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Objectivism is the philosophical system developed by Russian-American philosopher and writer Ayn Rand. It encompasses positions on metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, politics, and aesthetics.

In brief, Objectivism holds that there is a mind-independent reality, that individuals are in contact with this reality through sensory perception, that they gain knowledge by processing the data of perception using reason or "non-contradictory identification," that the proper moral purpose of one's life is the pursuit of one's own happiness or "rational self-interest," and that the only social system consistent with such a morality is laissez-faire capitalism.

Rand characterizes Objectivism as a philosophy "for living on earth," grounded in reality and aimed at achieving knowledge about the natural world and harmonious, mutually beneficial interactions between human beings. Rand wrote:

My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute. [1]

Objectivism derives its name from its conception of knowledge and values as "objective," rather than as "intrinsic" or "subjective." According to Rand, neither concepts nor values are "intrinsic" to external reality, nor are they merely "subjective" (by which Rand means "arbitrary" or "created by [one's] feelings, desires, 'intuitions,' or whims"). Rather, valid concepts and values are, as she wrote, "determined by the nature of reality, but to be discovered by man's mind." One cannot change reality by simply wishing it were different. Man must deal with reality by understanding it, accounting for its constraints, and interacting with it in accordance with one's power to effectuate material changes consistent with one's rational desires. According to Objectivism, a subjectivist would hold values as arbitrary, and an 'instrinctist' would hold values as something unrelated to humans.

"Objectivism" was actually Rand's second choice for the name of her philosophy. Rand said that "existentialism" is the more appropriate term, because her philosophy recognizes both the metaphysical primacy of existence and the ethical goal of maintaining one's own existence. However, Jean-Paul Sartre and other Existentialist philosophers had already taken this term for a very different view. Consequently, Rand chose "Objectivism."

Rand published most of her non-fiction essays in her own newsletter The Objectivist and earlier in the journal she edited, in which only those who largely agreed with Objectivism were published. She did not publish in conventional academic journals. Much of the non-fiction Objectivist corpus is available only in the form of audio recordings.

Objectivist principles

Metaphysics: Objective reality

Main article: Objectivist metaphysics

The key tenets of the Objectivist metaphysics are captured in three propositions:

  • Existence exists.
  • Consciousness exists
  • Existence is Identity.

The axiom "Existence exists" affirms that there is something that exists. This is held to be axiomatic on the account that anyone who denies it has to accept it. For example, to deny that anything exists requires the acceptance that the denial itself exists. That one is able to recognize that something exists leads to the axiom of Consciousness. The axiom of Consciousness affirms that consciousness exists, with consciousness "being the faculty of perceiving that which exists." If one is able to perceive that existence exists, then consciousness must exist. Important in the sequences of this reasoning is that existence is not contingent upon consciousness. Existence does not exist because one is conscious of existence, but rather, one becomes conscious of existence because something exists. Finally, the Law of Identity states that everything that exists has an identity, that is, it has a set of characteristics or properties that define it as what it is (i.e., "A is A").

In addition to these three basic axioms, Objectivist philosophy affirms the Law of Causality as a corollary of the Law of Identity. The Law of Causality states that things act in accordance with their natures. These propositions are all held in Objectivism to be axiomatic. According to Objectivism, the proof of a proposition's being axiomatic is that it both (a) is self-evident and (b) cannot coherently be denied, because any argument against the proposition would have to suppose its truth.

Epistemology: reason

Main article: Objectivist epistemology

Objectivist epistemology distinguishes the manner with which we can individually translate our perceptions, i.e., that which we acquire through our senses, into concepts that we can store in our minds. While we can "know" that there is existence by our perceptions, we can know what exists only by turning percepts into concepts. Objectivists then draw a distinction between valid concepts and poorly formed concepts, or what Rand calls "anti-concepts," by asserting that properly formed concepts must be the product of reason.

Objectivists believe that reason can yield knowledge in the sense of certain truths about our world, and rejects philosophical skepticism. Objectivism also rejects faith or "feeling" as a means of attaining knowledge. Although Rand acknowledged the importance of emotion in humans, she maintained that the existence of emotion was part of our reality, not a separate means of achieving awareness of reality.

Rand was neither a classical empiricist (like Hume or the logical positivists) nor a classical rationalist (like Plato, Descartes, or Frege). She disagreed with the empiricists mainly in that she did not consider the distinction between sensations and perceptions to be meaningful. Thus, she did not believe in the possibility of perceptual error or illusion, only the misunderstanding or improper conceptualization of perceptual data. Neither did she consider the analytic-synthetic distinction to have merit, including the view that there are "truths in virtue of meaning," or that "necessary truths" and mathematical truths are best understood as "truths in virtue of meaning." She similarly denied the existence of a priori knowledge. Rand also considered her ideas distinct from foundationalism, naive realism about perception like Aristotle, or representationalism (i.e., an indirect realist who believes in a "veil of ideas") like Descartes or Locke.

