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If you were talking to a non-Objectivist (so without O-ist lingo), how would you summarize the key features of Objectivism in everyday terms?

I don't mean things like Ayn Rand's "Objectivism while standing on one foot." Rather, I'm looking for features that are more concretely connected to everyday life.

Or, to put it another way, if someone told you "Objectivism is crazy" (or something along those lines), is there a list of features you could put forward to refute their claim?

asked Aug 18 '11 at 23:52

Rick's gravatar image

Rick ♦

edited Aug 19 '11 at 00:57

I think I have an idea of what the questioner is looking for.

Objectivism holds that you should:

  1. Observe and think. Work to understand the world. Learn what is true. Form valid abstract principles and apply them. Your life fundamentally depends on this.
  2. Live for your own sake, producing what you need, rather than considering the happiness of others to be of primary importance. Like and love only those whom you choose to. Love is not a duty. That others are unhappy is not necessarily your problem.
  3. Promote and work towards a society and government which actually allow people to live for their own sake. Such a society requires the recognition of individual rights, including the right of property. Such a society has permitting happiness as its highest goal, rather than remedying unhappiness. Men must be free to be happy. Some men will be happy first. Such happiness must be protected, by government, from those who would forcibly destroy it.
  4. Recognize and admire those who innovate and live well, rather than attempting to rationalize or indulge a desire to cut them down and take what they have earned. Life is not a zero-sum game, where happy people only become so by making others unhappy. Equality of income, or of outcome, is not a value. By letting people succeed in life, we increase the possibility our own future success.

answered Aug 19 '11 at 14:03

John%20Paquette's gravatar image

John Paquette ♦

I also wrote this in April of 2010: http://toneplay.posterous.com/introducing-objectivism

(Aug 19 '11 at 17:34) John Paquette ♦ John%20Paquette's gravatar image

Interesting list. What about morals and virtues?

(Aug 20 '11 at 19:48) Rick ♦ Rick's gravatar image

I was trying to keep specific virtues implicit. Virtues are implied in "Form valid abstract principles and apply them." Moral principles must be formed. To apply them is to act morally.

If you want to know about specific virtues, read "The Objectivist Ethics" in The Virtue of Selfishness.

My goal was to imply metaphysics, epistemology, ethics and politics in the form of advice. Philosophy, fundamentally, is advice-giving. Number 1 implies reason and reality. 2 implies egoism. 3 implies capitalism. 4 states the proper attitude towards others' happiness.

(Aug 21 '11 at 02:24) John Paquette ♦ John%20Paquette's gravatar image

OK, that makes sense, but then I'm an Objectivist myself and I've read "The Objectivist Ethics" (it's one of Rand's best works, IMO). My concern is that non-Objectivists may not grasp what "Form valid abstract principles and apply them" really means.

(Aug 21 '11 at 03:19) Rick ♦ Rick's gravatar image

Well, there's only so much you can summarize the philosophy and still be meaningful. You are right that "form valid principles and apply them" is pretty meaningless, but for me to give examples of valid principles kind of undermines the idea that one must observe and form one's own principles. My point was mainly to stress intellectual independence. Think for yourself. Figure life out. I didn't want to try to get into the meat of ethics. I wanted to stay high-level: Adhere to reality, live for yourself, fight for freedom, be a friend of the good. Perhaps I could have added: study ethics.

(Aug 21 '11 at 20:14) John Paquette ♦ John%20Paquette's gravatar image
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I'm not quite sure what you're looking for. Rand's "Objectivism on one foot" is a good summary. Another good summary from her is this one-liner: "My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute."

In some situations, I just say it is a secular philosophy that upholds reason, science, technology, industry, business, and capitalism. That's not a great description of Objectivism, but for someone who has no clue what it is, that brief list of keywords gives a sense of where the philosophy stands relative to today's common philosophic positions.

But if someone just says "Objectivism is crazy", there is no magic phrase to make them change their mind. You have to find out why they think that. It is probably because:

  • They know nothing about the philosophy firsthand, but heard a misrepresentation of it from someone else. In that case, find out what their misconception is, and correct it.
  • They know little to nothing about the actual ideas of Objectivism, but they have known one or more self-professed Objectivists who were, in fact, a little crazy. In that case, educate them on what the philosophy actually says, and why their acquaintance's craziness was in spite of Objectivism, not because of it.
  • They know some of the content of Objectivism, such as its advocacy of selfishness or laissez-faire capitalism, and they consider those ideas crazy. In that case, find out what they think those ideas really mean. They probably confuse selfishness with being an amoral brute, or capitalism with anarchy. Again, educate them on the actual meaning of Objectivist concepts and how they work in practice.

