Ayn Rand was right. She was. But I have little doubt even the title of this article will make a certain percentage of the readership’s heads explode, a font of impotent rage. This is a shame, and one of the fundamental reasons needs addressing.
The fervent and widespread misunderstanding of Rand’s philosophy, Objectivism, and the instinctive revulsion it engenders in people unable or unwilling to understand it beyond a second-hand or shallow interpretation.
Don’t worry, this article won’t be a deep-dive on Objectivism. Rather, we will be illuminating the most essential elements of Rand’s philosophy while trying to defend this particular ethical philosophy’s applicability to our modern world and prepping in particular.
Ayn Rand: A Short Bio
In order to fully comprehend and understand someone’s philosophy, it is helpful to first learn the circumstances of their life, upbringing and maturation.
Without the proper context of someone’s life experience, you might blindly be trying to fit the pieces of their philosophy into spaces that don’t necessarily exist in their psyche and worldview.
For those who are oblivious to Ayn Rand, here is a brief bio. Rand was born the eldest of three daughters in St. Petersburg, Russia in 1905 to a family of non-observant Jews.
Her father was a successful pharmacist, but sadly his business and holdings were seized by the government in 1917, prompting the family flee to Crimea. It was there that Rand finished high school and university.
She was later granted a visa and moved to the United States in 1926, living first in New York before moving to California where she primarily worked as a screenwriter before turning to her own fictional works and straightforward philosophical publishing.
Her magnum opus was the philosophical novel, Atlas Shrugged, a book encapsulating the doctrines of Rand’s Objectivist philosophy in its most complete form, weaving them into a fictional setting.
The tenets of Objectivism could be surmised as holding reason as the highest value, rational self-interest as a moral good, and the rejection of collectivism and altruism.
Published in 1957, it took Rand over 10 years to complete the book and she described the theme as “the role of the mind in man’s existence—and, as a corollary, the demonstration of a new moral philosophy: the morality of rational self-interest”.
In the following short sections, we will dissect the three principal tenets of Objectivism.
Reason Above All Else
The guiding and essential tenet of Ayn Rand’s philosophy is Reason above all else. Embracing reason, and embracing fact above emotionality, feelings, and intuition is paramount.
Reason should be applied to all areas of one’s life: business, home, soceity and love. The outcome or determinationresulting from following reason to its logical conclusion is to be adhered to and accepted whether it is pleasant or unpleasant.
Active reasoning is something that does not happen all by itself. It does not bubble up out of the wellspring of the ego or the heart. Reason will not apply itself automatically. To reason is to think, and thinking is hard.
To think means one must choose to apply their intellect, their mind, and keep it in motion working on the task or problem at hand.
The essential task as far as reason is concerned is to gather and understand facts, draw conclusions based on those facts and then evaluate those conclusions.
Ayn Rand was an adamant believer that one had to choose whether they would think or not, and in this case choosing to not think or abstaining from thinking was a choice in itself.
Rand allowed no deviation from her essential logic that choosing to follow reason, actively choosing to follow reason, was to reject emotion, reject authoritarianism, and reject faith as allowable guides for the direction of one’s efforts and intentions.
One Can Only Face Reality
Another essential creed of Ayn Rand’s philosophy is that of accepting reality as it is, not as you wish it were. Furthermore one must accept that reality is, well, real to begin with.
Objectivism makes no room for pie-in-the-sky theories of alternate realities, alternate universes or pseudothaumaturgical phases of being.
Reality is all there is, and by striving to live it is best if one would discover reality’s true nature and learn to act in accordance with its inarguable laws.
Reality is not something to be subverted, denied or run from, but is instead something one must stoically face and deal with. Man might command reality, but its laws must nevertheless always be adhered to, whether you would want it so or not; man does not get a vote in the matter.
There is no alternate reality or alternative to reality. There is nothing after it, no “land” beyond.
Ayn Rand’s assertion that reality is the sum total of existence, or at least the entire “field” within which our existence takes place, means that in accepting it one must reject any and all ideas and notions of the mythic and the supernatural, including God.
You might tersely and pithily codify that idea with the aphorism that admonishes a person who is “wishing-hoping-dreaming” for reality to be anything besides what the current state is to “Wish in one hand and s*** in the other, see which one fills up first.”
A Person is the End and the Means to that End
What role does morality serve? Furthermore what role does morality serve in a man’s life?
The answer for most westerners, especially most western Christians, often sounds like something along the lines of morality is a required governor or throttle on man’s baser, vile instincts, and only through morality is it possible for one to deny their own interests and happiness, especially short-term happiness, in order to be good and kind to other people and to serve God or some other higher purpose.
Morality serves as a sort of “Board of Education” to that end.
Ayn Rand’s Objectivist philosophy turns morality on its head in a drastic and severe way. Rand argues that the only purpose of morality is to inform a person what will produce happiness for them, and what actions are thereby in their self-interest.
In the most drastic departure from religious and inherited moral codes, Rand espoused that man must choose his own code in order to determine what his values and goals should be, and thus determine what actions he should take. The criteria for what is good or best is only weighed against what is proper for man- nothing else.
