Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Ayn Rand: Straw Vulcan

Been skimming skepticon videos on youtube, and I came across this little gem. It's long, but you may want to give it a watch in your spare time one day. It's quite informative:

Contrarily, if that's too long for you, you can just read this page instead. It's the gist of it (and it's also the source of the term used in the video).

But anyways, I've been researching Ayn Rand these last few days, out of bile fascination, and as I was watching interview clips with her (also on youtube), I realized something: Ayn Rand is a straw vulcan.

First thing's first: what *is* a "straw vulcan?" If you watch the video (or read the TVtropes entry), you'll see. But in case you're just that short on time, here's the rough explanation (from the link):

A straw man used to show that emotion is better than logic. It starts by having characters who think "logically" try to solve a problem. And they can't. Either they can't find any answer, or they're caught in some kind of standoff, or they're even stuck in a Logic Bomb-type loop. Once this is established, someone who uses good old human emotion comes up with a solution that the logical thinker can't. This provides An Aesop that emotion is superior and that the logical thinker shouldn't trust logic so much. This is, of course, a broken Aesop. Fiction often gets the concept of logic wrong in a number of ways.

Anyways, I was watching this smack piece against Ayn Rand, and one of the interviews featured therein stuck with me a little:

At approximately 2:48, the following exchange occurs:

Interviewer: "Christ -- every important moral leader in man's history --- has taught us that we should love one another. Why, then, is this kind of love, in your mind, immoral?"

Rand: "It is immoral if it is...placed above oneself."

It's not exactly the same thing as a straw vulcan....but it's very close. "Love" is a weakness; reason is being misapplied in order to arbitrarily "rule out" things like human emotion and love as "weakness." The only difference is, in the case of the straw vulcan, it's a poor literary technique used to set up the character for a fall, to demonstrate that pure reason supposedly doesn't work. In this case, Rand seems almost completely unaware of the irony of her position....Ayn Rand's philosophy of "objectivism" assumes that there are humans who are "self-sufficient" in the sense of being completely, universally independent of other humans to provide for their own basic needs.

The problem is, the capitalist system (around which her philosophy is necessarily centered, in defense --- or rather, worship --- of property rights, even to the exclusion of the value of human life*) is based on the idea that humans will require services of one another. You can't get rich without the cops protecting your property and other people's taxes paying those cops' salaries. You can't run a business without other people who are poor enough to want to work under you. You can't even go out to eat, or work on your car, unless you either (A) have a skill set pertaining to whatever activity you're carrying out (nobody has professional experience in all possible fields, so reductio ad absurdum here is an inevitability), or (B) know someone who has that knowledge and is willing to share it with you or use it on your behalf.
The capitalist system is based on this interaction and is designed to facilitate it. Hence, capitalism = human interdependence, not independence. We depend upon each other. That's not weakness, it's human nature.

All of which is to say....Rand is a straw vulcan because she portrays herself as "reasonable" and "logical" to the exclusion of the "weakness" of human emotions such as love and compassion, without realizing that a truly reasonable person would acknowledge that human emotion is a necessary component of human functionality, and that individual prosperity is inherently linked to social prosperity because of our need for each other's skills and company.

Now....before you Ayn Rand fans go bashing me for "not understanding" her philosophy, or for rejecting her out of hand....that's not to say that I am completely trashing her. This is not meant as a political statement. Another video that caught my eye was this one:

Now I'm no Ralph Nader fan by any stretch, but I did find myself swayed ever-so-slightly by his argument here. He, too, finds her philosophy "abhorrent," but he also provides an interesting justification for why she may have come about with such a philosophy: having lived with a communist background, she has seen the extreme end of what complete and utter forced selflessness can produce, and so has "lived the extreme." Nader's theory (which I find, in its simplicity, surprisingly satisfactory) is that her overly-selfish philosophy is a sort of over-reaction against her experience with communism and socialism. I can understand that to a degree, and so with that in mind I can say I respect Ayn Rand a little more than I did before --- even though I still disagree with pretty much all of her philosophy.

--Tim D.

*=in truth, this is a criticism that is more aptly leveled at her present-day followers and worshippers, not as much to the woman herself (although a case can be made thusly). In any case, I'm using it here more as a smack against her followers than against her personally.

1 comment:

  1. Very good.

    I can't look at Ayn Rand's name without thinking someone's messed up the letters in 'Andy Ryan'.