Rebirth of Reason


Eddie's Enigma: Objectivism and Human Nature
by Ron Merrill

It's well known that I have some pretty radical ideas, and some of you may have heard rumors that I'm not a good Objectivist, so let me reassure you, if I can, by beginning in a very traditional way: with a quotation from Atlas Shrugged.

". . . he still thought it self-evident that one had to do what was right; he had never learned how people could want to do otherwise; he had learned only that they did. It still seemed simple and incomprehensible to him: simple that things should be right, and incomprehensible that they weren't." [p. 6]

It is Eddie Willers who introduces us to this enigma, the enigma of human irrationality. The other characters in Atlas Shrugged also struggle with it; but this question, unlike the others raised by the book, is never answered. At the end of the book we know with luminous clarity what is right to do; what seems more incomprehensible than ever is, how people could want to do otherwise.

In talking to many Objectivists over the years, I have repeatedly found that they share two things. First, a feeling of immediate recognition on reading Atlas Shrugged: "Of course! It was obvious all along." Second, a feeling of perplexity that other people just don't get it.

Objectivism asserts that reality is what it is; that reason is our means to knowledge; that rationality is the basic criterion of right and wrong in life. Ladies and gentlemen, this is not rocket science. These conclusions are simply common sense. Yet the vast majority of people we meet every day do not believe them.

On the contrary, people believe that reality is what people think it is; that truth is derived from authority; that morality is synonymous with altruism. We are all familiar with these attitudes, because we encounter them in the people we meet every day. But could this perhaps be just a limited phenomenon, an artifact of contemporary American culture? No; for we find that very similar attitudes are characteristic of essentially all known cultures, past and present.

When you talk to people about metaphysics, you find that they really believe that reality can be one thing to you and another to me. They really believe in the social determination of reality. Fundamental truths depend, for them, on what the other people around them think. This attitude has been aptly called "social metaphysics."

I'm sure you've all heard the various philosophical arguments for metaphysical subjectivism, from Descarte's malevolent demon to the more modern mad scientist with your brain in a bottle. I won't take up your time refuting these cases again. What I want to point out to you tonight is the essential silliness of the whole debate. How is it that such positions can even be argued in a modern, civilized society? One might make excuses for a primitive tribesman, with his limited view of reality and lack of knowledge. Confronted with some natural phenomenon he's never encountered before and which he had thought to be impossible, he may be tempted to conclude that anything can happen and that his perception of reality is unreliable. What seems strange is how a Twentieth-Century intellectual with a PhD in philosophy can share the same attitude. And yet, arguments for subjectivism are still taken quite seriously by professional philosophers. What makes this

Some people, especially trained scientists, pay lip service to objectivity. But if you probe more deeply, you will almost always find that even they have an implicit feeling that, in some sense, reality is subjective. They will tell you that science consists only of theories, and that theories may be falsified, but never proved true. They will tell you that what we think we know is only the current "paradigm," and that some day a "paradigm shift" will take place, and today's truths will become obsolete because people will cease to believe them.

But perhaps this is merely a manifestation of a decadent intelligentsia, and corresponding attitudes we see in our culture merely reflect ideas people have picked up from their teachers or leaders. And yet, social metaphysics seems to be far more deeply ingrained in the average personality than could be accounted for if we regard it simply as a learned attitude. Consider the well-known psychological experiments that find many people will literally say that black is white if that is what the people around them say.

In his book, Taking Responsibility, Nathaniel Branden devotes an entire chapter to social metaphysics. He gives example after example showing how seemingly different personality types are rooted in this same fundamental outlook. When we see how these people's entire lives are centered around their tortured effort to be in line with the consensus--when we see that their thoughts, their values, and their decisions are constantly subject to the dominance of other people's opinions--it is hard to believe that social metaphysics is just something they picked up from their education or their culture. On the contrary, social metaphysics seems to have deep and fundamental roots.

And in fact, this is not a phenomenon peculiar to our Twentieth-Century Western culture. Subjectivism as a view of reality (or non-reality), and social metaphysics as its manifestation in human life, are quite recognizable throughout history. They appear in primitive societies worldwide. And they are just as conspicuous in civilized cultures that have grown up more or less independently of European thought. The idea that this world is an illusion is prominent throughout Asia in Hindu, Buddhist, and Taoist thought. Along with this goes a social conformity--fitting in with the group and adopting their beliefs--that matches and perhaps even exceeds contemporary American teendom. Where does all this come from?

