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Untitled Document Ayn Rand & Objectivism: Recommended Reading

The best general overview of Rand's philosophical views is "Galt's Speech" in Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged (also reprinted in For the New Intellectual). Rand elaborates upon her moral theory in "The Objectivist Ethics" and other essays in The Virtue of Selfishness: A New Concept of Egoism. This book also contains the key essays on her theory of rights and government, especially "Man's Rights," "Collectivized Rights," and "The Nature of Government." Another important essay on these topics is "What is Capitalism?"--the lead article in Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal. Also very useful is The Ayn Rand Lexicon (ed. Harry Binswanger), which provides topical passages, many of which are from Rand's lesser-known writings.

Many secondary accounts of Ayn Rand and Objectivism have appeared in recent years. An older anthology, The Philosophic Thought of Ayn Rand (ed. Douglas Den Uyl and Douglas Rasmussen), contains a number of excellent articles. The "official" exposition of Objectivism is presented in Leonard Peikoff, Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand. The philosopher Tibor Machan has also written a reliable treatment, Ayn Rand. Perhaps the most provocative discussion to date is Chris Sciabarra, Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical. And Barbara Branden's biography, The Passion of Ayn Rand is must reading for anyone with a serious interest in this remarkable and controversial writer.

Ayn Rand on Altruism, Egoism, and Rights
by George H. Smith,
independent scholar and author of Why Atheism? and other books

Ayn Rand's opposition to altruism constitutes a stumbling block for some of her readers, especially those who identify altruism with benevolence and thereby view Rand as a Scrooge-like character in a bad mood.

This caricature of Rand, which is quite common, is a serious distortion of her ideas. It is true that many people use the word "altruism" to signify benevolence, charity, or a disposition of good will towards others, but this is not what Rand means by the word. For her, altruism denotes the moral duty of self-sacrifice. Altruism is a socio-political doctrine that attempts to justify the sacrifice of the individual to a greater good, such as society or the state.

The word "altruism" was coined in the early nineteenth century by the French philosopher Auguste Comte (who also invented the word sociology ). For Comte, altruism is not simple benevolence or charity, but rather the moral and political obligation of the individual to sacrifice his own interests for the sake of a greater social good. It should be noted that Ayn Rand did not oppose helping others in need, provided such actions are voluntary. What she opposed was the use of coercion--that is, the initiation of physical force--in social relationships. The doctrine of altruism, in Rand's view, is evil partially because it serves to justify coercion, especially governmental coercion, in order to benefit some people at the expense of others.

We cannot here explore Rand's theory of ethics in detail. But we need to discuss how her view of egoism--meaning, the individual s right to pursue happiness--is related to her defense of capitalism. It is owing to her moral defense of capitalism that Rand has influenced the modern libertarian movement more than any other modern writer.

Every political system, says Rand, is based on some code of ethics, implicitly if not explicitly. This is why she sometimes refers, not simply to the altruist ethics, but to the "altruist-collectivist" ethics. Altruism regards self-sacrifice as an enforceable obligation, one that should be implemented by coercive laws.

Egoism, like altruism, has political implications. There is more involved in Rand's egoism than recommending that people should strive for the good things in life. Egoism, when applied to social relationships, means that people have a right to seek their own good, according to their own judgment. This is a basic condition of human survival--or what Rand calls "man's life qua man." Hence an ethics of self-interest, when formulated in social terms, becomes the principle of individual rights.

A right is the social application of a moral principle. In altruist-collectivist systems, where the duty of self-sacrifice is enforced by law, rights are commonly formulated as positive (or "welfare") rights. These include the supposed right to a fair wage, to decent living conditions, to an education, and so forth. These are called "positive rights," because they impose a positive obligation on others. If I have the right to decent housing, then others have the moral and legal duty to provide me with that housing. But houses are not natural resources; they are the product of human ingenuity and labor--so to say that I have a right to housing means that I have an enforceable moral claim on the time and labor of other people, who are required to forego their own goals in order to satisfy my claim against them. If they do not provide me with housing--that is, if they refuse to pay the compulsory taxes that are needed to finance my house--then they suffer the legal penalties of fines, imprisonment, or worse.

