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Objectivism

What Would Ayn Rand Say?
by Fred Seddon

This article was originally published in Swedish in Libertarianskt Forum on Oct. 2004. I offer here the English original.

WHAT WOULD AYN RAND SAY?

Ayn Rand was once asked if she could state the essence of her philosophy while standing on one foot. This is what she said:

1. Metaphysics: Objective Reality
2. Epistemology: Reason
3. Ethics: Self-Interest
4. Politics: Capitalism

This précis is obviously too short to be helpful, but I would like to use it as a sectioning device for this paper. In what follows, I will try to provide the reader with a four part introduction to Rand's philosophy, and then, in section five, ask, What would Ayn Rand say about the current situation in the world?

METAPHYSICS

Objectivism (her name for her philosophy) is a metaphysical realism. "Reality exists as an objective absolute—facts are facts, independent of man's feelings, wishes, hopes or fears." (Binswanger 344) It is what it is, whether we like it or not. Consider the following overview by Professor George Walsh:

For Rand the function of metaphysics is to provide us with a unitary worldview. According to Objectivism, metaphysics is "the study of existence as such, or in Aristotle's words, of 'being qua being.'" (PWNI 3) It 'identifies the nature of the universe as a whole.' (OP 15) It is 'the basic branch of philosophy ... It tells us whether we live in a universe ruled by natural laws, and therefore, stable, firm, absolute and knowable,' [Rand's view] or 'in an incomprehensible chaos.' Whether the things we see around us are 'real or ... only an illusion ... , some kind of unreal appearance which leaves men staring and helpless,' (PWNI 3) whether the things around us 'exist independent of any observeror are created by the observer,' whether they are 'what they are or can be changed by a mere act of ... consciousness, such as a wish.' (PWNI 3)

The three basic axiomatic concepts of Rand's metaphysics are existence, consciousness, and identity. Existence has primacy, with consciousness being defined as the faculty for perceiving existence. The most succinct statement of these axiomatic concepts appears in her novel Atlas Shrugged, where she writes them in the form of axioms:

Existence exists—and the act of grasping that statement implies two corollary axioms: that something exists which one perceives and that one exists possessing consciousness, consciousness being the faculty of perceiving that which exists.

If nothing exists, there can be no consciousness: a consciousness with nothing to be conscious of is a contradiction in terms. A consciousness conscious of nothing but itself is a contradiction in terms: before it could identify itself as consciousness, it had to be conscious of something ....

To exist is to be something, as distinguished from the nothing of non-existence, it is to be an entity of a specific nature made of specific attributes. Centuries ago, the man who was—no matter what his errors—the greatest ... philosopher [Aristotle] ... stated the formula defining the concept of existence and the rule of all knowledge: A is A. A thing is itself. (1015-1016)

This metaphysical absoluteness applies not only to nature but also to man. Man is a specific entity with a specific identity. The most distinctive characteristic of man is his rational volitional faculty. This is, of course, not a new position and can be found in St. Thomas, who wrote that "man is ... an intelligent being endowed with free choice," (S T, I-II, Prologue). Yet there has surely been no universal agreement on what is man's metaphysical essence. What have been some of the alternatives to Rand's view of man?

Plato and the medievals described other-worldly souls trapped in a bodily prison. Shakespeare dramatized man as an aspiring but foolish mortal, defeated by a 'tragic flaw.' Thomas Hobbes described a mechanistic brute. [Rand is definitely not a "kinder, gentler Hobbes."] Kant saw man as a blind chunk of unreality, in hock to the unknowable. Hegel saw a half-real fragment of the state. Victor Hugo saw a passionate individualist undercut by an inimical universe. Friedrich Nietzsche saw a demoniacal individualist run by the will to power. John Dewey saw a piece of flux run by the expediency of the moment. Sigmund Freud spoke of an excrement-molding pervert itching to rape his mother. (OPAR 187)

What did Ayn Rand see when she looked at man? She saw man as strong, confident and cheerfully efficacious. She saw a being with the possibility of creating the theory of relativity, the Ninth Symphony, Les Misérables, The Second Treatise of Government, the Declaration of Independence, the Summa Theologica, Cyrano de Bergerac, the syllogism, etc. She saw a hero, by which she meant any man who dreams a dream and then does all in his power to realize that dream. [This would even include cases where, for reasons beyond the power of the dreamer, the dream is not achieved. See Rand's We The Living for a concretization of this possibility.]

