Sunday, October 7, 2007

Hicthens, Honesty & Objectivism

By Joseph Kellard

Over on the Harry Binswanger List, there’s been discussion of Christopher Hitchens, the former socialist who after September 11, 2001 abandoned the Left’s appeasing, anti-American foreign policy to question and critique the radical Islamics and their supporters who are bent on forcing us westerners to adopt their brand of mysticism—if at first they don’t annihilate us.

An atheist, Hitchens has written a book “God Is Not Great,” for which he has won high praise, even among Objectivists. But some Objectivists have highlighted the limits to which Hitchens and other atheists, such as Richard Dawkins, author of “The God Delusion,” are true allies. To put it simply, their argument goes something like this: It’s great that non-Objectivist atheists are challenging religion and other forms of mysticism and supernaturalism on rational grounds, but their arguments are undercut by the irrationalism that they either inject into their arguments, or offer as an alternative or solution to the religionists-mystics-super naturalists; be wary of them as potential ideological allies.

Here’s a good example that pertains, specifically, to Ayn Rand. One Objectivist scholar and HBL member, Robert Mayhew, searched and found this quote from an interview with Hitchens (and noted that he is a literature professor who has written intros to numerous novels):

"Yeah, I'm invited to be unpleasant at the expense of Ayn Rand and Objectivism. Well, that's easy. Well, the novels, first, asI keep trying to say that, you know, in my view, there's more morality in a novel by George Elliot than there is in any of the four Gospels, or of the four of them put together. I care very much about literature as the place where real dilemmas, ethical dilemmas, are met and dealt with. So to have novels as transcendently awful as Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead, sort of undermines my project. And then, though I have some respect for the ‘Virtue ofSelfishness,’ a collection of essays, … I don't think there's any need to have essays advocating selfishness among human beings; I don't know what your impression has been, but some things require no further reinforcement."

So, essentially, what Hitchens is saying here is that Ayn Rand’s morality of rational self-interest is indistinguishable from the ethical code pontificated in the Gospels, i.e., religion.

Commenting on this quote, another HBL member said that he found it disturbing that men as intellectual and literate at Hitchens can read Ayn Rand but evade the substance of her writings on a massive scale. He went on to write that men like Hitchens confirm beyond doubt that even highly intelligent men can read Ayn Rand and yet “walk away from it.” By this, I gather he means that they can read “The Virtue of Selfishness,” in which Miss Rand elaborates on her original, radical moral code based on rational self-interest—in which an individual neither sacrifice others to himself, nor himself to others—but still argue that her brand of selfishness preaches “do whatever one want without concern for others.” In short, he brands Hitchens as dishonest.

To me, intelligent, philosophic men such as Hitchens—who dismissObjectivism in a way that is no different than your average un-philosophic Joe—further concretize a fundamental point abouthow Miss Rand conceived her philosophy. In his essay "My Thirty YearsWith Ayn Rand," Leonard Peikoff quotes her as once telling him: "My distinctive attribute is not genius, but intellectual honesty … My perspective as a creator has to be not 'How great I am' but 'Howtrue this idea is and how clear, if only men were honest enough toface the truth.'"

Ayn Rand's fans come in all shapes and sizes, that is, at variouslevels of intelligence and accomplishment—from the high schoolstudent, the waiter and career housewife, to the grade-schoolteacher, the businessman and the physicist. This proves that anindividual does not have to be highly intelligent or especially philosophical to understand and practice her nevertheless original, innovative ideas, which can take some people decades to fullyunderstand. This phenomenon I attribute mainly to Miss Rand'sability to effectively and powerfully concretize, i.e., ground andsimplify, those abstract ideas and do so with extraordinary clarity, particularly through the medium of fiction.

So while Objectivists are intelligent at various levels, what is morefundamentally important about them is that they share the same or asimilar level of honesty. Once they grasp her ideas, their distinctiveattribute is that they have the honesty and integrity to stand by andpractice them. Ultimately, honesty and courage are whatfundamentally make an Objectivist. Hitchens, however, is anintelligent but dishonest coward.

Please post a comment about this article. For private comments, email Joseph Kellard at

Copyright © 2007 Joseph Kellard


Wolfgang said...

That's an very interesting entry. Hitchens book is now available in German and I decided to buy this book, but Hitchens doesn't seem so good as an author as I thought.

Joseph Kellard said...


Thanks for your reply to my post. What is it about Hitchens' writing that let you down?


Bill Clarke said...

