One of the most significant political theories of the 20th Century is Ayn Rands Objectivism. Rand is known for promoting the philosophical idea of objectivism. She defines objectivism as a philosophy that emphasizes personal freedom, individuality, and rational egoism. Her anthology of fiction books describes the political theory of Objectivism through the actions and speeches of the main characters. Her additional non-fiction works continue to explore that political and social philosophy. Rand was influenced by a number of theorists such as Aristotle and writers including Victor Hugo and Edmond Rostand. Objectivism is a controversial political theory and has been criticized by academic philosophers due to its view on the role of government and human nature. On the other hand, the popularity of Rand’s work continues to grow and has an influence on political thought to this very day.
Rand was born as Alissa Rosenbaum in 1905 in St. Petersburg to a middle-class Jewish family. From a young age, she expressed great ambition and an interest in pursuing a career in writing. A singular event that occurred in her early years was the 1917 Russian Revolution, in which the country transitioned almost immediately from a monarchy into a Communist state. She had numerous experiences in Soviet Russia that helped to mold her sociopolitical beliefs. For example, the nationalization of her father’s chemistry shop transitioned her family from relative affluence to poverty. Despite the loss of her family’s assets under the Soviet regime, she was able to attend university and graduate with a degree in history. Changing her name from Alissa Rosenbaum to Ayn Rand, she left the Soviet Union for the United States in 1926 to pursue her dream of becoming a screenwriter. Over the succeeding years, Rand found success first as a screenwriter, and eventually as a playwright and author.
An important factor that influenced Rand’s writings over the course of her life was her personal experience in numerous political eras. From monarchy in Russia, to the transition to the Soviet Union, to Great Depression era America, her youth was characterized by many stark contrasts in political and economic systems. Rand’s writings against communism were influenced by what she observed and she wrote numerous works outlining Objectivist theory throughout World War II and the early Cold War era. In response to the Cold War and the threat of Communism spreading worldwide, Rand cautioned against the belief of collectivism in books such as The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. Both The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged are fictional works that promote the belief in personal freedom and rationality, and speak out against the spread of Communism and Socialism.
Ayn Rand personally cites Aristotle as one of her primary influences. Aristotle was a Greek logician, philosopher, and scientist as well as one of the founders of western political theory. Rand explains, “it is not the special sciences that teach man to think; it is philosophy that lays down the epistemological criteria of all special sciences.” Just as Ayn Rand believed that science was one of the most important values of society, Aristotle argued that politics is the master science because mankind is a political animal. As Aristotle believed in “biology expressed in the naturalism of politics,” his concept of morality and the world aligned with Rand’s concepts of philosophy and politics being inextricably tied to science. Similarly, Aristotle argued that mankind engaged in politics through all of its actions. Rand believed that each person acts as an individual to create the political society that exists. If each individual acts according to the principles and morals of Objectivism, such as those of rational thought and the execution of free will, sociopolitical order will naturally emerge. Aristotle contends that politics is the study of values, ethics, what is right and wrong, what should be, and what could be.
Despite the fact that Rand cited Aristotle as one of her primary influences, their views on the ideal form of government were dissimilar. For example, Aristotle viewed democracy as flawed because it resulted in competition between social classes and felt that the proper form of government consisted of its leaders governing with the common interest of all its people in mind as opposed to governing based on individual interests. Additionally, Aristotle felt that a key role of the government would be to provide for and promote the public good and explored the idea of the organic theory of the state throughout his works. The organic theory of the state theory stipulates that the power and authority of the state transcends the power of the individual. On the contrary, Rand believed that the role of government would be limited to protecting individual rights and serving as an agent for people’s self-defense. A government that promoted the opposite values, according to Rand, has no justification and is the primary threat to the structure and nature of human society.
One of the major values of Objectivism is a belief in rational egoism. Objectivism believes in the “concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.” With this, Ayn Rand is saying there is no more important moral goal in Objectivism than that of achieving happiness. Achieving happiness, according to Objectivists, requires rational respect for the facts of reality, including those regarding human nature and our own needs. In order to achieve such goals, Rand argues that people must behave in a way that conforms to “rational egoism,” in which the promotion of one’s self-interest is in accordance with that of reason. Rand further promotes the logic of this theory in The Virtues of Selfishness. Rand argues that selfishness is a proper value to pursue and rejects the idea of altruism, the belief that self-sacrifice is a moral ideal to pursue. Additionally, Rand rejects the idea of “selfless selfishness” of irrationally acting individuals and instead argues that to be ethically selfish entails a commitment to reason rather than to emotionally driven whims and instincts.
In addition, Objectivism promotes a unique view on the nature of reality and views knowledge and reason as important aspects in society. Objectivism holds that “reality exists as an objective absolute—facts are facts, independent of man’s feelings, wishes, hopes or fears.” Rand’s Objectivism begins with three self-evident concepts: existence, consciousness, and identity. All three truths are interconnected and exist simultaneously. Ayn Rand goes on to further explain that anything that is metaphysically given is absolute and cannot be changed. Objectivism holds that all knowledge is reached through reason, the “faculty that identifies and integrates the material provided by man’s senses.” This view of reason in an Objectivist society was further exhibited by the main characters and themes in Rand’s 1957 novel Atlas Shrugged. The work dramatizes the idea that the reasoning mind is the basic source of the values on which human life depends.
