Gratuitous proviso: not all Objectivists are hypocritical on the issue I’ll discuss here, just most of the serious ones I’ve interacted with. This isn’t a collective smear: I treat Objectivists as individuals, and unless they behave in this hypocritical way, I won’t assume otherwise. As Rand herself once said: If the shoe fits, wear it with my compliments.
If someone is able to show me that what I think or do is not right, I will happily change, for I seek the truth, by which no one was ever truly harmed. It is the person who continues in his self-deception and ignorance who is harmed.— Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
One must never fail to pronounce moral judgment.
Nothing can corrupt and disintegrate a culture or a man’s character as thoroughly as does the precept of moral agnosticism, the idea that one must never pass moral judgment on others, that one must be morally tolerant of anything, that the good consists of never distinguishing good from evil.— Ayn Rand
If a man, holding a belief which he was taught in childhood or persuaded of afterwards, keeps down and pushes away any doubts which arise about it in his mind, purposely avoids the reading of books and the company of men that call in question or discuss it, and regards as impious those questions which cannot easily be asked without disturbing it – the life of that man is one long sin against mankind.— William K. Clifford
One of the things Ayn “Judge, and prepare to be judged” Rand and her followers are known for is a rather pointed harshness toward ideas and people they consider to be immoral or irrational. If you’ve been on the receiving end, you know what I’m talking about. I hasten to add that I generally agree with Objectivists: we ought to manifest our moral opinions. If the rational won’t have the courage of their convictions, then the irrational will rule.
And Ayn Rand sure did judge! I won’t bother providing examples; nearly every one of her works contains indictment after indictment of this or that philosopher, artist, belief system, and there are of course the various indictments she (and her inner circle) gave of her own colleagues and acquaintances. Her reputation on this particular point is very well established.
But herein lies the gross hypocrisy: while the Objectivist indulges a swashbuckling liberty when judging you or your ideas, he won’t suffer your judging him or his ideas. Indeed, the fact that you do so is taken by the Objectivist as a sign of moral depravity. The Objectivist is Howard Roark and you are Dominique Francon, and when he’s finished judging you, you’re supposed to shout with glee that “Howard Roark raped me!” and then bask in the glow of the Objectivist’s presumed moral superiority.
Objectivists will likely say: “But our wide and intensive judgment of you is OK, because it is rational.” I’ll buy into this precisely to the extent that it actually is. But Rand compared judgment to a court of law (“every rational person must maintain an equally strict and solemn integrity in the courtroom within his own mind, where the responsibility is more awesome than in a public tribunal”), so should we not, in the interest of objectivity and fairness, be open to the principle that the accused has a right of appeal? Should we not hear out the other side of an argument, sincerely dealing with their objections, before cementing our judgment? Indeed, what truly rational person would ever fail to be open, at least in principle, to new evidence and arguments?
But this is precisely what the Objectivist will not do.
A striking example of this for me personally (but not the sole example) concerns the issue of patents and particularly with the vicious attitude Ayn Rand had regarding someone who inadvertently “trespasses” someone else’s patent. In this scenario, someone is working on their own with some new invention, they bring it to market, are happily engaged in their business, and then – wham! – patent suit. They’re hauled into court (if they have a million dollars or so needed to defend themselves) and required to prove that they didn’t violate the patent. No one anywhere was ever held responsible for proving that patents were morally legitimate in the first place.
Anyone with common sense and decency sees a problem here: some poor guy might have spent a decade of his life innocently building something, only to have it torn down because someone else filed some paperwork with a government bureaucrat. He doesn’t even have to file it before the actual invention – that patent might not have existed until after this poor guy spent the decade working on his invention.
Now, Rand’s own view (like many in the classical liberal tradition, including myself) is that we all have individual rights, and that these rights are not granted by government, but exist prior to government. Government’s only proper function is to defend objectively existing individual rights, it doesn’t fabricate rights and grant them to people who filed the right paperwork. You may or may not agree with our view on rights. But assuming that individuals have inalienable rights, clearly there is a problem with patents. If the individual has rights, then why must he seek permission from government bureaucrats in order to be free to use his mind to invent something new, build it, and then trade it with others? In other words, precisely where and how in this process has the inventor violated someone’s rights, particularly when at no point was he even aware of the patent-filer or his patent? It’s clearly a question deserving of an answer.
