Introduction to Objectivism

Short Introduction to Philosophy and Objectivism

Objectivism is the philosophy developed by the author/philosopher Ayn Rand and dramatized in her novels, such as The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged.

Ayn Rand held that, far from being a useless diversion, philosophy was critically important in human life: Every human action presupposes certain philosophical beliefs. On an individual level, one’s underlying philosophy is crucial to living a deeply happy, successful life. On a societal level, the dominant underlying philosophy is a crucial driving force of human history, and it determines whether a society grows and prospers, or whether it decays and collapses.

Here’s a very short video introduction to Objectivism:

Philosophy is the study of the fundamental nature of reality, of man, and of man’s relationship to the rest of reality, including his basic means of knowing and living in reality. (This also includes the fundamental relationship between an individual and other people.) Philosophy has five main branches: metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, politics, and esthetics.

Metaphysics studies the nature of the universe in general, and the fundamentals of human nature: those attributes common to all existing things and to all human beings, respectively. (In my blog sections and my introduction below, I treat human nature as a distinct sub-field from general metaphysics.) Epistemology studies the basic conditions, methods and ways of evaluating human knowledge: Is knowledge possible? How can one know anything? What counts as knowledge? What is truth? Etc. (Note that any scientific study of reality, such as physics or cosmology, presupposes answers to metaphysical and epistemological questions. One cannot bypass genuine metaphysics by an appeal to scientific cosmology.) Ethics studies the fundamental principles that are to be guides in choosing one’s actions. What goals should one pursue in action and why? Are there such things as objective values, and if so, what are they? Do individuals have moral duties, and if so, what are they? What does it mean for something to be morally good? Etc. Politics studies the basic nature and forms of government. What’s the essential nature of government? Should there be a government? If so, what should the government’s role be in a society? Are there any rights that the government should respect? Etc. Esthetics, (or aesthetics) as Rand conceived of it, studies the basic nature of art. What is art? What is a form of art, as against things that are not? What is art’s function in human life? Are there universal or objective standards that should be used in judging art? If so, what are they? Etc.

My slightly more involved introduction to Objectivism follows below. Please remember that this is still only an introduction, and there is much more to be learned on each of these topics before one can claim an understanding of Objectivism. Scroll down to read my introduction.

For some information about the benefits of understanding Objectivism, please scroll down or click here.

For advice on how to learn more about Objectivism and gain an understanding, please scroll down or click here.

If you’re skeptical of the need for philosophy, now that we have modern science, please scroll down or click here.

My Introduction to Objectivism

The following is my somewhat more elaborated introduction to Ayn Rand’s philosophy. But please keep in mind that this is still only an introductory summary. By itself, it will not give you the understanding necessary to apply Objectivism, to prove its principles to yourself, or to defend it in rigorous debate against others. (Note also that the lengths of the sections do not represent the relative importance of the branches, only the level of detail appropriate to a beginner. Metaphysics and epistemology are very abstract and rather difficult topics, requiring more experience with philosophical thought.)

Ayn Rand’s philosophy holds that:

Earth from space. View of the whole globe.1) Metaphysics: Reality exists independent of any consciousness, whether human or “divine.” That is, what we perceive is not an illusion, hallucination, or construct of our own minds, nor is it subject to alteration by the majority beliefs of our culture or the features of our language, nor is it a product of some cosmic consciousness (“God”). Any particular thing is itself (The Law of Identity) and has the attributes it has, not the attributes anyone (or any “culture”/”race”/”class”) wishes it to have. Nor are its attributes altered by alterations in people’s use of language. Neither contradictions, nor breaches of the Law of Cause and Effect, (such as literal miracles) can exist in reality.

Radiant mind depicted as a glowing brain. Symbolic of knowledge and epistemology.2) Epistemology: The only means by which humans can reliably obtain knowledge is reason. Reason involves observing reality and thinking logically about what one has perceived by the senses. Being logical means using clear, well-defined concepts, avoiding contradictions anywhere in one’s ideas, and not basing one’s conclusions on sheer emotion or intuition. Using reason means going by the perceived facts and evidence in all matters of external reality, and the best facts and evidence one can get through honest introspection, in matters of the state of one’s own consciousness.

To be perfectly objective does not mean to refrain from all evaluation; nor does it mean to consider all opinions equally correct; nor does it mean to infallibly intuit some “truth” beyond the reach of one’s sensory experience; nor does it mean to inerrantly avoid all possible fallacies. It means to go by the evidence of your senses to the best of your ability, never substituting your wishes, desires or other emotions for your sense-based reasoning in the judgment of truth. It means never attempting to ignore aspects of reality that you have any reason to think contradict your conclusions. It means not blindly accepting those ideas which are put forward without any supporting evidence, (that is, ideas that are arbitrary.)

If you have not been logical or objective in the past, it is never too late to start.

