Ayn Rand and Objectivism, Lecture 4 with David Gordon - Mises Academy
Ayn Rand Lecture 4
Strengths of Rand’s View of
●Rand is right to question theories that define
ethics as service to others. Altruism, in her
sense, has had bad effects.
●She is also on strong grounds if she can
show that doing certain things is essential to
our survival. Survival is a powerful motive.
●But it doesn’t follow from this that Rand has
given us the whole truth about ethics, or that
the particular details of her arguments are
Does Objectivist Ethics Give
Us the Whole Truth?
●How can we assess the Objectivist claims
●The obvious way is to go through the steps of
Rand’s argument. The most important critical
assessment is Robert Nozick, “On the
●We can also see test Objectivist conclusions
against our moral judgments in particular
cases. Objectivists wouldn’t accept this
The Biological Argument
●Objectivists argue that human beings do not
have instincts. We need to use reason in
order to survive.
●Therefore, the purpose of reason is to help us
●Is this a good argument? If Rand is drawing
an analogy from biology, the analogy can be
questioned. On some views, e.g., Richard
Dawkins, survival of one’s genes is primary
and this can lead to individual sacrifice, in
More on Biology and Function
●You might say, even if Dawkins is right, so
what? Why should this matter for ethics? But
the point is that Rand can’t unproblematically
appeal to the biology point to support her
●Suppose she is right---the purpose or function
of reason is to enable each person to
promote his or her survival. Does it follow that
you ought to use your reason for this
The Meaning of “Ought”
●On Rand’s theory of concepts, this does
follow, if the concept “ought” has been
correctly abstracted from experience.
●But how do we know that this correct? It
seems that she is giving a theory about
the nature of ought-terms, rather than
an uncontroversial explanation of what
the term means.
More on the Meaning of
●We can see this by asking the question,
“Ought we to do what will promote our
survival?” If Rand were correct, this
question would be equivalent to “Ought
we to do what we ought to do?”
●But it isn’t. This is a variation of G.E.
Moore’s famous “open question”
Still More on “Ought”
●Rand’s view is that how you ought to use
reason is determined by reason’s function.
(See Harry Binswanger, The Biological Basis
of Teleological Concepts).
●Is it wrong to use something in a way not
determined by its function? Aquinas gives the
example of walking on your hands.
●Not every use of something against its
function is an abuse or misuse. If you use
your reason primarily to help others, is this an
Eric Mack’s Argument
●Eric Mack, a philosopher at Tulane with
Objectivist sympathies, has an
argument that strongly supports Rand
●If we reject subjectivism and think that
moral judgments are true or false, then
we have to show that moral judgments
follow from facts about the world. Rand’
s definition of “ought” achieves this.
Counter to Mack
●Mack’s point is that, to be objective, ought
judgments can’t be freestanding. They must
be derived from the facts.
●Is this true? Another view is that some ethical
truths are directly grasped as true. They aren’
t deduced from something else. E.g., “It’s
wrong to kill people for fun.” This position is
called intuitionism. Intuitions are immediate
judgments, not hunches or feelings. This
goes against Rand’s theory of concepts.
Is Objectivist Ethics a Natural
●Neil Parille asked this excellent question. At
first sight, it appears that it is straightforwardly
a natural law theory. One account of natural
law theory is a theory that claims that the
requirements of human nature enable you to
deduce “ought” from “is.”
●Objectivism seems to pass the other
requirement , i.e., that it give laws of nature,
since it teaches rules for behavior.
The Other Side
●There is an aspect of Objectivist ethics that is
not in accord with usual natural law theories.
●In her view, everyone faces the choice of
whether to live or to die.
●But in standard natural law theory, what you
ought to do isn’t dependent on your choosing
something. You simply ought to do it.
●If you have a choice, then morality consists of
hypothetical imperatives: if you choose to live,
you should. . .
Difference of Opinion
●Among Objectivist philosophers or
sympathizers, the question of the importance
of choice has led to controversy.
●Some Objectivists, e.g., Tara Smith in Viable
Values, stress the importance of choice. She
thinks that without the choice to live, one
would have a version of intrinsicism: there are
some actions that are things-to-be done in
●Doug Rasmussen and Doug DenUyl
emphasize ought over choice.
