The Philosophy of Ayn Rand – Interview with Aaron Smith

von Redaktion

Aaron Smith is a philosopher by profession. He is an instructor and a fellow at the Ayn Rand Institute in California. With a PhD in ancient Greek philosophy, he taught at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County before joining the Ayn Rand Institute. The interview was conducted by Amjad Aun.

When was the first time you recognized the value of liberty?

As a kid growing up, or a teenager, I had always thought that I wanted to go my own way. I had contempt for any kind of conformity or expectations that one simply had to meet because you had to. I rebelled against that, and I always had been very independent minded and wanted to go my own way. My first contact with the government was when I was 15 and a half. I got my first job as a dishwasher at a fine dining place making four dollars an hour. I calculated exactly how many hours I worked, and how much I should be paid. Afterwards, I look at my paycheck and see all these deductions. My dad came to pick me up because I wasn’t driving at that age. He picked me up and I was looking at the paycheck, wondering what are these deductions? What is this!? The number is a lot smaller than I expected it to be. My dad then said: “Well, it’s taxes, welcome to the world”. I just sat there furious. I knew how much I earned. Then I said, despondently, ‘I guess they know what they’re doing.’ Because I’m a kid, what do I know? And my dad turned around to me and said: “Never assume that son”. I always remembered that. It was like a little check mark. My parents never talked about politics; so, I don’t even know if they voted. It just never came up in the house, but I remember one thing—that there needs to be as little of that (taxes) as possible. That was my only thought, as a teenager.

As a child, did you have a significant story in which you experienced liberty and freedom?

I had a happy, simple, and quite benevolent childhood. My parents weren’t particularly overbearing in a way that would lead you to rebel and go crazy. It was more about independence and a desire for independence. If I want to live a certain way, if I want to dress a certain way, if I want to have certain goals or ideas about what I want to do with my life, I want to be free to do them and I don’t want the kind of obstacles of other people trying to prevent me from living the way I want. That wasn’t coming from a philosophical view, it was just a natural living organism’s desire to live. I was too much of a thinker and too introspective to be the type that just wants to blend in with others and who is okay with others saying this is your role, this is what you need to do, you need to conform, obey et cetera without bristling at this sort of impositions on your life. I love my life too much to be that sort of person.

What are the three most influential books you have read?

Atlas Shrugged, Atlas Shrugged, and Atlas Shrugged. (I’m being a little facetious). But I would say Atlas Shrugged for sure. The Fountainhead. Two books by Ayn Rand. I would also add Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand [by Leonard Peikoff]. You can tell, I’m a big Ayn Rand’s fan. I work for the Ayn Rand Institute, and she has been very important in terms of my own thinking about things such as liberty, and about morality. I think this was the first time where I felt I’m being presented with a worldview and a philosophy that makes sense to me, that resonates with what I observe in life, and resonates with the kinds of things that I think ought to be upheld and protected. I didn’t expect to read a philosopher, and I mean who thinks you’re going to agree with everything that a philosopher presents you? It’s kind of weird because the first time I had read anything philosophical it was like; “I can see where they’re going with this, and I think some of this is right. But that’s wrong. I don’t agree”. And for the first time I’m reading things that I was simply saying yes, yes, yes, yeah, that makes sense, and it was very surprising and pleasurable, frankly, it was like wow, somebody’s got it worked out and it took me many years to think through the p/Philosophy. For me, I just don’t want to say anything except Ayn Rand. There are tons of things I read and I fell in love with, but in terms of what the world needs today, however controversial she is, however provocative she is, however much she’s dismissed by the intellectual culture such as it is, this is, in my judgment, what the world needs today. It’s what I devote my life to.

We know that Ayn Rand has been a very fierce fighter in defending liberty and individualism. How would you connect her philosophy to scientific endeavors?

Well, she’s 100% on the side of reason, on the side of science, on the side of logic, on the side of nature, and cause and effect, and this world. She’s completely opposed to the whole religious supernaturalism. But, unlike most people, she thinks that ethics is a science. She doesn’t mean you take test tubes and microscopes. It’s not that, but it means there are actual living organisms out there that have actual, definite, objective needs for their proper survival and flourishing, and ethics is not a subjective matter, it’s a causal matter, it’s a matter of figuring out what values, in terms of cause and effect, do human beings actually need to pursue, what methods or courses of action, including rationality (the use of the mind). She thinks you can identify both why we need values, (why we need to pursue things), and why we need guidance to live in this way versus that way. She thinks there are actual answers to these questions in universal terms. It doesn’t mean that every single thing is the same, of course, there are tons of things that are optional, but she thinks you can identify a core framework of virtues and values that every human being needs because they’re human beings and if they want to live, these are the values and virtues they need. She thinks that a human needs to demonstrate that, it’s not just you can assert it, and this is what she does in her work.

There is a very controversial area. Many people have this misconception about Ayn Rand. They think she’s against helping others. But she says she is against altruism and sacrificing, not against charities, for example. So, if you feel happy in doing this, if it’s the value for you then it’s not a problem. How would you clarify this issue?

