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Published online by Cambridge University Press:  20 December 2007

Darryl F. Wright
Philosophy, Harvey Mudd College


Those familiar with Ayn Rand's ethical writings may know that she discusses issues in metaethics, and that she defended the objectivity of morality during the heyday of early non-cognitivism. But neither her metaethics, in general, nor her views on moral objectivity, in particular, have received wide study. This article elucidates some aspects of her thought in these areas, focusing on Rand's conception of the way in which moral values serve a biologically based human need, and on her account of moral values as both essentially practical and epistemically objective in a sense fundamentally continuous with the objectivity of science. The bearing of her epistemological writings on her ethical thought is emphasized throughout, and her epistemology is defended against a line of criticism inspired by John McDowell's criticism of the so-called “myth of the given.”

Research Article
Copyright © Social Philosophy and Policy Foundation 2008

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1 See Rand, Ayn, “The Objectivist Ethics,” in Rand, , The Virtue of Selfishness: A New Concept of Egoism (New York: Signet, n.d.), 1339.

2 The only book-length treatment is Smith, Tara, Viable Values: A Study of Life as the Root and Reward of Morality (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2000). My account of Rand's metaethics in this essay differs significantly from Smith's (and some of the issues I will take up lie beyond the scope of Smith's book).

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3 These can be found mainly in Rand, Ayn, Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, expanded second edition (New York: Meridian, 1990).

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4 Leiter, Brian, “Introduction,” in Objectivity in Law and Morals, ed. Leiter, Brian (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 2; emphasis in original.

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5 Metaphysical objectivity is not the same as what Rand calls the “metaphysically given.” She contrasts the latter with the man-made. Thus, institutions of government are not metaphysically given, for instance, but once in place are metaphysically objective: they exist and are as they are whether or not a given person is aware of them, and whatever a given person might believe about them. See Rand, Ayn, “The Metaphysical Versus the Man-Made,” in Rand, , Philosophy: Who Needs It (New York: Signet, 1984), 2334.

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6 Leiter, “Introduction,” 1.

7 On the issue of domain specificity, see ibid., 2.

8 For examples of domain-specific approaches, see, e.g., McDowell, John, Mind and World (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996); and Korsgaard, Christine, “The Reasons We Can Share: An Attack on the Distinction between Agent-Relative and Agent-Neutral Values,” in Paul, Ellen Frankel, Miller, Fred D. Jr., and Paul, Jeffrey, eds., Altruism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 2451.

9 For this point, see Rand's discussion of moral evaluation in “What Is Capitalism?” in Rand, Ayn, Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal (New York: Signet, 1967), 22; and in Rand, , The Romantic Manifesto, revised edition (New York: Signet, 1975), 18.

10 For example, in the Phaedo, 64e–65d.

11 Nagel, Thomas, The View from Nowhere (New York: Oxford, 1986).

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12 For the point about Rand, see Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, 79–80. For Justice Potter Stewart's statement that he knew hard-core pornography when he saw it, even though he might never succeed in defining what it was, see his concurrence in Jacobellis v. Ohio, 378 U.S. 184 (1964).

13 Rand, Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, 78–79.

14 We may also need instruments for seeing them, of course (a microscope, a telescope, corrective lenses), and (in some cases) a methodology for using these instruments. But Rand's point is that we need no methodology for using our eyes.

15 Ibid., 82.

16 The content of Rand's norms of objectivity depends on the end or telos to be reached and on the nature of the means at our disposal for reaching that end—the nature of a human being's cognitive capacities. But in a sense it is not just the means (the norms of objectivity) but the end they serve (knowledge) whose specification would have to depend on us. For how exactly are we to think of the end of acquiring “knowledge”? What counts as success here? Rand seems to think that epistemology assumes this end, and perhaps helps specify its satisfaction-conditions precisely. But she does not seem to view the delineation of the end as a wholly epistemological matter. Fundamentally, it would seem that this has to be a matter for ethics, which prescribes the basic ends of human action. Since, as we will see below, it is our needs as a certain kind of living organism that set the standards for moral evaluation, on Rand's view, it would seem to be those needs that should most fundamentally determine the content of the end of acquiring knowledge. The end might be seen as that of attaining the full range of conceptual knowledge that human beings need in order to live fully human lives (an end whose attainment would, of course, require cooperation and a division of cognitive labor).

