On Suicide

…reality is the starting point, and one cannot engage in debates about why one should prefer it—to nothing. Nor can one ask for some more basic value the pursuit of which validates the decision to remain in reality. The commitment to remain in the realm of that which is, is precisely what cannot be debated; because all debate (and all validation) takes place within that realm and rests on that commitment. About every concrete within the universe and about every human evaluation of these, one can in some context ask questions or demand proofs. In regard to the sum of reality as such, however, there is nothing to do but grasp: it is—and then, if the fundamental alternative confronts one, bow one’s head in a silent “amen,” amounting to the words: “This is where I shall fight to stay.”

Leonard Peikoff, “Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand”

Peikoff’s argument is a proof by contradiction: since you are already pre-committed to remaining in reality in the very act of debating the issue, any conclusion which denies that premise is self-contradictory. Since choosing to die implies a contradiction, it cannot be rationally justified, and therefore cannot be morally justified. No one can exit the realm of morality guiltlessly.1

Peikoff unfortunately continues from this point to argue in favor of suicide:

Suicide is justified when man’s life, owing to circumstances outside of a person’s control, is no longer possible; an example might be a person with a painful terminal illness, or a prisoner in a concentration camp who sees no chance of escape. In cases such as these, suicide is not necessarily a philosophic rejection of life or of reality. On the contrary, it may very well be their tragic reaffirmation. Self-destruction in such contexts may amount to the tortured cry: “Man’s life means so much to me that I will not settle for anything less. I will not accept a living death as a substitute.”

On the one hand he says the commitment to life is axiomatic, and that there is no justifiable basis for questioning it, and on the other hand that suicide is justified if one’s condition is hopeless.

I submit that this is a contradiction. This defense of suicide is inconsistent with the basic moral premises of the philosophy. The mistake here is derivative, not fundamental. The philosophy as a whole is sound, but the position on suicide is not.

To deal with his position as charitably as possible: his justification is reminiscent of Rand’s “Inexplicable Personal Alchemy”, where she values one’s “metaphysical self-preservation” over and above one’s “physical preservation”, and she argues for keeping one’s integrity and one’s metaphysical view of reality intact, regardless of the consequences, even if it leads to one’s death. Rand’s argument is not to violate one’s moral code, to not collaborate with an enemy or play their game. I wholeheartedly agree, in circumstances where one faces such a choice, one should not for example steal from another in order to live, or in her example, that one should not give up the names of one’s allies in the face of torture or a firing squad, in the name of integrity, in the name of the best in man and addressing his essential nature, even when he has become a monster.

But this doesn’t justify taking one’s own life. That is an act compromising one’s own moral integrity, and it is not a noble crying out in the name of a benevolent metaphysical view of man and reality, but rather a tortured cry of one who has accepted a malevolent metaphysical view of man and reality, and refuses to go on in that world2. So indeed the act of suicide has exactly the opposite nature as what he tries to attribute to it.

Suicide is not an “affirmation of life”

Consider Roark, for whom suffering “only goes down to a certain point”. Because he can create, because he can achieve positive values, nothing else can seem very important, and ultimately, “it’s not really pain”.

Or consider Dagny: she did not believe in suffering. She would not allow pain to become important. She knew that “it does not count – it is not to be taken seriously” – “even in the moments when there was nothing left within her but screaming and she wished she could lose the faculty of consciousness”.  

As John Galt said, “I know the unimportance of suffering, I know that pain is to be fought and thrown aside, not to be accepted as part of one’s soul and as a permanent scar across one’s view of existence.” We exist for earning rewards. That is what motivates us, that is why we act – not for escaping pain. Pain is not going to make us function; it is not an incentive that gives us fuel.

To commit suicide, purely for the sake of escaping pain – so far from being an affirmation of what life ought to be, it would be a declaration that suffering is necessarily a part of life, that it is important and that it does matter. It is the rejection of the belief that “suffering is unimportant, and is only to be fought and thrown aside and not accepted as a meaningful part of one’s view of existence”.

To affirm life is to continue to seek happiness despite the tragedy and hopelessness of the situation. One cannot affirm one’s life by destroying it. In Peikoff’s own words:

if the fundamental alternative confronts one, bow one’s head in a silent “amen,” amounting to the words: “This is where I shall fight to stay.”

That is an affirmation of life.

Positive values are possible despite suffering

In psychology there is a concept known as resilience. Resilience is the ability to adjust one’s expectations and one’s goals according to one’s circumstances – even in the face of a dramatic change of one’s circumstances, as in the case of devastating loss or extreme suffering (or to use Peikoff’s examples, in the case of a painful terminal illness, or being a prisoner in a concentration camp where one can see no chance of escape). It is the ability to stay optimistic and look on the positive side – to seek and to find good things that are within one’s range.

Consider the findings of a recent study: “Locked-in patients trapped inside their paralyzed bodies have told doctors they are ‘happy’ using an astonishing new brain computer interface which deciphers their thoughts… On seven out of 10 occasions the patients said they were happy despite their utterly debilitating condition”. 

Or consider the case of Christopher Reeves, as Louie describes:

[To] give up life because you were once a famous actor and are now a quadripalegic is plainly cowardly and foolish… to give up as soon as life is a bit tough, or needing to alter what usually makes you happiest. Changing course isn’t the end.

If Reeves committed suicide he would have achieved less than he was capable of – it would have been self-sacrificial. And yet if Reeves held himself to the same standard of being an able-bodied Superman actor, something more than that of which he was capable, he would have achieved nothing but failure – and still would not have achieved the things he could have, which would be equally self-destructive and self-sacrificial. So the fault with a former athlete or actor, for example, who decides to commit suicide because they can no longer pursue their previous career, is that they lack resilience (the movie “Me Before You” dramatizes exactly this issue).

Even in pain and suffering one can love life, and realize that it is priceless opportunity that one should get the most out of that one can before it is gone.

In this depression and dreadful uninterrupted suffering, I don’t condemn life. On the contrary, I like it and find it good. Can you believe it? I find everything good and pleasant, even my tears, my grief. I enjoy weeping, I enjoy my despair. I enjoy being exasperated and sad. I feel as if these were so many diversions, and I love life in spite of them all. I want to live on. It would be cruel to have me die when I am so accommodating. I cry, I grieve, and at the same time I am pleased – no, not exactly that – I know not how to express it. But everything in life pleases me. I find everything agreeable, and in the very midst of my prayers for happiness, I find myself happy at being miserable. It is not I who undergo all this – my body weeps and cries; but something inside of me which is above me is glad of it all.

Marie Bashkirtseff (found in “Varieties of Religious Experience” by William James)

Note that she said “I love life in spite of them all” – she loves the positives in life in spite of the negatives.

Other experiences are present despite that pain, and those are valuable to some degree. Better yet, with a proper mindset, that pain diminishes to entirely bearable. As a minor example, my knee hurts a bit if I focus on pain from a minor injury, but it goes to the back of my mind as other experiences matter more and are present as a degree of pleasure. The proper attitude would reduce it to manageable levels; only a real nihilist may say existing at all is an excruciating horror.

I’m not saying pain is unreal, or only the fault of bad thinking. The point is that with a good attitude, the pain will be there, but it isn’t going to be so bad that life is impossible. Difficult, yes, but people can cope. Attaining and reaching for value is always possible. This may appear awful, terrible, a “clawing for life” perhaps. Here is where I agree with the word “reification”, that is, making pain into something more than it is. In fact, the pursuit of life is there, the values are there – life didn’t stop. Nothing about her nature as a person ceased.

