Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Ayn Rand's Misunderstanding of Human Nature

Will Wilkson:
Objectivism has a risibly inadequate picture of human nature, and it is therefore unable to provide useful guidance for non-fictional human beings. Objectivism's most serious problem in this regard is in seriously addressing the essentially social nature of human beings and accounting for the values and virtues of human sociality. A good text in anthropology, social psychology, or evolutionary psychology can be read as an extended argument for the inadequacy of Objectivism as a practical philosophy for actual human beings.

This objection goes very deep. But some of the problems are right there on the surface. If Objectivism is a practical philosophy for real Earthlings, then what is the Objectivist theory of the family? What is the Objectivist theory of the value of childrearing? This is no small lack for a purportedly practical philosophy. Almost every human being for the entirety of history has lived and raised children in extended family groups. As a good first approximation, that just is human life. And Objectivism has nothing to say about it.

At a deeper level, Rand's failure to understand and integrate the evidence of biology and anthropology into her picture of human nature leads to a distorted picture of our psychological constitution. Take family and children. Our very existence depends on built-in psychological dispositions to create and raise children. It's a bizarre over-intellectualized distortion of our nature to understand the human desire for sex and physical intimacy as reflecting personal philosophical premises. Furthermore, the evidence is that human beings are naturally coalitional (tribal, if you will), obsessed (like all primates) with status and dominance, and that huge portions of the mind are devoted to the problem of navigating the social world. Furthermore, we have deep needs for casual physical and emotional intimacy. We need to feel welcome and included in groups. We need to feel liked. Social disapproval makes us very sad and often angry.

But Objectivism has very little to say about these facets of our social nature, other than to provide over-intellectualized rationalist just-so stories about the implicitly philosophical dimensions of phenomena that are in fact largely non-cognitively emotional and biochemical.
This is the fundamental flaw in the whole libertarian project, the failure to understand that we are social animals. Even if you want to consider only what is good for individuals, or just for yourself, then the serious answer has to include "to live in a good society." Alone, only a few oddball humans can find happiness. The main focus of out politics should be on better regulating the ways we work and live together, not on trying to pry us apart.

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