The idea that she’s against helping others is just simply B.S. That’s point one. Point two is that helping others is not a moral category. Helping which others? Why? What for? What values are you trying to advance, uphold or protect?  It’s not the idea that, if you’re helping others, it’s okay. That’s ridiculous. From the perspective of Ayn Rand’s ethics, that makes no sense. I help others all the time. I teach philosophy, I care about my students, I really like my students and I care about their development. I care about trying to help them think through what they’re doing. Sometimes they’ll come to me when they want some advice or feedback on something, and I try to help. It’s because I love what I do, I love my profession, and I love improving my skills and abilities in what I do. It’s all very self-oriented. But the idea that it’s self-oriented, so it must be driving a wedge between you and caring for other people is coming from the notion that helping others is about sacrificing for others – it’s about giving up something more important for the sake of something less important – it’s a net loss, it’s self-inflicted damage for the sake of others. And if it’s about that, then I don’t want to help others. If helping others implies hurting myself by giving up things that are important to me and sacrificing them for other people, that’s damage. Regarding charity, it’s a minor issue. If you can afford it and it’s not sacrificial and if you’re doing it for a rationally defensible reason, not out of a sense of obligation or guilt, fine. The idea that one must give a fixed percentage, such as 10%, is just duty and irrationality. But, if you have a genuine, rationally defensible reason to engage in charitable acts that align with one’s self-interest and make sense, then it is acceptable. However, It should not be considered a major virtue that warrants statues or accolades. What is a major virtue, what mankind should get a statue for is rationality, productive achievement, and self-esteem. These are the virtues that advance life and move it forward, that give us everything we have. The notion that living such a life would drive a wedge between positive, beneficial, or benevolent relationships with others, is nonsensical. When thinking about friends, or somebody you would want to fall in love with or productive co-workers that help you do your work, the idea that such relationships are contradictory to one’s interests is bizarre and baseless.

Do you have any advice for students who are newly introduced to Ayn Rand’s work? Should they read Ayn Rand’s books directly, or is it advisable for them to read something prior to her books?

I would recommend diving directly into Ayn Rand’s work. By this, I don’t mean to read only Ayn Rand. Rather, start with reading her novels, particularly, The Fountainhead and then Atlas Shrugged. Ayn Rand, as a fiction writer, is extremely philosophical in her thinking, and the goal of her fiction writing is philosophical – it’s the projection of an ideal man, a new moral ideal, and image of: this is what a moral man looks like (a moral human being) and a moral life. It’s a radically new conception of what morality looks like, what the goal of morality looks like, and what a moral person looks like, and the reason why people find this so inspiring, is an uplifting feeling in reading the stories. You might think, I don’t need the fiction, I’m just interested in philosophy. But the major way in which she presented and dramatized her philosophy is through her fiction. Following the publication of Atlas Shrugged in 1957, she turned to writing philosophical essays for various newsletters aimed at her fans, and those were compiled into books like The Virtue of Selfishness, Capitalism: the Unknown Ideal, The Voice of Reason and many others. There is no rule here, but I always tell people to start with her fiction. It’s rich in detail and characterization that you really get a real picture of what the moral life looks like, as opposed to an abstract treatise that delves into the nature of virtue through structured points and explanations. Ayn Rand writes with fire because she cares.

Is there something you would like to say to our European audience?

For Europeans, if you care about your own life, and you care about your personal happiness, and you want to be free to live your life, I think you need Ayn Rand. She’s the only philosopher who upholds and consistently defends an individual’s right to exist for his own sake, to live by the judgment of his own mind and for his own profit, where “profit” is not a smear term. Profit means benefit, benefit to your life — and she’s the only philosopher saying that. Now you might find that jarring and it’s like, “oh my god, profit, that sounds bad”. This is part of what she’s trying to knock out of your head, in effect: the idea that profit, benefit, happiness, and self-interest are inherently linked to evil. She’s saying, No, this is the essence of a moral life, and that is a radically different perspective, therefore, read it with an open mind.

Ayn Rand does not fit conventional categories, she’s not a liberal, not a conservative, not on the right, and not on the left. Of course, she loathed the left for their politics and ideas about morality, but she respected the intellectuality of the old left. However, she reserved most of her anger for the conservatives for their failure to properly defend capitalism, for their failure to uphold individual rights, for their attempt to defend capitalism on the basis of religion, tradition, and God. She said, what you’re doing is you’re saying we have no intellectual arguments for capitalism, all the intellectual arguments, the morality, and the rightness of the morality are on the side of the left, but we’ll let you keep a little more or something like that. She considers this suicide and that capitalism defenders were always its worst enemies, because they would never challenge the morality of altruism, the morality of self-sacrifice, the morality of others above self, they never dared to question that, and so, in logic, they could never defend capitalism. Capitalism is inconsistent with this morality of self-sacrifice. Capitalism says: your life is your own, live it for your own profit. You don’t belong to other people, you don’t belong to the state, you don’t belong to society, you’re not material for the use of society that they can just use and dispose of and grab your stuff whenever they think somebody needs it. You’re an autonomous individual and the government is simply your agent. It’s the agent that protects your individual rights and liberty. And nobody is saying that, not on a moral base. You can find people defending economic liberty, but not at the level of morality, not at the level of metaphysics about the nature of man and his needs.

Finally, I want to mention that the Ayn Rand Institute offers many courses, videos, books, and scholarships. You can check them out to learn more. I furthermore recommend watching their videos on YouTube.

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