When you talk to people about epistemology, you will find that again and again they automatically appeal to authority. Try making a controversial statement--any controversial statement--and observe the reaction. People will respond, "Who says so?" Not, "What is your evidence?" or "Can you prove that?" but "Who says so?" That is their criterion for truth: That somebody says so--a politician, an eminent scientist, a best-selling book, a public-opinion poll, or, God help us, a TV talk-show hostess.

There is a psychological experiment on the power of authority, first conducted by Stanley Milgram of Yale University and repeated several times elsewhere, that has become famous because it is so horrifying. It involves asking the subject to administer electric shocks to another person (who actually is merely acting). Under the instructions of an authority figure, ordinary people will impose what they think are near-lethal voltages, despite the screams of the supposed victim.

In fact, people will do this even when the victim is not a stranger, but someone they know, such as a fellow student from their college class. Now here is the really fundamental point: It has been found that participants in the experiment begin to change their opinion of the victim as they watch her suffering. Even though they know her personally, they often repudiate their own knowledge to denigrate her character, and assert that she somehow deserves the pain they think is being inflicted on her.

This is only one exceptionally chilling example of a general observation: The majority of people will readily revise their view of reality in order to comply with authority. It's not just a pretence; there is an actual change in beliefs. When George Orwell, in 1984, showed Winston Smith being convinced that 2 + 2 = 5 if Big Brother said so, he was reflecting an important psychological reality.

Once again, we see a behavior pattern that is not confined to one culture. A willing, blind compliance with authority is a familiar phenomenon from the histories of societies primitive and advanced. From Hitler to Shaka to the Mahdi to Tamurlane, we can find examples of leaders who proved there is literally no limit to what people will believe--and no limit to what they will do--at the command of authority. And once again, we must ask: What makes this possible?

When you talk to people about ethics, you will find that they cannot understand what reason has to do with it. Morality to them reduces always to self-sacrifice. They have a very hard time understanding what Objectivists could possibly mean by advocating egoism. If they could express themselves coherently, what they would say is: "I can understand how you might choose to be selfish rather than moral; I might not agree with it, but at least it makes sense. What I can't understand is how you can possibly think of selfishness as moral. To be moral means to be altruistic."

In his Critique of Practical Reason Immanuel Kant presented a systematic ethics of altruism. His position was that, whatever action we take, it is moral to the extent, and only to the extent, that it is selfless. His exposition was, as Ayn Rand recognized, enormously influential in Western culture. But his position was by no means original. Kant merely rationalized, in 500 pages of turgid prose, what had been taken for granted by nearly everybody for thousands of years.

The identification of altruism with morality is both ancient and universal. Anthropologists have found an impressive variety in the specific moral codes adopted by different cultures. When it comes to theft, for example, some cultures recognize property in land; others only in personal tools; some none at all. Rules about sexual behavior range from strict monogamy to almost compulsory promiscuity. There are (or have been) societies in which violence is extremely rare; and others in which adult males have virtually no occupation aside from killing. Nonetheless, there are underlying moral principles that are common to all known human cultures, and one of these--the one with which we will be concerned tonight--is that selfless behavior is the essence of morality.

Societies, and their moral codes, differ on the question of when, and for whose benefit, one ought to be selfless. And other moral virtues are recognized. But all virtues, on analysis, seem to derive their moral stature from the incorporation of some sort of altruistic component. Consider, for instance, well-known tales of honesty as a virtue--George Washington and the cherry tree, for example, or Abraham Lincoln walking miles to return a few cents in change to a customer. The emphasis in these stories is on the disadvantage to self accepted for the sake of honest behavior. People say that "honesty is the best policy," but it is just to the extent that honesty does not lead to self-benefit that it is considered a moral virtue.

Here again we have an attitude that cuts across cultural differences. What we observe in people worldwide is that they instinctively--and "instinctively" is the word that irrepressibly springs to mind when we see how people behave--they instinctively identify morality with altruism. How are we to account for this?

So: We are driven to the conclusion that these key premises--social metaphysics, authoritarianism, and altruism--are common to essentially the entire human race. And, so far as we can tell, they always have been. How can we explain this?

Can it be that the basic ideas of rational philosophy--that is, Objectivism--are so extraordinarily abstruse that most people simply can't understand them? Hardly. Certainly there are complexities and subtleties in Objectivism that require considerable thought to understand. But the basic line of argument is simple and straightforward. It is perfectly accessible to Joe Sixpack, and there are in fact people of the less educated classes who have no difficulty understanding and accepting Objectivism. On the other hand, there are highly trained intellectuals who can master the intricacies of tensor calculus or immunology, but cannot seem to comprehend "A is A."

