On Ayn Rand: Is Rational Selfishness Rational and Self-Affirming Enough?, Part 2

In my first post on Ayn Rand, I concluded by saying that

In my estimation, her ethical model of objectivism depends upon the ability and imperative of reasoning apart from emotional or experiential stimuli that otherwise impact rationality and upon a view of the self as autonomous. Can one reason in this pristine manner, and should one? And should one view the self as autonomous? If one answers in the affirmative, one would likely tend to affirm Rand’s objectivism as sufficiently rational and self-affirming. I don’t answer in the affirmative to either of these claims, and will discuss these matters further in future entries on the subject.

I will offer my rationale for why I don’t find Ayn Rand’s views rational and self-affirming enough while incorporating thoughts from a few individuals who left comments on the previous post. Their responses as well as others in the comment section help further the conversation. One person who commented said,

Author’s estimate that the Objectivist ethics depend on reasoning apart from emotional or experiential stimuli is incorrect. Reason is based on the material provided by man’s senses (experiential stimuli), integrated in the form of concepts according to measurable relationships among observed concretes. The concepts are used in accordance with logic, i.e., non-contradictory. Emotion does not enter into the formulation of the Objectivist abstract ethical principles, however application of these principles to real life questions can and should involve emotional input…

Based on this comment, let me clarify a few items. I did not intend to convey that Rand’s view precludes or discounts consideration of emotional input, but rather that Rand maintains that emotion and experience do not constructively shape or drive properly functioning rationality. To go further, on my view, reason is an instrument of the affections, not the other way round. Rand would reject this view. For Rand, reason evaluates emotional stimuli and experiences, but when rationality is operating correctly it is not subject to or controlled by such stimuli. In her estimation, properly functioning reason always programs or controls the affections (not vice versa), and to constructive ends (See for example The Virtue of Selfishness, p. 72; the essay in question is written by Rand’s colleague at the time, Nathaniel Branden). In contrast, on my view, all people, whether well-reasoned or not, are controlled by the objects of their affection. We are not in control of the objects of our affection as autonomous subjects, but rather responders. Rigorous thinkers often have very different value systems and do not share the same views concerning what is deemed virtuous. Their competing affections shape their reasoning and value systems (See again The Virtue of Selfishness, p. 72).

Those who think that they are autonomous and objective thinkers who keep their experiences and emotional stimuli from shaping and driving their thinking processes, but instead control such stimuli, do not think rigorously enough. Such objectivity is not sufficiently objective. Here I call to mind a selection from a chapter I wrote for Trinitarian Soundings in Systematic Theology (T. & T. Clark International, 2005), p. 24, within which I quote Søren Kierkegaard:

Objectification in the form of detached speculation is not ultimately objectivity, but disguised subjectivity. Søren Kierkegaard contends against radical objectification and detached speculation. As he sees it, the human knower is fully involved in the knowing process, and so, detached speculation is inhuman:

The law for the development of the self with respect to knowing, insofar as it is the case that the self becomes itself, is that the increase of knowledge corresponds to the increase of self-knowledge, that the more the self knows, the more it knows itself. If this does not happen, the more knowledge increases, the more it becomes a kind of inhuman knowledge, in the obtaining of which a person’s self is squandered, much the way men were squandered on building pyramids, or the way men in Russian brass bands are squandered on playing just one note, no more, no less (Søren Kierkegaard, The Sickness Unto Death, ed. and tr. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong {Princeton University Press, 1980}, p. 31).

It is an impersonal, sub-human form of knowing that seeks after autonomy. A truly human approach to the matter, on the other hand, involves participation, or what Colin Gunton refers to as ‘mutual indwelling’. Gunton draws attention to John’s Gospel’s distinctive emphasis on such ‘mutual indwelling’. According to Gunton, ‘The knowledge of which he speaks is first of all the knowledge by acquaintance that is a function of the interrelatedness of persons’ (Colin E. Gunton, A Brief Theology of Revelation: The 1993 Warfield Lectures {T. & T. Clark, 1995}, p. 118), a point John drives home in chapter 17 of his Gospel.

