On the Outside Looking In at Ayn Rand’s Moral Philosophy

In the early 1990s I attended an Objectivist event in southern California. I’m pretty sure this event was organized by George Reisman, an economist who also advocates Ayn Rand’s philosophy, before the Ayn Rand Institute split with Reisman and his wife Edith. During a social period at this event I was talking with a fellow, not too much older than I was, who asked me, “So, are you an Objectivist?”

I answered, I thought sensibly enough, “I don’t know.” Disdain wrinkling his face, he retorted, “How could you not know?”—and that marked the end of our conversation. At the time I didn’t know quite what to make of this exchange, other than to think that the fellow wasn’t that original. His line was similar to something that Howard Roark says in The Fountainhead (only inappropriately applied).

As is often the case, “I don’t know” was a perfectly reasonable response. I was familiar with the basic tenets of the philosophy, and I thought they were at least largely true, but I had some important questions about them.

Years later I came to regard myself as an Objectivist, once I came to agree that Rand’s moral philosophy (read in a certain light) is correct. But, after thinking about Rand’s ethical framework for additional years, I am prepared to say that, no, I am not an Objectivist, mainly because I think Rand’s basic moral case is false. Specifically, I think that it is not the case, as Rand claims, that life in terms of survival is an individual’s ultimate moral end.

So what is ethics basically about, then? I think I have the answer (or at least a compelling answer) to this worked out in a preliminary way, and eventually I’ll discuss my views publicly. (Join my email list or my Patreon page for updates.) My thinking is still very much inspired by Rand’s work in certain ways, but the theory I now think is true goes in a different direction in important respects.

Recently there was a dustup among a circle of my social media friends regarding an old debate over whether Objectivism is an “open” or a “closed” system. I agree with Leonard Peikoff (Rand’s heir) that Objectivism is “closed” in the sense that it is limited to the philosophic theories formulated by Rand. And that puts me on the outside looking in. I consider myself a “fellow traveler” with Objectivism in many respects but not an Objectivist.

My thinking about Rand’s ethics progressed roughly as follows:

In high school I read Ayn Rand, and hers was the first serious philosophic material I’d read. Not too surprisingly, I found her case convincing, especially compared with the fundamentalist Christian doctrines I’d been taught as a child.

In college and some years thereafter I became skeptical of Rand’s ideas. I didn’t know what to make of Rand’s seemingly incompatible remarks regarding life and happiness, and I came to think that happiness (or a sort of enlightened pleasure) actually is the ultimate moral good. I happened to run into the philosopher Eric Mack, and he hit me with Nozick’s Experience Machine. Although Mack didn’t convince me at the time that I was wrong, eventually the sort of argument he made, and that Rand also makes, eroded my hedonistic-leaning views. (I also had some personal problems during part of this period and did not always live up to moral standards. I learned about rationalizations and moral blind spots the hard way.)

Some years later I took up Rand’s ideas with renewed interest. I listened to important lectures by Peikoff—his material on rationalism had a huge impact on me—read Rand’s works more closely, read related materials such as Tara Smith’s books, and started to take virtue ethics much more seriously. I finally worked out a way to interpret Rand’s theory that, to my mind, resolved all the seeming paradoxes (How can the choice to live be premoral? How can happiness be one’s moral purpose if life is the ultimate end? How does Rand’s account fit with standard evolutionary theory?).

More recently I decided that, although Rand gets a lot right, her basic moral theory doesn’t hold up. What I regard as the correct moral theory has a lot in common with Rand’s theory and shares a broadly Aristotelian approach.

Why does any of this matter? I’m part of Objectivist social circles, I used to write for an Objectivist publication, and I run a Patreon account, so I didn’t want anyone to be confused about where I now stand. And my new views have stabilized; at this point I think there’s a very low chance that I’ll change my mind.

Incidentally, although my main disagreement with Rand is over her core ethical theory, I also wonder about her theory of free will. I do not doubt that we are deliberative creatures with free will in that sense. But I’m not sure that I understand Rand’s theory of free will, and I’m not sure that it wins out over compatibilism in the style of Daniel Dennett. Personally, I would not rule someone out as an Objectivist just for thinking that compatibilism probably is true.

Of course I disagree with Rand on all sorts of particulars—I have no problem with a woman as president, for example, and I think some forms of photography are art. But such disagreements are not a matter of core philosophy.

One result of pointing out a viable alternative to Rand’s basic ethics, I hope, will be to make her broader views more interesting to certain people. Once we get past some people’s antipathy to Rand’s capitalist politics, the largest impediment to people taking Rand seriously probably is her core moral theory. As much as critics misrepresent her theory, some critics detect some real problems with it. Yet much of Rand’s broader theory remains powerful and can be separated from (what I see as) Rand’s metaethical errors.

So no, I’m not an Objectivist. And I’m okay with that.

Image: Nicolas Vigier

Calling Vile Racists Right-Wing or Extreme Only Gives Them Cover

In Charlottesville at a rally of white nationalists, a man with neo-Nazi sympathies drove a car into a crowd of counterprotesters, killing Heather Heyer. The need to condemn racist ideologies and the violence they inspire remains urgent.

