“Every political philosophy has to begin with a theory of human nature,” wrote Harvard evolutionary biologist Richard Lewontin in his book Biology as Ideology. Thomas Hobbes, for example, believed that humans in a “state of nature,” or what today we would call hunter-gatherer societies, lived a life that was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short” in which there existed a “warre of all against all.” This led him to conclude, as many apologists for dictatorship have since, that a stable society required a single leader in order to control the rapacious violence that was inherent to human nature. Building off of this, advocates of state communism, such as Vladimir Lenin or Josef Stalin, believed that each of us was born tabula rasa, with a blank slate, and that human nature could be molded in the interests of those in power.
Ever since Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand has been gaining prominence among American conservatives as the leading voice for the political philosophy of laissez-faire capitalism, or the idea that private business should be unconstrained and that government’s only concern should be protecting individual property rights. As I wrote this week in Slate with my piece “Ayn Rand vs. the Pygmies,” the Russian-born author believed that rational selfishness was the ultimate expression of human nature.
“Collectivism,” Rand wrote in Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal “is the tribal premise of primordial savages who, unable to conceive of individual rights, believed that the tribe is a supreme, omnipotent ruler, that it owns the lives of its members and may sacrifice them whenever it pleases.” An objective understanding of “man’s nature and man’s relationship to existence” should inoculate society from the disease of altruistic morality and economic redistribution. Therefore, “one must begin by identifying man’s nature, i.e., those essential characteristics which distinguish him from all other living species.”
As Rand further detailed in her book The Virtue of Selfishness, moral values are “genetically dependent” on the way “living entities exist and function.” Because each individual organism is primarily concerned with its own life, she therefore concludes that selfishness is the correct moral value of life. “Its life is the standard of value directing its actions,” Rand wrote, “it acts automatically to further its life and cannot act for its own destruction.” Because of this Rand insists altruism is a pernicious lie that is directly contrary to biological reality. Therefore, the only way to build a good society was to allow human nature, like capitalism, to remain unfettered by the meddling of a false ideology.
“Altruism is incompatible with freedom, with capitalism and with individual rights,” she continued. “One cannot combine the pursuit of happiness with the moral status of a sacrificial animal.” She concludes that this conflict between human nature and the “irrational morality” of altruism is a lethal tension that tears society apart. Her mission was to free humanity from this conflict. Like Marx, she believed that her correct interpretation of how society should be organized would be the ultimate expression of human freedom.
As I demonstrated in my Slate piece, Ayn Rand was wrong about altruism. But how she arrived at this conclusion is revealing both because it shows her thought process and offers a warning to those who would construct their own political philosophy on the back of an assumed human nature. Ironically, given her strong opposition to monarchy and state communism, Rand based her interpretation of human nature on the same premises as these previous systems while adding a crude evolutionary argument in order to connect them.
Rand assumed, as Hobbes did, that without a centralized authority human life would erupt into a chaos of violence. “Warfare–permanent warfare—is the hallmark of tribal existence,” she wrote in The Return of the Primitive. “Tribes subsist on the edge of starvation, at the mercy of natural disasters, less successfully than herds of animals.” This, she reasoned, is why altruism is so pervasive among indigenous societies; prehistoric groups needed the tribe for protection. She argued that altruism is perpetuated as an ideal among the poor in modern societies for the same reason.
“It is only the inferior men that have collective instincts—because they need them,” Rand wrote in a journal entry dated February 22, 1937. This kind of primitive altruism doesn’t exist in “superior men,” Rand continued, because social instincts serve merely as “the weapon and protection of the inferior.” She later expands on this idea by stating, “We may still be in evolution, as a species, and living side by side with some ‘missing links.’”
Rand’s view that social instincts only exist among “inferior men” should not be dismissed as something she unthinkingly jotted down in a private journal. In two of her subsequent books—For the New Intellectual and Philosophy: Who Needs It?, where it even serves as a chapter heading—Rand quips that scientists may find the “missing link” between humans and animals in those people who fail to utilize their rational selfishness to its full potential. How then does Rand explain the persistence of altruistic morality if human nature is ultimately selfish? By invoking the tabula rasaas an integral feature of human nature in which individuals can advance from inferior to superior upwards along the chain of life.
“Man is born tabula rasa,” Rand wrote in her Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, “all his knowledge is based on and derived from the evidence of his senses. To reach the distinctively human level of cognition, man must conceptualize his perceptual data” (by which she means using logical deductions). This was her solution to the problem of prosocial behavior and altruism among hunter-gatherer societies.
“For instance, when discussing the social instinct—does it matter whether it had existed in the early savages?” Rand asks in her journal on May 9, 1934. “Supposing men were born social (and even that is a question)—does it mean that they have to remain so? If man started as a social animal—isn’t all progress and civilization directed toward making him an individual? Isn’t that the only possible progress? If men are the highest of animals, isn’t man the next step?” Nearly a decade later, on September 6, 1943, she wrote, “The process here, in effect, is this: man is raw material when he is born; nature tells him: ‘Go ahead, create yourself. You can become the lord of existence—if you wish—by understanding your own nature and by acting upon it. Or you can destroy yourself. The choice is yours.’”
