On Thursday, November 4, 2010, Dr. Harry Binswanger presented the lecture “Ayn Rand’s Philosophic Revolution” at the Noland Zoology Building on the UW-Madison campus. In the following essay, I will be presenting Binswanger’s interpretation of Rand based on my extensive notes, and will include my own commentary where I think he may stray from strict facts.
Binswanger is perhaps the single most qualified person available today to speak on Ayn Rand. He is one of Ayn Rand’s foremost students and personal associates. Binswanger received his Bachelor of Science degree in “Humanities and Engineering” from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (where he was instrumental in establishing the student group “Radicals for Capitalism”) and his Ph.D. in philosophy from Columbia University in 1971. He taught philosophy at Hunter College (City University of New York) from 1972 to 1979, and at the University of Texas, Austin, Spring 2002. During the 1980s, he was editor of The Objectivist Forum, a bimonthly journal devoted to Ayn Rand’s philosophy. Since 1994, he has been professor of philosophy at the Objectivist Academic Center of the Ayn Rand Institute. He is the author of The Biological Basis of Teleological Concepts (ARI Press, 1990) and editor of The Ayn Rand Lexicon: Objectivism from A to Z (New American Library) and of the second edition of Ayn Rand’s Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology (New American Library). A regular speaker at universities, he has given more than 70 talks at some 40 universities on a wide variety of topics in philosophy and politics. Dr. Binswanger is currently writing a book on the causal nature of consciousness.
Binswanger opened with the observation that many people think of Objectivism as simply politics, but this is not true. The current political representation of Objectivism can be found in the Tea Party, which he calls “the best thing that has happened politically in my lifetime”, and asserts that they are “anti-statist”. He even contributed $100 to Senator-elect Ron Johnson after hearing him defend Atlas Shrugged during his debate with Senator Russ Feingold. (Johnson said, concerning the book, “It’s a warning of what could happen to America. When you hear people talk about a tipping point, that’s what we’re concerned about… We have more people who are net beneficiaries of government than are actually paying into the system. That’s a very serious thing to think about.”) What Binswanger fears, though, is that the Tea Party is simply politics without any philosophical roots. The words of Ayn Rand express why politics alone is not how to approach Objectivism.
Rand summed up her entire philosophy well when she said, “I am not primarily an advocate of capitalism, but of egoism; and I am not primarily an advocate of egoism, but of reason. If one recognizes the supremacy of reason and applies it consistently, all the rest follows.” With that in mind, Binswanger moved from metaphysics to ethics to politics… does it follow?
Metaphysics and Epistemology
Reason, according to Rand, is the “only absolute”. Binswanger believes that “reason is the base of Western civilization”, and it leads to science and freedom. We live in a time where reason battles unreason, with reason leading to technological advances like ipods, and unreason leading to “jetliners crashing into the World Trade Center”. Binswanger says, “Reason is a function of the neocortex that extends our awareness.”
Reason, in turn, comes from sensory input. Reason has a basis and a method: the basis is sensory input, the method is through logic. Or, in short, reason equals senses plus logic. Ayn Rand believed this was the only rational way to approach the world because “a contradiction cannot exist”, so filtering our senses through logic should lead to the only realistic and pragmatic solutions. With regard to how she viewed the world of sensory input, Rand considered herself an Aristotelian.
She was opposed to Plato and Platonism, which believed that the sensory world was a “distraction” (with the real world being in the realm of Ideas), and also to Christianity, who felt this world was not the important thing but instead we must pay heed to the higher world of gods and heaven. “There is no higher world,” says Binswanger, “Sorry.”
Rand also followed Aristotle in that she felt the only form of logic that made sense was the syllogism, and not symbolic logic. Binswanger says, “Symbolic logic is a logic that starts with arbitrary premises and plays games with them.” He cites Wittgenstein, who says that “the laws of logic all say the same thing, namely nothing.”
Rand was opposed to the rationalists (who Binswanger says are “not rational”), because the rationalists are all logic without sensory input, and ultimately this leads to mysticism. Plato, says Binswanger, became a mystic. Binswanger made a passing comment here that President Obama is something like a rationalist regarding his health care bill (which Binswanger calls “ObamaCare”), because he feels that he can understand it without really examining it, and we should be able to do the same. (There are a great many responses that could be made about this, all of which would stray from the primary topic, but in short I would say that Binswanger should stick to philosophy and keep out of things he cannot comprehend, like politics.)