Eioul on Objectivism Online

What these people are reporting, and others can personally corroborate, is that pain and pleasure are not mutually exclusive values on a single continuum. One can be in pain, and yet feel pleasure. One can be suffering, but happy. They are independent variables. 

Every positive thing one can experience, from the simplest joy of opening one’s eyes and enjoying the view, is still a positive, despite any level of suffering that is happening at the time. The pain cannot take that positive away. Joy is not “the absence of pain”.

Such positive values do exist for anyone who is conscious at all. As I quoted from Eioul, “only a real nihilist may say existing at all is an excruciating horror.” You exist for the sake of enjoying those values, and every action you take should be for the sake of that end.

Reducing suffering is a means to an end

There is always room for rational risk-taking as a means to pursue one’s values, even significant risks. Risking one’s life in a military context, for example, is the defense of one’s life, it is the pursuit of life and the pursuit of happiness. It is exactly the opposite of making a deliberate choice to die. An irrational risk is a tradeoff in which the reward, in terms of one’s life and happiness, is less than what one is risking. In the case of suicide, one is sacrificing one’s life and happiness entirely – there is no tradeoff at all there! A soldier is risking his life for the sake of his quest to pursue life and happiness. Suicide does not serve such a quest.

And this is not to say that pain is a good thing, either; pain is a miserable evil that ought to be fought. Pain and suffering are terrible afflictions, and if someone you loved were suffering, you would want to do everything you can to help them find relief. Pain medication is a good thing. Even if one wanted to risk one’s life with a dangerously high dosage it can be worth it. Pain interferes with one’s thinking, one’s values, and one’s actions. A person in tremendous pain can and sometimes should take a dangerous risk with pain medication in order to bring themselves to a more functional level, and it would be right to assist them in doing so. There is always room for rational risk-taking, even significant risks like in military contexts, or in this case taking high doses of pain medication. There is a risk, but it is a rational risk taken for the sake of a reward; it is ultimately for the sake of life and happiness.

The pursuit of eliminating suffering is a good up until the point that it becomes an absurdity: where you are sacrificing your ultimate value – your life – for a lesser value: the relief of suffering. That is not a moral choice.


1) Gotthelf, “The Choice to Value,” p. 44


She had to escape from Jim, she thought. Where?–she asked, looking around her with a glance like a cry of prayer… the harder she worked, the more malevolence she would draw from the people around her, and she would not know when truth would be expected of her and when a lie, but the stricter her honesty, the greater the fraud she would be asked to suffer at their hands…

Now she knew that they were not exceptions, that theirs was the code accepted by the world, that it was a creed of living, known by all, but kept unnamed, leering at her from people’s eyes in that sly, guilty look she had never been able to understand–and at the root of the creed, hidden by silence, lying in wait for her in the cellars of the city and in the cellars of their souls, there was a thing with which one could not live.

Then the girl screamed–and the scream went beating against the blank walls of the street as in a chamber of torture, an animal scream of terror. She tore her arm loose and sprang back, then screamed in articulate sounds: “No! No! Not your kind of world!”

Cheryl, Atlas Shrugged

The Argument for Metaphysical Universals

“It is Aristotle who identified the fact that only concretes exist. But Aristotle held that definitions refer to metaphysical essences, which exist in concretes as a special element or formative power… Aristotle regarded “essence” as metaphysical; Objectivism regards it as epistemological.”

“Thus the essence of a concept is determined contextually and may be altered with the growth of man’s knowledge. The metaphysical referent of man’s concepts is not a special, separate metaphysical essence, but the total of the facts of reality he has observed

“I was discussing the issue of concepts with a Jesuit, who philosophically was a Thomist. He was holding to the Aristotelian position that concepts refer to an essence in concretes. And he specifically referred to ‘manness’ in man and ‘roseness’ in roses. I was arguing with him that there is no such thing, and that these names refer merely to an organization of concretes, that this is our way of organizing concretes.”

Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology (bold emphasis mine)

“Epistemic universals”

Rand denies metaphysical universals quite explicitly, as quoted above. She believes everything in reality is concrete and particular, that there is in reality no “manness” in man which applies universally for all men at all times, but rather the concept “man” is merely man’s way of organizing the concretes seen around him into a mental grouping.

“The metaphysical referent of man’s concepts is … the facts of reality he has observed.”

If one holds that concepts are only “universal” over the total set of of one’s prior, concrete observations, then this is not the universal set! This isn’t guaranteed by any metaphysical principle to hold at all times and for all instances in reality. Concepts in this view aren’t describing something that holds abstractly in reality, they are just describing something that holds abstractly over the particular, delimited set of observations which one has accumulated thus far.

If “universals” are merely referring to sets of observed particulars, then one cannot interpret anything observed, predict the future, or classify anything new, when nothing in general about reality can be referred to. The “man” classified today might have nothing to do with the next “man” observed. The ball observed in one moment tells one nothing about what might be observed in the next moment. Any particular, any moment yet to be observed, nothing can be said about it, because the classifications are all retrospective, they only refer to the particulars already observed.

The “epistemic universal” of “length” one invents today can say nothing about the “length” observed tomorrow, because no necessary connection is being induced, nothing general about reality itself, it is just the cataloging of regularities in experience. They are just retrospective statistical observations – the moment one starts talking about length – every property of length in all places and all times – then one is talking about a universal property out in reality, a metaphysical universal, which is exactly what has been rejected.

No inference can be extended to particulars outside of the cherry-picked set of concretes previously observed. If a concept “stands for” an unlimited range of things abstractly, but concretely it only refers to some particular set of items already identified, then there is no way to know if the abstraction actually does apply to the full range of things that it stands for.

One can define a category of “winged things” which is open-ended, and therefore includes all winged things yet to be observed. Obviously any new instance added to the set will have wings, but nothing else can be said of it besides that. Without such a thing as a natural class, then what is formed is merely a nominal category, in other words the category is merely analytical, and the only thing that can be inferred from classifying something as a “winged thing” is that it has wings. Which is of course useless.

If there is no natural kind backing the concept, then there’s no justification for inferring anything beyond what has already been defined. If on the other hand concepts are identifying a natural kind, then there’s a necessary connection between all particulars in the set, from which one can justifiably infer things like “any new particulars added to the set will behave as the rest of the set”.

If one holds that “any new particulars added to the set will behave as the rest of the set”, then one is apparently identifying a universal in reality. It functions as a universal, and abstractly identifies something in reality that is timeless and essential, something where instances at all times and in all cases will behave in that same way. If an abstraction is be extended across all instances at all times, and out into reality (in the sense that it will predict the future behavior of things in reality), then the abstraction is something that is metaphysical and universal. A nominalist is someone who rejects that any such thing is metaphysically possible or epistemologically justifiable.

Universals which “hold true” but do not “exist”

Rand believes everything in reality is concrete, that, in reality, there is “no such thing” as the universal “manness” which ties together all concrete men, at all times and in all places. This “manness” is rather our organization of concrete men.

She claims that, by properly organizing concrete men, one can thus arrive at a universal “manness” which will hold true for all concrete men, at all times and in all places.

So the universal does exist mentally but not in reality? Does it “hold true” in reality, and just doesn’t “exist” in reality? There is this odd reluctance to grant the existence of something “in reality”.

Dual aspect metaphysics grants this idea of an “abstract reality”. Some abstraction which holds true in reality, therefore is real. It gives a kind of reifying existence and power to the abstraction, the abstraction is what is metaphysically making it hold true, as opposed to something else making it hold true and the abstraction merely epistemologically “recognizing” that the truth is holding, presumably for some other reason.

