Objectivism, Part I

Update: posted Part II.

I am an Objectivist. I realized I didn’t have an easily linkable summary of Objectivism and what it means to me, and that seemed kinda lame. Hence this post. My method is as follows: provide some quick thoughts on the core aspects of Objectivism as defined by Ayn Rand. This is a quick summary and not a treatise. If you want to learn more, read my friend Elliot Temple’s Learn Objectivism site here. He provides his own quick summary, a number of links to more posts analyzing Objectivism, and some long-form discussion of the most important work in Objectivist literature, Atlas Shrugged.

The core areas I’m going to talk about are Metaphysics, Epistemology, Ethics, and Politics. I’m following Rand’s organization of introducing Objectivism here, and quoting from her description (which I just linked) throughout, then offering my own comments. Note that Rand would sometimes mention aesthetics too but I’m just gonna leave that out. I don’t think aesthetics is as important as the other parts, and it’s an area I know less about and have less to say on anyways.

Objective Reality

Rand said the Objectivist metaphysics is “Objective Reality”, and said “Reality exists as an objective absolute-facts are facts, independent of man’s feelings, wishes, hopes or fears.” What does that mean? To affect reality, you must act, not wish. Your ideas can affect reality in a sense, but not directly — they need the intermediary of your actions in the physical world in order to have an effect. No amount of strong feelings from the Commissar will make socialist economics produce plentiful food, and no amount of prayer will cure cancer. To get the food and fix the cancer, you’ve gotta deal with reality’s requirements, not your wishes and feelings. The independence of reality from things like wishes means that stuff like the “Law of Attraction” described in the book The Secret, which claims that thinking affects reality in a direct way, is false.

The existence of reality as an objective absolute also means that things act according to their inherent properties and the laws of physics, and that all things in reality must have defined properties. So things that are supposed to be unlimited and unknowable, like God, are out. And inexplicable supernatural phenomena which might cause things to act in ways other than in accordance with their nature or the laws of physics, like magic, are also out. And things which contradict our scientific understanding of reality, like ghosts, are also out.

Reason

Next, Rand defines the Objectivist epistemology as “Reason”, which she calls “the faculty which identifies and integrates the material provided by man’s senses” and which she says “is man’s only means of perceiving reality, his only source of knowledge, his only guide to action, and his basic means of survival.” What does that mean?

Consider “basic means of survival.” Animals have some knowledge in their genes for dealing with reality. We humans need to rely on our reason. If we tried to approximate living like reason-less apes, without technology, electricity, clean food, medicine, etc, many people would die and fewer people would exist. Reason is literally our means of survival. The successful use of reason is literally a matter of life or death.

We need reason to discover the requirements of reality for doing things like building skyscrapers, jet engines, and iPhone factories. All those things require the application of enormous amounts of intellectual effort by people dealing with areas like engineering and supply chain logistics. A modern factory is a monument to the application of reason by human minds.

Things like intuition or divine revelation are not adequate means of dealing with reality. They have serious flaws. People’s intuitions often disagree (a problem I’ve never seen so-called intuitionist moral philosophers address — they appeal to an imaginary universally shared ethics while apparently just ignoring the existence of suicide bombers or something). For that matter, people’s divine revelations also disagree! (God, please clarify!). And even if there were such a thing as divine revelations, how else would we interpret them, other than using reason?

Reason is great because it provides the possibility of reaching agreement. If your revealed wisdom or intuitions disagree with someone else’s, that can be big trouble and lead to conflict. But using reason we can appeal to arguments, logic, criticism, facts — and at the end of the day, if all else fails, leave each other alone in the peaceful liberal societies that reason brings about.

Ethics

Rand describes her ethics as “[s]elf-interest” and says:

“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.”

Conventional wisdom in our society is that it is moral and good to put others’ interests above your own, to be altruistic, to give up stuff you want to benefit other people, to be your brother’s keeper, to sacrifice, etc. Objectivism rejects all this. It says people should live their own lives, and pursue their own values, according to their own judgment. It says that the person who lays claim to the life of another is a vicious parasite and that a society operating according to the principles of such parasitism will lead to chaos and death. In place of such an orgy of parasitism and death, Objectivism has a much nicer alternative: the Trader Principle — the idea that relationships between individuals should be based on both parties offering value.

Living for other people, according to their values, just doesn’t work. There are everyday examples of this, such as the person choosing a career in order to please their parents and then finding themselves in a career they hate. Or a husband spending tons of money on a kitchen remodel he doesn’t see the point of to please his wife, then getting resentful about it. The thing about it being your life is you are the one that has to live it! You have to spend your time and effort and mental energy figuring out how to deal with the problems that come up in a certain way of living — and do so for something like 16 hours a day! So it’s really important that you spend your life (and wealth) on tasks you see the point of and enjoy, instead of trying to conform to other’s expectations and please others. As Rand’s hero Howard Roark says in The Fountainhead, in one of my favorite passages:

before you can do things for people, you must be the kind of man who can get things done. But to get things done, you must love the doing, not the secondary consequences. The work, not the people. Your own action, not any possible object of your charity.

