How should philosophy professors approach Ayn Rand?

Skye Cleary (with whom I’ve had a few brief and pleasant interactions in her capacity as the editor of the APA’s blog) recently wrote a piece at Aeon encouraging philosophers who are disturbed by what they take to be the “pernicious” effects of Rand’s ideas to “treat the Ayn Rand phenomenon seriously,” because “ignoring it won’t make it go away.”

Vilifying Rand without reading the detail, or demonising her without taking the trouble to refute her, is clearly the wrong approach.

I couldn’t agree more. In my introduction to A Companion to Ayn Rand, I wrote that

The scholarly study of Rand’s works was postponed by two generations of academics who found her vision appalling and thought or hoped that she was a passing fad, and that their students’ attraction to her was a youthful indiscretion. These hopes have been dashed.

As a philosopher who thinks that many of the most influential philosophers of the past and present have been deeply wrong and have had pernicious effects, I know something about the difficulties one faces when studying figures for whom one feels as Cleary and her audience do about Rand. I tried to communicate some of that perspective to both fans and critics of Rand in my introduction.

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. By the same token, if she strikes you as obviously correct with respect to an issue where you know many people find her views counter-intuitive, it means working to identify the premises that you share with her and not with them, and then figuring out how to determine whether those premises are true.

Such an approach helps one learn from the thinkers one disagrees with most. There’s always the possibility that reading such thinkers will lead you to change your mind, but in the overwhelming majority of cases in which that doesn’t happen, pursuing the approach described above will at least help you to identify more deeply the nature of your disagreement, and it will push you to probe your reasons for your own positions.

I was sorry to see Cleary approach Rand differently in her Aeon piece. She takes for granted both that Rand’s philosophy comes from a place of cruelty and that it “should be easy to show what is wrong with her thinking.” And though she alludes to John Stuart Mill’s point that we can find elements of truth even in mistaken positions, I see little effort to find points of truth in Rand. She does urge her readers to look to the details of Rand’s work, but her own criticisms consist mostly of general assertions about Rand’s positions, and some of the few statements she quotes from Rand are taken out of context and given implausible construals.

Cleary’s first criticism is that “Rand victim-blames: if someone doesn’t have money or power, it’s her own fault.” But Cleary gives no examples of Rand blaming anyone for being poor or powerless. Nor does she acknowledge any of Rand’s portrayals of people who are poor or powerless through no fault of their own, any of her compassion for ambitious people trying to work their way out of such situations, or any of the anger she shows at injustices against such people. Think, for example, of Cherryl Brooks in Atlas Shrugged or of the protagonists of We The Living. Think of the many (often anonymous) characters in Atlas Shrugged whose unjust suffering under laws like Directive 10-289 is described. And think of her discussion of the plight of Soviet dissidents in pieces like “The Inexplicable Personal Alchemy.” There are some people (e.g. Cherryl Brooks’ parents) with little money or power whom Rand thinks are at fault for their circumstances—or for not struggling to improve them. But unless we conclude that none of us have any control at all over how our lives go, we will have to acknowledge that some people in some bad circumstances share some of the responsibility for their fate. Philosophers who disagree with Rand about whether some particular person is a victim, or about how just or unjust various societies are, would do well to discuss these issues directly, and we can hope that Cleary’s article will motivate some to look into this subject.

The one concrete Cleary points to that may be intended to be an example of victim-blaming in Rand is the controversial rape scene in The Fountainhead. But it’s an odd example both because the purported victim is a sympathetic character (rather than someone Rand blames for anything), and because she doesn’t see herself as a victim at all. Indeed, she exalts in the experience. This is part of what makes the scene so controversial. Here’s what Cleary has to say about the episode:

Howard Roark, the ‘hero’ of The Fountainhead, rapes the heroine Dominique Francon. A couple of awkward conversations about repairing a fireplace is, according to Rand, tantamount to Francon issuing Roark ‘an engraved invitation’ to rape her. The encounter is clearly nonconsensual – Francon genuinely resists and Roark unmistakably forces himself upon her – and yet Rand implies that rape survivors, not the rapists, are responsible. Might makes right and, as Roark states earlier in the novel, the point isn’t who is going to let him do whatever he wants: ‘The point is, who will stop me?’

A sympathetic portrayal of anything resembling a rape raises obvious concerns—ones that the intellectual and literary community is more sensitive to in 2018 than it was in 1943. So this scene deserves to be discussed and debated, and in my view, existing discussions of it by authors sympathetic to Rand are pat and too defensive. However, too often the scene is used as an attempt to dismiss Rand or to attribute views to her that she did not hold, which is what I think Cleary does in the passage I just quoted.

