What Rationality Means in Ayn Rand’s Philosophy of Objectivism

Ayn Rand, novelist and philosopher of Objectivism, a philosophy for living on Earth.

Ayn Rand

Ayn Rand’s idea of rationality is one of the most misunderstood concepts in her Objectivist philosophy. It seems that almost everyone just assumes they know exactly what rationality means. Then, upon learning that Rand advocates consistent rationality, tend to judge Rand’s philosophy by their preconceived notion of rationality, without realizing their understanding is deeply flawed.

Here I’ll explain what rationality means in Ayn Rand’s philosophy. I’ll quote Rand for a brief, positive explanation of her concept of rationality. Then, because misconceptions are so prevalent, my further explanation will largely take the form of a series of myths about rationality, with genuine rationality explained in contrast to the myths.

In her essay, “The Objectivist Ethics,” Ayn Rand describes rationality:

Rationality is man’s basic virtue, the source of all his other virtues. …

The virtue of Rationality means the recognition and acceptance of reason as one’s only source of knowledge, one’s only judge of values and one’s only guide to action. It means one’s total commitment to a state of full, conscious awareness, to the maintenance of a full mental focus in all issues, in all choices, in all of one’s waking hours. It means a commitment to the fullest perception of reality within one’s power and to the constant, active expansion of one’s perception, i.e., of one’s knowledge. It means a commitment to the reality of one’s own existence, i.e., to the principle that all of one’s goals, values and actions take place in reality and, therefore, that one must never place any value or consideration whatsoever above one’s perception of reality.  It means a commitment to the principle that all of one’s convictions, values, goals, desires and actions must be based on, derived from, chosen and validated by a process of thought—as precise and scrupulous a process of thought, directed by as ruthlessly strict an application of logic, as one’s fullest capacity permits.

So rationality consists of two components: a mental component and a physical component. It involves both thought and action. The thinking portion can be described as the rigorous application of objectivity in one’s own life. So when I discuss the myths about rationality, you should understand that what I say about the mental aspect of it applies to Ayn Rand’s concept of objectivity, as well. (Objectivity is frequently mischaracterized, along with rationality.)

Now to the myths:

Myth: Rationality means not making errors about facts.

Truth: Rationality means judging facts to the best of your ability on the basis of observation, rather than going by faith or feelings. Doing this is not a guarantee that you won’t make mistakes. Rational thought can still result in major errors about what the facts are.

The evidence may seem to point to one conclusion, because of limitations in what evidence you have access to. But there may be other evidence you’re not aware of that would lead you to a different conclusion. So long as you’re continually thinking and following the evidence to the best of your ability, you are acting rationally in regard to the facts.

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Philosophy of Perception: Naïve Realism vs. Representationalism vs. Direct Transformative Process Realism

Painting of a beautiful woman in a garden - Shows the richness of perceptionWithin epistemology, which is the branch of philosophy that studies human knowledge, one of the most fundamental topics is the nature of perception. Philosophers from the Ancient Greeks to the present have offered various theories of what perception is and how it occurs. Because it is a topic so fundamental to human knowledge, specialized natural science can’t answer the basics about it. Science relies on perceptual observations of reality. Thus science itself relies on the idea that perception allows us to be aware of an external reality. If perception does not give us awareness of external reality, then scientific study of the external world is not possible: We would always, at best, be inspecting the contents of our own minds.

Thus, it is the job of philosophy to answer the most basic question: Does perception give us an awareness of reality, and if so, at the most basic level, how?

In this essay, I’ll explain three different theories of perception. To the question of whether perception gives us an awareness of reality, all three of them attempt to answer, “Yes.” Where they disagree is on the “how,” or the basic nature of perception. The three basic theories are naïve realism, representative realism, and Direct Transformative Process Realism (DTPR.) (“Representative realism” here is a synonym for representationalism. Note that these theories are all variants of “realism” in perception. Theories that answer “No” to the question of whether we can observe mind-independent reality would be variants of “idealism.”)