This brings me to my second point. Another commenter claimed: “Disagreement with autonomy is self refuting. Free will is axiomatic, you cannot refute your own autonomy without exorcising it. end of discussion.” I appreciate the concise and straightforward presentation of this claim. Still, I beg to differ. What is clear and axiomatic to some is not to others based on how the affections shape our thinking. Not every rigorous thinker has viewed free will and autonomy as axiomatic. I don’t find the celebration of the autonomous self to be self-affirming enough. On my view, the autonomous self is no self at all, for we are who we are only in relation to God and others. So, if I am to affirm self in the most advanced form, I will be impassioned to affirm the self in relation to others. Autonomy, uncircumscribed freedom, is no freedom at all for those who take issue with Rene Descartes’ classic claim: “I think; therefore I am.” Meaning and purpose are derived not by how well we think in some autonomous manner, but by what we love and how we are loved. In place of the Stoic mindset of “I think. Therefore, I am” or the Epicurean version of “I shop at Walmart and consume gobs of food. Therefore, I am,” I propose that we ponder carefully the following statement as the basis for ethics: “We are loved by God. Therefore, we are.” This divine love to which we respond rigorously with our minds and wills, not as autonomous individuals but as a community, is what shapes our personal identity and makes us truly human. In the biblical world, sin is bound up with reasoning not as an obedient response to God’s love, but as autonomous individuals who long to be in control. The end result is not simply the denial of God but also the denial of ourselves as we reason wrongly, enslaved to godless affections.

This piece is cross-posted at The Institute for the Theology of Culture: New Wine, New Wineskins and at The Christian Post.

About Paul Louis Metzger

Dr. Paul Louis Metzger is the Founder and Director of The Institute for the Theology of Culture: New Wine, New Wineskins and Professor at Multnomah Biblical Seminary/Multnomah University. He is the author of numerous works, including "Connecting Christ: How to Discuss Jesus in a World of Diverse Paths" and "Consuming Jesus: Beyond Race and Class Divisions in a Consumer Church." These volumes and his others can be found wherever fine books are sold.

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  • misterioso

    In other words, the mind is impotent. Nothing new here.

    • Paul Louis Metzger

      With all due respect, I don’t see how your response addresses the argument I am making. Would you be willing to expand on your comment in relation to the article? Thank you. As indicated in the post, the mind is an instrument of the affections. It is engaged, even rigorously in the case of numerous people. As someone else has claimed, the mind operates as a processing faculty. Some intellects are quite robust and stronger than others in their power to process information. Still, the direction or trajectory of their thoughts is shaped by their desires. The PBS video “Thinking by Feeling” in the series “Secrets of the Brain” makes this basic point well. It can be found on YouTube.

    • pmetzger

      With all due respect, I don’t see how your response addresses the argument I am making. Would you be willing to expand on your comment in relation to the article? Thank you. As indicated in the post, the mind is an instrument of the affections. It is engaged, even rigorously in the case of numerous people. As someone else has claimed, the mind operates as a processing faculty. Some intellects are quite robust and stronger than others in their power to process information. Still, the direction or trajectory of their thoughts is shaped by their desires. The PBS video “Thinking by Feeling” in the series “Secrets of the Brain” makes this basic point well. It can be found on YouTube.

  • rvs

    –Beautiful use of Kierkegaard. I often discern a kind of grim stoicism at work in discussions of objectivity within the Christian fold, as if Hal from 2001 is the ideal truth-teller. Is Hal capable of speaking theological truths? I believe you are saying, “not really.”

    • pmetzger

      @rvs Intriguing point. Thanks for sharing. Let me know if I am making the appropriate connection to the 2001 allusion. Computers like HAL can be programmed to transmit theological truth, but what will that do for them in the end? People who don’t hold to certain theological truths like John 3:16 can still articulate and transmit them. Nonetheless, their faith in something else shapes them in such a way that they do not comprehend the deep truths of biblical faith. Moreover, it is a very troubling thing when people in the Christian fold approach the subject matter of faith from a place of neutral scientific scrutiny. They end up becoming hardened in heart. I have certainly experienced this myself from time to time. Hardening of the spiritual arteries is something that humans experience, even if they try to operate like computers. The outcome of such hardening is disastrous to one’s spiritual well-being.

      • rvs

        Yes, thank you for this amplification. Objectivism, the cult of objectivity, objectivity-mongering, etc.–these damage Christian philosophy because they cut out heartfeltness, or at least that’s my sense of it.
        I don’t think that Hal is capable of prayer. I do think he could cleverly quote John 3:16, and even quote it in a seemingly righteous way, but so too could the Devil.
        Semi-related note: Kierkegaard’s critique of system-building has always struck me as a useful warning against the implicit or explicit “scientisim” of modern systematic theology.

        • http://www.thechristianegoist.wordpress.com/ The Christian Egoist

          I don’t think that a monkey is capable of prayer either, but if you take the abilities of objectivity away from Man’s mind, a monkey is all you are left with.

