Can it be said that Arlen Specter is a Randian?
Am I whacky, or is there something to what I’m saying? You be the judge.
In the entry, “No limit to Specter’s effrontery,” you write:
Is [Arlen] Specter the ultimate Randian hero?Obviously, Arlen Specter is the antithesis of a Randian hero. He is a real-life example of the unprincipled, parasitic government officials against which the heroes in Atlas Shrugged were struggling. Given how often you cite/quote Atlas Shrugged, surely you recognize this. I know you like to poke Randians in the eye, but this offhand remark insults your own intelligence.
First, I wish that when you disagree with something I’ve written, you wouldn’t personalize it so much and use such rough language. You did the same during the Game debate last year when you wrote that the entire discussion, which I had been hosting for an entire week, was “stupid.” While it may be acceptable to throw such brickbats at people whom one is discussing in the third person, or at people whom one does not respect and does not claim to respect, it is not helpful to use such language to someone with whom one is having or hopes to have a collegial discussion.
Second, my remark about Specter was obviously intended as provocative and at least half-humorous. Yet underneath the intended humor was a potentially serious point. Notwithstanding the obvious problems with such a point, I decided to post it without further justification at the time because I expected that someone would challenge me on it, as you have done, which would give me the chance to explain what I meant. Of course I am aware that the normal response to the assertion that Specter is like a Randian hero would be that it was ridiculous. However, my question to myself, which is a serious question and which I was unable to answer, was this: What mandate is there in the Randian ethical system that would tell a politician he shouldn’t switch parties if it will help his career and fulfill his selfish desires? One can’t say that the mandate is, “People should be honest,” because the practice of politics isn’t primarily about honesty; it’s about which side you are on. Thus Specter switched to the Republican Party 30 years ago because he felt the switch would help advance him politically, and he switched back to the Democratic Party in 2009 because it was the only way he could get re-elected to the Senate. Specter famously and unapologetically believes in nothing but himself and the elongation of his own career; I’ve repeatedly joked about the “purity” of purpose with which Specter pursues his naked self-interest. So again, my question is: what precisely is there in the Randian view of things that would tell Specter he should not do what he needs to do to secure his dearest values?
And, again, you will think that that’s a ridiculous question. But consider this. In Ayn Rand’s novel The Fountainhead there are two main ethical types counterpoised against each other: the man who lives only for himself and his own chosen values, represented by Howard Roark; and the “second hander,” represented by Peter Keating, who derives his values from others and lives for the approval of others. What is exceedingly odd about the Randian ethical system, but which to my knowledge has rarely been pointed out, is that it assumes that the man who lives solely for himself and not for others will be ethical in the ordinary sense: he won’t steal, he won’t give false witness, etc. But what is the source of such precepts? Randian man claims not to take his ethical values from other people, nor from religious guidance, nor, indeed, from any source outside his own ego. Therefore the moral imperative not to steal, not to murder, not to desire one’s neighbor’s possessions, not to commit adultery with one’s neighbor’s wife, can come from nowhere but from within the Randian man’s own self. To be ethical in the ordinary sense, Randian man needs no authority external to or higher than his own will. But is it true that ordinary ethical behavior comes solely from within one’s selfish, chosen values? All human experience tells us that it is not.
In other words (and here I’m going to scandalize you again), Randian man is like Jeffersonian man, who lives in harmony and peace with his neighbors without any external authority telling him to be good. Randian man is also like Rousseauian man, who is naturally good in the absence of the institutions of civilization which, Rousseau tells us, make man evil. In brief, Randian man is a liberal, which I define as a person who rejects any source of moral truth or authority outside of or higher than the self, yet somehow imagines that he can have a civilized society on such terms.
If you believe that Randian man will follow ordinary ethical precepts solely on the basis of his rationally chosen, self-chosen, selfish values, consider the self-worshipping braggadocio of the Randian iconography, A typical example is the masthead of Pamela Geller’s website, Atlas Shrugs. (I was unable to reproduce the masthead here, so you’ll have to go to Geller’s site to see it.)
