Posts Tagged ‘Objectivism’

Why Objectivism is foundationally opposed to an evolutionary perspective and instincts are awesome

While I’m posting on Objectivism–and I do not intend to do it again–I’d like to point out some components of Objectivism that don’t line up with evolutionary biology.   It serves as a good way to discuss some new and cool behavioral insights science has to offer.

Objectivist philosophy and evolution have, I am finding in my internet searching right now, a fairly well established history of contention.  Rand herself boldly stated that she was “not a student of evolution,” and therefore “not it’s supporter nor it’s proponent,” and also that, “after all, the theory of evolution is only a hypothesis.“  Yet what’s fascinating about this debate is that both supporters of Objectivism, who claim that there exists no contradiction between Objectivism and evolution, and also dissenters of Objectivism, who claim that science trumps Rand’s philosophy, agree that man’s intellect is primed for “triumphing” over evolutionary pitfalls such as instinct.   I am grateful for advocates of evolutionary theory.  It’s cool that they’re engaging the material in this manner.  But I think both camps are wrong to dismiss the powers and mysteries of human genetic wiring.  Science has begun to show the limits of the intellect.  Moreover, the natural state and instincts of man are proving to be more powerful than we ever believed.  These two facts change our conception of man from a hyper rational being into a complicated creature composed of numerous senses and decision making pathways.   I believe that it is this creature–this complex being wired with potential we do not yet fully understand–that we must study in order to contextualize our existence.  It is this creature that we have evolved from.  And it is this creature’s genes that we must embrace if we aspire to figure out the best way to navigate this world.

Why Objectivism is foundationally opposed to evolutionary perspectives part 1: Impulse.

1) Objectivists find it both wrong and stupid to obey an impulse. They believe fiercely in the primacy of the prefrontal cortex, the conscious part of our brains.  The prefrontal cortex is, in essence, the superego. That’s cool. I like to run all of my decisions by my prefrontal cortex, too. But neurologists are finding, increasingly, that our impulses are often much better at navigating life or death situations than our conscious brains.   And even more powerfully, science is showing that our unconscious minds often excel over our conscious minds at making complicated life decisions. The idea is that our conscious minds are overloaded with details, and cannot process all of them as easily as our unconscious brains. Humans who acted on their immediate gut feelings in these studies, rather than dwelling on the choice over longer periods of time–ranging from minutes to days–were happier than those who wrestled with their decisions consciously.  Psychologists and neurobiologists are increasingly recommending that people listen to their guts in order to find true happiness.  If there exists discord in our souls, it is probably not our “premises” that need checking, but rather a greater understanding of our unconscious impulses and how we can best utilize them.  Check out this wonderful paper on the nature of intelligence, and how studies of animal intelligence are reshaping our views.

So what does this say about the primacy of the intellect? Clearly, humans evolved an intellect as a means to an end (like all other functions). It helped ancestral man navigate certain situation, and it has continued to help us create tools and ideas and make the best decisions we possibly can. But the prefrontal cortex is just one part of our brain, and lessons from contemporary psychology seem to be telling us that more primordial parts of the brain are better at making us happy than the prefrontal cortex. In my view, this puts Objectivism at odds with an evolutionary perspective, which considers the history, evolution, and fundamental nature of man to be of considerable importance to psychological well-being.

Why Objectivism is foundationally opposed to the evolutionary perspective part 2: Sense instinct.

