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Source link: http://archive.mises.org/16530/ayn-rands-contribution-to-the-cause-of-freedom-2/

Ayn Rand’s Contribution to the Cause of Freedom

April 18, 2011 by

Roderick Long celebrates Ayn Rand’s work and influence in this piece written on the centenary of her birth. FULL ARTICLE by Roderick T. Long


Dick Fox April 18, 2011 at 1:22 pm

I went to see Atlas Shrugged: Part I and it is a must see. And just for the record it is a great date movie.

Vincent Cook April 18, 2011 at 1:59 pm

Are the days of slavish adulation really behind us?

The argument that mere vagaries of Rand’s personality are responsible for the shortcomings of Rand and her followers is meant to short-circuit any serious discussion about problems that might exist in the philosophy itself. However, pretending that serious criticisms of Objectivism itself don’t exist is scarcely any less adulatory than the older practice of heaping scorn upon the non-Randian infidels.

The fact that Aristotle grounded his ethics on a grossly irrational metaphysics and an extra-human teleology should give one strong pause about embracing any modern revival of his functionalist conception of self-interest. Rand’s attempt to put such a “qua man” standard of value on a more plausible foundation is simply an incoherent mess. Likewise, her understanding of man’s psychological nature is seriously confused.

Avoidance of controversies over such issues should not be trumpeted as a path to a more “balanced” assessment of her work. Rather, a truly balanced portrait of her career would recognize that Rand was much more effective and influential at conveying a pro-reason, pro-individualist sense of life through her fictional works than she was at formulating a philosophical system or finding a new and improved formula for the rational pursuit of happiness.

Inquisitor April 18, 2011 at 2:12 pm

“The fact that Aristotle grounded his ethics on a grossly irrational metaphysics and an extra-human teleology should give one strong pause about embracing any modern revival of his functionalist conception of self-interest. ”

What was grossly “irrational” about it? Aristotle went too far in the extra-human element, but how is this a problem for modern Aristotelians? Or shall we just ignore everything he said, because you know, he was wrong on some things, like mental infants?

Vincent Cook April 18, 2011 at 4:53 pm

The basic problem with Aristotle’s philosophy is that he regards an intentional teleology as fundamental to all causation. It is the extra-human causal agents in his system (which, in his metaphysics culminates in an incorporeal “unmoved mover” and a number of incorporeal celestial intelligences) that consciously program the rest of the universe (either directly or through a chain of causal agents) and give each entity its function. This notion of extra-human purposefulness is Aristotle’s method for overcoming the is-ought dichotomy.

Once you grant that an individual moral agent acts only for one’s own purposes and not to realize the purposes of an external agent, then one no longer has any particular “function” that one is obligated to realize. Man’s nature is the product of a purposeless evolution, not of any divine or quasi-divine intent, so identifying the particular capacities that man possesses (including his capacity to reason) is of no help in determining what ultimate end he should use those capacities for.

Objectivists often appeal to survival as the justification for the qua man standard, but such an approach is really an abandonment of Aristotle in favor of a different standard of value altogether. Moreover, Rand made it quite clear that she wasn’t advocating extending one’s lifespan at the expense of living a life “appropriate” to man. The problem here is to understand why certain modes of “living” are more appropriate than others. Aristotle’s functionalism is no help here.

RS April 18, 2011 at 2:13 pm

If the standard of values are not “qua man” then what, pray tell, would be your estimation of a “more plausible foundational standard” for estimating values and what standard did you use to determine it as such, in your estimation?

Vincent Cook April 18, 2011 at 6:02 pm

Given that we live in a purposeless universe, the only way to avoid rank subjectivism in one’s choice of ultimate ends is to consider the psychology of the moral agent. The choice of ultimate ends is not arbitrary because one is born with a natural affection for pleasure and a natural aversion to pain, and because one cannot consistently and continually fight against such natural impulses even if one chooses to try. Given such constraints on realizing one’s choices over time, a choice of an ultimate end is self-consistent in its realization only if it’s fully harmonized with one’s psychological nature.

