What Objectivism Is (and what it isn’t, despite what you might hear otherwise).

When I first got into philosophy over 15 years ago, very few people knew what Objectivism was. If I talked to a person about Objectivism, I would spend most of my time simply explaining it’s principles. Arguments would then sometimes arise as a result of the explanations I gave, but most people would not try to argue against Objectivism without first hearing what it was. The reason people behaved in this way is because the philosophy was relatively obscure until a few years ago. Not only did people not know what Objectivism was, they did not even think they knew it.

Around 2009, things started changing considerably. All of the sudden, Ayn Rand was being talked about routinely in the media and on social networking sites. While I invited this interest, I was also very concerned about the reasons for Rand’s sudden popularity.

What had caused this sudden popularity were three things. First, the financial crash of 2008 left many people wondering what was wrong with the world and looking for answers. Second, the government’s reaction to the crises (blaming the free-market and creating even more government controls than existed before) led some to believe that Ayn Rand’s novel, Atlas Shrugged, was “prophetic” in the sense that it predicted the crash and the government’s reaction. Third, it just so happened that one of the people who was primarily responsible for the crash, Alan Greenspan, was a former Objectivist.

This created a dispute between conservatives and libertarians on the one hand, who championed Objectivism as a partial answer to the crises (I say “partial” because conservatives did not want to totally accept what they saw as “atheistic” Objectivism), and socialists or “liberals” who taught that Objectivism, through Alan Greenspan, was itself the cause of the financial crises.

In my own view, neither side is doing a very good job of portraying what Objectivism is and why anyone should care. Because of this, I think it is helpful to describe what Ayn Rand actually advocated. This will help to clear away some prevalent misconceptions of her philosophy.

When asked to summarize her philosophy, Ayn Rand once answered in the following way:

My philosophy, Objectivism, holds that:

Reality exists as an objective absolute—facts are facts, independent of man’s feelings, wishes, hopes or fears.

Reason (the faculty which identifies and integrates the material provided by man’s senses) is man’s only means of perceiving reality, his only source of knowledge, his only guide to action, and his basic means of survival.

Man—every man—is an end in himself, not the means to the ends of others. He must exist for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself. The pursuit of his own rational self-interest and of his own happiness is the highest moral purpose of his life.

The ideal political-economic system is laissez-faire capitalism. It is a system where men deal with one another, not as victims and executioners, nor as masters and slaves, but as traders, by free, voluntary exchange to mutual benefit. It is a system where no man may obtain any values from others by resorting to physical force, and no man may initiate the use of physical force against others. The government acts only as a policeman that protects man’s rights; it uses physical force only in retaliation and only against those who initiate its use, such as criminals or foreign invaders. In a system of full capitalism, there should be (but, historically, has not yet been) a complete separation of state and economics, in the same way and for the same reasons as the separation of state and church.

(“Introducing Objectivism,”
The Objectivist Newsletter, Aug. 1962, 35)

There are four paragraphs to this explanation, but only the last one deals with politics. And even in the last paragraph, Rand’s definition of “capitalism” is not one that most conservatives would defend or that most socialists or “liberals” would criticize. The “capitalism” that Rand is arguing for is not the system that we have today, but is a future society in which force is banished from human relationships. In such a society, human beings would be completely free to live their lives as they choose, without interference from others, as long as they respected the equal right of all others to do the same.

There would be no special benefits to “big business” for liberals to complain about, nor taxes or regulations to get in the way of such businesses and cause concern to conservatives. There would be a “complete separation of state and economics.”

In the same way, there would also be no regulations on the personal lifestyle of any individual. People who were gay, for example, would be able to get married. They just wouldn’t be able to have their marriage officially recognized by the government. But then again, neither would hetrosexual couples. Such personal decisions would be left up to the individual.

Even more importantly, three-fourths of Rand’s summary refers to things that have no obvious connection to politics. There is not a “pro-reality” party nor “pro-reason” party. There is also not a “man is an end in himself” party. These ideas are not matters of political dispute, and Rand’s Objectivism is not, therefore, primarily a political ideology.