Perhaps, as suggested by Ayn Rand herself, people accept incorrect premises because they are taught to do so by philosophers. They fail to think for themselves, and instead accept the intellectual authority of Plato or Kant or their followers. The whole culture becomes permeated with irrationality, and individuals absorb its premises passively. But this leaves too much unexplained. How did the ideas of Plato and Kant gain so much influence, and how did they win out over the clearly more sensible ideas of Aristotle? And why are these ideas so universal across cultures? The aristocrats of Heian Japan, or the headhunters of the Amazon rain forest, never heard of Plato or Kant; where did they pick up these ideas? Cultures that developed in complete isolation from Western philosophy have repeatedly duplicated the same basic rules of behavior. Why?

We may turn to psychological explanations. In this view, the attitudes in question are the conscious rationalizations of deeply held personal assumptions, developed during childhood. The adult finds it difficult to revise his faulty premises, because they are defended by powerful emotional repressions. This psychological or developmental analysis is correct as far as it goes, and full of useful insights. Here again, though, we have an explanation that ultimately begs the question. What is it in the nature of human beings that causes them so frequently--indeed, almost universally--to develop emotional repression, and to express it in the same ways in their ideas about reality and morality?

I want to approach Eddie's Enigma from the perspective of a scientist. Here is how I look at it. If I encounter one duck, and it quacks--well, maybe it's a freak. If I look at several ducks, and they all quack--well, maybe their quacking is due to a disease. If I continue by examining dozens of local ducks, and they all quack--well, maybe somebody taught them to quack. But when I look into the matter thoroughly, and find that ducks in their hundreds and thousands and millions, domestic and wild, from all over the world, all quack--the most compelling hypothesis is that quacking is in the biological nature of ducks. So when I find that certain irrational premises are virtually universal among human beings, I am forced to consider the possibility that something in the biological nature of humans is causing it.

So let's see if I can find an explanation that makes sense. To do so, I turn to the principles of biological evolution. Evolution plays a central role in modern biology because of its extraordinary explanatory power, and this is just what we want here. For, as Aristotle says, "it is of ultimate causes that we must obtain knowledge, since it is when we think that we have grasped its first cause that we say that we know a thing." It is only evolutionary biology that can provide a truly fundamental explanation of why humans are as they are. Let me give you an analogy to clarify what I am getting at.

It is a fact that human beings, especially as they get older, are vulnerable to back problems. If we look for an explanation, there are a number of approaches we can take. We can point out that people often develop back trouble because of behavioral factors, such as the techniques they use in lifting heavy objects. From another point of view, we might invoke medical explanations, based on the structural weaknesses of human vertebrae under certain types of stress. Or we could consider biochemical factors such as calcium metabolism and how it affects bone resorbtion in older people. All of these explanations are perfectly valid as far as they go. But they are not truly fundamental. For instance, it is true that the human spine is not really very well designed for the stresses it must undergo in daily life, and that this causes a great deal of back trouble. But this begs the question: Why does the human spine have this not very satisfactory

We can answer this more fundamental question by turning to the evolutionary history of our species. We then discover that the human spine has not yet had time to fully adapt to our upright posture. The changeover from a structure suitable for the horizontal spine of a four-footed animal, to a structure appropriate to a vertical support, is in progress, but not quite complete. Here is the ultimate causal explanation we were looking for--the explanation that really explains, so to speak.

I must address one more issue before proceeding. I am taking it that human behavior--not just the shape of our bones, but the shape of our minds--is to at least some degree subject to evolutionary forces. This is still a controversial position. In the early part of this century, a series of ideological struggles in the social sciences led to the triumph of the Left. One consequence was that cultural relativism and environmental determinism became dogma. It was proclaimed that human beings do not have any ingrained, biological behavior patterns; they are born tabula rasa, with their minds blank slates to be written on by their upbringing and their society. This dogma, which was in the air in the 1930s was, ironically, picked up even by Ayn Rand and incorporated into her system of thought. It is only in the last couple of decades that the newly developed fields of sociobiology and evolutionary psychology have revived scientific interest in the biological roots of human behavior. The scientific and historical issues involved in this area are far too intricate to cover tonight, and I am dealing with them elsewhere. Let us return, then, to our

Around 400 million years ago, a primitive creature, now referred to as Ichthyostega, crawled up out of the sea. A contemporary biologist, had any then existed, would surely have classified this species as a rather unusual type of fish, for it would be far more closely related to certain kinds of fish than to any other extant species of that time. It is only in hindsight that we can see that Ichthyostega was not a fish, but the first representative of an entirely new class of vertibrates, the amphibians. Able to leave the water and to breath air, these creatures gained an enormous advantage, for they had no competition on land. It seems likely that Ichthyostega was a very successful species; as far as we can tell from the fossil record, it was the ancestor of the dinosaurs, birds, mammals, and, ultimately, human beings.

