January 2010

Ayn Rand has been dead for 27 years, but the influence of the iconoclastic novelist and philosopher shows no sign of flagging. With the publication of two new major books about Ayn Rand (Ayn Rand and the World She Made by Anne C. Heller and Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right by Jennifer Burns) and an upsurge in public interest in her thought (witness the sales figures of her novels and the signs of “Tea Party” protesters threatening to “Go Galt”) the American public is evidently as excited as ever about Ayn Rand. The time would seem ripe, then, for a reappraisal of her ideas. However, Rand is a polarizing figure and discussions of her thought tend to be either unduly fawning or ignorantly contemptuous. In this edition of Cato Unbound we aim to fill some of the vast middle ground between these extremes with a probing, critical discussion of Rand’s moral and political thought by philosophers familiar with, and perhaps influenced by, Rand’s philosophy. What accounts for Rand’s ongoing appeal? Are her arguments for ethical egoism defensible? Does a social order based on individual rights, limited government, and free markets require, as Rand argued, a fundamental reshaping of our culture’s moral assumptions? What, if anything, should we take into the future from Rand’s moral and political thought, and what, if anything, should we leave behind?

St. John’s University philosopher Douglas B. Rasmussen kicks of this issue with a lead essay that asks “Why Ayn Rand?” as well as series of tough questions for our panel of contributors. Three outstanding Rand-literate philosophers will tackle Rasmussen’s questions and add their own. On deck, we have Auburn University’s Roderick Long. He’ll be followed by Michael Huemer of the University of Colorado. Rounding out our lineup we have Neera K. Badhwar of the University of Oklahoma.


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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.

The Conversation

Related at Cato

» Book Forum: The Life and Impact of Ayn Rand, October 28, 2009, featuring Anne C. Heller and Jennifer Burns

» Article: Three Women Who Launched a Movement: Rose Wilder Lane, Isabel Patterson,and Ayn Rand

» Article: Ayn Rand at 100 by Brian Doherty, Cato Policy Report, March/April 2005