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.
Myth: Rationality means never falling for any fallacies or “cognitive biases.”
Truth: Human beings are not born knowing how to use their minds properly. That is, they are not born knowing the proper methods of thinking. You have to learn how to think logically over time. In the process of that learning, you can make many errors in your thinking method. Rationality includes the commitment to monitoring your thinking for errors and correcting it whenever you see that it’s faulty. This contrasts with the irrational person who disregards the need to focus on methods of thinking, or who leaves fallacies and biases uncorrected when he does discover them.
Myth: Rationality is opposed to all emotion and requires “cold calculation.”
Truth: Ayn Rand considered emotion very important. Her philosophy regards emotion as the motivation and reward for living. Sheer emotions are not the final determinant of a rational person’s actions, but neither are they irrelevant. Emotions are not guides to facts about the world, but they are helpful in figuring out what you value in life.
A rational decision process for a human being doesn’t look like a computer decision tree. It may actually start with an emotion: say, a desire to become a chemical engineer. Then, this desire goes through a process of questioning: Why do I want to become a chemical engineer? Is it a healthy desire, as far as I can tell, or is it motivated by something unhealthy? What is it about chemical engineering that I find appealing? Is it because I like the sorts of problems I would be solving and what I’d be doing day-to-day, or just because I think it’s a prestigious position that would please my parents? Is this desire consistent with the principles of morality and human well-being? Being a chemical engineer would be, since it’s an honest, productive job, but if I wanted to be a bank robber, that would be ruled out as immoral. What will it take to achieve this career? Is it worth it to me to do all that is necessary? Will I be completely satisfied with the lifestyle that the job entails, or if I’m not, are the other aspects of the job worth the downside?
It is only after all of these questions have been asked and answered that a rational person acts toward the goal. This is what it means to act rationally, according to Ayn Rand: submitting your desires to the scrutiny of reason and never letting your emotions override facts in your evaluations of those desires, (i.e. not succumbing to wishful thinking.) If a given desire doesn’t survive this scrutiny, then a rational person will not act on it.
Ayn Rand says that, because human emotions are based on conceptual judgments, the very act of analyzing and judging an emotion will tend to change it. If the analysis of a desire confirms that it’s appropriate and can be rationally pursued, then this will tend to strengthen the desire. If the analysis shows that the desire is unhealthy and would be irrational to pursue, then this will tend to mitigate it. It may also strengthen the desire for an alternative course in the process. (This assumes a relatively healthy psychology. If someone has premises deep in his subconscious that fight with his conscious conclusions, then certain emotions may be quite resistant to change. The rational course in this case is to act on one’s conscious conclusions to the extent one must act, while working to identify and uproot the false subconscious premises that conflict with those conclusions. This process may benefit greatly from the help of a psychologist. [See the psychology category at the ARI eStore, especially: Aligning Your Subconscious Values with Your Conscious Convictions…])
There need not be any pervasive, long-term conflict between an individual’s reason and emotions.
Myth: Rationality (reason) is purely instrumental, and can be used to pursue any value or goal.
Truth: If someone holds a belief on purely emotional grounds, regardless of the evidence, then uses arguments to defend the position based on a carefully cherry-picked subset of the facts, this is not an example of genuine reasoning. This is actually a process of rationalization, where the outward appearance of reasoning is given, but the reality is not there.
Similarly, “reasoning” engineered to accomplish an irrational goal is just a reluctant concession to a world that doesn’t allow any sort of accomplishment by sheer whims. It is not rationality in any genuine, full sense. To be rational, any course of action must have both its means and goals evaluated by an honest, fact-based process of reasoning.
How does one go about evaluating goals, you ask? Well, first of all, the vast majority of goals are not (purely) ends in themselves. They serve as means to further goals. So you have to look at what the facts say about whether and how a particular goal will actually contribute to whatever further goal it’s aimed at. Will, for example, your goal of investing in a certain company promote your further goal of financial security?
The other way goals must be rationally evaluated is by whether they are consistent with the principles of Objectivist morality. Would pursuing a certain goal violate the fundamental values and virtues required for long-term life and happiness? The goal of writing an autobiography that misrepresents your life would violate the virtue of honesty. The goal of robbing a bank would violate the Non-Initiation of Force Principle, and with it, honesty and all other virtues.
Ayn Rand defined six virtues as components of rationality: honesty, independence, integrity, productiveness, justice and pride. She described each of these as a recognition of a certain basic fact about human nature. A person must act in accordance with all of these facts, if he is to consistently promote his life and happiness. And it is life/happiness that is the ultimate goal consistent with the nature of a living human being. (To pursue any other goal as ultimate is to pursue death, and thus the goal of ceasing to be a living human being.)
Thus, when I hear a statement to the effect that “the Nazis were rational,” I understand that it is blatantly, ridiculously wrong. For one thing, the Nazis were very explicitly against reason. As quoted in The Ominous Parallels, by Dr. Leonard Peikoff, Hitler himself said: “People have set us [Nazis] down as enemies of the intelligence. We are. But in a much deeper sense than these conceited dolts of bourgeois scientists ever dream of.” And also: “We must distrust the intelligence and the conscience, and must place our trust in our instincts.” And on another occasion: “Trust your instincts, your feelings, or whatever you like to call them.” Dr. Peikoff comments:
The last clause indicates the latitude permitted to the Nazis on this question. They were free to advocate–and did advocate, privately and publicly–every nonrational source of alleged knowledge that men have ever invented, including revelation, intuition, trances, magic, and astrology (the latter was a special favorite of Goebbels).