17 Ibid., 67, 63.

18 Ibid., 64, 65; emphasis in original.

19 Ibid., 72.

20 Ibid., 73–74.

21 Rand, Ayn, For the New Intellectual (New York: Signet, n.d.), 125–26; Peikoff, Leonard, Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand (New York: Meridian, 1993), 118–28.

22 Ayn Rand, “Kant Versus Sullivan,” in Rand, Philosophy: Who Needs It, 90; emphasis in original.

23 Rand, Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, 51.

24 Ibid., chapter 3 and passim.

25 Ibid., 29–30.

26 Ibid., 148–49, 304–6, and chapter 7, passim.

27 McDowell, Mind and World, 4. Below, I will refer to the dualism of scheme and Given as simply “the dualism.”

28 Ibid., 14–18, esp. 18.

29 Ibid., 6.

30 Ibid., 19.

31 Ibid., 7. One judgment “probabilifies” another if the truth of the first would make the truth of the second more probable.

32 See Darwall, Stephen L., Impartial Reason (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1983), 31.

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33 McDowell, Mind and World, 25.

34 Ibid., 26; emphasis in original.

35 Ibid., 28.

36 Ibid., 52–53. McDowell's explicit reference to Neurathian reflection comes in his discussion of practical thought (see ibid., 81), but the earlier passage I cite here seems to make a similar point in criticizing Gareth Evans's conception of “non-conceptual content.”

Otto Neurath (1882–1945) was an Austrian philosopher of science and Vienna Circle member who likened scientific progress to the attempt to rebuild a boat while at sea. Just as the boat could only be rebuilt plank by plank—not all at once—since those aboard would need somewhere to stand while they worked, so our beliefs about the world can only be revised in stages, since it is only by holding some part of our worldview fixed that we gain grounds for challenging and improving other parts. “Neurathian reflection” refers to such staged belief revision and stands opposed to the project of finding external justificatory grounds for our worldview as a whole.

37 Two forms of externalism need to be kept apart in this context. One is externalism about justification, which is the position I discuss in the text. The other is externalism about knowledge, which denies that justification is a necessary condition of knowledge.

38 Rand, Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, 76.

39 Rand, The Romantic Manifesto, 55.

40 Ibid.

41 A further point, which I do not have space to develop here, is that Rand views human perceptual experience as implicitly conceptual from the very first. See, for instance, Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, 5–7. Her idea that there are implicit concepts requires analysis, but that she sees the need to describe perception in such terms suggests how far she is from the dualism of scheme and Given that McDowell attacks.

42 Rand, Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, 5.

43 McDowell, Mind and World, 25.

44 Ibid., 10–13.

45 Rand, Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, 19.

46 McDowell, Mind and World, 19.

47 Rand, Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, 150–51; see also ibid., 144–45, and Rand, Ayn, “The Comprachicos,” in Rand, Return of the Primitive: The Anti-Industrial Revolution, ed. Schwartz, Peter (New York: Meridian, 1999), 5455.

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48 This is implied, for instance, by her view that objective moral judgment must employ a standard derived from mind-independent facts of reality. See Rand, “What Is Capitalism?” 22.

49 Rand, Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, 51.

50 Moore, G. E., Principia Ethica (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1903), 38–39, 41.

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51 Ibid., 16–17.

52 Rand, “The Objectivist Ethics,” 18; Rand, Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, 228–29.

53 Rand, “The Objectivist Ethics,” 18–21.

54 This is clear both from her rejection of hedonistic standards of moral judgment in “The Objectivist Ethics” (see 32–33) and from her comments during a workshop on her ethical theory attended by a group of university faculty in the late 1960s, a recording and transcript of which are part of the collections of the Ayn Rand Archives at the Ayn Rand Institute (Irvine, California). She is asked whether moral evaluation is reducible to a process of gauging the long-range consequences of alternative choices on the basis of the amount of physical pleasure and pain that they would be likely to yield. Her answer is that such calculations could not give rise to the idea of morality. The workshop was one of a series covering both ethics and epistemology. The relevant material occurs on pages 11–14 of the transcript of Workshop 54.

