Why Ayn Rand? Answers and Some Questions for Discussion

Ayn Rand is in the news. Over the past year there have been more and more references to her views in the media, and a large number of these have been positive or at least respectful. Sales of her books, though always strong, have increased in pace as well. No doubt, this attention is due to a heightening sense by many that the fundamental changes promised by the Obama administration are turning the United States into a European-style social democracy in which active state intervention in the economy will be more the rule than the exception.  Whether this will indeed be the case and whether such a development would be anything more than the inevitable result of over a century’s worth of state intervention (brought about as much by Republicans as Democrats) are matters for debate.  But what is clear is that the thought of Ayn Rand is becoming more prominent.

At one level, the increased attention given to Rand’s views seems to be due to how aptly her account of the destruction of capitalism in Atlas Shrugged captures what has been happening in reality.  Here we find the description of how government and certain businesses work together to create a political/legal order that favors certain groups at the expense of others, destroys economic growth and enterprise, and makes an ever-increasing number of citizens dependent on government for their livelihoods.  In a word, we have a story about how government working with business and labor creates a fascist economic, political, and legal order.

Yet, this alone cannot explain the increased attention given to Rand, for both F. A. Hayek and Ludwig von Mises describe such a development, and while there is increased attention to their works too, it has not been as intense as that given to Rand’s. It would seem that the reason Rand’s views have been thrust into the public square is due to more than economic matters. No doubt, it is because of the moral or ethical dimension of her understanding of the role of government and the nature of capitalism.  This understanding is as follows:

  1. The purpose of government is the protection and implementation of the basic individual rights of life, liberty, and property.  These ethical principles define, sanction, and provide the foundation for liberty as the paramount value for the political/legal order. The sole legitimate purpose of the state is the protection of liberty, and if the state pursues any other ends, then it debases its legitimacy.
  2. Capitalism is neither immoral nor amoral.  Rather, it is, as Rand states, “a social system based on the recognition of individual rights, including property rights, in which all property is privately owned.”

Individual rights are the linchpin of Rand’s political philosophy, and it is in terms of this concept that she understands capitalism.   It provides the ethical ideal by which to measure political orders and economies.  The United States has from its inception fallen short of this ideal, but it has more closely approximated it than any other political/legal order.  Thus, many Americans have a sense that their country is now explicitly rejecting this ethical ideal for another.  So, this is certainly part of the explanation for the resurgence of Rand.

This does not seem to be sufficient, however.  The classical liberal tradition is full of references to individual rights and their importance for politics and the economics.  One has only to think of the works of Frédéric Bastiat, particularly The Law, to find a view of government’s function and a commitment to laissez faire capitalism that is equivalent to Rand’s.   Moreover, Bastiat’s wit and writing style certainly make him as accessible as Rand.  So, again, why Rand?

The next part of the answer seems to be this:  It is for Rand both right and a right for individuals to live for their own sakes.  The moral standard to be followed is for each individual to live as full and as complete a human life as possible. Each individual human being is an end in him- or herself and has no higher moral purpose.  One is certainly not merely a means to the ends of others. This is what Rand meant by speaking of the virtue of “selfishness.” Her purpose in using a term that is normally thought of as a vice to describe her fundamental virtue was to indicate just how profound a paradigm shift is needed in order to defend liberty.  The right to liberty will not long exist in a culture that sees the pursuit of happiness (and by “happiness” she meant something more like human flourishing than merely pleasure) as either unworthy or simply amoral.  Fundamentally, when it comes to culture and the institutions that constitute a social system, homo moralis is what mattered for Rand, not homo economicus.

Rand’s point was not, however, merely a matter of sociology of knowledge.  She argued not only that moral knowledge is in fact possible but that such knowledge is found by an understanding of what human beings are—that is, by an appeal to human nature.  She thus sought to make a deep and profound philosophical claim about the nature of ethics and to link her advocacy of the ideal of liberty to this claim. Individual rights are natural rights. Indeed, Rand can be understood in most general terms as basing her advocacy of natural rights in natural law, if by the latter one understands “law” as meaning the measure and human nature as providing the measure that is the law.  So, what one finds in Rand is (despite her atheism) an echo of an older ethical tradition whose basic note is that human nature grounds the moral order.  This echo rings true, in many ways, to Americans who find themselves lost in the seemingly contradictory norms of political correctness and ethical relativism and who increasingly fear a culture (and politics) of nihilism.