Hope that helps.

answered Aug 19 '11 at 02:25

jasoncrawford's gravatar image

jasoncrawford ♦

edited Aug 19 '11 at 02:33

Your second paragraph is in the general direction of what I'm looking for -- just more detailed.

(Aug 19 '11 at 05:46) Rick ♦ Rick's gravatar image

I can see two main reasons for seeking to "summarize Objectivism in everyday terms." One may want to do it primarily for one's own benefit, to understand Objectivist ideas more fully. Or one may already understand Objectivism perfectly well and want to become better able to explain Objectivism persuasively to others. It is possible to combine both goals, as well, although the latter goal generally depends on having already achieved the former.

Over the years, I have often contemplated how best to summarize Objectivism's fundamentals simply and briefly, though primarily for my own better understanding. The aspect of trying to persuade others has been, for me, primarily my own way of testing how well I understand Objectivism myself and how clearly I can express what I understand, rather than primarily to convince others whose own context of knowledge, values and deeper "premises" may be very different from mine.

The most promising approach I have found over the years can be summed up in two major claims: (a) philosophy shapes history, and (b) philosophy shapes individuals. By way of elaboration, I can point out that (b) is actually what causes (a).

I've found that there are innumerable ways to express these basic themes. It's also what Leonard Peikoff endeavors to do in OPAR. He begins Chapter 1 with the following:

Philosophy is not a bauble of the intellect, but a power from which no man can abstain.

And in OPAR's Preface, Dr. Peikoff writes:

Like any proper work of general philosophy, this book is written not for academics, but for human beings (including any academics who qualify).

I also vaguely recall Dr. Peikoff saying once (if I remember correctly) that the best writing and speaking in philosophy is aimed at thirteen-year-olds -- emphasizing the importance of tying abstractions to concretes in reality rather than leaving them as abstractly floating.

In one of my own informal study exercises, I created a series of notes on various specific questions, and prefaced my notes with the following:

These notes are dedicated to my own teenager, and to others everywhere who are young at heart, for the times when they will need philosophical integrations most intensely.

Sooner or later, directly or indirectly, everyone asks fundamental questions about what to believe, how to decide, what to do, and for what purpose. Most people (if they haven't given up) strongly prefer answers that "make sense," i.e., answers that identify particular concretes as instances of larger, more abstract patterns or principles. It is the task of philosophy (at its best) to identify the larger abstractions by which to resolve the concrete issues and challenges of practical living. Man needs philosophy of this kind in order to live effectively— i.e., to know what he is doing or needs to do, and why. Man, in short, needs abstract integrations.

This basic human need gives rise to the entire fields of philosophy and religion, which, in turn, shape not only the policies which individuals adopt and live by, but also (in consequence) the entire history of human existence.

Historically, and to this day, philosophy has been torn by two major, opposing viewpoints, with momentous practical consequences: the mysticism-altruism-collectivism axis (originating with Plato), and the reason-individualism-capitalism axis (inspired by Aristotle). The conflict centers most fundamentally around two epoch-making issues:

(a) The efficacy of reason.
    Few observers today would seriously question the applicability of reason in the physical sciences, technology and industry. But what about the realm of values? Does reason have anything to say about value questions, i.e., personal and social ethics, political principles, the nature and role of art (in all forms), and broad metaphysical generalizations? Are value questions the province of religion, tradition and pragmatic social consensus—or can reason provide effective, satisfying answers? Objectivism upholds reason in all aspects of human existence, all of life's issues. Objectivism shows why reason, man's rational faculty, is man's only practical means of gaining the knowledge needed to achieve a happy and prosperous life.
(b) Altruism versus the morality of individualism.
    The morality of individualism upholds rationality, productiveness, trade, earned self-satisfaction, and personal happiness as fundamentally good for man to practice or seek (also independence, honesty, integrity, and justice). Altruism, in contrast (in purest form), upholds "benefit of others" as the sole and exclusive test of moral virtue (self-sacrifice for others' benefit). In altruism, "anything goes" (even dictatorship) if it's for others (or claims to be); nothing is ever to be permitted for oneself, except perhaps handouts from others if one is sufficiently "needy" and incompetent. The morality of individualism is a highly practical guide for living productively and prosperously on earth; altruism destroys earthly happiness.
The full influence of these issues on man's policies for practical living can be seen more concretely in the following general survey of basic questions about life, and in the penetrating answers offered by Objectivist philosophy. Entire volumes can be written elaborating this influence.

(The complete survey is provided in my notes; the foregoing is only the preface.)

