Poet of the Sociopath

Rand “is the cold, stony advocate of self-interest, the poet of the sociopath.” That quotation is from the book AYN RAND AND THE RUSSIAN INTELLIGENTSIA (2022) by Derek Offord. He goes straight to Rand’s various representations and condemnations of altruism and collectivism and to her holding high ethical egoism and attendant inversions of traditional virtues, such as the displacement of humility with pride. He sees the audacity of Rand’s vision of a guilt-free human life.

The author sticks to the clashes between Rand’s ethics and the traditional, altruistic ones, secular or religious. He takes no notice of continuities of the old and the new and ways in which the latter took up the old with redefinition and placement in an orderly account of value per se. By sticking to only the stark clashes and by ignoring facets of the psychology of Rand’s protagonists—indeed conjecturing that such things as empathy and concern for others are entirely absent in those characters (and in their creator)— Offord makes it easy on himself to slide from Rand being the poet for personalities asocial, to antisocial, to sociopathical. Even the asocial is in full truth not fitting of Rand’s protagonists.

This book is another distortion and smear of Rand’s philosophy. It is a smart one, by someone who actually has read Rand’s novels and The Virtue of Selfishness. He is of independent mind, not one repeating old critical reviews by others.

https://www.bloomsbury.com/uk/ayn-rand-and-the-russian-intelligentsia-9781350283947/

7 thoughts on “Poet of the Sociopath

  1. I take it from the last paragraph that you are a defender of Ayn Rand, but you didn’t offer her any defense. I always figured Rand saw how Capitalism under certain conditions has the power to direct man’s self-interest toward the common good, and confusedly mistook man’s self-interest itself (rather than the social structures working on his self interest) as the virtuous element. Rand extends this misguided glorification of selfishness well beyond the economic sphere to the point of being explicitly pro-rape in more than one of her novels, which for me renders the logic of her premise null and void. I find both socialism and objectivism to be grotesque misreadings of reality. Is there more to it than this, or something I am missing?

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    • Rand was pro-egoist before she was pro-capitalist; in her early notes, when she was already an egoist, she expresses uncertainty as to whether to be pro- or anti-capitalist. So her economic and political views were downstream from her ethical views, not vice versa. While she did think that overall social benefit would result from everyone being self-interested, that was never her primary justification of pursuing self-interest; she would have seen that as upside down.

      But the most crucial thing to understand about Rand on self-interest is that her conception of self-interest is not narrowly economic; it draws on the romantic individualism of Nietzsche on the one hand and the eudaimonistic virtue ethics of Aristotle on the other, with emphasis shifting over time from the former to the latter. In The Fountainhead, when the protagonist — economically struggling and on the brink of financial ruin — is offered a highly lucrative and prestigious contract that would violate his artistic integrity, he turns it down; and when asked why he is behaving in such a “fanatical and selfless” way, he answers: “That was the most selfish thing you’ve ever seen a man do.” Self-interest for Rand was not about profit-maximisation. Indeed, the whole point of The Fountainhead is to get us to reconceptualise the nature of self-interest, to see that the kind of behaviour people usually regarded as self-interested — the pursuit of money, power, prestige, etc. — is actually motivated by an absence of self. And even in the famous “love of money” speech in Atlas Shrugged, what is being advocated is not primarily the love of possessing money, but rather the love of the institution of money as embodying interaction based on mutual benefit rather than on predation.

      I won’t defend the rape scene in The Fountainhead; it’s more appropriate to the Nietzschean than to the Aristotelean strand in Rand’s egoism, and so is an especially unhappy surd in a novel whose central point was to develop the subordination of the Nietzschean to the Aristotelean strand. But the rape scene is more an expression of Rand’s personal sexual fantasies than of her ethical egoism. She makes clear repeatedly, in both her fiction and her nonfiction, that it’s contrary to self-interest, properly understood, to impose one’s will on others without their consent. (And it’s always worth remembering that ethical egoism is a theory about the ground of our moral obligations, not about their scope.)