55 Rand, “The Objectivist Ethics,” 30–31.

56 See, e.g., ibid., 31.

57 See, e.g., Rand, Ayn, “The Shanghai Gesture, Part II,” The Ayn Rand Letter 1, no. 14 (April 10, 1972): 6263; and Rand, “What Is Capitalism?” 22.

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58 Rand, Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, 32–34.

59 Ibid., 33.

60 Ibid., 51.

61 Rand, Ayn, “Who Is the Final Authority in Ethics?” in Peikoff, Leonard, ed., The Voice of Reason: Essays in Objectivist Thought (New York: Meridian, 1990), 18.

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62 Rand, The Romantic Manifesto, 42; see also chapters 1–3, passim.

63 Rand, “Final Authority,” 18.

64 Ibid., 18–19.

65 Rand, The Virtue of Selfishness, x.

66 Rand, Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, 36; Rand, The Romantic Manifesto, 169.

67 See, for example, Davies, Paul Sheldon, Norms of Nature (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001), chapter 1.

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68 For an account of artifact functions according to which this is the case, see Preston, Beth, “Why Is a Wing Like a Spoon? A Pluralist Theory of Function,” Journal of Philosophy 95 (1998): 215–54.

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69 Rand does not think moral values are unique in this regard. She thinks the same is true of both art and (perhaps to a lesser extent) government, and her arguments concerning the proper standards for evaluating art works and institutions of government run parallel to her argument concerning the proper standard of moral value. See Rand, The Romantic Manifesto, 42; and Ayn Rand, “The Nature of Government,” in Rand, The Virtue of Selfishness, 125–34.

70 Indeed, it is precisely this dual status that, for Rand, gives rise to issues of objectivity in regard to moral values. It is the combination of dependence on choice and choice-independent grounds of assessment that generates both a need and a source for a standard of moral value, and the corresponding need and possibility of making epistemically objective evaluations.

71 Ayn Rand, “Art and Moral Treason,” in Rand, The Romantic Manifesto, 147.

72 Ibid., 146.

73 Although, in some places, Rand distinguishes between moral values and moral virtues, there is a wider sense of the term “moral values” in her writings that includes the moral virtues. In this essay, I employ the wider sense, since the distinction between virtues and (in the narrower sense) values has no bearing on the arguments I make. In the narrow sense, moral values are the ends attained by moral virtue. Thus, for example, Rand designates “rationality” as a moral virtue and “reason” as the corresponding moral value, since one values reason by developing and practicing the virtue of rationality. A person of good moral character values reason (values his mind) and nourishes and protects that value through rationality. However, in a larger sense, rationality is itself a moral value, for Rand, since in deliberately practicing rationality one makes rationality one's end. The wide sense of “moral values” is in play, for instance, in Rand's discussions of the role of art in moral development in her book The Romantic Manifesto, and in her discussion of moral objectivity in her essay “What Is Capitalism?” See Rand, The Romantic Manifesto, 146; and Rand, “What Is Capitalism?” 21–22.

74 Rand, “The Objectivist Ethics,” 29. The qualifiers “productive” and “rational” are clearly intended to constrain what forms of activity can satisfy the requirements of this virtue, so that, for instance, earning a living as a drug dealer would presumably not count. Although I cannot argue the point here, it seems to me that Rand's criteria for the rationality and productiveness of a “line of endeavor” would primarily involve consideration of whether one's activity contributes to the fulfillment of a genuine human need (including needs for pleasure and recreation, and “spiritual” or psychological needs such as those to which the fine arts respond)—whether a need of one's own or, through the division of labor, of others. Much further work is needed here to unpack Rand's conception of productiveness, but this at least indicates the direction in which I think Rand would argue in order to exclude activities such as drug dealing or organized crime from the scope of the virtue of productiveness. For further discussion, see Rand, For the New Intellectual, 130; and Smith, Tara, Ayn Rand's Normative Ethics: The Virtuous Egoist (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), chapter 8.

