WHAT IS TRULY RATIONAL?
When I became interested in philosophy I wanted it to tell me how to live my life. I wanted it to be a strong guide, pointing me to a path I could walk down all my life, so that I would always be doing the right thing.
So when I stumbled on the philosophy of Ayn Rand, the Russian-American novelist-philosopher (1905-1982), early in my teen years, I assumed it was that kind of philosophy. My kind of philosophy at last! Now I'll find out what to do . . .
Most of philosophy, alas, isn't that sort of thing. Much of philosophy is about difficult, almost unsolvable philosophical problems. How do we know what we think we know? Do we really know it? Are there other minds that think like ours? What is time? That sort of thing.
But I was unconsciously looking for an ethics, a code of morality I could have conviction in, to guide my life, most of philosophy was doing something else.
Now Socrates (469?-399 B.C.E.) is the first person we know of in Western philosophy who reasoned about morality. True, like earlier philosophers he (or, to be more exact, the Socrates depicted in the early dialogues of Plato, by far the most plausible Socrates that remains in written documents) was interested more in inquiring -- or, in his case we would say, defining -- what concepts like justice were, than in following its course. Why was that? Because Socrates had already absorbed many of the ideas of his civilization about what proper conduct was, and didn't intend to stray from them.
Socrates and Plato and the other Athenians felt they knew how to live. They just wanted to understand better the oddly puzzling quality of the concept we translate as "justice". Since Athenian life (for free men, that is) was so much involved with what we call "public life" (the Greek word for a person not interested in public life was idiotes, which became our word "idiot"), Plato's Socrates was also interested in how one could set up a just state.
Thus Plato's Republic and Laws and other works are not so much concerned with morality as with political science.
However, as I have argued elsewhere, human beings need a sense of orientation in the world. As part of this orientation they need what Ayn Rand called a moral code. Religions have always sprung up to fill this void. They often tell one what to do -- in detail.
Many religions set up codes of proper behaviour. A good person makes sacrifices to so-and-so a god, at this time in this way. A good person treats his neighbour as himself. A good person doesn't eat fish (or cows or pigs). A good person obeys the emperor. A good person lets his side curls grow and prays on Saturdays.
Many religions have a deep interest in proper behaviour and have whole books of rules -- the Book of Leviticus in the Hebrew Bible, for example -- to guide the believer in detail what to do each day of his life.
In the Roman Catholic church I believe this is called casuistry.
So I was very interested in finding out exactly what (I assumed) Ayn Rand's casuistry was. What exactly was the good Randist (or Student of Objectivism, as was our official name) supposed to do? Hmm?
What I did not realize for decades was, Rand's philosophy didn't work that way.
Rand hated what she thought was widespread irrationality. What she wanted was, to oppose it. She wanted to define exactly what irrationality was. She wanted to make that definition unmistakably clear. She wanted good people to study her work, and therefore end the rule of irrationality. They would end irrationality in their own minds and actions, and then crush all irrational manifestations in politics and the rest of the world.
Although Rand at one point proudly called herself a Rationalist (meaning: an advocate of Reason, not what a "rationalist" usually is in philosophy -- a believer that one can have certain knowledge from reasoning alone, without sensory experience -- see the philosophies of René Descartes (1596-1650), Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) and Gottfried Leibniz (1646-1716) -- Rand was really an anti-irrationalist. Her interest in defining and promulgating Reason was (I maintain) really in order to oppose unreason.
Okay so far?
I doubt that Rand understood this herself. I'm sure she would have said she wanted to be a novelist, and, incidentally, to use Reason in her life. She would say she had got so deeply into philosophy and opposing unreason because of the irrational state of the world. It was necessary for her to oppose unreason because irrationality threatened to destroy civilization.
