Ayn Rand’s Significance: A Reply to Douglas Rasmussen

I agree with the reasons Douglas Rasmussen gives to explain Rand’s popularity these days:

… 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 I also think that she would not be any more in the news than Mises, Hayek, or Bastiat if she had not expressed these ideas in fiction, especially Atlas Shrugged. Her fiction shows us moral, political, and economic principles at work in the lives of individuals and societies in the context of intricate and exciting plots. It thus appeals not only to our reasoning capacities, but also to our imaginative and emotional capacities. The daily spectacle of special pleading, pretense, and outright lying of politicians and the special interests who throng the public trough for a free feed is presented to us by the media in the tone of the unremarkable, the normal. Rand’s fiction highlights the moral meaning of such phenomena by revealing the smallness and self-deception of the wheelers and dealers, and the ruinous effects of their actions on others. The occasional acts of heroism that slip by unnoticed or un-understood by most people in everyday life — such as the refusal of a business to accept government subsidies, or do business with any business that acquires its property through eminent domain[1] — acquire their true proportions in Atlas Shrugged. In Rand’s fiction we witness the tragedy of Prometheus bound and the triumph of Prometheus unbound. No purely theoretical work can show this.

From Is to Ought?

Rasmussen raises questions about Rand’s handling of the is-ought problem and about the grounding and coherence of Rand’s ethics. The is-ought problem, first identified by Hume in the writings of his rationalist predecessors is (at least) the problem of deriving an ought statement from purely descriptive statements, with no reliance on desire or emotion.[2] Rand’s reply that, if you choose (and, thus, desire) to live, then you ought to be moral, in effect grants Hume’s point that “pure reason” cannot ground ethics. Like many others, however, I do not believe that Rand succeeds in deriving the virtues from the choice to live. Indeed, she does not even try consistently to do so. This takes us to the question of the grounding and coherence of Rand’s ethical views.

Human Nature, Virtue, and Happiness

In various places in her writings, Rand appeals not only to long-term survival to justify ethics, but also to survival qua man (that is, survival as a rational and, thus, virtuous, being), claiming that long-term survival for a human being can only be survival qua man, and to happiness, claiming (sometimes) that happiness and survival are two sides of the same coin. Thus, although she opens “The Objectivist Ethics” with an attempt to give a scientific, naturalistic account of ethics that shows our continuity with other living things (which, she mistakenly assumes, always act for their own long-term survival), in the course of the essay she also brings in survival qua man and happiness as the ultimate goals.[3] The dominant view expressed in her fiction, however, is that happiness (understood in a neo-Aristotelian way) is “the purpose, the sanction and the meaning of life” (Atlas Shrugged, 674), and that happiness requires virtue.

How, then, should we interpret Rand? In spite of the perseverance of some Objectivists, there is no coherent way to show that to survive long-term is to survive qua man is to achieve eudaimonia.[4] This is not to deny that there are connections between them, or that a plausible ethics must have instrumental value and be generally compatible with long-term survival. How could it be rational to be moral if morality were, in principle, useless for our ordinary human purposes or a threat to survival? Moreover, it is easy to see that no one could survive very long, or achieve a life worth living, if most people were irrational and unproductive (Anthem, Atlas Shrugged). We are all better off in a society of moral individuals. Since, however, the immoral can survive long-term, the justification of a plausible ethics must go beyond long-term survival. Indeed, in the very essay in which Rand tries to justify ethics as a survival need, she also admits that the wicked can survive by “hitch-hiking” (free-riding) on rational, productive members of society. But neither Hobbesian contractarians, who appeal to this fact to justify leaving “the state of nature,” nor Rand, can use this justification to show why we should not “hitch-hike” on others’ virtue if we can get away with it, or if not doing so imperils our well-being or lives. Yet Rand is very clear that we may not do this because others are ends in themselves, not to be used as mere means to our ends.

Rand admits that, in an imperfect society, justice or the other virtues, in conjunction with other factors, can undermine our well-being (virtue, after all, is not sufficient for happiness). But she also believes that nothing can undermine it as seriously as injustice or the other vices, because happiness is “a state of non-contradictory joy — a joy without penalty or guilt,” and such happiness is achievable only by “the man who desires nothing but rational goals, seeks nothing but rational values and finds his joy in nothing but rational actions” (“The Objectivist Ethics,” 32). Thus, Kira and Andrei in We the Living, Howard Roark in The Fountainhead, and most of the major characters in Atlas Shrugged, all risk their freedom or their livelihood or their lives for the sake of achieving or preserving “the best within them” — their vision of a life worth living. And in each case, a life worth living is depicted not only as a life in which they can do the work they love and be with the people they love, but one in which they can do all this with honesty, justice, integrity, independence, productiveness, pride, and rationality, the virtue that is implicated in all the other virtues. It is this component of Rand’s outlook that provides a justification for being moral even when being moral imperils our lives; it is also this component of her outlook that allows her to say that happiness requires being moral, perfecting our human nature.