A naked woman, as tall as a skyscraper, dominating the cityscape, bends backwards over an office building glorying in her heroic nudity, waiting to be ravished by John Galt. This type of iconography began on the covers of Rand’s novels, and has been adopted by many Randians.
Where, in the midst of such extravagant, ecstatic self-worship, is the source of the ordinary ethical commands not to lie, not to steal, not to commit adultery, all of which involve restraints on our self-aggrandizing desires? I don’t think you will find it. Like liberals and libertarians generally, the Randians, in order to supply order in their lives, live parasitically off traditional ethical standards, the religious and traditional sources of which they despise. In a phrase, in order to live and survive in this world, they make huge unprincipled exceptions to their philosophy of selfishness.
So, to return to our topic, is it really as absurd and idiotic as you think it is, to say that the unabashedly self-worshipping Arlen Specter is a kind of Randian figure? Does he not assert his desire to prolong his Senate career with the same unapologetic selfishness with which Pam Geller’s masthead heroine displays her nakedness to the Manhattan skyline?
Steve W. replies:
I fail to see any “rough language” or “brickbats” in my email. Nevertheless, I do believe that your rejection of “Randism” has led you to make an argument that you should know has no merit based on your reading of Atlas Shrugged and others of Rand’s works. In my opinion, this sentence from your entry highlights your fundamental error: “what precisely is there in the Randian view of things that would tell Specter he should not do what he needs to do to secure his dearest values?” Clearly, from a Randian perspective, Specter holds and pursues the wrong values. Rand would have no trouble pointing this out to the great senator. Rand was not a moral relativist, and she placed no trust in people whose highest goal was to exercise government power over others. You may disagree that her moral code can be derived from “reason” (as she maintained) as opposed to God or some other transcendent source. But that is a very different issue than suggesting—first jokingly, then in earnest—that Arlen Specter is a Randian hero.
My post had nothing to do with the particular liberal content of Specter’s beliefs; it had to do with the way he opportunistically switches sides. So your point, that Specter’s substantive beliefs are in contradiction with Randianism, is irrelevant to my point. I wasn’t asking what is the Randian basis for disapproving of Specter’s political positions; I was asking what is the Randian basis for disapproving of his selfish opportunism.
- end of initial entry -
Alan Roebuck writes:
Regarding your latest post on Randianism: I observed long ago that Rand believed that all men, in the absence of malign influences such as religion, tribal custom, inadequate parenting, mental deficiencies, and so on, would spontaneously come to agree with her moral and philosophical system. This is because she believed that her precepts are basically nothing more than perceiving and articulating reality, and that all men are capable of perceiving reality if no malign influence prevents them.
In other words, Rand believed that “all men are born free [of false beliefs], but everywhere they are in chains.”
Great minds think alike.
Alan Roebuck replies:
So if we disagree, then at least one of us isn’t a great mind! :)
Alan points out that
Rand believed that all men, in the absence of malign influences such as religion, tribal custom, inadequate parenting, mental deficiencies, and so on, would spontaneously come to agree with her moral and philosophical system. This is because she believed that her precepts are basically nothing more than perceiving and articulating reality, and that all men are capable of perceiving reality if no malign influence prevents them.
Rand is saying that if there were no moral errors there would be no moral errors. Can’t argue with that! But it ain’t gonna happen, because everyone thinks that his own precepts are “nothing more than perceiving and articulating reality,” yet no one agrees with every precept of any of his neighbours. So we find ourselves always more or less in conflict with each other; and thus there will unfortunately never come a time, short of the eschaton, when moral error and malign influences are absent from history. Their pervasive operations among human beings, noticed at least since humans began to write, is the reason there are moral codes and philosophies in the first place. The pervasiveness of error and wickedness is the reason for laws, and moral codes, customs and traditions, and moral teaching. And the differential success of different human beings in navigating the moral landscape entails that some human beings will do better than others, and so amass more influence over society than others; so that there will be a hierarchy, willy nilly, and a religiously founded moral code (“irreligious moral law” is an oxymoron, for a moral law that is not given by transcendent sublime power is not given at all). The authoritative men, who have had the greatest moral success, are then ever the authors and upholders of the moral tradition, enforcers of its customs, and teachers of its logic. But even they, the moral exemplars, will fail to meet the moral standards of virtue they have themselves discerned. So must we ever ask, quis custodiet ipsos custodes? (Who will protect us against the protectors?)
