Ayn Rand remains, nearly a century after her first publications, a controversial author, attracting fiercely devoted followers and equally passionate detractors. Her clear, uncompromising, and in some cases extreme, views guarantee heated discussion.
The word 'objectivism' is used to describe her worldview, but such a description helps only if that word is clearly defined. Stephen Hicks writes:
Objectivism is rational self-interest and self-responsibility – the idea that no person is any other person’s slave. The virtues of her philosophy are principled policies based on rational assessment: rationality, productiveness, honesty (in order to rationally make the best decisions we must be privy to the facts), integrity, independence, justice, and pride.
She takes the concept of self-interest to its conclusion: self-interest is, for her, not merely permissible, but virtuous. She sees selflessness as a vice. In these views, Rand managed to cross both the Judeo-Christian tradition which formed Western Civilization, and the atheistic statist communism which dominated the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe during Rand's lifetime.
While her ethic of self-interest managed to alienate many American and European readers, those same readers were attracted to her passionate devotion to liberty. Rand saw self-interest and liberty as necessary companions to each other. Hicks continues:
Rand’s ethic of self interest is integral to her advocacy of classical liberalism. Classical liberalism, more often called “libertarianism” in the 20th century, is the view that individuals should be free to pursue their own interests. This implies, politically, that governments should be limited to protecting each individual’s freedom to do so. In other words, the moral legitimacy of self interest implies that individuals have rights to their lives, their liberties, their property, and the pursuit of their own happiness, and that the purpose of government is to protect those rights. Economically, leaving individuals free to pursue their own interests implies in turn that only a capitalist or free market economic system is moral: free individuals will use their time, money, and other property as they see fit, and will interact and trade voluntarily with others to mutual advantage.
While readers in the traditions of Western Civilization and European culture find it easy to agree with Rand's classical liberalism, or libertarianism, those same readers are alienated by Rand's essential rejection of altruism. Instead of seeing political liberty and economic freedom as allowing individuals to freely choose to help others, Rand abandons an ethic of altruism. There are two reasons for her repudiation of altruism, although she may perhaps be aware of only one of them. First, she finds altruism and Kantian ethics to lack a fully rational decision procedure; she claims that the altruist receives no unambiguous guidance from his altruism in practical concrete situations - given multiple possible actions in a single situation, which of them does altruism advise? Second, Rand's rejection of altruism is an emotionally-fueled overreaction to the faults Soviet communism, which had imposed collectivism under the guise of altruism; while understandably eager to reveal Leninism's ideological underpinnings as fallacious, Rand mistakenly rejected the altruism which Leninism never embraced but which Leninism used as a excuse to impose totalitarianism. Neera Badhwar writes:
Rand regards goodwill towards others, or a generalized benevolence, as an offshoot of proper self-love, with no independent source in human nature. There is only one alternative to being rationally self-interested: sacrificing one's proper interests, either for the sake of other people (which she equates with altruism) or for the sake of the supernatural (which she calls mysticism).
Rand seems reluctant to accept the notion that one might freely choose altruism - i.e., that altruism could be an authentic expression of the individual. Rather, she sees altruism as capitulation: either capitulation to an external physical power, as in Soviet Leninism, or ideological capitulation to psycho-political forces such as leftist political views. In her reckoning of freedom, she does not see a freedom in which the individual makes an un-coerced choice to sacrifice for the sake of another. Neera Badhwar continues:
Kant's ethics is a secularized mysticism insofar as it rests on categorical commands and duty for duty's sake, which is to say: regardless of any earthly desire or interest.
Similar to the difficulties which the utilitarian encounters in the attempt to calculate net happiness, Rand argues that Kant will encounter ambiguities which prevent his concept of duty from yielding a concrete decision in a specific situation. As Badhwar writes,
The altruistic ethics equates right action with self-sacrifice for the sake of others' good and immorality with “selfishness,” while saying nothing about the standard of the good.
Rand argues that the ambiguity in Kant's ethical system not only leaves us in ambiguity when we attempt to apply it in a concrete situation, but its ambiguity also leaves it vulnerable to being exploited as a cover for insincere and cynical ideologies who will use it as an excuse to lead people into servitude. Badhwar writes:
As a moral code, altruism is impractical, because its requirements are contrary to the requirements of life and happiness, both the agent's and other people's. As such, it is also profoundly immoral. Like Kant's deontology, altruism leaves us without any moral guidance in our everyday lives and gives morality a bad name.
Thus, while Rand's libertarian and "classical liberal" impulses should place her comfortably in the mainstream of Western Civilization, her rejection of altruism alienates her from the Judeo-Christian tradition and the powerful force of private-sector charity which that tradition unleashes. Having rejected Soviet Leninism and the statist socialism found in western democracies, she also closes the door on private-sector charity which is the only effective help for social classes vulnerable to exploitation, but which is dependent upon the concept of altruism which she rejects. In 1946, in the wake of World War II and the Holocaust, she wrote:
The greatest guilt today is that of people who accept collectivism by moral default; the people who seek protection from the necessity of taking a stand, by refusing to admit to themselves the nature of that which they are accepting; the people who support plans specifically designed to achieve serfdom, but hide behind the empty assertion that they are lovers of freedom, with no concrete meaning attached to the word; the people who believe that the content of ideas need not be examined, that principles need not be defined, and that facts can be eliminated by keeping one's eyes shut. They expect, when they find themselves in a world of bloody ruins and concentration camps, to escape moral responsibility by wailing: "But I didn't mean this!"
In some passages, Rand seems vaguely aware that her lack of enthusiasm for altruism makes her writing seem heartless and soulless. It almost - but not quite - seems as if she's wrestling with, agonizing over, or attempting to make up for, that deficit. In other passages, however, she fiercely defends her views. Mining isolated quotes from her texts - cherry picking isolated sentences - can produced evidence to support divergent interpretations of Rand. But more sustained close reading of longer passages reduces these divergences. See, for example, the eleventh chapter of her novel Anthem.
Ayn Rand made, by means of her accurate critique of collectivism, a major contribution to the cause of freedom. But her failure to embrace the altruistic power of private-sector charity, and to see it both as the product of liberty and as the only source of constructive help for society's vulnerable classes, prevented her thought from receiving an unproblematic reception inside Western Civilization.