In preparation for my article on Objectivism that is appearing in today’s issue of The Stanford Review, I exchanged emails with Dakin Sloss ’12, the founder and president of the Objectivists of Stanford. The entire transcript of that exchange presented as follows with only minor edits for grammar, and reordering of some of the questions and answers. The views presented here are Mr. Sloss’ and Mr. Sloss’ alone and do not reflect those of Fiat Lux or The Stanford Review.
What is Objectivism?
Objectivism is the philosophy of Ayn Rand that she presented in her bestselling novels The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged and in non-fiction works such as Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology and The Virtue of Selfishness. It is a complete philosophical system with answers to questions in metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, and politics. In essence, Objectivism holds that there is an objective reality that man can know using reason, man’s highest moral purpose is the pursuit of his rational self-interest, and laissez-faire capitalism is the proper political system for man.
Why are you an Objectivist?
I am an Objectivist because I think that Objectivism is the correct philosophy. It properly identifies the facts of reality, the nature of man, and the proper course of action to live by.
What about the state of current affairs is favorable to Objectivism, and what is unfavorable (basically, what is the outlook for Objectivism going forward)?
The outlook for Objectivism is in general always favorable because it is correct. When people take the time to read Atlas Shrugged or other works by Rand, many agree with her ideas to whatever extent they understand them. Any philosophy that demands a person’s willingness to listen to rational argument and use his or her own judgment to determine whether or not such reasoning is correct will succeed as long as men use rational judgment. This is a particularly positive time for Objectivism because people recognize that something has gone wrong culturally and politically, but do not know why. Objectivism has answers to the questions sparked by the financial crisis and other political debates that are currently happening. I think that Objectivism will become a dominant cultural and philosophical influence over the next generation or our society will continue to decay and perhaps reach a point of no return.
When you say “something has gone wrong culturally and politically,” what do you mean by that? What has gone wrong that was going right and what prompted that change?
America has historically been a country that politically focused on the protection of individual rights. Throughout the 19th century this led to the development of the most prosperous nation on earth. But these political ideas were not thoroughly defended philosophically. The ethics of altruism was accepted in direct contradiction to the politics of capitalism. This contradiction has slowly wrought havoc on the course of American culture and politics. What was once a truly free and great country has continuously shifted toward statism (particularly during the last 100 years). This is a product of the influence of European philosophy, particularly German idealists such as Kant, Hegel, and Marx. In essence, America was founded on the basis of the principle of individual rights. We have departed from that view of government because Americans have accepted the ethics of altruism and its inevitable political corollary: statism. The philosophical lineage beginning with Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason is responsible for this cultural change.
Is Objectivism compatible with organized religion? Christianity? Judaism? Islam? Believing in God?
Objectivism is not compatible with any religion because religion and the belief in god are inherently opposed to man’s mind and man’s pursuit of his rational self-interest. Religion urges man to give up his rational judgment and blindly accept the existence and decrees of a mystical being. Religion also urges man to sacrifice his interests on this earth to obtain rewards in a supernatural and non-existent mystical afterlife. Religion is like a poison for man’s life on earth.
What is the biggest draw to objectivism?
It is correct. It appeals to the best within man: his self-esteem, pride, confidence, and the belief that he is able to forge a life of happiness in this world by following his rational judgment and pursuing values.
What is the biggest drawback to objectivism?
The pervasive influence that Kant has had on the culture including the undermining of objectivity and rationality.
What is the history of Objectivism at Stanford? (e.g. when was your particular group founded, and do you know of any Objectivist presence at Stanford prior to that?)
Approximately 10 years ago a student named Jason Rheins started a club at Stanford to explore and promote Objectivism. His club brought in guest speakers from the Ayn Rand Institute to present Objectivist views on various political, ethical, religious, and artistic issues. The club also met to read and discuss Rand’s philosophy. Jason also taught a student-initiated course about Objectivism to introduce interested students to the philosophy. After he graduated, the club’s presence diminished and it actually ceased to exist. Last year as a freshman, I decided to restart the club (without actually knowing that it had existed previously) and we have been rebuilding for the last year.
What accounts for the rise of the Objectivist presence at Stanford?
I do not think that the Objectivist presence at Stanford has necessarily increased, but this club definitely increases our community’s role in the political discourse on campus and the visibility of such a presence. I think that ever since the publication of Atlas Shrugged, college students have read Rand’s work and become interested in her philosophy. I suspect that there have always been Objectivists at Stanford during the last 50 years, but they have had no venue for meeting other Objectivists, further learning about Objectivism, or promoting Objectivism. Because I restarted the club, Objectivists now have an opportunity to be a more noticed and influential presence at Stanford.