It is important to emphasize this point for one very significant reason: individuals cannot do much about politics. Sure, we can argue with people and try to convince them of our own political views. We can also donate to or volunteer for, candidates. In addition, we can vote every two to four years. However, all of these actions do very little to change the course of human history.

The reason these strategies don’t work is that most people depend upon cable news networks and popular blogs to interpret the events of the world for them. So, unless you run a very influential source of news, you are not going to affect the behavior of voters very much. As a result, whatever your political ideology is, you are unlikely to ever see it fully implemented.

On the other hand, such things as being rational, respecting reality, being productive, dealing with other human beings through trade instead of force or fraud, can benefit an individual tremendously. So, when you hear people arguing that Objectivism led to the financial crash or that it is the product of “wall-street greed” or some other, similar idea, keep in mind what it is that is being criticized. At least three-fourths of the philosophy consists of advice for how to live a better life, regardless of what happens politically. Should you really throw out the entire philosophy because it conflicts with what “liberals” or “conservatives” or whichever political ideology you support, says? This is at least an issue to keep in mind.

So what did happen with Alan Greenspan? The answer is that he started off as an Objectivist, but renounced the philosophy when he realized that it would forbid him from becoming Chairman of the Federal Reserve. Since the Federal Reserve is a coercive, violent institution, he could not continue to practice Objectivism and yet perform the job that he wanted. So, he made a decision to renounce Objectivism. He then performed many actions at the Fed that would be considered immoral by Objectivists, such as printing enormous amounts of U.S. currency while simultaneously forbidding private banks to produce a more stable currency. As a result, Greenspan’s actions forced the next Chair of the Fed, Ben Bernanke, to dramatically reduce the supply of U.S. currency, causing a shock that devastated the global economy and caused misery for millions of people.

Greenspan’s actions were certainly immoral, but the lesson to be learned here is the opposite of the one we are usually told. Contrary to being a criticism of Objectivism, the story of Alan Greenspan should be viewed as an example of what happens when a rational code of morality is abandoned.

One more issue that must be discussed before I finish this post is the concept of “atheism.” Besides the political objections I’ve considered above, this issue of Objectivists not believing in “God” is the most prevalent argument raised against it. So, in what sense are Objectivists “atheists”?

The best way to understand this issue is to ask, “What is God?” Is the “Heaven” that Confucians believe in God? What about the Buddhist concept of “Karma”? Neither of these concepts involve the idea of a personal being that watches over the Universe. If these concepts don’t count as concepts of “God”, then are Confucians and Buddhists “atheists”? If they are, isn’t there some confusion, since we normally think of these beliefs as religions?

In the Objectivist view, “atheism” is indeed the truth. However, when Objectivists say “I am an atheist” or “I don’t believe in God,” they mean something very particular by that statement. They mean, in essence, “we believe in Existence” or ” we believe in reality.”

Objectivists approach the issue of “God” from the standpoint of the history of philosophy. In the 16th century, a belief in “God” meant a belief that there was something “above” or “beyond” nature, the Universe, or Existence. It is this idea that leads to Objectivists self-identifying as “atheists.” But these days, even many religious people don’t believe in “God” in this sense.

“Atheism,” in this sense, has nothing to do with Evolution or the Big Bang Theory. It is not a belief that science can answer every question that human beings are confronted with. And it certainly isn’t a belief in moral subjectivism, or the idea that “morality is a matter of opinion.”

This latter issue is the one that comes up more than any other when discussions arise about the existence of God. I often hear people say “If God doesn’t exist, than what is the basis for morality?” The answer to this question is that morality is not the product of anyone’s arbitrary whims, whether God’s or government’s. Even if there was a God, he could not simply decree that murder is permissible, as he allegedly did in the story of Abraham and Isaac. Morality is part of the nature of reality. It is a product of the fact that human beings are a particular kind of organism that must behave in a particular kind of way if we expect to have satisfying lives. It really is shocking to hear people disagreeing with this point, as I don’t think even they really believe what they are saying. Do they really believe that God arbitrarily decides what is right or wrong, that he has no rational basis for his decision? I would think that is not an idea that even most religious people today would accept, if they really thought about what it means.

