Criticism of John Galt’s Speech in Atlas Shrugged – I come not to praise Johnny the G, but bury him

statue-1515390_1920-1200x900I’ve just got done with John Galt’s long speech in Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. It’s part philosophy lecture and part insult-comic rant. It is bad at both. (Later on, in my general critique of Atlas Shrugged, I’ll cover the most serious of her flaws in regards to art, politics and economics. It would take a book-length critique to get them all, but there are several that are especially glaring, even to me.)

There are three primary philosophical sins in John Galt’s 36,000 word speech: the first is badly constructed syllogisms, the second is reliance on arguments from authority, the third is straw man arguments. I’m going to give an example of each, but just one, because the speech sixty-plus pages long and it would take forever to cover everything.

#0. I’m going to throw in a fourth problem that this has, calling it error zero. Galt’s logical style is admittedly syllogistic, Aristotelian logic. One of the fundamental problems of syllogistic logic is that truth value of a syllogism arises not from it being factually correct, but only from the argument being properly constructed. It is quite easy to create a properly structured syllogism that is nevertheless absurd:

All bees are insects.

All cats are bees.

All cats are insects.

This is a proper syllogism, it’s just stupid. Cats are not, in fact, insects. Galt’s speech does this quite a lot. It creates syllogisms that are properly constructed but are stupid. A logically framed argument is not automatically correct. So when Rand’s characters say “check your premises”, they also need to check that their premises are factually true rather than just properly formed syllogisms.  They can’t do that from purely syllogistic logic, though, because content is irrelevant: only the form counts.

Rand actually demonstrates active contempt for post-Aristotelian logic. While her lack of specificity (a constant problem with the book) means that she doesn’t name any philosophers save for her fictional straw men, there is a strong air of anti-Kantianism about her work. In Rand’s online lexicon, Rand says that Kant closed the door of reason on philosophy because of his phenomenology, which is primarily a critique on the idea that human reason and perception are perfect or infinite. This should not be controversial, but to Rand, it was.   I do not understand her objection to discussing the limits of human reason or perception, but to Rand it was a big deal.

However, she throws out the baby with the bath water. Kant’s synthetic reasoning is a the origin of the modern scientific method. Kant divided logic into two kinds, analytic and synthetic. Rand’s Aristotelian logic is analytic – syllogisms need only be properly formed. Kant’s synthetic reasoning tries to bridge the gap between a properly formed syllogism (such as the one I used that says cats are insects) and objects in the empirical world. So my syllogism, above, while a properly formed analytic statement is a badly formed synthetic statement, because cats are not insects, and to know that we must observe the material world (albeit with our admittedly limited senses and reason).

After Kant, there have been advances in Kant’s logic, much of it done by Rand’s contemporaries such as Bertrand Russell, Rudolf Carnap, Dewey, and others too numerous to name, right now. The idea that these atheist, materialist logicians are somehow “anti-reason” is absurd despite their belief that human intelligence is finite, and their thoughts on empirical reasoning would have strengthened her work. But, as far as I can tell, she wasn’t a very good researcher. Which, given how badly written and inconsistent the novel is, should not be surprising.

#1. Badly constructed syllogism. In Atlas Shrugged, John Galt says that the program of economic tyranny against the collectivist mystic savages is justified by the fact the government initiated violence through taxation.

The syllogism goes thus: Taxes are illicit use of force; self-defense when confronted with illicit use of force is moral; therefore our program of economic and maritime terrorism that will kill millions of people is moral as it is self-defense.

This is true if and only if the people that are killed are responsible for the illicit use of force. They’re not. Almost all of them are equally oppressed by the use of force.  So the syllogism is badly formed because the conclusion does not follow from the premises.

Moving away from Aristotelian logic, almost all human beings ALSO have a utilitarian view of ethics (you know, the greatest good for the greatest number) which is also the dominate legal philosophy, and in utilitarian ethics even when defending against illicit use of force there is a key moral and legal argument called “proportionality”. Under the moral and legal principle of proportionality, self-defense cannot exceed the boundaries of violence of the attacker. So if someone punches you, it is moral to defend yourself by punching back, or even killing the other person if you are in life-or-death danger, but it is NOT moral to burn down their house and kill their family because the violence is not proportionate to the offense.

In a like manner, if you’re upset at your rate of taxation, a multi-year campaign of economic terrorism and piracy whose goal is plunging the whole world into a vast famine is disproportionate to the offense: the “violence” of taxation does not justify such an extreme measure. (This is particularly true because Galt’s speech is the first time his party made their position clear. They made no attempt whatsoever to seek redress from the government, or any appeal to popular sovereignty, to correct the problem in any other way. They went straight to violence, and that violence was primarily directed at other victims of the tyrants, furthermore, making it especially immoral.  Just because you don’t like how someone thinks or believes does not give you the right to kill them.)

