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Ayn Rand produced strident, if often pedantic works on individual freedom and rights, the pursuit of happiness, and the moral Ayn Rand has a possesuperiority of laissez-faire capitalism as a social system. She proposed a moral system based on rational self interest and developed her own philosophy of Objectivism, which she communicated through her novels, most famously The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. Her ideas remain popular today with libertarians and the Tea Party movement. In popular culture, Betram Cooper of Mad Men advises the lead character, Dan
Draper, to read Atlas Shrugged. Most commentary on Rand’s work has focused on the social sphere, but one author recently described her own experiences with Ayn Rand’s philosophy as applied to the more fundamental institution of the family. This is an interesting test of morality, by exploring its application across social spheres and relationships. Assuming that Rand considered the principles of Objectivism to be universal rather than particular then, arguably, such a moral system should not be conditional. Of course, every moral system allows for violations – take for example the concept of ‘just war’. But these violations represent rare and unusual circumstances.

An Ayn Rand Primer. Objectivism, as a philosophy, rests on the premise of rational self interest and the idea that ‘the proper moral purpose of one’s life is the pursuit of one’s own happiness.’ In a 1959 interview with Mike Wallace, Rand argued that “each man must live as an end in himself and follow his own rational self-interest.” The only morally proper social system, therefore, is one of limited political and social influence that does not impinge upon the freedom of its citizens to act as they will.

The opposing argument has been put in the adage that the freedom to swing one’s fist ends at the other man’s nose, which has been attributed to numerous sources including Oliver Wendell Holmes. Quote Investigator, however, attributes the origin to John B. Finch, Chairman of the Prohibition National Committee during the 1880’s, and provide the following excerpt of a representative speech given by Finch in Iowa in 1882:

This arm is my arm (and my wife’s), it is not yours. Up here I have a right to strike out with it as I please. I go over there with these gentlemen and swing my arm and exercise the natural right which you have granted; I hit one man on the nose, another under the ear, and as I go down the stairs on my head, I cry out:
“Is not this a free country?”
“Yes, sir.”
“Have not I a right to swing my arm?”
“Yes, but your right to swing your arm leaves off where my right not to have my nose struck begins.”
Here civil government comes in to prevent bloodshed, adjust rights, and settle disputes.

J.B. Finch (1887).  Speech VI: The Defence Reviewed, [An Address delivered at the Opera-House, Iowa City, Sunday evening, May 7, 1882]. In:  C. A. McCully (Ed.). The People Versus The Liquor Traffic: Speeches of John B. Finch, 24th Edition.  Start Page 109, Quote Pages 127-128. New York: Funk & Wagnalls, New York. (View on Google Books here)

Rand uses her art as a vehicle to express her philosophical and political thinking. In the film adaptation of The Fountainhead there is a climactic scene in which the hero, played by Gary Cooper, defends the merits of individualism and self interest to a jury. In the speech, which can be found on youtube, Rand, through Cooper, laments that “the world is perishing from an orgy of self-sacrificing.” I found the clip interesting for two reasons unrelated to Rand’s literary-philosophical argument. First, despite her belief that government should have a minimal presence in social and economic life, the setting for this important scene is a courtroom. By highlighting the role of the judiciary system she is arguing for a minarchist political system, wherein the only legitimate function of the state is the ‘protection of individual of individuals from aggression, theft, breach of contract, and fraud, and that the only legitimate governmental institutions are the military, police and courts.’ (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Minarchist). This is interesting because it has always seemed to me ironic that a social or cultural emphasis on individualism may not always correspond with individuality, but is rather characterized by powerful pressures to play by the same rules of the game, or in other words to conform to the norms, rules and laws of society. Perhaps that’s also why the court room drama genre is so popular in American film.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BW-cUgZg178

The other interesting sidebar to the youtube video is that it was uploaded by a website called Liberty Pen, the mission of which is ‘advocating the moral superiority of liberty.’

Ayn Rand’s writings and philosophy, although not always appreciated by critics and philosophers, has remained relevant other the decades. The question remains, however, if Ayn Rand’s Objectivism is a philosophy of life that should provide the foundation for all relationships and behaviors, or if it only applies to the commons, or the marketplace. I will leave the last word on this to Alyssa Bereznak, who describes the effect of her father’s Objectivism on her family in her Salon article, How Ayn Rand ruined my childhood.

My parents split up when I was 4. My father, a lawyer, wrote the divorce papers himself and included one specific rule: My mother was forbidden to raise my brother and me religiously. She agreed, dissolving Sunday church and Bible study with one swift signature. Mom didn’t mind; she was agnostic and knew we didn’t need religion to be good people. But a disdain for faith wasn’t the only reason he wrote God out of my childhood. There was simply no room in our household for both Jesus Christ and my father’s one true love: Ayn Rand.

(How Ayn Rand ruined my childhood – Alyssa Bereznak)

 

 

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