Thursday, April 05, 2007

Book Review: Objectivism

Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand (The Ayn Rand Library, Volume 6)Ayn Rand was a philosopher who developed a system of thought which she called Objectivism. She is, perhaps, best known for her books, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged which still sell well today. She was Russian-born in 1905 and later emigrated to America in 1925. She held various jobs, including a Hollywood scriptwriter. Her third novel, The Fountainhead became a best-seller and, through her main character, Roark, presented, for the first time, her ideas of what a heroic human would look like. At a sales conference at Random House before the publication of her book, Atlas Shrugged, she was asked by one of the salesmen whether she could present the essence of her philosophy while standing on one foot. Here is the answer she gave on that occasion (Rand 1962):
  • Metaphysics: Objective Reality
  • Epistemology: Reason
  • Ethics: Self-interest
  • Politics: Capitalism
She fleshed this out by saying:
  1. Reality exists as an objective absolute--facts are facts, independent of man’s feelings, wishes, hopes or fears.
  2. Reason (the faculty which identifies and integrates the material provided by man’s senses) is man’s only means of perceiving reality, his only source of knowledge, his only guide to action, and his basic means of survival.
  3. Man--every man--is an end in himself, not the means to the ends of others. He must exist for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself. The pursuit of his own rational self-interest and of his own happiness is the highest moral purpose of his life.
  4. The ideal political-economic system is laissez-faire capitalism. It is a system where men deal with one another, not as victims and executioners, nor as masters and slaves, but as traders, by free, voluntary exchange to mutual benefit. It is a system where no man may obtain any values from others by resorting to physical force, and no man may initiate the use of physical force against others. The government acts only as a policeman that protects man’s rights; it uses physical force only in retaliation and only against those who initiate its use, such as criminals or foreign invaders. In a system of full capitalism, there should be (but, historically, has not yet been) a complete separation of state and economics, in the same way and for the same reasons as the separation of state and church.
Ayn Rand, although a prolific writer, never wrote one, synthesised, comprehensive description of her entire philosophical system. And that is where Leonard Peikoff’s book, Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, comes in. Peikoff’s account of objectivism is the only "authorised" comprehensive statement of Rand’s philosophical system. It basically summarises a lecture series given by Ayn Rand and conversations the author had with her. Objectivism is quite easy to read - Peikoff has written it with the educated layperson in mind. Peikoff writes well and carefully builds up Rand’s philosophical thinking step-by-step. Despite the irritating signs of arrogance and disdain for certain groups of people, including philosophers who hold to other points of view to his own, the book usefully lays out the essential elements of the philosophy of objectivism. Objectivism is interesting when considered from a Christian point of view. If you reflect back on the four position statements above, it is interesting to consider how the ideas relate to Christian understandings. The notion of an objective reality is certainly consistent with most Christian theology which frequently objects to idealistic understandings of ontology. But from there on, there are potential conflicts or moderate disagreements. For example, rationality as the source of all legitimate human knowledge may, for some Christians, appear to minimise, marginalise, or discard altogether, supernatural revelation as a source of understanding and knowledge. It most certainly did for Ayn Rand who believed reason led to the conclusion that God did not exist. The ethics of self-interest would also appear contrary to the self-sacrificial approach to relationships promoted by the gospels and other New Testament writings. For example, Rand has written:
The moral purpose of a man’s life is the achievement of his own happiness. This does not mean that he is indifferent to all men, that human life is of no value to him and there is no reason to help others in an emergency. But it does mean that he does not subordinate his life to the welfare of others, that he does not sacrifice himself to their needs, that the relief of their suffering is not his primary concern, that any help he gives is an exception, not the rule, an act of generosity, not of moral duty, that it is marginal and incidental--as disasters are marginal and incidental in the course of human existence--and that values, not disasters, are the goal, the first concern and the motive power of life. (The Ethics of Emergencies, emphasis in original.)
Rand’s ideas of self-interest are complex and one shouldn’t be too quick to judge them before making sure they are understood. But it does raise interesting and important questions about the Christian’s understanding of sacrifice and atonement in relation to Christ’s life, death, and resurrection and the sacrificial nature of love promoted in Christian relationships. Ayn Rand’s ideas are important ones and some of them are original and startling. Peikoff’s book is a good introduction to her ideas and provide an excellent opportunity to seriously reflect on one’s own understandings of the nature of reality, what it means to be human, what it means to live ethically, and how society should function. Related Links References Rand, A 1962, The Philosophy of Objectivism: A Brief Summary, Times-Mirror Co., viewed 5 April 2007,


  1. I just thought I'd point out a note of correction. You state Rand's first novel was The Fountainhead. In fact her first novel was We The Living, her closely autobiographical portrayal of individualism vs. collectivism. The Fountainhead was her first best-seller and made her name famous.

    As a fellow Objectivist, I found your review rather honest and thoughtful. Hopefully it encourages you to further explore the richness of thought presented by Miss Rand in her philosophy.

  2. Hi Michael. Thanks for pointing out the error. I have corrected it. I have found Rand's ideas very interesting and very challenging. The whole existence/consciousness discussion in Peikoff's book was excellent. I have read The Fountainhead and would like to tackle Atlas Shrugged some time before getting into Rand's non-fiction material. Cheers Steve