Empiricism is also flawed, because it is sensory input without logic, and ultimately leads to skepticism. David Hume was the “arch-empiricist” and is well-known to have been a skeptic. Empiricists distrust logic and reason, and deny any sort of absolute truth. Objectivism does not either doubt or accept, but has three common sense grades of evidence: possible, probable and certain. The empiricist Bertrand Russell was “a paragon of irrationality” who should have got a real job, but instead lived off of others. Binswanger believes that Russell and other so-called irrational people live longer because rational people step in to save them. (This raises two questions: one, if irrationality lead to long life, why be rational? Two, assuming that supporting irrational people is not rational, does this make rational people irrational or is it a paradox?)
Objectivism is opposed to religious belief (spiritualism) because it opposes technology and wealth, which it calls greed. Adhering to spiritual views leads to Islamism and 9/11. Materialists are also wrong, because they hate values and accumulated wealth, and their views ultimately lead to Stalinism. Karl Marx “indirectly killed 100 million people” and “he was a man consumed by hatred.” For Objectivists, spiritualism (or religious fanaticism) and materialism (or communism) can be seen as two sides of the same coin.
Binswanger has an interesting take on Immanuel Kant’s “Copernican Revolution”. He believes that his “Critique of Pure Reason” lead to subjectivism and collectivism in Germany, and eventually to the Bismarck version of the New Deal. (I am not familiar enough with German history to elaborate on this.) Binswanger also says that Kant and Hegel are indirectly responsible for the liberal tendencies of Wisconsin and Minnesota, because the immigrants brought their collectivist, “anti-American” values with them.
Ayn Rand wrote that “the moral purpose” of life is a person’s “own happiness”, which is achieved by surviving, striving and achieving. Binswanger notes that “survival is the purpose of existence”, and therefore using our minds to survive is ethical. If survival and the happiness that comes from successful survival are the primary purpose of life, then “our life depends on one choice: using reason or not”. He says that “life is self-sustaining action.” Here is where the metaphysics of Objectivism becomes ethics: reason is the root of ethical decisions.
Social ethics follows from individual ethics. While the goal of ethical egoism (Rand’s ethics) is selfishness and self-interest, you must be rational when following your interests and consider the long-term implications. For example, do not use others, or this opens up a door for them to use you. We are obligated to respect the rights of others because this is the only way where they will respect our rights. Although Rand rejects the philosophy of Kant, in many ways her view of rights is similar to his Categorical Imperative or variations of the Golden Rule.
Rights, for Binswanger, come down to physical force. “Physical force is the only thing that violates rights,” he says. Though, I should note that he uses “physical force” loosely, because he includes things such as theft.
A member of the audience asked whether there was a conflict between individual rights and egoism, or the pursuit of self-interest. They suggested that a man was dangling on the edge of a cliff with a bag of money or gold safely nearby: what is the Objectivist’s motivation for not stealing this gold when it would clearly serve their self-interest? Binswanger asserted that “it is not in your interest to rob someone” and that the goal was to achieve things, not to steal them or have them given to you. (The audience was not completely satisfied with this answer.)
Another person wondered about psychopaths who enjoyed murdering: if individual rights are of no concern to them, how do they fit into the egoist view of the world? Binswanger said that “no one can be happy murdering” and said that any psychology that thinks so is wrong. And even if they did, “force is out” regardless. The goal is to earn, not to steal. He asked if Bernie Madoff was happy before he got caught. (The audience largely said “yes”.) Binswanger countered that he was not, and that Madoff was “unahppy” because “you cannot be happy living a lie.”
On the issue of charity, Binswanger says that Rand had no specific view one way or the other: if a person wanted to give to charity, they could. However, there is absolutely no obligation to do so. It would be “immoral to help out someone who intends to remain poor” (what Rand called moochers), and if they had children that were being kept down against their will, the courts should reassign those kids. Right now “there are more people in this country who want to adopt than there are children”, which is why people bring in babies from Mexico or China. We shouldn’t be concerned about charity as much as we are — “the culture has brainwashed you guys into thinking ethics is about charity and helping other people.” But, he assured us, “there is nothing in Ayn Rand that is against the poor or any other group.” Rand was poor herself.
