The Winnowing of Ayn Rand

Like many others, I discovered Ayn Rand around the age of 15; her writings were my introduction to the field of philosophy, thereby setting me on the path to my present career. And while my views over the years have increasingly diverged from hers in numerous details, the fact that I remain an Aristotelian in philosophy and a libertarian in politics surely bears the impress of her influence.

I find myself in general agreement both with Doug Rasmussen’s explanation of the reasons for Rand’s enduring and growing popularity, and with his characterization of Rand’s work as on the one hand (contrary to her detractors) inspiring and philosophically insightful at the big-picture level, while on the other hand (contrary to many of her adulators) sometimes careless at the level of “details, counter-examples, and context.” As I’ve written elsewhere, she “imagined (and was encouraged by her followers to imagine) that she had worked out an engineer’s meticulous blueprint when much of what she had done was only an impressionist’s sketch.”

I don’t mean to imply by this latter remark that Rand was a philosophical lightweight, however. On the contrary: she developed independently, for example, many of the criticisms that philosophers like Saul Kripke and Hilary Putnam were beginning to raise against conventionalist theories of reference and necessity — criticisms that in their more familiar form are widely regarded as among academic philosophy’s most significant achievements of the past fifty years. (This is an example of a Randian outlook that was “contrarian” at the time she developed it but has since become part of the philosophical mainstream; her championing of a broadly Aristotelian approach to ethics is another.) If she lacked the patience to follow up her achievements with a rigorous working out of the details, that doesn’t make those achievements any less genuine in their own right. Rand was generally contemptuous of mainstream academic philosophy, which has largely returned the favor; but for the most part, neither side had a very clear understanding of what it was rejecting.

The questions that Rasmussen raises for discussion are well chosen; in what follows I try to address, inadequately, a few of them.

Egoism and Rights

Rand sets out to found a classical liberal conception of politics (including strong individual rights to negative liberty) upon a classical Greek conception of human nature and the human good. Such a project is not unprecedented; one can find broadly similar syntheses in thinkers as diverse as the Salamanca Scholastics, John Locke, and John Stuart Mill. But Rand, in addition to having little use for the various theoretical frameworks in which these earlier efforts were embedded, adds to her ethics a spirit of heroic exaltation drawn from Nietzsche and the French romantics.

Classical liberalism’s “thin” conception of politics is often thought to be at odds with the Greeks’ “thick” conception of ethics. If there is an objectively best way of life, or at any rate a family of best ways, then why should we value, as liberals do, the freedom to choose ways of life that are not the best?

Rand offers two answers. One is that being self-directed is an essential part of the good life, so that a way of life forced on someone from without no longer counts as best. But her other and more characteristic answer appeals less to the welfare of the potentially coerced and more to that of the potential coercer; to deal with others by force rather than persuasion is to betray one’s own nature as a rational being, and thus to make not only one’s victim but oneself worse off. (Rand here embodies what Douglas Den Uyl has called the “supply-side” aspect of Greek ethics.)

Central to Rand’s ethics is the idea that the nature of our self-interest is something that has to be discovered on the basis a consideration of our nature as rational beings, not something that we can simply read off our desires. Rand’s delineation of the content of our self-interest includes, crucially, both the thesis that there can be no genuine conflict between self-interest and morality, and the closely related thesis that there can be no genuine conflict between one person’s self-interest and another’s. [1]   These claims may strike many today as implausible — one of Rand’s recent biographers calls the second thesis “eccentric” — but they were shared by nearly every major thinker in the first two thousand years of moral philosophy, from Socrates, Plato, and Rand’s beloved Aristotle, through the Stoics and Epicureans, and onward through Cicero to the aforementioned Scholastics. [2]

But what, in Rand’s view, connects our self-interest with the moral claims of others? For most of Rand’s aforementioned “eudaimonist” predecessors, the requirements of moral virtue were conceived as a constitutive part of the agent’s own interest; the Epicureans were the only major dissidents, regarding virtue instead as an instrumental strategy for attaining this interest (rather like Hobbes, in a way, though the Epicureans are surely closer to the main line of eudaimonism than Hobbes is). Rand appears to waver between these two approaches, treating the individual’s ultimate good sometimes as a robust human flourishing that has virtue as a component, and sometimes as mere survival to which virtue is only an external means. [3]