Much more recently, as geological time goes, a new set of biological innovations was produced by evolution that offered the same sort of decisive Darwinian advantage. The key innovation was intelligence: the ability to think routinely in terms of concepts and even to develop and use abstract concepts. Along with this developed a number of supporting capabilities, such as language and tool-using. The explosive success of these innovations drove the evolutionary process to accelerate their development and improvement, resulting in the appearance of a new species, Homo sapiens.

Biologists, of course, categorize humans in the order of primates, part of the class Mammalia. They are perfectly reasonable to do so, since we are so closely related to other primates such as chimpanzees and gorillas, and biologically very similar. However, we may suspect that paleontologists, if any, who examine our fossilized remains millions of years from now will disagree. Recognizing that intelligence and tool-using are developments of comparable scope to the ability to breath air and move about on land, they will do with us as we have done with Ichthyostega. They will decide that human beings are not primates, not even mammals, but the first representative of a new class of vertibrates--the Rationalia, they will perhaps call them.

I believe this analogy between Ichthyostega and Homo sapiens is a fruitful source of insights into Eddie's Enigma. A species that has developed extremely rapidly, pushed by the success of a major biological innovation; expanding into an empty biological niche with no competition; adopting a radically new means of survival; yet still in many ways very similar to the older species from which it branched off. What can we learn by analyzing this biological context?

Well, when one looks at the fossils of that first amphibian, Ichthyostega, the first thing that strikes the eye is that it was a biological mess. Its primitive lungs were undoubtedly very inefficient. Its legs, adapted from fins, were clumsy and arranged at its sides so they could not support its body properly. The skeleton lacked real shoulders and hips; they had not had time to evolve. This deprived the creature's limbs of the leverage needed to propel itself efficiently. And, like a fish, it had no neck--an organ of no value in the water, but extremely useful to a land animal.

In fact, looking at Ichthyostega, one does not get the impression of a highly successful species. It is not at all like the sleek, manifestly efficient creatures we think of as triumphs of evolution: gazelles, hawks, killer whales, tigers. Yet this ugly, clumsy-looking species was one of evolution's greatest success stories.

How would a paleontologist of the future analyze the species Homo sapiens? Assuming he had access to information about our most important biological characteristic--our behavior--he would see how it derived from our newly acquired intelligence--and from our inherited primate characteristics. For when we look at our closest biological relatives, we can identify three behavioral traits that might be called the "Primate Principles."

Mankind's closest relatives are the chimpanzees, from which the hominids branched off perhaps only five million years ago. Both common chimpanzees and pygmy chimpanzees (or bonobos) are highly social animals that invariably live in groups. In fact, this is the rule for virtually all species of higher primates, monkeys as well as the great apes. (The only notable exception is the orang-utan.) The history of our own species, so far as we can trace it, shows humans always living in social aggregations. Based on what we can deduce from the fossil record, this seems to have been true also of the Neanderthals, Homo erectus, and other human ancestors.

The observation of chimpanzees in the wild has established that they are social creatures by necessity. It occasionally happens that a chimpanzee is separated from his group; sometimes by accident, sometimes by expulsion. Such isolated individuals have a lifespan measured in weeks at best, often just days. With few exceptions this is the rule for most advanced primate species. They are unfit to survive as isolated individuals, and are absolutely dependent on their acceptance by the group.

If we are looking for the roots of social metaphysics, here they are. For our primate ancestors, one disaster was to be avoided at any cost: failure to fit into the group. To be unacceptable to the other members of the group was swift and certain death. If the group failed to correctly perceive reality, many, perhaps all, of the individuals in it could perish. But if an individual held his own perception of reality over that of the group, he was certain to perish. Even if he escaped the danger that threatened them, when they were destroyed and he was left alone, he would quickly succumb.