What happens in the relevant sequence from The Fountainhead? Dominique is a frustrated idealist with a Stoic-like determination to maintain her independence from the world by never allowing herself to desire anything in it. While in seclusion at her father’s estate, she notices Roark laboring at her father’s nearby granite quarry. Roark is an architect who has turned to grueling manual labor rather than work for clients who demand that he compromise his artistic integrity, and he is biding his time until he earns enough money to reestablish his practice or is sought out by the kind of client who appreciates his work. But Dominique doesn’t know any of this. She is taken with him at first sight, as he is with her. This begins an erotically charged adversarial relationship in which she struggles against her desire for him. She fetishizes his lowly station, and flaunts her position and its privileges. Roark, who doesn’t disguise his desire for her, makes it clear that he knows what she is doing and why. Her days become about resisting her desire to see him, and she realizes that she has lost her cherished freedom. For a time, she holes up in her house, but the house is “too safe” and she feels “a desire to underscore the safety by challenging it,” so she damages the marble fireplace in her bedroom and hires Roark to fix it. The job requires two visits. During the first, she makes a point to stand imperiously in the entrance way and then to stretch out on her bed. He ignores both poses, as he works. He makes clear (without saying explicitly) that he knows that the damage was intentional, and his comments on the stresses involved in the formation of marble are a metaphor for their relationship. When the time comes for the second visit, Roark sends another worker in his place. Dominique is furious; after days of struggle, she speeds to the quarry on horseback and, finding Roark nearby, asks why he didn’t come. He responds: “I didn’t think it would make any difference to you who came. Or did it, Miss Francon?” She whips him across the face with the branch she’s been using as a makeshift riding crop. It is after this that he comes to her house and takes her forcefully. She struggles against him, but doesn’t call for the help she knows is within earshot.

Is this rape, or consensual rough sex, or is it a case where the line is blurred? The novel makes clear that the encounter is a profound experience to both parties, that both want it, and that both know this. On the other hand, Roark could certainly have been prosecuted for rape had Dominique called for help and had he been stopped in the act. (This too is surely part of the power dynamic understood between them.) Dominique describes the act as rape to herself, but she cherishes the thought. The two characters carry on a clearly consensual but adversarial relationship throughout much of the rest of the novel, and they marry at the end, after Dominique has resolved the issues that made her despise the world. Every indication is given that this is a highly unusual encounter between unique personalities. So, even if Roark’s act is a rape, the scene is clearly not intended to imply that victims of rape are responsible for what happens to them. It is, rather, meant to be a startling dramatization of Dominique’s internal conflict and Roark’s role in it.

Nonetheless, rape is a heinous crime, which is horrifyingly common, and too often rapists or their apologists justify themselves by claiming that the victim was non-verbally asking for it. So it can be argued that the scene in The Fountainhead is insensitive, inappropriate, or irresponsible. On the other hand, many women report having rape fantasies, and rape scenes are common in romance novels, which are consumed by a predominantly female audience. There are good questions about how we should understand and evaluate such occurrences of rape in fantasy and fiction, and about whether such fantasy is a healthy expression of human sexuality or a self-perpetuating effect of a culture that victimizes women. However one answers these questions, and however one judges Rand’s artistic choices, it is clear that the point of The Fountainhead‘s rape scene was not (as Cleary claims) that “might makes right.” First of all, the plot arc of Gail Wynand in The Fountainhead amounts to a criticism of the approach to life embodied by that saying. Moreover, in later essays, Rand explicitly rejected the idea that might makes right, and she praised the “the American concept of ‘a government of laws and not of men,'” which, she wrote “is the means of subordinating ‘might’ to ‘right.'”

This brings us to the subject of Rand’s political philosophy. Here’s what Cleary has to say about it:

Rand champions self-sufficiency, attacks altruism, demonises public servants, and vilifies government regulations because they hinder individual freedom. Yet, she conveniently ignores the fact that many laws and government regulations promote freedom and flourishing.

This begs the question. When philosophers disagree about the propriety of a law, its proponents generally claim that it has such benefits as promoting freedom and flourishing, and its opponents deny this. So, even if one were debating an anarchist (which Rand certainly was not), it would not be sufficient to simply say that laws and government are needed for freedom and flourishing. One would need to show that they are and address any reasons the anarchist had for denying this. But, of course, Rand maintained that a certain sort of government with certain sorts of laws is needed to protect the rights each human being needs to live and prosper. Other sorts of laws, she argues, are wrong because they violate these rights.

Of course, Rand’s views on all of these points are controversial, and objections have been raised to some of these points and to the ethical foundations Rand provides for them. But instead of raising or linking to such objections, Cleary writes as though Rand had nothing to say on these issues. And she quotes her out of context to create this impression. For example, when she quotes a character from Atlas Shrugged saying that he owes no obligation to his fellow men, she ignores the rest of his sentence:

—except the obligation I owe to myself, to material objects and to all of existence: rationality. I deal with men as my nature and their demands: by means of reason. I seek or desire nothing from them except such relations as they care to enter of their own voluntary choice.

