Ayn Rand/Objectivism Sightings
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Dogma and Development - Thoughts on the evolution of Objectivism
A sage had been discussing life with three students and had departed.
The first student said, "Everything the sage said is true."
The second student said, "Not everything the sage said is true."
The third student said, "What exactly did the sage say?"
The students fell into a heated discussion. Hours went by. Unexpectedly, the sage returned.
"Are you three still discussing life?" asked the sage.
One of the students responded, "No, we're discussing what you said."
"But I'm not exactly sure what that is," said the third student.
"Well, what do you think?" asked the sage.
The first student said, "Everything you said is true."
The second student said, "Not everything you said is true."
The third student said, "And I don't understand exactly what you said."
The sage said, "All of you have missed the point. I've got work to do." And the sage promptly departed.
The popularity of Objectivism
Four decades after the publication of Atlas Shrugged, the groundswell of people familiar with Ayn Rand and Objectivism continues to grow. Year after year, Ayn Rand's fiction attracts bright, eager, young people, many seeking a golden highway to Galt's Gulch. But beyond Ayn Rand's fiction lies a disappointingly narrow land of interesting articles, abstract philosophy and, for many, authoritative dogma.
Compare the impact of Ayn Rand with, say, the impact of Anthony Robbins or Stephen Covey. The Anthony Robbins group of companies operate in the self-help field, offering books, seminars, courses and consultation in Neuro Associative Conditioning(TM) (a form of Neuro Linguistic Programming). Stephen Covey is co-chairman of Franklin Covey Company, a four-thousand member international firm devoted to helping individuals, organisations, and families become more effective through the application of, amongst other principles, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.
Of course, neither Robbins nor Covey is a philosopher. But their ideas are widely known and applied throughout the world. And their companies are self-funding, multi-million dollar operations.
What are some of the problems frustrating the spread of Objectivism on a similar scale? And how can those Objectivists interested in spreading the philosophy meet these challenges successfully?
The problem of dogmatism
The most obvious problem frustrating the spread of Objectivism is the problem of dogma. This problem needs little elaboration save this: it is not unique to Objectivism.
Ernst Mayr, Harvard biologist, historian and philosopher of science, suggested that as human populations evolve from savagery to civilisation two approaches to knowledge are possible. One approach leads to modern science, the other to authoritative dogma.
You can trace the movement toward science to the first recorded Western philosopher, Thales of Miletus (c.636-c.546 BC). To gain knowledge and understanding, said Thales, you should start with naturalistic observation - that is, descriptions of events as they are in the real world. You should then seek natural explanations for natural phenomena. In other words, supernatural beings and forces or events that are outside the system should not be invoked as explanations for events within the system. So far, Thales sounds just like an Objectivist. But Thales went further. It's acceptable, he said, to question existing explanations and to use criticism in order to improve your knowledge.
Sadly, this is the approach of a minority in history. For every down-to-earth Thales you can find a hundred dogmatic theologians. And, unfortunately, Objectivism is not immune to dogma. In fact, some of its content makes Objectivism particularly susceptible to the development of dogma.
Concepts such as axioms, absolutes, certainty and moral judgment, amongst others, are vital to the structure and coherence of Objectivism. And these and other concepts are as vital for living rationally as water is vital for life. But even water can kill. Used injudiciously with haste and frequency against "heretics", some of these life-supporting concepts can become poisonous. Of course, I would no more suggest you reject these concepts than I would suggest you eliminate water from your diet. So what is the antidote against dogmatism?
In Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, Leonard Peikoff wrote that "Ayn Rand's philosophy is Aristotelianism without Platonism". But every step away from the scientific method of Thales and toward authoritative dogma is another step on the return to Platonism. So the antidote to dogmatism is not elimination but extension: the addition and emphasis of Thales' principle that questioning and criticism are essential to the development of knowledge. This is Objectivism's missing link: the virtue of questioning.
An evolving system has two prerequisites: stability and slight changeability. Eliminate either of these and the system stagnates or declines. I am thus advocating a paradox. A philosophy of reason can best be spread when that philosophy encourages people to question the philosophy's content, to test its limits, to seek out and eliminate contradictions - to experiment at the frontiers of knowledge. For evidence that this principle leads to progress, observe the history of science.
The problem of malevolence
The second problem frustrating the spread of Objectivism is the malevolent behaviour of some Objectivists - not least of whom, Ayn Rand herself. Raising this issue amongst some Objectivists could provoke anything from indifference to vigorous disagreement to virtual dismemberment.
