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

Notice: I Did Not Authorize “Libertas Institute Colorado” To Reproduce my Content

This morning a user on Twitter asked me if I was involved with LibertasColorado.org, the “Libertas Institute Colorado.” I was horrified to learn that the web site had stolen the last two years’ worth of my blog posts and was reproducing them in full. I did not authorize this reproduction of my content. (The site was also pulling in other content without permission.) After I notified the person to whom the web site is registered, he pulled down the page.

The same Twitter user said she received a late-night robocall on behalf of Libertarian candidate Gaylon Kent, and she thought that the robocall may have been associated with Libertas Institute Colorado.

I do not know if the robocall was associated with the same organization that stole my intellectual property, or if the robocaller is totally unrelated and merely used a similar-sounding name.

Gaylon Kent says he did not authorize the robocalls. See also the 9News story on the matter. I contacted 9News, and reporters there were not sure who originated the robocalls. I have not obtained or heard any audio recording of the robocalls. [See below.]

Obviously I had nothing to do with the robocalls; prior to this morning, I had never heard of Gaylon Kent or of Libertas Institute Colorado or any like-named group. (I probably saw Kent’s name on my ballot, but I paid no attention to it.)

All in all, this has been a frustrating morning, first to have to deal with the theft of my intellectual property, and then to be associated with a dubious campaign effort (even if by accident) of which I had no knowledge.

October 20 Update: I just realized that 9News includes the audio of the call in question. It ends, “This message brought to you by the Libertas Institute.”

Moving News Aggregation to Twitter

Readers may have noticed that I’ve been trying out different strategies for aggregating news. I do want to track select items of news and views, not only to provide some potentially useful tips to others, but to help myself keep track of the items.

It seems that now I’ve come full circle. I started out using my Twitter feed to collect news stories; more recently I set up an entire new web site (now defunct) devoted to news aggregation (see my explanation); and most recently I’ve posted “news roundups” to my personal page (see this morning’s example).

For now at least, I’m going to go back to using Twitter to track the stories and opinions of interest to me—so now is an excellent time to follow me on Twitter, if you do not already do so.

Of course, if I want to write something more substantial about some article than Twitter will accommodate, I’ll probably do so as a blog post here. And, as should be obvious by now, I may change my mind about this.

Wrapping Up Rational Beacon

[September 7, 2014 Update: Today I moved all the files from RationalBeacon.com to my homepage, AriArmstrong.com. See the “Rational Beacon” category for the contents imported from RationalBeacon.com. —Ari]

Although I’m glad I tried running Rational Beacon, it has been more time consuming and less successful than I’d anticipated, so I’m shutting it down. At first I was upset about this move, but then I thought about it in Edison’s terms: I didn’t fail at blogging, I merely discovered one additional way for me not to blog.

I plan to import all of Rational Beacon‘s contents to my personal page at AriArmstrong.com, where I plan to continue blogging. I also plan to consolidate all my previously published works there, except for my material with the Objective Standard and with Complete Colorado. (In the future I may write material for other publications and not reproduce it on my own page.) Although I’m shutting down RationalBeacon.com, I’m retaining the url into the indefinite future, in case I want to resurrect the site in a different form (something for which I have no plans at present).

A few people may be interested in a fuller account of my reasons for shutting down the site.

Originally, my idea for Rational Beacon was that, as I read the news and views of the day, I would quickly blog about the items that interested me, something I didn’t think would take much additional time. After all, I was essentially aggregating news for myself already, so, I thought, why not simply convert that work to a blog? Not only would that process help me keep in better touch with the news of the day, I thought, it might prove useful to others looking for a filtered news source.

Obviously part of my inspiration for aggregating news was InstaPundit, only I wanted to omit many of the types of stories covered there and to include many stories and opinion pieces not covered there. No one else aggregates stories the way I’d like to see it done, so I end up subjecting myself to the data equivalent of a fire hose each day, mostly via my Twitter feed. That seems to be unavoidable at this point. Very little of the total material published on a daily basis significantly interests me, but I have to sift through a substantial amount of that material to find the few items that do interest me.

Unfortunately, in blogging for Rational Beacon, I soon found myself spending much more time than I’d anticipated writing about certain stories. I thought I’d spend less than an hour, or perhaps up to a couple of hours, writing for Rational Beacon every day; instead, I found myself spending several hours blogging on most days. Especially given that no one is paying me to do it, I just can’t justify spending that much time on it.

