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Objectivism (Ayn Rand)

Objectivism is a philosophy developed by Ayn Rand in the 20th century that encompasses positions on metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, politics, and aesthetics.

Brief overview

Ayn Rand characterized Objectivism as a philosophy for living on Earth grounded in reality and aimed at defining humankind’s nature and the nature of the world in which they live. Rand presented her philosophy through her novels The Fountainhead, Atlas Shrugged, and other works. She elaborated on her ideas in The Objectivist Newsletter, The Objectivist, The Ayn Rand Letter, Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, and other non-fiction books.

Objectivism holds that reality exists independent from consciousness; that individual persons are in contact with this reality through sensory perception; that human beings can gain objective knowledge from perception through the process of concept formation; that the proper moral purpose of one's life is the pursuit of one's own happiness or rational self-interest; that the only social system consistent with this morality is full respect for individual rights, embodied in pure, consensual laissez-faire capitalism; and that the role of art in human life is to transform humankind's widest metaphysical ideas, by selective reproduction of reality, into a physical form—a work of art—that one can comprehend and respond to.


Objectivism derives its name from its conception of knowledge and values as objective: neither intrinsic nor subjective. According to Rand, concepts and values are not intrinsic to external reality, nor are they merely subjective (by which Rand means "arbitrary" or "created by [one's] feelings, desires, 'intuitions,' or whims"; like wishful thinking). Rather, valid concepts and values are, as she wrote, "determined by the nature of reality, but to be discovered by man's mind.

Rand chose Objectivism as the name of her philosophy because her ideal term to label a philosophy based on the primacy of existence, Existentialism, had already been adopted to describe the philosophy of Kierkegaard and later Sartre. The name is capitalized to distinguish it from other philosophical positions to which the term objectivism has sometimes been applied.

Objectivist principles

Metaphysics: Objective reality

Ayn Rand's philosophy is based on three axioms: the Axiom of Existence, the Law of Identity, and the Axiom of Consciousness. Rand defined an axiom as "a statement that identifies the base of knowledge and of any further statement pertaining to that knowledge, a statement necessarily contained in all others whether any particular speaker chooses to identify it or not. An axiom is a proposition that defeats its opponents by the fact that they have to accept it and use it in the process of any attempt to deny it." As Leonard Peikoff noted, Rand's argumentation "is not a proof that the axioms of existence, consciousness, and identity are true. It is proof that they are axioms, that they are at the base of knowledge and thus inescapable."

Objectivism states that "Existence exists" (the Axiom of Existence) and "Existence is Identity." To be is to be "an entity of a specific nature made of specific attributes." That which has no attributes does not and cannot exist. Hence, the Law of Identity: a thing is what it is. Whereas "existence exists" pertains to existence itself (whether something exists or not), the law of identity pertains to the nature of an object as being necessarily distinct from other objects (whether something exists as this or that). As Rand wrote, "A leaf cannot be all red and green at the same time, it cannot freeze and burn at the same time. A is A."

Rand held that when one is able to perceive something that exists, then one's "Consciousness exists" (the Axiom of Consciousness), consciousness "being the faculty of perceiving that which exists." Objectivism maintains that what exists does not exist because one thinks it exists; it simply exists, regardless of anyone's awareness, knowledge or opinion. For Rand, "to be conscious is to be conscious of something," so that an objective reality independent of consciousness has to exist first for consciousness to become possible, and there is no possibility of a consciousness that is conscious of nothing outside itself. Thus consciousness cannot be the only thing that exists. "It cannot be aware only of itself — there is no 'itself' until it is aware of something." Objectivism holds that the mind cannot create reality, but rather, it is a means of discovering reality.

Objectivist philosophy regards the Law of Causality, which states that things act in accordance with their natures, as "the law of identity applied to action." Rand rejected the popular notion that the causal link relates action to action. According to Rand, an "action" is not an entity, rather, it is entities that act, and every action is the action of an entity. The way entities interact is caused by the specific nature (or "identity") of those entities; if they were different there would be a different result.

