Objectivism as a Cult
Michael Shermer has argued that Objectivism, the philosophy of Ayn Rand, is a cult¹.
That Objectivism explicitly is not a cult is quite evident from Shermer’s own identification of one of the fundamentals of cultism: “The last thing a cult leader wants is for followers to think for themselves and become individuals apart from the group.” Objectivism explicitly champions the individual; reason as an attribute of the individual; independence as a cardinal virtue; the intransigent mind as a high virtue. If the last thing a cult leader wants is independence: then dependence is a sine qua non of cults. Therefore, Objectivism is not a cult.
So how then does Shermer get from that to deciding it is a cult?
Shermer defines cults by inessentials: by listing some of their qualities and consequences and drawing analogies with Objectivism. However, he also makes his own basic premises clear, and his error is then easily seen.
The correct way to approach cults is by definition according to essentials. In those terms, cults are members of the class: irrational belief systems. Their distinguishing feature is: a leader/founder claiming a unique, mystical pipeline to the Truth.
Shermer’s error is that he believes that there is no valid basis for ethics, and that uncertainty rules, not only in knowledge of the physical world, but especially in philosophy. The rest of his thesis follows. If there are no valid philosophies, then all belief systems are irrational. If reason cannot arrive at the truth, then any claim to the truth is “unique” and mystical. It also follows that the only belief system that escapes cultism is Skepticism – explicit uncertainty about everything. How convenient, for a skeptic.
So the flaw in Objectivism is that it actually believes something! This leads to some curious statements. “The cultic flaw is not in the use of reason, or in the emphasis on individuality, or in the belief that humans are self motivated, or in the conviction that capitalism is the ideal system. The fallacy in Objectivism is the belief that absolute knowledge and final Truths are attainable through reason.” Why reason, individualism, reason and capitalism are OK when there are no absolute truths or ethics is a mystery. If there is no basis for ethics in reason and reality, then individualism, reason and capitalism are no better or worse, no less arbitrary, than slavery, mysticism, fascism or eating children. If ethics are arbitrary, then all beliefs are equal, and equally indefensible and equally “cultic” if you feel like insulting them.
Hence also Shermer’s implications that enthusiasm and deep emotional attachments to an idea or a person are evidence of cultism, without any attempt to examine whether the emotions are rational or irrational, whether the object of the emotion deserves it or not: because no strong beliefs can be rational.
From the essence of cults derive their other qualities, as consequences: the leader’s “infallibility”, the secrecy, initiations and exploitation. From that essence, it is also clear that Objectivism is not a cult. Reason is open to anyone: there is no hidden source of knowledge. There is nothing mystical about it. Furthermore, to be an Objectivist simply means to follow Ayn Rand’s philosophy. There is no recruitment other than by rational argument, no demands to hand over all (or any) of your worldly goods, no demands to give up everything to the group: no demand except that you use your own mind, and act in your own best interests.
The essence of Shermer’s philosophy is that ethics are arbitrary. They do not exist in the real world. The annoying thing is that he raises this objection to Rand as if he is pointing out something to us dumb Objectivists. Silly us, all along we just assumed that ethics had some objective basis and was somehow derived by pure reason. For someone like Shermer who has read all of Rand’s writings this is rationally inexcusable. Objectivist ethics is explicitly based on the argument that ethics is based on the real world. Specifically, that the nature of reality and the nature of consciousness leads to a necessary fundamental value for any conscious being: its own life. From that value, and the nature of the world, other values can be derived. From values, which are the things we seek to gain or to keep, derive virtues: which are how we get them. Shermer is at liberty to attack the derivation of Objectivist ethics, to disprove it if he can. But all he has done is assert that there is no basis for ethics, and simply ignore Rand’s contrary proofs.
This is the more curious, given that the value of the individual’s life is an assumed value behind all Shermer’s claimed ideals. So science is our best way to learn about the world. So what? Because that is of benefit to our lives . He embraces Rand’s love of the heroic nature of humanity and the ability of the human spirit to triumph over nature. Why does he care? Because life is his fundamental value. No wonder he does not attempt to refute Rand’s arguments on the matter.
