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The Metaethics of Ayn Rand and Objectivism

Despised by academics, passionately loved by her followers, Ayn Rand, the novelist-philosopher, has evicted the whole gambit of emotions and responses. Her work has been ridiculed and praised. Her followers devotion has produced outcries of cultism, allowing one author to write a stirring critique[1] and another a book. [2] Despite this, Ayn Rand remains, one of the most polarizing writers of the 20th century. Barbara Branden, a longtime associate, wrote of her: Few figures in this century have been so admired and so savagely attacked.

She is viewed as goddess and as malefactor, as a seminal genius and an ominously dangerous corrupter of the young, as the mightiest voices for reason and the destroyer of traditional values, as the espouser of joy and the exponent of mindless greed, as the great defender of freedom and the introducer of malevolent values into the mainstream of American thought. [3] Her followers can be found in the Federal Reserve, with Chairman Allan Greenspan, who some 53% of respondents[4] gave the responsibility of the current economic boom in the United States of America, bypassing such important institutions as the Clinton Presidency and Congress.

Rand was greatly known for her literary works, the Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, the former, presenting the idealized man, the latter presenting an idealized conception of life, society and politics. Despite Ms. Rands popularity, academia has been slow to produce many scholarly books on her or her philosophy, which she has labeled as Objectivism. Indeed, much of academia, an overcrowded cesspool of contemporary liberalism and postmodernity, has shunned her, precisely because of her strong ideological contempt for them and their views. Rand herself had an unyielding contempt for the intellectual atmosphere of her time.

In her book, For the New Intellectual, she wrote, The majority of those who posture as intellectuals today are frightened zombies, posturing in a vacuum of their own making, who admit their abdication from the realm of the intellect by embracing such doctrines as Existentialism and Zen Buddhism. [5] Her passionate defense of values such as: capitalism, reason, egoism, and atheism, made her enemies in every intellectual circle. William Buckleys conservative magazine, the National Review, reviewed Atlas Shrugged, accusing her of fascism and totalitarianism. ]

Liberal critics were no less scathing in their attacks. Granville Hicks of the New York Times wrote, Loudly as Miss Rand proclaims her love of life, it seems clear that the book is written out of hate… [7] However, throughout this bombardment of negative contempt and accusatory rhetoric, sales of Rands works were exponential. [8] It seems for all her hate and intellectual naivet, people across North America were tuning in to Ayn Rands message. A message that refused compromise and irrationality, a message that worshiped the self, a message that romanticized greatness, a message of perennial importance.

The Early Ayn Rand Ayn Rand, the woman, was born and raised in Moscow, Russia, under the name Alice Rosenbaum. [9] Born of Jewish heritage, in a country ruled by a despotic Czar and a mystic Church, she was even as a child, a bright and enigmatic figure. Her mother attempted in vain to instill femininity in the young Ayn Rand but to no avail. Instead, even as a child, the young Ayn Rand derived her value from her mind. In 1917, the Bolshevik Revolution would take place and life would never be the same for Ayn Rand. For Rand, Russia seemed to be antithetical to her own life and beliefs.

Rand saw Russia as a nation that glorified the tragic and the malevolent, glorified the very qualities that were the antithesis of what she wanted in her own life and what she wanted to create in her stories. [10] Rand, disgusted by the disintegration of her country and family, fled joyfully to America. Moving to Los Angeles from New York, Rand flirted with cinematic writing and met her future husband, Frank OConnor. The drama and flair of the cinema is an apt career, considering her dramatic and idealistic literary style and beliefs.

Rand wrote stage plays and screenplays in this period, as well as her first published novel, We the Living. We the Living was her most autobiographical work. The novel centered on a love triangle in Soviet Russia and the destruction of the protagonists by the antagonistic Communist state government. It is during this period of Rands life that her Nietzschian influence would most shine through. We the Living contains many Nietzsche-like qualities of bravery, courage, and contempt for the masses and/or proletariat, not seen in other Rand novels and novella.