The constitutive approach predominates in her novels; the chief reason that Rand’s fictional protagonists (such as architect Howard Roark in The Fountainhead or railroad executive Dagny Taggart in Atlas Shrugged) do not cheat their customers, for example, is pretty clearly that they would regard such parasitism on the productive efforts of others as directly inconsistent with the nobility and independence of spirit that they cherish for themselves, and not because they’re hoping that a policy of honesty will maximize their chances of longevity. Like Aristotle, who preferred “a twelvemonth of noble life to many years of humdrum existence,” they evidently value quality of life over mere quantity. But as Rand began to work out — first in the lengthy “Galt’s Speech” near the end of Atlas Shrugged, and subsequently in a series of nonfiction essays and private seminars — a more elaborate set of theoretical underpinnings for the moral vision she’d presented in her fiction, her emphasis began to shift, though never unequivocally, to the instrumental reading. [4]

So when Rasmussen asks (in parts of his first and fourth sets of questions) whether and how Rand succeeds, or points the way toward success, in grounding respect for others’ rights in the agent’s own flourishing, I think the answer depends on whether one focuses on the instrumental or on the constitutive strand. The fatal weakness of the instrumental approach, as I see it, is that regarding the moral virtues as mere strategies for advancing one’s chances of survival makes it difficult to justify the kind of principled commitment to virtue that Rand seeks to defend. Working for a living, even at a hated job, is ordinarily a better strategy for survival than looking for discarded lottery tickets in the gutter; but if I happen to spot a winning ticket there, I have no reason not to take advantage of it. Yet it would be awkward if the superiority of honesty over dishonesty were similarly contingent on circumstances. (This is essentially the objection that Plato raises against the instrumental approach in book 2 of the Republic.) By contrast, the constitutive approach avoids this problem; when the means is an essential part of the end, the risk of cases arising where one can achieve the end by a different and incompatible means drops to zero. I regard the constitutive strand in Rand’s ethical writings both as more defensible in its own right (robust human flourishing is a goal we can make sense of for ourselves; bare survival isn’t) and as a valuable, though not necessarily complete, guide to the grounding of the other-regarding virtues, including (though not limited to) respect for individual rights. [5]

Teleology: The Living End

Among Rasmussen’s third set of questions is whether Rand’s apparent reliance on a naturalistic teleology to ground her ethics is defensible. Let me sharpen this question a bit further.

There are, broadly, three salient positions one might take on the relationship between teleological and evolutionary conceptions of biology. First, one might regard them as mutually incompatible; this position is taken both by those proponents of evolution who regard Darwin’s theory of natural selection as having debunked teleology, and by those creationists who think the obviousness of teleology in the natural world debunks evolution. (This option is especially attractive to those who think of teleology as necessarily involving purpose.) Second, one might on the contrary regard Darwinian evolution as vindicating teleology by providing a mechanism for it; notably, this was Darwin’s own view.[6]

Finally, one might regard teleology as compatible with Darwinian evolution without being grounded in it; this seems to be Rand’s own approach, since on the one hand she (like Aristotle) regards natural teleology as non-purposive and unconnected with any notion of “intelligent design,” while on the other hand she (again like Aristotle) identifies teleological traits in terms of their role in the organism’s current life-activity rather than in terms of the traits’ historical emergence. [7]   If the question is whether this sort of teleology is defensible, I would point, in defense of an affirmative answer, to the compelling recent work of such mainstream (i.e. non-Randian) philosophers as Paul Sheldon Davies (Norms of Nature: Naturalism and the Nature of Functions), Michael Thompson (Life and Action: Elementary Structures of Practice and Practical Thought), and Philippa Foot (Natural Goodness). I would add that the considerations raised by Thompson and Foot seem more promising as a basis for a Randian-style ethic (in its constitutive strand, at least) than those raised by Davies.

As for whether the Randian approach successfully crosses the fact-value gap, I would say that identifying X as good for some organism is safely on the “factual,” value-neutral side of the ledger. (A shark’s eating me may be good for the shark, but my recognition of that fact doesn’t, absent further argument, give me any reason to endorse the shark’s doing so.) But once I recognize not only that X is good for some organism, but that I am the organism in question, it’s hard to see how I could reasonably continue to take a value-neutral attitude toward X.

Another issue on which Rand wavers, however, is whether the value to me of my biologically given goals depends on a further “choice to live” –another topic raised by Rasmussen in his third question. Rand seems to say yes, insisting that liability to moral assessment depends on this premoral choice; yet her obvious contempt for those who would choose not to live suggests that moral assessment must apply to this choice too. A genuinely Aristotelian approach to ethics would seem to favor the later option.