By malevolence I mean emotions such as ill-will, resentment and hatred, and attitudes such as automatic hostility against certain groups and venomous character assassinations of particular individuals (whether they are inside or outside the movement). This sort of malevolent behaviour amongst orthodox Objectivists is not simply the result of dogma. Nor is it simply the result of people emulating Ayn Rand at her worst.
Some Objectivists talk about mystics, Marxists or Kantians almost as unreasonably as some leftists talk about capitalist "pigs" or "dogs". Indeed, the behavioural similarities between some leftists and some Objectivists are disturbing. But even some unorthodox Objectivists carry a malevolent streak which is revealed in the ill-will they direct at their philosophical "enemies".
Given this tendency for malevolence, we should not be surprised that Objectivism fails to clock up phenomenal rates of growth. Nor should we be surprised when critics completely ignore the non-initiation of force principle and instead detect in the behaviour of some Objectivists traces of "proto-fascism".
Certainly, Ayn Rand's philosophical style establishes a precedent for malevolent attitudes and habits. But could it be that even some of the content of Objectivism contributes to the development of these disagreeable patterns of behaviour?
If so, then the antidote is not necessarily the elimination of this content but the addition and emphasis of new ideas such as the virtue of benevolence. In this regard, David Kelley's Unrugged Individualism is a welcome step towards the development of a benevolent Objectivist culture. Objectivism is, after all, a form of Humanism. But much more is required. For example, Nathaniel Branden points out in his article, "The Objectivist Ethics in an Information Age,"* that the "Objectivist ethics has little helpful to say concerning interpersonal competence".
Either way, it is unlikely that we can expect less malice from die-hard supporters of the Ayn Rand Institute. If Objectivism is to develop into a philosophy that promotes noble attributes like those Larry Sechrest identified in his article "In Praise of Aristocratic Attributes" ** (honour, dignity, integrity, grace, benevolence, refinement, sentimentality, good taste, good manners and tolerance) then these are likely to proceed from some of the efforts of those at The Objectivist Centre, at The Centre for Objectivist Studies, contributors to The Free Radical and SOLO, and like-minded individuals.
The question is, where does philosophy end and psychology begin (especially the psychology of change) in terms of your day-to-day choices? Whenever someone discovers Objectivism through Ayn Rand's novels or non-fiction, what follows is a fascinating and complex interplay between: the content of these materials; the sub-text that the person gleams from the style in which they are written and the emphasis of some issues rather than others; the observed behaviour of leading Objectivists; and the person's pre-existing personality, sense of life and sub-conscious or conscious philosophy. Each person thus navigates his or her own path between these influences, trying to get to grips with the philosophy and the individual challenges of his or her own life.
If we are to see a marked acceleration in the popularity of Objectivism and in the benevolence of new Objectivists, then we will need to see the development of materials that will guide individuals through the process of discovery, helping them to internalise the philosophy, to honour their personal tastes and to choose their personal values. Books that offer a philosophical blueprint for life are not enough. What is needed, amongst other things, is a DIY guide to the bricks and mortar of psychological self-development (or self-restoration) designed specifically to deal with the challenges facing a new Objectivist.
As I write these lines I am fully aware that this article is an example of the problem to which I now wish to turn: the problem of valuing criticism over creativity.
The problem of valuing criticism over creativity
I've used several hours of my time to point out problems and challenges. Even if I apply some creative thought and offer suggestions for how these challenges can be met successfully, as far as I am concerned what I am writing is nothing more than criticism and therefore not particularly valuable.
This reminds me of a scene from Monty Python's The Life of Brian, in which Reg, the leader of a band of rebels (the People's Front of Judea - or was it the Popular Front of Judea?) asks rhetorically, "What have the Romans ever done for us?" The band of rebels then proceed to answer with a spontaneous list of the obvious benefits of Roman civilisation, much to the irritation of Reg. Eventually Reg says:
"All right ... all right ... but apart from better sanitation and medicine and education and irrigation and public health and roads and a freshwater system and baths and public order ... what have the Romans done for us?"
You see, Reg's purpose is to criticise. Criticism is the currency with which he buys support from his band of rebels. Without problems he can criticise there's no reason for a rebellion - or for a rebel leader. Without criticism Reg loses his reason for being.
