Rand and objectivism: Are rationality and consistency the hallmarks of good philosophy?

by Matthew Record

“I think a major reason why intellectuals tend to move towards collectivism is that the collectivist answer is a simple one. If there’s something wrong, pass a law and do something about it.” — Milton Friedman

Objectivism is the philosophy developed and espoused over time by Ayn Rand in The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged and fleshed out through a series of newsletters and lectures in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s.Rand, Leonard Peikoff and others in her braintrust offer a tantalizingly simple modality for understanding political systems, sociology and indeed, the epistemological nature of mankind’s mind. Quietly but with a presence that announces itself more and more forcefully each year, we are living the heyday of Rand’s intellectual influence. Objectivism has come to the fore throughout the conservative movement since the ’80s in general and through the recent rise of Libertarianism as a political economic force, in particular. Rand’s followers most famously include Alan Greenspan but also Justice Clarence Thomas, Presidential Candidate Ron Paul and Congressional fiscal disciplinarian Paul Ryan.

What’s interesting to note is the fact that, if I had to guess, some, perhaps even many objectivists would bristle at the implication that their beliefs have a tangible association to politics in today’s society. The objectivist outlook sees itself as set apart from the traditional liberal-conservative nomenclature used in America and even sees itself as separate from the more holistically realized two-dimensional political compass.

Right and left, authoritarian, communism, fascism: all of these have these systems of beliefs – normally perceived as quite varied – could be neatly subsumed under the title “collectivism.” Basically, all systems of governance, all innovations except Capitalism, were simply ways to deny individual men the right to exercise their most important franchise: rationality.

According to the Ayn Rand institute:

“Rationality is man’s basic virtue, and his three fundamental values are: reason, purpose, self-esteem. Man–every man–is an end in himself, not a means to the ends of others; he must live for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself; he must work for his rational self-interest, with the achievement of his own happiness as the highest moral purpose of his life.”

In many ways, learning about objectivism is like trying to study a religious dogma. There are a set of axioms from which all manner of judgments – regarding art, social programs, even the nature of reality itself – are derived. On top of the explanations, there are numerous defenders on forums and within the movement itself digging in their heels in preparation for retaliation against the somewhat inchoate but ever-growing legion of critics. There is even an effusively written review of the famously panned film adaptation of Atlas Shrugged which closes with the breathless summary: “This adaptation can’t be ignored. It is way too good. It is going to turbocharge the debate over Rand’s vision of capitalism as a moral ideal. Whether you love the novel or hate it, Atlas Shrugged Part I is a must-see film.”

I find the comparison to religious dogma, particularly to evangelical Christianity, apt for several reasons. In general, people don’t tend to have an automatic recall of those thinkers who influenced their outlook in the way that objectivists do. In much the same way that evangelicals are encouraged to read and develop intelligent opinions on the Bible through independent study, objectivists, too, have a deep connection to the texts at the base of their system. Objectivists, like evangelical Christians, are likely to see a large if not conspiratorial “other” in the world at large whenever their beliefs are derided or attacked (which in fairness, is often) much in the same way as many evangelicals see the world as an “us vs. them” narrative between the faithful and the secular. Like evangelical Christians, objectivists are taught to be doggedly and openly defiant of the social and economic mores that they despise – and that any move to soften or compromise their own integrity represents hypocrisy and a moral failing. Finally, both objectivists and evangelical Christians are treated as everything from an anthropological curiosity to an evil cabal by liberal Americans, but very seldom are either afforded any respect as a movement.

Obviously, the sociological similarities don’t extend to their actual beliefs – beginning most obviously with the fact that objectivism preaches an outlook which necessarily leads to atheism. It’s the nature of the belief that makes them so easily the source of our derision. Objectivism gives its followers a holistic way of viewing the world and, as such, gives those who disagree with it a completely-conceived waypoint from which to stand apart. Even if I don’t have everything figured out, I know I don’t believe in that.

However, I admire the objectivist outlook for, if nothing else, presenting a logically consistent way to view the world. No individual need be legally compelled to provide for his or her neighbor in objectivism and, furthermore, no individual should have the right to force any outlook or use any form of coercion on anyone else, period. When we don’t like a given reason for the coercion, liberals are apt to make that same argument, i.e. with regard to the Iraq War. But at other points, liberals are comfortable calling for legal coercion to fund entitlement programs or for military interventions for humanitarian reasons, as many called for in Darfur.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that logical cohesion need be the ultimate determinant for how convincing a system of moral beliefs is. In fact, the number one problem I have with objectivism is that it’s a one-size-fits-all system that doesn’t have any malleability to suit differing circumstances. I’m merely saying from an Occam’s Razor/simplicity standpoint, it does have some merit and is more useful, from a day-to-day standpoint, than many other philosophers, who are not treated with nearly the same degree of scorn (I’m looking at you, Descartes).

