But are these just cases of dulling our anomie with delusions little different from drugs? Or is there some other productive purpose for such musings? Can one actually formulate a desirable and achievable vision that need not exist merely in old books, in fertile minds, or on hard drives?
I say “Yes!” But we need to distinguish between naive utopian musings that will never be realized in any human society—and, in fact, can destroy them—and what is realistically achievable by humans. After this we must head off the all-too-frequent error of seeking salvation from ultra-intelligent philosopher-kings. Reason is crucial to a better tomorrow but it must not come from the top down but, rather, from the bottom up, from the rational individual. This appreciation will lead us down practical paths to a better future, an ideal that we can make real.
The Utopian Temptation
It is uniquely human to long for a better, even a perfect, world. But the belief in perfection is truly the enemy of the good.
Utopian visions share a number of characteristics. They see future societies as peaceful, without wars or conflicts between nations or individuals; there’s little or no need for police, prisons, or armies. Poverty has been wiped out and everyone prospers. All individuals are happy and consider themselves blessed to live in such worlds.
But so far all portrayals of perfect places have stayed in the realm of fiction. In fact, these utopias have become dystopias when their proponents have attempted to bring them into the realm of the real. For example, Plato in his Republic offered the first portrait of an ideal society, a communistic affair in which everyone worked for everyone else and everyone knew his place. (It actually would have been pretty grim for a rational individualist.) Plato failed in his attempt to counsel his pupil Dionysus, dictator of Syracuse, to rule like an enlightened philosopher-king.
Many utopian visions saw religious faith as the key to new Edens on Earth. Most of the proposed paradises here and now have never grown beyond small cults, or they have dwindled and disintegrated over time—there are exactly three Shakers left in the world. The utopian faiths that had wider adherence have started bloody wars; see most major religions.
Karl Marx provided the paradigm for many modern utopias, seeing the tools and systems of production as controlling human behavior and a socialist economy as the key to a paradise on Earth. In such a system the means of production would be owned by the community rather than by individuals. In this system individuals would simply cease to be selfish and be concerned instead for the common good. Social conflict would disappear and the state itself would wither away. In a socialist land of plenty, individuals would contribute their labor and efforts according to their ability, with productive output distributed to individuals according to their needs.
Lenin later asserted that an avant-garde would need to take charge and use force to make certain that the forces of history actually would take the direction that Marx predicted. Dictatorships of the proletariat in the Soviet Union and elsewhere didn’t morph into utopias but, rather, became hells on Earth.
In his novel Walden II as well as in non-fiction works, behaviorist psychologist B.F. Skinner offered a vision of a world in which the careful conditioning of individuals right from the cradle would produce effects similar to those imagined by Marx, unleashing creativity and producing that perfect society. In essence Skinner took Marx to his logical—or illogical—conclusion: that human behavior is solely the result of environment and conditioning.
Not a Place to Go
The word “utopia” is Greek for “not a place” and there are good reasons why we’ll never find a utopia any place in this world. The problem is not simply the flawed content of past visions of a perfect world. In addition, utopian visionaries fail to grasp two fundamental truths that make impossible any perfect world.
First, human beings have volition. Sure, environment and education are important; indeed, I will argue they are crucial to the path to a better future. But ultimately our actions and thoughts as individual humans are free. We can choose to focus our minds, to ask, “Are my beliefs based on an honest search for the truth or am I simply making excuses or rationalizations for my own prejudices? Is the path I’ve chosen to follow in my personal life really allowing me to flourish? Should personal happiness be my goal?” Human volition also means that we can take the wrong path. We can choose not to think, even with the best education and training in the world.
Second, utopian visionaries ignore all of the complexities and intricacies of human nature; indeed, they tend to deny that we even have a nature, believing that we humans are infinitely malleable. They usually see some simple form of social causation directing human behavior and they believe that changes in institutions—the economic system, for example—can easily alter us as individuals and society forever.