Philosophers sometimes use “naïve realism” as a synonym for “direct realism,” and there are many different theories that could be called “direct realist.” But here I will take “naïve realism” to be one specific sort of direct realist theory: the sort of approach to perception exemplified by the Ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle. Representationalism too has quite a few variants, but they all share a common thread. I will focus largely on the version of representationalism associated with the English philosopher, John Locke. Direct Transformative Process Realism (DTPR) is my term for the theory of perception put forward by Ayn Rand and Objectivist intellectuals after her. It’s a form of direct realism that is very different from Aristotle’s approach. I’ll explain this term in more detail when I explain this theory later in this essay.

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How Government Welfare Programs Are Immoral and Hurt Everyone, Including the Poor

US Federal Government spends 19% of its budget on overt welfare programs, (including Medicaid).

In 2016, the US Federal Government spent $740 billion, or 19% of its budget, on overt welfare programs, (including Medicaid). It spent $1.57 trillion on Social Security and Medicare. Together these make up 60% of its budget. (Source)

A very common view today is that the government needs to provide welfare programs for the poor. This is the view that “redistribution of wealth to the needy” is a noble project, and such “government assistance” is necessary to keep people from starving in the streets.

This essay will challenge and refute this view. In Ayn Rand’s ideal society, under laissez-faire capitalism, there would be no welfare programs, and this would be a good thing.

The people who didn’t vote for welfare programs, yet are taxed to support them, did not consent to the taking of their money. They signed no “social contract,” and simply living near other people does not give those other people a right to take their money. If you doubt this, watching this short video should be helpful:

Welfare programs are immoral for the same reason that three people using guns to force a fourth to pay for all their dinners is immoral: It’s an injustice that violates the rights of the victims. It has the same moral status as a robbery.

Yet people still attempt to justify using government to “redistribute” (steal) money by force, by appealing to alleged good consequences that result from the practice. The main line of argument is that welfare benefits are needed to prevent the poor from starving, while wealthier people can “afford” to have a corresponding amount of money taken out of their incomes. Thus, the argument goes, there is a net “social benefit” to welfare redistribution.

This argument is wrong on four counts:

  1. Welfare is not needed to keep good people from starving.
  2. The effect of redistribution on the wealthy should not be thought of in terms of whether they can “afford” it.
  3. There is no such thing as a “social benefit,” in the way this argument assumes.
  4. Even if we dismiss the idea of “social benefit,” the argument falsely assumes that the “beneficiaries” of welfare really benefit, overall, from redistribution.

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Ethical Theories Summarized & Explained: Consequentialism, Deontology, Virtue Ethics, and Objectivist Ethical Egoism

The purpose of this article is to explain different ethical theories and compare and contrast them in a way that’s clear and easy for students to understand. There are three major categories of ethical systems that students typically learn about in philosophy classes: consequentialism, deontology and virtue ethics. I will describe all of them briefly, then describe each one of them in more detail, pointing out their defining features and major variants. I’ll then discuss the nature of Objectivist Ethical Egoism and how it compares and contrasts with each of these types of ethics.

The Ethical Theories: Brief Summary

Consequentialism names a type of ethical theory that judges human practices, like actions or rules, based on their consequences. Human practices that produce good consequences are morally right, while ones that produce bad consequences are morally wrong. Roughly speaking, a consequentialist says that you should do certain things, because those actions produce good consequences. By far the most common historical variant of consequentialism is Classic Utilitarianism. Classic Utilitarianism was advocated by such philosophers as Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill.

Deontology names a type of ethical theory that judges human practices based on whether they are consistent with certain duties that the theory holds as intrinsically moral. Consequences are irrelevant to a fully deontological theory. Deontological theories tend to focus on the motives of actions, and whether a given action was motivated by duty or something else. In many deontological theories, motivation by moral duty itself–rather than other factors, like self-interest–is essential to an action’s being morally right. An advocate of deontology says that you should do certain things, just because those things are the right things to do, (they “align with duty.”) The originator of deontology as a formal theoretical framework was the German philosopher, Immanuel Kant. Later advocates have included W.D. Ross, Robert Nozick and Christine Korsgaard.

