Introduction to the ideas of Ayn Rand: reason, self-interest and capitalism

N.B: the work below is intended to be given as an introductory talk to students of Philosophy and Politics. This work is not affiliated with or endorsed by the Ayn Rand Institute or similar organisations: I refer readers on also to their wide range of material . Happy reading!

Ayn Rand was a Russian-born (1905) novelist and Philosopher, who moved to the US in 1926, pushed by the oppressive conditions of the Soviet Union which was then early in its establishment. Her first novel, most closely connected to her experience of this, was We the Living (1936) and her striking novella Anthem followed in 1938. It is said that Anthem, thematically, is likely to have played a role in inspiring the process of Orwell’s 1984. The works which pierced the public consciousness most significantly followed; The Fountainhead in 1943 and Atlas Shrugged in 1957. It was in these books that Rand gave her unique philosophy of Objectivism a succinct, fictionalised embodiment; where she portrayed man in his ideal form. Rand passed away in 1982 at the age of 77.

In this talk I will describe in brief terms the five branches of Objectivism as a fully integrated philosophy. These stages are:

In setting out the philosophy of Objectivism, Rand stepped on ground in some sense alienated in academic circles – a ground that had been set firmly by Aristotle. Her key idea derived from him is that reality objectively exists and that man’s happiness is an end in itself. This restores power to the individual, claims that selfishness is in fact not a slur and sees that the only proper role for man is the furtherance of his own interests according to an ‘ought’/’is’ relationship between reality and man. The political output of this is to leave hands off, Laissez Faire. Take this quote from Atlas Shrugged; “I swear by my life and my love of it that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.” But before we get ahead of ourselves, we should understand how philosophy presents a crucial underpinning to this.

The ideas of Ayn Rand are sometimes considered revolutionary for the fact that they break hard away from forms of mysticism pervasive in many different philosophies. The worst offenders in this area are Kant and Hegel; promulgators of the idea that reality is nil and man’s mind is impotent. Then, further down the line, take philosophies that held premises based on reason but made the error of separating the mind and the body. Take Descartes and the Rationalist school, or Locke and the Empiricist school. The daddies of philosophy, the pre-socratics, were feeling in the dark to the extent that Thales of Miletus thought the ‘one in the many’ (i.e , everything) is water. They had their place but aren’t worth any elaboration for our purposes.

Rand observed that many of the problems that man faces at large are due to a rejection of reality and a reluctance to apply values in dealing with that reality – this can be scaled up to the political – and as we shall see later accounts for the moral bankruptcy which pervades this field.

But for now, let’s take the camera back to the individual and give a brief thought on ethics (the technology of how one should act). Rand held that, as a being of volitional consciousness, man needs a set of values in accordance with his personal goals in order to be purposeful: to prevent a kind of greying, a refusal to think and act. This is viewed by Rand as more than a need, but a responsibility; “man’s responsibility still goes further: a process of thought is not automatic nor “instinctive” nor involuntary – nor infallible. Man has to initiate it, to sustain it and to bear responsibility for its results. He has to discover how to tell what is true or false and how to correct his own errors” (The Objectivist Ethics, 1961).

An active process of reasoning vastly altered the dimensions of my personal life for the better and I should interject that this is one of the most important aspects of Objectivism. It is deeply personally affecting when one decides to live for one’s own purposes and as part of that understands that this is only rightfully achieved by the power of the mind – and its proper utilisation. For this reason, we need not look at the ethics first; but the metaphysics and epistemology.

It is essential at this point to discuss the importance of metaphysics and epistemology in Objectivism – and perhaps where, if one has ever looked into objectivism with a small ‘o’, they will understand why the philosophy is named as such. The Objectivist metaphysics holds that reality exists as an objective absolute, independent of man’s senses and his capacity to detect it. This presents a move away from the nebulous, mystic view held by Plato and Kant, for example. Man, then, needs to take this objective reality, things as they are, and contend with them. This is achieved by a conscious process of differentiation and integration, powered by the mind. Let’s elaborate on this, the epistemological arm of the philosophy.

Rand formulated the Objectivist epistemology around the key stages of 1.) sensation, 2.) the perceptual, 3.) the conceptual. Epistemologically, the basis of man’s knowledge really begins at the perceptual stage, where ‘discriminated awareness’ first becomes manifest. This is based off of that axiomatic idea that existence exists and builds on it, effectively to say that “A sensation does not tell man what exists, only that it exists” (Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology).

From the perceptual stage, where sensory data is effectively in a state of chaos, man’s mind integrates it to form conceptual units by a process of identifying similarities and differences. Measurement in a mathematic and scientific sense plays a role here in a “process of making the world knowable” (Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology).