So far, I have spent most of this post talking about what Objectivism is not, rather than what it is. So let me briefly state what Objectivism says about the nature of reality, knowledge, truth, and morality.

In the Objectivist view, Existence, all that we see and feel around us, exists. We are conscious of Existence. Existence has an identity. It has a specific nature. We can know the nature of Existence through reason.

We, as human beings, survive by using reason. But using reason is a choice. We can choose to be irrational, but cannot choose to escape the consequences of doing so, consequences which are set by the nature of reality. If we are completely irrational, we will die. If we are a little irrational, we will be unhappy. Our suffering will increase to the extent that we do not behave as our nature requires us to, to the extent that we default on the responsibility of thinking. In order to be happy, we must be rational.

In order to be rational, we must live by a set of moral principles which are called “virtues.” These virtues consist of the following:

  • Rationality
  • Productiveness
  • Pride
  • Honesty
  • Independence
  • Integrity
  • Justice

In future posts, I will explain how Objectivism, and philosophy in general, can be used as a tool to bring about a life of profound serenity and satisfaction. In the meantime, let’s just be clear about what it is and what it is not.

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What Philosophy Is (And Why Merriam-Webster Isn’t Exactly Right).

Since the application of philosophy to every-day life is the theme of this blog, I thought it would be fruitful to begin with an explanation of what philosophy is. In our culture today, it is especially important to discuss this subject because of the many contradictory definitions of the term “philosophy” that one often hears.

Merriam-webster.com defines “philosophy” in the following ways:

: the study of ideas about knowledge, truth, the nature and meaning of life, etc.

: a particular set of ideas about knowledge, truth, the nature and meaning of life, etc.

: a set of ideas about how to do something or how to live

These definitions raise several questions.

First, if philosophy is “the study of ideas about knowledge, truth, the nature and meaning of life, etc.,” does this include all such ideas? If so, is the study of world religions, such as Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, etc., part of the study of philosophy?

Second, if philosophy is “a particular set of ideas about knowledge, truth, the nature and meaning of life, etc.,” what is the point of studying this set of ideas? Shouldn’t we be paying more attention to practical matters, such as how to earn a living, how to have good relationships, and how to find happiness, instead of wasting our time studying a bunch of people’s arbitrary ideas?

Third, if philosophy is “a set of ideas about how to do something or how to live,” then are self-help gurus and motivational speakers engaging in a kind of philosophy?

These are not easy issues to untangle. I wrote an entire 200+ page book that provided what I think was  adequate answers to them, which you can find here. However, I think I can also provide a shorter, summary set of answers for those of you who haven’t read the book.

Philosophy first arose in ancient Greece, and was an attempt to understand the nature of the Universe, of human beings, and of human beings’ relationship to the Universe, through reason.

This latter part of the definition, this idea of “reason,” is the most important distinguishing characteristic of philosophy. Prior to philosophy, there were many ideas about knowledge, truth, and the nature and meaning of life. However, all prior systems of thought relied upon faith to justify their assertions.

There were many different world religions and many different ideas about the best way to live one’s life. There was no way to determine which one of these systems of thought was true or even which aspects of a particular one should be accepted and which should be discarded. As a practical matter, most people simply accepted without question the religion of their particular culture or nationality. This left anyone identifying with more than one culture or nationality wondering what to believe.

Philosophy changed all of this by taking the deepest questions of human existence and subjecting them to sense-experience and logic. The first philosophers, men such as Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, took questions about the nature of reality, knowledge, and life, and constructed theories to answer them. They then subjected these theories to criticism in the form of arguments. These arguments, in turn, were subjected to the science of logic, in order to determine whether they were sound or not. This gave human beings an independent method of determining what the truth was, without having to rely on cultural or national prejudices.