Yet the relevance of Rand does not end here, because it is not merely the existence of a moral order that human beings desire, but something even larger—namely, the existence of an order that is open to human reason, achievement, and flourishing. Rand held that reality is intelligible and that there is nothing in principle which prevents human beings from knowing it.  Moreover, not only can we know reality, we can also use our knowledge to control nature so as to fulfill our needs and achieve our goals.  This world is not a “vale of tears,” but a place in which humans can triumph over poverty, disease, and ignorance. It is a place where human happiness is possible.  There may be no other writer who so fully conveys the sense of triumph that is possible for human life.  For Rand, Prometheus is unbound.  It is in this regard that Rand has a drawing power that may be the most profound of all.

I think, then, that Rand is in the news for these reasons: her ability to note with dramatic force the immorality and hypocrisy of our current political age; her commitment to individual rights; her holding liberty and capitalism inviolate; her rejection of “moral cannibalism” in any form; her advocacy of moral individualism; her recognition of a moral order grounded in human nature; and her realization that reality is not only intelligible but open to possibilities for human achievement far more wondrous than ever realized.  Overall, Rand’s philosophy supports ideas that were once thought to pertain to the very essence of being an American.  This essence is illustrated well by a poem, which I learned over forty-five years ago.  It is known simply as “My Creed.”

I do not choose to be a common man.

It is my right to be uncommon—if I can.

I seek opportunity—not security.

I do not wish to be a kept citizen,

Humbled and dulled by having the state look after me.

I want to take the calculated risk,

To dream and to build, to fail and to succeed.

I refuse to barter incentive for a dole.

I prefer the challenges of life to the guaranteed

existence,

The thrill of fulfillment to the stale calm of utopia.

I will not trade freedom for beneficence

Or my dignity for a handout.

I will never cower before any master

nor bend to any threat.

It is my heritage to stand erect, proud,

And unafraid, to think and act for myself,

Enjoy the benefits of my creations

And to face the world boldly and say, this I have done.

All this is what it means to be an American.

Rand can be viewed as seeking to provide the philosophical foundations for the ideas expressed in this poem.

Despite the power of Rand’s views, they can leave the critical reader in a quandary.  I believe the reason for this was expressed well by Professor John Hospers.  He once described Rand’s philosophical style as being like the broad brush strokes of a painter but without the tiny strokes that make the painting complete.  In other words, Rand’s thought lacks the attention to details, counter-examples, and context that are the hallmarks of the philosopher’s task.  As a result, she leaves many lacunae in her views and room for various interpretations of her basic positions.  Given the increased interest in Rand’s views, as well as her uncompromising defense of liberty, it might be worthwhile, then, to state some questions about Rand’s philosophy that critical readers might wish to ponder.  I will list six sets of questions. It is my hope that these can be used as the basis for discussion.

