Ayn Rand, Academic Freedom, and Gifts from the Marketplace
A good recent example of the agoraists’ aspirations was in the required reading of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged as part of a BB&T gift to UNC-C. Even more recently, our Chancellor and Provost struggled to provide justification for Western accepting a similar gift by BB&T’s dropping the required reading stipulation. Perhaps this will make a difference. Still, the description of the Distinguished Professorship in Capitalism must ‘work closely with the Ayn Rand Institute, have a “reasonable understanding and positive understanding toward Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism”. Since all of these proposals make grandiose claims about the philosophical foundations of American business, ethical implications about market (and non-market) systems, accountability and integrity in the business profession, it seems incumbent on a philosopher in the Socratic tradition to make some sort of considered response.
Since the distinguished professorship is required to have a ‘reasonable
understanding of and positive attitude toward’ Rand’s Objectivism, it is clear
that s/he will have little academic freedom to analyze critically
2. The program is entitled ‘The BB&T Moral Foundations of Capitalism’. As the Chancellor and Provost noted, the stress here is on the academic sense of morality. Of course, there is no mention of the fact that universities already have a profession that teaches moral theory and applied ethics – philosophers. However, the way that philosophers approach the study of ethics is to give the best presentation of diverse, even conflicting, moral perspectives and then raise objective criticisms of those theories, allowing students, as mature, self-reflective reasoners, to decide for themselves which theory seems most compelling, in light of the considered critiques. This typical philosophical way of presenting the academic study of morality, though, seems very contrary to the BB&T donor’s intention, since the condition of being screened by the Rand Institute precludes such objectivity. So, will a philosopher be hired to teach business Ethics?
Ayn Rand does not carry very much clout among
philosophers. The reason she has been ignored academically is that she is
regarded as an intellectual lightweight. In fact, almost every
introductory Ethics text has 2 main areas of student predisposition that
philosophers agree need critical challenge – moral relativism and ethical
Rand stresses limited government, a position in political philosophy known as
‘libertarianism’ that has drawn many followers in
5. Finally, we should worry a bit, morally speaking, about what policies the Rand Institute would advocate. On their website, the lead article (by the co-chair of the board of directors) is entitled “The Danger of Environmentalism.” In it, the author argues that the basic goal of environmentalism is the ‘demolition of technological/industrial civilization’ and the creation of a ‘subhuman world’ wherein “nature” is worshipped totemistically. Bill McKibben’s The End of Nature is regarded as “malevolent, man-hating philosophy.” Obviously, this shallow analysis of environmentalism lacks any substantive philosophical points, but this is what we can expect from such sources that are out of step with issues in environmental ethics. Even more worrisome from the synoptic, synthetic perspective of the university’s vision, the Rand Institute’s positions are completely opposite to our aspirations to foster student ‘service to others and commitment to stewardship of the natural and cultural environment.’ Even further, how can this position be consistent with what my colleagues teach in the natural sciences, and with the positions advocated by virtually all environmental ethicists (stewardship, ecosystemic thinking)?
In conclusion, gifts from the marketplace should be welcomed when they are in line with the aspirations of the Academy. However, when they have strings attached that imply we give up our own gifts of critical analysis and moral reflection, we should approach them cautiously. If Socrates was right, we should consider the Academy as an intellectual agora, the marketplace of ideas, but we should be skeptical about demands from the agoraists that the Academy be nothing but the ideas of the marketplace.
Daryl L. Hale, Acting Department Head
Dept. of Philosophy and Religion