Objectivism the Philosophy
Metaphysics, Epistemology, Ethics


With the three axioms taken as givens, and with further observation, one can build up the three cornerstones of the Objectivist philosophy.

The Objectivist metaphysics is the branch that expounds on the two axioms of identity and existence. Metaphysics means "thinking about reality."

Its epistemology, or "theory of knowledge," develops a theory of concepts and validates knowledge. It maintains that reason (as opposed to faith, or revelation) is the only means of acquiring knowledge. It also explains the source and utility of emotions, which would be worth mentioning here.

Objectivism holds that emotions are lightning-quick summaries of past thought. This makes them extremely valuable in day-to-day use, allowing an individual to make decisions based "on experience" or "gut instinct" without having to trace logical connections back to first principles every time. Emotions are also useful in life-and-death situations, where one must act quickly to get out of the way of a speeding car, or say no to a suspicious-feeling but otherwise friendly person offering a ride late at night.

Contrary to the popular notion that emotions are some detached calling from a higher power, some animal instinct, or some uncontrollable burden, Objectivism rejects the heart-vs-mind dichotomy and holds that emotional responses are useful derivatives of reason. This has enormous significance for those who cannot reconcile their emotional responses with reason; when the two are in conflict, one is obligated to oneself to think, to identify the cause of the conflict, and to reconcile the two.

For instance, one may be considering relocating for your career, and all the reasons (salary, advancement, job satisfaction) would have you accept the job, but your emotional response is one of fear and trepidation. It may be that you need to open your mind to new possibilities, to factors that you hadn't consciously considered: maybe you've forgotten to account for how highly you value a personal relationship that would be severed if you moved. Or it may be that you identify the cause of your emotional response and determine that it's the result of past incorrect thinking: maybe the appearance of your future boss reminds you of someone you disliked, but until you had made the connection, couldn't dissociate this new person from the old. Whatever the cause of the disharmony, it needn't persist: emotions are not irreconcilable to reason, they are derivative of it.

An Objectivist therefore values his emotional responses and uses them to their fullest. This is different from saying that an Objectivist watches a sunset and analyzes every detail of color, composition, and stirred memories in order to determine exactly what it is that he likes about it. On the contrary, an Objectivist who thinks about his emotions can trust them to be valid and rational and, when positive, spend time enjoying them.

The Objectivist ethics, or "system of values that serve as guides to action," is a morality of life. Contrary to the prevalent view, that ethics or morality is arbitrary, God-given, or "for the best of society," the Objectivist ethics holds that good and bad are not arbitrary, but rather a rational derivative of the fundamental alternative facing each and every living thing: existence, or non-existence. Objectivism therefore holds that that which furthers or enhances an individual's life is good; that which harms or reduces it is bad.

Objectivism holds that the fundamental purpose of an individual's life is an individual's happiness, although it rejects the notion that one should do whatever one feels like at the expense of others or one's own long-term well-being. An Objectivist would consider the following character traits virtuous, meaning, that they increase the chances of an individual's survival and genuine happiness (keep in mind that they are all derivative of the Objectivist metaphysics and epistemology, and therefore might be restated, combined, or broken up; and therefore are often interrelated, where one leads to another):

  • Independence: the virtue of being capable of thinking for oneself and surviving without help; this does not imply that Objectivists wish to be hermits -- far from it; an individual can benefit greatly from living with other individuals, under the right conditions (see politics and economics below).
  • Integrity: the virtue of being true to one's convictions, not pliable to the whims of the mob or the demands of dictators.
  • Honesty: the recognition that existence exists, that facts cannot be made untrue by ignoring them, that deceiving others only makes you dependent on their ignorance (thus undercutting independence).
  • Justice: the recognition that right should be rewarded and praised, and wrong should be punished and decried.
  • Productiveness: the virtue of using one's mind to create material wealth that further's one's survival (mens et manus, mind and hand).
  • Pride: the virtue of recognizing that one's life is worth living, that one's mind is competent to judge, that one's consciousness is worthy of happiness.

Overarching all of these virtues is the chief virtue, consistent rationality in every issue and every matter of your life.

Politics, Economics, Art

Objectivism leads to simple politics, holding that man's rights are derived neither from God nor from some collective consensus, but rather are the result of rational thought consistent with the above ethics. The Objectivist theory of rights stands in stark contrast to the current European notion that every individual is entitled to an enormous number of things, and holds rather nearly the same notion of rights as the founding fathers of the United States, that man's rights are the following: the right to life, the right to liberty, the right to property, and the right to pursuit of happiness.

In Objectivism there is a major difference between what is moral/immoral and what is legal/illegal; individuals are legally free to pursue whatever courses of action they like, moral or immoral, helpful or harmful to their lives, so long as they do not infringe on the rights of others. Thus an Objectivist would require that drug use be legal. This is far different from saying that an Objectivist would use Marijuana, cocaine, or any other drug, since generally speaking these have negative physiological repercussions and make it harder to live a productive, worthwhile life.

The only way for Objectivist rights to be infringed upon is the initiation of physical force. Individuals agree to give the government a monopoly on force except in instances of emergency self-defense. Therefore only the following responsibilities of government are allowed: the police, to protect rights of citizens from other citizens; the military, to protect rights of citizens from non-citizens; and the courts, to provide a means of determining when the government must use force to protect the rights of its citizens or compensate an individual for another's infringement. This points to the major purpose of government -- enforcing civil contracts -- without which individuals would be left to use force against one another every time a disagreement (reasonable or otherwise) arose.

Because of this narrow definition of government, the following are considered invalid uses of tax dollars: public education, roads, fire stations, social security, welfare, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (in as much as it does not relate to military defense), and many other programs. Again, this is far different from saying these programs are worthless. That an Objectivist is against welfare is not the same as an Objectivist spits on poor people. That an Objectivist will not pay for NASA is not the same as an Objectivist has no curiosity about life on Mars. The point is that individuals should have choice in how they spend their own resources, and should be free to choose their own private charities (the American Red Cross in place of welfare) or scientific organizations (The Planetary Society in place of NASA) if they so choose. Currently these programs do nothing to protect basic rights, and cost the right of property to those who pay taxes.

The only moral economics allowed by Objectivism is laissez-faire capitalism. This follows from an invidual's right to property, a corollary of the right to life, a result of the Objectivist ethics.

Objectivist philosophy also leads to conclusions about what is art and what is not...

Copyright MIT Objectivist Club 2005