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February 14, 2005
Forwarded by Mr. E

"Why Ayn Rand Matters: Metaphysics, Morals and Liberty," posted by Elaine Sternberg

Ayn Rand deserves to be taken seriously, because she was right about three things of immense importance: metaphysics, morals and individual liberty. Although many of her characteristic arguments were anticipated by Aristotle, Rand highlighted their relevance to modern life, and made them accessible. And by illustrating key philosophical concepts in superbly titled novels, she has provided millions of readers with arguments, and a vocabulary, that can be used to challenge the errors of conventional morality and collectivist government.

The great metaphysical truth that Rand recognised is supremely simple: 'A is A'. This is a shorthand way of referring both to the actuality of objective reality and the possibility of objective truth. There is a world that exists independent of mind; a thing is what it is and not some other thing; furthermore, things can be known to be what they are through the use of reason. By interacting with things in the world, we can learn about the world, and come to have reliable knowledge of it. In particular, we can discover what is necessary for the survival and flourishing of different kinds of natural existents, including human beings. These form the basis of an objective morality.

Metaphysics matters crucially for morals. If, counterfactually, there were no world, no truths could be learned about it. A fortiori, there could be no moral truths. Sadly, this nihilistic notion is the one propounded by most modern (i.e., post Cartesian) philosophy; it dismisses as 'naive realism' the Aristotelian/ Randian view that there exists an objective reality that is independent of mind and that is capable of being known. It is largely because of this dismissal that modern academic philosophy has rendered itself so irrelevant.

While most non philosophers are not troubled by metaphysical scepticism, and go about their daily lives untroubled about whether there are good grounds for preferring cider to cyanide as their standard tipple, they are less sure about morality. If there is no moral truth, why should one prefer honesty and fairness to lying, cheating and stealing? And why should liberty be a good thing?

Rand, following Aristotle, provides the reason: because some kinds of conduct are necessary for the survival of human beings as human beings. Rand recognises that there is such a thing as 'human nature', and that it is the nature of man to be a rational animal. Just as the nature of fish requires them to be immersed in water to survive, so does the nature of man requre the use of reason for man's survival as man.

Rand's second major achievement, was to draw out the implications of this realist morality. In contrast to most modern doctrines, for Rand (as for Aristotle), ethics is not primarily about how other people should be treated. Nor does it consist in adherence to the prohibitions and prescriptions of a deity. Rather, the key subject matter of ethics is the relationship of each individual to his own potential as a rational being.

The role of ethics is to codify the values necessary for the actualisation of that distinctively human potential, where 'value' designates that which one wishes to attain or keep. The identification of those values is necessary, because being rational is not an automatic process: even more than Aristotle, Rand stressed that man is characterised by volitional consciousness and rationality.

In contrast to conventional morality, the naturalist ethics propounded by Rand, following Aristotle, highlights the vital importance of happiness as a goal, and of rational self interest as a guide to it. Happiness is the state of mind that results from achievement of one's values [Ayn Rand, 'The Objectivist Ethics' (1961) in The Virtue of Selfishness (henceforth VOS), (NY: Signet, 1964), p.28]; Aristotle called it 'the bloom on the activity'. Insofar as the values sought are the ones necessary for living as a rational being, happiness will be the result of living rationally [Ibid, p.29]:

Existentially, the activity of pursuing rational goals is the activity of maintaining one's life; psychologically, its result, reward and concomitant is an emotional state of happiness.... 'Happiness' can properly be the purpose of ethics, but not the standard. Happiness is thus appropriately described as the goal or purpose of ethical conduct, and indeed of human life itself [Ayn Rand, 'The Essentials of Objectivism', Atlas Shrugged, (NY: Signet, 1957), pp.1082-3]: Man - every man - is an end in himself, not a means to the end of others; he must live for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself, with the achievement of his own happiness as the highest moral purpose of his life. The ethical values Rand identifies are fully compatible with human beings' thriving on earth, because they are a function of it. [For an extended explanation and illustration of the implication of such an approach to ethics for business, see Elaine Sternberg, Just Business: Business Ethics in Action, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000)].

