Ayn Rand on Individualism

Individualism regards man—every man—as an independent, sovereign entity who possesses an inalienable right to his own life, a right derived from his nature as a rational being. Individualism holds that a civilized society, or any form of association, cooperation or peaceful coexistence among men, can be achieved only on the basis of the recognition of individual rights—and that a group, as such, has no rights other than the individual rights of its members.

Do not make the mistake of the ignorant who think that an individualist is a man who says: “I’ll do as I please at everybody else’s expense.” An individualist is a man who recognizes the inalienable individual rights of man—his own and those of others.

An individualist is a man who says: “I will not run anyone’s life—nor let anyone run mine. I will not rule nor be ruled. I will not be a master nor a slave. I will not sacrifice myself to anyone—nor sacrifice anyone to myself.”

The mind is an attribute of the individual. There is no such thing as a collective brain. There is no such thing as a collective thought. An agreement reached by a group of men is only a compromise or an average drawn upon many individual thoughts. It is a secondary consequence. The primary act—the process of reason—must be performed by each man alone. We can divide a meal among many men. We cannot digest it in a collective stomach. No man can use his lungs to breathe for another man. No man can use his brain to think for another. All the functions of body and spirit are private. They cannot be shared or transferred.

We inherit the products of the thought of other men. We inherit the wheel. We make a cart. The cart becomes an automobile. The automobile becomes an airplane. But all through the process what we receive from others is only the end product of their thinking. The moving force is the creative faculty which takes this product as material, uses it and originates the next step. This creative faculty cannot be given or received, shared or borrowed. It belongs to single, individual men. That which it creates is the property of the creator. Men learn from one another. But all learning is only the exchange of material. No man can give another the capacity to think. Yet that capacity is our only means of survival.

Mankind is not an entity, not an organism, or a coral bush. The entity involved in production and trade is man. It is with the study of man—not of the loose aggregate known as a “community”—that any science of the humanities has to begin . . . .

A great deal may be learned about society by studying man; but this process cannot be reversed: nothing can be learned about man by studying society—by studying the inter-relationships of entities one has never identified or defined.

Ayn Rand on Capitalism

The moral justification of capitalism does not lie in the altruist claim that it represents the best way to achieve “the common good.” It is true that capitalism does — if that catch-phrase has any meaning — but this is merely a secondary consequence. The moral justification of capitalism lies in the fact that it is the only system consonant with man’s rational nature, that it protects man’s survival qua man, and that its ruling principle is: justice.

— AYN RAND

Ayn Rand on Certainty

Certain” represents an assessment of the evidence for a conclusion; it is usually contrasted with two other broad types of assessment: “possible” and “probable.” . . .

Idea X is “certain” if, in a given context of knowledge, the evidence for X is conclusive. In such a context, all the evidence supports X and there is no evidence to support any alternative . . . .

You cannot challenge a claim to certainty by means of an arbitrary declaration of a counter-possibility, . . . you cannot manufacture possibilities without evidence . . . .

All the main attacks on certainty depend on evading its contextual character . . . .

The alternative is not to feign omniscience, erecting every discovery into an out-of-context absolute, or to embrace skepticism and claim that knowledge is impossible. Both these policies accept omniscience as the standard: the dogmatists pretend to have it, the skeptics bemoan their lack of it. The rational policy is to discard the very notion of omniscience. Knowledge is contextual—it is knowledge, it is valid, contextually.

“Don’t be so sure—nobody can be certain of anything.” Bertrand Russell’s gibberish to the contrary notwithstanding, that pronouncement includes itself; therefore, one cannot be sure that one cannot be sure of anything. The pronouncement means that no knowledge of any kind is possible to man, i.e., that man is not conscious. Furthermore, if one tried to accept that catch phrase, one would find that its second part contradicts its first: if nobody can be certain of anything, then everybody can be certain of everything he pleases—since it cannot be refuted, and he can claim he is not certain he is certain (which is the purpose of that notion).

