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Feb 12, 2016

Ayn Rand and the History of Philosophy

Smith discusses whether we should hold a philosopher responsible for how other philosophers use his or her ideas.

On June 20, 1974, Ayn Rand wrote the following to a woman whose daughter had apparently become interested in libertarianism:

Please tell your daughter that I am profoundly opposed to today’s so-called libertarian movement and to the theories of Dr. Murray Rothbard. So-called libertarians are my avowed enemies, yet I’ve heard many reports on their attempts to cash in on my name and mislead my readers into the exact opposite of my views.

In her published writings, Rand repeatedly insisted that her followers not associate with “libertarian hippies,” who “subordinate reason to whims, and substitute anarchism for capitalism” (The Ayn Rand Letter, 3 January 1972). According to Rand, “There are sundry ‘libertarians’ who plagiarize the Objectivist theory of politics, while rejecting the metaphysics, epistemology and ethics on which it rests” (The Ayn Rand Letter, 28 January 1974).

Contrary to Rand’s assertions, most libertarian anarchists during the 1970s agreed with Rand’s metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics; and they gave her full credit for developing those foundations. They simply disagreed with Rand about the logical implications of her philosophy, as we see in the influential article by Roy Childs, Objectivism and the State: An Open Letter to Ayn Rand (1969). I also argued that anarchism follows logically from Rand’s epistemological and moral theories in my 1997 article, In Defense of Rational Anarchism.

It is not my intention to rehearse that hotly contested controversy here. Rather, I wish to consider the following questions: Let us suppose, solely for the sake of argument, that anarchism does in fact follow logically from Rand’s philosophy. Could we then say that Rand was somehow responsible for modern libertarian anarchism, despite her repeated and unequivocal denunciations of anarchism? And if, as Rand apparently believed, libertarian anarchism is an evil political theory, then may we also say that Rand was an evil woman because her ideas led so many people to embrace the evil doctrine of anarchism, even though this was never her intention? Lastly, if anarchism follows logically from Rand’s philosophy but she failed to grasp this connection, then may we chastise her for blanking out, for not being in focus, for being irrational, or for some similar psycho-epistemological sin?

I raise these issues because they run parallel to how Rand often treated philosophers with whom she disagreed, especially Immanuel Kant. As I discussed in my last essay, Rand believed that there existed an “unbroken line of development” from Kant “to Lenin, Mussolini and Hitler” (The Ayn Rand Letter, 4 December 1972).  Her reasons could not have been rooted in Kant’s fundamental political ideas, given how similar those ideas were to her own. Here, for example, is a brief indication (from The Metaphysical Elements of Justice) of Kant’s political thinking:

Freedom (independence from the constraint of another’s will), insofar as it is compatible with the freedom of everyone else in accordance with a universal law, is the one sole and original right that belongs to every human being by virtue of his humanity.

And here is a summary of Kant’s theory of justice, as presented by the Kantian scholar John Ladd. I have added some brief remarks in brackets.

Liberty (negative freedom) and violence are correlative opposites; where there is liberty there is no violence, and where there is violence there is no liberty. Man’s innate right to liberty (freedom) consists in the right to be free from violence, and, indeed, all man’s legal rights are derivable from this concept. Now, as already noted, the basis of man’s right to liberty is the fact that he is an autonomous moral being, that is, a sovereign lawmaker, as well as a subject to the law (the moral law). [This is related to Kant’s categorical imperative, according to which we should never treat others merely as means to our ends but as ends in themselves.]

Accordingly, any transgression of the bounds of lawful liberty is illegitimate. It is ipso facto an infringement of someone else’s liberty, and, as such, is necessarily an act of violence. Violence is wrong, therefore, because it is an infringement of lawful liberty.

Coercion is, of course, permitted, but only if it is used to prevent violence or, more generally to protect liberty. Otherwise, it is simply violence. The rightful function of the political order is to control violence and thus to protect liberty….The foundation of political authority, then, is man’s innate right to live in peace and freedom, which, incidentally, includes his right to have his property secure and guaranteed….

Legitimate coercion—that is, coercion that is used to counterbalance illegitimate coercion (violence)—will on reflection be seen to be equivalent to coercion consistent with the freedom of everyone in accordance with universal laws. [Kant called this social condition of equal freedom a “Kingdom of Ends,” because each person is free to pursue his own ends as he sees fit, so long as he respects the rights of others to do the same.]

No sane person could possibly claim that Kant’s defense of the moral autonomy of every person, individual rights, and limited government somehow led to fascism or to any theory that defends an omnipotent state. And Rand, indeed, never made that claim. Instead she argued that Kant’s epistemology was the ultimate culprit. She also targeted Kant’s supposed “altruism” on occasion, but Kant was not an altruist at all. Like Rand, he rejected what Rand called “a beneficiary-criterion of morality,” according to which the morality of an action is determined by its intended beneficiary, be that oneself or other people. Kant’s defense of the categorical imperative was essentially a demand that we always act from a rational moral principle in particular cases, instead of violating that principle because we hope by that violation to benefit ourselves or others.