As a result, primates are notoriously conformists. It is not an accident that we have the phrase, "monkey see, monkey do." To the extent that our primate relatives have minds, those minds operate on the premise of social metaphysics. Reality is not fixed or objective; it is what the others in the group think it is. This is the first Primate Principle.

In essentially all social animals, including primates, one finds dominance heirarchies. Like other forms of behavior, this has evolved to serve a biological function. If individuals must live together, there will arise conflict over resources such as food. Above all, there will be competition for reproduction. To minimize destructive conflict, it is in the interests of both the stronger and the weaker that the dominance of the former should be recognized.

A primate may, and commonly does, struggle to advance in the dominance heirarchy; but he (or she) will never consider it an option to ignore it. An animal may try to become the leader of the group; what is outside the bounds of its consciousness is the idea of a group without a leader. Chimpanzees have been observed to evade the control of those dominant over them, sometimes using quite ingenious tricks to deceive them. Nonetheless, they are always compliant in the end; they know exactly who in the group is dominant over them, and they know they must ultimately submit or risk expulsion from the group, and death.

Across the field of primatology, one finds a constant emphasis on the importance of dominance heirarchies and social control. Submission to authority is indeed the second Primate Principle.

In many species of herd animals, dominance heirarchies are worked out by ritual combat. In primates, however, power relationships commonly are developed by a more complex process.

Some years ago, scientists studying a particular species of monkey became interested in the phenomenon of the "alpha male." In this species, one male in each social group was the alpha, or leader. Wherever he went, the group followed. Whatever he did, the group imitated. The evolutionary advantage to being the alpha male was obvious: He had first choice in mating with the females, and thus had more offspring than the other males.

The question the scientists wanted to answer was, how was the alpha male selected? Was he the largest or strongest of the males? It turned out that he generally was not. Was he the most aggressive or the best fighter? That hypothesis too turned out to be false. What they found instead was that the alpha male was the most altruistic member of the troop. Whenever danger threatened, the alpha male was the one who confronted it. If a predator attacked, the alpha male was likely to be eaten, while the rest of the troop escaped. A short life but a merry one, you might say.

Much primate behavior has been analyzed in terms of "reciprocal altruism," which we might more sensibly call "trading." A good example is mutual grooming--literally, "You scratch my back and I'll scratch yours." But other primate behavior is altruistic in the sense of the alpha male's: sacrifice of the self for the group. This makes biological sense, since the individual is totally dependent on the group for survival. Result: altruism, the third Primate Principle.

What we can begin to see is that humans, like Ichthyostega, retain biological defects simply because our species represents such a radical evolutionary innovation. Our brains (as Arthur Koestler points out) do not properly integrate the animal layers of emotion with our intelligence. We retain the compulsive need to fit into the group, no matter what values must be sacrificed, from our ancestors who lived in troops like baboons and could not survive as individuals. The need for dominance and power, which makes no sense for thinking creatures, did have a use in organizing groups of semi-intelligent animals for mutual protection against predators. The moral imperative of self-sacrifice for the group is a remnant of the behavioral patterns of creatures for whom individualism was biologically impossible.

So we now have a plausible answer to Eddie's Enigma: human irrationality has its roots in our biological ancestry. Our psycho-epistemology, like our spine, has not yet had time to adapt to our rapid evolutionary changes.

This is, of course, a conclusion highly repugnant to the classical Objectivist model. Ayn Rand regarded human intelligence as starting from a blank slate--tabula rasa--with no instinct, inborn behavior patterns, or "original sin." The conclusions I have reached would have been abhorrent to her. However, Ayn Rand was also the one who said, "nothing can alter the truth and nothing can take precedence over that act of perceiving it, which is thinking."

To accept the facts, however, is not enough. One must also decide what is to be done about them.

Sociobiology--like Objectivism--has been controversial because it found ethical implications in biological facts. In the last few years, however, the basic premises of sociobiology have begun to triumph across the political spectrum. Both ardent liberals, and classical conservatives, now invoke biological arguments to support their positions.

Increasingly there is broad agreement that humans do have instinctual drives that very strongly influence their behavior, and there is an emerging consensus on what those drives are. The real issue is how we ought to respond to this knowledge.

Some thinkers, such as Robert Wright [The Moral Animal] and Jared Diamond [The Third Chimpanzee], take the position that our innate drives are mostly evil. Even when we are "altruistic," Darwinian analysis shows that our underlying motives (or rather, the motives of our genes) are actually selfish. Authentic--that is, Kantian--altruism is, in this view, attained only by overriding our animalistic natural desires.