Ayn Rand on Objectivity

Objectivity is both a metaphysical and an epistemological concept. It pertains to the relationship of consciousness to existence. Metaphysically, it is the recognition of the fact that reality exists independent of any perceiver’s consciousness. Epistemologically, it is the recognition of the fact that a perceiver’s (man’s) consciousness must acquire knowledge of reality by certain means (reason) in accordance with certain rules (logic). This means that although reality is immutable and, in any given context, only one answer is true, the truth is not automatically available to a human consciousness and can be obtained only by a certain mental process which is required of every man who seeks knowledge—that there is no substitute for this process, no escape from the responsibility for it, no shortcuts, no special revelations to privileged observers—and that there can be no such thing as a final “authority” in matters pertaining to human knowledge. Metaphysically, the only authority is reality; epistemologically—one’s own mind. The first is the ultimate arbiter of the second.

The concept of objectivity contains the reason why the question “Who decides what is right or wrong?” is wrong. Nobody “decides.” Nature does not decide—it merely is; man does not decide, in issues of knowledge, he merely observes that which is. When it comes to applying his knowledge, man decides what he chooses to do, according to what he has learned, remembering that the basic principle of rational action in all aspects of human existence, is: “Nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed.” This means that man does not create reality and can achieve his values only by making his decisions consonant with the facts of reality.

The Wisdom of Ayn Rand on Love

Love, friendship, respect, admiration are the emotional response of one man to the virtues of another, the spiritual payment given in exchange for the personal, selfish pleasure which one man derives from the virtues of another man’s character. Only a brute or an altruist would claim that the appreciation of another person’s virtues is an act of selflessness, that as far as one’s own selfish interest and pleasure are concerned, it makes no difference whether one deals with a genius or a fool, whether one meets a hero or a thug, whether one marries an ideal woman or a slut.
Romantic love, in the full sense of the term, is an emotion possible only to the man (or woman) of unbreached self-esteem: it is his response to his own highest values in the person of another—an integrated response of mind and body, of love and sexual desire. Such a man (or woman) is incapable of experiencing a sexual desire divorced from spiritual values.

There are two aspects of man’s existence which are the special province and expression of his sense of life: love and art.

I am referring here to romantic love, in the serious meaning of that term—as distinguished from the superficial infatuations of those whose sense of life is devoid of any consistent values, i.e., of any lasting emotions other than fear. Love is a response to values. It is with a person’s sense of life that one falls in love—with that essential sum, that fundamental stand or way of facing existence, which is the essence of a personality. One falls in love with the embodiment of the values that formed a person’s character, which are reflected in his widest goals or smallest gestures, which create the style of his soul—the individual style of a unique, unrepeatable, irreplaceable consciousness. It is one’s own sense of life that acts as the selector, and responds to what it recognizes as one’s own basic values in the person of another. It is not a matter of professed convictions (though these are not irrelevant); it is a matter of much more profound, conscious and subconscious harmony.

Many errors and tragic disillusionments are possible in this process of emotional recognition, since a sense of life, by itself, is not a reliable cognitive guide. And if there are degrees of evil, then one of the most evil consequences of mysticism—in terms of human suffering—is the belief that love is a matter of “the heart,” not the mind, that love is an emotion independent of reason, that love is blind and impervious to the power of philosophy. Love is the expression of philosophy—of a subconscious philosophical sum—and, perhaps, no other aspect of human existence needs the conscious power of philosophy quite so desperately. When that power is called upon to verify and support an emotional appraisal, when love is a conscious integration of reason and emotion, of mind and values, then—and only then—it is the greatest reward of man’s life.

To love is to value. Only a rationally selfish man, a man of self-esteem, is capable of love—because he is the only man capable of holding firm, consistent, uncompromising, unbetrayed values. The man who does not value himself, cannot value anything or anyone.

To love is to value. The man who tells you that it is possible to value without values, to love those whom you appraise as worthless, is the man who tells you that it is possible to grow rich by consuming without producing and that paper money is as valuable as gold . . . . When it comes to love, the highest of emotions, you permit them to shriek at you accusingly that you are a moral delinquent if you’re incapable of feeling causeless love. When a man feels fear without reason, you call him to the attention of a psychiatrist; you are not so careful to protect the meaning, the nature and the dignity of love.

