Dedicated, with love, to the late Kathleen Bohanon and the tragically-still-alive Gerard Pitt.
I keep hearing people call Jordan B. Peterson the “Stupid Man’s Smart Person.” Me, I think he’s just a plain old Stupid Person with a good vocabulary, but that’s beside the point. What I want to talk about here is the OG Stupid Man’s Smart Person: Ayn Rand.
I don’t think Ayn Rand was wrong, either intellectually or morally. I think she was stupid. She didn’t understand what she was talking about remotely well enough to form a theory about it that could even be said to be right or wrong.
Just look at the name of the philosophy she espoused: Objectivism, and its fundamental teaching of following reason or rationality.
If Ayn Rand weren’t a stupid person, she would know that we can never objectively perceive anything. Ever. Trying to experience objective reality is like trying to look inside your own eyeballs.
Regardless of whether or not any objective reality exists, we have absolutely no way whatsoever to perceive it objectively and prove that it is objective. Therefore, the existence of an objective reality is something we take on a certain degree of faith. Faith is the antithesis of reason. The only fully rational viewpoint to have about anything is continuous skepticism. This includes skepticism about whether or not there is an objective reality, or whether our own reason is, in fact, reasonable.
Next, let’s look at one of Ayn Rand’s key teachings: the virtue of selfishness.
Literally everything you have ever done, are doing, or could possibly do is selfish. There is no way to act in a way that isn’t selfish. Even the most seemingly altruistic act of self-sacrifice can only be done for personal gain, though that gain may be nothing more than a feeling of satisfaction, righteousness, or embodied love. Yes, even jumping in front of a bullet for someone else; you made the decision to die rather than let them die, because in that moment, their life mattered more to you than yours, so you protected the thing that mattered most to you: their life.
If you do it, you do it selfishly.
Thus, selfishness cannot be a virtue. There’s no sin to compare it against. There is no such thing as a selfless act, just like there is no such thing as an objective perception. If you perceive it, you do so subjectively. If you do it, you do so selfishly. For something to be a good, there must be a bad. Day is only day because there is night. “Selfishness is a virtue” is the equivalent of saying “Time is early.”
Finally, one of Ayn Rand’s famous sayings: Existence exists; A = A.
Saying “existence exists” is not only stupid, it’s fucking useless. Everything in existence exists, by definition, but existence itself is not the same as “everything in existence.” Saying “existence exists” is like saying “being is” or “love loves” or “yodeling yodels.” It’s utter nonsense. Everything that yodels does yodel, by definition, but yodeling cannot yodel. Yodeling is an act, not an actor.
Furthermore, “everything in existence exists” itself is completely meaningless. If everything in existence exists, then nothing in existence doesn’t exist. If nothing in existence doesn’t exist, then there is nothing to compare with the existence of everything in existence. Without dark, there is no light. It’s the same problem as with selfishness.
As for A = A: Yes, this is true. We can only say it is true because B = B, C = C, and chocolate pudding = chocolate pudding. It is completely absurd to equate the sentiment “A = A” with “Existence exists.” There is nothing against which to compare existence, except nothing itself. If “nothing” exists, then nothingness is not separate from existence, and “existence” is rendered meaningless. If “not existing” can be a quality of existing, then “to exist” means absolutely nothing.
On the flip side, there are all kinds of things we can compare against A to show that A = A. Such as B, C, or chocolate pudding.
The phrase Ms. Rand could have said instead of all that nonsense she did say was “existence = existence,” which is actually a really important thing to understand, no matter how obvious and trite it may seem at first. The flip-side of “existence = existence” is “nonexistence = nonexistence,” which is completely distinct from saying “nonexistence doesn’t exist.” If we fully understand that existence = existence, we stop trying to understand reality on any terms but its own. It is as it is. We stop subjecting it to our own arbitrary and limited judgments, or asking its totality to be capable of fitting within our own limited perception.
When you take Ayn Rand’s words and fill them with equatable but more tangible ideas, like chocolate pudding or yodeling or daytime, it becomes obvious how silly they are. The only reason anyone perceives depth in her philosophy comes from the topics she tackles, but if you take them out of a grandiose context, they’re just plain dumb.
This isn’t about making a moral judgment of Ayn Rand or her philosophy. Making a moral judgment about Ayn Rand’s philosophy is like making a moral judgment of a toddler’s views on how to handle the Greek debt crisis. It doesn’t matter whether the conclusions the toddler comes to are right or wrong, because the toddler doesn’t fucking understand what they’re talking about.
The only reason it would even matter what a toddler thinks about the Greek debt crisis is if a whole lot of people start believing that the toddler knows what they’re talking about, live by the toddler’s advice, and then those people get elected to the United States Senate (I’m looking at you Rand Paul).
In conclusion, Ayn Rand’s philosophy vacillates between being entirely hypocritical and just a big fat Category Mistake. Slow clap, objectivists. Y’all the real LVPs.
UPDATE: The problem isn’t just with Ayn Rand, it’s with so much philosophy and belief in general. So many people, myself included I’m sure, are so guilty of the ‘category mistake.’ I’m really into that term these days, because it’s like, the major fucking problem of our morality.
A category mistake is a kind of logical fallacy wherein you apply a quality to something to which that quality cannot apply. It’s not about the thing having a shortcoming, but the thing having an entirely different kind of identity than that quality would apply to. Examples include, “that doorknob is a Marxist,” or, “today I played basketball against Plato’s tripartite theory of the soul.”
Remember what I said about divorcing Ayn Rand’s philosophy from its lofty topics? The topic somehow makes us blind to the category mistake. Calling a fundamental condition of reality either good or bad, moral or immoral, right or wrong is a category mistake. To borrow a comparison from Alan Watts, it’s the difference between Taoism’s Lao Tzu and Voltaire’s Dr. Pangloss: “everything in this universe is as it is” vs. “everything in this universe is the best.”
Calling a feeling right or wrong is a category mistake. A feeling simply is or is not felt. Calling nature moral or immoral is a category mistake.
This is just a hypothesis I haven’t explored fully, but maybe, the way to tell if you’re making a category mistake is to ask if the opposite could become true. Like, look at the thing you’re casting the description onto, and ask: If my description is true, could the thing become otherwise?
If my doorknob is a Marxist, how could it come to embrace capitalist values? It couldn’t; it’s a doorknob. It can’t be a Marxist. Category mistake? Confirmed.
How could I stop playing basketball against Plato’s tripartite theory of the soul? I couldn’t. So that can’t be a thing. Category mistake? Confirmed.
If selfishness were a virtue, to sin we would have to stop being selfish. We can’t, so it can’t be a virtue. If selfishness were a sin, to become virtuous and we would have to stop being selfish. We can’t, so it can’t be a sin. Category mistake? Confirmed.
If being gay were immoral, to become moral, a gay person would have to stop being gay. We should all know by know that’s not how it works. Category mistake? Confirmed.
If reality is fundamentally good, to become fundamentally bad it would have to stop being reality. It can’t. Category mistake? Confirmed.
If my eating is serving my needs, to stop serving my needs, I would have to stop eating. I can definitely do that. Category mistake? Nope!
See, it’s easy.
I’m liking this hypothesis. Feel free to try it at home with any conception you hold dear.