Sensory data is then ‘filed away’ with Conceptual Common Denominators: “the characteristics reducible to a unit of measurement, by means of which man differentiates two or more existents from other existents possessing it” (Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology). The idea of essential characteristics held by existents in objective reality is vital. Take as example a child’s consideration of a table at the early conceptual stage; he knows that it is higher than a chair and is used to hold items away from the ground. This is a process of abstraction which is lower than, say, when an adult differentiates further to identify the differences between an oak dining table and a glass coffee table.

Man makes wider and wider abstractions in what Rand depicts to be a filing system inside the mind – and it all may seem a little finicky for our purposes. But fear not – we now swing the camera back round again to application which will bring us back to a discussion of ethics.

This process of ever wider abstraction, the process of constantly building on the reality which one perceives provides a strong basis for success. The process is held to be unrelenting and constant, aspirational too. Here we can look to one of my favourite quotes from The Fountainhead: when explaining his reasoning for choosing the sculptures of Steven Mallory to adorn his building, protagonist Howard Roark says: “I think you’re the best sculptor we’ve got. I think it, because your figures are not what men are, but what men could be – and should be. Because you’ve gone beyond the probable and made us see what is possible, but possible only through you.” What man could be is as exciting as an idea gets; to grant one’s self the absolute, unwavering permission to succeed by excepting that reality is what it is and going on to wrestle with it – to make the best possible version of one’s self out of what is offered.

We are now in a suitable spot to touch on Rand’s ethics; the idea of rational self-interest, or ‘selfishness’ – a term which has earned itself throughout time an unfortunate smearing. Rational self-interest is diametrically opposed to the mindless hedonism of what many would think of when pitched the word ‘selfish’. It is, in fact, the end summation of man contending with Objective reality and living by a consistent set of values. Here, we are happy to derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’ in a normative system of ethics.

Someone who is properly rationally self-interested understands the only morally proper cause to action is furtherance of one’s own long-term goals – and this is in fact the only way it can be. I often think back to the episode of Friends where Joey and Phoebe are stuck in a cycle of trying to perform a truly selfless deed – only to find each time that they receive some form of personal kick back which negates the initial ‘selfless’ intention. This is one of the by-products of an altruistic mentality – no matter how hard one tries to live for the sake of others, it is seemingly not possible.

Rand holds that, further than being impossible, an altruistic lifestyle is that which is improper to man’s inherent drive to act and achieve. Giving to others is entirely possible – just not under Joey and Phoebe’s pretence that it is entirely selfless. This is the key difference between altruism and benevolence.

Take, for example, an ethical issue whereby one has only enough spare change to buy an ice cream at a parlour and is visiting with their son. There are three other children in the parlour who also want ice cream – what would be the best course of action according to rational self-interest? One who wishes to indict selfishness and present it in its improper form would say that they would buy the ice cream for themselves and eat it in front of the children. The properly rationally self-interested choice would be made according to a value judgement, which for a father would most likely be to purchase the ice cream for the son. The altruist morality, however, would hold that this is deeply immoral and it is after all much better to buy an ice cream for the stranger children in which one would hold very little value or less value. Note, that even in this latter eventuality, the Joey and Phoebe problem remains.

One shouldn’t take ‘self-interest’ in the Objectivist context to mean immediate, range of the moment indulgence. It means an adherence to a deep sense of life in pursuit of genuine happiness. This is often described as a state of ‘non-contradictory joy’; the kind of happiness derived from achieving values. Sure, I derived happiness from the writing of this talk and I also derived happiness from playing on my PlayStation. They were however, in different categories; the former was conducive to the achievement of my values and the latter presented some momentary fun and relaxation.

To tie this all up, and to give some extra coherence to this section, I would like to take a moment to integrate properly the relationship between metaphysics, epistemology and ethics before moving onto a discussion of politics. Metaphysically, Objectivism holds that A is A. Reality exists independent of man’s capacity to perceive it and that A cannot both be A and non-A at the same time. Man’s capacity to perceive and integrate reality is the remit of epistemology. Then, the ethics: humans are differentiated from animals by means of their capacity for volition. Man holds no innate principles and must choose between life or death, between success and failure.

You may notice that Objectivism directly necessitates self-reliance and individualism; relying exclusively on the power of one’s own judgement as part of that normative system of ethics described earlier. This is a two-way-street and functions to eliminate force from human relationships when it comes time to socialise in work or play. Again, living for the sake of my own life and by dint of that never asking another to live for it either; and especially not forcing them to.