I intend to explore the idea of individualism in later essays but I want to say this: I believe cooperation, not rationality, is the greatest enterprise for mankind and the reason we have achieved ecological dominance over the world. I also believe that any system which renders altruism moot or doesn’t sufficiently explain why the world is far more humane and moral than it has any right to be based on random chance is inherently flawed and, thus, has a limited usefulness. However, I credit objectivists for creating a system so intertwined with man’s selfishness, because what trait is more widely proliferated? To stop there, though, and further to declare selfishness a moral end unto itself…I can’t get behind that and I don’t think I’m out on too much of limb saying most compassionate people are uncomfortable with the idea.

I believe there’s a lie to individualism, but it’s a lie that makes a lot intuitive sense, so I don’t immediately begrudge those who hold it.


Matthew Record is a public policy and Constitutional law student at Stony Brook University. He’s the drummer and driving force behind the indie pop sextet Fortune & Spirits. He is an editor for musicemissions.com and a staff writer for RazzberrySync, Inc. He’s also the sole contributor to his own blog.

Matthew is from Long Island, NY and hates when people from the Island root for the Rangers. We have one team and it’s the Islanders. Support them.

13 replies »

  1. I’ll make two comments. First, Ayn Rand did not use the term axiom in the sense that it is used in mathematics or geometry. Her philosophy is not deduced from axioms. Look up ‘axioms’ and ‘axiomatic concepts’ in the online Ayn Rand Lexicon.

    Secondly, in Objectivism, selfishness means that one achieves happiness by being virtuous. That is, an individual is properly the beneficiary of his moral actions. Rand rejected the conventional sense of the term ‘selfish’ pointing out that the type of behavior usually regarded as selfish was in fact not in anyone’s self-interest. Thus it a particularly cheap shot to graft the conventional view of selfishness onto Rand’s statements and then criticize her for the false equivocation.

  2. “Axiomatic Concepts” is a blank page, and I’m not clear how the usage of Axiom from the lexicon is different from the standard definitions. I’d personally say that the Randian version is only (possibly) at odds with one of the three definitions at the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary (previous link), namely definition 2 “a statement accepted as true for the basis of argument or inference.”

    Would you care to clarify, please?

  3. As to your second point, what is the definition of “being virtuous?” The Lexicon isn’t particularly helpful:

    “Value” is that which one acts to gain and keep, “virtue” is the action by which one gains and keeps it.

    Without further information, this simple statement implies that anything that an individual wishes to gain and keep is his or her “value” and anything that he or she does to gain and keep that value is virtuous. Is that a correct reading?

  4. John,

    I appreciate your comment but you more or less proved my point for me. The entire cult of personality surrounding objectivism does exactly what you did right there. Rand wanted to reconfigure the entire nature of the discussion in her own image — we don’t get to define axiom, she does — we don’t get to define selfishness — she does. This is exactly why objectivism has more the feel of Christianity to me than say a Kierkregaardian existentialist or a Millsian utilitarian. People that subscribe to other philosophies don’t tend to demand perfect understanding of terms and ideas before engaging in discussion, but objectivists often do.

    As for your defense that Rand meant a new understanding of the word selfish and meant further still to evoke a more traditional understanding of virtue (which I assume you mean in Aristotle sense). I have my doubts that Rand would have picked such a hyper-charged word as “selfishness” if she didn’t mean selfishness.

    Clearly, the objectivist believes their beliefs lead to a better world, or at least a happier life. However, Rand does not get the privilege of entirely recasting the language in her own image. But in any event, I reject the virtue of selfishness both in her terms and in the conventional sense.

  5. Although I don’t have time to engage in an extended exchange, I will try to answer your questions, at least in outline form.

    In her introduction to the collection of essays titled “The Virtue of Selfishness,” Rand explained quite succinctly her reasons for tackling head-on the issue of selfishness. And she pointed out that she was not redefining the term, since it means basically “to act in ones own self-interest.” The term does not answer the question of “what is in ones self interest?” The answer to that question requires an entire ethical theory, which she proceeded to develop. She also pointed out that the traditional connotation (not denotation) of the term ‘selfishness’ is incorrect. But it takes an ethical theory to explain why. Why did she not avoid the word altogether and just stick to ‘rational self-interest,’ or ‘ethical egoism?’ She said that it was because she was challenging the entrenched ethical theory of altruism and knew that ‘selfish’ would be the first stone cast her way (not her words) so she chose to confront the issue head-on. One may second-guess that decision, but she stated her reasons plainly.