Objectivist epistemology, like most other philosophical branches of Objectivism, was first clearly articulated by Rand in Atlas Shrugged. However, it was more fully developed in Rand's 1967 work Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology. Rand considered her epistemology and its basis in reason so central to her philosophy that she remarked, "I am not primarily an advocate of capitalism, but of egoism; and I am not primarily an advocate of egoism, but of reason. If one recognizes the supremacy of reason and applies it consistently, all the rest follows."

Ethics: rational self-interest

Main article: Objectivist ethics

If one had to reduce to a sound bite Ayn Rand's ideas on how humans ought to live, one would perhaps choose one statement that she wrote:

"To live, man must hold three things as the supreme and ruling values of his life: Reason, Purpose, Self-Esteem."

The ethics of Objectivism is based on the theory that each person is responsible for achieving his or her own [rational] self-interest. [How to reference and link to summary or text] There is a difference, however, between rational self-interest and what she calls "selfishness without a self" - a state of range-of-the-moment selfishness to promote a self that has no esteem. Thieves, according to her, are not motivated by a desire to live (as the man of production is), but by the desire to live on a sub-human level. Instead of using "that which promotes the concept of human life" as their standard of values, they promote "that which I value" as the standard of value; thus leaving a blank check on what is and isn't moral. The "I value" in that sentence can be replaced with "we value", "he values", or "He values" and still be a blank-check ethics-killer, according to Rand. She is not asking you to believe that either rational selfishness and hedonistic selfishness-without-a-self should be considered good and evil at the same time (as "double-think" may ask) but that the former should be considered good and the latter evil and that there is a "fundamental" difference between them. As a corollary to her embrace of self-interest is the rejection of the ethical doctrine of altruism --which she defines in the sense of August Comte's altruism (he coined the term), as a moral obligation to live for the sake of others. George H. Smith says: "For Comte, altruism is not simple benevolence or charity, but rather the moral and political obligation of the individual to sacrifice his own interests for the sake of a greater social good. It should be noted that Ayn Rand did not oppose helping others in need, provided such actions are voluntary. What she opposed was the use of coercion--that is, the initiation of physical force--in social relationships. The doctrine of altruism, in Rand's view, is evil partially because it serves to justify coercion, especially governmental coercion, in order to benefit some people at the expense of others." [2]

Politics: individual rights and capitalism

The transition from the Objectivist ethics to the Objectivist theory of politics relies on the concept of rights. A "right", according to Objectivism, is a moral principle that both defines and sanctions a human being's freedom of action in a social or societal context. Objectivism holds that only individuals have rights; there is, in the Objectivist view, no such thing as a "collective right" that does not reduce without remainder to a set of individual rights. Furthermore, Objectivism is very specific about the set of "individual rights" that it recognizes; as such, the Objectivist list of individual rights differs significantly from the ones adopted by most governments, for example.

Although Objectivism does not use the term "natural rights", the rights it recognizes are based directly on the nature of human beings as described in its epistemology and ethics. Since human beings must make choices in order to survive as human beings, the basic requirement of a human life is the freedom to make, and act on, one's own independent rational judgment, according to one's self-interest.

Thus, Objectivism contends, the fundamental right of human beings is the right to life. By this phrase Objectivism means the right to act in furtherance of one's own life — not the right to have one's life protected, or to have one's survival guaranteed, by the involuntary effort of other human beings. Indeed, on the Objectivist account, one of the corollaries of the right to life is the right to property which, according to Objectivism, always represents the product of one's own effort; on this view, one person's right to life cannot entail the right to dispose of another's private property, under any circumstances. Under Objectivism, one has the right to transfer one's own property to whomever one wants for whatever reason, but such a transfer is only ethical if it is made under the terms of a trade freely consented to by both parties, in the absence of any form of coercion, each with the expectation that the trade will benefit them. Objectivism holds that human beings have the right to manipulate nature in any way they see fit, as long as it does not infringe on the rights of others. From this, the right to property arises.

On the Objectivist account, the rights of other human beings are not of direct moral import to the agent who respects them; they acquire their moral purchase through an intermediate step. An Objectivist respects the rights of other human beings out of the recognition of the value to himself or herself of living in a world in which the freedom of action of other rational (or potentially rational) human beings is respected.

