Ayn Rand claimed that her system of ethics “is the moral base needed by…Capitalism” (1961, 33, all citation emphases original). Her moral defense of a free society can be stated very briefly as follows. Human beings must live by reason. Other animals may be able to get by on instinct, but the human animal cannot. This point is made particularly clear by considering economic activity since the industrial revolution. The exponential growth in quality of life by essentially every indicator—from life expectancy to population to nutrition to health to education to comfort and leisure opportunities to you-name-it—since the industrial revolution has been made possible not only by the application of scientific and technological knowledge but by innovation and entrepreneurship. These are the achievements of a rational animal and only a rational animal. But the achievements of advanced economies are only the most dramatic demonstration. In every aspect of life, at any level of civilization, we can and must employ reason to determine our interests, goals, and actions, if we want to be successful in the game of life.
Now, reason is a faculty of individuals. There is no group consciousness. The exercise of reason must always come down to the judgment of the individual reasoner. Moreover, action performed under the judgment of reason cannot coexist with coercion. When a person is coerced, he acts regardless of his own rational judgment—and presumably despite it, or why would coercion be necessary? Thus coercion is antithetical to living in accordance with reason, which is the only way human beings can live successfully.
And there is another point, which stems from the egoism for which Rand is so much vilified. “An organism’s life,” she writes, “is its standard of value: that which furthers its life is the good, that which threatens it is the evil” (1961, 17). This principle has two consequences as applied to human beings. First, human beings are organisms of a certain type, with certain objectively discoverable requirements, functions, resources, and liabilities. These facts about human nature strongly constrain what particular values and actions will further our lives and what will threaten them. Of course, Rand particularly has in mind that human beings must exercise reason to live successfully. She expresses this point by saying that the standard of value in her ethics “is man’s life, or: that which is required for man’s survival qua man” (1961, 23). Second, each person applies this standard of value to the pursuit of his own life. Human life is individual, as is the exercise of reason. One therefore holds “one’s own life as one’s ultimate value, and one’s own happiness as one’s highest purpose” (1961, 29). Therefore, once again coercion, which means that others impose their judgment upon one by force, can never be acceptable. There can never be any reason for others to do this—bypassing persuasive means—except to force one to do what is not in one’s interests as determined by one’s own rational judgment.
The ban on coercion is Rand’s core political principle. It means a ban on the initiation of physical force. One may not employ physical force against the person or property of another except in the defense of one’s own person or property. This principle is codified in a system of individual rights, including property rights. “Individual rights are the means of subordinating society to moral law” (1963, 13). With the observance of individual rights, the free society is created. Life in a free society is one of personal responsibility and interpersonal relations based exclusively on trade.
This is a system of benevolence. When coercion is banned, people must deal with each other by persuasion. People must deal with each other by offering values in exchange for values, not threats, demands, blows, expropriation. If another cannot see the value of what one offers, one may not force it on him. If he is wrong, it’s his loss, and someone else will be bound to see the value; if not, he has not been imposed on. People who use reason more effectively to find better ways of doing things are left free to do so. They may not be forcibly prevented by the stupidity, fear, and superstitions of others—who, be it noted, benefit most from this arrangement. For, the thoughtless will eventually, with the passage of enough time, learn to appreciate and benefit from the innovation which the creator has provided and which would not exist if it were left up to the thoughtless; whereas the creator will be liable to live better in any event.
Here we have a moral vision for the free society derived from claims about human nature and the needs of individuals. Instead of Nozick’s unmotivated “individuals are inviolable” and Hayek’s requirements of the “extended order,” which need not be expected to promote individual human happiness, we have a moral system based squarely on the aim of promoting happiness. We also have a system that makes moral values primary, not a potentially discardable means of achieving other, nonmoral values, as in Frank’s approach.
But a glaring problem remains, which is that no reason has so far been given why the egoistic individuals in Rand’s free society should observe the rights of others. Unfortunately, she says very little that directly addresses this difficulty. Roderick Long (2000, 46) notices a passage in which Rand says, “men cannot survive by attempting the method of animals, by rejecting reason and counting on productive men to serve as their prey. Such looters may achieve their goals for the range of a moment, at the price of destruction: the destruction of their victims and their own” (1961, 24). As Long observes, this amounts to saying that a strategy of parasitism fails because the parasite must eventually run out of victims. This is unpersuasive, for a variety of reasons, the main one being that its premise is false. For instance, we have been “parasites” on cattle for a long time, and we show no sign of running out of cattle.