On the other side we find writers such as Frans de Waal [Good Natured] and James Q. Wilson [The Moral Sense]. They argue that our animal instincts are at the root of our moral code and can serve as its justification. Our moral impulses, whatever their sources, are genuinely altruistic, and therefore good.

Neither of these perspectives seems very congenial from an Objectivist point of view. What, then, should our approach be?

Our basic premise, which remains unchanged, is that reason is our only guide to knowledge. This includes the knowledge of what to do, that is, ethical knowledge. So the problem for Objectivists is, how are we to prevent our behavioral instincts, which include the Primate Principles, from interfering with our moral reasoning?

The problem exists on two levels, the psycho-epistomological and the emotional. For the Primate Principles function as automatic modes of reasoning, and are generally perceived by us as emotional responses.

We can deal with the way the Primate Principles interfere with our reasoning. We have a good model in the way we deal with optical illusions. For instance, if you look at a pattern of black blocks separated by narrow white channels, at the intersections of the channels you will see gray spots. They are not real, but optical illusions. However, using your reason on the evidence (for instance, noting that you drew the black blocks on clean white paper yourself and did not draw any gray spots) you can correct the illusion and know that the spots are not there.

In the same way, we can correct our instinctive moral responses on an intellectual level. Once we understand rational metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics, we can be alert for, and reject, conclusions that we find arise from our Primate Principles. This is not by any means easy. Even after years of training, many scientists, for instance, show a surprising tendency to go along with the crowd or to accept authority. Nor are such tendencies unknown among Objectivists.

The emotional level of response presents an even more serious problem. Our emotions serve as a key feedback loop that guides our value pursuits. Pleasure indicates that we are on the right track; pain that we are on the wrong track. Here again, we are all familiar with the occasional need to use reason and will to override emotional impulses. We understand that false signals can arise from, for instance, drugs like cocaine or heroin or nicotine. We understand that we can and must override such false signals for the sake of our own survival and health. The same is true of emotions aroused by the Primate Principles.

A key precept here is too often forgotten, however: Objectivism calls for resistance to any mind-body or reason-emotion dichotomy. We admire the heroic exercise of the will by a John Galt or a Howard Roark. But that is because exercise of the will is a heroic measure--literally. It is an expedient for emergencies, not for normal life. The norm is not for reason to impose its will on unruly emotions; it is for reason and emotions to work harmoniously together.

And in fact, recent studies on the function of the brain show that practical reason is actually dependent on emotion. Fascinating results are reported by Antonio Damasio in his book Descarte's Error. When a person is damaged in a certain small part of the brain, he loses the capacity to feel secondary emotions--that is, emotions in response to imagined (as opposed to real) situations. It turns out that persons with this damage are unable to live independently. They can reason just as well as ever, they can feel normal primary emotions, they still know right from wrong and understand the consequences of their actions--but they cannot actually make effective decisions about their own actions.

So simply relying on willpower to override the impulses of the Primate Principles is a poor approach. The human brain cannot work properly if it is constantly at war with itself.

There is another point to note here. Besides the highly destructive Primate Principles, there are other wired-in behavior patterns in our brain. Wilson identifies sympathy, self-control, fairness, and duty as "moral sentiments" that are built into us by biology. Others include family attachment and the desire for children. Such moral instincts are generally beneficial, and we would find it harder to function without them. If we classify emotions as enemies to be overcome, we may be literally throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

How is the Objectivist, personally, to address this problem?

First, each of us must clearly accept that we are not blank slates at birth. We are born with built-in behavior patterns, most of which are adaptive, some of which are very definitely not. We must study and understand human nature so that we are aware of these behavior patterns, and can recognize how they operate and what circumstances bring them into play.

Second, we must be prepared, on rare occasions, to use our will to override our ingrained behavior, just as we do with our habitual behavior when it is inappropriate.

Third, we must arrange our lives, as much as possible, so as to avoid the necessity of relying on will. This means, so to speak, working around the Primate Principles.

One way to avoid social metaphysics is to live as a hermit. If you are part of no group, no group can control your thinking (as long as you do not keep a TV set in your cave!) This is an expedient, though, of limited practicality. What we can do more conveniently is work to be part of a rational group. The importance of Objectivist community cannot be overstressed. But along with this must go a special effort to constitute these communities in such a way as to keep them rational.