Virtue ethics names a type of ethical theory that takes virtues of character, rather than individual actions or rules, as the most fundamental ethical concepts. Moral virtues like honesty, courage, integrity, temperance and generosity are taken to be inherently good first, then actions are evaluated based on whether they express those virtues. That is, do the actions match what a virtuous person would do in those circumstances? Basically, a virtue ethicist says that you should do certain things, because they are examples of good character. Modern virtue ethics takes inspiration from the moral theories of Ancient Greek philosophers like Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics, (especially Aristotle.) Prominent advocates include Christine Swanton, Rosalind Hursthouse and Alasdair MacIntyre.

Objectivist Ethical Egoism, unlike the other terms here, names one specific theory. It takes human life as the abstract or general standard of moral evaluation. Roughly speaking, that which promotes human life is the good, that which damages or destroys it is the bad. Because Objectivism, the whole philosophy from which this ethics springs, views human life as fundamentally individual–needing to be lived, maintained and enhanced by each individual through his own action–Objectivist Ethical Egoism (OEE) takes each individual’s own life as his own effective standard of value. That which promotes the individual’s own life overall is the good for him, that which damages or destroys his own life is the bad for him.

But OEE does not simply say that actions that end up promoting your life are moral, and actions that end up damaging it are immoral. Objectivism holds that the fundamental job of morality is to guide human choices in the context in which they are made. Objectivism accepts the obvious truth that humans are not omniscient, and so cannot predict all the exact consequences of their actions in advance. It says that the way humans gain general or conditional knowledge–knowledge that can be applied to predict future consequences–is by forming rational principles from empirical observation and experience. In the field of morality, this means deriving rational moral principles from experience. These principles are general statements of fact that are then applied to particular situations to determine a proper course of action. Thus, OEE says that a chosen action is moral, if and only if it represents a proper application of a life-promoting moral principle to the acting individual’s current circumstances.

Among the principles that OEE holds as true are the idea that the rational self-interests of individuals do not conflict, and that initiating force against others (murder, slavery, theft, etc.) is destructive not only to the victims’ lives, but also to the perpetrator’s.

Basically, Objectivist Ethical Egoism says that you should do certain things, because those things actually support and/or enrich your own life. OEE is Ayn Rand’s highly distinctive theory that is widely misinterpreted by academic philosophers and the general public. It has been advocated and explained by such philosophers as Leonard Peikoff, Tara Smith, Allan Gotthelf and Gregory Salmieri. I will discuss OEE’s relationship with the three ethical categories, and whether it can be considered a member of any of them, when I discuss it in more detail later in this essay.

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A List of Voluntary Ways to Fund a Government

US Capitol Building. Represents politics and government.Here’s a list of possible ways I’ve thought of or heard to fund government, without the government initiating force to collect taxes:

  1. Fees for government enforcement of contracts. This was Ayn Rand’s idea.
  2. A lottery.
  3. If a court finds a party at fault in a civil judgment, it collects a small fee from that party to help pay court costs.
  4. Courts impose fines on those who are convicted of misdemeanors and felonies.
  5. Imprisoned convicts work and help maintain prisons in order to receive food and luxuries above a bare minimum to keep them alive. The best-behaved might work on/maintain other government buildings.
  6. A small annual fee might be required for someone to maintain citizenship. Non-citizens would still be protected by the government in its jurisdiction, but would not be able to vote for government officials, and wouldn’t receive US government protection when traveling internationally.

These are, of course, in addition to any straight donations, which Yaron Brook discusses in this video:

Feel free to leave any other ideas in the comments.


Related Posts:

How to Show That Taxation is Robbery

Wealth is Created by Action Based on Rational Thought

An Objectivist Refutation of Anarcho-Capitalism (Market Anarchy)

Why Moral Theory is Needed in the Fight for Liberty, Not Just Economics and the Non-Aggression Principle

Socialism and Welfare vs. Justice: Why Inalienable Private Property Rights are Required for Justice

How Christian Morality Promotes Despotism Over Liberty

The Statue of Liberty. Lady Liberty needs moral theory for support.Many Christians, especially conservatives in the US, will tell you that Christianity is compatible with liberty. Some will even say that it’s the foundation of liberty. After all, isn’t one of the Biblical Commandments, “Thou shalt not steal”? So the people in government have no business stealing through coercive taxation. And didn’t Jesus practice non-violence and admonish followers to give to the poor themselves, rather than forcibly taking money from others to donate? What business do the people in government have doing this, if they’re going by Christian morality?