Beautiful girl with hands on head.3) Human Nature: Human beings are fundamentally individuals: they think, act, feel emotions, and live or die as individuals. They can have profoundly beneficial (or detrimental) relationships with many other individuals, but these relationships do not dissolve the individuals into a collective “soup of humanity.” That a million individuals can be called a “society” does not negate the reality of the million individuals. “Collective” choices, thoughts, actions, and well-being are only the sum of the choices, thoughts, actions, and well-being of individuals. Human beings do not have telepathic connections that bind them into a collective consciousness. The mere fact of a stranger’s happiness is of no benefit to an individual who is suicidally depressed, just as the mere fact of someone else’s health is of no health benefit to an individual who has cancer.

Humans are, with rare exceptions, capable of acting rationally on a consistent basis. Whether an individual does act rationally or not depends on his choices. Man has a specific kind of free will, which Ayn Rand called “volition,” that consists of the continuous choice to focus one’s mind and think, or not. This choice remains open to each individual while he is conscious, sane and his brain is not physically impaired. Man is a natural animal that has developed the ability to think abstractly and plan long-range. His mind’s sole function is to serve his life in this world, and his soul is entirely of this world. There is no necessary conflict between an individual’s mind and body, since the two are integrated aspects of one earthly, living creature. Man is neither an “otherworldly” soul trapped in a “depraved” body, nor a material body without a mind or soul. Man’s mind has a specific nature and specific needs for its health, just as his body does.

Man has no instincts for long-term survival: his thinking mind is his basic means of long-term survival. But in order for it to serve him optimally, each individual must learn to use his mind properly. This involves discovering principles, including principles of logic.

Objectivism acknowledges that emotions are very important to human beings: they are man’s means of enjoying his life, and they are necessary for the motivation to pursue goals. But emotions are not an individual’s means of knowing the facts of the world outside his own mind, including what things are actually good for him, or bad.

A skyscraper under construction. View from below.4) Ethics: Ethics (which is synonymous with morality) is not a mere set of social rules for how one treats others. Nor is morality a set of commandments one follows to please an alleged “supernatural” being. Ethics is a profoundly important guide to living and achieving goals in this world. Ethics applies, in some form, to all freely chosen human actions. (These actions can be physical or mental, but mental actions are more fundamental, since they determine physical actions.) Morality consists of a fundamental set of values and virtues each individual should understand, respect and adhere to. The values are the basic goals that it is proper for human beings to achieve, and the virtues are basic ways of acting that serve as the individual’s means to achieving those goals.

The ultimate value for the Objectivist ethics–the goal that sets the framework for the virtues and all other goals–is one’s own life as a human being. “Life as a human being” here, is not to be understood as the mere continuance of biological processes in the body, but as a self-sustaining process that involves the active pursuit of values: material prosperity and mental health through productive work, rewarding relationships with other people, psychological stability and emotional health through recreation and art, and so on. In short, life as a human being involves the pursuit of happiness.

Happiness is, in Ayn Rand’s words, “a state of non-contradictory joy—a joy without penalty or guilt, a joy that does not clash with any of your values and does not work for your own destruction, not the joy of escaping from your mind, but of using your mind’s fullest power, not the joy of faking reality, but of achieving values that are real, not the joy of a drunkard, but of a producer.”

The moral theory that holds that each individual should pursue his own life and happiness is called “egoism.” When combined with the Objectivist understanding that the only way to achieve one’s life and happiness in the long term is to use one’s own mind, this stance is called “rational egoism.” (In discussing what I here call egoism, Ayn Rand often used “selfishness” and “rational selfishness,” as well as “egoism.” She gives her reason for using this allegedly pejorative term in the introduction to The Virtue of Selfishness.)

Rational egoism stands opposed to any morality advocating self-sacrifice on the one hand, and any irrational “egoism,” on the other. Irrational pseudo-egoism may involve going by one’s emotions/whims/blind desires, short-term thinking, and attempts to prey on others through dishonesty, theft, coercion, and the like. These are features that Ayn Rand’s rational egoism most definitely does not share. It advocates thoughtfulness, long-term planning, honesty, and respect for the rights of others. This is the real path to a successful and happy life in the long term.

“When one speaks of man’s right to exist for his own sake, for his own rational self-interest, most people assume automatically that this means his right to sacrifice others. Such an assumption is a confession of their own belief that to injure, enslave, rob or murder others is in man’s self-interest—which he must selflessly renounce. The idea that man’s self-interest can be served only by a non-sacrificial relationship with others has never occurred to those humanitarian apostles of unselfishness, who proclaim their desire to achieve the brotherhood of men. And it will not occur to them, or to anyone, so long as the concept ‘rational’ is omitted from the context of ‘values,’ ‘desires,’ ‘self-interest’ and ethics.”

–Ayn Rand in The Virtue of Selfishness

Ayn Rand identified three cardinal moral values that every human being must pursue, if he is to live as a human being: reason, purpose, and self-esteem. The extent to which an individual fails to pursue these values is the extent to which he fails to live.