Again, we ought to make a special effort to avoid exposure to authority. Each Objectivist ought to minimize the role of power and authority in his life. The means will vary, but in a career context, working as an entrepreneur or free-lancer has much to recommend it. Where authority is not eliminated, it can be assimilated, by accepting it into sex and family roles. Here again, there is a necessity for measures to maintain boundaries.

The tendency to altruism may be not only resisted but redirected toward useful goals. The "movement" is of course a prime candidate. But I would again emphasize the family as an outlet for our instincts. In dealing with spouse and children, altruistic impulses can be turned to beneficial targets.

In these comments I can only scratch the surface of the principles of what we might call "biocompatible" ethics. I do want to emphasize that I am not talking about abolishing or replacing the Objectivist ethics as it has long been understood. The classic Objectivist virtues--rationality, productiveness, pride, and (as David Kelley has pointed out) benevolence--remain perfectly valid. What is needed is an expansion of these virtues, and a methodology for practicing them more effectively.

For I find a need for this in the Objectivists I meet, particularly the younger people. They find it puzzling that it is so arduous to practice the philosophy in daily life. They are always looking for ways to improve. And they are concerned that it is so difficult to gain new converts for the philosophy.

That brings us to a final topic: What are the implications of the new concepts I have discussed for Objectivism as a movement?

I was a participant in the old Objectivist movement in the heady days of the Sixties. Like my comrades, I felt convinced Objectivism could take over the culture. Then, in 1967, I did a little exercise. I dug out the circulation figures for the Objectivist Newsletter and the Objectivist, year by year. What I found was a rapid, exponential rise for several years--which then leveled off. This was before the Great Schism between Ayn Rand and Nathaniel Branden shattered the movement.

That was thirty years ago. Since then, the movement has revived and grown, but more in quality than quantity. We now have far more professional-grade Objectivist intellectuals than we used to, simply because the bright college students of the early movement have grown up. New young people have been recruited. But the evidence indicates that there is only a limited pool of "potential Objectivists" in the population, and that we have pretty much saturated this market.

Certain disquieting characteristics within the movement have remained almost constant over the years. I'll pass over without comment the tendency for schisms and excommunications; these are symptoms of a scholasticist approach to the ideas, a subject I have discussed elsewhere. What I would like to note tonight is that the number of Objectivists with self-perceived psychological problems is distressingly high. No, I am not saying that a lot of Objectivists are neurotic. But I do find a very widespread feeling among Objectivists that something is missing, that they are not getting the satisfying life that they think the philosophy should offer them. This was the case in the Sixties, and it continues to be the case today.

Another observation that I made as a young man was that the ratio of males to females among Objectivists was around five or six to one. From the counts I make at Objectivist functions nowadays, that number remains about the same. One doesn't have to look very far to explain the fact that family formation among Objectivists is rather low. There are many unmarried young men, and a lot of childless couples. I do not suggest that Objectivists have a duty to breed for the philosophy. But I would like to point out that this situation is not suggestive of a world-class growth ideology. And it perhaps may not be helpful to the movement's growth to effectively require young men to take an oath of celibacy.

Not to put too fine a point on it, it is time for us to confront an embarrassing question: Why is Objectivism so repellant to women? It was founded by a woman. It is promoted by fabulous Romantic novels with attractive female protagonists. It advocated liberation of females from traditional strictures back when modern feminism was scarcely an embryo.

Many people tell us that Objectivism is not Feministic enough. We ought, they say, to be genuflecting more deeply to the icons of Political Correctness. Objectivism, in this view, fails with women because it advocates male oppression.

Well, looking at the actual Objectivist literature, and particularly the writings of Ayn Rand herself, this indictment is awfully hard to justify. Even if it were true--which I do not for one moment concede--it still would not be a satisfactory explanation. One does not find a five-to-one ratio of males to females in conservative organizations, in evangelical churches, or in the anti-abortion movement. The empirical evidence would much better support the hypothesis that Feminism is a turn-off for women.

In fact, I wish to argue that Objectivism is unattractive, perhaps even repugnant, to most women, because it refuses to respect their real concerns. Women--in the real world, not Feminist fantasies--care about family life, about children, about personal relationships. What do they find in the writings of Ayn Rand?

Look at her fiction. With the sole exception of Francisco D'Anconia, all of her fictional heroes and heroines are estranged from their families. Rand is particularly negative about mothers: Look at Kira's mother, Peter Keating's mother, Rearden's mother. Consider Howard Roark and John Galt, Rand's ideal men. They separate from their families at an early age and neither know nor care what becomes of their parents. With the exception of Prometheus and Gaia in Anthem, no positive character of any significance has, or wants to have, children. Rand's fictional portrayals of family life repeatedly depict it as stifling, crippling, something to be escaped.

