Question: Objectivism defends capitalism, and capitalism is associated with wealth and affluence. However, I read instances, mostly published in the religious press, that go something like this: "Mr. X had enormous wealth. He had two vacation homes, a yacht, a gorgeous wife, and two kids attending the finest colleges in the nation. However, he looked back on his life and sadly lamented, ‘Is that all there is?’ He discovered that material possessions do not relieve the emptiness in life. Religion gives a supernatural answer to Mr.
X's dilemma." How does Objectivism deal with the "Is that all there is?" question?
In the Objectivist
view, pure, laissez-faire capitalism is the "unknown ideal" because it is a social system in which everyone is free to live the life he chooses, respecting the freedom of others. And in the Objectivist view, making money is presumably good, because if it follows from a career of productive achievement, it represents the finest in man and that which is his best mode of living: creation, production, achievement, trade. (See my commentary on the morality of money, forthcoming in the June 2002 Navigator
But money is not the purpose of living. It is merely a store of value, worth only what others will trade for it. And having many valuable possessions is not the purpose of living, either. There is nothing wrong with riches, and often they are part of a truly excellent life, but how much money one makes and how one spends it must all depend on more basic choices, such as the career one prefers, and the needs one has, both physical and spiritual. For my own part, I don't live in poverty, but I am under no illusion that I couldn't have made more money in a different line of work. But then, I might not be doing work I love, as I am now.
In Objectivism, life is the ultimate value. And life is a process of ongoing, self-sustaining action. It never reaches a point where it stops; if it stops, it is dead. Living well is to live fully, engaged in life, pursuing the values that support one's life and give one happiness and a sense of meaning.
From this perspective, it is easy to see why some wealthy people end up unhappy, or with a sense of emptiness. They wanted their goods to provide them with meaning. They did their work, perhaps not because they loved it, but because it paid well—and then they didn't know what to do with the money once they had it! Perhaps they were like the character Peter Keating in Ayn Rand's novel The Fountainhead. He does what society expects of him, and gets no satisfaction from it. That is certainly what the man from your example sounds like.
Objectivism's answer to those who find their lives empty is "go out and live a little." To the workaholic who hates his job, this means having more fun. To the party hound who is jaded and finds no pleasure in festivities, this means finding a demanding career. To some successful people, it may mean taking on bigger or fresher challenges. To some it may mean slowing down and trying a very different line of work. It may require big changes. It may require re-investment in the life they already have. To anyone, it means owning your life, making it truly your own so that every day you know why you are living as you are and what makes it good.
Objectivism doesn't ask people to give themselves up to a religious fantasy, or to social duty. It asks them to do something harder: to find the self and live it. To those who are willing to make that commitment, Objectivism offers the worldview and a technology of living that can make it happen.