One of man's most heroic endeavors is the acquisition of old and the origination of new knowledge. These jobs belong to the sciences and the humanities, but their overarching principles are the province of epistemology.

EPISTEMOLOGY

Epistemology is the branch of philosophy that studies the methods of acquiring and validating knowledge. The essence of Rand's epistemology is reason: "Reason (the faculty that identifies and integrates the material provided by man's senses) is man's only source of knowledge, his only guide to action and his basic means of survival." (Binswanger 344) One can see how Rand's epistemology is related to her metaphysics and, in particular, to her philosophical anthropology. Since reason is man's distinctive metaphysical attribute, it becomes the centerpiece of her epistemology.

I want now to indicate, via her epistemology, why she decided to call her philosophy Objectivism. According to Peikoff, objectivity is the view that, "knowledge is the grasp of an object through an active, reality-based process [he means logic] chosen by the subject." (OPAR 116) The remainder of this section will be devoted to an explication of the highlights of that definition.

First, knowledge is a "grasp" and not the creation of an object. This is just another way of emphasizing the necessity to conform to the facts of reality. But this conformity is achieved neither automatically nor arbitrarily. This leads to point two.
Man needs a method of adhering to the facts and that method is logic—the "reality based process." The basic principle of logic is the principle of non-contradiction. Aristotle was the first thinker to give a rigorous and systematic defense of this principle. He observed that there is one fundamental way to commit an error of knowledge and that is to identify a thing as both A and non-A. Since reality is non-contradictory, man's basic method for knowing reality must forbid contradictions.

Even though reality and logic are in place, that is still not enough. Man must choose logic as his method of knowing reality. This is the third point in Peikoff's definition. The conscious employment of logic in the ongoing process of knowing reality is not automatic. Every logic teacher knows this.

Objectivity is the good guy in Rand's epistemological scenario. The two bad guys are "intrinsicism" and "subjectivism." Since this essay is on neither of these, I will allow note three to stand as insufficiently sufficient on this topic and close this section with a quote from Rand on these two errors.

The extreme realist (Platonist) and the moderate realist (Aristotelian) schools of thought regard the referents of concepts as intrinsic, i.e., as "universals" inherent in things (either as archetypes or as metaphysical essences), as special existents unrelated to man's consciousnessto be perceived by man directly ... by some non-sensory or extra-sensory means. The nominalist and the conceptualist schools regard concepts as subjective, i.e., as products of man's consciousness, unrelated to the facts of reality, as mere "names" or notions arbitrarily assigned to arbitrary groupings of concretes on the ground of vague, inexplicable resemblances. (ITOE 53)

ETHICS

Ethics is that branch of philosophy that deals with the discovering and the defining of "a code of values to guide man's choice and action—the choices and actions that determine the purpose and the course of his life." (VOS 2; p. 13) Why does man need such a code? He needs such a code because, unlike plants and animals, which are "hardwired" to pursue their own good, i.e., survival as plants and animals, man is not hardwired to pursue his own good. He can act as his own destroyer, i.e., he can try to reject reality, logic, value and capitalism. He must learn what is in his long-range interest and then must choose to pursue that interest. He must discover that for a rational being, reason is the price he must pay in order to flourish. Note that she is not talking about survival at any cost. She is saying that neither robbery nor alms are proper methods of survival for a rational man since both of these methods fail to recognize that "man, every man, is an end in himself, not the means to the ends of others. That he must exist for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself." (ARL 344) This last clause is extremely important. It means, in effect, that life does not require sacrifice! To understand this, one must understand the technical sense in which Rand uses the concept of sacrifice. Sacrifice means the surrender of that which you value for that which you don't, or that which you value more for that which you value less. In Atlas Shrugged she writes:

If you exchange a penny for a dollar, it is not a sacrifice; if you exchange a dollar for a penny it is. If you achieve the career you wanted, after years of struggle, it is not a sacrifice; if you then renounce it for the sake of a rival, it is. If you own a bottle of milk and give it to your starving child, it is not a sacrifice; if you give it to your neighbor's child and let your own die, it is. (1028)