#2. Arguments from authority. This is almost universal with every statement, and is, numerically, the greatest fallacy in Galt’s speech. In my notes, I just went AFA because it was so commonplace!

So when Galt says that all humans have two fundamental emotional states, joy and suffering, that’s just assertion. What proof does he offer? None, not empirical or logical. It’s just a statement. Likewise when he says “life is the reward of virtue”. Says who? Him. Only him, as a matter of fact. If you’re building an argument of logic, as Galt insists he is, then you can’t just say things without proving them, either logically or, better yet, empirically.

I say “empirically” because the book was written in the mid-20th century, and we live in the 21st century. Empirical reasoning, where logical arguments must be supported by empirical data or they are fanciful and without merit.  Empirical reasoning is absolutely the dominant form of reasoning in Rand’s time and ours. Additionally, Galt supports “reality” being the “final arbiter” of disputes between reasoning people. So Galt’s consistent failure to provide empirical examples means that his propositions are either hollow syllogisms (either badly formed, as above, or purely analytical, without meaningful reference to the very reality that Galt claims to admire and love) or blatant statements of authority (which he also condemns, but are constant in his speech and actions).

Hypocrisy isn’t a good look on a philosopher.

#3. Straw man arguments. When Galt says the only moral obligation is to rationality, thus to reality and ourselves. He says this is a true statement by referencing the various horrors that happened during the course of the book – the government decrees that he purports destroyed the economy of the United States.

He leaves out that his plan, which he’s been following for twelve years, has been a secret program of economic sabotage and maritime piracy. Without acknowledging his role in the economic disaster and collapse, the statement that the authorities are responsible for the economic collapse is a straw man. He’s forgetting that this catastrophe has been his goal from the start: to cause a massive famine he has worked tirelessly and successfully towards this goal. While it is clear that the incompetent government bears some responsibility for this disaster, it is far from the sole primary cause!  By his direct action and with premeditation, Galt has worked for this collapse to come to pass.

So Galt’s speech is crap. It’s a badly argued, counterfactual, lacks empirical support; it is full of straw men and paper tigers.  It is a stinking garbage fire pile of bullshit. There are good reasons few people take Rand seriously as a philosopher – her philosophical flaws are obvious and numerous, she constantly uses arguments from authority, and when she presents an argument it is generally composed of badly formed syllogisms with no empirical support for her arguments, and she creates a multi-layered treatment of straw men that is so audacious as to be breathtaking.

It is also the primary trap of the novel. To a person who is not particularly well-versed in logic and philosophy – which is most of the audience of this book, which is targeted by the Ayn Rand Institute at teenagers and young adults – the arguments appear persuasive. This is particularly true because, without a doubt, this is the best writing in the book. There is a great rhythm and flow to Galt’s argument. Just one example:

“What is the nature of that superior world to which they sacrifice the world that exists? The mystics of spirit curse matter, the mystics of muscle curse profit. The first wish men to profit by renouncing the earth, the second wish men to inherit the earth by renouncing all profit. Their non-material, non-profit worlds are realms where rivers run with milk and coffee, where wine spurts from rocks at their command, where pastry drops on them from clouds at the price of opening their mouth.”

In a book that has to this point been typified by stilted characterizations, long-winded and meaningless speeches, and numerous contradictions of plot, Rand really pulls out the stops for this one in terms of style alone. If all philosophy was this well written, more people would read philosophy. The conversational style is readable (for, y’know, philosophy), and the Biblical invocations really hammer home her defiance of traditional Christianity.  If you forget that the speech is a giant and quite weird interruption in the plot of the novel, people could get swept up in the reasonable-sounding arguments.

It is, unfortunately, crap. To take that passage as an example, Christians in America are nearly united about the importance of hard work. The idea that American Christians – American Christians! – hate work is absolutely absurd. They’re some of the hardest working people in the world (as are ALL Americans, by the way). So Galt isn’t actually talking about any actual human beings, here. (This is another example of Rand’s use of straw men, BTW.) But, hey, the language really gets her point across, despite it having no empirical support, considerable evidence to the contrary, and is nothing but a pile of assertions and straw men.

John Galt’s speech is the best written part of the book, but it doesn’t convey any information. The layers of arguments from authority, straw men, and badly constructed (and usually untrue) syllogisms pile up on top of one another to form an incoherent mess. In the end, it becomes what it says it hates: anti-empirical, flabby, ill-considered nonsense.

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