The name Ayn Rand is well-known in our culture largely for being unpopular, or, at best, popular with unpopular people. And yet, argues writer, philosopher and literary critic Levi Asher in his new book, Why Ayn Rand Is Wrong (And Why It Matters), her legacy is being short-changed. Not that Asher agrees with Rand’s defense of egoism. Yet he believes that her philosophical argument is important enough to be taken into account and given a proper refutation.
Why is it important? For two main reasons: first, because the moral debates between altruism and egoism are as old as humanity yet also very current. They’re central to philosophical discussions about economics (implicit in the debates between libertarianism versus socialism), moral frameworks (be they individualist or altruist) and politics (is the state’s role to protect only individual liberties or the collective welfare?). Second, Ayn Rand’s philosophy is important because… Ayn Rand herself is an important cultural figure. Born Alisa Rosenbaum, the daughter of Russian immigrants, Rand was a big success as a fiction writer (her novels The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged were best-sellers), as the proponent of Objectivism and even as a playwright. Few American intellectuals have had as widespread a cultural impact as she did.
Having established the relevance of his chosen subject, Asher zeroes in on his main goal, which is offer a multidimensional refutation of Rand’s basic philosophical tenet of egoism, or “the belief that humans are ultimately self-interested at a basic scientific level”. Being a thorough philosopher, Asher follows Rand’s own advice to “check her premises.” He begins by unraveling the first premise of Rand’s argument for egoism: namely, that the “self” is clearly defined and distinct from other individuals. He shows how our sense of self is based on our interactions with others, our love for our families, our collective and national identities. The self, in other words, is not an individual unit living in a social vacuum. Ontologically, ethically and epistemologically, we’re connected to others. Therefore, Asher argues, even a philosophy that begins with the self will end up considering others.
Moreover, he pursues, the self is naturally empathetic. Just as we see and feel our own pain, if our brain wiring works correctly and we’re not sociopathic, we see and to some extent can identify with the pain of others. Because of this we suffer when we see our children hurt, or when we witness crimes against humanity. Any philosophy of the self will therefore end up considering the family and the group, which are inextricably related to and shape our identities.
In his eloquent, clear and impeccably argued book on Ayn Rand’s Objectivism, Levi Asher not only does justice to her arguments and persuasively refutes them, but also makes a compelling case for an ethics of empathy, based on an understanding of the self that is complex and intersubjective. This book presents the foundations of a new humanism. Original, impassioned, rigorously argued and touchingly eloquent, Why Ayn Rand is Wrong is a must-read not only for fans and antagonists of Ayn Rand, but also for all those who love a good philosophical debate about moral and social issues of the utmost importance.
Claudia Moscovici, Literaturesalon