A Possible Compromise
●One way to lessen the difference between
these two positions is to say that morality
does consist of hypothetical imperatives, but
that everyone, or nearly everyone, chooses to
●In Kant’s terms, this would be an assertoric
●This position is the same as that of Ludwig
The Choice to Live
●Rand seems obviously correct that the choice
to live is important to nearly everybody.
●But she goes further. She says that if you
don’t choose to live, nothing else could matter
to you. The immortal robot example is
supposed to illustrate this.
●The immortal robot example seems flawed.
Why couldn’t things matter to the robot?
Suppose that it could feel pain. Wouldn’t it
have an interest in avoiding this?
The Objectivist Reply
●One Objectivist response is that pain is an
evolutionary response to help animals
survive. Pain wouldn’t exist for an immortal
robot. But why does the evolutionary origin of
pain in the actual world determine the
meaning of pain? Again, Rand’s theory of
concepts is crucial.
●My “heaven and hell” counterexample. The
Objectivist response is again that these
concepts aren’t properly formed.
A Deeper Challenge
●Suppose Rand is right that everything , or
nearly everything, that anyone acts to gain or
keep has a necessary condition that one is
alive. Does it follow that everything we can
value depends on the choice to live?
●Of course, on the Objectivist definition of
value, it does follow, because a value just is
“what one acts to gain or keep.” But can’t we
value states of affairs that will exist only after
we die, , in the sense that we think these
states of affairs will be a “good thing”? What
is wrong with intrinsicism?
●Eric Mack has noted an important internal
problem in Rand’s ethics.
●Sometimes, the purpose of ethics is said to
be, for each person, his survival, Other times,
it is said to be his survival under certain
conditions, e.g., his survival as a rational
being or as someone who acts virtuously.
Parasitism isn’t allowed.
●These two goals need not always dictate
identical courses of conduct. What if you can,
in some cases, best secure your survival by
not acting virtuously?
●Rand’s response to this kind of objection is
that it rests on a false premise.
●In fact, acting virtuously always will best
promote one’s survival.
●Is this true? In answer to an example of John
Hospers, who imagined a bank employee
who embezzles money once and lives happily
ever after, Rand suggests he would always
live in fear of being found out. But why think
so? It appears that Rand has just written a
story in line with her own views. Tara Smith
also adopts this line.
●Rand herself that there are cases where self-
sacrifice is justified. Someone else’s life may
count as so high a value for you that your life
would not be worth living without them. Rand
said, e.g., that she would “stop a bullet” for
●Clearly, in this sort of case, you are not acting
to secure your physical survival. Nozick has
raised a related point: is it in fact true that you
couldn’t live without the other person? Would
you kill yourself after they die?
Objectivist Self-Sacrifice and
●Rand says that the type of self-sacrifice
she allows isn’t altruistic. Her principle
is, don’t sacrifice a higher value for a
lesser value. Thus, you shouldn’t
sacrifice yourself for someone you
regard as of less value than yourself, e.
g., a stranger or an enemy.
Limits of Rand’s Principle
●Rand’s principle doesn’t rule out as much as
you might think.
●Let’s take an extreme case of acting
antithetically to Objectivist ethics: A Nazi who
believes he should sacrifice himself to carry
out Hitler’s will.
●Rand’s principle would tell the Nazi not to
sacrifice himself if he really didn’t care about
Hitler but just thought that it was his duty to
do so. But it would not rule out the actions of
the Nazi who really did value Hitler.
Objectivism and Moral
●Does Objectivism come up with the correct
answers, according to our considered moral
●Objectivists think we have no moral duty to
help others. You can if you want, and Rand
thinks that sympathy for others and the desire
to affirm life might lead us in many cases to
act on others’ behalf. But this, she thinks, isn’t
of major significance. Is this correct?
Michael Huemer’s Criticism
●The point just made has to be distinguished
from the libertarian claim that we have no
enforceable moral duties to help others.
●Michael Huemer has criticized Rand in this
way; She says that respecting the rights of
others best advances self-interest. But what if
it didn’t? Then, she would as an ethical egoist
have to say that you should take advantage
●She could reply that she isn’t advancing
egoism as a theory for such situations. She is
concerned with the actual world. On her