An Interview with Ayn Rand

Written on July 26, 2009. Written by .

The following interview is fictitious, but is based entirely on quotations by Ayn Rand herself (see citations at the end). To the best of my knowledge, none of the quotations are taken grossly out of context.

cspice: Your philosophy of Objectivism is based on self-interest. Would you say then, that you are a type of Hedonist?

Rand: “I am profoundly opposed to the philosophy of hedonism. … pleasure is not a first cause, but only a consequence … only the pleasure which proceeds from a rational value judgment can be regarded as moral, that pleasure, as such, is not a guide to action nor a standard of morality.”

cspice: What would you consider to be a proper guide to action?

Rand: “Man must choose his actions, values and goals by the standard of that which is proper to man—in order to achieve, maintain, fulfill and enjoy that ultimate value, that end in itself, which is his own life.”

cspice: So the fundamental values driving action are: being born, surviving, and being happy. We have all been born already, so I suppose we are left to focus on survival and happiness. Survival is clearly defined, but what exactly do you consider to be happiness?

Rand: “Happiness is that state of consciousness which proceeds from the achievement of one’s values.” “One can achieve happiness only on the basis of rational values.”

cspice: What are “rational values”?

Rand: “… rational values [are] values chosen and validated by a rational standard.”

cspice: So happiness is a result of achieving values that were chosen and validated by a rational standard. What is your idea of a “rational standard”?

Rand: “It is the province of morality, of the science of ethics, to define for men what is a rational standard and what are the rational values to pursue.

cspice: So this part is best left to the experts. But what standard should the experts base their analysis on?

Rand: “An organism’s life is its standard of value: that which furthers its life is the good, that which threatens it is the evil.”

cspice: Well we’re back to survival again. So how do pleasure and pain fit into the picture?

Rand: “The pleasure-pain mechanism in the body of man—and in the bodies of all the living organisms that possess the faculty of consciousness—serves as an automatic guardian of the organism’s life.”

cspice: Isn’t there more to life than mere survival?

Rand: “Life or death is man’s only fundamental alternative. To live is his basic act of choice. If he chooses to live, a rational ethics will tell him what principles of action are required to implement his choice. If he does not choose to live, nature will take its course.”

cspice: Of course the more money one has, the greater their chances of survival because they can buy more physical protection and state of the art health care. So this seems to suggest that we should pass up all of life’s pleasures in favor of becoming extremely wealthy.

Rand: “Production is the application of reason to the problem of survival.” “Productive work is the central purpose of a rational man’s life, the central value that integrates and determines the hierarchy of all his other values.” “The man without a purpose is a man who drifts at the mercy of random feelings or unidentified urges and is capable of any evil, because he is totally out of control of his own life.” “The physical sensation of pleasure is a signal indicating that the organism is pursuing the right course of action.”

  1. “Playboy’s Interview with Ayn Rand,” March 1964.
  2. “The Objectivist Ethics,” The Virtue of Selfishness, 25.
  3. “Galt’s Speech,” For the New Intellectual, 123.
  4. “Playboy’s Interview with Ayn Rand,” March 1964.
  5. “The Ethics of Emergencies,” The Virtue of Selfishness, 44.
  6. “Playboy’s Interview with Ayn Rand,” March 1964.
  7. “The Objectivist Ethics,” The Virtue of Selfishness, 25.
  8. “The Objectivist Ethics,” The Virtue of Selfishness, 17.
  9. “Causality versus Duty,” Philosophy: Who Needs It, 99.
  10. “What Is Capitalism?” Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, 195.
  11. “The Objectivist Ethics,” The Virtue of Selfishness, 25.
  12. “Playboy’s Interview with Ayn Rand,” March 1964.
  13. “The Objectivist Ethics,” The Virtue of Selfishness, 17.

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13 Comments so far
  1. Susan July 27, 2009 1:12 pm

    I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don’t know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


  2. Jackethan August 2, 2009 1:52 am

    Well as a person who spends a lot of time studying AR’s philosophy I’d have to say I disagree with your characterization of the philosophy. I think the problem is that you’re misinterpreting the definition of “Life” under Objectivism. Life is definitely more than survival.

    In pre-Christian philosophy the standard of morality was life and death. Whatever furthers your life, is good. Furthering death is bad. But the definition of life includes more than existing, breathing, and thinking. A living man is one who achieves, is productive, and happy. You seem to grasp achievement pretty well but productivity and happiness are important as well. Productivity means more than simply producing. You can live working a factory assembly line, technically you’re being ‘productive’ but your productivity doesn’t help you do anything but subsist, if you do not get any happiness out of your work.