His failure to recognise this leads him to moral relativism. The only problem with fascism is that a society that values human happiness doesn’t like it! Big deal. He should at least be consistent. According to his explicit beliefs, a society that values human happiness is fundamentally no better than fascism, so who cares what it thinks about fascism? Fascism doesn’t think much of it , either. Fortunately, his implicit beliefs rest on the value of life, from which all else derives.
Shermer extends his relativism even to the facts of reality. Objectivism believes in “Absolute Truth” which is unattainable by us mere humans. Again, he just ignores, or fails to understand, what Objectivism actually says. Human knowledge is not absolute: it can be “certain”, but only certain in context. The simplest way to put it is: you can be certain enough to bet your life on it. Objectivism simply says that the world is knowable, despite the residual fact that maybe there is something else that we don’t know yet. And it is knowable. My proof is aeroplanes, cars, computers, and all the other wonders of technology that derive from that knowledge.
Having identified the supposed fatal flaw – belief in anything on any basis – Shermer then had to go through the process of showing how an explicit anti-cult got transformed into a cult.
Apparently it all started because people got so enthusiastic about it. Cultists are enthusiastic. QED.
Then it gets interesting. Human testimony is unreliable. Hostile or sycophantic human testimony is even worse. Yet for evidence, Shermer uncritically swallows everything the Brandens say in their books²! Remarkable indeed for a Skeptic. Apparently the rigorous demands for proof that skeptics apply to claims of the paranormal can be ignored when one has one’s own barrow to push.
Shermer then attempts to show that Objectivism fits all the criteria of a cult. This means he lists the characteristics of cults that he thinks he might be able to apply to Objectivism, without attempting to actually extract the essence of cultism. Of course, he must do it this way: after all, his first identification of a fundamental quality of cults showed that Objectivism isn’t one!
Even by Shermer’s own list, Objectivism just doesn’t make it as a cult. Basically, Shermer has made a list of cult features which either:
- Do not apply to Objectivism: “inerrancy of the leader”, “omniscience of the leader”, “hidden agendas”, “deceit”, “financial and/or sexual exploitation”; or
- Do not apply to Objectivism in the way they apply to a cult: “veneration of the leader”, “persuasive techniques”, “Absolute Truth”, “Absolute Morality”.
Ayn Rand is admired, rightly. Just as it is right to admire Aristotle, or Newton, or Einstein for their magnificent achievements. But I have met no-one who glorifies her to the point of “sainthood or divinity”. Nor is she considered inerrant: Leonard Peikoff [Rand’s heir and official successor] himself explicitly states that no one is infallible, not himself, not her. Then there are the “persuasive techniques” used to recruit new followers. A persuasive technique that consists of rational argument and an appeal to the other person’s independent reason is not characteristic of cults: by their essence. Nor are there hidden agendas: the whole of the Objectivist philosophy is public, in Rand’s books. As for “deceit”, the private lives of public figures are none of anyone’s business, unless it is actually going to impinge on someone, or unless it invalidates their claims.
Anyway, that is merely criticism of his peripheral arguments. Shermer’s real problem is his fundamental belief that all beliefs are arbitrary (except that one). That leads him into all manner of errors. Thus he says one may reject parts of a philosophy while embracing others. This is true if a philosophy is a set of arbitrary claims which one may pick and choose by whim. It is not true if a philosophy is a rational, coherent system. If philosophy is rational, it must hang together, self-consistently. So a rational person cannot just pick and choose by whim. He must have rational criteria. Which means, a rational philosophy. His personal philosophy might well agree with part of another, or part of several: but cannot just be a random collection of things he happens to like. He either agrees with a philosophy or has a different one.