    As to the meaning of ‘virtue,’ there is not a one-sentence answer. There is not a 100 sentence answer. It requires an entire theory. Rand outlined her ethics by describing its seven basic virtues (and no, selfishness is not one of them). The three basic virtues are rationality, productiveness and pride. Four related virtues are honesty, integrity, justice and independence. This does not exhaust the subject. People have written entire books on Rand’s ethical theory.

    Finally to the issue of defining ones terms. This is not a new idea in philosophy. It began with the ancient Greek philosophers who, because there was no specialized vocabulary to name the concepts they were developing, used existing words in new senses. Someone developing new ideas for which there are no existing words, do in fact get to define exactly what they mean, using existing words if necessary. Many words in the dictionary have several meanings. The dictionary merely records the meanings, it does not legislate them. Needless to say, any new technical definition should be related to the traditional meanings of the word. Ayn Rand’s idea of a philosophical axiom is a good case in point. Aristotle and other Greek philosophers noted that any study or any argument must have a starting point. There can be no infinite regress. For Rand, philosophy is the most basic of the sciences, so its starting points must lie in ideas so fundamental that any attempt to deny them requires them. She identified the three basic ‘axiomatic’ concepts as existence, consciousness and identity. These three ideas fit the definition. These are axioms in the sense that they are fundamental ideas. But they are not axioms in the sense of a deductive system such as Euclid’s geometry.

    I have been a serious student of Objectivism for almost 50 years and am accustomed to people deliberately insulting me by calling me a cultist. Usually I just try to shrug it off with Roarkean indifference. Especially since I understand that it is an attempt to ‘push ones buttons.’ But deliberate insults have no place in a serious discussion and do not motivate further discussion.

  6. ““Rationality is man’s basic virtue…” She, objectivists, libertarians, et. al. lose me with this statement.

    I want proof. Solid, hard, factual proof that at least the majority of humans act rationally in the majority of cases before we start basing anything on man’s rationality as the foundation for action in the world. (I’m not arguing that humans are incapable of reason.) I’d prefer proof that all humans are always rational, but will let ’em off the hook a little because i don’t think there’s the intellectual firepower to make the full proof … i also don’t think it’s possible.

    On the whole, i’d say that the differences between objectivists/Randians and other philosophical schools is that the latter tend to not be noticed in day-to-day life. Randians are like evangelicals in that they believe that if their philosophy is implemented wholly and with perfection we’ll have, roughly, heaven on Earth. So in that way, Randians are even more like early Communists in Russia, which is appropriate given how many ideas she swiped from the Socialist-Anarchists of the early Communist movement in Russia.

    John will tell us that there’s this consistent philosophy within Rand’s work; i maintain that she was a piss poor philosopher. She’s on vocal record about atheism, but always avoided proving that there is no god. She’s wrong about not being able to prove a negative … see Nagarjuna’s proof of no independent origination. All she was saying is that she couldn’t prove that there is no god.

    Nagarjuna’s proof is solid work to back up your hunch about the lie of individualism. A lot of the West’s individualism is also intellectual extrapolation from Darwin’s work. To that end, it’s worth looking at Kropotkin’s work on evolution as a cooperative venture (a socialist-anarchist no less).

    I’m looking forward to the rest of this series, thanks.

    • I’ve been developing a personal philosophy of life based on conscious choice, but there’s a huge problem with it – neuroscience has shown that a massive amount of what we perceive as conscious choice, isn’t. And I’m too much a scientist and rationalist to reject the science just because it wouldn’t fit my philosophy.

      I won’t claim to be anything resembling an expert on Rand or objectivism, but if what John says is a fair assessment, then how is it that so many self-professed objectivists I’ve had personal interactions with are selfish, irrational, ideologues with delusions of grandeur and narcissistic personality tendencies? I tend to view a philosophy through the behavior of those who claim to adhere to it, and so I tend to view most organized religions poorly even though the ideas contained within the philosophies may be awesome. Based on this criterion, however, objectivism isn’t doing any better than organized religion and, in some respects, may be worse.

      Hopefully Matthew, John, and other commenter will help me learn enough to know whether or not my impressions are fair and accurate.

