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Reflections on Ayn Rand and Campus Culture: An Interview with Greg Salmieri (Part One)

Dr. Greg Salmieri holds a fellowship in philosophy at the Anthem Foundation and currently teaches at Rutgers University. His published work focuses on Aristotle’s epistemology and ethics and Ayn Rand’s philosophy and novels. Of special note here, he is coeditor with the late Allan Gotthelf of the forthcoming Companion to Ayn Rand, the first volume to offer a comprehensive scholarly treatment of Rand’s corpus (including her novels, philosophical essays, and her analysis of the events of her times). The Undercurrent’s J.A. Windham sat down with Dr. Salmieri to gain insight on the importance of the Companion to the academy and Rand’s enduring relevance to student culture today. What follows is Part One of that interview.

DSC00478The Undercurrent: Early in your new book, A Companion to Ayn Rand, you lament the fact that two generations of academics didn’t take Rand’s work seriously. You frame the book, at least in part, as an attempt to remediate that attitude. In basic terms, why wasn’t Rand taken seriously in the academy, and why would she be?

Dr. Salmieri: What I mean by “taking an author seriously”  is engaging intellectually with her positions and arguments, rather than just emotionally reacting for or against them. Academics have been slow to do this with Rand for a number of reasons. She’s a figure who really cuts against the grain, challenging deeply many of the ideas we are brought up to take for granted and on which we are taught to base our lives and our self-esteem. It takes intellectual courage to give a thinker like that a serious hearing. On top of that, she was easy for academics to dismiss because she didn’t come through the channels they’re used to. She wasn’t someone’s graduate student who respectfully criticized his and his colleagues’ ideas in the journals they all contributed to and read. She was an outsider in every respect, inveighing against the intellectual establishment in novels and in her own periodicals addressed to an audience she built. And, of course, politics is a factor. Academia has long been a preserve of leftist ideas, so someone who opposes them as radically as Rand does is anathema.

But it’s now almost 60 years after the publication of Atlas Shrugged, and Rand hasn’t gone away. In each generation, more students are inspired by her distinctive vision of what human life could and should be. To a greater or lesser extent, this vision and the philosophy behind it exerts an influence on their thinking, reinforcing some of their convictions and pushing them to rethink others. She’s become a fixture of American thought in a way that only a powerful artist and thinker could, and many people, whether they’re sympathetic to her vision not, are beginning to see her as a figure with whom they need to contend.

The Companion is meant to help them. Allan and I gathered some of the people who know Rand’s work best, and thought it time to produce a reference book that could serve as a starting-point for philosophers, literature students, historians, political scientists, journalists, and others who want to engage with Rand in an intellectually responsible manner. Our goal wasn’t to present or defend Rand’s ideas, as she herself did, and as Leonard Peikoff has done. Many of us have written as advocates of Objectivism (her philosophy) elsewhere, and we’ll do so again in the future. But our aim in the Companion is simply to orient new, intellectually-active readers to her corpus and her key ideas. By doing so, we hope to raise the intellectual level of discussions about Rand, both among academics and, ultimately, among the public at large.

TU: Your book surveys the whole of Rand’s philosophy, which would be impossible to cover here. But you highlight Rand’s conception of “valuing” as one of her distinguishing ideas. Could you give a brief sketch of her perspective, how it breaks from the mainstream, and why it’s worth engaging with?

Dr. Salmieri: Many philosophers think that values are subjective—just a matter of what we find ourselves wanting (due to our genes or our environment or some other cause). Other philosophers think that there are “objective” values—things that we somehow recognize ourselves as obliged to pursue, whether we want them or not. Philosophers of the first school say that values aren’t a matter of reason—that reason is only involved in calculating the means to them. Philosophers of the second school typically say it’s reason that recognizes objective values, but their accounts of how it does this twist reason into something mysterious, and their critics (Rand included) interpret it as a rationalization for an emotion of obligation.

Rand held that genuine values are objective—that is, rationally grounded in facts. A key idea here is that, unlike animals who only value concrete objects that they can perceive and pursue by the guidance of perception, many of the things that we value and pursue are not perceptible. Think of Rand’s character Hank Rearden, who creates a new metal alloy over the course of ten years. Reason is involved in every step of this process. There are many facts that he has to use his mind to discover and creatively put together before he can even conceive of his goal, let alone begin to direct himself towards it. Some of those facts concern the needs the metal will fulfill, so we might think of fulfilling these needs, rather than the metal, as the value Rearden is pursuing. But that would be a mistake. The needs are part of the context that makes it rational for him to value the metal, but he doesn’t value it as a mere means to satisfying these needs. He doesn’t create the metal in order to, for example, get money to buy food to quell his pangs of hunger. To the contrary, the work of making the metal is central to the life that he seeks to sustain by eating. Like the metal itself, this life is a value that he’s rationally conceived of for himself, based on his understanding of human nature and of his own needs, abilities, and circumstances.

