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What is Objectivism?
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Note: The following overview of Objectivism is drawn largely from a lecture given by objectivist philosopher Leonard Peikoff. The lecture can be viewed at the Ayn Rand Institute's web site for free by clicking here.

Objectivism is the philosophy of Alissa Zinovievna Rosenbaum, more widely known by her pen-name, Ayn Rand (Born: February 2, 1905 - St. Petersburg, Russia; Died: March 6, 1982 - New York, New York). Often wrongly confused with libertarian politics, Objectivist political philosophy is in fact different and, accordingly, is not included in Mondo Politico's libertarian Learning Centre.

Ayn Rand was as much an advocate of philosophy in general as she was of Objectivism in particular. She made the point that, whether you have chosen to study philosophy or not, everyone holds beliefs consciously or unconsciously that give rise to, at least, an implicit or subconscious set of principles. As Ayn Rand put it:

"You have no choice about the necessity to integrate your observations, your experiences, your knowledge into abstract ideas, i.e., into principles. Your only choice is whether these principles are true or false, whether they represent your conscious, rational convictions - or a grab bag of notions snatched at random, whose sources, validity, context and consequences you do not know, notions which, more often than not, you would drop like a hot potato if you knew.

But the principles you accept (consciously or unconsciously) may clash with or contradict one another; they too have to be integrated. What integrates them? Philosophy. A philosophic system is an integrated view of existence. As a human being, you have no choice about the fact that you need a philosophy. Your only choice is whether you define your philosophy by a conscious, rational, disciplined process of thought and scrupulously logical deliberation, or let your subconscious accumulate a junk heap of unwarranted conclusions, false generalizations, undefined contradictions, undigested slogans, unidentified wishes, doubts and fears, thrown together by chance, but integrated by your subconscious into a kind of mongrel philosophy and fused into a single, solid weight: self doubt, like a ball and chain in the place where your mind's wings should have grown." - Ayn Rand, 1974 "Philosophy: Who Needs It?"

Philosophy is the subject that studies man's relationship to reality. It has five branches:

Metaphysics: the nature of the universe and reality. Metaphysics asks: "What is the nature of existence?" or "Where am I?"

Epistemology: the theory of knowledge. Epistemology asks: "How do I know?"

Ethics: Deals with moral right vs. moral wrong (virtue vs. vice, good vs. evil). Ethics asks: "What should I do?"

Politics: The branch that studies the nature of society and the proper role of government. Politics asks: "How should I treat my fellow man?"

Esthetics: The philosophy of art. What is art? What is good art? How should we judge art?

Objectivist political philosophy (but not her metaphysics, epistemology, or ethics) is most similar to that espoused by John Locke in his second treatise of government (published in England in 1689, just after the Glorious Revolution of 1688): that every person, in the peaceful pursuit of personal fulfillment, has an absolute right to his own life, liberty and property, and that the role of government is to protect those rights. The existence of these "natural" and "inalienable" rights were echoed by English freedom activist Thomas Paine, and by Thomas Jefferson in his Declaration of Independence, wherein some of the British colonies of North America declared their intended independence from the British Empire (thereafter achieving independence and eventually forming what is now known as the United States of America). Ayn Rand called the politics of Objectivism "freedom": individual freedom is the political philosophy of Objectivism.

Ayn Rand asserted that capitalism - which she defined as the complete separation of economics from the activities of the state - was the only social system compatible with freedom. Capitalism, she explained, recognizes and defends reason as man’s sole means of survival. In a capitalist society, goods and services are distributed by consensual trade, not by physical coercion. Being a system in which coercive physical force is used only to defend each person’s life, liberty and property, capitalism is the only system compatible with human life.

The political branch of Objectivism - individual freedom - has a logical and hierarchical philosophical underpinning. The politics of Objectivism logically flows from and is justified by Objectivist ethics; Objectivist ethics logically flows from and is justified by Objectivist epistemology; Objectivist epistemology logically flows from and is justified by Objectivist metaphysics. To properly understand the political philosophy of Objectivism, one must also know the metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics of Objectivism. Accordingly, what follows is a brief overview of the key philosophical assertions of Objectivism, including its political philosophy.

1. The Metaphysics of Objectivism: Existence Exists, A is A

At the root of any philosophy is a single question: "Is the world affected by what you merely think about the world?". Objectivism's answer is: no, "existence exists" and things are what they are independently of what you might think about things: "A is A". The latter, "A is A", is the Law of Identity, first expressed by the philosopher Aristotle (it is for this reason that a bust of Aristotle appears opposite Ayn Rand in the Atlantis header, above).