If men were morally perfect, libertarianism would have a shot at working.
James R. writes:
“Am I whacky, or is there something to what I’m saying? You be the judge.”
Can’t it be both, boss? I know it is with myself.
That’s because the two alternative formulations I presented failed to be mutually exclusive. To avoid possible overlap, I should have said, “Is my idea whacky, or is there something to it?” But that wouldn’t have been as punchy.
Aaron S. writes:
Steve W. seems not to understand the philosophical force of your criticism. His rejoinder involves little more than saying, “Rand didn’t advocate dishonesty.” Here’s something interesting. You wrote:
What is exceedingly odd about the Randian ethical system, but which to my knowledge has rarely been pointed out, is that it assumes that the man who lives solely for himself and not for others will be ethical in the ordinary sense: he won’t steal, he won’t give false witness, etc. But what is the source of such precepts? Randian man claims not to take his ethical values from other people, nor from religious guidance, nor, indeed, from any source outside his own ego. Therefore the moral imperative not to steal, not to murder, not to desire one’s neighbor’s possessions, not to commit adultery with one’s neighbor’s wife, can come from nowhere but from within the Randian man’s own self. To be ethical in the ordinary sense, Randian man needs no authority external to or higher than his own will. But is it true that ordinary ethical behavior comes solely from within one’s selfish, chosen values?
This is essentially the conceit behind Kantian ethics as well, though Kant would argue that chosen values are not at issue. Instead, free choice itself is ultimately a matter of autonomy, which is possible only with the working of a universal concept. That is, my choice is “free” only if I choose in light of a standard not grounded in any particular given end, concrete goal, or desire. This is a nifty, if ultimately unconvincing, move.
It is pertinent here because my impression is that Rand herself had a rather negative view of Kant. What really sticks in the Objectivist craw is Kant’s insistence that this universal criterion (the categorical imperative) would rule out any world, natural system, etc. where reasoning beings made it a matter of principle NOT to help each other. in other words, for Kant, reason commands altruism, even if vaguely and “imperfectly”; perfect selfishness is in some sense irrational.
Rand and her followers will insist, in reply, that reason involves nothing other than planning for one’s own desires or personal dictates, and that there is something arbitrary about Kant’s insistence that conceptual universality entails altruism. This criticism of Kant goes back at least as far as the Marquis de Sade. All well and good, but then consider your question about Specter in this light. It’s still the case that Randians have no good answer as to WHY I should keep my agreements, avoid dishonesty, graft, etc. (People like Sade or Nietzsche at least saw this when they rejected Kantian universalism). If it is true that there is something arbitrary about the connection of universality and altruism, then how is it less arbitrary to connect perfect selfishness and honorable behavior? Choosing between Kant and Rand on these questions, or indeed between Kant and Locke, or Rousseau and Hobbes, seems to come down to little more than the temperament of the chooser, but this is what happens when you jettison the notion that the basis of ethics is a real created order.
Steve W. writes:
You originally suggested that Specter was a “Randian hero,” which is a patently absurd proposition. Then you engaged in extended intellectual effort to make this ridiculous position seem credible. Can you show me an actual Randian hero (i.e., a character, fictional or real, whom Rand considered heroic) who “opportunistically switches sides” in the manner of Arlen Specter? Howard Roark, whom you mentioned, certainly did not do this. Your original post was not a “philosophical” critique of Rand’s theories. I have not engaged in any such debate with you, nor do I have any interest in doing so. My email simply pointed out the obvious insufficiency of your original suggestion, which had nothing to do with the content of your subsequent posts.
