How Best to Attack Ayn Rand’s System

Following the highest established standards of logic, the most rigorous canonical reasoning, any logic professor can decimate Ayn Rand’s moral and political philosophy in one 45-minute lecture. It took the Harvard professor Robert Nozick only a few paragraphs.

But Rand doesn’t follow the conventional standards of logic. She has her own distinctive method of arguing. If that method is valid, her moral and political philosophy stands. If it is invalid, her whole system comes crashing down.

What is her method and is it valid?

The crucial element of Ayn Rand’s method amounts to avoiding what she calls the fallacy of the stolen concept. The fallacy is like a petitio principii, but applied to concepts instead of propositions. Let’s look at a couple examples (mine not Rand’s).

Do you know what “school” means? If you really do, then you must know that there is knowledge, that some people have knowledge that others don’t, and that there are venues where people with knowledge impart what they know to others. You could not, say, legitimately invoke the concept of “school” to argue that there is no difference between a teacher and a student. If your argument had that conclusion, you must have made a mistake, for the fact that there is a difference between a teacher and a student is contained in the very concept “school.”

If you made that argument, you would commit the fallacy of the stolen concept. You would be using a concept while denying knowledge that is needed to understand that concept in the first place.

Photo of casket with flowers


The kind of argument Rand uses: You could not legitimately use the concept “funeral” while also denying that people die.

Consider “funeral.” You can’t have that concept—at least not a mature and essentialized understanding of that concept—without also accepting that people die. You could, though, have an immature understanding. When I was young, I had the word “funeral” before I understood death. To me, a funeral was like a party, but when Mom and Dad left for one they wore black and weren’t happy. But now that I have a mature understanding, I couldn’t legitimately use the word “funeral” in a premise and infer that there is no such thing as death.

Rand’s distinctive method to answering many philosophical questions is to ask what knowledge is already presumed by the very terms in the question.

You say, “Miss Rand, I want to argue with you about the proper role of government.” She replies, in effect, “OK, but let us first unpack the concepts you are using. What are you already assuming by using the words ‘proper’ and ‘government’?” If you think of a government as the owner of buildings where you fill out forms and “proper” as whatever avoids your mother’s wrath, then Rand will insist that the two of you first work out a mature and essentialized understanding of these concepts.

Once you do, she claims, you will find that you have already answered your question. You will find that the proper role of a government is to protect the rights of its citizens. She will have defended laissez faire capitalism merely by unpacking the meaning of the concepts needed to ask the question. For details, see “The Nature of Government.”

If you ask her about ethics, she notes that that is a value-laden concept and wants first to know what is included in any concept of value, virtue, vice, should, shouldn’t, ought, etc. She’ll conclude that the very concept of value includes the fact that the life of the actor is the standard of value for any living organism. She will have concluded that selfishness is a virtue merely by unpacking “should.”

Her argument is not a syllogism or string of syllogisms. It is not: Premise 1, Premise 2, Premise 3, . . . , therefore, by the rules of deduction, you should act selfishly. Her argument, instead, has this structure:

(1) If you don’t act selfishly, you are not doing as you should; If no one died, it’s not a funeral;
(1) is true by (2), the meaning of the terms: (2) acting selfishly is included in the very concept should. the fact that someone died is included in the concept funeral.
By modus tollens of (1): (3) So, if you are doing as you should, you are acting selfishly. So, if there is a funeral, someone died.
Restatement of (3): (4) You should act selfishly.

For details on the argument for selfishness, see “The Objectivist Ethics.”

The logic here is not challenging. This is a straightforward application of the rules of modus tollens. “If no one died, it’s not a funeral (If not-q, then not-p)” implies “If there is a funeral, someone died (If p, then q.)”

The challenging part of Rand’s method is this: Can words really have objectively correct meanings? The challenging parts of the moral and political cases are: Do all valid concepts of virtue presuppose the propriety of selfishness? Does the very concept of government include an essential role for protecting individual rights?