"Existence exists" is perhaps most easily understood by noting that when another person dies, you continue to live, to go to work, to eat, etc. even though the other person has absolutely no thoughts at all about the world once he is dead: the world exists not in anyone's mind, but independently of it. Accordingly, Objectivism concludes that the nature of things is objective: an Oak tree rises perpendicularly to the earth whether or not you believe that to be the case - A is A.

Because things are what they are independently of what you think about them, your thoughts cannot change reality. As Rand put it:

"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 will or by chance, but by the Law of Identity." - from "The Metaphysical Versus the Man-Made", reprinted in Ayn Rand's book Philosophy: Who Needs It?

Rand distinguished between the unchangeable properties of the world (the "metaphysically given") and those things that man can create from that which exists in nature ("the man made"). Rand explained that, to create that which is man-made, man must first choose to perceive and discover that which is metaphysically given:

"Man's volition is an attribute of his consciousness (of his rational faculty) and consists in the choice to perceive existence or to evade it. To perceive existence, to discover the characteristics or properties (the identities) of the things that exist, means to discover and accept the metaphysically given. Only on the basis of this knowledge is man able to learn how the things given in nature can be rearranged to serve his needs (which is his method of survival).

The power to rearrange the combinations of natural elements is the only creative power man possesses. It is an enormous and glorious power - and it is the only meaning of the concept "creative." "Creation" does not (and metaphysically cannot) mean the power to bring something into existence out of nothing. "Creation" means the power to bring into existence an arrangement (or combination or integration) of natural elements that had not existed before. (This is true of any human product, scientific or esthetic: man's imagination is nothing more than the ability to rearrange the things he has observed in reality.) The best and briefest identification of man's power in regard to nature is Francis Bacon's "Nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed." In this context, "to be commanded" means to be made to serve man's purposes; "to be obeyed" means that they cannot be served unless man discovers the properties of natural elements and uses them accordingly." - from "The Metaphysical Versus the Man-Made, reprinted in Ayn Rand's book Philosophy: Who Needs It?

According to Objectivism, a man's volition - the decision a man makes between the choices of perceiving and discovering the metaphysically given, and evading the metaphysically given - is a metaphysical given. One man cannot change another man's mind: a man can change only his own mind. That said, one man can expose another man to facts or falsehoods in the hope that the man will make his subjective beliefs consistent with his newly-acquired facts/falsehoods (i.e., in the hope of persuading the other man).

2. The Epistemology of Objectivism: Reason is the Way Man Obtains Knowledge

Objectivism holds that the information provided to the mind by the senses is completely valid. It holds further that that information is the foundation of all other knowledge.

Objectivism asserts that man can form concepts, and that concepts are objective. It rejects the idea that concepts are the product of arbitrary decision by society, and the idea that concepts are created by a supreme being.

Objectivism asserts that logic is man's means of concept formation/knowledge, and that truths are absolutes. Emotions and intuitions are not means of knowledge: that you feel strongly that 2+2=5 doesn't matter. It also follows that Objectivism rejects skepticism (i.e., such ideas as that truth is inside your head; that there are no absolutes; that truths are all subjective) and mysticism (i.e., the idea, for example, that knowledge will be given to you by a supreme being without you having to reason).

3. The Ethics of Objectivism: Rational Self-Interest or Egoism

Objectivism holds that knowledge of ethics, like other knowledge, can be obtained only by reason. Because it holds reality and reason to be objective, Objectivism asks: what in reality gives rise to ethics? Objectivism's answer: man is a living being who has to act in a certain way to keep himself alive. Unlike Animals, which are hard-wired to behave in ways that preserve their lives, humans are capable of acting in ways that will actually harm human survival: they can, for example, commit suicide and murder. Therefore, to survive and to thrive, man must distinguish between that which helps him survive and thrive, and that which harms him. In short, he must have an ethical/moral code: a system of judging right from wrong.

Objectivism holds that right and wrong can be determined only with reference to the nature of man: that one must hold ones own life as ones highest value and standard, and that one must hold ones own happiness to be ones highest purpose. Then, and only then, can one determine which decisions one should make and act upon (i.e., in order to survive and to pursue ones own happiness).

