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A philosophy inseparably connected to the name of its creator (and namer), Russian-American writer Ayn Rand.
Plato divided philosophy into four primary branches; Metaphysics, Epistemology, Ethics and Politics. Objectivism has positions in each of these areas:
Metaphysics is the study of existence (also known as Ontology) as well as the basic 'substances' which make it up (also known as Cosmology). Rand argued, following Aristotle, that Ontology was the proper area of Metaphysics and that Cosmology should be reserved for the physical sciences. Thus, Objectivist metaphysics is confined to an Ontology.
What is Ontology? Ontology is the study of what it means to exist. This is probably the most mind screwy it gets, because 'that which exists' is a broad category. However, the basic questions of Ontology can be summarized as follows: Is there something? and If there is something, does it exist independently of my consciousness?
When you were a child and you thought that by closing your eyes, you could make something you dislike go away - well, that was your younger self hoping that the thing you didn't like existed in a way that depended on your consciousness.
Objectivism argues that; 1) There is something. 2) That it exists independently of your consciousness and you can't simply think it into non-existence.
You may ask "how can I know this? How can you know this? How can Ayn Rand know this?" The problem with asking that, according to Objectivists, is in order to know something, that something must exist in the first place.
Objectivist metaphysics thus stiplulates three axioms, i.e. undeniable, irreducible facts, describe how reality works:
- Existence exists (there is something)
- Every thing that exists has a specific nature or identity ('A is A' or 'a thing is what it is'). A thing must be something, otherwise it is nothing.
- You exist, and you exist possessing consciousness, which is the faculty of perceiving that which exists.
The theory suggests that these facts are "undeniable" because to deny them requires them to be true. If you deny that existence exists, you have to exist (because only entities can perform an action like denying something). Additionally, this denial assumes you have a consciousness which allows you to think and perceive and process information.
Notions such as 'proof' and 'knowledge' all presuppose these three axioms. Thus, these axioms cannot be proven deductively, because deduction requires these axioms (specifically, "A is A" is required for deductive logic to work in the first place).
It is on the basis of these axioms that Objectivism embraces Atheism. According to Objectivism, reality must exist independently of consciousness. Any consciousness. This means the idea of Creation Ex Nihilo (that God created existence from nothing by sheer force of will) is a fallacy according to Objectivism. Additionally an omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent God conflicts with the law of identity (i.e. if a thing is what it is, it is only what it is and not anything else, and thus must be specific and finite).
Regardless of the above, the Objectivist position is that reality is real, you can't think it away, and all knowledge assumes that existence exists and things are what they are (i.e. there is something to know) and a knower with the capacity to know exists (i.e. you exist possessing consciousness).
The inverse position to Rand's is that existence is dependent on consciousness (or a consciousness) in at least some respect. This contrasting position is called metaphysical idealism, whereas Rand's is referred to as metaphysical objectivism (lower-case-o). Rand's position was also shared by Aristotle, although Aristotle was a deist rather than an atheist.
Epistemology is the study of knowledge. Classical epistemological problems include things like "how can we know something?" and "do humans discover the truth through faith or reasoning or both?"
Rand described her Epistemology as "reason" but this is a very insufficient description. Many philosophers advocate reason, but they all have different pictures of how this faculty actually works. So, how did Rand argue reason operated?
Typically there are two types of theory about how reason operates. The first is called rationalism, which states that people have in-born ideas within their minds (often called a priori or innate ideas) and reason works by making logical deductions from these two sources. In short, rationalism argues that human knowledge comes not from observation but from deducing everything from first principles. Philosophers that supported this position include Rene Descartes and Baruch Spinoza.
The contrasting position to this is called empiricism, which argues that people are born without any abstract knowledge (i.e. born tabula rasa, a blank slate), and must generate it from observation of concrete reality. In short, all knowledge must ultimately be based in experience. Philosophers that supported this position include John Locke, Aristotle, and David Hume.