How many members do you have?
We have 10 students who regularly attend meetings and another 40 people who have attended either a single speaker event or club meeting.
What have been some events you have held, and how have you attempted to grow the Objectivists of Stanford?
Last year we hosted two guest speakers from the Ayn Rand Institute. In the winter, Elan Journo spoke about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and how it is in America’s self-interest to support Israel. In the spring, Yaron Brook spoke about how government caused the financial crisis and how capitalism is actually a moral system for rewarding the selfishness inherent in the profit motive. This year we have hosted Andrew Bernstein to speak about religion’s destructive influence on man’s mind and life. On February 5 at 7:30pm in building 320, room 105, Yaron Brook will debate Jennifer Morse of the Acton Institute about the compatibility of Christianity and capitalism. We also meet every week on the first floor of Old Union to discuss a different essay by Ayn Rand on Tuesdays at 7:00pm. I have attempted to grow the Objectivists of Stanford by hosting guest speakers, putting up fliers to advertise meetings and events, participating in campus debates, writing editorials, and distributing copies of Atlas Shrugged at the activities fair. I think that it is working and within the last year Objectivism has gone from a relatively unknown and under-discussed philosophy across campus to a major player in political and philosophical discourse. Many students know of our club’s existence and what we stand for roughly because we have worked very hard to advertise over the last year.
How are the Objectivists of Stanford funded?
We are funded by the ASSU Senate and private donors.
How many hours per week do you spend in activities directly related to the Objectivists of Stanford (by which I mean the organization, not the philosophy)?
1 hr/wk at meeting, 2 hrs/wk preparing for meeting, 1 hr/wk with administrative stuff, 1hr/wk miscellaneous stuff so probably 5 hrs/wk on a normal week but in weeks preceding speaking events (such as the one in February) it can become much more because I will spend 15 or 20 hrs putting up fliers for the week or two before the event.
What happens at a typical Objectivists of Stanford meeting (or has happened at past meetings)?
We arrive, chat, wait for at least 5 people to show up and then begin. One person leads discussion each week and prepares questions for us to talk about in order to better understand the content of the essay we read before meeting. Each person is assumed to have spent time reading and thinking about the essay previous to discussion time. We discuss for an hour and then people leave, some of us stay and talk about other issues.
How much money do you receive from the ASSU, and how much from private donors?
[Note: Sloss declined to answer, but ASSU Undergraduate Senate Appropriations Committee Chair Anton Zietsman had this to say: “The Objectivists of Stanford are registered as a programming group with SAL which means that they have a $6,000 yearly cap. As of now, they have been allocated $3,352 to cover the costs of three speaker events, general marketing, and meetings. So far, they have used $1,445 of the allocated funds.”]
Is Objectivism the best philosophy for everyone? Why or why not? If not, what types of people should be Objectivists?
The purpose of a philosophy is to guide man’s life and Objectivism is a philosophy that provides every man with the principles required to successfully achieve one’s long term self-interest and earn happiness throughout a lifetime. Because Objectivism best identifies the proper goals and means to achieving them, it is the best philosophy.
What has the role of Objectivists in American politics traditionally been?
Objectivists have not played a significant role in American politics. The Objectivist movement is a philosophical movement. As an Objectivist, I think that the course of society is affected by the dissemination of ideas. Intellectuals shape a culture and the intellectuals spread ideas originating from philosophers. Therefore, sharing philosophical ideas is the best way to influence a country’s political development. Objectivists focus on spreading Objectivism as a philosophy, because once the philosophy takes root in our culture, electing better politicians and implementing better policies will follow naturally.
What historical figure would you describe as an Objectivist? Why?
In the literal sense, Ayn Rand was the first Objectivist because she originated the philosophy and no one could possibly subscribe to a philosophy that did not exist. In a metaphorical sense, there have been many Objectivists who implicitly lived by the philosophy of Objectivism without ever fully identifying such a philosophy. Aristotle, Newton, and Bacon are the philosophical precursors of Objectivism. Great businessmen and innovators such as Cornelius Vanderbilt, John Rockefeller, Steve Jobs and John Allison are Objectivists implicitly because they produced material values in order to pursue their self-interest (Allison is also an Objectivist explicitly).
Who are the most important figures in objectivism’s history?
Ayn Rand, Leonard Peikoff, Harry Binswanger, John Allison
Why did Ayn Rand write philosophical novels rather than sticking to essays and other non-fiction writing?
