Why I Teach Ayn Rand
One of the philosophy Facebook groups I'm in was talking about Ayn Rand, and several people expressed consternation that some philosophers treat her seriously as a philosopher. I think that's a big mistake. I think seeing her as a non-philosopher undermines the effort to convince students that we are all philosophers, and some of us just choose it as a profession by publishing and teaching philosophy, but philosophy is for everyone, and it's good for us all to engage in it. I always point out when I teach her that she was not a professional philosopher in the sense that most of the recent philosophers we are reading are, but that's also true of most of the earlier philosophers we read. Socrates, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, John Locke, Gottfried Leibniz and many others who are part of the canon of Western philosophy had their main sources of income doing things other than philosophy.
A few things that I see as a reason for including Rand in the canon:
(1) She is a woman, and I think it's good for students to see women doing philosophy. If philosophy is for everyone, then only giving them readings by men undermines that.
(2) She is an outsider to the discipline who has offered a theory that contributes to the philosophical discussion in a way that is unique.
(3) Her particular contribution is worth having on the table among the views students are presented with. She is an egoist but not an entirely consequentialist egoist, and that's interesting. It's a deontological/virtue egoism, and we don't quite see that in Epicurus (who has a consequentialist/virtue egoism) or the Sophists (who seem purely consequentialist egoists), whereas she thinks we have deontological obligations to ourselves to seek our own good and to other people to allow them to do so. That's a unique view in the history of philosophy and shows creative theoretical philosophical reasoning.
(4) It's a way of exploring what a moderated Glaucon-style egoism can look like in modern times. I cover Book II of Plato's Republic and have them read Antiphon the Sophist, and her view allows some fleshing out of what that can look like in the 20th century.
(5) Her examples of bad character, the beggar and the sucker, while way overblown in her actual application to real-life categories, still represent actual vices, and everyone knows examples of people who are like those, so it illustrates both Aristotle's doctrine of the mean and how that can be misapplied if you misrepresent what's going on in terms of the facts of a case.
(6) Her critiques of altruism, while they don't actually show altruism to be bad, offer some good criticisms of ways that it is sometimes done, without any concern for the desires of the people intended to be helped or what's actually in their best interests rather than the projected interests of those doing the helping.
Now I do think teaching her can be done in a responsible way or an irresponsible way, and teaching her without exposing them to some opportunity to hear critiques of her ways of thinking would be irresponsible. But that's true of every philosopher I teach. I haven't found one that I think got everything right. I either get to critiques when I cover later philosophers' arguments against them, or I look at objections while covering them, because we won't get to those with later philosophers. Some of her arguments rely on several overstatements or misrepresentations of those she disagrees with, and it's irresponsible to teach her sympathetically (as I try to do, at least at the outset), without also confronting some objections to those arguments.
I think it's good for them to be exposed to her approach, her creative and unique way of putting together various approaches that we have already covered in the class, and the glaring problems her overall pictures faces when you look at it more carefully. That's precisely what a philosophy class should be doing, and presenting her as not a philosopher gets it so very wrong that I resist that kind of attitude pretty strongly. She was certainly doing philosophy, and some aspects of her approach to doing philosophy are actually a good model for doing it creatively and thoughtfully. Some were not, and they serve as a good model for how not to do it. In that light, why wouldn't I teach her?
Avoidable Perceptions of Bias
I’m part of a Facebook group that discusses the teaching of philosophy, and every once in a while someone says something that I really want to comment on, but it would move enough away from the conversation and be very long and just feel out of place. I found myself writing a very long comment this morning about something that I think should be preserved, but I ended up not posting it to that conversation, because it’s really off point and probably wouldn’t be appropriate to pick out one side comment and turn it into a lengthy issue. But I think what I have to say about it is worth posting, so here it is.
The conversation was about a student who engaged in inappropriate behavior in class to support (but not actually defend) his view that morality is connected with religion. He actually stood up and looked around at the class to assert his view, as if he could win people over by the sheer force of saying it. One of the commenters pointed out that movies like God Is Not Dead probably fuel perceptions of a liberal and secular bias in philosophy classes, and to someone who has seen that movie and has no familiarity with philosophy they might think philosophy classes are actually like that and see this kind of behavior as an appropriate response. (Hint: philosophy classes are usually nothing like what that movie portrays, and this kind of behavior is totally inappropriate in a philosophy class.)
Someone else came along and mentioned a case where her insistence on using proper terminology led to a student’s parents accusing her of inappropriate bias in her teaching. That’s unfortunate when that happens, and I actually think in the case these parents were pushing back against they were wrong. But the case started from something preventable that I think would predictably lead to that perception in a lot of people.
Jeremy Pierce is a philosophy professor, Uber/Lyft driver, and father of five.