Ayn Rand's Philosophy of Objectivism
by Dr. Edward Younkins
Professor of Accountancy and Business Administration at Wheeling Jesuit University in West Virginia and author of Capitalism and Commerce.
Ayn Rand (1905-1982), a best selling novelist and world-renowned philosopher, deductively developed a unique philosophical system called Objectivism which has affected many lives over the last half century. This article represents an introduction to her systematic vision by presenting her essential ideas in a logical, accessible manner. This should contribute toward the appreciation of Rand's profoundly original philosophical system.
The specific purpose of this article is to introduce, logically rearrange, and clarify through rewording the ideas scattered throughout her essays, lectures, and novels, especially Atlas Shrugged (1957), her masterwork of logic that most completely expounds her exhaustive, fully-integrated, philosophy. Written from the viewpoint of a generalist in economics, philosophy, and the social sciences, I mean to provide a background for readers who wish to study specialized aspects of Rand's philosophy in greater detail.
The Essence of Objectivism
Hierarchically, philosophy, including its metaphysical, epistemological, and ethical dimensions, precedes and determines politics which, in turn, precedes and determines economics. Rand bases her metaphysics on the idea that reality is objective and absolute. Epistemologically, the Randian view is that man's mind is competent to achieve objectively valid knowledge of that which exists. Rand's moral theory of self-interest is derived from man' s nature as a rational being and end in himself, recognizes man's right to think and act according to his freely-chosen principles, and reflects a man's potential to be the best person he can be in the context of his existing circumstances. This leads to the notion of the complete separation of political power and economic power – that proper government should have no economic favours to convey. The role of the government is, thus, to protect man's natural rights through the use of force, but only in retaliation and only against those who initiate the use of force.
Capitalism, the resulting economic system, is based on the recognition of individual rights, including property rights, in which all property is privately owned.
For Rand, capitalism, the system of laissez-faire, is the only moral system.
A is A: Deriving the "Ought" from the "Is"
Rand's defence of the above positions begins with the premise that existence exists – A is A. Her philosophy, Objectivism, contends that the universe has existed eternally and repudiates the idea of its creation by a rational, omnipotent GOD.
Objectivism's ethical system rests upon the claim to have derived the "ought" from the "is." The defence of this claim starts by inquiring about the facts of existence and man's nature that result in value – that which one acts to gain and/or keep. The concept of value presupposes an entity capable of acting to attain a goal in the face of an alternative. Where no alternative exists, no goals and therefore no values are possible. The one basic alternative in the world is existence vs. non-existence. Since the existence of inanimate matter is unconditional, it is only a living organism that faces the constant alternative of life or death. Inanimate matter may change forms, but it cannot go out of existence. When a living organism dies, however, its basic physical elements remain, but its life ceases to exist. Life, the process of self-sustaining and self-generated action, makes the concept of "value" meaningful. An organism's life is its standard of value. Whatever furthers its life is good and that which threatens it is evil.
The nature of a living entity determines what it ought to do. All living entities, with the exception of man, are determined by their nature to undertake automatically the actions necessary to sustain their survival.
Man, like an animal or a plant, must act in order to live and must gain the values that his life requires. Man's distinctive nature, however, is that he has no automatic means of survival. Man does not function by automatic sensory or chemical reactions. Thinking, the process of abstraction and conceptualization, is necessary for man's survival. Thinking, man's basic virtue, is exercised by choice – man is a being of volitional consciousness.
Reason, the faculty that perceives, identifies, and integrates the material provided by the senses, does not work automatically. Man is free to think or not to think. The tool of thought is logic – the act of non-contradictory identification.
According to Rand, man has no innate knowledge and, therefore, must determine through thought the goals, actions, and values upon which his life depends. He must discover what will further his own unique and precious individual human life and what will harm it. Refusal to recognize and act according to the facts of reality will result in his destruction.
The Randian view is that the senses enable man to perceive reality, that knowledge can only be gained through the senses, and that the senses are able to provide objectively valid knowledge of reality.
For man to Survive, he must discern the principles of action necessary to direct him in his relationships with other men and with nature. Man's need for these principles is his need for a code of morality. Men are essentially independent beings with free wills; therefore, it is up to each individual to choose his code of values using the standard that is required for the life of a human being. If life as a man is one's purpose, he has the right to live as a rational being. To live, man must think, act, and create the values his life requires.
Without self-value, no other values are possible. Self-value has to be earned by thinking. Morality, a practical, selfish necessity, requires the use of man's rational faculty and the freedom to act on his judgments. A code of values accepted by rational choice is a code of morality – choice is the foundation of virtue. Happiness is the state of consciousness that results from the achievement of one's values.
Since men are creatures who think and act according to principle, a doctrine of rights ensures that an individual's choice to live by those principles is not violated by other human beings. For Rand, all individuals possess the same rights to freely pursue their own goals. Since a free man chooses his own actions, he can be held responsible for them.
Values and Virtues
Rand explains that to live, men must hold three ruling values – reason, purpose, and self-esteem. These values imply all of the virtues required by a man's life. Rationality, the primary virtue, is the recognition of objective reality, commitment to its perception, and the acceptance of reason as a man's only judge of values and guide to knowledge and action. Independence, the acceptance of one's intellectual responsibility for one's own existence, requires that a man form his own judgments and that he support himself by the work of his own mind. Honesty, the selfish refusal to seek values by faking reality, recognizes that the unreal can have no value. Integrity, the refusal to permit a breach between thought and action, acknowledges the fact that man is an indivisible, integrated entity of mind and body. Justice, a form of faithfulness to reality, is the virtue of granting to each man that which he objectively deserves. Justice is the expression of man's rationality in his dealings with other men and involves seeking and granting the earned.
