Thank goodness Mitt Romney chose Paul Ryan for his running mate. Ryan’s political philosophy makes for a great study in internal contradictions. He has proclaimed his fealty to Ayn Rand’s Objectivist philosophy, while at the same time rejecting her philosophy as atheistic, claiming that his epistemology runs closer to that of St. Thomas Aquinas, the most capable and prominent of the Roman Catholic Scholastics, which have their own bevy of internal contradictions.
Thomas Aquinas (born 1225 ad, died 1274)and the Scholastics that followed him comprise an intellectual order devoted to incorporating Aristotle’s metaphysics into the Church’s catechism on the natural order of the universe. While Aristotle’s metaphysics provided for 47 or 55 gods, depending on how one counted them, to Aquinas and his following of Scholastics, Aristotle revealed the sublime and inspired truth of God (or at least of one of them) when he claimed, inter alia, every sublunary (below the moon) thing was stationary, so that the earth did not move. It was against the ghost of Aristotle, and by extension, Aquinas and the Scholastics, that Galileo wrestled when he whispered out of the earshot of papal grandees at the conclusion of his trial for the heresy of claiming the earth revolved around the sun, “but it [the earth] moves”.
Dissecting Ryan’s professed philosophy, and its inherent contradictions, provides the potential for an intellectual pause that refreshes in this otherwise banal and bland election season. (But his attempts to apply his philosophy, found, for example, in his Medicare reform proposal, should be mainly ignored as a matter of political interest—mainly because none of it has any chance of adoption, even as far from Objectivist precepts and Scholastic epistemology it strays). It’s pretty clear that the headline acts, Obama and Romney, don’t believe in anything, except that they should be elected. And maybe Ryan doesn’t really believe in anything either, but figures he stands to gain by appearing to be principled, showing off his principled intellectual chops with the ability to say things like this (regarding Ayn Rand and Thomas Aquinas), “I reject her philosophy. It’s an atheist philosophy. It reduces human interactions down to mere contracts and it is antithetical to my worldview. If somebody is going to try to paste a person’s view on epistemology to me, then give me Thomas Aquinas. Don’t give me Ayn Rand.”
Of course, Ryan had previously stated, “I grew up reading Ayn Rand, and it taught me quite a bit about who I am and what my value systems are and what my beliefs are. It’s inspired me so much that it’s required reading in my office for all my interns and my staff.”
Since practically all philosophical systems have internal contradictions nesting at their core, Ryan would perhaps have been wiser to pursue a career as a philosopher, as his personal philosophy seems riven with internal contradiction, apparently a necessary predicate to building a philosophical system. Maybe if the vice-presidential race doesn’t pan out, Ryan could get himself designated as philosopher laureate or the like.
But what, exactly, might Ryan mean by his contradictory statements? Is it possible that he could be a devotee of both Rand and Aquinas; Rand presumably for her materialistic philosophy, and Aquinas for his view of how knowledge and information is received?
Let’s take each philosopher in turn. First is the summation of Rand’s Objectivism, the very first thing one finds when pulling up the Ayn Rand Institute website, in Rand’s own words:
My philosophy, Objectivism, holds that:
2. Reason (the faculty which identifies and integrates the material provided by man’s senses) is man’s only means of perceiving reality, his only source of knowledge, his only guide to action, and his basic means of survival.
3. Man—every man—is an end in himself, not the means to the ends of others. He must exist for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself. The pursuit of his own rational self-interest and of his own happiness is the highest moralpurpose of his life.
4. The ideal political-economic system is laissez-faire capitalism. It is a system where men deal with one another, not as victims and executioners, nor as masters and slaves, but as traders, by free, voluntary exchange to mutual benefit. It is a system where no man may obtain any values from others by resorting to physical force, and no man may initiate the use of physical force against others. The government acts only as a policeman that protects man’s rights; it uses physical force only in retaliation and only against those who initiate its use, such as criminals or foreign invaders. In a system of full capitalism, there should be (but, historically, has not yet been) a complete separation of state and economics, in the same way and for the same reasons as the separation of state and church.