You make a huge error (ironically, of not being rational) in your fifth paragraph, where you interpret Hitchen's quote (in paragraph four) as trying to equate Rand's morality with that of the Gospels! You're showing bias to read him as you do, and certainly if you also make him out to be a "coward" (your last paragraph).
HItchen's Gospels reference related only to his claim that there's more ethics in Elliot than the first four books of the Gospels combined).
As to Rand, Hitchens is saying that writing novels whose purpose is to propose yet more selfishness than we already exhibit seems like (for instance) arguing for gravity — which we already have in abundance. Rand's ethic of extreme selfishness (if that's what it is) is thus an exercise of "super aggregation" — an excessive (and unneeded) effort.
You can disagree that Rand's Objectivism is about extreme selfishness, but you cannot interpret Hitchens to say what you did. And that's a rational fact.

Joseph Kellard said...

You may be right about my interpretation of Hitchens' quote, but if that is an error on my part, as you suggest it is, that doesn't necessarily mean I didn’t make a rational effort. It may be, and I think it is, an honest mistake on my part. But I would have to think about it more, though, before I agree with you that I’m wrong in my interpretation.

Also, what you seem to be saying about Ayn Rand's ethics of rational selfishness, which you call "extreme selfishness," is that there is already enough of *her brand of selfishness* in the world, and it was superfluous of her to write about and advocate for it.

Well, in order for me to reply with an educated answer, you would first have to tell me what exactly you mean by Rand's "extreme selfishness," and give me concrete examples of how it exists in our world. I believe I know what you are getting at, but I'd rather have you define your interpretations and terms first.

Bill Clarke said...

As for what I called Rand's "extreme selfishness" above, I think a better term might be "perfect selfishness", given both the personal attitudes of selfishness she thinks are necessary, and what will result in the world if those attitudes occur.
Rand, in an interview with Mike Wallace from the '50s (I believe it is; it's on YouTube), equates morality (altruism, empathy) with "collectivism", and of course, she's wholly against "collectivism". Her only standard for thought and action, after she has dismissed morality, is selfishness (paraphrased): "Everybody should think wholly of themselves, as it is the only rational thing to do." She then makes some amazing claims. One is that in her desired world of selfishness, monopolies would not exist; neither would anyone be able to corner the market of a resource. For all this to occur, she also requires that government not be involved in any way, positive or negative; so I guess her world of "perfect selfishness" (both the attitude and the result) follows "naturally" from her idea that, in a world of perfect selfishness, free markets would operate so perfectly that no one could become a monopolist or a hoarder of a resource. Given that government has to already be non-existent for her world of "perfect selfishness" to come about, and given that governments do exist, and that the "one percenters" are only too happy to co-opt government into helping them corner markets and become monopolists, one wonders how Rand's state of "perfect selfishness" can ever come about.
As someone who has studied philosophy and ethics and worked in a mental hospital, I found her equation of morality with collectivism, and her advocacy for only selfishness, stunning in its ignorance and blindness. If you want to really see what happens when somebody is motivated solely by selfishness, and see how it turns out for them and those around them, study psychopaths.

Joseph Kellard said...

You have interpreted her philosophy incorrectly.

Ayn Rand did not “dismiss morality,” she condemned the morality of altruism, which is the idea that in moral matter others are come before self. The logical consequence of this morality in the social realm is collectivism, which brought to their extreme resulted in the horrors of socialism-Communism and Nazism.

You put in quotes, as if Rand said: "Everybody should think wholly of themselves, as it is the only rational thing to do."

She never said that, and I know it because it is a poor summation of her morality of rational selfishness.

As to your confusing, mixed up ideas on her view of monopolies and government, she was against monopolies, which by definition includes the government stepped in to prevent or ban competitors from a market, so that one (sometimes more) business can have exclusive “rights” to that market—that is, by government using its monopoly on legalized force to ban/prevent competitors. She entirely condemned this practice.

When on the rare occasion when a single businesses earns a great majority of even the whole of a market (assuming that is was the elastic word “monopoly” means), through mere production, without using force or fraud, than that company has every moral and legal right to that market share. They earned it and their competitors did not.

Moreover, Miss Rand was not an anarchist, as you suggest when you write: “Given that government has to already be non-existent for her world of ‘perfect selfishness’ to come about …”

She never advocated that government be “non-existent”—she advocated strongly for proper, limited government, that is, a government that is limited to upholding individual rights and punishes any form of initiated force or fraud.

As to your concluding suggestion that Ayn Rand’s philosophy of rational selfishness leads to psychopathology, I’ll just chalk that up as essentially the equivalent of an ad hominem attack and an appeal to (your own alleged) authority, since you do nothing to demonstrate this claim and only cite your mere study of philosophy and work at a mental hospital.

Your interpretation on Miss Rand’s philosophy is stunning in its ignorance and blindness.