It is only through the establishment of this personal moral code that any person would be able to achieve much less maintain and enjoy their own life. Under Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism, a person’s own life is the ultimate value, and that life is the end in itself.
She famously, or infamously, postulated that man born as he is has no automatic code of survival, and could not rely on his built-in senses to determine what was best or most beneficial for him. Additionally, man had no way to determine innately what was good or evil for himself.
Capitalism Without Restraint
Ayn Rand is perhaps most popularly known among those less familiar with her life, works and philosophy for her lobbying and espousing of absolute laissez-faire capitalism. To be perfectly clear, this looks nothing like the capitalism that America and Europe practice today.
Not economy bordered by federal laws, not an economy with government controls wormed and sprinkled throughout it, but a complete and total separation of the economy and state power in the same way as in for the same reasons as a separation of church and state.
Under Rand’s view of capitalism, the government’s sole function is to protect every single individual’s rights to pursue capitalism by maintaining the ability to use force in defense of all individual’s pursuit thereof.
In other words, the government, while strictly limited, reserves the rights to use force against those who would use force against another.
Rand’s ideas on this topic are commonly misinterpreted, accidentally or not, and misconstrued. She saw this type of capitalism as a natural extension of the rational mind. A rational mind that makes its own life the highest possible moral purpose would naturally demand its own freedom.
Following this logical, reasonable train of thought total freedom would extend to commercial activities, the freedom to own property, freely associate and trade with others and generally pursue the accumulation of wealth unfettered.
True capitalism, Rand argues, is merely an extension of the individual’s rights in an economic direction.
Acceptance and Rejection of The Objectivist Philosophy
“The morality of rational self-interest.” That’s intense, and not particularly palatable to those who see generosity and selflessness as virtues.
Her detractors take that statement as proof of a deeply rooted selfishness inherent to Rand’s values. The most popular rejection of Objectivism holds that the concept of rational self-interest is plain greed.
Greed is a vice or sin in the majority of the world’s established moral systems, and has gotten a bad rap over the years as miserliness or covetousness.
But that isn’t at all the meaning of rational self-interest. “Rational” self-interest is holding one’s own life and their achievements as the highest and most moral aim of their life.
This includes some facets ignored or overlooked by Rand’s naysayers. A deeper exploration of her speeches or writings reveals the flaws in the critique; One cannot succeed long-term by dealing unfairly or dishonestly.
Rand, a fervent capitalist, recognized that trade and mutual voluntary exchange were generally necessary for prosperity.
I hope you can believe that people will not for long deal with you if you are a cheat, or fail to deliver what was agreed to in the terms of the exchange.
Therefore, the sort of Mad Max-dystopian, apocalyptic, smash-the-weak-and-take-their-stuff fear-mongering of the rabid critic of this tenet is completely misplaced and totally absent from Rand’s explanation.
Okay, so what does rational self-interest really mean, then? It simply means the pursuit of your own good in line with your rational values. You might say that is maybe vague or quite broad. You’d be correct.
It does leave a great deal of wiggle room for your personal interpretation and implementation. I fancy it akin to the author, Joseph Campbell, in his book “The Power of Myth”. He said, “Follow your bliss. Find where it is, and don’t be afraid to follow it.”
I think the few exceptions that Rand might have professed would be any pursuit that negated or ignored reality. Being a drug-addled misanthrope would be an abdication of both Reason and rational self-interest.
But any field of pursuit that inspired you, was in line with your values, and to which you applied yourself with dedication to higher achievement would fit into this ideal. Not a bad bit of philosophy so far, right?
Interestingly, most of the resistance to Ayn Rand’s Objectivist philosophy encounters the most rejection and resistance not from counter-leaning political and social philosophists but from those whose religious or spiritual morality is staunchly opposed to some of the tenets of Objectivism.
Religious systems as a rule include a fixed and sacrosanct set of virtues and morality, delivered from on high by a flawless, omnipotent and unimpeachable God or Creator.
The internal logic of these religious values follows that those bylaws, or commandments in the case of Christianity, are the starting point for morality, the fixed, perfect and immovable fixed point from which all other judgments on “correct”, proper and right morality is defined.
These religious doctrines reinforce themselves by reaffirming the correctness of these commandments constantly as the only immutable “truths” that should govern human decision making.
That is quite a contrast with Rand’s Objectivist philosophy which asserts that reality and the acceptance of reality is the only truth, the fountainhead, from which all other decisions and deductions flow.
When one starts to think this through it is not hard to see how obedience to reality and a too-staunch belief in one’s own perception combined with a fundamentally selfish focus on the self might give rise to a person who is, by traditional standards, dreadfully flawed or even evil.
These conflicts and conundrums that arise between the “Self as Moral High Ground” and “Living for the Greater Good” are part and parcel of what makes Ayn Rand’s Objectivist philosophy so contentious, and so appealing.
Ayn Rand was and remains one of the 20th century’s most celebrated, influential and contentious thinkers. Her Objectivist philosophy informs and influences social and economic policy to this very day.
To her adherents and fans, she is a paragon of rationality, a person above the petty emotions and distractedness of common people.
To her opponents and naysayers she’s an avatar of selfishness and self-centeredness that borders on cruel nihilism. As with all such things, the truth lies somewhere in the middle.