Objectivists argue that it was man’s mind that distinguished him from (and made him superior to) other creatures. One specific example Rand cites in The Virtue of Selfishness is that man learned, over time, which plants were poisonous with trial and error.   He used his intellect, and he passed down that knowledge to others over time, which saved both his life and the lives of his family members.  However, this is a vastly simplified statement,and humans generally eschew bitter foods for this reason. (Follow that link on food preferences–it’s fascinating–I’ll review and post on it soon.)  Modern humans have forgotten how to use their tongues and noses. In the modern world, this enormously important sense–smell–has been dulled. We don’t need it, so we don’t use it. I’m going to go ahead and block quote a Salon article on this phenomenon:

In 1991 researchers found that humans have around 1,000 genes coding for different odor receptors. Since each odor can set off more than one receptor in various combinations, this implied the ability to sense far more than 1,000 scents. “Given that mammalian DNA probably contains around 100,000 genes, this finding indicates that 1 percent of our genes are devoted to the detection of odors, making this the largest gene family thus far identified in mammals,” wrote molecular biologist Richard Axel.

But recently other researchers took a close look at those genes and discovered that about 70 percent of them contain stop codons. In other words, the gene — which provides the instructions for making the protein that is the odor receptor — suddenly stops in the middle of the instruction booklet and says, “Oh, forget it. It’s too complicated. Don’t bother making it. It’s not like anyone ever needs to smell enraged saber-tooth cats anymore. I’ll just sit here in the genome and sulk.”

It looks as though humans have very keen sensory input, and, I daresay, instincts, that in the modern world have simply gone dull.  It is not always the mind that saves man.  Another good example of this is the discoveries currently being made concerning the Major Histocompatibility Complex (MHC gene) and mate compatibility. Objectivists argue that it is, without question, solely the rational mind that determines who we love.  Contemporary neuroscience is teaching us otherwise.  We appear to achieve the greatest love and happiness when we unconsciously use our noses to choose mates with immune systems that complement our own.  FASCINATING.

We  Bodies have great knowledge, and the human organism is extraordinarily complex. A paleo perspective asks that we consider man’s evolutionary history as such. Man was a body first, and evolved a mind a bit later. This means that the mind is one part of the functioning whole. To give it complete supremacy in four billion years of evolution is a bit presumptuous, isn’t it?

Rand tried to use man’s mind to set him apart from the rest of creation. Man is a machine in her philosophy, capable of making Spoc-like decisions that maximize his happiness.I don’t necessarily object.  The intellect is cool, and it’s a part of evolution, and my soul would crumble to pieces without it.  But in order to achieve holistic health, and, even, spirituality, I think it’s important to accept the very real, very programmed, and very unconscious parts of ourselves.  My prefrontal cortex is always going to be in charge, but perhaps it is healthy for me to take a leaf out of evolution’s book, and to occasionally tell my conscious brain to fuck off, shut up and enjoy the ride.


02 2011

The ethics of eating bread: why a food choice is never evil and Objectivism is fucking nuts

Let me start out by saying that I was an Objectivist for three years. That’s with a capital O. This means that, like most others in the movement, I read the novels The Fountainhead, Atlas Shrugged, We the Living and Anthem, and proceeded to craft my personal life and morality around them. Additionally, I read Rand’s philosophical texts, and I deferred to her on every count of debate. She loved logic! She couldn’t possibly be wrong. Plus, so much of what she said really resonated with me. I felt as though Rand was articulating ideas that I had been looking for all along. So when she made ethical pronouncements, their logical supremacy almost necessarily followed.

Plus, I was 15 years old, and really fucking dumb.

Perhaps the largest paradox of the Objectivist community is the weight it gives to Rand’s words. For a community committed to truth and logic above all other things, Objectivists sure love to hero worship.   This is demonstrated, in one way, when Objectivists engage in philosophical debate.  They almost inevitably raise the questions: “What would Rand do?” Or “What does Piekoff say?” with the answers intended to settle the debate. I’m not even close to kidding. If you disagree with Rand, you’re SOL.  Evil.  Stupid.   Excommunicated.   Fucked.  There’s a whole history to this phenomenon, and it is in fact well documented.  Another good example of hero worship is that one of Objectivism’s most popular online forums is titled “Objectivist Living: Dedicated to Ayn Rand and the Art of Living Consciously.” The Objectivist movement has made Rand (or, now, Piekoff, her official “intellectual heir”) very seriously, it’s God. It would be one thing if Objectivists looked at Rand and her work and tried to glean insights from her. But this is not the case. Instead, Objectivism parrots the words of this extraordinarily narcissistic and arguably mentally ill woman.

