The Ethics of Ayn Rand


Ayn Rand was a prolific and very popular author. Her engaging philosophy has captured the minds of many students and professionals. To many readers’ imaginations, her novels — especially Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead — provide an inspiring vision of the world as it is and as it could be. Even after her death in 1982, her books continue to be read and admired by many. As J. Charles King comments:

Because Rand has written both fiction and philosophical essays, her influence has been felt in very different ways. For some she has provided an inspiring vision of a society of liberty and individualism through her fiction, particularly Atlas Shrugged. For others she has provided the main thrust of a philosophical justification for the advocacy of liberty and individualism. 1

Rand’s worldview can be summed up quite briefly. Once when asked to present her philosophy while standing on one foot, she did just that:

  1. Metaphysics: Objective Reality
  2. Epistemology: Reason
  3. Ethics: Self-interest
  4. Politics: Capitalism 2

To explain her philosophy in a bit more detail, she wrote the following, “as a frame-of-reference for all my future columns:”

My philosophy, Objectivism, holds that:

  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 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. 3

While this brief explanation gives great room to her political and economic perspective, she did not view herself primarily as a capitalist. “I am not primarily an advocate of capitalism, but of egoism; and I am not primarily an advocate of egoism, but of reason. If one recognizes the supremacy of reason and applies it consistently, all the rest follows. This — the supremacy of reason — was, is and will be the primary concern of my work, and the essence of Objectivism.” 4 One can say with confidence that Rand believed her philosophy to be reasonable at every point. Our primary concern in this essay is her ethics.

Ayn Rand’s Ethics of Selfishness

Many readers are shocked to find a twentieth-century author who advocates moral absolutes with the vigor Rand does. She stands in sharp contrast to our culture of relativism. She opposes the ethical nihilist. She ridicules the subjectivist. She derides the hedonist. She proclaims objective moral absolutes. In typical rhetorical fashion, she writes, “Just as, in epistemology, the cult of uncertainty is a revolt against reason — so, in ethics, the cult of moral grayness is a revolt against moral values. Both are a revolt against the absolutism of reality.” 5 With the tone of certainty Rand offers a system of ethical absolutes. “There may be ‘gray’ men, but there can be no ‘gray’ moral principles. Morality is a code of black and white,” she writes. Thus, “when one is asked: ‘Surely you don’t think in terms of black-and-white, do you?’ — the proper answer (in essence, if not in form) should be: ‘You’re damn right I do!'” 6 The system of ethics she offers is a system of “selfishness.”

Rand’s use of “selfishness” as a designation for her ethics has raised more than eyebrows. But before knee-jerk objections are blurted against her, it is important to understand just what she means by “selfishness.”

In popular usage, the word “selfishness” is a synonym of evil; the image it conjures is of a murderous brute who tramples over piles of corpses to achieve his own ends, who care for no living being and pursues nothing but the gratification of the mindless whims of any immediate moment. Yet the exact meaning and dictionary definition of the word “selfishness” is: concern for one’s own interests. 7

One certainly can appreciate this clarification of “selfishness” as “concern for one’s own interests.”

Rand advocates rational self-interest, a particular brand of ethical egoism. But she rejects psychological egoism, the position that asserts that we always act in our own self-interest anyway, whether consciously or not. 8 The egoism Rand advocates is neither automatic nor instinctual; rather, it is rational and must be chosen.

Just as man cannot survive by any random means, but must discover and practice the principles which his survival requires, so man’s self-interest cannot be determined by blind desires or random whims, but must be discovered and achieved by the guidance of rational principles. This is why the Objectivist ethics is a morality of rational self-interest — or of rational selfishness. 9

Rand’s ethics of rational self-interest is an ethics of choice, guided by reason, with human survival as its goal.

Standing diametrically opposed to her ethical system is what she refers to as “altruism.” Altruism is an ethical system

. . . which regards man as a sacrificial animal, which holds 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. . . Altruism holds death as its ultimate goal and standard of value — and it is logical that renunciation, resignation, self-denial, and every other form of suffering, including self-destruction, are the virtues it advocates. 10

According to Rand, altruism is found in various forms. 11 The “mystic theory of ethics,” or any ethics based upon alleged revelation from God, offers humans meaning only beyond this life. As such, it is an ethics of death. The “social theory of ethics” locates the value of human life in society or “the collective.” As such, it is an ethics of death for the individual. The “subjectivist theory of ethics” is really a negation of ethics. Thus it can supply no real guidance for life. As such, it is an ethics of death. Altruism, in whatever form, is the morality of the past. It has lead humans only toward death rather than promoting life. What we need to live, then, is not a return to this old morality — which is essentially irrational, but to discover a rational ethics and chose to adopt it and live by it.

Of course, this view of altruism is very extreme. Such an extreme makes good for fictional villains who seem slimy and wicked, without any redeeming characteristics (e.g. Ellsworth Toohey in The Fountainhead). But such an extreme view of altruism is merely a self-serving caricature. Rand’s argument might not be as initially persuasive to so many readers if she eliminated such extreme caricatures.

