The Liberal Institute: Classical Liberalism and Objectivism
The Liberal Institute

The Early Objectivist Approach to Reason and Happiness

Aristotle notes in his 'Metaphysics' that "All men by nature desire to know." But desiring is an emotional process or act while knowing is a rational process or act. Humans seek knowledge about the universe, life, and themselves not for its own sake or as an end in itself but in order to be happy. As Aristotle notes in his 'Ethics' "Happiness is the meaning and purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence."

To achieve this noble end, men use reason. Effective and proper reasoning results in helpful and proper knowledge which is employed to achieve happiness; this pleasant and rewarding feeling, in turn, motivates humans to become effective and proper reasoners. Thus reason leads to emotion and emotion leads to reason.

The Aristotelean approach to reason and happiness is useful and correct, but the semi-Aristotelean approach of early Objectivism is somewhat less so. Objectivism provides more detail and precision, but its whole treatment and tone regarding rationality is rather irrational. This defect or failure is small but significant.

In the 1960s, when Objectivist founders Ayn Rand and Nathaniel Branden initially dealt with the process, concept, and ideal of human reason, they tended to be noticeably unreasonable and dogmatic. They made proper thinking and rational effort seem like a Kantian Categorical Imperative. They seemed to ask people to think and be rational based on their Authority and as an act of faith.

In her 1961 speech 'The Objectivist Ethics,' Rand claims "Happiness is possible only to a rational man, the man who desires nothing but rational goals, seeks nothing but rational values, and finds his joy in nothing but rational actions." This bracing and inspiring -- if somewhat one-sided -- view is backed by Branden. In his 1965 book 'Who is Ayn Rand?' he states "Man must choose his values and actions exclusively by reason."

But what is the role of emotion and passion, drives and instincts, fantasy and imagination? These are only briefly discussed, and none too well. Rand continues mercilessly in her speech with "If you achieve that which is the good by a rational standard, it will neccessarily make you happy."

What a grim approach to happiness! What a dogmatic approach to reason! This sounds like an essentially mindless and religious approach to achieving Aristotle's "the good life."

Early Objectivist thought extols rationality rather mightily and magnificently. But exactly what is this great virtue and concept? In her collegiate talk, Rand argues it's "the recognition and acceptance of reason as one's only source of knowledge, one's only judge of values, and one's only guide to action. It means one's total committment to a state of full conscious awareness, to the maintanence of a full mental focus in all issues, in all choices, in all of one's waking hours."

But this sounds like infinite work and pain! It also sounds like virtue and rationality for their own sakes and as ends in themselves. It sounds flat-out Kantian. There needs to be some kind of better reference to the purpose of it all and of life: emotion, pleasure, and joy.

There also needs to be some kind of balanced contexual admission that humans musn't and can't be rational all of the time. There has to be some kind of admission that men aren't thinking machines, computers, or robots. On a frequent basis a proper human will mainly or even completely feel and enjoy. At other times he'll partake of R and R. At other times he'll fantasize and dream. "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy," and a less rational being overall.

And what is the great opposite of rationality and evil here? In his 1965 essay 'Psychotherapy and the Objectivist Ethics' Branden argues that "Evasion, the refusal to think, the willful rejection of reason, the willful suspension of consciousness, the willful defiance of reality, is man's basic vice -- the source of all his evils."

But "evasion" is Objectivist cult-talk for what people normally refer to as intellectual cowardice or dishonesty. The use of cult terminology and the hectoring, moralizing, judgmental, inquisitional tone of Rand and Branden isn't appropriate to open honest discussion, nor to rational discourse, nor to philosophy. These categorical, flat, unlimited, uncompromising, absolutist, extremist statements and their tone are more appropriate to the recitation of dogma or the promotion of religion. Early Objectivism needed a better approach.

In the end, and speaking language people can actually understand, a proper person tries to have as much pleasure and joy in his life as possible. He doesn't work and think non-stop. He tries to achieve the maximum quantity and quality of happiness, greatness, and the good life. And in order to achieve this, he tries to be as rational as possible.

This means a proper and moral man tries to have the highest quantity and quality of reason in his mind and life as possible. He seeks to be as mentally quick, profound, precise, and true as possible. He especially aims for this on the issues which are most relevant and important -- and in the ways which are most useful and practical. In general, he aspires to employ and obey his reason to infinity.

But this isn't some kind of torture, as Rand and Branden would have it. It isn't some miserable duty performed in obeisance to some unknown god or impossible standard. "Using and following reason to the maximum" isn't one of the Ten Commandments of the godless Objectivist religion. Rather, it is "the light, the truth, and the way" to individual happiness. It's the helpful useful guide to action which quickly makes your life more fun and enjoyable.