It’s kind of an odd question- what is the real thing which is making this universal hold true? There must be something with the force of reality which is making this truth hold- what is that force? Where does that force come from?

Rand asserts that there are no abstractions with this power: only concretes are “really real”. But even some given concrete has to have some abstract nature. Is the material of the concrete supposed to be powering the nature of the concrete? It doesn’t really make any sense when thought about clearly. Only the dual aspect perspective, a la Aristotle’s hylomorphic compounds, actually makes any sense.

Apparently Rand’s perspective is that one cannot say why, but things just “happen” to work universally. That’s just the way the concretes behave- but they don’t behave that way because of some abstract principle of their nature. That form or principle is just a “way man describes” what matter is doing, it only exists in the mind, not in reality itself.

It is bizarre to say that and also hold that induction is possible, as in McCaskey’s article, where he insists that it is possible to have 100% certainty about regularities despite there being no principle of uniformity. How can one have 100% certainty that a regularity will hold, if one denies the reality of some principle to it? There is no way to make a valid inference from any number of observations of a behavior to a universal rule of the behavior. What is to say it won’t change, if it is not a real aspect of the thing’s nature?

McCaskey for example claims:

“If you have good guidelines and follow them, you can be certain that someone absolutely cannot contract cholera unless exposed to the bacterium Vibrio cholerae, certain that all men are mortal, certain that the angles of all planar triangles sum to 180°, and certain that 2+3=5.”

Well no, under this system, none of these is certain. No conclusion science has ever achieved can be described as true, or knowledge, or certain. They simply happen to be true under the concretes previously observed, and one predicts it will continue to be so.

Yes, even with math. Is it certain that 2+3=5? At all times and in all places, universally? How? That may have held up under previous observations, and one may predict that it will continue under similar circumstances, but all of one’s predictions are unjustified and unreliable; one hasn’t observed every single instance that has ever occurred.

From the article: “It’s not that you must presume uniformity in order to classify. It’s that you classify to find uniformities.”

The whole problem with this is that one hasn’t “found” any more uniformity than one had to begin with! One is left in exactly the same position as he agreed with earlier in the article: “The Scholastics lamented (rightly) that unless you had surveyed all magnets or all animals, the inference was not certain”

“Certainty” without proof

A fall back here is to argue that concepts are not universal, but that one can still have a kind of “certainty” which could be mistaken, that it is still “knowledge” which one can hold beyond a reasonable doubt.

If something hasn’t been proven to be true then there is a reasonable doubt that it could be different at some other time or place. After all, it has been asserted that one cannot make justifiable claims for something at all times and all places.

If one is making a universal claim about something at all times and all places, and holds that such claims are invalid, cannot be justified, then how in the world can one feel certainty about them? It has been asserted that one can’t hold such general claims as true, certain, knowledge.

Universal claims are either justified or unjustified. One must choose. If they are unjustified then one cannot claim “certainty” and “the impossibility of doubt”. If universal claims are justifiable, and a given one is proven, then one can claim certainty and the impossibility of doubt.

Either the claim “2+3=5” is unjustified and therefore fallible, or else it is justified and therefore infallible.

It makes absolutely no sense to declare that some claim is unjustifiable, but also true beyond a reasonable doubt.


If one denies the existence of universals metaphysically, then there’s no reason to believe that an abstraction will extend beyond the range of the small set of previously observed concretes to which it currently refers (and certainly not to believe that one has knowledge or certainty about it). In that case these “universal” epistemological abstractions do not provide knowledge, one cannot have certainty about them – and indeed the opinion of a nominalist is that the use of or belief in such “epistemological universals” is foolish and counter-productive, after all, what’s the point in having or believing in some “timeless essential” if it’s not referring to something that is actually timeless and essential in reality? These universal abstractions are actually false and misleading, they distort the view of reality since there are no such things. There are only retrospective categories of reference.

Calling such epistemic categories “concepts” or “universals” is mistaken. None of the positive results that Ayn Rand tries to claim follow, like the ability to have conceptual knowledge, or certainty about reality, or the validity of induction. None of this is really consistent with this view; one is a skeptic about any general statement about reality, a nominalist who believes in categories of convenience, and the epistemic standard (and thus, necessarily, the moral and political standard) is subjective and pragmatic. There are plenty of people who own up to holding exactly this view, nominalists of all kinds own up to this and wear it proudly, declaring that all that is possible to man are pragmatically guided categories and statistical correlations, and that belief in concepts, in universals that actually hold in reality, is akin to a religious fantasy from which one must break away.

If on the other hand one is not truly a skeptic about reality, if deep down there is a belief that it is possible to justifiably know things that are necessary and certain and universal, then there must be a conversation about the metaphysics of universals. Either way there’s an inconsistency in Ayn Rand’s thinking, and one should be clear and honest with themselves on exactly where one stands.

One must choose a side. Either there are universals which actually hold in reality, or else there is no such thing. If there is nothing in reality which holds universally, then one cannot have knowledge of things which hold universally. It is not possible. One either needs to own up to one’s metaphysical stance epistemologically, or own up to one’s epistemological stance metaphysically. It cannot be held both ways. The concept of metaphysical universality cannot be stolen in epistemology while denying it in metaphysics – not if one is being honest with one’s self. Either one has a merely pragmatic stance (i.e. holding this concept as if it were a universal, even if there are no such things, since that seems to work well) in which case one ought to own up to that epistemologically as a nominalist, or else one does believe that universal knowledge is possible but is operating on a stolen metaphysical premise, in which case one ought to own up to that metaphysically as an intrinsicist.

The Presuppositionalist Argument for the Axioms of Objectivism

In the following quote from Leonard Peikoff’s “Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand”, we see the presuppositionalist argument (or transcendental argument) for proving three axiomatic concepts: existence, identity, and consciousness.

First, he appeals to our common sense perceptual judgments: things exist, things have definite identity, and we are consciously aware of them. We intuitively believe in these axioms because these judgments are implicit in every moment of conscious awareness:

One knows that the axioms are true, not by inference of any kind, but by sense perception. When one perceives a tomato, for example, there is no evidence that it exists, beyond the fact that one perceives it; there is no evidence that it is something, beyond the fact that one perceives it; and there is no evidence that one is aware, beyond the fact that one is perceiving it. Axioms are perceptual self-evidencies. There is nothing to be said in their behalf except: look at reality.

The above is the validation of the Objectivist axioms. “Validation” I take to be a broader term than “proof”, one that subsumes any process of establishing an idea’s relationship to reality, whether deductive reasoning, inductive reasoning, or perceptual self-evidence. In this sense, one can and must validate every item of knowledge, including axioms. The validation of axioms, however, is the simplest of all: sense perception.

Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, by Leonard Peikoff, p.8

Then, he proves that these axioms are inescapable – any argument which purports to deny them must concede them:

The three axioms I have been discussing have a built-in protection against all attacks: they must be used and accepted by everyone, including those who attack them and those who attack the concept of the self-evident. Let me illustrate this point by considering a typical charge leveled by opponents of philosophical axioms.

“People disagree about axioms,” we often hear. “What is self-evident to one may not be self-evident to another. How then can a man know that his axioms are objectively true? How can he ever be sure he is right?”

This argument starts by accepting the concept of “disagreement”, which it uses to challenge the objectivity of any axioms, including existence, consciousness, and identity. The following condensed dialogue suggests one strategy by which to reveal the argument’s contradictions. The strategy begins with A, the defender of axioms, purporting to reject outright the concept of “disagreement”.