Rand’s Ethics of Rational Self-Interest

We must now turn to Rand’s rationale for her ethics of rational self-interest. Rand was a prolific author and there are several sources for Rand’s ethical argument. But the single most important essay is “The Objectivist Ethics” (hereafter, OE), the lead essay in her book, The Virtue of Selfishness: A New Concept of Egoism12 While we will refer to other of her writings, we will focus our attention on thoughts as presented in this essay.

Even though The Virtue of Selfishness contains her prominent writings on ethics, it “is not a systematic discussion of ethics”; rather, “Its purpose is to provide its readers with a consistent frame of reference.” 13 This lack of a formal argument or systematic discussion leads to certain ambiguities, and, thus, to varied readings of her assertions, arguments and intents. Some details remain unclear, 14 though some of her students have sought to clarify and extend her argumentation, as well as its practical implications. 15 Thus, as we progress through our survey of her ethical theory we must anticipate periodic struggles to understand Miss Rand’s argument.

Before we attempt our main lines of assessment, it would be best to review her argument in “The Objectivist Ethics.”

Rand begins this essay by offering a meta-ethical question: Why do humans need a code of ethics? Before supplying her answer to this question she provides a brief survey of the history of human ethics. Here she notes that no one has given a sufficient and satisfying answer to the question of why humans need ethics. Rather, most philosophers took the existence of ethics for granted. Their explanations were irrational. Some attempted to anchor ethics in the mystical, others in the social. Either way ethics were arbitrary and destructive. These are the ethics of altruism. Altruism holds, in Rand’s view, that it is a vice to think of oneself when living life, while it is a virtue to expend your life for others. In the end, such ethics are grounded in someone’s mere whim, whether it be God’s, society’s or some dictator’s. Such an ethics denies reality and rationality.

As she begins her answer she notes that a value is something one seeks to gain or keep. But a value only makes sense if we know to whom it is valuable. There are certain preconditions for values to exist: one precondition is the existence of alternatives; the other precondition is the ability to choose. But there is a primary precondition to values that cannot be overlooked: life. Non-living entities do not have values, for they do not have life — neither do they have rationality or consciousness or emotions. It is only to living entities that something may be good or evil.

All living organisms need sustenance and the actions appropriate for attaining it. Actions appropriate in this context are those that sustain the life of the entity. The entity’s life is the standard for all such actions. That which is required for the survival of a living organism is determined by its nature. In this it has no choice. Thus life may be viewed as the ultimate value (an end in itself) against which all other values and actions are judged proper or not. This is how Rand believes she has bridge the chasm between is and ought: That which an entity is determines what actions ought to be had.

Actions are thus evaluated in term of reality, the reality of the living entity. The faculty that initiates such validation is the combined physical sensations of pleasure and pain. That which is pleasureful is indicative of being good, that which is painful is indicative of being evil. The second faculty is that of consciousness, and this is the basic means of survival. Lower life forms, such as plants, do not have consciousness. Their actions are automatic, so are its basic goals. As such, the actions of plants cannot be viewed as moral or immoral.

In addition, plants cannot act toward their own destruction. Higher life forms, such as dogs and cats, have the faculties of sensation and perception (which is the automatic combining of numerous sensations), which provide a kind of knowledge. But this knowledge is an automatic knowledge. And the skills such animals acquire and automatic as well. And while its standard of value is its life, the animal has no choice in this matter. Thus, the actions performed in light of the sensations are instinctual and automatic. Thus the actions of these life forms cannot be understood as moral or immoral. When we arrive at human being, the situation is quite different. Humans have no automatic codes of survival, no automatic actions, and no automatic sets of values. All of these must be chosen. Thus, humans are the only living entities with volitional consciousness. Beyond the faculties of sensations and perception, humans also have the faculty of conceptualization (that is, they can isolate and integrate abstractions from similar concretes and unite them with definitions). The conceptual faculty is reason. The process of employing this faculty is called thinking. This process is exercised only by choice. Humans can be rational or irrational. For humans, the basic means of survival is reason. But this faculty is neither involuntary nor infallible. Thus humans have to learn to discern between the true and the false and abide by the laws of thinking, the laws of logic. In the same way as the knowledge of the true or the false is by the laws of thinking, the laws of logic. In the same way as the knowledge of the true or the false is not automatic, neither is the knowledge of goof or evil. The sustenance needed to achieve the survival of humans has to be gotten by humans, and the knowledge needed to do this effectively has to be learned. In addition, only humans have the ability to act toward their own destruction.

Just as the is implies the ought, since humans are rational and productive by nature, they ought to think and produce for the sustenance and furtherance of their lives. Thus ethics is not subjective but objective. It is an objective necessity for the furtherance of human life. This is reality and it exists. In light of this, the standard of value for humans is human life: That which promotes it is good, that which opposes it is evil. If humans are irrational, that is evil. If humans are unproductive, that is evil too.

