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Posts Tagged ‘Ayn Rand’

On MarketWatch, an interesting recap of Alan Greenspan’s testimony regarding the financial crisis:

NEW YORK (MarketWatch) — In one of the most dramatic moments in the global financial crisis, former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan testified before Congress in October 2008, just weeks after the collapse of Lehman Brothers spread fear and panic around the world.

Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) bluntly asked him, “Were you wrong?”

“Partially,” replied the humbled Greenspan, who once sat at the commanding heights of the world’s economy.

Read the rest of the account here.

We were witness to this fateful testimony before and with interesting discussion as well. Just as the exercise of juxtaposing Greenspan’s execution against the tenets of Ayn Rand’s Objectivist philosophy. Hubris is a virtue to Objectivists, arguably the same hubris that brings us ever closer to the brink with every new crisis.

“Sent from my BlackBerry® wireless handheld”

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Contrast the two clips below, one is a statement of individualism from the movie version of Ayn Rand’s Fountainhead. The second is a clip about God complexes from Malice. In essence they are the same, but they are different somehow. What makes one aspirational while the other despicable?

If money is a reward in society, what does it reward? Talent, skill? Your job, profession? What you know, your education? How about reputation, citations? Does a person that possesses all of the these epitomize our ideal?

More importantly, consider how these ideas manifest in our current society–which is in crisis from all sides. Consider also how our society has rewarded politicans, CEOs, and bankers–who have all contributed to placing our entire society at peril.

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Those who need a good grasp of what we mean by Critical Thinking are strongly encouraged to checkout our special Critical Thinking Resources page  (click the link or the one of the tabs above). Two characteristics associated with Critical Thinking mentioned on our page are:

Self-awareness

We are thinking critically when we weigh the influences of motives and bias, and recognize our own assumptions, prejudices, biases, or point of view.

Judgment

We are thinking critically when we recognize the relevance and/or merit of alternative assumptions and perspectives recognize the extent and weight of evidence

People have asked me if critical thinking means being impartial to all points of view. If by “self-awareness” above, we recognize that all opinions are influenced by motives and bias, then we have to consider that all statements are relative and are acceptable, and that we can’t judge anyone. I’ve been in a number of social situations where I’ve heard these phrases all too often:

  • “Everyone is entitled to their own truth.”
  • “There’s no such thing as good and evil.”
  • “Judge not lest you be judged.”

These statements are not the product of critical thinking. Arguably these statements result from a LACK of critical thought. While part of being critical is to thoroughly examine all aspects of any statement, fact, or opinion, the essence of being critical is NOT to withhold judgement, but to render it.

Ayn Rand wrote a powerful essay on how to be rational (which we have included in our Resources page) where she condemns what she refers to as moral agnosticism:

Nothing can corrupt and disintegrate a culture or a man’s character as thoroughly as does the precept of moral agnosticism, the idea that one must never pass moral judgment on others, that one must be morally tolerant of anything, that the good consists of never distinguishing good from evil.

At this point, people might be tempted to think that critical thinking will lead to judgmental and discriminating behaviour. My answer to this is yes, but never in a negative sense. From Rand’s essay:

But to pronounce a moral judgment is an enormous responsibility. To be a judge, one must possess an unimpeachable character; one need not be omniscient or infallible, and it is not an issue of errors of knowledge; one needs an un-breached integrity, that is, the absence of any indulgence in conscious, wilful evil. Just as a judge in a court of law may err, when the evidence is inconclusive, but may not evade the evidence available, nor accept bribes, nor allow any personal feeling, emotion, desire or fear to obstruct his mind’s judgment of the facts of reality—so every rational person must maintain an equally strict and solemn integrity in the courtroom within his own mind, where the responsibility is more awesome than in a public tribunal, because he, the judge, is the only one to know when he has been impeached.

Don’t you find it strange that people associate judgment or the act of judging with a negative connotation? This is a product of society and a natural tendency for many people to be neutral fence-sitters, and abdicate responsibility by not rendering any judgment whatsoever.

Our goal by exercising critical thought is not to strive for absolute neutrality–which doesn’t benefit anyone. We don’t become critical thinkers just for the sake of criticism. Our goal is to strive for the truth, and to reject untruth. Our goal is to strive for the good and to reject the evil. Definitely we understand that this is a very difficult goal to attain, but it is the motivation that should inspire us to continue to question ourselves, our world, our existence. It will always be an ongoing process, and one fraught with mistakes–but that should not scare us into becoming fence-sitters who sanction anything.

