Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand

What is Objectivism?

The greatest philosopher of the 20th century, and perhaps of all western civilization since Aristotle, was Ayn Rand (1905-1982). Beginning as a novelist, she wrote the classics The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. In the course of writing these, she honed and developed her personal philosophy, which found its strongest expression in the lengthy speech by John Galt in Atlas Shrugged. Following the publication of Atlas Shrugged, which Rand regarded as her magnum opus, she turned to non-fiction and wrote volumes of essays further defining her philosophy, which she named: Objectivism.

When asked once to define Objectivism "on one foot," Rand responded:

This is a very brief and very unauthoritative (but fairly user-friendly) explanation of what she meant:

Metaphysics: Existence exists

Metaphysics is simply the branch of philosophy dealing with the nature of reality. Existence exists means that things are what they are, and not what we might wish them to be. We can change things, but only within objective rules. "Nature, in order to be ruled, must be obeyed." Existence exists seems simplistic, but you'd be amazed at the number of people who don't accept it. From extreme examples, such as loony-toon philosophers who claim that there is no reality, only our perceptions, to the more prosaic example of people who want to increase government funded projects, while at the same time demanding lower taxes.

Epistemology: Reason

Epistemology is the branch of philosophy dealing with how man's mind works. Objectivism rejects silly ideas such as Behaviorism. Man's sole tool of thought is his reason. Man possesses free will, which in the end boils down to nothing more than the ability to choose to use his capacity to reason, or to behave as an animal, and act automatically.

Ethics: Egoism

Egoism means "self"-ism, just as altruism means "other"-ism. Egoism means that a rational man acts in his self interest. That this is the moral choice. Altruism means that one acts, first and foremost, to further the interest of others. Objectivism views altruism as inherently evil. This is because man, as a matter of fact, like all living creatures, acts to further his own life. Altruism teaches man that his most basic imperative is evil, and thereby engenders in man an irredeemable guilt.

Objectivism views benevolence as a major virtue. It does not value self-interest, per se, but rational self-interest. Do you give a person money out of guilt? Objectivism sees this as a vice, and finds it reprehensible. Do you give a person money because that person represents a value of yours, and by giving him money, you are furthering that value? Objectivism sees this as benevolent and virtuous.

Politics: Capitalism

The basic right of man is to live his life without being harmed by others. This implies the requirement to refrain from harming others as well, since all men share this most fundamental right. Since man's tool of survival is his reason, which he must apply to create the means of his survival, he has the right to that which he creates, which is property. Since possessing life and property that one may not use as one sees fit is no different than lacking life and property, man can be said to have the right of liberty, or the pursuit of happiness (although not necessarily the attainment of happiness).

Objectivism, unlike anarchy and anarchistic movements such as Libertarianism, sees government as a necessary factor for the preservation of man's right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. However, it rejects categorically the extension of government past its basic functions of protecting man's rights. Police, army and courts are necessary in order for these rights to be protected, and these are the sole tools of government.

There is a basic difference between helping someone and not hurting someone.

The right not to be harmed means that every person has the right to demand of every other person that they refrain from harming him. A "right" to be helped would imply that every person has the right to demand of any other person that they help him. Objectivism denies that any such "right" exists. Is it "nice" to not help someone in need? Perhaps not (although it can be argued, depending on the case). Does "niceness" engender "rights"? Of course not.

Aesthetics: Romantic Realism

Rand saw art as "the re-creation of a facet of reality as seen through the values of the artist" (my paraphrase). Her theory of art is one of the most ill-understood areas of Objectivist thought. This may be in part due to the fact that she wrote on the topic far less than she did on others. But it is in greatest part due to the fact that, as Rand acknowledged, our present state of knowledge regarding man's sensory perceptions is insufficient. While art is, in principle, subject to objective standards, in practice, it is wholly subjective.

Many students of Objectivism have been unsatisfied by this. There are two reasons for this:

  1. Those most attracted to Objectivism are those who sense that there is order in the world, and that the world can be understood, if we only go about it properly. To have an area of the world that we cannot yet understand in its entirety is emotionally troublesome for one to whom objectivity is a value (Rand's theory of emotions states that one is happy or unhappy to the extent that ones values are achieved/retained or not achieved/lost).

  2. Rand expressed extremely strong opinions on art. Some of these are strong enough that they have been seen as contradicting her explicit statement that art is currently to be treated as subjective.

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