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Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Is Ayn Rand still relevant? "What's living and dead in Ayn Rand's moral and political philosophy?"

This month's issue of Cato Unbound (one of the finer libertarian publications out there) focuses in on the philosophy of Ayn Rand, and asks about her continuing relevancy.

Here's the description of the questions motivating this issue of Unbound:

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?

I was once enamored by Rand and her philosophy. Times have changed. While I'm still a libertarian, I'm no longer persuaded by Rand's views. Her views on ethics in particular, but her views on other things as well (her aesthetic view, especially what she called a "sense of life," is an especially strange cocktail better left alone) leave me unsympathetic.

But I still find her views deeply interesting and provocative, and enjoy discussing them.

So, I'm curious, what do you think about Rand? Do you think she's still important, even vital?

I'll spend some time today reading Douglas Rassmussen's lead essay, and then maybe return to share some thoughts on it later.

Posted by P.M. Jaworski on January 19, 2010 in Libertarianism | Permalink


Much of what Ayn Rand wrote was right on the money. Her only real problem is her lack of religious faith, which most people have at various levels, left her unable to understand it inn any way.

That is why something seems to be missing from her work, because something is. It is really the only flaw I can think of off the top of my head.

Posted by: Floyd Looney | 2010-01-19 1:03:44 PM

"Her only real problem is her lack of religious faith,"

Her grasp of reality and understanding of the importance of reason is what set her a part from you and your indoctrinated at an early age beliefs.
How Christians are indoctrinated to believe mirrors the Hezzbullah method uses to "educate" the young, the only problem is lack of reason won't allow many of you to see this.
Her real convictions based on her assessments of society is why she is still relevant today and forever,but if you believe in God or derivatives of that controlling crap, you will never understnad the message intended. I was already a young atheist when I found her so for me, she wrote exactly what I was thinking more or less, in broad terms.
"At least thats the way it looks to me".

Posted by: Vegan Phil | 2010-01-19 1:36:25 PM

With all due respect Floyd, criticizing Rand based on the fact she was an atheist is not a criticism.

I, for one, have never liked her equating voluntary generosity or altruism to collectivism. To me, freedom implies a lack of coercion upon the individual.

Posted by: Charles | 2010-01-19 2:35:46 PM

Ayn Rand's defense - nae, promotion - of ethical egoism is a lasting gift.

Posted by: Frank Ch. EIgler | 2010-01-19 2:39:26 PM

Where did she equate voluntary generosity with collectivism?

Granted, she did not emphasize the important role that voluntary generosity plays in a society nearly as much as she could have. I think that omission cost her a great deal of support.

Any link between voluntary generosity and collectivism depends on the motivation of the donor. If one engages in such an act out of duty, and at the cost of sacrificing one's values, then that is wrong. But if you do so without sacrifice there's nothing wrong with it.

Posted by: Dennis | 2010-01-19 2:42:34 PM


My apologies. I was being sloppy and should not have included generosity in that sentence.

Although I do agree with Rand that taking care of one's own self-interest is a very important aspect of freedom, I do not agree with her complete rejection of altruism.

Posted by: Charles | 2010-01-19 3:01:56 PM

I do not agree with her complete rejection of altruism.

Posted by: Charles | 2010-01-19 3:01:56 PM

You may possibly be going off in another direction Charles, i don't think dennis mentioned her distain for altruism, although I agree with you, it is of more value than I believe she gave the "act" credit for. In a perfect world altrusim would be un-warranted, but not currently.

Posted by: Vegan Phil | 2010-01-19 3:22:17 PM

One does not have to have a disease to understand the disease. One does not have to be evil to understand evil.

Rand understood faith (faith in the religious sense, not in the non-religious sense of being merely a synonym for words like "trust" or "rely"). She simply rejected it as a means of obtaining knowledge. Faith is, by definition, a belief held without any physical evidence and without any logical implication from physical evidence. It is a belief that can be held without a rational mind, and without sensory apparatus.

Rand was, first and foremost, an advocate of reason as a human's sole faculty/tool for obtaining knowledge: for identifying facts of reality.

Rand's ethics are founded upon a recognition of the fact that reason is man's sole tool for obtaining knowledge; knowledge of what must be done if one is to produce that upon which ones own survival and happiness depend; knowledge of what one therefore should do and should not do; knowledge of right and wrong; of ethics. The very sort of knowledge forbidden to Adam and Eve by an alleged God who demanded not that Adam and Eve discover what they should and should not do, but that they simply obey God's commandments/rules; that they do what God told them to do. In a word: Islam.