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75 A number of Rand's moral virtues have this second-order status, not only pride but also integrity and justice, both of which “operate” on and thus presuppose other, first-order virtues. Integrity involves the refusal to sacrifice one's convictions, including one's moral convictions, to the wishes or opinions of others; justice involves (among other components) judging other people by objective moral standards. See Rand's discussion of these virtues in “The Objectivist Ethics,” 27–30; and For the New Intellectual, 128–31. See also Peikoff, Objectivism, chapter 8.

76 Ayn Rand, “The Goal of My Writing,” in Rand, The Romantic Manifesto, 169.

77 This claim raises some obvious questions about free-riding: for instance, about whether, if rationality and productiveness qualify as human virtues on this account, a person has a reason to be virtuous rather than to free-ride on the virtue of others. Although these issues are largely outside the scope of the present essay, the discussion in the text of Rand's conception of psychological survival is relevant to how she would address them. Reasons of psychological survival militate against free-riding and, in her view, undermine the appearance that free-riding could be beneficial to a person. I intend to address these matters in an article in preparation on John McDowell's criticisms of what he calls “neo-Humean naturalism” in ethics. For McDowell's argument about how naturalistic virtue ethics should and should not deal with free-rider problems, see his “Two Sorts of Naturalism,” in Rosalind Hursthouse, Gavin Lawrence, and Warren Quinn, eds., Virtues and Reasons: Philippa Foot and Moral Theory, Essays in Honour of Philippa Foot (Oxford: Clarendon Press; New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 149–79.

78 Rand, “The Objectivist Ethics,” 26.

79 Ibid., 16–17 and 17n.

80 Ibid., 16.

81 Ayn Rand, “Our Cultural Value Deprivation,” in Peikoff, ed., The Voice of Reason, 103–4.

82 The inclusion of art here tells us something important about the passage most recently quoted in the text. Rand describes the two fields of human action that she mentions—inner and outer—as “interdependent.” The field of outer action centrally involves the production of material values, and it might be supposed that this field of action concerns itself exclusively with the provision of our physical survival. But works of art are material values that answer to psychological rather than physical needs. This, it seems to me, is a good example of the sort of interdependence that Rand sees between the inner and outer fields of action. Although I mention one other sort of interdependence in the text below, I defer fuller discussion of these interconnections to another time.

83 Rand, “The Objectivist Ethics,” 25.

84 Rand, “Our Cultural Value Deprivation,” 102.

85 Rand, “The Objectivist Ethics,” 13–14.

86 I draw the idea of viewing Rand's project as one of conceptual reconstruction from Binswanger, Harry, “Life-Based Teleology and the Foundations of Ethics,” The Monist 75 (1992): 84103.

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87 Korsgaard, Christine, The Sources of Normativity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 44.

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88 This is part of the point of a thought experiment she proposes involving an “immortal, indestructible robot” incapable of being affected or changed. The robot, she argues, could have no values and no sense of good or evil. See Rand, “The Objectivist Ethics,” 16.

89 Korsgaard, The Sources of Normativity, 92–93.

90 Ibid., 93.

91 If my interpretation of Rand is correct, this generalized commitment is equivalent to what Rand calls the “choice to live.” But it bears an interesting resemblance to the virtue of pride described in Section VI of the text. Pride, as Rand understands it, might be viewed as a more fine-grained, articulated form of that same comprehensive commitment to one's life. The choice to live, on my interpretation, would amount to the commitment to develop and maintain the kind of moral character one needs in order to live. Pride would be the commitment to live up to a (more) specific vision of what kind of moral character that is. But it might also be said that the choice to live amounts to a rudimentary form of pride—a generalized form of the commitment that characterizes someone with the full virtue.

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