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Jan 25 12

Why is religion incompatible with Objectivism?

by Jason

Someone asked on Quora, “Why do Objectivists think religion can not exist in the sphere of their philosophy?” and added “I consider myself an Objectivist, but also consider myself religious…. In fact I would go so far as to say that Jesus taught Objectivism at some level.” Here is my answer:

Objectivism is broader than the ideas of individualism and selfishness. It is an entire philosophy that includes metaphysics and epistemology.

In metaphysics, Objectivism says there is only one reality, that which we all perceive. It “denies any supernatural dimension presented as a contradiction of nature, of existence. This applies not only to God, but also to every variant of the supernatural ever advocated or to be advocated. In other words, we accept reality, and that’s all.” (Ayn Rand Lexicon, “Atheism”) Also: “‘God’ as traditionally defined is a systematic contradiction of every valid metaphysical principle.” (The Philosophy of Objectivism lecture series)

In epistemology, it says that man can know the world, and that reason is his onlymeans of knowledge. Faith is “only a short-circuit destroying the mind.” (Galt’s speech, Atlas Shrugged)

So Objectivism is explicitly atheist, denying not only the Christian religion, but religion as such.

Moreover: Christianity, from the teachings of Jesus to the modern Church, is anti-individualism and anti-selfishness. The ideal of Christianity is subordinating the individual to God. It says you should sacrifice your worldly desires and values to God.

Christianity is anti-money (“It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of heaven”); Objectivism is pro-money. Christianity is against sexual pleasure; Objectivism is for it. Christianity regards charity to the poor as a moral duty; Objectivism regards it as at best an optional, personal choice, not morally required. Christianity is anti-abortion and anti–birth control; Objectivism supports both abortion rights and birth control.

The sharp contrast and deep conflict between Rand and Jesus has been in the news lately, as Republicans try to embrace both. A search for “rand vs jesus” turns up a lot of relevant articles; one by Andrew Sullivan is short and to the point.

See also the entries in the Ayn Rand Lexicon on “Religion” and “Mysticism”.

Jan 2 12

Free Objectivist Books project launches a dedicated website

by Jason

Last July I announced an offer to send a free copy of any Objectivist book to any student who pledged to read it. I got dozens of requests, more than I could fulfill on my own, and several generous donors helped me fulfill them all. Many students wrote nice thank-you notes in response.

In order to open this offer up on an ongoing basis, and to reach many more readers, I am launching a dedicated website for this project:

Sign up today to get a free book, or to donate books to eager readers! And feel free to pass this on to a friend, forward it to a mailing list, or post it on a relevant board or group.

Sep 1 11

Does Steve Jobs deserve criticism for his lack of public philanthropy?

by Jason

This question was asked on Quora. Of course one person answered yes, he should give and do it publicly. Several answers said no; however, the reasons given were: he might be giving privately; he might give later; he “gives back” in other ways; and he might not be good at charity. (!) No one said that Jobs has a moral right to his money and his life. So I added this answer:

Not at all. Charity is not a moral duty—not for the rich or for anyone else. Jobs earned every penny of his fortune and he has the right to do whatever he wants with it. Moreover, he has the right to spend his precious and limited time on earth however he wants. If his health, his family, and his company are his top priorities, how can anyone tell him that he ought to care about something else more?

The idea of “giving back” to the “community” assumes that we have all taken something from this amorphous “community”. There is no such obligation. You owe gratitude and reciprocity to the people who have helped you in your life—but nothing to “the community” at large.

You may choose to help others in ways large or small, if you think they’re worthy of it, if it makes you happy to help, and if it’s worth your time and money. But if you don’t so choose, you haven’t deprived anyone of anything that was their right. And if you do so choose, those you help are the lucky recipients of your generosity, and they owe you gratitude.

To criticize Jobs in particular is a terrible injustice. This man has achieved more in the last ten years alone than most people dream of achieving in a lifetime. Not only has he led the creation of some the best consumer devices of our time, he has inspired millions with his achievement. He has shown the world how beautiful products can be and how much we can enjoy using them. And he is an exemplar of living one’s life with integrity and passion. After all that, no one has grounds to criticize him for anything, let alone how he spends his own money.

