Fifty years after the publication of Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand’s controversial philosophy continues to inspire its readers. Alan Greenspan, a long-term admirer, gives an accurate summary of her philosophy in his recently published autobiography. No summary, however, can do justice to Rand’s original ideas and her grand synthesis; but I’d like to give an indication of her original approach for those not acquainted with her ideas by selecting a few aspects of her philosophy.Rand was a system builder who seamlessly integrated metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, politics and aesthetics. But she was also a public intellectual, engaged in debate with her fellow citizens. Like Socrates who sought to do both – fundamental philosophy and civic debate – she challenged her readers to examine their most fundamental assumptions. In content, however, Rand is an antipode to Socrates/Plato’s otherworldly mysticism and this-worldly collectivism. Rand’s philosophic hero, as Greenspan explains, is Aristotle but augmented by Locke’s political philosophy. What Rand did for many was present capitalism not as a necessary evil but as a glorious and righteous social system based on human dignity and designed for human flourishing. Greenspan noted how he, as an economist, understood how capitalism “worked” but Rand’s galvanizing moral message was fuel for a passionate commitment to this noble institution. She influenced many in this manner even those who don't completely agree with her total synthesis. Rand is often misunderstood or worse deliberately distorted. Politics was for her a derivative outcome of deeper and more important concerns. It’s when we move beyond politics that her ideas are hard to grasp for most readers including some of her fans. In ethics, Rand advocated rational self-interest but this gives little clue of what she holds as rational and what is in one’s interest. Her key concept of “reason as man’s tool of survival” can’t convey her original epistemological work on human conceptual reasoning nor can it convey her rich concept of human life.
Her style of non-fiction writing requires some re-orientation to appreciate her main points. Rand was a feisty intellectual warrior. She was “in your face” before the phrase was coined. One of her rhetorical ploys was to seize a word meant as a pejorative and defiantly embrace it. It’s a bold combative style reminiscent of Patrick Henry’s “if this be treason make the most of it.”
When Rand was accused of advocating ‘selfishness,’ for example, she’d title her book of essays on ethics: “The Virtue of Selfishness – a New Concept of Egoism.” She knew that words like egoism and altruism are commonly used in another manner. But more than being provocative, she rightfully argued that current usage obliterates an important distinction. She would take these words and given them a rigorous meaning – actually closer to the original meaning – to re-establish a clear and powerful ethical dichotomy. The common notion of a self-interested man is a narrowly-focused rights-violating schemer who exploits his fellow man in the pursuit of mindless indulgence. Altruism (a word coined by the 19th century socialist Auguste Comte) meant selfless service to others regardless of any return or self benefit. Conventional morality defines ethics as altruism. Any concern for one’s advancement and well-being is seen as practical but not ethical. Ethics, in this modern view, comes into play when one is concerned with others’ well being. Any practical advancement must be justified by the benefit to others; it is dedication to the welfare of others that is the ultimate criteria of virtue.If one reads the classical ethical treatises, Aristotle’s and Cicero’s, one finds a very different view of ethics. This is true also for Rand. Her ethics has its root in the very notion and fact of human life. Ethics isn’t merely social but embodies actualizing one’s potential in all dimensions of human endeavors that further life enhancing values. There is no denigration of personal self-actualization as mere practical or amoral selfishness. This notion may not seem as surprising today as it was in the 1950s and 1960s. To the extent that this is true, it is in large part because of Rand’s influence. The social dimension is never ignored by Rand. Her detractors create a straw man by claiming that Rand has no use for other human beings, that Rand sees others as objects to be used, or by claiming that Rand is anti-social. This is bizarre. Rand is passionate about the moral importance of every social interaction from trade (which is done for mutual benefit) to the deepest personal romantic relationships where the person’s very being is one of the greatest joys of one's life.Rand is opposed to the service to others as a blind duty. She opposes the slave-mentality either imposed by the state or chosen by the individual. The dutiful altruist, if consistent, believes that other's happiness comes before one’s own and that of one’s loved ones. Few swallow this whole. Rarely would one take care of one’s neighbor’s children before one’s own. But altruism, strictly speaking, would find less moral credit in helping those whose well-being is of value to one’s self (such as one’s children) than helping faceless children on the other side of the earth who may even grow to be one’s enemies. An altruist doesn’t ask “how will this affect me?” He only submits to duty or the state.Most people, in light of such an explicit or implicit notion of ethics, recoil not by rejecting this monstrous idea but by retreating into a more banal posture of mixing “ethics” and “practicality.” Conservatives, in Rand’s day, would concede the ethical high ground to the socialists and retreat behind the slogan that you can’t expect utopia here on earth; humans are too base and evil to be so good. “Don’t immanentize the eschaton” as Buckley would say echoing Voegelin. Rand rejected this weak-kneed apologetics and cynicism by adopting a proud moral vision of a society based on individual rights and human prosperity. While this energized many on the right it frightened others, particularly many ex-communists whose embrace of conservatism was a rejection of reason, abstract theory, and political ideology. Yet, Rand isn’t a mere libertarian, if one uses that term generically. Individual rights define the realm of allowable action but don't insure the moral requirements for successful action. Rights, for some libertarians, define a "do your own thing" realm of hedonism. In Rand’s novel, the Fountainhead, the hero withholds immediate gratification as other quickly achieve a hollowed success by pandering. Rand’s hero preservers until he can succeed by producing something of pride. Indeed, the novel has little to say about politics but much to say about character. The notion that Rand is concern with mere material gain is absurd. She presents a very demanding ethical code but with a more fulfilling and profound success as its reward.Hopefully the above is an indication of her ethical underpinning of a just political order. It doesn’t even hint at her distinctive epistemology and metaphysics. Rand is an engaging writer who will challenge the most thoughtful reader. Her work brings to light ideas seldom found in other quarters. Agree or not, she is indispensable for a vigorous debate on the underpinning of a free society. Those seeking to advocate individual liberty would do well to consider her ideas.
Update: MM McQ TH CT TB
Update2: Fox review, Wash Times review, Sun-Times review,