Ayn Rand Boiled Down

From Open Culture:

So what does Rand’s philosophy of objectivism boil down to?

Here is how Rand summed it up in ten words or less: “metaphysics: objective reality; epistemology: reason; ethics: self-interest; politics: capitalism.”

If I was going to break that down a little bit, metaphysics is objective reality, which means we can only rely on our mind and on reason. It’s our only guide to thought and action. Epistemology, reason. The only way we can know anything is through the reasoning mind. Ethics, self-interest. Rand claimed that selfishness was a virtue. It was virtuous to pursue your own interests and defend your own interests. And politics is capitalism because laissez-faire capitalism for her was the only system that allowed the individual to realize his or her full potential and to keep the fruits of his or her labor and not be obligated to others or punished for success.

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  • phil_style

    Does Rand distinguish between Selfishness and Self-interest in a sensible way?
    I ask because the quote from Rand herself uses the term “self-interest”, yet the commentator supplants/ interprets that with the word “selfish”…

    I think Michael Kruse wrote some posts on this distinction a while back which I found quite helpful…

  • I would say that the fact that she entitled one of her books the “The Virtue of Selfishness” should define what she means by self-interest.

  • Thank you, Bob.

  • She illustrated her philosophies with a lot of fiction, so that’s the best way to figure out what she means by self-interest. In Atlas_Shrugged, self-interest means building train lines to service other industries not with the motive of altruism, but rather with the motive of making money. For Rand, it is good to want to make money because it gets you to offer services to others; it is bad to be altruistic because it creates inefficiencies and eventually results in creating a corrupt hierarchy of leaders. I haven’t read much of her work, so maybe others can fill in the gaps.

  • It seems to me that Rand is simply arguing in a widespread fashion what Machiavelli argued for the prince. If you give any portion of your “Life” away you are in fact “dying.”

    The virtue of selfish may lead to the best possible economic engine. It is highly questionable whether or not it would lead to the best possible world.

  • Scott Gay

    There is no thought, mention, or consideration for children in Ayn Rand. I have no understanding of how this could be a philosophy of life.

  • MatthewS

    If William F. Buckley Jr.’s book “Getting It Right” came even close to getting it right, then she was an odd duck.

  • Phil #1

    Thanks for the remembering my earlier post about self-interest. We are all self-interested and act on what we believe is in our interests. That is inescapable. The issue is not self-interest but whether we see ourselves integrated with God and community. If it is integrated, then our self-interest (what we value) is deeply shaped by God and community.

    I confess that I’m not as up on Rand as I should be. My take, from what I know, is that self-interest and egoism were very nearly the same thing for her. It is unfortunate that self-interest and selfishness (i.e., egoism) are so frequently used interchangeably.

  • Tom F.

    I think the clearest (indirect) refutation of Rand is provided by MacIntyre in “Dependent Rational Animals” (and in other places.)

    On epistemology: we are dependent on other to help us develop and exercise our rational capacities virtuously. The enlightenment project failed in this regard. (And Rand is impossible without a heavy dose of Enlightenment philosophy.)

    On selfishness: we are dependent when we are children, when we are sick, when we are disabled, when we are old, and when we are cognitively impaired on the altruism of others. (Perhaps this is self-interest; I help you because I am most interested in being part of a community where I can depend on others. Self-interest is not the same as selfishness, so I second what Kruse says here.)

    On Metaphysics: there is a goal/telos outside of human beings that is not simply material/physical reality, and that metaphysical telos (Thomistic Catholicism for MacIntyre) guides human striving and effort ultimately, even as it acknowledges the importance of attending to physical and material (economic needs). The goal/telos is not simply the realization of individual capacities and abilities, but the realization of of a virtuous community. (Here I think N.T. Wright has a slightly more biblical vision than MacIntyre, but one that is very resonant with what MacIntyre is getting after.)

    On economic system: MacIntyre is deeply skeptical about the ability of capitalism to form these virtuous communities, mostly because capitalism encourages individuals to see fulfilling their own needs as the highest good. I don’t know if I’m quite as skeptical as MacIntyre here about all versions of capitalism. But I can go with him as far as this: to the extent that virtuous communities are threatened by capitalism, we ought to take steps as a society to shield those communities from the effects of capitalism. Rand, on the other hand, would see the destructive force of capitalism on communities as liberation and the removal of inefficiencies.