The fundamental means of pursuing one’s own life in the long term, and the cardinal moral values, is the set of virtues that Rand identified. The primary virtue is rationality. Rationality is composed of six subsidiary virtues: honesty, independence, integrity, productiveness, justice, and pride. (“Pride” here is not foolhardiness or arrogant disrespect for others, but “moral ambitiousness”–striving to be the most morally upright person one can be.)

Within the scope of the moral values and virtues, (those that are fundamental and universal) there are many options that different people have in what values to pursue. People can be morally justified in pursuing many different careers, hobbies, forms of recreation, friends, love and family relationships. People can morally choose parenthood, so long as they take the consequences and obligations involved seriously, think deeply about it, and don’t treat parenthood as a mere emotional indulgence to be pursued on a whim.

Objectivism does not hold out certain careers as inherently morally superior to others (so long as they are all honest and productive. Dishonest and criminal/coercive occupations violate the virtues.) Being a business CEO is not inherently morally superior to being a painter. Being an inventor is not inherently morally superior to being a janitor. What matters morally, in regard to the virtue of productiveness, is that the individual in question is pursuing a career (as a goal) that challenges his mind, rather than wallowing in mental stagnation.

“[Productiveness] means the consciously chosen pursuit of a productive career, in any line of rational endeavor, great or modest, on any level of ability. It is not the degree of a man’s ability nor the scale of his work that is ethically relevant here, but the fullest and most purposeful use of his mind.”

–Ayn Rand in The Virtue of Selfishness

The main social vice in Objectivism–the most immoral and destructive thing you can do to others–is to initiate physical force or coercion against them. Physical force does not include psychological pressure, temptation, seduction, or the exercise of one’s property rights. Physical force or coercion consists of the act of physically damaging, impinging upon, or restraining someone’s body or rightful property–or the threat to do so. Examples of physical force include murder, theft, kidnapping, trespassing, and pointing a loaded gun at someone. (Fraud is an indirect form of physical force: it is restraining someone from accessing property that is still rightfully theirs, by virtue of the fact that they did not consent to the transaction that actually occurred, having been deceived about its nature.)

US Capitol Building. Represents politics and government.5) Politics: Individual rights, such as “life, liberty, and property,” are moral principles that must be followed in any societal context, if people in that society are to live prosperously and happily. Violations of individual rights lead to suffering, stagnation and likely death for both victims and perpetrators, in the long term, to the extent of the violations. The most fundamental right is the right to life. The other fundamental rights (deriving from life) are the rights to liberty and to property. These rights are not claims to any goods or services to be provided at the expense of others. The right to life is not the right to be provided with necessities by others without their consent; the right to liberty is not the right to the “free” use of others’ property; the right to property is not the right to be provided with property with no effort on one’s own part. These rights specify what may not be taken from people by force: their lives, their liberty, their property. The alleged “rights” of adults to be provided with things like food, shelter, healthcare, etc. are not rights, since they must come at the expense of violating the genuine rights of others: Their rights to liberty and property must be violated in order to force them to provide food or healthcare to those with these “rights.”

It is to protect genuine rights–and only to protect these–that is the proper role for government. Government is an institution that has a legal monopoly on the use of force in a given geographic region. The government should consist of: the police, to protect the rights of citizens from domestic criminals–the military, to protect the rights of citizens from foreign aggressors–the courts, to protect citizens’ rights in disputes with each other–and a governing body to administer the system, such as a representative legislature and chief executive.

The sort of government Objectivism advocates is quite close to the original American system: a representative, constitutional republic, with a bill of rights, without welfare functions, without a central bank, without public schools, without government subsidies or bailouts to any group, and without the feudal aristocratic holdover that was slavery.

This system is laissez-faire capitalism, which Ayn Rand defined as “a social system based on the recognition of individual rights, including property rights, in which all property is privately owned.” The government of such a system grants no special favors to “the rich,” or “the poor,” or any racial or ethnic group, or any other group. (Only children have certain special protections and certain rights held in trust by their parents or guardians.) The government protects its citizens’ or nationals’ rights from foreign powers, arrests domestic initiators of force, adjudicates legal cases, and enforces contracts voluntarily agreed to by two or more parties.

Any country that does not actively and effectively protect the equal rights of all of its nationals to life, liberty and property is not a laissez-faire capitalist country. Anarchic, chronically war-torn, or corrupt countries are not laissez-faire capitalist. No country has ever been fully laissez-faire capitalist. The closest any country has come was the US from about 1870 to 1910. This was an era of tremendous economic growth and improving standard of living at all levels of American society. (Real wages of factory workers in the US quadrupled in the 19th Century and climbed even more sharply as the economy developed. See this graph. The tremendous wealth creation of the era also made possible the end of many thousands of years of child labor. See the last paragraph of this article. For further discussion, see Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal by Ayn Rand and The Capitalist Manifesto, by Dr. Andrew Bernstein.)