A cautionary note: not all rationalists deny the usefulness of empirical knowledge (Rene Descartes, for instance, supported the scientific method, which is arguably practical empiricism), and not all use of logical deduction from a first principle counts as rationalism. Additionally, most empiricists do not believe deduction is worthless, they simply argue that the first principles must be empirically proven (this position is called empirical foundationalism and the majority of logical deduction that occurs is of this type).
Rand was an empiricist. She argued that ultimately all knowledge and deduction had to rest on empirical facts and that our senses were our point of contact with reality. She accepted that humans had no built-in ideas, and had to build their ideas from observations.
Rand's own writing on epistemology focused predominantly on two questions: the Nature of Perception and the Problem of Universals. Prepare for more Mind Screw, for these answers will be outlined.
Since empiricists like Rand base all knowledge on sensory information, the question of the reliability of perception is important to her case. This argument, "are we all just seeing one giant illusion?" became really popular in the aftermath of The Matrix. However, there are basically two theories about perception that empiricists like Rand are torn between.
The first is direct realism, which states that we perceive objects directly. If you see a soda can before you, it is actually the soda can outside your head that you are seeing.
The second is indirect or representational realism, which argues that the world we experience with our senses is our own consciousness's representation of things outside our head. In short, the sensory inputs get 'processed' through a series of mental 'sorting devices' that make sense of things before they hit our perception. Basically, the world we experience is a movie playing inside our own heads, based on what our senses pick up. This position may seem needlessly complicated, but is actually very common; philosophers like Rene Descartes and Immanuel Kant accepted it, and Kant's own version of representational realism was incredibly influential on his own intellectual successors (who in turn were amazingly influential on various political and philosophical movements).
Rand was a direct realist. Objectivism argues we do perceive reality itself, but we use a specific means to do it. This takes into account that our senses do indeed have a specific nature and thus they do operate in a specific way (this being the fact that motivated many representational realists in the first place). This is no place for a full treatment of Rand's account; a comprehensive review (for those who are willing to let the Mind Screw get into full on Mind Rape territory) can be found in Dr. David Kelley's The Evidence of the Senses (Cognition and Brain Theory, Summer/Fall (1984), 7(3, 4) 329-357).
The other problem Rand's writings focused on a lot is the Problem of Universals. The Problem of Universals is a very old problem that dates back to a lot of Epileptic Trees-level academic wank between a number of Catholic theologians about the Holy Trinity. Basically, the Problem of Universals deals with why we put slightly different things into the same categories.
You are currently reading this article on a computer (if you aren't, pretend that you are). In virtue of what is it a computer? It may not have the same CPU as other computers. It may look different. It may have a different graphics card. Yet all these different devices are placed into the same category. Why?
There are four answers to this question. The first is Platonic (or Transcendent) Realism, which says that there is a "form of computer-ness" that resides in a perfect, heaven-like realm, and we automatically recognize that the objects we call computers participate in the form of the computer. Plato originated this theory, unsurprisingly.
The second answer is Moderate (or Aristotelian) Realism, also called Essentialism, which argues that a substance or essence of "computer-ness" exists within the computer. Aristotle advanced this theory, and given Rand's reverence of Aristotle, some people interpret Rand as being a Moderate Realist. This, however, is a mistake.
The key thing about both of these theories is that the universal, or category, exists entirely outside our consciousness. It is completely independent of our consciousness, just like reality.
The third answer is Nominalism, which argues that the universal is merely a name that people assign to the object. As Roscelin (one of the theologians in the original theological wankfest) described Nominalism; these names are just 'the blowing of the voice' and are assigned for reasons that may have no relationship to external reality at all.
The key thing about Nominalism is that, wheras Realism makes the category exist independently of our consciousness, Nominalism makes the category exist independently of reality and dependent exclusively on our consciousness.
There is however a fourth answer to the Problem of Universals, and it is this fourth answer that Objectivism subscribes to (and it is critically important to grasp this answer in order to make sense of Rand's meta-ethics). This answer is Conceptualism, which states that universals are dependent on both consciousness and reality; the human mind makes abstractions from empirical data. Reality provides the data, the human mind provides the process of abstraction (which is a learned process that must be performed by a specific method).