But cognitive scientist Steven Pinker, in his 2002 book The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, offers much new data that supports the old insight going back to the ancient Greeks that humans are in various ways hardwired with propensities and capacities that cannot be overcome by economic regimes and Skinnerian conditioning. Change must come from within, from the will of the individual. Individuals who are physically flabby must exercise and work had to improve their health. Similarly, individuals who are morally flabby must do the same. They must understand that simply wishing to more rational, productive, honest, independent, just, and the like will not make it so.
There is no simple button to push to that will ever make human beings and thus the world a perfect place. That’s the human condition. In Also Sprach Zarathustra Frederick Nietzsche posited an übermensch or superman. The social critic Irving Babbitt rightly replied that we should focus first on being men before we aspire to be supermen.
Rule by Big Brains
Even without the utopian temptation there are still many social engineers who will settle for significant improvements and advances if perfection is not possible. But in these cases the means as well as the ends are flawed.
In fiction and the popular imagination, it often seems that the intelligence and wisdom of benevolent philosopher-rulers will lead us into our better future.
We see an allegory for this perspective in the first real science fiction film, Fritz Lange’s 1927 classic Metropolis. An intelligent elite—the brains—rules the workers—the hands—not tyrannically so much as with little cognizance of and thus concern for the hands’ fate and suffering. By the end of the film the brains have learned that only the human heart can reconcile them with the hands. The brains will still rule, but in the interest of all.
We see this vision in American liberals going back to the progressives of a century ago. The progressives believed that they could: 1) understand the nature of economic and social problems; 2) devise government solutions involving wealth redistribution, regulation of commerce, and central planning; and 3) objectively and impartially administer those solutions. Since that time the liberals have tried to make this vision a reality.
Thus we’ve seen a century of policies that have included government-mandated labor mediation; mandated minimum wages and benefits; anti-trust laws; land-use restrictions on private property; government-run health care; zoning; social engineering through welfare and tax policy; and straight-out redistribution of wealth; to name but a few.
Of Matter and Men
The economic problems that this sort of top-down rule by elites has wrought are all around us. For example, the federal takeover of medical insurance for retirees in 1965 (through Medicare) has resulted in skyrocketing costs to treat the ills of senior citizens. And we see the adverse political results as well. Washington, D.C. is a free-for-all of interest groups seeking their own special handouts and favors from politicians seeking their support. Power rather than productive achievement is more and more the coin of the realm.
There are many reasons why.
To start with, the top-down vision of the role of intelligence in a society is deeply flawed. It fails to distinguish between the material and the human or social realm. A scientist might discover principles that govern the material world and use that knowledge to create things that benefit humans—new consumer products, labor-saving machines, and life-saving medicines. So why not have the best and the brightest engineer a society?
But there is a fundamental difference between commanding matter and commanding men. A society is not a machine and the role of reason and intelligence in a society does not consist merely in smart elites trying to run it.
A society is composed of individual human beings. They have volition. They have their own individual goals and aspirations. They are not the stuff to be manipulated to make some collective called “society” happy and prosperous. A society is made up of such individuals who themselves are the ones who seek their own happiness and prosperity in community with others.
Reason in the Individual
So you get the point. Pointy-headed intellectuals and philosopher-kings should not rule their fellows. That’s not how reason brings us a brighter tomorrow.
Consider how that vision contrasts with Ayn Rand
’s portrayal of Galt’s Gulch in Atlas Shrugged
. No one rules this hidden valley in Colorado. Men and women have gathered here to escape from the sort of totalitarian rulers that Marxists and American progressives would foist upon us. As in other utopian visions, there is no conflict in the valley and no need for police or jails. Individuals are prosperous, productive, and happy. They consider themselves fortunate to be in such a world.
So how is Galt’s Gulch different from the other failed utopias? Those who are attracted to Rand’s vision should understand it as partly allegorical and not to be taken as an anarcho-paradise that we can literally bring about. Both Rand herself and the Objectivist philosophy recognize the need for objective law, police to enforce laws, and courts to administer justice. There will always be bad people as well as good ones. But the vision of Galt’s Gulch is important for what it illustrates about the nature of the best society.
