December 2004 -- Ayn Rand was no academic, and people sometimes point to that fact to explain the lack of scholarly consideration given to her work. To be sure, some ethics anthologies now use Rand's work, and some ethics texts refer to her version of egoism, although they usually misunderstand it by confusing it with a kind of Hobbesian version.
(The late James Rachels, for example, thought it was a case of Hobbesian egoism for Howard Roark to blow up the housing complex built in defiance of his design.) But in the many other branches of philosophy, beyond the field of morality, Rand receives hardly any attention, even though several contemporary philosophers now tread paths Rand earlier pointed out. Her meta-ethics, for example, is similar to that of Martha Nussbaum (The Therapy of Desire) and Philippa Foot (Natural Goodness), both developed later. Rand's non-reductionist naturalism, though it goes uncited, is also much in vogue, as shown by Mary Midgley's work. Hilary Putnam and Martha Nussbaum, in their discussions of universals and Aristotelian essentialism, engage epistemology in Randian ways. (See Putnam's Words & Life.)
Admittedly, some of Rand's students and epigone do not help matters by claiming that nothing in contemporary philosophy is worthwhile, which is simply untrue. People working along lines that Rand would have had to value include: Edward Pols in metaphysics and epistemology (Mind Regained, Radical Realism), as well as on the nature of causality and the debate over free will and determinism (The Acts of Our Being); John Searle in the philosophy of mind (Rationality in Action); and Amartya Sen in the philosophy of economics (Rationality and Freedom). David L. Norton's ethical writings were much in the same tradition as Rand's; see his Personal Destinies, A Philosophy of Ethical Individualism.
But Objectivist tirades cannot justify the academy's shunning of Rand. Other philosophers have worked outside the academy and even disdained it. Indeed, most Enlightenment-style thinkers—John Locke among them—set themselves against the entrenched Scholasticism of the schools as bitterly as Rand ever set herself against logical positivism and linguistic analysis. And in any case, Rand's writings deserve scholarly attention when taken on their merits, which is supposed to be what concerns scholars. She did excellent work on the nature of conceptual consciousness. She made original contributions in her treatment of the relationship between ethics and epistemology; in her naturalist conception of the freedom of the will; and, of course, in her "new concept" of ethical egoism.
But her most powerful contribution was her insistence on the close connection between morality and the right to private property, and her conclusion that capitalism as a political economic system is just. Her systematic rejection of coercion as a valid form of human interaction has been invaluable both for the progress of contemporary classical liberalism—libertarianism—and for the actual advances of human liberty. Ironically, despite Rand's profound contribution to classical liberal thought, even some "friends of liberty" in the academy disdain her.
I am convinced that this denial of Rand's contribution to the history of ideas and to philosophy in particular cannot last much longer. She may have been more of an architect than a mortar worker, but why is that a fault? In our time, mortar workers abound. What is rare is a philosopher with an inspiring and inordinately sensible vision like Rand’s.
Tibor Machan holds the R.C. Hoiles Chair of Business Ethics and Free Enterprise at the Argyros School of Business and Economics at Chapman University in Orange, California.
This article originally appeared in the December 2004 issue of Navigator magazine, The Atlas Society precursor to The New Individualist.
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