Rebirth of Reason


Rational Individualism
by Joseph Rowlands

In Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead, Howard Roark was a man who didn't care what other people thought. Well, actually he did in some ways. He cared about his friends, and he was concerned about why some people were secondhanders. But the fact that people thought things didn't matter to him in the sense that it wasn't a reason to believe or disbelieve that thing. An idea was either true or false, and he used his own mind to determine that.

Howard Roark was a true individualist, in that he made up his mind independent of what other people thought or felt. Those were not relevant to him. He never elevated the minds of others above his own. If he was in a position to understand something himself, he did it himself. He never ignored his own thoughts in order to accept someone else's views.

Roark was an individualist. But he was more than just an individualist. He didn't just make up his own mind any which way. Roark was a rational individualist. He let reality be his standard of the truth. For him, it wasn't about doing things his way, but about doing things the right way. His individualism was not a primary. It was a consequence of his orientation towards reality. It was his dedication to the facts of reality that made him impervious to the thoughts or feelings of other people. It's a lot like when a Christian tells an Objectivist that they're going to go to hell. It doesn't even show up on one's radar of rational thoughts.

Objectivism doesn't hold Individualism as a primary, just as Roark didn't. It's a consequence of our reality-based philosophy. We don't judge our views based on whether other people agree with them, or whether they disagree with them. We don't believe that our ideas must be different from other people, or that we have to act different from others. Neither of those are a concern. Rational, moral action is a concern. Individualism is a consequence.

So it's funny that you hear people say on Objectivist forums say things like "even though we're individualists, we agree on this" or "you wouldn't expect that such individualists as ourselves would get along". Over the years, I've seen a variety of this kind of quote. Now, they're usually not intended to be huge philosophical statements, but they are indicative of a general belief. A false dichotomy, actually. An individualist/sameness dichotomy.

You would expect rational individualists, who uphold reality first and individualism as a mere consequence, to be a lot alike. We would have similar views of the world. We would uphold the same virtues and ideals. We would get along with each other because we recognize the values we share. In countless ways, we would find things in common with one another.

A belief that as individualists we'd have to disagree all the time is based on a faulty view of Objectivist individualism. It might be based on the conventional sense of individuality where you strive to be different from others. Ellsworth Toohey understood this very well. Or it might be based on a real individuality where each person just does his own thing, thinks what he wants, feels what he wants, and let reality be damned. If that were the case, you would expect lots of disagreements (since there's plenty of different ways people can be wrong about something). Regardless, neither of those is compatible with Objectivism.

There may still be radical differences between rational individualists. Some may prefer artistic endeavors, while others prefer scientific projects, while yet others prefer physical effort. Some will prefer their steaks rare while others may want them medium rare. There may be all kinds of differences between the people. But the differences aren't the important part, and aren't required for one to be an individualist.

Individualism, properly, is a consequence to a reality-oriented philosophy. We'd do well to remember that.

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