February 2002 -- Businessmen profiled in the popular press often mention Atlas Shrugged as their favorite book. Ayn Rand was one of the very few novelists or philosophers who have taken a positive view of business enterprise and achievement. Cultural spokesmen more often regard commerce as a realm of materialism and greed-—amoral at best and often immoral, undeserving of the honor accorded to art, science, and philanthropy. Partly as a result of this widespread attitude, businessmen have been targets of political controls, saddled with onerous regulations and extortionary taxes. No wonder they appreciate an author who not only defends their freedom but regards their activity as morally admirable and virtuous.
But people in business have another reason to value Rand's ideas. Even in a more hospitable culture and political environment, those engaged in the enterprise of business would need a moral framework to guide their work. What standards of value should guide a business's goals? What virtues are needed to succeed in achieving those goals? What principles should corporations adopt in regard to employees, investors, and customers? Codes of professional ethics typically deal with highly specific moral issues, and they consist of isolated rules that need to be integrated into the broader framework of a moral code. But traditional moral codes-—the Ten Commandments, the Christian virtues of faith, hope, and charity-—don't provide much help. They were devised thousands of years ago, long before the Industrial Revolution and the rise of modern corporations and global markets. These moralities are largely irrelevant to business or flatly in conflict with it.
By contrast, Rand's Objectivist ethics is a modern, secular code that recognizes production as the central human value. The virtues embodied in her fictional heroes and explained in her nonfiction essays have a direct bearing on work in the modern economy. The purpose of Ayn Rand and Business is to explore this connection. "The book examines the implications and applications of Rand's thinking for the business reader," the authors explain. "It shows how Randian ideas and concepts can be applied in a business career and in the management of organizations."
Donna Greiner and Theodore Kinni are business writers and entrepreneurs. They maintain a Web-based service that reviews and sells business-related books, and they have co-authored seven books of their own on management, creativity, and other topics. In Ayn Rand and Business, they widen their view to address the moral foundations of business. The result is a work that will be of value to Objectivist and business readers alike.
The authors begin with an overview of Rand's life, major works, and philosophical system. In the central section of the book, they walk the reader through the cardinal values and virtues of the Objectivist ethics, illustrated with examples from business. The final section is the most original: Greiner and Kinni discuss ten principles of management they believe are implied by Rand's philosophy. The writing is brisk, clear, and engaging throughout.
The authors clearly did their homework in order to present Rand's ideas accurately. They rely not only on her novels and major essays on ethics, but also on secondary works such as Leonard Peikoff's survey, Objectivism, as well as Rand's recently published journals. Using those journals, for example, they show how Rand's conception of moral virtues evolved over time-—a point that Objectivists too often forget. They have also mined Rand's writings for her many incidental comments and asides about business.
The chapters on the basic virtues-—rationality, independence, integrity, honesty, justice, productiveness, and pride-—
follow an interesting pattern. Each one begins with a commonsense description of the virtue and its relevance for business, followed by more extended discussions of the key principles implicit in the virtue. Examples are drawn from Rand's novels and from businesses past and present. Dagny Taggart and Hank Rearden, the industrial heroes of Atlas Shrugged
, share these pages with Henry Ford, Walt Disney, Ted Turner, Bill Gates, Conrad Hilton, Jack Welch, Edwin Land, and many others. In addition to the many positive examples of corporations that succeeded by acting in accordance with moral principles, the authors include cases of businesses that failed by violating them. Each chapter ends with Rand's description of the virtue in question, from Galt's speech in Atlas Shrugged
. These passages acquire new resonance and depth from their placement at the end of each discussion rather than the beginning.
For readers who are interested solely in the philosophical content of the Objectivist ethics, there are better sources than Ayn Rand and Business. But the book does provide a solid and concise explanation of the principles, and is unique in relating the abstractions to the reality of production, trade, and corporate organization. The only exception worth mentioning is the chapter on justice, where issues of moral judgment and the trader principle are presented in a jumbled fashion. On the other hand, the book offers many insightful formulations of, and connections among, moral issues. In discussing pride as the virtue of self-creation, for example, the authors cite Benjamin Franklin's famous Autobiography, in which Franklin describes his efforts as a young man to strengthen his moral character through the conscious practice of thirteen virtues. It's a perfect example of the "moral ambitiousness" at the core of the Objectivist conception of pride, and I don't recall ever seeing it used in the Objectivist literature.
Like the treatment of Rand's ideas, the early chapters on her life and literary career are accurate, fair, and well researched. Rand's personal life, and the many ways in which it affected the early years of the Objectivist movement
, have been subjects of great controversy. The authors' treatment of the problems and conflicts of that era struck me as even-handed, although they overemphasize the dogmatic and judgmental element of the movement. That element was present, to be sure. It still is in some quarters. But Greiner and Kinni return to the point again and again throughout the book. Perhaps it is to emphasize that they are not themselves uncritical members of a cult. Perhaps it is to counterbalance their frequent references to Rand as a model of productive achievement. Either way, one gets the sense that they are protesting too much.
For readers who have an interest in business and are already familiar with the basic themes of Rand's ethics, the most interesting part of the book is likely to be the final section presenting ten principles of "Randian Management," such as:
Innovation-—not customers, capital, or government controls-—is the fuel of business success…. (p. 138)
Because the individual mind is the source of all innovation, …companies that focus on the development, freedom, and independence of individual employees will be most successful…. (p. 139)
Employees are traders, not chattel. No one works for you; they work for themselves…. (p. 151)
Purpose is long-term. It helps managers overcome the myopia of short-term thinking and offers an extended perspective that can last for generations…. (p. 163)
All of these principles can be found elsewhere in the countless books on management at your local Barnes & Noble. The contribution of Greiner and Kinni is their use of the Objectivist framework to integrate these principles coherently. They provide enough examples to show inductively why the principles are true, without immersing the reader in repetitive details. And they show how and why these principles of management reflect the broader, more fundamental principles of ethics. In this respect, Ayn Rand and Business can be read alongside Nathaniel Branden's Self-Esteem at Work, which covers some of the same ground from a more psychological perspective.
The book is really intended, however, for readers who are not already familiar with Objectivism
. It would be an excellent resource for courses in business ethics and for executives who want to communicate their organizations' culture and values. It should also be required reading for business journalists, who tend to focus on the rogues and scandals that reinforce their primitive view of business as amoral.
This article was originally published in the February issue of
Navigator magazine, The Atlas Society precursor to
The New Individualist.
David Kelley earned his Ph.D. in philosophy from Princeton University in 1975, and later taught cognitive science and philosophy at Vassar College and Brandeis University. His articles on social issues and public policy have appeared in Harpers, The Sciences, Reason, Harvard Business Review, The Freeman, and elsewhere. His books include Unrugged Individualism: The Selfish Basis of Benevolence; The Contested Legacy of Ayn Rand; The Evidence of the Senses, and The Art of Reasoning, one of the most widely used logic textbooks in the country. Kelley is founder and executive director of The Atlas Society.
TNI articles by David Kelley Atlas Society articles by David Kelley