Soon after starting the site, I shifted my focus. At first, I thought I’d post two or three dozen very-short posts. But I quickly began writing fewer (often a handful or a dozen), longer posts. Many of my posts are essentially (short) op-eds.

I’ve tentatively decided that I do want to continue aggregating news, although in much briefer form. Yesterday and today I published “roundups” of links, and that’s the way I’ll probably continue to aggregate material at my home page. If I want to say something more substantial about some event, issue, or editorial, I’ll write a dedicated article about it, either for my own page or for another publication (at this point, usually for the Objective Standard).

I never imagined Rational Beacon would be an Internet sensation, but I thought it would be more successful than it has been. After nearly a month of steady effort, the Facebook page has only 91 likes, and the Twitter page has only 75 followers. That’s just not enough of a following to justify the effort. (I have received some very positive feedback from several people, which I appreciate. I also appreciate the numerous “Rational Bacon” jokes.)

Part of my reasoning for starting Rational Beacon was that I thought a publication name separate from my name might go over better. Apparently I was wrong. So I’m just going to consolidate my offerings on my personal blog and through my personal Facebook and Twitter feeds. Associating my content with my name is fine, I think; that’s what Michelle Malkin and various others do (although Malkin has something like 300 times the Twitter followers that I have).

Of course, part of my problem, in terms of number of readers, is that I advocate some view or other to alienate nearly everyone. I’m not a conservative, or a leftist “liberal,” or a libertarian, or a “moderate”—and in many instances I loudly declare my disagreements with those groups. But I’d rather reach a few active-minded individuals than many cheerleaders.

Over the coming years I plan to write not only op-ed-style articles, as I’ve been doing for many years, but weightier articles on a range of subjects. (I hope my efforts toward that end will help broaden audience.) To reach my main goals in writing, I need to be a lot more careful about how I spend my time. As painful as shutting down Rational Beacon is, the main purpose in doing so is to help free up some of my time so that I can work more on other projects. Stay tuned.

How You Can Help Rational Beacon

September 7, 2014 Update: I discontinued posting to RationalBeacon.com on August 29 and converted all the files from that site to AriArmstrong.com today. —Ari

Rational Beacon launched July 29 to offer brief commentary on the news and views of the day. Since then, I’ve published 180 posts—on average more than six per day—covering such topics as Islamic State, the Ferguson shooting, Ayn Rand, environmentalism, economics, and criminal justice.

That’s a great start, but it’s only a start. You can help Rational Beacon expand its reach in several ways:

  • “Like” Rational Beacon on Facebook, Like and Share its posts, and turn on “Get Notifications” (part of the “Liked” menu.)
  • Follow Rational Beacon on Twitter and retweet it.
  • Tell your friends about Rational Beacon, in person and via email and social media.
  • If you hear of an important, recently published news story or opinion piece, let me know about it via email: ari (atsign) freecolorado (dot) com.

Thank you for your support toward creating a world of reason and individual rights.

Ari Armstrong

Welcome to Rational Beacon

Rational Beacon is an aggregator of news and views of interest especially to people who advocate reason and individual rights. Rational Beacon was founded by Ari Armstrong, and the site and its trademarks, including “Rational Beacon,” are owned by Ari Armstrong. Unless otherwise marked, all posts are written and copyrighted by Ari Armstrong. Although there are currently no plans to turn Rational Beacon into anything more than an aggregation service, it’s possible the future may hold more in store.

September 7, 2014 Update: On August 19, I discontinued posting to Rational Beacon; see the explanatory post. Today I imported all the posts to AriArmstrong.com, and eventually I’ll delete the contents at RationalBeacon.com. -Ari

Note on Objective Standard Posting

In the past, I’ve linked to all of my blog posts published by The Objective Standard from my personal web page. But these days TOS is publishing most of my writing, so it seems pointless use my personal page to link to everything over there. Readers are welcome to check out my catalog of posts at TOS.

I’ll still link to my print articles and possibly to some of my more notable blog posts as well.

Along these lines, recently I wrote a post about a Colorado case in which the government is seeking to force a businessman to bake a cake for a gay wedding. That article has received a fair amount of play; check it out if you haven’t already done so.