Like Aristotle, Rand holds that the virtues, including justice, are not only means to the agent’s happiness, but also an essential, constitutive part of it. Julia Annas calls Aristotle’s ethical egoism a “formal” egoism because it essentially incorporates regard for others. Rand’s eudaimonistic egoism, likewise, is a formal egoism. But can even a formally egoistic justification of virtue give the right account of why we should be just and respect others’ rights? Surely the right account is that we should give others their due because it is their due — because people are ends in themselves — and not because doing so is necessary for our happiness. This objection, however, owes whatever force it has to the thought that justice can be inimical to our well-being, but we ought to be just even so. But as noted above, Rand holds that injustice is even worse for us. Giving others their due, she believes, is rational both because it is the appropriate response to an important normative fact, and because responding appropriately is necessary for our own happiness. Indeed, Rand defines each virtue in terms of the recognition of, and motivation by, some important fact, and holds that the pursuit of happiness is inseparable from the activity of maintaining one’s life through the rational pursuit of rational goals, that is, from virtuous activity (“The Objectivist Ethics,” 29, 32). Here, again, her view resembles that of Aristotle, who tells us that the virtuous person is motivated by what is truly good, pleasant, and useful, and that being motivated thus is the chief component of his happiness.

Rand’s fiction depicts her heroes’ virtues acting as a shield against misery even in the worst of misfortunes, and her villains’ vices as causing psychological turmoil or, at best, leaving them incapable of enjoying life, even in the greatest of good fortunes. Her depiction of Gail Wynand in The Fountainhead suggests that not only does he not get much out of life, but also that his ignorance of his own vice and of what is truly worth pursuing is in itself a great loss. Rand does not consider the possibility of circumstances under which someone who is less than perfectly virtuous may avoid disaster by doing a small wrong and, thus, end up better off than by doing the right thing. Rather, she suggests, like some other moralists, that even one small wrong is likely to introduce a fatal flaw into one’s character — or, alternatively, that no wrong is ever really a small wrong. But this is unrealistic. Not every wrong action leads to an unraveling of one’s character, and not every wrong action merits endless guilt and self-reproach. Moreover, some misfortunes resulting from an act of integrity or justice can reduce a person to despair, as they do Henry Cameron and Steven Mallory in The Fountainhead. Under such circumstances, I think the eudaimonistic justification for acting virtuously fails — but not, perhaps, all egoistic justification. For it can still be a matter of pride and integrity to do what is right, regardless of the consequences.

Rand’s Moral Psychology

Rand’s depiction of moral perfection in her fiction assumes that the virtues can be global, that is, extend across all domains of a person’s life. But both everyday observation and experimental social psychology call this assumption into question, and the conditions of moral development explain why. Just as complete knowledge of the world is beyond any one human being’s intelligence, so moral perfection seems to be beyond any one human being’s psychological ability. If this is true, as I think it is,[5] then Rand’s belief that moral perfection can exist in the real world is unrealistic. In turn, this fact (though not only this fact) requires recognizing that virtues such as kindness, charity, and forgiveness are much more important in human life than Rand grants.

In addition to globalism, Rand assumes (like Aristotelian virtue ethicists) that the virtues are reciprocal or united, such that one virtue entails the others, and the absence of even one entails the absence of the others. A striking economic-political example of this belief is Rand’s exalted view of the producer. Rand depicts true producers as neither needing nor wanting government help with their enterprises, and those who do take government help as lacking in productivity. But this view is contradicted by the evidence. Samuel F.B. Morse, the inventor of the Morse code and the telegraph, and a talented painter and photographer to boot, is only one counter-example. It can be denied neither that he was highly productive, nor that he took help from Congress for his first domestic telegraph line, and tried to get help for his transatlantic line.[6]

Capitalism and the Creator

Rasmussen asks about the difference between Rand’s vision of ideal capitalism and the system we have today, and about the difference between Howard Roark as a creator and most producers today. The answer to the first question is, of course, easy: Rand envisaged pure capitalism as requiring a complete separation of state and economy, for the same reason, she said, that it requires a separation of church and economy. But not only have we never had a complete separation of state and economy, we even have less of a separation of state and church now than before, thanks to the “faith-based” initiatives introduced by the Bush administration.

The answer to the second question is more complicated. The mainstream view among economists and business people is that producers produce in order to make profits by satisfying our needs and desires, whatever they might be, and that this is the way it should be. Rand’s view is that the creator should not pander to debased or immoral desires; Gail Wynand is not a true creator precisely because he does. By contrast, Howard Roark looks for customers for whom he can build the kinds of buildings he regards as appropriate for their purposes and for the materials used in making them. By staying true to his vision, he educates and shapes people’s tastes, and eventually makes a profit. But Rand overstates the matter when she says that Roark wants customers in order to create, at least if she means by this (as she often does when talking about creators) “only” in order to create. Surely Roark would not be happy if an inheritance enabled him to create his buildings, but no one wanted to use them. He wants to create buildings that people recognize as serving their purposes. Like an unread book, or an unheard symphony, an unused building does not fulfill its creator’s purpose. Creators need customers in order to create, but they also need to create in order to have customers.

Neera K. Badhwar is a professor of philosophy at the University of Oklahoma


[1] See http://www.objectivistcenter.org/cth–1639-BBT_Rights.aspx on BB&T’s stand on eminent domain.

[2] “At least,” because some commentators believe that it is a cluster of other problems as well.

[3] “The Objectivist Ethics” (1961), in Rand, The Virtue of Selfishness: A New Concept of Egoism (New York: New American Library, 1964). pp. 13-39.  [Available online] http://www.aynrand.org/site/PageServer?pagename=objectivism_advessays

[4] I discuss this and other aspects of Rand’s ethics in Neera Badhwar and Roderick Long, “Ayn Rand,” Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, forthcoming.

[5] I argue for this in “The Milgram Experiments, Learned Helplessness, and Character Traits,” Journal of Ethics (special issue on Situationism), June 2009 (online), 1-33; printed version July 2009.

[6] http://www.answers.com/topic/samuel-f-b-morse

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.