In Rand's philosophical system, man's own life is his highest value because dead men do not exist so they hold no values. In Rand's philosophical system, the pursuit and achievement of one's own happiness is ones own highest purpose. And, if man is to survive and achieve his purpose, he must do it using the only method available to him: he must choose to use his rational factulty so as to discover what, in fact, he must do to create the values upon which his life and happiness depend (e.g., at a rudimentary material level: food, shelter, clothing).

Because rational thought and action is the only way a human being has for surviving and achieving happiness, to obtain a person's values (e.g., their property) without their consent is to by-pass the person's rational faculty; it is to undermine his effort to survive and pursue his own happiness. Thus Rand's assertion that the role of government is to ensure that all relations among human beings are purely consensual: that force and fraud, for examples, are to be prevented/punished by government. Thus Rand's rejection of any form of collectivism. And thus Rand's assertion that government ought not to interfere with consensual trade among individuals (i.e., that economic desires/plans are no excuse for intervention). This last - the separation of state and economics - she called "capitalism". Capitalism is the right system, according to Rand, because it is the only system compatible with life lived by a human AS a human: i.e., by a person using his own mind to obtain the knowledge he needs to act as he must if he is to survive and achieve his own happiness.

Rand understood that faith (being belief unproven by evidence) is merely acceptance of the arbitrary (or false) as knowledge. Acceptance of the arbitrary (or false) as knowledge is the necessary precondition for any anti-reality system of ethics, hence for any anti-reason, anti-human system of government. That does not mean that all arbitrary beliefs lead to oppression. Rather, it means that all oppressive governments (which includes every form of collectivism) are founded upon the arbitrary or false.

So, for example, you might arbitrarily accept - as a matter of faith - that what Rand said was true...without giving it any independent thought. And, if you do so, you are NOT acting as a proponent of her philosophy (I call such dogmatists "Randroids"). Consider also that Rand once listed a number of philosophers and told her audience that their philosophies are nonsense, but that those in the audience who had not studied those philosophies did not KNOW those philosophies to be nonsense. She argued that they should read the nonsense so that they would KNOW those philosophies to be nonsense. Until they did so, they were merely relying on others...others whose judgments might be wrong or even intentionally false. In other words, until they read and thought about those flawed philosophies, they could reject those philosophies only as a matter of FAITH, and she rejected such rejections.

Posted by: Paul McKeever | 2010-01-19 3:27:10 PM

Is Paul McKeever and informed Guy or what?

Paul were you able to write all that understnading off the top of your head, or was that an earlier fine tuned work, dusted off today to dazzle us with fact and prespective?

Great writing either way. :)

Posted by: Vegan Phil | 2010-01-19 3:59:34 PM

Can any goal be reached without a belief it is possible to reach that goal?

The difference between the present and strength to reach that goal is FAITH.

It's no secret. Humanity has known this for thousands of years, but just redefines traditional wisdom to suit their personal needs.

Posted by: set you free | 2010-01-19 5:40:15 PM

Please do not mistake the inference in which the word faith was used, it does not support your religious argument fallacy which you are trying to create.
Traditional wisdom is being redefined by being an evolving species, and yes nentirely because of personal needs denied by people who have perspective exactly like you.

1. Confident belief in the truth, value, or trustworthiness of a person, idea, or thing.
2. Belief that does not rest on logical proof or material evidence. See Synonyms at belief, trust.
3. Loyalty to a person or thing; allegiance: keeping faith with one's supporters.
4. often Faith Christianity The theological virtue defined as secure belief in God and a trusting acceptance of God's will.
5. The body of dogma of a religion: the Muslim faith.
6. A set of principles or beliefs.

Posted by: Vegan Phil | 2010-01-19 5:47:31 PM

I was going to say something, then I saw that Paul had beaten me to it. Very nicely too.


Rand didn't spend much of her time on generosity, though she herself was quite generous with those whom she valued, in part because she regarded it as a secondary value. Before you can give away values you need to create them. The creation is more important.

The other reason, I suspect, was a desire to grant no quarter to the idea of altruism. In her definition altruism was not compassion toward others, it was valuing other people's lives above your own, effectively a collectivist set of ethics.

The popular definition of altruism is a package deal - her terms - it mixes in both genuine benevolence and a collectivist set of ethics. She didn't want to be misunderstood as advocating altruism by other means. The need to fight altruism was seen as more important than stressing benevolence. She assumed that most rational people in a free society would be benevolent.

If you read the novels carefully they are replete with examples of the characters helping one another. I'm always amazed by people who say Ayn Rand advocated a callous philosophy of life. The novels show exactly the opposite. Note the Wet Nurse in Atlas Shrugged.