This is why there isn't much casuistry in Rand's books and lectures. Yes, there is some. Those who read her books certainly get the impression one is to admire the United States ("the only semi-free country in the world": see her speech "Philosophy: Who Needs It"), to improve one's mind and thinking, to be productive, to think rather than not to think, to have or cultivate one's self-esteem -- hell, even to smoke ( to express the fire of one's mind). There were good words and bad words in Objectivism. Reason and mind and cognition were good words. Feeling and emotion were (or tended to be) bad words. A person in the movement sensed one was to say the word "one" and the word "whom", to adopt a certain dramatic flair and swagger, and cultivate one's beauty (if one were a woman) or adopt a contemptuous smile (if one were a man). No one officially ever advised such behaviour --
--But it was . . . understood . . . and deviation was noticed.
Still, I think I was a little disappointed over time in the Objectivist movement. I wasn't told sufficiently how to live my life. Rand wasn't interested in telling me or others in her movement how in detail to live our lives. She thought it was enough to list three cardinal values -- Reason, Purpose, and Self-esteem -- and several virtues: Rationality, Honesty, Productiveness, Pride -- I forget the others. She verbally castigated those who asked her questions she described as "irrational." (This was her favourite word of abuse.) It seemed she wanted impatiently to get on with her own work. We Students of Objectivism . . . were ultimately on our own.
Oh, sure, Rand and the figurehead subordinate "leaders" of her movement said: "Our job is to define Objectivism. Your job is to tell people that it exists." But this was thin gruel. I was always unconsciously looking for the true ambrosia -- someone to tell me exactly what to do now, and why.
Well, it didn't happen. So, thinking for myself, I thought myself slowly out of and away from Objectivism, though not from its influence.
Did Rand create a moral code? I think we can say, Yes -- in a partial sense; for she created a morality. Rand capably defended egoism for the individual. She ably connected her ethic of egoism to a politics of capitalism. She ably explained why the kind of capitalism that the world should adopt should be laissez-faire. (I don't believe these things nowadays -- quite -- but I still believe Rand made an exceptionally strong case for them.)
But I'm not sure that Rand created a moral code . . .
I don't think a moral code is the same thing as a morality. I think a morality is, roughly speaking, an ethic or ethics. Rand created such a morality or ethics. But a moral code . . . surely a moral code is more fleshed out, more complete, than the skimpy, spare system Rand shoved forward.
A moral code is surely like a legal code. A legal code sets out in great detail the behavior that is forbidden, and what the punishment for that behavior shall be. By analogy a moral code should set out what one should do in great detail, and, again in detail, what one should not do. Rand's ethics or morality certainly made it clear what one should not do -- initiate force or fraud, be irrational or unconscious -- but it spent little time on what one should do. I would call her system an ethic or morality; I am not sure that it was detailed enough to be an ethical or moral code.
But perhaps this is a quibble.
Students of Objectivism used to ask Rand and her "intellectual heir" Nathaniel Branden (1930- ) questions of morality. Rand and Branden answered these questions a bit impatiently, as if thinking, Why ask me that? I think neither Rand nor Branden realized that many of their students were looking for detailed guidance how to live their lives. Perhaps they had a bit of contempt for anyone who had to ask such questions and did not solve them himself.
Rand betrayed even more irritation when answering questions from those outside her movement. While she could sometimes be patient and detailed in her explanations, the premises from which student questions proceeded often seemed to irritate her enormously. She occasionally responded with hostility.
This hostility would often involve accusing the questioner of irrationality, or implying that the questioner (or the question) was (immorally) irrational. One of Rand's greatest mistakes, I believe, was to overuse the word "irrational." She berated people with it, she berated ideas with it, she lashed strangers and inquirers with it. For her, it often seemed that everything in the world was either rational (and therefore in agreement with her philosophy) or irrational (and therefore contemptible). She seemed to believe that all issues were black or white, that her way was the only way, and that anyone who disagreed with her probably had a bad will (putting that in her terms: that they refused to think). Over time I became less and less able to believe that many of her so-called opponents were opponents. Many seemed simply to be asking her honest questions. But many would be tongue-lashed anyway. It was intimidating.
Rand had an enormous enemies list of philosophers through history, philosophers like Plato, Kant, and Hegel. She saw irrationality everywhere. Every philosopher who had ever stated anything different from her ideas was an irrational force of evil. And so on.
If they were authors instead of philosophers, then they had an irrational dark sense of life. Or they were "naturalists" (a 19th century school of writers she despised).
