On Ayn Rand: Is Rational Selfishness Rational and Self-Affirming Enough?

Ayn Rand was a most provocative and radical thinker, whom many leading Americans have claimed influenced their political and economic views.

Ayn Rand’s objectivist ethics frames morality in terms of rational self-interest or rational selfishness (Ayn Rand, The Virtue of Selfishness, Signet, 1964, p. xi). Among other things, she confronted altruism and hedonism (The Virtue of Selfishness, 33). Her interview with Mike Wallace reveals her convictions in precise and startling terms. Whether one agrees with her or not, one finds here a clear and creative communicator whose ideas must be taken quite seriously. As she makes clear in her interview with Wallace, she challenges what she takes to be the foundation (altruism) of Judeo-Christian ethics.

In my estimation, her ethical model of objectivism depends upon the ability and imperative of reasoning apart from emotional or experiential stimuli that otherwise impact rationality and upon a view of the self as autonomous. Can one reason in this pristine manner, and should one? And should one view the self as autonomous? If one answers in the affirmative, one would likely tend to affirm Rand’s objectivism as sufficiently rational and self-affirming. I don’t answer in the affirmative to either of these claims, and will discuss these matters further in future entries on the subject.

This piece is cross-posted at The Institute for the Theology of Culture: New Wine, New Wineskins and at The Christian Post.

About Paul Louis Metzger

Dr. Paul Louis Metzger is the Founder and Director of The Institute for the Theology of Culture: New Wine, New Wineskins and Professor at Multnomah Biblical Seminary/Multnomah University. He is the author of numerous works, including "Connecting Christ: How to Discuss Jesus in a World of Diverse Paths" and "Consuming Jesus: Beyond Race and Class Divisions in a Consumer Church." These volumes and his others can be found wherever fine books are sold.

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  • dogmai

    disagreement with autonomy is self refuting. free will is axiomatic, you cannot refute your own autonomy without exorcising it. end of discussion.

    • Nathan Bubna

      Disagreement with autonomy could only only self-refuting if there were a collective agreement with autonomy. And it is a collective agreement with autonomy that is self-refuting. You see the paradox? Such things happen when your definitions are too narrow, or conflated. Now, unwind the paradox by adding more dimension to your definitions of autonomy and free will such that they are not conflated, not binary.

      • Jeffrey Farias

        your “collective” is made up of individuals where each must use his autonomous judgment in order to come to an agreement. There is no “collective” without individuals and there is no agreement without free will

        • Nathan Bubna

          “my” collective still sounds pretty binary in definition, the way you talk about it. :)

  • Paul Kurth

    Rand’s philosophy is absolute as practiced by herself and probably only a relatively small number of adherents. As you and the article you reference state, most followers choose to be influenced only politically and economically. A typical deviation from Rand’s absolute framework for living is the belief in something greater than one’s self, which is at odds with her atheism, but I think in line with the autonomous ability to make one’s own choices – that is, to choose to believe in a greater power. Reducing her influence to the political requires setting aside certain rational achievements, in faith – a stumbling block and foolishness to the wise.

  • http://theycallmepastorbryan.com theycallmepastorbryan

    At its core, Rand’s approach to the economic and the political necessitates a form of atheism to approve of her disapproval of altruism. There is where the catch lies, it is quite troublesome to attempt to merge her stance on the virtue of selfishness (which is the central tenet of much of her argument) with that of Christianity which sees selfishness as inherently bad.

    Is it possible that one might merge Christianity with Rand’s objectivism? In my opinion, it’s certainly possible but requires a large amount of philosophical gymnastics to attempt to make them at peace with each other, Rand knew full well that she was gunning right at a central tenet of Christianity with her stance of the virtue of selfishness, which is why I find her popularity amongst some circles to be very fascinating.

    Cards on the table: I don’t get her view and find it frustrating to deal with, so I recognize I’m probably just going to exacerbate most conversations engaging her thought.

    • Sam West

      Ayn Rand’s approach to economics and politics does not necessitate a form of atheism. You are reversing the cause and the effect. In reality, Ayn Rand’s discovery of reason as man’s basic mean’s of survival – the metaphysical nature of man- necessitates her ethics of rational egoism and her politics of laissez-faire capitalism. Atheism is simply a restatement of what she does not hold as a means of knowledge – faith – because she maintains that only reason qualifies and everything else is out.

      Faith and Ayn Rand’s philosophy cannot be merged. Any attempt to do so will destroy Objectivism and leave behind only faith. Just like you cannot merge poison and food. When you try everything becomes poison.

      • http://theycallmepastorbryan.com theycallmepastorbryan

        Your argument is that if you see reason as the basic means of survival, then one must cast out faith. This is another way of saying that her view require a form of atheism, which is what I said.

        And I agree with you that faith and Rand’s objectivism do not mix well, what I am commenting on is the popularity of libertarian thought, informed by Rand’s views within conservative Christianity. There are those that attempt to synthesize and this is my project is to illustrate that Rand’s objectivism does not work with the basics of Christian ethics. My comment was more on the process that those of faith have to go through to both affirm objectivism and faith than to whether the composite result is a tenable one.

        • reasonme

          You actually didn’t say, originally, that “her view” requires a form of atheism. You said that her approach to economics and politics requires a form of atheism. Those are different statements with different meanings.

          Of course her view requires atheism, but it’s her epistemology and metaphysics that shape her view of other issues, including economics, politics, and mysticism.

  • Loren Sickles

    Paul I look forward to reading your thoughts on this topic.

    After picking up a copy (only 33 cents on Amazon, thank goodness) of For The New Intellectual and then reading a bit on her life story, two things stood out. First, she was a very embittered woman and from all appearances seemed to live a nearly friendless self-absorbed life (all of which seems to fit with her philosophy). Second, I can see no way to reconcile her worldview with a Kingdom of Heaven worldview.

    I can understand from a purely political/socio-economic frame how her views might resonate with some, especially those with Libertarian leanings. However, it is increasingly troubling to me how anyone who identifies with Christ is then able to support their views from a Randian position.

    But don’t worry, my 33 cents did not got to waste. The book works as a great way to prop up my laptop that tends to overheat when running certain programs.

  • Nathan Bubna

    I first encountered objectivism in high school and was deeply disturbed. To answer your questions, i’d say: No, you cannot be that rational, but you can deceive yourself into thinking you are. And viewing the self as autonomous is wishful thinking of the highest order. We are, at our deepest level, connected, communal, emotional beings. Without love, we are nothing.

  • Sam West

    Author’s estimate that the Objectivist ethics depend on reasoning apart from emotional or experiential stimuli is incorrect. Reason is based on the material provided by man’s senses (experiential stimuli), integrated in the form of concepts according to measurable relationships among observed concretes. The concepts are used in accordance with logic, i.e., non-contradictory. Emotion does not enter into the formulation of the Objectivist abstract ethical principles, however application of these principles to real life questions can and should involve emotional input. For instance, stealing is always wrong and no emotion can change such principle, however, in deciding whether to go to the movies with a friend versus going on a 1st date should have the emotional input. For more info look in the Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology and https://estore.aynrand.org/p/99/judging-feeling-and-not-being-moralistic-mp3-download.