This is the text of an introductory speech first delivered in January, 1991 at the MIT Objectivist Lyceum, a student group.
Ayn Rand summarized her philosophy in three words: reason, egoism, freedom. She summarized the antithesis of her philosophy in three words as well: mysticism, altruism, force. The goal of this essay is to explain what Rand meant by these terms and why she felt they had to be grouped in this way.
Rand defined reason as ``the faculty which perceives, identifies and integrates the material provided by man's senses.'' Reason starts with sense perception-what you see, hear, and touch-and integrates it into abstractions, that is, concepts or words. By integrating more and more observations into concepts, and by integrating concepts into wider and wider concepts, you increase the scope of your knowledge. Evidence-that is, sense perception-is the basis of reason; logic is its method; knowledge of reality is the result.
Rand defined mysticism as ``the acceptance of allegations without evidence or proof, either apart from or against the evidence of one's senses and one's reason.'' Mysticism is the belief that there is a short-cut to knowledge; the mystic doesn't bother with evidence and logic and relies instead upon intuition, revelations, feelings, tradition, or some authority. Objectivism rejects mysticism in every variant. It holds that there are no short-cuts to knowledge; the only way to gain knowledge is to scrupulously examine the available evidence and form for your own self the appropriate conclusions.
Rand had much to say about reason: how it works, why it's valid, and answers to a host of objections. For the purposes of this essay, however, the important thing to remember is that Rand held that reason works: that it gives you true knowledge about reality.
It is commonly held that altruism is ``a good thing,'' yet Rand claimed that altruism is a vampire that's slowly draining the world of its life-blood. If our culture does not reject altruism, she said, then we will slowly decline into the stagnation of another Dark Ages. This is a pretty strong claim, but she had some interesting reasons for making it.
According to Rand, ``the basic principle of altruism is that man has no right to exist for his own sake, that service to others is the only justification of his existence, and that self-sacrifice is his highest moral duty, virtue, and value.'' Rand distinguished between altruism and helping others. Helping others is not altruism per se: altruism is the belief that you have a duty to help others, that you owe others. As Rand put it, the issue is not whether or not to give a dime to a beggar; rather:
the issue is whether you do or do not have the right to exist without giving him that dime. The issue is whether you must keep buying your life, dime by dime, from any beggar who might choose to approach you. The issue is whether the need of others is the first mortgage on your life and the moral purpose of your existence.Altruism holds that one person's need is a blank check against the lives of others. Altruism holds that self-sacrifice is the good and that self-interest is evil.
Although some would call this characterization of altruism ``extreme,'' in fact altruism so defined pervades our culture. Ambition, greed, success: today these are viewed with suspicion at best, with downright hostility at worst. On the other hand, the New Deal, the Peace Corps, and ``a thousand points of light'' are upheld as great achievements or noble goals.
Although altruism claims to be based on ``love'' for man-kind, Rand showed that in practice altruism leads to suffering and destruction. On a personal level, altruism leads to unearned guilt. Personal achievement requires you to concentrate on yourself to the exclusion of others. If you accept altruism as the ``good,'' then to the extent that you achieve, you are left with the nagging feeling that you should be doing more to help others, e.g., by working in a soup kitchen or some other such activity.
On an interpersonal level, altruism leads to suspicion and ill will. Since any person's need is a blank check drawn against the lives of others, each person knows that any stranger may cash this check at any time.
On a political level, altruism leads to collectivist statism. Compare the well known saying ``ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country'' with the less-well known ``the common good comes before the private good.'' Both statements make the same claim about the relationship of the individual's good to society's good. This first statement, of course, is from John F. Kennedy; the second is a slogan of the Nazi, or National Socialist, party. Make no mistake about it, Adolf Hitler was an advocate of altruism; in Mein Kampf he wrote:
The self-sacrificing will to give one's personal labor, and if necessary one's own life, for others is most strongly developed in the Aryan. The Aryan is not greatest in his mental qualities as such, but in the extent of his willingness to put all his abilities into the service of the community. In him the instinct of self-preservation has reached the noblest form, since he willingly subordinates his own ego to the life of the community and, if the hour demands, even sacrifices it.
