Ayn Rand is in vogue again. Although she operated in philosophical and political circles in the early 20th century, her style and thought, expressed most notably in her fiction espousing Objectivism, have seemingly endured. Indeed, some might argue that she never left the public consciousness, though it’s undeniable that her contemporary influence can be seen in any number of spheres, from pop culture to politics. For the uninitiated, Objectivism is described by Rand as “the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute” (from the appendix of Atlas Shrugged). The notion that we are able to perceive objective reality and make volitional choices in our own rational self-interest using our own reason is central to fulfilling the goals that Rand describes here. Her entire philosophy hinges on the notion of the human subject as a rational actor whose primary responsibility is to achieve his or her own happiness.
It initially sounds like your garden-variety classically inspired philosophy, but Objectivism is both insidious and somehow far more deluded about the state of nature. As an ardent capitalist with a Lockean view of humanity, Rand somehow manages to be both deeply cynical and incongruously idealistic in her work. Her philosophy in particular functions as a framework that focuses more on justifying unbridled capitalism than working out a way of ethical living that accounts for how we should treat others. Her metaphysics, too, are deeply conflicted, rooted in a mish-mash of Aristotelian and Kantian tenets, although she purports to despise the latter in her writing. Finally, her halfhearted attempts at using deductive and inductive reasoning see her pulling entire propositions out of thin air. In spite of these contradictions, then, why has Randian thought continued to have such an impact—on pop culture, political discourse, classical education, and even actual capitalist industry?
When Logic Is Not Logical Enough
Strangely enough, it seems as though the answer lies within the contradictions. These contradictions, in turn, are perhaps most transparent in her book The Virtue of Selfishness. Specifically, the first section, titled “The Objectivist Ethics,” sees Rand developing an ethics that she believes to both ground and necessitate Objectivist thought. This section is illuminating in that it reveals the full extent of the precarity of Randian thought, balanced as it is on claims of scientificity and rationality that bely an egregious lack of both. Rand’s ethics, however, are important to try to understand, since Objectivism has, in tenets if not in name, systematically permeated the norms of capitalist society in a way that tries to conceal the system’s shortfalls. I am not blaming capitalism for all of society’s problems—the purpose of this piece is simply to underscore Rand’s lip service to the notion of a moral, ethical society as a kind of thoughtless hand-waving meant to dispel our fears about the negative effects of a fully laissez-faire capitalist system.
Thoughtfully, in “The Objectivist Ethics,” Rand at least acknowledges that historically, “most philosophers took the existence of ethics for granted, as the given, as a historical fact, and [they] were not concerned with discovering its metaphysical cause or objective validation [emphasis added]” (11). Rand is for the most part correct when she asserts this. Classical philosophers indeed tended to rely on metaphysical and epistemological assumptions to make claims about philosophical truth, if they even bothered to explicate a metaphysics of their own at all. We see this with the Aristotelian concept of virtue, the Kantian “thing-in-itself,” and a multiplicity of theories on natural law by everyone from Aquinas to Locke to Hobbes. However, because Rand claims at the beginning of the section that “Ethics, as a science, deals with discovering and defining such a code [of morality]” (10), she skews even further in the opposite direction—past even logical positivism.
Logical positivism was an early 20th-century philosophical movement out of Vienna, Germany, that embraced the conventions of science as the only means of attaining objective facts about the world. However, even the logical positivists didn’t go far enough for Rand. In her book titled For the New Intellectual, she derides their reliance on convention and methodology as “neo-mystic Witch-doctory and Attila-ism” (34). For Rand, the logical positivists were just as bad as Hegel, who lay on the opposite side of the spectrum. Her derision of both reveals just how totalitarian the Objectivist ideology is, since it flouts the role of subjectivity and convention in equal measure in favor of “just the facts.”
Clearly, anything short of 100% objectivity is, to Rand, a cop-out. For her, facts are not the result of applying conventions of science, but rather the result of naked, self-explanatory ontology. We experience the world around us with “sense perception,” which we then feed into our machine-like minds through processes of concept formation and thinking (Virtue 17). Rand believes this is how we can live as rational beings. We sense, we think, we reason, we work (which gives us our sense of purpose), we produce—and consequently, we gain self-esteem and achieve happiness (the result of us fulfilling our purpose) (Virtue 21).
