My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute." — Ayn Rand , Appendix to Atlas Shrugged .
Objectivism is the philosophy of rational individualism founded by Ayn Rand (1905-82). In novels such as The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged , Rand dramatized her ideal man, the producer who lives by his own effort and does not give or receive the undeserved, who honors achievement and rejects envy. Rand laid out the details of her worldview in nonfiction books such as The Virtue of Selfishness, Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, and The Romantic Manifesto.
Objectivism identifies the principles behind living a happy, thriving, free life.
In practical terms, Objectivism is a philosophy that identifies the principles behind living a happy, thriving, free life. To do this, Objectivism addresses the major questions of religion and philosophy in every branch, from the most basic theory of reality to the nature of knowledge and the purpose of art. Every principle of Objectivism locks up logically with every other, and all of them are rooted in the facts of reality we know through science and common sense. The elements of Objectivism do not fit together because Rand or anyone wants them to: They fit together because they have to.
The most essential aspects of Objectivism can be expressed in four basic values: freedom, achievement, individualism, and reason. To understand Objectivism as a system, one needs to grasp what these values are and how they fit together.
Ayn Rand described herself as a "radical for capitalism." Objectivists see capitalism not simply as a system of money exchange but as the political system based on the principle that each person has the right to his own life—i.e., the right to live free from force. Objectivists are for laissez-faire capitalism, in which the state is separated from business activity just as today in America it is separated from any church. Under laissez-faire, no one may force you to work in any manner other than what you choose; no one may take your property by force; no one may interfere by force with what you say or do on private property. No corporation is insulated from competition, and no one has greater rights under the law than you as an individual. You are robustly free, unless and until you yourself initiate the use of force. Laissez-faire is the system of individual responsibility and of justice for each individual.
Objectivism envisions a radical reduction in the size of government. It envisions a country in which customers—not the government—regulate product quality by their choices to buy or not buy. It envisions a country in which doctors—not the government—decide what services to offer, to what patients, and at what prices. It envisions a country in which individuals are responsible for saving for retirement—their own lives are at stake, after all; it's not the government's business. It envisions a society in which people have the right to choose whatever consensual sexual relationships they like and in which people have the responsibility to live with the consequences of their choices—your sex life is definitely not the government's business.
But then, what is the government's business? First and foremost, it is to protect our freedom. We need government to provide a military defense against foreign threats. We need it to provide police protection against domestic threats. And we need it, most importantly, to provide and enforce a system of objectively defined laws. The rule of law is indispensable if we are to enjoy the freedom to make and enforce contracts, to form voluntary associations like firms and clubs, and to live secure from the threat of capricious changes in the ground rules.
The root of a free government is its respect for individual rights.
Today's bloated, unrestrained regimes—from brutal dictatorships to ever-expanding welfare/regulatory states—fulfill their proper functions poorly or not at all, and they restrict our liberty unnecessarily. As they continue to metastasize, these cancerous governments pose a profound threat to free choice, social diversity, technological progress, and economic prosperity. Objectivism , by contrast, advocates a small but potent government, one that promotes freedom abroad and does everything necessary to enable freedom at home—and strays not an inch from its appointed role.
In the West today, governments universally receive their popular legitimacy from the fact that their leadership is selected by vote. This mistakes the real basis of governmental legitimacy. Democratic elections are an effective means of choosing a government. But elections do not give leaders carte blanche. Government's fundamental purpose is not defined by the whims of the majority on any given issue, but by the objective requirements of individual freedom. The root of a free government, then, is its respect for individual rights. The measure of whether a government is legitimate or not fundamentally boils down to the degree to which it respects the rights of its citizens to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness.
Objectivists are radicals for capitalism because we see capitalism as an "unknown ideal." Capitalism is not a mere "necessary evil"; it is not, as some would say, a system of short-sighted greed and crass "materialism"; it is emphatically not, as the radical Left would have it, a system of "oppression." No, capitalism implemented in its pure form is a system dedicated to objective law and principled respect for the rights of individuals, under which mankind would be liberated to reach its greatest heights and live the finest lives. It is the moral way to organize a society.
But it can be moral only to a worldview that prizes achievement. In an Ayn Rand novel, the heroes are not warriors or saints. They are businesspeople, architects, artists, scholars, scientists, and engineers: the people whose achievements have built our civilization. Objectivism does not admire self-sacrifice or self-destruction. It admires creation, production, and the achievement of happiness. Objectivism rejects envy and sees the lowest villainy in those who hate the excellent, denigrate the achieving, pooh-pooh the creative, or sneer at the productive.
Achievement is the leitmotif of the Objectivist moral vision. Philosophically, this is because Objectivism sees the basis of value as such—in other words, the basis of right and wrong—in the nature of human life. As Ayn Rand wrote in The Virtue of Selfishness, “The standard of value of the Objectivist ethics—the standard by which one judges good or evil—is man's life, or: that which is required for man's survival qua man.” If one's life is the standard of value, then to work for one's bread and shelter is a morally worthy act. To strive for joy is morally admirable. To be as effective, as productive, and as brilliant as one can be is truly, undeniably morally admirable.