Rand has an argument, which I won’t get into here, that all value-pursuit presupposes holding one’s own life as one’s ultimate value. Any action a person takes that isn’t ultimately in pursuit of his own life, isn’t in pursuit of anything at all; its ultimate motive is simply the avoidance of suffering (something that is most fully achieved in death). To the extent that you value at all, then, it is in pursuit of your own life. Looking at it from another perspective, we can say that what you’re pursuing is ultimately happiness, and that genuine happiness (as Rand understands it) is the emotional concomitant of achieving life-sustaining values. So to pursue happiness, as opposed to just trying to avoid suffering, is to pursue your life.

Now, a life is a complex activity of sustaining yourself over time, and this isn’t a concrete thing that can be perceived with the senses, in the way a cat perceives the mouse it is chasing. Moreover, we don’t have automatic, innate desires that lead us to pursue the things that are good for our lives, in the way that the cat has automatic desires to chase mice. So it is only by reason that you’re able to conceive of and value a life for yourself. This life will be some specific, self-sustaining constellation of chosen values and activities, and you value objectively all the things you choose to pursue because you understand them to be means to or components of that life.

TU: A common misconception is that Rand counsels a “shallow” or “cold” view of life. But your coeditor, Allan Gotthelf, indicates that Rand advocated a “virtue-filled” life. Where does this misconception come from, and what does Rand think a virtue-filled life consists in?

Dr. Salmieri: There are certainly passages that one could misinterpret as materialistic or shallow, if one reads them out of context and interprets them though contrary assumptions—like the assumption that only a devotion to God or to society as a whole can be virtuous or spiritually fulfilling. But if one really looks at Rand’s heroes, it is easy to see that they’re not just motivated by materialistic concerns like getting rich, or getting fed, or getting laid. They’re committed to ideals, have deep romances, and face agonizing spiritual conflicts. They do value so-called “material things,” but only because they’ve invested them with spiritual meaning, and they don’t want the material things when that meaning is absent. For example, they passionately value sex, but only when it’s an expression of love. They value wealth, but only when they’ve earned it by work that they’re proud of, because it calls upon virtues such as rationality, productiveness, independence, justice, honesty, and integrity. They value food as a means to sustaining and enjoying lives centered around such work and rich in other values like love and art. Stolen money or casual sex, in Rand’s view, isn’t a value at all.

In her novels, only the villains go in for such “purely material” things, and they don’t really enjoy them; they just do it to quell neurotic insecurities of one form or another. Rand thinks the same is true of alleged values that are “purely spiritual.” Any supposed value that cannot be given material form or expression isn’t something that one can really pursue or achieve. It’s just a rationalization for failing to pursue genuine values. So Rand rejects the spiritual-material dichotomy. Any genuine value, she thinks, has both a spiritual and a material component.

TU: In contrast to some of the negative descriptors we’ve just discussed, Darryl Wright explains in the book how Rand’s social philosophy, when considered in the context of her ethics, is “benevolent,” noting that she envisioned a “society of traders.” How is a society of traders benevolent, and what would such a society look like?

Dr. Salmieri: Part of what Rand does is push us to rethink our assumptions. We’re used to thinking of trade as something that’s purely material, but she is directing our attention to the spiritual component that’s present even in commercial transactions. And she holds that the principle that is most easily understood in connection with these transactions is also at work in deeper personal relationships.

A financial transaction is an interaction to mutual advantage in which each party respects the other’s judgment, rather than imposing himself on the other or sacrificing himself for the other’s sake. People who approach one another in this way have nothing to fear and everything to gain from one another, so it’s natural that they should feel good will. Rand encourages us to appreciate this fact about financial trades, and to embody that same attitude in all of our interactions.

In more personal relationships, the “currency” (as she puts it) is different. Rather than trading money, goods, and services, we’re responding with respect, affection, or love to positive traits we observe in one another. But as with the financial trade, each party judges that the relationship enhances his life, and he expects the other to do likewise.

TU: There are multiple references throughout the book to Rand’s valorization of “producers,” who she laments as the “forgotten men of history.” Why does she view this type of person as so noteworthy, and what are his essential traits?