As to the first proposition:
Rand wrote this in 1962. She should have been by then long aware of the objective truth, more or less infallibly proved, that reality is subjective. There is no such thing as an “objective absolute”, except perhaps in abstractions of the mind, such as that the three angles of a triangle will always equal two right angles. I wonder, what about the relative nature of Relativity Theory did she miss? And aside from the subjectivity of experience explained by Relativity Theory, each individual human creates his own reality, cut from the whole cloth of his subconscious sensory perceptions. It is not reason that decides what is accepted into consciousness, forming our “objective” view of reality, it is the subconscious that decides what consciousness will perceive. That actual things exist outside of the mind that perceives them can be philosophically assumed (though there are those, Berkeley, Hume, et al, who would dispute such a claim), does not also mean that they are not perceived subjectively.
As to the second proposition:
It is patently false that reason is the only means of perceiving reality. In fact, reason perceives nothing that the subconscious refuses to show it. Reason, as a conscious operator, owes its perceptual inputs to the boiling cauldron of the subconscious, which constantly perceives all the sensory inputs, internal and external to the body, allowing only those it deems necessary for survival and propagation to gurgle to the surface of consciousness, where reason may then be employed to evaluate their importance and probity. Reason has a god-like character, existing in a manner that seems almost independent of the body, capable of seeing outside the narrow confines of the space and time in which the body exists, but it is ultimately a hand-maiden of the subconscious, tasked with formulating the best available means for achieving the impulses, desires and emotions arising from the subconscious.
As to the third proposition:
No objection. Man is indeed an end unto himself. The purpose of existence is existence, and we only subject ourselves to torment and pain when we allow our subconscious impulses for survival and propagation be transmuted by reason into seeking some eternal significance for our lives and struggles.
As to the fourth proposition:
Hogwash. There is no particular socio-economic system that is necessarily best at achieving man’s ultimate purpose of survival and propagation so long as he is able. Our hunter/gatherer ancestors lived in what could only be assumed was a nearly perfectly communitarian society of small clans and tribes. They knew nothing of property rights extending past personal effects—the very foundation of capitalism. Property rights only became important upon the advent of sedentary agriculture, when it became possible to bring food to the clan, instead of the clan having to roam the countryside hunting and gathering it. As capitalism depends on defensible property rights, it requires there be a strong and vibrant state for their protection. But, as capitalistm development accrues, the state very quickly becomes an exploitation tool for those with the most property. And the state is deployed by capitalists to protect more than just the materials ordinarily coming under the rubric of “capital”. Capitalists also leverage their power over the state to support and defend the actual or effective ownership of human beings as necessary inputs to their capitalist machinery.
And therein lies the internal contradiction to Objectivism. Men may be all that Rand propounds in her third proposition, but what happens when the interests of one man attempting to serve himself clashes with the interest of another doing the same? The state, necessarily most beholden for its existence to the most powerful among the society, will defend the property and personal interests of the powerful as against the property and personal interests of the weak. Capitalism becomes as oppressive and freedom-impairing as any other socio-economic system because capitalists will always subvert the state’s police power to enhance the achievement of their selfish imperatives.
There is a more subtle contradiction, one that was revealed in Atlas Shrugged when John Galt, in lieu of expropriation of his railroad by the state, simply “shrugged” (hence the title) giving up his capitalist enterprise of running a railroad in order to live off the land. To Galt and other nascent capitalists, particularly during the early twentieth century in the US at about the time in which the novel is set; in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in Great Britain and on the Continent; and today in Southeast Asia and on the Indian subcontinent, the people employed to run their machines and factories are nothing more than inputs used to generate output, an output which Rand believed belongs to the capitalist and only to the capitalist. But this is effectively a myopic, beggar thy neighbor view. If the capitalist is to enrich himself, he must have customers to whom he can sell his wares, and if all his potential customers are being paid bare subsistence wages the same as he pays his workers, to whom will he sell his output?
