Objections To Objectivism: A Brief Critique of Ayn Rand’s Ethical Egoism

The Objectivist Club at Stanford is pretty active, and so this seemed like an appropriate first entry in our “Reasonable Answers to Honest Questions” category.

In case you’re not familiar with it, objectivism is the system of philosophy defined by Ayn Rand. It deals with much more than merely ethics, but that’s what I want to comment on today.

Ayn Rand’s ethical theory is of the type known as “ethical egoism,” which means that we should always choose to do things that benefit ourselves (we also call this selfishness). A short way to summarize Ayn Rand’s ethical theory would be “selfishness is a virtue.” That’s not a completely fair summary: she argues for a very specific type of selfishness: an enlightened self‐interest which recognizes that sometimes acting for the good of others actually benefits oneself. Here’s a more detailed description written by one of her fans:

The Objectivist ethics rebuilds morality from the ground up. “You cannot say ‘I love you’ if you cannot say the ‘I’,” wrote Ayn Rand. According to Objectivism, a person’s own life and happiness is the ultimate good. To achieve happiness requires a morality of rational selfishness, one that does not give undeserved rewards to others and that does not ask them for oneself. (source

I sent an email to Ravi Zacharias International Ministries asking them to provide me with a critique of Ayn Rand’s ethical theory. Paul Copan was kind enough to craft this brief reply:

“AYN RAND’S ETHICAL EGOISM (OBJECTIVISM)

  • Rand’s ethical views presuppose a naturalistic fallacy; that is,
    it moves from the descriptive (that we are naturally selfish) to the
    prescriptive (that we ought to look out for Number One). But there is
    nothing logically compelling about making this jump.
  • What happens if there is a conflict of interests? How do we adjudicate between conflicting egos?
  • If the rules of morality are really rules of expediency, then they
    will be obligatory only so long as they are expedient.
  • The pursuit of selfish pleasures/goals eventually leads to anarchy,
    in which everyone does what is right in his own eyes.
  • What happens when an ethical egoist turns into a dictator? It seems
    morally counter‐intuitive to suggest that acting egoistically is legitimate
    for him.
  • The ethical egoistal view is arbitrary. Why should I opt for my own
    good as opposed to society’s good (or the good of some other grouping)?
    It seems that the egoist can give no real reasons for why his view is to be
    preferred.
  • Egoism presumes a universal relevance (i.e., the egoist presumes
    a willingness to see others should embrace this view and act on it, but if
    the egoist does not, then it seems to be a deficient moral view). However,
    if the egoistic ethic is universalized, then it seems that this would go
    against the egoist’s own selfish ends. That is, the egoist wouldn’t
    want his ethic universalized.
  • The ethical egoist can’t be trusted when offering moral advice
    to others since it will be to his own advantage rather than to that of the
    one seeking his advice.
  • Furthermore, even if pursing selfish ends is legitimate, it seems
    hard to believe that this is the only moral virtue. That is, one’s good may
    be an object to pursue, but it need not be the only one.

There is a fuller defense of an objective, divinely‐rooted ethic in the book, True for You, But Not for Me; this can be ordered through RZIM’s order line at 800–448-6766.”

If this topic is of more interest to you, Copan (author of the above critique) also recommends that you read The Ethics of Ayn Rand: Appreciation and Critique by John Piper. Piper takes more space to elaborate on Rand’s theory and points out several elements of it he agrees with.

12 thoughts on “Objections To Objectivism: A Brief Critique of Ayn Rand’s Ethical Egoism”

  1. The very first point — “Rand’s ethical views… move from the descriptive (that we are naturally selfish) to the prescriptive (that we ought to look out for Number One). But there is nothing logically compelling about making this jump.” — is incorrect. Rand never contended that we were “naturally selfish” and certainly her ethics aren’t based on such a silly claim. I haven’t read the rest. You ought to make sure, if you wish to refute something, that you at least understand it at some minimal level.

  2. Hi my name is Courtney and i was wondering if you could help me? Im doing a project on Ethical Egoism and i need help on it! If you could e‐mail me back with info on what to do and how to start it that would be great.

  3. I’ve sent Courtney the info she requested.

    Also, I realized that I never posted any sort of a response to Mark.

    Paul worded his point loosely (probably because he was thinking of popularized versions of self‐centered ethics which people are far more likely to encounter) but was correct in his central thrust. Ayn Rand made an illegitimate move from descriptive to normative. Worse yet, even her descriptive analysis of the human condition is flawed.

