By Onar Åm
Fans of Dr. Jordan Peterson and Ayn Rand were given a real treat recently. Peterson visited the Objectivist Conference 2018 (OCON) for a friendly panel debate with intellectuals from the Ayn Rand Institute, hosted by independent journalist Dave Rubin. The whole debate was livestreamed and is available at The Rubin Report.
For those who are still in the dark, Jordan Peterson is a Canadian professor of psychology turned celebrity and bestselling author, while Ayn Rand was one of the most influential American philosopher of the 20th century, creator of Objectivism, and known for the epic novel Atlas Shrugged.
Yaron Brook and Greg Salmieri represented Ayn Rand’s philosophy on the panel.
No identity politics!
The exchange was refreshingly void of any hint of identity politics. No talk of gender fluidity, race, or patriarchy. The premise was not intersectional tribal warfare, but a common acknowledgement of the sovereignty of the individual. It appears that when individualists meet, productive, respectful discussion ensues.
Religion versus atheism
That doesn’t mean that there was no disagreement. Rand was proudly atheist whereas Peterson is religious and has awakened a renewed interest in Christianity and the Bible. Peterson claims that values cannot be derived rationally from facts, whereas one of Rand’s main theses was that they could.
Free will and soul
However, even in these turbulent waters were islands of common ground. Unlike celebrity atheists such as Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins, objectivism holds that we are born with free will and a soul. Materialism is an empty and inhuman philosophy.
However, on at least three occasions, Peterson threw softballs that Brook and Salmieri managed to miss. This may in part be due to the mutual lack of familiarity with the philosophy of the other party, but also inexperience with expert-level intellectual discussions on a stage in front of a large audience. Nevertheless, this was frustrating to observers who are familiar with both philosophies.
#1 Life is the standard of value
The first missed softball was when Peterson claimed that value cannot be derived from facts. Ayn Rand’s central thesis is that life is the standard of value, and values must therefore flow from facts of life. To use a trivial example: if to be alive is good, then it follows factually that nourishment is a value.
In the question of whether reason could be used to derive value, the meaning of objectivity was discussed. At one point, Peterson said “It depends on what you mean by objectivity.” Ayn Rand—who named her philosophy Objectivism—developed a unique definition of the concept in contrast to many modern philosophers, but Brook and Salmieri failed to draw attention to it.
Most people today use the term to mean something that exists independently of consciousness. Rand said that reality exists independently of consciousness, but objectivity is a form of mental action. Being objective means to focus on reality honestly and truthfully.
Peterson emphasized the importance of narrative in one’s life, and Rand would have wholeheartedly agreed with this. In fact, that is precisely why she was a novelist and wrote stories:
”Art is the indispensable medium for the communication of a moral ideal. [W]ithout the assistance of art, ethics remains in the position of theoretical engineering: art is the model-builder.”
The debate ended amicably, and although there were significant differences, there is far more common ground. The language and emphasis are different, but they often inhabit the same topics and territories. We can only hope for more fruitful exchanges in the future.