The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy's article on self-deception describes a few common views of self-deception. Broadly, there are two major types of views: intentional approaches (which model self-deception on interpersonal deception) and revisionist approaches (which don't).

The intentional approaches that the article describes are:

  • Temporal self-deception - in the beginning, you know that the belief a lie, but you kind of "forget" that it was
  • "Psychological partitioning" - in a sense, one "part" of you is lying to another "part" of you

The revisionist views basically view self-deception as a form of "motivated reasoning" or wishful thinking - e.g. "proposition x makes you feel anxious, so you resist believing it."

Non-intentionalists, however, argue that in cases of self-deception the false belief is not accidental but motivated by desire (Mele 2001), anxiety (Johnston 1988, Barnes 1997) or some other emotion regarding p or related to p. So, for instance, when Allison believes against the preponderance of evidence available to her that her daughter is not having learning difficulties, the non-intentionalist will explain the various ways she misreads the evidence by pointing to such things as her desire that her daughter not have learning difficulties, her fear that she has such difficulties, or anxiety over this possibility. In such cases, Allison’s self-deceptive belief that her daughter is not having learning difficulties, fulfills her desire, quells her fear or reduces her anxiety, and it is this function (not an intention) that explains why her belief formation process is bias. Allison’s false belief is not an innocent mistake, but a consequence of her motivational states.

Some non-intentionalists suppose that self-deceivers recognize at some level that their self-deceptive belief that p is false, contending that self-deception essentially involves an ongoing effort to resist the thought of this unwelcome truth or is driven by anxiety prompted by this recognition (Bach 1981; Johnston 1988). So, in Allison’s case, her belief that her daughter is having learning difficulties along with her desire that it not be the case motivate her to employ means to avoid this thought and to believe the opposite.

A common feature of the Looters in Atlas Shrugged is their high level of self-deception. Part of the point of the sanction of the victim is that, in addition to enabling them to continue with their behavior knowing that there'll be someone around to enable them, part of the point is to reassure themselves - i.e. to convince themselves that their beliefs are true. For example, after John Galt's radio speech, Jim Taggart said,

"We don't have to believe it, do we?" cried James Taggart, thrusting his face toward Mr. Thompson, in a manner that was almost a threat. "Do we?" Taggart's face was distorted; his features seemed shapeless; a mustache of small beads sparkled between his nose and mouth.
"Pipe down," said Mr. Thompson uncertainly, drawing a little away from him.
"We don't have to believe it!" Taggart's voice had the flat, inistent sound of an effort to maintain a trance.

Similarly, when Dagny Taggart met with Dr. Robert Stadler about the motor, Dr. Stadler felt a great sense of relief. Hank Rearden later objected that he wished she hadn't agreed to see Dr. Stadler because Dr. Stadler needed her to help him pretend that he was still the great Dr. Robert Stadler.

What was Ayn Rand's basic view of self-deception (if she was ever explicit on the matter)? What view of self-deception most closely matches Atlas Shrugged?

  • 1
    Once again, Ayn Rand is not a philosopher. Read some real philosophy and you''ll understand. – Swami Vishwananda Dec 15 '17 at 5:49
  • @SwamiVishwananda - You receive my comment of the week award. – PeterJ Jan 13 '18 at 14:43

Rand uses the term evasion to refer to self-deception. This is the willful refusal to accept reality and the evidence of your senses by suspending your judgement deliberately refusing to identify and integrate evidence. See http://aynrandlexicon.com/lexicon/evasion.html for further discussion. You can see this deliberate, intentional attempt at evasion in Taggart’s efforts to maintain his beliefs after hearing evidence that contradicted those beliefs.

The methods of self-deception you describe all entail some level of self-deception.

• Temporal involves self-deception in the past that has become accepted and automatic.

• Wishful thinking is evasion of evidence as in the case of Allison with the daughter who has learning difficulties that she chooses to evade or with Taggart who chooses to evade that his cherished beliefs have been shown to be false and toxic.

• Psychological partitioning is necessary for the initial evasion (wishful thinking) to take hold and evolve into temporal self-deception—which really means nothing more than a past evasion that you forced yourself to believe.

The overall point is that reality is fundamental; it exists regardless of your beliefs. You can misperceive it by accident (simple errors or mistakes) or by deliberate effort (evasion or self-deception). Belief, ultimately is an emotion—an automatic response based on your internalized value judgements. (see http://aynrandlexicon.com/lexicon/emotions.html). The Temporal self-deception means that the initial evasion in the past has been internalized willfully and has replaced a reality that the self-deceiver had found to be unpleasant.


Rand explained what sort of behaviour and ideas she considered honest:


Honesty involves acting rationally by trying to understand and judge ideas and behaviour. Lying would be behaviour that doesn't match that standard. Suppose a person reads about an idea that refutes his current ideas and he can't answer the refutation to his own complete satisfaction. If he continues to advocate his previous ideas, then he is lying. There are many examples of people advocating ideas that have been refuted. Many of those people are lying.

A person can come up with lots of excuses for lying to himself. There is no particular reason to expect two people to do it the same way, so I don't see why Rand would pick just one set of excuses.


What view of self-deception most closely matches Atlas Shrugged?

Ayn Rand engages in psychological partitioning, and this effort explains much about Atlas Shrugged. In the book, the population of the United States consists largely of sane, healthy adults. Why would such a society need a welfare system? What would the system do?

In the real world, some people are not sane, not healthy, not adults, or all three. The partition rises between this world and that in Atlas Shrugged.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.