To begin with, individuals in this vision put their own self-interest and lives first, not the good of society. Individuals seek the best for themselves and use their rational capacity to rule themselves, and—this is crucial—to discover what actually is in their self-interest.
“Rational” in this context does not simply mean being clever in pursuit of any old subjective end. Cheats use their brains to scam old ladies through internet cons. Liars use their brains to get elected to political office in order to line their own pockets and help their cronies. Religious cult leaders and political demagogues can cleverly manipulate the minds of their followers. Drunks and drug addicts might be smart enough to secure enough money to continue on a path to self-destruction.
Rational self-interest actually consists of acting in the objective ways, consistent with our nature, that will best allow us to survive and flourish. It requires the virtue of honesty. One must always strive for the truth whether that knowledge will topple some cherished prejudice or not; that is, one must never attempt to fake reality.
It requires the virtue of independence. Individuals must take the responsibility of judging for themselves, by their own lights, what is best for themselves and how best to achieve their goals. This means that they must not be content to follow what others think because majority opinion doesn’t make truth. Millions of others can and have been wrong.
It requires the virtue of productivity, of recognizing that one must create the means of one’s own survival and flourishing. And it requires that individuals take pride in their productive achievements.
Rand shows us in Galt’s Gulch what sort of society we might expect if individuals ran their lives according to rational self-interest. We would have productive individuals trading with one another, respecting the individual liberty of one another, having benevolence toward others, and giving others the spiritual thanks they earn through their virtues and efforts.
Let’s now ask how we might proceed to this better future. What are the practical paths to a better, more virtuous tomorrow? There are many paths but I will offer three here that are crucial but often overlooked.
The Path From the Cradle
“Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man.” So goes the old Jesuit saying. Almost two millennia earlier Plato was quite clear that his ideal republic would be firmly rooted right from the cradle in the right education. Rational individualists can rightly reject the educational content coming from the Society of Jesus and the Academy in Athens. But they should recognize the importance of childhood education for relatively swift social change and even for its revolutionary potential.
Take the example of the Sunday School movement in Britain. The 1700s saw the migration of rural populations into London and other urban centers as a result of industrialization. This shift also resulted in serious social problems, most notably urban crime, resulting in part from economic insecurity and from the severing of rural peoples from the institutions that had previously ordered their lives.
But in the 1780s Christian denominations—Methodists most notably—began founding Sunday Schools for the children of the newly urbanized population. These schools supplemented regular church services, which tended to be stale and rote. In these schools, children learned basic civil behavior and literacy as well as Bible lessons. By 1831 some 1.25 million British children attended Sunday Schools, perhaps a quarter of the youth population. These schools had much to do with preventing Britain from having the problems with radicalized proletariats that would plague other countries.
When Objectivists and libertarians think about a better world of free and rational individualists, they too rarely focus on the moral foundations that are laid down in childhood. One does not have to be a determinist to appreciate that how children are raised will strongly influence their moral character. Sure, individuals can overcome bad childhoods and bad cultures. But not easily!
understood the importance of child-rearing. In Galt’s Gulch one striker tells Dagny Taggart that the striker’s two children “represent my particular career.” She explains that “I came here in order to bring up my sons as human beings. I would not surrender them to the educational systems devised to stunt a child’s brain, to convince him that reason is impotent, that existence is an irrational chaos with which he’s unable to deal, and thus reduce him to a state of chronic terror.”
It will make a difference to tomorrow’s adult citizens whether as children they are raised to accept the pronouncement of authorities without question or to be inquisitive, to question, and to try to understand any idea presented to them; whether they are allowed to be the puppets of peer group pressures or are trained in the virtue of independence; whether they are allowed to behave in any way they wish without suffering adverse consequences or are taught to take personal responsibility for their actions; whether they are allowed to indulge every whim of the moment or are encouraged to have long-term goals; whether they are allowed to behave toward others any way they wish or are taught to respect others and to expect respect themselves.
Children who are raised with their own flourishing as adults in mind will not only have the best chance of being happy, they will also be the citizens of a future society worth living in.