Resentfulness is a big problem. If you try to live your life for others, or give people resources in order to help people by standards you don’t share, you will often find yourself resentful. Why? There is a conflict in your mind, between wanting to pursue and act in accordance with your own values, and wanting to do what society has taught you is moral and correct. You can force yourself to act according to the societal rules, but you still have the objection or disagreement: you still think the kitchen remodel was a dumb idea and some cliche about how “compromise is necessary for a happy marriage! teehee!” isn’t cutting it in addressing your objection.

The solution to these problems is to live for yourself, according to your own values and judgment, and to limit the scope of interactions with others to situations where the interaction is win-win. This approach clashes strongly with certain standard interaction patterns in our society (such as many people’s friendships and romantic relationships). It definitely does not rule out friendships or romantic relationships, but such interactions look different under the Objectivist ethics than they do in conventional society.

One reason the Objectivist ethics sounds scary to people is they think it’s a license to use others as objects in pursuing your own goals. This is mistaken, and I will address it in my follow up post when I talk about the Harmony of Interests.

Politics

Rand names the Objectivist political system as “Capitalism” and elaborates:

The ideal political-economic system is laissez-faire capitalism. It is a system where men deal with 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.

Capitalism is a great system. Capitalism makes earning a living by making a wage possible, since the capitalists need to hire help in order to create their products and bring them to market. Capitalism makes possible the progressive improvement in the productivity of workers via the accumulation of capital and technological development. This improved productivity allows employers to pay more for employees (since increase productivity means more stuff is being produced and sold, there are more sales revenues, and thus more money with which to pay employees). The employers are all in competition with each other for employees, in a kind of auction, and will bid up the price of labor to make sure they have enough to staff their enterprises. This increase in productivity and bidding up of the price of labor is the real source of all improvement in wages and working conditions — not unions and “pro-labor” legislation. Capitalism incentivizes the best minds to produce new products and services for the mass market, which is where the real money is to be made. Capitalism gives each person a vote in what gets produced with their dollars, and even lets them become capitalists themselves via investing in the market. The anti-capitalist propaganda you’ve read is myths — for example, supposed robber baron John D. Rockefeller was a genius industrialist and great man who very much “love[d] the doing.”

Government interference in the economy causes many problems. It causes soaring home prices, tuition rates, and healthcare costs. It encourages people to take out ruinous debt they’ll never pay back. It leads to shortages and rationing. In some cases, including right now in places such as in Venezuela, it literally leads to mass starvation and death. Even though Nazi Germany was actually a socialist state, if we count them separately, socialism has killed way more people than the Nazis did.

Ayn Rand understands the principle that makes all this evil possible: the introduction of force into economic life. The government’s ability to use force is very very dangerous. In some areas, such as providing for the national defense or dealing with criminals, we don’t really have a better alternative, and we need the use of force in those situations to even have a reasonable civilization to live in that isn’t ravaged by criminals and foreign invaders. But when the government starts using its ability to use force in order to interfere with things like paying for university or the price of corn, all sorts of chaos can result.

Rational economic planning requires that everyone be free to plan their own lives according to their own preferences. When this principle is violated, bad things start happening and perverse incentives are created. If the government makes, say, loans available for mortgages cheaper than the market rate by providing a cheap loan guarantee, the first issue there is that the government is using force to override individuals’ judgment about how much lending should be occurring in the mortgage market. Why? Well because the government thinks more people should have access to such loans. Why? Well because the government thinks more people should live in houses they own. Why? And why is the relative merits of buying vs renting something the government is not only taking a position on, but using the force of the state to back up? Why is it diverting resources to this that could be spent by people on building up their small business or educating their kids or donating to anti-aging research?

Another issue is that the normal market mechanisms don’t respond properly when presented with a big pool of money funded by violence. In a free market place, a lender has a lot of skin in the game and wants to mitigate the risk of having a non-performing loan. So the lender will use their judgment and not lend to people who are too risky. This is precisely the “problem” that government-force advocates want to solve when they talk of “expanding access” to loans. They think the judgments of lenders on the free market are too harsh and mean and don’t give the little guy a fair shake. With a government guarantee on the back end, lenders make loans they wouldn’t normally make, and more marginal borrowers take out loans they probably shouldn’t. When it all goes bad, lots of wealth is lost, and somehow capitalism is blamed! 😩

The system where there is some capitalism but lots of exceptions where the government goes around and uses force and causes chaos is often called the mixed economy. So under the mixed economy system, government uses force to gather up a bunch of money, and then uses this money trying to “help” in ways that cause economic chaos. Under socialism the situation is even worse: socialism requires terror and mass murder, as discussed in George Reisman’s book on Marxism which I talk about here. I’m not gonna talk about socialism a lot here, since the mixed economy tends to be more of an active issue of debate anyways. Most people realize that socialism is bad, and even so-called advocates of socialism (with any level of political power in Western countries) mostly want a mixed economy with some more government interference.

Summing up, capitalism is a glorious and rational system compatible with the requirements of human life. A key feature of the political implementation of capitalism is that the government has a very limited role and focuses on protecting people from the initiation of force. The mixed economy involves force and leads to perverse effects, and socialism is great only if you’re the Grim Reaper.

I’m going to end this post here so I can get some feedback, because I’ve already written a bunch. For the next post, I currently intend to talk about some of the following concepts where I think Objectivism has a lot of interesting stuff to say: rationalism, the harmony of interests, second-handedness and social metaphysics, and evasion.

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