“Ayn Rand’s philosophy, Objectivism, begins by embracing the basic fact that existence exists. Reality is, and in the quest to live we must discover reality’s nature and learn to act successfully in it.”
This is the blanket statement for what “Objectivism” means according to the Ayn Rand Institute. It seems fairly straight forward; existence exists. As a people, we ought to learn how to thrive in the objective reality that is our own. So how did this philosophy radicalize the 20th century and spawn countless devotees and equally harsh critics?
Well, because apparently recognizing that existence is a thing requires a lot more work than one might think. At least, according to Miss Rand it is.
Objectivism, of course, had been popularized (and demonized) mostly because of the shocking tagline that comes with the moral philosophy: Be Selfish. Besides Nietzsche, perhaps, Rand was probably one of the first advocates for saying that acting in one’s own self-interest is actually what is moral and proper. How does that work? What could possibly be good about being selfish and pursuing your own passions, rather than working for the greater good. According to Ayn Rand, these are one of the same thing. The only way to work for the so-called “greater good” is to work on your own selfish interests.
I’m not advocating Objectivism. To be quite honest, I’m not sure what exactly to make of it. It seems like it makes sense—but what good writer/speaker doesn’t make something sound sensible? I know there are plenty of valid criticisms on Rand and her philosophy, particularly her conviction that only a true Laissez-Faire Capitalist society is “moral”, and that she held quite a few severely negative opinions on gender, homosexuality, race, etc.
However, I personally hold a conviction that there are many invalid criticisms about Objectivism, that tend to come merely from people thinking they know what the philosophy is about. A lot of these “what-if” scenarios and straw-man flaws people find are actually addressed by Ayn Rand herself, and she disputes these claims as not part of her objective beliefs. Just from scouring the internet, and bringing up Objectivism between my own friends, I’ve heard countless misconceptions about the philosophy that I wish to clear up.
Claim 1: Why would anyone think selfishness is a good thing? What would stop me from murdering you right now and taking your money? That would add to my selfish interest, right?
Rand’s Actual Belief: Objectivist ethics hold that it is important to always act in one’s rational self-interest. This includes allowing other people to follow suit. If you murder someone and then steal their money, you not only deprive them of their right (which Rand does list as a right to all mankind) to pursue their own happiness, but you also indirectly make yourself dependent on other men for your own happiness. Ayn Rand declares that requiring another person to grant you life—meaning that they provide your living or reason to live—is immoral. You become dependent on other men by stealing from them. You become a looter, or second-hander, because it is not your own self that makes your money, but it is another man’s. Ayn Rand argues that living in anyway based off the whims or desires of the irrational is immoral. It is rational to earn your own money, because you require no other person to validate your happiness. It is irrational to steal from other people, because you become dependent on them.
TL;DR—Rand agrees with the principle that everyone has the right to pursue their own selfish desires. Murder and theft conflict with another person’s right to live. Also, you indirectly become a moocher or second-hander by living based off of murdering other people. You still depend on someone else, even if that includes murdering them.
Claim Two: If she claims we should always act in our own selfish benefit, why would anyone need a morality? Why does anyone have a sense of right or wrong? Why not just disregard ethics and do whatever you want?
Rand’s Actual Belief: This is actually the flaw I found in the video game, “Bioshock”. Bioshock is a game that acts in a dystopian society based off of Ayn Rand’s philosophy. It does a lot of things right (and it’s a fabulous game). But one claim the fictionalized Ayn Rand, cleverly named Andrew Ryan, makes is their society is above the “smallness of morality”. In actuality, Rand argues that morality is required to live. Humanity’s only objective desire is the wish to stay alive. We use our rationality to determine what is right or wrong for us, in order to stay alive. This is how morality came to be. Ayn Rand believes it is impossible to survive without ethics, because those principles are what tells us what would keep us alive and what would kill us. For example, one could argue that it is morally unethical to use heroin, because addiction often leads to death. One could argue that killing other people is morally unethical, because it is highly probable that it would lead to your own death (either your target kills you in self-defense, or you are killed by the society’s justice system…This also ties back into Claim One). Who exactly determines what is “morally” acceptable for a man to do? Ayn Rand claims logic. She believes ethical standards should not change between each society, but that the only moral standards we should hold are the ones that are objectively true. Objectivism claims that the only rational morals are what leads to one’s own self-benefit. Basically, always do things that keep you alive, happy, and feeling fulfilled. Don’t do things that would logically kill you or make you unhappy—this includes encroaching on someone’s right to live their own life.