  1. What is Rand’s justification for individual rights? Does it succeed? What is the function of the concept of rights?  Is it rooted in human flourishing?  If so, how?  Is it a human virtue? Is it a deontological (duty) concept, or is it a different type of ethical norm?  Does Rand have a single justification for rights?  If Rand does not have an adequate argument, does she suggest paths that might be developed?  Or, is there no hope in this regard, and if so, is there any way to justify individual rights?
  2. Is Rand’s account of capitalism accurate?  Is it true to the work-a-day reality that people confront?  In terms similar to those used by Howard Roark in The Fountainhead, do most people have customers in order to create, or do they create in order to have customers?  Does it matter? Does capitalism require a moral backdrop to work, to be understood, to be defended?  Are individual rights the only moral concept required?  What are the differences between Rand’s vision of capitalism and that of Smith’s, Mises’s, or Hayek’s? Does homo moralis really trump homo economicus?
  3. Does Rand succeed in showing that there is moral knowledge?  Does she succeed in showing that human nature is its foundation?  Does she provide a way to derive what is valuable from what is and thus avoid the so-called naturalistic fallacy?  Is she committed to some version of naturalistic teleology (for example, that life is the ultimate end) and is this defensible?  Or, is Rand also committed to the idea that all morality rests on a pre-moral choice to live, and if so, has she really shown that our knowledge of what is can provide guidance as to what we ought to do?
  4. The subtitle of The Virtue of Selfishness is “A New Concept of Egoism.”  Does Rand provide a new concept?  Is it egoism?  In Atlas Shrugged, the standard of moral value is “Man’s Life,” and in The Virtue of Selfishness, it is “man’s survival qua man.”  Are these the same?  Are all the goods and virtues that are involved in living “qua man” merely instrumental values, or are some valuable in themselves?  How are such goods and virtues to be understood? What is the place, if any, for the friendship and charity in Rand’s ethics?  Is it really true that what is objectively good and right for one individual cannot as a matter of principle ever conflict with what is objectively good and right for another individual?  Does Rand fully appreciate the role of individuality when it comes to making moral determinations, and why is there no discussion of the intellectual virtue of practical wisdom? What is the role, if any, of the contingent and the particular in determining what one ought to do? Is there no place for moral pluralism? Is Rand’s ethical individualism really a form of atomism, or does she have a place for sociality in her account of the moral life?  How do Rand’s ethical views compare to those of Aristotle, Aquinas, Hobbes, Smith, Kant, and Nietzsche?
  5. Is the idea of human nature defensible?  In general, can one be realistic about the nature of anything, or does one have to be more pragmatic when it comes to how the world is conceptually divided? Is Rand’s account of human nature defensible?  Does her account of human volition stand up?  Does Rand always maintain a clear distinction between the “concept of X” and “X,” or does she sometimes fall into a rationalism that conflates the tools of human reason with reality?
  6. Is Rand’s view of religion accurate?  Is there no place for the transcendent in human life, and is faith in God simply a form of irrationalism?  Has natural theology truly been dismissed from the realm of rational discussion? What is the proper object of religious worship? Is there no place for tragedy in a realistic account of the world?  Is philosophy as close to reality as Rand seems to think?

As said, I offer these questions as the basis for discussion.  I make no pretense that they are exhaustive, but they are the sorts of questions regarding Rand that I have thought about for years.  This should be enough to get the ball rolling, so to speak.

Before I close these remarks, I want to note what my colleague, Douglas J. Den Uyl, has observed regarding Rand’s view of the connection between philosophy and reality.

As philosophers have known since antiquity, what moves the world may not map exactly onto the rarified and subtle nuances of thought suitable to philosophical truth.   This asymmetry is, for the most part, denied by Rand.  But the truth is that it manifests itself either by issuing in a state of persistent pessimism about the world around one, or in a small but deep sense of “tragedy” that the path from philosophic principle to practical action is a long, twisted, and obstacle ridden one with no smoother alternative.  I, for one, find the “tragic” path more conducive to the enjoyment of living, but its danger is a pessimism (or equally problematic, an enthusiasm) that comes from trying to obliterate the distance between philosophy and life.

I think that Rand lost sight at times (both in her work and life) of the distance between thought and reality.  I think this causes her no end of troubles on certain occasions (for example, when she attempted to provide an account of an “objective” theory of the moral good in “What is Capitalism?” in Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal), but I do not think that it is an overwhelming problem. The answer is to be found in observing the appropriate mean:  we are not cut off from reality; happiness is possible.  But the road we travel is not easy and nothing is guaranteed.  We must always keep in mind the distance between thought and reality if we are to triumph.

Not only do I think these observations are important for individuals in facing the challenges of their lives, but also for all who seek to defend liberty.  We live in a most trying time, and we are called upon to discover what is true and defend it with all of our abilities.  The truth behind liberty will ultimately prevail, but this may not happen in our lifetimes. Even if we were to succeed in our defense of liberty, nothing would be guaranteed.  Our work would need to continue.  Such is the human condition.  So, if there is any single reason for why Rand’s views should be worthy of the attention they are currently receiving, it is this: philosophical principles matter, and persons and cultures that ignore them do so at their peril.  This is the basis for the continued appeal of Atlas Shrugged, for there she pointed out more vividly than anyone else in our time what happens when the right principles are subverted and the wrong ones take their place.