Steve, in all seriousness, don’t you have a sense of humor? I’ve already said that there was an element of humor in what I said; I said my “Randian hero” remark was meant “at least half” humorously. Further, when you challenged me on the comment, I unfolded the serious thought which underlay my joke. And that thought was: what is there in Randianism which would tell a person not to behave in a purely selfish, opportunistic way?
To reply to your other point, of course no Randian heroes in Rand’s novels behave the way Specter behaves. But my argument, which you have entirely missed, is that there is no basis in the Randian philosophy for Randian men not to be immoral, any more than there is any basis in Rousseauian philosophy for Rousseau’s Noble Savage to be noble.
And therefore there is both an element of humor and an element of truth in saying that a perfectly and consistently self-centered individual like Specter, a man who does everything he does only for himself, and who is absolutely straightforward and unembarrassed about his selfishness, is a “Randian hero.”
Steve W. writes:
Certainly, I have a sense of humor, Larry. I’m afraid you just don’t like being challenged. I pointed out an unfounded comment you made, and rather than admit your error, you turned it into a lengthy philosophical exegesis on Rand, without addressing my only point (that Specter is the antithesis of a Randian hero). I didn’t “entirely miss” your larger argument, because I have no interest in engaging in that debate. If the upshot of your argument is that Specter is a “Randian hero” then you either are defining the term in your own way or your argument is fallacious. After all of this, are you now agreeing with my one and only point? If so, great; if not, so be it.
You challenged me; your challenge was perfectly legitimate; I even said that I welcomed your challenge because it gave me the opportunity to explain my thought further; and then I proceeded to lay out my thought in full. And what is your response to all this? Because you didn’t get the answer from me you wanted, you resort to the standard anti-Auster lie that I don’t like to be challenged, that I refuse to reply to criticism.
Shame on you.
Jed B. writes:
I am writing to comment on yesterday’s posting, “Can it be said that Arlen Specter is a Randian?” I had decided to email you yesterday, then changed my mind. But now, I have just finished a phone conversation with my brother (another daily reader and admirer of VFR) and he augmented and cemented several aspects of my view on this matter. We both were surprised with the way you began your defense/explanation, in that it seemed you were paving the way for a weak cop-out. Speaking for myself, I rather agreed with the commenter that Specter might be compared to a Rand villain, but certainly not one of her heroes. You then proceeded to craft a masterful explanation and to demonstrate the veracity of your claim with a skill which is one of the hallmarks of VFR as well as one of our main reasons for reading. I thought lowly of you for a moment in time as I began to read your response. I feel I owe you an apology, and I would like you know that it is a pleasure to watch you work.
Thank you very much. This is a compliment I value highly, because it deals with the heart of something I regularly do as a writer. Which is, I go out on a limb, making a statement that on the face of it sounds extreme or whacky or perverse, but in fact there’s more to what I’m saying than is initially apparent. Then when a reader understandably takes me to task for my seemingly ridiculous statement, as Steve W. did in this case, that gives me the opportunity to lead the discussion into a different perspective in which what had seemed extreme or nuts is shown to make sense.
Unfortunately in this case, Steve W. never got it. So I appreciate it very much that you did.
Also, it’s not that I deliberately make extreme-sounding statements to fool or shock people or anything; the extreme-sounding statements occur to me naturally and intuitively, as any other new thought does as part of the organic process of writing.
Which is obviously not to say that my ideas always work out. As Nicholas Stix said in a blog entry about me, hitters who swing for the fences have high strike-out percentages. Which is why I’m often not sure of myself and why I take criticism seriously. I’m often not sure my position works until I’ve responded to the criticism.
Roger Donway writes:
I would just add five points to the Rand-Specter discussion.
(1) Rand’s philosophy is not based on achieving one’s desires. That is hedonism, and Rand distinguished egoism from hedonism in “The Objectivist Ethics” (1961).
