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For some background, I'm not a serious academic or philosopher, but I have been studying Ayn Rand, her novels, and her philosophy of Objectivism in my English Literature class.

A large part of Objectivism is focused around the notion of rational self-interest and working towards bettering yourself and achieving your goals. There is no obligation to any other man, nor is any other man obligated to you. According to Ayn Rand, pretty much anything would be justifiable as long as it's working to benefit an individual's rational self-interest.

My question is basically this: if a whole society was to follow Objectivism, would it survive? If everyone was working for their own goals and for no one else, then not showing up to work, school, or even back to your family could be justified. Since you aren't obligated to serve/help anyone else, wouldn't society collapse?

The closest thing I've seen to this would be Sears, but if there's any other examples out there, I'd love to hear them!

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    If the society collapses the individual would not benefit from it, so rational self-interest requires following some social commitments. And that makes some of the social ethics derivatively justifiable despite no primary obligation to others. So it is unclear that objectivism would be that much different in practice from what we have, except in marginal situations.
    – Conifold
    Oct 16 '20 at 5:35
  • @Conifold, we can't say no individual would benefit from it. Some minority of the population would benefit from it. And if some minority is being forced against their self-interest for the benefit of the majority, is that still Objectivism? Oct 16 '20 at 5:58
  • @AmeetSharma If the majority deems it in their self-interest to prop up society and a minority stands in the way nothing in objectivism would disallow the forcing in principle. There could be some practical considerations, but their weight dwindles with the size of the minority. Minority is screwed, under objectivism even more so than usual.
    – Conifold
    Oct 16 '20 at 6:08
  • @Conifold, so slavery isn't in conflict with principles of Objectivism? Oct 16 '20 at 6:12
  • @AmeetSharma And neither is abolitionism and violent resistance, it's dog eat dog until they deem it more rational to come to an accommodation, or the majority turns against slavery, as historically happened.
    – Conifold
    Oct 16 '20 at 6:14
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Rand's Objectivism is really Locke's 'State of Nature' argument (SoNa) on steroids. It imagines a world in which everyone is a rational, self-sufficient individual whose relationships to other people are strictly casual, functional, and arbitrary, and whose only real relationship is to property. Locke used this SoNa as the beginning point of his philosophy because he wanted to investigate what people were like without the oppressive social and political structures that plagued his era; Rand took this SoNa as gospel truth and constructed an ideology that advanced and defended it.

If you want an exemplar of a perfect Lockean SoNa individual, read Robinson Crusoe (which was written a decade or so after John Locke's death). Crusoe decides to head out into the 'unpeopled' wilds to make his fortune. He claims a stretch of land, builds himself a small fortress, and spends 27 years all alone extracting the bounty of nature before returning to sell it to others. It's a perfect encapsulation of the kind of 17th century rugged individualist model, spoiled only by the appearance of a hapless native whom Crusoe rescues and lazily names 'Friday' (after the day Crusoe saves him from cannibals), and whom Crusoe takes on as a servant and subordinate.

Now, it's obviously impossible to have a world of Robinson Crusoes with a population of seven billion people. There simply aren't enough 'unpeopled' lands for each person to charge off and make a fortune (though, granted, if every man spent 27 years alone in the wild it would have a significant impact on birth rates). Rand was aware of this, but rather than try to rebuild a social context the way Locke did, Rand makes the brutal, calculated distinction: those who manage (though skill, talent, hard work, brutality, or pure luck) to acquire and productively use property are deserving of the wealth that comes from it; those who do not are consigned to the role of 'Friday' and are contemptuously dismissed, existing only on the 'compassionate' generosity of their betters. It's the original form of trickle-down economics.

Obviously this form of society can and does exist. Just think of the Gilded Age, or the modern wealth divide, where those who 'own' progressively increase their wealth at the expense of those who do not 'own' (all the while lauding themselves for being 'job providers'). Of course, most Objectivists would say that's an unfair assessment of the spirit of the ideology. Objectivism is meant to be a moral system in which success is a function of skill, talent, and hard work, available to anyone who puts in the elbow work. But the only way to properly universalize Objectivism in that way is to give everyone the opportunity of ownership: i.e., to shift to a Marxist model that protects the individual from the oppression of capitalist social structures. But that model would be vigorously rejected by all Objectivists.