One approach to childhood education that treats children as unique individuals and effectively fosters their flourishing is the Montessori method. Marsha Enright of the Council Oak Montessori School (Chicago) and the Reason, Individualism, Freedom Institute, is most notable for bringing to this approach the Objectivist philosophy. Central to Enright's work are methods that emphasize the importance of the mind and techniques that foster independent thought, self-fulfillment, and self-responsibility.
We’ve also seen in recent decades breakthrough work in evolutionary psychology and in understanding the functioning of the human brain and emotions. This work has profound implications for education. Knowing how our brains are hardwired, how the mind works, how our emotional infrastructure affects our thinking, and what tendencies we’ve inherited from our prehistoric ancestors will help us to develop better ways to raise our children as well as to guide our lives as adults.
For example, many people, educators included, see the first step to rational thinking as suppressing one’s emotions so that one can calculate coolly. But Antonio Damasio, author of Descartes’ Error: Emotions, Reason, and the Human Brain, shows that it is impossible to separate thinking and emotions. He reports on cases in which patients with damage to the orbitofrontal cortex of their brains lose most of their emotional lives. But rather than suddenly being able to think clearly like a computer, they find it difficult to make rational judgments at all.
Work done and reported by Jonathan Haidt, author of The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom, shows that most individuals often (and without their being fully aware of what they are doing) make decisions on moral matters based on deeply ingrained, perhaps biologically-based biases. Most people use reason to rationalize such judgments after the fact.
Pascal Boyer, author of Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought, makes a strong case for most religious beliefs having a basis in biology. Specifically he argued that the way the mind functions to make inferences tends to bias us toward explanations of natural phenomena in terms of conscious intent.
So do all of these findings suggest that we are at the mercy of our biology, that it’s impossible to think clearly and use reason to acquire truth? No. But it does suggest that we must recognize in us these possibly biological-based, hard-wired tendencies and make allowances for them in our own thinking and in the training of the young.
We know, for example, that the desire for sweet and fattening foods has a biological basis. We know that children are prone to eat as much cake and ice cream as they can shove into their little mouths. And we know that parents can train their children in how to discipline those appetites and develop the habits of moderation. Those wanting a better future could not do better than to consider seriously how children might be trained to recognize and deal with their own biases in thinking.
If those who wish a world of rational individualists in decades hence focus on child-rearing and childhood education, then they will be thanked in that future world by those they have raised.
The Path Through the Wide Academy
Most young people have their basic moral character formed before they reach colleges and universities. But even well-raised children can have their minds crippled by bad university education. And those who have might not have received the best nurturing possible can have their minds improved depending on the content and experience of their higher education. Many of the ideas formed in academia will, for better of worse, fire their interests; engage their minds; command their time, talents and mental efforts; form their understanding of the world; and cement in place the values that will guide their lives.
We know the bad news. Faculties are heavily biased toward the political left. In their 2006 study Political Beliefs & Behavior, Gary Tobin and Aryeh Weinberg reported the findings of their random survey of 6,600 faculty members. Some 48 percent identify themselves as liberal compared to only 17 percent as conservative. A full 60 percent of social science and humanities faculty self-identify as liberal compared to 12 percent as conservative. Incredibly, only 35 percent of business faculty identify themselves as conservative. “Conservative” certainly doesn’t equal “rational individualist” and it would have been nice to have a third choice—libertarian. But the bias to the left is still clear.
Curricula are terrible. They increasingly eliminate basic education, often in favor of politically-correct indoctrination. In his 2004 study The Hollow Core, Barry Latzer examined 50 top universities to identify which required basic courses in seven key areas of study he judged necessary for a well-rounded education: writing or composition, literature, foreign language, American government or history, economics, mathematics, and natural or physical science. He found that 24 percent of the institutions required courses in none or only one core area, while another 24 percent required courses in only two areas. Some 22 percent required courses in three areas, 28 percent in four or five areas, and only 2 percent in six or seven areas. The core requirement model doesn’t exhaust the routes to a good education. But it is indicative of the narrowing of education, of the failure to expose students to the breadth of knowledge and to skills needed to think effectively.
