Ayn Rand's Ethics

[NOTE: This is not a treatise on Rand's ethics and only addresses the most often misunderstood aspect of those ethics, a misunderstaning that makes the rest of her ethical principles impossible to understand. For her complete ethics see, The Virtue of Selfishness.]

I regard Ayn Rand as a friend, not in the sense of an acquaintance, but in the sense of being an individual of like mind and soul. I regard individualism as the ultimate virtue, and a self-sufficient individual as the kind of human most worthy of my respect and love. In the words of her fictional character, Howard Roarke: "I've always demanded a certain quality in the people I liked. I've always recognized it at once—and it's the only quality I respect in men. ... A self-sufficient ego. Nothing else matters." [The Fountainhead, "Part Four—11"]

[NOTE: This article is reprised from one I did in 2010 with the title, My Friend Ayn Rand. My views have not changed since then, but I would definitely express some of them differently today. The whole quote from The Fountainhead above is: "I've always demanded a certain quality in the people I liked. I've always recognized it at once—and it's the only quality I respect in men. I chose my friends by that. Now I know what it is. A self-sufficient ego. Nothing else matters."

I replaced the sentence, "I chose my friends by that," with elipses in the original quote because I do not agree with it. I have many friends who are not consistently independent individualists but in all of them there is enough individualism, self-suffinciency, and integrity to make them worth knowing and enjoying their company. If one really restricted their relationships with others to those who were completely "self-sufficient" in everything, one would have few if any friends. I will say that the degree of my friendship with anyone is in direct correspondence to the degree of those friends' individualism and independence, but its not something I judge in them. I'm not in the business of judging others, but of enjoying the great variety of human interest I find in them.]

I never met Ayn Rand, and by the time I discovered her, I had most of my philosophy developed, and much of it written. That was in the early 60s. It was wonderful to find someone writing the very things I was thinking, because up until that time, I believed I was the only one who was thinking such things.

She was very popular, of course, which very much encouraged me, because I was certain I was now going to find others of like mind and interests. After all, if so many admired Rand and her works, they must have truly understood her and appreciated the principles of virtue and individualism at the heart of her philosophy.

Of course I was disappointed in that. Even today, with so many claiming to be, "Objectivists," and admirers of Rand, there are very few who understand her philosophy, and even more promoting ideas in the name of that philosophy which I find, as Rand would have found, to be revolting.

Some Differences

We do not agree on everything, my friend Ayn and I, though I have always agreed with the direction her philosophy took. For the most part my disagreement with her was that she had not gone far enough. She insisted on rationality in everything, but I think she let some irrational things slip in. For example, her idea of certain "automatic processes" of consciousness, which she asserted, but never explained.

If I had ever met her I would have explained why I disagreed with her. "If a philosopher is going explain something in terms of an, "automatic process," that philosopher is obliged to say what that process is, how it works, and how it can be known the results of the process are valid," I would have explained.

[Note: If you are unfamiliar with Rand's philosophy, the following is one example of where she invoked an unexplained automatic process. Another was in the area of emotions.

"A percept is a group of sensations automatically retained and integrated by the brain of a living organism. It is in the form of percepts that man grasps the evidence of his senses and apprehends reality." [Ayn Rand, Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, Page 5] [Emphasis mine.]

One of the things I've always admired about Rand is that she readily admitted and corrected her mistakes when she discovered them. One such mistake was her early belief she could promote individualism by the same methods the left uses to promote collectivism. Of course she learned that herself, and in the end insisted that Objectivism was not to become an organized movement, which all of today's so-called, "Objectivists," ignore.

"I regard the spread of Objectivism through today's culture as an intellectual movement—i.e., a trend among independent individuals who share the same ideas—but not as an organized movement. ... I want, therefore, to make it emphatically clear that Objectivism is not an organized movement and is not to be regarded as such by anyone." [The Objectivist—June 1968, "A Statement Of Policy, Part I"]

That willingness to correct mistakes would have encouraged me to address another mistake I think she made when she named her book on ethics, The Virtue of Selfishness. I think the title is a mistake, not because I do not agree with those ethics, but because I do.

We would have fought about that, I know. I understand why she chose that title and I even agree with her meaning and intention. What she did not understand is that her meaning and intention would never be understood, not even by those who think they agree with her.

Selfishness is defined in the dictionary as, "concerned excessively or exclusively with oneself, seeking or concentrating on one's own advantage, pleasure, or well-being without regard for others, arising from concern with one's own welfare or advantage in disregard of others." What most people will gather from that definition is that selfishness means satisfying one's own interests at the expense of others. This is obviously not Rand's meaning at all.