Pygmalion and Galatea by Jean Leon Gerome6) Esthetics: Art is, according to Ayn Rand, “a selective re-creation of reality according to an artist’s metaphysical value-judgments.” Media such as paintings, sculpture, books, poetry, plays, films and television can be art if they recreate reality in a way stylized and essentialized according to the artist’s basic view of life: that is, according to his basic view of reality and man’s proper place in it.

Paintings recreate reality in pictorial form. Sculpture recreates it in three-dimensional solid form. Novels and poems recreate reality in the form of conceptual (verbal) descriptions. Films, television and plays recreate reality in the form of selected, moving visual and auditory performances. Ayn Rand regarded music as a type of art, but a distinct one: it doesn’t recreate physical things, but recreates emotional experiences directly, via sounds and auditory rhythms, in a way that is not well understood.

Rand held that human beings need art, in some form, for a full life; and she located the basis of this need in man’s nature as an abstractly reasoning creature:

“Man’s profound need of art lies in the fact that his cognitive faculty is conceptual, i.e., that he acquires knowledge by means of abstractions, and needs the power to bring his widest metaphysical abstractions into his immediate, perceptual awareness. Art fulfills this need: by means of a selective re-creation, it concretizes man’s fundamental view of himself and of existence. It tells man, in effect, which aspects of his experience are to be regarded as essential, significant, important. In this sense, art teaches man how to use his consciousness. It conditions or stylizes man’s consciousness by conveying to him a certain way of looking at existence.”

–Ayn Rand in The Romantic Manifesto

This concludes my introduction to the tenets of Objectivism. If you are skeptical of the validity of philosophical ideas in general, please read my “Message to Those Skeptical of Philosophy” below. If you question whether there are any benefits to understanding Objectivism, please read my “Some of the Benefits of Understanding Objectivism” section below.

Please also see my “Advice on Gaining an Understanding of Objectivism” section below.

Links To Other Introductions

Listen to “Philosophy: Who Needs It”, Ayn Rand’s talk at West Point, with Q&A

“What is Objectivism?” from The Objective Standard

Watch Leonard Peikoff’s Introduction to Objectivism with Q&A on YouTube:

The Ayn Rand Institute’s Introduction to Objectivism page

Ayn Rand’s brief summary of Objectivism

Links for More In-Depth Information

Atlas Shrugged and Ayn Rand’s Morality of Egoism (The Objective Standard)

Why “Sacrifice” Means Loss, Not Gain — Video by Craig Biddle

America Before the Entitlement State

“Morality of Freedom” free course at Ayn Rand Institute Campus

“Moral Virtue” free course at Ayn Rand Institute Campus

“History of Philosophy” free course at Ayn Rand Institute Campus

“The Philosophy of Objectivism” free course at Ayn Rand Institute Campus

From the Ayn Rand Lexicon:

Metaphysics: ExistenceIdentityConsciousness — Causality — CreationMetaphysical vs Man-Made — UniverseInfinitySupernaturalismGod

Epistemology: ConsciousnessPerceptionConceptsContradictionsDefinitions  — LogicKnowledgeReason“Anti-Concepts”“Stolen Concepts”Principles

Human Nature: LifeManGoal-Directed ActionFree WillEmotionsSoul-Body DichotomyValuesUltimate ValueIndividualismCollectivismRacism

Ethics: MoralitySelfishnessRationalityHonestyProductivenessJusticeAltruismSacrificeHedonismTrader PrincipleEvasion

Politics: Individual RightsGovernmentCapitalismProperty RightsStatismMixed EconomyWelfare State“Collective Rights”AmericaAnarchism

Esthetics: ArtSense of LifeEsthetic JudgmentRomanticismNaturalismClassicismLiteraturePaintingSculptureMusicModern Art

A Message to Those Skeptical of Philosophy

Barred spiral galaxy in space. Represents science and philosophy.Many people distrust abstract philosophical ideas and ideals. There are a couple of related reasons for this: 1) They hold that abstract ideas “oversimplify” reality, ensuring that they always fail to properly capture it, and 2) They think that abstract ideas outside of the natural sciences are generally faith-based dogma, or “armchair” speculation. (In either case, this means they think the ideas are put forward without sufficient supporting evidence.)

In regard to Number 1, I’d like to point out that all human concepts “simplify reality” in a sense: they all ignore differences between particular objects to focus on features common to a class of objects. For example, the concept “chair” refers to every particular chair you have ever encountered or will encounter. This means that it omits the countless differences between any two particular chairs. (Even if two chairs look identical at a macroscopic level, they almost certainly have countless differences at a microscopic level.) All other concepts function in a similar way: they ignore certain differences between things, for the sake of classifying them and integrating them into a single mental unit, represented by one word (“chair,” “dog,” etc.)

