Thursday, November 11, 2010

Ayn Rand Style Asperger Syndrome




I have recently started listening to Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged. The novel is over fifty hours long (over 1,300 pages in print) so this is likely to take me a while, but I figured that, as a libertarian, this was a book that I needed to read. Ayn Rand, as an opponent of collectivism and a defender of radical individualism, is a heroine to many libertarians. Atlas Shrugged depicts a nightmare big government future where companies are forced to operate not for a profit but for the "public good" and do so miserably. Under the leadership of John Galt though, a collection of the nation's most talented individuals (businesmen and artists) fight back by going on strike and running away, refusing to work any longer for a system that devalues them as parasites.

 
I see two sides to Ayn Rand, the libertarian and the "meta-libertarian." Ayn Rand was certainly a libertarian in her opposition to government social programs and her belief that individuals are the ones who best understand their own personal good and how to pursue it. Getting the government out of people's personal lives (say by legalizing all drugs, getting rid of public schools and ending welfare and social security) is something that all libertarians can agree to. This still leaves an open question as to what should come next. As Libertarianism is the belief that people should be left to pursue their own good in their own way," by definition it can say nothing as to what good people should pursue once they are left to pursue it. It is here that Ayn Rand brings the "meta-libertarian" element. Not only was she opposed to government force being used to get people to act for the public good, she was categorically against people acting for the public good; to do anything not for their own personal selfish best interest.
 My roommate pointed me to a recent blog post by one of our favorite writers, John Scalzi, musing about Ayn Rand and Atlas Shrugged. Scalzi has a lot of respect for Rand as a writer, who can turn out an entertaining novel even if it is "nerd revenge porn" and John Galt is a "genocidal prick." What particularly caught my attention was Scalzi's observation that "as with any audience with a large number of nerds in it, a non-trivial number of Atlas Shrugged readers are possibly far enough along the Asperger spectrum that they don't recognize humanity does not in fact easily suss out into Randian capitalists on one side and craven socialist losers on the other… ." I was prepared for Libertarianism to be challenged, that Asperger syndrome came into play caught me by surprise.

 
I do see Asperger syndrome thinking and Libertarianism as being linked even if one does not have to lead to the other. Aspergers tend to struggle with executive thinking, putting together large scale plans with the intention of ordering around complex systems with many different parts (say even taking charge of a multi-course dinner). The Asperger is good at dealing with his own narrowly focused area of knowledge. If Libertarianism is anything it is the belief in the utter irrelevancy of large scale executive thinking. The hidden hand of the marketplace means that millions of very "Asperger" minds can practice their particular field of expertise without the need for a "neurotypical" mind at the top to oversee and organize everything. The executive thinking will take care of itself though the power of rational self interest. Furthermore the Asperger mind is one that operates based on abstract laws. The strength of Libertarianism is precisely its appeal to such abstract laws. If people are supposed to be left to pursue their own good in their own way as long as they are not causing direct physical harm to others to the extent that they have the right to follow any religion or sexual orientation then they must also be left to pursue their own good to ingest or inject any substance that suits them. If people cannot be forced to pay taxes to fund a government church against their personal beliefs, how can their taxes go to pay for public schools that teach things that go against their beliefs?

 
Does this make me a Randian Objectivist? Hardly. While I support the individual against the government, once the government is out of the way I become an ardent communitarian. I assume that human beings are social creatures who need each others in order to survive. I have no desire to see any of this accomplished through government. Take the government out of the social sphere and let everyone man join a community of his choice (likely one organized around a traditional religion) and work through this community to benefit humanity as a whole.

So what is the relationship between Asperger syndrome and Ayn Rand? Are people on the spectrum more likely to be self absorbed egoists, crafting theoretical towers in the sky heedless of how real people live their lives? Do not look at me. I am just a moderate libertarian.  

11 comments:

Clarissa said...

A great analysis! I love this book and reread it at least once a year. Even though politically my views are very different from Rand's (to put it mildly), I'd much prefer to see a strong Libertarian movement inspired by her ideas as opposed to the mediocrity-worship it is today.