This shit kills me.

How is this relevant for my post today? Well. I’m almost sorry for that diatribe. I want to be fair. Diana asks an important question on her blog, and I mean no disrespect to her viewpoint. Please, take very serious note of the fact that I respect Diana’s conclusion, and I respect all of her badass work. And I have a great deal of respect for people who look at a movement’s principles and try to learn from them without centering their life around them. I do not conflate the Objectivist movement with individuals within the movement, so not a single moment of my batshit crazy ranting applies to her or to any of you Objectivists/Randians/thoughtful thinkers out there. Believe me. But I have approximately zero respect for Objectivism as a phenomenon. This extreme distaste (I hope) is not a result of “emotional” or “impulsive” behavior, moreover, but is instead due to all of the realizations I have had about logical fallacies in Rand’s work and her followers’ behavior.


In the podcast, Diana asks the question: “Is eating bread immoral if I think it is unhealthy?” This not the most irrelevant question I’ve ever come across. Morality is tied up with food in a lot of ways, and there are books and books worth of interesting things to say on the matter.  It is phenomenally important to contemplate ethical eating.

Diana’s response to the inquiry is this: Yes.  If you eat bread, and if you know that it is unhealthy for you, and if you have other food options, then yes. Your actions are morally reprehensible. Diana and Greg (her podcast partner) call this “evasion.” The idea is this: in making an unhealthy choice, such as eating bread, an individual is evading the rational truth of the harm that is coming to him.  Evasion is a common Objectivist theme, and it is in fact automatic cause for condemnation.  In his book, Objectivism: the Philosophy of Ayn Rand, Piekoff states:*

“Evasion is the act of blanking out, the willful suspension of one’s consciousness, the refusal to think–not blindness, but the refusal to see; not ignorance, but the refusal to know. It is the act of unfocusing your mind and inducing an inner fog to escape the responsibility of judgment–on the unstated premise that a thing will not exist if only you refuse to identify it.”

And then:

“Morally, evasion is the essence of evil. According to Objectivism, evasion is the vice that underlies all other vices. In the present era, it is leading to the collapse of the world.”

(*By using this term, I do not mean to put words in Diana and Greg’s mouths.  They don’t use the word “evil.”  Yet most Objectivists, including Piekoff and Rand, clearly, do.)

Yet what if this individual acknowledges the harmful truth of what he’s doing, but accepts the consequences because something he values more, such as social etiquette, is at stake?   He is NOT evading truth, here, but is instead weighing his fucking options, perhaps with the most logical and clearheaded reasoning on the planet.

A food choice, evil? Maybe wrong, and maybe misguided, and maybe stupid. Maybe deliberately self-destructive. But—so?  Am I going to despise you, or are you going to despise yourself, and consider yourself immoral, for weighing the pros and cons of eating bread and concluding that it really wouldn’t be the end of the world to indulge? Food choices are Not Evil, made consciously or not, and I endeavor, in the following paragraphs, to show you why Objectivists are so completely wrong on this count.

Diana and Greg’s responses were fairly straightforward. You can listen here, but I covered all the basics of it, I think, pretty fairly above.  Bread = evasion = bad.   To get more at the root of this idea in Objectivism, I turn to the writings of Ayn Rand.  Therefore, my response is not to the podcast, per se, but to the arguments and basic tenants I have read in Ayn Rand’s The Virtue of Selfishness. Unfortunately, I came to Taiwan with nothing but two shirts and a laptop, so my copy of the text is at home. I am not going to make any formal references. I’m sorry. If you have good textual rebuttals, think I am mistaken, or have objections to my statements, just lemme know, and I’ll hope off my soap box and take the beating.


