Objectivism is a philosophy developed by the writer Ayn Rand (1905-1982), first in her novels The Fountainhead (1943) and Atlas Shrugged (1957), and later in non-fiction books, most notably The Virtue of Selfishness.
The main ideas of objectivism are:
- Reality is fully material and objective; it is not created or shaped by consciousness in any way
- Human sensory perception gives direct true knowledge of objective reality
- Further knowledge—and happiness and morality—require rational thought based on classical (Aristotelian) logic, especially emphasizing the law of non-contradiction (that A cannot equal not-A)
- The highest purpose of life is the happiness of each individual
- Morality arises only from rational self-interest; the right thing to do is whatever reason dictates is best for the selfish individual
- The only moral social system is one with 100% respect for individual freedoms and rights
- Laissez-faire capitalism is the economic system that best embodies these values
- Altruism is evil.
It is difficult not to be cynical about objectivism, a philosophy with clear appeal to people in the “it’s my life, I’ll do whatever I want” phase of growing-up. And indeed, objectivism has a reputation for appealing to young people, who usually grow out of it. Moreover, academic philosophers have, in general, dismissed it as amateurish.
On the other hand, some professional philosophers are objectivists; and one cannot judge the quality of a philosophy by academic acceptance. Objectivism has had a widespread significant influence on many people, especially American libertarians and conservatives. It provides strong philosophical support for the freedom of business owners to operate un-hampered by government regulation or concerns about how they might affect laborers or the environment. Still, objectivism can be used to justify the idea that government should not regulate capitalism in any way, or provide welfare; as mentioned above, according to objectivism, altruism is evil.
How does altruism become evil? Rand argues that it is perverse—un-natural—and irrational for any person to live, to any degree, for the sake of another, or expect another to live for the sake of them. She based this conclusion on what she saw as an objective perception that humans are naturally independent of each other for survival.
Although not accepted by many academic philosophers, objectivism has only become increasingly popular since its inception, at least with college students and a large American minority of libertarians and conservatives. Perhaps it’s strength is that provides simple clear justifications for other philosophies which cannot be easily dismissed—materialism, rationalism, egoism, romanticism, capitalism, and libertarianism.
II. Types of Objectivism
Ayn Rand’s first leading intellectual heir, a professional philosopher, Leonard Peikoff once stated that objectivism is a closed and finished system, with nothing to be added to it or modified. Nevertheless, during the 1980s, objectivism split into two groups today known as the Ayn Rand Institute (ARI) and The Atlas Society. ARI is devoted to the promotion of Ayn Rand’s original philosophy as faithfully as possible, while the Atlas Society consists of more independent objectivists who may disagree with Rand on some points.
III. Controversies about Objectivism
Is objectivism contradicted by scientific fact? The greatest weakness of objectivism is that some of its basic tenets (see above) clearly contradict modern science in that (1) physical reality at the quantum scale does not follow Aristotelian logic, especially the law of non-contradiction, (2) human sensory perception is not objective, and (3) that altruism, according to research, can be beneficial to the altruistic individual. Of course, contemporary objectivists have refutations of these criticisms, and one might say “well, even if she wasn’t a scientist, her moral, social, and political philosophies could still be valid.” This may be true, but since Rand claimed that moral truth must be based on facts and reason, her ignorance of modern scientific fact potentially calls her entire philosophy into question.
Briefly . . . (1) Rand insisted on using two-valued Aristotelian logic; a statement must be true or false, and cannot be two contradictory things at the same time. However in quantum physics, particles can be waves from one perspective and particles from another, and they can be in two different places at the same time. (2) Rand insisted that human senses give us direct true access to objective facts; she argued that optical illusions were due to a conceptual error, not a sensory error. However modern neuroscience and psychology disagree strongly; they say that the reality we experience is a creative and often inaccurate representation of real reality. (3) Rand considered altruism a betrayal of the self, however research has shown that altruism can promote the welfare and reproductive success of altruistic individuals.
Nevertheless, none of this seems to solidly disprove the moral, social, and political ideals of objectivism.
IV. Quotes about objectivism
“Ayn Rand’s “philosophy” is nearly perfect in its immorality, which makes the size of her audience all the more ominous and symptomatic as we enter a curious new phase in our society . . . To justify and extol human greed and egotism is to my mind not only immoral, but evil.” – Gore Vidal, Esquire Magazine, 1961
Popular author Gore Vidal here voices a common perception against objectivism—that it actively promotes what most people would call extreme immorality—total selfishness and greed. His comment about the “curious new phase in our society” is striking considering the upsurge of popularity in libertarianism and right-wing promotion of laissez faire capitalism since 1961 when Vidal was writing.
