I've only read four books by Ayn Rand so far – Atlas Shrugged, Fountainhead, Capitalism: the Unknown Ideal, and Night of January 16th. While I read most of these 30 years ago, I did review Capitalism: the Unknown Ideal a few years ago, while writing BFN.
Recently I got interested in her book, The Virtue of Selfishness (VOS) from a short online extract that I had chanced upon (and so I wrote this blog post). I also ordered the book which recently arrived and I'm now reading (when my eyes – which are really sore – momentarily permit me).
The first chapter of the book, entitled, "The Objectivist Ethics", is brilliant!
As I went through it I realised how close it is in conception to portions of Chapter 4 of my draft manuscript The Discovery of Freedom
(DOF), Later I discovered today (here
) that Ayn Rand was anti-libertarian, which was reassuring. I also found that she had misunderstood Hayek, and possibly Mill. Despite that, I hold that Ayn Rand was a major classical liberal philosopher, and recommend her writings even if I don't agree with every word of what she says.
The key difference I have with Ayn Rand in this particular essay is this: that while she agrees that life is of ultimate value, she then imposes her own views – "Reason, Purpose, and Self-Esteem" – as being key values.
I agree with her values and her intent, but in principle I couldn't care what value system Ayn Rand (or anyone) believes in. I'm only interested in freedom – subject to accountability. It doesn't matter whether you are reasonable or unreasonable; whether you have a purpose in life or no purpose. All I care is that you remain free to do whatever you wish to, so long as you are held to account for your contracts, your words, your deeds. That is the key: freedom subject to accountability.
While in Proposition 1 in Chapter 4 of DOF I suggest that life is of ultimate value (very similar language, coincidentally, to Ayn Rand's!), I insist in proposition 2 that freedom is the basic value or property that allows us to uphold our life. Life and liberty are therefore co-equals.
Since Ayn Rand is a great votary of freedom, I guess the difference I have with her is on approach, not the content.
There are other wonderful essays I've found in VOS, as well (e.g. on racism). An excellent book.
The entire essay, "The Objectivist Ethics", is available here
. Ayn Rand was very fussy about intellectual property and even after her death, the Ayn Rand followers insist that dissemination of her message is prohibited! You either buy the book, or read what they put out. Mises had a different approach, and so did Hayek. I believe that the message of liberty must be widely radiated
. It must be spread free of cost to the extent feasible. [Btw, on searching further, I have now found the entire book, VOS, here, in PDF format
Since I can't reproduce the entire essay here, let me highlight key sections – those I particularly liked and those where I have some differences.
EXTRACT FROM "The Objectivist Ethics" (1961)
Since I am to speak on the Objectivist Ethics, I shall begin by quoting its best representative—John Galt, in Atlas Shrugged
“Through centuries … no one rose to ask the question: Good?—by what standard? … What is morality, or ethics? It is a code of values to guide man’s choices and actions—the choices and actions that determine the purpose and the course of his life. Ethics, as a science, deals with discovering and defining such a code.
The first question that has to be answered, as a precondition of any attempt to define, to judge or to accept any specific system of ethics, is: Why does man need a code of values?
Let me stress this. The first question is not: What particular code of values should man accept? The first question is: Does man need values at all—and why?
To challenge the basic premise of any discipline, one must begin at the beginning. In ethics, one must begin by asking: What are values? Why does man need them?
“Value” is that which one acts to gain and/or keep. The concept “value” is not a primary; it presupposes an answer to the question: of value to whom and for what? It presupposes an entity capable of acting to achieve a goal in the face of an alternative. Where no alternative exists, no goals and no values are possible.
Only a living
entity can have goals or can originate them. And it is only a living organism that has the capacity for self-generated, goal-directed action. On the physical
level, the functions of all living organisms, from the simplest to the most complex—from the nutritive function in the single cell of an amoeba to the blood circulation in the body of a man—are actions generated by the organism itself and directed to a single goal: the maintenance of the organism’s life
Life can be kept in existence only by a constant process of self-sustaining action. The goal of that action, the ultimate value which, to be kept, must be gained through its every moment, is the organism’s life.
An ultimate value is that final goal or end to which all lesser goals are the means—and it sets the standard by which all lesser goals are evaluated. An organism’s life is its standard of value: that which furthers its life is the good, that which threatens it is the evil.
Without an ultimate goal or end, there can be no lesser goals or means: a series of means going off into an infinite progression toward a nonexistent end is a metaphysical and epistemological impossibility. It is only an ultimate goal, an end in itself, that makes the existence of values possible.
What, then, are the right goals for man to pursue? What are the values his survival requires? That is the question to be answered by the science of ethics. And this, ladies and gentlemen, is why man needs a code of ethics.
Ethics is not a mystic fantasy—nor a social convention—nor a dispensable, subjective luxury, to be switched or discarded in any emergency. Ethics is an objective, metaphysical necessity of man’s survival—not by the grace of the supernatural nor of your neighbors nor of your whims, but by the grace of reality and the nature of life.
The Objectivist ethics holds man’s life as the standard of value—and his own life as the ethical purpose of every individual man.
Value is that which one acts to gain and/or keep—virtue is the act by which one gains and/or keeps it. The three cardinal values of the Objectivist ethics—the three values which, together, are the means to and the realization of one’s ultimate value, one’s own life—are: Reason, Purpose, Self-Esteem, with their three corresponding virtues: Rationality, Productiveness, Pride. [Note: I think here Ayn Rand has jumped the gun, and while I agree these things are important, it is freedom that is the most direct embodiment of human values].
The basic social principle of the Objectivist ethics is that just as life is an end in itself, so every living human being is an end in himself, not the means to the ends or the welfare of others—and, therefore, that man must live for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself. To live for his own sake means that the achievement of his own happiness is man’s highest moral purpose. [Note: Recall the earlier articulation of this principle by Kant]
This is the fallacy inherent in hedonism—in any variant of ethical hedonism, personal or social, individual or collective. “Happiness” can properly be the purpose of ethics, but not the standard.
The principle of trade is the only rational ethical principle for all human relationships, personal and social, private and public, spiritual and material. It is the principle of justice. [Note: here Ayn Rand arrives at the principle of justice which, in my view, counterblances freedom perfectly. Freedom is always subject to accountability]
The only proper, moral purpose of a government is to protect man’s rights, which means: to protect him from physical violence—to protect his right to his own life, to his own liberty, to his own property and to the pursuit of his own happiness. Without property rights, no other rights are possible. [Note: At this point, Ayn Rand clearly agrees there must be a Government. She is not an anarchist. She, however, wants a limited government. This is a typical classical liberal position].
When I say “capitalism,” I mean a full, pure, uncontrolled, unregulated laissez-faire capitalism—with a separation of state and economics, in the same way and for the same reasons as the separation of state and church. [Note: this is a self-contradiction. Most regulation is intended to help the government deliver its function of protection of life, liberty and property. To say that there should be no regulation would amount to preventing the state from delivering on its limited functions that Ayn Rand has articulated earlier. Such language is misleading, and indeed, does create confusion in the minds of casual readers. Surely Ayn Rand did not mean "unregulated" laissez-faire. The regulation must be appropriate to the task of ensuring our life and liberty. That is a reasonable restriction on laissez-faire.]
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