(2) Rand attempted to state a moral philosophy that comprised a set of values that she thought could be derived from the objective requirements of optimizing a human being’s chances of survival. From the standpoint of the individual, those values are as much an external, face-it, nothing-you-can-do-about-it given as the requirements for building a skyscraper or getting in Heaven.
(3) Rand believed that, in light of the conceptual nature of human knowledge, men can discover the actions that will enable them to achieve their values only by learning the general types of action that will in principle tend to produce the type of values that tend to promote the lives of humans. These general types of actions are, in Rand’s philosophy, called virtues, and most them are (as you say) the customary virtues: rationality, honesty, justice, integrity, independence, and so forth. But ultimately, Rand believed that all virtues are variations of the virtue of rationality—the attempt to understand one’s situation and the actions required to deal with it if one is to survive.
(4) So what is wrong with opportunism? Because man’s means of knowledge is conceptual, he can evaluate actions only by asking whether they instantiate the types of actions that tend to optimize a man’s chances of survival—that is, whether they instantiate the virtues. When I was studying philosophy in college, we had a saying: “Pragmatism doesn’t work.” And that is a profound truth. Pragmatism—meaning the attempt to project and evaluate the effects of individual concrete actions, apart from general principles (the virtues)—is simply something that man is not capable of doing. As a result, the attempt to live by pragmatism or opportunism leaves an individual driving blind. He cannot know with any confidence what the full results of his actions will be on his long-range, overall chances of survival.
(5) As for the idea that Rand believed all men would, absent malign influence, adopt her philosophy: that is not true. She did believe that all normal men—absent truly horrific, concentration-camp conditions—retained the ability to exercise the virtue of rationality (or what she called the effort of mental focus). But she certainly recognized that the choice to exercise focus is always volitional, and she expected that many people would shrink from the effort to understand their situation simply because they feared that it might lead them to conclusions they did not want to face.
Alan Roebuck writes:
I wanted to respond to Roger Donway’s support of Rand, and to vindicate the claim I made in my earlier comment. In the process I also vindicate, or at least support, your position.
Mr. Auster says:
[Rand’s ethical system] assumes that the man who lives solely for himself and not for others will be ethical in the ordinary sense … But what is the source of such precepts? Randian man claims not to take his ethical values from other people, nor from religious guidance, nor, indeed, from any source outside his own ego. Therefore the moral imperative not to steal, not to murder, not to desire one’s neighbor’s possessions, not to commit adultery with one’s neighbor’s wife, can come from nowhere but from within the Randian man’s own self.
Arguing against that view of Rand, Roger Donway says:
Rand attempted to state a moral philosophy that … she thought could be derived from the objective requirements of optimizing a human being’s chances of survival. From the standpoint of the individual, those values are as much an external, face-it, nothing-you-can-do-about-it given as the requirements for building a skyscraper or getting in Heaven.
I would paraphrase Donway thus:
[Moral] actions are, in Rand’s philosophy, called virtues, and most of them are (as you say) the customary virtues: rationality, honesty, justice, integrity, independence, and so forth…. Rand believed that all virtues are variations of the virtue of rationality—the attempt to understand one’s situation and the actions required to deal with it if one is to survive. [LA replies: Hey, I just realized that just as Darwin makes physical survival the test and origin of all good, so does Rand.]
For Rand, morality is ultimately about an individual optimizing his chances for survival. These rules are “external,” which means they are objective, i.e., the same for everyone, and they can be known by man exercising his rational faculties.
If Rand’s view is correct, then morality is similar to science in that it is based on an objective, rationally knowable reality that is external to the individual. But observe: we expect that all men who are capable of thinking clearly about the underlying scientific concepts will agree with accepted scientific knowledge. After all, if they perform the same experiments as those which validated the theory, they will obtain identical or similar results. (If we have no confidence that they would obtain similar results then we would not declare the theory to have been validated).