Yet the similarities that proper concepts such as “chair” capture are real and important, and it is not an oversimplification to say that all things called “chairs” (without qualification or modification) are made to allow someone to sit on them. Virtually no one accuses ideas about chairs of “oversimplifying reality”: Someone who speaks of chairs typically understands that he can always give more information about a particular chair by providing a description.

Classifying and simplifying reality by means of concepts is the human way of dealing with reality in thought, and it is very powerful, when done properly. Human beings have used the simplifying concepts of the natural sciences to cure diseases, increase food production per farmhand manyfold, extend the average human lifespan by over thirty years, build skyscrapers, and land on the moon. Furthermore, there is no reason to believe that simplifying concepts stop working at any level of abstraction (breadth of generalization) or at any level of complexity. The simple principles of Einstein’s relativity are highly abstract: they apply to all physical phenomena in the known universe, (when the scale under consideration is not too small) and to all the immense complexity of gravitational interactions between visible objects and light rays in galaxies.

In philosophy, the simplifying principle of individual rights led to the creation of the United States as the freest country to date, for non-blacks. And the application of this principle to blacks ended slavery. No one today seems to think that the idea, “slavery is always wrong” is simplistic and impractical.

When simplifying reality with theories is done properly, the person using the theories understands their context of application: Einstein’s relativity is not to be applied (without modification) to the very small. Newton’s mechanics are still valid and useful in a context where things are not too small, too fast, or too far relative to each other, and where one doesn’t require very high precision of prediction over long time scales.

So it is with the principles in the theory that is the Objectivist ethics: The principles are not supposed to be contextless commandments or edicts. For example, the Objectivist virtue of honesty does not say “Don’t ever lie. Period.” It says that faking reality to oneself (self-deception) is always wrong, and that one should not attempt to gain positive values from others by deception. (The reasoning for this latter is that all genuine values are ultimately facts, and that attempting to fake the facts–in your own mind or others’–does not alter the facts. Getting something from someone that may seem “good” (for yourself or others you value) by lying, always comes at the price of maintaining falsehoods in your mind alongside truths. You are devoting mental energy that could be used for achieving genuine values to maintaining falsehoods in your own mind and those of others. Any single failure to remember a lie, or any action by victims of your deception that allows them to learn the truth, could easily lead to the collapse of any of your “benefits” gained by lies, together with a loss of trust and, if the lies involved obtaining material benefits, lawsuits and prosecution for fraud. To the extent that you lie in this manner, the truth about reality is your enemy, and your well-being is not in your control.)

But in a context where someone is threatening you or other people with violence or other force, there is no moral problem with lying to them. To take a classic sort of example, if a gun-wielding kidnapper comes to your door and demands you tell him where your children are or he’ll kill you, you can morally lie to him about where they are.

This example is not simply an ad hoc dispensation of a principle for the sake of common-sense practicality. Rather, it has deep theoretical reasons in the nature of the Objectivist ethics. The virtue of honesty, as a principle of moral conduct in dealing with others, is derived within a context of attempting to gain values (as explained above) in the absence of physical force. When someone initiates (or threatens) force against you, they are already trying to fake reality by substituting the man-made fact of their threat to harm you for some metaphysical facts, such as those that give rise to your right to properly raise your child, (in the kidnapper’s case) or your right to the money you have earned (in the case of robbery). In lying to them, you are merely protecting yourself or others from their threats, and your lie has none of the detrimental consequences incurred in the case of freely pursued dishonesty. (That is, none beyond the harmful consequences of the threat of force, itself.) You are not maintaining falsehoods to hold on to benefits, and rational people will understand that a lie to a physical aggressor does not indicate a dishonest character.

So, to reiterate: Rational principles are the human means of dealing with reality, and properly understood in context, they are very powerful. Complexity does not preclude principles, and contrary to many skeptics, an Objectivist does not arbitrarily limit the subjects and levels of abstraction on which principles can apply. Principles of fundamental human nature and fundamental behavior (normative morality) can be rationally discovered in a way similar to principles of physics. (Though principles of human behavior (including morality) must take into account the reality of human choice, and be expressible in the form of “if, then” conditionals.)

In regard to Concern Number 2, (“dogma” and/or “arm-chair speculation”) I’d like to point out that Ayn Rand advocated against taking anything on faith, including her ideas.

“[A]n error made on your own is safer than ten truths accepted on faith, because the first leaves you the means to correct it, but the second destroys your capacity to distinguish truth from error.”

–Ayn Rand in Atlas Shrugged and For the New Intellectual

Objectivism is not a religion, nor a set of beliefs intended to be taken on faith as a dogma. Any Objectivist, properly so-called, agrees with Rand on the basis of his own, independent observation and thought.