Rand’s theory of rights, mentioned earlier, is meant to demarcate the boundaries of individual lives in a social context, so as to make clear what sort of actions with respect to an individual would constitute an imposition on him, if taken without his consent. And this theory has the resources to deal with another of Cleary’s objections:

[Rand] assumes that we live in a world with unlimited resources and property that can be insulated from others. She ignores the fact that we share the Earth – we breathe the same air, swim in the same ocean, and drink from shared water sources.

But 19th Century American jurists and legislators used a conception of rights much like Rand’s to define rights to fluid resources like water and oil, which are not easily “insulated.” Rand references this tradition in an article about how to define property rights in the broadcast spectrum, where she notes that new technologies frequently give rise to the need to define new property rights. Perhaps some technologies that cause pollution may require the identification of new rights to atmospheric bandwidth. In any case, some anti-pollution laws could be more directly justified by reference to the damage the pollution does to people’s lives or property. And, though Rand was very critical of the early environmentalist movement, she allowed for the propriety of laws that “required industry to install anti-smog devices or burn a cleaner fuel” (Objectively Speaking, 213).

Cleary notes that some philosophers with political convictions in the vicinity of Rand’s support “some state control to protect people and their property from harm, force, fraud and theft,” but she thinks Rand cannot allow for this because she wrote that “There can be no compromise between freedom and government controls.” Taken out of context Rand’s sentence might be taken to mean that freedom and government are incompatible. But Rand argued that government is indispensable to freedom, so this cannot be what she meant here. What, then, does she mean by “government controls”? If one surveys the pieces where she uses such language, it is clear that she means mechanisms by which a government controls people’s lives (or, what amounts to the same thing, controls the economy), rather than freeing people from one another’s interference by properly defining and securing rights under a system of objective law. The government secures rights when it prosecutes people for force, fraud, and theft. By contrast, the FCC controls people when it issues broadcast licenses and dictates broadcast standards in ways that are not determined by reference to rights and that give officials in the executive branch wide discretion to determine the course of industries and of lives. I alluded earlier to the alternative form of governance Rand advocated for the broadcast spectrum: frequencies would be recognized as the property of the broadcasters who had pioneered their use, and the role of the executive branch of government would be to protect this property by prosecuting trespassers. The alternative between freedom and controls isn’t one between anarchy and government, but between two forms of governance.

Of course, there is much one might take issue with here. Can the distinction between these two types of governance be coherently maintained? Is it as absolute as Rand thought? Are all controls wrong, or are there spheres of human activity (perhaps those that pollute the environment) that must be governed by means of controls? All of these would be fruitful questions for critics of Rand to pursue.

Finally, Cleary accuses Rand of hypocrisy because she opposed social welfare programs but received social security and Medicare in her old age. We might add to this list of charges that, as a starving youth in Saint Petersburg, Rand ate the food rations allotted to her by the Soviet state. Unlike some others who have harped on Rand’s acceptance of these payments, Cleary acknowledges Rand’s argument that opponents of welfare state programs are entitled to claim the benefits due to them under these programs as partial recompense for the money seized from them to fund such programs. Here’s Cleary’s response:

The problem is not only the complexity of calculating how much government support one could rightly collect back from taxes paid – since, presumably, she also used roads, tap water, police protection, and a myriad of other things that the government provides. But it’s also in contradiction with her point that there can be no compromise between freedom and government. Moreover, it’s disingenuous to actively participate in, and benefit from, the very same system that she complained about under the guise of mooching back what was mooched from her. It might be selfish, but it’s not, as she claimed, moral.

This misses the force of Rand’s argument. The injustice she thinks is involved in a welfare system is not that recipients are paid, but that money is seized from opponents of the system against their will. These opponents are the victims, and the perpetrators are the advocates of the system (not the recipients, except those of them who are also advocates). The perpetrators have no moral right to anything they may receive under the system, but the victims do; for they would be compounding their own victimization if they refused to take what was due them under the system and thereby let all of the seized assets go to their victimizers. Thus they should take what they are due under the system, and regard it not as a benefit but as a partial recovery of what has been taken from them unjustly.

But suppose that Rand’s argument does not hold up. Why would this make Rand a hypocrite, rather than someone with a mistaken answer to the difficult question of how to function in the context of a social system that one judges to be unjust? And if we are considering Rand as a philosopher, shouldn’t we be more concerned with this sort of issue than with her personal character?

So much, then, for Cleary’s refutation of Rand. But presumably the point of her short article wasn’t so much to refute Rand as to motivate other philosophers to take up the project. I join her in encouraging them to do so. More generally, I encourage them to engage with her work. Philosophers interested in the task might consider making use of the Companion and the Ayn Rand Society‘s two books. All three books aim to facilitate intellectual engagement by bridging some of the gap between Rand’s work and the literature that is more familiar to most English-speaking philosophers.

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