For Rand (as for Aristotle), the guiding principle of a happy life is rational self-interest [VOS, op.cit., p.31. Emphasis in original]:

The Objectivist ethics holds that human good does not require human sacrifices and cannot be achieved by the sacrifice of anyone to anyone. It holds that the rational interests of men do not clash -- that there is no conflict of interest among men who do not desire the unearned, who do not make sacrifices nor accept them, who deal with one another as traders, giving value for value.

And therein lies another of Rand's major achievements: her understanding of the nature of, and her consequent thoroughgoing opposition to, altruism. The implications of altruism were not addressed by Aristotle, because altruism as an ethical doctrine was entirely alien to the ancient Greeks; working in the 5th century BC, Aristotle neither considered altruism as an ethical position, nor predicted the damage it might do. But anticipating Rand, Aristotle did recognise the unsuitability of motives as standards of action; he was clear that motives were insufficient for identifying what is moral.

Rand's significant advance was to highlight the dangers that result from altruism, in which a particular intention - that of serving the interests of others - is taken as the defining principle of ethics. Writing in the 20th century, Rand was keenly aware of the enormous damage done by the acceptance of altruism as an ethical doctrine. The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged can indeed be seen as extended illustrations of the deeply damaging and ultimately pernicious effects of such a doctrine, and its concomitant glorification of self-sacrifice.

Rand rightly identified such doctrines as being profoundly anti-life: when ability becomes a liability, when need and incapacity are what gets rewarded, and when self-sacrifice is the highest moral value, the natural outcome is death. The story [Atlas Shrugged, op.cit., pp.609-20.] of what happened to the once successful Twentieth Century Motor Company in the hands of the socialist Starnes family should be read by every would be do-gooder; it details with painful clarity how altruism operates to the destruction of both generous impulses and sustainable outcomes.

Rand applied her naturalist ethics not only in identifying and elucidating the evils of altruism, but in robustly defending individual liberty [For a discussion about the extent to which the roots of such a defense can be found in Aristotle, see Fred D. Miller, Jr., Nature, Justice, and Rights in Aristotle's Politics (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995)], and correctly identifying its relation to morality.

Rand's defense of liberty was based on her recognition that consciousness and rationality are necessary for man's survival as man, and that they are volitional. Individual (negative) liberty - freedom from physical coercion - is generally necessary both for the exercise of rationality, and for productive action: liberty is a condition for living as a human being.

Rationality, and specifically that aspect which Aristotle called 'practical reason', is essential for identifying, achieving, and integrating the various ends that constitute human life. Practical reason is more than mathematical logic or freedom of will: it involves action in the physical world, which is ordinarily precluded by physical coercion [Limitations of choice are coercive when they are both imposed by other humans or human systems, and are enforced with aggressive physical force or the threats thereof]. Even when some attenuated self-direction is possible in responding to a coercive situation, realising human potential normally involves a range of activities and choices that are incompatible with being physically coerced. Someone who is tied up, or whose person or property are otherwise forcibly constrained by the actions of others, is typically prevented from acting in the ways necessary to achieve his self-realisation. For life as a full human being to be generally possible, negative liberty is required.

Rand's defense of individual liberty is both distinctive and especially robust. Unlike most defenses of negative liberty, and especially those in the Popperian tradition, hers neither requires nor admits ethical relativism. Quite the contrary: Rand's defense of liberty presupposes the existence of objective truth. It is an objective truth, based on the nature of the world and the nature of man, that individual liberty is a value in living a fully human life.

Furthermore, and very significantly, Rand's defense recognizes that while liberty is necessary for living fully as a human being, liberty does not exhaust what is involved in being moral. Like other libertarians, Rand recognized that liberty is the prime political value. But surpassing many libertarians, she knew that liberty is not the only moral value. There is far more to being ethical than being free from coercion: the freedom must be used in ways that are compatible with human flourishing. Rand's defense of liberty is part of an integrated system of metaphysics and morals.

Finally, Rand understood that individual liberty requires certain sorts of institutional arrangements. Just as what is morally right is a matter of objective fact, so too is the form of political economy that is best for promoting human liberty and human flourishing. Only laissez-faire capitalism is compatible with the full individual liberty that is a condition of the life of man as man. But laissez-faire capitalism in turn depends on comprehensive property rights and the rule of law. According to Rand, these conditions, and the protection of rights, require enforcement by a 'night watchman' state with a monopoly on the use of coercive force. While the need for even that level of state control may be disputed, Rand was emphatic that any greater level of control was wholly unjustified.