To defeat Ayn Rand’s moral or political philosophy, don’t waste time asking what will happen to the poor under capitalism or insisting that a selfish person would never help others. Instead, go after her epistemology, her distinctive way of arguing—because if you can refute that, her whole system falls apart.

If you can’t, you’ll find she is unstoppable.

For Nozick’s attack using only conventional logic, see “On the Randian Argument.” For two attempts to refute Rand’s system by attacking her epistemology, see Michael Huemer, “Why I Am Not an Objectivist,” and John W. Robbins, Without a Prayer: Ayn Rand and the Close of Her System (Trinity Foundation, 1997).

Kennon Gilson
My father, who curates the Libertarian International Organization (www.LibertarianInternational.o… ) and spent a lot of time as Rand’s personal student, says she would ‘razor’ arguments in this way as pretty standard philosophical argumentation: i.e. make a case for your opponent better than they can, then show the contradictions and how concepts multiply beyond all sense, then how the assumptions lead back to a broader and correct case, and more dialectically comprehensive, case. It seems to me we see this also in Plato, Spinoza and Aquinas, and in a lot of math, though I’m just a student here. This is certainly what I am being taught as a philosophy minor and my understanding of American analytic philosophy or ‘getting clear.’

In other words, e.g. Rand takes altruism at its word, shows it leads to it’s opposite, and then that to work it must rely on what is (generally) incorrectly assumes it is against. I don’t think she is trying to make that process her actual case, though.

My understanding is that Rand had a much more comprehensive view of logic as directed awareness of causes, what she called the art of non-contradictory identification, so Nozick is out of luck. This seems to be clearer in the Branden Intro Objectivism lectures.

Words can have objective meaning.

white liberty
Objectivism upholds the facts of reality, except, facts about race. Once you include the knowledge and implications of race into politics, art, and the philosophy of history, you’ll see that Objectivism is wrong. It’s a philosophy for living on earth without street smarts.

Jagvender Poonia
I wonder what would it be like if someone used her epistemology to disabuse her legacy of everything but her epistemology… 🙂

Landon Walsh
Basically what is being said is in order to beat Rand you have to dismantle language, definitions, and knowledge.

Sounds about right.

IronMaidenaregods, reply to Landon Walsh
Well said

Mark Peterson
It is best to use Rand’s examples of stolen concepts, for the example given here is problematic: one could stage a funeral in order to get others to believe that someone is dead. More importantly, Rand is fundamentally an INDUCTIVE philosopher, not a deductive one. The axioms of existence, consciousness and identity are not arrived at by deductive proofs, but through induction; similarly, her ethical concepts are also primarily inductive. As human beings, we have minds capable of both sense perception and concept formation, and individual minds develop in their own unique way–for better or for worse. Unless we are coerced, we must decide what to do based on own philosophy, so in this sense we must all act egoistically. To be rational egoists, however, we must accept the validity of our sense perceptions and follow sound methods of abstraction (avoiding floating abstractions).

The Ultimate Philosopher
Does the Rasmussen & Den Uyl response to Nozick somehow not use the canonical standards of logic practiced widely in analytic philosophy these days? Maybe the key issue here is how the *Aristotelian* tradition, a rather distinctive style of doing philosophy it would seem (it just seems for instance that the way such neo-Aristotelians as Veatch, Foot, David Norton, Anthony Kenny, and Richard Kraut do ethical theory is markedly different than the way such prestigious figures as Rawls, Nagel, Parfit, and Scanlon do it), is received by the contemporary analytic mainstream. But that doesn’t somehow make Aristotelianism into some special system with its own standards, immune from the critical standards employed by the contemporary analytic mainstream.