Although not all philosophical questions were resolved, there came to be a broad framework of agreement between these thinkers as to what the nature of reality is and how human beings could survive and flourish within it. This broad framework consisted of the following principles:

  1. The chaotic, fleeting world that we perceive with our senses cannot be understood by simply observing it. In addition to observation, human beings must form concepts or abstractions that place the objects of the world into categories that express these objects’ true essence. Plato called these abstractions Ideas, while Aristotle called them Forms. In modern times, they are called simply “concepts.”
  2. Great care must be taken when forming concepts. Objects must be placed in categories in a non-contradictory manner, through the method of logic. If this is not done, human beings will develop faulty abstractions that do not represent reality. If this happens, great harm will come to them.
  3. One of the greatest dangers an individual faces in the process of forming concepts is pressure from other people to conform to their incorrect ideas. An individual must always rely on nothing more than experience and logic to determine what the truth is. It is hard work to discover the nature of reality, and many people do not want to do this work. For this reason, an individual who does not rely on his own mind, but instead accepts the arbitrary opinions of others as the truth, is putting himself at the mercy of the weaknesses of others.
  4. If concepts are formed correctly, and reason is followed no matter what, human beings can not only learn how the Universe functions, but also how to survive and prosper within it. When they do so, they will achieve “eudaimonia,” which is also called “happiness” or “flourishing.”
  5. In order to achieve these goals, individuals must be left free to form their own ideas and make their own decisions. If they are threatened or killed by their government for disagreeing with the majority, as happened in the case of Socrates, they will not be able to benefit from the principles of philosophy.

Hopefully, this answers some of the questions about philosophy that I stated earlier. As you can see, although religions share some characteristics with philosophy, there are also important differences. In addition, there are also important differences between self-help gurus and philosophers. While religions and self-help gurus often claim to have the answers to life’s deepest questions, their claims are not ultimately based on any kind of logical argument. They simply expect you to believe whatever they say, based on either their supposed “expertise” of the subject or on “faith.”

This is not to say that there is no value in reading the works of self-help gurus or religious teachers. The ideas of both groups may turn out to be valuable even though they do not know how to prove them. But in order to know that they are valuable, an individual must rely upon reason. That is, an individual must rely upon philosophy.

In answer to the question, “shouldn’t we be paying more attention to practical matters, such as how to earn a living, how to have good relationships, and how to find happiness, instead of wasting our time studying a bunch of people’s arbitrary ideas?” the conclusion you should reach is that you need to study ideas precisely in order to do these practical things, and that you need to make sure that the ideas you hold are not arbitrary.

Philosophy in it’s purest form practically disappeared in the world around 2,000 years ago, as it came to be replaced in the Roman Empire, and thus in the Western World, by Christianity. Over time, what came to be called “philosophy” was instead a technical subject practiced only by university professors, that dealt with understanding the language of science.

However, the original meaning of the term has come to be revived in recent years, due to the popularity of the teachings of the novelist Ayn Rand, whose philosophy of “Objectivism” bears many resemblances to the views of the ancient Greeks.

In my next post, titled “What Objectivism Is (and what it isn’t, despite what you might hear otherwise),” I’ll discuss this contemporary idea of philosophy.

If you would like a more in-depth explanation of these issues, please do read the book. Here is the link again, in case you missed it the first time: Philosophy: What It Is and Why We Need It.

Hello World.

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My name is Tom Blackstone. I am the co-founder of the Objectivist Society of Savannah, GA, founder of the Kennesaw State University Objectivist Club, and author of two books on the subject of philosophy; the first entitled Philosophy: What It Is and Why We Need It and the second called The Philosophy of Dating (for women): How to Get A Great Boyfriend Through The Power of Reason.

I am blogging because I believe that human beings can live better lives through the teachings of philosophy.

I first became interested in this subject when I read Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead at the age of 18. Since then, I have relentlessly searched for ways to be more rational and to find the best path to achieving a flourishing life.

While I do not have all of the answers, I have learned much during this time period and am willing to share whatever I can with each of you.

In the future, I will be writing about many aspects of life, including: how to be financially independent, how to stay healthy, how to find and keep a loving relationship, and most of all, how to enjoy life and be happy every day.

With each of these subjects, I will bring to bear not only my own experiences, but also the wisdom of philosophers of the past and present. In this process, I will focus especially on the ideas of the ancient Greeks and modern Objectivists, the two philosophical traditions which I find to be most helpful to people today.

If you find that my writing is helpful to you or that it at least gets you thinking about the important issues in your own life, please join in the discussion by commenting on my posts or by e-mailing me at tomblackstone1@gmail.com.