While Rand states in Philosophy: Who Needs It? that “I am not a student of the theory of evolution and, therefore, I am neither its supporter nor its opponent,” she immediately goes on to make claims about how evolution functions. “After aeons of physiological development, the evolutionary process altered its course, and the higher stages of development focused primarily on the consciousness of living species, not their bodies” (italics mine). Rand further expands on her (incorrect) views about evolution in her journal.
“It is precisely by observing nature that we discover that a living organism endowed with an attribute higher and more complex than the attributes possessed by the organisms below him in nature’s scale shares many functions with these lower organisms. But these functions are modified by his higher attribute and adapted to its function—not the other way around” (italics mine). – Journals of Ayn Rand, July 30, 1945.
One would have to go back to the 18th century (and Aristotle before that) to find a similar interpretation of nature. This concept of “the great chain of being,” brilliantly discussed by the historian Arthur Lovejoy, was the belief that a strict hierarchy exists in the natural world and species advance up nature’s scale as they get closer to God. This is an odd philosophy of nature for an avowed atheist, to say the least, and reflects Rand’s profound misunderstanding of the natural world.
To summarize, then, Rand believed in progressive evolutionary change up the ladder of nature from primitive to advanced. At the “higher stages” of this process (meaning humans) evolution changed course so that members of our species were born with a blank slate, though she provides no evidence to support this. Human beings therefore have no innate “social instincts”–elsewhere she refers to it as a “herd-instinct”–that is, except for “primordial savages” and “inferior men” who could be considered missing links in the scale of nature. Never mind that these two groups are still technically human in her view. Selfishness is the ideal moral value because “superior men” are, by definition, higher up the scale of being.
Logic was essential to Ayn Rand’s political philosophy. “A contradiction cannot exist,” she has John Galt state in Atlas Shrugged. “To arrive at a contradiction is to confess an error in one’s thinking; to maintain a contradiction is to abdicate one’s mind and to evict oneself from the realm of reality.” I couldn’t agree more. However, Rand may have had more personal reasons for her philosophy that can help explain her tortured logic. As she was first developing her political philosophy she mused in her journal about how she arrived at her conclusion that selfishness was a natural moral virtue.
“It may be considered strange, and denying my own supremacy of reason, that I start with a set of ideas, then want to study in order to support them, and not vice versa, i.e., not study and derive my ideas from that. But these ideas, to a great extent, are the result of a subconscious instinct, which is a form of unrealized reason. All instincts are reason, essentially, or reason is instincts made conscious. The “unreasonable” instincts are diseased ones.” – Journals of Ayn Rand, May 15, 1934.
This can indeed be considered strange. Looking deep within yourself and concluding that your feelings are natural instincts that apply for the entire species isn’t exactly what you would call objective. It is, in fact, the exact opposite of how science operates. However, she continues and illuminates her personal motivations for her ideas.
“Some day I’ll find out whether I’m an unusual specimen of humanity in that my instincts and reason are so inseparably one, with the reason ruling the instincts. Am I unusual or merely normal and healthy? Am I trying to impose my own peculiarities as a philosophical system? Am I unusually intelligent or merely unusually honest? I think this last. Unless—honesty is also a form of superior intelligence.”
Through a close reading of her fictional characters, and other entries in her journal, it appears that Rand had an intuitive sense that selfishness was natural because that’s how she saw the world. As John Galt said in his final climactic speech, “Since childhood, you have been hiding the guilty secret that you feel no desire to be moral, no desire to seek self-immolation, that you dread and hate your code, but dare not say it even to yourself, that you’re devoid of those moral ‘instincts’ which others profess to feel.”
In Rand’s notes for an earlier, unpublished story she expresses nearly identical sentiments for the main character. “He [Danny Renahan] is born with,” she writes, “the absolute lack of social instinct or herd feeling.”
“He does not understand, because he has no organ for understanding, the necessity, meaning or importance of other people. (One instance when it is blessed not to have an organ of understanding.) Other people do not exist for him and he does not understand why they should. He knows himself—and that is enough. Other people have no right, no hold, no interest or influence on him. And this is not affected or chosen—it’s inborn, absolute, it can’t be changed, he has ‘no organ’ to be otherwise. In this respect, he has the true, innate psychology of a Superman. He can never realize and feel ‘other people.’ (That’s what I meant by thoughts as feelings, as part of your nature.) (It is wisdom to be dumb about certain things.)”
I believe a strong case could be made that Ayn Rand was projecting her own sense of reality into the mind’s of her fictional protagonists. Does this mean that Rand was a sociopath? Diagnosing people in the past with modern understandings of science has many limitations (testing your hypothesis being chief among them). However, I think it’s clear that Ayn Rand did not have a strongly developed sense of empathy but did have a very high opinion of herself. When seen through this perspective, Rand’s philosophy of “Objectivism” and her belief in “the virtue of selfishness” look very different from how she presented it in her work. When someone’s theory of human nature is based on a sample size of 1 it raises doubts about just how objective they really were.
About the Author: Eric Michael Johnson has a Master's degree in Evolutionary Anthropology focusing on great ape behavioral ecology. He is currently a doctoral student in the history of science at University of British Columbia looking at the interplay between evolutionary biology and politics.