But there are some who are irrational and unproductive, these are the parasites. In order for them to survive they loot the goods of others. They may employ force or fraud. In doing so, they deny their nature as human beings — rational, productive human beings. In this they employ the methods of animals. But just as animals could not exist if they employed the methods of plants, so humans cannot exist by employing the methods of animals. If they persist in doing so, their lives will be shortened.

For every individual human, his or her individual life is an end in itself. It is the ultimate value. To sacrifice it for any lesser value is evil. But just as humans may act toward their own destruction, so they must chose their own values, goals, and actions in order to maintain their lives. The three cardinal values are reason, purpose, and self-esteem. These correspond to the three cardinal virtues of rationality, productivity, and pride.

Thus we have an ethics of rational self-interest. Any proposal that humans act toward their own destruction is evil. Thus the ethics of altruism, which demand the sacrificing of human life, is evil and irrational. All individual humans are to be viewed as ends in themselves. As such, initiating force against other humans is evil.

Happiness is the highest moral purpose for humans. Happiness is that joy resultant from one’s attainment of one’s values. Life is the ultimate value, happiness the ultimate moral purpose. These are two aspects of the same thing. But is not classic hedonism. Happiness is defined in a particular context, the context of human nature and human life. Happiness may be the purpose of ethics but it is not its standard. Neither is desire the standard.

So goes Rand’s ethical scheme with some of the attendant arguments. Due to the limitations of this essay, we will not be able to engage every element of Rand’s ethics. We simply must be selective. Nevertheless, our attention will be focused on several important elements for her system.

Why Does Man Need a Code of Ethics?

Rand defines morality or ethics as “a code of values to guide man’s choices and action — the choices and actions that determine the purpose and the course of his life” (OE, 13). “The first question,” according to Rand, “that has to be answered, as a precondition of any attempt to define, to judge or to accept any specific system of ethics, is: Why does man need a code of values? . . . The first question is not: What particular code of values should man accept? The first question is: Does man need values at all — and why?” (OE, 13–14).

The need for asking and answering this primary question is pressing, in Rand’s mind, because “No philosopher has given a rational, objectively demonstrable, scientific answer to the question of why man needs a code of values. So long as that question remained unanswered, no rational, scientific, objective code of ethics could be discovered or defined” (OE, 14). So she sets out to answer the why of values and the what of ethics.

Rand offers her answer to the why of values with reference to the needs of living organisms.

An organism’s life depends on two factors: the material or fuel which it needs from the outside, from its physical background, and the action of its own body, the action of using that fuel properly. What standard determines what is proper in this context? The standard is the organism’s life, or: that which is required for the organism’s survival. (OE, 17).

So, for life to be sustained, a living organism must actively seek the fuel needed and use that fuel properly, thus sustaining its life. Such actions are goal-directed actions. Thus there is a basis for values in whether or not a living organism’s actions actually acquire the needed fuel is use it properly in sustaining its life.

“Life” thus becomes “the ultimate value . . . that final goal or end to which all lesser goals are the means,” and as such, “it sets the standard by which all lesser goals are evaluated.” Thus, “An organism’s life is its standard of value: that which furthers its life is the good, that which threatens it is the evil” (OE, 17).

The why of values and ethics is their necessity for sustaining life.

But this presupposes that life is the ultimate goal one has chosen. But this makes the choice of life (over against death) a meta-ethical in nature. In other words, the ultimate choice that provides the ultimate value and standard by which all other values and actions are judged, is itself amoral. It is this choice (life as the ultimate value) which Rand must have to get her ethics off and running.

Another problem facing Rand’s perspective arises when she not only argues that without an ultimate goal there can be no values (the ultimate goal being life, an end in itself), but that “Metaphysically, life is the only phenomenon that is an end in itself: a value gained and kept by a constant process of action” (OE,18). Exactly why life has such an exclusive position is not clearly explained. If she means that life is a necessary precondition for values, that would be true. But she seems to move beyond that truism to the unjustified assertion of life as “the only [metaphysical] phenomenon that is an end it itself,” “the ultimate value,” the “ultimate standard.”

Is it not possible, though, that life could be both a necessary precondition as well as a non-ultimate end, and thus a means? It seems plausible that one could adopt another ultimate end, say, the lives of unborn humans, while at the same time realizing that one’s own life must be guarded in order to obtain that goal. Thus one’s life would be a means to an end. A necessary means, to be sure, but not the ultimate goal.

Rand’s initial philosophical moves bear great difficulties: First, the choice for one’s ultimate standard of values in an amoral choice, given her system. But it seems implausible that the choice for life could be amoral. Second, her assertion that life is the only metaphysical end in itself is question begging. If humans must choose their own values, then they must choose whether or not life will be the ultimate value. It is possible, though, that one could rationally choose a different ultimate value, all the while recognizing the necessary precondition of one’s own life.