          Man is neither a computer, nor a monkey. He is Man, and you would do good to discover what that means — lest you desecrate the image of God in him.

    • http://www.thechristianegoist.wordpress.com/ The Christian Egoist

      So, wanting to know God objectively is the same as making one’s self into a computer? Ever heard of a false dichotomy?

      Is it not possible (and preferable) to yearn for objective truth about God in order to inspire and deepen one’s love for God?

      • rvs

        Wanting to know God objectively is often–if not always–synonymous with wanting to objectify God. :)

        • http://www.thechristianegoist.wordpress.com/ The Christian Egoist

          What do you mean by “objectify God”? Do you mean “to think about Him objectively”? Do you prefer to ‘subjectify’ God, and turn Him into your own personal fairytale? Do you suppose that God is honored by the idea that He is just a figment of your own subjective fantasies — that He is not objectively real?

          Isn’t that Atheism??

  • JohnDonohue

    You hold God as your root axiom. You presume the existence of God in this axiom.

    Objectivism does not; it holds existence at its root. Disputing Objectivism by calling out your premise does not require a two-part elaborate essay: you are simply saying Objectivism is wrong because it is godless.

    Oh by the way, you invoke metaphysical and epistemological collectivism from top to bottom with such statements as:

    “This divine love to which we respond rigorously with our minds and wills, not as autonomous individuals but as a community, is what shapes our personal identity and makes us truly human.”

    The error is: a ‘community’ (meaning humankind) cannot respond with a mind and a will. “Community” is a collective noun, which merely points to every instance of a human within the context. “Community” has no mind or will.

    • Daniel Somboonsiri

      As I understand the author, he is not attempting to argue that ‘objectivism is wrong because it is godless.’ Rather, he is rejecting an objectivist belief in the human capacity for presuppositionless ‘pure reason.’ For
      one, we are all formed by the communities to which we belong. What one
      determines to be reasonable has much to do with what Lesslie Newbigin refers to as the ‘plausibility structure’ of that person’s cultural context (Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society). That is not to say that any person is bound to the plausibility structures of their context, but to affirm the formative role the community has on individual reason.

      As I read Rand, I see a person deeply formed by her cultural context. The Bolshevik Revolution formed a negative affection for her, fueled in part by the confiscation of her family’s pharmacy and the deplorable living conditions that followed. Furthermore, I see in Rand’s wistful writings regarding the American skyscraper an experience which served to form, from her vantage point, positive affections for laissez-faire capitalism. And, with no desire to be dismissive of Rand, I see her acceptance of social assistance in her later years as deeply influenced by her affections for her well-being over and against even her objectivist ethic. We are all formed by what we love, and reason in light of what we love. The purely rational and autonomous Atlas is a myth that disregards the real person God has made and loved.

      Second, the author is a Trinitarian, meaning that he would hold the existence of one God of three persons to be axiomatic, not just the existence of God per se. This is important to any discussion regarding community. From this perspective, God is not an isolated and individual divine essence from all eternity. Rather, God is a community of persons existing eternally in a divine communion of mutual love. Humanity, made in the image of God, is created by an act of the divine community to live in loving relationship within this divine communion. However, our negative affections have led us to reject this communion in favor of the myth of autonomous existence- apart from God and neighbor.

      • JohnDonohue

        Daniel Somboonsiri: “As I understand the author, he is not attempting to argue that ‘objectivism is wrong because it is godless.’ Rather, he is rejecting an objectivist belief in the human capacity for presuppositionless ‘pure reason.’ For one, we are all formed by the communities to which we belong. What one determines to be reasonable has much to do with what Lesslie Newbigin refers to as the ‘plausibility structure’ of that person’s cultural context (Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society). That is not to say that any person is bound to the plausibility structures of their context, but to affirm the formative role the community has on individual reason.”

        There is no such “Objectivist belief.”

        While there are influences on a developing human being that if not questioned subsequently “form” the character and behavior of the individual, nevertheless it is the responsibility of every person to choose their values. We must examine, then reject or accept, everything. Since you give lip service to “no person is bound,” I will assume you admit one’s conditioning can be overcome. Your implication that Objectivism only believes in some invented form of presuppositional pure reason that denies the existence of conditioning is summarily rejected.

        Further, anyone subscribing to religion is invested not in keeping the developing human free of conditioning in order that he may make less pressured choices when maturing, but rather in massive and onerous indoctrination designed to do everything possible to prevent the new adult from drifting away from or outright rejection of irrational “truth” (aka faith).