Many people argue that Hitler turned noble impulses to ignoble ends, but Rand held that tyranny is the climax of the altruist ethics. Note that Hitler had company: Stalin and Mussolini, for example, also turned to altruism to justify their atrocities. Also note how politicians in this country-for example, Franklin Roosevelt-often turn to altruism as an excuse to limit freedom. If self-sacrifice is the good, then who's going to stop the State when it comes to collect the sacrifices? When nearly everyone accepts altruism, on what grounds can people stop the collectivization of society? On the basis of the individual's right to personal sovereignty? The impersonal, sacrificial drudgery of fascism or communism-not the sugary utopias of socialist fantasy stories-are the political manifestation of altruism.
``Now there is one word,'' Rand once said, ``a single word, which can blast the morality of altruism out of existence and which it cannot withstand-the word `why?' Why must man live for the sake of others? Why must he be a sacrificial animal? Why is that the good? There's no earthly reason for it-and in the whole history of philosophy no earthly reason has ever been given.'' She goes on to tie altruism to mysticism: ``It is only mysticism that can permit moralists to get away with it. It was mysticism, the unearthly, the supernatural, the irrational that has always been called upon to justify it-or, to be exact, to escape the necessity of justification.''
If altruism is so bad, and altruism is based on mysticism, then what is Rand's alternative, and what does it have to do with reason? For her own ethics, Rand started at the very beginning: why do you need ethics anyway, she asks, what is it for? Her answer to this question can be analyzed in two parts.
First, Rand said that values ought to be objective facts about reality. She noted that life is conditional, and that it requires a specific course of action to maintain. She concluded that something can be good or bad only to a living organism acting to survive: the good furthers life, the bad hinders it. Second, Rand noted that humans, unlike other animals, need to discover their values. Consider the life of a squirrel: collect nuts, hibernate, eat nuts, repeat. Not very exciting. Animals just repeat a built-in cycle of action over and over. The drama of human life is that people have to decide what action to take, and their decisions have real, long-range consequences.
How do you decide? Reason. Values are objective facts about reality, and your means for knowing reality is reason. Reason is the fundamental value because it's your means of discovering your other values. What do you do with reason? In large part, produce the goods needed to survive. Unlike animals that simply take what they need from the environment, humans produce what they need. But, as Francis Bacon once said in a quote Rand was fond of repeating: ``nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed.'' Through reasoning, people can come to understand and harness the forces of nature.
So reason and production are the primary values of the Objectivist ethics. Rand summed it up this way:
Man's mind is his basic tool of survival. Life is given to him, survival is not. His body is given to him, its sustenance is not. His mind is given to him, its content is not. To remain alive, he must act, and before he can act he must know the nature and purpose of his action. He cannot obtain his food without knowledge of food and of the way to obtain it. He cannot dig a ditch-or build a cyclotron-without a knowledge of his aim and of the means to achieve it. To remain alive, he must think.You need ethics because you need values to survive, and you can only discover those values through a volitional process of reason. Ethics, to Rand, was ``a code of values to guide man's choices and actions-the choices and actions which determine the purpose and the course of his life.''
But to think is an act of choice.... Reason does not work automatically; thinking is not a mechanical process; the connections of logic are not made by instinct. The function of your stomach, lungs or heart is automatic; the function of your mind is not. In any hour and issue of your life, you are free to think or to evade that effort. But you are not free to escape from your nature, from the fact that reason is your means of survival-so that for you, who are human being, the question ``to be or not to be'' is the question ``to think or not to think.''