The Precondition of Alternatives

Rand argues that for there to be any values (and thus any ethics to guide one safely toward those values), one must have alternatives from which to choose. This implies that one needs both the opportunity as well as the ability to choose.

Without alternatives there can be no choices. Without choices there can be no values (or at least that which is valued may be viewed as trivial given a lack of rivals). Alternatives and the ability to choose are necessary for one to have goals or values that motivate toward those goals: “Where no alternative exists, no goals and no values are possible” (OE, 16). While there are innumerable alternatives humans face — some trivial, others weighty, the “fundamental alternative in the universe,” Rand claims, is that between “existence or nonexistence” (OE, 16).

Rand believes life is the ultimate value, and that unless one acknowledges this ultimate value, one can have no other values at all.

An ultimate value is that final goal or end to which all lesser goals are the means — and it sets the standard by which all lesser goals are evaluated. An organism’s life is its standard of value: that which furthers its life is the good, that which threatens it is the evil. Without an ultimate goal or end, there can be no lesser goals or means: a series of means going off in to an infinite progression toward a nonexistent end is a metaphysical and epistemological impossibility. It is only an ultimate goal, an [18] end in itself, that makes the existence of values possible. Metaphysically, life is the only phenomenon that is an end in itself: a value gained and kept by the constant process of action. (OE, 17–18)

So, life is the ultimate value, the standard for all other values, and, metaphysically, the only end in itself.

Rand seems to think that without the real alternative of death, life loses its value. To illustrate the implied necessity of the alternative of life and death, Rand offers a fictional account of an indestructible robot:

. . . try to image an immortal, indestructible robot, an entity which moves and acts, but which cannot be affected by anything, which cannot be changed in any respect, which cannot be damaged, injured or destroyed. Such an entity would not be able to have any values; it would have nothing to gain or lose; it could not regard anything as for or against it, as serving or threatening its welfare, as fulfilling or frustrating its interests. It could have no interests or goals. (OE, 16)

This is certainly one of Rand’s more confusing illustrations. Part of the confusion resides in her employing a robot rather than a human. After all, why use the illustration of an immortal robot? Robots lack the emotion-laden relationships that humans enjoy? Indeed, she writes of an entity “which cannot be affected by anything, which cannot be changed in any respect.” But these are neither synonymous with immortality nor indestructibility. An entity that cannot be affected by anything would be impassible. That is, such an entity could not be emotionally affected by anything. So, if her point is that an impassible entity could have no goals or interests, we may be inclined to agree. But, again, the concept of immortality hardly implies impassibility.

In context, Rand’s focus is specifically on the fundamental alternatives of life and death, and the ultimate value of life. Just prior this illustration she writes: “It is only to a living entity that things can be good or evil”; and following the illustration she writes: “Only a living entity can have goals or can originate them.” If her point is that life is a necessary precondition of values, then we agree. But the fictional robot has life (so to speak): It is an immortal robot. Surely she is not contradicting herself, though. Maybe we should swap out the robot and consider an immortal human, complete with emotions (as humans have).

Is it true that an immortal, indestructible human could have no values? If life is the precondition, then an immortal human would fulfill that precondition. What then could Rand be saying? It seems likely that her point is that for values to be had, there must be a context of alternatives. And since the ultimate value is life, there must be an ultimate alternative: death. Of course, an immortal, indestructible human would not face that alternative, at least not personally. But this lack enough to declare such an immortal as valueless? It does not seem to be so. Indeed, what reasons would we have to claim that an immortal human (one who is not individually threatened by death) cannot have values?

Consider the following thought experiment. A human being becomes immortal, through no fault of her own. Other humans are not immortals, though. Thus, her friends face the alternative of death. She cares for her friends. Indeed, when any one of them dies, she is heartbroken. In the face of these regular and persistent tragedies she decided to devote her (immortal) life to prolonging the lives of mere mortals, especially the lives of her friends.

Given this illustration, it is plausible that an immortal human would have interests and goals, even given the lack of having to face personal death. In fact, some movies and television series have been based on something very similar to our illustration. Of particular interest would be Superman and Highlander. If one were to remove the potentially death-dealing qualities of kryptonite, in the first case, and decapitation, in the second case, then we would find very comparable illustrations. Indeed, there seems to be no reason to believe that if these potentially death-dealing alternatives did not exist, then the corresponding immortals would lose interest in life and exist without chosen goals. 16 While we agree with Miss Rand that without any alternatives, values, goals and interests would be nonexistent, we cannot agree with her insistence that values, goals and interests can exist only in the face of the ultimate alternative of life and death.

The Precondition of Free Will (Consciousness and Rationality)

Without the ability to choose, there could be no morality: “. . . morality deals only with issues open to man’s choice (i.e., to his free will) . . .” 17 Rand’s acknowledgment of free will is essential to her ethics, and thus to her politics. But there is some doubt as to whether she can justify her appropriation of it given her metaphysical materialism.