        Your second paragraph beginning with “As I read Rand…” is also rejected, with heat. That screed is nothing but gross psychologizing, a scurrilous error of thinking. To expose how seriously immoral that is, just ask yourself: “would I like to have my beliefs boiled down to some random trauma or condition and stand convicted prima facie on some stranger’s opinion that my soul and character are helplessly run by that?” As for your waffle “not to be dismissive of Rand…” I will only say: you don’t know enough about Miss Rand’s thought, character, actions and life to even rise to the level of anything but ignorance as you launch, indeed, your dismissal.

        The rest of your post is just an emotional reiteration of the point I made: your premise is God. Therefore it does not respond to Ayn Rand.

  • http://www.thechristianegoist.wordpress.com/ The Christian Egoist

    “What is clear and axiomatic to some is not to others based on how the affections shape our thinking. Not every rigorous thinker has viewed free will and autonomy as axiomatic.”

    What is your point, here? Objective truth is not determined by majority vote — even among “rigorous thinkers”. Or do you you deny objective truth?

    “the autonomous self is no self at all, for we are who we are only in relation to God and others.”

    Is this true of God’s self? Is He who He is “only in relation to myself and others”? If no, then your supposed principle of essential universal inter-dependence does not hold. If yes, then I’m not sure you are very familiar with the God of Christianity.

    In general, your insistence that man is incapable of objectification means that man is incapable of knowing objective truth — and if man is incapable of knowing objective truth, then all of your claims (which you seem to assume are objectively true) are just a bunch of hot air. The fact that this passes as Christian intellectual material is sad. By undercutting objectivity, you undercut the Objective God and everything which He objectively is — effectively turning him into a school-girl’s fairy-tale.

    • pmetzger

      @The Christian Egoist, I only have opportunity to respond to one of your points at this time. I make a distinction between objective truth and our ability to access objective truth in an unadulterated form. There are many reasons why it is difficult to access objective truth: intellectual handicaps and intellectual laziness are only two aspects. One’s subjective preferences, cultural presuppositions and personal and tribal allegiances also play parts in making it difficult for people to access objective truth. Given the word “Christian” in your moniker and your appeals to the God of Christianity, it is fair that I bring up Augustine as well as John’s Gospel in response. Referring specifically to reasoning about God, from a late Augustinian framework, sin is understood as a negative affection (loss of love for God, a hardened heart) that distorts the will and makes it impossible to reason rightly about God. In John 8, Jesus—the eternal logos/truth incarnate—tells those who are debating him:

      “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and I am here. I came not of my own accord, but he sent me. Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot bear to hear my word. You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies. But because I tell the truth, you do not believe me. Which one of you convicts me of sin? If I tell the truth, why do you not believe me? Whoever is of God hears the words of God. The reason why you do not hear them is that you are not of God.” (John 8:42-46, ESV)

      According to this account, Jesus believes he is speaking clearly. He claims that the reason they don’t understand and believe in him is because he speaks the truth and they don’t want to believe in him (John 8:43, 45). They cannot hear and understand Jesus because they do not want to understand and believe him, since they want to carry out their father the devil’s desires (John 8:44). According to Jesus as disclosed in John’s Gospel, what makes it possible to reason rightly about God is the transforming presence of the Spirit in one’s life (John 3:1-21). Without the Spirit’s presence, we don’t have the love of God in our hearts. As a result, we pursue the glory of people rather than the glory of God (John 5:39-44). Jesus reasons with his antagonists, but he still believes that they cannot understand him based on their negative affections that distort the truth. This is something to which Christians like ourselves must be attentive. Speaking personally, I am in constant need of the transformation of my negative affections (which entail seeking the glory of people) to positive affections for the pursuit of God’s glory, which is the basis for right reasoning and living in the truth.

  • Sam West

    It is unclear what precise point the author is making but it appears that he contends that people are determined beings – determined by their “affections”. Emotion or “affections” is taken as a primary, i.e. for which there is no source to originate from -it itself being a source. In Rand’s metaphysics emotions are derivatives and are not necessarily programmed by reason, as the author asserts, but are automatic evaluations of experiences according to man’s value judgements. For a 100% rational and error-free person their emotions will be programmed by reason but for the vast majority of people with their evasions and errors the emotions will be programmed by whatever contradictory content of their mind.

    Here is a good summary of Rand’s view of emotions: http://aynrandlexicon.com/lexicon/emotions.html


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