Yet the countries of Europe have a long history of dictatorial rulers, while seeming to be very heavily Christian. In the Middle Ages, feudal lords ruled over their subjects–especially serfs–with near-absolute power. Kings and popes strove to maximize their authority over their subjects, to rule as Christian monarchs. In the 17th Century, the Christian king of France, Louis XIV, was especially successful at becoming an absolute monarch. The pope was extremely powerful, often like a monarch in his own right. This continued, even as priests and noblemen knew about the Roman Republic of antiquity.

Woman being burned at the stake

Burning at the stake was one of the punishments for heresy or witchcraft. It was used as punishment for these “crimes” up to 1,300 years after Christianity first dominated Europe.

During the Middle Ages, and even into the Renaissance, the Roman Catholic Church put people on trial for “heresies,” (differences of religious belief) and if they were convicted, they were handed over to civil authorities to be imprisoned, hanged, or burned at the stake.

Persecution for heresy was not even limited to official acts carried out by the civil/religious authorities. Ordinary people–commoners and peasants–sometimes formed mobs and burned alleged heretics themselves, without trial.

Popes sanctioned wars of conquest, like Charlemagne’s wars to conquer Saxony and Lombardy, the Norman invasion of England in 1066, and multiple crusades to conquer the Holy Land.

Even after the Protestant Reformation, there were Protestant despots like King Henry VIII and Oliver Cromwell of Britain, and Charles IX of Sweden who were cruel and tyrannical, and who violated the religious freedoms of their subjects. Religious wars continued to rage across Europe, such as the Thirty Years’ War.

Martin Luther portrait

Martin Luther supported the death penalty for anyone guilty of blasphemy.

All of this occurred during a deeply religious and almost universally Christian era in Europe’s history. By virtually every measure, people during the 1,300 years between the fall of the Roman Empire and the Enlightenment, were far more religious than in the past 300 years. They went to church more often, prayed more often, relied on the Bible more, were less concerned about earthly life and more concerned about whether they were headed for heaven or hell. They became passionate and even violent over religious disputes, and most of them had no tolerance for heresies, paganism, or atheism. (Atheism was basically unheard-of.)

Was all of the oppression and war some bizarre, inexplicable, 1,300-year fluke of history? Did a crazy corruption of Christianity somehow reign for 1,300 years, amid widespread and profound religiosity?

In the rest of this essay, I will argue that these 1,300 years were no fluke and no corruption of the fundamental ideas of Christianity. What may seem like a corruption to some superficial, modern interpretations of Christian ideas, is in fact a logical consequence of the deeper ideas of Christian morality. Christian morality ultimately supports statism and oppression of the individual, not liberty and individual rights.

The two major moral tenets that support statism are: self-sacrifice for others, and faith.

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How Economic Regulation Causes Cronyism and “Regulatory Capture”

Kronies action figures - They're Konnected!I’m very much pro-capitalism. However, I agree with Bernie Sanders and many of his allies on the American Left about something. I agree that cronyism is a serious problem in the US. Businesses should not get special favors and money from the government that they didn’t earn. But where Bernie and friends seem to think the solution to cronyism is more government regulation and control, I think cronyism is a symptom of too much government regulation and control. I think the solution is purer capitalism, which means freer markets. In this essay, I’ll explain why I think this, and how I think government regulation of the economy causes cronyism, lobbying and “regulatory capture.”

Let’s start by observing a correlation: Cronyism and lobbying tend to show up in the most regulated industries, not the least regulated. Finance in the US is heavily regulated–by no fewer than eight federal agencies–and the government protects and bails out big banks. Pharmaceuticals are controlled by the FDA, and the FDA often keeps smaller competitors out of the market. Whether a sports team can build a stadium is practically controlled by the city government, and team owners typically get a bonanza of special deals and subsidies from the city. Cronyism was virtually non-existent in the less-regulated tech sector, until the government pursued the anti-trust case against Microsoft. Now, Microsoft has a division in Washington D.C. for lobbying purposes. (Apple and Google now both lobby, too.) In general, retail stores are not very heavily regulated, and there’s not a significant issue of cronyism in that field.

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