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.
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:
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.