A: “Your objection to the self-evident has no validity. There is no such thing as disagreement. People agree about everything.”

B: “That’s absurd. People disagree constantly, about all kinds of things.”

A: “How can they? There’s nothing to disagree about, no subject matter. After all, nothing exists.”

B: “Nonsense. All kinds of things exist. You know that as well as I do.”

A: “That’s one. You must accept the existence axiom even to utter the term ‘disagreement’. But, to continue, I still claim that disagreement is unreal. How can people disagree, since they are unconscious beings who are unable to hold ideas at all?”

B: “Of course people hold ideas. They are conscious beings – you know that.”

A: “There’s another axiom. But even so, why is disagreement about ideas a problem? Why should it suggest that one or more of the parties is mistaken? Perhaps all of the people who disagree about the very same point are equally, objectively right.”

B: “That’s impossible. If two ideas contradict each other, they can’t both be right. Contradictions can’t exist in reality. After all, things are what they are. A is A.”

Existence, consciousness, and identity are presupposed by every statement and by every concept, including that of “disagreement”. In the act of voicing his objection, therefore, the objector has conceded the case. In any act of challenging or denying the three axioms, a man reaffirms them, no matter what the particular content of his challenge. The axioms are invulnerable.

Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, by Leonard Peikoff, p.9-11

This position is not unique to Peikoff; he is faithfully fleshing out the arguments from Ayn Rand:

“Axioms are… propositions identifying a fundamental, self-evident truth.”

“An axiomatic concept is the identification of a primary fact of reality, which cannot be reduced to other facts or broken into component parts. It is implicit in all facts and in all knowledge. It is the fundamentally given… on which all proofs and explanations rest

“Since axiomatic concepts refer to facts of reality and are not a matter of “faith” or of man’s arbitrary choice, there is a way to ascertain whether a given concept is axiomatic or not: one ascertains it by observing the fact that an axiomatic concept cannot be escaped, that it is implicit in all knowledge, that it has to be accepted and used even in the process of any attempt to deny it.”

Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, by Ayn Rand

“You cannot prove that you exist or that you’re conscious,” they chatter, blanking out the fact that proof presupposes existence, consciousness and a complex chain of knowledge: the existence of something to know, of a consciousness able to know it, and of a knowledge that has learned to distinguish between such concepts as the proved and the unproved.

When a savage who has not learned to speak declares that existence must be proved, he is asking you to prove it by means of non-existence—when he declares that your consciousness must be proved, he is asking you to prove it by means of unconsciousness—he is asking you to step into a void outside of existence and consciousness to give him proof of both—he is asking you to become a zero gaining knowledge about a zero.

When he declares that an axiom is a matter of arbitrary choice and he doesn’t choose to accept the axiom that he exists, he blanks out the fact that he has accepted it by uttering that sentence, that the only way to reject it is to shut one’s mouth, expound no theories and die.

An axiom is a statement that identifies the base of knowledge and of any further statement pertaining to that knowledge, a statement necessarily contained in all others, whether any particular speaker chooses to identify it or not. An axiom is a proposition that defeats its opponents by the fact that they have to accept it and use it in the process of any attempt to deny it.

John Galt’s speech, Atlas Shrugged, by Ayn Rand

Q&A on Civic Nationalism

What is Civic Nationalism?

Civic nationalism is a form of nationalism based on ideological alignment rather than economic, cultural, or ethnic lines.

In a civic nation there is no citizenship by birthright – even native born children are not citizens until they reach adulthood and apply. The point is to make citizenship a choice, and the choice is based on the individual’s ideas and beliefs about the proper role of government. All applicants are held to the same standard in that regard.

In the case of a native born child who comes of age, but fails the testing and doesn’t meet the standards or chooses not to join, then they would not become a citizen. There should be ample education and encouragement for children to become citizens of course, so there’s no reason they shouldn’t be able to pass if they really agreed with the system and wanted to be a part of it.

Will the requirement for agreement lead to thought-policing, echo chambers, and indoctrination?

On the contrary, civic nationalism is the concept of a nation of ideas, and must therefore embody a respect for ideas.

For this reason, the education of children in civics should not be indoctrination, as the goal is actually to reach an informed consent when and if they choose to join, for which knowledge of alternative systems and other arguments would be invaluable.

Moreover, citizens have an inviolable right to freedom of thought and freedom of speech, and, most importantly, freedom to exit. If someone changes their mind and no longer agrees with the fundamental principles of the system, then they are free to renounce their citizenship at any time, and so there is no need for thought-policing.

Why not base the nation on cultural lines?

Why should that common culture need to be tied to the government per se? Under a civic nationalist system, there can be strong common culture among people in a given area. In a free country, any kind of society or institution can be formed, whether it’s in a town or a whole region, with its own rules, standards, and culture.

What the civic nationalist system intends to recognize is that there is a separation of concerns – the government is for one specific kind of purpose: the defense of people’s rights and the institution of justice – and that is all the government per se is concerned with, whereas private organizations are thereby free to fulfill all other kinds of concerns, including cultural, religious, and so on.

So this civic nation can be a kind of alliance amongst all different areas and kinds of people, who may be very different and disagree on many things, but who all choose to lay down arms on the issue of the use of force, and agree to a limited government whose sole purpose is justice and defense

If this kind of system were voted in, what happens to non-citizens who already live in the area? Are they forcibly removed?

There is not always a necessity to forcibly remove non-citizens from a country. Peaceful people, perhaps citizens of another country, can potentially be either tourists or residents, and the renunciation of citizenship for example does not automatically mean the loss of property in the country, either. A rights-respecting nation wouldn’t go around arbitrarily seizing people’s private property just because they don’t agree. This is especially true for people who share a common heritage, common culture, and common language and so on, as people who live in the same area often do.

The main issue in dealing with non-citizens who want to be in the area is with maintaining the security of the citizens, and with the establishment of a legal agreement with non-citizens. But establishing basic legal agreement to follow the laws, without having full citizenship status, is certainly possible. That’s how things like visas, extradition treaties, etc. exist.

People often think this sort of system means forced removal, and that’s not necessarily the case. Forced removal is something that only happens when no legal agreement can be made, perhaps with a stateless actor or some hostile person.

Criteria For Citizenship

In a previous blog post I covered a long list of criteria on which people could be judged, having nothing to do with race or skin color. The standards that were listed are just some of the ways of judging a person, whether it’s someone you’re considering for a job, a romantic relationship, someone you are inviting into your home, or into your country.

Here I will discuss more specifically the criteria for someone to become a citizen of a rights-respecting limited government.

A limited government is based on the consent of the governed, and so is formed by voluntary contract. The primary guiding principle when judging an applicant for citizenship is whether they understand and agree to the contract in question.

The core criteria to check for their agreement would include:

  • Do they understand the moral and political philosophy that is the essence of the idea of limited government?
  • Do they fully agree with this essence?
  • Do they hold beliefs that are contradictory to this agreement?

In this contract they are voluntarily binding themselves to adherence to the government’s laws and procedures, and the consequences for breaking them. It’s important they understand what it means to have signed this, not just in granting them entrance into the country, but the privileges and protections afforded to them, and also that this makes them subject to governmental authority and imposes certain obligations. Without a legal agreement in place, the government cannot legally – or justly – either provide the benefits or impose the obligations and consequences on them.