To grasp the axiom that existence exists, means to grasp the fact that nature, i.e., the universe as a whole, cannot be created or annihilated, that it cannot come into or go out of existence. Whether its basic constituent elements are atoms, or subatomic particles, or some yet undiscovered forms of energy, it is not ruled by a consciousness or by a will or by chance, but by the Law of Identity. All the countless not ruled by a consciousness or by a will or by chance, but by the Law of Identity. All the countless forms, motions, combinations and dissolutions of elements within the universe — from a floating speck of dust to the formation of a galaxy to the emergence of life — are caused and determined by the identities of the elements involved. Nature is the metaphysically given — i.e., the nature of nature is outside the power of volition. 18 What does Rand mean by “nature”? She means “the universe as a whole [which] cannot be created or annihilated.” Elsewhere she ascribes this attribute to matter: “Matter is indestructible, it changes its forms, but it cannot cease to exist” (OE, 16). 19 Thus, the universe is comprised purely of matter. This metaphysical perspective is known variously as metaphysical materialism, physicalism, and philosophical naturalism.

Several problems attend such a metaphysical perspective such as the question of how consciousness and rationality arise from matter, as well as the difficulty of causal determinism. Rand seems logically bound to the view that mind (in contrast to brain), consciousness, and rationality somehow arise from matter. But she provides no accounting of how this is. She proposes a materialist metaphysic. Yet, she also affirms consciousness. But such a combination is self-stultifying. This can be seen in the following manner:

First, she rejects miracles because they violate the law of (material) causality. She writes, “. . . the law of causality: it permits you no miracles.” 20

Second, she has already proposed a metaphysical materialism by identifying the universe (all that exists) with matter.

Third, since the universe is materialistic, that means that human beings are wholly materialistic.

Fourth, since human beings must be solely material entities, they can act only as material entities; that is, determined by the law of causality. After all, “The nature of an action is caused and determined by the nature of the entities that act; a thing cannot act in contradiction to its nature.” 21

So, given that the universe/nature/matter is what exists (there being no supernatural); and given that matter is bound to operate according to the law of causality; human beings, being solely material entities, are bound by the law of causality. If this is so, then human beings are the common recipients of a causal determinism. This being so, it is incoherent to speak of human “free will.” But if there is no freewill — and ethics can only exist where authentic choices can be made (according to one’s free will), then there can be no ethics. Thus Rand’s position is self-refuting and must be rejected.

In order to fulfill her purposes, she cannot reject the realities of consciousness, rationality, or free will. Thus she should reconsider her metaphysical materialism. 22 Objectivists (as they call themselves) could object to this argument, asserting that we have committed “the fallacy of the stolen concept.” In other words, they may assert that we cannot deny the reality of consciousness without presupposing it. In this they are right. But we did not deny the reality of consciousness in our argument. Our argument is not that consciousness does not exist, but that Rand’s materialistic premise, combined with the law of causality, implies that consciousness, rationality and freewill are illusory. Thus Rand undermines her own ethical system with her metaphysical materialism.

Longevity Versus the Looter

Rand’s argument unfortunately is riddled with rhetorical extremism. She often pushes logical extensions to unreasonable conclusions and then offers them up as false dichotomies. For example,

Neither life nor happiness can be achieved by the pursuit of irrational whims. Just as man is free to attempt to survive by any random means, as a parasite, a moocher or a looter, but not free to succeed at it beyond the range of the moment — so he is free to seek his happiness in any irrational fraud, any whim, any delusion, any mindless escape from reality, but not free to succeed at it beyond the range of the moment nor to escape the consequences. (OE, 31–32)

— Not free to “succeed” beyond “the range of the moment?” Whatever could Rand mean? Does she mean that the parasite/moocher/looter will not succeed in obtaining their goals? If so, there are plenty of examples of men and women who do. Does Rand mean that the parasite/moocher/looter may obtain his or her goals, but cannot enjoy them in longevity? If so, this too is contradicted by a number of examples.

Not all socialists die young and impoverished, just as not all rational capitalists (as risk takers) live long and wealthy lives. Stalin lived to a ripe old age. So did Bertrand Russell. If one argues that they did so because of the productive work of others, that is irrelevant. The point is that as parasites/looter/moochers they lived long lives. Thus, whether one experiences longevity does not necessarily depend on whether or not one is an Objectivist.

In addition, it must be acknowledged that humans face all sorts of factors over which they have little or no control: storms, earthquakes, disease, genetic defects, human violence. Even if one is an Objectivist, one is not guaranteed survival “beyond the range of the moment”; and even if one is an “altruist” one is not guaranteed a short and painful existence.

It is also possible that Rand here is subtly equivocating on the term “man.” It is possible that what she means is that if all humans (collectively, as a species) lived this way — as looters/moochers/parasites — then humans would cease to exist. If that is her argument, then it seems plausible enough in the abstract. But who argues that all humans should live that way? It is doubtful that this is her argument, though. Rather, she is here asserting the benefits of longevity that attend lives characterized by rational self-interest, over against the irrational lives that are logically short-lived.