Given that Rand held that values are rooted in the individual's struggle to survive, egoism follows naturally. As an ethical theory, egoism holds that the primary beneficiary of an action should be the actor. The primary goal of each individual should be to act to achieve personal happiness. The happiness of family and friends are important to the egoist, but only in so far as it gives pleasure in return. Being around a bunch of happy, mentally healthy people is a real joy; being around a bunch of complainers isn't.
That selfishness implies acting for your own sake is usually understood; often misunderstood, however, is that this does not reveal which actions are, in fact, in your self interest. Rand rejected the view that lying to, stealing from, and subjugating others is acting ``selfishly;'' she held that these activities in fact are not values-that they do not lead to a happy life.
Rand listed a number of important values-productivity, honesty, pride-that make up the good life. An important one in understanding that selfishness does not involve preying on others is independence.
Independence has two aspects. The first is mental: you must think for yourself, you must come to your own conclusions, and you must follow those conclusions into action. You must never subordinate your own grasp of reality to anything: society, peers, tradition, authority. Howard Roark, the hero of The Fountainhead, is the symbol of this.
The second aspect of independence is existential: you must embrace the law of causality in your own life. You must take responsibility for your actions, which means: you must take the responsibility for achieving your own life and for all the actions you take in doing so. This is a two-way street: you get credit for the good you do and get to keep the benefits, and you get blamed for the bad and are expected to accept the consequences.
It is this noble concept of independence-the man who thinks for himself and acts for himself and holds himself accountable for what he does-that Rand held as the truly selfish life.
A final point about Rand's egoism is that it rejects the need for sacrifice. Traditionally we've been given the choice of living for others (which is altruism) or expecting others to live for us (which is called ``selfishness''). Rand identified a third alternative: let each man live for his own sake, neither ``sacrificing himself to others nor others to himself.'' Rand held that if (and only if) people act morally and selfishly as she defined it, there is a harmony of interests among men that makes peace, benevolence, and, ultimately, general prosperity possible.
Rand is most famous for being an unabashed advocate of laissez-faire capitalism. Unlike most defenders of capitalism, however, she did not defend capitalism because it's the most efficient at producing material wealth-that's an effect, she said, not a cause. Rand defended capitalism as the moral political system.
Politics arises because humans are social beings: we interact with one another all the time. These interactions can be beneficial, but they don't have to be; trading your bread for the butcher's beef is beneficial, but being killed by a robber is not. Humans need a science of politics, argued Rand, to identify and institutionalize the conditions under which interpersonal interactions are beneficial. Politics defines the conditions in which living in society is beneficial rather than harmful.
Most everyone realizes that living in society is potentially beneficial because we can achieve more working together than we can working apart. Most everyone realizes also that living in society is potentially harmful because we face the threat of violence-murder, theft, war. Rand tied these observations to her morality-which, after all, is rooted in the question of benefit and harm-to reach a rich and rigorous understanding of cooperation, force, and society.
Rand's morality is founded on the connections among a person's thoughts, actions, and life. It is right for you to think, it is right for you to act on your conclusions, and it is right for you to reap the benefits of the results. Conversely, it is wrong for you not to think, it is wrong for you to act thoughtlessly on the basis of someone else's judgement, and it is just that if you do this you suffer the consequences.
When two people come together in voluntary cooperation, they combine the best within them (at least they ought to); each mind correcting and supplementing the other, the strength of both hands combined to solve a common task. Even when they can't come to terms and must go their separate ways, for the time they were negotiating both minds were working together in the attempt, and both are better off for it.
When two people come together in violent conflict, the opposite is true. Each mind and each hand is now bent on destroying the other. If one foe triumphs, his success consists of severing the connection between his opponent's thoughts, actions, and consequences. To Rand, using force to severe a man's mind from his actions is the worst evil one person can perpetrate against another, and the moral political system is the one that outlaws it.