At the end of his discussion of this issue in his critique of Rand, Nozick (1971, 218) claims that Rand never tries to produce any reason why, if two individuals had conflicting interests, either should refrain from forcibly interfering with the other’s pursuit of those interests. Instead, she claims that, “there are no conflicts of interests among rational men” (1962, 31. Von Mises 1922, 360–363 makes an essentially similar argument. It is an intriguing question how far Rand may have been influenced by it. It is well known that Rand was deeply influenced by von Mises. For example, see Burns 2009, 141–143. But I am unaware of any discussion of this specific question.). If her claim is correct, our problem evaporates: the reason why egoistic individuals should observe the rights of others is that it is in their interests to do so—or at least not in their interests to violate them. The essay in which she defends this claim makes many important points. She points out that rational interests is an objective notion in her (in this respect admirable) view, not just whatever anyone randomly desires. She notes that a free market economy is not a zero-sum game in which no agent can gain except by the loss of another. She observes that no one depends on any one particular job, good, or opportunity. She points out that what one person achieves in a free society is not taken from those who did not achieve it. She points out that competition, which entails that there will be winners and losers, is a condition of the existence of the market opportunities over which people compete. However, none of this is really very much to the point. Her argument boils down to the observation that the conditions of a free market are in a person’s rational self-interest. But this is not disputed (not by anyone who thinks a free society is desirable, anyway). The question is why a Randian egoist, who holds his own life as his ultimate value, should respect the rights of other people if he can enhance his own life by violating those rights with impunity. Why would that not be in the interest of a rational man?
The doctrine that there are no conflicts of interest among rational men leads to an important difference between Rand and Nozick in respect of their political philosophies. Rather than insist that the interests of rational individuals never conflict, Nozick admits that they can conflict. That is why it is necessary to impose side constraints on individuals’ pursuit of their own interests. It is also why it is necessary to have a political agency—one that is not motivated purely by self-interest—to enforce the side constraints. For, a purely self-interested enforcement agency would violate those constraints whenever they conflicted with its pursuit of its self-interest. For Rand, however, there are supposed never to be any such conflicts. Therefore, an enforcement agency, though admittedly necessary to restrain short-sighted and irrational people, should never find it in its interest to coerce or violate the property rights of anyone. Self-interest can be counted on to restrain enforcement agencies, which therefore would be best left to their own devices and even to compete on the open market like any other business. This being so, there really is no need for government—a politically controlled monopoly on enforcement—to exist at all. Rand herself apparently never saw this consequence of her doctrine, but subsequent writers were not slow to point it out (Childs 1969).
Rand herself says nothing serious in answer to the question why a rational egoist should not violate others’ rights, if he can thereby enhance his own life, beyond what I have already mentioned. But her ethics may yet have the resources to provide a satisfactory answer. The question turns on what a human being’s real interests are. What is in one’s real interest depends on what is good for one, so the answer will depend on Rand’s conception of the human good. In a general way, we have already seen what this is: “that which is required for man’s survival qua man.” Unfortunately, there are notorious interpretive difficulties concerning just exactly what she means by this. (See for example the discussion in Long 2000 and Badhwar 2001.)
On the one hand, she often talks as though the ultimate value is simply long-term survival. On this interpretation, long-term survival is the ultimate value, and all other values are rated by their propensity to promote or threaten long-term survival. On this view, the qualification qua man in the phrase, “man’s survival qua man,” serves only to signal that the characteristic features of human nature—the kind of being we are—shapes our most effective means of survival. In particular, reason is the means human beings must employ to achieve their survival.
This interpretation is the most frequent, and I think it could be called even the standard interpretation. The reason, in my opinion, has less to do with the precise wording of her pronouncements concerning the ultimate value than with the fact that it fits well with the doctrines and arguments she makes on related topics. Thus, she tends to give merely instrumental justifications for moral principles. The argument mentioned above that the life of a looter is futile because one will eventually run out of victims and then be left helpless is an example. Again, she famously claims that there is no conflict between the moral and the practical, and “the practical” in this context tends to be characterized in material terms (“whatever you must practice to exist, whatever works, succeeds, achieves your purpose, whatever brings you food and joy, whatever profits you” [1957, 1053]). Again, she regards the virtues as merely instrumental. (“Value is that which one acts to gain and/or keep—virtue is the act by which one gains and/or keeps it.” [1961, 25] And: “Virtue is not an end in itself. Virtue is not its own reward… Life is the reward of virtue—and happiness is the goal and the reward of life.” [1957, 1021]) It seems unlikely that she would say these things if she regarded virtue as an essential constituent of life. Rather, it sounds like she thinks that no particular way of pursuing life—no virtue—is intrinsically valuable. The only value that ultimately matters is “life,” and virtue is important only as a means to this separate end. This impression is reinforced by her remarks on ethics as a system of hypothetical imperatives in “Causality versus Duty.” These are worth quoting at length (1970, 4):
Life or death is man’s only fundamental alternative. To live is his basic act of choice. If he chooses to live, a rational ethics will tell him what principles of action are required to implement his choice. If he does not choose to live, nature will take its course.