Love is the expression of one’s values, the greatest reward you can earn for the moral qualities you have achieved in your character and person, the emotional price paid by one man for the joy he receives from the virtues of another. Your morality demands that you divorce your love from values and hand it down to any vagrant, not as response to his worth, but as response to his need, not as reward, but as alms, not as a payment for virtues, but as a blank check on vices. Your morality tells you that the purpose of love is to set you free of the bonds of morality, that love is superior to moral judgment, that true love transcends, forgives and survives every manner of evil in its object, and the greater the love the greater the depravity it permits to the loved. To love a man for his virtues is paltry and human, it tells you; to love him for his flaws is divine. To love those who are worthy of it is self-interest; to love the unworthy is sacrifice. You owe your love to those who don’t deserve it, and the less they deserve it, the more love you owe them—the more loathsome the object, the nobler your love—the more unfastidious your love, the greater your virtue—and if you can bring your soul to the state of a dump heap that welcomes anything on equal terms, if you can cease to value moral values, you have achieved the state of moral perfection.

Philosophy of Capitalism

“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. This—the supremacy of reason—was, is and will be the primary concern of my work, and the essence of Objectivism.”

“…Reason in epistemology leads to egoism in ethics, which leads to capitalism in politics.”

— Ayn Rand*

Capitalism is commonly taken as an economic system, that can be grafted onto any political system. Yet, economics is not a self-evident primary. An economic system (in our case, the free-market) does not exist in a vacuum but, like a house or skyscraper, is an expression of a specific intellectual foundation — a philosophy.

What is philosophy?

One’s view of what is the proper social system for human beings depends on how one views the nature of existence, how one grasps the world one lives in, and how one views human nature. It depends on one’s philosophy — an integrated, systematic view of existence.

According to philosopher Ayn Rand, philosophy consists of three primary branches:

  • Metaphysics is the branch of philosophy that studies the nature of reality (that which is); it answers the question: “what kind of world do I live in?”
  • Epistemology (epistēmē is the Greek word for knowledge) is the branch of philosophy that studies the nature and means of human knowledge, of grasping reality; it answers the question: “how do I know it?”
  • Ethics is the branch of philosophy that defines a code of values that one should live by. It answers the question: “what should I do?”

The answers to these fundamental questions will, in part, determine the answers to the branch of philosophy known as politics.

  • Politics is the application of ethics to social issues. Politics seeks to answer, “how should one live with other individuals in an organized society?”

The importance of philosophy

Philosophy is important. It is not a mere plaything of ivory-tower professors or a “…bauble of the intellect, ” writes Professor Leonard Peikoff,

“…but a power from which no man can abstain. Anyone can say that he dispenses with a view of reality, knowledge, the good, but no one can implement this credo. The reason is that man, by his nature as a conceptual being, cannot function at all without some form of philosophy to serve as his guide.” [1]

If one’s philosophy is that one lives in a world of miracles (religion), where truth is by revelation (faith), and morality means sacrificing oneself for others (altruism), one’s politics will be very different from someone who believes in a world of cause and effect (science), that one can understand rationally (reason), to pursue and achieve personal happiness (self-interest).

To concretize this point further, observe that if one’s philosophy is that of a religious fundamentalist then abortion is murder, and a fetus has the right to live in a woman’s body irrespective of the woman’s thoughts on the subject. Life comes from God, and what God giveth let no man (or women) take away.

If one is an advocate of statism, then the individual has no rights but lives by permission of the state, and the government can revoke (alienate) this permission at whim. The right to abortion becomes a matter of dictatorial vote, i.e., political might makes ethical right. The state may force one to have an abortion or prevent one from having an abortion as it sees fit for the “good of society.”

Observe that on this political issue, the answer is not determined purely by “playing politics,” but is justified by one’s fundamental philosophy. ‘

Politics is an inseparable branch of the tree of philosophy. Separate a fruitful branch from the tree of good philosophy, and graft it onto the tree of bad philosophy and that once fruitful branch will wither, crumble and die.

Philosophy is a matter of life and death.

It is on the withered cross of anti-reason, altruistic (self-sacrificial), collectivist philosophy that capitalism is being crucified.

