The Value of Ayn Rand in an Introductory Philosophy Course

The discipline of philosophy is something to be held inviolate; the classroom likewise.  One might be inclined to ask, what is the function of teaching provocative material to an introductory level philosophy class?  There wouldn’t be, if the material didn’t have philosophical import.  If the material does have philosophical import, then why chose, at the very least, something that is provocative?  One important quality that philosophy is supposed to instill in intellectual thought, itself, is a dispassionate nature, whether in judgment or analysis.  I realized there are a great many philosophers occupying professional posts who are, in essence, failing at this very horribly.  Nonetheless, it is the mark of good philosophy.  Good philosophy is what I teach.  For this reason, I tell my students, right from the outset, that they need to check their emotions at the door.  Philosophy does have room for emotional content.  However, that room exists only after students are capable of dispassionate analysis, as well as a number of other skills, exempli gratia, sympathetic and generous reading.  For my money, the overwhelming populace housed in academia is capable of none of this.  Therefore, when I am criticized —as is so often the case— by friends and colleagues for my choices to read particularly provocative texts, I disregard like comments just as quickly as they were uttered.  In following, I will explain somewhat extensively why I had students in my two introduction courses this past semester read essays from Philosophy: Who Needs It by Ayn Rand, and The Virtue of Selfishness by Ayn Rand in my ethics course.

My preliminary remarks will not have to do with Rand in relation to my classes, but Rand in relation to peers.  I have read Rand extensively, and I am often confronted by peers who remark at the case.  Rather than take my association with Rand’s texts as being some part of an honest intellectual journey, they will jovially poke fun, as if doing that, rather than properly making fun or a more straightforward chastising, makes it acceptable.  It does not.  I’ll even get a snide or forthright nasty comment about Rand, which is often either completely fallacious in content or an untenable misrepresentation.  In every case, whether a colleague is being aggressive and opting some kind of verbal attack, or whether the peer thinks the jovial poking is friendly enough and, thus, acceptable, those individuals commit the greatest error conceivable of an intellectual: They haven’t even read Ayn Rand.  This is an error, objectively speaking, because it is academic dishonesty to disparage what one does not know the first thing about!  I find this disgusting and reprehensible, and it is a fact that drives me further from mainstream academia, which is more about the pomp and less about the substance; more about fabricated truths and less about the Truth; more about controlling what others think and less about being sure that the individual scholar has ensured that he or she has gotten it right.  It invariably happens: a professor will espouse some falsehood, which Rand did not even maintain.  That’s strike one: not having read Rand, when one wishes to speak ill.  Strike number two is, in those few cases where some has read a secondary piece of literature about Rand, in which case that author may not have read Rand very closely, does not seek a sympathetic understanding of Rand —often claiming to have the inside scoop on what he or she has heard from a friend of a friend of a friend, or some author who may have read some amount of read, but definitely in no great detail.  The third strike is in talking about a thinker who one has not read, not even careless or in some breakneck cursory way.  For anyone who wishes to speak ill of a thinker’s ideas, read them, whether that is Marx, Adam Smith, mystics, Rand, or whoever.  But I must be marked well on this one point, which is that we are not talking about Rand, here, we are talking about many authors, many of which not read sympathetically, even by their own field of scholarship.  In challenging the occasional curmudgeonly peer, I show them idiots, not even aware of what Rand meant by “selfish,” or why she held such a view.  Philosophy is about reasoning and ideas, not mere “facts,” and to say that Rand was for “egoism” is to have demonstrated absolutely no knowledge of what she had to say.  Consequently, these individuals who speak without a single shred of understanding seem to me the analogical equivalent of a common bystander critiquing the idiotic design of “this thingy, here” in a rocket’s engine —which is to say, it is mindless, backed by no reasoning, without and semblance of understanding.  Sapere aude![1]