Nevertheless, despite Rand’s misunderstanding of Kant’s moral theory, she placed more stress on Kant’s flawed theory of knowledge to support her contention that he was “the most evil man in mankind’s history” (The Objectivist, Sept. 1971). Ayn Rand was a serious thinker, so we should not dismiss her astonishing assessment of Kant as an incidental gaffe or exaggeration. She meant what she said. Kant was more evil that even the most brutal dictators and mass murderers in history. Why? Presumably because his epistemology, when carried to its logical conclusions, provided a justification for these and other atrocities. Even if Kant never intended to provide such a justification, even if he absolutely condemned such atrocities, even if he would have adamantly denied the implications that Rand drew from his philosophy, Kant was still responsible for the immoral consequences he unleashed, however unintentionally, upon the world with his theory of knowledge.

Readers may now understand why I introduced my questions about Rand and anarchism at the beginning of this essay. Could not the same reasoning that Rand used to condemn Kant for positions he repudiated backfire on Rand and be used to hold her responsible for spawning an anarchism that she vehemently denounced? And if anarchism is indeed an evil theory, then could we not call Rand herself evil, given that she was the source and inspiration for many hundreds (perhaps thousands) of libertarian anarchists who freely acknowledged their intellectual debt to Rand?

Of course, defenders of Rand have an obvious counter, namely, that my hypothetical began with the false premise that anarchism is actually the logical terminus of Rand’s philosophy. This is absolutely wrong, those critics will say. Rand was right and her anarchist followers were wrong. Limited government, not anarchism, is the logical outcome of Rand’s ideas in epistemology, ethics, and political theory. So-called Randian anarchists either don’t understand Rand’s philosophy, or they have maliciously distorted it, or their reasoning is seriously flawed. Therefore, Rand can in no way be blamed for the popularity of anarchism among those modern individualists and free-market advocates who claim to admire her writings.

This is a theoretical possibility, of course, but it is likewise possible that many later Kantians who claimed to be building on Kant’s philosophy and spinning out the logical implications of his epistemology might have misunderstood Kant, or intentionally twisted his ideas to suit their own political agendas. Or maybe they simply failed to reason correctly, thereby attributing implications to Kant’s philosophy that don’t follow at all. These possibilities should be decided on a case-by-case basis; we should not generalize a priori and assume that any philosopher who claimed to follow Kant in some regard really knew what he was talking about. Yet this is basically what Rand did in regard to Kant and his self-proclaimed admirers.

Consider some of the tactics that Rand used to crucify Immanuel Kant on the Cross of Reason. In The Ayn Rand Letter (4 December 1972), she claimed that many philosophy professors were poisoning the minds of their students with Kant’s ideas, even though many of those professors had “no idea of what Kant actually said.” I take this to mean that the professors in question had never read Kant first-hand, much less embarked on a serious study of his ideas. So how on God’s Green Earth is Kant to blame for this? We again have a goose-gander problem here. After all, many critics of Rand have never bothered to read her books and essays first-hand, much less study them seriously, yet those selfsame critics confidently inform us about all the evil things that Rand defended, even though she never defended those things at all.

In another issue of The Ayn Rand Letter (31 December 1973), Rand wrote:

You might claim—as most people do—that you have never been influenced by philosophy. I will ask you to check that claim. Have you ever thought or said the following?…. “I can’t prove it, but I feel that it’s true.” You got it from Kant. Or: “It’s logical, but logic has nothing to do with reality.” You got it from Kant. Or: “It’s evil, because it’s selfish.” You got it from Kant.

Two things need to be said about this passage. First, it is unlikely that people get some of these ideas from Kant because Kant never defended them. Second, some of the ideas attributed to Kant are the sort of intellectual pabulum that students in an introductory philosophy class can easily formulate on their own, and frequently do. The remark about feeling that something is true is a common cultural bromide that was around long before Kant was a gleam in his father’s eye. The comment about evil selfishness probably owes more to Christianity than to anything else. As for the comment that “logic has nothing to do with reality”—well, that’s a bit more complicated, but I’ve never heard that sort of claim outside a technical discussion (whether verbal or written) among academic philosophers, and few if any of them took Kant’s epistemology seriously.

I could go on, of course, but I won’t. I’ve been very hard on Rand in this essay, despite my admiration for her. I have a very high regard for Ayn Rand’s philosophic abilities; she developed a number of important theories, especially in epistemology and ethics, that have benefitted me greatly. But I have a very low regard for Rand as a historian, especially in the realm of ideas. I have some notions about how to explain this stark dichotomy in competence, but my explanations, should I ever write about them at all, must be postponed into the indefinite future.

Isaiah Berlin once said that ideas do not beget ideas as butterflies beget butterflies. This is an insightful comment, but it leaves unanswered the question: How do the ideas of one philosopher influence other philosophers? I shall explore this topic in my next essay.

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