Objectivism is the philosophy of philosopher and author Ayn Rand. In summary, Objectivism holds that there is an independent reality that human beings are conscious of through their senses, that reason is the only way of gathering knowledge and only the individual rational mind can process this data, that the proper moral purpose of one's life is to pursue one's own rational self-interest, and that the only moral social system is full laissez-faire capitalism with a minimal government limited to courts, police, and a military because it is the only system where humans are barred from initiating the use of physical force upon each other (either within or outside the structure of said government).
This philosophy attempts to be a "unified theory of everything worth thinking about." As such it addresses prominent issues in metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, politics, and aesthetics.
It starts with a simple axiom: existence exists. To grasp that axiom is to realize two other, corollary axioms:
- Something exists that someone perceives.
- Someone exists who possesses consciousness, which is the faculty of perceiving what exists.
Objectivism continues with a number of other corollaries:
- A is A. This is also known as the Law of Identity and suggests a similar law in formal logic. But more than that, the Law of Identity holds that A has certain properties, or attributes, that distinguish it incontrovertibly from B or C. If a thing has no attributes, then it is a nonentity--it does not and cannot exist.
- Consciousness exists--the Law of Consciousness. But consciousness implies something independent of consciousness. What one perceives, one does not invent--and furthermore, a thing exists whether one perceives it or not.
From these axioms, several theorems necessarily follow, among them the Law of Non-Contradiction. Aristotle stated it thus: "the same attribute cannot at the same time belong and not belong to the same subject in the same respect." Objectivism states it more simply: contradictions do not exist. Therefore, if one encounters a contradiction, one should check the assumptions he has made, because at least one of them is false.
Epistemology (from Greek words roughly meaning "the word stands on something") deals with what a human being knows and how he knows it. Objectivism states that perception is only the beginning. Perception is sensation extended over time, and perception becomes knowledge only through measurement. On the other hand, one forms a concept of something by developing a list of attributes without the measurements of them. Apply the measurements, and instead of a concept one has an object that fits the concept.
One important result of pure Objectivism is that what one cannot perceive, one cannot know--and what no one has perceived, no one need admit the existence of. Indeed, Nathaniel Branden observed that Objectivism teaches that
- (A)ny form of irrationalism, supernaturalism, or mysticism, (and) any claim to a nonsensory, nonrational form of knowledge, is to be rejected.
This includes God, a Concept that almost no Objectivist has ever accepted. This might be Objectivism's most controversial attribute among those who might embrace it.
Ethics is about values. What is value? From Atlas Shrugged:
- "Value" is what one acts to gain and/or keep; "virtue" is how one acts to gain or keep it.
The central contribution of Objectivism to ethics is the definition of morality. Again from Atlas Shrugged:
- "Value" presupposes an answer to the question, "Of value to whom, and to what?" "Value" presupposes a standard...A code of values accepted by choice is a code of morality.
Objectivism then declares that the only moral code proper to man has man's life as its standard of value. Rand, Peikoff, and other students of Objectivism have always drawn a stark contrast between this standard and the standard of those they regarded as their opponents: "the greatest good for the greatest number."
But this does not mean that Objectivism extols what most people mean by selfishness. Objectivism regards that sort of "selfishness" as shortsighted and non-rational. Objectivism requires that a person choose to be rational in his thinking, and should work to enhance his self-interest after determining what that interest is after rational and logical analysis.
Objectivism makes at least two definitions that non-adherents might find harsh and symptomatic of overgeneralization:
- "Sacrifice" is the giving away of a greater value in favor of a lesser value or a non-value.
- "Altruism" is sacrifice, as defined above, for the sake of persons other than oneself.
Actually, what Objectivism calls sacrifice, other schools of philosophy call waste. Sacrifice, according to these other schools, is actually the giving of a great value for another, still greater value. Furthermore, the definition of altruism implies that no man should be obliged, let alone forced, to care or act for the sake of other people.
Indeed, in only one context does Objectivism itself lay any obligation on its adherents to act for the sake of another, and that is in an emergency--which Objectivism defines as an immediate life-threatening casualty event or condition.
Rand, Peikoff, and other adherents to Objectivism held that their greatest objection was to the use of force in social relationships. This leads directly to the Objectivist theory of politics.