    The problem is that she builds upon a false premise: there is no God. In point of fact there is a God, and we are His creations.

    This throws her entire ethical enterprise into a tailspin, because as God’s creations we have actual moral obligations to Him.

    If you are truly interested, I highly recommend the John Piper article I linked to in the original post. He critiques Rand from a very appreciative stance.

    Rand was in many ways an insightful and skillful author, but in the final analysis her worldview does not hold water.

  4. I think Mr.Copan is basing his criticisms on a wrong intrepretation of Ayn Rand’s sort of ethics. For example: “The pursuit of selfish pleasures/goals eventually leads to anarchy,
    in which everyone does what is right in his own eyes.” This is a sort of ethical subjectivism, which Ayn Rand was ardently against. She talks about doing what is right, because it is right, because it is moral, not because of one’s own whim or fancy. I think the criticism Mr.Copan had would be more applicable to the ethics/[nonethics?] of Neitzsche, who argued that one should do what one thinks is right because they think its right. In Rand’s system of morality there is no conflict of interests because both parties (or all parties) know what they can do ethically and act accordingly.

  5. Thus I refute myself:

    It seemed I confused Rand’s version of morality with that of her arch enemy: Kant. Kant argues for moral actions based on duty, as opposed to moral actions based on anything in the world. That is, X is right because its right vs if I do this, then… Upon a further reading of Rand’s works I found that she advocates not moral laws, but something closer to moral guides. She says that a thing is right as much as it brings you happiness and does not contradict the fundamental rules of her system, which are: property rights, individual rights. That is, one may do anything as long as he respects other’s rights.

    Going back to the example of the dictator: this would be wrong in Rand’s morality because it requires that another person sacrifice their happiness to the dictator.

    While I am at it let me attempt to do a point by point analysis of your ‘problems’ with Rand’s system:

    I will need to get back to you on the first one after some more research.

    See “The Virtue of Selfishness”.

    Not sure what you mean by this…

    Egoism leads to anarchy: You seem to have equated egoism with not respecting the rights of others. A truly selfish person would not seek to get from others, but to make for himself. An egoist needs the rule of objective law to protect his property and individual rights, and it is in his best interest to want a government. I think Rand would say Government essentially protects one from other’s irrationality, that is: You can do what you like so long as you dont invade my rights.

    For this one I would have to refer you to “The Fountainhead”. It clearly states “the Creator’s concern is the conquest of nature, the parasite’s concern is the conquest of men.” True egoism, true selfishness makes one not dependant upon others, since one is self‐sufficient. A dictator, on the other hand needs others for his own ends, he cannot live without being the exponent of common good/the ruler of men/etc etc.…

    Why should I look for my own good? Because everybody is responsible for themselves. Also because of the rights of every man to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” not for other people, but for himself. Your view is fundamentally sort of Utilitarian. If this view is so arbitrary then why should you live at all? Surely society would be best served if you gave away your body for medical research of some sort. Think of all the people that you could help if you were to become a “human lab rat”, no need for the doctors to try to predict reults on humans from testing on other animals. Or why not give your house & possesions to the first large group of homeless people you see, why is your good greater than their good, in your system?

    First, the egoist does not care what other people do as long as they do not violate his rights. To want everybody to act according to your moral system is to be a parasite of sorts, you need other people for your own morality, if that is what you meant. Conversely, why is it bad for the ethic to be universalized? Again, you hold the false assumption that an egoist does not respect other’s rights. Rand explicitly states (many times) that one must not seek values from others through ‘force or fraud’. The true egoist would actually be better off if everybody followed a rationally self interested system, for he has a basis to exchange values. For example, if I want a car of type X, and you want a car of type Y, If i had Y and you had X, we can both act in our self interests and exchange cars. This would require you to act in your own self interest, without it I would not be able to trade.

    An egoist’s advice?: think for youself, do whats best for youself. For example, in the first Chapter of “The Fountainhead”, Peter Keating asks Roark whether he should pursue a career at the prestigious architectural firm of Francon & Heyer or whether he should accept a scholarship to some famous school. Roark pretty much tells Keating to do what you think is right, to think for himself. Keating says something to the effect of ‘how do you always know what you want’. Roark replies: how could you not know?