I think people largely misunderstand Rand's ideas on selfishness. Anybody familiar with the basis of psychoanalysis knows that every action we take is already exactly what we need to do at that given moment. Rand suggests we abandon empty verbiage and accept the inherently selfish motivations of our actions.

After reading her most recent biography, I believe that Rand was a fellow Aspie. Still, I think that her philosophy stems from her early experiences during and after the Russian Revolution more than from her possible autism.

no one said...

Rand is a very powerful writer and a breath of fresh air from the nihilism of modern philosophy. But But. She was not a rigorous philosopher. But that is just the thing--sometimes to be a great writer too much rigorous thought is not so good. She was a great writer. And certainly deserves great credit in the attempt to get people to start thinking rationally. And she is right that modern philosophy made a wrong turn somewhere. But blaming Kant for it is in my opinion not right. The attack against reason was begun long before Kant by Yonatan Swift and Rousseau and it is hard to completely look at them in a bad way. They had some important points about the dangers of technology and the danger of being disconnected with nature. Kant was trying to find a middle ground. So why she complains about Kant is beyond me. She herself borrows for the rationalist philosophers like Hume and the anti rationalist like Nietzsche.

shekissesfrogs said...

It's a dangerous time to remove our social nets when business has control of our government. We'll be in an Ancien Régime period again.
"Not only was she opposed to government force being used to get people to act for the public good, she was categorically against people acting for the public good; to do anything not for their own personal selfish best interest. "
What kind of liberty is this? No, what kind of human being is this? This is setting the table for licensed predation. She may have written an interesting book, but it's fiction just like lord of the flies, It's not a plan.

In light of Rand's belief in Social Darwinism, Alan Greenspan was leading the self interest/deregulaton parade. I think that disqualifies this ideology, unless we aren't through culling the herd of powerful people with stupid ideas yet - at the expense of the most vulnerable.

"According to Rand scholar Chris Matthew Sciabarra, she deliberately modeled Renahan – intended to be her first sketch of her ideal man – after this same William Edward Hickman. Renahan, she enthuses in another journal entry, “is born with a wonderful, free, light consciousness — [resulting from] the absolute lack of social instinct or herd feeling. He does not understand, because he has no organ for understanding, the necessity, meaning, or importance of other people … Other people do not exist for him and he does not understand why they should.”

http://www.executedtoday.com/2009/10/19/1928-william-edward-hickman-ayn-rand/

How can you take a person with such poor judgement to idolize sociopaths seriously?
http://michaelprescott.net/hickman.htm

Clarissa said...

"Rand is a very powerful writer and a breath of fresh air from the nihilism of modern philosophy. But But. She was not a rigorous philosopher. But that is just the thing--sometimes to be a great writer too much rigorous thought is not so good. She was a great writer."

-That's exactly what I think of Rand.

Unknown said...

"While I support the individual against the government, once the government is out of the way I become an ardent communitarian. I assume that human beings are social creatures who need each others in order to survive. I have no desire to see any of this accomplished through government. Take the government out of the social sphere and let everyone man join a community of his choice (likely one organized around a traditional religion) and work through this community to benefit humanity as a whole."

I know it's been a while since you posted this and I'm assuming you have finished the book by now. I wonder if your analysis of the philosophy and how it fits into your idea of "community" have changed?

Izgad said...

I am not sure what you mean, but it did strike me that Galt's community was a little to focused on him to be a healthy liberal society. I am not much for the great man theory of progress so that is another point on which I would disagree with Rand. I did love the book, though. :)

Unknown said...

Izgad, I think the community only seemed focused on Galt because it was essentially described from Dagny's point of view. Galt was the embodiment of her perfect man and she saw everything in the world, not just the valley, as it related to him. The other characters that we got to meet in the valley had personal relationships with him and that's why we met them. He delivered them to that valley. But there were other people living there who were mentioned in passing (or not at all, their presence was implied) who's life was probably fairly untouched by him on a personal level.

What I really meant was that Rand does deal with the idea of community through that valley. When those great individualist gather together, it's exactly for that feeling of community among equals. They gather to share themselves and to simply be themselves. To honour each other's achievements.