In addition to the empirical problem, Rand’s contrast is unreasonably extreme. While some of the characters of her novels may live consistent lives (though there is some debate there as well), real human beings exhibit lives mixed with rationality and irrationality (so was Rand’s). Thus her contrast is an idealized false dichotomy. There is a spectrum between a life totally characterized by rationality and a life totally characterized by irrationality. When she presents dichotomous extremes she makes for a novelist, but not for a scientific philosopher.

Social and Political Egoism

At certain times it is clear that Rand is referring to human individuals. For example, when she writes, “The Objectivist ethics holds man’s life as the standard of value — and his own life as the ethical purpose of every individual man” (OE, 27); and , “‘That which is required for the survival of man qua man’ is an abstract principle that applies to every individual man. The task of applying this principle to a concrete, specific purpose — the purpose of living a life proper to a rational being — belongs to every individual man, and the life he has to live is his own” (OE, 27), it is clear that she is making individual application of her theory. So, on the one hand she writes of “man” as a collective species, while on the other handwriting of humans as individuals. Her practical emphasis throughout seems to be on responsibility to live one’s own individual life according to rationality, to seek to sustain one’s own individual life as “man qua man.”

At other times Rand must be referring to the human species collectively. For example, when she writes, “. . . everything he needs or desires has to be learned, discovered and produced by him — by his own choice, by his own effort, by his own mind” (OE, 23); or, “Since everything man needs has to be discovered by his own mind and produced by his own effort, the two essentials of the method of survival proper to a rational being are: thinking and productive work” (OE, 25). Certainly she cannot here be referring to individual human beings. If so, she would be mistaken; for it is not the case that “everything” individuals need has to be discovered by their own individual minds or produced by their own individual effort. And Rand knows this. Thus she later writes,

Man is the only species that can transmit and expand his store of knowledge from generation to generation; the knowledge potentially available to man is greater than any one man could begin to acquire in his own lifespan; every man gains an incalculable benefit from the knowledge discovered by others. The second great benefit is the division of labor: it enables a man to devote his effort to a particular field of work and to trade with others who specialize in other fields. This form of cooperation allows all men who take part in it to achieve a greater knowledge, skill and productive return on their effort than they could achieve if each had to produce everything he needs, on a desert island or on a self-sustaining farm. (OE, 35–36)

So we see that Rand acknowledges that not everything one needs must be produced by oneself — though she seems to hold that it could be produced by oneself if secluded to a desert island or withdrawn to a self-sustaining farm.

Apart from the confusion arising from her imprecise usage of “man” as either collective or individual there are difficulties with her argument to rational self-interest in society. She provides the following basic social or political principle:

The basic social principle of the Objectivist ethics is that just as life is an end in itself, so every living human being is an end in himself, not the means to the ends or the welfare of others — and, therefore, that man must live for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself. To live for his own sake means that the achievement of his own happiness is man’s highest moral purpose. (OE, 30)

The basic political principle of the Objectivist ethics is: no man may initiate the use of physical force against others. . . The principle is: no man may obtain any values from others by resorting to physical force. (OE, 36)

In an essay entitled, “Man’s Rights,” she explains the nature of “rights”:

“Rights” are a moral concept — the concept that provides a logical transition from the principles guiding an individual’s actions to the principles guiding his relationship with others — the concept that preserves and protects individual morality in a social context — the link between the moral code of a man and the legal code of a society, between ethics and politics. Individual rights are the means of subordinating society to moral law. 23

The difficulty here is Rand’s move from the individual himself or herself to the other individual. What is the logical connection? How does the furtherance of one’s own individual life justify allowing (though possibly not promoting) the furtherance of another’s own individual life? This she never explains; she merely asserts it. If this principle is understood as an axiom of her system, then it is gratuitous. If it is not an axiom, then it not justified. Rand provides no specific argumentation for these principles. Rand can speak one’s life as and “end in itself,” and then move quickly to asserting, “so every living human being is an end in himself.”

Is it possible that she is here assuming an abstract concept of humanness or humanity as a collective whole? That is, Rand could be arguing that in order for human lives, collectively, to survive, the individual has an obligation to avoid destroying another’s ability to sustain his or her life. If so, then it is difficult to see how she can avoid her own criticisms leveled against those who advocate a collective ethics — an ethics in support of the whole of humanity over against the individual human. In addition, it simply does not follow that every individual’s “rights” must be allowed or defended in order for other humans to exist. Therefore, if Rand’s argument is that for collective humanity to survive, all individuals’ rights must be sustained, then her argument is unpersuasive.