  7. Brian,

    Because they’re working within a philosophical strain that was created to rationalize the tendencies you list. Within objectivism … let’s stop for a minute and examine the name itself: as i would think physics has by now proven, objectivity is impossible because it’s impossible to remove one’s self from the context of the observed. Objectivists throw reality out the window from the get-go.

    When one knows some of the philosophy that Rand was exposed to when she was young, all those traits make a lot more sense. The second half of the socialist-anarchists i mentioned, sprinkled with a fair dose of skimmed Nietzsche and there you have it. It’s also important to remember that Russia and its thinkers never accepted Descartes and the rational outlook very well. Rand took a lot of the ideas of “irrational” Russian philosophy and laid rationalism over the top of them. She was, to a great extent, revolting against her intellectual inheritance.

    And then she made the classic, Russian mistake of taking good, logical conclusions to extreme and illogical ends by arguing backwards and dogmatically. That is, convincing herself that what she wanted to be true was true rather than looking for truth and recording the quest.

    Aside: Crime and Punishment is a fantastic novel for understanding the Russian conflict between the rational and irrational. The internal conflict of Rodion Ramanovich played out across Russian philosophy. In effect, Rand takes the approach Roskolnikov’s decision to murder the money lender is the right one (though she may say that murder itself isn’t right). She worked to rationalize the impulse that led him to the murder, as if she totally missed Nietzsche’s underlying points about the will to power, supermen, etc. and saw these as what we should strive towards rather than being man’s most base state that stems from having killed God (a loaded term, to be sure and not the simple white-guy-on-a-throne).

    With her “philosophy” in hand, it’s possible to Roskolnikov on the world and not worry about the mental/emotional breakdowns that he had. She’s saving her followers from being internally destroyed the way Rodion Romanovich was because he examined his own actions and their motives.

    • That is, convincing herself that what she wanted to be true was true rather than looking for truth and recording the quest.

      That’s as succinct a statement of my critique of social theory in general as you’re ever likely to encounter.

  8. I wouldn’t say Objectivism is a “one-size-fits-all” system any more than reality, itself, is.

    I think the point of philosophy is to provide an owners-manual for being human. And just like a vehicle’s owner’s manual – it will tell you the basics about how to maintain the vehicle, but it does not tell you where to go, how fast to get there, what color it should be, how to decorate it, or who to take with you.

    Ayn Rand’s philosophy was the first meaningful, non-religious, text on philosophy I read that wasn’t rubbish as a human user’s manual.

    I think she only took a first step in many ways, but it was the most important one.

  9. I guess its not clear from the substance of the article but I meant more in terms of political, economic and social modalities. That is to say, it’s one-size-fits-all in that there is no political or social problem for which personal accountability and the free market are not the answer according to the objectivist.

    While it has logical consistency in spades it lacks nuance in outcomes.
    I intend to expound more on this particular criticism in future posts.

  10. @Lex You quoted her as saying rationality is man’s *basic* virtue she didn’t say common virtue. Rand’s argument has never been whatever most ppl do is correct. Her approach and the correct approach would be to ask, what is the essential nature of man? Her answer was his reason. Man is the rational animal. Reason is the distinctive attribute that separates him from other life forms. And so his primary virtue would be utilizing that attribute namely rationality. If you want proof I suggest logic and introspection has indispensable tools.

    @Matthew Cooperation among individuals is a great endeavor and has and continues to produce wonderful life enhancing values. (And Rand would be all for cooperation among voluntarily consenting individuals.) But what makes cooperation possible in the first place? There has to be independent individuals with independent thoughts of their own and personal values that motivate them to go out and achieve those values. But in order to hold specific values and ideas we have to have so opinion as to their validity. Is this idea true and will all this effort be worth the actions taken in order to obtain my goals? All of these questions and ideas depend on your ability to reason and to utilize your rationality correctly, avoiding errors of knowledge or ignorance. Everything that we think or do, everything we are stems from our ability to reason. This shouldn’t be surprising since I just explained to Lex how reason is man’s defining characteristic. Now is it the “greatest enterprise”? I certainly think it’s great though reason isn’t an enterprise, one doesn’t use reason in order to seek out reason for it’s own sake; Objectivists aren’t platonic rationalists. Rand called it the primary virtue. It is the faculty that enables man to achieve his values, whether they be making the greatest ice-cream, climbing the highest peak, building lasting bonds w/ friends and colleagues, or inventing fictional characters from a novel. I think from Rand’s perspective cooperation could be looked at as been a secondary consequence or as being made possible by one’s own rationality and independence.