Friday, November 20, 2009

Ayn Rand and the problem with individualism

The Guardian has an article on the current Ayn Rand revival.

There's an Ayn Rand revival in America these days. Sales of her books Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead have skyrocketed in the past year, along with the number of Rand-themed articles in mainstream publications.

The central philosophical (and indeed, scientific) problem for individualists like Rayn is the fact that homo "sapiens" is a social animal.

Individualism is an idealism in an age when all philosophers are non-idealists. The idea of a free individual is an abstraction. We are all constrained by physical needs (food, water, shelter &c) and also social needs. Within that framework we must find out how to maximise freedom.

So the resurgence of individualism in its various forms (from neo-con to libertarian) would be funny if it were not so serious.

Individualists form the core of the global warming denialist lobby, working along the following lines:

*I am an individual who chooses to do whatever pleases me
*My high carbon lifestyle pleases me
*AGW theory compels all humans to change to a zero-carbons lifestyle
*Therefore AGW theory is wrong.

2 comments:

Son of John Galt said...

Individualism is not an ideology, it is a natural, metaphysically based conclusion/fact derived via the correct application of reason to experience (i.e., to reality). Since only individuals possess consciousnesses, can understand the concept of (human) rights (or have them violated), and, therefore, can choose (or not) to exercise said rights, the only proper focus of social organization(s) is the individual, conscious citizen. A group, whether small or large, is merely a collection of individuals; as such, no group/society has a consciousness. Thus, any decision(s) made by consensus (i.e., vote) is one pluralistic group of like-minded individual consciousnesses exercising their will over the wills of those who dissent. It is only the concept of inalienable individual rights that restrains and controls the will of the majority from trampling upon the individual rights of minorities, and the smallest minority of all is the individual. The very notion that, "Anything the majority does is right because the majority chooses to do it" is a mockery of morality, just as is the notion "Anything I choose to do is right because I choose to do it" is. The political concept of individual rights (i.e., rights to action(s) which exist due to the nature of man and the nature of reality, and which are discovered by the correct application of reason to experience, i.e., to reality), is/are the means of subordinating society to moral law. It is the concept that protects individual morality in a social context -- the link between ethics and politics. As Ayn Rand said, "Man holds these rights not from the Collective nor for the Collective, but AGAINST the Collective -- as a barrier that the Collective cannot cross;...these rights are man's protection against all other men." A majority cannot have the power to vote away the inalienable rights of any minority. Individual rights are not subject to a public vote. That was the political, philosophical breakthrough that was the foundation the Founders of the American experiment, and the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and their supporting documents make that perfectly clear to all those who care to study and to grasp it. Please do so before your and your friends' collectivist political tendencies crush the individual citizen in an orgy of moralistic, "democratic" tyranny by the majority. And remember, no one's rights can be secured by the violation of the rights of others; the ends do not justify the means -- just ask a Holocaust survivor.

Richard Lawson said...

Well individualism clearly is an ideology, since you admit it is a metaphysically derived conclusion, which is a philosophy, and an ideology is an applied philosophy.

I note the antithesis you draw between individual and social. We should distrust all such antitheses. In individual psychology such antithetical constructs usually lead to neurotic symptoms. Human reality is usually constructed of continua rather than antitheses. To set individual as primarily if not necessarily in opposition to society is a worrying construct. In the individual it can lead to paranoia. To say that no group or society can have a consciousness is plainly wrong at more than one level.

Clearly the healthy outcome is to work always to harmony and balance between the needs of individual and society.

As I point out above, there are physical, biological and social realities that necessarily constrain individual freedom.

I am impressed with the way the pseudo-syllogism that I put at the end of the post seems to dominate much individualist thought:

*I am an individual who chooses to do whatever pleases me
*My high carbon lifestyle pleases me
*AGW theory compels all humans to change to a zero-carbons lifestyle
*Therefore AGW theory is wrong.

Maybe the Son of Galt doesn't subscribe to this, but for all those to whom it applies, it demonstrates to me that individualism is an ideology, and a tragically mistaken one at that.

And BTW, my rejection of individualism does not make me a socialist. I am a Green, not a Red.