The Ethics Of Ayn Rand


I once said that the greatest philosophical achievement of the last fifty years was John Rawls’ A Theory Of Justice. Ayn Rand lived during a more creatively fertile period (Freud, Einstein, etc), so I can’t give her the distinction of being the greatest philosopher of a fifty year period, but I will grant that she was the most important American philosopher of the mid-twentieth century. Her contributions to social ethics– in originality and rationality– are (considering this a field of thought going back thousands of years) outstanding and astounding.

Rand’s philosophy is a moral one. Her two over-riding concerns are 1) Freedom and 2) Justice. More specifically, she is concerned for the Freedom and Justice received by TALENTED people. It greatly distresses her that people born, taught, or otherwise blessed with Ability are not getting back from society as much as they are contributing.  She stands up –not for the downtrodden poor– but for the unworshipped not-as-rich-as-they-should-be’s… Give me your intelligent, your gifted, those yearning to cut throats… She is the patron saint of the business-minded… of the sly ones, the sharp ones, the productive ones. Gladly will she bless the graspers, the takers, the pushers, the drivers, the me-firsters, the I-got-mine-now-you-get-yours-ers.

I get the impression that when Rand considers her adopted minority-group, the Talented Ones, she has in mind something rarer than, say, W.E.B. DuBois’ “talented tenth.” I would guess, in fact, that the constituency Rand wishes to serve with her philosophy is more like the “one-in-ten-thousand geniuses.”

The only system Rand could find or devise for making sure that her constituency is being kept in the manner to which they SHOULD have grown accustomed is a system built –not on a legal or religious core– but on an economic one. The economic core her social philosophy revolves around is Capitalism– not just any color of Capitalism, mind you… but a hands-off version in which government does not intrude for the benefit of the “public good.”

The mission of Rand’s life was to provide the philosophical and– more importantly– moral underpinning that Capitalism had always lacked. She rightly felt that even supporters of Capitalism had never come up with a system of ethics which could entirely embrace Capitalism. They were constantly attempting to defend Capitalism by claiming that it was the best thing for everyone. Rand never pretends that providing for the public good is what Capitalism is about. And she is adamant that we should not be ashamed to admit that. Capitalism is about making sure each one of Rand’s one-in-ten-thousand geniuses gets what’s coming to him.

The ethical system she proposes is so foreign to anything we whiney Welfare State subjects are taught by our families or schools or churches that I think Rand suffers a knee-jerk pushback from people before they even give her proposals a serious and sympathetic study. Something similar happened to Nietzsche– especially after he was adopted as a mascot by the Nazis. Also like Nietzsche, Rand and some of her followers, write in language that is often acerbic and meant to shock, which perhaps excites and amuses those already prone to support her beliefs, but assuredly repels many others.

Rand’s philosophy does not assign Equality and Democracy paramount values. Outcomes in the market are not designed to produce equal results for everyone, and captains of industry do not gather employees round for a group vote when its time to make a decision. No, for Rand, Ethics boils down to two things, Freedom and Justice. Of course, part of what one must understand about Rand’s philosophy if one is to examine it earnestly, is that neither “Freedom” nor “Justice” may mean to the average person what it means to her. Defining terms is fifty-one percent of making a winning argument.

For Rand, Freedom means “voluntary choice.” She is not talking of, say, the Four Freedoms of FDR (freedom from fear, from hunger, etc). Rand means the Freedom of the marketplace. The Freedom to take it or leave it, sell it or hold it. Of course, the choice to be made may mean having to choose between feeding one’s family or pursuing one’s artistic dreams… but, hey, it’s a choice, and a voluntary one at that– at least in superficial and practical way.

And Justice for Rand means being allowed to obtain any and all property one can get without using force (at least direct force), and being guaranteed by government exclusive and protected use of that obtained property.

Personally, concerning this use of force thing, I wonder if there exists a difference in kind or merely in degree between crushing a man’s livelihood via economic means and incapaciting a man by direct physical means. Sometimes, as I’ve mentioned before, it feels to me that by allowing subjugation by one method and not another, we are merely establishing rules of game– a game in which we delude ourselves as to what the goals and outcomes really are.


One thought on “The Ethics Of Ayn Rand

  1. I’m glad that you started off your argument saying that you were a fan of John Rawls. It makes it easier to pinpoint exactly where Rand actually differs, and provide arguments as to why what John Rawls supported is actually immoral.

    The basis of John Rawls theory of justice, is that the main goal of “justice” should be the provision of fairness. So take for instance a man is poor and cannot afford food to eat, it is only fair that society provide the means for him to eat, since we are all equal. If that poor person cannot indeed eat, or cannot find food, and no food is given to him, an injustice has occurred. Lets say the food we give him is simply a piece of steak. Since this is his idea of justice, it is also his definition of what is the ultimate purpose of morality, to benefit the receiver.

    In order for that person to actually receive that piece of steak, someone first had to have a farm for cows and ensure they get fed grass. Someone then had to kill the cow, a butcher perhaps. Then someone had to either store the cut up pieces and freeze them somewhere or give them quickly to people to either buy or cook. After it is cooked, the poor person then receives the finished steak and he is fed. These people involved in this act do not have to be the “talented”, but they have to be blessed with some talent to actually produce something, and they had to produce more than they consume so that they could provide food for the poor man, who could not produce for himself. Yet, there is no one who says what they do is just, moral or ethical, unless of course, it is done with the sole purpose of feeding this poor person. Ayn Rand believes that such people who produce are the moral ones, and those who choose not to (not everyone wants to work who can) but seek to benefit from the work of the aforementioned people are looters. Is the poor man a looter, well, it depends, some are and some aren’t just like some businessmen are Steve Jobs and others are Bernie Madoffs. It depends on what they do with the abilities that they have.

    As for freedom, your argument is once again based of a rejection or an evasion of the role production plays in the role of wealth and even to a greater extent, a human being’s capability to survive. If people are not allowed to voluntary choose what they want to produce or even to a lesser extent consume, how exactly is a diverse and wealthy economy going to come about? Who ultimately attains the power to determine how that wealth should be distributed, and why should that person or group of people given more trust to do what is right, than the original producer of the goods or services that brought about wealth in the first place?

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