Rand subsequently edited portions of We the Living, purging some of its Nietzschian qualities. [11] The affect of Nietzsche on Ayn Rand is often misunderstood. Many academics have unfortunately associated Rand with only Nietzsche, disregarding the more obvious intellectual influence of Aristotle and Enlightenment figures, such as John Locke. However, Nietzsche did hold some influence over the young Rand. His influence is perhaps more spiritual than ideological. Nietzsches romanticized overman (or superman) and his idealization of aristocratic values found an ally in Rand.

Rands two main protagonists, Howard Roark (Fountainhead) and John Galt (Atlas Shrugged), have definite Nietzschian overtones. They are both strong and uncompromising individuals, concerned only with their own values and life. Ronald E. Merril characterized Nietzsches influence on Rand as such, It is clear that Rand, as a philosopher and as a writer, derived much of her intellectual impulse from Nietzsche. Yet, as we shall see, she was in the end by no means his follower. [12] Rand clearly departed from Nietzsche, in some fundamental aspects, especially concerning metaethics, as we shall see later.

The Literary Period Ayn Rands second and third novels, the Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged respectively, are her grandest literary achievements. The two novels could be viewed as a micro and macro view of her philosophy. The Fountainhead displays the protagonist Howard Roark, an uncompromising architect, who blows up a building project because its style and design have been changed from his original form. Rand presents Roarks life as a sort of archetype for humanity to follow, not in his specific occupational or situational actions, but in the spirit of the man.

Roark values his own life as an end in itself, against those looters and second-handers that wish to dispose of his work and genius. His uncompromising individualism characterizes Rands normative ethics of rational selfishness or self-interest. While the Fountainhead concentrates on the individual and his fight to uncompromising greatness, Atlas Shrugged approaches a philosophical treatise in novel form. The title displays a great Randian device of using mythic imagery with striking clarity. Atlas, the Greek god, who held the world on his shoulders, is used as a metaphor for the great men who hold the world on their shoulders.

These men are the producers, inventors, innovators, and great intellectuals (as Rand perceives them). As the title suggests, the novel is centered on what would happen if these men were to shrug as it were, and withdraw their ideas and production from the world. In apocalyptic fashion, the world collapses without them. John Galt, the main protagonist who is shrouded much of the novel, gives a speech to the disintegrating society of epic proportions, lasting over fifty pages. [13] Galt speaks to the philosophical underpinnings of the societys problems, employing metaphysics, ethics, politics, and epistemology.

Galts speech echoes the whole of Atlas Shrugged, which attempts to show the socio-economic, political, ethical and philosophical implications of Ayn Rands vision. Galt concludes his speech saying in grandiose fashion, I swear-by my life and my love of it-that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine. [14] Rands sense of life, as displayed by Galt, has deep roots in metaethical issues, as we shall soon see. The Philosophical Period While much of Ayn Rands beliefs are evident from her novels, questioning readers and students began desiring a more systemized and concrete vision of her philosophy.

At the behest of friends, Rand embarked on a non-fiction writing career. She exploded on the scene, after an anthology work, in typical polemical Randian style, with The Virtue of Selfishness. This brief book, containing different essays written by Rand, explores normative Objectivist ethics. Rand wrote other non-fiction works, including, the Anti-Industrial Revolution, Philosophy: Who Needs It, For the New Intellectual, the Romantic Manifesto, and an Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology. In this period, Rand systematically engineered a new philosophy.

Rand covered the gambit of intellectual and academic subjects, including: metaphysics, religion, epistemology, ethics, aesthetics, psychology, politics, love, and sexuality, not to mention her commentary on contemporary intellectual, political and cultural trends of her day. In short, Rand was a writer of broad interest. She felt the pull towards a systemized worldview, which remained integrated from one subject to another. This pull towards integration was to be a hallmark of her philosophy. The dichotomies between fact and value, reason and emotions, mind and body, would find no place in Rands thought.

Rather, her thought typified a drive towards a full and integrated anthropology. Her philosophy and ethics are anthropocentric and proudly so. As Rand put it, Man must choose his actions, values and goals by the standard of that which is proper to man-in order to achieve, maintain, fulfill and enjoy that ultimate value, that end in itself, which is his own life. [15] Rand was profoundly aware of the implicit notions of differing philosophical theories and their effects on both the society and the individual.

