designate the third category, there is a failure to create a new term for the first category. Thus the same mistake that is Rand accuses the altruists of making, classifying the three groups of people into two.

Ayn Rand as a philosophical writer
One of the problems with her work as a piece of philosophy is that she does deal with philosophy. She did not deal with existing arguments but rather casts them aside and goes on to make her own claims. The technique that she uses is an old one. Her conclusion is very clear, but the proof is shrouded in mystery rather than a scholarly fashion. In hiding the proof this way it confuses the reader's critical facility. Pages of technical notes provide the look of sophistication. Students believe that the teacher knows it. Teachers believe that the commentators know it. And the Commentators believe the author knows it. However, the author is blind to the simple fact that there is no proof. People write PhD theses trying to find a proof in the works of Objectivism. It is far easier to read Kant than it is to read the basis of Objectivism.

Existence as the value

An animal ... . But so long as it lives, ... it is unable to ignore its own good, unable to decide to choose the evil and act as its own destroyer.
The claim is that all things other than humans automatically act for their own survival. This is a false claim. Take the male mantis, which is eaten by the female as part of mating. Many other examples exist in nature where it is not existence that is the value, but rather reproductive success.

Survival is a means to reproductive success - most of the time things are trying to survive. However, salmon that put survival above everything else would never go back to spawn, and thus would have no descendants to be used as evidence for its objective existence.

This could all be dismissed as an irrelevant metaphysical argument, however Objectivism claims to be based on the facts or reality - and this "fact" that is false. Things built from it are flawed.

Since life requires a specific course of action, any other course will destroy it. A being who does not hold his own life as the motive and goal of his actions, is acting on the motive and standard of death.
Consider someone with a different value - a utilitarian for example. His own life is not the motive and goal of his actions, but rather a means to the achievement of the goal. If he isn't alive he can't utility himself, nor can he act to increase the utility of others. Similarly a nationalist can't act to further the triumph of a nation. However, it is not always the case that their life is the ends, and this can be seen when a person has the opportunity to achieve their goal at the cost of their on life - suicide bombers for example.

The first sentence is false. There is no specific course of action required for life such that any other course will destroy it. There are many different paths which preserve life with different degrees of success. Taken literally, this contradicts the facts of reality. If people were acting on motive and the standard of death, we would have people committing suicide at the first convenient opportunity and only Objectivists would be left. The fact that I am debating this now is proof to the contrary.

Taken less literally, it means that if you do not take your life as your goal, you are choosing a little death, a slightly higher chance of death, or a slightly shorter life expectancy. However, this is true for all philosophies - a utilitarian could argue that a non-utilitarian, by not acting in the way that maximizes happiness is choosing a little misery. "A being who does not hold the happiness of all men as the motive and goal for his actions, is acting on the motive and standard of human misery." This argument is as good (or bad) as the Objectivist.

Selfishness is important in that objectivists have made the same flaws that were pointed out in altruists - grouping people into two groups. Objectivist literature does not distinguish between selfishness and self-interest, thus many who follow objectivism follow 'man is the end' to the extreme. If a distinction could be drawn showing what selfish things are allowed and what are not, it would go a ways to clearing up the misconception. However, it would probably create yet another split in the objectivist school of thought.

A living organism has to act in the face of a constant alternative: life or death. Life is conditional; it can be sustained only by a specific course of action performed by the living organism, such as the actions of obtaining food. In this plants and animals have no choice: within the limits of their powers, they take automatically the actions their life requires.
--The Philosophy of Objectivism: A Brief Summary by Dr. Leonard Peikoff
The question of animal choice for survival has been shown to be flawed. Many animals choose reproductive success over survival, salmon and the male mantis being two examples. Others choose their own death for the survival of the hive. Honey bees that sting kill themselves with that act. What is the importance of the distinction between man and animals and their choice? If there is a distinction as objectivism claims, then the facts of the world do not fit.

At what point does man deviate from animal? Salmon and bees may not have any choice in the matter. What about cats? or dogs? or dolphins? Can other animals choose to do something that may hurt them for some other end? There are many accounts of pets traveling hundreds of miles to go back to their families that they have been separated from. This is a difficult trek and does not necessarily further their survival or reproductive success. But yet they do it. Dolphins have rescued people and done other acts of valor uncharacteristic of animals without a choice. This question cannot be dismissed as metaphysical questions, because these are facts. Objectivism has made the claim that animals don't make choices based upon factual examples rather than metaphysical arguments. Objectivism cannot dismiss this into the realm of metaphysics without dismissing the distinction along with it and anything built on that distinction. Nothing is built on this? The entire ethical portion of objectivism is built on diffrentationg Man's mind from that of the animals.