And that is the key. Shermer thinks that if you do not allow people to pick and choose, you are a cult. He forgets that Objectivists are people who follow the philosophy of Objectivism, which is (by definition) the philosophy of Ayn Rand. Objectivists are quite happy for other people to have philosophies similar to Objectivism, or derived from Objectivism: as long as they don’t claim they are Objectivists. They aren’t. They have some other philosophy, which Objectivists may or may not approve of.
It is clear that Objectivism cannot be a cult. But is it intolerant? Shermer thinks that if you believe that there is any true ethics, you are on the road to intolerance and culthood. That is not true. The true bases of tolerance are:
- Recognising what is and is not important:
Toleration is valid and desirable — indeed, a virtue — regarding what is not important. I don’t care what your favourite colour is, philosophically speaking (though I may not wish to be seen with you in public!). But I do care what your ethics and politics are. To tolerate fascism, rape or murder is evil. Within a philosophy, people must agree on the essentials or they don’t in fact share the same philosophy. But on inessentials, where agreement can’t be reached, you can and should simply agree to disagree.
- Toleration in context:
Toleration has to be in context. I will tolerate things in workmates or acquaintances that I would not tolerate in a friend: that is, I choose my friends according to tighter criteria. Similarly, I will tolerate things in friends that I would not tolerate in a wife: that is, I would choose my wife even more carefully that I choose my friends! In another context, if I belong to the Society for Growing Australian Plants, I don’t care how valid a love of roses is. It is a group interested in Australian plants: someone who only wants to come along to push the comparative wonders of roses is not welcome! This does not make SGAP a cult!
- Recognising human fallibility:
In terms of philosophical agreement, one has to recognise reality. People are fallible. You do not reject someone simply if they disagree: as long as it is honest disagreement. On the other hand, in certain contexts even honest disagreement can be valid reasons for exclusion from a group: it depends on the aims of the group. This can be applied to modern Objectivism. It is true that some “Objectivists” act like it is a cult. But that is rare, and is only possible if their attachment is primarily emotional. A “true” Objectivist — one who actually practises the philosophy — cannot be a cultist. As Shermer himself notes, the philosophy is explicitly contrary to it.
A cult is not just any group who excludes someone with different beliefs or values. That is to define a cult by consequences not essentials, and to allow almost any group to be accused of cultism. Soccer is a valid sport. But if I want to play soccer, I join a soccer club: I don’t join a basketball club and try to persuade them to play soccer instead! Similarly with a philosophy. If someone agrees with every part of Objectivism except that he thinks that art is philosophically irrelevant, and that esthetics does not belong in philosophy: then that is his privelege, but he can’t call himself an Objectivist.
Thus, Shermer’s remarks that Objectivists would “expel” him for his minor difference in opinion – disputing the entire basis of Objectivist ethics and epistemology! – is irrelevant. Of course they would. He isn’t an Objectivist. So why should he expect to be recognised as one? Why would he want to be? Is it not a fraud to call someone an “Objectivist” if he isn’t?
Nor should he expect Objectivists to “tolerate” his claims, in the sense of accepting that they might be true. They are not true. Objectivists must disagree with him: just as he disagrees with them. For all his talk of tolerance and moral relativism, there appears to be one thing he won’t tolerate: Objectivism.
Intolerance is not a context-free vice. Intolerance is immoral if it is irrational . It is evil if it expresses itself in the initiation of force . The true test of whether tolerance is good or bad is entirely contextual: is it rational in this context, or not?
- “The Unlikeliest Cult in History” [Skeptic 2(2):74-81].
The comments in this article are based on an e-mailed document which I understand to be a true copy of the original article. Note added Nov 2002: The article is reprinted in Shermer’s book Why People Believe Weird Things (2002). The comments on Objectivism are unfortunately the lowest points in the book, where Shermer is guilty of the very blindness to his own blindness of which he accuses Objectivists.
- Barbara and Nathaniel Branden used to be “disciples” of Ayn Rand but their relationships fell apart. Since then, both Brandens have written books critical of Rand. For a critical analysis of these books, see The Passion of Ayn Rand’s Critics by James Valliant.