Understanding is the most straightforward criteria to test. This would be a standard academic test for comprehension – essentially a civics exam. Some of the criteria for a good test of understanding would include:

  • Can they define the relevant terms? (like, “rights”, “justice”, “contract”, “citizen”, etc.)
  • Can they give examples?
  • Can they cite factual information about how these ideas are implemented in this country? (e.g. the branches of government, the bodies of the legislature, who are the current heads of government, and so on)
  • Can they distinguish whether a given position (or a given example) is or is not consistent with the ideas? (for example, “can insulting your beliefs be made illegal?”, or, “can a person’s immoral behavior be outlawed if it isn’t harming anyone else?”)
  • Can they write a persuasive essay (and/or give a persuasive oral argument) identifying the main reasons justifying the positions?

Ideally there should be a curriculum and classes to teach these the ideas and the reasoning behind them to those who seek citizenship, including to high-school students coming of age.

(While the United States’ naturalization process is remarkably good, it is unfortunately only currently used for foreigners becoming citizens, whereas it should be a process any long-term resident goes through, including children born here. Birthright citizenship is fundamentally incompatible with a limited government, which has at its core a signed, voluntary, contractual agreement. Many problems arise from birthright citizenship, from people who feel as though obligations like taxation are being unfairly imposed on them, to people who are working to subvert and transform the nature of the government, all because they never had to agree to these terms of their citizenship or the specific nature of the government they were joining in the first place. The issues with birthright citizenship will be addressed more fully in a future post.)


While a signature on a binding contract signifies agreement, and other similar methods like requiring a sworn oath, or line-by-line confirmation of the main points can emphasize it, ultimately agreement is more difficult to verify than knowledge. Verifying agreement requires making judgments about the person – backed by some specific evidence. For example, in order to judge if they value hard work, their work history could be verified. In order to judge if they have good character, character references could be required.

Many of the standard questions for a job interview would also be relevant:

  • Asking about the person’s past and what challenges/weaknesses/mistakes they’ve overcome, and how they think they’ve grown and learned from them.
  • Hypothetical “what would you do if…?” questions to determine their judgement, reasoning, problem-solving ability, and their priorities.
  • Why are you choosing to apply here? What specifically attracted you and why do you think you’d be a good fit?
  • What are your goals and where do you see yourself in 10 years?

These kind of in-person interviews are an effective tool for judging a potential employee in business, and should be an essential part of judging applicants for citizenship as well.

Similarly, before getting married, couples may go through pre-marital counseling, which has many of the same criteria as a citizenship agreement: a good counselor will try to make sure that you fully understand the nature of the commitment, and that you understand the responsibilities it entails. They will try to understand whether you are making the decision for the rights reasons, and get you to seriously think about whether this relationship is right for you. They will also go through some of the potential trials that you may encounter, and make sure you are aware of these possibilities at the outset before you make the commitment. Taking a similar approach with citizenship can help the government make a better judgment about the suitability of the applicant, and help prepare the applicant for their future citizenship.

Other evidence could be gleaned from psychological tests, like the kind that employers sometimes use to determine, in a roundabout way (without asking you directly so you know what the “right” answer is), whether you have certain personality traits. Indications for personality characteristics like psychopathy, sociopathy, aggression, or anti-sociality – or moral characteristics like deceitfulness, or lack of respect for rules or boundaries when seeking a reward, may be helpful in forming an overall judgment about the person. Psychological tests that demonstrate the ranking of preferences would also be helpful, like showing that truth and liberty outrank concerns like comfort and political stability.

All of these can provide evidence demonstrating to what extent someone truly agrees to the contract they are signing, and could potentially delay or rule out an applicant if there are too many red flags. There is no way to obtain perfect knowledge of a person’s true beliefs or intent, but perfect verification isn’t ultimately necessary. If their understanding has been verified, and they have signed a legal agreement, then at least holding them accountable is justified if they do break the law.

Contradictions to the agreement

Even when a candidate has demonstrated their understanding and has claimed agreement, contradictory information can undermine the credibility of their claim.

Any candidate who is found to be lying at any point during the process can be rejected. Dishonesty undermines their credibility, and as a character trait is incompatible with a rights-respecting society.

Any candidate presenting a clear threat, such as holding an un-renounced citizenship with an enemy country, membership in a terrorist group, or a violent criminal record can be rejected.

Another important check for a potential citizen is for adherence to incompatible belief systems. Take for example the belief in marxism, socialism, or communism – collectivist belief systems clearly contradictory to a libertarian limited government based on individual rights (there are other incompatible belief systems which will be the subject of a future post). If there is hard evidence that a person is an active member of an organization based on these ideas, then they can be categorically ruled out for citizenship. If they are a former member, or are known to associate with such groups, or have made public statements in support of these ideologies, then this might raise a red flag – especially if they refuse to denounce the ideas, or can’t persuasively argue the main reasons that the idea of limited government is opposed to them.

A good example of screening candidates in this respect was employed when the Nazarene Fund, vetting refugees coming out of Syria and Iraq, had to prove that the candidate was a long-term member of a local Christian church. Evidence such as church membership documentation, and known church members who could vouch for them were required (among other things) in order to show that they had a belief system compatible with the country that would take them in (and didn’t have allegiance to ISIS).

Is this necessary?

One may argue that every human being is already capable of understanding and agreeing with the basic moral principles of respecting individual rights – so why bother with all of this screening and testing? Shouldn’t everyone just be convinced by the good ideas and the beneficial results they produce?

“America 150 years ago had a completely different attitude to immigration.. the statue of liberty basically says “bring em on”, “just come”… we believed that people could change. We believed that when confronted with good ideas, with just ideas, with right ideas, with freedom, that people would adapt to those ideas. That they wouldn’t just mindlessly bring their culture to America and impose their culture on America- they’ll turn America into Mexico. No, what we believed then was that we would turn Mexicans into Americans, we would get rid of the bad stuff that they brought in, embrace the good stuff, but ultimately make them Americans ideologically.”

“[One of the motivations] behind the anti-immigration attitude [is] a complete lack of confidence in what it means to be American, in what America stands for, and the idea that we can convince people to adopt our ideal.”

– Yaron Brook, Free Will and Free Borders

The problem with this argument is that knowledge is not automatic, and neither is agreement. As an old saying goes, a teacher can lead you to the door, but the student must walk through it. If the student (some candidate for citizenship in this case) is not interested in learning the ideas or understanding the system, or if they have their own incompatible beliefs, the general environment in society cannot force them to change their mind (nor should the citizens in this society be forced to accept the cost and the risk of this naive hope).

There is a difference between the capability of a person to understand and agree, and whether they actually, currently do. The purpose of screening and testing applicants for citizenship is to hold them to the required standards of knowledge and beliefs that will earn them the right to call themselves a full citizen of the country, and not extend them unearned credit.

“Man has free will. He can always correct… his weaknesses, or his flaws. But he cannot expect the unearned, neither in love, nor in money; neither in matter, nor spirit.” -Ayn Rand, Mike Wallace interview

“I am not committing the contemptible act of asking you to take me on faith”

“If one’s actions are honest, one does not need the predated confidence of others… a moral blank check” – Francisco d’Anconia, Atlas Shrugged

As many people as possible should be encouraged to understand the idea of limited government, to believe in it, and to become citizens. But there is a responsibility to carefully screen and judge those who wish to join, for the sake of the integrity of the contract, the safety of the citizens, and the integrity of all interactions in society, in business and otherwise.

Is border security racist?

