Response to Cummins on Rand at PBS

When we launched this blog, I promised that one of its functions would be to combat misrepresentations of Ayn Rand’s ideas when they appeared in noteworthy places in the media. Our first opportunity to do this has come up just today.

Writing at PBS, respected research psychologist Denise Cummins expresses her fascination with the growing popularity of Rand’s ideas among young people. (Incidentally, I’ve probably met Dr. Cummins before, since I completed my Ph.D. at the University of Illinois, where her husband Robert used to be the chair of the department.)

Cummins directly implies that if young people continue to take Rand’s ideas seriously, the survival of the species might be threatened. If that were true, it would surely be cause for young people to second guess their interest in Rand. But Cummins clearly misrepresents Rand’s ideas, and in a way that suggests her familiarity with Rand derives primarily from what she’s found on the Internet, not from reading any or many of Rand’s actual texts.

In the following passage, Cummins describes what she takes to be Rand’s social philosophy:

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. These “prosocial tendencies” were problematic for Rand, because such behavior obviously mitigates against “natural” self-interest and therefore should not exist. She resolved this contradiction by claiming that humans are born as tabula rasa, a blank slate, (as many of her time believed) and prosocial tendencies, particularly altruism, are “diseases” imposed on us by society, insidious lies that cause us to betray biological reality.

Cummins goes on to suggest (sometimes plausibly, sometimes not) that failure to cooperate is detrimental to human life. But in assuming that Rand is somehow anti-cooperation, Cummins ignores many of Rand’s key ideas and texts, and proceeds to criticize a mere caricature of Objectivism.

I could point to some of these texts, but there’s now a handy resource available on just this question, chapter 7 of the Wiley-Blackwell Companion to Ayn Rand, Darryl Wright’s “‘A Human Society’: Rand’s Social Philosophy.” Here is a relevant selection from the chapter, which characterizes the nature of the cooperation by the heroes of Atlas Shrugged:

The heroes’ lives are focused on achievement—they are thinkers, producers, creators. They dedicate themselves to “remaking the earth in the image of [their] values” (Atlas 1020). Their fundamental means of dealing with one another is through trade: “payment, not expropriation.” And though they are independent, they value each other profoundly. The trade they seek with one another is neither exclusively nor most importantly material, but spiritual: the experience of living together “in a rational world,” “bring[ing] our real work out of hiding,” and “trad[ing] . . . achievements.” […] They are egoists. […]. But they are also profoundly social; they are anything but the predatory lone wolves of standard conceptions of egoism.

Rand denies that man is a “social being” in the sense frequently given to this term: she denies that man’s ideas and values are formed fundamentally by society rather than by his own individual choices, and she denies that human achievements are irreducibly collective. But she considers certain kinds of social relationships and societies—ones not based on the foregoing premises but on a correct conception of man’s nature, including a recognition of human volition—to be a deep human need: “A social environment is most conducive to [man’s] successful survival—but only on certain conditions” (“The Nature of Government” VOS 125/CUI 378). Similarly: “Man gains enormous values from dealing with other men; living in a human society is his proper way of life—but only on certain conditions” (“A Nation’s Unity” ARL 2(2) 127). The “certain conditions” will be explored below. But the needs invoked in these passages are what the philosopher Hugh Akston has in mind when, immediately after the above paragraph from Galt, he comments that “man is a social being, but not in the way the looters preach” (Atlas 747). Man needs society, and benefits from it, “if it is a human society” (“The Objectivist Ethics” VOS 35).

The rest of the chapter is dedicated to substantiating and fleshing out these claims. I recommend it to Dr. Cummins if she is interested in acquiring an accurate understanding of Rand’s philosophy—one that would put her in a position to understand and evaluate the appeal Rand holds to her students. I’m worried that she has not actually read Atlas Shrugged, even though she bases her account of Rand’s ideas on a summary of the novel’s events. No one who has read the book would describe John Galt as a “ruthless captain of industry.” Leave aside “ruthless captain”: he is not even a lieutenant of industry. I’ll try not to spoil the plot, but readers should know he is about as far from that as possible.

Cummins also characterizes Rand’s economic theory in a way that makes it indistinguishable from generic classical economics:

It promises a better world if people are simply allowed to pursue their own self-interest without regard to the impact of their actions on others. After all, others are simply pursuing their own self-interest as well.

Modern economic theory is based on exactly these principles. A rational agent is defined as an individual who is self-interested. A market is a collection of such rational agents, each of whom is also self-interested.

It’s a common calumny against Rand to regard her as maintaining some form of psychological egoism, i.e. the idea that all human beings instinctively pursue their self-interest (or their best estimate of it). But again, no one who has read Atlas Shrugged carefully could walk away with this interpretation. Rand clearly presents many of her characters as motivated not by love of life but at best by fear of death, or at worst by hatred of life itself. Rand thought too many people actively wanted self-destruction. Her egoism is a form of ethical egoism, not of psychological egoism: as an advocate of robust free will, she maintained that the pursuit of the values that constitute one’s self-interest is a choice.

For more on the difference between these very different egoisms, I again recommend the Blackwell Companion: Gregory Salmieri handily explains the incompatibility of the two views in Rand’s eyes in chapter 6, “Egoism and Altruism” (pp. 131-133), and Onkar Ghate devotes an entire chapter to explaining the meaning and implications of Rand’s view of free will in chapter 5, “A Being of Self-Made Soul.”

Cummins goes on to point to what she regards as the detrimental consequences of taking Rand’s ideas seriously. Since it’s not clear that she is summarizing Rand’s actual ideas from the beginning, I think the remainder of the column has to be taken with a grain of salt. But I’ll just make two quick observations.

The story of Sears CEO Eddie Lampert, who divided up his company to have units compete with each other, does describe a curious management strategy. Lampert may have liked Rand, but Cummins nowhere offers evidence that this strategy was one Rand would have recommended, unless we attribute to Rand the oversimplified formula of “capitalism = competition.” But that’s a formula Rand denied, and in any case her view of capitalism is one concerning the freedom of businesses from government interference, not one concerning the freedom of private employees from the oversight of management.

Also, Cummins’ discussion of the establishment of so-called “free-trade zones” in Honduras in 2013 is disingenuous at best. The fact that these zones were alleged to be inspired by “libertarian” ideas is not shown to be relevant to the deleterious social conditions that Cummins references via a 2015 Salon article. That article does not discuss anything about these free trade zones, but describes conditions which Cummins can hardly deny must have been present prior to 2013. I would expect better treatment of the difference between causation and correlation from a social scientist.

It’s interesting that Cummins would entitle her article “This is what happens when you take Ayn Rand seriously.” I’ll close by quoting a passage from the Introduction to the Companion (available online), in which Salmieri describes his view of what it means to take Rand seriously. I quoted the same passage just a few weeks ago in a post I called “Taking a Philosopher Seriously”:

To take an author seriously means to read her, not with an eye toward confirming one’s prejudices (whether favorable or unfavorable), but simply with an eye to understanding what she thinks and why. If one finds her approach unfamiliar and difficult, it means working to overcome that. If one finds what she says implausible or unmotivated, it means taking the time to consider why it seems otherwise to her and to the readers who find her convincing—and it means giving thought to the question of whether it is you or she who is mistaken.

As Salmieri goes on to point out, academics have by and large failed to take this approach to Rand, and her enduring influence reveals the need for them to correct this oversight. Sadly, Cummins’ article is not a step in the right direction.

UPDATE (2/16/2016): The original title of this post said Cummins’ article was hosted by NPR. This should have read PBS.

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