Similarly, some Objectivists regard criticism almost as a duty. When an Objectivist publishes a book it is frequently followed by a storm of criticism. Consider the prolific, productive but controversial work of Chris Sciabarra. Here is a writer working in the context of academic study to produce new insights into the philosophic origins and nature of Objectivism. Is he praised for his productive scholarship by those who would otherwise disagree with some of the content of his work? Or are acknowledgements of his contribution lost amid the clamour of criticism?
And when writers sympathetic to Objectivism publish a book the storm can become an avalanche. The publication of What Art Is by Louis Torres and Michelle Marder Kamhi has been followed by a gale of grumbling critics complaining about everything from the graphic design of the cover to a deplorable lack of illustrations.
My concern is not whether this criticism is deserved. Criticism per se is not the problem. My concern is that the amount of effort and energy that we devote to criticism far exceeds the amount of effort and energy we devote to creative productivity (whether such work takes the form of abstract philosophy, non-fiction articles, experimental fiction, or new and creative presentations of Objectivism in untried media).
Ayn Rand wrote much about the virtue of productiveness and many Objectivists practice this virtue in their chosen spheres. But when it comes to the sphere of Objectivist thought, relatively few Objectivists contribute productively to the development of the philosophy (whether these are new applications of Objectivism or wholly new ideas). Productive, Objectivist "new intellectuals" make a disappointingly small company. In contrast, the number of Objectivist critics is sufficient to make up a battalion.
If Objectivism is to gather momentum in the marketplace of ideas, then we need to find ways to encourage young Objectivists to "take first steps down new roads armed with nothing but their own vision". Let's meet such travellers first with respect for being creative and productive, second with excitement over the possibility of their discovering uncharted ideas or new forms of statement, and third with the promise of healthy debate should we find fault with their reasoning.
For my own part, I do not plan to make this kind of article a hobby. Instead I am working on several projects to present Objectivism in new forms. Why? Partly because another problem frustrating the spread of Objectivism is the problem of abstract complexity.
The problem of abstract complexity
Objectivism is not self-evident and, since it's a system of thought that touches so diverse a range of knowledge, it is not a system that you can quickly make your own. People raised with a religious or secular, relativist world view sometimes struggle to internalise Objectivism.
Religions threaten prospects with psychological pressure (such as personal guilt and the doctrine of original sin), and offer salvation for the price of faith in simplistic dogma. Religion is a virus that turns the mind's immune system against itself, leading to what might be called ARDS: Acquired Reason Deficiency Syndrome.
In contrast, Objectivism offers a demanding system of thought to teenagers or adults conditioned either not to think or to think in ways that are questionable. This is like offering a learner driver the steering wheel of a ten-ton pantechnicon!
If Objectivism is to gain momentum, then we need to encourage efforts to simplify the philosophy into concrete, bite-sized bits using the skills of plain talk and visual thinking.
What is needed is a diverse range of "interfaces" *** to present the philosophy in a range of different contexts. Ayn Rand created four concretised interfaces in We the Living, Anthem, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. But they share the same form: prose fiction. Other than these novels, Objectivism is presented in only three ways: non-fiction articles, audio tapes and live lectures. And these all share the same form: discursive prose.
I am suggesting that there are an infinite variety of forms through which to concretise aspects of Objectivism and make the philosophy accessible to different audiences with unique needs. And only by exploring and creating these different forms can we hope to see a growth in the popularity of Objectivism.
What other forms of statement or presentation are there besides prose fiction and discursive non-fiction that are sufficiently conceptual and / or artistic in nature to convey some of the content of Objectivism? What about illustrated comics similar to Asterix and Obelix or Tintin? What about the graphic novel genre (a form for which Anthem is brilliantly suited)? What about board games similar to Monopoly or role-playing games similar to Dungeons and Dragons? What about kids' activity packs or multimedia CDROMs. What about all the other media of the new millennium?
But to develop many of these new "interfaces" creative developers need to collaborate in teams. And, in addition to the problems of dogma and malevolence, there is a further problem frustrating productive co-operation: the problem of atomistic individualism.
The problem of atomistic individualism
What is the difference between a "leftist activist" and an "Objectivist activist"? The first is a tautology while the latter is an oxymoron.
The leftist combination of mysticism, altruism and collectivism lends itself directly to passionate, selfless, group activism. In contrast, the Objectivist combination of reality, reason, egoism and individual liberty identifies the virtue of independence and the value of trade. Objectivism says little about the value of co-operative activism.
So it is not surprising that relatively few Objectivists become active participants in the movement to spread the philosophy. And this is as it should be. Objectivism is not a religion that treats its followers as hosts for its own propagation, but a philosophy to guide you in living your own life. Yet it is also clear that atomistic individualism is not in your self-interest.