A trader, a man of justice, earns what he receives and neither gives nor takes the undeserved. Just as he does not work except in exchange for something of economic value, he also does not give his love, friendship, or esteem except in trade for the pleasure he receives from the virtues of individuals he respects. Love, friendship, and esteem, as moral tributes, are caused and must be earned. Productiveness, the virtue of creating material values, is the art of translating one's thoughts and goals into reality. Pride, the total of the preceding virtues, can be thought of as moral ambitiousness.
Capitalism and Individual Rights
Rand's justification of capitalism is that it is a system based on tile logically derived code of morality outlined above – a code of morality that recognizes man's metaphysical nature and the supremacy of reason, rationality, and individualism. The ruling principle of capitalism is justice. The overall social effect – the fact that individuals and groups who live under capitalism prosper – is simply a byproduct or secondary consequence. Political and
A right is a moral principle defining and sanctioning a man's freedom of action in a social context. According to Rand, rights are innate and can be logically derived from man's nature and needs. The state is not involved in the creation of rights and simply exists to protect an individual's natural rights. There are no group rights – only individual rights. Group rights are arbitrary and imply special interests.
Humans are material beings who require material goods to sustain their existence. If one's life is the standard, man has the right to live and pursue values as his survival requires. He has the right to work for and keep the fruits of his labour – the right of property. Without property rights, no other rights are possible. A man who has no right to the product of his efforts is not free to pursue his happiness and has no means to sustain his life.
A violation of a man's property rights is an expression of force against the man himself. The purpose of government is to protect man's rights (including property rights) and enforce contractual agreements – a breach of contract is an indirect use of force. The state's function is thus restricted to the retaliatory use of force.
Under Randian capitalism, which historically has never existed, there is a complete separation of state and economics. Men deal with each other voluntarily by individual choice and free trade to their mutual benefit. The profit motive is just and moral. Profit is made through moral virtue and measures the creation of wealth by the profit-earner. The market price is objectively determined in the free market and represents the lowest price a buyer can find and the highest price a seller can obtain. Freedom guarantees that both parties will benefit – no one is willing to enter into a one-sided bargain to his detriment.
A person's wealth under capitalism depends on his productive achievements and the choice of others to recognize them. Rewards are tied to production, ability and merit. A producer can do with his wealth what he chooses. Charity is rational, objective, and genuine when, rather than being offered indiscriminately, it is offered only to those who deserve it. Generosity toward those who are innocent victims of injustice or who are fighting against adversity is proper. It is wrong to help persons with no virtue. By giving unconditionally you deceive the recipient into thinking that wealth and happiness are free. Charity must be voluntary. Forced redistribution will result in the curtailment of effort of the productive and a decrease in the amount of real wealth (i.e., real virtue) within society.
1. Randian Scholarship: Problems and Controversies
As to be expected, Rand's original system of thought has not gone without criticism. A few of the most common criticisms are discussed below.
Rand claims that all of a man's knowledge of reality comes through the senses. She also takes for granted the validity and objectivity of the senses. Nowhere does she disprove that knowledge can be gained through and/or enhanced by other sources such as revelation by God, existential encounters, mystical experiences, and the human emotions. Knowledge that comes through a man's senses varies with respect to its accuracy. Concepts are abstractions and are not equal to their referents. Not only are man's senses and brain fallible, he is also limited by his own subjectivity and perspective – alone he may be able to perceive some aspect of reality, but very seldom can he see the whole picture. In those cases in which he does perceive reality accurately, he cannot totally prove it since if, as Rand maintains, the senses and the brain are the only means by which we know reality, there is no way to compare reality with perceptions created by the brain.
Rand contends there are no reasons to believe in God. For her, the idea of God is offensive and humiliating to man since it would mean that man is not the highest being in the world. Her position is that without God it is up to man alone to pursue his own happiness and create his own values. Freedom for Rand means the non-existence of a Creator. Nowhere, however, does she attempt to refute arguments for the existence of God such as Aristotle's unmoved mover, Aquinas' five proofs, Anselm's ontological argument, and James' argument from mystical experience.
Rand's repudiation of altruism seems to be due to the unusual way that she defines the term. Her idea of altruism is that man must selflessly place the welfare of others above his own. A more common idea, however, is that altruism is a man's concern for or dedication to others' interests in addition to his own. Charity, compassion, and the desire to give pleasure to others can have their place in human relationships as long as they do not playa principal, determining role, or are accomplished through the involuntary redistribution of individuals' wealth.
According to Rand, it is wrong to help a person with no virtues. To the Christian, however, life's right action involves consideration for the welfare of all others – every person is an end in himself and is potentially redeemable. Perhaps Rand should have simply stated that charity must be freely given and left it at that.
2. Ayn Rand: A Radical But Serious Scholar
Despite inciting a number of vehement and critical commentaries, Rand's controversial, original, and systematic philosophical positions should be taken seriously and treated with respect. She persuasively expounded a fully integrated defence of capitalism and the component metaphysical, ethical, epistemological, psychological, social, political, cultural and historical conditions necessary for its establishment and survival. Rand presented Objectivism as an integrated new system of thought with an organized, hierarchical structure.
Whatever one's ultimate evaluation of her theories, Rand's unique vision should be considered worthy of comprehensive, scholarly examination.