Aug 18 11

How would you summarize Objectivism—and prove it’s not crazy?

by Jason

On Objectivist Answers someone asked: “How would you summarize the key features of Objectivism?” In their elaboration they added: “if someone told you ‘Objectivism is crazy’ (or something along those lines), is there a list of features you could put forward to refute their claim?” Here is my answer:

Rand’s “Objectivism on one foot” is a good summary. Another good summary from her is this one-liner: “My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.”

In some situations, I just say it is a secular philosophy that upholds reason, science, technology, industry, business, and capitalism. That’s not a great description of Objectivism, but for someone who has no clue what it is, that brief list of keywords gives a sense of where the philosophy stands relative to today’s common philosophic positions.

But if someone just says “Objectivism is crazy”, there is no magic phrase to make them change their mind. You have to find out why they think that. It is probably because:

  • They know nothing about the philosophy firsthand, but heard a misrepresentation of it from someone else. In that case, find out what their misconception is, and correct it.
  • They know little to nothing about the actual ideas of Objectivism, but they have known one or more self-professed Objectivists who were, in fact, a little crazy. In that case, educate them on what the philosophy actually says, and why their acquaintance’s craziness was in spite of Objectivism, not because of it.
  • They know some of the content of Objectivism, such as its advocacy of selfishness or laissez-faire capitalism, and they consider those ideas crazy. In that case, find out what they think those ideas really mean. They probably confuse selfishness with being an amoral brute, or capitalism with anarchy. Again, educate them on the actual meaning of Objectivist concepts and how they work in practice.


Aug 7 11

Ayn Rand’s works: Where to start?

by Jason

Someone asked on Quora: “For the Objectivist, what are Ayn Rand’s most important works? I want to get into Ayn Rand and her philosophy but don’t know where to start.” Here is my answer:

Start with Ayn Rand’s fiction. It is more motivating than her non-fiction (to most people), and it will give you a view of her philosophy as an integrated whole, with all of its implications for how man should live his life. Start with Atlas Shrugged, or perhaps The Fountainhead. These are her two major novels. I tend to recommend Atlas for people who are more interested in politics, society, history, and culture; and Fountainhead for people who are more interested in personal ethics—how to live one’s life and deal with others. (Atlas, though, is not primarily about politics; it presents an entire philosophy.)

If you’d like to learn more about Objectivism after you read these two novels, or if for some reason you prefer to start with non-fiction, you should pick a book according to whatever subject interests you most:

  • For ethics, The Virtue of Selfishness
  • For politics, Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal
  • For epistemology, Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology
  • For art, The Romantic Manifesto

All else being equal, I’d suggest reading them in the order they were published, which will help you follow Rand’s thinking as she developed it. The Ayn Rand Institute has a chronological list.

If you have some very specific topics you’d like to know Rand’s opinion on, or if you’d like to browse and sample her work, check out The Ayn Rand Lexicon: Objectivism from A to Z, which is available free online. When you find a particularly interesting passage, look up the essay and book it’s from and start there.

Apart from Rand’s own work, the most important book is Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, by her student and close associate Leonard Peikoff. This is the only single book that summarizes the entire philosophy of Objectivism; Rand never wrote such a book herself. When you’ve read some of Rand’s original works and would like to get an overview of the philosophy, this is an excellent place to turn.

The Ayn Rand Institute also has a suggested reading list.

Jul 31 11

How do you distinguish between acting on a whim vs. being spontaneous?

by Jason

This question was asked on Objectivist Answers. The questioner elaborated: “When is it moral to act spontaneously? How do you evaluate an emotional response to do so?” Here is my answer:

It’s moral to act spontaneously as long as your reason tells you that doing so is consistent with your values and your life.

For instance, suppose you have a spontaneous desire to go out to eat at a nice restaurant tonight, instead of cooking at home like you normally do. All else being equal, acting on this spontaneous desire is just pursuing your values.