Indeed, I think the whole idea behind the building neo-Aristotelian resurgence in academe is that by application of the canonical standards of logic Aristotelianism comes out as *superior*. At the same time it’s hard here not (that is, if one wants to be comprehensively thorough about these things) to mention Chris Matthew Sciabarra’s work relating the Aristotelian tradition to what has come to be referred to as a “dialectical” methodological orientation, which does on its face appear to defy the canonical methodological standards of inquiry – or does it, really? Does it, instead, point in the direction of methodology and approach to doing philosophy that represents a *superior* and more rigorous application of the traditional canons of logic to these fundamental matters?

If you take the criticisms that the likes of “the Dougs” and Sciabarra together provide against the contemporary analytic mainstream, you have what appears to be a pretty solid two-pronged criticism: that the analytic mainstream has an insufficient grasp of both the Aristotelian tradition and of dialectical methodology properly conceived. The end result is that when you put their work, along with Peikoff’s methodologically-focused courses, up against an assessment using the ordinary canons of logic, you have a fundamentally Aristotelian paradigm (out of which Rand’s system falls more or less as a matter of necessity) that very plausibly cannot be beat.

Rather than appealing to some dubious-sounding “special logic” or something in that vicinity, in order to shield Rand from criticism, the much-better task is to show how the “mainstream critics” don’t have an adequate grasp of what Rand actually advocated because *they* are the ones not being rigorous enough in their application of canonical logic – that they *haven’t* done as thorough a job at *integration* as those in the Aristotelian tradition have done. (And there may be a much-higher correlation than a great many people realize, between lack of truly solid grasp of Aristotelianism generally and a lack of a truly solid grasp of Rand. I think this would be a very interesting story to tell in full, because there is *some* serious disconnect between the assessments of the Philosopher by such towering intellects as Aquinas and Hegel and those of the supposed “leading minds” of today.) Bring it all on, I say!

EDIT: If there’s any question as to how thoroughly a consistent Aristotelian is committed to integration, have a look at the 48-page bibliography of Sciabarra’s *Total Freedom* and then consider the book in terms of being a non-contradictory integration of all the good parts of the many hundreds of units contained in the bibliography. Further, a process of integration that can treat the book in turn as a unit that (properly, non-contradictorily) subsumes all those units, seems to me to be a towering monument to the principle of unit-economy. Just how useful can one book-unit be? 😉

Dale Netherton
I would like to see an example of how anyone would attack her epistemology and what such an attack would look like. I doubt it could even be constructed.

John P. McCaskey, reply to Dale Netherton
If you really want to, just look at the attacks listed in this discussion—Nozick, Robbins, Mack, etc.

Dale Netherton, reply to John P. McCaskey
I can’t find any of the names mentioned.

John P. McCaskey, reply to Dale Netherton
Links to three of them are in my original post, at the bottom, just above the Like and Share buttons. A link to a fellow named Jeff Nyquist is in the comment by Rodrigo Castro Hernández.

Dale Netherton, reply to John P. McCaskey
Checked out he Nyquist critiques and found this, “Essentially, Rand argues that vagueness in terms is caused by lack of precision in definitions, which in turn is caused by improper concept formation. This is completely wrong. Vagueness in terms is caused by insufficient specificity: when the term used is too broad for the purposes at hand, vagueness results. Precision of meaning has nothing to do with the issue, nor will providing a more “precise” meaning render a broad abstraction less vague. Consider the following two propositions:

I went to the zoo and saw the animals.
I went to the zoo and saw red pandas, flamingos, crested screamers, jaks, rheas, and a golden pheasant.
Which statement is less vague, more presise? Obviously, the second statement is more precise. It contains more information; it describes more precisely what is meant by “animal” in the first statement. Where did the precision come from? From more precise or “truer” definitions? No, the suggestion is absurd. You do not increase precision by increasing the precision of your definitions (or making them more “correct” or “true”); you increase it by using more specific, less general terms.
Completely wrong? HIs example has the issue backwards. Animals covers a lot more territory that the few examples he lists but he then claims his selected list is more precise. Unless the zoo only had the animals he listed he is ignoring what other animals were observed. Now that I’ve seen his attack it proves that distortion and manipulation are the only challenges he offers. Nothing new here.