This was precisely the problem leading to the Great Depression in the US, and to the New Deal collectivism Rand so deplored. Selfish ownership of the means of production does little good for enriching oneself if all the potential customers are too poor to buy what is being produced. And if every capitalist selfishly pays only as little in wages as the market will bear, as classical economics provides they must if they are to survive, the whole capitalist edifice collapses on the weight of production that has no market because none of the workers can afford to purchase the output. It should always be remembered, even for Rand’s virtuously selfish capitalist, that every last bit of productive output is always ultimately directed at satisfying some want or need of a human consumer. Put in the context of modern times, it would be meaningless for the Galt’s of today’s China to own factories employing people at barely subsistence wages were it not for the people in the West rich enough to buy their factory’s wares. If China had only to sell to the Chinese, who remain mainly in peonage, barely better off now than they were as subsistence farmers, the whole edifice would collapse on itself, just as it did in the US in the 1920’s, whose economic system was not as internationalized then as China’s is now.
But China’s capitalists can’t forever depend on leveraging its people’s poverty—a poverty which the same state that today protects capitalist property interests helped create during the Mao regime—to enrich themselves. Foreign markets will eventually become saturated with low-cost Chinese wares that are competitively priced because China has allowed its capitalists (usually former Communist Party members) to treat its people as nothing more than mere inputs to a machine. With foreign markets saturated (the US) or dried up due to crushingly high debt levels (both the US and Europe), Chinese capitalists will need their employees (or, preferably, the employees of any other capitalist but them) to become consumers, but without which capitalists are forced to pay them more, such a thing will be impossible. Then the John Galt’s of China will face an existential crisis, as the state that had previously served to protect them turns against them, fearing the rage of the people more than the wealth of the capitalists.
(And then some disenfranchised daughter of a Chinese capitalist will emigrate to the US and rationalize into existence a whole philosophical edifice for why the expropriation of her father’s widget factory by the state was the most profound evil imaginable. And fifty years after her death, some eager young politician will tout her views as having defined who he is and what his beliefs are. And then some crotchety old curmudgeon will come along to point out how riven with internal contradictions his beliefs and her views are. History rhymes.)
Essentially, Ayn Rand’s “philosophy” is nothing more than Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations neatly modernized to answer the twentieth century challenge of what to do when workers find the power to break free the shackles of their capitalist overlords through collective efforts. Smith never envisioned the power and wealth that might accrue to an individual acting selfishly virtuous in his system, and how many lives he might thereby exploit and subjugate through his virtuosity. Smith recognized the immensely beneficial power of specialization and trade for the commonweal; he did not anticipate the boundless greed and avarice it would fuel. Had Smith lived to see the depredations capitalism wrought in Dickensian London, he might have adjusted his opinions about the virtue of selfishness.
Rand’s view of man in nature is quite similar to that espoused by John Locke, a predecessor of Smith, who believed men to be naturally good, and capable of getting along quite well with precious little government—only enough to provide for the common defense and to keep the peace internally (by defending property and personal rights). And perhaps men are inherently good, however “good” is defined, existing as ends unto themselves, as Rand claimed. But without the ability to protect and secure their property and person, they would live a life of constant fear and struggle, no different than common animals. Men naturally seek comfort and security, which for them justifies sacrificing a bit of freedom to form government, as Locke provided. But like Smith couldn’t see how capitalists would turn the protector of their freedoms into the oppressor of the disenfranchised, Locke could not see that any government strong enough to protect and defend the person and property of the people was also strong enough to threaten it. By adopting a Lockean view of mankind in a state of nature, and of how government is thereby justified in its formation but severely limited in its purposes, Rand accomplished little intellectually, aside from returning us to the 17th century.
