N.B: Below is an introductory piece that I wrote to be adapted for the purposes of being given as a talk. It is intended as an entry point for those unfamiliar with Objectivism (or some aspects of it – say if one were to hold an understanding of Rand’s philosophy but has not looked into Romantic Realism – her philosophy of art). Sections are marked with images for easier navigation. I should also mention that this work is unaffiliated with the Ayn Rand Institute and other similar organisations – do take a look at their extensive work and literature for more information. Happy reading! -Luke.
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.
In setting out the philosophy of Objectivism, Rand stepped on ground seldom intellectually touched – a ground that had been set firmly by Aristotle. Her key idea, that man is an end himself, 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 rationality; 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.”
Philosophy presents a crucial underpinning to this and is contextualised by Rand for the purposes of the individual. She observed that many of the problems that man faces are due to a rejection of philosophy and a reluctance to apply values – 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. Rand held that, as a being of volitional consciousness, man’s nature requires a standard of value in order to form a set of values. This can then form his personal goals and allows for purposefulness: 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 – the basis of which being Epistemological.
It is essential at this point to discuss the importance of 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 – presenting a move away from the nebulous, mystic view held by Plato, 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.
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 then is ‘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.
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 accepting 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 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.
Someone who is properly rationally self-interested understands the only morally proper cause to action is furtherance of one’s own 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.
This doesn’t mean immediate, range of the moment indulgence. It means an adherence to a deep sense of life. Giving to others, for example, is entirely possible – just not under Joey and Phoebe’s pretence that it is entirely selfless.
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.
You may notice that Objectivism directly necessitates self-reliance and individualism; relying exclusively on the power of one’s own judgement. 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 applied to 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 Rothbard to Mises and beyond. The difference is that the work of the Austrian School focuses largely on the economic case for capitalism – Rand, although holding solid theory here, galvanised the ethical case.
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”, 1964). 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 socialism, part 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.
Therefore, Rand was unique in her advocacy for a minimal role for the state – bridging the gap between the moral bankruptcy of big government 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.
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. Rand took free markets to mean “the social application of an objective theory of values” (What is Capitalism?, 1965) 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 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 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, 1963).
Capitalism allows man to be his own hero. This is inherently of aid to others; it is not rightfully his duty but is an offshoot. Innovation and production as dictated by markets bring mutual successes.
Heroic man became manifest largely 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 philosophy, ethics, epistemology 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, 1965). 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 affected 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 esthetic 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, 1965). Rand viewed this as a vital function of the Psycho-Epistemology 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 esthetically.
For me it is of utmost importance to pull the ideas of Ayn Rand into the personal sphere. Her portrayals 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 website 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:
Your achievement is your sole responsibility, your happiness is an end in itself and reality exists. Reality’s offerings are malleable: there is nothing more exciting than this.