    Since I’m in considerable sympathy with folks like MacIntyre, folks like Rand and libertarians are probably the most opposite of what I consider important in a political/economic philosophy. I can get behind much of traditional conservatism (at least before it went off the rails these last 4 years). And I’m sympathetic to progressive strains that emphasize that collective good, although I’m also aware that sometimes government action can be just as disruptive to communities as the free market. But the libertarians seem, by my lights at least, to be going in a very wrong direction.

  • Jon G

    Could someone please link us to the Michael Kruse post in question?


  • SW

    Hmm. This is an interesting note on the philosophy of Ayn Rand, and the linked post on the distinction between self-interest and selfishness is very well-written. From what I can tell, most people have trouble with self-interest because they feel that, by definition, it excludes any notion of ‘radical-altruism’; “there is no such thing as helping someone for their own sake”, “the only reason you help people is because you expect a return, even if its only in warm fuzzies”, etc. This sentiment is wide-spread, as not only economists but even various psychologists and evolutionary biologists tend to make the same assumption (a lot of ink has been spilled over game theory and the prisoner’s dilemma, etc.)

    What Ayn Rand doesn’t understand, and what I think Kruse is trying to get at, is that “self-interest vs. altruism” is a false dichotomy. As strange as it sounds, an act can be self-interested and altruistic at the same time, with neither element contradicting the other. In addition to Kruse’s post, I found a NY Times Opinionator piece a while back to be quite helpful on the subject:


    Also, if you have the patience, I’d recommend looking at the authors/papers the op references, especially those of Prof. Neera Badhwar. They help to further lay out how self-interest can interact with altruism in a way that isn’t necessarily contradictory.

    Overall, this new examination of Ayn Rand in light of the election is leading to some very interesting and insightful discussions.

  • Michael Williams

    I went through an objectivist phase in my younger years. I find it interesting how Rand is getting so much attention recently since I have long thought that Rand was overlooked and dismissed by too many. It is important to note that Rand defines her terms very differently from how they are often used in most conversation. Rand defines “sacrifice” as “giving up something of greater value for something of lesser value.” With this definition it is hard to argue against Rand’s argument that sacrifice is inherently immoral. Rand’s definition of “selfishness” is more in line with the common definition of “self-interest”. In Rand’s view, giving of yourself for another, even to the point of death, is perfectly acceptable if you would prefer death to life without the person in question. Similarly, giving your possessions to another is moral if you would rather have the joy that comes from the giving. Ayn Rand would have loved the “cheerful giver”. I think it was in the Virtue of Selfishness that Rand argued that a man dying for someone he loves is selfish and a man dying for someone does not love is altruism. The difference is the free will and desires of the man dying. I find this part of Rand’s philosophy to have similarities to Piper’s Christian Hedonism. All of creation is for God’s pleasure and our greatest pleasure is found in God. So we follow God because it is in our own best interest – our faithfulness is selfishness using Rand’s definitions.

  • Patrick

    I strongly disagree with this woman’s philosophy because she seemed to worship greed and was an early on aggressive atheist. Having said that, she is partially accurate.

    Greed and freedom to create does create wealth relative(free market capitalism, which is not what we have) to socialism. Is this bad? For the unbeliever, not at all, it shouldn’t even be questioned, they are under no obligation to God.

    Is it bad for we believers?

    I think there is a middle term myself. Can we own a business and desire to make a profit and be in God’s will? I think so. IF we prosper, should we share that gladly with those who have not done as well? Yes.

    It’s all based on where your heart is, how do we treat our employees, when we do well, do we do well so we can help others(like Jabaz prayed) or so we can accumulate more and more stuff?

  • I think Ayn Rand was a much=needed corrective to the collectivism that was rampant in her time (she was a Soviet refugee, and at this time the entire western world was undergoing some fairly unprecedented socialist expansions, both governmentally and philosophically).

    It’s good to protect individual freedom. It’s good to admire the smartest, most effective, etc. Especially when they make it without playing the government for special breaks or benefits or rules that slant the table in their favor (she was as much against crony capitalism as she was against socialism).