Aristotle was quick to object to this approach on the grounds that pleasure is “qua animal,” not “qua man.” Not only is this objection irrelevant in the context of non-teleological causation, it is also not entirely accurate. Precisely because man does possess a capacity to reason, one can appreciate pleasures over time in a manner that other animals are incapable of doing. Man’s pursuit of happiness is quite distinct from how a dog might pursue happiness. In particular, evoking memories of past pleasures and anticipating the achievement of future pleasures are key motivators of human action, which explains in part why asserting personal autonomy over one’s actions is of fundamental importance to us. Man is happy, not as a passive spectator of pleasures doled out by someone else, but as one actively creating and managing one’s own pleasures over time.

Rand and a few of her key followers back in the early 1960s objected to this approach on the grounds that happiness is supposedly a mere adjunct of achieving one’s chosen values. If this premise were true, the choice of an ultimate end would again be consigned to the realm of subjective whim. However, this premise isn’t true. Man is born with an automatic pleasure/pain mechanism that has a very profound impact on one’s emotions. Accordingly, it is crucial that any rational pursuit of happiness must take these pleasure/pain mechanisms into account, and not pretend that humans can thrive as emotionless worker drones building tall skyscrapers, etc.

Rand’s failure to understand human psychology can have devastating consequences, as in this first-hand account of Objectivist family life. Many of us who have interacted at a personal level with hard-core Objectivists know all too well this dark side of the Randian movement. For all the positives that Rand can rightly be credited with, we must also frankly acknowledge her blunders in failing to correctly integrate reason and emotion into her understanding of self-interest.

Of course, in such a brief critique of Rand, I haven’t really begun to spell out how I think such facts of human psychology can be formulated into a specific standard of value. I must apologize for not being able to fully answer your question in this limited space with the level of detail that it deserves. However, among the ancient Greek philosophers, there is an alternative to Aristotle, namely Epicurus and members of his school, that focused on precisely these sorts of issues. I encourage you to visit my Epicurus & Epicurean Philosophy website for more details about how a rational form of hedonism is formulated.

Inquisitor April 18, 2011 at 6:41 pm

Where are you getting this information on Aristotle and Rand from? I’m not really sure where you disagree with modern Aristotelians anyway, as their approach to ethics is more or less the one you outline in the second and third paragraphs, by which I mean the likes of Douglas Rasmussen and den Uyl, as well as Long himself.

Vincent Cook April 19, 2011 at 12:21 am

Aristotle’s “qua animal” argument against hedonism appears in book X of the Nicomachean Ethics. I am not familiar with the particular uses that the various modern authors you mentioned have made of Aristotle’s ethics, but we should be clear here that Epicurus, not Aristotle, was the ancient exponent of a standard of value based on long-run pleasurable satiation.

Regarding the Objectivist case against hedonism, there are a number of sources that spell out the theory that emotional responses are self-programmed by one’s choice of values. First, in The Objectivist Ethics, Rand argues:

“Man’s emotional mechanism is like an electronic computer,
which his mind has to program – and the programming consists of the
values his mind chooses.”,

and concludes from this that:

“Man has no choice about his capacity to feel that something is good for him or evil, but _what_ he will consider good or evil, what will
give him joy or pain, what he will love or hate, desire or fear,
depends on his standard of value.”,

and given that man has free will and no innate ideas draws the

“‘To declare, as ethical hedonists do, that ‘the proper value is
whatever gives you pleasure’ is to declare that ‘the proper value is
whatever you happen to value’  - which is an act of intellectual and
philosophical abdication, an act which merely proclaims the futility
of ethics and invites all men to play it deuces wild.”

Second, in the first issue of The Objectivist Newsletter (January 1962), Nathaniel Branden twice affirmed the self-programming theory of happiness.  In the
“Intellectual Ammunition Department,” Branden responded to a question
about guidance by reason versus guidance by emotions with this

“An _emotion_ is the psychosomatic form in which man experiences his estimate of the relationship of things to himself.  An emotion is a
_value_-response.  It is the automatic psychological result of a
man’s value judgements.”