Darwin's Finches.In regard to the idea that all philosophy is useless arm-chair speculation, I would say that it is true that there have been many philosophies that have held little regard for empirical facts, preferring to “logically” derive “castles in the sky” from axioms. Many philosophers today spend their energy and spin their wheels on useless theories, because they uncritically accept the errors of previous philosophers in 1) defining the questions the theories are supposed to answer, and 2) defining the meanings of the terms they use in attempts to solve the problems. (As an example, it is generally accepted among analytic philosophers that “objective” means “mind independent.” This is not its meaning in Ayn Rand’s Objectivism.) But Ayn Rand actually derived Objectivism by generalizing from observation of reality, in much the way Darwin derived the theory of evolution by natural selection. (Objectivism has axioms, but their function is not to be starting points for the deduction of the rest of the philosophy.) Rand even explained how the concepts we use must be based on experience to be meaningful, making her fully empiricist, in the sense of thinking all knowledge ultimately derives from experience. (But, no, her theory of meaning is not David Hume’s “break apart compound ideas and see what singular memories of sense impressions the simple ideas correspond to.”)

Critics of Ayn Rand’s philosophy sometimes claim that scientific studies refute the tenets of Objectivism. I have always found that the people making the claim either misunderstand what Objectivism says on the topic, misinterpret/over-generalize the results of the study, or both. They will, for example, take the results of a psychological study on cognitive biases, and claim that it shows that human beings are inherently irrational, in contradiction to Objectivism. In jumping to this conclusion, such people typically ignore three major problems: First, the abstracts and summaries of studies like this tend to report the statistical majority of results, while not directly mentioning the individuals in the minority (“outliers”) who didn’t give the same result. If something is a fundamental and universal attribute of healthy human beings, then there will be no “outliers,” unless such individuals have bona fide handicaps/illnesses clearly separating them from healthy cases. So if there are any cases, in any study, where individuals do not succumb to a bias, then the bias is not universal to human beings.

Second, psychological studies frequently use a very limited and selective sample. A study that involves 30 American college-student volunteers in 2010, can’t necessarily be used to support a pronouncement about universal human nature. The study omits massive amounts of information from different cultures, including the whole history of humanity long before the college students were born. Would a sample of 12th-Century samurai, or 18th-Century lawyers, succumb to the same biases? Considering how much culture tends to affect people’s thinking, it’s reasonable to doubt it. This is one of the reasons science can’t replace philosophy: it is impractical to do scientific studies involving the whole range of human activities, so one needs to base many of one’s ideas on general observations of the world, and reason philosophically from that.

Third, the idea that the fact that many people operate with cognitive biases contradicts Objectivism, actually betrays a misunderstanding of what Objectivism says. Objectivism does not define rationality as the absence of cognitive biases. Rather, it defines rationality as basing one’s beliefs and actions on reasoning from observation to the best of one’s ability. This does not preclude unknown errors, including unknown biases, which are errors in one’s method of thinking. (Irrationality is the willful suspension of proper reasoning, within one’s knowledge and abilities.) One of Ayn Rand’s major points was that every individual human being, unlike the other animals, has to learn to use his consciousness properly.

Further, Objectivism doesn’t even require the majority of individuals to be rational to “work.” Objectivism says that people should be rational, if they want to survive and prosper. If the vast majority of people choose to be irrational, and this leads to chaos and destruction, that is certainly no refutation of Objectivism.

So, to sum up, Objectivism is not a religion, a set of dogmatic beliefs, nor a floating deduction from “obvious” axioms. It is a rational philosophy derived from observation of the world and careful reasoning. It provides the “big picture” that allows people to interpret the results of detailed scientific studies in accordance with the rest of the world’s facts. That is, it provides the informational context necessary to judge how–and how broadly–a given study’s results should be applied.

Some of the Benefits of Understanding Objectivism

The happiness of a man whose enlightened mind illuminates the world. Silhouette of Howard Roark with light rays emanating from his head.Objectivism gives you tools for dealing with reality, for dealing with others, and for achieving your happiness. It helps you discern what sort of actions lead to sustainable well-being, and what actions lead to suffering in the long term. It helps you discern the practical from the impractical, the important from the trivial, the good from the bad. It helps you keep on-track and focused, enabling you to avoid mistakes that may trap you in an emotional nightmare, or a self-destructive cycle.

Objectivism is a source of clarity and a view of “the big picture.” It gives you a perspective that helps you persevere through difficult times, in order to achieve the big goals in your life that lead to joy and happiness. (But it is not the fool’s “clarity” of an ideology that arbitrarily simplifies the world in improper ways. See “A Message to Those Skeptical of Philosophy” above, for more.)

Objectivism gives moral sanction and meaning to the daily activities that you perform to keep yourself alive. When pursued with excellence and self-improvement in mind, doing a productive job is a mark of moral goodness. In Objectivism, the title of “moral act” is not to be reserved for those occasional instances where one attempts to help others without material benefit to himself, as in aid in rare emergencies and charitable giving. Thus, Objectivism helps a person feel and enjoy the self-esteem that can be gained every day from striving to do well at a job, or doing well at other activities, such as hobbies, sports, and raising children.