Or turn to her non-fiction, particularly her lecture "Of Living Death." Let's make every allowance for the context--an attack on the Catholic Church's opposition to contraception. Even so, this essay is striking in its dark imagery of childbearing: ". . . parents chained, like beasts of burden, to the physical needs of a growing brood of children . . . the silent terror hanging, for every couple, over every moment of love."

In the few passages in which Rand deals with childbearing as a normal part of human life, she stresses the obligations it imposes, with no suggestion that having children is pleasurable or life-enhancing. Raising a child, she says, is "a grave responsibility". Doesn't sound like much fun, and we need not be surprised when we find her saying: "In comparison to the moral and psychological importance of sexual happiness, the issue of procreation is insignificant and irrelevant, except as a deadly threat . . ." [emphasis added]

A deadly threat.

In Galt's Gulch, we are told, Dagny saw on the streets "some men, fewer women"--and the population, apparently, included exactly two children. Why is the sex ratio in the Objectivist movement so out of balance? Maybe that "Women and Children Not Welcome" sign at the entrance to the valley has something to do with it.

Objectivism is explicitly biocentric in its ethics. It is precisely for this reason that our first objective should be to understand and accept our own biological nature as human beings. What I want to suggest to you tonight is that it is our failure to do this fully that is holding Objectivists back--both from personal fulfillment as individuals and from success as a movement. I want to conclude tonight with some specfic suggestions.

First, we need to think of the Objectivist movement as a subculture to be built now, rather than as a world-dominating culture to be built someday. The goal of converting everyone, or even very large numbers of people, to Objectivism, is simply not realistic. We are fighting against the Primate Principles. The focus of the Objectivist movement has always been on missionary work. It is time to face up to the fact that we have reached the point of diminishing returns.

Permit me a personal digression here. For almost twenty years now I have been working with the MIT Enterprise Forum, giving counsel to small hi-tech firms. Again and again and again I have talked to entrepreneurs whose products simply don't have the huge markets they project for them. When I call attention to their sales figures, I hear, "Oh, people just don't understand how good our product is. We have to educate our customers, then they'll buy a zillion of them." To be successful in business, one has to objectively evaluate how desirable one's product is to one's customers. This is hard for entrepreneurs, and, I fear, for Objectivists also.

As a corollary, I suggest a second conclusion: We must place far more emphasis on organization of community activities among Objectivists. And we should emphasize not just intellectual but social community. What has not been understood is that making converts will ultimately prove a dead end unless the foundation of the community they are to join has already been built. At least for the near term, our focus should be more inner-directed and less outer-directed.

Third, we need to complement this effort by making Objectivism more a social and less a purely ideological movement. Our approach to the philosophy--and I say this as a professional intellectual--is entirely too cerebral. Objectivism is a philosophy for living on this earth. It is not just a philosophy; it is a philosophy of life. We need to think much more about the problems of making practical, day-to-day ethical decisions. I believe that many of us are thinking about these problems. But the movement has no mechanisms for us to discuss or publish our answers.

Finally, a family focus must be added to the movement. Let me point out one simple observation: Essentially every meeting, event, or activity for Objectivists is designed strictly for adults. There is nothing for families with children. Of course, that's not surprising; in most cities it's hard to round up enough Objectivists for an event at all. There are so few with families, that it never occurs to an organizer to accomodate them. But this has become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

What it amounts to is that Objectivism needs to learn something from the way a successful church operates. It provides social support and reinforcement for its members. There is an element of mutual assistance and loyalty. The learning process is not only intellectual, but highly focussed on ethical issues in daily life. People attend in family units, and the church provides assistance in bringing up their children to follow the principles they believe in.

This isn't a naturally appealing model for Objectivists, many of whom look back with abhorrence at the churches of their childhoods. But churches fulfill social as well as religious functions, and if we want Objectivism to be a successful movement we are going to have to develop something that will fill these needs.

What I have presented tonight is a new view of human nature, and one that many of us might find depressing. It may seem like a picture of human weakness. But A is A. Human nature is what it is. Ayn Rand taught us to seek out the best within us. And it is only by understanding exactly what is within us that we can seek out the best, and remake ourselves into that image.
Sanctions: 41Sanctions: 41Sanctions: 41Sanctions: 41 Sanction this ArticleEditMark as your favorite article

Discuss this Article (78 messages)