Monday, September 13, 2010

Book Review: Ayn Rand for Beginners

I have been attracted to Ayn Rand's philosophy for quite some time. This interest was originally triggered by reading one of her novels for which she is very well known — The Fountainhead. Her other novel, Atlas Shrugged, I’m yet to read. And I have read a couple of other books on her philosophy plus some internet-based material. It’s been difficult to find something that simply summarises her ideas with authority — until now.

Andrew Bernstein’s Ayn Rand for Beginners is an excellent, easy-to-read, simple, and comprehensive introduction. He begins by introducing us to the Russian-born Alyssa Rosenbaum (who later changed her name to Ayn Rand) who, at the age of six, taught herself to read. At nine, she decided that her career was going to be writing fiction. Following the Bolshevik Revolution and the confiscation of her father’s pharmacy and years of severe poverty, Rand escaped to America at the age of 21 and stayed there for the rest of her life. Bernstein takes us from that point on her journey writing movie scripts, plays, and a novella until, in 1943, she published The Fountainhead after seven years of writing and rejection from multiple publishers. He then describes the rest of her life of writing and the development of her philosophy.

Bernstein then takes us on a brief journey to meet the main characters and the major themes of her two novels. This is followed by a chapter on the development of Ayn Rand’s philosophy, a chapter introducing the reader to her main ideas, another chapter going a bit deeper into her philosophy, and finishes with a discussion of the modern movement which keeps her ideas alive and disseminated.

Ayn Rand called her philosophy objectivism. According to Rand, values provide the meaning to life. The values an individual holds motivate all their actions. For Rand, the highest good was the pursuit of one’s values and she considered that a person should do so ‘selfishly’. She did not mean selfish in the common sense we use it. Instead, she believed that if a person focused completely on living by their values it would result in genuine care of others because of the values that would result from that care. She held that human life requires the achievement of values and that they should not be sacrificed for any other cause. For her, the best thing one could do was encourage others to achieve their own values and considered it morally wrong to sacrifice what is important to oneself for others. A rational human being who is working for their own happiness naturally loves others to achieve one’s own happiness. So other people then benefit from a ‘selfish’ approach to the pursuit of personal values. Helping others is a personal choice (rather than a result of an obligatory command). Helping of others cannot be good if it is not the result of personal choice.

For Rand, genuine love and care for others, then, is a result of self-interest and thus chosen rather than imposed. It is, therefore, a paradox that ‘selfishness’ leads to genuine care of others because of the mutual benefits that result.

And where do values come from? They should be derived from objective, rational thinking on the basis of evidence (hence the term objectivism for her philosophy). It is here that Rand comes into conflict with much religious thought which usually bases values on revelation from a god or gods. For her, these values are imposed and accepted by faith rather than derived from empirical evidence. As a result she rejects any form of religion.

In a secular society (which Western cultures are rapidly becoming/have become), it is not appropriate that values derived from a particular religion are imposed on the rest of society. An objectivist approach may provide common ground for exploring values in society. With increasing religious tensions within multicultural societies, this may be something we need. The challenge, of course, is to find objective bases on which to derive values that are a priori believed on faith. Many Christians won’t be willing to move to this approach because of the absolutist approaches to morality that is considered to be part of Christian foundational belief. It may also mean the jettisoning of some values that have no basis in any evidence.

In this brief review, it is impossible to do justice to Rand’s philosophy. I’m only learning about it myself. But if you want a plain introduction, then Bernstein’s Ayn Rand for Beginners is a good place to start. Bernstein clearly has a deep understanding of Rand’s thought and approaches it with respect and balance. Rand’s philosophy is fascinating, fresh, and provocative. Definitely worth a look!

1 comment:

  1. How can you possibly be attracted to a philosophy which is directly and viciously opposed to Christianity?

    That said, I'm sure the book you are reviewing is fine, although I always prefer to read primary materials over secondary ones.