But there is an even worse interpretation of Rand's use of the word "selfishness," which most self-styled Objectivists embrace. That wrong interpretation is that whatever one desires or chooses for one's self is morally good, without regard to the basis of the desire or choice, as long as it is one's own. This is exactly the view of selfishness Rand deplored.

Rand's Ethics

The view that "selfishness" is an ethical primary and that living ethically means living according to one's own selfish desires is rightly called, "subjective hedonism." The first, subjectivism, is any view that regards feelings, desires, whims, fears, or passions, rather than reason, as ever being a legitimate bases for ethical choices. The second, hedonism, is any view that accepts one's own pleasure or happiness as the basis of ethical values. Both of these views fly in the face of objective ethics and the philosophy of Ayn Rand.

The purpose of ethics, or morality, is to provide the principles by which one may live successfully and happily in this world.

"The purpose of morality is to teach you, not to suffer and die, but to enjoy yourself and live." [For the New Intellectual, "Galt's Speech from Atlas Shrugged," page 123]

The principles of ethics are not social and pertain only to individuals and are based on the requirements of individual human nature.

"Man's life is the standard of morality, but your own life is its purpose. If existence on earth is your goal, you must choose your actions and values by the standard of that which is proper to man—for the purpose of preserving, fulfilling and enjoying the irreplaceable value which is your life."


"You who prattle that morality is social and that man would need no morality on a desert island—it is on a desert island that he would need it most." [Atlas Shrugged, "Part Three,—Chapter VII, 'This is John Galt Speaking.'"]

Because I think Rand is greatly misunderstood, or blindly misinterpreted, I want to emphasize that Rand did not regard ethics, moral values, or virtues as social in any way. To that end I add the following two quotes:

"Man's virtues are the qualities required for the preservation of his independence. They are personal qualities, unsocial by their nature and antisocial in any conflict of man against man. They are unsocial, because man cannot derive them from other men, cannot receive them as a gift from an outside source, but must generate them from within his own ego. They are profoundly selfish virtues, for they proceed from his ego, pertain to his ego and cannot be sacrificed to any consideration whatsoever. Without these virtues man cannot survive nor remain man." [Emphasis mine.] [The Journals of Ayn Rand, "Part 3 - Transition Between Novels," "8 - The Moral Basis Of Individualism."]

"[Regarding social relations:] Before you come to "any principle as a guide in his relations to other men," cover the point of how the morality of reason applies to man alone even to a man on a desert island. The first commandment is to exercise his reason. Morality is not social (and don't forget the evils that come from thinking that it is)." [Emphasis mine.] [The Journals of Ayn Rand, "Part 3 - Transition Between Novels," "8 - The Moral Basis Of Individualism," September 29, 1943, "Theorem II: The Life Giver—the Active Man"]

Ethics And Individualism

Rand's ethical views cannot be entirely understood outside the context of the fundamental principle at the heart of all her work and thought, individualism.

For Rand, the purpose of ethics was to provide the principles by which individuals make the choices that result in their own success and happiness. Every life is an individual life, every mind is an individual mind, and the success or failure of every individual is the consequence of their own individual choices.

"... knowledge, thinking, and rational action are properties of the individual, ... the choice to exercise his rational faculty or not depends on the individual ..." [Capitalism, The Unknown Ideal, "Theory And History, 1. What Is Capitalism?"]

This view is in opposition to every view that subordinates the life or purposes of individuals to any other supposed purpose or end, such as society or "the greater good."

"Man—every man—is an end in himself, not the means to the ends of others. He must exist for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself. The pursuit of his own rational self-interest and of his own happiness is the highest moral purpose of his life." [The Objectivist Newsletter: Vol. 1 No. 8 August, 1962, "Introducing Objectivism."]

In the 40s and 50s collectivism was promoted in the name of the dominant "moral" philosophy of the day, altruism. It was in opposition to the concept of self-sacrifice embodied in the concept of altruism that Rand presented her view of selfishness.

"We cannot save the system of free enterprise while we ourselves hold the moral beliefs of its enemies. We cannot save it without a complete and consistent philosophy of individualism. A militant and inspiring philosophy, not an apologetic one. Altruism by its very nature is a collectivist principle. If we accept the moral law that man must live for others—we have accepted collectivism, and all the practical consequences will follow inevitably." [The Letters of Ayn Rand (1931-1943), To Tom Girdler, July 12, 1943]

Selfishness, for Rand, represented individualism as the opposite of altruistic self-sacrifice.

