Ayn Rand (1905-1982) was an American philosopher who coined the word objectivism for her philosophical ideas. Her novel Fountainhead was made into a film in 1949 with Gary Cooper in the lead role. Her subsequent book, Atlas Shrugged, fully defined what would become the four tenets of objectivism: reality, reason (rationalism), self-interest (independence) and Laissez-faire capitalism.
She was born in St. Petersburg, Russia in a middle class family. Her father owned a pharmacy which was taken over by the Bolshevik revolutionary groups and the family, who had enjoyed a decent independent living thus far, had to move in with their relatives and share a small cramped apartment. All high achiever and the brightest people in society were dragged down to the level of lower middle class, there was no hope of progress or success, life was flattened for everyone and the future looked bleak. The government controlled everything.
Even after arriving in America in 1926 she had to struggle a lot to achieve worldly success and, in spite of being a highly intelligent woman and having ambitions to become a writer, she did small unskilled and semi-skilled jobs, including waiting on tables, in various establishments for several years. The thought that she should share the hard earned rewards of her success, if at all she achieved any worldly success, with others who were not being responsible and productive, and some perhaps downright criminals, was abhorrent to her, and it would be to anyone in her situation.
Against this backdrop she developed a philosophy that promoted freedom from government control and taxes, moral value of only pursuing personal happiness, doing only what is rational rather than what our emotions dictate us to do. The basic tenets of her objectivist philosophy are:
- One’s own happiness is the moral purpose of one’s life.
- Man exists for his own sake
- If someone is poor it’s their fault mostly, exception being a victim of misfortunes.
- Reason is the only absolute, we should only do what is rational and not what our emotions or scriptures tell us, it’s immoral to be guided by one’s emotions. One shouldn’t act because one felt like it. Feelings are not guides to reality, they are consequences of thoughts and actions.
- God doesn’t exist, religion and faith can be dangerous. Religion is a rudimentary form of thinking that stops people from thinking.
- Everything should be privatised, government should hold no property apart from the building they operate from, akin to right wing libertarianism.
- Governments should not have too much power – they should take care of only the military, police, courts, not much else, governments should not collect taxes, welfare state is an insult to people.
- Altruism is sickness of mind. Happiness doesn’t come from making others happy – one shouldn’t feel obliged to help others, because that is a bondage. Charity should not be a duty, helping others is okay but only if there is accidental misfortune or mutual contract.
- Value of self-esteem – respect your own mind and possibilities of being, be independent. Don’t be coercive to any one, and respect others rights to freedom and a good life.
Objectivist philosophy has seen a revival in recent years in the Western world, perhaps a response to rapid globalisation for which people and the societies were not ready. We have seen things such as Brexit, Europe sealing off its border to non-Europeans, rise of Donald Trump and trade tariffs on international business, rise of right wing thinking and more recently India wanting to be self-reliant (independent) in every possible way.
The championing of selfishness and callousness to the unfortunate finds echoes in our contemporary capitalist world, silicon valley bosses find her philosophy quite attractive, and helpful in justifying their greed. The logic for some of these social changes are quite strong but I have chosen not to dwell on them here.
Perhaps Ayn Rand is right that the individual should not be subjugated to the group and made to sacrifice for the common good to such an extent that they can’t even see themselves as individuals, only as members of a group. She described this phenomenon as collectivism.
I came across Ayn Rand’s philosophy in my late 20s but chose to ignore her ideas thinking they were harmless but looking back I think it was important that society understood such ideas and refuted them, ignoring them will not make them go away, like radicalisation. Her ideas can cause enormous damage to individuals’ lives and countries as a whole if not understood in the right perspective. Her ideas, although helping people achieve worldly success, are stopping them from leading a happy, fulfilled, deeply connected and contented life. Such ideas are capable of destroying stable relationships and any chances of people connecting with their higher divine selves.
My guess is Ayn Rand and her followers haven’t lived in poor third world countries where people don’t pay taxes, governments have no control, all the money and power is in private hands, every development is funded by private industry, inequality is stark and massive, governments have no money for infrastructure development, citizens are in the grips of feudalism etc. Exactly what objectivism is striving to achieve. In such countries altruism and universal brotherhood are a saving grace for people living in the lower strata of society. If one lives in such societies and, like Ayn Rand, is opposed to even charity and altruism, the only option left would be to let people quietly die out of hunger or let them be exploited by thugs who have money.