Reality confronts man with a great many “musts,” but all of them are conditional; the formula of realistic necessity is: “You must, if—” and the “if” stands for man’s choice: “—if you want to achieve a certain goal.” You must eat, if you want to survive. You must work, if you want to eat. You must think, if you want to work. You must look at reality, if you want to think…
In order to make the choices required to achieve his goals, a man needs the constant, automatized awareness of the principle which the anti–concept “duty” has all but obliterated in his mind: the principle of causality—specifically, of Aristotelian final causation (which, in fact, applies only to a conscious being), i.e., the process by which an end determines the means, i.e., the process of choosing a goal and taking the actions necessary to achieve it.
The trouble with the “survivalist” view of the human good, from the perspective of our inquiry, is that it leaves her helpless before the question why a fully rational agent should not violate another’s rights if it would really promote his survival. She is forced to claim that such a situation is impossible. This claim is not credible.
On the other hand, it sometimes seems as if she has a more expansive conception of “man’s life” than mere long-term survival. That is to say, she sometimes writes as if to survive “qua man” means to live a certain kind of life, namely a human life. On this view, the phrase, “that which is required for man’s survival qua man,” designates in part features that are intrinsically necessary for a distinctively human existence. Thus, reason for example is important not merely as a means to biological survival—a means which might be dispensed with if one could somehow secure survival some other way—but as an essential component of a distinctively human life. And similarly for the other virtues, such as honesty and integrity. They are not merely useful for survival; they essentially characterize the only way of surviving that is human and thus fit for a human being.
As both Long (2000) and Badhwar (2001) point out, this more expansive view of the human good represents an Aristotelian interpretation of her thought (and is in consequence supported by her own claims to be a neo-Aristotelian). They also point out that the strongest evidence for this Aristotelian interpretation comes not from Rand’s philosophical writings but from her fiction, specifically from the noble attitudes and exploits of her heroes. An obvious example is John Galt’s willingness to kill himself to prevent Dagny Taggart from being tortured to make him talk. He states that this would not be an act of self-sacrifice, but if his own biological survival is his ultimate good, it is hard to see how this can be true. His statement makes better sense if his ultimate good is a distinctively human kind of survival, where one does not put oneself at the mercy of torturers and murderers. (See also the discussion of this example in Nozick 1971, 219).
The more expansive view of the human good on this interpretation of Rand enables her to explain why one should respect the rights of others. Namely, because to do so is an essential component of a distinctively human life. The question, of course, is whether this interpretation is very well supported by her writings. On balance, I’m inclined to think it isn’t.
But whether it is or it isn’t, it begins to be a moral vision for a free society that can explain why observance of the rights of others is something one should care about even where this conflicts with one’s material interests. Now, this interpretation, as noted, is broadly Aristotelian. This suggests that we should consider what a broadly Aristotelian moral vision for a free society might look like.
- Badhwar, Neera K. 2001. “Is Virtue Only a Means to Happiness?” Objectivist Studies, 4.
- Burns, Jennifer. 2009. Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right. Oxford University Press.
- Childs, Jr., Roy A. 1969. “Objectivism and the State: An Open Letter to Ayn Rand.” The Rational Individualist, 1 (10).
- Long, Roderick T. 2000. “Reason and Value: Aristotle versus Rand.” Objectivist Studies, 3.
- Mises, Ludwig von. 1922. Socialism: An Economic and Sociological Analysis. Translated by J. Kahane. Page references are to the Liberty Classics edition, 1981.
- Nozick, Robert. 1971. “On the Randian Argument.” The Personalist, 52: 282–304. Page references are to the reprinting in Jeffrey Paul (ed.), Reading Nozick: Essays on Anarchy, State, and Utopia, Rowman and Littlefield, 1981: 206–231.
- Rand, Ayn. 1957. Atlas Shrugged. Random House.
- ———. 1961. “The Objectivist Ethics.” Paper delivered at the University of Wisconsin Symposium on “Ethics in Our Time,” Madison Wisconsin, Feb. 9, 1961. Page references are to the reprinting in The Virtue of Selfishness, New American Library, 1964.
- ———. 1962. “The ‘Conflicts’ of Men’s Interests.” The Objectivist Newsletter, 1 (8): 31–35.
- ———. 1963. “Man’s Rights.” The Objectivist Newsletter, 2 (4): 13–16.
- ———. 1970. “Causality versus Duty.” The Objectivist, 9 (7): 1–6.