Reread the last quoted sentence and then ask yourself about the morality of anyone who would ask or demand as proof of your moral status that you commit such an act. The same reasoning applies to self-sacrifice as well. As early as The Fountainhead she asks:

Is sacrifice a virtue? Can a man sacrifice his integrity? His honor? His freedom? His ideal? His convictions? The honesty of his feeling? The independence of his thought? But these are a man's supreme possessions. Anything he gives up for them is not a sacrifice but an easy bargain. They, however, are above sacrificing to any cause or considerations whatsoever. Should we not, then, stop preaching dangerous and vicious nonsense? Self-sacrifice? But it is precisely the self that cannot and must not be sacrificed. It is the unsacrificed self that we must respect in man above all. (677)

But if sacrifice is not a virtue, (in fact, for Rand, it is a vice), what is? Space does not permit the detailing of the Objectivist theory of virtues and values, but a definition of these two terms follows.

'Value' is that which one acts to gain and keep; 'virtue' is the action by which one gains and keeps it. 'Value' presupposes an answer to the question: of value to whom and for what? [Contra deontologism] 'Value' presupposes a standard, [contra relativism and subjectivism] a purpose and the necessity of action in the face of an alternative. Where there are no alternatives, no values are possible. (1012)

Now that we have some inkling of what virtue and value are for Rand, we can go on to ask, what is the ultimate value, the ultimate virtue, and the primary beneficiary of the Objectivist code of ethics? "The ultimate value is life. The primary virtue is rationality. The primary beneficiary is oneself." (Objectivism 206) By "life," Rand means pretty much what Aristotle meant by flourishing or eudaimonia. By "rationality" she means reason as defined above. But what does she mean by "oneself?"

Here the greatest confusion concerning her ethics has arisen. She has been misinterpreted as endorsing some version of hedonism or relativism or subjectivism. But she endorses none of these. She is an egoist—she preaches an ethic of rational self-interest. But isn't selfishness evil? "Men have been taught that the ego is the synonym of evil, and selflessness the ideal of virtue." (Fountainhead 739) Ayn Rand challenges this view. Working from the premise that life does not require sacrifice, she notes that there is something wrong with the traditional definitions of both egoism and altruism. Egoism has come to mean the sacrifice of others to self. Altruism, which today is regarded as practically synonymous with morality, is the sacrifice of self to others. What these two notions have in common is that sacrifice is required for morality. Men were, in effect, offered the false alternative of sadism or masochism. They were told that if they wanted to live and prosper they had to be bloodsuckers; whereas if they wanted to be moral they had to be suckers. Yet these are hardly inviting alternatives. And if life does not require sacrifice, then both positions make the error of assuming that it does and merely quibble over who is to be sacrificed to whom. Rand's ethics eliminates sacrifice from the very definition of morality. To be moral, man must pursue his own rational self-interest, neither sacrificing himself to others or others to himself.

If brotherhood and respect are to be possible, we must give up looking at each other as sacrificial animals ready for immolation. We must look at one another as ends, and never as mere means.

This latter notion forms the transition to politics, since there is only one political system that instantiates this non-sacrificial ideal, and that is capitalism.

POLITICS

Politics is the fourth branch of philosophy, and it deals with defining "the principles of a proper social system" (372). As Rand sees it, politics is not a primary, but a final consequence of one's metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics, that is, politics is based on and derived from "a theory of man's nature and of man's relationship to existence" (373).

Once we know what man's nature is and how he should act, we then have in hand the principles for living with other men. Being in society does not change man's nature. He is still a rational, volitional being and must act accordingly. The only difference between living on a deserted island and in Sweden is that now man must discover the nature of those creatures that are so much like himself and treat them as such. Since they are also rational, volitional beings, he cannot treat them like inanimate objects, plants, or non-rational animals. That would constitute a misperception of reality. Once he learns what men are--he knows how to deal with them. He must deal with their minds. Since they are rational beings, he cannot deal with them by force, which is proper when dealing with a boulder in one's way, a tree stump that needs removing, or a charging rhinoceros. Force and mind are opposites. "To deal with men by force is as impractical as to deal with nature by per-suasion" (ARL 365). From this she derives the basic political principle of the Objectivist politics, i.e., "no man may initiate the use of physical force against others." (ARL 363) Not even for the common good. Or the poor. Or the Volk. Or the proletariat. Or the rich.