Objectivists believe, generally, that a self-destructive behavior is evil. How do they arrive at a such a conclusion?  Ayn Rand’s argument is a syllogism I first read in The Virtue of Selfishness, and it goes as follows:

A) It is human nature to prioritize one’s own survival above all other things.

B) It is evil to go against human nature.

C) Ergo, performing self destructive acts such as eating bread is E V I L.

Select rebuttals:

A) It is human nature to prioritize one’s own survival and life above all other things.

The above statement is not supported by science. No scientist would (should) ever have the hubris to proclaim the truth of human existence and purpose. The human condition is one of the most complex phenomena ever encountered, and it is extraordinarily presumptuous and naïve to make statements about the ultimate human concern. Doing so disregards anthropology, sociology, neuroscience, evolutionary biology, and a whole host of other disciplines.

Most egregiously, this assertion is just plain false when considered in light of evolutionary theory. The most basic tenant of evolutionary biology is as follows: the propagation of genes is the primary driver of all life. I want to put a citation in here, but who the fuck am I going to cite? My high school science textbook? The most recent copy of Cell Biology? My college thesis? Life exists because DNA and RNA replicate themselves. Organisms evolved certain behaviors to ensure the replication of these molecules. Humans evolved, as organisms, the same way. Each species needs to optimize the well-being of it’s offspring, else it faces extinction. As such, it is widely accepted that practicing some “altruistic” behavior, particularly for the sake of one’s children, is universally human.

Humans do not intrinsically prize individual survival–nor necessarily should they–above all other things. QED.

B) It is evil to go against human nature.

One thing we need to think about pretty seriously here is how we’re defining our terms. We already went over one component of human nature, the survival instinct, above.  The second component is the tool humans use to achieve that survival. This tool is the intellect.

Objectivists prize the intellect above just about everything else. The intellect is what defines man against animals, is what accounts for human achievement, and is what helps man make good, logical decisions.  In essence, to survive.  To be human is to use one’s mind, and an Objectivist will never let you forget it.

The second word we need to pay attention to is “evil.” In general, I can go out in the world and define evil as “extremely morally reprehensible” and not find too many people who want to argue with me.  Moreover, most definitions of “evil” concern the well-being of others, and most of the world probably wouldn’t argue with that, either.  Yet Objectivism takes the idea of evil in an entirely different direction. To be evil is not defined by acting immorally, but is defined instead by acting directly against “human nature.”  Anything that might decease the survival chances of the self is evil, including a sacrifice made for another human being. Rand, Piekoff, and, I daresay, the rest of Objectivist movement, believe it is evil to dive into the ocean to save someone if you believe your own chances of survival are slim. This is well established Objectivist Doctrine.   Some other evil actions include imposing your will on another human being, deliberately obscuring truth, or impairing your own survival by ignoring a rational conclusion. This is the “evasion” to which Diana and Greg and Rand refer. Evading truth is an affront to the human intellect, and to Objectivists this is wrong, wrong, wrong.

Why Objectivists think it’s acceptable to make an ethical pronouncement such as this is entirely beyond me. Explain to me why you can go ahead and redefine “evil” at your whim. Explain to me why your definition of evil is more accurate than mine. And explain to me why you can logically make this fucking statement at all. It’s axiomatic. Rand’s all like, “this is the definition of evil because I said so,” and never says why. I’m not making this up. Far be it for her to explain herself when thousands of philosophers before and after her have written tomes on the matter and still not yet come to any kind of consensus.

I do not understand why obscuring the truth is inherently evil. I can think of a billion situations in which lying is appropriate, and I stand by them. Telling Susie her hair looks like shit helps nobody, and telling her it looks nice harms no one. Believe me—being honest is one of my highest principles. I believe in external honestly like the dickens, and I believe even more fervently in being brutally honest with myself. But this does not mean I think it Evil to lie. I am a relativist, and I believe that each situation calls for a unique weighing of pros and cons.  And don’t you dare attack that line of thought with some “A is A” bullshit.   I just might die.

