Monday, February 28, 2011

Rationalism in Objectivist Romance : Common Errors Among Young Objectivists

I had a discussion with a recent college graduate who considered herself a devotee of Ayn Rand's philosophy of Objectivism.  Ayn Rand's position on friendship was that one should be friends with others in proportion to their values.  Romantic love is friendship in the extreme, sharing life's most intense pleasure with the person one values the most.

My friend believes that you value or disvalue someone based solely on their values, which are chosen rather than inherited.  This means that in any kind of friendship, including romantic, their physical attributes, including their gender, should count for nothing.  (Many people believe similar things without being Objectivists.  Witness how often we hear that we should look past someone being overweight.  Or watch the movie Shrek).  She is frustrated because she believes that a homosexual male friend should commit to her, but he doesn't want to because he's also attracted to guys - even guys who share his values less than she does.  She said that "being a woman or a man is not a virtue...I have dated a number of guys that I was not initially attracted to, but as I got to know them and discovered their virtues, they became more attractive to me."  These arguments have had some success persuading this guy to date her.

I give her credit for taking the position to its logical consistency.  Usually, I find myself arguing with people that in romance, physical attributes are primary and fundamental.  It's not simply the genital equipment - it's also the body features and aesthetic associations with the equipment.  Otherwise, we would have sex with a person with similar values regardless of whether s/he were male or female, transvestite or hermaphrodite.   Also, if values were the only thing that mattered, all Objectivists would be friends with each other, and they are not.  Values and other personality qualities clearly amplify physical attraction, but I would argue that there are serious physical minimums well beyond just having the right gender.

To illustrate a point, I asked my friend how eating food could be a value given that none of us chose to be food-eaters.  Things don't become values simply because we choose them; things are values because they stand in a certain relationship to our lives/minds/happiness.  Objectivists should not pick values and stick to them just because we picked them; we should pursue what we know through reason and experience with maximize happiness.  And no amount of telling yourself that a person should bring you sexual gratification from his/her virtues will actually bring that gratification.  I suppose you could go without that gratification because you're obtaining other kinds of values, but that would be a major sacrifice.  It's forcing a square peg into a round hole. 

In order for objectivism to work, one has to make assumptions about what makes the mind happy.  Objectivists think we'll be happier as producers than simple inheritors of fortunes or recipients of nepotism because something about the way the brain works makes us happier as such.  Likewise, the brain responds to the physical stimuli of other people, or it doesn't.  My friend basically asked me, "have you tried not being consistently  heterosexual?" - just as absurd as asking a gay person if he's tried not being gay.

As we continued the conversation, she said "it's ridiculous to have the single most important quality in a mate be something [gender] that is no more a virtue than eye color."  I'd say avoiding anal penetration is on a different level of importance to me than the satisfaction of seeing a pleasant eye color, though I didn't mention that to her.

People reward good lookers all the time whether they have the values one wants or not - they're more likely to get good jobs and better mates (at least ceteris paribus), etc.  This skews the conditioning we want to encourage good values.  But if any particular person leaves looks out of their mate calculus, they are not going to reform the society.  What could be more altruistic and futile than doing so?

This is rationalism at its most extreme, because one is ignoring what one feels and forcing oneself to feel what one thinks s/he should feel.

I pursued this argument no further.  She was obviously getting testy and in my view, I planted a seed of doubt.  The only thing to do is wait and then hand her a box of Kleenexes and some Edith Packer pamphlets when the car wreck happens.

1 comment:

  1. Rand's own views on gender roles and attraction clearly involve a lot of unstated assumptions that your average evolutionary psychologist would find familiar. I think many standard EP accounts of attraction and gendered behavior are suspicious (I'm reading Sex at Dawn at the moment) but agree with the intention - to understand what sorts of features our minds have evolved in response to selection pressures. That said, it's difficult to say whether we should always go along with these evolved features (read: instincts), even if we could agree on what they are, since they're pretty sneaky - the mind didn't evolve for happiness maximization, after all. Your friend has identified a key conflict between instinct (a real, legitimate part of how humans are that can't be philosophized away) and what would make us happy in a world where rational decisions about values were the only driving force.