Positive welfare rights, Rand argues, can be justified only within an altruist-collectivist ethics. I can have a right (i.e., an enforceable moral claim) on the labor and property of other people only if they have a moral obligation to sacrifice their interests for mine. And this is the basic premise of altruism.

In contrast to an altruist theory of positive rights, Rand defends an egoistic theory of negative rights--so called because they merely impose negative obligations on other people. The principal obligation here is to abstain from the initiation of force, or the threat of force, against others. In this system, people must deal with others by voluntary means or not at all.The basic justification for rights lies in the fact that man cannot survive and prosper except through the use of his reason. Reason is man's basic tool of survival. Reason, however, is volitional; man must choose to think, to apply mental effort to a given project, to exert mental energy in the form of action. Only reason can tell a man what is good for him and what is not. He has no automatic code of survival. He must learn what will further his ends and then choose to act upon that knowledge. This is why freedom from the coercive interference of others is necessary to our pursuit of happiness.

In Rand's system, to state that objective values are a necessary requirement for man's survival, well-being, and happiness is simply a reformulation of the principle that man should pursue his self-interest. If it is right for man to pursue objective values, then, in a social context, he must have the right to pursue those values.

The pursuit of rational self-interest and its moral sanction, when applied in a social context, generate the principle of individual rights. Rights demand that every person be treated equally, as an end in himself and not as a means to the ends of others. One's rights function, in effect, as a social trump card, overriding the desires and demands of other people, society, and the state.

Rights are therefore necessary for man to live successfully in a social context. Rights embody the conditions required for man's existence as a rational being and define the moral limits of social interaction. And rights, if consistently applied in the form of property rights and enforced by a limited government, result in that socio-economic system known as capitalism.

Ayn Rand's theory of government, of its moral limits and proper functions, is derived from her theory of rights. It is based on her belief that the right to life, which is the most fundamental of all rights, can be implemented and protected only in the form of property rights. This is so because man must labor in order to sustain his life, and if he does not have a right to use and dispose of the products of his labor, he can have no right to life. A man who produces while others dispose of his product, is a slave. The right to property is the right to keep, use, and dispose of material values.

The basic principle of civilized interaction is trade--a voluntary exchange of values, whether material or spiritual, that redounds to the benefit of all parties. We trade, or exchange, something with others every time we interact with them voluntarily, thereby getting something we want by giving them something they want. The freedom to trade with others, to associate on terms that are voluntarily accepted by all parties, is essential to a good society--a society, in other words, that is beneficial rather than harmful to man's life. And the moral foundation of a good society is the principle of individual rights.

Man has the right to use force only in self-defense, against those who initiate its use. But this retaliatory use of force cannot be left to the discretion of individuals. Social peace and cooperation would be impossible if people had to live in perpetual fear of having violence used against them. Society would degenerate into bloody conflict and mob rule if the use of force were left to the arbitrary decisions of individuals, even if we suppose those individuals to be well-intentioned. The retaliatory use of force, therefore, requires an objective code of rules, or laws. Such laws are necessary for establishing guilt and innocence, and for determining the appropriate sanction. It is this social need for objective law that generates the institution of government.

The fundamental difference between government and private individuals is that government holds a legal monopoly on the use of physical force. This monopoly is necessary if government is to fulfill its basic function of restraining aggression. But this monopoly on force, though necessary, can also prove destructive if the actions of government are not rigidly defined, delimited, and circumscribed. Government should function like an impersonal robot that is programmed to follow objective rules.

Hence the ultimate purpose of government, and its only justification, is the protection of individual rights. But, more often than not, government itself has been the greatest violator of rights, turning the power that has been entrusted to it against the very people it is supposed to protect.