By pursuing self-interest individuals end up achieving the greater good. Objectivism is not a difficult idea to enunciate. It is difficult for many to understand because it contradicts conventional wisdom.
On an epistemological level Objectivism assumes that everything has a specific nature, and that objects react to outside forces because of that nature1. (This is where Objectivism gets its name.) It accepts the scientific method as a way to explore the universe. In this sense, it is much like pragmatism in that it views the world in a way that says, "what works is what is true".
With such established ideas as a premise, Objectivism moves on to state that there are no other forces in the universe, magic, and supernatural processes do not play a part. Because of this, the only way to gain knowledge is through reasoning and experimentation. To take this a step further Objectivists then reject feelings, hunches, faith, and unfounded beliefs as a way of understanding and interacting with the world.
Moving From the General to the Individual
Ayn Rand was the creator of Objectivist philosophy. It is one of the few popular philosophic movements developed by a woman. She saw the human individual as an end. She saw human freedom as the ideal state of the individual. She proposed that "Rationality is man's basic virtue, and his three fundamental values are: reason, purpose, and self-esteem."2 With this as a basis, she reasoned that since every human is an end in himself he should not be exploited by others and, in turn, should not infringe on the basic rights of others, but should ultimately work for his own "rational self-interest". Rational self-interest might encompass supporting a family or works of charity, and on a more "selfish" level might also include making enough money to buy a sports car. What it would not include is political activism that would exploit one class for the benefit of others. This would violate the ethical consideration that we should not harm others.
Ayn Rand then illustrated that the ideal relationship among people is freely trading among themselves "value for value". In this system it is in the best interest of every person to create value that can be exchanged. This becomes a powerful force within society. People are happiest when they produce quality goods or services; people are also happy when they receive these goods and services in exchange for their own. In this way, Objectivism encourages the best in people. Incredible value is then created, by which all members benefit by at least as much as they are willing to put in. If this sounds like capitalism, it is because it is how capitalism works.
In this way Objectivism can be seen as an ethical justification for the ideas put forth by Adam Smith, in his game changing book The Wealth of Nations. While Smith works on the macro-level, Rand applies her philosophic system directly to individuals. She sees the great producers as heroic.
Objectivism and Politics
The problem with society is that certain groups work to gain value without giving any return for it. Objectively, this is an immoral act, if not always a criminal one. It is usually accomplished on a large scale by political means where tax structures redistribute wealth. This has the effect of punishing the producers and creating a disincentive to continue value creation. Ayn Rand understood this and her works illustrate society at war with itself, first in The Fountainhead where the vitality and effect of society's producers even in the face of exploitive governments is amply illustrated, and then in Atlas Shrugged which is about what would happen to the world if the producing class simply "went on strike".
Objectivists take a generally libertarian view of politics. Government should minimize its role in every sphere, social, moral, economic. The role of government then is to provide the atmosphere that allows Objectivism to do its job. That is, provide law enforcement and national defense. Skeptics might argue that this system is one of greed where economic power will gather in the hands of a few. History has not born out this criticism. Quite the opposite. In collective societies standards of living generally decline, while the less government involvement there is within a country the better is the standard of living for all. This is because there is a dynamic involved in Objectivism where innovation and continuous striving for better value keeps the economic strata in constant flux. Whereas collectivist systems reward complacency and bureaucratic stagnation.
One of the interesting facets of Objectivism is that for it to work it does not require that every citizen be an adherent. In fact, people pursuing their own agenda is largely what Objectivism is all about. The only thing the philosophy requires is that individuals treat each other by a code of ethics. Not that they leave each other alone, but that they not interfere in private affairs where there is no invitation, no trade of value.
Esthetics and Objectivism
Esthetics is the study of beauty, answering the question, what is art? The Objectivist answer is that art is the interpretation of an individual's view of reality. Ayn Rand called her own version of this "Romantic Reality". The idea was to present people, institutions, and things as they ought to be, to illustrate the ideal, but at the same time constrain them to the here and now. She did this in the context of her writing. However, this idealism could be applied to any art form.
Biography of Ayn Rand >>
- Objectivism 101
- Ayn Rand and the Essentials of Objectivism