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Was Rand a moral relativist? If not how so?

asked Sep 29 '10 at 19:56

capitalistswine's gravatar image

capitalistswine ♦

edited Sep 30 '10 at 15:29

Greg%20Perkins's gravatar image

Greg Perkins ♦♦


Rand's theory of values can be called "relational" for the reason that values are always values to someone for some purpose. For this reason, moral principles must be applied within a particular context, and therefore Objectivism rejects the idea that morality can be understood as a list of commandments such as "Thou shalt not kill."

But the wider context is always human life as directed by a human mind, both of which have definite requirements that no individual or group can change through wishes, hopes, or fears. Thus the external world sets conditions that all humans must recognize and follow if they want to live.

Moral relativism, as it is commonly understood, is more precisely called moral subjectivism. This is the theory that moral standards are purely products of consciousness, either individual or collective. (The relativism part comes in when people inevitably disagree with one another; and so, the subjectivists claim, we can at most have "truth" relative to one person versus another, or relative to one group versus another.) The important thing missing from any form of moral subjectivism is a role for external reality, and human nature in particular.

Objectivism recognizes the fact of human nature and its crucial role in morality, and is therefore not subjectivist.

answered Sep 29 '10 at 21:04

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Andrew Dalton ♦

No. See the entry on "Subjectivism" in The Ayn Rand Lexicon, specifically the subsection on ethics.

Some key quotes from "The Objectivist Ethics" (published in The Virtue of Selfishness):

Today, as in the past, most philosophers agree that the ultimate standard of ethics is whim (they call it “arbitrary postulate” or “subjective choice” or “emotional commitment”)—and the battle is only over the question of whose whim: one’s own or society’s or the dictator’s or God’s. Whatever else they may disagree about, today’s moralists agree that ethics is a subjective issue and that the three things barred from its field are: reason—mind—reality.

If you wonder why the world is now collapsing to a lower and ever lower rung of hell, this is the reason.

If you want to save civilization, it is this premise of modern ethics—and of all ethical history—that you must challenge.

And later:

The subjectivist theory of ethics is, strictly speaking, not a theory, but a negation of ethics. And more: it is a negation of reality, a negation not merely of man’s existence, but of all existence. Only the concept of a fluid, plastic, indeterminate, Heraclitean universe could permit anyone to think or to preach that man needs no objective principles of action—that reality gives him a blank check on values—that anything he cares to pick as the good or the evil, will do—that a man’s whim is a valid moral standard, and that the only question is how to get away with it. The existential monument to this theory is the present state of our culture.

answered Sep 30 '10 at 02:28

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jasoncrawford ♦

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Asked: Sep 29 '10 at 19:56

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Last updated: Sep 30 '10 at 15:29