Second Letter to a Young Objectivist: Human Sociality

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?

monksmall.JPGBecause Objectivism rejects the theory/practice dichotomy, it makes a falsifiable empirical prediction. Depending on the correct interpretation of the Objectivist standard of value, Objectivism predicts that Objectivists should either live longer or have happier (more successfully flourishing) lives than non-Objectivists. But there is no reason that I know of to believe that Objectivists live longer than average well-educated, middle class and wealthy white people (Objectivists are almost all middle class and wealthy whites). And, based on my own experience, Objectivists are not happier or in better psychological health than other people. Indeed, none of the happiest, most flourishing people in my experience are Objectivists, and I've met a lot of Objectivists.

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?

group_hug2small.JPGThis brings me to my main thrust of today's letter. Objectivism has risibly inadequate picture of human nature. It is therefore unable to provide truly useful practical guidance for non-fictional human beings. Objectivism's most serious problem in this regard is in seriously addressing the essentially social nature of human beings and accounting for the values and virtues of human sociality. A good text in anthropology, social psychology, or evolutionary psychology can be read as an extended argument for the inadequacy of Objectivism as a practical philosophy for actual human beings.

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.

hugsmall.JPGAt a deeper level, Rand's failure to understand and integrate the evidence of biology and anthropology into her picture of human nature leads to a distorted picture of our psychological constitution. Take family and children. Our very existence depends on built-in psychological dispositions to create and raise children. It's a bizarre over-intellectualized distortion of our nature to understand the human desire for sex and physical intimacy as reflecting personal philosophical premises. Furthermore, the evidence is that human beings are naturally coalitional (tribal, if you will), obsessed (like all primates) with status and dominance, and that huge portions of the mind are devoted to the problem of navigating the social world. Furthermore, we have deep needs for casual physical and emotional intimacy. We need to feel welcome and included in groups. We need to feel liked. Social disapproval makes us very sad and often angry.

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.]

  • KSE

    Does your Kerry cheerleading ever pass into “transparent coalitional bias,” or do you two just reason identically all the time?

    • KSE, Through cohabitation and constant conversation, we have reached something like Bayesian convergence. So my Kerry cheerleading is hard to separate from self cheerleading. So yes, I am biased in favor of our little coalition, and pretty transparently so. Go us!

  • Kevin Flynn

    Have kids and be done with it already. Life over.

  • John V

    Will,

    Why are you moving back to Iowa? Are you leaving Cato or something?

  • John S Bolton

    I get the impression that ‘nationalism’ is being used as a smear-term. Patriotism and loyalty are available terms without any package-dealing, smearing potential. If rational arguments are available for having per capita improvements within our national boundaries, no longer be the standard for evaluating the decisions of officialdom and electorate, why wouldn’t they be forthcoming?