Through a generous donation by the Ayn Rand Institute, I was able to provide texts to my two introductory courses and my ethics course.[2]  The biggest reason for including Rand’s text to my Introduction to Philosophy courses was to provide a text that students would get heated over.  Generally, I had one or two Rand fans in each class, a couple who had heard some things about her and wanted to know what the deal was, a few who had not heard of her, and then about fifteen (out of thirty) who hated her —albeit, whilst not knowing anything she had actually said.  One student said, and I quote from a note I wrote myself in class, “I have a visceral reaction to the mere name.”  Like the others, that student knew next to nothing, only that she was for selfishness —but, again, I must qualify, that this individual not what she meant by “selfishness.”  I explained to students that they needed to put aside expectations, and that they needed to read with as close to an unbiased attention as possible, that when they hit upon something that they disagreed with, simply put the book down for a little while, reflect as to whether there was a generous way to read what was last read or a sympathetic way to understand it, and then continue reading.  The results were surprising.  Of those students who had an extremely passionate hatred for Rand at the start of the class, they were tepid by the end.  One of the biggest revelations that my classes experienced was that there were things that they agreed with Rand on, an unexpected outcome for many.  This is nothing new to a seasoned and sincere philosopher, who finds good and bad in all.  Many students said that learning to read dispassionately culminated in this very uncomfortable state, namely, they agreed and disagreed with various things Rand had to say, and felt themselves removed from the hatred that alienation stabilized in them: now that Rand wasn’t “the Other,” students didn’t feel threatened.  A big complaint that remained, that many didn’t like Rand’s tone.  However, even this point brought to bear good points of further discussion: was students’ expectation of a feminine voice from a woman a part of gender biasing?  If a man spoke with a similar tone, would he be so accosted?  It’s a great point for consideration.

One of the class outcomes, in terms of final essays, was that two students used Rand in their final papers, one arguing intelligently against her ideas and positions, a second arguing on their behalf.  That was a delight.  Naturally, I didn’t care what the opinions of the students were, but that they could intelligently attack and defend positions was of central importance.  Another consequence was that students dropped the extreme emotional charge when analyzing her ideas, giving much more level-headed assessments than they were capable of weeks before.  I probably did more for anti-Rand advocates in this regard, because the students were generally apathetic to Rand when all was said and done.  As I see it, one of the things that keeps Rand in the public eye is outbursts of hatred that relay no real information.  An example was the Jon Oliver piece on “Why Is Ayn Rand Still a Thing” (found here) and comedic clips (here), after which I had students ask me about who she was, obviously not having read the syllabus too closely, as it expressed that we would be reading Rand’s essays late in the semester.[3]  Very few of my students expressed any further interest in her ideas, though a few did, although there were more interested in Rand, at the end of the semester, than the handful that was interested at the start.  My student who had the ‘visceral’ reaction ultimately said that he would recommend reading Rand to those who wanted speak ill of Rand, because he felt a competent attack was only possible through knowledge of her texts; but that he had only a passing interest to read her fiction, since he was a creative writer and still did not appreciate her harsh tone.

We read Rand in my ethics class, as well.  My reasoning for including Rand in the ethics class had much more to do with my sympathy for egoism’s representation and the sake of my own honesty.  Let me be clear, I do not necessarily maintain egoism as my personal view, but I am sympathetic to any view that is not satisfactorily portrayed, especially in a textbook, which is supposed to be fair in its presentation of a set of ideas.  Our text for the class was Barbara MacKinnon’s Ethics: Theory and Contemporary Issues.[4]  The text did not give a fair presentation of what egoism could possibly entail.  After rebuking any attempt at using a philosophy that founds an economic theory, MacKinnon gives egoism short shrift.[5]  In particular, and somewhat ironically, she treats it in a way that is difficult to distinguish it, on an individual by individual (i.e., moral actor by moral actor) basis, from her pet theory, utilitarianism.  Egoism is represented as a moral theory that can only be self-contradictory, because she regards it as a do-as-one-feels theory of ethics.  If governed by whim induced by context, that’s all the more egoism is.  Rand supplies a much more tenable and appealing view.  Does it work?  I don’t know, but my students loved discussing whether it could or could not.  What they enjoyed was entertaining ideas that we sophisticated and not simple-minded.  I presented the material in a dispassion and disinterested way, which ultimately led students to ask, “Well, what is it that you believe, because you seem to argue for and against everything.”  Taking the Socratic approach, and forcefully removing my own opinions from the classroom, so as to push no agenda, my students were left without answers.  In a word, left with fair presentations of all material, they were left having to hone their own judgments, perform their own analyses.  Perhaps, the most fascinating part of introducing Rand to the class was that the students were force to carefully treat words in a way they never had previously —and I think this is particularly indicative of the philosophic endeavor.  “Selfish” and “altruism” meant something different than the amorphous, vague sense of everyday parlance.  Ultimately, a few students found some use in Objectivism, even if the majority of those few felt Rand’s project incomplete or less important in some contexts than others.