In this brief study of Rand’s ethical system have observed several fundamental problems. First, for Rand’s ethics to begin she must presuppose the amoral choice for one’s own life as one’s ultimate value. But we noted that such a choice is amoral is implausible. Second, Rand argues that life must be one’s ultimate value. But we noted here that it could be assigned the role of a means to a different ultimate end. If one were to do this, one would not have to deny the necessary precondition of life. Nevertheless, one’s own life need not be one’s ultimate value.

As we moved a bit further into her argument we noted the necessary preconditions of alternatives and the ability to chose. Rand assumed that the alternative between life and death was necessary to make sense of one’s goals and interests. In support of this she employed the illustration of the indestructible robot. We found the illustration very confusing. In its place we employed the thought experiment of a human immortal. In this we saw the plausibility of immortals having goals, values, interests and such, even though their own lives were not their ultimate values (since they have not choice in the matter).

We agree with Rand that one’s ability to choose between alternatives is necessary for values. But we ran into the insurmountable difficulty that she faces due to her metaphysical materialism: It undermines consciousness, rationality and free will. It does so due to the laws of causality and the implication of causal determinism.

We then looked at her more pragmatic assertion that, in essence, those who adopt an ethics of rational self-interest will experience longevity, while those who adopt any variation of the competing altruism would not. We noted that such a proposal is easily falsified in that many socialists, Christians, dictators, and general irrationalists live long and wealthy lives.

Finally, we noted the difficulty Rand has in moving from individual to social or political ethics. Here she failed to justify the move from one’s own personal interest to the necessary allowance of the interests of others.

These difficulties with Rand’s ethical theory are enough to show that her philosophy of Objectivism is not as rational as she proposes and proclaims.

Appendix: Selected Definitions and Descriptions from “The Objectivist Ethics”

Altruism: “. . . the ethical theory which regards man as a sacrificial animal, which holds 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. . . Altruism holds death as its ultimate goal and standard of value — and it is logical that renunciation, resignation, self-denial, and every other form of suffering, including self-destruction, are the virtues it advocates.” (37–38).

Concept: “A ‘concept’ is a mental integration of two or more perceptual concretes, which are isolated by a process of abstraction and united by means of a specific definition” (21). See, Perception.

Emotions: “Emotions are the automatic results of man’s value judgments integrated by his subconscious; emotions are estimates of that which furthers man’s values or threatens them, that which is for him or against him — lightening calculators giving him the sum of his profit or loss” (30).

Ethics: “Ethics is not a mystic fantasy — nor a social convention — nor a dispensable, subjective luxury, to be switched or discarded in any emergency. Ethics is an objective, metaphysical necessity of man’s survival — not by the grace of the supernatural nor of your neighbors nor of your whims, but by the grace of reality and the nature of life” (24).

Ethics, Mystic Theory of: “The mystic theory of ethics is explicitly based on the premise that the standard of value of man’s ethics is set beyond the grave, by the laws or requirements of another, supernatural dimension, that ethics is impossible for man to practice, that it is unsuited for and opposed to man’s life on earth, and that man must take the blame for it and suffer through the whole of his earthly existence, to atone for the guilt of being unable to practice the impracticable. The Dark Ages and the Middle Ages are the existential monument to this theory of ethics” (38).

Ethics, Social Theory of: “The social theory of ethics substitutes ‘society’ for God — and although it claims that its chief concern is life on earth, it is not the life of man, not the life of an individual, but the life of a disembodied entity, the collective, which, in relation to every individual, consists of everybody except himself. As far as the individual is concerned, his ethical duty is to be the selfless, voiceless, rightless slave of any need, claim or demand asserted by others. The motto ‘dog eat dog’ — which is not applicable to capitalism nor to dogs — is applicable to the social theory of ethics. The existential monuments to this theory are Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia” (38).

Ethics, Subjectivist Theory of: “The subjectivist theory of ethics is, strictly speaking, not a theory, but a negation of ethics. And more: it is a negation of reality, a negation not merely of man’s existence, but of all existence. Only the concept of a fluid, plastic, indeterminate, Heraclitean universe could permit any one to think or to preach that man needs no objective principles of action — that reality gives him a blank check on values — that anything he cares to pick as the good or the evil, will do — that a man’s whim is a valid moral standard, and that the only question is how to get away with it. The existential monument to this theory is the present state of our culture” (38–39).

Evil: “[T]hat which is proper to the life of a rational being is the good; that which negates, opposes or destroys it is the evil” (25). See, Good.

Fundamental Alternative: “There is only one fundamental alternative in the universe: existence or nonexistence — and it pertains to a single class of entities: to living organisms” (16).

Good: “[T]hat which is proper to the life of a rational being is the good; that which negates, opposes or destroys it is the evil” (25). See, Evil.

Happiness: “Happiness is the successful state of life, suffering is the warning signal of failure, of death”(30). “Happiness is that state of consciousness which proceeds from the achievement of one’s values”(31). “Happiness is a state of non-contradictory joy — a joy without penalty or guilt, a joy that does not clash with any of your values and does not work for your own destruction. . . . Happiness is possible only to a rational man, the man who desires nothing but rational goals, seeks nothing but rational values and finds his joy in nothing but rational actions” (32). “‘Happiness’ can properly be the purpose of ethics, but not the standard” (33).

