The Philosophy of Objectivism

I saw “The Corporation” last night, a 2003 Canadian documentary film critical of the modern-day corporation, considering it as a class of person and evaluating its behaviour towards society and the world at large as a psychologist might evaluate an ordinary person.

I found this quote particularly compelling:

“Drawing the metaphor of the early attempts to fly. The man going off of a very high cliff in his airplane, with the wings flapping, and the guys flapping the wings and the wind is in his face, and this poor fool thinks he’s flying, but, in fact, he’s in free fall, and he just doesn’t know it yet because the ground is so far away, but, of course, the craft is doomed to crash.

That’s the way our civilization is, the very high cliff represents the virtually unlimited resources we seem to have when we began this journey. The craft isn’t flying because it’s not built according to the laws of aerodynamics and it’s subject to the law of gravity.

Our civilization is not flying because it’s not built according to the laws of aerodynamics for civilizations that would fly. And, of course, the ground is still a long way away, but some people have seen that ground rushing up sooner than the rest of us have.

The visionaries have seen it and have told us it’s coming. There’s not a single scientific, peer-reviewed paper published in the last 25 years that would contradict this scenario: every living system of earth is in decline, every life support system of earth is in decline, and these together constitute the biosphere, the biosphere that supports and nurtures all of life, and not just our life but perhaps 30 million other species that share this planet with us.”

—Ray Anderson, founder of Interface, The Corporation

 Robert Hessen, who critiques “The Corporation,” calls it propaganda and makes an argument that “The Corporation” should not be shown in 8th grade classes because children of that age do not have the intellectual sophistication to make an argument against what is presented.

“Everyone in the world could, at a cost, reduce the chance of his or her death.  You could chose to not to walk across the street.  The question is, is whether that person is willing to pay for it.  Consumers should be free to decide what type of risk they want to bear.  And the government has the right to provide courts of law to allow people to sue corporations if (for example) they fraudulently conceal gas tanks that are not sufficiently safe to protect the consumer.  

Strangely, people are not willing to pay very much.   And people do many stupid things that can lead to their death.  People jump out planes, people smoke, even thought they know that it’s bad for them.  But the underlying principle is that individuals should be able to decide how much they are willing to pay.  It has nothing to do with evil corporations.”

So, the folks who are promoting “The Corporation” are jumping up and down, saying that our current economic system is not sustainable, and we’re gonna crash because we’re gonna run out of resources to use.

Hessen replies that there are plenty of resources, and doing things much differently than we are currently doing it would be cutting our own throats, for no reason.

Hessen’s main critique of “The Corporation” is that corporations are an agreement between individuals — “the corporation” and “the consumer”;  the corporation is a product of the freedom of association, and Hessan sees that any criticism of the corporate form is a criticism of that freedom. 

Hessen is a “Randian”, a follower of Ayn Rand’s Objectivism.  The Objectivists believe that the fundamental right is the right to life— that is, the right to act in furtherance of one’s own life — not the right to have ones life protected or to have ones survival guaranteed by the involuntary effort of other human beings.  Secondly Objectivists believe in the right to property: one person’s right to life cannot entail the right to dispose of another’s private property, under any circumstances. 

Objectivism holds that human beings have the right to manipulate nature in any way they see fit, as long as it does not infringe on the rights of others.

 Ok, so if you’ve read this far, this is what got me — from Wikipedia:

“On the Objectivist account, the rights of other human beings are not of direct moral import to the agent who respects them; they acquire their moral purchase through an intermediate step.

An Objectivist respects the rights of other human beings out of the recognition of the value to himself or herself of living in a world in which the freedom of action of other rational (or potentially rational) human beings is respected.

Ones respect for the rights of others is founded on the value, to oneself, of other persons as actual or potential partners in cooperation and trade.”

Really, the fact that very powerful humans, humans who control our planet through the use of its resources and disposal of commercial waste, live and operate by this philosophy is terrifying. 

And it explains a lot.

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3 Responses to “The Philosophy of Objectivism”

  1. Ergo Says:

    Wikipedia is written for the most part by regular folks like you and me, so don’t accept everything you read there as the Holy Word of God.

    About the Objectivist basis of rights, I’ll just offer this clarification. The Wiki has it wrong.

    The Objectivist basis of rights is human nature, i.e., the requirements for a human being to survive given the kind of entity humans are. Since reason is our basic means and tool of survival (because we don’t have claws to fight, hoofs to run great distances, etc.), we have to use our reason to address the task of survival. This necessitates the right to use of our minds and apply our thoughts in reality. This means, the right to freedom (to think, act, speak, etc.) and the right to own property (the application of our thoughts and actions in reality).

    Thus, an Objectivist will respect the rights of other human beings precisely because an Objectivist understands the foundation of rights that is common to all humans—human nature qua human.

  2. gaiawatch Says:

    I’ve done some reading on the Ayn Rand Institute site; I have to read and think a bit more on what’s there. But thanks for your comment.

    One thing I am having trouble with is that I cannot find a place for cultural values within this philosophy. From The Philosophy of Objectivism: A Brief Summary by Dr. Leonard Peikoff:

    “The senses, concepts, logic: these are the elements of man’s rational faculty—its start, its form, its method. In essence, “follow reason” means: base knowledge on observation; form concepts according to the actual (measurable) relationships among concretes; use concepts according to the rules of logic (ultimately, the Law of Identity). Since each of these elements is based on the facts of reality, the conclusions reached by a process of reason are objective.”

    Now, this reasoning seems simple enough when I am trying to decide whether to buy a toxic lead-soaked toy for my child, or a more expensive, non-toxic toy. If I’m bent on getting the toy, I’ll get the non-toxic one.

    But what if the choice is — I can take this job at this factory which uses toxic chemicals that are poisoning me, or my family and I can starve. I do not have the resorces to relocate and this is the only job I can find. The factory owner says, hey, I’m here to make a buck — these people are working here of their own free will, nobody’s forcing them. They choose to work with in these conditions.

    The abuse of power imbalance is the great moral weakness of laissez-faire capitalism.

  3. Konrad Says:

    Sorry to butt-in but the very last part got my attention:

    “The abuse of power imbalance is the great moral weakness of laissez-faire capitalism.”

    Well, I consider myself a capitalist to the bone, so I feel that I have to step in and defend my beloved ideology 😉

    In my opinion, it is the human nature to be imperfect. We strive for better, but never reach the total perfection. So it is with capitalism, it may not be perfect (even Adam Smith warned us that big corporations are bad) but it is the best that we had come up with.. so far, at least.

    Every system we, as the human race, have tried so far had the problem of abuse of power imbalance.” Just look at the medieval kingdoms, totalitarian states of the early 1900s, and the hellish communism of most of the last century…

    As far as objectivism goes, at least to my understanding, it is not the matter of choosing the right course of action, but more importantly being able to make that choice for ourselves. You can take the job or not, you can buy the toy or not, your choice.

    Other part of objectivism would entail that the factory owner doesn’t HAVE to offer you a job (here I’m disregarding the toxicity issue) or help you in any way just because you can starve without his assistance. It’s his/her choice.

    That brings us back to those human imperfections… we may be imperfect, but at least we are free to pursue our betterment (or worsement… if there even is such a word) at our own choosing. I don’t know about others but I’d rather be an imperfect freeman than an all-too-perfect slave 😉

    But it’s just my opinion.

    P.S. I checked that wikipedia article and it doesn’t seem to be the best presentation of objectivism out there..

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