How far is too far to go for the virtue of happiness? Should we forgo our human nature in its pursuit? Ayn Rand, one of the leading voices of Objectivism, would answer yes. Preaching the virtue of total selfishness, she calls upon consumers of a capitalist society to pursue happiness through whatever means necessary and to allow others to do so. Objectivism rejects the basis of human interaction and nature for the sake of selfishness, and while we try to ignore Aristotle rolling over in his grave, this does seem to have a twisted root in the Nicomachean Ethics.
For the sake of our examination of Objectivism, we will hold Aristotelian ethics and politics to be true. In Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle claims that happiness is the end result of our pursuit of the good, and other virtues that are acquired and mastered along the way can be considered “bonus” virtues, as they are not the end result of one’s toils and faculties. Aristotle writes “…but always, in whatever we do and in whatever we choose, the end. For it is always for the sake of the end that all else is done.” He claims that in order to achieve this end, one must perfect their virtue and practice of their art or science. It goes without saying that each particular individual masters a different art or science, providing the diversity in both culture and the market. He continues to describe the nature of a happy person, stating a disposition to happiness may come naturally, by habit, or by training. For example, if a child is brought up in virtue and goodness, he will continue to live that way throughout the rest of his life, with the instruction of others and oversight of the law. It is in this aspect that Ayn Rand takes a dramatically different approach to happiness. The objectivist philosophy has four basic ideals: reality, reason, selfishness, and capitalism.
As Ayn Rand blatantly puts it in her text The Metaphysical Verses the Man-Made; “The primary existence (of reality) is the axiom that existence exists.” According to Ms. Rand, we must accept reality for what it is, regardless of what we hope for the future or wish to happen. Existence exists outside of any particular consciousness or knowledge, which would suggest that it is an absolute. However, in compliance with the Law of Identity, a philosophical notion of Aristotle himself, an object must exist as something and have a distinct identity. Without that identity, the thing itself cannot exist and it is nothing. Since existence is not an object, it cannot exist with a distinct identity. It might logically follow that existence is meaningless or nothing; however, Rand also claims consciousness or knowledge is “being the faculty of perceiving that which exists.” Rand contradicts herself in this point; if existence requires recognition to exist, then it is not an absolute, as she claims. Further more, if each individual seeks their own distinct happiness, which objectivism would support, then each person perceives existence to be something different, again proving that it is not an absolute, but a relative notion. Reality, therefore, is also relative to the individual.
Rand also claims reason to be an absolute. She suggests in her novel Atlas Shrugged, that reason is the root and cause of all morality and logic and the rejection of reason is the cause of vice. However, to fully apply this argument, we must completely reject human emotion and passions, as either one would mislead the individual into an illogical course of action. This would include relationships with others based on emotion, or friendship. In order to fully embrace reason, as the bane of humanity’s existence, each must live alone, unless it is a relationship of utility, meant to fulfill a personal pursuit of happiness and nothing further. This leads us to her third principle of Objectivism, selfishness. In her nonfictional work The Virtue of Selfishness, she rejects the morality based on sacrifice and preaches free choice as long as the individual acts rationally. In other words, each person should look out for his or her self and no one else, and there is no moral obligation. The easiest way to achieve this notion of self-indulgence with no ethical or moral obligation is through capitalism.
As Ludwig von Mises so eloquently states in his work Liberty and Property, “Capitalism is not simply mass production, but mass product to satisfy the needs of the masses.” von Mises and Rand would agree in this aspect. As part of objectivism, capitalism serves as both a means to meet needs, but also to meet desires and passions. Since the self must be put before anything, or anyone else, capitalism provides the objectivist with materials needed to provide for the self. Keeping in mind that objectivism is intended as a philosophy for the workingman, Von Mises and Rand are on the same page. In Atlas Shrugged, Rand says “If man is to live on earth, it is right for him to use his mind, it is right to act on his own free judgment, it is right to work for his values and keep the product of his work.” Each person is free to pursue his or her own values and reap the benefits of his or her work with no moral obligation to anyone else and with little involvement of the governing body. This would include charities, taxation, and tithing. Capitalism and self interest work hand in hand, but Objectivism has a major clashing with it’s supposed roots in Aristotle’s ethics and politics: the function of society and the community needed to pursue happiness.
In The Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle claims that happiness is the end result of our pursuit of the good, and other virtues that are acquired and mastered along the way can be considered “bonus” virtues, as they are not the end result of one’s toils and faculties. He claims that in order to achieve this end, one must perfect their virtue and practice of their art or science. It goes without saying that each particular individual masters a different art or science, providing the diversity in both culture and the market.
The excellence of one’s art or science is the practice of one’s virtue. In the example of the harper verses the good harper that is provided in the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle says, “the harper’s function is to harp and the good harper’s to harp well”. In this example, the good harper is preforming his function well, with much practice, in order to master his virtue and ultimately find happiness. He goes on to outline three types of dispositions of happy people; those who are naturally disposed to happiness, those who make a habit out of striving for happiness and those who are trained in virtue in order to find happiness. It is the latter two that are ignored by objectivism, for they imply that the pursuer of virtue must have community in order to be held accountable in his habit and to practice his training.
In Politics, Aristotle claims “Man is by nature a social animal; an individual who is unsocial naturally and not accidentally is either beneath our notice or more than human. Society is something that precedes the individual. Anyone who either cannot lead the common life or is so self-sufficient as to not need to, and therefore does not partake of society, is either a beast or a god.” If we hold this to be true, then society and the pursuit of happiness are completely co-dependent. Without society and the consideration of others, one cannot practice and master his or her virtue. Without happiness and the pursuit of virtue, the state would cease to exist. In Ethics, Aristotle also recognizes that certain virtues require the possession of material objects. Consumerism is acceptable in this depiction of ethics and the state, but the state and community with others is not to be ignored.
Although Objectivism looks good on paper, the essence of humanity that Aristotle recognizes in community takes it from a viable philosophical option to a notion of those who do not wish to consider others. Although Ayn Rand credits Aristotle for the foundations of Objectivism, the insistence of selfishness and lack of emotion in favor of reason causes it to miss the mark completely.
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- Quick Meme. “Oh, You like ayn rand? you must be one moody, rebellious youngster..” quickmeme. http://www.quickmeme.com/meme/35vne6 (accessed June 27, 2014).