In summary, Rand has provided valuable elucidation of and support for a number of fundamentally important ideas. Challenging most philosophers since Aristotle, she outlined a comprehensive, realist metaphysics. And challenging both philosophical and conventional ethics, she presented strong arguments against altruism in its various forms, and in favour of a realist morality based on happiness and rational self-interest. Finally, in drawing out the implications of her realist philosophy, and demonstrating the proper relations between morality and freedom, she provided an extremely robust defense of both individual liberty and laissez-faire capitalism.

John Tierney comments:

Rand stressed that man is characterized by volitional consciousness and rationality.

Perhaps in the ideal but certainly not in reality.

Bruno's thoughts on Rand:

Ayn Rand's ideas are closer to the philosophy of Epicurus. He was the first philosopher to make a strong case for freedom. In the name of freedom he favored individualism, personal enjoyment, the rejection of state and the gods. Interestingly, he based his recommendations on the concept that the world was random, as opposed to predetermined or driven by fatum. Randomness has been a subject dear to the hearts of gamblers and traders.  

Laurence Glazier remembers:

I was advised many years ago by an engineering colleague to read The Fountainhead. Wherever you are, Tamir Ilan, I am eternally grateful. Ayn Rand's books gave me the confidence to go into business, and reject the avant garde in art and music. And of course the philosophy makes clear the nobility and morality of trading.

Philosophically, A = A is fine, though not all of reality is measurable with the instruments of science. I work in music from the assumption that the emotional effect of harmony is an empirical truth, but who can measure harmony? Creating a predictable emotional effect with harmony is as much engineering as building a bridge. I think Rand found it harder to deal with Art than science and logic.

This may or may not be relevant to trading, but I found the use of phi-bonacci to structure music a very useful tool, though when I tried using Elliott the music got into a tangled mess.

Will Huggins on Rand:

Maybe I'm a dirty Canadian socialist but I have a fairly objective question concerning the natural extension of Rand's ideas in a prisoner's dilemma. By always attempting to maximize their own payoffs, both players in the game end up with the "stupid" outcome instead of the preferred outcome they could have achieved by cooperation. Is being selfish and seeking your personal maximum payoff really a good strategy in the long run?

For those unfamiliar with the problem, consider the following example:

Me and a friend get caught after a diamond heist (everyone seems to like that example) and are thrown into separate holding rooms. The DA then tells each of us that the other rolled over and that its in our best interest to come clean too. If we both hold out tongues, they're going to put us away on some limited charges anyways. Being a binary choice, there are four possible outcomes, with the following payoffs for each player:

I confess, he doesn't = I get 1 year, he gets 10 I confess, he does too = we both get 5 years I don't confess, he doesn't = we both get 2 years I don't confess, he does = I get 10 years, he gets 1

Perhaps unsurprisingly, we are both better off by cooperating instead of seeking our own best payoffs. To illustrate, consider what the other player does (lots of material out there on Nash solutions if you're interested in game theory). If he confesses, I should confess too. If he doesn't, I should confess anyways (seeking the least amount of time in jail).

These problems occur quite frequently (over-fishing Atlantic cod stocks, gun control, Kyoto, etc) so its not a unique situation to consider. Following Rand's doctrine however, you would choose the Nash solution (always defect), which leads to the "stupid" outcome.

Why do people so rabidly support selfishness as a decision rule?

(btw, I can't imagine believing in anything but objective reality)

Lloyd Johannesen comments:

I wonder if I am the only one who finds it funny that the benefits of "non-selfishness" are advocated with an example that one should engage in a conspiracy of silence after committing a crime. I always assumed that Rand maintained that rational "selfish" human behavior involved making those decisions that were consistent with an individual's self-respect. Thus, man is not involved only in a game of Darwinian amoral struggle, but in projecting consistently through his actions who he really is. I would guess that Rand would say that a truly rational person does not commit crimes, and engage in conspiracies of silence with criminals, and keeps agreements that he makes whether or not he would be "caught".