With these values underpinning the philosophy, Objectivism can be kind of superimposed on the field of politics, economics and law. It’s about building it from the ground up: identifying the essential characteristics of the human condition and rendering them into politics instead of working the process back the way.

Rand’s great contribution to this field is building on the idea that Laissez-Faire Capitalism, that is to say fully unfettered capitalism free of government controls, is the most moral system for man. From this moral point of view, Rand is the best advocate for freedom on a philosophical basis; she of course joins centuries of work in this field from Bastiat to Mises and beyond. The difference is that the work of the Austrian School focuses largely on the economic case for capitalism and holds some ethically deterministic premises. The Austrian School, for example, tend to build economic cases on the assumption that man always acts in a capacity of rational self-interest. Objectivists obviously differ in saying that this process is not automatic (determinism) but is instead volitional.

Rand, although holding solid theory politico-economically, galvanised the moral case for capitalism.

Rand was unashamedly ‘radical’ in the true sense of the word, holding principles stoically and with resolve. If one ever sees an interview with her on YouTube, you may hear an expression of the desire to completely separate the state and economics. Take this quote from an essay of hers, regarding ‘extremism’: “if an uncompromising stand is to be smeared as “extremism”, then that smear is directed at any devotion to values, any loyalty to principles, any profound conviction” (“Extremisim,” or The Art of Smearing”). Note that ‘extreme’ is a measurement and not a value; one can be an ‘extremist’ in their love for lasagne – it doesn’t have any bearing on the type of morality therein.

It is a lack of conviction and a fear of being branded ‘extreme’ that has perhaps led to the politico-economic crisis that faces us today – that has led to a mix of government controls (broadly, force) and capitalism (freedom). In terms of definitions, it is in fact a use of sloppy terminology when people call what we have today ‘capitalism’ – it is not, it is a mixed economy. Part social democracy, part capitalism. One would be valid also in using the term ‘cronyism’ – the state using capitalism to it’s advantage and granting unearned privileges. This is an abhorrent mutilation of capitalism.

With a philosophical framework based around the individual, we can look into the field of rights and therefore look to a proper role for the state where freedom is fully facilitated. Rand’s motivation to pursue a life in America stemmed from the morality of the American experiment: a government that derives its rights and responsibilities strictly from individual rights and not the other way around – however mutilated this may lay in the nation’s 2018 embodiment under Mr. Trump.

Therefore, Rand was unique in her advocacy for a minimal role for the state – bridging the gap between the moral bankruptcy of big government crony Conservatism and full, Rothbardian anarchy. The state must exist in some capacity, she established, but solely to protect the rights of person and property. This broadly means: military, police and judiciary. This comes with the important caveat that the state military be limited solely to homeland defence and would be entirely non-interventionist – unless there should be a voluntary, consensual cause for invasion. The state then, which protects individual rights, is not a necessary evil but becomes a necessary good.

With the state out of the way of economic relations, we can now flesh out some ideas about the morality of capitalism. Free markets mean the ability to voluntarily exchange, with transactions representing an expression of mutual benefit – and moreover an expression and allowance for one’s self interest. Rand took free markets to mean “the social application of an objective theory of values” (What is Capitalism?) as we explored earlier. She goes on: “since values are discovered by man’s mind, men must be free to discover them – to think, to study, to translate their knowledge into physical form, to offer their products for trade, to judge them, and to choose, be it material goods or ideas”. This, in short, is why true liberals (classical liberals) take fundamental disagreement with central planning, as is preferred by statist systems of socialism, communism, or fascism. The producer needs to understand objective theories of value in order to be successful on the market; a government needs not know anything about demand on a market and will see ‘success’ either way. That is to say that the state’s income is perpetually guaranteed by means of taxation, so there is no need to render services which are of genuine use. Where profit incentive lacks, so does quality. Take, for example, the production of nails under the state in the Soviet Union. Production quotas were to be met not according to quality, but to weight. The end result of this was leaky roofs; held up by nails which were not the correct size but met the production quota in weight.

Another important component of fully linking capitalism and morality is Rand’s effort in linking capitalism to race relations. Individualism and capitalism are diametrically opposed to collectivism (which judges value on the bases of inherent attributes, not individual merit). If a tradesman is to be prejudiced on the grounds of race, people will abstain from purchasing his product and the punitive function of the market would take effect. Take the two recent examples of H&M and Dove and see how even accidentally stepping into the realm of racial prejudice worked out for them. “Racism is the lowest, most crudely primitive form of collectivism” Rand wrote, continuing later that “it is not a man’s ancestors or relatives or genes or body chemistry that count in a free market, but only one human attribute: productive ability. It is by his own individual ability and ambition that capitalism judges a man and rewards him accordingly” (Racism).