Recent corona pandemic has laid bare the ugliness in these societies – where governments have no money to even provide two square meals to its people who are thrown off work, if lives are being saved it’s through charity and altruism.
Lockdown has proved that the governments that were not collecting taxes were ill prepared to help the unfortunate, people would have died in the absence of charity contribution from the wealthy. One should either believe in government collecting taxes or altruism of the rich, if one doesn’t, what would be their model for survival of human race. I am imagining Ayn Rand will say – make every human being productive and that also, following her philosophy, without coercion. It’s not easy to achieve that. We know that reward-punishment system is already in place in our society and it’s not enough for people to get motivated for various reasons.
The recent corona pandemic has been a wake-up call for the Indian government who is now putting forward proposals to increase taxes and create a mini-welfare sate by giving away no interest loans liberally to poor people to start businesses.
It doesn’t matter which model of philosophy, which society, which political system, which moral values or societal mores, and which era of human history we are talking about – the final dictum remains the same – it all boils down to just one thing – just one insight:
It’s the rich who are paying for the poor, employed paying for unemployed, young paying for the old and children, healthy paying for sick, responsible citizens paying for the irresponsible, hardworking people paying for the lazy ones, bright minds paying for imbeciles, sane people paying for the insane, law abiding citizens paying for the criminals and prisoners, fortunates paying for the unfortunate etc. Whether this happens under coercion or voluntarily, whether through governments collecting taxes and creating welfare state (as in the Western world) or through altruism of rich people in society.
Ayn Rand says that we shouldn’t help those who have brought unhappiness or problems upon themselves as a result of their irresponsible behaviour, and should be willing to help only those who have become victims to misfortune or calamity. Being a psychiatrist I know for certain that this distinction is not that easy to make . Mahatma Gandhi used to say, “all those who suffer from physical illnesses should be held responsible for leading an unhealthy lifestyle and for their suffering; and those we have put in jails and correction facilities deserve our love and affection and care which was denied to them as children.”
Life seems unfair if we look at the cross section of our lives at any given point in time, but we start seeing fairness if we take a longitudinal view of human life. Selfishness and altruism are two pieces of a jigsaw puzzle and are not mutually exclusive – they play different roles at different times on one’s life.
Kant’s Realism and idealism
Ayn Rand, in one of her television interviews, described Kant as the real villain of our age. I felt sad listening to that, but I understood why she was saying that. Like most scientists, she wanted to stick with empirical data and how a rational mind would interpret them rather than creating ideas about the reality from one’s subjective experiences.
Kant divided human experience into two broad categories – noumenal and phenomenal, or realism versus idealism. The terminologies and their interpretations by various philosophers can be confusing, but to put is simply.
Transcendental realism – is the view that regards space and time including objects in the world as real and they exist independent of our sensibility.
Transcendental idealism as the doctrine that all cognition through the senses and experience is nothing but sheer illusion, and there is truth only in the ideas of pure understanding and reason. Kant typically distinguishes two varieties of transcendental idealism: dogmatic idealism, which claims that objects in space do not exist, and problematic idealism, which claims that objects in space may exist, but we cannot know whether they do.
Kant’s view of transcendental idealism is very similar to the concept of Maya in ancient Indian philosophy which suggests that this world is just a “Maya,” or illusion, and we should view it as a dream with no real consequences for our soul.
A friend once questioned me about this hard to believe Indian thought that this world is not real, and the reality can’t be perceived through the five senses and our rational interpretation. He asked – does that mean my flesh and bones are not real or my house is not real. My answer to that was – yes they are all real matter, but calling them flesh, bones and house can be a mental construct of our waking consciousness. And when a shift in consciousness occurs as a result of being in deep samadhi or meditation one is transported out of their normal consciousness into a different level, and from that standpoint they are felt as blobs of energy and vibrations constantly in flux – like an illusion.