“In order to live, man must act; in order to act, he must make choices; in order to make choices, -he must define a code of values; in order to define a code of values, he must know what he is and where he is—i.e., he must know his own nature (including his means of knowledge) and the nature of the universe in which he acts—i.e., he needs metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, which means: philosophy. He cannot escape from this need; his only alternative is whether the philosophy guiding him is to be chosen by his mind or by chance.” –Ayn Rand (The Romantic Manifesto, pg. 30)
One of the pithiest statements of Ayn Rand’s philosophy in her own words, this quote provides the chain of reasoning that justifies rational egoism on the basis of an objectivist metaphysics (the idea of objective reality). The last line emphasizes one of Rand’s more compelling conclusions—the idea that human beings have a moral responsibility to think and choose rather than just reacting instinctively to change; Rand did not believe that emotion is a good basis for voluntary action.
V. History of Objectivism
Although objectivism has only been around since the 1950s, it is rooted in rationalism, materialism, and individualism, all of which have become increasingly popular in the western world since the 17th century.
Objectivism’s metaphysics appears is a naïve (uninformed) version of Newtonian physics—where everything is what it is, independently of everything else, entirely mechanical, deterministic, and governed by Aristotelian logic. This world-view was shared by most scientists and many other philosophers from the 17th century up until the scientific revolutions of the early twentieth century cast those assumptions into doubt. In fact, this “naïve objectivism” seemed like the only rational scientific world-view until twentieth century science discovered otherwise. And although quantum theory definitely violates Aristotelian logic, it certainly hasn’t disproven materialism or determinism. In other words, metaphysical objectivism, with its believe in a fully objective material world and nothing else, is still a competitive metaphysics today despite the questions raised by quantum theory.
Objectivism’s social, political, and economic ideals were also not invented by Ayn Rand, but she put them together into a clear simple package, easy to remember and argue for. Her social philosophy combines rational egoism with the glorification of human potential. Her idea that the best society is the most conducive to independent individual self-fulfillment seems loosely based on Aristotle’s ideal of the state (polis) as system for maximizing “eudemonia” (happiness and the fulfillment of human potential).
However, objectivism’s version of these ideals is more absolutist than most, denying that it could ever be rational or moral to compromise individual rights and liberties for any reason. Obviously, this absolutism is one of the reasons for its popularity among teenagers and the extreme right-wing.
Her egoism is also not original, except perhaps in its absolutism and romanticism. Rand’s greatest philosophical debt may be to Nietzsche’s ideal of the “superman” – a human being who has liberated his or her mind from the nonsense of irrational traditional thought, actualizing their own world-view and values through the exercise of reason and will. These ideas have influenced nearly all of modern western thought and could be seen in the writings of many 19th and early 20th century philosophers who may have influenced Rand
So, historically, objectivism seems to be an absolutist simplification and gathering together of several philosophies with their roots in the scientific rationalism of the Greeks and the Age of Reason, along with the main political and economic consequences of those ideals–commitments to individual freedom and responsibility, and capitalism. Regarded this way, its modern popularity is understandable.
VI. Objectivism versus Buddhism
There is no recognized opposite to objectivism; people have suggested humanism, relativism, subjectivism, and empathy. Buddhism is consistent with all of these philosophies, and moreover, since Buddhism is equally as atheistic and rationalist as objectivism, they make an interesting contrast.
Where objectivism states that reality is entirely independent of consciousness, Buddhism claims that reality is entirely made of consciousness; neither position has anything like definitive evidence for or against it, except that Buddhists claim that if one meditates, one will discover the truth of its claims for oneself.
Objectivism and Buddhism both argue that science, observation, and reason are the only ways to find truth. Objectivism insists on Aristotelian logic in which “A cannot equal not-A”; whereas Buddhism claims that propositions can be true and false at the same time, in different sense. Buddhist logic is more consistent with 20th century physics.
Objectivism and Buddhism both state that the happiness of human individuals should be our highest value and that one should choose one’s actions rationally in order to meet that goal. However, this is the point where the two philosophies radically part ways. Buddhists claim that thinking clearly about the world leads to the realization that all living things are inter-dependent and that the separation of individuals is an illusion, leading to a policy of universal compassion—that one should act altruistically towards all beings. Whereas objectivism claims that rational thought leads to the observation that all individuals are radically independent of each other, leading to a policy of universal egoism—that all beings should work only for their own happiness, disregarding all others.
In other words, objectivism and Buddhism while both rationalistic and atheistic, arrive at opposite ideas about morality.
VII. Objectivism in Pop Culture
Example #1: The Fountainhead
Objectivism owes much of its appeal to its original vehicle, Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, the story of a gifted architect, Howard Roarke, who represents Rand’s ideal objectivist—an ethical egoist who refuses to compromise his values in any way, making him a hyper-manly romantic hero and enabling him to accomplish works that display the glorious potential of humanity for productive creation.
Example #2: The Simpsons’ Fountainhead
This hilarious Simpsons parody of The Fountainhead seems mainly respectful of Ayn Rand’s philosophy, presenting the main idea in a good light, despite making fun of its egoism and appeal to conservatives. The parody seems to criticize Rand’s novel more from an artistic than philosophical stand-point, mocking its overly-dramatic rhetoric and romanticism.