      I say a bit more about the rape scene here:

      https://praxeology.net/nietzsche-modlit2021-wk12.htm

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  2. Stephen Lindsay has been trying to post the following comment, without success. So I’ll post it here:
    “I take it from the last paragraph that you are a defender of Ayn Rand, but you didn’t offer her any defense. I always figured Rand saw how Capitalism under certain conditions has the power to direct man’s self-interest toward the common good, and confusedly mistook man’s self-interest itself (rather than the social structures working on his self interest) as the virtuous element. Rand extends this misguided glorification of selfishness well beyond the economic sphere to the point of being explicitly pro-rape in more than one of her novels, which for me renders the logic of her premise null and void. I find both socialism and objectivism to be grotesque misreadings of reality. Is there more to it than this, or something I am missing?”

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    • Stephen Lindsay, I’m a defender of accuracy in representation. I have written a lot correcting the misrepresentation of Kant by Rand and the misrepresentation of Rand by many of her critics. I did not offer rebuttals to Prof. Offord in this note because I have to finish a scholarly paper at this time. I hope to critique Offord’s book in detail in the future. I’ll add that to this thread.

      I am not a subscriber to ethical egoism, including Rand’s sophisticated version of it. On the intellectual developmental sequence you proposed, I’m skeptical. In the late 1930’s, Rand completed her first novel WE THE LIVING, and over one summer, she wrote the novella ANTHEM. She counters communism (and religious teachings) in both of these with the preciousness of individual life and the rightness of leaving the individual’s life in one’s own possession and under one’s own direction. That preciousness and rightness is what she saw as under attack and in need a champion. There is no picture in these works of what is capitalism and how it is dependent upon individual freedom and self-interest. It seems she was in process of learning yet about what is capitalism and what is the concept of individual rights, beyond fuzzy common usage.

      You mentioned pro-rape scenes in Rand’s novels. I imagine you mean the first sex between Roark and Dominique in THE FOUNTAINHEAD and perhaps the rough sex between Dagny and Rearden in ATLAS SHRUGGED. Many years ago, I knew a young woman who was getting her Ph.D. in psychology (clinical) at Loyola University in Chicago. She remarked that Rand’s fiction sexual relationships were terribly stereotypical Hollywood renditions, and not realistic. That sounds right, although I’d add that they also articulate sexual fantasies of we real people. The sex-scenes of Rand in her fiction are intense. They are intensely selfish and otherish at once. Rand emphasized in FOUNTAINHEAD “In order to say ‘I love you’, you must first learn to say ‘I’.” I agree but would add the obvious that you also must first have learned to say “you.” Rand remarked once, concerning that first sex scene between Roark and Dominique “If this was rape, it was rape by engraved invitation.” I find it hard to look at the setup of that scene as selfishness gone into rape and virtue of selfishness gone into virtue of rape. The woman in that scene is not being unselfish or undergoing anything unwillingly. Rand’s submissiveness for women protagonists in bed is quite a selfish thing. (Same for men in man-man relations, I’ll testify.)

      As probably you know, Rand issued a book of essays titled THE VIRTUE OF SELFISHNESS, with the subtitle A NEW CONCEPT OF EGOISM, by which she meant ethical egoism. It’s the subtitle part I think a failure. By ethical egoism, I mean, as Rand and many others meant, an ethical theory in which all the virtues it upholds are derivative from self-interest alone. I’ve never seen a complete success in this. Rand’s virtue of honesty is one of those she upholds. But with her redefinition of it to make it align with pure self-interest, she ends with an analysis of honesty that is inauthentic to how people are (and rightly are in my own philosophy replacing hers) in their occasions of honesty with each other. Her draft of human nature is incorrect. It is stilted to her egoism and stilted all the way back to her account of general metaphysics. My criticism is not the criticism made by Prof. Offord, which relies on distortion of Rand’s views by omission of what she wrote contrary the caricature he whips up, so far as I gather in a quick glance into his book.

      I do agree with Rand that there is much virtuous selfishness, that those very occasions of great worth are under attack, and needed a champion.

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  3. Thanks. Yes, I read The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged as a teenager. I appreciate the emphasis on individualism over collectivism, but not for the reasons and in the way that I saw it in Rand. But I haven’t read her other works, so I don’t have the whole picture. Thanks for correcting me on the progression – if I understand right, that it was philosophical individualism and not Capitalism per se that was her original focus.

    I like what you said about defending truth over misrepresentation, rather than just defending Rand in total. That emphasis on a search for truth instead of tribal affiliation is something the world is much in need of these days.

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