Objectivism advertises itself as a “philosophy for living on earth.” Objectivism rejects the theory/practice dichotomy and holds that a true philosophy, that is, Objectivism, is a necessary instrument to a successful, happy life. The clear implication is that a consistent, integrated practitioner of Objectivism ought to be more successful and happy than people who do not espouse and practice Objectivism. However, one need only leave the house to see thousands of happy, well-adjusted people who know nothing of Objectivism, and one need only attend an Objectivist conference to observe a depressingly high ratio of the awkward, alienated and unhappy to the well-adjusted and happy. The fact that most successful, happy people are not Objectivists, and in fact espouse philosophical opinions opposed to Objectivism, ought to give Objectivists pause. But it doesn’t. Why not?
The Objectivist can respond to this in number of ways. Here are two. First, she can say that few self-professed Objectivists (or “students of Objectivism”) have properly integrated the philosophy. But if this is the case, one wonders why a philosophy that is so hard for actual people to successfully implement is especially good for “living on earth.” Second, the Objectivist can say that insofar as non-Objectivists are doing well in life, they must be acting, perhaps unwittingly, on premises that are consistent with Objectivism. This is arbitrary and ad hoc. There is a great deal of evidence that many successful, happy, long-lived people in fact act according to premises Objectivism rules false and therefore impractical. If your mystical, other-focused, self-sacrificing grandmother dies happy at 95 years old, what are we to think of Objectivism’s empirical conjecture?
This objection goes very deep. But some of the problems are right there on the surface. If Objectivism is a practical philosophy for real Earthlings, then what is the Objectivist theory of the family? What is the Objectivist theory of the value of childrearing? This is no small lack for a purportedly practical philosophy. Almost every human being for the entirety of history has lived and raised children in extended family groups. As a good first approximation, that just is human life. And Objectivism has nothing to say about it.
But Objectivism has very little to say about these facets of our social nature, other than to provide over-intellectualized rationalist just-so stories about the implicitly philosophical dimensions of phenomena that are in fact largely non-cognitively emotional and biochemical. (The relation of trust and cooperation to oxytocin levels, for example, does not appear to be an especially intellectual or philosophical matter.) There is useful insight in the Objectivist critique of “second handers” and “social metaphysics,” but this insight is mostly useless absent a better understanding and accommodation of the natural human tendencies that lead so many of us to fall into these traps.
If there is one thing that made it so that I could no longer take Objectivism very seriously, it is the failure of Objectivism to come even close to doing justice to the social nature of human beings. For a philosophy devoted to reason, there is a marked tendency to simply dismiss empirical evidence about human nature that is inconsistent with Ayn Rand’s idiosyncratic vision. Now, I think it’s perfectly natural and predictable that coalition human beings will be subject to confirmation bias and will tend to discount argument and evidence that threatens their intellectual and emotional commitments. It’s just what people do. But one can’t help but enjoy the irony in the Objectivist’s case.
Thankfully, there is in fact some slack between theory and practice. People can often get along fine with false beliefs (and can arguably get along better, depending on the belief.) And Objectivists, being humans, know more about living decent lives among other humans than Objectivism allows. So I don’t worry too much about my Objectivist friends. That said, a philosophy for living on Earth really ought to be able to do a better job of helping us think about what we ought to do given what we really are.
[I’ll have more to say about the Objectivist view of human nature on my next letter on the Objectivist ethics.]