Therefore, if morality is as Donaway says Rand says is it, then we would expect that all men who are intellectually and morally fit would agree with Rand’s moral principles. (Whether they have the willpower or the desire to do right is another question.) And thus my original comment in this thread,
“Rand believed that all men, in the absence of malign influences … would spontaneously come to agree with her moral and philosophical system,”
But of course morality does not work that way. Real morality always proceeds from a legitimate authority; otherwise it is not imperative that we obey. And normal people feel a “force,” (called by the philosophers “incumbency”) of morality: it’s something we must do, on pain of some sort of punishment.
Rand is correct that morality is objective, that is, not just something we make up. But she is wrong to think it can be derived by starting with an impersonal axiomatic imperative that individuals should survive, or even that they should flourish, coupled with the basic objective facts of reality. If morality has no personal authority behind it (and that person is ultimately God), then it does not command assent, and it becomes useless as an ordering force for society.
And so Auster also stands vindicated. In practice, the Randian, by denying the traditional sources of morality, can only define morality as “what seems best to me.” After all, even grossly immoral people generally have a high view of themselves, and they often rationalize their dastardly deeds as serving some legitimate good.
Steve W. writes:
I didn’t intend to engage in a debate about Rand’s philosophy, so I don’t expect this to be published. Your choice.
However, you made the following statements in your post yesterday, which I didn’t focus on properly:
Randian man claims not to take his ethical values from other people, nor from religious guidance, nor, indeed, from any source outside his own ego. Therefore the moral imperative not to steal, not to murder, not to desire one’s neighbor’s possessions, not to commit adultery with one’s neighbor’s wife, can come from nowhere but from within the Randian man’s own self. To be ethical in the ordinary sense, Randian man needs no authority external to or higher than his own will.
This is not correct. Rand’s ethical theory is premised on the reality of man’s existence. She starts not from the self, but from the external world, which imposes certain objective demands on man. She then shows how man responds to this external world to ensure his survival and success. These are the givens, the “self-evident” truths of her philosophy. She then shows how a proper understanding of human existence leads to an individualist/capitalistic theory of ethics and politics. She most emphatically does not claim that morality comes from man’s own ego. You are confusing the content of her morality with her metaphysical/epistemological theory of morality. She lays this out in Atlas Shrugged, and more explicitly in the essays found in The Virtue of Selfishness. In Rand’s view, the “authority” behind her moral code is reality itself (as understood and interpreted through reason). She does not claim that morality comes from within each person. This sounds like more of a Nietzschean notion. Of course, as with any moral code, actual human beings are free to reject/violate it.
You may disagree with Rand philosophically, but your characterization of her ethical theory is wrong. Perhaps this is why you believe there is “something” to the notion that Arlen Specter is a Randian hero. Clearly, he is not.
This gets closer to a good answer to my original query. I’m not yet persuaded, but I’ll keep thinking about it.
Roger Donway writes:
I would like to add two further points to the Rand discussion.
Posted by Lawrence Auster at July 21, 2010 06:21 PM | Send
1. In response to your remark: “Just as Darwin makes physical survival the test and origin of all good, so does Rand.” Actually Darwin is a big problem for Rand. At the beginning of “The Objectivist Ethics,” she reasons (in effect): Look at sub-human organisms (plants and animals). Their actions are automatically integrated around the goal of survival. But man lacks such an automatic integration of actions. That is why he needs a code of morality and that is why survival is its goal.” But of course when we actually examine the world of sub-human organisms, we find that all their actions are not integrated around the goal of the individual organism’s survival. The survival of the organism’s family members or offspring sometimes take precedent.
2. In response to Alan Roebuck’s remark: “We would expect that all men who are intellectually and morally fit would agree with Rand’s moral principles. (Whether they have the willpower or the desire to do right is another question.) And thus my original comment in this thread: ‘Rand believed that all men, in the absence of malign influences … would spontaneously come to agree with her moral and philosophical system.’” The problem is that when one comes to the facts of morality, Roebuck’s distinction between agreeing with moral principles and the desire to do the right thing, slips away. One’s desire not to do the right thing can lead one to evade the truth of general moral principles as well as their application. Indeed, we see that even when dealing with principles more distant from morality, such as principles of psychology, sociology, economics, and even biology.