Ray Cathode, reply to Dale Netherton
Nyquist is not clear on the meaning of “vagueness”:

1. Not clear in meaning or expression; inexplicit. See Synonyms at ambiguous.
2. Not thinking or expressing oneself clearly: “Most of us are quite vague about the theoretical underpinnings of the medical theories that guide our doctors” (Kwame Anthony Appiah).
3. Lacking definite shape, form, or character; indistinct: saw a vague outline of a building through the fog.
4. Indistinctly felt, perceived, understood, or recalled; hazy: a vague uneasiness.

To say one went to the zoo to see the animals is a perfectly clear sentence, and leaves no chance of omissions. It is clearly states what one thought and expressed. Animal is not ‘vague” ( a concept is not a “vague” sense of something just because it includes more information). The concept of animal is not “vague” or “indistinct” – its meaning is perfectly clear to any mature person- however that person may never have seen “red pandas”, or “crested screamers” or “yaks’ or “rheas”, or a “golden pheasant”, and therefor might not even regard them as animals. To say that a concept is less clear than a list is simply a meaningless statement: what “list”, whose understanding of the concept?.

Spencer Morgan
“The challenging part of Rand’s method is this: Can words really have objectively correct meanings? ”

LOL. You realize you are using words, and presuming a shared objective meaning, by typing that sentence to convey that words might not have meaning… right?

John P. McCaskey, reply to Spencer Morgan
(Shhh. You are making my case for me. It was supposed to be left as an exercise for the students.)

Rodrigo Castro Hernández
John did you find an error in her epistemology? Are you agree with some of the Jeff Nyquist rebuttals in his blog? http://aynrandcontrahumannatur…

John Paquette
An even more basic premise of Ayn Rand’s is that concepts contain knowledge at all. Then there’s the idea that a given concept contains the knowledge of other concepts.

When concept A contains (or implies) knowledge of concept B, it means that concept A *is defined in terms of* concept B. For instance, “school” is (properly) defined in terms of “knowledge”, and “funeral” is (properly) defined in terms of “death”. Another way of saying this is “You can’t really know what A is without knowing what B is and how A implies (relies on) B.” Or even shorter: Funerals *are about* death. Schools *are about* knowledge.

Of course, to hold that for any given word any particular definition *is better* (more essentialized) than another is another aspect of Ayn Rand’s thinking that is not common. Her logic is extremely definition-focused.

Consider this, my favorite example of a stolen concept: “Private property is theft.” “Theft” *is defined in terms of*; *is about* — private property — specifically its violation. And so, by substitution, the original proposition becomes: “Private property is the violation of private property.” Pretty clearly senseless.

John P. McCaskey, reply to John Paquette
“An even more basic premise of Ayn Rand’s is that concepts contain knowledge at all.” Thanks very much for bringing this up. That concepts contain propositional knowledge is such a profound proposal on Rand’s part. I wish the implications of it were more fully worked out. That fact that they haven’t been is a reason I think William Whewell is worth studying. He held this view as well.

(On Whewell, see my “When Induction Was About Concepts” at, “Induction and Concept-Formation in Francis Bacon and William Whewell” at, or the first chapter in Laura J. Snyder’s Reforming Philosophy .)

J.S., reply to John P. McCaskey
Prof, have you any more info on your work on induction in collaboration with Burian? Is it a go?

John Paquette, reply to John P. McCaskey
“Concepts contain *propositional* knowledge”, while not false, is stronger than what I intended to say. Concepts, for the sake of this discussion, imply, and depend upon, the existence of other kinds of things. In this way, they contain knowledge of the existence of such things. So “Funeral” contains knowledge of “death”. “Funeral” implies “death”. One can trivially state knowledge of funerals and of death as propositions, but the deep point here regards *conceptual knowledge* as opposed to *propositional* knowledge. To know “funeral” requires you know “death”. These are concepts, not propositions.