The Objectivist economics is visible in laissez-faire capitalism, which is the very embodiment of selfishness and self-interest. Capitalism, according to Binswanger, leads to scientific and medical advances, whereas such advances are not found in socialism or Islamism. Socialism, says Binswanger, is marked by “misery, suffering and mass murder”.
Binswanger says socialists, of course, argue that using Soviet Russia or Red China as examples to attack socialism is unfair, because we have never had pure socialism. (Binswanger does not mention the socialism in Scandinavia.) He counters that the attacks on capitalism are unfair because we have never had a pure capitalism, either. Ayn Rand called it “the unknown ideal”. Pure capitalism would be laissez-faire, and the government would not print money, leaving that up to individual banks.
Pure capitalism would feature a government that has only three roles: providing a police force to defend individual rights, an army to defend the nation, and a court system to handle those who do not respect individual rights. All other functions would be handled by private enterprise.
Interestingly, Binswanger believes that America was closest to the capitalist ideal following the Civil War and up until 1913. He says this was when society was at its very best then and had achieved about 95% of capitalism. Prior to the Civil War, America was not capitalist because it accepted slavery. Binswanger claims that “slavery in the South was a violation of capitalism” and was, in fact, a form of socialism. He feels the outcome of the Civil War was inevitable because “the feudal South could not win because they were backwards” and “the capitalists defeated the anti-capitalists”. Does Binswanger believe that in any conflict, capitalists defeat non-capitalists by default?
Capitalism, says Binswanger, protects individual rights and is the right system because “it protects the mind of the individual”. He says this is where the Tea Party is confused: they see capitalism as “liberty”, but that is only a vague notion and is much more than they imagine it to be.
Binswanger and Rand, as well as many other people, generally lump capitalism under politics. I have separated capitalism here into economics and politics, because I think the two are unique and blending them together only confuses the issues. Capitalism might follow from Objectivist ethics, but I find that many of the political views associated with Objectivism and Binswanger seem to be in direct contrast with Objectivist ethics and the use of reason: are Binswanger’s views ethical and reasonable?
Politically, Binswanger is a supporter of completely open immigration, maintaining the U.S. is underpopulated and citing Rand (who immigrated to the U.S. from Soviet Russia) as the premier example of the benefits derivable from open immigration. In response to worries about Islamists immigrating to the U.S., he has argued that rather than impose immigration restrictions (and other limits on Americans), the U.S. should engage in total, offensive war to end the regimes that sponsor terrorism. He has long urged immediate regime change in Iran, which he regards as the mainspring of the Islamic terrorist movement. Binswager expressed support for Israel on the Glenn Beck program on Fox News. Precisely how Binswanger reconciles the concept of invasive war with the Objectivist prohibition of physical force and violence is unclear.
Binswanger has a unique opinion of Native American history and the American university system. He says, “Every Indian on this continent should get down on his knees and thank the Europeans for saving them 10,000 years of development” because they were all “very primitive” and had not even invented the wheel yet. Binswanger insists that “we didn’t come over here and enslave the Indians”, and the “myth” that the Europeans or early Americans slaughtered them is pushed by anti-Americans who hate freedom. The professors at the University of Wisconsin “are all socialists, Democrats, Maoists and Castroites.” The tales of smallpox-infected blankets and shooting Indians for sport are myths, and the bottom line is that “we civilized them and they should be grateful.”
One thing we do agree on, though, is that “democracy is a horrible system”.
Whether Harry Binswanger has hijacked Ayn Rand for his own ends or not, I am not enough of a Rand scholar to say. He worked with her and clearly knows her writings inside and out. When he presents them, though, is he presenting Ayn Rand or his own misguided, askew Ayn Rand?
What I do know is this: Binswanger is a man whose worldview is not logically consistent and not based on the reason he so highly admires. His views on metaphysics and ethics seem to follow Objectivism well enough, and make some sense. But beyond that, he seems lost and confused, but unaware of his confusion. To accept Ron Johnson as a voice of reason based merely on his endorsement of a book is lunacy that goes beyond single issue voting. His denial of American Indian history that is firmly grounded in fact smacks of racism. And his pro-war views raise the issue of whether or not force is acceptable by nations while not acceptable for individuals… and if yes, why?
If Ayn Rand’s vision is evident in Binswanger’s politics or in Alan Greenspan’s economic policies, there is something fundamentally wrong with her philosophy and the people it attracts.
(To learn more, look up Harry Binswanger online or visit the website of the student group that sponsored his lecture, Students of Objectivism.)