Tuesday, August 05, 2003
THE RANDIAN ARGUMENT: Nate Oman, at goodoman, makes a slam on Randians, but as far as I can tell, his is mainly a rhetorical criticism (which I think is plainly correct: Nietzsche does the sort of thing Rand does much, much better. As Nietzsche himself put it, “I say things in a sentence that it takes others a book to say – indeed, more than a book!”).
Anyway, I thought I’d help Nate out here, and give him a few arguments, free of charge (and which I hope aren’t merely ways of falling back on the “Judeo-Christian” ethic that Nate cites in passing). I’ll admit up front to not basing my arguments on anything Rand says, explicitly. I’m more concerned to diagnose a mood, which comes through quite well in the quote Nate posts on his page from Capitalism magazine (is there really such a magazine? Oy.), so I’ll refer to the “Randian” point of view, rather than to Rand herself. I have never been captive to the Randian style of thinking myself, considering it mostly an adult expression of teenage angst. But I know a lot of smart people who admire Rand, and many more who have gone through a “Randian” phase. So who knows.
First, though, there’s a tension between the two strands in Randianism, on display in the quote from Capitalism magazine: there’s the (1) “the do what you want to do, there being no other standard besides what you want” strand of ethical egoism, and there’s the (2) the “strong should prevail, so quit holding us back weak and poor people” strand. It’s hard to reconcile these two strands, as can be seen by the fact that it may be that what many, many people want to do is to help the weak and poor. That’s your right, if it’s what you want to do.
If we separate the strands, we get either an ethical egoism or a sort of social Darwinism. The problem with ethical egoism can be put succinctly in a question: what makes you special? That is, by virtue of what should your interests trump the interests of others? To reply to this that your interests are special because they are yours is to make a claim everybody else can make, because their interest are theirs, too. Unless you give some basis why your interests should carry more weight in this instance, you’re just falling back on a sort of racism, a racism of one, a “meism”: you’re saying that because you possess some arbitrary characteristic, the characteristic of being “you,” your interests trump everybody else’s.
If we go the social Darwinism route, then there isn’t one big problem, but a lot of little problems. The main problem is trying to figure out what exactly “stronger” means, and why we should allow the stronger to do what they want, come what may, and no matter what the weak think. There’s a curious paradox, also, in noting that in all these declamations of the weak, the Randian (again, no textual reference, I’m diagnosing a mood) seems to concede that the weak have seized power that rightfully belongs to the strong. So have the weak become strong? (One gets this curious feeling from reading Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals that he kind of admires the priest-class, for pulling the wool over the eyes of the stronger, for being just so clever).
Finally, although I’m not sure how much weight to give to this kind of argument, I do find it appealing: if you say that the strong should dominate the weak, then you’re committing to saying that if you become weak (or are weak), then it is permissible that you be dominated. I don’t know that if anyone agrees to this, he’s contradicting himself, but it would sort of give me the creeps if anyone assented to being dominated, should he ever become weak. I think he’d have a pretty poor idea of what he’s worth. And this may reflect a general failing of the Randian argument – of failing to recognize the independent worth of persons, strong and weak.