Rand again:

To judge means: to evaluate a given concrete by reference to an abstract principle or standard. It is not an easy task; it is not a task that can be performed automatically by one’s feelings, “instincts” or hunches. It is a task that requires the most precise, the most exacting, the most ruthlessly objective and rational process of thought. It is fairly easy to grasp abstract moral principles; it can be very difficult to apply them to a given situation, particularly when it involves the moral character of another person. When one pronounces moral judgment whether in praise or in blame, one must be prepared to answer “Why?” and to prove one’s case—to oneself and to any rational inquirer.

Arguably the moment you sanction anything is the moment you stop thinking. To sanction anything is to lose your value as a person, as part of society, as a living being. So to the statements above, this is how critical thinkers would rephrase them

  • “Everyone has a right to seek the truth.”
  • “We should seek the good and reject the evil.”
  • “Judge, and be prepared to be judged.”

That is the motto of critical thinkers.

See more of Rand’s essay here.

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Collectivism has taken quite a lot of criticism over the years and it might be interesting to know why this is the case.

What Is Collectivism?

In a broad sense, Collectivism can refer to any ideal, social, or political thought that puts emphasis on interdependence and the group above individuality or identity. Collectivists seek to be part of a greater whole–a larger scheme that is greater than the individual parts of that whole.

Nationalism, fascism, even religious and quasi-religious community-oriented fervor, may be said to be exemplary of collectivism as any notion of individuality is given up in these instances in favor of the community or group as a whole. In all cases, the surrender of individual identity is not even given a passing thought–and this act of denying one’s individuality for the sake of the greater whole is extolled as a high moral virtue.

In political and economic thought, collectivist ideas underpin socialist and communist systems–where the state or government acts as a steward of resources on behalf of its citizens as a whole. Collectivist philosophers such as Rosseau justify this form of economic and political structure by implying that there is a social contract that defines society–the general good–and the continued existence of such a society is determined along those lines.

Compelling, Comforting, Collectivism

Sounds all well and good, yes? Focusing on its promise, collectivism is a comforting, even compelling idea. In fact, we are exposed every day to collectivist ideas and we don’t even notice anymore how easily we warm up to them. For many people, Church is the most common venue for collectivism: as Christianity and most major religions preach the virtues of sacrifice for the good of your neighbor and the morality of self-denial of individual wants and needs–not to mention the additional proliferation of religious and quasi-religious organizations and communities all trumpeting the same collectivist mantra.

The media is the next most common venue: with TV, print, radio, and the Internet rife with shows, articles, and advertisements using collectivist rhetoric to promote many causes: among the most common: AIDS Awareness, Environmentalism, Post-materialism. Politicians lobbying for one legislation or another designed to help the greater good, or the society at large. Economists and bankers harping about bailouts, stimulus packages, and additional regulations with the aim of protecting and nurturing the the economy as a whole.

Individualism: Afraid Of The Same Thing As Collectivism?

Now for the critics. Individualists (opposite of collectivists) argue that any form of collectivist ideal destroys individuality and diversity in society by imposing a homogenous and arbitrary identity to a society which is a contradiction since society is composed of individuals with free will and respective identities.

Also history has shown (maybe naively) that collectivist societies breed totalitarian and oppressive regimes–as evidenced by the atrocious communist movements in Russia and China and the Nazi movement in Germany. Many of the vocal critics of collectivism such as Friedrich Hayek and Ayn Rand trace life experience to these societies.

Proponents of collectivism offer their own criticism to opponents of collectivism, stating that societies being naturally groups of people–are also naturally collectivist whether collectivism is formally adopted as a political system or not. They also criticize individualist thought as inherently elitist–and also prone to abuse and oppression.

Emma Goldman wrote in criticism of individualism:

‘Rugged individualism’ has meant all the ‘individualism’ for the masters, while the people are regimented into a slave caste to serve a handful of self-seeking ‘supermen.’…Their ‘rugged individualism’ is simply one of the many pretenses the ruling class makes to mask unbridled business and political extortion.”

Interestingly, her statements don’t seem to be that different from George Orwell, who was a staunch advocate of democratic socialism and an opponent of collectivism:

“It cannot be said too often – at any rate, it is not being said nearly often enough – that collectivism is not inherently democratic, but, on the contrary, gives to a tyrannical minority such powers as the Spanish Inquisitors never dreamt of.”

Maybe I’m missing something here: but it seems both the individualists and collectivists are afraid of the same thing: an oppresive minority that gains widespread control of society at the expense of the rights of others. Where the two camps differ is how this oppressive elite comes to fore: either as a result of a deliberate surrender of rights by a collective society, or the selfish unbridled ambitions of individualist elites.