Furthermore, Rand supported a belief in secularism through Objectivism and also promoted a distinct purpose of morality. Objectivism is a purely secular ideology that views the role of religion as having a negative influence on reason and capitalism. The purpose of morality under Objectivist thought is to allow people to enjoy their own lives. This belief is further exemplified by John Galt, the embodiment of Objectivism in Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, when he said, “The purpose of morality is to teach you, not to suffer and die, but to enjoy yourself and live.” Rand felt that religion is an “ideology that opposes man’s enjoyment of his life on earth” and thus, in violation of the key principles expressed though Objectivism. Objectivism rejects both mysticism (the idea that knowledge can be acquired through non-rational means) and skepticism (the belief that knowledge is impossible and cannot be acquired by any means). Objectivism also teaches us that a harmony of interests exists among rational individuals, so that no one’s benefit will come at the expense of another’s. As such, a life of mutual respect and benevolent independence is possible through Objectivism.
Objectivism includes several suggestions as to what constitutes a proper society. One such element is the support for individual rights and freedom from coercion. The ethics of Objectivism hold that each person can live and flourish through the free exercise of his or her rational mind. Unless faced with threats of coercion or force, it is essential for people to exercise their own free will. The threat of force makes people accept someone else’s dictates, rather than follow their own judgment. Rand argues that certain societies, such as that of the Soviet Union, and certain ideologies, such as communism, are doomed to failure due to the lack of individual rights and the use of coercion to limit freedoms. Rand further argues that “freedom, in a political context, has only one meaning: the absence of physical coercion” and that societies must secure the principle that no one has the right to use physical force or coercion against any other.
In “Capitalism: An Unknown Ideal,” Rand states, “government is the most dangerous threat to man’s rights: it holds a legal monopoly on the use of physical force against legally disarmed victims.” Objectivism calls for a limited form of government and promotes the belief that an excessive government is a threat to individual freedom. Additionally, Rand argues that the government also has a role in defending its people from foreign enemies, providing a system for arbitration of disputes, and developing a system for enforcement of the law. Objectivism also argues that the main source of government power comes from “the consent of the governed,” which means that the only rights that the government has are delegated to it by the citizens for a specific purpose.
Objectivism considers Capitalism to be a proper political economy. Rand considered capitalism in its purest form to be a social system characterized by individual freedom and diversity. Additionally, she felt that Capitalism was an egalitarian system that treated all people as individuals with no regard to ethnic, religious, or other collective principles enshrined by law. Moreover, Objectivism, like Capitalism, is a social system based on the recognition of individual private property rights. Objectivism expresses the belief that respect for property rights is key in the development of a capitalist economic system and as a way to ensure the upholding of individual rights and economic freedoms. Property rights are important to Objectivists because they ensure that people can keep what they earn. As Objectivism emphasizes production and creation, the property acquired through hard work is the most essential representation of the exercise of free will. Rand states that, “without property rights, there is no way to solve or to avoid a hopeless chaos of clashing views, interests, demands, desires, and whims.”
Not everyone, however, is fully receptive to Rand’s ideas on morality. While she does have a large following, there are numerous critics of her somewhat rigid interpretation of social values. One of the main points of criticism is her influence as a moral and political philosopher. For example, it has been claimed that the ideas expressed by Rand throughout her works are not important in the realm of philosophy and did not constitute and groundbreaking ideas. Furthermore, Rand’s view on ethics is also criticized, in particular, her defense of the morality of selfishness. The view on politics that Rand expressed in Objectivist theory is also criticized by some of ignoring the central role that government often plays in society.
In conclusion, Ayn Rand is one of the most influential political theorists of the 20th Century. Rand is known for developing the philosophy of Objectivism, which promotes the ideals of rational egoism, individual liberty, reason and knowledge, and secular values. Rand has expressed the idea of Objectivism through numerous writings, in fiction and non-fiction alike. Moreover, Rand’s views on sociopolitical issues were influenced by past experiences growing up in Soviet Russia and her early adult years in Depression-era America. Rand’s political philosophy still remains significant to this very day and her works continue to retain mainstream popularity.
Ayn Rand , “Introducing Objectivism,” The Objectivist Newsletter Vol. 1 No. 8, August 1962, p. 35
Ayn Rand “Faith and Force: The Destroyers of the Modern World,” in Philosophy, Who Needs It? p. 62.
Bell-Villad, Gene H. “Who Was Ayn Rand?” Salmagundi 141/142 (n.d.): 227-42.
Miller, Fred. “Aristotle’s Political Theory.” Stanford University. 1998. Accessed February 24, 2016.
Biddle, Craig. “Atlas Shrugged and Ayn Rand’s Morality of Egoism.” The Objective Standard 7, no. 2 (Summer 2012).