    As far as validating by a rational standard, she definitely did not hold that rational validation should be left up to the experts, or more aptly, she held that every man should be an expert in rational thinking. This does not mean that every man should be a philosopher, but that every man should have a rational philosophy.

    If I may be so bold as you guess at the philosophy which you are comparing Objectivism to, is it hedonism? Objectivism’s main problem with hedonism is not as stark as might be guessed. Hedonism is defined as the pursuit of pleasure in the short term, in other words, why work my butt off today, if I can sit at home playing all day, and worry about how I’ll survive when I get old when I get there. The problem with this is that ultimately you do get old, and a lot of times regret all the time which you now feel you wasted in youth. Objectivists seek happiness with a rational regard for the long term consequences of their actions.

    Hope that helps!

  3. cspice August 2, 2009 3:15 am

    Hi Jackethan, thank you for the thoughtful response! My rebuttal to your comment is the following: although what you say makes sense, it does not seem to be consistent with what Ayn Rand is saying in this interview – remember that all of her responses here are direct quotations from her writing and interviews.

    A well developed philosophy should clearly define what counts most. For example, what should a man do when the pursuit of pleasure conflicts with the pursuit of survival (snowboarding, sky-diving, etc)? When pressed on the issue, Rand suggests that survival is the fundamental value and pleasure is just a consequence.

    I am coming from a rational hedonistic standpoint, which is similar to your description, but apparently not consistent with Objectivism according to Rand.

  4. Jackethan August 2, 2009 4:27 am

    That’s the point of rationally judging your values. If snowboarding provides you with so much pleasure that you can’t imagine having any fun in life without being able to snowboard, or skydive, or what have you, then your life isn’t really worth living without it. You can hold something as -more- valuable than life, however your life simply has to be the -standard- of value for judging everything else, and life, as I said before, includes more than subsisting. If I judge that my life’s purpose is to become a police officer, Objectivism does not hold that I should avoid this career because I could -potentially- die from it. The potential is not the actual. In the case of most usual hedonistic situations however where one uses emotion as the standard of value, one might think ‘my life has no value without cocaine.’ which is immoral, since you cannot have a life while addicted to a mind altering substance, it necessarily prevents rational thought which is necessary to life, and the effects of long term evasion of that sort usually lead to death.

    Also there is a difference between pleasure and happiness. Both are consequences, as all emotions are consequences of your value judgements, however happiness is the achievement of your values, and pleasure is a response to a direct bodily influence.

  5. cspice August 2, 2009 4:47 pm

    My main question in my last comment was “What counts most in morality?” Although you answered the question, your answer is not in terms of a clearly defined general rule that applies to all situations. If I were to try to translate your response into such a form, I believe I would get “Do whatever you want as long as it is consistent with survival.” This is in contradiction to Rand’s statements in the interview above, but let’s forget about that for now and focus on your interpretation. I notice an inconsistency in your argument. You first say it is alright to become a police officer despite the increased probability of death, but it is not alright to do drugs because of the increased probability of death (“the effects of long term evasion of that sort -usually- lead to death.”). This suggests the existence of an arbitrary value judgment according to the principle of non-arbitrary distinction (see my post by that title). That is, your morality seems to draw a line saying “This much risk is -universally- rational, and that much risk is -universally- irrational.” Of course, if you remove the “universal”, then survival becomes just a part of the pleasure/pain calculation, and you arrive at rational hedonism. Note that I use pleasure and pain in the generalized sense of all good/bad mental experiences.

  6. Jackethan August 2, 2009 7:15 pm

    As far as the interview above, I realize you tried to make sure that it’s not taken out of context, but the idea behind this exercise necessary includes taking her statements out of their context. 😛 I have a general understanding and agreement with her philosophy and I believe that “Do whatever you want as long as it’s consistent with survival.” is consistent with the philosophy of Objectivism.

    As far as the difference between the police officer example and the drugs example, the key is potential. As a police officer, you might potentially die, that is, some (as yet) unknown criminal may gun you down, or you may die in a high speed chase, etc. However the act of being a police officer does not cause these things to happen, it just “increases the chances.” However, doing heavy drugs does have a measurable and easily definable causal effect on your body and health, and the only cases in which one manages to survive and live after taking drugs is if one ceases to use them. This is because drugs inhibit the rational faculty, and as stated before life (including long term happiness) is not possible without a functioning ability to reason.