Postscript:

I have over these years worked not only with such philosophers as Hospers and Den Uyl, but also Tibor Machan, Eric Mack, Fred Miller, Aeon Skoble, and many others, and so I think I can say fairly that there has been much philosophical progress in developing, expanding, and improving upon the insights of Rand.   Moreover, there has been the creation of the Ayn Rand Society, which has been meeting at the American Philosophical Association for more than twenty years, as well as the Journal of Ayn Rand Studies (edited by Chris Sciabarra), which is devoted to a careful and no holds barred analysis of her thought.  Rand’s thought thus is part of the current intellectual scene, and so it is altogether proper to assess her views at this time. I say this not because I see Rand as the ending point for discussion but as a starting point.  Finally, it is possible to advance liberty and defend individual rights in a manner different from Rand’s, as the works of Robert Nozick, Loren Lomasky, Jan Narveson, and David Schmidtz attest, and thus there is nothing in this proposed discussion that should be taken to deny the importance of their works.

Two final matters:  “My Creed” was written by Dean Alfange, and I would like to thank Will Wilkinson and Cato for this opportunity as well as Douglas Den Uyl, Aeon Skoble, and Roger Bissell for their helpful suggestions.

Douglas B. Rasmussen is professor of philosophy at St. John’s University in New York City.

Also from This Issue

Response Essays

  • The Winnowing of Ayn Rand by Roderick T. Long

    In his reply to Rasmussen’s lead essay, Auburn University philosopher Roderick Long sets out to sort the wheat from the chaff in Ayn Rand’s moral and political thought. Long maintains that “Rand sets out to found a classical liberal conception of politics … upon a classical Greek conception of human nature and the human good,” and he goes on to defend the plausibility of this project. In particular, Long stands up for Rand’s reliance on a naturalistic teleology to ground her neo-Aristotlean ethic theory, pointing to contemporary philosophical work that supports Rand’s view. Long is less happy with Rand’s political thought and criticizes her ideas of the “pyramid of ability” and of big business as a “persecuted minority.” Long credits Rand for her trenchant analysis of corporatism, but argues that she was mistaken to deny that corporatism and capitalism go hand in hand. According to Long, Rand’s ideal of voluntary interaction not only implies a radical departure from historical capitalism, but also a more thoroughly anti-statist social order.

  • Why Ayn Rand? Some Alternate Answers by Michael Huemer

    University of Colorado philosopher Michael Huemer takes up Douglas Rasmussen’s question of why there is such intense interest in Ayn Rand and answers that Rand, unlike Mises or Bastiat, “was not only a philosopher, but a compelling novelist.” However gripping her novels, Huemer is not impressed with Rand’s moral philosophy. “The theory of ‘The Objectivist Ethics’,” Huemer writes, “is simultaneously the most distinctive and the least plausible, worst defended of all of Rand’s major ideas.” Huemer argues that there is a glaring conflict between Rand’s ethical egoism and her case for individual rights: “I cannot hold my own well-being as the only end in itself, and simultaneously say that I recognize other persons as ends in themselves too.” Huemer recommends discarding Rand’s egoism and setting her ban of the initiation of force and fraud on a more plausible foundation.

  • Ayn Rand’s Significance: A Reply to Douglas Rasmussen by Neera K. Badhwar

    University of Oklahoma philosopher Neera K. Badhwar attributes the ongoing currency of Ayn Rand’s ideas to the persisting appeal of her novels. “In Rand’s fiction,” Badhwar writes, “we witness the tragedy of Prometheus bound and the triumph of Prometheus unbound. No purely theoretical work can show this.” When it comes to Rand’s theoretical work, Badhwar’s assessment is mixed. She notes that Rand’s ethical theory presents both long-term biological survival and survival “as a rational, and thus, viruous being” as the standard of moral action. However, Badhwar argues, “there is no coherent way to show that to survive long-term is to survive qua man is to achieve eudaimonia.” Rand depicts virtue in her fiction “as a shield against misery even in the worst of misfortunes,” and vice “as causing psychological turmoil.” But, Badhwar observes, virtue doesn’t always pay and vice doesn’t always exact a terrible price. Badhwar also disputes Rand’s belief in the unity of the virtues and the possibility of moral perfection and argues that “virtues such as kindness, charity, and forgiveness are much more important in human life than Rand grants.” Last, Badhwar takes up Rand’s idea that “the creator should not pander to debased or immoral desires,” and suggests a more moderate version of this view.

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