She was primarily a novelist and secondarily a philosopher. In order to create a novel she had to identify what ideas she wished to communicate. In order to identify these ideas, she looked to other philosophers but found no one that had presented her philosophical views adequately (Aristotle was the closest) so she created the philosophy of Objectivism. She later worked to spread this philosophy by writing essays and non-fiction, but she began as a novelist and only turned to philosophy for the sake of understanding and developing the themes of her novels.
Are there any misconceptions about Objectivists and Objectivism at Stanford that you would like to correct?
Most people think of Objectivism as some sort of brute hedonism in which a man pursues his momentary whims without thinking. This is not rational egoism, which actually denounces such whim worshipping. Instead, a rational egoist identifies what is in his long-term self-interest by using a process of rational judgment and then pursues it.
What do you see as Objectivism’s relationship with conservatism? Is it a symbiotic one, one of shared interests (or enemies) and different philosophies or are they fundamentally distinct?
Conservativism is not a coherent political philosophy. It is a jumble of political ideas that are largely incompatible with the ethical background that most conservatives bring to the table. For the most part, conservatives are altruists who support the sacrifice of man, yet still support capitalism in name. As a consequence, conservatives do not end up defending capitalism but instead a mixed economy. They constantly backslide and allow government to violate individual rights. A conservative cannot actually defend laissez-faire capitalism until he recognizes, accepts, and defends its philosophical roots that Objectivism identifies: reason and selfishness. Until then, conservatives and Objectivists may appear to share common interests, but they remain ideological enemies.
What are the Objectivist critiques of conservatism? What are the conservative critiques of objectivism?
I think I just provided a critique of conservatives. On the other side, conservatives criticize Objectivists for being extremists.
Why do you care whether Objectivism spreads or not? If we assume it doesn’t benefit you for Objectivism to become more popular, then you’re not acting in your own self-interest, which would seem to be in violation of one of Objectivism’s key tenets. If it benefits you for it to spread, aren’t you then leeching off of others? Or is it more of a matter of keeping others from leeching off of you?
It benefits me to spread Objectivism. If Objectivism becomes a dominant cultural influence, people around me will act more rationally throughout their daily lives and in their political decisions. For example, if taxation was abolished and I was permitted to voluntarily choose how much money to provide the government with, my spendable income would increase by 50 percent. I would basically gain a third of my life back via the end of taxes. I also enjoy discussing and thinking about philosophy so that even if I do not bring about massive political change it is in my self-interest to spend time sharing Objectivism with those around me. It is both a matter of keeping others from leeching off me and the intellectual benefit that I accrue from spending time discussing Objectivism and gaining a deeper understanding. Finally, I intend to be a professor and leading this club’s discussions is an excellent way to prepare for such a career.
Does Objectivism have any flaws as a philosophy?
I personally disagree with some of Rand’s views about sexuality, but I also agree with some of them. I do not think that this is an essential component of the philosophy and therefore not a fatal flaw for Objectivism. I think that Objectivism is correct about the fundamental issues in metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, and politics. She also wrote a considerable amount about esthetics that I have spent much less time thinking about and I cannot say that I fully agree with her theories about art even though she has very interesting ideas. Objectivism provides a comprehensive and accurate view of reality, knowledge, morality, and government that suffices for helping me to live my life.
What are the parallels between Objectivism and Nietzschean ethics (particularly the idea of the übermensch/superman)? Is that an overdrawn comparison, or is it a fair one? Why / why not?
It is an overdrawn comparison. Nietzsche’s view of selfishness does not exclude violence. He urges the superman to sacrifice others and brute force in order to pursue his self-interest. Rand does not think that it is one’s self-interest or even ethically permissible to initiate physical force against others. This is in direct contrast to Nietzsche’s view of the übermensch. Furthermore, he does not advocate rational egoism but hedonism. The übermensch simply knows what to do in his blood and follows his ‘will’ or some sort of primal instinct. Objectivism does not accept this position. I think that it is in man’s self-interest to only act based on rational deliberation, not emotions or Nietszchean whims.
Are there ever circumstances where true capitalism is not the best system, and what would they be?
Capitalism is the best systems for civilized human beings. It is not appropriate for lower animals or human beings who live like lower animals and have not yet emerged from the primal swamp of prehistory.
And of course… Who is John Galt?
John Galt represents the part of every individual that urges him to do better. He is the voice inside you that says ‘I am capable of knowing and doing the good’. He is the man who swore to “never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for the sake of mine.” John Galt is the heroic man who identifies and pursues values.