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Sunday, January 23, 2011

The subjectivism of objectivism

by John MacBeath Watkins


I've been reading a bit about Ayn Rand's theory of objectivism, because such prominent political figures as Paul Ryan and Alan Greenspan profess to be influenced by it.

It makes peculiar reading.  Consider its claim that values are objective.

Thomas Hobbes laid out the system of value that is the basis for classical liberalism and free-market economies.  In Chapter X of The Leviathan, he states that:

"The ‘value,’ or ‘worth,’ of a man is, as of all other things, his price; that is to say, so much as would be given for the use of his power; and therefore is not absolute, but a thing dependent on the need and judgment of another. An able conductor of soldiers is of great price in time of war present, or imminent; but in peace not so. A learned and uncorrupt judge is much worth in time of peace, but not so much in war. And, as in other things so in men, not the seller but the buyer determines the price. For let a man, as most men do, rate themselves [himself] at the highest value they [he] can, yet their [his] true value is no more than it is esteemed by others."

Chapter X goes on like that, laying out how honor and worth are dependent on the opinion of others.  In short, Hobbes was describing a subjective system of value, and that system has become the basis for our civilization.

If value is a matter of opinion, markets are a place in which people discuss those opinions and reach a consensus.  Merchants who esteem their goods too highly will find they have no customers, those who set the value too low will soon have no stock, because they must respect the opinions of buyers as well as their own opinion.

This meeting of minds is what give markets their vitality and their usefulness in deciding values.  Opinions are subjective, by any useful definition of "subjective."  Remove the subject who holds the opinion about the value of the thing being traded, and the market ceases to exist.

This applies, as well, to the "marketplace of ideas," in which we negotiate the truth value of claims to knowledge, and to our choice of government, where we form opinions of the rightness of our government's actions and negotiate how we should be ruled through the medium of politics.

Again, from Chapter X of The Leviathan:

 "To believe, to trust, to rely on another, is to honour him, a sign of opinion of his virtue and power. To distrust, or not believe, is to dishonour."

Again we see the theme of subjectivity, in which the "opinion of his virtue and power" shows how we value a person.

Now consider the following paragraph, written by Ayn Rand in 1962 and reproduced on the Ayn Rand Institute's website:

"Man—every man—is an end in himself, not the means to the ends of others. He must exist for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself. The pursuit of his own rational self-interest and of his own happiness is the highest moral purpose of his life."

Now, should I wish to sacrifice myself for my family or my tribe, who is Rand to say this is less moral than acting as though I were an end in myself?  It is, after all, my life, and I am free to value what I wish.  It is Rand's opinion that I must exist for my own sake, not some objective truth.

In evolutionary terms, we should wish to continue our line, and it might therefore be more rational to sacrifice our own happiness to ensure that our offspring can survive and further propagate our genes.

Now, I've had people argue to me that if that is what I want, then it is my own rational self-interest and my own happiness, but if that is the case, any action I take can be justified on the same grounds, and it would therefore be impossible to claim I am sacrificing myself for others.  Such a defense would make Rand's statement meaningless.

I'll be reading more Rand, but at the moment it appears to me that she considers it "objective" that I accept her opinion.  This is not objectivity, it is simply a demand that her judgment not be questioned.

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