Perhaps seeing real things as unreal needs some explanation – when people say dreams are unreal – it does not mean that the fact you dreamt was unreal, or the chemicals and thoughts involved in producing the dream visions were unreal, the racing of your heart when you had a horrible dream was unreal. In the same way when an Indian yogi says this world is unreal, just a dream, he is not denying the existence of the physical structure, but the way we look at it, and the narrative we hold is unreal. It’s like when putting thing under a microscope makes the gross thing disappear – in the same way with divine eye the normal waking spectacle disappears, which was anyway not accurate due to the gap between things as they are and as we perceive them. With dreaming everything about them is real except for the story or the narrative we hold at the time, and we can’t know that the narrative is not true for as long as well are in the dream. In the same way when we achieve higher consciousness – the spectacle of this world appears fragmented and in a flux – hence yogis say that the mental image that we are holding in our minds eyes under normal waking consciousness is Maya, and illusion.
Imagine for a moment that your eyes were replaced with the lenses of an electron microscope – this world will disappear and you might say that the world I was familiar with was “the reality as it appeared to my eyes” and this is the “real world.”
The electron microscope leads to deconstruction of our mental constructs eg the concept of beauty and ugliness may get fudged.
Using another example, the transcendental realism is like seeing this world as a snake and transcendental idealism is seeing it is a piece of rope, the snake has become unreal the moment we see it as a rope, although the physical structure of the rope is very much there.
You can’t have both these notions at the same time. The moment you perceive the thing as a rope the perception of it being a snake disappears, it becomes unreal – both can’t coexist.
Using the microscopic eye the distinction between a human being or an animal or plant or rock disappears – all you sees is concentrated blobs of particles/energy scattered around unevenly and connected with each other in an inseparable way.
The perception of a snake was maya/illusion, and by saying that we did not mean that something was not there but the narrative we were holding about it was an illusion.
Just as the existence of a dream and it’s biochemical composition in the brain was a reality but not the content of it, the presence of an emotion or thought are reality but not their content or narrative, that is what Indian philosophy says and Kant’s philosophy is consistent with it.
One might say using microscopic eye is an escape from our working reality and madness, and you won’t want to hold on to that reality for ever. But the reality is that – this working level of consciousness comes with eventual unhappiness (this is why Buddha said life is suffering) and the microscopic vision comes with unending joy – what would you choose. Some still choose the working reality as the microscopic vision is too much for them to bear and alien as well, but the majority get motivated to engage in pursuits to make the microscope vision last longer and longer. A single microscopic vision changes their life completely. We have come across several case studies where a single LSD or magic mushroom trip was able to cure people of their PTSD, depression and suicidal thoughts. I must point out here one shouldn’t attempt that until further scientific research has proved such treatments safe.
Ayn Rand has insisted that one should only be guided by rational thinking. Carl Gustav Jung has, in his book – Modern Man in Search of a Soul, said the tragedy of the modern Western man is that the rational side of his mind is too developed and he is cut off from his instinctual side. People in the Western world don’t live by their instincts, that is why they are less content, less spiritual and less emotionally agile, as it requires being connected to the totality of our emotions and the whole of our being. He felt that from a spiritual point of view tribal people and those in the Eastern world were better connected with their Being.
Jung has described two different types of thinking:
- The directed, logical and rational – the thinking of our conscious mind.
- The spontaneous, imaginative, largely non-verbal and non-logical processes, largely of the unconscious mind, which can be said to form the raw material for all forms of creative activity.
In view of this wanting to live only by rational thought will make us stifle our creativity, spirituality and our transcendental self. Having said that, losing our foothold on the rational objective facts will also be dangerous, as we will be burning witches at the stake.
We should therefore stay grounded in the rational thought but venture out into our dreams, fantasies, instincts etc to experience wholeness and integration, and also sometimes be willing to be guided by them.
Coming back to the rationality in the financial world, there is no rational formula to decide the salary of people. Free market can decide earnings of a footballer or a film star but it would be difficult for the free market to decide the salary of a NASA scientist who can tells us if we can live on the Mars, a human biologist who can find a cure for corona or a law maker. At the moment these best minds are being paid much less than the property agents and online grocers. Where is the rational formula to apportion value to their work and who will pay them if free market is indifferent to that need. How to decide whether a nurse should get paid more than a primary school teacher. A free market will lead to a very lopsided growth of the society.
The Philosophy behind free market economy is that the society decides what is best, not the governments. But how many of us understand the complexities of the human body, our financial institutions or artificial intelligence to make rational decisions about our health care, finances and IT systems, it has to be left to a panel of experts, and who should organise such experts. Decision makers will not knock on each and every door to seek public option. The public will be appointing their representatives to make those decisions after studying the arguments for and against such decision, and our members of parliament (government) are those people, and public and philosophers should trust them, and not get paranoid about them.