Harry Binswanger writes:

Things are different in wartime, or when an epidemic breaks out in a certain region, of course, but what about peacetime? What about now, when millions of Mexicans, South Americans, Chinese, Canadians, etc. are seeking entry into the U.S.? What about the overwhelming majority, who are not criminals, not terrorists, and not carriers of some plague? By what moral principle can they be inspected, harrassed, or excluded? Majority vote? No single individual has the right to stop another and “inspect” him to see if he is “acceptable,” so no majority—which is simply a number of individuals—has that right either.

In the absence of specific evidence against him, nothing can justify subjecting an immigrant to coercive interference.

I’m very afraid that the actual reason for limiting immigration is xenophobia, which is simply a polite word for racial bigotry.

First of all, when Binswanger says,

No single individual has the right to stop another and “inspect” him to see if he is “acceptable,” so no majority—which is simply a number of individuals—has that right either.

Would he actually carry that through and say that you have no right to prevent anyone from entering your home? Is his position that there should be no screening anywhere for any reason?

Because clearly, if you have the right to stop and inspect someone before they enter your own property and decide if they are acceptable, then a group (simply a number of individuals, as he points out) has such a right as well, as delegated from the individuals.

In the case of a proper limited government, established by contractual agreement amongst all its citizens who delegate their rights, this is precisely the case. This is why, if you do grant the right of the individual to screen the people he allows onto his property, then there must be a right for the country to screen the people it allows across its borders as well, without it being a coercive violation of individual rights. I’ve covered this argument elsewhere.

What I want to focus on here is another part of what he said:

“What about now, when millions of Mexicans, South Americans, Chinese, Canadians, etc. are seeking entry into the U.S.?”

Binswanger is excluding criminals, terrorists, and people with plagues, and he’s specified he’s not talking about granting citizenship or voting rights – he’s just talking about border crossing, doing business, taking up residence, and so on.

The question is, as a country, are there other reasons that we might want to exclude people? Obviously there can be some economic benefit from their business and residence and so on, so what else can this be about – is it just racism?

Judging the people who want to come here

We can come up with a whole list of criteria on which you may want to judge someone before allowing them into your home (or into your community, or into your country), none of which have to do with race:

  • Are they reasonable, rational people?
  • Are they honest?
  • Do they respect individual rights and personal boundaries ?
  • Do they understand the nature of rights and jurisdiction?
  • Do they understand contractual agreements?
  • Do they understand the system of government and laws?
  • Do they have respect for rules and laws?
  • Do they believe in resolving disputes peacefully through communication rather than through violence?
  • Do they reject corruption, bribery, and special treatment?
  • Do they believe in the special value and dignity of human life and property? (I think there’s a serious question as to whether the lack of reverence for the sacredness of human life belies claims of peace and respect for rights)
  • Do they believe in loving and taking care of the people around them, and of their surroundings?
  • Do they have good cultural aesthetic values (cleanliness, politeness, modesty)?
  • Are they benevolent, expecting the best of people, and committed to the presumption of innocence until proven guilty?
  • Do they value hard work?
  • To what extent will they participate in and build up the economy and the community? Do they intend to be fully involved, or will their interests and resources continue to mainly be directed elsewhere?
  • Do they have good taste? (they may not be voting in politics but they are voting in the market and influencing prices and availability of products and direction companies take)
  • Do they speak the language – are they able to communicate clearly with people in the society?
  • Do they have knowledge of the culture and history, including customs and symbols?

And the list goes on. To quote from, Objectivism and an Immigration Policy of Self-Interest for America Today by Dr. Ed Powell:

“Rejection of aggression, long time horizons, self-responsibility, and the recognition of reciprocity lead to productivity, savings, sexual restraint, close family ties, a focus on education, a rejection of welfare benefits, and law-abidingness. These are critical personal characteristics of any intended immigrant to the United States.

Questions abound that we could ask about people entering the country – having nothing to do with race or skin color.

These kinds of judgments about people entering the country are a matter of self-protection and self-interest going beyond just politics or economics. These principles should inform all of your relationship choices. You want people in your life who are honest, hard-working, rights-respecting, effectively-communicating, benevolent, and so on, for friends, neighbors, romantic partners, and employers/employees.

When you are talking about allowing people into your home, your community, your country – places where you not only have the right, but the responsibility to exercise your best and most careful judgment – every consideration about their character, their beliefs, and the potential values and risks that they could bring should be a part of your decision.

Limited Government: A rights-respecting government

“To secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed”

– Thomas Jefferson, The United States Declaration of Independence

Imagine the following: suppose we have a government that is based on voluntary, contractual agreement from its citizens. That is, the citizens agree, voluntarily, and in a signed, written contract, to the structure and function of their government: the legislative body which writes the laws (as well as the elective process by which legislators are chosen), the executive body that enforces the laws, and the court system which interprets the law in individual cases and settles disputes. Furthermore, since all citizens are taking part in this government voluntarily, they can easily decide to withdraw from the agreement by a simple process of legally renouncing their citizenship, and removing themselves from the jurisdiction and protection of the government.

This model, which is called a limited government, is a government based on the consent of the governed. It is formed by people joining together through a voluntary, contractual agreement, with the right to revoke their consent at any time. This form of government maintains absolute and consistent respect for the individual rights of its citizens.

This model of government is analagous to many other contractual agreements with which we interact with the people around us. Take for example a corporation. The corporation doesn’t belong to any individual shareholder personally, but it’s instituted and owned by them all, per the terms of their contractual agreement. You may be an employee or a shareholder in such a corporation yourself right now. Your relationship to the corporation is of course a voluntary relationship: you are free to buy shares and become a shareholder, or sell off your shares and leave the shareholder agreement, or to become an employee or sever your employment at any time.

As long as you do maintain your relationship with this corporation, it is by way of (and under the protection of) written agreement. This written agreement grants you certain rights: if the corporation violates this agreement, they are liable and are accountable for their transgressions (potentially owing you compensation), and will be held legally accountable. This written agreement also specifies the means by which corporate policies are set: usually let’s say by a board of directors. If this board of directors, like a legislature for a government, sets a policy for the company – so long as that policy is made according to the terms set in place in the written agreement it’s made in the first place (like the country’s constitution) – then that becomes the new policy for the company. Fortunately, if you don’t agree with the policy – let’s say it’s one that is going to be harmful to you, personally, either in your stock value or the nature of your job – you are free to simply end your relationship with the company, sell your shares, or quit your job. But so long as you stick with them, that is the policy, and you are agreeing to follow it, even if you don’t like it or find it harmful to you.

In this way, a country governed by limited government can rightfully and legitimately establish policies, like restricting border crossings, or levying a tax, with which its citizens may not even agree, or may even find harmful – and yet, the government imposes nothing involuntary on its citizens, who are free to drop their agreement at any time.

For this reason, it cannot legitimately be said that, inherently, “taxation is theft”, or that there is categorically a right to “the freedom of travel across a country’s borders”. For consenting citizens who take part in a limited government, their taxes are not imposed involuntarily, and restricting border crossings is not without their consent. Even if they disagree with the particular policy or find it harmful, so long as they continue to choose to remain a citizen, their rights are not being violated.

Closed Borders: A rights-based defense

Harry Binswanger of the Ayn Rand Institute has written on the “right to freedom of travel” here. See also his defense of open borders immigration here.

He writes:

“Freedom of travel is a right. It is a right possessed by every human being, not just by Americans. The Mexican government or the French government has no right to stop you from entering Mexico or France, and our government has no right to stop a Mexican or Frenchman from entering America”; or, “The principle of individual rights demands open immigration. Implementing that would mean phasing out all limitations on immigration. Entry into the United States should ultimately be free for any foreigner, absent objective evidence of criminal intent or infectious disease”; or, “Amnesty for illegal immigrants is not enough, they deserve an apology”

All Binswanger seems to see here is that one private individual who happens to be in Mexico, and one private individual who happens to be in America, both seemingly consent to the Mexican traveling onto or across the American’s property. He writes:

“The country does not belong to the government. It does not belong to the majority. Land belongs to individual, private owners, and only they have the right to invite or bar others from coming on their land.”