Objectivism asserts that man can survive and pursue happiness only by means of rationality: the full use of ones mind and intelligence in thinking and understanding. Reason, for man, is a vital necessity without which he would perish. Accordingly, Objectivism holds reason to be man's highest virtue/good. That which we currently have that helps us to live and thrive - medicine, modern technology - is the product of man's reasoning. In contrast, man-made disasters were the products of errors or of individuals that were anti-reason.

The virtue of rationality gives rise to other crucial virtues, such as:

Independent Thought - coming to ones own conclusions via the process of reasoning, rather than skipping the reasoning and simply relying upon what some authority says.

Integrity - acting according to what you, as a result of the reasoning process, think: if you do not act according to the products of your reasoning, your reasoning might just as well never have occurred.

Productivity - using your mind to create physical wealth so that you can survive and thrive.

Because every individual is faced with the same choice - to live or to die - Objectivism holds that each individual should be the beneficiary of his own actions: each man should live and think for his own sake, not for others'. In other words, rational self interest is the ethics of Objectivism. Accordingly, Objectivism is the antithesis of altruism, in which each man either sacrifices himself for others, or sacrifices others for himself.

By concluding that it is moral to act in ones rational self-interest, that which is moral is also practical. In contrast, when morality is defined as self-sacrifice (i.e.., as altruism), a false dichotomy is created because that which is said to be moral is often found not to be practical. Thus, those who consider altruism to be moral are constantly torn, trying to resolve a false dichotomy that cannot be resolved: a dichotomy between living and enjoying life on the one hand, and being "moral" on the other.

4. The Politics of Objectivism: Freedom

The metaphysics, epistemology and ethics of Objectivism found Objectivism's political philosophy, Freedom. Freedom, as objectivism defines and understands it, means freedom from physical coercion. Building on its metaphysics, epistemology and ethics, Objectivism argues that every individual, in the peaceful pursuit of personal fulfillment, has an absolute right to his or her own life, liberty and property. Those rights are necessary if man is to survive and thrive by means of reason, which is his mode of survival. Denied the liberty to make choices, human happiness and survival are at the mercy of another’s discretion. Denied the benefits of having exercised ones liberty in a wise, ethical way, the exercise of ones liberty is a waste of energy. Thus, Objectivism concludes that a free society is one in which the rights rights of life, liberty and property are not violated.

According to Objectivism, the only way to violate a person's rights to life, liberty and property is to initiate physical force against the person or his/her property without his/her consent. This gives rise to what has been called the Non-Aggression Principle:

No person may initiate or threaten to initiate the use of coercive physical force.

To understand this Non-Aggression Principle properly, it is important to read every word of it carefully. Four things, in particular, should be noted.

First, it is critical to notice that this Non-Aggression Principle does not rule out the use of coercive physical force altogether: it prohibits only the initiation or threatened initiation of coercive physical force. Therefore, the Non-Aggression Principle does not rule out self-defence. For example, if, without your consent, a person punches you or threatens to punch you, the Non-Aggression Principle does not prohibit you from using coercive physical force against the attacker (e.g., for example, punching him).

The second important thing to understand is that for physical force to be coercive, it must be the case that the person upon whom it is used did not consent to the use of the force. If a person consents to being punched, the punch - the initiation of physical force - is not coercive.

Note: There is nothing about the Non-Aggression Principle that requires consent or the absence of consent to be communicated to the person initiating the use of coercive physical force: when consent exists is a question of fact, and sometimes consent will be implied by the circumstances or by non-verbal communication. For example, it can normally be inferred accurately that a person does not want you to poke them in the eye: were you to poke someone in the eye without them expressly consenting to it (before or after the fact), you would have violated the Non-Aggression Principle. Similarly, it can normally be inferred accurately that a parent consents to receiving a kiss from his or her child: normally, kissing ones parent without first getting permission will not constitute a violation of the Non-Aggression Principle. Indeed, barring circumstances under which the child ought reasonably to have known that the kiss was not consented to, kissing ones parent will normally not constitute a violation of the Non-Aggression Principle even if the parent subsequently says, truthfully, that he or she did not want to be kissed by the child.

The third important thing to notice, when trying to understand this Non-Aggression Principle, is that all coercion is ultimately physical. Concepts, ideas, beliefs, messages and opinions never are. Thus, with the exception of a threat to initiate the use of coercive physical force, the mere communication to one or more people of a concept, idea, belief, message or opinion never constitutes a violation of the Non-Aggression Principle. The Non-Aggression Principle is not even violated by communicating something that is emotionally hurtful, disturbing, hateful, disgusting or obscene, provided that the communication does not amount to a threat to initiate the use of coercive physical force.

