From Sat Mar 26 09:30:26 2005
Newsgroups: co.general,us.politics,alt.politics.usa.misc,talk.politics,soc.culture.iraq,soc.culture.cuba,soc.culture.china
Subject: Re: Understanding the principles of liberty
From: Haines Brown <>
Date: 26 Mar 2005 09:30:23 -0500

Understanding the principles of liberty

By Haines Brown, 26 March 2005

I thank anonymous for this interesting link to a brief item written by Ayn Rand in 1946. I read it with interest and will find use for the material.

On the surface it appears to be an exercise in social deconstruction, or, in more conventional terms, social atomization. However, the basic unit of analysis with which Rand starts is the isolated individual, not a “social being”—a connected individual, and she draws out the implications of that starting assumption.

Her initial presumption of social atomism has its origin among certain intellectuals in the European Enlightenment, but otherwise is not widely shared. That is, her axiom is problematic and requires justification, and, without it, her argument lacks any solid foundation.

Rand takes her analytical unit for granted, and so it functions here as an axiom. Axioms that are contentious or unconventional require justification, and Rand at first does not appear to offer one. Although her essay seems merely to draw out the implications of her starting assumption, upon reflection it strikes me as more an attempt to justify the axiom. That is, it is not really her starting point, but her object.

If so, that makes her essay more interesting and useful, for the implications of a problematic starting point can only themselves be problematic, while an attempt to justify a contentious axiom is certainly useful. So I’ll assume here that the essay is not trying to arrive at a conclusion, but to justify an axiom.

The “justification” of an axiom is rather less rigorous than what we usually think is required by scientific proof. Let me mention some kinds of justification:

  1. Scientific justification. An axiom is not a scientific hypothesis—something that can be inferred from a logical treatment of empirical evidence, but is a presumed fact or value. Nevertheless, our axioms do need to function in a scientific context, and that function can serve to justify them.

    Rand only refers to an ideological context, particularly the values of founding fathers of the U.S. (not “America,” of course), not a scientific context such as historiography, sociology or anthropology.

  2. For examples of scientific justification, a) an axiom cannot appeal to empiricist presuppositions without simply begging the question, b) in lieu of other justification, there must be a consensus in the scientific community that one axiom is better justified than another, and c) it should satisfy a requirement of a satisfactory scientific theory in that it be heuristic.

    On point (a), Rand's axiom is simply the social implication of a particular philosophy, a radical atomism, which comes down to us as a form of empiricism. Since this philosophy is not itself justified, neither is the social axiom based on it. More generally, it is unscientific to infer scientific axioms from philosophical presuppositions; it should be the other way around. On point (b), I doubt very much there is such a scientific consensus. However, on point (c), she does very well, and in fact, it seems the thrust of her essay.

  3. Common sense persuasiveness. That is, in our daily life, such as in the family, on the job or in social activity, do we act as isolated self-centered individuals rather than as social beings? This argument is inevitably circular, and so perhaps it is easier to ask whether most of world's population instinctively act and think one way or the other. Do people generally think of themselves as family members, workers and citizens, or do they think of themselves as reduced to inherent genetic determinations as biological agents, although for some, also in possession of a bit of the supernatural?

    Rand's context is very specific and ideological, which excludes the vast majority of people in the US and the world more broadly. So she avoids this criterion. She may be logical, but that is not the same thing as exercising common sense. Common sense does not enter into her essay at all.

  4. Moral considerations. Generally, our basic assumptions about society have serious implications for our moral values. Is individualism a better foundation of moral behavior than seeing ourselves as essentially part of the social fabric? Since we cannot argue this in abstract terms, we have to look at the actual behavior of people. For example, do those who deny their social nature actually behave better than those who embrace it?

    Rand does not explicitly examine moral implications, although she certainly could if she chose to do so by appealing to Adam Smith or Malthus. Whether we would find such moral arguments appealing remains an open question, since she does not attempt them.

  5. Finally, there are political implications. What kind of social policy is associated with different axiom sets? If we can identify social powers as acting on the basis of one axiom or another, can we then look at the policies and goals they pursue as expressions of their axioms? Easy enough in principle, but certainly difficult in practice, as is any historical interpretation.

    Today, when the world generally sees the U.S. as a rogue state (if not a terrorist one), Rand's attempt at political justification is certainly a lot harder to swallow than, say, in 1946 when she wrote the piece. That is, her essay appears very dated.

I have tried to suggest that it would be challenging task either to defend or to attack Rand's starting assumption. In fact, it appears this essay is really just an attempt to justify her axiom and should be understood as such. If so, I have to conclude that its justification seems extraordinarily narrow, dated, elitist, and ultimately unpersuasive.

Haines Brown