Dr. Salmieri: A “producer” is somebody who himself creates the values by which he lives, the values that keep him alive. Of course, he needn’t literally produce every item he needs himself—he gets many things by trade with others—but what he’s trading are the values he’s produced. Any honest and self-supporting person is a producer, but Rand focuses on great producers—people who have created incomparably more than they needed to survive and who have thereby benefitted mankind immensely. This category includes great philosophers and scientists like Aristotle and Newton and artists like Hugo and Rachmaninoff, but when she speaks of producers as “forgotten men,” she especially has in mind inventors and industrialists—particularly those of late 19th and early 20th Century America—people like Cornelius Vanderbilt, John D. Rockefeller, and Andrew Carnegie. If she were alive today, I’m sure she’d add Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, who pioneered the personal computer industry, and the entrepreneurs who created so much of the internet’s value—people like (Amazon founder) Jeff Bezos and (Google founders) Larry Page and Sergey Brin.

She thought such people were the victims of a tremendous injustice. Their minds and their productive activities immeasurably improved the lives of everyone on earth, and lifted millions out of poverty. Yet they are never appreciated for it—never thanked. Instead, they’re denounced as selfish, exploiters, “robber barons,” and the like. In some cases—as with Rockefeller and Gates—the companies they spent their lives building were broken up under non-objective laws that were nothing but a vehicle for the envy of mediocrities. Google and Apple are also now being targeted under such laws.

TU: In this vein, Rand thought that producers and traders required a specific social environment in order to survive and flourish: laissez-faire capitalism. And she thought that capitalism has a specific moral base.

Dr. Salmieri: That’s right. The moral base is a recognition that productive activity in support of one’s own rational values—ultimately one’s own life—is good. This is what Rand means when she speaks of “selfishness” as a virtue. Someone like Rockefeller or Gates, or like Rearden, is first and foremost a valuer: he has his own vision of something he wants to achieve with his life. Whether he would put it this way or not, this is selfish. He’s organized his life around the pursuit of some life-supporting value—one that means the world to him personally. And he achieves his value by trading with others who are also selfishly pursuing their own happiness.

But she thinks this can only happen insofar as everyone is free to interact or not as he sees fit, without having to worry about others stealing from or enslaving or killing him. So we need society to be organized by the principle of individual rights, which defines and sanctions this freedom. Capitalism, as Rand understands it, is the social system based on this principle. In a capitalist country, the government protects, rather than interferes with, the freedom we each need to lead our lives, including the freedom to produce and trade.

There’s never been a fully capitalist country, but what Rand loved about America is that it was founded on the principle of individual rights, which is the essence of capitalism. The principle wasn’t implemented consistently—not everyone’s freedoms were protected and no one’s were protected fully—but, for the first time, enough people had enough freedom for productive geniuses to flourish on a scale that could dramatically and rapidly improve every aspect of human life. This is what Rand thought happened in the late 19th Century in America and, to a lesser extent, in Europe.

TU:  What implication does this have for how to defend capitalism? In the book, you note that Rand thought it needed a moral defense as opposed to a merely economic one.

Dr. Salmieri: People don’t understand that capitalism is moral, Rand thought, because they don’t recognize the nobility of the selfish way of life we have been discussing. This recognition had been part of the Enlightenment—an intellectual movement that flourished in the 18th Century and motivated America’s founders. Enlightenment intellectuals spoke of the pursuit of happiness, and venerated reason and productiveness (“industry,” as they called it). But this intellectual heritage coexisted with contradictory ideas, including altruism—the idea that selfishness is immoral.

Looking at the Industrial Revolution though the distorting lens of altruism is what lead people to vilify the producers. It’s because the philosophers of the 19th Century lacked the intellectual courage to repudiate altruism and formulate a consistent, egoistic alternative that the world started moving away from capitalism. In the 20th Century, we saw the rise of totalitarian dictatorships in much of Europe and Asia, and many nations that did not go this far still adopted socialism, thereby eliminating individuals’ freedom to produce and trade. Even in the United States, which remained freest in this respect, the government progressively intruded into individuals’ economic lives. There has been some tentative movement back towards capitalism, after people witnessed the consequences of contrary systems. The economic arguments you mentioned are part of what enabled people to react in this way. But before a society can consistently and self-confidently embrace capitalism, Rand held, it needs to reject altruism.

Part Two of this interview, which focuses more on American and student culture, will be posted next week. Creative commons licensed image from Pixabay

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