Posted by: Publius | 2010-01-19 7:29:47 PM

Posted by: Publius | 2010-01-19 7:29:47 PM

Credit where credit is due, thanks for refreshing us and enlightening others on the altruistic beliefs.

Posted by: Vegan Phil | 2010-01-19 8:21:04 PM

I'm not sure I'm following this. Is she saying its wrong to be concerned about the welfare of others? Maybe I better reread this.

Posted by: Steve Bottrell | 2010-01-19 9:15:18 PM

Forget aesthetics, they're not central. But if you disagree with the ethics, you are probably too far off for reconciliation.

Her ethics revolve around seeing through your own eyes and living through your own mind.

Most people are deeply afflicted with self-guilt and a deep mistrust of their own abilities. I think it is perfectly normal to eschew her philosophy on those grounds.

Posted by: Rob Quinn | 2010-01-19 9:38:41 PM

Steve, Ayn Rand is not saying one should be unconcerned with the welfare of others (generosity). She would insists that all discussion of that would be about voluntary helping only, and that the concerned person was not obsessing to the detriment of moving his own life forward.

On the other hand, she is the major warrior in history against "altruism" as originally intended by the coiner of the term Auguste Comte.

Comte not only went ballistic on the personal (insisting that any act done for one's even simple self-interest, but encourage his radical selflessness be enshrined in political terms. In other words laws commanding people to be selfless.

While she was fully aware that the term "altruism" has been reconstructed to be closer to the 'caring about others' welfare' connotation, she was an enemy of the still virulent underlaying poison of Comteian coerced self-immolation. She deliberately set out to break the back of this. That is why she was unafraid to use terms such as "The Virtue of Selfishness." She WANTED to cause trouble!

The explanation of this is best researched in Rand's book "The Virtue of Selfishness" but I also highly recommend the paper linked below which clarifies what I just stated.


Posted by: John Donohue | 2010-01-19 9:56:17 PM

Thanks John, I will check it out

Posted by: Steve Bottrell | 2010-01-19 11:36:35 PM

Vegan and Publius: thank you for your compliments. Vegan: about 15 minutes of writing...after a while, reality finally becomes clear.



Posted by: Paul McKeever | 2010-01-19 11:36:36 PM

I am not criticizing her for being an atheist, I was trying to point out that she had no way to connect with real people in her stories because most people are spiritual in some way.

Posted by: Floyd Looney | 2010-01-20 6:27:08 AM


Rand regarded everyone, including herself, as spiritual. She regarded every person to BE a soul/body combination. But when she spoke of the "soul", she was referring to the mind. She regarded man as a "being of self-made soul"...and submitted that the form of a man's soul depends upon whether or not he chooses to think rationally. See the Galt Speech in "Atlas Shrugged".

Posted by: Paul McKeever | 2010-01-20 7:38:00 AM

"she had no way to connect with real people in her stories because most people are spiritual in some way."

Depends on what you mean by "spiritual." If you mean something spooky, other-worldly, mystical, then she rightly rejects such nonsense. But if "spiritual" means that which has profound and noble value, something which resonates with one's deepest views about what matters in life, what life at its best has to offer, then she was about the only spiritual writer in the 20th century.

One of her major themes is that material production is a spiritual achievement:

"Whether it's a symphony or a coal mine, all work is an act of creating and comes from the same source: from an inviolate capacity to see through one's own eyes—which means: the capacity to perform a rational identification—which means: the capacity to see, to connect and to make what had not been seen, connected and made before. That shining vision which they talk about as belonging to the authors of symphonies and novels—-what do they think is the driving faculty of men who discovered how to use oil, how to run a mine, how to build an electric motor? That sacred fire which is said to burn within musicians and poets—-what do they suppose moves an industrialist to defy the whole world for the sake of his new metal, as the inventors of the airplane, the builders of the railroads, the discoverers of new germs or new continents have done through all the ages?"

Posted by: Harry Binswanger | 2010-01-20 8:23:51 AM

"her aesthetic view, especially what she called a 'sense of life,' is an especially strange cocktail better left alone"

As an artist, I couldn't disagree more. Rand's aesthetic theory, including related issues such as sense of life, is some of her most philosophically dense, most important, and least understood and appreciated work.

Posted by: Ash Ryan | 2010-01-20 3:41:00 PM

Ash: Just to be clearer.

I don't dispute that Rand's aesthetic theory is "philosophically dense," "important" or "least understood."

What bothers me about the view is this: There is no very good reason to believe that our aesthetic preferences are related to what Rand meant by "sense of life," or to our deeper (metaphysical...?) value judgments or commitments.

Art is, on Rand's view, a recreation of reality based on the artist's metaphysical value judgments. I see no particularly good reason to believe that this is so, or that, even if it is *generally* so, why we should think it is *universally*, without exception, so.

