From the Archive: Confessions of a Former Objectivist, part four

This is the last of my old posts on Objectivism, from February 19, 2007.

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Confessions of a Former Objectivist, part four

I think that I am more or less done writing about my misspent youth, for now. I may have more to add at some point in the future.

I did want to add that I occasionally come across a student whom I suspect of being an Objectivist, or at least an Objectivist sympathizer. The signs are not hard to spot.I once had a student who was terribly frustrated with the professional ethics course I was teaching because I kept expecting him to actually practice some basic skills for understanding ethical problems and generating options for action. He regarded such exercises as a waste of time, since they only kept him from being able to show off his own intelligence and his own profound wisdom about all matters of proper human conduct.

There is no point to being creative, he said. There is a right answer and a wrong answer, and if you’d just give me a chance, I’ll tell you what the right answer is.

He also insisted that there is no such thing as a genuine dilemma that calls for trading off one value for another; there is always a right way to go, no matter what.

He said he wanted to be challenged, but I could tell that he did not want to be challenged in any way that really mattered, that is, shaken to the core of his beliefs and forced to reassess everything from the ground up. No, he wanted to be confronted with ideas he disagreed with so he could dismiss them out of hand, undermine them by any means necessary.

Do not ask me to take other points of view seriously, he insisted. If you do so, he implied strongly, you are part of an academic conspiracy to undermine my confidence in myself.

His favorite way of undermining other points of view – and this was one reason I suspected he might be an Objectivist – was to reduce all values, obligations, and motives involved to some mix of psychological and ethical egoism. Engineers do not have obligations to public health and safety, he argued, they only have obligations to themselves; self-interest dictates that they would be stupid to let what they do hurt other people, because if they do, they’ll lose their opportunity to do meaningful and satisfying work, to create things. (I read: to Produce.)

Another reason I suspected him of Objectivism was that he “solved” one case – involving a decision whether to cut down part of an old-growth forest in order to make a stretch of highway more safe – by a very provocative reframing: this should not be an issue at all, he declared, because roads should not be built by the government. All roads should be built and maintained by private companies, like they were at the beginning of the Republic. If roads were in private hands (and, I suppose, trees as well) this would issue would never have arisen.

(I did not point out that, before the advent of the Federal Highway system, it took an armored military column – including Lieutenant Colonel Dwight Eisenhower – 62 days to travel from Washington, D.C. to San Francisco. That’s another story.)

I guess I have to say that I’m sympathetic to students like this. After all, I was very much like they are in my first two years of college. On the other hand, I find such students very, very frustrating. There is no way to teach them, no way to bring them to Socrates’ insight that wisdom begins with the acknowledgment of our own ignorance.

They will have to discover this on their own, as I eventually did, or they will never actually learn anything.

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