Capitalism as an Unknown Ideal

Foremost among Rasmussen’s second set of questions is whether Rand’s “account of capitalism” is “true to the work-a-day reality that people confront.” Here I think the right answer is: no, not at all. But how much of a problem that is for Rand depends in part on which meaning of “capitalism” one goes by, and thus on the extent to which our work-a-day reality is to be identified with capitalism in the first place.

Rand describes a “pyramid of ability” operating within capitalism, wherein the dull masses are carried along by the intelligent and enterprising few. “The man at the top,” Rand assures us, “contributes the most to all those below him,” while the “man at the bottom who, left to himself, would starve in his hopeless ineptitude, contributes nothing to those above him, but receives the bonus of all of their brains.” Rand doesn’t say that the top and the bottom always correspond to employers and employees respectively, but she clearly takes that to be the usual situation. And that simply does not correspond with the reality of most people’s everyday experience.

If you’ve spent any time at all in the business world, you’ve almost certainly discovered that the reality on the ground resembles the comic-strip Dilbert a lot more than it resembles Rand’s pyramid of ability. In Kevin Carson’s words: as in government, so likewise in business, the “people who regulate what you do, in most cases, know less about what you’re doing than you do,” and businesses generally get things done only to the extent that “rules imposed by people not directly involved in the situation” are treated as “an obstacle to be routed around by the people actually doing the work.” To a considerable extent, then, in the real world we see the people at the “bottom” carrying the people at the “top” rather than vice versa.

Rand’s notorious reference to big business as a “persecuted minority” (Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, ch. 3) likewise jars with our real-world experience of “capitalism,” as we see the corporate elite lining up for tax-funded subsidies, protectionist regulations, bailouts, mandates, monopoly contracts, war profits, eminent domain giveaways, and other state-granted privileges.

Rand was not unaware of any of this, of course; on the contrary, she sharply condemns “men with political pull” who seek “special advantages by government action in their own countries” and “special markets by government action abroad,” and so “acquire fortunes by government favor … which they could not have acquired on a free market.” [8] Likewise, while readers often come away from Atlas Shrugged with the vague memory that Dagny Taggart was fighting against villainous bureaucrats who wanted to impose unfair regulations on her railroad company, in fact Taggart’s struggle is mostly against villainous bureaucrats who want to give her company special favors and privileges at its competitors’ expense. Moreover, most of the workplaces depicted in her novels are run by vain and incompetent bosses (like James Taggart in Atlas Shrugged or Guy Francon in The Fountainhead) who have to be continually flattered or outwitted by their subordinates.

Rand would deny, of course, that these are problems with capitalism. Government favors to business are directly incompatible with capitalism as she understands it, while incompetent and tyrannical bosses would be unlikely to thrive in a genuinely competitive market.

Yet as I read Rand, she once again wavers — this time between two conceptions of capitalism. On the one hand, she defines capitalism as “full, pure, uncontrolled, unregulated laissez-faire” in which “all human relationships are voluntary” — thus identifying capitalism as a 100% libertarian social system which by her own admission seems never to have existed in history. (Call this ideal capitalism.) Yet on the other hand she describes capitalism as a historical reality, saying for example that it “has created the highest standard of living ever known on earth.” (Call this historical capitalism.) How can capitalism have had all these wonderful results if capitalism has never existed? [9]

Rand’s answer, evidently, is that historical capitalism has been at least an approximation to ideal capitalism. But there is reason to doubt that this is so. Rasmussen speaks of the “heightening sense by many” that the current Democratic administration is ushering in a state of affairs in which “active state intervention in the economy will be more the rule than the exception”; but such intervention — usually on behalf of business interests — has arguably already been the rule for some time, with the present regime representing more a shuffling of the details than a major step toward greater statism.

Nor do we find a laissez-faire utopia when we turn to 19th century America; even if we set aside, as we shouldn’t, the fact that women and nonwhites –i.e. a majority of the population — were largely excluded from participation in the market, that market was heavily burdened by tariffs, banking regulations, monetary monopolies, postal monopolies, corporate subsidies, licensure laws, land seizures, cartelization schemes, censorship laws, anti-union laws, and Hamiltonian “internal improvements.”

Of course I don’t mean to deny that the United States and other countries generally identified as “capitalist” generally owe their prosperity to their free-market elements rather than to their statist and corporatist elements; but from a radical libertarian perspective that’s a bit like saying that the seriously ill owe what vitality they have to the respects in which they are not diseased.

