Question: What is Objectivism's take on the value of people who are not as brilliant or talented as the main characters in Rand's novels? I am disheartened by the thought that these people are considered "useless" (as not everyone can be a Howard Roark, Dagny Taggart, or John Galt when it comes to brain power). Yet that is the impression I get from her books.

Answer: Objectivism holds that each person has moral worth and that each person can be proud and happy. It is not an elitist philosophy in that sense, and certainly does not consider less able people "useless."
Yet neither is it egalitarian. People differ in aptitudes and abilities. Some people are smarter, more efficient, or harder-working than others. Some people do better at certain tasks than others. Some live better lives than others. Some people drive the motor of the world, and others (more through moral default than through any lack of ability) are just along for the ride.
To understand Objectivism's view of differences in ability, there are two key ideas to consider:
First: The purpose of morality is each person's own happiness in life. Hank Rearden's happiness is (or should be) his highest purpose. But for any janitor in Rearden's factories, that person's happiness is that person's moral purpose in life. Thus Rearden has no moral claim on his janitor except what is ultimately in his janitor’s rational self-interest. The two can cooperate to mutual benefit because their interests are not in conflict. Rearden may have more ability than his janitor (at least in engineering and business; perhaps the janitor plays guitar better), but Rearden is not rich at the price of his janitor's being poorer. Ayn Rand remarks on this in the strike scene: Rearden does not exploit his workers, getting rich by making them poor. He enriches his workers by creating an environment in which each is far more productive and earns far more than he would be able to do working on his own. Thus at the John Galt Line press conference, when Dagny says she plans to take the public for every dime she can get, Rand is presenting an ironical scene: Dagny in fact is offering nothing but benefit to her customers.
This fundamental individualism extends to politics as well. We each have equal rights to live free from force. We have equal rights to own property, contract, speak, and pursue our happiness generally. No individual should stand higher than any other before the law.
Second, a free society makes possible a social "pyramid of ability." If one person achieves greater social esteem, they achieve it through the voluntary accolades of their fellows. Rearden is rich in Atlas Shrugged because he is supremely able. His customers give him the accolade of buying his products. His workers give him the accolade of working for him. No swindler or poseur can last for long under a system of open economic and social competition. In such a system, if society holds in esteem someone unworthy (some Hollywood celebrities come to mind), the members of society who do so have no one to blame but themselves. If all people accept Rand's basic moral attitude, then they will hold even stars of industry, the academy, and the arts up to high standards.
In The Fountainhead, one of Roark's good friends is Mike the electrician. Roark is a brilliant, college-educated architect. Mike never went to college, and is suspicious of college boys. But they become friends over their mutual respect and shared values. Mike would not tell Roark how to design a building, and Roark would not tell Mike how to put in the wiring. What Rand is representing here is the pyramid of ability and her fundamental individualism.
So less intelligent people are uniquely valuable to themselves. And they are as valuable to others as they care to be, within the constraints of their abilities. Their self-worth does not depend on their social position. Their ability to live by reason does depend on the relative facility with which they can calculate, compose, or memorize.


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