"There is no hope for the world unless and until we formulate, accept and state publicly a true moral code of individualism, based on man's inalienable right to live for himself. Neither to hurt nor to serve his brothers, but to be independent of them in his function and in his motive. Neither to sacrifice them for himself nor to sacrifice himself for them in selfless service—but to deal with them in free exchange among equals, each with a legitimate right to his own benefit, and not in the spirit of any kind of altruistic service of anyone by anyone." [The Letters of Ayn Rand (1931-1943), To Tom Girdler, July 12, 1943]

Rand emphasized selfishness in opposition to the irrational anti-individualistic morality of altruism. What she did not foresee was that selfishness would be taken by those who did not understand her philosophy as the basis of two ideas she regarded as destructive and evil as altruism itself: hedonism and subjectivism.


Hedonism is the view that the moral good is determined by or based on whatever makes one happy or gives one pleasure. Ayn Rand's view is that the moral good is determined by moral principles, and that pleasure and happiness are the result of the pursuit of moral values—values determined rationally and objectively.

"Man exists for his own happiness, and the definition of happiness proper to a human being is: a man's happiness must be based on his moral values. It must be the highest expression of his moral values possible to him.

"This is the difference between my morality and hedonism. The standard is not: "that is good which gives me pleasure, just because it gives me pleasure" (which is the standard of the dipsomaniac or the sex-chaser) —but "that is good which is the expression of my moral values, and that gives me pleasure." Since the proper moral code is based on man's nature and his survival, and since joy is the expression of his survival, this form of happiness can have no contradiction in it, it is both "short range" and "long range" (as all of man's life has to be), and it leads to the furtherance of his life, not to his destruction." [The Journals of Ayn Rand, "13-Notes While Writing: 1947-1952."]

Even though Rand clearly explained what is wrong with hedonism in The Virtue of Selfishness, most of those who have studied Rand's ethics, continue to make the mistake that it is selfishness itself that is the basis of Objectivist ethics. It is not selfishness that makes a choice a moral one, but rational objective moral values, and any choice guided by reason and based on such values is a moral one, and therefore, in Rand's terms, a selfish one.

"This is the fallacy inherent in hedonism—in—any variant of ethical hedonism, personal or social, individual or collective. "Happiness" can properly be the purpose of ethics, but not the standard. The task of ethics is to define man's proper code of values and thus to give him the means of achieving happiness. To declare, as the ethical hedonists do, that "the proper value is whatever gives you pleasure" is to declare that "the proper value is whatever you happen to value"—which is an act of intellectual and philosophical abdication, an act which merely proclaims the futility of ethics and invites all men to play it deuces wild." [The Virtue of Selfishness, "1. The Objectivist Ethics"]

Personally I think one of Rand's best explications of what is wrong with hedonism and what the correct basis of moral values are is that which I've gleaned (and annotated) from one of Rand's letters:

"... hedonism is not a valid ethical premise; "happiness" is not an irreducible primary; it is the result, effect and consequence of a complex chain of causes. To say: "The good is that which will make me happy or that which will serve my interests," does not indicate what will make me happy or what will serve my interests. Hedonism, of course, assumes that the standard is emotional, subjective and arbitrary: anything that makes you feel happy is the good. But a feeling is not a standard of anything."

{Note that Rand here makes the connection between hedonism and subjectivism—"assumes the standard is emotional, subjective and arbitrary."}

"The task of ethics is to tell men how to live. Since neither self-interest (nor happiness nor survival) can be achieved by random motions or arbitrary whims, it is the task of ethics to define the principles by which man is to judge and choose his values, interests, goals and actions."

{Self-interest, happiness, and one's life, may be the objective of ethics, but none can be the basis of ethics. To make any of these the basis of ethics would justify any action or choice with the excuse "its for my own happiness which I have a right to," or "it is OK to steal if it is a matter of survival."}

"You know the base and validation of the Objectivist Ethics; you know why man's right to exist for his own sake is not an arbitrary, 'selfish' choice, but a metaphysical necessity derived not merely from man's nature, but from the nature of life, that is: of all living organisms—and why the specific moral code required for man's existence is necessitated by his nature as a living organism whose basic means of survival is reason.