Not all actions are equally approbate if one is to stay alive. Yep. So? Not all actions are equally approbate for the maximization of utility. Not all actions are equally approbate for furthering a nation. These statements are equally true and valid and powerful as the objectivist claim. So what?

I am not an Objectivist, but I think I have the basics of the philosophy down. I have read this node a number of times over a period of about two years and, at one point, even considered creases' arguments to be decisive against Objectivism. However, I now think that he is vulnerable to criticism. I want to emphasize throughout this essay that the reader should not take creases' or my word for it, but really dig into Rand's thought. She has a fascinating philosophy, even if you think that she is wrong. You must read Rand and the surrounding scholarship if you don't want to make all the mistakes that creases makes in his evaluation of her.

Rand always tried to begin with reality in all aspects of her philosophy. As a result, her concepts are different from those in academia, which results in confusions when academics or people grounded in the academic tradition try to criticize her work without really digging into it. An example of such a confusion is creases' criticism that Rand's ethics fails to achieve objectivity. This misses the absolutely crucial point that the academic distinction is between objective, which refers to things outside the mind, and subjective, which refers to things inside the mind. Rand, on the other hand, makes a threefold distinction between intrinsic, which refers to things independent of the mind, and objective and subjective, which are dependent on the mind. Objectivity is then a property of those mental entities that are the product of reason, while subjectivity is a property of the rest of them. The point you should take away is that creases totally misses Rand's point when she says that her ethics is objective. She would, perhaps, agree that she is a subjectivist on the academics' definitions; however, if we take her on her own terms, we must call her ethics objective. It just means, very roughly, that her ethics is the product of reason.

Creases makes the claim that Rand's ethics tries and fails to achieve life as an absolute end. Let's sketch Rand's actual argument and see how this claim holds up. Values are those things that one acts to gain or keep. You cannot act to gain or keep a thing if there is no alternative about gaining or keeping it, and the only alternative that could possibly be a reason to act is the alternative of life and death. Again, I must stop here and emphasize that Rand always, always, always starts with reality in her thought. She does not begin with the notion that we must have an absolute moral standard, like so many other ethicists. She begins with the fact that things pursue values in the world. As a brilliant Objectivist I know put this point for me, Objectivism does not take ethics as a primary. What we get at the end of this argument is not an absolute end in the sense that creases claims, it is an alternative, as Rand emphasized in Atlas Shrugged. So Rand didn't even try to make life an absolute in the sense that creases claims. That claim doesn't come from her argument, it doesn't come from her work, it doesn't come from reality, it only comes from the presupposition that Rand is yet another academic working in the academic tradition.

But what about living as "man qua man?" Critics of Objectivism often misunderstand the link between flourishing and life. The criticism that one hears a lot is that there's an equivocation between life and flourishing in Rand. But choosing life just is choosing to flourish. If I choose life in every decision I make throughout my day, if I choose to make myself as big and strong as I can to resist disease and poverty, then I will necessarily become an impressive individual. This is spelled out in Tara Smith's work. Again, don't take my word for any of this. Look at reality. Read Rand and the surrounding literature; don't let me or creases form your opinion of this thinker by means of a five hundred word essay on some website that just anybody can post to.

Finally, Rand's argument for rights, concisely put, goes like this. Men have free will, which means that they can choose to excercise their reason or not. If you want them to excercise their reason - if you want skyscrapers, electrical generators, and good food to eat - you had better let them live freely. Creases misses this argument in exchange for some of Rand's remarks on the practicality of belligerence, which, while important, are nonessential.

I hope I've convinced you, not that Rand was correct, but that you need to study her a bit more carefully before forming an opinion of her. There's a flaw in the title of this node: it assumes that it is even possible to write a good critique of Rand on a website like this. That says implicitly that Rand is a third-rate, shallow thinker. Can you imagine a node called "Critique of Aristotle" or even "Critique of Dawkins?" Here's a decent critique of Rand: Ayn Rand Contra Human Nature by Nyquist. It's about four hundred pages of philosophical prose. That should tip you off that there is nothing, no matter how brilliant you are, that you can write in an everything2 writeup and do philosophic justice to Rand.

Now, if you want to form a reasonable opinion of Rand, here's a good primer, written by a sympathetic interpreter: Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand. I would also suggest Nyquist's critique, which clarified her ideas in my mind significantly.

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