Note that Rand herself denied she was a Conceptualist. However, as Saint-Andre ((2002), Conceptualism in Abelard and Rand, Journal of Ayn Rand Studies, Volume 4, Number 1 (Fall 2002), pp. 123-140) argues, this was because she misunderstood Conceptualism. Objectivist philosopher Dr. Carolyn Ray also identifies Objectivism as Conceptualist in her own doctoral dissertation (see chapter 3) (1998), Identity and Universals: a Conceptualist Approach, Electronically published by Enlightenment.
Regardless, Objectivist epistemology can generally be categorized as a form of Empiricism that supports direct realism and conceptualism.
In light of the above, Rand argued that there are two features to the nature of knowledge that are often missed.
The first is that concepts exist in a hierarchy; certain ideas assume certain others to be true. Remember how above, in the Metaphysics section, I said "axioms cannot be deductively proven"? Well, this is because they are the ideas that all other ideas assume to be true.
Mind Screw enough? Let's simplify. Let's take the following (comedic!) syllogism:
- PREMISE 1: "Ayn Rand was a woman."
- PREMISE 2: "All women are bitches."
- CONCLUSION: "Ayn Rand was a bitch."
(Please note that the accuracy of any of these premises or conclusions is not the point; the logic is perfectly valid.)
The conclusion logically depends on the premises. The premises can thus be said to imply the conclusion. The conclusion assumes the premises to be true.
The same applies to concepts; certain concepts assume that other concepts are valid (i.e. refer to things in reality). For instance, the concept of "orphan"—a person without living parents—assumes that there are such things as "parents".
The point is that certain ideas depend on the correctness of other ideas. There is a hierarchy of ideas, where certain ideas assume other ideas to be true (and ultimately, the axioms are at the base of this hierarchy, since all ideas assume the axioms to be true).
Rand identified many arguments that ignore this fact. For instance, the phrase "Reality is an illusion" ignores this fact when read literally in English; the concept 'illusion' refers to a falsification of reality and if there is no reality in the first place, there is nothing to falsify. The existence of reality is a prerequisite or assumption of the existence of illusions. This is a statement which, according to Rand, denies its own assumptions. She referred to this fallacy as The Fallacy of the Stolen Concept.
The second point about knowledge that Rand placed great emphasis on was that knowledge is contextual, i.e. it is knowledge about something in particular and thus only applies to that particular thing. Concepts have a context. This is also often missed, to catastrophic results. For instance, some socially conservative political commentators once accused SpongeBob SquarePants of being homosexual (keep your Spongebob/Patrick Slash Fic away from this article). This is an example of ignoring context. The term 'homosexual' refers to a creature that is sexually attracted to members of its own sex. As such, it can only apply to members of species that have sexes. Sponges do not, being an asexual species which reproduces by other means than genetic exchange, and as such a sponge cannot accurately be called heterosexual or homosexual, no matter how square its pants.
This fallacy, taking an idea relevant in one context and dropping it into a completely different context, is known as Context-Dropping. It is more empirical than the Stolen Concept Fallacy, and can also be said to apply when any idea derived from Set-Of-Experiences A is employed in Set-Of-Experiences B without any modifications to adjust for the different sets of experiences.
In conclusion, Rand emphasized the logical hierarchy and empirical contextuality of knowledge.
Ethics is the area of philosophy that deals with the concept of "the good." What is good? What is evil? And, most importantly, where do notions of good and evil actually come from?
This latter question is known as Meta-Ethics.
Now, this is the part of this long article where all the Mind Screw over epistemology actually pays off. "The Good" is a universal, and as such every one of the four earlier answers to the Problem of Universals has a significant influence on meta-ethics.
For a Platonic Realist, there is a form of goodness which exists in heaven and the good is that which approximates the form of goodness. Note that things in this reality can at best approximate the form of goodness; this entire world and everyone and everything in it are inherently flawed. If this sounds familiar to you, it should; most monotheistic religions have God as their form of goodness, and the Christian concept of Original Sin is arguably derived from this position.