Irrationality: “Irrationality is the rejection of man’s means of survival and, therefore, a commitment to a course of blind destruction; that which is anti-mind, is anti-life” (28).

Love: “To love is to value” (35).

Man: “Man [is] the highest living species on this earth — the being whose consciousness has a limitless capacity for gaining knowledge — man is the only living entity born without any guarantee of remaining conscious at all. Man’s particular distinction from all other living species is the fact that his consciousness is volitional” (21). See, Man qua Man.

Man qua Man, Survival As: “It does not mean a momentary or a merely physical survival. . . ‘Man’s survival qua man’ means the terms, methods, conditions and goals required for the survival of a rational being through the whole of his lifespan — in all those aspects of existence which are open to his choice”(26).

Morality, Code of: “A code of values accepted by choice is a code of morality” (25).

Morality, Ethics: “It is a code of values to guide man’s choices and actions — the choices and actions that determine the purpose and the course of his life. Ethics, as a science, deals with discovering and defining such a code” (13).

Perception: “A ‘perception’ is a group of sensation automatically retained and integrated by the brain of a living organism, which gives it the ability to be aware, not of single stimuli, but of entities, of things”(20). See, Concept.

Political Principle, The Basic: “The basic political principle of the Objectivist ethics is: no man may initiate the use of physical force against others. . . The principle is: no man may obtain any values from others by resorting to physical force” (36).

Productive Work: “Productive work is the central purpose of a rational man’s life, the central value that integrates and determines the hierarchy of all his other values. Reason is the source, the precondition of his productive work — pride is the result” (27).

Purpose: “The Objectivist ethics holds man’s life as the standard of value — and his own life as the ethical purpose of every individual man” (27).Purpose, Highest Moral. “. . . the achievement of his own happiness is man’s highest moral purpose”(30). See, Happiness.

Rationality: “Rationality is man’s basic virtue, the source of all his other virtues. Man’s basic vice, the source of all his evils, is the act of unfocusing his mind, the suspension of his consciousness, which is not blindness, but the refusal to see, not ignorance, but the refusal to know” (27–28).

Rationality, Virtue of. “The virtue of Rationality means the recognition and acceptance of reason as one’s only source of knowledge, one’s only judge of values and one’s only guide to action. It means one’s total commitment to a state of full, conscious awareness, to the maintenance of a full mental focus in all issues, in all choices, in all of one’s waking hours. It means a commitment to the fullest perception of reality within one’s power and to the constant, active expansion of one’s perception, i.e., of one’s knowledge. It means a commitment to the reality of one’s own existence, i.e., to the principle that all of one’s goals, values and actions take place in reality and, therefore, that one must never place any value or consideration whatsoever above one’s perception of reality.” (28).

Selfishness: “. . . concern with one’s own interests” (vii).

Standard of Value: “An organism’s life is its standard of value: that which furthers its life is the good, that which threatens it is the evil” (VOS, 17). “The standard of value of the Objectivist ethics — the standard by which one judges what is good or evil — is man’s life, or: that which is required for man’s survival qua man” (25).

Social Principle, The Basic: “The basic social principle of the Objectivist ethics is that just as life is an end in itself, so every living human being is an end in himself, not the means to the ends or the welfare of others — and, therefore, that man must live for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself. To life for his own sake means that the achievement of his own happiness is man’s highest moral purpose” (30). See, Political Principle, The Basic.

Suffering: “Happiness is the successful state of life, suffering is the warning signal of failure, of death”(30).

Trade, Principle of: “The principle of trade is the only rational ethical principle for all human relationships, personal and social, private and public, spiritual and material. It is the principle of justice” (34). See, Trader.

Trader: “A trader is a man who earns what he gets and does not give or take the undeserved. He does not treat men as masters or slaves, but as independent equals. He deals with men by means of a free, voluntary, unforced, uncoerced exchange — an exchange which benefits both parties by their own independent judgment. A trader does not expect to be paid for his defaults, only for his achievements. He does not switch to others the burden of his failures, and he does not mortgage his life into bondage to the failures of others” (34–35). See, Trade, Principle of.

Ultimate Value: “An ultimate value is that final goal or end to which all lesser goals are the means — and it sets the standard by which all lesser goals are evaluated” (17).

Value: “‘Value’ is that which one acts to gain and/or keep” (16). “Value is that which one acts to gain and/or keep — virtue is the act by which one gain and/or keeps it” (27). See, Standard of Value, Ultimate Value.

Virtue: “Value is that which one acts to gain and/or keep — virtue is the act by which one gain and/or keeps it” (27).

Whim: “A ‘whim’ is a desire experienced by a person who does not know and does not care to discover its cause” (14).