I once took a religion class where the professor was fond of saying, “Religion is a dangerous thing… unless you get it right!” This always made me laugh, for obvious reasons, but there is a grain of truth in it: the right ideas, wrongly understood, are often times much worse than plainly false ideas. I’m thinking here of the ideas some Objectivists preach about sex.
Here are a few of the ones I’ve heard:
-It is wrong to have sex with someone you don’t love.
-It is self-destructive to have more than one romantic partner during your lifetime.
-It’s wrong to fall in love with anyone who is not an Objectivist.
-It is wrong to date someone if you know in advance you won’t end up marrying him or her.
-If you feel attracted to someone who is less than your ideal, that represents a failure on your part, if not morally, then at least psycho-epistemologically.
Now, I don’t say that all of those ideas are completely wrong. But what I do say is that each was presented as an out-of-context absolute following directly from Ayn Rand’s views on sex — and for a very important reason: the same fact that led people to put forth ideas without context led them to endorse these particular principles. That fact is: intrinsicism.
There are two basic ways a man can deviate from objectivity — he can fall (or dive headfirst) into either intrinsicism, or subjectivism. Subjectivism isn’t common among Objectivists — intrinsicism is our common cold.
Intrinsicism is the view that reality writes itself on man’s consciousness; that truth exists, but that it’s revealed rather than acquired by a process of cognition; that consciousness is metaphysically and epistemologically passive — an empty window to reality.
Typically, intrinsicists are religious. Their model of knowledge is revelation: God imprints knowledge on man’s mind and lays down commandments to guide his actions.
But not all intrinsicists are religious. In fact, there is a significant segment of Objectivists who have not digested the Objectivist method of thinking — they came to Objectivism as intrinsicists and so they have remained, replacing God with Ayn Rand.
Let me stress that this isn’t usually conscious, and it isn’t usually dishonest. Intrinsicism, in such people, is not so much part of their philosophy as it is their psycho-epistemology. Nor is this an all or nothing issue. The intrinsicist psycho-epistemology comes in degrees — its affects can be more or less limited, or they can range across the total of a person’s thinking.
The mark of an intrinsicist psycho-epistemology is that they approach issues asking, “Should I… ?” rather than “Do I… ?” They encounter a new idea and their first question is, “Should I agree?” not, “Do I agree?” They encounter a new work of art and their first question is, “Should I like this?” instead of, “Do I like this?” They encounter a new person and their first question is, “Should I like him?” instead of “Do I like him?”
Of course, “Do I?” questions aren’t primaries. We aren’t subjectivists. While the first question an Objectivist will ask himself is “Do I agree?” or “Do I like this?” he’ll immediately ask himself a follow up question: “Why or why not?” But to the intrinsicist, there is no “why.” A “why” for him implies subjectivism. Rather, to the intrinsicist, the truth is obvious — it’s self-evident. (Rationalism begins with intrinsicism but proceeds by deducing a whole system of ideas from these self-evident starting points.)
The price for this approach is immense. It cuts man’s mind off from reality — and it cuts him off from his values.
In Fact and Value, Leonard Peikoff writes:
The most eloquent badge of the authentic Objectivist, who does understand Ayn Rand’s philosophy, is his attitude toward values (which follows from his acceptance of reason). An Objectivist is not primarily an academician or a political activist (though he may well devote his professional life to either or both pursuits). In his soul, he is essentially a moralist–or, in broader terms, what Ayn Rand herself called “a valuer.”
A valuer, in her sense, is a man who evaluates extensively and intensively. That is: he judges every fact within his sphere of action–and he does it passionately, because his value-judgments, being objective, are integrated in his mind into a consistent whole, which to him has the feel, the power and the absolutism of a direct perception of reality. Any other approach to life comes from and pertains to another philosophy, not to Objectivism.
This is what intrinsicism destroys. But how?
Ayn Rand’s analysis of the concept “value” starts with the observation that it isn’t a primary. For us to grasp that something is a value, we have to see it as a value to something, relative to some goal that thing is pursuing. And not just any goal: a goal whose outcome makes a difference to the entity acting. To put it simply: to grasp that something is a value, we have to see it as something an entity acts to achieve in the face of an alternative. Rand’s revolutionary insight was that all alternatives are really variants of a single, basic, all-embracing alternative — existence or non-existence — and that only living entities face this alternative. To grasp that something is a value, therefore, we have to grasp in some terms the relationship between an organism’s goal and that organism’s life. If we don’t, the concept “value” becomes untenable.
