Fall 2009 issue -- Jennifer Burns summarizes the essential structure of Objectivism in one place in her biography, a single paragraph on page 148:
“It was all adding up to one integrated system. Man was a rational creature who used his mind to survive. The rational faculty required independence and individuality to operate properly; therefore an ethic of selfishness was appropriate for rational men.”
This a peculiar characterization. It seems to say that for Rand, ethical egoism is the proper stance in morality because humans have a rational faculty. It makes it sound as if the question of whether egoism is the correct basis for morality depends in Rand’s account on whether or not we can manage our emotions by rational means.
But in fact, Rand’s egoism derives from two fundamental facts.
1) We are living beings. As such, we face the fundamental alternative of life versus death as individuals.
2) We have free will. We must choose what to think and how to act as individuals.
Rand emphasizes this point in John Galt’s climactic speech in Atlas Shrugged, where Galt proclaims: “My morality, the morality of reason, is contained in a single axiom: existence exists—and in a single choice: to live. The rest proceeds from these.” (Atlas Shrugged, p. 944)
If our reason were limited—if we depended on instincts or mystical revelations to be able to survive—then, insofar as we chose to live, we would need to follow those instincts or bow to those revelations. It is a fact that reason is not fundamentally limited—it’s an aspect of existence, one might say. That we have no major, reliable instincts, and that mystical revelations are not a means to truth, are both facts as well. Given that we choose life as our goal rather than death—happiness rather than suffering, emotionally speaking—then the fact that reason is our means of survival makes rationality the keynote of a life-promoting ethics.
Man, as a living being faces the challenge of survival fundamentally alone. Man’s life is his own. Man’s death happens only to him. And each person alone chooses his actions. That is the ultimate source of Rand’s individualism and her ethical egoism.
That this doesn’t imply a world of dog-eat-dog—and that it does imply a society based on cooperation, trade, and respect for the rights of others—is due the fact that we need and rely on reason. Rationality is not the justification for egoism. Rationality is an implementation of it.
> return to "Goddess Undeified"