John P. McCaskey, reply to John Paquette
“Every concept stands for a number of propositions. A concept identifying perceptual concretes stands for some implicit propositions; but on the higher levels of abstraction, a concept stands for chains and paragraphs and pages of explicit propositions referring to complex factual data.” ITOE, p48.

Michael Philip, reply to John P. McCaskey
how does a concept like blue stand for a proposition?

Mark Michael Lewis, reply to Michael Philip
colors exist.

Neil Parille
Following the highest established standards of logic, the most rigorous canonical reasoning, any logic professor can decimate Ayn Rand’s moral and political philosophy in one 45-minute lecture. It took the Harvard professor Robert Nozick only a few paragraphs.

But Rand doesn’t follow the conventional standards of logic. She has her own distinctive method of arguing. If that method is valid, her moral and political philosophy stands. If it is invalid, her whole system comes crashing down.

This always cracks me up. Rand was such a compelling writer that even a person untrained in philosophy can understand her. But to really understand her you have to know some sort of Objectivist “super logic.” So even if you have a Ph.D. in philosophy you can’t intelligently critique her.

The best critique of Rand’s ethics is Eric Mack’s “Problematic Arguments in Randian Ethics,” Journal of Ayn Rand Studies,
vol.5 no. 1 (Fall 2003) pp.1-66.

John Paquette, reply to Neil Parille
Ayn Rand is often criticized for being naïvely lucid. How is anyone to respond to such a criticism? I affirm that Ayn Rand’s lucidity is a result of her refusal to accept conventional logic. She appeals to the beginner’s mind. She approaches logic in an original way. To understand her requires stepping back from one’s training and questioning it.

What’s in question, here, is not really Ayn Rand’s “super logic”, but conventional logic.

matti81, reply to John Paquette
“I affirm that Ayn Rand’s lucidity is a result of her refusal to accept conventional logic”


“What’s in question, here, is not really Ayn Rand’s “super logic”, but conventional logic”


I grew out of Ayn Rand as I got older and reality set in.

IronMaidenaregods, reply to matti81
Ah, the argument from pretentiousness.

You always hated Rand and have always rejected her ideas. That is why you do not attempt to refute any of them and resort to drivel.

matti81, reply to IronMaidenaregods
I don’t have to refute anything. Rands ideas regarding human behavior (is. altruism, greed,etc) have been totally demolished by modern science. Nowhere is her “Philosophy” taken serious by credited scholars and academia. Her demented, anti-human ideas are embraced by teenagers and intellectually stunted adults.

John P. McCaskey, reply to matti81
FYI, contra matti81: Any philosophy students who have a scholarly interest in studying Rand, consider these better-known places to do so: University of Texas at Austin (Tara Smith holds the philosophy department’s chair in Rand studies), University of Pittsburgh (contact James G. Lennox), Rutgers University (track down Greg Salmieri), University of Colorado at Boulder, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, University of Michigan, and Brown University (I teach Rand in the political science department). At American Philosophical Association meetings, find sessions of the Ayn Rand Society. For academic writings, watch the series on Rand published by the University of Pittsburgh Press.

matti81, reply to John P. McCaskey
Yes, and all those institutions were paid to peddle her crap. Face it, her “philosophy” isn’t taken serious by mainstream philosophy. For example, according to the Standford Encyclopedia of Philosphy it says of Rand that “only a few professional philosophers have taken her work seriously. As a result, most of the serious philosophical work on Rand has appeared in non-academic, non-peer-reviewed, journals, or in books, and the bibliography reflects this fact.” On a personal level, I asked my first year philosophy professor David Stamos, an evolutionary philosopher, what he thought of Ayn Rand and you know what his answer was? he laughed.

But that’s all irrelevant of course. Modern science in human behavior totally debunks Rands 19th century liberal individualist clap trap. Her importance tends to be excluded to teenage Americans and those who have a very piss poor grasp of philosophy and have a predisposition to shallow, hyper individualist romanticist nonsense. She is pretty much unknown in Europe.