Politics is the philosophy of government--the need for it, its proper sphere, and the obligations of its subjects. The central axiom of Objectivist politics is that
- Force is permissible only in retaliation and only against those who initiate its use.
This is the Law of Retaliation, or Lex talionis in Latin.
Thus a government ought not compel charity--and in this context, compulsion is the application of force to induce another person toward an action he might not otherwise take. Nor should the government compel anyone to associate with those with whom he would prefer not to associate. Freedom of association is very important in Objectivist politics.
Objectivism holds that an individual has a fundamental right to life--but this "right to life" means the right to live one's life as his self-interest dictates, not the right to expect someone else either to protect his life or to guarantee his survival.
From these principles, the only economic system with which Objectivism has any sympathy is capitalism, with its emphasis on the rights of the individual. Objectivism rejects the welfare state as an improper exercise of the government's police power. (But Objectivism also would object strenuously to the body of special tax incentives and other legal provisions and regulations often called "corporate welfare." Objectivism holds that every individual, and by extension every business, must stand or fall on his, her, or its own merits.)
However, Objectivism also holds that the government ought to reserve to itself a monopoly on the exercise of force, when necessary, in retaliation against the initiators of force. As a repeated theme in Rand's novels and essays, a government ought to confine itself to three major functions:
- The police power--to protect against criminals.
- The military power--to protect against invasion from without.
- The judicial power--to protect contracts from breach or fraud, and to provide a forum for the settlement of disputes without resort to force.
From the above, one may conclude that Objectivism rejects the code duello as an improper feature of society, and even as an attribute of anarchy. In fact, Rand herself specifically stated that government must be a monopoly, because any "competitive economy" of government would inevitably lead to a state not much different from gang warfare.
However, Rand herself advocated many things the support for which, from a strict read of Objectivism, is doubtful. She repeatedly stated, in a number of essays and in at least one magazine interview, that
- Just as the United States had the right to invade Nazi Germany, so the United States has the right to invade Soviet Russia or any other slave pen.
She justified this aggressive foreign policy stance by drawing up a set of four evil policies that, if any country engaged in all of the same, would make it liable for invasion by a society that did not do these things:
- Execution without a proper, fair trial
- Detention without charge
- Denial of the right of dissatisfied subjects to emigrate
By "censorship" Rand meant not only restrictions on political speech, but in fact any restriction on any form of artistic expression--even on forms of expression that she explicitly despised and suggested that any rational being would despise.
By her theory, then, if people were at least free to leave a society that executed people without trial, then if they did not leave, no country ought to be obliged to relieve their suffering by invasion. But if they could not leave, then their country would be liable for invasion, because they could not rationally help themselves. The freedom of emigration follows from the freedom of association--and the obligation, such as it was, of other nation-states and their militaries to come to such people's aid follows from the Objectivist ethic of emergencies, defined above.
Of course, any country that invades or otherwise attacks another, either directly or through surrogates, lays itself open to a counterinvasion by the country so attacked. This follows from the principle of the Law of Retaliation defined above.
Art, according to Objectivism, serves a need to allow man to perceive directly that which normally he can only conceive. Art, in short, makes things real. An artist is any person who presents abstract concepts in concrete ways.
Objectivism's take on art is simple: art should uplift, and present uplifting things. The favorite school of art among students of Objectivism is Romantic realism, the name that Rand gave to a school of art that emphasizes human reason and ideals and primarily portrays people striving to do great deeds, rather than suffering great disasters--in short, being proactive rather than reactive. Good art, in other words, celebrates that which Objectivism itself celebrates: the ideal rational man. Forms of art that which emphasized emotion over reason, and especially anything that divorced emotion from reason, earned the consistent disdain of Rand and her colleagues. Similarly, Objectivism decries any form of art that shows human beings being reactive and slaves to emotion.
Pornography excited an interesting reaction. Objectivists detested it, on the grounds that sex was too important an activity for public display. But they feared censorship even more, on the ground that a government that stopped prurient content could stop political speech all the more easily. (Neither Ayn Rand nor any of her associates ever commented on such strictly private efforts as the Hays office.)
- Objectivism from the Ayn Rand Institute
- The Atlas Society -- home of The Objectivist Center
- The Objectivism Wiki
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