But enough of Rand and Objectivity. Ryan distinguished his epistemology from Rand’s by claiming it is closer to that of St. Thomas Aquinas. Epistemology is one of those ten-dollar words used to impress when a two dollar word will do. It essentially means how we come to know what we know; how we gain understanding. Rand believed that reason is our only source of knowledge and understanding (propositions 1 and 2 above). Thomas Aquinas, writing for the Catholic Church in the 13th century, believed that reason was one means of knowing and understanding, but also allowed that revelation, i.e., belief, is a corollary source. He went further though, and claimed that revelation could never contradict what is revealed through reason, which is probably why even Rand spoke highly of him and of his influence on Catholic teachings.
As a practical political matter for Ryan, the difference in epistemology of Rand and Aquinas resolves to whether or not abortion is morally, and therefore politically, acceptable. Ryan claims it to be morally repugnant. Rand believed abortion to be an inviolable right. Aquinas’ view on the matter can only be speculated, as there were no great debates on the morality of abortion during his time. Abortions surely, and crudely, happened during the 13th century, but mankind then did not so effectively know how to end the burgeoning life of a fetus then as it did during Rand’s era, and as it does today.
Aquinas’ views on the nature of the human soul–the critical difference between men and animals–might offer some insights on what he would have believed about abortion. Aquinas claimed that the soul is united to the body; not bifurcated or separated, but is wholly one and alive in every part of man’s body. He interestingly claimed that the soul is not transmitted with the semen, but is created anew with each human being, thus indicating that he might have considered the fetus to be without a human soul until birth, implying that abortion might have been acceptable.
But would Aquinas have arrived at his view through reason or revelation? The crux of Ryan’s claim of being epistemologically closer to Aquinas has to be that Aquinas allowed that knowledge and understanding can be acquired through revelation, in addition to just reason. (Aquinas also claimed a third way of knowing God—through the intuition of things previously only known through revelation—but fails in his writings to fully explain what he means.) In the case of the eternal human soul arising anew with each human being, Aquinas is merely speculating. Reason could not have led him to such a conclusion, so he must claim revelation for his view. And his revelation seems to indicate he did not think that human life, which requires a soul for its humaness, to begin at conception.
Had reason afforded Aquinas the knowledge, with some measure of biological detail, of how a human life begins, it is not clear whether his “revelation” of when a soul inhabits a body might have changed. But surely, if on the basis of knowledge acquired through reason Aquinas then concluded that the soul inhabited the fetus, abortion would have been considered tantamount to murder.
Pointedly, Ryan’s claim to rely on reason and revelation, as Aquinas had provided were legitimate sources of understanding, might have legitimized abortion as the elimination of a soulless fetus. It is perhaps only reason, in the knowledge that a potentiated human exists at the moment of conception, that might have ultimately saved Ryan’s anti-abortion stance.
The British philosopher, Sir Bertrand Russell, did not think much of Aquinas’ philosophical integrity. In The History of Western Philosophy this is how he concludes the section on Aquinas:
There is little of the true philosophic spirit in Aquinas. He does not, like the Platonic Socrates, set out to follow wherever the argument may lead. He is not engaged in an inquiry, the result of which it is impossible to know in advance. Before he begins to philosophize, he already knows the truth; it is declared in the Catholic faith. If he can find apparently rational arguments for some parts of the faith, so much the better, if he cannot, he need only fall back on revelation. The finding of arguments for a conclusion given in advance is not philosophy, but special pleading.
It seems to me the same could be said of both Ryan and Rand. They are pleading their case, rationalizing what they instinctively believe in order to gain public favor for their cause. Ryan is a politician, and this is what politicians do. In Rand’s case, it is especially distasteful, as she purports to believe the only path to knowledge and understanding is reason, yet it is reason that is the handmaiden of her political instincts, not the other way ‘round. How can anyone be reasonably considered to be engaged in discovering truth if, before they even begin their inquiry, they already have concluded what the truth will be?
Alas, at least Ryan’s entry into the race makes for a bit more intellectual stimulation than arguments over the biological ramifications of “legitimate” rape, or at what rate a wealthy businessman paid taxes.