Epistemology: Reason

The starting point of Objectivist epistemology is the principle, presented by Rand as a direct consequence of the metaphysical axiom that "Existence is Identity," that Knowledge is Identification. Objectivist epistemology defines how one can translate perception, i.e., awareness acquired through the senses, into valid concepts that identify the facts of reality.

Objectivism states that only by the method of reason man can gain knowledge (identification of the facts of reality) and rejects philosophical skepticism. Objectivism also rejects faith and "feeling" as means of attaining knowledge. Although Rand acknowledged the importance of emotion in humans, she maintained that emotion was a consequence of the conscious or subconscious ideas one already holds, not a means of achieving awareness of reality.

Rand was neither a classical empiricist (like Hume or the logical positivists) nor a classical rationalist (like Plato, Descartes, or Frege). She disagreed with the empiricists mainly in that she considered perception to be simply sensation extended over time, limiting the scope of perception to automatic, pre-cognitive awareness. Thus, she categorized so-called "perceptual illusions" as errors in cognitive interpretation due to complexity of perceptual data. She held that objective identification of the values of attributes of existents is obtained by measurement, broadly defined as procedures whose perceptual component, the comparison of the attribute's value to a standard, is so simple that an error in the resulting identification is not possible given a focused mind. Therefore, according to Rand, knowledge obtained by measurement (the fact that an entity has the measured attribute, and the value of this attribute relative to the standard) is "contextually certain."

Ayn Rand's most distinctive contribution in epistemology is her theory that concepts are properly formed by measurement omission.

"According to Objectivism, concepts “represent classifications of observed existents according to their relationships to other observed existents.” To form a concept, one mentally isolates a group of concretes (of distinct perceptual units), on the basis of observed similarities which distinguish them from all other known concretes (similarity is “the relationship between two or more existents which possess the same characteristic(s), but in different measure or degree”); then, by a process of omitting the particular measurements of these concretes, one integrates them into a single new mental unit: the concept, which subsumes all concretes of this kind (a potentially unlimited number). The integration is completed and retained by the selection of a perceptual symbol (a word) to designate it. “A concept is a mental integration of two or more units possessing the same distinguishing characteristic(s), with their particular measurements omitted.”"

"...the term “measurements omitted” does not mean, in this context, that measurements are regarded as non-existent; it means that measurements exist, but are not specified. That measurements must exist is an essential part of the process. The principle is: the relevant measurements must exist in some quantity, but may exist in any quantity.

Rand did not consider the analytic-synthetic distinction to have merit. She similarly denied the existence of a priori knowledge. Rand also considered her ideas distinct from foundationalism, naive realism, or representationalism (i.e., an indirect realist who believes in a "veil of ideas") like Descartes or John Locke.

Objectivist epistemology, like most other philosophical branches of Objectivism, was first presented by Rand in Atlas Shrugged. It is more fully developed in Rand's 1967 Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology. Rand considered her epistemology and its basis in reason so central to her philosophy that she remarked, "I am not primarily an advocate of capitalism, but of egoism; and I am not primarily an advocate of egoism, but of reason. If one recognizes the supremacy of reason and applies it consistently, all the rest follows."

Ethics: Rational self-interest

The Objectivist ethic begins with a meta-ethical question: why do human beings need a code of values? The Objectivist answer is that humans, as beings of volitional consciousness, need such a code in order to survive as human beings.

Objectivism maintains that human beings, unlike lower organisms, cannot act automatically to further their own survival. For man, the conceptual faculty is his tool for survival. An organism that possesses a faculty of sensation relies on its pleasure-pain mechanism; an animal that operates at the level of perception can use its perceptions to instinctively go through its essentially cyclic life; but a human being must rely on an integrated whole of his perceptual (rooted in sensations) and conceptual faculties.