For a Moderate Realist, there is an essence of goodness which subsists in things that are good. Thus, certain things are good in themselves, i.e. intrinsically valuable, independently of their consequences for any other entity. Some of the more extreme branches of the environmentalist movement subscribe to this theory and argue that untouched nature is intrinsically good.
Please note, although Aristotle was a Moderate Realist, he did not argue that "the good" derived from an essence. He argued that something is good if it serves its natural function; the function of a sword is cutting off heads and thus a good sword is one that is very effective at cutting off heads. This argument influenced Roman Catholicism via St. Thomas Aquinas; the Catholic doctrine of Natural Law derives from Aristotle (with God determining the natural functions of things).
For a Nominalist, "the good" is more or less a label. It is assigned for various purposes, but these purposes are determined entirely by human consciousness. There is no relationship between objective reality and the concept of "good." This position tends to be accepted by many Postmodernists and many epistemological skeptics (people that argue we cannot reach valid knowledge). At the very least, these people will argue there has never yet been a satisfactory argument that bases morality in reality, and some of these will argue a satisfactory argument that does this is either impossible (or at least very difficult) to prove or impossible to formulate.
Rand, being a Conceptualist, denied that "the good" exists independently of either human consciousness or objective reality. She argued that value (i.e. that which is good) means value for an entity. This means that the Objectivist concept of "the good" is not what most philosophers would call objective (which, to most modern academics, means that the universal the good must exist outside of human consciousness (Rand would call this 'intrinsic' rather than 'objective')), but nor is it subjective (i.e. unrelated to reality).
So, according to Rand, the concept "the good" originates somewhere within the relationship between human beings and objective reality. There is a feature of the human condition from which the concept of "the good" originates.
Objectivism argues that this specific feature is the fact that life is kept in existence by choice. You are alive. But you are alive because you have decided to keep living. Staying alive requires that you act to secure the things that maintain your life (food, water, etc). Your life is not kept in existence automatically, but rather by a constant process of self-generated action.
This is what Rand meant when she said "without life, the concept of value is impossible." Moral concepts are a human subject's response to an inescapable, objective fact about the human condition.
Many arguments against Rand target this element of her philosophy. She basically said that there is a pre-moral choice that individual human beings have to make before morality becomes relevant. Morality emerges from this specific context; just like all concepts come from a specific context. This context just happens to be individual human beings that choose to live.
Remember: if you just sit down and make absolutely no choices at all, you will do nothing. Do nothing for a sufficiently long span of time, and you will die.
Basically, Objectivism argues that the purpose of moral concepts is to facilitate human life. Thus, for any agent, the good is that which facilitates and advances their life (which is determined by their (human) nature).
Again, note the contextuality of this: Rand was talking about human beings that have decided to live. This standard may or may not apply to any hypothetical vampires, aliens, mutants, Eldritch Abominations etc. Additionally, Objectivist ethics deals with life, which is not a constant parade of emergency situations like Alien Invasion and Zombie Apocalypse scenarios. Complex situational analysis is required for any specific moral dilemma, and all Objectivism can do is provide very broad principles about what can be generally said to be moral. Thus, Objectivism does not claim it will provide easy, pre-packaged "right or wrong" answers that relieve Objectivists of the responsibility to apply the principles themselves.
Now we know what "the good" is. So, what is good? This begins the normative ethics, where Objectivism outlines a series of virtues that generally will lead to the acquisition and maintenance of "the good". To avoid taking too much time, Objectivism places emphasis on being rational (using reason as best one can), thinking for oneself (looking at the facts of reality as they present themselves to you, rather than depending on the opinions of others), developing confidence in one's competencies and striving towards one's goals.
So, now we know the Objectivist picture of the good. What is the evil? The evil for any agent is that which constrains or damages their life (and that which is counterproductive for their life is determined by their (human) nature).
Important point: humans have a specific nature which means that, in general, the interests of all human beings are in harmony. Rand specifically denied that the world is a zero sum game (economically speaking). Success and happiness for any specific agent does not necessitate that any other agent has lost out.