According to Objectivism, then, one's respect for the rights of others is founded on the value, to oneself, of other persons as actual or potential trading partners (whether it be trading in a material or emotional sense). Here is where Objectivism's claim about conflicts of interest attains its full significance: on the Objectivist view, it is precisely because there are no such (irresoluble) conflicts that it is possible for human beings to prosper in a rights-respecting society.

Objectivist political theory therefore defends capitalism as the ideal form of human society. Objectivism reserves the name "capitalism" for full laissez-faire capitalism — i.e., a society in which individual rights are consistently respected and in which all property is (therefore) privately owned. Any system short of this is regarded by Objectivists as a "mixed economy" consisting of certain aspects of capitalism and its opposite (usually called socialism or statism),[3] with pure socialism and/or tyranny at the opposite extreme.

Far from regarding capitalism as a dog-eat-dog pattern of social organization, Objectivism regards it as a beneficent system in which the innovations of the most creative benefit everyone else in the society at no loss to anyone. Indeed, Objectivism values creative achievement itself and regards capitalism as the only kind of society in which it can flourish.

A society is, by Objectivist standards, moral to the extent that individuals are free to pursue their goals. This freedom requires that human relationships of all forms be voluntary (which, in the Objectivist view, means that they must not involve the use of physical force), mutual consent being the defining characteristic of a free society. Thus the proper role of institutions of governance is limited to using force in retaliation against those who initiate its use — i.e., against criminals and foreign aggressors. Economically, people are free to produce and exchange as they see fit, with as complete a separation of state and economics as of state and church.


The libertarian Reason Magazine dedicated an issue to Ayn Rand's influence one hundred years after her birth.

Main article: Libertarianism and Objectivism

Libertarianism and Objectivism have a complex relationship. Though they share many of the same political goals, Objectivists see some libertarians as plagiarists of their ideas "with the teeth pulled out of them,"[4] whereas some libertarians see Objectivists as dogmatic, unrealistic, and uncompromising. According to Reason editor Nick Gillespie in the magazine's March 2005 issue focusing on Objectivism's influence, Ayn Rand is "one of the most important figures in the libertarian movement... A century after her birth and more than a decade after her death, Rand remains one of the best-selling and most widely influential figures in American thought and culture" in general and in libertarianism in particular. Still, he confesses that he is embarrassed by his magazine's association with her ideas.[5] In the same issue, Cathy Young says that "Libertarianism, the movement most closely connected to Rand’s ideas, is less an offspring than a rebel stepchild."[6]

Though they reject what they see as Randian dogmas, libertarians like Young still concede that "Rand was the most successful and widely read popularizer of the ideas of individual liberty and the free market of her day. In the 21st century... Rand’s message of reason and liberty... could be a rallying point" for a less dogmatic political movement with similar goals like libertarianism.

Ayn Rand herself claimed to despise libertarianism, and this is the position of most of her dedicated 'orthodox' followers.

Esthetics: Romanticism

The Objectivist theory of art flows fairly directly from its epistemology, by way of "psycho-epistemology" (Objectivism's term for the study of human cognition as it involves interactions between the conscious and the subconscious mind). Art, according to Objectivism, serves a human cognitive need: it allows human beings to grasp concepts as though they were percepts.

Objectivism defines "art" as a "selective re-creation of reality according to an artist's metaphysical value-judgments" — that is, according to what the artist believes to be ultimately true and important about the nature of reality and humanity. In this respect Objectivism regards art as a way of presenting metaphysics concretely, in perceptual form.

The human need for art, on this view, stems from the need for cognitive economy. A concept is already a sort of mental shorthand standing for a large number of concretes, allowing a human being to think indirectly or implicitly of many more such concretes than can be held explicitly in mind. But a human being cannot hold indefinitely many concepts explicitly in mind either — and yet, on the Objectivist view, needs a comprehensive conceptual framework in order to provide guidance in life.

Art offers a way out of this dilemma by providing a perceptual, easily grasped means of communicating and thinking about a wide range of abstractions. Its function is thus similar to that of language, which uses concrete words to represent concepts.

Objectivism regards art as the only really effective way to communicate a moral or ethical ideal. Objectivism does not, however, regard art as propagandistic: even though art involves moral values and ideals, its purpose is not to educate, only to show or project.

Moreover, art need not be, and often is not, the outcome of a full-blown, explicit philosophy. Usually it stems from an artist's sense of life (which is preconceptual and largely emotional), and its appeal is similar to the viewer's or listener's sense of life.