Objectivism helps you determine which people are worth spending your time with, and which to avoid. It helps you identify the deeper characters of people and helps you avoid toxic characters, such as manipulators, cheats and emotional parasites.

Objectivism helps you develop the courage to say no to the demands of other people, when fulfilling those demands will hurt your well-being and happiness.

And if you want to help others and/or change the world, Objectivism helps you ensure that your desire is healthy and balanced with the rest of your life. (After all, it is your life that you are living and are primarily responsible for, while others are primarily responsible for their own lives.) Helping other people and animals, and changing the world, can be beneficial for you, since you live in the world with others. And to the extent that you find that it is in your interests to do these things, Objectivism helps you determine which people to spend your time and energy helping, or how to go about advocating for change in the world.

I recommend these videos from The Undercurrent on how Objectivism has impacted some people’s lives:

If the vast majority of people in a country, like the United States, understood and accepted Objectivism, the benefits to everyone in the country would be immense. Omnipresent government regulation is the biggest single impediment to increased technology, innovation and prosperity in the world today. Imagine the recent wonders of innovation and falling prices in the much-less-regulated computer industry, repeated in different ways across all industries: from mass transportation, to housing, to food, medicine, to education, to furniture, to parks and recreation, to cars and roads.

Elegant desert lounge, with pool and fireplace. Wallpaper.Prosperity, economic growth and standards of living would rise dramatically in all areas of the economy and at all levels of income. (In fact, this is what happened when the United States most closely approximated laissez-faire capitalism in the 19th and early 20th Centuries. The real wages of factory workers quadrupled in the 19th Century and continued to rise until the economic regulations and Federal Reserve interference built up enough to cause “stagflation” and bring a halt to the rise.)

My Advice on Gaining an Understanding of Objectivism

Ayn Rand's novels rendered in beautiful, elegant hardcover editions. Gold, silver, blue, bronze, black.If you want to understand the philosophy of Objectivism, here is my advice:

First, read this entire page carefully: it has a lot of points that will help you early in your studies. Next, if you haven’t already, I recommend reading Ayn Rand’s novels, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. If you’re 16 or younger, I recommend starting with The Fountainhead, then reading Atlas. If you’re 17 or older, I think either novel is a good starting point. In any case, you should read both. Be aware, however, that while these novels illustrate Objectivism in many ways and can help in understanding, they do not illustrate the full range of actions, choices and values that Objectivism considers moral. Living as a moral Objectivist does not mean imitating the heroes of Rand’s novels. Rand’s characters–heroes and villains alike–are stylized and distilled to present the reader only with the essentials and with stark contrasts. Objectivist morality is much broader than Rand’s characters.

After the novels, I recommend Ayn Rand’s nonfiction books, such as The Virtue of Selfishness, Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, and Philosophy: Who Needs It. Then I’d recommend Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand to better grasp the Objectivist metaphysics and overall epistemological approach, and Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology to better understand the details of Ayn Rand’s theory of concepts. Then, after these books, I recommend the lecture courses, Understanding Objectivism and Objectivism Through Induction. (Note that Understanding Objectivism also comes in book form.)

All through this course of reading and listening, you should be thinking on your own about the ideas, formulating questions, playing devil’s advocate, etc. But all of this should be done while keeping yourself open to the possibility that a great many of your pre-conceived ideas are not compatible with the way Objectivism describes the world. This likely includes the meanings of some of the words you use. (The most famous example is “selfishness.” Ayn Rand considered the common use of the term “selfish” to improperly lump together regard for one’s own interests, with doing harm to others and short-sighted, materialistic disregard of spiritual (mental/psychological) values.)

One point that many people never understand, but that is critical to understanding Objectivism, is the nature of principles. Before you can count yourself has having a real understanding of Objectivism, you have to know what it means to think in principle. The best sources for understanding principles are Understanding Objectivism and Objectivism Through Induction by Leonard Peikoff, and Tara Smith’s book, Ayn Rand’s Normative Ethics, for moral principles.

Many questions that people have come up with in their studies of Objectivism have been asked and answered at Objectivist Answers. Also, Ayn Rand’s philosophical views on many topics can be looked up in The Ayn Rand Lexicon, but I don’t recommend using the Lexicon as a substitute for reading the Objectivist works I mentioned earlier. Another great resource is Ayn Rand Campus and the Ayn Rand Institute website. The Campus has audio-visual lecture courses that will teach you about Ayn Rand and the Objectivist philosophy, and registration is free. Finally, I think that the essays I post on this blog will be of help in understanding Objectivism, especially when you already have a basic knowledge of the philosophy’s principles.

These and many other resources can be found on this blog’s Books and Links page.