On the other hand, consider the same situation, except that as soon as you have the desire, some issues occur to you. Can I really afford this, on my budget? Do I have the time to go out tonight, given that I have a project due tomorrow? Will I be able to stay on my diet?

Now, you might still go out—but morality demands that you not evade these issues. You have to decide whether they are valid objections, and make a conscious, deliberate decision based on your values. Not that this has to take a long time—sometimes a moment’s thought is all that is required to deal with concerns like these. But to push them out of your mind without thinking is to evade.

Evading concerns to pursue a desire turns it into a whim, in Ayn Rand’s usage of that term: “A ‘whim’ is a desire experienced by a person who does not know and does not care to discover its cause.” (“The Objectivist Ethics,” as quoted in the Ayn Rand Lexicon entry on Whims/Whim-Worship).

Morality does not demand that you pursue a value only after long and serious consideration. Acting spontaneously or impulsively can be fine. Morality demands only that you use your mind to guide your choices and actions—that if you pursue a value based on a desire, you do so by permission of your reason. The whim-worshipper puts emotion in charge and allows it to override reason.

Jul 28 11

Is it ever moral to be dishonest?

by Jason

This question was asked on Objectivist Answers. Here is my answer:

No, not if you mean literally dishonest. Honesty is “the refusal to fake reality” (OPAR, p. 267, cited in the Glossary of Objectivist Definitions). Dishonesty thus consists of faking reality in some way, and is never moral.

Dishonesty is not the same as lying or deceit. Not every lie is dishonest, in the sense of faking reality. To lie is “to make an untrue statement with intent to deceive” (Merriam-Webster). Most lies are dishonest—for instance, lying about cheating on one’s wife in order to preserve a marriage, or about one’s qualifications in order to get a job. But there are honest lies—to protect oneself from a criminal, for instance; to deceive the enemy in wartime; even to protect one’s privacy from the prying questions of strangers.

Jul 27 11

OPAR to Bulgaria and a nice thank-you note

by Jason

One of the first books from the Free Objectivist Books project goes to a high school student in Bulgaria, who wrote a nice thank-you note which read in part:

It was the best surprise of the month actually, I can’t describe how great I think it is what you do—giving away Objectivist books so that people will get to know (more of) Objectivism. I myself try and seek out for sparkles in people’s eyes when I talk about Rand’s works but I have had little success by now. However I have been able to get people interested in her works and I know how it feels when you open a person’s eyes to reality.

… When I see people like you, doing such things, it kind of gives me hope for my future—hope more like motivation, based on the few great things people have done for me. I don’t think I can thank you enough in an email but, I believe, you have your selfish benefit from this giveaway, too. So Thank You!

He has already read many of Rand’s works, so I sent him a copy of Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, the summary by Dr. Leonard Peikoff.

Jul 24 11

Free Objectivist books!

by Jason

I am offering free Objectivist books—including Atlas Shrugged and many others—to anyone who pledges to read them. This is a limited-time offer for the first ten people who take it, so act now! (I may do another round of this in the future, but no promises.)

Full details

Jul 24 11

How can an objective theory of value permit personal preference?

by Jason

My answer to this question is one of my top-voted answers on Objectivist Answers. It’s also one of my personal favorites. Here it is in full:

How can an objective theory of value not permit personal preference?

“Objective” means “based on both the facts of reality and the nature of man’s consciousness.” An objective theory of value says that a value must have a real, factual, positive relationship to your life—but that it must be good to someone and for something. In other words, a value must be good for a reason, not just on the basis of a whim or emotion (as the subjective theory would have it), but nothing is just “intrinsically good” or good “in itself”.

An objective theory of value, however, recognizes that some values are universal and some are personal. What flavor of ice cream you like (and whether you like ice cream at all) is a personal value. In contrast, food as such is a universal value—no matter who you are, you need food to live!

Objectivism certainly does not prescribe all values. (It would hardly be a philosophy of individualism if it did!) It identifies certain major, important, universal values—above all: reason, purpose, self-esteem. But it recognizes that many, many values are personal: everything from what flavor of ice cream you like to what specific career you choose.

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