Generally Objectivism favors an esthetic of Romanticism, which on its Objectivist definition is a category of art treating the existence of human volition as true and important. In this sense, for Objectivism, Romanticism is the school of art that takes values seriously, regards human reason as efficacious, and projects human ideals as achievable. Objectivism contrasts such Romanticism with Naturalism, which it regards as a category of art that denies or downplays the role of human volition in the achievement of values.

The term romanticism, however, is often affiliated with emotionalism, which Objectivism is completely opposed to (though Objectivism seems to hold romanticism as more emotional [in the sense of merely being related to emotions] than most forms of art, and as less emotionalist i.e. relating to the use of emotions for decision-making.) Many romantic artists, in fact, were subjectivists and/or socialists. Most Objectivists who are also artists ascribe to what they call Romantic realism, which is what Ayn Rand labeled her own work.

Objectivists sometimes use the term Byronic to label the sorts of romanticism with which they disagree.

Academic Response to Objectivist philosophy

Although many academics ignore Objectivism, some academics have written on aspects of Objectivist philosophy in academic journals.

It is fair to say that, of people who are familiar with Objectivism, reactions are rarely neutral. Indeed, it is almost impossible to be neutral, because Objectivism holds itself to be factually valid, meaning that you either agree with it fully or contradict it. Rand's beliefs are often supported with great passion or derided with great disgust, with little in between. The general reaction of academia has been in the latter category, to the point where Objectivism is often not taken as a serious contribution to the field and therefore worthy of little more than dismissal. Critics in academia often conclude that many of the specific stances are demonstrably false rehashes of old errors, and even where the belief system happens to endorse true conclusions, it does so on a fallacious basis. For example, Robert Nozick, a prominant libertarian philosopher, largely agrees with Rand on libertarian issues but does not find her basis convincing.

Academic institutional support for Objectivism has increased in recent years. Cambridge University Press is publishing Tara Smith's The Virtuous Egoist: Ayn Rand's Normative Ethics. There are or have been Objectivist programs and fellowships at the University of Pittsburgh (Dept. of History and Philosophy of Science), University of Texas at Austin, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the University of Arizona and several other universities. And there are some 50 members of The Ayn Rand Society, a group affiliated with the American Philosophical Society, Eastern Division. Leonard Peikoff, Ayn Rand's legal heir, published a comprehensive presentation of Objectivism entitled Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand. Other works have been directed at academic audiences, such as Viable Values by Tara Smith, The Evidence of the Senses by David Kelley, and The Biological Basis of Teleological Concepts by Harry Binswanger. An academic journal, the Journal of Ayn Rand Studies has been publishing interdisciplinary scholarly essays on Rand and Objectivism since 1999. Whether this new scholarship and institutional support will result in a dialogue between mainstream academic philosophy and Objectivism remains to be seen.

For detailed summaries of specific responses to Objectivism, see bibliography of work on Objectivism.

Criticism of Objectivism

Rand's ideas have gathered emphatic criticism from many fronts. In fact, some critics refuse to even use the terms "Objectivism" and "Reason" with regard to her ideas because they feel that this would amount to agreeing to a biased framing of the issue, in that they question whether Rand's philosophy was in fact objective and rational. As a result, they sometimes use "Randian" or "Randist", which emphasizes their belief that the ties between the ideas and their originator are so strong that following Rand's philosophy amounts to merely following her. As can be shown by this article itself, it can be difficult to separate Rand and Objectivism, though Objectivism and its dissidents would disagree on why. A standard insult used against supporters of Objectivism is randroid, alluding to the ostensibly robotic devotion of her followers.

Some (such as Michael Shermer) see the philosophy as being a cult or having a cult-like mentality. Shermer stresses how members of the orthodox movement are expected to consider Ayn Rand "the greatest human being to ever live" and look at anyone that disagrees with Rand as "irrational." They consider this the opposite of an individualist philosophy and, ironically, similar to a collectivist one. Objectivists often respond to this by saying either that a) the claims are exaggerated, b) the cult-like practices were (unfortunately) irrational but do not disprove the philosophy, or c) such statements are justified because one's confidence in Rand is (or should be) based on reason and one's own individual, reality-oriented values. The defense is often a combination of (a) and (c). Rand herself saw some of this and, likely with irony, called her inner circle "The Collective".

Like other things associated with Rand, this topic is fiercely debated. The cult accusation is probably the most common attack on Rand and her philosophy, somewhat edging out dismissals of her as an 'intellectual light-weight' (based on her limtied academic qualification in philosophy and the claim that most of her followers didn't have an interest in, or knowledge of, philosophy until reading her work). Rand's defenders assert that the cult accusation distracts people from actually analyzing the philosophy itself. To this, Rand's critics reply with a denial of there being any cohesive philosophy to study, considering it instead a collection of reactions by Rand against popular ideas she opposed. This characterization of Objectivism as a lowbrow anti-philosophy is particularly common among those with academic backgrounds in philosophy. Objectivists equate this not with rational criticism, but with Objectivism's radical difference with contemporary philosophy.