A final important point to make about human nature is that human beings must operate through the use of their reason. And reason does not operate under violence, deception or threats thereof. This point is the foundation of Objectivist politics (see part 4). Force, Fraud and Coercion (Force being a person's use of violence against another, Fraud being a person's use of fraud against another, and Coercion being one person using threats of either against another) are absolute evils because they essentially 'paralyze' the victim's rationality. The victim thus is forced to a subhuman level. The perpetrator also is made subhuman; they are attempting to use methods other than their human reason to live. The point; Force, Fraud and Coercion are evil because they damage human life.
This is the shortest section because all the previous groundwork has been laid. As stated before, Rand argued that no individual should be permitted to start the use of Force, Fraud or Coercion against any other individual (this means she accepted what political scientists refer to as negative liberty).
Politics is the field of philosophy that deals with the proper role of the State. The State is defined as an institution that holds exclusive ability to legitimately start the use of force in a specific area. There are multiple answers to this question. For instance, Anarchism argues that the State should not exist. Classical Liberalism or Minarchism argue that the State can be justified if it defends negative liberty. Modern Liberalism (Liberal as understood in the United States) argues that the State has a legitimate role in providing what political philosophers call positive liberty (which basically means the means to do a specific thing, such as (for example) purchase health care or receive education), usually by having the State provide that-which-one-should-have-positive-liberty-to-do (the actual things that individuals should have positive liberty to do are often debated by many modern liberals). Conservatism (as the term is presently understood in the United States) argues that the State has a legitimate role in protecting traditional beliefs and customs from threats (what beliefs and customs should be protected, and what constitutes a threat to them, is debated by many conservatives). Finally, there are ideologies such as Fascism and State Socialism which argue that the State should be the primary organizer of human activity.
Objectivism supports Classical Liberalism/Minarchism and argues that the role of the State should be restricted to defending negative liberty. This logically implies that the State should not interfere in any human actions that do not involve force, fraud or coercion. For example, voluntary economic activity conducted by fully informed, consenting individuals, should not be restricted in any way. The same applies to capitalist acts between Consenting Adults ranging from voluntary prostitution to consumption of drugs. This is what Rand and other Libertarians mean by Laissez-Faire Capitalism. They are not defending Corrupt Corporate Executives, MegaCorps, or Peace and Love Incorporated. Also, they are not using the Marxist or anarchist meanings of the term "capitalism," they are referring to "free market economics" first and foremost.
It has to be emphasised again, however, that this is where most of the Flanderization/misrepresentation of Rand comes from; the fact that both Corrupt Corporate Executive types, and their critics, tend to believe that Rand was in support of amoral/destructive forms of Capitalism.
To those that have read the Political Ideologies page, this should not come as a surprise. Rand is a textbook case of a Classical Liberal and Objectivism embraces a very similar theory of human nature to that of the Enlightenment philosophers (i.e. human reason as effective, humans possessing rationality and free will).
Note that even amongst Objectivists there is some debate over the finer points of politics. Some are sympathetic to anarchism and think that the ideal society would have no state. Others are more moderate than Rand but are still undeniably Libertarians generally speaking. But the basic political principle of Objectivism is the sovereignty of the individual self over their own life and body. This is often summarized as the Non-Initiation of Force or Non-Aggression principle; that as long as no one initiates Force, Fraud or Coercion, all is good.
THE DOCTRINE OF ALTRUISM
We now move from the Mind Screw to the Flame Bait. Normally, this would be dealt with under ethics, but several of Rand's arguments against altruism were political in character. The issue of altruism is unquestioningly the area in which the vast majority of misunderstandings of Objectivism exist as well as the area where sacred cows are slaughtered.
Rand did not agree with altruism. She explicitly rejected the doctrine and considered it, essentially, a suicide morality that was advanced by power-crazed wannabe-dictators for the purposes of cloaking their Evil Plan in the robes of benevolence.
To most people, the charges she leveled at altruism wildly vary with what they have been told altruism actually means. To most people, altruism means (more or less) be kind to other people and refrain from being a Jerkass.