It should be mentioned that the advocacy of Laissez-Faire capitalism is not a primary concern of the philosophy but is a necessary corollary of the branches preceding it. It is important to interrogate ideas about the best political system to facilitate the principles of a rational society. One may hear the idea of a constitutional republic floated, due to the inherently anti-liberty elements baked into democracy. This is namely the fact that by means of democracy the collective or the majority can vote property and wealth out of one person’s hand and into another. This applies not only to material concerns but to personal concerns too, such as the right to one’s own body and freedom of movement.

Capitalism allows man to be his own hero. This is inherently of aid to others; it is not rightfully one’s duty but is an offshoot. Innovation and production as dictated by markets bring mutual successes.

Heroic man became manifest in Rand’s novels. Writing fiction may seem at face value to be an odd pursuit for someone with such a strong offering in the fields of metaphysics, epistemology, ethics and politics – but it turned out, according to Rand’s idea of Romantic Realism, to be the perfect fit.

Rand held that “Art is a selective recreation of reality according to an artist’s metaphysical value judgements” (The Psycho-Epistemology of Art). The important case to be made here is that one of the most desirable functions of art can be to present the heroic, the best and the aspirational in man. This is broadly in opposition to the school of naturalism, which tends to portray man as effected and disconnected from a driving purpose. Hamlet is undeniably a great work and a fantastic achievement but does exemplify this philosophical problem of naturalism in that it has a tendency to cause self-abasement in the audience. One can read into Hamlet’s world and conclude only that man is at the mercy of circumstance and has very little autonomy; conversely one can read into Howard Roark’s world in The Fountainhead and be filled with excitement, knowing that their future is what they wish to make it. It may be said that art should be what is worth pondering, not that which is to be abhorred according to an objective system of values. For example, a story about a drug abuser may be very sad and deeply effecting but does not have the same aesthetic merit as a story about a virtuous detective.

So to fully answer the previously posed question of why the discipline of novel writing is well suited to philosophical writing we can turn again to epistemology. “art brings man’s concepts to the perceptual level of his consciousness and allows him to grasp them directly, as though they were percepts” (The Psycho-Epsitemology of Art). Rand viewed this as a vital function of the Psycho-Epistemological function of art; to bring those integrated concepts to the perceptual level and make them felt as no other kind of exact-science can.

These are concepts fully fleshed out in The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. A far shorter read, Anthem, is an interesting point to explore on the utility of fiction.

Anthem is Rand’s shortest fictional work and could be classed as a novella. It has incredible shape – two characters exist in a dystopian nightmare, where the concept of the self has been eliminated. In the final two short chapters, in an incredible climax, they discover the word “I”. I draw this up as an example because I think it perfectly exemplifies what Rand saw to be the purpose of literature in an easily digestible chunk; heroic characters, portraying a story with important moral values. It need not be values in accordance with Objectivism necessarily, just the actual presence of value and volition. For this, we can look to Rand’s admiration for Victor Hugo, who would write stories that are politically opposed to Objectivist values, but not aesthetically.

So there is a brief introduction to the philosophy of Objectivism.

For me it is of utmost importance to pull the ideas of Ayn Rand into the personal sphere. it was a key aspect of the design of the philosophy, to provide a ‘philosophy for man’s life on earth’. The world she built and that philosophical framework is most empowering when applied personally. When one removes the stigmatic connotations of ‘selfish’ and takes full responsibility for life it is incredibly liberating.

In these closing remarks I’d like to draw on some sentiments from a piece I wrote for a magazine called The Undercurrent earlier this year to demonstrate this personal application.

Before looking into the ideas of Ayn Rand, I hadn’t established that existence exists properly and outsourced the cause of my difficulties in life on external factors, which didn’t work and only exacerbated them. It seemed I was chasing apathy when I was really looking for reason. Allowing feeling to be replaced, in matters which required it, with cognition was vital.

Drawing up a system of values, setting long term goals and striving to achieve them is the most noble end; to be your own hero. Rand successfully galvanised this forward-thinking mentality in her work, and evidence of a rejection of truly self-fulfilling values can be seen everywhere today; from the apathetic idler who refuses to work to the notionally ‘successful’ man who uses force for gain. Rand saw a different outline for man’s life on earth:

Reality exists, your achievement is your sole responsibility, and its offerings are malleable: there is nothing more exciting than this.

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