Links To Other Introductions

Listen to “Philosophy: Who Needs It”, Ayn Rand’s talk at West Point, with Q&A

“What is Objectivism?” from The Objective Standard

Watch Leonard Peikoff’s Introduction to Objectivism with Q&A on YouTube:

The Ayn Rand Institute’s Introduction to Objectivism page

Ayn Rand’s brief summary of Objectivism

Links for More In-Depth Information

Atlas Shrugged and Ayn Rand’s Morality of Egoism (The Objective Standard)

Why “Sacrifice” Means Loss, Not Gain — Video by Craig Biddle

America Before the Entitlement State

“Morality of Freedom” free course at Ayn Rand Institute Campus

“Moral Virtue” free course at Ayn Rand Institute Campus

“History of Philosophy” free course at Ayn Rand Institute Campus

“The Philosophy of Objectivism” free course at Ayn Rand Institute Campus

From the Ayn Rand Lexicon:

Metaphysics: ExistenceIdentityConsciousness — Causality — CreationMetaphysical vs Man-Made — UniverseInfinitySupernaturalismGod

Epistemology: ConsciousnessPerceptionConceptsContradictionsDefinitions  — LogicKnowledgeReason“Anti-Concepts”“Stolen Concepts”Principles

Human Nature: LifeManGoal-Directed ActionFree WillEmotionsSoul-Body DichotomyValuesUltimate ValueIndividualismCollectivismRacism

Ethics: MoralitySelfishnessRationalityHonestyProductivenessJusticeAltruismSacrificeHedonismTrader PrincipleEvasion

Politics: Individual RightsGovernmentCapitalismProperty RightsStatismMixed EconomyWelfare State“Collective Rights”AmericaAnarchism

Esthetics: ArtSense of LifeEsthetic JudgmentRomanticismNaturalismClassicismLiteraturePaintingSculptureMusicModern Art

*Please note that, while I have left the comments section on this page open, my policy for comments on this page will be much more restrictive than my normal policy for posts. This comment section will not be open to arguments for or against Objectivism of any sort. It is strictly here as a means of contacting me for short questions, expressions of appreciation, or comments indicating specific errors in the content of this page (clear misstatements of Objectivism, typos, broken links, etc.)

2 thoughts on “Introduction to Objectivism

  1. (1) “That is, what we perceive is not an illusion… go by the evidence of your senses to the best of your ability”

    (2) “Any particular thing is itself (The Law of Identity) and has the attributes it has, not the attributes anyone (or any “culture”/”race”/”class”) wishes it to have.”

    So, when one is unknowingly mistaken about the attributes a thing has, one should to go by the (wrong) evidence of one’s senses. One might then believe and insist that an attribute A0 of a thing A is true, but others deny A0 and insist on some other attribute that contradicts A0. Objectivism would leave us to argue and try to understand through reason and science the objectively true attributes of A even if there is insufficient evidence to reach a consensus (since truth is not dependent on agreement) or even to convince oneself (since truth is not dependent on one’s own belief). Do I have this right so far?

    So it seems, if that is all correct, that statement (B) might be less applicable as the basis of all philosophy, in areas where I don’t have enough perception as suggested in statement (A). In other words, sure, let’s accept A=A, but what about when I cannot substantially understand A, as my senses are insufficient? Would Rand have us stop there and “give up”, assuming we have truly exhausted our reason from percepts?

    • First, sheer perception cannot, strictly speaking, be right or wrong. The sheer, wordless evidence of the senses cannot be evaluated in that way. The senses can present the world to you in an “atypical form,” as in the case of sensory illusions. Or your brain can make it difficult to distinguish memories from genuine sense perception, as in the case of hallucinations. For more detail on this issue, I recommend the audio course, “Perception.” You can also find even more in the books, How We Know, by Harry Binswanger, as well as The Evidence of the Senses, by David Kelley.

      The senses are limited in the amount of information they give you directly. Senses can be superior or inferior in terms of the amount of information they give. A person with normal color vision gets more direct sensory information than a heavily color-blind person. But the information the color-blind person’s eyes do give him is not “wrong.”

      Once you start using concepts, (roughly, “words”) then you are open to truth or falsehood, accuracy or error. And in this case, “consensus” is not the fundamental standard of knowledge. You can only go by your own mind, if you are to go by thinking at all. You don’t have access to the thoughts of others. They can speak to you, but it is you who must understand. If you don’t understand, you’re acting like a parrot and a drone, rather than a knowing human being.

      You may very well not have enough evidence to warrant a conclusion on a specific issue. If it is an issue that you have reason to believe is important to your life, then Ayn Rand would advocate that you take any reasonable steps you can to get more evidence. That is, research is advisable. If you know of no way to research the issue, then you just have to go on with your life and keep an eye out for more evidence. In your own research, you can also look into the research of others and evaluate it–regard it as evidence or not–based on whether their research method was sound. (See also the “Trust” section of this essay, on the issue of regarding others as sources for facts.)

      A rational person is never complacent in his knowledge on any issue important to him. He is curious and continually seeks to expand his knowledge of reality.

      Please note that, due to my special comment policy on this page, I won’t allow any follow-up questions or comments here.

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