The magnitude of the gap between corporatist reality and the free-market ideal was the subject of a previous Cato Unbound symposium in which I participated, so I won’t go into more detail now. But if that gap is greater than Rand assumed, then the use of a single term, “capitalism,” to cover both may be inadvisable. [10]  More substantively, if Rand indeed underestimated the magnitude of the gap, then her defense of ideal capitalism may not translate as readily as she thought into a justification of various features of historical capitalism. [11]   How much of her vision of titans of industry heroically striding across the economic landscape, their pyramid-shaped companies of the less-talented dangling from their pockets like watch fobs, is an artefact of competition-strangling regulations that prevent the flattening of corporate structures, the proliferation of small businesses, and the emergence of workers’ cooperatives?

A related concern about Rand’s vision of a “capitalist” society is the role she envisions for government: that it should be confined solely to the protection of rights, and “resort to force only against those who start the use of force.” In effect, Rand proposes to assign the job of rights-protection to a coercive monopoly insulated from competition, with all the informational and incentival perversities to which such monopolies are subject — and then demands that it not act like a monopoly. Rand described anarchism as a floating abstraction, but the charge might more justly be leveled against “limited government.” [12]   (Ironically, one of the central messages of Atlas Shrugged — that the way to defeat an oppressive regime is not through violent revolution but through the mass withdrawal of consent — represents a distinctively anarchist approach to political strategy.)

Liberty In Context

Finally, another question from Rasmussen’s second set is whether, as Rand held, a genuinely free society requires “a moral backdrop to work, to be understood, to be defended.” I would certainly agree that the defense of liberty needs to invoke moral and cultural values beyond the libertarian nonaggression principle alone. For one thing, politics and culture form an interlocking system, with each influencing and reinforcing the other — so we can hardly expect to achieve or maintain liberty while leaving the other elements in the system unaddressed. For another, there are values that, though not entailed by the nonaggression principle itself, are entailed by the best reasons for adopting that principle, so that one could not reasonably embrace that principle while rejecting the associated values. Hence Rand was right to insist that the struggle for liberty must be a cultural as well as a political struggle. [13]

This is not to say that all of the values that Rand championed are well-suited to that struggle; those values included both enlightened attitudes and reactionary ones, mixed together. Moreover, Rand overstated the extent to which the highly specific set of values she defended was crucial to the cause of liberty. Yet while a free society need not require a specific set of cultural values (and might well require the reverse), it seems obvious that liberty is likely to fare better in some contexts than in others, and indeed that some contexts, while not technically inconsistent with libertarianism, are very likely to undermine it in practice. Thus even if there is no one cultural model that a free society must follow, it’s reasonable to suppose that there is some (broad, but not infinite) range within which the prevailing cultural forms in a society must fall if a society is to remain free. In short, we need a combination of generic universalism with specific pluralism. Rand’s commitment to rationality and ethical individualism will surely be included under that generic universalism, even if many of her more specific doctrines will not.

Roderick T. Long is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Auburn University


[1] Incidentally, Rand’s rejection of a conflictual model of human interests suggests that she may have blundered in choosing the term “selfishness” to describe her ethical perspective; for what “selfishness” ordinarily means is not merely dedication to one’s own interests, but dedication to one’s own interests at the expense of the interests of others. Thus the concept of “selfishness” is at home only within a conflictual model of interests. For someone like Rand, who denies that one can achieve one’s own interests by sacrificing those of others, it might perhaps be better to speak, not of the “virtue of selfishness,” but of the impossibility of selfishness. (The term “egoism” does not seem problematic to the same extent.)

[2] For a contemporary exposition of this “eudaimonist” perspective, see Julia Annas’s recent article “Happiness As Achievement.

[3] See also Eric Mack’s argument (“Problematic Arguments in Randian Ethics,” Journal of Ayn Rand Studies 5.1 (Fall 2003), pp. 1-66) that Rand likewise wavers over the closely related question of whether the connection between self-interest and morality is conceptual or causal.

[4] This interpretation is controversial; for an ingenious argument (though I remain unconvinced) for the ultimate compatibility of the constitutive and instrumental approaches in Rand, see Robert Bidinotto’s “Survive or Flourish? A Reconciliation.”

[5] For further defense of the constitutive approach, see Neera K. Badhwar’s Is Virtue Only a Means to Happiness? An Analysis of Virtue and Happiness in Ayn Rand’s Writings and my own Reason and Value: Aristotle versus Rand.