John Galt
“The highest tribute to Ayn Rand is that her critics must distort everything she stood for in order to attack her. She advocated reason, not force; the individual’s rights to freedom of action, speech, & association; self-responsibility, NOT self-indulgence; & a live-and-let-live society in which each individual is treated as an END, not the MEANS of others’ ends. How many critics would dare honestly state these ideas and say, ” . . .and that’s what I reject”? -Barbara Branden

Michael Philip
I’d like to see some comparisons with Popper’s epistemology and his non-justificationist approach.

Dan Edge
Also, Greg Nyquist recently wrote a 49-part critique of Objectivist epistemology which is very comprehensive and challenging: http://aynrandcontrahumannatur….

Edu Voss
Great post Mr. McCaskey,

Hope I may have the time to study epistemology again in the future, as of now I am curious about your evaluation on the critics of Rand´s epistemology, which I accept as proved.

Mark Michael, reply to Lewis Edu Voss
In my experience, lots of people misunderstand/misrepresent Rand’s philosophy/epistemology, then “disprove” their misrepresentation. I have yet to see anyone who understands it do so.

Note: Rand’s description/attribution (history and scholarship) of other people’s philosophy is weak IMO. But her epistemology is a real contribution to the western philosophical tradition. I hope she is recognized for it at some point.

matti81, reply to Mark Michael Lewis
Lol her epistemology is based on a priori jibberish, hence the reason why she isn’t taken serious by academia. The entire loony Randroid contention that her critics “just don’t understand” amounts to the same kinds of pathetic appeals to sentiments made by religious people against those who criticize their beliefs.

Michael Caution
I’m unsure if your use of the phrases “established standards” and “conventional” logic were used rhetorically to pique readers interest or if you meant to imply multiple valid logics. Wouldn’t one simply say that Rand was logical or using logic properly whereas her critics were not using logic or not using it logically?

Mark Michael Lewis, reply to Michael Caution
There are multiple kinds of logics. And, according to how Rand uses “rationality,” yes.
Once you understand how she uses it, I believe you will find it to be the “master” logic of which the rest are sub-types/distortions. 🙂
Of course, to argue/prove this, we need to create a shared semantic space. I know of no better method to accomplish this than Rand’s axiomatic rationality (checking your premises and ferreting out stolen concepts) as described in this article.

Michael Philip
What are your thoughts on Huemer’s rebuttals?

Mark Michael Lewis, reply to Michael Philip
don’t know McCaskey’s arguments against Huemer, but using the article above, I will offer my extension of McCaskey to Huemer through a number of points.

1. I assume that McCaskey references Huemer because Huemer makes both of the exact mistakes McCaskey describes in the article:
1a. misunderstanding Rand’s epistemology, then shooting down the strawman of his misunderstanding;
1b. using stolen concepts.

Because of this, Huemer fails to recognize the contribution that Objectivism makes to epistemology (axiomatic rationality) and how it thus grounds morality/politics/aesthetics in reality through reason.

2. The beginning critique of the epistemology is a STANDARD/CLASSIC (although particularly well put) is/ought dichotomy with a postmodern sensibility. It is solid, incisive, and powerful. It is, if you accept the terms of Huemer’s article – inarguable. (McCaskey’s point is that Rand is not using Huemer’s terms, hence Huemer misses Rand’s point and Huemer’s argument misses the mark – he argues against a strawman).

Because of this, if you can understand his mistake and Rand’s solution, you will “get” Objectivism vs. postmodernism much more clearly.

Summing it up – Every statement of value is built on another statement of value, all the way down; or “you can’t get a moral conclusion out of an argument without moral premises,” and (according to this style of thinking), there ain’t no “there” there – therefore it is invalid.

The question is, is there a “there” there? Rand says “yes, there is.”

In this sense, Huemer is standard postmodern fare, without the Nietzschian Overman/Randian Hero who overcomes the gap and gets “there.”