It should be noted that being critical of Rand does not, according to many, mean disagreeing with her on every point. If anything, those most critical often agree with her on a number of points, which makes them particularly bothered by both the path she takes to arrive at these conclusions and the other conclusions that they feel she gets entirely wrong. Fundamentally, Rand's philosophy is considered an all-or-nothing proposition, yet many people only agree with parts. It is not uncommon for those who agree with her on either the matter of reason and atheism or libertarianism and egoism to disagree strongly on the other.

Criticism of Ayn Rand’s reading of the history of philosophy

Rand regarded her philosophical efforts as the beginning of the correction of a deeply troubled world, and she believed that the world has gotten into its present troubled state largely through the uncritical acceptance, by both intellectuals and others, of traditional philosophy.

Especially in the title essay of her early work, For the New Intellectual, Rand levels serious criticisms of canonical historical philosophers, especially Plato, David Hume, Immanuel Kant, G. W. F. Hegel, Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Herbert Spencer. In her later book, Philosophy: Who Needs It, she repeats and enlarges upon her criticisms of Kant, and she also accuses famed Harvard political theorist John Rawls of gross philosophical errors. Some have accused Rand of misinterpreting the works of these philosophers (see, e.g., Ayn Rand, Objectivists, and the History of Philosophy by Fred Seddon) -- or of failing to read them at all, and deriving her misconceptions second hand.

Rand's interpretation and criticism of the views of Immanuel Kant, in particular, have sparked considerable controversy.

Many critics take issue with Rand's interpretation of Kant's metaphysics: like early critics of Kant, Rand interprets Kant as an empirical idealist. It is a long-standing question of Kant scholarship whether this interpretation is correct; in the second edition of the Critique of Pure Reason, Kant claimed that his transcendental idealism was different from empirical idealism. Contemporary philosophers such as Jonathan Bennett, James van Cleve, and Rae Langton continue to debate this issue.

Other critics focus on Rand's reading of Kant's ethical philosophy. Rand holds that Kantian ethics improperly takes self-interest out of ethics: "What Kant propounded was full, total, abject selflessness: he held that an action is moral only if you perform it out of a sense of duty and derive no benefit from it of any kind, neither material nor spiritual; if you derive any benefit, your action is not moral any longer...It is Kant's version of altruism that people, who have never heard of Kant, profess when they equate self-interest with evil." Kant's defenders claim that Kantian ethics is primarily an ethics of reason, because the categorical imperative amounts to a demand that the intent behind one's actions be logically consistent, or in Kantian terminology, that "the maxim of one's act be universalizable." Though Rand denigrates Kant's system as the absolute opposite of Objectivism, some writers have even suggested that Rand drew on Kantian ideas without realizing it. "She despised Immanuel Kant but then actually invokes 'treating persons as ends rather than as means only' to explain the nature of morality,"[7] argues Dr. Kelley Ross. In Rand's favor, Kant clearly does maintain (in his Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals) that an action solely motivated by inclination or self-interest is entirely lacking in moral worth. Still, fewer commentators have agreed with Rand's characterization of Kantianism as self-sacrificial. The contemporary philosopher Thomas E. Hill has explicitly defended Kant against this charge in his article, "Happiness and Human Flourishing in Kant's Ethics," in the anthology Human Flourishing.

Another attack on Rand comes from her outright rejection of David Hume's ideas at the foundations of her philosophy. Hume famously maintained, "No is implies an ought," but Rand disagreed by arguing that values are a species of fact (see is-ought problem). She wrote, "In answer to those philosophers who claim that no relation can be established between ultimate ends or values and the facts of reality, let me stress that the fact that living entities exist and function necessitates the existence of values and of an ultimate value which for any given living entity is its own life. Thus the validation of value judgments is to be achieved by reference to the facts of reality. The fact that a living entity is, determines what it ought to do." Some, including the libertarian philosopher Robert Nozick, have suggested that Rand's solution begs the question by assuming that life is the highest value as a hidden premise of the argument. See also Objectivist Metaethics, Controversy over Ayn Rand.


  1. ^  Rand, Ayn. (1996) Atlas Shrugged. Signet Book; 35th Anniv edition. Appendix. ISBN 0451191145
  2. ^  Smith, George H. Ayn Rand on Altruism, Egoism, and Rights

See also

External links

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