More recently, I also found it necessary (again primarily for my own needs) to reread Galt's Speech in greater detail, focusing on how Ayn Rand develops her principles of ethics. I had found that Galt's Speech is surprisingly complete and definitive in this regard, even more so than "The Objectivist Ethics" (TOE, from VOS Chapter 1). In fact, TOE actually excerpts various passages from Galt's Speech explicitly. Here is my preface to my notes and conclusions from that exercise:

Morality tends to have a powerful influence on human life, for better or worse, even when people try to ignore it or defy it. One may find it deeply unsettling to feel that one is doing something wrong or bad, and deeply reassuring to feel that one is doing something right and good—even if one's feelings (in either case) are only temporary. Approval or disapproval from others can be similarly reasurring or unsettling, too, if one believes that they are expressing valid moral standards, or if one is unsure about it.

Moral principles also powerfully affect entire political systems and historical trends, such as the "Glorious Revolution of 1688" in Britain, the American Revolution of 1776, the French Revolution, and (on a very different view of morality) the Nazi era in Germany and the communist revolutions in Russia, China and elsewhere during the 20th Century. Morality has had far more influence on history than most people realize.

Objectivism asks why this is. Why does morality have such effects? What is it about man and the conditions of his existence that give morality such power over man? Does morality serve some basic human need? If so, what and how?

In Ayn Rand's writings, there are two major references for the Objectivist perspective on morality:

  • Galt's Speech [GS] in Atlas Shrugged. The speech is reprinted in its entirety in Ayn Rand's first nonfiction book, For the New Intellectual [FNI]. Page references [in my notes] are from the Signet paperback edition, with Atlas Shrugged excerpts spanning pp. 95-216.

  • Ayn Rand's book, The Virtue of Selfishness: A New Concept of Egoism [VOS], especially Chapter 1, "The Objectivist Ethics" [TOE], which includes several key excerpts from Galt's Speech. Chapter 3 in VOS offers additional insights on the issue of providing assistance to others. Page references below are from the Signet paperback edition, with Chapters 1-19 spanning pp. 13-168.

    To understand Objectivism's perspective on morality, it is best to study both of the above references directly and carefully. GS provides essential foundation, and TOE provides numerous elaborations and additional perspective. Here [in my notes] are some key highlights, mainly from GS (page references are for FNI).

  • The basic idea again is to try to stimulate interest in Objectivist insights by pointing out man's dependence on fundamental ideas that are within his power to choose, and then let Ayn Rand speak for herself in her own words to anyone who is interested enough to inquire further. I personally am hard pressed to find a better way to explain why philosophical ideas matter in human life and how Objectivism uniquely fills that basic human need.

    Update: Persuading Others

    A comment by the questioner explains that he is looking for a way to cut "through bias and prejudgment" when talking to others about Objectivism. I don't think it is necessarily accurate to describe such situations merely as "significant communication difficulties." If someone clearly shows that he is not open to reason, it is a pointless waste of one's own time to try to reason with him, and also gives him the unearned status of being worthy to reason with, when he isn't. OPAR states the issue as follows (Chap. 1, p. 11):

    ... one might ask, how does one answer an opponent who says: "You've demonstrated that I must accept your axioms if I am to be consistent. But that demonstration rests on your axioms, which I don't choose to accept. Tell me why I should. Why can't I contradict myself?"

    There is only one answer to this: stop the discussion. Axioms are self-evident; no argument can coerce a person who chooses to evade them.

    It may well be that one's adversary is badly misinformed as to what Objectivism actually is, and is pronouncing judgment on a "straw man." But the underlying issue remains: is this person open to evidence and reasoning showing him his errors in regard to what Objectivism actually says? If he isn't, don't treat him as if he is. (And don't assume that he is of any significance in shaping the course of human history. He is almost certainly only a follower, not a leader, unless he is a leader in the anti-reason axis, purposefully and systematically anti-reason through and through, which would make any attempt to reason with him even more futile.)

    One further point: if there happens to be an audience observing the discussion, then one may want to direct one's remarks to the audience rather than to one's immediate adversary. One may want to give the audience some worthwhile insights, particularly regarding any "straw men," on the benevolent assumption that there may be members of the audience who are open to reason.

    answered Aug 20 '11 at 19:39

    Ideas%20for%20Life's gravatar image

    Ideas for Life ♦

    edited Aug 21 '11 at 00:48

    My interest/motivation is the second one you listed; I understand Objectivism well, but I'm looking for better (clear, crisp, concise) ways to explain its key features to others. I've read OPAR, VOS, AS and ITOE and most other books by Rand and Peikoff, along with a lot of other material. Even so, I find I often have significant communication difficulties when talking with non-Objectivists about Objectivism. Part of the problem is lingo, which I can usually avoid easily enough. The harder part is cutting through bias and prejudgment.

    (Aug 20 '11 at 19:59) Rick ♦ Rick's gravatar image

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    Asked: Aug 18 '11 at 23:52

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    Last updated: Aug 21 '11 at 20:14