But this ethic of achievement is not a morality of devil-take-the-hindmost. Everyone is capable of a life of achievement based on the standard of his or her own skills, background, and abilities. Neither is it an ethic of live-for-the-moment. To live a full life as a human being means, as Aristotle taught, to live a life of virtue. Objectivism honors moral integrity and the development of moral character as great achievements in themselves. It advocates a proud approach to life that seeks to have and to be all that one can. The moral standard of man's life implies commitments to virtues such as honesty, productivity, and independence of mind. It implies a commitment to dealing with others justly, neither giving nor receiving the undeserved. Proud, independent, and exalted: that is the Objectivist vision of man.
Objectivism admires creation, production, and the achievement of happiness.
Enemies of capitalism attack the inequality of results that comes from freedom. Freedom, after all, is freedom to succeed—and freedom to fail. It is freedom to employ one's talents and skills—and freedom to misuse them. Under capitalism, some will be richer than others, some will be wiser than others, some will be more talented than others, and some will have more fun than others. This is nothing for which capitalism need apologize. Anyone who truly prizes achievement should want to see great new businesses, wonderful buildings, flourishing art, and expanding science. Anyone who truly appreciates the moral equality of each human life should see that each life deserves to flourish in its own different way and by its own different means.
Without profound reverence for human achievement, what becomes of a commitment to freedom? Today in American politics, the Right promotes tax cuts for rich and poor on the basis of fairness: It is rarely mentioned that the rich have a moral right to their profits. So the egalitarian Left decries "giveaways to the rich." Where in our culture are the voices who see the heroism required for business success and who do not equate poverty, suffering, and failure with virtue?
Objectivists value the achievement of wealth as much as we value artistic or scientific brilliance, because we know that wealth, like art and science, is created by human effort and fulfills vital human needs. Ayn Rand declared that productive work is the "central value" of man's life, and productivity in pursuit of a career is a cardinal virtue of her system, because through our work we support our lives and remake the world in the image of our values. People have a moral right to their earnings and deserve to be lauded for their successes, in whatever endeavor they make them and at whatever level of excellence they can reach.
The work and virtue that Objectivism admires is not the product of any group. It is not the product of nations, as such, nor of tribes, nor of races, nor of sexes. It is the product of individuals. As Ayn Rand said, "There is no such thing as a collective brain." Human beings are individual organisms, each with his own mind to guide his actions, his own senses with which to know the world, his own body to sustain and enjoy, and his own values to achieve. We live in social networks: families, companies, countries. But those are networks of individuals: What is a family without members? A company without staff? A country without citizens?
Objectivism is therefore an individualist philosophy, root and branch. In politics, it holds that there is no political principle higher than individual rights. In morality, there is no standard that trumps the value of an individual's own precious life and happiness. Indeed, no other thinker has stood up for individualism with the consistency of Ayn Rand .
It was a theme she celebrated over and over in her novels. In The Fountainhead , her great homage to the individual, she contrasted three archetypes of the ambitious man. Her Peter Keating wants social success but doesn't know what he wants for himself. Her Gail Wynand equates success with gaining power over others. But her Howard Roark is the true individualist: He lives on his own terms, for his own sake, and at root has interest neither in being what others might want nor in forcing others to do what he might want. This attitude of fundamental independence is at the heart of Rand's social vision of benevolent individuals who can stand, both mentally and physically, on their own two feet.
In today's culture, there is great respect for the individual. But there is even greater admiration for altruism, the anti-individualist moral standard that measures a person's worth by the degree to which he serves others. Witness the Republican Party's embrace of "compassion" as the theme of their governance, trumping non-altruistic political values such as probity, honor, integrity, or responsibility. Witness Illinois senator Barack Obama's much-lauded speech to the 2004 Democratic National Convention. There, Obama claimed the moral high ground by proclaiming that, far more than the mere right to pursue happiness, what his party stood for was the altruist principle that we are "our brothers' keepers."
Objectivism rejects the sacrifice of the individual to the demands of others. It rejects the moral standard that defines a person's worth by his social service. As Ayn Rand brilliantly illustrated in Atlas Shrugged , when men truly attempt to live as "their brothers' keepers," the result is the kind of cannibal society achieved by Stalinist Russia, Nazi Germany, and today's "Democratic Republic" of North Korea.
Objectivism rejects the sacrifice of the individual to the demands of others.
Because of its principled commitment to individualism, Objectivism rejects any social theory that places the group over the person. It rejects all attempts to define people fundamentally by their race, their tribe, their sexual identities, their nation, or their class. It doesn't claim that there are no racial characteristics; of course there are: Northern Europeans tend to sunburn easily; Africans tend to have curly hair. It doesn't claim that there are no sexual characteristics: Romantic love would not be possible without sexuality. But under these generalizations, what each normal human being has in common is the possession of an independent, reasoning mind.