    If you are truly interested in refuting Rand’s work I suggest you actually start from Rand’s premises, not take her work for something that it is not, “put words in her mouth”. Her philosophy is very clearly laid out in “The Virtue of Selfishness”, and may provide you a basis from where to start or may even convince you that it is right. 🙂

    I also suggest that you try to contact people more knowledgable about her work, for I have tried to give the best explanations I could in light of my knowledge, but I am still studying the work myself, and may have some misconceptions about it.

    http://www.objectivistcenter.org/
    http://www.aynrand.org/
    http://www.aynrandsociety.org/
    http://www.peikoff.com/

  6. Jugal,

    You’ve obviously put a lot of thought into this. For the record, I have read The Virtue of Selfishness, although there are many works of Rand’s that I have not read. If I had unlimited time, I would surely read them all. I do not and I likely will not.

    I also don’t have time to hit on every point you raised, so I’ll try to lay my axe at the roots by addressing some recurring errors I noted in your argument.

    First, you conflate my views with those of Paul Copan. I will not defend all of his statements (but I think you misunderstood some of them).

    I also think you’ve misunderstood the type of critique each of us is leveling against Rand. We’re saying that her system is inconsistent, and so your defense “you hold the false assumption that an egoist does not respect other’s rights. Rand explicitly states (many times) that one must not seek values from others through ‘force or fraud’.” is not actually relevant. Copan, for instance, is claiming that the logical outworking of egoism is actually different from what Rand contends.

    I actually find much to agree with in Rand’s system, where it goes askew is her denial of external, binding moral obligations. I don’t deny that some aspects of morality are congruent with the predictions of egoism–but that is not because egoism is completely true anymore than that the Aristotelian model of the universe (though usefully predictive) was completely true.

    Rand’s system, while intriguing, misses the mark in some important areas (especially regarding obligation to our Creator).

  7. Glen,

    Could you give me more concrete examples of what you find inconsistent with Rand’s philosophy, maybe in the form of a real life situation where you find that the philosophy would yield negative results?

    If you like, you can email me so we can go back and forth without wasting space on this board.

  8. We can keep posting here–it’s my website and I don’t mind. I should mention that I don’t have a lot of discretionary time to devote to this, and so if it starts to get bogged down I may just abandon the thread.

    Having said that, I’ll answer your question.

    First, a real‐life example in which Rand’s philosphy breaks down: she did not worship God.

    Second, an explanation: Rand incorrectly assumes there is no God. There is a God, and He is perfect.

    That means that every being ought to recognize and honor that perfection.

    Recognizing and honoring that perfection in another is merely another way of describing worship.

    In addition, there is a Creator and we are His creations. That means that we are His property and He has a right to do with us as He will. Among other things, He has commanded that we worship Him (a supremely rational thing of Him to command–for Him to not recognize His own perfection would be very odd in indeed).

    Finally, the existence of heaven and hell really throw a monkey wrench into ethical egoism. What’s in our long‐term/enlightened self‐interest shifts under this framework.

    That’s probably not the sort of example you had in mind, but it gets to the point. Rand is pretty good when it comes to logic, but good logic can’t save bad axioms.

    You will note that I have not argued for God’s existence (just as Rand did not, as far as I am aware, argue against God’s existence–she just sort of assumed He was not there).

    I’m not really interested in having such an argument in this thread–there’s enough material already on the Internet to satisfy theists and atheists alike.

  9. I have often wondered if altruism was just thinly veiled egoism… For example when one volunteers help, is this selfless or does it just provide the person a way to feel better about himself?

    The answer is not clear, but I now believe that it doesn’t really matter. What seems important is that those that are in the position to help should try and help those that are in need. Ultimately, since objectivism does not instill a responsibility to any one but the self, it leaves helping others as an open question. It seems to me that other people’s needs must sometimes come before one’s own.

  10. I largely agree with your conclusion–that in one sense it doesn’t matter.

    I would point out that most critiques of altruism point to mixed motives as proof of selfish motives. The two are not identical.

    Human motivation is rarely one‐dimensional. We don’t do something just because of A or B. We usually do it for a little bit of A, a little bit of B, and some of C, too.

    So it is with altruism. Rarely are we purely altruistic. But to say that we’re not totally altruistic is not the same thing as saying that we’re totally selfish.

    Rather, our motives are mixed. And that’s okay.

  11. greetings, i’m trying to contact an old friend, moises romanowsky. when i entered his name on google, this site came up, and i see that in march of this year he wrote a comment on something you were studying. in any case, if someone would send along my name and e‐mail to him, along with the message that i’d like to be in touch with him, i’d appreciate it. ciao!

  12. What are the major consequentialist theories of ethical egoisim and utilitarianism? Could you give me some examples and criticism on ethical egoism and utilitarianism.

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