Religions continue to spread and to oppose the kind of social system Objectivists value. There are many reasons for the growth of these religions, not least of which is the tithe. Tithes are partly used to maintain and develop the infrastructure for the recruitment of new converts. Imagine what the Ayn Rand Institute could do with a tithe of 10% from its supporters - and hope that its supporters retain enough sense to reject the idea if it's ever proposed!
If Objectivism is to reach a wider audience then we need to encourage passionate, rational activism. I can think of no better means to achieve this than through opportunities to make money spreading the philosophy: entrepreneurial activism.
If you combine the need for new forms through which to present Objectivism with the potential for entrepreneurial, money-making activism, the result is a range of exciting possibilities.
Successful entrepreneurs have a knack for recognising human needs and problems, for identifying products or services that satisfy needs and solve problems, and for organising resources to develop and market these products and services profitably. I believe there are great opportunities for entrepreneurs to develop and market products and services that are intimately compatible with Objectivism.
To say that a product is compatible with Objectivism is not to say that it identifies itself as Objectivist (by displaying the word or bearing a logo) but rather to suggest that some of its distinctive characteristics promote Objectivist values - and that none of its fundamental characteristics contradict Objectivist values.
Similarly, to speak of objectivist (little "o") products is not necessarily to speak of products that espouse the philosophy of Objectivism by name, but products that promote some of the values of Objectivism - and contradict none. What are these values? Reality, reason, benevolence, independence, purpose, productiveness, integrity, honesty, justice, individual rights - and more. Or, if you will permit even further condensation, objectivist products are those that assume or promote a this-worldy, human-centred, life-valuing, mind-valuing, benevolent, individualistic world view.
The range of products to which the adjective "objectivist" can be legitimately applied is limited to those that are sufficiently conceptual and / or artistic in nature to convey some of the values of Objectivism. So it would be nonsensical to talk about objectivist floss but legitimate to say that Frank Lloyd Wright's organic architecture is an example of an objectivist product.
Let's consider how entrepreneurs might develop Objectivist products or services to satisfy four universal human needs: celebratory rites, entertainment, education and skills training.
Religions offer people the opportunity to celebrate rites: births, coming of age, marriage, etc. There is already a market for the non-religious celebration of these rites. Where are the Objectivist entrepreneurs who will seize the opportunity to open a franchise offering event-organising and officiating from a non-religious point of view and for the purpose of making money?
Note that I'm not suggesting a service aimed only at Objectivist customers, but an objectivist service aimed at any non-religious customers. If you doubt the market is big enough, consider the following personal story.
My wife and I met and worked on a cruise ship in the Mediterranean. So, when we decided to get married, we planned a wedding on board one of the cruise ships on which we had worked together. This had the added advantage of offering a non-religious ceremony performed by the ship's captain. Eight months after our engagement and two days before our departure, we were informed that our ship had struck a submerged container at sea and that our cruise had been cancelled.
Not only did we achieve the impossible by planning and writing our own wedding ceremony in two days, but we also achieved the equally improbable feat of offering our religious families and friends a moving and inspiring ceremony without involving a religious official and without once mentioning God or an afterlife. The ceremony was 100% this-worldly in nature.
If religious folk can be moved to express sincere delight in a ceremony that is clearly non-religious in nature, imagine how much more appreciative non-religious customers would be for a ceremony that celebrates above all else the love and bond of bride and groom. This is an example of an "interface" through which people can encounter the philosophy of Objectivism in concrete, humanised form.
Entertainment takes a variety of forms, many of them accessible to creative Objectivists. I have already suggested illustrated comics and graphic novels. So let's consider two other contemporary entertainment phenomena: Pokémon and Trivial Pursuit.
Pokémon is an example of an idea virus ***** that spreads from customer to customer by word of mouth or from hand to hand. Pokémon filled a vacuum that could have been filled by a product equally thrilling for kids yet much more intimately compatible with Objectivism.
The development of such a product from an Objectivist perspective would be a challenge. It would involve much more than the challenge of maintaining a balance between reality and fantasy. The developers would need to balance the brief to "assume and promote Objectivist values" with the demands of the product-in-development. By this I mean that the product-in-development takes on a life of its own. If its developers limit this growth, stunting its development as they shape it to didactic purposes, then the end-product will turn out lifeless. But if its developers are mature and experienced and they allow the product to grow by its own internal, spontaneously-generated rules, then the end-product becomes vitally charged with "something special" which may give it the potential to become a best-seller.
