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Denise Cummins Ph.D.

What Happens When You Take Ayn Rand Seriously?

Ayn Rand's popularity continues to grow despite the failure of her philosophy.

By StefanoRR [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons Royalty Free
Source: By StefanoRR [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons Royalty Free

In my recent PBS NewsHour article, I discuss Ayn Rand's influence in industry and government. I wrote the article because I found myself wondering why Rand’s popularity among the young continues to grow. Thirty years after her death, her book sales still number in the hundreds of thousands annually. Among her devotees are highly influential celebrities, such as Brad Pitt and Eva Mendes, and politicos, such as current Speaker of the House Paul Ryan and Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz.

The core of Rand’s philosophy — which also constitutes the overarching theme of her novels — is that unfettered self-interest is good and altruism is destructive. This, she believed, is the ultimate expression of human nature, the guiding principle by which one ought to live one’s life. The fly in the ointment of Rand’s philosophical “objectivism” is the plain fact that humans have a tendency to cooperate and to look out for each other, as noted by many anthropologists who study hunter-gatherers.

Students in my classes who are enamored of Rand usually say the same thing when asked what it is about Rand's objectivism that so strongly appeals to them: "She teaches us that we can rely on no one but ourselves." This misguided belief in solitary self-reliance is extremely comforting because it promises an end to uncertainty: You don't have to worry about being abandoned, betrayed, or let down if you simply never cooperate or depend on anyone else. This is a message that particularly resonates with many people since the 2008 economic meltdown when many lost their jobs, their homes, and their savings.

However alluring, however, the promise of solitary self-reliance is nothing but a sham. Like it or not, we often need to cooperate with others to achieve our goals, and we often need to depend on others simply to get through the day.

More disturbing is ample evidence that implementing Rand's philosophy in industry and government typically leads to resounding failures. There is a reason why even toddlers show a preference for those who help rather than hinder others, and why adults as well as children show such a strong propensity to cooperate rather than defect in economic games. When people behave this way, they are not behaving foolishly. They are giving researchers a glimpse of the prosocial tendencies that made it possible for our species to survive and thrive in the ancestral past as well as today.

More can be found in my PBS NewsHour article by clicking here.

Copyright Denise Cummins, PhD February 17, 2016

UPDATE Feb 17, 2016

In response to many of the Rand supporters who have posted here, I would like to point out a few more things that are wrong with "objectivism."

In Rand's epistemology, the source of all knowledge was sense perception. She rejected all claims of non-perceptual or a priori knowledge. As such, she was in agreement with early theories of cognitive development which assumed infants were little more than sensory-motor systems, and that complex concepts were constructed from these simple building blocks through experience with the environment (e.g., Piaget, 1952).

But the last three decades of research on infant cognition shown this assumption to be entirely false. Some types of domain-specific knowledge appear to emerge quite early in infancy before infants have had sufficient time to induce this knowledge through experience. For example, infants are cognitively predisposed to interpret the world in terms of agents and objects whose behaviors are constrained by different sets of principles.

Rand believed that that the initiation of force was evil and irrational; In Atlas Shrugged, she claimed that "Force and mind are opposites." Yet her descriptions of satisfactory sexual encounters in her novels are graphic depictions of men forcing themselves on women with the aim of deriving satisfaction through the infliction of pain and humiliation. Her followers don't seem to see the contradiction between her strident belief in the sacredness of individual freedom and condemnation of force on the one hand, and her desire for sexual domination and humiliation on the other. This, from The Fountainhead:

“She tried to tear herself away from him. The effort broke against his arms that had not felt it. Her fists beat against his shoulders, against his face. He moved one had, took her two wrists, pinned them behind her, under his arm, wrenching her shoulder blades. She twisted her head back. She felt his lips on her breast…She fought like an animal… He did it as an act of scorn. Not as love, but as defilement."

Rand was also a member of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals which blacklisted actors and screenwriters (such as Dalton Trumbo) who were members of the Communist Party, along with actors, screenwriters, movies who were deemed to be sympathetic to communism.

To those who take issue with my presentation of Rand's condemnation of altruism, I encourage them to click on the links in the article to read Rand's own words from original sources. She did indeed embrace rational self-interest as the pinnacle of human fulfillment and did in fact believe altruism (or any kind of self-sacrifice for others) to be biologically impossible and therefore simply the result of social indoctrination. Here are a few choice quotes:

"As to altruism — it has never been alive. It is the poison of death in the blood of Western civilization, and men survived it only to the extent to which they neither believed nor practiced it… Do not confuse altruism with kindness, goodwill, or respect for the rights of others. These are not primaries, but consequences, which, in fact, altruism makes impossible. The irreducible primary of altruism, the basic absolute, is self-sacrifice — which means: self-immolation, self-abnegation, self-denial, self-destruction --- which means: the self as a standard of evil, the selfless as the standard of the good." — "Faith and Force: The Destroyers of the Modern World" by Ayn Rand (A lecture delivered at Yale University on February 17, 1960, at Brooklyn College on April 4, 1960, and at Columbia University on May 5, 1960

“Altruism is incompatible with freedom, with capitalism and with individual rights...One cannot combine the pursuit of happiness with the moral status of a sacrificial animal.” —The Virtue of Selfishness

Then there is the issue that she disapproved of Social Security, Medicare, and other social programs aimed at providing a safety net for the old, the poor, and the sick, yet she availed herself of Social Security and Medicare in her penurious old age. Her justification for allowing her fellow countrymen to provision her was that it was simply payback for the money that had been "stolen" from her by the government through social security taxes.

Dr. Cummins is a research psychologist, a Fellow of the Association for Psychological Science, and the author of Good Thinking: Seven Powerful Ideas That Influence the Way We Think.

More information about me can be found on my homepage, and my books can be found here.