They also recognize that their individual activities in that valley make everyone's life easier and more luxurious. Whenever a new inhabitant arrives and takes on some new activity, it improves everyone's lives and Rand acknowledges it openly. I think there's even a part where one the characters openly admits that need for another's acknowledgement. But the acknowledgement is for things you've done well and not a demand to validate your existence.

So I don't think Rand's ideas are anti-community at all. I think she's against a forced sense of community where people are chained to each other. Her community is based on choice rather than compulsion, where people benefit each other through work they love instead of being forced to keep each other alive, where being part of the community does not destroy who you are as an individual.

So really, what you describe as your idea of community is exactly what Galt's Gulch is. That's what I was getting at with my question.

Izgad said...

Obviously Galt's Gulch, if something like it ever became real, might in practice be a place I could support. That being said Rand did present it as being very Galt centered and that does play into her great man view of the world. Notice that the Gulch does not contain any regular people, say an Eddie Willers. It is assumed that all these geniuses are capable of dealing with the basics of life like cooking and cleaning. Once we admit that even great men owe something to other people (as opposed to society in general) then a major part of the case for Galt's strike collapses.

ondra said...

"...she was categorically against people acting for the public good; to do anything not for their own personal selfish best interest."

this does not mean that happiness achieved through helping others isn't libertarian, no? rand was benevolent to wilful charity, which precluded self-sacrifice. it's about perspectives is what i'm trying to say:) if you get more joy from helping others and that's what you're good at then it is more than moral to do so.

i also wanted to ask how you mean meta-libertarian. i have always understood it in the same way as meta-rational, i.e. changing your beliefs when you are proved wrong etc. according to this post of yours, we think very much alike but i have always labelled myself meta-libertarian for the exact same reason you call yourself moderate libertarian:)

Izgad said...

Having read through Atlas Shrugged twice and Fountainhead once since I wrote this post, I have developed a more nuanced view of her thought. You are correct that Rand does not support selfishness in the conventional sense. By meta-libertarian I was referring to the fact that Rand had a larger anti-community agenda than just her critic of government. In terms of government she was quite moderate. She opposed anarchism and even accepted funds from social security and Medicare. I think of myself as a moderate libertarian in the sense that I have no larger anti-community agenda beyond fighting government.

Fern Coleone said...

I'm on the Spectrum and I'm farless than an egocentric person. But the reason I got to this blog in the first place was because I was curious too if she had Asperger's. But do believe me, it is rather ineffective and is rather too weak of a statement to associate Asperger's with the scale of high ego, everyone in reality has some sort of ego unless they were really into spirituality or Zen. I do understand your approach that people with Asperger's tend to be obsessive with something very particular, in turns, they might shut themselves out to the world of conformity to pursue things on their own terms, and that Rand had quite a channel of perspective that was very particular, hence, her rationality might correlate with the Aspie stereotypes (believe me, not all Asperger's are rational, but yes, it's on the side of the majortiy).

Then what Asperger's trait did I find in her if I were to bannish the ideas of associating high levels of ego with Asperger's? Simply, people with Asperger's are socially inept and awkward, in other words, we are socially challenged and we do tend to systemize over empathize, I do say this generally, because again, not a single person on the spectrum are the same. I do have to say that this mainly applies in the spectrum of masculinity, which Ms. Rand was likely involved. Since we do tend to systemize over empathize, some of us might be inept in handling emotions or associating with feelings. In turns, Ayn Rand had problems associating with subjectivity, but rather with a sense of absolute reality, and that emotional gave her the idea that emotions are only used with just a narrow of function, which is the function that drive the self-interest. She thought it was utterly useless other than that because she was distant from her own emotional state. People who experience but was no longer able to control his or her emotions may become a sociopath, a schizophrenic (before schizophrenia, first came Schizoid), or an Anti-social. Okay, back to Rand, since she dismissed many essential functions of the human emotions, one way she managed to keep it that way was how she uses her objective ideology to frame her reality in coordination to her functions, that emotions are not necessary in her reality. Meaning she uses the principle of absolute reality in coordination to objective importance to emphasize the importance of the material/concrete world in order to assert herself to her literal ways of thinking (many masculine Aspies are prone to concrete ideas rather than abstract because of the disorderly function of their feeling and how they can perceive social cues and cues that require a level of emotional understanding. I do think Ayn lack that).