3. Huemers analysis suffers from its own critique, both epistemologically and morally. Hence, if it is valid, it is invalid. Fortunately for Huemer, it is invalid, so its validity does not invalidate it. 🙂

Example – when Huemer says that “That is why the traditional positions on the problem of universals have always been considered to be these three: nominalism, immanent realism, and Platonism. There is no fourth position”, he falls into the logic trap that McCaskey speaks of. IF you define universals the way he does, THEN there is no fourth position – Rand MUST be one of the three. “That’s that.”

However (to use his terms) the referent of “universal” might well be different than the sense/idea of “universal” as defined above. If this is the case, the false dichotomy (trichotomy) that he (and the history of the philosophy of universals) lays out would be a simple category error.

In another example, he claims that Rand must provide a “non-question-begging argument for the conclusion that we ought only to promote our own interests,” yet feels fine with his question-begging argument for his definition of universals. This is a question of ‘you can’t have your cake and eat it too.”

Again, McCaskey’s point is that Rand doesn’t accept that definition – In fact her epistemology is EXACTLY the “fourth alternative” that Huemer denies (question begs).

3a. To be fair to Huemer, IF morality is orthogonal to logic, THEN Huemer can claim that he is not eating his own cake because his argument is a descriptive/epistemological cake and he is eating the normative/ethical cake.

3b. However IF morality is a dimension of human existence IN THE SAME WAY that logic is (Which is Rand’s essential insight), THEN all descriptive statements are moral – they “privilege/value” truth/validity/accuracy above falsehood/invalidity/inaccuracy. Knowledge is a moral pursuit. Rand argues that is AXIOMATICALLY so (anything descriptive you say is “trying/intending” to describe something – there is a value you are trying/intending to achieve).

In my own terms, I like to say “Reason requires a reason to use it.” Or, rationality requires values one wants to achieve so that can approach achieving those values rationally. No morality, no reason/logic. Reason without morality is a stolen concept.

In this sense, the same “force” that sources logic, it also sources morality, and for the same reason – it is the nature of human rationality.

This is close to immanent realism, but isn’t – it is axiomatic rationality (as described in McCaskey’s article).

4. I won’t even touch Huemer’s understanding of strawman of “ethical egoism” other than to point out the obvious – it does not REFER to Rand’s SENSE of egotism so his refutation of it has no bearing on Objectivism.

Rationality is the expression of principle and morality is the extension of principle. The same reason an “egotist” values him/herself extends to other similar selves. That is why we don’t initiate force against others. That is why we value/respect/admire/love them (unless they are evil). The Golden Rule is not far off the mark. That is why there are no conflicts of interest among rational human beings – we admire a good competitor because we value human ingenuity/skill/effort in them as much as ourselves.

In fact, when Huemer says ”one might propose to redefine egoism as just the view that one should always promote only what one is correct in valuing”, he is very near the Randian mark. Objectivist Egoism IS correctly valuing (promoting) the correct values. Which begs the question of what are the correct values and finally leads us to consider Rand’s argument.

5. Rand/Objectivism uses this axiomatic logic (as described in McCaskey), BECAUSE her epistemology is CONTEXTUAL.

This is where the strawman and stolen concepts in Huemer come together.

To be clear – I am willing to concede Huemers epistemological/postmodern point. To make moral evaluations/statement begs/requires a moral premise. Absolutely. Until and unless we are invoking a moral dimension, there is no moral case to be made. AND, choosing what that moral dimension consists of IS a moral choice. It is self-referential/recursive.

As I like to put it, “By what criteria do we choose our criteria?”

This SEEMS like a logical trap, but it isn’t.

IF we could have a world in which a moral dimension is absent, THEN Rand’s philosophy is completely useless and valueless. If you are not making moral distinctions, Rand’s philosophy is irrelevant. Sure. No Problem. Go for it.