Essentially his argument is that if you are a citizen who owns property at the border of the country, and you give your permission for some non-citizen to cross the border and come onto your property, then the government has no right to get in the way of this mutually-consented-to interaction. The citizen with property on the border is giving his consent, so the non-citizen should be able to cross un-hindered.

But the American, by virtue of their citizenship, is already in an agreement with the government not to allow foreigners to cross the border: the citizen has an existing contractual agreement to follow immigration and border control law. You can’t claim they are just simply and freely giving their consent to travel – they can’t give that kind of consent freely, as they already have an agreement prohibiting it.

If it wasn’t for their US citizenship, if they didn’t already have this prior commitment to follow the laws of their country, then sure, it would be as simple as freely giving his consent. But that’s not the case. In reality, if he decides to let in a non-citizen, then he is in criminal violation of the law he has agreed to follow as a citizen. Without the citizen being able to give their legal consent to the travel, of course the foreigner has no right to proceed either.

What Binswanger is missing here is that the United States was founded as – or at least a proper government ought to be – a limited government. A limited government is a government based on the consent of the governed. It is formed by people joining together through a voluntary, contractual agreement, with absolute and consistent respect for the individual rights of its citizens.

(Side note – public property is a valid concept under such a limited government model: the government is established by its citizens, and its property is, ultimately, the property of its citizens. It’s like a corporation, which may have capital or cash on hand which doesn’t belong to any individual shareholder personally, but it’s still owned by them all per the terms of their contractual agreement. It’s still private property, and the terms for the use of that property is still entirely under the control of the shareholders – or the citizens in this case.)

If a person can legitimately bar others from entering his own property, then a group of citizens can legitimately form a limited government together wherein they bar foreigners from crossing their borders except through agreed upon channels.

Are the rights of the citizen being violated by such a policy?

The law is of course not being forced upon the citizen under the limited government model. An individual joins and remains a citizen of a limited government voluntarily, and has a say in the process whereby law is made. If his differences are so irreconcilable that he decides he wants to be free from it, then he can terminate his agreement with the government according to the legal mechanism in place: by renouncing his citizenship. This would remove him from the jurisdiction of the government, as well as from it’s protection, and indeed from any legal relationship with its citizens. Returned to the state of nature, he would then be in the simplified situation Binswanger imagined, where the two individuals unencumbered by legal establishment can take their chances with one another.

Finally, one might object that a proper government shouldn’t restrict immigration and border crossing because it’s not a proper defense policy (I will argue against this elsewhere – it is clear, in my mind at least, that border security is absolutely critical for national defense).

We’ve established that in a limited government this policy of restricting border crossing is entirely taking place within a legitimate, voluntary contractual agreement, and so the policy is ultimately being adopted with the consent of the governed. But let’s say a citizen happens to disagree with the policy, and even though he consents to the legal system which enacted it, he feels that the policy is wrong, and every time this policy is enforced that he is being wronged.

Even still, though the policy may be irrational and harmful, you cannot say that his rights are being violated – that’s just not how voluntary contracts work. As a voluntary signatory to the contract, of course he is going to be subject to the terms of his agreement as a citizen of the government, until and unless he chooses to withdraw from the agreement.

Therefore, in any limited government that has legally closed its borders, there is no inherent right to the freedom of travel which allows someone to cross the border.

Introduction to Active Objectivism

“There is a dangerous little catch phrase which advises you to keep an “open mind.” This is a very ambiguous term — as demonstrated by a man who once accused a famous politician of having “a wide open mind.” That term is an anti-concept: it is usually taken to mean an objective, unbiased approach to ideas, but it is used as a call for perpetual skepticism, for holding no firm convictions and granting plausibility to anything. A “closed mind” is usually taken to mean the attitude of a man impervious to ideas, arguments, facts and logic, who clings stubbornly to some mixture of unwarranted assumptions, fashionable catch phrases, tribal prejudices — and emotions. But this is not a “closed” mind, it is a passive one. It is a mind that has dispensed with (or never acquired) the practice of thinking or judging, and feels threatened by any request to consider anything.

What objectivity and the study of philosophy require is not an “open mind,” but an active mind — a mind able and eagerly willing to examine ideas, but to examine them critically. An active mind does not grant equal status to truth and falsehood; it does not remain floating forever in a stagnant vacuum of neutrality and uncertainty; by assuming the responsibility of judgment, it reaches firm convictions and holds to them. Since it is able to prove its convictions, an active mind achieves an unassailable certainty in confrontations with assailants — a certainty untainted by spots of blind faith, approximation, evasion and fear.”

“Philosophical Detection,”
Ayn Rand, Philosophy: Who Needs It?, 21

I want to start by referring largely to the article “Questions and Comments on the Closed System” By Diana Hsieh [2]. Note that her article itself refers largely to another article, “Fact and Value” By Leonard Peikoff [1]. I fully agree with Peikoff’s rejection of “Open Objectivism” as he argues in his article. However, I also reject his counter-position of “Closed Objectivism”, as argued by Diana Hsieh in her article, with some caveats and extensions that I will explain here:

“First, in “Fact and Value,” Peikoff says that the “the essence of the system [of Objectivism]–its fundamental principles and their consequences in every branch–is laid down once and for all by the philosophy’s author.” I wholeheartedly agree with that statement. Contra Kelley, to reject or revise some principles of Objectivism is to depart from Objectivism. The philosophy is not some loose family of views generated within a school of thought, but a specific system developed by a single person. It necessarily includes many principles regarded as derivative and hence optional by Kelley, such as the axiom of consciousness, the virtues of pride, honesty, and integrity, knowledge as hierarchical and contextual, the form/content distinction in perception, the benevolent universe premise, the value of romantic love, the whole of aesthetics, and so much more. In my view, the claim that Objectivism is an open system is not merely wrong, but disastrous as implemented in both academics and activism at TOC.”

I do of course agree with Hsieh that “The philosophy is not some loose family of views generated within a school of thought”, and also that the philosophy of Objectivism happened to have been largely developed initially by one person. I also further agree that the essence of the philosophy cannot ever be contradicted and the result still be referred to as “Objectivism”. And I also further agree that the positions of Ayn Rand on many of the derivative principles of Objectivism are integral and non-optional. However, and here is where I make a caveat to my agreement with Hsieh’s article, I strongly disagree with the statement in general that, “…their consequences in every branch–is laid down once and for all by the philosophy’s author”. She continues in the next paragraph:

“I also agree with Peikoff that “if anyone wants to reject Ayn Rand’s ideas and invent a new viewpoint, he is free to do so–but he cannot, as a matter of honesty, label his new ideas or himself ‘Objectivist’.””

My main contention here is that only disagreement on the essence of the idea, or any idea soundly derived from that essence, disqualifies an idea from being “Objectivist”. If it so happens that one of the derivative ideas, even if advocated by Ayn Rand herself, is in fact in contradiction to the whole essence of the philosophy she set out to define, and someone comes along later to straighten that point out, their fix is rightfully part of Objectivism, and not something separate.