The language we use to combat racism matters. Calling white supremacists, neo-Nazis, and their ilk “far right” or “extreme,” rather than white supremacists or the like, only obscures their vile nature and helps them falsely claim ties to mainstream America. Continue reading “Calling Vile Racists Right-Wing or Extreme Only Gives Them Cover”

Sketching a Free-Market Response to Climate Change

As Florida faces Hurricane Irma and Houston continues its recovery efforts from the intense flooding there, a lot of people are turning more of their attention to the matter of climate change, and with good reason.

Summarized briefly, my position on human-caused climate change has evolved over the years roughly from “it isn’t happening” to “it’s happening but it isn’t that big of a deal” to “it’s happening and it’s probably a big deal.” These notes represent my quick attempt to help bridge the communication gap between scientists and activists who think that climate change represents an existential threat to people on the planet and free-market advocates typically less inclined to take the problem seriously. Continue reading “Sketching a Free-Market Response to Climate Change”

On the Right to Petition Public Officials on Social Media

Public officials have the same rights to freedom of speech and freedom of association that the rest of us have. The do not lose their rights simply because they win elected office. Public officials are not above the law, but they are not beneath the law, either. They have a right to maintain their private lives, including their personal social media feeds (per the relevant terms of service), and interact with people (or not) as they see fit, just like the rest of us.

At the same time, insofar as public officials act as agents of government, they assume certain legal responsibilities that the rest of us do not have. If public officials open official forums of public commentary, they may not discriminate on the basis of ideology or point of view (among other things), and they must treat everyone equally under the law. Continue reading “On the Right to Petition Public Officials on Social Media”

Why Public Officials Have a Right to Block People on Social Media

August 21 Update: I made some important mistakes in the article below, and I have since drafted a new article dealing with the same issues. Please see the new article for my developed views. I am leaving up the text below, despite its problems, as an archive. Please do not quote from it as though it reflected my developed view. My basic mistake was to assume that, because social media companies block people, therefore government may not use social media for official forums of public commentary. But government may do so, I now conclude, so long as they also provide a means to comment outside of social media. I apologize for the confusion caused by the release of the draft below. However, I wouldn’t have made the advances in my thinking that I did without publishing the initial draft, so I have a hard time regretting it. —Ari Armstrong Continue reading “Why Public Officials Have a Right to Block People on Social Media”

Why Taxing Bicycles in Colorado Is a Dumb Idea

Stunningly, some Colorado Democrats have finally found a tax they don’t like. After Republican State Senator Ray Scott suggested he might propose a bicycle tax similar to one Oregon just imposed, Democratic Senator Andy Kerr slammed the idea as an “anti-business, anti-freedom policy,” Colorado Politics reports. If only Colorado Democrats were always so skeptical of taking people’s money.

And yet the case for taxing bicycles seems compelling, at least on the surface. Continue reading “Why Taxing Bicycles in Colorado Is a Dumb Idea”

What the Study on “Closed-Minded Atheists” Really Proves

If I say that two plus two equals four, and someone else insists that two plus two equals five, am I closed-minded if I do not find that person’s mathematical arguments persuasive? Am I closed-minded if I reject the idea that two plus two can at the same time equal four and five? A recent study implies that the answer is yes. And that study, along with various media accounts of it, conclude that, by comparable standards, atheists on the whole are more closed-minded in certain ways than are theists. Clearly something has gone wrong. Continue reading “What the Study on “Closed-Minded Atheists” Really Proves”

Jared Polis’s Fantasy that Aspen Runs on 100 Percent Renewable Energy

Let’s talk about a little place called Aassspen. Jared Polis, member of Congress from Boulder and a Democratic candidate for governor of Colorado, touts a “bold goal of 100% renewable energy” in the state by 2040. Surely Colorado can do it, he suggests on his campaign page, given that Colorado’s own Aspen “became the third city in the country to already achieve 100% renewable.”

But Polis’s claim about Aspen is pure fantasy, and, insofar as Aspen does run on renewable energy, various aspects of its power program are unique to the wealthy ski town and cannot be scaled statewide. Continue reading “Jared Polis’s Fantasy that Aspen Runs on 100 Percent Renewable Energy”

Why Vouchers Subsidize Religion

When government helps to finance the operations of a religious organization, it violates the rights of the people whose wealth it forcibly takes for the purpose. Such funding violates not only people’s right to control their resources, but their right to follow their conscience, insofar as they are forced to propagate ideas with which they disagree. I’ve argued these points in a first, second, and third article responding to the Supreme Court’s decision that a playground operated by Trinity Lutheran Church must be considered for government grants available to others.

But when exactly does government funding constitute a subsidy to a given party, when does a subsidy promote a religious purpose, and what are the ethical implications of various government programs, such as tax-funded vouchers that parents can spend at religious schools? Continue reading “Why Vouchers Subsidize Religion”