We also know how, in what are supposed to be bastions of critical thinking and open exchange of ideas, speech codes and censorship have proliferated. Check out the website of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education
, which fights such restrictions, for more examples.
Still, there are some paths in academia that lead to a better future. The Austrian School and the Chicago School of free market economics both have found homes on a number of campuses. The University of Chicago and George Mason University both host law and economics programs that examine the kinds of insights economics can offer to the analysis of legal problems. These in turn can help judges understand the intricacies of the regulations about which they often must rule. And the Center for Ethics and Entrepreneurship at Rockford College, headed by Stephen Hicks, does cutting edge work on the nature of entrepreneurship and business ethics. This is just one of many such centers sponsored by Objectivist businessman John Allison.
Since 1961 the Institute for Humane Studies has advanced a freer society by discovering and facilitating the development of talented, productive students, scholars, and other intellectuals who share an interest in liberty. And today a new, fast-growing group, Students for Liberty, has sprung up with campus chapters and a national network that offers a consistent understanding of liberty and, for its members, training, networking, and a plethora of resources.
And I would be remiss if I failed to recognize the week-long Summer Seminars that have been put on by The Atlas Society for two decades, which have helped students and individuals from all walks of life to better understand Ayn Rand
’s philosophy of Objectivism
. The Atlas Society also hosts a week-long graduate seminar for advanced university students.
But the principles of reason and individual liberty need to find their way into disciplines other than economics, politics, and law. As suggested previously, evolutionary psychology and brain research are making important contributions to our understanding of human nature and free will. And many in these fields of research—such as Robert Wright and Sam Harris—are looking seriously at the biological nature of the human moral capacity and, in the case of Harris especially, looking for a “scientific”—read “rational”—approach to ethics. In effect, from very different perspectives, they are coming to the truths appreciated by thinkers from Aristotle to Ayn Rand
And since we’re looking to the future, let’s use our imaginations to envision how new technologies for remote, interactive learning will offer greater opportunities still to educate individuals in the philosophy of freedom and reason. We’ve seen how the internet, talk radio, and cable TV have broken the quasi-monopoly of the three major broadcast networks and several major newspapers that have long controlled the flow of news and promoted a left-wing bias. New technologies could help break the domination of higher education by universities dominated by tenured faculty with similar sentiments. The high costs of higher education also set the stage for new models for delivering education without the costly overhead.
The Path Through an Inspiring Vision
We’ve reviewed two practical paths to our better future, paths that allow us to plan strategies and agendas, to commit resources, and to measure success and outcomes. But the third path is much more difficult to command or quantify.
I speak of an inspiring vision.
Human life involves action toward goals that we each must choose. To achieve goals that contribute to our survival and flourishing, we need to have a clear vision of our purpose in the full context of our nature and our world.
Art as well as life provides visions of the world as it can be and should be. And art often provides a vision to be strived for in real life. It is the meaning and spirit in the society that Ayn Rand
paints in Galt’s Gulch—in contrast to the decaying outer world of government plunder and self-sacrifice—that has inspired millions.
A vision is a paradigm we have about what a better world should look like, how it should function, and what sort of people should populate it. Such a vision, if sound and benevolent, will excite. It will be something to strive for in the way we should strive for any particular goal in our own lives. A vision is not emotionally neutral.
The world today already offers much to inspire. Within a single generation we have witnessed a communications and information revolution that allows us to access any person, entertainment, or datum from anywhere at any time.
In the field of medicine we have also witnessed incredible examples of the power of the human mind. Most of us would rather think about medical advances only when we need to partake of them which, we hope, will be infrequently. Many advances lengthen our lives and improve their quality. And now, when we do need an operation, rather than having huge incisions and major rearrangements of our innards from which it might take months to recover, surgeons often can make small slits through which micro-cameras and instruments are inserted and have us back in action in little time at all.
While such advances are truly inspirational, there is enough wrong with the world today to require a more integrated and philosophically sophisticated vision.