Note again that this renders happiness solely dependent upon one’s
choices, with no consideration of the construction of man’s innate
pleasure/pain mechanism.  In an excerpt from his book Who is Ayn
appearing in the same issue, Branden explicitly criticizes Epicurus and
other philosophers for taking emotions as independent primaries and

“The Objectivist morality recognizes that man’s desires and emotions proceed from and are caused by his premises, that his premises are
the result of his thinking – and that the issue of morality is not to
be fought over desires and emotions (which are only a consequence),
but over the thinking a man has done or has failed to do.   Objectivism teaches man that his mind and his emotions do not have to be antagonists, that is conscious convictions and his desires do not have to clash; it teaches man how they are to be _integrated_, how to bring them into non-contradictory harmony, it teaches man how _he_ can determine the _content_ of his desires and emotions.”

Finally, in the second issue of The Objectivist Newsletter (February 1962),
Leonard Peikoff also had a chance to weigh in on this issue in the
“Intellectual Ammunition Department.”  Responding to the question
“Why does Objectivism reject ethical hedonism?” Peikoff wrote:

“The feeling of pleasure, however, like any emotional response, is
not a psychological primary; it is a consequence, an _effect_, of
one’s previously formed value-judgements.  To say, therefore, that
men should determine their values by the standard of what gives them
pleasure, is to say: Men should determine their values by the
standard of whatever they already value.  This means that hedonism is
a circular and content-less morality which can define no values or
virtues and has to count on whatever random values any man happens to
have acquired.”

Peikoff’s argument, in a nutshell, is exactly what I find wrong with Objectivist ethics.  Pleasure is not just an effect of one’s value-judgements; while some pleasures are, other pleasures are hard-wired effects of external stimulation or of internal
physiological states.

RS April 19, 2011 at 11:04 am


Purpose and choice go together with ends and means; they cannot be separated without committing the fallacy of the stolen concept.


If you reject teleology then you reject volition and if you reject volition then you reject the estimation and identification of truth as such, since all of human knowledge is contained on the conceptual level, not with sensations or perceptions. One has to choose to observe, infer and estimate in order to learn what is vs. what is not. Cognition requires evaluation.

If you reject all of these then human thought and action simply becomes the result of glandular responses to external stimuli, and any claim to knowledge or truth would only be a manifestation of one’s own unique internal chemistry, predetermined by a nature beyond his or her control. If this were the case then any noise emitted by such a person would be the epistemological equivalent of a barking dog or a buzzing bee, since the person had no choice about the sounds that would come out of his mouth.

Vincent Cook April 19, 2011 at 12:02 pm

There are a lot of ridiculous “ifs” here that don’t apply to my argument–please don’t misrepresent my views. Basically, I said that Aristotle’s teleological model of causation is invalid for causal agents that lack volition, and is particularly inapplicable to understanding the causes of human nature itself. This in no way denies that human beings have free will or that they act in a purposeful manner; rather, it denies that we have any “function” in serving any extra-human purposes, since extra-human purposes don’t exist.

In the Objectivist treatment of the problem, it is admitted that volition is a purely human phenomena, but Objectivists fail to draw the appropriate conclusion that evolution has given man certain capacities, but has not tasked him with any particular function that he ought to serve.

You may find it helpful to dig into the archives of the humanities.philosophy.objectivism Usenet newsgroup from the late 1990s, which is accessible via Google’s groups search engine. If you search “Vincent Cook” for that newsgroup, you’ll find numerous threads discussing these kinds of issues. Regarding teleology in particular, you’ll want to look for the threads where Binswanger’s book on teleology is discussed.

And yes, I do know what the “fallacy of the stolen concept” is. There is really no need to lecture an Epicurean about this principle, since Epicureans were debating Skeptics thousands of years before Rand was born and thus had to come up with there own versions of it.

RS April 19, 2011 at 3:13 pm


I did not mean to misrepresent however, it was not at all clear from your post which side of the fence you stood in regard to man as a rational conceptual being with free will. Now that that is clear, you wrote:

“but Objectivists fail to draw the appropriate conclusion that evolution has given man certain capacities, but has not tasked him with any particular function that he ought to serve.”