Fourth, according to objectivist philosophy, inaction is never coercion, such that one cannot violate the Non-Aggression Principle even by refusing to help someone stay alive. Consider this example. A farmer named Frank says to a starving man in the city streets "I will give you some of my food and water if and only if you agree to mow my lawn". The starving/thirsty man, Bob, replies "I will not mow your lawn". Frank walks away without ever giving food or water to Bob. Under this example, Frank offer would be considered an attempt at persuasion, not coercion. However, if, instead of offering to trade food and water for Bob's labour, Frank told Bob "Mow my lawn or else I'll poke you in the eye", that woud be coercion, not persuasion, because Frank would then have threatened the initiation of physical force against Bob without Bob's consent.*

* NOTE: Objectivism's unambiguous definition of coercion is one of the things that distinguishes Objectivism from libertarianism. Libertarianism, being intentionally amoral (so as not to exclude advocates of any given moral philosophy), lacks a philosophical commitment to personal property rights (even though many libertarians have a philosophical commitment to personal property rights). Accordingly, those libertarians who have a philosophy that opposes personal property rights could consider all food and water to be common property, such that Frank was committing an act of coercion simply by denying food to Bob after Bob refused to mow Frank's lawn.

It is interesting to note that libertarians consider the Non-Aggression Principle to be axiomatic: they typically refer to it as the "Non-Aggression Axiom". This is arguably reflective of the libertarian perspective that the value of freedom is self-evident.

Fifth, according to objectivist philosophy, fraud is an indirect way to initiate the coercive use of physical force. Accordingly, objectivism views a fraud as a violation of the Non-Aggression principle.

Objectivism's view on the role of government stems from the Non-Aggression Principle and its underlying objectivist philosophy. Specifically, Objectivism argues that, in a free society, there must be a government having the role solely of protecting the life, liberty and property of every individual.** Accordingly, in a free society, there are three main branches of government. Specifically, a free society has a law enforcement branch (i.e., police, to protect citizens from domestic criminals), a military branch (to protect citizens from foreign aggressors), and a judicial branch, which ensures that before government can use force as a remedy, alleged violations of the law are first determined objectively.

** NOTE: Objectivism's commitment to the idea that society must have a government is another thing distinguishing Objectivism from libertarianism. Most certainly, there are libertarians (usually called "minarchists") who share with Objectivists a committment to a government comprised of military, judiciary, and law-enforcement branches. However, many libertarians (both non-members and members of "Libertarian" political parties) are anarchists: they oppose government altogether. "Smash the State" is the anarchist's motto.

According to Objectivism, the only socio-economic system compatible with freedom is capitalism.*** In this context, capitalism is defined not in its vulgar and defamed sense: capitalism is not a system in which governments assist businesses with monopolies, subsidies and special privileges and rights (such a system is merely a form of socialism, often called "the third way", "democratic socialism", "corporativism" or "corporatism"). Rather, capitalism is a system in which government does not involve itself in matters of economics at all: in which the demands of the free market determine trade in the absence of coercion.

*** NOTE: Objectivism's commitment to capitalism is universal: all Objectivists are pro-capitalism. However, owing both to the Amoral nature of libertarianism, and to its anarchistic elements, a commitment to capitalism is not a defining feature of libertarianism. Capitalism is a system dependent upon personal property rights, so those libertarians who oppose personal property rights logically oppose capitalism. However, many anarchist libertarians who are in favour of personal property rights and a free market (typically called "anarcho-capitalists") are are uncomfortable with capitalism for a different reason: they believe (as Ayn Rand did) that capitalism refers to a system in which property rights are properly enforced by a government.

5. The Esthetics of Objectivism: Romantic Realism

Objectivism argues that art should present the world as it could be and as it should be. Objectivist esthetics does not value as art portrayals of the world as it could not be: objectivism is grounded in reality, not in wishful thinking. Objectivist esthetics (known as Romantic Realism) values portrayals of what ought to be, because such portrayals inspire us to apply reason and strive for a better life.

" What is Objectivism" - Copyright 2003, Paul McKeever. All Rights reserved. Neither this page, nor any of its contents, may be reproduced without express written permission from Paul McKeever. Neither this page, nor any of its contents, may be contained in a frame in another web site without written permission, but everyone is free to link to this page.

Last updated on May 14, 2006