Rand reached even deeper into her philosophy to find an epistemological difference between the school of voluntary cooperation and the schools that allow force. Voluntary cooperation, argued Rand, is based on the efficacy of reason; force is based on mysticism. When you believe in reason, you realize that you and your neighbor have reality as a common frame of reference, so there's the possibility of persuasion, of explanation, of reasoning with one another. When you believe in mysticism, on the other hand, with its short-cut to ``knowledge,'' you have no hope for explanation and reasoning: if you and your neighbor do not share the same insight, then force is the only recourse.
Although Rand advocated voluntary cooperation as the primary principle of social interaction, she was not a pacifist: she did not forbid force outright. You may not initiate force, she said, but you may use force to defend yourself against an aggressor. You may not force others to give you food, shelter, and other goods, but you may fight back when others try to force you.
Rand defined a free society as one that outlaws the initiation of physical force. In a free society, we are free to cooperate or not, based on our own, individual, rational judgement. In a free society, no person may come between the thoughts and actions of another. In a free society, beneficial social interaction is the rule and peace, prosperity, and progress are the results. A free society, concludes Rand, is the only moral society.
The distinction between initiating force and responding to force with force raises an important question: when are you initiating force, and when are you acting in self-defense? What actions do you have the right to take without interference from others, and what must you refrain from? When must you allow others to act as they please, and when can you stop them in the name of self-defense? As natural-rights theorists put it: what is the sphere of action in which you are the master? Individual rights define this sphere of sovereignty.
Individual rights define the actions you have a right to take; if someone uses force to stop you from exercising your rights, he is initiating force and you may respond in kind. To Rand, individual rights, like politics as a whole, are based on morality, i.e., on the needs of human life. She defines a right as a moral principle that ``defines and sanctions a man's freedom of action in a social context.'' The central issue of morality for Rand was to define the principles necessary for human life; the central issue of politics, then, is to define a sphere of action-our rights-which allow us to practice those principles. In Rand's words:
Life is a process of self-sustaining and self-generated action; the right to life means the right to engage in self-sustaining and self-generated action-which means: the freedom to take all the actions required by the nature of a rational being for the support, the furtherance, the fulfillment and the enjoyment of his own life.
Rand stressed the importance of property rights as one of our inalienable rights. She considered it the means of implementing our other rights. Where does the right to free speech get you without being able to own a press to print your views? Where does the right to a home get you without the wherewithal to build or buy one? Where does the right to life get you if you don't have the right to use and dispose of the product of your efforts? It's no coincidence, says Rand, that countries with no property rights have historically been the most brutal, despite their claims to be based on ``human rights'' and ``freedom.'' As Rand put it:
as a man can't exist without his body, so no rights can exist without the right to translate one's rights into reality-to think, to work and to keep the results-which means: the right of property. The modern mystics of muscle who offer you the fraudulent alternative of ``human rights'' versus ``property rights,'' as if one could exist without the other, are making a last, grotesque attempt to revive the doctrine of soul versus body. Only a ghost can exist without material property; only a slave can work with no right to the product of his effort.
Capitalism, to Rand, is the system based on the recognition of individual rights, including property rights, in which no man or group of men may initiate the use of force against others. This concept of Capitalism is radically different in that it disallows pragmatic ``mixed'' economics and so-called justifications. Capitalism, to Rand, is based on morality. Capitalism, thus, is based on the recognition that human life and happiness require individual action based on individual judgement, and that action based on individual judgement requires a sphere of choice-defined by rights-within which the individual is master. It's the system that recognizes that human life and happiness require productive effort and the freedom to dispose of the product of that effort. Capitalism is the system in which the government does not initiate force, but acts as an agent of self-defense and retaliation against those who do.
Ayn Rand's vision is one of human beings in a free society pursuing happiness and fulfillment through their own productive actions based on their own independent judgement. This vision is based on a commitment to reason: reason as our tool for discovering our values, reason as our guide to action, and reason as the basis for peaceful cooperation among individuals. In order for this vision to become reality, however, altruism-and its corollaries mysticism and collectivism-will have to lose the respect that many people afford them today.