Background (not looking to get into the weeds on this; just clarifying my viewpoint): It seems to me that the concept of a moral force or law is not really empirically supported. That is, statements like "it is wrong to kill" are only enforceable from a consequentialist standpoint.

Further, it seems to me that actors are motivated only by the way the environment (including their own emotions) responds to their actions. As a result, there is really no such thing as good or bad action. There is only the sequence of events that arise from each actor in a system creating actions that they believe will maximize their neurological reward factors.

This starts to sound like Objectivism. I am new to Ayn Rand, so I'm curious if somebody with some real knowledge can answer this for me.

Was Rand's Objectivism motivated by a purely empirical conception of how things "ought to be"? Or, did Rand believe that there was some extrinsic moral force that gave her ideas a real property of being "good" beyond the maximization of individual happiness? I think I might agree pretty strongly with Rand, but only if she sought Objectivist government out of a purely selfish belief that these policies would benefit her. Did she believe that Objectivism was a solution to some kind of universally-imposed problem of good action? If so, what did she (or any of her followers on here =]) view as the origin of that problem?


Rand's view of morality is something like the following. Human beings have the capacity to create knowledge about the world, and to make choices in the light of that knowledge. The world is not set up in such a way that you and other people are bound to be victims dependent on alms. It is possible, and good, for you to gain from trading with other people. That is, you can deal with another person entirely on the basis of offering him some value he wants in return for him offering you some value you want: the trader principle.

You wrote:

Or, did Rand believe that there was some extrinsic moral force that gave her ideas a real property of being "good" beyond the maximization of individual happiness?

Rand though you should pursue happiness in the sense that you ought to pursue values that will lead to you being happy:

Happiness is that state of consciousness which proceeds from the achievement of one’s values. If a man values productive work, his happiness is the measure of his success in the service of his life. But if a man values destruction, like a sadist—or self-torture, like a masochist—or life beyond the grave, like a mystic—or mindless “kicks,” like the driver of a hotrod car—his alleged happiness is the measure of his success in the service of his own destruction. It must be added that the emotional state of all those irrationalists cannot be properly designated as happiness or even as pleasure: it is merely a moment’s relief from their chronic state of terror.

What about government? Rand's position was that individual rights are necessary to secure the conditions under which people could act on the trader principle. Securing those rights requires that people should act according to an objective set of rules: don't steal, commit fraud, commit murder etc. She argued that government was necessary to secure those rights, and that securing those rights is government's only proper function.

If you want to know more, "The Virtue of Selfishness" is a short introduction to Objectivist moral philosophy, You may also be interested in "Philosophy: who needs it" and her novels especially "Atlas Shrugged" and "The Fountainhead". If you want to discuss these issues further, you might be interested in the Fallible Ideas discussion group.

  • Does your second note on happiness mean that if a person pursues values that will lead to happiness (which seems to be a mix between virtue ethics and consequentialism) A person could never be happy if someone stood in their way via force? Jan 18 '17 at 20:46
  • 1
    If a person has force used against him, how he feels depends on what he does about it, and what he can do about it. If a mugger tries to take your wallet and you fend him off, you might not be too upset.The person who tries to use force is in a bad state and he can't improve much if he continues to use force to try to deal with his problems. Also, in general saying that any position is a mix of other positions is bad. It's vague and misleading. Is Rand consequentialist because she sometimes pays attention to consequences when judging or ... what?
    – alanf
    Jan 19 '17 at 10:23

Rand's moral philosophy is normative (obviously) and derived from consideration of consequences, but it is not consequentialist in its framing of moral principles and rights. Rand argued that moral philosophy requires principles that can be applied in the absence of the ability to foresee particular consequences, in the sense of the full outcomes of actions. Consideration of consequences from action justify the moral philosophy (the inquiry for which occurs at a broad level of considering the kinds of consequences that flow from broad classes of action --- e.g., honesty, dishonesty, etc.), but the principles of that moral philosophy are not framed in terms of consequences.

This aspect of Objectivism being "consequentially motivated" without being consequentialist is addressed in great detail in Smith (1995). Smith argues that the Objectivist moral philosophy is neither deontological nor consequentialist, but instead it is "teleological". For example, on the topic of rights, Smith notes (following the Objectivist moral philosophy) that:

Rights are consequence-based but not consequence-bound. Rights are consequence-based insofar as they are grounded on the premise that recognition of rights is necessary for achievement of the sought end. Desired outcomes are the source of rights' authority. Rights are not consequence-bound, however, because the actual or immediately projected outcomes of our actions are not the decisive test of whether rights should be respected on a given occasion. (p. 103)

This is an important point to understand with regard to the whole of the Objectivist theory of moral philosophy and rights. Since Objectivists appeal to reality to ground their philosophy, the Objectivist moral philosophy is thus necessarily grounded in consideration of the consequences of action. This is the source of the moral principles, but those principles must then be framed at a level of generality and applicability that does not require exceptions that appeal to the ability to fully project the consequences of a particular action.

Smith, T. (1995) Moral Rights and Political Freedom. Rowman & Littlefield: Maryland

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