Why Ayn Rand? Some Alternate Answers

What accounts for the continuing and increasing interest in the work of Ayn Rand? Clearly, the attraction of her ideas has much to do with it. This is true despite the fact that most people, even in America, are probably hostile to most of her philosophy. In a capitalist society, one need not please a majority in order to be successful; one need only find a market niche. There are enough individualists and libertarians in America to provide a strong market for Rand’s message.

Recent political developments have clearly contributed to interest in her political philosophy. But recent events do not change the actual relevance of Rand’s ideas, political or otherwise. The election of Barack Obama, for instance, changes little. There have been left-wing democrats for a long time, and there have been calls to socialize medicine for decades. The principles of individual rights are exactly as true as they have been throughout human history, and the nature of the opposition to those principles has changed little in the past few decades.

Contrary to the impression one might get from listening to “tea party” enthusiasts, things are probably getting better, from an individualist’s standpoint, in the medium to long term (on the scale of decades and centuries). A few centuries ago, “the divine right of kings” was taken seriously as a theory of political authority, and slavery was widely practiced. A century ago, half of the adult population of the United States could not vote. Half a century ago, that same half of the population was effectively barred, by collectivist cultural biases, from most professions, while individuals of African ancestry were segregated, both by law and by custom, from the white population. Ayn Rand characterized racism as “the lowest, most crudely primitive form of collectivism.”[1]  This crudest form of collectivism was not long ago embraced, explicitly and shamelessly, throughout American society. Of course, it is hardly gone today (new forms have arisen lately, such as that of ascribing collective guilt to light-skinned individuals), but who could deny that racism has passed its peak? And just a quarter century ago, the human race was still threatened by the Soviet Union, which sought to spread Marxist communism across the globe. Like racism, communism has not disappeared from the Earth entirely, but it has certainly had its time. All of this suggests to me that the perennial interest in Ayn Rand’s work has more to do with a trend toward individualism than with a reaction to collectivist trends.

This does not answer the question, which Professor Rasmussen has raised, of why Rand attracts more attention than other defenders of liberty, such as Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich Hayek, or Frederic Bastiat. Here I must differ with Rasmussen. I don’t believe Bastiat, or any other of the well-known defenders of liberty, is nearly as accessible to a modern reader as Rand. Rand, I believe, is the most compelling writer of the group. More importantly, Rand was not only a philosopher, but a compelling novelist.

Some followers of Rand may scoff at this explanation. “No, it is all down to her philosophical ideas,” they may say. “Rand’s works outsell those of von Mises because she has a coherent, comprehensive philosophy!” I think Rasmussen’s suggestion is somewhere in this region as well—that Rand’s greater popularity is due to her connecting libertarian political philosophy with comprehensive ethical and meta-ethical theories. Let us consider the evidence. Atlas Shrugged outsells Human Action by a wide margin. As of this writing, the Amazon sales ranks are 101 and 16,331, respectively.[2] (Admittedly a limited measure, but still interesting.) But Atlas also outsells Rand’s own non-fiction books, by similarly wide margins. The Virtue of Selfishness trails at 11,993, with Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology all the way down at 120,117.[3] If the greater market success of Rand as compared with von Mises were due to Rand’s broader philosophy, wouldn’t we see this reflected in sales of Rand’s non-fiction works, in which she explicitly develops that philosophy?

The data fit another hypothesis: that the novel is a far more accessible and popular vehicle for communicating ideas than the monograph. The lesson for defenders of freedom seems clear. We need more novelists, screenwriters, and other artists.

But let us leave aside the matter of Rand’s literary success. What is the best way to defend freedom intellectually? Is it, as Rand believed, to connect the philosophy of individual rights to a version of ethical egoism, which in turn derives from the metaethical theory presented by Rand in “The Objectivist Ethics”?[4] I don’t think so. Objectivists seem to find that essay completely convincing. But hardly anyone else finds it at all convincing. This is not a trivial observation—one often finds that people who do not accept a whole philosophical system nevertheless find certain parts of it plausible. And one often finds that people who are not ultimately persuaded by an argument nevertheless see some plausibility in it. But neither of these things is true of the argument of “The Objectivist Ethics”—hardly anyone finds that argument even slightly plausible, unless they also buy into virtually all of Ayn Rand’s views. This is not true of most of her other views: one would not be surprised to find a non-Objectivist who nevertheless thinks Rand’s political views are reasonable, or her epistemological views, or her aesthetic theories. The explanation is simple: the theory of “The Objectivist Ethics” is simultaneously the most distinctive and the least plausible, worst defended of all of Rand’s major ideas. (Here is a nicer way to say that: all of Rand’s other major theories are more plausible and better defended than that one.) I do not have space to detail the flaws in the article here; they require more lengthy discussion.[5] For now, just take as a sociological observation that few find the theory of that article plausible, even after reading the article.