Most of all, I emphasize to students and intellectuals, as well as peers, that we must not neglect those thinkers who we are in anyway passionate about, whether love or hate.  Those who we care not to speak of, we may ignore, because we will not mention them anyway.  However, if you have an intellectual axe to grind, you need to know their position, otherwise you are doing rhetorical, not philosophy —you advance what you want to be the truth, not the Truth.  Additionally, one must be capable of reading the opposition sympathetically and generously, acquiring an understanding that has been forged by dispassionate reason, without which philosophical critique is not possible, only pitiful rhetorical slander.  Just as I will pressure my students in the spring’s philosophy of religion course, pushing Christians and theists to understand the view from the atheist’s seat, and the atheists to read sympathetically creationists, I push all students of any view to read the opposition for one particular reason, which I repeat throughout my courses: Knowing your own position is not nearly so important in an attacking argument as knowing the foundation, ins, and outs of the opposition’s view and intellectual framework.  To know where every joist, piece of rebar, every pillar, and every interstice in the opposition’s foundation —that! is how you win arguments and advance truth.  Without these things I describe, one succumbs, even just a little, to dogmatism; the first undermining of dogmatism’s bulwark is intellectual honesty, a lesson one is best poised to learn in the introductory philosophy classroom.

[1] Ayn Rand probably would have wanted to have me strung up for putting her name in the same paragraph as Kant’s famous dictum from “What Is Enlightenment,” but I think there is great force behind ideas that are promoted by thinkers who are, let’s say, intellectual enemies.

[2] I would like to thank the Ayn Rand Institute for the donation of 60 copies of Philosophy: Who Needs It and The Virtue of Selfishness.  I am, in no way, affiliated with the Ayn Rand Institute.

[3] I generally don’t touch politics, but I am aware that Rand has, for absolutely no reason, become a point of conflict for liberals and conservatives.  I have been told some Republicans take up Rand as a ‘source of inspiration’.  I can only imagine that this is the result of two things: the fact that these Republicans have not read Rand and the fact that Democrats enjoy occasional outbursts of hatred and satire directed toward her.  I doubt Republicans find the same inspiration in Rand on points of discussion, such as individual rights (e.g., the right to abortion) or equal rights (e.g., homosexuality, since Rand never made a distinction between male and female in her view on love, as the realization of one’s highest values in another individual).  Somewhat comically, the Republican reaction to Democrats stems from the Democrats not having likewise read Rand; the Democrats likely heard Milton Friedman’s policies and his association with Rand (…and the words laissez-faire capitalism…), and immediately began demonizing her.  What everyone should bear in mind that politics is not about Truth, it is about power; and being ignorant of what one thinker’s views actually are, is the least of politicians’ concerns.  In sum: do not get your Rand from any politician, who is invariably interested in the psychological power of rhetoric, not truths found in the dispassionate honesty of philosophy.

[4] Since I was hired last minute, the college already had books in place for the classes I was teaching this semester.

[5] I would maintain that Marxist philosophy and Adam Smith’s philosophy have something to teach us about ethics.

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