The Objectivist Life
Rand’s stoic dependence on the duty of work to supply purpose, happiness, and self-fulfillment in our lives is extremely Aristotelian. In Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, he calls eudaimonia, or happiness, the greatest good, since it is “final and self-sufficient” (54). By living virtuously, which requires habitual, conscious decision-making on our part (ethos), we are more likely to achieve happiness. The emphasis here falls on choice and consistency, but while Aristotle prefers to think of politics as the arena for studying questions of attaining personal happiness, Rand looks to the economics of capitalism. Like Aristotle, Rand sees happiness as evidence of ethical fulfillment and consistent effort as the means of obtaining self-worth. However, unlike Aristotle, the emphasis falls not only on rational choice but also on productivity. We cannot have a sense of fulfillment or purpose unless we are working, which serves to generate capital and prop up corporate interests.
The root of this belief is Rand’s assertion that the ultimate value is an organism’s life. She writes, “that which furthers [the organism’s] life life is the good, that which threatens it is the evil” (13). According to Rand, then, ensuring one’s own survival is an inherently moral act. Anything that could potentially “threaten” one’s life is immoral, bad, evil. It’s a notion rooted in a traditional Judeo-Christian worldview, though as a vehement atheist, Rand struggles throughout her oeuvre to distance herself from such.
Her idea—the claim that life is good, but death bad; that pleasure is good, but pain bad; that reason is good, but passion (you guessed it) bad—is not only overly simplistic, but also an obvious deflection. Basically, Rand is trying to refute the critique that Objectivism does not value all lives equally, since not all people are capable of producing the same amount of material wealth, and therefore cannot have the same objective value as others. Her claim of life’s inherent good is also hugely presumptuous. Rand claims to hate classical metaphysics, yet she indulges in the exact same circular “reasoning” that arrives at such a conclusion. The prolonging of life is good because it prolongs our ability to reason, which allows us to survive longer, which is good because it gives us more time to use our faculties of reason, and so on. Rand leaves no room for nuance, and gives no examples of how Objectivism can solve the kinds of ethical issues that its praxis—capitalist “liberation”—causes. These issues include salient problems such as income inequality due to a high concentration of wealth in a tiny percentage of the population, loss of employment due to automation, unaffordable healthcare and medication due to corporate demand for increased profit margins, rising nationalist sentiment due to competition over jobs and other resources, increased stress on the family unit due to demand for 60-, 70-, and even 80+-hour work weeks—the list goes on.
Rand Contra Rand
I am not, of course, saying that life cannot have good in it, but rather that it makes no sense to claim that life is the ultimate value when the good in life is inherently corruptible, or dialectical. There is good and evil in each and every life, but the prolonged survival of evil individuals and the necessary suffering of life are just a couple of examples that Rand’s ethics shies away from directly confronting. Now, neither Rand nor capitalism can or should be held solely accountable for all of the issues listed above. However, arguing in a way that turns a blind eye to the very real material devastation that unchecked capitalism can instantiate is not just careless, but also self-serving and unethical.
Rand’s metaphysical assertions also just don’t make any sense beyond the surface level. Most philosophers are given a free pass for their underlying assumptions if they at least clear the air beforehand, but Rand makes no such conciliatory gesture in “The Objectivist Ethics.” Instead, she simply claims that “The fact that a living entity is, determines what it ought to do” (14). This simply doesn’t hold when we’re talking about ethics and morality, because a maxim like this inevitably leads to exploitative behavior. If my existence necessitates taking action to prolong and improve the quality of my existence, then it follows that I shouldn’t hesitate to take advantage of others to do so, right?
