Ayn Rand versus the pleasure principle: Darwin #4

'Let Me Get This Straight' by Barry Knister

“Social Darwinism ignores a fundamental difference between humans and other animals that (Ayn) Rand recognized: the human capacity to use reason. Other animals are born with instincts, genetically programmed, innate knowledge of how to survive. *** Humans, however, are not born with instincts.”

This quote is taken from a comment made in reply to my latest blog entry.

In that entry, I called Ayn Rand a social Darwinist. Five times as many comments were written in reply as for any other entry in the fifteen months since I started Let Me Get This Straight. This alone suggests I am right in thinking the subject is worth further discussion.

Why so many reactions? The answer is simple: both those for and against Ayn Rand’s thinking feel strongly about the subject. The above quote may fairly be said to speak for those who deny that Rand is a social Darwinist. They distinguish between man and “other animals” by pointing to our “capacity to use reason.” They insist this capacity is what leads free individuals to join forces in pursuit of mutual self-interest. Provided, that is, no outside force such as government impedes individual liberty.

It’s hard to answer someone who claims humans don’t have instincts. Anyone with a modicum of self-knowledge will acknowledge how often reason is taken prisoner by emotion and personal wishes. I am attracted to someone, and will now unshackle my reason long enough to provide me with rational justification for my feelings. I love/hate everything about the Democratic/Republican party. Again, I will take the cuffs off reason, so it can dignify my hostile feelings with cool rationality.

“Other animals are born with instincts,” says the commentator. Anyone who views humans as another animal species must concede that along with reason goes a genetic inheritance that includes instinct. In fact, current research in evolutionary psychology points to mechanisms that make decisions for us before we know consciously what they are.

“Rand developed a philosophy for living on earth by identifying reality and the nature of a proper human existence. Such an existence is based upon the values of voluntary cooperation and the abolition of force and fraud from social relationships.”

This is from another pro-Rand comment. I will leave aside the radically different kinds of reality and “proper human existence” that reason reveals to a hedge fund manager and a Carthusian monk. But I agree when Rand’s adherents speak of reason leading individuals to band together. In fact, there’s good reason to think notions of mutual self-interest are even more important than they know.

From conception on, no human develops in isolation. From womb to tomb, we depend on each other. But today, whereas independence and self-reliance are rightly admired, what has been called “mutual belonging” is feared and held suspect. Sympathy, generosity, altruism (the devil itself to Ayn Rand), benevolence, humanity, compassion, pity, empathy—in the current climate, these words are viewed skeptically, if not dismissed out of hand.

Why should this be?. We’ve all seen the bumper sticker that reads “COMMIT RANDOM ACTS OF KINDNESS.” We’ve also seen a TV commercial, in which an onlooker witnesses a person being stopped by a stranger before he steps in front of a passing car, or someone else stooping to untangle the leash wrapped around an elderly person’s dog.

Those who subscribe to a rigidly rational, self-interest motivated vision of life must account for the unmistakable moments of pleasure produced when we are kind, and when kindness is shown to us. Who denies knowing when kindness has been withheld from him? Who denies “feeling good” after being kind? This pleasure is not consistent with Rand’s ideas.

Until recently, it was thought that selfless acts were mostly limited to those closest to us, those who in biological terms might transmit our own genes—family members. But we now know altruism is probably a survival mechanism that extends well beyond our blood kin. The logic of such a Darwin-related idea is based on self-interest: if we help others, even total strangers, we improve the odds of being helped when we are at risk.

Like fervent Marxists, Ayn Rand’s most loyal followers risk allowing reason to be taken hostage by ideas. A committed Marxist can easily dismiss his critics. After all, critics of communism are deluded by false, capitalist ideas, and are therefore misreading reality.

This is called the tail wagging the dog, or the cart before the horse. Your choice.

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