Thus, she took intellectual exercise to be a fundamental necessary human act, an act that caused two world wars and both an industrial and American revolution. For Rand there was no dichotomy between the academy and real life, they were in separately linked. Metaethics of Ayn Rand Ayn Rand was keenly cognizant of the need to ground ethics in an objective fashion. For centuries, indeed millennia, ethics had been dominated by religious dogmatism, whimsical hedonism and might makes right theories. Rand defined ethics as a code of values to guide mens choices and actions. 6]

With the exception of Aristotle and aspects of St. Thomas Aquinas, Rand felt that ethics had been completely misunderstood and groundless in its present form. Commenting on the historical philosophic quest for grounding ethics, Rand says: Most philosophers took the existence of ethics for granted, as the given, as a historical fact, and were not concerned with discovering its metaphysical cause or objective validation. Many of them attempted to break the traditional monopoloy of mysticism in the field of ethics and, allegedly, to define a rational, scientific, nonreligious morality.

But their attempts consisted of accepting the ethical doctrines of the mystics and of trying to justify them on social grounds, merely substituting society for God [italics hers]. [17] Rand was primarily concerned with founding a code of values that did away with transcendental foundations and went beyond mere social construction. If truth in ethics were to be objective, it had to accept the metaphysical reality of a materialist universe and an ahistorical and acultural account of ethics. Existence as Primary Rand starts her ethical discourse looking at the metaphysical facts of human existence.

Rand answers the question of who decides what is right and wrong? as such, Nobody decides. Nature does not decide [italics hers]-it merely is; man does not decide, in issues of knowledge, he merely observes that which is. [18] For Rand, the fact of existence is primary to deciding how to live it. For values to exist and be sought after, there must be a valuer, a metaphysically existent being who can carry out the pursuit of those values. Leonard Peikoff, Ayn Rands intellectual heir, writes concerning existence as such, The realm of existence is the metaphysical fundamental; it is that which every concrete and every issue presupposes. 9]

While this may almost seem redundant and axiomatic, the view is highly controversial, presupposing a materialist universe and a very enlightenment understanding of epistemology, namely that we can actually perceive reality, objectively and reasonably. Rands inclusion of metaphysics in the ethical stream is a clear departure from many philosophers of her and our day. The postmodern philosopher wishes to debunk metaphysics as a socially constructed realm, devoid of objectivity, influenced by religion, culture and conditioning. For Rand, ethics depend on reality and reality depends on nothing-it merely exists.

To question reality is anathema to the Randian sense of life. Reality is by which everything must be judged. Animate vs. Inanimate Objects Objectivism states the pertinent metaphysical fact for ethics, is the nature of animate organisms versus inanimate objects. Animate organism exhibit life. They exhibit reproduction, life cycles, and consumption or some means of life sustenance. These observations are considered empirical evidence in the Randian schema.

Animate organisms are characterized by their goal directed behavior. The goal that all animate objects share in common is the maintenance of their own life. 0] Inanimate objects are obviously discounted from this. For example, a rock has no natural impetus towards survival. If it is part of a shore, it is banged repeatedly by the waves to form sand, but at no time does the rock have the choice to become sand. It is constrained by its location and the force of the waves. Living organisms, conversely, have direction over their survival. Rand clearly has stepped away from a Thomistic grand teleology. For in Christian teleology, all of creation awaits to be liberated from its bondage to decay. 1]

The Thomistic teleology is inclusive of all matter moving towards its creator. Rather, Rand considers teleological explanation to be applicable only to beings of a particular type: living beings. [22] There is no ultimate end that is inclusive of all things, but only relative ends exclusive to animate particulars, while finding certain universality in the ultimate value and/or end of life. Living organisms have definite quantitative differences to the level of control and manipulation of their lives. To this degree, it is quite apt to refer to some species as lower, and some as higher.

The higher species, mammals, exhibit a much more sophisticated control over their environment, including, migration, lower level reasoning (such as in apes and whales), and communal sensibilities. Man, of course, shows the highest level of control and manipulation, relying primarily on his rational faculties for survival. This higher degree of manipulation, due to his rational properties, demands ethics. Ethics can only apply to rational, volitional creatures. Instinctual animals and mammals cannot exhibit these traits and thus, cannot exhibit ethics.

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