TL;DR—Morality is man’s way of staying alive. We justify and condemn actions because they either help us live or kill us. Every man should have an ethical system because of this concept—it is the only rational thing to do. Of course, Rand believes it is only rational to hold her ethical standards.
Claim Three: Objectivists probably don’t believe in love then. The whole idea of love is that you act selflessly for the benefit of another person, right?
Rand’s Actual Belief: Rand actually believed that love is the most selfish thing one is capable of. Romantic love and pursuing your passionate career are the two pillars of what makes someone rationally happy (she even claimed that her success as a writer and her husband Frank O’Connor were the reasons she loved her life). But how can this be? How could Miss Rand herself depend her happiness on her husband’s love for her? Ayn Rand rationalized this because she is not happy because her husband loves her; she is happy because she loves him, and derives selfish pleasure from his love for her. One should always get selfish pleasure from their lover. To see them happy should make you happy. If it doesn’t, it is not a rational or moral love. This is not altruistic, because if your partner becomes a greater or more successful person, it would indirectly imply you are a more successful person because of it, because of your connection to them. You should love people because of the achievements they have made in life, something Rand calls “virtue”. The more virtue a person has, the more worthy they are of love. For example, Rand believed Frank was a virtuous man; he had good principles and was strong and capable. She loved him for it and took selfish pleasure in respecting her partner in that way. Likewise, Ayn Rand would never have wanted Frank to love her only because of the things she did for him, but because of the person she was. She would want Frank to love her because he believed she was a magnificent and successful person in her own right.
TL;DR—Love is actually the most selfish thing in the world. You marry someone you think is great because you get selfish pleasure for being in love with someone so goddamn amazing. Likewise, they should feel the same way about you.
Claim Four: Ayn Rand must hate Christmas then. The spirit of the season is giving presents to other people and acting entirely in a selfless way.
Rand’s Actual Belief: Ayn Rand actually loved Christmas. Like a lot. Not only was it the perfect stimulation of a capitalist market (think of all the money those manufacturers and corporations make from the holidays), but because of the selfish pleasure you get from giving people gifts. She did not, however, agree at all with the principle of giving everyone a present. You should only give a present to people who are worthy of it, because only then would it actually make you happy. Does it really affect you by giving your snotty distant relation a gift? Probably not, because you don’t care about them. But, when you give a gift to your mother, you want her to be happy. You might think your mother is so deserving of a present because of her “virtue”, that you would gain selfish joy at seeing her delighted. Also, it reflects well on your image to engage in the holidays. If you were the person who got everyone you loved the best gift they’ve ever received, you would gain a great deal of selfish pride and benefit from their gratitude. What a great way to bring Christmas cheer.
TL;DR—Christmas stimulates a capitalist society. You also gain selfish happiness by seeing those who you think deserve it, happy. The catch is, don’t buy presents for people you don’t care about.
Basically, Ayn Rand justifies a lot of the moral standards we already have in place through her own philosophy. We already know killing other people is wrong, she just gives us another reason for it.
(Note: My sources are mostly from “The Virtue of Selfishness”, the philosophy book written by Rand. Here are the other sources:
Link to the Ayn Rand Institute page: https://www.aynrand.org/ideas/philosophy
Link to interview where Ayn Rand talks about her love for her husband: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nhaxvXRdENg
Take all of her philosophy with a grain of salt.)