It is important here for me to point out that I am not advocating any unusual notion of “the essence of Objectivism”. Ayn Rand was once asked to explain the fundamentals of Objectivism standing on one foot. Her response was as follows [3]:

1. Metaphysics: Objective Reality.

2. Epistemology: Reason.

3. Ethics: Self-Interest.

4. Politics: Laissez-Faire Capitalism.

However, it is also important to point out here a distinction between the essence of an idea, as contrasted with a set of fundamentals. The essence of an idea is singular, it can’t be a list of things, like some set of positions which make up some abstract particular. An essence is never a collection. The essence of Objectivism, I would say, is simply the philosophy of being objective. That is, having respect for reality, truth, logic, beauty, the good, and so on, and not to compromise or sacrifice these things for any reason. This is the essence or nature of the philosophy Ayn Rand set out to define, and any of her derivative positions, even some of the fundamental tenets of her metaphysical or epistemological philosophy, if they are found to be in contradiction to the basic idea of her philosophy – objectivity – then they ought to be corrected as well.

I am more or less in full agreement with the remainder of Hsieh’s article, where she proceeds to illuminate all of the undesirable consequences of taking a “closed system” position on Objectivism:

“So my question is really whether such is its only possible meaning. In other words, are there contexts in which a slightly broader term — one which includes later philosophic developments deeply and thoroughly consistent with the core principles of Objectivism — would be appropriate? From my perspective, it seems that Objectivists, including advocates of the closed system, appeal to this broader meaning rather frequently — and rightfully so. For example:

  • Objectivists commonly claim that “the Objectivist view on X is Y,” even though Y is a later application of the core principles established by Ayn Rand rather than one of those principles themselves. So if an analytic philosopher invents some new object allegedly demanding our sacrifice (such as bacteria, alien invaders, or household pets), we would not be shocked or dismayed to hear Objectivist scholars say that Objectivism rejects that view entirely, even though such a rejection is, strictly speaking, an application of the general Objectivist view on self-sacrifice to this new case.

  • As far as I recall, Leonard Peikoff’s lecture course, “Objectivism: The State of the Art,” primarily concerns material he learned while writing Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand. On the strict and narrow meaning of “Objectivism,” this title seems baffling to me. How could such material fall under the title “Objectivism”? How could Objectivism have a “state of the art” after Ayn Rand’s death? Yet such is perfectly comprehensible under a slightly broader meaning of the term.

  • In his excellent course Understanding Objectivism, Peikoff breaks new ground in his detailed discussions of the rationalist and empiricist methodologies, particularly their relationship to the mind-body dichotomy. Such elaboration upon and integrations of already-established Objectivist principles are apparently not part of Objectivism, narrowly construed. Yet the deep connection to Objectivism is undeniable. One of the primary values of such work is that it provides us with the means to substantially enrich our concepts, e.g. those of rationalism, empiricism, and the mind-body dichotomy. Since such concepts refer to all that we might ever learn about their referents and such concepts compose various principles of Objectivism, in what sense can Objectivism exclude such new insights? We might think of many such insights as implicit in the system and thus part of it, even if not explicitly identified until after Ayn Rand’s death.

  • In Ayn Rand’s writings, some principles of Objectivism were merely asserted, but not explained or justified. For example, she claims that reason, purpose, and self-esteem are the cardinal values, but does not tell us what that means or why that is. Without a good explanation of the meaning and justification of this claim, it stands alone, without any connection to the rest of the system. When a good, deeply Objectivist explanation and justification is offered, should we continue to allow those cardinal values to stand outside the system? Or should we integrate them by incorporating this new understanding into our understanding of Objectivism? The latter seems like the right approach to me, but it also seems incompatible with the strictly closed system.”

The only thing I would add to her outstanding argument is to stress that a broader notion of Objectivism does not merely include “new implications, applications, integrations”, but corrections as well, under the strict condition that those corrections maintain complete logical fidelity to the essence of the philosophy.

Finally, one of Hsieh’s comments on the epistemology of the “closed system” position in particular deserves special attention:

“In any case, unit economy seems to demand a single word to designate the philosophy developed by Ayn Rand plus the valid and consistent “new implications, applications, integrations” of that philosophy.”

In fact, the following quote from Ayn Rand cuts to the core of the issue and explains why the “closed system” position is truly a grave epistemological error:

“None of the traditional theories of concepts regards concepts as objective, i.e., as neither revealed nor invented, but as produced by man’s consciousness in accordance with the facts of reality, as mental integrations of factual data computed by man — as the products of a cognitive method of classification whose processes must be performed by man, but whose content is dictated by reality.” [4] (ITOE p. 54)

As Kelley correctly argues [5]:

This brings us to a final argument for Objectivism as a closed system, an argument that lies close to the surface in Peikoff’s essay, and has been put forward explicitly by some Objectivists. The argument is that Ayn Rand’s relationship to the philosophy is the same as her relationship to her literary works: she is the author of Objectivism in the same sense that she is the author of Atlas Shrugged. She is accordingly free to stipulate the content of the term. Objectivism includes all and only the philosophical doctrines she embraced, and the system was closed with her death. No one may add to these doctrines, or abandon or revise any of them, and still call himself an Objectivist—just as no one can alter the content of her novels. The attempt to do so, some might add, is like the efforts of the mediocrities in The Fountainhead who claimed the right to disfigure Roark’s buildings.

This view is radically mistaken. A literary work is a creation, the concrete embodiment of an idea by a specific author. A philosophy, by contrast, is a body of theoretical knowledge about reality. That is why, as Ayn Rand herself pointed out, a philosophical discovery cannot be copyrighted. [6] The discovery itself, as distinct from a specific text in which it is conveyed, is not the property of the discoverer. Property must be concrete, but a philosophy is a viewpoint that may be held by an open-ended number of people. Moreover, as a body of knowledge, a grasp of certain facts in reality, its content is determined by the nature of those facts, including their relationships and implications, not by anyone’s stipulation. Had Ayn Rand omitted the character of Francisco D’Anconia from Atlas Shrugged, no one would be free to invent that character and rewrite the novel without her permission, even if such a revision would represent an improvement. But had she died before she discovered that rights may be violated only by physical force, and had someone else discovered this principle, it would have to be included in Objectivism. The system demands it; the issue of who discovered it is irrelevant.

In light of Peikoff’s excellent rejection of Kelley’s “Open Objectivism”, and Hsieh’s and Kelley’s excellent rejection of Peikoff’s “Closed Objectivism”, I offer up a third alternative which I think carries on the noble tradition of Objectivism in dissolving false alternatives, namely the idea of Active Objectivism.

Active Objectivism is the recognition that any idea that disagrees with the essence or nature of the philosophy of Objectivism, or any idea soundly derived from that essence, is disqualified from being “Objectivist”, but also that the philosophy of Objectivism, while having been largely initially developed by Ayn Rand, must nevertheless be regarded as an objective concept, i.e., as neither revealed nor invented, but as produced by man’s consciousness in accordance with the facts of reality, and as such, it includes all yet-to-be-discovered new characteristics including implications, applications, integrations, and corrections, under the strict condition that those new characteristics maintain complete logical fidelity to essence of the philosophy.

[1] FACT AND VALUE By Leonard Peikoff, Ph.D. from The Intellectual Activist, Volume V, Number 1


[2] Questions and Comments on the Closed System By Diana Hsieh WEDNESDAY, APRIL 21, 2004


[3] Introducing Objectivism by Ayn Rand


[4] Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology by Ayn Rand

[5] Objectivism, Chapter 5 of Truth and Toleration by David Kelley


[6] “Patents and Copyrights,” in Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal by Ayn Rand (New York: New American Library, 1967) p. 22.