Honestly, Objectivism is merely an ideology that asks people to look at hard-line capitalism through rose-colored glasses, accepting its moral turpitudes as natural and justifiable, while celebrating its successes as moral virtues. As long as one keeps the glasses on, one can see the fruits of Objectivism everywhere.

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if a whole society was to follow Objectivism, would it survive?

The short answer is no, because there is no such society as that assumed by Ayn Rand. In Rand’s novels, everyone is a healthy adult. If everyone were a healthy adult, there would be nothing for a welfare system to do. There would be no point to it.

More broadly, a society free of risk could permit each individual to focus solely on their own personal creativity and their own needs.

Without children, disabled persons, and COVID-19, each person could realize their own potential. But there is no such place, and there never will be. Risk simply must be recognized and covered in some manner.

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To understand this, you really need to go and have a look at Rand's arguments about how cooperation occurs between people under the ethics of egoism, and how conflicts arise. (You can find her arguments on these matters in her book The Virtue of Slefishness.) Rand famously argued that there is "no conflict of interests among men who do not desire the unearned", since they would each recognise that interaction requires the exchange of value for value. Rand argued that rational people (operating under the ethics of egoism) would deal with one another as traders engaged in positive-sum cooperation.

It is not really correct to say that Rand believed that there are no obligations to others. She rejected the notion that there is an a priori duty to sacrifice oneself to others, but she also believed that there are some baseline obligations not to engage in force or fraud, and that rational people would be practitioners of broader virtues (honesty, productivity, dilligence, thrift, etc.). More importantly, Rand recognised that people could act as traders and engage in cooperative ventures, giving rise to agreed binding obligations (e.g., contractual relationships, etc.). Rand's objection wasn't to obligation per se, it was to unearned obligations arising from the moral code of altruism.

In her ethical works, Rand stressed that rational egoism requires proper attention to one's own long-term prosperity. It is not just a matter of acting on your immediate whims, and indeed, acting entirely on one's immediate whims tends to damage one's long-term interests and so it is not rational. (Because it can be difficult to determine one's long-term interests, Objectivists sometimes say that "it is hard to be selfish".) Your question suggests that you think not showing up to work, or school, or spending time with family, are all rational ways of getting what you want. So ask yourself, what would happen to you if you decided to stop going to work? Would that be in your long-term interests? What if you decided to eschew schooling? Would that be in your long-term interests? What would happen if you decided to stop seeing your family. Would that be in your long-term interests? (That last one depends on your family!) Moreover, you might also ask yourself why people bother turning up to work now --- are they merely doing it out of self sacrifice to others, or do they have a reason that is rooted in their own interests?

If I may be so bold, I do not think any of the things you have listed are likely to be an impediment to the proper functioning of society if all people engaged in rational selfishness. People would still go to work because it is beneficial (in the long-term) for them to go to work. People would still go to school and learn things because it is beneficial (in the long-term) to learn things. For the most part, people would still want to spend time with their family (aside perhaps, from some cases of extreme dysfunction) because it is beneficial to them to maintain these relationships.

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The short answer is "no". Rand believes that societal cooperation is able to arise from rational self interest, and that humans are rational. That humans are rational, even primarily, is demonstrated to be false by much of modern psychology research. An excellent reference that makes this clear is Thinking Fast and Thinking Slow, by Kahneman. Further, a society based on rational self interest will only work for those who have the skills and mental capacity to effectively negotiate in that society. This is NOT the case for children, as the most notable example. The sick, and disabled, and elderly, also would be unable to negotiate a sufficient place in such a society. So -- a Randian society WOULD be unsustainable, most notably due to its failure to account for the next generation, but also with our irrationality, and our physical frailties.

For societies to actually work, we humans need to rely upon additional motivators over and above rational self interest. These include senses of community, and of tribalism, and of family. They also include morality and altruism. The psychology and sociology of how we have managed to construct remarkably successful complex societies should be surprising to anyone who thinks about how basically no animals are able to live successfully in as complex a set of relationships as we do. Rand does not think about this at all -- sociology and psychology are almost invisible to her thinking.

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