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Objectivism still raises that ire: An explanation why

By Daniel Ryan
web posted November 7, 2005

Anyone who is either a full Objectivist or a quasi-Objectivist knows that there is a lot of pressure put upon anyone who is both an Objectivist (if defined broadly to include quasi-Objectivists who do not also hold as true any principle which flatly contradicts any essential of Objectivism), and is also commonsensical, to renounce Objectivism. It is as if general society had decided that the ranks of those who are Objectivists should be confined to the immature, the theory-bound and the unworldly, with Rand's own description of her novel The Fountainhead as containing "the spirit of youth" as a rationale for such a "pruning."

A committed Objectivist can, of course, and often does, as a matter of course, attribute this resistance to the Kantian spirit of our age, or (s)he can focus on narrower and more venal motives for these continual attempts to whittle Objectivism down into a philosophy for the unworldly. The obvious reason for this hostility to Objectivism - which, at bottom, is comprised of resentment at Rand for getting the better of thinkers represented as "great" - is a reason, but only one of an entire set of them.

Another basis for potential opposition to Objectivism comes from the conservative-minded theist, a person who cares not a whit about Rand's debunking of "great thought" and in fact might even be secretly delighted at her accomplishing this feat. Such a person may very well be someone who would welcome Objectivists as political allies. But the fundamentals of Objectivism are something that such a person cannot accept, for this common-sensical reason:

Religion does centre around a belief in a God, but each one's heroes and role models are, or were, living people. Jesus Christ was a living man. Moses was a living man. So was Mohammed; so was the Buddha. The same common characteristic can be found in any religion.

A "worshippable human" who is part of an ethical system serves as a brake on that belief system's potential slide into the inhuman. There is a kind of safety in holding up a real human being as a role model, as opposed to an abstract conception of "man" or an idea. Both alternates carry the risk of their originator being either sloppy (inaccurate) or incomplete when constructing them, which implies a terrible risk for people who seek to use either an abstraction or a set of principles as a role model.

I can't think of any better example than Marxism to make this point clear. The Christian religion constructs devils which some people share attributes with but no one is. This has the effect of displacing what would otherwise be social combat into fighting Satan, an abstract figure. The substitution of this kind of abstraction - a being with no true referent in the world - being confined to Satan and his (or its) minions actually makes the Christian more pacific than he or she would be if real humans are cast by him or her as "living devils." This confinement of abstractions from human characteristics to the construction of enemies of the faith does have the happy consequence of making Christians embarrassed with themselves when it is shown to them that they're bigoted. The abjurement by the Christian of the "living devil" as synonymous with a kind of human makes the good Christian humane.

The opposite is true for Marxism. Marx's "angel," the proletarian, is described simply as an abstraction: the man or woman who owns no property. Beyond this, we are expected to venture into "you know it when you see it" territory. What kind of hero and role model can this be? Even if the advice of Marxists to focus upon the "collective nature" of the proletariat is followed, Marx's system still enjoins the Marxist to treat a mere abstraction as a hero and role model.

Marx's devil-concept of the bourgeois, on the other hand, does have living matches to it. These people are supposed to be hated on sight. A reading of Marx's writings will show that his talents for journalistic description are deployed when describing the attributes of his devil-figure.

This adds up to a belief system where the angel is purely ideational but the devil is real. Had Marxism not been piggybacked onto the traditional Christian ethical principle which mandates being charitable to the poor, the quarrelsomeness which such a system must engender would have been evident more clearly and more quickly. There's no need to wonder why so many pious Christians have called Marxism "Satanic" - seriously.

Despite Objectivism being more humane in this regard - both the heroes and the villains are fictional in Atlas Shrugged; none of them are based upon a single real person - Rand's placement of a creation from her own imagination, John Galt, as the hero and, implicitly, the role model of the Objectivist system does at times engender the same kind of qualms amongst those who distrust any system of ethics without a real human being as the expected role model to live up to as part of it.

William F. Buckley, Jr. called Objectivism "dessicated" back in 1964. It is safe to assume that he based this depiction in large part on the absence of a real, a living or a once-living, Christ-figure in it.

This first objection to Objectivism can be summed up in this rough-hewn but pithy sentence: "If you don't use a real person as your role model then you're not fit for the real world." What this implies is that the person who doesn't do so is too dangerously unpredictable for the normal social world, and that such a person had better be shunted away from it for the good of others.

The second objection to Objectivism which does not come from a type of person who can be reliably identified as a "Kantian" relates to the consistency of the Objectivist ethics. If put in a rough-hewn but incisive pair of sentence, it's: "Yes, you people are consistent in your values. That is what makes your type consistently aggressive."

Roman Catholics would be most prone to this objection, as the Roman Catholic system of ethics, as an ethics, does assume that human beings are aggressive by nature, and thus have to be tamed through inculcation in them of a set of ethical principles which is somewhat internally inconsistent. At the price of tolerating a certain amount of opportunism, the fighter in man has to be roped in through a small but measured dose of confusion. This, of course, makes the Roman Catholic ethical system a Dionysian one, which explains why so many young Roman Catholics are suckers for Nietzscheanism.

Anyone who believes that this approach insures that people will not turn on each other will see the Objectivist ethics' internal consistency as a defect, not as an improvement. This kind of person is inclined to see an Objectivist as a kind of troublemaker.

There is a third non-Kantian objection to Objectivism which people who take the empirical approach when sizing people up are prone to. Empirics trust in using character traits as a means of getting a person's number, which is a lot harder to do when used on an adherent of a system of ethics which is relatively new, like Objectivism's is when compared to its alternatives. The empiric's distrust is compounded by the abstract nature of the Objectivist ethics if he or she has had his or her trust abused by the glib. "Do you know how many times I've been taken advantage of by little logicians? I don't care at all what you profess; what I care about is what you're going to do. And be as specific as possible, please; I don't need to hear any more hot gusts of air and abstractified tales of garden paths."

This kind of person is not necessarily a traditionalist, but (s)he does use others' traditions as a gauge which will reveal how those others will behave. Objectivism, as of today, is too new to have hard traditions which facilitate character assessment by the typical empiric.

All three groups of people who have taken these three objections to Objectivism to heart, when considered as an entire class with allowance for overlaps, are both quite numerous and influential. Many are conservative.

What they have in common is that they do not have a desire to wipe Objectivism off the face of the earth, but they do find it off-putting, to the point where they cast Objectivism as disreputable, and will take steps to ensure that it is. To revert once again to pith mode: "I don't mind if they live, but I do mind if they live high. I just can't trust 'em; they're not normed enough."

So it should be of little mystery why so many young Objectivists who acquire maturity in the course of life are cleaved off from the movement. As long as Objectivism "has no history," to put this point in a characteristically German way, 'tis the fate of Rand.

Daniel Ryan can be reached at danielmacryan@yahoo.com. (c) 2005 Daniel Ryan

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