No, reality has not “tasked” anyone in the sense that one volitional person could or would impose some kind of “obligation” on another, but reality does impose itself differently on living entities than it does on non-living entities, necessitating certain actions and prohibiting others. That is a fact that cannot be evaded or ignored.

And, given that fact, man’s “capacities” as endowed to him by “evolution”, make him basically aware that he is confronted by a no nonsense choice from one instant to the next regarding how he can exercise some limited control over that imposition by choosing amongst those actions. All of this is necessitated by the facts of reality, none of it open to negotiation, interpretation, or anyone’s subjective whim. Reality does not negotiate, what is is.

So then the people who maintain that the choice to live vs. not to live is arbitrary and therefore totally subjective evades the fact that living entities live, they are designed to do so, by “evolution” i.e. by nature i.e. objectively, as in they had no choice. So it is the ultimate contradiction to claim that a choice to go on living is subjective simply because it was made, as if a person could be held responsible for being born and must then “choose” subjectively to be “unborn” or not. The choice to live “had” to be made, by the nature of man’s volition and of his “capacities”, such a choice is not only necessary it makes possible ALL other choices as such (teleology) so it cannot be anything other than an objective first moral principle which Rand identified as the Ultimate Value.

Hence, the “objective” does not mean the “non-chosen”, it means “by reference to reality”. Hedonism, as you already know, does not entail any “reference to reality”. Oh, you may smuggle in the reference by pointing to the pain/pleasure mechanism but that is just a superficial reference at best as it does not explain the actions of actual people who make long range choices that are in complete disregard of those mechanisms.

Moreover, in making ANY choice that disregards those simple stimuli, they are demonstrating to you the fact of an adherence to some other standard. Indeed, such choices necessarily require the introduction of a standard that cannot be pleasure/pain because if it were then there would be no deviation from acting against those sensations.

Take these few simple examples.

People moderate their intake of sugar, chocolate and other pleasures in order to avoid the longer term consequences to their health, a choice which requires forgoing pleasure today to prevent reality from depriving them of their health tomorrow.

People go to the dentist to have their cavities drilled and endure other painful procedures to avoid the longer term consequences to their health, again, another choice which requires enduring pain today to prevent reality from depriving them of their oral health tomorrow.

Even in some of the most extreme circumstances, some people will even choose suicide, rather than endure the possibility of a future unbearable pain associated with treating a terminal illness.

Hedonism, could not possibly explain how a person, who feels neither pleasure nor pain in any given moment, could or would make ANY choice whatever, let alone a choice to commit suicide, without the introduction of some other standard of value in making that estimation. It is impossible. Therefore, hedonism most definitely cannot be the explanation for those choices. It requires some other standard, implicit or explicit, no choice can be made without reference to some end to be achieved and the only ultimate end that makes all others possible is life.

James April 18, 2011 at 3:14 pm

Big business is no longer the prosecuted minority, is it…

Libertarian jerry April 18, 2011 at 4:12 pm

The main weapon used by the collectivists,especially on the Left,is guilt. This weapon is used to disarm their opposition as well as their victims in order to achieve collectivist goals. Despite all the arguments debating the ins and outs of her philosophy,in the end, Ayn Rand showed us the way in defecting this Leftist guilt trip and to be proud of our achievements in life. Whether those achievements were intellectual or financial. In other words,if you want to intellectually disarm a socialist, don’t accept their premise of guilt. For this, Ayn Rand deserves every libertarian’s eternal thanks.

Ryan April 18, 2011 at 5:59 pm

Yes, that’s it exactly. Leftists somehow attempt to claim a monopoly on idealism. If nothing else, Rand showed how totally wrong this is. It is an important contribution to modern philosophy for which she deserves recognition.

Ashraf April 19, 2011 at 5:36 am

Ayn Rand may have had some good economic philosophies but she was a hardcore neocon and made some obscene comments. She doesn’t deserve to be in anyone’s hall of fame.

Chris April 20, 2011 at 6:09 pm

Thanks for that deep insight, it is noted. Do you mind though if I still keep my own hall of fame or should I run things by you to see if the people are deserving?

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