The philosophy of anti-capitalism

In philosopher Ayn Rand’s view, the reason why capitalism is attacked and misrepresented (even by its alleged defenders) is because of the anti-enlightenment philosophies that dominate our culture:

“It is often asked: Why was capitalism destroyed in spite of its incomparably beneficent record? The answer lies in the fact that the lifeline feeding any social system is a culture’s dominant philosophy and that capitalism never had a philosophical base. It was the last and (theoretically) incomplete product of an Aristotelian influence. As a resurgent tide of mysticism engulfed philosophy in the nineteenth century, capitalism was left in an intellectual vacuum, its lifeline cut. Neither its moral nature nor even its political principles had ever been fully understood or defined. Its alleged defenders regarded it as compatible with government controls (i.e., government interference into the economy), ignoring the meaning and implications of the concept of laissez-faire. Thus, what existed in practice, in the nineteenth century, was not pure capitalism, but variously mixed economies. Since controls necessitate and breed further controls, it was the statist element of the mixtures that wrecked them; it was the free, capitalist element that took the blame.

“Capitalism could not survive in a culture dominated by mysticism and altruism, by the soul-body dichotomy and the tribal premise. No social system (and no human institution or activity of any kind) can survive without a moral base. On the basis of the altruist morality, capitalism had to be—and was—damned from the start.” [2]

It is the altruist-collectivist moral base that capitalism must be “saved” from.

Laissez-faire capitalism is a political-economic system that requires a specific philosophical framework. If capitalism is built upon an improper philosophical base, it will be like a towering skyscraper built on quicksand.

The philosophy of capitalism

What is the proper philosophical base? In the words of the American philosopher Ayn Rand:

“It is . . . by reference to philosophy that the character of a social system has to be defined and evaluated. Corresponding to the four branches of philosophy, the four keystones of capitalism are: metaphysically, the requirements of man’s nature and survival—epistemologically, reason—ethically, individual rights, politically, freedom.” [3]

This site holds that the philosophy that provides a proper foundation for capitalism is Ayn Rand’s revolutionary philosophy: Objectivism.

Objectivism holds that one should live by one’s mind and efforts, in the pursuit of one’s rational self-interest, neither sacrificing oneself to others, nor sacrificing others to oneself (ethics); that one can understand reality by reason and logic (epistemology), as one lives in a world of cause and effect where there are no contradictions (metaphysics).

A complete, systematic presentation of Objectivism is beyond the scope of this site. For a comprehensive presentation of Rand’s philosophy, I recommend Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand by Dr. Leonard Peikoff.

The Wisdom of Ayn Rand on Pragmatism

[The Pragmatists] declared that philosophy must be practical and that practicality consists of dispensing with all absolute principles and standards—that there is no such thing as objective reality or permanent truth—that truth is that which works, and its validity can be judged only by its consequences—that no facts can be known with certainty in advance, and anything may be tried by rule-of-thumb—that reality is not firm, but fluid and “indeterminate,” that there is no such thing as a distinction between an external world and a consciousness (between the perceived and the perceiver), there is only an undifferentiated package-deal labeled “experience,” and whatever one wishes to be true, is true, whatever one wishes to exist, does exist, provided it works or makes one feel better.

A later school of more Kantian Pragmatists amended this philosophy as follows. If there is no such thing as an objective reality, men’s metaphysical choice is whether the selfish, dictatorial whims of an individual or the democratic whims of a collective are to shape that plastic goo which the ignorant call “reality,” therefore this school decided that objectivity consists of collective subjectivism—that knowledge is to be gained by means of public polls among special elites of “competent investigators” who can “predict and control” reality—that whatever people wish to be true, is true, whatever people wish to exist, does exist, and anyone who holds any firm convictions of his own is an arbitrary, mystic dogmatist, since reality is indeterminate and people determine its actual nature.

Epistemologically, their dogmatic agnosticism holds, as an absolute, that a principle is false because it is a principle—that conceptual integration (i.e., thinking) is impractical or “simplistic”—that an idea which is clear and simple is necessarily “extreme and unworkable.” Along with Kant, their philosophic forefather, the pragmatists claim, in effect: “If you perceive it, it cannot be real,” and: “If you conceive of it, it cannot be true.”

