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Objectivism Part 1

Tuesday, Jan 26, 2021
Jim Sutton

Recently Rachel and I took time to watch the 3 part movie series of Ayn Rand’s book “Atlas Shrugged”. Ayn took 7 years to write the book, which was published in 1957. Our exposure to Ayn’s philosophy of objectivism was initiated with the time we invested in watching the series, but in some respects, it was like conversing with a familiar and wise friend.

For those who may not understand what objectivism entails, the Atlas Society quotes Ayn Rand’s response to the question of objectivism as follows:

“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.”

The four tenets of objectivism as stated in the book, Atlas Shrugged are: reality, reason, self-interest and capitalism. Morally, objectivism advocates the virtues of rational self-interest such as independent thinking, productiveness, justice, honesty, and self-responsibility. The opposite of objectivism is subjectivism. Subjectivism advocates that moral values are dependent on a human or divine will. Unlike objectivism, subjectivism argues that moral values can change from one situation to another.

In future posts I intend to unpack these definitions and their implications. For now I believe it is helpful to know a little about Ayn Rand for those who may not be familiar with her. Ayn Rand was a Russian-American writer and philosopher. She was born and educated in Russia and moved to the United States in 1926 to escape the communist takeover of her birth country. She personally experienced the devastation of Russia by the socialist/communist takeover with the confiscation of her father’s business. In high school she concluded that she was an atheist, valuing reason above any other human virtue. She was among the first women to enroll at Petrograd State University after the Russian Revolution, majoring in history. She considered communism to be immoral, so she pursued a temporary visa to visit relatives in Chicago under the premises of pursuing her screenwriter career abroad. When arriving in America, she cried “tears of splendor” over seeing the Manhattan skyline, and determined to stay in a nation that embodied her ideas of a free, productive and benevolent society promoting the worth of the individual. Her well known book, Atlas Shrugged, fully defined what would become the four tenets of objectivism.

While I leave the reader to pursue the nuances of Ayn Rand’s personal philosophy and her impact on many of America’s leaders, I would like to present some thoughts on the similarities of objectivism with what is arguably a historic aspect of Christianity, but over the past few centuries has been largely ignored from the pulpits and teachings of many of Christianity’s defenders.

The first tenet of objectivism pertains to reality. Rand is quoted as follows:

“No amount of passionate wishing, desperate longing, or hopeful pleading can alter the facts… Reality is not to be rewritten or escaped, but, solemnly and proudly, faced. This theory (of objectivism) rejects supernatural or mystical powers, including the existence of God. Objectivism attributes all of life’s occurrences to reality, and that is not something that can be changed, only endured.”

The key concept in this statement lies in the definition and perception of “reality”. If, for instance, our five senses combined with reason determines reality, the reality is subjective to a persons sense perceptions and reasoning, resulting in a definition of reality that is not objective. Logic is the toolbox of reason, but logical tools can be misused in the same manner as physical tools, illustrating aesthetic subjectivism, or the colloquial idea that one man’s junk is another man’s treasure.

If, however, the reality is based on objective truth, Ayn’s belief that reality cannot be rewritten or escaped aligns with what historical Christianity advocates. For instance, Genesis 1:28-30 states the following:

28 God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply! Fill the earth and subdue it! Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and every creature that moves on the ground.” 29 Then God said, “I now give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the entire earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. 30 And to all the animals of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to all the creatures that move on the ground—everything that has living breath in it—I give every green plant for food.” It was so. (New English Translation)

Gen 1:28 NET commentators on the BibleGateway website paraphrase this scriptural passage as follows:

“…harness its (earth’s) potential and use its resources for your benefit.” In an ancient Israelite context this would suggest cultivating its fields, mining its mineral riches, using its trees for construction, and domesticating its animals. God’s word is not merely a form of blessing, but is now addressed to them personally; this is a distinct emphasis with the creation of human beings. But with the blessing comes the ability to be fruitful and to rule. In procreation they will share in the divine work of creating human life and passing on the divine image. In ruling they will serve as God’s vice-regents on earth. They together, the human race collectively, have the responsibility of seeing to the welfare of that which is put under them and the privilege of using it for their benefit.”

Ayn Rand articulates this first tenet in the persons of John Gault, Hank Reardon, Dagney Taggart, Francisco d’Anconia and others who by their intellect, drive and actions fulfill these ancient directives given by God to humanity according to the idea that these directives are written and are not alterable, and cannot be escaped.

Paul states that “…we know in part, and prophesy in part, but when what is perfect comes, the partial will be set aside.” (I Corinthians 13; 9-10) While this is a reference to the Christian’s belief of a future face to face relationship with God, I believe it is also a nuanced warning that we do not see the “whole picture” of reality outside of human existence, and that includes Ayn Rand’s professed atheism. But it also states that we may know some things “in part”, and this implies that reason has a place in our understanding, which is the second tenet of objectivism.

The bottom line on reconciling historic Christian beliefs and validating the truth that undergirds Ayn Rand’s first tenet hinges on the definition of reality. If the definition is based on the belief that God exists and created man in time and space, Christianity is consistent with the resulting objectivism conclusions for how to handle reality. If, however, reality has a presumptive definition noted by the absence of a Creator, legitimate questions arise regarding the reality we can perceive, and the ability of science or philosophy (without coercion and manipulation of proposed facts) to adequately understand reality. In either scenario, faith is the enabling mechanism to explain human existence. Faith can be placed in  the actions and words of a Creator, or in the mind of man to explain the origins and potentially perpetual nature of the world we experience during the timespan of our life. Each approach is balanced on a presumption of truth that is ultimately unknowable from a scientific perspective. Science can no more prove the origins or essence of sentient life than it can a Creator.

Reason can function as an igniting spark for something new, like tele-communications, internal combustion engines and heavier than air aircraft with the understanding that the universe we live in is ordered and structured. Without that fuel of knowledge and the air of freedom, the warmth, comfort and blessing God intended from that combustion for our sojourn on earth would not be realized. The cruel, unyielding reality that Ayn Rand references is an ever present stain on humanity evidenced by the cruelty that has been perpetrated by human agents. I suggest that those who reject a transcendent morality for a relative morality have rejected it to their peril and the lives of their fellow sojourners as evidenced by historical fact. Suffering by all is and always will be a consequence of a belief in relative morality. I’m thankful that we do experience a portion of God’s blessings derived through productive activity at this time in humanity’s history.

I am intrigued by other potential parallels that may exist between Ayn Rand’s views and historic Christianity apart from the window dressings of her high school professed beliefs. In future posts I intend to further explore the ideas of objectivism and historic Christianity and their perceived and actual similarities and dissimilarities. I also intend to dismantle the personalities and the ad hominem characterizations from the essence of objectivism that have prevented both belief approaches to considering the strength of ideas presented in Ayn Rand’s beliefs in objectivism.