Ayn Rand also recognized that in humans, who are conscious organisms, the motivation to pursue life is experienced as the pursuit of a conscious state—the pursuit of happiness. Indeed, in her one-sentence summary of Objectivism, Ayn Rand condensed her ethics into the statement that man properly lives "with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life." According to Objectivist epistemology states of mind, such as happiness, are not primary; they are the consequence of specific facts of existence. Therefore man needs an objective, principled standard, grounded in the facts of reality, to guide him in the pursuit of this purpose. Rand regarded happiness as a biological faculty evolved from the pleasure-pain mechanism of pre-human animals. This faculty functions as an instrument providing a continuous measurement of how successful one is at meeting the challenge of life. As she wrote in The Virtue of Selfishness (23, pb 27)

Just as the pleasure-pain mechanism of man's body is an automatic indicator of his body's welfare or injury, a barometer of its basic alternative, life or death - so the emotional mechanism of man's consciousness is geared to perform the same function, as a barometer that registers the same alternative by means of two basic emotions: joy or suffering.

Rand defined "ethics" as "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." She sometimes referred to the Objectivist ethics in particular as "selfishness," as reflected in the title of her primary book on ethics, The Virtue of Selfishness. However, she did not use that term with the negative connotations that it usually has, but to refer to a form of rational egoism.

Rand summarized her ethical theories by writing:

To live, man must hold three things as the supreme and ruling values of his life: Reason, Purpose, Self-esteem.

Unlike many other philosophers, Ayn Rand limited the scope of ethics to the derivation of principles needed in all contexts, whether one is alone or with others.

The morality of Objectivism is based on the observation that one's own choices and actions are instrumental in maintaining and enhancing one's life, and therefore one's happiness. Rand wrote:

"Man has been called a rational being, but rationality is a matter of choice — and the alternative his nature offers him is: rational being or suicidal animal. Man has to be man — by choice; he has to hold his life as a value — by choice; he has to learn to sustain it — by choice; he has to discover the values it requires and practice his virtues — by choice.
"A code of values accepted by choice is a code of morality."
There is a difference, therefore, between rational self-interest as pursuit of one's own life and happiness in reality, and what Ayn Rand called "selfishness without a self"—a range-of-the-moment pseudo-"selfish" whim-worship or "hedonism." A whim-worshipper or "hedonist," according to Rand, is not motivated by a desire to live his own human life, but by a wish to live on a sub-human level. Instead of using "that which promotes my (human) life" as his standard of value, he mistakes "that which I (mindlessly happen to) value" for a standard of value, in contradiction of the fact that, existentially, he is a human and therefore rational organism. The "I value" in whim-worship or hedonism can be replaced with "we value," "he values," "they value," or "God values," and still it would remain dissociated from reality. Rand repudiated the equation of rational selfishness with hedonistic or whim-worshipping "selfishness-without-a-self." She held that the former is good, and the latter evil, and that there is a fundamental difference between them. A corollary to Rand's endorsement of self-interest is her rejection of the ethical doctrine of altruism—which she defined in the sense of August Comte's altruism (he coined the term), as a moral obligation to live for the sake of others.

Rand defined a value as "that which one acts to gain and/or keep." The rational individual's choice of values to pursue is guided by his need, if he chooses to live, to act so as to maintain and promote his own life. Rand did not hold that values proper to human life are "intrinsic" in the sense of being independent of one's choices, or that there are values that an individual must pursue by command or imperative ("reason accepts no commandments"). Neither did Rand consider proper values "subjective," to be pursued just because one has chosen, perhaps arbitrarily, to pursue them. Rather, Rand held that valid values are "objective," in the sense of being identifiable as serving to preserve and enhance one's life. Some values are specific to the nature of each individual, but there are also universal human values, including the preservation of one's own individual rights, which Rand defined as "conditions of existence required by man's nature for his proper survival."

Objectivism holds that morality is a "code of values accepted by choice." According to Leonard Peikoff, Rand held that "man needs [morality] for one reason only: he needs it in order to survive. Moral laws, in this view, are principles that define how to nourish and sustain human life; they are no more than this and no less." Objectivism does not claim that there is a moral requirement to choose to value one's life. As Allan Gotthelf points out, for Rand, "Morality rests on a fundamental, pre-moral choice: the moral agent's choice to live rather than die, so that the moral "ought" is always contextual and agent-relative. To be moral is to choose that which promotes one's life in one's actual context. There are no "categorical imperatives" (as in Kantianism) that an individual would be obliged to carry out regardless of consequences for his life.

