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