Thus, Objectivism 's commitment to freedom, its more fundamental commitment to achievement, and its yet more fundamental commitment to individualism all come down to the bedrock of its commitment to reason.
Ayn Rand defined reason as "the faculty that identifies and integrates the material provided by man's senses" (The Virtue of Selfishness, p. 20). It is, in other words, your thinking mind. Reason is the distinguishing feature of mankind, not because we always think straight, but because we can do so if we choose.
It is reason that enables us to know. Through our sight, hearing, body awareness, smell, taste, and touch we are in contact with the absolute facts of reality: what is, what is out there. We use our faculty of reason to integrate that awareness of reality, to draw experiences of particular things together into concepts: cup, rather than just my glass or your mug; tree, rather than any particular pine or oak. And we use our concepts to create language, form theories, tell stories, and write books—we use them to know.
Our faculty of reason underlies everything that makes us stand apart from the other animals. It is reason, for instance, that makes us need the arts, to represent profound ideas about what is and what might be in a form we can see and hear.
Reason is critical to emotion, paradoxical as that may seem. Emotions are direct feelings about what is good or bad, desirable or undesirable, threatening or encouraging. Animals feel pleasure and pain. They experience basic passions—everyone has seen an angry dog defending its territory. But human beings do much more. Our emotions are based in conceptual judgment: We don't merely lust, we love. We don't just hunger, we crave cuisine. We don't just fear physical attack, we fear injustice or the disapproval of someone we respect. We need this experience of value judgments. So, living by reason implies harmonizing our thinking minds and our feelings so that our emotions reflect our rational judgments.
Living by reason means, fundamentally, seeking objective knowledge and, conversely, never accepting the irrational. It means reaching judgments with the rigor of a scientist and the probity of a judge. Scientists use logic and mathematics to strictly confirm their theories on the basis of hard facts. Judges admit all, and only, the relevant evidence. To live by reason one should never deny a fact, and one should always strive to integrate together the facts one is aware of—however uncomfortable, untraditional, or unintuitive they may be. In this way, we find truth, not mere speculation, and we come to know reality, not simply our own fantasies.
Nothing less than consistent rationality will do, if we want to be sure of our judgments. Objectivism thus rejects any form of belief that is not logically based in fact. It opposes any religious mysticism that demands that we accept dogma on the basis of faith, wish, or hope. It likewise opposes any secular thought that elevates ideology over proof.
This thorough-going commitment to reason informs every aspect of the Objectivist ethics. Ayn Rand preached "the virtue of selfishness," but her distinctive concept is not the short-sighted, narrow, destructive selfishness of a bully or a dictator. Virtuous selfishness is rational: It is a commitment to living in a manner that will really allow one to flourish, using all one's talents and faculties—and reason is the foremost among them. A commitment to reason underlies the Objectivist commitment to moral integrity: A rational person makes choices for the long term, taking account of the full context, and acts consistently on the basis of objectively proven principles. And rational selfishness is gregarious: It recognizes that other people are worth knowing, respecting, and dealing with because of the astounding range of benefits they offer.
Reason is essential to the Objectivist politics, too. It is our reason that makes it possible for us to plan long-term and to envision alternatives to what exists. Reason makes possible production and all forms of truly human work. It makes industrial and agricultural advances possible. It makes possible the knowledge economy, powered by the mind. It is because of reason that we can resolve disputes in a court of law and not, as the animals do, by fang and claw. It makes a society based on contract and trade possible; it makes capitalism possible. To achieve our values in society, we need the freedom to act by the judgment of our individual, rational minds. That is why we have individual rights and why we need them protected by government.
We need freedom in order to live. Given freedom, our reason lets us thrive. This is why the enemies of freedom are so often enemies of reason, as Ayn Rand pointed out in Atlas Shrugged and her cultural commentary. It is why the enemies of reason are also, whether they know it or not, in fact enemies of life.
This is the choice Objectivism presents us with. Do we choose life, and all that it involves and entails? If so, then we accept what it means to be human: We accept our need for reason; we accept our individuality; we accept our need to achieve values; and we accept our need to be free to do so. Do we choose to think and to base our life's code on the facts, integrating the present with the long-term, the nearby with the faraway? If so, Objectivism is where thought leads, because Objectivism is the philosophy of reason.
When we live by objective principles, we live in what Ayn Rand called a "benevolent universe." Our world is propitious to our efforts because it can be comprehended and mastered by reason. Success is to be expected, and failure is just a challenge to overcome. In the wide vistas open to human talent, great things await us.
This article was originally published in the December 2004 issue of Navigator magazine, The Atlas Society precursor to The New Individualist.