Furthermore, Rand’s attitude toward the inventor who has the decade of work arbitrarily stripped away from him is, in effect, “Too bad for you, you should have filed that paperwork first.”. To those who really do believe in inalienable rights, Rand’s attitude is corrupt and morally appalling. She has something to answer for here.
So I ask Objectivists about it. Once the discussion gets going, the Objectivist quickly gets into serious difficulty, and I’ve observed several styles of dealing with this: (1) “Ayn Rand was right, but we haven’t figured out precisely how yet, so I can’t answer your questions”; (2) “Ayn Rand was right, but I’m not the expert so I can’t answer your questions”; (3) “Ayn Rand was right, so you’re obviously immoral for accusing her (and me) and for being opposed to patents, so this debate is now over and I never want to talk to you again because I don’t want to ‘sanction evil’”; (4) Ayn Rand was wrong about patents (this type is rare!).
While the discussion might continue for a little longer with types (1) and (2), it devolves into (3) soon after I point out the fact that the burden of proof for patents lies with the patent-wielder/supporter, and that it is immoral for them to support patents without actually understanding them.
I love a good philosophic debate, when both parties are striving to be rational and find the truth. I shouldn’t compare it to sex, but I personally find it very engaging. So I find it incredibly frustrating to be teased by the Objectivist with “Rationality is the highest virtue!”, and then at a very climax of the most critical part of the propositional intercourse, for the Objectivist to get his panties in a bunch and flounce away without actually finishing!
As Ayn Rand wrote, one must not only “judge”, one must also “prepare to be judged.” Objectivists embrace the former for themselves, and the latter for everyone else but themselves. They are like the playground bully: they’re keen to attack your philosophy when they think you’ll be a weak target, but if you competently attack theirs, then they get into a prissy huff and cowardly abandon the discussion.
The juxtaposition of their tenet that “rationality is the primary virtue” and their refusal to answer competent objections to their belief system is too much just by itself, but when we add their tenet “Judge, and prepare to be judged” to the mix then a thousand WTF’s doesn’t sufficiently express the outrage they elicit to an actually rational ethic.
The failure of Objectivists to engage critics is a pathology that’s long plagued their movement. It had been diagnosed by Objectivist philosopher David Kelly as their “intolerance” to other views, but this is a misdiagnosis. The issue is not that they don’t tolerate what they disagree with, it’s that they won’t rationally answer what they disagree with (again, unless they see an easy target, and there are indeed plenty). The real diagnosis stems from their own intellectual impunity: their tacit belief that they have a right to their own opinions and so they therefore can believe whatever they want without having to rationally justify themselves, whether to themselves or to others, and that whoever shines a light on this impunity must either be condemned and ostracized or ignored.
An optimistic [and rational] civilization is open and not afraid to innovate, and is based on traditions of criticism. Its institutions keep improving, and the most important knowledge that they embody is knowledge of how to detect and eliminate errors.— David Deutsch, as quoted by Steven Pinker
Objectivism wishes to be known as embodying the true spirit of man’s highest potential as a rational being. Instead, it has a well-earned reputation for being insular, tribal, and dogmatic. If it wishes to be taken seriously, it must take the lessons of The Enlightenment seriously, including this most important of institutional lessons: if you want to build a rational institution, then you have to embrace the policy of being open to rational criticism, and of changing your own views when you’re proven wrong.
If Objectivism took my advice, then it would, of course, cease to exist as a living philosophy or movement. Ayn Rand’s philosophy is riddled with errors and cannot survive the sort of open auditing and critique of its fundamental tenets that I propose. But a moral human being should care more for the truth than that Objectivism itself survives. In spite of itself, Objectivism has many valuable lessons to teach, and could do so much more effectively as a historical artifact than it can as a dogmatic, hypocritical, and insular religion-like belief system.
The trained eye can see Rand making blunder after blunder throughout her philosophical writing. Of particular note are her epistemology, metaethics, theory of rights, and her justification of patents. If you think I’m wrong and Rand is right, consider this an open invitation to debate me in any of these areas, as long as I’m able.