    THAT SAID, her philosophy is sort of like iodine or ipecac. A little, as a medicine, when it’s needed? Good. Too much, as a guiding philosophy for life? Poison.

  • See the old Mike Wallace interview with her–getting it straight from the horse’s mouth

  • Robin

    I think it is right to look at her novels to try and understand what she was valuing, but to look at Atlas Shrugged and conclude it was about making money is the wrong conclusion. Her heroes in the book would have made far more money if they were willing to play the political games that everyone else wanted them to play. Their goal wasn’t just to make money, it was to retain their independence, to not to have to hire lobbyists and pay off politicians.

    If you look at her other major work, the Fountainhead, it wasn’t about making money at all. It was about an architect who was acclaimed and highly sough after, but who was asked to compromise his artistic vision, and he chose to destroy the entire project, lose all prospect of earning money, and face jail time, rather than see his artistic vision compromised.

    The heroes in her novels are INDEPENDENT first and foremost. Whether they are independent businessmen who don’t want to dirty themselves with political negotiations and backroom deals, or independent artists who refuse to compromise their art to turn a quick buck.

    She would have loathed almost every current major businessman, probably including Romney to the extent that they got in bed with politicians, or tried to get the government to give them special subsidies or take away the independence of their competitors. Even if they made a trillion dollars doing it, if they made their fortunes by using the government to tilt the playing field she would have viewed them as enemy number 1.

  • Mike M

    Diane explains it clearly (except the “probably” statement about Romney). In terms of being a Libertarian and adhering strictly to Rand’s ten second summary of her philosophy of life: there are as many flavors of Libertarians as there are Evangelical Christians. In fact the first Libertarian I met way back in 1982 was both gay and a practicing Muslim.
    Concordia College in Mequon has a business ethics track for Christians. So yes, it is possible to run your own businesses, make money, and still be doing God’s work.

  • Bev Mitchell

    Ideas like those of Ayn Rand call for a clear Christian response. A better response than Paul’s would be difficult to find.

    “This is how you should think among yourselves-with the mind that you have because you belong to the Messiah, Jesus:

    Who, though in God’s form, did not
    Regard his equality with God 
    As something he ought to exploit.

    Instead, he emptied himself,
    And received the form of a slave,
    Being born in the likeness of humans.

    And then, having human appearance,
    He humbled himself, and became
    Obedient even to death,

    Yes, even the death of the cross.
    And so God has greatly exalted him, 
    And to him in his favor has given

    The name which is over all names:
    That now at the name of Jesus
    Every knee within heaven shall bow-

    On earth, too, and under the earth;
    And every tongue shall confess
    That Jesus, Messiah, is Lord,
    To the glory of God, the father.”

    Philippians 2 (NT Wright’s translation)

    A great expansion on this theme is Chapter 5 entitled “Essential Kenosis” by Thomas Jay Oord in his book “The Nature of Love: A Theology”.

  • Tom F.


    “In Rand’s view, giving of yourself for another, even to the point of death, is perfectly acceptable if you would prefer death to life without the person in question.”

    But just take marriage for example. It seems clear that there are times when you will no longer “prefer” death to life with that person. Maybe I’m reading her wrong, but wouldn’t that indicate that once you no longer have that preference, you are irrational to keep giving of oneself to that person?

    This is no academic debate either, check out: http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/11/12/men-more-likely-to-leave-spouse-with-cancer/

    Being married to someone who is sick is very hard. It is not “preferable”. Apparently, in our society, men are more likely than women to leave their spouse when they are sick. And I find it hard, given Rand’s apparent understanding of “selfishness”, to understand why this is morally wrong in her system.

    To be fair, not all libertarians are Randians. But I wonder why libertarians of other stripes (say, Christian libertarians) are so quick to run to her defense. Her philosophy simply seems diametrically opposed to Christian faith.


    I think you hit the nail on the head. Rand was not crassly interested in money. She was dogmatically individualist. I just don’t see how her brand of individualism, which is to be applied to all spheres of life, is compatible with the Christian faith. Perhaps libertarian Christians are skeptical of political collectivism, but surely they are in favor of private social collectivism, or, more simply, in favor of the church?