I take Rasmussen’s own position, as defended in such works as Liberty and Nature and Norms of Liberty, to be that the function of rights is to guide society-wide legislation rather than to guide personal conduct; my worry about this approach is that it threatens to leave the individual with only instrumental reasons to care about anyone’s rights but her own.

[6] James G. Lennox, “Darwin Was a Teleologist,” Biology and Philosophy 8.4 (Oct. 1993): 409-421. For a contemporary defense of the same view, see Ruth G. Millikan’s Language, Thought, and Other Biological Categories.

[7] Harry Binswanger’s The Biological Basis of Teleological Concepts, itself intended in part as a defense of Rand’s ethical foundations, seems to combine the second and third approaches.

Incidentally, and interestingly, Rand is to some degree indirectly responsible for the resurgence of interest in Aristotle’s biology within mainstream academic philosophy; Allan Gotthelf and James Lennox, two of the leading authorities within the study of Aristotelean biology (see their studies Philosophical Issues in Aristotle’s Biology, Aristotle on Nature and Living Things, and Aristotle’s Philosophy of Biology), both come from a background in Randian scholarship.

[8] “The Roots of War,” Capitalism, pp. 35-44. Moreover, as Rasmussen notes, the form of political oppression against which Atlas Shrugged prophetically warns, and which Rand generally saw as the chief danger facing the United States, was not socialism but rather a fascist-style government-business partnership promoted, in her view, by both left and right. (See, e.g., “The Presidential Candidates, 1968,” Objectivist 7.6 (1968); “The Fascist New Frontier,” Ayn Rand Column, 2nd ed., ch. 28; “The New Fascism: Rule by Consensus,” Capitalism, ch. 20; and “The Moratorium On Brains, Part II,” Ayn Rand Letter 1.3 (7 Nov. 1971).)

[9] As Chris Sciabarra asks: if concepts, according to Rand’s theory, are supposed to have “existential referents,” where is the existential referent for capitalism? “Despite Rand’s affection for the American, republican form of government, her own vision is less a description of historical reality than it is the projection of an ideal that has yet to be realized. … But if Rand’s ideal is anticipatory, then how can she claim validity for such a concept when it has no legitimate past or current referents? In actuality, Rand creates an ‘ideal-type’ by abstracting liberal referents from historical states, while disregarding nonliberal factors that have been internal to every state in history. For Rand, such concepts as ‘government’ and ‘capitalism’ are socially transformative; their ‘ideal’ character is latent in currently distorted social forms. … Rand’s voluntary political association remains an unknown ideal.” (Chris Matthew Sciabarra, Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical, p. 283.)

For further discussion of how to make sense of a term like “capitalism” within the context of Rand’s theory of word meaning, see my “Praxeology: Who Need It,” Journal of Ayn Rand Studies 6.2 (Spring 2005): 299-316.

[10] There’s an ongoing dispute among libertarians over the meaning of “capitalism.” While most libertarians use the term to refer to a free market, a growing minority (examples include Kevin Carson, Gary Chartier, Charles Johnson, Sheldon Richman, and Brad Spangler) tend to reserve “capitalism” for the corporatist status quo, favoring “socialism” for the free-market alternative; still others (such as Steve Horwitz and myself) lean toward avoiding the terms “capitalism” and “socialism” altogether.

[11] Certainly Rand’s defense of individual business figures like J. P. Morgan seems to rest on underestimating the extent of the gap; for details, see pp. 321-25 of my article “Toward a Libertarian Theory of Class,” Social Philosophy & Policy 15 no. 1 (1998), pp. 303-349 (online here and here).

[12] For analysis of free-market anarchism, see Edward Stringham, ed., Anarchy and the Law: The Political Economy of Choice, and Roderick Long and Tibor Machan, eds., Anarchism/Minarchism: Is a Government Part of a Free Country?.

[13] For the relations between libertarian principle and broader cultural values, see Chris Matthew Sciabarra, “Dialectics and Liberty,” and Charles Johnson, “Libertarianism Through Thick and Thin.”

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • In this month’s lead essay, St. Johns University philosopher Douglas B. Rasmussen notes that Ayn Rand is all the rage. But why not Hayek or other free-market thinkers? Why Rand? Rasmussen submits that it comes down to “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.” But is the philosophy underpinning this envigorating picture coherent? Rasmussen offers for discussion a series of tough questions, ranging from Rand’s account of individual rights to her views of religion.

Response Essays

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.