Not according to Rand, contrary to what the actual telos of her philosophy would seem to be. One example she gives for why Objectivism does not justify exploitative behavior is the part of society that “survive[s] by means of brute force or fraud.” Such people, she claims, are “incapable of survival,” as they “exist by destroying those who are capable, those who are pursuing a course of action proper to man” (20). This claim is philosophically untenable under the Objectivist framework she proposes, which can be seen as proto-libertarian. The main reason is that she simultaneously tries to claim that anything rationally chosen in service of one’s own survival is proper and moral. How is systematic exploitation of lower-class members of society precluded by reason? Isn’t reason the use of one’s own conscious, rational thinking to arrive at the most profitable conclusion? Isn’t that why the capitalist system, Rand’s praxis, naturally separates the haves from the have-nots—the wheat from the chaff? How are those individuals who are self-reliant and rational enough to exert their will over others not “pursuing a course of action proper to man”? Isn’t the “objective” fact of their dominance evidence of the opposite, or is Rand using the same metaphysical moral crutches that she accuses religion and mysticism of relying on?
As much as Rand might argue the contrary, Objectivism is not all about life, pleasure, virtue, and happiness. In fact, worldviews in line with Randian thought often bring out the worst in people by widening societal gaps, limiting access to resources that meet material needs, and closing off socioeconomic opportunities. By focusing solely on our individual happiness and adopting a passive approach to the well-being of others, we are not being ethical or moral just by existing alongside others. Indeed, even Heidegger, problematic as he could be in his personal life, noted the essential ontological condition of reliance on others (Mitsein). Rand’s claim that we help others when we help ourselves ignores the material conditions of the world we live in. At best, we’re amoral when we adopt that approach, and at worst, immoral and unethical. Ethics is not just about what’s best for me: it is that, but it should also hold me accountable for what I do out of my own self-interest. Ethics is not a science because no system of ethics functions in reality as an output machine that responds algorithmically to the inputs of specific, concrete moral problems.
An Ethics of Smoke & Mirrors
The endgame for Rand is pure capitalism, unhindered by regulation. That’s why libertarians and Tea Party types love her. If unbridled capitalism is Rand’s praxis, however, then it is failing her theory that we can look out for ourselves without trampling on others. Capitalism is proving that people can and will prey upon others and still be “rational actors,” contra Rand’s claims that those who exploit others are “parasites incapable of survival” who exist only because they are “destroying those who are capable, those who are pursuing a course of action proper to man” (Virtue 20). Yet here we are. Capitalism is steadily forming a body of proof that price gouging, pressuring employees to work longer, and systemically violating civil rights are really well within the ethical jurisdiction of Objectivist principles.
Rand may claim that “parasitic” behavior is unethical because it cuts reason out of the equation and makes unearned profits off the work of others, but there’s simply no way she can say all this without keeping her tongue firmly in cheek. The only alternative is that she’s deluded herself into believing that she arrived at all of her presuppositions through calculated reasoning. Because really, if welfare recipients are parasites because they partially rely on the work and rationality of others, and if career criminals are parasites because they appropriate the work of others to make a profit, then so are corporate executives who were born into wealth, systematically eliminate jobs via automation, exploit immigrant labor, outsource jobs, and so on. The Objectivist shoe, so to speak, fits. All of these actions deprive people of the ability to work, which in turn denies them the ability to educate themselves in order to best exercise their reason, which ultimately prevents them from being able to achieve their own happiness—if Objectivism is to be taken seriously.
The Objectivist ethics is, at its core, a system of smoke and mirrors that belies its own role in causing the very problems it preaches against. It appeals to the age-old notion of the human subject as a purely rational actor whose has no room for error, passion, or hesitation. This notion fits in nicely with the “bootstraps” rhetoric that has seen a resurgence in recent years, not just among Boomers and Gen Xers, but also among millennials desperate to appeal to hiring managers and corporate executives. The reality is that no one is entirely self-made, dependent as we all are on the material circumstances around us. Theoretically, we can always rise above our present situation, yes. But doing so does not entitle us to a life of self-fulfillment without any thought about how our “rational” choices can have irrational effects on those around us. The world is not as epistemologically cut-and-dry as Objectivism would have us believe, and an ethics based on the “virtue” of selfishness will inevitably fail, because not one of us can reach a general definition of material success on our own.