C) Ergo, it is evil to consume bread.

Since statements A and B do not hold, statement C does not hold. Syllogisms are so BCE.

The last thing I do not understand is why it is necessarily immoral to evade truth, or to be self-destructive. I understand why it is harmful, and I could absolutely get behind a statement that imposing my will on another human being and forcing them to eat bread would be an act of evil—and I could even buy the argument that eating poorly is reprehensible because it affects the relationships I have with those around me– but my body is my body, and it is my autonomical right to treat it as I see fit.

What’s more, in a given situation, eating bread may in fact be the best choice for my well-being. For example, I may deem it more important to make my aunt happy and tell her I really loved eating her pumpkin loaf than to abstain and preserve my gut lining. Is this a sacrifice I’m making for another person? Sure. But, more importantly, it is a choice I’m making about my values. Who are you to tell me what I should value most highly?  No one knows my body and my life like I do, and I may in fact be optimizing my happiness by choosing to partake in an unhealthy activity.

Evil?  Good god. Ghengis Khan was evil. Pope John the XXII was evil. Lucifer was evil. What these figures all have in common is that they committed atrocities that hurt others. They were bad guys. I, simply, am fallible. Information comes at me from a million different angles, and I process it, and I try as hard as I can to maximize my well-being. If I fail to do so—if I act as a creature with addictions and needs and desires and if I cannot always “be my best self,”—am I, in fact, immoral?

Perfection is not possible. Objectivists would do well to remember this, and to stop holding everyone to unrealistic and stupid ethical standards. Even if I do my best to eat as healthfully as possible, the science of nutrition is constantly evolving, and no one has the key to perfect health. I can always try, but I don’t even know for sure if what I’m doing right now is optimal. Why not indulge, then? Bread may be harmful, but it is not poison, and if in eating the bread I feel pleasure, then perhaps that pleasure is more important than any pain I might endure.

I am currently watching a woman I know undergo knee replacement surgery and contemplate getting liposuction. She refuses to give up carbohydrates, not even for a while to see if it helps. Still yet I do not consider this evil. I consider it misguided. I consider it fearful of change. I consider it tremendously sad. But to call being fallible wrong, especially when it is not harming anyone but yourself… that is no logic. That is cruel. This line of Objectivist thinking promotes all sorts of negative mental states, the worst of which is perhaps the self loathing that often accompanies failed attempts to achieve perfection. We see, day in and day out, where this leads with food. Exponentially increasingly numbers of young women diet and binge eat and starve themselves because they are trying to achieve some arbitrarily constructed ideal. Health is holistic, and I believe that no amount of moral judgment for lapses is warranted.

Objectivist and perfectionist ideals like this are well known for driving people crazy. Psychologist Nathaniel Branden used to live and work within the Objectivist movement and was in fact Rand’s “true love.” …That is, until he began to see loopholes in the arguments, and to notice in his psychological practice how profoundly unhappy all of his Objectivist patients were. I remember reading about one patient of Branden’s in particular who loved a woman but could not marry her because she wasn’t as awesome as Dagny Taggart. He thought that he was evading that truth whenever he spent time with her. They ended up separated and living alone. Heartbreaking.

Instead of condemning personal choices as evil, we need to move forward in life with supreme awareness of both our physical and our mental health. Optimal happiness is about a balance, and it is a balance personalizable to each human being. Your food choices are Never Evil. Being fallible without causing harm to others is Never Evil. Prizing pleasure, and occasionally elevating it over health, is Never Evil. The way that you treat yourself might be misguided, but it is not morally reprehensible. You are not condemnable for what you ate this morning, and I will not condemn you for what you eat tonight. Food is a complicated source of nourishment and of pleasure, and to turn it into a weapon of condemnation does a great, great disservice to holistic health.


02 2011