Politics: Individual rights and capitalism

Objectivist politics begins with ethics: the question of if, and if so why, a rational agent needs a set of principles for living his life. The proper answer to ethics tells a rational individual how to preserve his individual rights while interacting with, benefiting from cooperation with, and trading with, other individuals in society. That is, it determines the principles that constitute a moral social system. Objectivism holds that the only social system that fully recognizes individual rights is Capitalism—as Rand understood it:

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.

Each individual possesses inalienable rights—the rights to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of his own happiness. "Rights are moral principles defining and sanctioning a man's freedom of action in a social context" ["Man's Rights," The Virtue of Selfishness]. Government is the institution with a monopoly on the use of physical force in a given geographical area, so the issue is whether that force is to be used to protect or to violate individual rights—i.e., whether the government uses force only in retaliation or whether it initiates force against innocent citizens. Under laissez-faire Capitalism, the government is restricted to using retaliatory force, to protect individual rights—which means the only proper functions of the government are "the police, to protect men from criminals; the military forces, to protect men from foreign invaders; and the law courts, to protect men's property and contracts from breach by force or fraud, and to settle disputes among men according to objectively defined laws." [Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, p. 47]

Objectivism holds that human beings have the right to manipulate nature in any way they see fit, as long as it does not infringe on the rights of others. On the Objectivist account, the rights of other human beings are not of direct moral import to the agent who respects them; they acquire their moral purchase through an intermediate step. An Objectivist respects the rights of other human beings out of the recognition of the value to himself or herself of living in a world in which the freedom of action of other rational (or potentially rational) human beings is respected. One's respect for the rights of others is founded on the value, to oneself, of other persons as actual or potential partners in cooperation and trade.

For these reasons Ayn Rand defends capitalism as the ideal form of human society. Objectivism reserves the name "capitalism" for full laissez-faire capitalism—i.e., a society in which individual rights are consistently respected. Any system short of this is regarded by Objectivists as a "mixed economy" consisting of certain aspects of capitalism and its opposite (usually called socialism or statism), with pure socialism at the opposite extreme.

Far from regarding capitalism as a dog-eat-dog pattern of social organization, Objectivism regards it as a beneficent system in which the innovations of the most creative benefit everyone else in the society (although that is not its justification). Indeed, Objectivism values creative achievement itself and regards capitalism as the only kind of society in which it can flourish.

A society is, by Objectivist standards, moral to the extent that individuals are free to pursue their goals. This freedom requires that human relationships of all forms be voluntary (which, in the Objectivist view, means that they must not involve the use of physical force), mutual consent being the defining characteristic of a free society. Thus the proper role of institutions of governance is limited to using force in retaliation against those who initiate its use—i.e., against criminals and foreign aggressors. Economically, people are free to produce and exchange as they see fit, with as complete a separation of state and economics as of state and church. Thus, Objectivism holds that a proper government must have its power strictly limited by an objectively defined charter and procedures designed to protect the pre-existing rights of its citizens.

Aesthetics: Metaphysical value-judgements

The Objectivist theory of art flows from its epistemology, by way of "psycho-epistemology" (Rand's term for an individual's characteristic mode of functioning in acquiring knowledge). Art, according to Objectivism, serves a human cognitive need: it allows human beings to grasp concepts as though they were percepts.

Objectivism defines "art" as a "selective re-creation of reality according to an artist's metaphysical value-judgments"—that is, according to what the artist believes to be ultimately true and important about the nature of reality and humanity. In this respect Objectivism regards art as a way of presenting abstractions concretely, in perceptual form.

The human need for art, on this view, stems from the need for cognitive economy. A concept is already a sort of mental shorthand standing for a large number of concretes, allowing a human being to think indirectly or implicitly of many more such concretes than can be held explicitly in mind. But a human being cannot hold indefinitely many concepts explicitly in mind either—and yet, on the Objectivist view, needs a comprehensive conceptual framework in order to provide guidance in life.

Art offers a way out of this dilemma by providing a perceptual, easily grasped means of communicating and thinking about a wide range of abstractions.

Objectivism regards art as an effective way to communicate a moral or ethical ideal. Objectivism does not, however, regard art as propagandistic: even though art involves moral values and ideals, its purpose is not to educate, only to show or project.