What, then, is left to man? The sensation, the wish, the whim, the range and the concrete of the moment. Since no solution to any problem is possible, anyone’s suggestion, guess or edict is as valid as anyone else’s—provided it is narrow enough.

To give you an example: if a building were threatened with collapse and you declared that the crumbling foundation has to be rebuilt, a pragmatist would answer that your solution is too abstract, extreme, unprovable, and that immediate priority must be given to the need of putting ornaments on the balcony railings, because it would make the tenants feel better.

There was a time when a man would not utter arguments of this sort, for fear of being rightly considered a fool. Today, Pragmatism has not merely given him permission to do it and liberated him from the necessity of thought, but has elevated his mental default into an intellectual virtue, has given him the right to dismiss thinkers (or construction engineers) as naive, and has endowed him with that typically modern quality: the arrogance of the concrete-bound, who takes pride in not seeing the forest fire, or the forest, or the trees, while he is studying one inch of bark on a rotted tree stump.

By itself, as a distinctive theory, the pragmatist ethics is contentless. It urges men to pursue “practicality,” but refrains from specifying any “rigid” set of values that could serve to define the concept. As a result, pragmatists—despite their repudiation of all systems of morality—are compelled, if they are to implement their ethical approach at all, to rely on value codes formulated by other, non-pragmatist moralists. As a rule the pragmatist appropriates these codes without acknowledging them; he accepts them by a process of osmosis, eclectically absorbing the cultural deposits left by the moral theories of his predecessors—and protesting all the while the futility of these theories.

The dominant, virtually the only, moral code advocated by modern intellectuals in Europe and in America is some variant of altruism. This, accordingly, is what most American pragmatists routinely preach . . .

In politics, also, pragmatism presents itself as opposed to “rigidity,” to “dogma,” to “extremes” of any kind (whether capitalist or socialist); it avows that it is relativist, “moderate,” “experimental.” As in ethics, however, so here: the pragmatist is compelled to employ some kind of standard to evaluate the results of his social experiments, a standard which, given his own self-imposed default, he necessarily absorbs from other, non-pragmatist trend-setters . . . When Dewey wrote, the political principle imported from Germany and proliferating in all directions, was collectivism.

The two points central to the pragmatist ethics are: a formal rejection of all fixed standards—and an unquestioning absorption of the prevailing standards. The same two points constitute the pragmatist approach to politics, which, developed most influentially by Dewey, became the philosophy of the Progressive movement in this country (and of most of its liberal descendants down to the present day)

The American people were led to embrace the pragmatist philosophy not because of its actual, theoretical content (of which they were and remain largely ignorant), but because of the method by which that content was presented to them. In its terminology and promises, pragmatism is a philosophy calculated to appeal specifically to an American audience . . . .

The pragmatists present themselves as the exponents of a distinctively “American” approach, which consists in enshrining the basic premises of [German philosophy] while rejecting every fundamental idea, from metaphysics to politics, on which this country was founded. Most important of all, the Americans wanted ideas to be good for something on earth, to have tangible, practical significance; and, insistently, the pragmatists stress “practicality,” which, according to their teachings, consists in action divorced from thought and reality.

The pragmatists stress the “cash value” of ideas. But the Americans did not know the “cash value” of the pragmatist ideas they were buying. They did not know that pragmatism could not deliver on its promise of this-worldly success because, at root, it is a philosophy which does not believe in this, or any, world.

When the Americans flocked to pragmatism, they believed that they were joining a battle to advance their essential view of reality and of life. They did not know that they were being marched in the opposite direction, that the battle had been calculated for a diametrically opposite purpose, or that the enemy they were being pushed to destroy was: themselves.

Ayn Rand on the Tyranny of the “Common Good”

The tribal notion of “the common good” has served as the moral justification of most social systems—and of all tyrannies—in history. The degree of a society’s enslavement or freedom corresponded to the degree to which that tribal slogan was invoked or ignored.

