Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Common misconceptions, Rand, and reasonableness

A little while ago, I was asked by a person of the internet why I liked Rand. My response was as follows:

I like her insistence that we have to use reason to get anything done (even if she doesn't always stick to it herself [ie, romance]), and her stress on absolute individual sovereignty/liberty, and most of all I like how utterly joyful she is about human acheivement. Advocating taking joy in truly magnificent things is one of the best aspects of her worldview imo. :)

My interlocutor—in interests of privacy I won't say where this conversation took place, but I will say that the man was purporting to be a philosopher—responded thus:

Ok, celebrating our use of reason is definitely a cool thing. But a lot of the Rand stuff I read, if you are going to be intellectually serious, really didn't give a joyful picture of human achievement per se, it was much more a celebration of luck + ability + fuck everyone else. And that is much less cool. Taking joy in truly magnificent things is as well and good, of course, but doing that by ignoring all the shit in the world is simply the unjustified province of the privileged.

Hum, and he says he values being intellectually serious. Actually, that's a significant part of how bad that was as a response. The addition of that little phrase, "if you're going to be intellectually serious", is very telling. It's blatant argument by authority. Amongst philosophers (admittedly, in the conversation in question, I was half-purporting to be one too—though far more humbly than he!) one's intellectual integrity is basically one's currency. This man says he likes reason, but then in the very next sentence he threatens my claim to my own intellectual integrity if I don't go back on my previous post, and agree with him that Rand does not believe that human acheivement is joyful. Removing that sentence would not have changed the meaning of his argument; it is superfluous meta. Evidently he doesn't think enough of his arguments to believe that he can rely on them to persuade me, and adds in a bit of bullying just in case.

I didn't mention the above in my response, however, to avoid getting into a pointless meta-discussion with the man. Instead I wrote this:

Which Rand did you read? I think that's a wilfully negative interpretation of what she advocates. For example in Atlas Shrugged, she tells the reader that Dagny was determined since age 12 to run the railroad, to the degree that it didn't even occur to her that it might be socially unacceptable until age 15, whereupon she dismissed that as unimportant. If that's what you mean by "fuck everyone else", I think that's most unfair. Many, many novels have the theme of "following what you think is right contrary to social stricture".
However it is true that she does not actually tell us where Dagny's determination/enthusiasm comes from. I think that that part just wasn't relevant to the point of the novel, and in order to explain it properly the book would have had to have been about half as long again, rendering it completely unreadable. ;) But there are lots of ways we can easily figure out where it might come from. If you'd like to go into these, we can. :)

I'm not entirely sure what you mean by privileged? Do you mean rich? If so I would point out that the idea that "Rand hates the poor!" is quite misguided. In The Fountainhead, Roark spent most of the novel in dire poverty, and never actually became massively rich. Wealth wasn't his reward. Wynand, however, the billionaire that made the most money, was cast in a light less good than Roark's. He was one of the flawed characters, and his money had a lot to do with that (I'm thinking of the scene in which he says something like, 'the priest in the cloister gives up worldly possessions and retains his soul; I have given up my soul and my compensation is cars and yachts and money'. He says outright in this scene that the priest's position is preferable). Also there's Cherryl, in AS, who is only virtuous so long as she is poor-but-hardworking, and the moment James Taggart impresses her and marries her, and she sells out to his values—again taking money in exchange for the loss of personal integrity—she's doomed. So by privilege you can't possibly mean wealth, but I'm not sure what you do mean, exactly?

Note, by the way, that as an advocate of laissez-faire, Rand couldn't possibly advocate 'fuck everyone else' seriously. You have to cooperate with people in order to participate in free trade, otherwise you won't make a trade agreement. Perhaps you confuse the idea of staying true to your own personal integrity and not compromising what you think is right, with the idea of giving everyone else the finger? If so, I'd point out that through finding mutual preferences, it is not hard to separate cooperation and sacrifice. In other words, when interacting and trading with others (I mean trade in the less vernacular sense of, 'swapping ideas'—since this is what all trade technically constitutes, though I'm aware that's a disingenuous usage—so this would include things like having conversations as well as standard trade), you don't have to lose out or compromise your morality.

What do you include under truly magnificent things, and why doesn't the invention/realization of the skyscraper or the construction of the railroad fall under this category?

It was afterwards pointed out to me that of course, as false is the "privileged" claim is of The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, it is even more false of Anthem and We The Living. The main characters of those books aren't even privileged enough to live in free societies.

It's interesting to note that a lot of the very best ideas seem to be subject to the most misconceptions. I hear people getting Rand wrong much more often than I hear them getting Marx wrong. Same goes for, say, Popper vis a vis Nietzche. Thinking about it briefly, I imagine this might have something to do with the fact that there are reasons for the bad ideas being bad. A common one is that they are indistinct or imprecise. This would contribute to people saying things indistinguishable from what the originator said, although each may be subtly different even if only in the speaker's head. On the other hand, the better (and more precise) ideas take more work to understand, so less people understand them and there are more misconceptions.

I'm not sure about this theory though. Antirational memes seem to have a lot to do with it too, especially with regards to Rand. Hum.

Another thought; reasonableness. When people say "please be reasonable" or "I'm not being unreasonable", I think this seems to have definite connotations of compromise. Insistently pursuing your own principles in an argument might prompt one's interlocutor to say, "Rihatsu, please be reasonable!" Qualifying one's argument with the words, "now I'm not being unreasonable here," has implications of, "I'm not unwilling to slightly compromise with you on this matter". It's not the direct meaning of the phrase, but I think there are some definite connotations. This may be worth either pursuing, or at least bearing in mind.

1 comment:

  1. I would agree that often the bad ideas are vague, and so it's harder to have some mutant copy of that idea that is a clear misconception. It's not that people *want* to have misconceptions, but it's hard to tell when they *do* because the idea is vague.

    WRT reasonableness, I'm not sure whether it's actually that often being used in a compromise sense; it's more down to the inability of the interlocutor to perceive the values/principles by which you are making your argument - possibly because they're subtle/unclear principles, or possibly because they are unwilling to accept that you hold such principles. If I make an argument that draws on some principle not known to you, it may appear to you as if my logic is unsound, and therefore that I am not being 'reasonable.' The negative connotations come from the interlocutor's belief that their own values and argument from those values are correct, and therefore that you either don't share the values (which means your values must be wrong) or that your argument is unsound. It's a refusal - or at least, an unwillingness - to accept fallibility on their own part.