Moreover, art need not be, and often is not, the outcome of a full-blown, explicit philosophy. Usually it stems from an artist's sense of life (which is preconceptual and largely emotional).

Rand held that Romanticism was the highest school of literary art, noting that Romanticism was "based on the recognition of the principle that man possesses the faculty of volition."

What the Romanticists brought to art was the primacy of values… Values are the source of emotions: a great deal of emotional intensity was projected in the work of the Romanticists and in the reactions of their audiences, as well as a great deal of color, imagination, originality, excitement, and all the other consequences of a value-oriented view of life.

The term "romanticism", however, is often affiliated with emotionalism, to which Objectivism is completely opposed. Historically, many romantic artists were philosophically subjectivists or socialists. Most Objectivists who are also artists subscribe to what they call Romantic Realism, which is how Ayn Rand labeled her own work.

Ayn Rand on the history of philosophy

Rand regarded her philosophical efforts as the beginning of the correction of a deeply troubled world, and she believed that the world has gotten into its present troubled state largely through the uncritical acceptance, by both intellectuals and others, of traditional philosophy. In the title essay of her early work For the New Intellectual, Rand levels serious criticisms of canonical historical philosophers, especially Plato, David Hume, Immanuel Kant, G. W. F. Hegel, Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Herbert Spencer. In her later book, Philosophy: Who Needs It, she repeats and enlarges upon her criticisms of Kant, and she also accuses Harvard political theorist John Rawls of gross philosophical errors.

Intellectual impact

Ayn Rand's ideas are often supported with great passion or derided with great disgust, with little in between. Some of this comes from Rand challenging fundamental tenets of the Judeo-Christian tradition, and some may be due to her own all-or-nothing, take-it-or-leave-it approach to her work. She warned her readers that, "If you agree with some tenets of Objectivism, but disagree with others, do not call yourself an Objectivist; give proper authorship for the parts you agree with — and then indulge any flights of fancy you wish, on your own."

Rand was very critical of the state of the academic fields of literature and philosophy, once threatening legal action against an academic who was preparing a critical study of her work.

Objectivism has been largely ignored or harshly criticized by academics. Objectivism has been called "fiercely anti-academic," a collection of "non-mainstream philosophical works," and more of an ideological movement than a well-grounded philosophy.

In recent years Rand's works are more likely to be encountered in the classroom than in decades past. Since 1999, several monographs were published and a refereed Journal of Ayn Rand Studies began. In 2006 the University of Pittsburgh held a conference focusing on Objectivism. In addition, two Objectivist philosophers (Tara Smith and James Lennox) hold tenured positions at two of the fifteen leading American philosophy departments. Objectivist programs and fellowships have been supported at the University of Pittsburgh, University of Texas at Austin and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The Ayn Rand Society, dedicated to fostering the scholarly study of Objectivism, is affiliated with the American Philosophical Association's Eastern Division.

Rand is not found in the comprehensive academic reference texts The Oxford Companion to Philosophy or The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy. A lengthy article on Rand appears in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy; she has an entry forthcoming in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, as well as a brief entry in the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy which features the following passage: Allan Gotthelf (chairman of the Ayn Rand Society) responded unfavorably to this entry and came to her defense. He and other scholars have argued for more academic study of Objectivism, viewing Rand's philosophy as a unique and intellectually interesting defense of liberalism that is worth debating.

Despite academic disregard for Objectivism, particularly early on, Ayn Rand's books remain popular, selling over 400,000 copies per year.


Ayn Rand's designated intellectual heir, Leonard Peikoff, published Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand (E. P. Dutton), a comprehensive survey of Ayn Rand's philosophy. Objectivism is central to Ronald Merrill's introductory monograph The Ideas of Ayn Rand (Open Court.) Monographs on specific aspects of Objectivism include Viable Values (Rowman & Littlefield) and Ayn Rand's Normative Ethics: the Virtuous Egoist (Cambridge University Press) by Tara Smith, The Evidence of the Senses (Louisiana State University Press) by David Kelley, and The Biological Basis of Teleological Concepts (The Ayn Rand Institute Press) by Harry Binswanger.


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