{Note that Rand explicitly says that the right to exist for one's own sake is not a, "selfish choice," but a rationally determined fact based on the requirement of human nature to live by means of reason.}

Therefore, a man's self-interest is not to be determined by his arbitrary wishes or whims, but by the principles of an objective moral code. Man must pursue his own self-interest, but only by the guidance of, by reason of and within the framework of such a code. The moral rights and claims derived from that code are based on his nature as a rational being; they cannot be extended to include their opposite; an irrational claim invalidates itself by negating the base of man's moral claims or rights (by falling into the fallacy of the "stolen concept"). The right to exist and to pursue his own happiness does not give man the right to act irrationally or to pursue contradictory, self-destructive, self-defeating goals. Rationality demands that man choose his goals in the full, integrated context of all the relevant knowledge available to him; it forbids contradictions, evasions, blank-outs, whim-worship or context-dropping.

{It is not one's "self-interest" that determines moral values, it is the reverse; one's moral values determine what is in his self-interest, and it is only by means of reason and moral principles one's self-interest can be realized. Nothing justifies choosing or acting irrationally, that is, on the basis of desire, whim, or passion. Nothing justifies evading the full context of all one knows to be right and true.}

[The Letters of Ayn Rand, "Letters To A Philosopher," (Dr. John Hospers), April 17, 1960]

Ayn Rand has made the connection between hedonism and subjectivism and has emphasized one of the essential mistakes of subjectivism which is evasion.


Rand explained both how hedonism depends on subjectivism and how subjectivism is ultimately an evasion of reality.

"But the relationship of cause to effect cannot be reversed. It is only by accepting "man's life" as one's primary and by pursuing the rational values it requires that one can achieve happiness—not by taking "happiness" as some undefined, irreducible primary and then attempting to live by its guidance. If you achieve that which is the good by a rational standard of value, it will necessarily make you happy; but that which makes you happy, by some undefined emotional standard, is not necessarily the good. To take "whatever makes one happy" as a guide to action means: to be guided by nothing but one's emotional whims. Emotions are not tools of cognition; to be guided by whims—by desires whose source, nature and meaning one does not know—is to turn oneself into a blind robot, operated by unknowable demons (by one's stale evasions), a robot knocking its stagnant brains out against the walls of reality which it refuses to see." [The Virtue of Selfishness, "1. The Objectivist Ethics"]

Subjectivism is the opposite of objectivism. Objectivism is determining one's choices and action by means of reason; subjectivism is determining one's choices and action on the basis of feelings: emotions, desires, passion, or whim. Reason is man's only means to knowledge, man's only "tool of cognition." Rand emphasized this difference.

"Emotions are not tools of cognition...one must differentiate between one's thoughts and one's emotions with full clarity and precision. One...has to know that which one does know, and distinguish it from that which one feels....to distinguish one's own considered judgment from one's feelings, wishes, hopes or fears." [For the New Intellectual, page 55]

There is no natural antagonism between reason and emotion so long as one keeps the order correct—so long as one's feelings proceed from one's rational values and he understands what the source of those feelings are. It is when one let's their feelings influence or determine their thoughts and choices that those feelings become one's enemies, demons causing unhappiness and torment, and not the source happiness and pleasure they ought to be.

"An emotion is an automatic response, an automatic effect of man's value premises. An effect, not a cause. There is no necessary clash, no dichotomy between man's reason and his emotions—provided he observes their proper relationship. A rational man knows—or makes it a point to discover—the source of his emotions, the basic premises from which they come; if his premises are wrong, he corrects them. He never acts on emotions for which he cannot account, the meaning of which he does not understand. In appraising a situation, he knows why he reacts as he does and whether he is right. He has no inner conflicts, his mind and his emotions are integrated, his consciousness is in perfect harmony. His emotions are not his enemies, they are his means of enjoying life. But they are not his guide; the guide is his mind. This relationship cannot be reversed, however. If a man takes his emotions as the cause and his mind as their passive effect, if he is guided by his emotions and uses his mind only to rationalize or justify them somehow—then he is acting immorally, he is condemning himself to misery, failure, defeat, and he will achieve nothing but destruction—his own and that of others." ["Playboy's interview with Ayn Rand," pamphlet, page 6.]

About this, my friend Ayn Rand and I agree: whatever is put above reason is a form of subjectivism and whatever takes precedence over objectively determined principles (moral values) is hedonism.

[The article, "Psychological Flaws, Corruptions, Errors, and Wrong Premises," looks at how this Objectivist mistake has perverted Objectivism.]