If men are to be barred from using physical force to gain their ends, they need an institution designed to protect their individual rights. This institution is the government. A government is an institution that holds a monopoly on the use of physical force in a given geographical area, and if that government would be moral, its use of that force is restricted to retaliation. For those familiar with Robert Nozick, this concept of government is very close to his "night watchman" state. For Rand, the government is a cop and an umpire. It is not an employer of last resort, a charity bazaar, an educational institution, a home builder, a road builder, a medical provider, or a friend to the farmer. It is a giant bludgeon and the fundamental question facing political philosophy is, When and against whom should its power of bludgeoning be employed? Rand's answer is, Only against those guilty of the initiation of physical force or fraud. There is one social system that is founded on this principle, and that is capitalism.

She defines capitalism as "a social system based on the recognition of individual rights, including property rights, in which all property is privately owned." (CUI, 19) She does not mean the system that exists in the United State, and especially not what exists in Sweden. What exists in both countries is a mixture of freedom and controls, of capitalism and statism. She means, "a full, pure, uncontrolled, unregulated laissez-faire capitalism—with a separation of state and economics, in the same way and for the same reasons as the separation of state and church." (VOS 32) Just as the state has no business meddling with religious doctrines or activities, likewise it has no business with Volvo or Saab doctrines or activities. Should Volvo or Saab executives resort to force to advance their cause, then it's time for the government to step in. Until then, it's hands off.

Since most people around the globe now agree that capitalism (in some sense of that word) is the most efficient economic system ever devised, it is interesting to note that Ayn Rand was never interested in defending it merely on the basis of productive efficiency. Rather she always thought that capitalism needed a moral defense or justification. It does no good to produce wealth more efficiently and effectively if one's moral code condemns production and wealth. And that's why she regarded production, i.e., the application of reason to the problem of survival, as one of man's highest virtues.

For her the moral justification of capitalism consists in the fact that it is the only system consonant with man's nature as a rational being. Every other system calls for the sacrifice of man to the Volk (Fascism), to the Proletariat (Communism), to the poor (Welfare Statism), to the majority (Democracy). But sacrifice is not necessary to sustain human life. Life does not require sacrifice. It does not require that one give up a higher value to obtain a lesser value. Capitalism does not require sacrifice. In capitalism, all intercourse (whether religious, sexual, or commercial) between adult human beings should be voluntary and for benefit of those engaged in such intercourse. Capitalism is a win-win social system. No one may use physical force to obtain religious, sexual or economic values. To do so leads to the inquisition, rape, or antitrust "laws," respectively. The initiation of physical force is always lose-lose.

If Rand has made her case clear, by the time one arrives at her politics, capitalism should be seen to simply follow from her metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics. Hence her statement that, "I am not primarily an advocate of capitalism, but of egoism; and I am not primarily an advocate of egoism, but of reason. If one recognizes the supremacy of reason and applies it consistently, all the rest follows." (ARL 344)

WHAT WOULD AYN RAND SAY?

Since 1911, Sweden has been the paradigm of the welfare state. Given Rand’s pro-capitalist anti-welfare state philosophy, it isn’t too difficult to imagine what she would say to Sweden. Start decontrolling. Yet Sweden has a per-capita income of over $22,000. Yet this proves Rand’s point, at least if one accepts what Svetozar Pejovich says when he writes, “The backbone of the Swedish industry thus has been made out of private corporations operating in international markets and depending on a policy of free trade and competition.” If this is true, then Rand could be even more specific in recommending that Sweden grant to her non-international companies the same freedom she grants to her multi-nationals.

But who is to bring this sea-change about? We must be careful about an overly optimistic “throw the bums out” type of approach. It may be ironic, but it is a fact nevertheless, that the non-socialist governments “succeeded in nationalizing more enterprises in two to three years than the labor government did during forty-four years.”

So as a philosopher and a generalist, I think Rand would stick to the more global remark that “less government control is best.”

Fred Seddon, Ph. D.


ABBREVIATIONS

AYL Ayn Rand Lexicon
CUI Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal
ES The Evidence of the Senses
ITOE Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology
FNI For the New Intellectual
OPAR Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand
OP Ominous Parallels
PWNI Philosophy: Who Needs It
RM Romantic Manifesto
VOS Virtue of Selfishness
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