So how, you ask, do we create such a vision? What does it mean in practice to propose such a vision as a path to a better tomorrow? Is this all just flowery rhetoric?
Rhetoric actually is crucial for advancing ideas and changing societies. The ancients rightly understood rhetoric as a way to help us to better think and make decisions.
But there are some practical ways to follow our vision path. To begin with, when we discuss the world, politics, and culture today, when we deal with the specifics that bother people, we need to offer the broadest context of where any idea, personal practice, or public policy might lead us. It’s only when people can see the whole picture that certain actions make the most sense.
Further, we can stimulate people’s imaginations to help them envision the sort of world that is possible. After all, this is just what Rand did in Atlas Shrugged
and it is what literature and fiction can do so well. But it can also be done in discussions of public policy. Imagine, you might argue, a world in which there were as many educational opportunities and innovations as there are new integrated electronic devices that allow us to make calls, surf the web, read books, watch TV and movies, and listen to tunes all at the same time. That’s what happens when free minds are set loose in free markets!
Finally, we can project our vision in the context of community. This might sound strange to some individualists. All would say that who we associate with should be voluntary. But there’s more to say than that. Too often individualism is mistaken for being anti-social. No, we shouldn’t center our lives on figuring out what others want in order to satisfy their needs. But no rational individual would want to live on a desert island unless the alternative were to starve in North Korea or be around people so loathsome that one’s psyche would suffer less by having as exclusive neighbors coconut trees and sand crabs.
A society of like-minded, productive, benevolent people will be of value to any rational individualist. Of course, the only path to a society of such people is a rational individualist philosophy.
For most people, culture is the transmission belt for values. In the culture that would emerge from such a community of rational individualists, our values and virtues would be reinforced. By pursuing our rational, responsible, principled self-interest, by pursuing the best within us as individuals, we create a community in which we each are entertained, enriched, educated, enlightened and inspired by our fellows.
A Future Sense of Life
A vision of such a world is an important path to that future better world. And such a vision points the crucial insight that Ayn Rand
had concerning any society. In her essay “The Age of Envy” she wrote:
A culture, like an individual, has a sense of life or, rather, the equivalent of a sense of life—an emotional atmosphere created by its dominant philosophy, by its view of man and of existence. This emotional atmosphere represents a culture’s dominant values and serves as the leitmotif of a given age, setting its trends and its style.
Thus Western civilization had an Age of Reason and an Age of Enlightenment. In those periods, the quest for reason and enlightenment was the dominant intellectual drive and created a corresponding emotional atmosphere that fostered these values.
In the Renaissance, a central value was beauty in painting, sculpture, and architecture, and not just for the glory of the church but for the glory and enjoyment of man.
The Enlightenment saw the appreciation of reason become central in the culture. Seeking knowledge was seen as a worthy, indeed, perhaps the highest goal. Most notably, Isaac Newton, with his powerful scientific insights, demonstrated the power of the human mind and ignited a renewed love for inquiry.
This quest for knowledge was similar to the highest good assigned by Aristotle. But the Enlightenment insights led beyond the Greeks’ emphasis on knowledge for its own sake as the highest pursuit. Knowledge to assist individuals in every aspect of their lives was seen as equally valid. Knowledge became central for creating wealth. It sparked the Industrial Revolution.
In the popular imagination in the twentieth century, the twenty-first century to come was seen as a future that would amaze us with high tech advances. It was often, with hope, imagined as a future with little crime, little poverty, and with happy, prosperous, flourishing people.
So here we are now in the twenty-first century. While we don’t have flying cars and major cities on the Moon or Mars, we do have incredible technological advances that amaze us. But we also find ourselves in an age of confusion, frustration, and longing for something better.
That something better will come from adopting reason as a lifestyle choice of living as rational individualists, of pursuing our rational self-interest. It will require accepting that we have moral right to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness, not just a political right that we are embarrassed to exercise but, rather, a way to live in which we take pride.
The philosophy and the sense of life of rational individualism will be our path to a fantastic, non-fictional future!