This common definition of altruism is most emphatically not the definition Rand has in mind. Nor did she ever say that giving to charitable/philanthropic causes was bad (as explained in her nonfiction essays written after Atlas Shrugged, if someone honestly chose to use their money/time that way, it was their business), only the presumption of it as a moral duty.
The word "altruism" was coined by Auguste Comte. He defined it as live for others and intended it to mean, basically, that a person can be called noble if the ultimate end of their actions is the benefit of others. In other words, the motive of service to others is intrinsically virtuous.
It is this definition of altruism that Rand was attacking. And Rand was not the only person to consider it insane. John Stuart Mill, a Utilitarian philosopher (not an ethical egoist like Rand), was quite shocked at the implications of Comte's definition. For more on this, please see Robert L. Campbell's Altruism in Comte and Rand, The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies 7, no. 2 (Spring 2006): 357 to 369.
Rand argued that Comtean Altruism essentially results in a situation where the ends justifies the means with "others" as the end. As long as the intended end is the benefit of others, anything goes. For someone as concerned as she was with individual liberty, this is an understandable concern; Comtean Altruism can easily justify revoking the liberty of individuals if it is "for their own good."
Unfortunately, Auguste Comte's original definition was made much Lighter and Softer by many people that continued to use the word he originally coined to mean things much less severe than Comte originally intended.
This Lighter and Softer version of altruism has, unfortunately for Rand, had such an influence on ethical discourse that altruism became, in the minds of most people, a synonym for good. And if "the good" and "good for others" became equated, then it was only a matter of time before "good for the self" became equated with evil.
Rand's case against altruism is composed of multiple arguments. The first is that altruism does not actually define "the good", what makes an action good is the intended beneficiary of it (i.e. other people). This in turn is the basis for her aforementioned political argument; that the doctrine can justify revoking individual rights "for the good of others."
Rand also saw Comte's Altruism not as a new idea, but as a variant of a long string of very old ideas that she opposed. Altruism argues that the self must serve others, but there are many ethical traditions that argue the self must also serve something other than itself in order to justify the self's existence. For instance, monotheistic religions generally argue that individuals must serve God. Feudalism argued that individuals must serve their Monarchs. The common thread is that the individual must forego being concerned with their own interests and instead live for something outside themself; they must sacrifice themself for something else.
Rand assembled a very long list of traditions and ideas she believes to be related to, a cause of, or a consequence of, the basic belief that a human's highest moral duty is to serve something that isn't themself.
The idea she argued is the foundational cause of this belief is Original Sin. Original Sin is not merely the idea that Humans Are Flawed but that they are intrinsically flawed; to be evil is part of human nature. Objectivism rejects this idea because the nature of things is amoral; morality applies only in situations where choice exists and because a thing is what it is, it cannot choose its nature. Objectivism also argues that Original Sin is a belief from Platonic Realism in epistemology.
As stated before, Platonic Realism is the idea that universals, including "the good," exist in a transcendent realm of perfection beyond our world. An implication of this idea is our world is inherently flawed; it can only approximate "the good" and it can never match it. Original Sin is the application of this to human beings.
Because, according to this idea, humans are intrinsically flawed, they have to justify their existence. How? By sacrifice and service to something greater than themselves. Enter various codes of selfless morality, each promoting a different thing to serve; a tribe, a god, a king, a country... the Aryan race, the universal brotherhood of the proletariat, the list goes on.
In short, Rand argued that Auguste Comte's definition of Altruism is the best encapsulator of a long-existent moral tradition based in Platonic misanthropy, exploited by the power-hungry and used to control people. It is used to justify heinous acts and violate individual rights. Finally, it does not actually serve the function of an ethical code in the first place; it fails to give guidance on how to live: it essentially states that one must sacrifice their values/life to others (which in turn makes their life impossible/unbearable), in order to deserve the right to live. Likewise, if one chooses to instead live their life with their values, then they are denounced as evil and unfit to live by society. This simple contradiction makes Altruism, in Rand's eyes, a morality completely impossible to practice.