Rand was a crank. She was the greatest crank in history who was a great philosopher. I don't know how else to put it.
Rand was committed. She was, as we say today, "engaged." Her mind was closed. It was her way or the highway. She often demanded servile submission to her dictates from even her closest followers.
In short, she became a guru, like the Greek philosopher Pythagoras (c. 580-c. 500 B.C.E.), the Austrian founder of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), and many, many thinkers. One is not allowed to question closely a guru. A guru pronounces what morality or knowledge is; his students are regarded as either disciples or renegades. The job of disciples is not to think for themselves, but to spread the guru's teachings accurately. Disagreement means expulsion from the group.
This is the way it was with Rand.
Anyone who accepts the lowly role of a disciple deserves it.
Rand did not consciously want to become a classical guru, but that is what she became. She genuinely believed in the rightness of her ideas. If they were clearly right to her, how could they not be clear to others, especially those like Branden who had studied with her? It had to be wickedness, it had to be unfocused consciousness, it might be, no, it must be willful evil and the refusal to think -- irrationality -- that made them do what they did.
Considering Rand and her followers can lead us to think about the rational and the irrational in themselves.
What is rational? What is irrational? Is there truly a rational moral code that we can follow?
I observe that "non-rational" is a neutral word that does not have the bad connotation that "irrational" has.
I further observe that the word "rational" comes from the Latin "ratio" (meaning: reason) which, I assume, has something to do with the ratios of musical harmony discussed in ancient Greece, especially in the Phaedrus dialogue of Plato.
Ancient Greek philosophers, you see, were interested in the idea that there was a structure in reality (in the cosmos, the structured order of things). They sometimes called this structure the Logos, a word which we often translate as word or speech. Logos was translated into Latin as "ratio", reason.
The idea that there is a (principle of) Reason or logic in the Universe that structures it gives a kind of pseudo-explanation why the Universe is as it is. Why is the Universe structured as it is? Because the Logos in it structures it that way. The Logos serves as a cosmic Why to explain everything.
But, examined closely, the idea of a Logos is unsatisfactory. It doesn't really explain anything. One is reminded of the medical explanations in Moliere's plays. Why does such-and-such a liquid put one to sleep? Because it has a dormitive principle in it.
Incidentally, the word "principle" is Latin; it means beginning. It translates a Greek word, arche, which also means beginning. A principle is something at the beginning of a structure or argument from which other things proceed.
So for some of the Greeks there was an arche, a principle, in the Universe that structured it, and this was often called the Logos.
The Christian who wrote the Gospel According to St. John (c. 90-c. 110 C.E.) said that "In the beginning (arche) was the Word (Logos) and the Word was with God, and the Word was God."
This seems to mean (in Christian terms) that in the beginning of things Jesus was with God and was God (the Christian doctrine of the Trinity) and that Jesus made the Universe. I think it is from here that the later Christian doctrine that the part of the Godhead that created the Universe was Jesus, began.
Surely the rational is the non non-rational. I think we have to avoid confusing the idea of a structuring principle in the Universe with the idea of proper behavior. The two may be completely unconnected. There may be Reason in the Universe without this having any implication for our behavior. It seems clearer to say that the Universe is structured than that it is ordered. For the Universe to be structured means it has order (though it might have some disorder also: see the Uncertainty Principle of German physicist Werner Heisenberg (1901-1976)). But to say that the Universe is ordered seems to imply that the order is thorough-going: I am not sure the Universe is that powerfully and thoroughly ordered: what about human free will?
As for saying the Universe has Reason, this implies that it thinks like a human being, and I do not think it does. The Universe has sentient beings within it, but they are (probably) separated by hundreds of light years of space on average. To say that the Universe has Reason seems merely to obfuscate things.
To say that the Universe is rational, on the other hand, seems to mean that it is rationally comprehensible. Well, maybe it is, and maybe it's not. We seem to understand something of its structure and history, more every decade. So yes, the Universe, or much of it anyway, seems rationally comprehensible.
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[To Be Continued and Revised]
Last modified: 10:48 AM 23/11/2003