“The common good” (or “the public interest”) is an undefined and undefinable concept: there is no such entity as “the tribe” or “the public”; the tribe (or the public or society) is only a number of individual men. Nothing can be good for the tribe as such; “good” and “value” pertain only to a living organism—to an individual living organism—not to a disembodied aggregate of relationships.

“The common good” is a meaningless concept, unless taken literally, in which case its only possible meaning is: the sum of the good of all the individual men involved. But in that case, the concept is meaningless as a moral criterion: it leaves open the question of what is the good of individual men and how does one determine it?

It is not, however, in its literal meaning that that concept is generally used. It is accepted precisely for its elastic, undefinable, mystical character which serves, not as a moral guide, but as an escape from morality. Since the good is not applicable to the disembodied, it becomes a moral blank check for those who attempt to embody it.

When “the common good” of a society is regarded as something apart from and superior to the individual good of its members, it means that the good of some men takes precedence over the good of others, with those others consigned to the status of sacrificial animals. It is tacitly assumed, in such cases, that “the common good” means “the good of the majority” as against the minority or the individual. Observe the significant fact that that assumption is tacit: even the most collectivized mentalities seem to sense the impossibility of justifying it morally. But “the good of the majority,” too, is only a pretense and a delusion: since, in fact, the violation of an individual’s rights means the abrogation of all rights, it delivers the helpless majority into the power of any gang that proclaims itself to be “the voice of society” and proceeds to rule by means of physical force, until deposed by another gang employing the same means.

If one begins by defining the good of individual men, one will accept as proper only a society in which that good is achieved and achievable. But if one begins by accepting “the common good” as an axiom and regarding individual good as its possible but not necessary consequence (not necessary in any particular case), one ends up with such a gruesome absurdity as Soviet Russia, a country professedly dedicated to “the common good,” where, with the exception of a minuscule clique of rulers, the entire population has existed in subhuman misery for over two generations.

Ayn Rand on Character

“Character” means a man’s nature or identity insofar as this is shaped by the moral values he accepts and automatizes. By “moral values” I mean values which are volitionally chosen, and which are fundamental, i.e., shape the whole course of a man’s action, not merely a specialized, delimited area of his life . . . . So a man’s character is, in effect, his moral essence—his self-made identity as expressed in the principles he lives by.

Just as man’s physical survival depends on his own effort, so does his psychological survival. Man faces two corollary, interdependent fields of action in which a constant exercise of choice and a constant creative process are demanded of him: the world around him and his own soul (by “soul,” I mean his consciousness). Just as he has to produce the material values he needs to sustain his life, so he has to acquire the values of character that enable him to sustain it and that make his life worth living. He is born without the knowledge of either. He has to discover both—and translate them into reality—and survive by shaping the world and himself in the image of his values.

The Wisdom of Ayn Rand on the 19th Century

If you want to prove to yourself the power of ideas and, particularly, of morality—the intellectual history of the nineteenth century would be a good example to study. The greatest, unprecedented, undreamed of events and achievements were taking place before men’s eyes—but men did not see them and did not understand their meaning, as they do not understand it to this day. I am speaking of the industrial revolution, of the United States and of capitalism. For the first time in history, men gained control over physical nature and threw off the control of men over men—that is: men discovered science and political freedom. The creative energy, the abundance, the wealth, the rising standard of living for every level of the population were such that the nineteenth century looks like a fiction-Utopia, like a blinding burst of sunlight, in the drab progression of most of human history. If life on earth is one’s standard of value, then the nineteenth century moved mankind forward more than all the other centuries combined.

Did anyone appreciate it? Does anyone appreciate it now? Has anyone identified the causes of that historical miracle?

They did not and have not. What blinded them? The morality of altruism.

Let me explain this. There are, fundamentally, only two causes of the progress of the nineteenth century—the same two causes which you will find at the root of any happy, benevolent, progressive era in human history. One cause is psychological, the other existential—or: one pertains to man’s consciousness, the other to the physical conditions of his existence. The first is reason, the second is freedom. And when I say “freedom,” I do not mean poetic sloppiness, such as “freedom from want” or “freedom from fear” or “freedom from the necessity of earning a living.” I mean “freedom from compulsion—freedom from rule by physical force.” Which means: political freedom.