The Borg: The Ultimate Collectivists

Meanwhile, collectivism has also been portrayed quite dramatically in science fiction where one of the most explicit expression and criticism is found in the character of The Borg from the Star Trek series.

One interesting aspect of The Borg Collective is that its development as a race or group of organisms does not depend on individual evolution as would normally be the case but on assimilation of other species with characteristics that are deemed to be beneficial to the collective.

In a philosophical nutshell: these collectivists do not evolve to better themselves, but work simply to acquire and absorb everything else for their collective benefit.

The Borg Collective is portrayed as a virulent and nearly unstoppable villainous force in the Star Trek series and movies–which is interestingly just as collectivist critics would precisely have it.

What the conventional Star Trek viewer easily discounts is that despite the menace The Borg poses in the Star Trek universe–as a species they have been very successful (to the point of efficiently successful) in propagating and expanding its reach. If the Borg hypothesis exemplifies the truest sense of collectivism, the potential benefits to a species are very great (note that The Borg far outclasses the Federation in all encounters).

The catch: to be truly collectivist and erase all individuality is to become totally removed from what we can consider “human society” and be closer to an insect hive. Very successful, very efficient, very alien.

(see videos below “The Borg Documentary” in 3 parts) (more…)

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This inset from Raphael’s painting: School of Athens shows Plato (left) schooling his pupil Aristotle. The painting features many names from classic philosophy, but these two figures: Plato and Aristotle, are the centerpiece of the painting, which I believe is appropriate since these two great thinkers embody the essence of two opposing but equally compelling views on philosophy.

The hand gestures of the two men: Plato vertically pointing up at the vault of the ceiling, Aristotle gesturing to the ground along the horizontal plane, are representative of their differing views. In The Duel Between Plato And Aristotle, Leonard Peikoff describes their opposing views succinctly:

For two millenia, Western history has been the expression of a philosophic duel. The duelists are Plato and Aristotle.

Plato is the first thinker to systematize other-wordliness. His metaphysics, identified in Objectivist terms, upholds the primacy of consciousness; his epistemology, intrinsicism and its corollary, mysticism; his ethics, the code of sacrifice. Aristotle, Plato’s devoted student for twenty years, is the first thinker to systematize worldliness. His metaphysics upholds the primacy of existence; his epistemology, the validity of reason; his ethics, the ideal of personal happiness.

I’ve captured excerpts of Dr. Peikoff’s excellent article here under Critical Thinking Resources. I recommend aspiring critical thinkers to add a philosophical dimension to their critical thinking by reading his description of Plato and Aristotle and their latter counterparts: Immanuel Kant and Ayn Rand and how their conflicting philosophies shaped history.

As Dr. Peikoff ends his article:

To save the world is the simplest thing in the world.

All one has to do is think.

Aspiring critical thinkers have to agree.

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The Ayn Rand Institute is an organization which provides material on the author Ayn Rand’s works and philosophy: Objectivism. Dr. Yaron Brook is part of the Ayn Rand Institute and along with his Objectivitst colleagues, a vocal critic of the U.S. government’s actions to date in response to the economic crisis.

Dr. Yaron Brook explains that the only way government can help the economy is to liberate us from “environmentalist restrictions on oil drilling and energy production”, Sarbanes-Oxley, the “semi-socialization of the health-care market”, the Federal Reserve, and “other forms of government spending”, not “stimulus packages”.

More of Dr. Brown’s thoughts in this interesting article:  Stop Blaming Capitalism For Government Failures

This is just the latest example of a pattern that has been going on since the rise of capitalism: capitalism is blamed for the ills of government intervention–and then even more government intervention is proposed as the cure. The Great Depression? Despite massive evidence that the Federal Reserve’s and other government policies were responsible for the crash and the inability of the economy to recover, it was laissez-faire that was blamed. Consequently, in the aftermath, the government’s power over the economy was not curtailed but dramatically expanded. Or what about the energy crisis of the 1970s? Despite compelling evidence that it was brought on by monetary inflation exacerbated by the abandonment of the remnants of the gold standard, and made worse by prices controls, “greedy” oil companies were blamed. The prescribed “solution” was for the government to exert even more control.

Visit the Ayn Rand Institute here.

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In a rare interview with Tom Snyder, author-philosopher Ayn Rand describes epistemology: how to know things, and her particular philosophical system which she calls Objectivism. She shares how her ideas contrast with other philosophies and established systems of morals and ethics such as those proposed by religions. She is a particular critic of altruism in society, of religious faith without the benefit of evidence, and of Immanuel Kant’s ideas.

Although her ideas have been received both acclaim and wide criticism, Rand’s talk nevertheless remains very fascinating and relevant to this day.

(more…)

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