In dismissing a criticism of Hitler’s economic policies, Hermann Goering declared, “I tell you, if the Führer wishes it, then two times two are five.” (1)
But even if we attempt to put aside what they explicitly said as hypocrisy or manipulation of the public, the fact is that Nazism contradicts principles of human nature. Thus the Nazis violated Objectivist morality all over the place. Nazism sees human beings fundamentally as “races” and “nations” rather than as individuals. Individuals, it preaches, can’t really think for themselves and are not responsible for their own characters. They are just tiny parts of a race and a nation, to be sacrificed whenever the Führer (the embodiment of the race/nation) sees fit. The Nazis were power lusters and murderers. The wars of conquest the Nazis started led directly to the destruction of Germany and the deaths of Hitler and his top Nazi hierarchy. To top it all off, the Nazis often practiced what they preached by dabbling heavily in astrology, magic and the occult in attempts to win World War II.
Myth: Perfect rationality would require endless thinking and one would never get anything done.
Truth: One of the facts that a rational person must recognize is that time is limited, and rationality isn’t just about thinking for its own sake, but acting on that thought. When the evidence you have indicates that no more thought on an issue will be productive, or when time pressure requires immediate action, it isn’t rational to keep thinking about the issue. It’s rational to act on whatever thinking you have already done.
Myth: Self-interested rationality means maximizing money or material gain.
Truth: Rational self-interest is about pursuing long-term happiness, not merely money or wealth. A human being needs more than just material nutrients to maintain and enrich their self, since their self is not merely their body, but their consciousness as well. People need what might be called “spiritual nutrients” to keep their consciousness healthy. These include things like movies, music, art, friendships and love relationships.
Nor does long-term happiness consist of a series of short-term, out-of-context pleasures. It is the mental and emotional experience of a life fully lived as a human being. This means it is the experience of planning and building your own life, as well as achieving values that promote and enrich your life as a whole. It involves long-range thinking, and sometimes foregoing short-range indulgences for the sake of long-term well-being. This also means adhering to basic facts about human nature, and the Objectivist moral principles that are derived from them. Contradicting those principles inevitably leads to failure and long-term destruction.
Rationality is not simply about “cash, cars and women” now, whatever the means. To ignore the nature of the means and the long-term ways they affect your self is irrational. Rationality means not ignoring any relevant facts you are (or should be) aware of, including the effects on you of pursuing things by dishonest or coercive means.
Myth: Consistent rationality requires difficult thinking or problem solving throughout one’s waking hours.
Truth: Some readers of the passage from Ayn Rand above might misinterpret it to mean this. But “full, conscious awareness” and “full mental focus,” as Rand is discussing it, does not mean “difficult mental labor.” It means always being aware of what you are doing and why, as well as what goals you need to accomplish in the near and distant future. When you’re tired and can no longer work, or when you’re in a period when work is not needed for your long-term goals, rest and recreation are perfectly consistent with rationality. Your rational goal in recreation is to rest, enjoy yourself, and refuel. This is both an end-in-itself, and so that you’ll be able to carry on with your work later.
Being rational about recreation means that you don’t engage in forms of recreation that are destructive to your mind or long-term goals. You don’t, for example, get drunk and then jump in your car and race your buddy down the street. Nor do you allow recreation to get in the way of the other goals and obligations that you have chosen for yourself. So you don’t party all Sunday night, such that you fall asleep and miss a job interview appointment on Monday morning. You exercise rational control over how and when you engage in recreation.
So consistent rationality is demanding and difficult, but possible for every sane adult to practice. The idea that consistent rationality is impossible, impractical, or violates human nature, is a myth that is the product of the myths I refuted above. (This goes for objectivity as well.) The fact that many people aren’t consistently rational, doesn’t mean that they can’t be.
Rationality is a matter of choice: People can choose to pay scrupulous attention to facts and do their best to live by them, or they can decide to ignore facts and go with their emotions. They can attempt to comprehend facts to the best of their ability and incorporate them into their worldview, or they can rationalize and pretend that some facts don’t exist, or are other than they are. This is the basic choice that confronts every individual in every waking moment, and it is stark: There can never be a fact that requires an individual to fundamentally ignore facts. There can never be a good reason to abandon reason. Any attempt to compromise between the supremacy of reason and that of unreason results in a self-contradiction, and so is pure, unadulterated unreason.
At the basic level, people can choose to practice rationality, living by the virtues of honesty, independence, integrity, productiveness, justice and pride, to the best of their ability/understanding, or they can choose to practice irrationality. They cannot choose both. They may make different choices at different times, but they cannot escape the destructive consequences of the times they choose irrationality.
For more on rationality and the virtues it subsumes, I recommend Dr. Tara Smith’s book, Ayn Rand’s Normative Ethics: The Virtuous Egoist.
(1) Peikoff, Leonard; The Ominous Parallels, pp. 41-42, 55