    As far as the pleasure/pain calculation, it sounds like a secondary name for value judgements. That is, if happiness is a value to you, (which it should be) then things that will make you happy are judged as good, and things that will not are judged as bad, the spectrum forming when measuring how good vs. how bad it is and judging whether the action is correct from there. This is the basis of rational judgement right there.

    As far as hedonism, if your philosophy holds that one should rationally judge actions with Life (including being happy in the short -and- long term) as the standard of judging whether x is good and y is not good, then it is congruent with Objectivism. The issue you seem to be raising is what if X will bring me much happiness, but threatens my life in the doing. As I said, in cases where the threat is potential and not causal, the danger should be weighed rationally against the good gained. In cases where the threat is causal, that is ‘if I do Y I will lose a body part, but I want to gain whatever pleasure Y will give me right now and not worry about the limb until later’ then it is irrational. However there are cases, such as when, say one has a terminal illness and a drug with hefty side effects will extend life or effectively treat the disease, such things can be rational to choose. It depends on the context.

  7. cspice August 3, 2009 9:03 pm

    I’m not sure if I agree with the distinction you make with regards to causation and one’s chances of survival. I think what matters is the consequences of your action that you are aware of. Breaking down the causality like you did is inevitably going to be arbitrary. For example, is walking in front of a train more rational than shooting yourself with a gun because you can say “I didn’t cause the train to crash into me.”?

    Now, if we combine the prescription “Do whatever you want as long as its consistent with survival” and the idea that it is sometimes rational to sacrifice your life for your loved ones, we are essentially left with “Do whatever you want” along with a few vague generalizations about what you should want.

    In your last paragraph, the only problem is that “your life” is vaguely defined, just as I’ve often seen in Rand’s writings. If you replace it with “the integral of life quality (generalized pleasure minus pain) over the duration of your life”, then it is clearly defined and you have reached rational hedonism.

  8. Jackethan August 4, 2009 2:20 am

    Are you getting rational hedonism out of a book of some sort?

  9. cspice August 4, 2009 2:29 am

    I haven’t read any books that talk about rational hedonism, but I’m definitely not the first to describe it. The Epicureans seem to have been rational hedonists. There are also some resources online:
    However, the first doesn’t mention “rational”, and I haven’t read the second yet.

  10. Jackethan August 4, 2009 6:37 am

    Reason I ask is because I think we’re mostly arguing semantics here, heh. I think that your philosophy and Objectivism are congruous, or moreso than you think. What you’re saying doesn’t sound much different than Objectivism just in different words. As far as what Rand said in this interview vs. what you’re saying, I can’t go through and find the quoted info to try and defend each point, but I can tell you that as someone who has studied Objectivism, particularly its relationship to hedonism, I think Ayn Rand said what you’re saying in different words. 😛 I recommend checking out, the forum there is one I frequent and they have a lot of good topics including ones on hedonism, and one very interesting one on whether to risk your life in order to save a loved one, and whether it is moral for a parent to sacrifice his or her life for their child. The short answer is yes. I recommend checking that forum out and posting if you have any interest in doing so, there’s a lot of people there who will probably be able to address your issue better than I can.

    Also: I realize you haven’t read the second website yet, but I would if I were you, it seems to be a whole bunch of rationalism and collectivism, I’m not really sure it’s similar to the rational hedonism philosophy you’re describing here.

  11. cspice August 6, 2009 12:06 am

    I view it a little differently. I think Rand was close to being a rational hedonist, but I think for one reason or another she never really accepted the idea. Perhaps she wanted to be more of a prescriptive philosopher (by giving people simple instructions rather than the full truth), or perhaps she just couldn’t bring herself to believe that rational self-interest could produce responsible behavior without some additional principles. But in any event, her stance had the result of obfuscating the logic of her philosophy. To the extent that Objectivism is compatible with rational hedonism, it does a terrible job of explaining the philosophy of rational hedonism.

  12. Monica February 15, 2010 8:31 pm

    I’ve read all of Ayn Rand’s books, so I really enjoyed this interview. I really feel that I have been highly influenced by her philosophy, but I like to practice it in moderation. I think most people either love her books or find them corrupt. I like to pick and choose which values I take in from them. I really like her views of the individual and the self. Much of her plot is put into extremes that I can no longer relate with, but I feel there is much truth to her writings. It’s all very complicated and convoluted, but I think that’s part of what makes her so great. She writes with an incredible amount of power and authority.

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