What exactly would count as evidence in favour of this view? I don't recall Rand providing much in the way of argument for this view. It's supposed to function as an illuminating assumption, a way to make quasi-scientific progress in aesthetics. But why should we believe this? What is the argument for the assumption?

It seems to me that this is just a really big mistake. It elevates aesthetic preferences to the level of (subconscious) ethical judgments. It also converts the art we like or dislike into profound statements about our character. And while some of our aesthetic preferences *may* be informed by our value judgments (metaphysical or not, subconscious or not), surely not all of them are. And while some artists may create value judgment-informed art, surely not all of them do, and surely not all of the time.

Posted by: P.M. Jaworski | 2010-01-20 4:21:19 PM

"I see no particularly good reason to believe that this is so, or that, even if it is *generally* so, why we should think it is *universally*, without exception, so."
I don't think that Rand holds that it is universally so, if by "universally" you mean it is the *only* factor involved. Her position is that it is the most *fundamental* factor. Her argument (in part) is that, by selecting some features of reality to include in an artistic recreation, the artist thereby grants importance to those features (as against those he did not choose to include). What art does by its very nature (in part) is basically to call attention to the things that the artist judged worthy of representation, saying (in effect) "This is what's most important about life and the world to me." Of course, more deeply, Rand's theory has to do with the functioning of our consciousness, and the need for integration between the conceptual and perceptual levels of awareness---see "Art and Cognition", which is her latest essay on the subject and thus represents her final views on it (though it cannot be understood without reference to some of her earlier essays, in particular "The Psycho-Epistemology of Art", which in turn cannot be understood without reference to Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology). But if you think the idea of art having to do with metaphysical value-judgments has little in the way of evidence or argument to support it, then I'm sure you'll like this deeper aspect of it even less.

"What exactly would count as evidence in favour of this view?"
A basic survey of art history, including many cultures across many eras and places, does much to support it. The art of every culture historically represents its basic metaphysics. Ancient Egyptian art presents a world that is orderly, static, and so on; medieval Christian art presents a world that is unknowable and frightening, the same holds true of Babylon, Greece, Rome, Europe during the Renaissance, etc. Of course there are going to be individual exceptions to every cultural trend, but what's astonishing is just how well this theory *does* account for the known facts. How does that not count as evidence? That's on a broad cultural level, but if you mean on a more individual level, I suppose the primary evidence would have to be introspective. Personally, I find Rand's aesthetic theory to be an extraordinarily good statement of my own experience in creating and responding to art. If you don't, well, okay, but saying "I don't experience it that way" is not an argument against her position. How DO you experience it? If your aesthetic preferences *aren't* "informed by [your] value judgments (metaphysical or not, subconscious or not)," what *are* they informed by? Just curious. But to claim, without evidence, that they're inexplicable, that they're just a matter if each individual's arbitrary whim, is not an argument against an explanation offered by someone else (and is a position belied by the facts).

"It elevates aesthetic preferences to the level of (subconscious) ethical judgments."
No, it doesn't. Rand explicitly distinguishes (in "Art and Sense of Life") between three "chains of abstractions": the cognitive (or factual), the normative (or ethical), and the esthetic (or metaphysical). So actually, she elevates esthetic preferences even higher than to the level of ethical judgments. But (going back to the evidence on the personal level for this view) what else could explain the profoundly personal and powerful impact art can have on us?

"It also converts the art we like or dislike into profound statements about our character."
Very true. It seems to me that counts as evidence in favor of Miss Rand's view, not against it.

Incidentally, Ayn Rand is not the only philosopher to independently form aesthetic views along these lines. For instance, see Marcia Muelder Eaton's excellent essay "Art and the Aesthetic" in the Blackwell Guide to Aesthetics, edited by Peter Kivy. Eaton doesn't use any specifically Randian technical concepts like "sense of life" but her views are very much in the same spirit as Rand's and quite compatible with them, at least as they are presented in that essay.

As to the term "sense of life" itself, well, of course Rand did not originate the phrase (though she was perhaps the first to give it a technical definition), and it's interesting that while it's most common usage is preceded by the word "tragic", it's most associated before Rand with another Romantic artist, Lord Byron. What Rand's usage of the term does is precisely to explain what's going on during artistic creation and response in emotional terms, whether the artist or viewer is consciously aware of it or not.

I certainly couldn't prove the idea of sense of life to you in a brief comment---academic work on the subject is only just beginning to be done (by Tara Smith at the University of Texas at Austin)---but I hope this gives some indication.

Posted by: Ash Ryan | 2010-01-22 11:48:46 PM

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