Ayn Rand vilified government regulations because they hinder freedom. In her collection of 1984 essay on Virtue of Selfishness – there is no compromise between freedom and government controls.
One feels that after adopting Laissez-faire capitalism one will become free of government coercion and live happily ever after. Sadly they haven’t realised that they will be working under big corporate giants who are capable of exerting, and they are already exerting, greater coercion. People all across the world, irrespective of which country they live in, feel more coerced when working in private sector rather than the public sector. It’s a different matter that financial rewards are greater in the private sector. The conclusion is that there is going to be some control and coercion, if you don’t like government coercion, you will have coercion of the private company bosses, which may be worse. Of course total government control as seen with some totalitarian regimes will not be in the best interest of an average citizen and should be opposed. At the same time creating a free society and leaving vulnerable people at the mercy of rich won’t be a good idea.
I was recently watching a television interview with Milton Friedman, a nobel prize winning US economist and a libertarian. Picking up just one example from that interview, he said the US government should get rid of the FDA, let the responsibility of safety of drugs be with the pharmaceuticals and let them face the law suits if something goes wrong – they will become more responsible and the society will do the same job anyway if the FDA was not there. I am thinking about how much pressure and coercion the employees of the Pharma industry will have to go through. Each pharmaceutical company will have to create a mini FDA within their own organisation, and will the truth come out in time if the survival of the company was at stake. We need someone who doesn’t have their vested interests in the decisions making process here.
The virtue of selfishness
Buddha left his wife and his one-year-old son to pursue his own happiness, was he not pursuing the virtue of selfishness as taught by Ayn Rand. The flight attendants, in case of an emergency, tell us you must first wear your own oxygen mask and then help your child, is it not a lesson along similar lines? You can’t help others if you are unable to help yourself. If your pot is empty you can’t pour anything into someone else’s pot. Without the Buddha leaving his house and attaining enlightenment, his son would not have reached the first stage of enlightenment i.e. Nibbana, and without first putting on your own oxygen mask you won’t be able help your child.
Ayn Rand’s philosophy appeals to young impressionable minds because they have yet to fill the pots of their life, asking them to worry about someone else’s pot will not make any sense to them. But once you have achieved success in your life, achieving more success does’t give you the same level thrill or joy, that’s what midlife crisis is about.
The answers to our issues at that stage of our life are not material but spiritual. We see many super-rich shrewd businessmen become philanthropists, but hardly see any philanthropist becoming a shrewd businessman.
Why billionaires are not leaving behind their money entirely to their family, what satisfaction do they get. In their financial wisdom, which is perhaps far greater than that of Ayn Rand, they choose to return part of it back to the society.
Perhaps to earn money they did follow Ayn Rand’s philosophy of virtues of selfishness – making no concession to their customers, be it Bill Gates and Warren Buffet in America, Alibaba boss Jack Ma in China and Ambanis in India, but after achieving their life goals there was a change of mind – that of helping the society without any selfish motive. Very rarely we find someone who had believed strongly in altruism becomes a shrewd businessman. Perhaps this gives us an indication of which direction ones growth in life takes place. Altruism is the next step one needs to take after one has followed Ayn Rand’s philosophy, not before it.
Rand didn’t always live by her own philosophy, she collected social security payments and medicare later in her life, something she was opposed to most of her life, justifying her action by saying it was a restitution for paying taxes earlier in life. As if one wrong can justify another. Someone who believes in non-violence shouldn’t become violent in response to violence, or a truthful person shouldn’t justify telling a lie on the grounds that he was also lied to.
To conclude, we do need Ayn Rand philosophy and it is very appropriate that it is being taught to an A level student of political science in colleges and universities in modern times.
Studying Ayn Rand will help us understand human nature, also altruism and to know the difference between healthy and unhealthy altruism. These courses will also provide a forum where young impressionable minds will get the opportunity to reflect on her ideas and challenge them in a rational way, and be challenged by her ideas. Unless someone else challenges our ideas we won’t be able to fine-tune our thoughts about any theory or philosophy, which is needed before we adopt them.
© Kishore Chandiramani, Consultant Psychiatrist
Emotions Clinic, Education and Training Centre, England
Image reference: https://web.cvent.com/event/61aae92e-9db8-4107-90fc-792776bdccdc/summary