Trivial Pursuit is already, to some extent, an objectivist product: it promotes learning and thus honours reality and the mind; it's infused with benevolent playfulness; it promotes purpose and goal-directed action; it promotes honesty and justice...well, depending on how you play the game! Like Pokémon, Trivial Pursuit filled a vacuum that could have been filled by a product equally enjoyable yet even more compatible with Objectivism.
Pokémon and Trivial Pursuit appeal to the human need for pleasurable mind games. Where are the Objectivist entrepreneurs who will seize the opportunity to concretise elements of Objectivist thought in the form of fun games and for the purpose of making money? Again, I'm not suggesting the creation of games that tack a fun face on Objectivist doctrine (such as the "Concepts in a hat" game ******). I'm suggesting the creation of games that integrate philosophy and fun as well as chess integrates strategy and satisfaction. While playing, the players concentrate on the pieces on the board and on the moves ahead (not on the names and natures of various strategies) and appreciate the game (not the theory behind it). In other words, games such as these integrate form and function so well that the function is virtually invisible. Whereas, games in which functionality overshadows form do not succeed in the market.
Throughout the world, public education is collapsing. I believe that the wall between the world of private commerce and the world of the public curriculum will fall as quickly, as suddenly and as certainly as the fall of the Berlin Wall. Command education will go the way of the command economy. It is only a matter of time. Where are the Objectivist entrepreneurs who will seize the vast opportunities to offer radically new forms of education to these newly-free markets?
Objectivism has much to say about the theoretical underpinnings of knowledge. And there are great opportunities to combine these theoretical insights with practical technologies for learning - especially in the field of instructional design.
There are already specialised franchises offering tuition in maths and science. What about a franchise specialising in first-class reading and writing tuition for juniors? Or a franchise offering state-of-the-art tuition in critical thinking skills? Or a corporate chain offering tuition-by-appointment in any discipline from grammar to geography? These are examples of gateways through which people can encounter some elements of the Objectivist epistemology in concrete, down-to-earth form.
While education is a nationalised industry in most countries (with limited competition from private providers and severe restrictions on what they can offer at a profit), skills training is already a multi-billion dollar industry.
Hundreds of companies compete for lucrative contracts to train employees in everything from software to safety. Where are the Objectivist entrepreneurs who will seize the opportunity to launch companies offering mind-training for the mind-millennium? Or a consultancy in corporate ethical accounting? Or a corporate artistic consultancy?
For evidence that the opportunities for business skills training are vast and lucrative, observe the success of Anthony Robbins and Stephen Covey.
The future of Objectivism
Dogma, malevolence, valuing criticism over creativity, abstract complexity, atomistic individualism - these are some of the problems frustrating the spread of Objectivism. Let's encourage questioning, benevolence, productive creativity, the concretising of Objectivism in new, money-making forms and entrepreneurial activism.
The way forward for Objectivists who wish to promote the philosophy is to develop it commercially.
1. "The Objectivist Ethics In An Information Age" can be found at:
2. The Free Radical, issue number 48.
3. Neal Stephenson, in his article "In the Beginning was the Command Line" (http://www.cryptonomicon.com/), compares various computer interfaces and how we treat graphic metaphors such as computer menus, desktops and trash cans as real despite the fact that they are only metaphors. What makes his article particularly interesting is his discussion of why people prefer MacOS and Windows to the far more stable system of Unix. The former are Graphic User Interfaces while the latter is a command line interface. He points out that people prefer metaphors to the command line instructions of Unix (what I call MMMs or many meaningless mnemonics). If this is true, then it implies that the popularity of Objectivism is determined to some extent by the number and quality of user friendly "interfaces" through which it can be presented and encountered.
4. Compare the use of the word "objectivist" with the use of the words "socialist" and "capitalist". A person described as a socialist is someone who espouses some version of socialism. But a person described as a capitalist is an owner of capital, an entrepreneur who may or may not espouse capitalist ideas. The former are identified by their ideas; the latter by their actions.
In contrast, the word "objectivist" is used by some to denote a person who espouses only Ayn Rand's ideas, by others to denote a person who substantially agrees with the fundamental principles of the Objectivist system of thought, and by still others to denote a person who acts in a way that is compatible with Objectivist virtues and values.
5. See "Unleashing the Ideavirus" by Seth Godin (www.ideavirus.com).
6. An online "Concepts in a hat" game can be found at:
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