I’m quite happy to admit that I think that Objectivitists (the followers of the Randian ‘philosophy’) are foolish in their belief that Ayn Rand expressed a cogent and coherent philosophical framework. I will even go so far as to say that such followers seem to commit themselves to adhering to an inconsistent doctrine that cannot be made fit for a society. These are all philosophical issues and, if I had the time, I would probably devote a few months to reading up on the exact minutiae of Objectivism to come up with concrete examples of just how unphilosophical Rand’s polemics really are.
I worry, though, that a great many of the criticisms of Rand and her ideas are couched in a critique of her as a person as opposed to her ideas. One can see part of the reason why critiquing Rand is a useful way to critique Objectivism; she didn’t live the ideal life of her characters and some of her views, such as endorsing the actions of William Edward Hickman, a serial killer, or advocating that all her followers smoke because the evidence that smoking caused lung cancer was communist propaganda, shows that there was something a bit off about her psychology.
Still, ad hominems, in this case, are not good arguments. Plenty of legitimate philosophers live less than ideal lives in respect to the theories they advocate; it is important to remember that hypocrites can still have a point. Plenty of doctors smoke and still tell their patients not to start, for example.
I bring this up because Rand is rather fashionable at the moment, and there are plenty of new biographies coming out about her. Today I read this review of two new biographies of Ayn Rand; Anne C. Heller’s â€œAyn Rand and the World She Madeâ€ and Jennifer Burn’s “Randâ€”Goddess of the Market.” They seem like interesting books, but the reviewer uses it as a piece to skewer Rand the person as opposed to Objectivism.
Now, admittedly, the review is of a book about Rand the person, but the reviewer is critiquing Objectivism first and foremost. Just because Rand was a very flawed person, this does not mean her philosophy was just as flawed (although, actually, it is even moreso); it is a mistake to attack the character and then infer that this means the arguments they put forward are worthless.
Rand’s fashionability in Conservative circles is bizarre and needs explaining; here was a drug-taking, atheist woman who has become the patron saint of people like Alex Jones, Glen Beck and Rush Limbaugh (who knows a little about drugs himself). If her arguments are wrong, then they should be critiqued.
But, and it’s a big “But!” you need to be seen to be attacking those arguments rather than the originator of them.
The ad hominem is not always fallacious; if you are criticising someone’s eye-witness testimony, then you can attack the witnesses perceptual abilities; “He’s as blind as a fruit bat!” is a good reason to dismiss his testimony to the extent he saw the assailant climb the fence. However, if someone argued that, based upon evidence, inferences, and the like, that “Jones did it!” then attacking the originator of the argument for wearing plaid on a Sunday is not a legitimate criticism.
I realise that for people like Rand, who lived disquietening lives, showing that their lives do not match their philosophy looks like it should be a knockdown blow to the philosophy (especially given the hero worship of Rand), but still, we must deal with arguments. The ad hominem attack, in cases like these, gives us a reason to be suspicious of the philosophy but it does not tell us it is wrong.
Although I think it clearly is.
Still, all that being said, I did like the final paragraph:
The figure Ayn Rand most resembles in American life is L. Ron Hubbard, another crazed, pitiable charlatan who used trashy potboilers to whip up a cult. Unfortunately, Rand’s cult isn’t confined to Tom Cruise and a rash of Hollywood dimwits. No, its ideas and its impulses have, by drilling into the basest human instincts, captured one of America’s major political parties.