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Ayn Rand & Individualism

Reading Ayn Rand in public is dangerous.

People see you  reading her and assume you subscribe to her entire philosophy. Pure objectivists think you are more in agreement with them than  you are and later discover what a heretic you are, and people who aren't objectivists think you are just a dreadful person. I've encountered both.

Last night I got into a long debate with a fellow wearing a beret who had been reading Hesse. (Do I REALLY need to tell you which camp he fell into?). He had seen me reading Ayn Rand's Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal and later engaged me in conversation about it. (To his enormous credit, he didn't do this while I was reading it.)  I told him that while I only agreed with about 75% of Ayn Rand's ideas, I thought she was spot on with her insistence that individuals are real and society is merely a useful abstraction.

His response was "I don't believe in the individual."


He went on to explain that since my identity was formed by an agglomeration of outside influences beyond my control (genes,environment,etc.) that I had no ownership of myself.

I will grant that I don't have perfect autonomy and independence. I don't think it follows that I am not a unique individual. That's too simplistic.
Not only am I a unique individual, but so are the billions of other people in the world. That means they have individual  rights I have to respect. So in a way, being an individualist makes me more considerate of other people.

Once you say that since we are all part of a big collective and no one has any claim on himself, you open the door for all kinds of tyranny.
Everyone is obligated to do what is best for society. Somebody (some individual mind you) has to determine what is best for society. Some historic examples of such individuals  include Joseph Stalin, Mao Tse-Tung, and Pol Pot.

I told my new acquaintance (who from this point on will be called Beret Guy)  that I thought it was perfectly fine to help people, and that at times it was even a moral imperative. He smiled and said "Oh, you're really a communitarian. " No, I'm not. I believe in helping actual people, not some abstraction called a community.

I think the one thing Beret Guy would agree with Ayn Rand about is that I'm not an objectivist. I usually put it that I am not a pure objectivist.
I came up with another term after a long discussion with someone who was a pure objectivist. I thought to myself after our conversation that the other guy was an orthodox objectivist, and I am reform. I do have a lot of beliefs and practices that are the objectivist equivalent of eating pork and listening to my IPod on the sabbath.


Some of these people seem overly apt to slap a label on people. I feel like individuals are the like the atoms of society: If you just keep dividing societies, a person is the smallest part you get while still retaining discrete cultural elements. I think there's a reason we pin so much to individuals: Individual rights, protection, recognition. I feel like there's justification for placing the highest emphasis on the preservation of the individual, because everything that happens has to happen to individual people, not just societies as a whole.

Beret Guys across the country sometimes astonish me with stuff like that. It's like they get this view of an ideal, easy to understand world and just run with it. I guess that's appealing and I'm certainly sometimes a Beret Guy in my own right with my sometimes overly simplistic criticisms of religion.

It's extremely odd to me for someone to claim that they 'don't believe in an individual' because a person is just the sum of their inputs. These are the same kind of people saying that because the universe is set up a certain way from the big bang, all actions are determined and there is no free will. (From whose point of view... the Universe?) But I would say to argue away the individual basically argues away societies all together. Things would be cleaner if you could work all the sociology in just big collectives but that's just not the way things are. While someone might be the most derived amalgamation of popular culture elements, completely piecing together their personality, memory, personal history, etc, they still suffer as an individual and experience as an individual and create consequences for themselves as individuals. I think that foundation goes through every part of our society.
All of us can be Beret Guys at times, including me. If you have some ideas, are intelligent, and fall just a little too much in love with your ideas, you are a beret guy. Ayn Rand was actually a bit of a Beret Gal.

Working at a university and living in a university area, I have ample opportunity to observe Beret Guys in their native habitat.

I have come up with an equation to describe my own Beret Guy theory:

above average IQ+ego+reductionism=Beret Guy

Wow. I am a Beret Guy on the subject of Beret Guys!

Anyway, I am impressed by your quick and thorough response.