There are two major reasons why the best hope for political freedom is not to connect it ideologically with Rand’s ethical and metaethical theories. The first is that those theories are utterly unconvincing to almost everyone—even less convincing than libertarianism. Connecting the two together serves only to discredit the cause of freedom and individual rights. It plays into the hands of those who say that the only opposition to socialism derives from greed and selfishness.

The second major reason is that ethical egoism does not support the philosophy of individual rights in the first place. Quite the opposite. Take Rasmussen’s statement of the basic individualist premise: “Each individual human being is an end in him‑ or herself … not merely a means to the ends of others.” This is a very common idea in classical liberal writings. Nearly identical statements appear in Rand, in Nozick, and of course in Kant.[6] It is also, pace Rand, directly and obviously contrary to ethical egoism. For ethical egoism posits that the only thing that ought to matter intrinsically to me is my own welfare—for me, my own welfare or happiness is the only end in itself. It follows from this that I ought not to regard other individuals as ends in themselves; rather, I should see them only as means to my happiness—just as I see everything else in the world. This is a very simple and straightforward implication of the theory. 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.

One might say that each person is an end in himself only for himself—maybe the statement “Every individual is an end in himself, not a mere means to the ends of others” means only that each person should treat himself (but not anyone else) as an end in himself, and that no one should see himself as a means to the ends of others (but one should see everyone else as a means to one’s own ends). But this bizarre interpretation of the principle not only robs it of any intuitive plausibility; it also renders obscure its use in defending individual rights. The more straightforward interpretation of the individualist premise is that I must recognize other individuals as ends in themselves, not mere means to my ends. The straightforward argument for respecting individual rights is that when one violates another person’s rights, one uses that person without his consent, and one thus treats that person as if he were a mere means to one’s own ends. That argument, of course, could not be advanced by a true egoist, who must hold that it is obligatory to treat other persons (and everything else) as mere means to one’s own welfare.

At this point, most Objectivists fall back on the contention that, luckily, it is impossible for rational people’s interests to conflict. More particularly, that although it would be praiseworthy to use others for one’s own advantage if one should get the chance, opportunities are peculiarly scarce, so much so that there has never (or almost never) been a case in which anyone would have benefited by violating another person’s rights (for instance, by initiating the use of force against another). It would be truly wonderful if this could be proven. But actual arguments for this claim are unsurprisingly hard to come by, and it remains unclear why anyone would accept the claim, apart from a drive to reconcile Rand’s ethics with her politics. This issue has, of course, been discussed at great length among supporters and critics of Rand, and I have nothing especially new to add. I shall simply record my judgment that defenders of liberty are far more likely to convince others of the need to respect individual rights through the straightforward “persons are ends in themselves” argument mentioned above, than through an argument that relies upon (a) first convincing the audience that the right action is always the most selfish action, and (b) then convincing the audience that it is impossible to benefit from violating someone else’s rights.

It should be clear from this what I think remains alive in Rand’s political and moral thought, and what I think must be discarded. Her key insight is the principle of individual rights, that persons exist as ends in themselves, not mere resources for others to use, and that because of this, individuals may not initiate the use of force or fraud against one another. Rand saw clearly that this entails that capitalism is the only just economic system. Where she went wrong was in thinking that these crucial insights rested on an egoistic foundation.

Michael Huemer is an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Colorado and author of Ethical Intuitionism.


[1] The Virtue of Selfishness (New York: Signet, 1964), paperback ed., p. 126.

[2] Source: www.amazon.com, January 14, 2010. Statistics are for the paperback edition of Atlas Shrugged (Plume, 1999), and the paperback edition of Human Action (Liberty Fund, 2010)—the most popular editions of each book. Amazon sales rank statistics vary widely from day to day. Nevertheless, the qualitative points here are fairly stable.

[3] From www.amazon.com, January 14, 2010. Statistics are for the Signet 1964 paperback edition of Virtue of Selfishness and the Plume 1990 paperback edition of Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology (again, the most popular editions of these books).

[4] pp. 13-35 in The Virtue of Selfishness, op. cit.

[5] See my “Is Benevolent Egoism Coherent?”, Journal of Ayn Rand Studies 3 (2002): 259-88; “Why I Am Not an Objectivist,” especially section 5 <home.sprynet.com/~owl1/rand.htm#5>; and especially “Critique of ‘The Objectivist Ethics’”, <home.sprynet.com/~owl1/rand5.htm>. One caveat: based on my experience, committed Objectivists will not find any of this at all convincing. But just about everyone else will.

[6] Ayn Rand, The Virtue of Selfishness, op. cit., p. 27; Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia (New York: Basic Books, 1974), pp. 30-31; Immanuel Kant, Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals, <http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/5682/pg5682.html&gt;, section 2.

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.