This entire approach is anathema to the intrinsicist. If you say to him, “Value, to whom? And for what?” he’ll look at you as if you were speaking Greek. There is no to whom or for what. Values simply are. For him every concept is a primary, since anything else would be subjective human interpretation.
Suppose Larry The Intrinsicist tells you not to pet his dog. “Why?” you ask. “Because it’s bad for him,” Larry says. “Why?” you ask, still confused. “What do you mean ‘why’? There is no why. It’s just bad for him.” You shake your head: “Will it hurt him? Doesn’t he like it?” Now Larry gets frustrated: “No dammit, it’s just bad for him!” Such is the absurdity of intrinsicism. By divorcing values from goals, it strips “value” of the context that gives it meaning.
(Notice that this is true even for the intrinsicist. Even the religionist who proclaims the necessity of God’s commandments tacitly recognizes that values require the possibility of action in the face of an alternative: if you don’t obey God’s commandments, he says, you will go to hell rather than heaven. But unlike an objective account of “value,” here there is no causal connection between man’s action and the “heaven or hell” alternative — there is only God’s arbitrary decree. Why tell the truth? Because if you don’t, you’ll go to hell. Why will lying cause me to go to hell? Because God said so. Why did God say so? There is no “why.”)
To see the effects of intrinsicism in action, consider its effects on one of man’s most important values: romance.
So many young Objectivists face this sort of dilemma. They meet a girl (or boy) they are attracted to, and rather than be consumed with the pleasure of romantic feelings, the first thing they experience is a sense of guilt or dread. They tend to view their emotions with suspicion. “Should I like this person?” they wonder. And how do they go about answering that question? Not by looking for the person’s virtues, but by comparing them to fictional characters, or a list of Objectivist virtues, or a laundry list of philosophical ideas, artistic tastes, and opinions. Or worse, they ask themselves, “What would Ayn Rand think of this person?”
The intrinsicist views every choice as a test of his virtue, and he views virtue as an end in itself. He isn’t value oriented — he can’t be. He can’t be because his values are not the result of his considered judgment, but his refusal to judge. To value something is to see that thing as contributing to one’s welfare. The intrinsicist doesn’t look at things from that perspective — his concern is whether or not something coheres with whatever he takes as the source of knowledge (God, Ayn Rand… whichever.).
The intrinsicist deadens his values the more carefully he analyzes them, because the more closely he analyzes them, the more apparent it is that his values aren’t his values. (“There is no why.” And if there is no why, there is no what.) He is pushed towards repression, since his values will sometimes conflict with what he thinks he ought to value.
An Objectivist approaches values from the opposite perspective. His first question is, “What do I value?” But he doesn’t take his answer as a given. He goes on to ask, “Why?” He asks that, not because regards his emotions as suspicious or because Ayn Rand said he should. Rather, he knows that the more clearly he identifies the reasons behind his desires, the more intense his desires will be; the more vividly he’ll experience his values; and the more delight he’ll feel from their contemplation, pursuit, and achievement.
I want to return, then, to the question of sex. Ayn Rand was right — sex, for a valuer, is life’s greatest reward, an expression of his love of himself and existence. It is so important to a rational man, that to treat it lightly would to him be treason. One of the Christianity’s worst sins has been its corruption of sex, perverting innocent minds with the idea that sex is shameful, dirty, bad… or that it is holy and chaste, existing for the purpose of enabling God to create life, two views that have the same effect: to destroy man’s capacity to enjoy sex as an end in itself.
But this is precisely what Objectivist intrinsicists do when they claim that sex with anyone who isn’t your ideal is wrong. They treat sex as a Platonic abstraction that man must serve, they treat sex as a test of their virtue, they… well, to put it simply, they treat sex in the most disgustingly un-sexual way imaginable.
And they aren’t their only victims. The people who suffer the most are young men and women. Young people trying to learn a philosophy are already prone to intrinsicism, simply because they are overwhelmed by how abstract it is. At the same time, they are trying to grapple with romance and sex, two things they have little to no experience with, and most likely no rational guidance from their parents, teachers, or peers. They are the ones mostly likely to fall for the pronouncements of the Objectivist intrinsicists. The effect is predictable — their earliest experiences with sex are either filled with guilt or are likely to lead to repression (depending on whether they engage or refrain).
Now think of what such an experience would do to a young valuer, if his or her most intense value experience was a source of pain rather than joy. You don’t need to use your imagination, either. Talk to the Objectivists who have gone through it. Or at least those of us who recovered and realized the error wasn’t in Objectivism, but a false approach to it.