Because Rand states up front that her philosophy is a philosophy for human/rational/conscious beings. That is the CONTEXT in which her work is “true/valid/good/just/beautiful.” That is the ONLY context in which her work is “true/valid/good/just/beautiful.”

She agrees with Huemer. He is arguing against a straw man.

AND – notice the stolen concept. Huemer is arguing that Rand’s argument is invalid because it presupposes a moral premise – but the concept of invalid only exists in a context of human rationality, which presupposes morality (as described above in point #3b). Huemer’s argument is only valid IN the context that he is denying to Rand. He is “stealing the concept” of reason but denying the constituent concept on which reason is based – morality. It is a (perhaps THE) classic stolen concept.

In order to judge Rands work as either/and
True/untrue (metaphyics)
Valid/invalid (epistemology)
Good/bad (ethics)
Just/unjust (politics)
Beautiful/ugly (aesthetics)
one MUST be in the context of human rationality – the one place where Rand’s concepts are true/valid/good/just/beautiful.

AND Rand’s entire argument is that human rationality is constituted by questions of truth, validity, goodness, justice, and beauty – that these ideas/senses “go together,” that they are facets of the same jewel.

In McCaskey’s terms – “if you can refute Rand’s epistemology, her whole system falls apart. If you can’t, you’ll find she is unstoppable.”

So, because all of Huemer’s arguments are INSIDE the context of human rationality, AND his arguments only apply to contexts OUTSIDE of human rationality, his argument contradicts itself. Further, it is non-sensical to try to apply his arguments outside of the context of human rationality because that is a stolen concept.

It is similar to asking where the universe was before it came into existence. Since “space” and “time” and “coming” are properties of the universe, the question is built on multiple stolen concepts. It is non-sensical. To be cute about it, there is no “where” “there.”

6. I believe the exact same logic cuts through the Gordian knot of freewill, but have not thought it through in detail. Anyone done that journey wants to speak of it?

New Buddha
“Can words really have objectively correct meanings?”

Rand would argue that the “objectivity” of a word is only relevant to the individual using the word – within the context of the knowledge that he posses. The “objectivity” of a word is not something that is voted upon.

The failure to understand how, as individuals, we are on an “epistemological island” leads to numerous misunderstandings of Objectivism.

Mark Michael Lewis, reply to New Buddha
Yes. Knowledge is contextual.
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I am with you that a genuine funeral implies or presupposes that someone has died, but I cannot see how “all valid concepts of virtue presuppose the propriety of selfishness.” To my mind it is more likely that no valid concepts of virtue presuppose the propriety of selfishness. Does Aristotle’s virtue ethics presuppose selfishness? I don’t think so. His emphasis on friendship suggests that consideration of the good of others is essential.

rodfitts, reply to ScienceRules
Rand’s positions and arguments have created new avenues to explore in philosophy. For instance, you brought up the term “friendship” and its importance to Aristotle as a potential counterargument to valid virtue concepts presupposing selfishness’ validity. But what is the essential meaning of “friendship”? Does it preclude selfishness?

Friendship for Rand, as I understand it, is a relationship between individuals in which they esteem each other, spend time together, and share in intimate knowledge and/or activities. It is a response, or “spiritual payment” as she once called it, for the pleasures you derive from the virtuous character of another person. It is thoroughly selfish for her. And so I think a “selfless friend” would be just as incoherent to her as she views the idea of “selfless love”:

“[Selfless love] would have to mean that you derive no personal pleasure or happiness from the company and the existence of the person you love, and that you are motivated only by self-sacrificial pity for that person’s need of you. I don’t have to point out to you that no one would be flattered by, nor would accept, a concept of that kind. Love is not self-sacrifice, but the most profound assertion of your own needs and values. It is for your own happiness that you need the person you love, and that is the greatest compliment, the greatest tribute you can pay to that person.” (Playboy Interview: Ayn Rand, Playboy, March 1964)

Personally, I knew that friendships were based on mutual self-interest well before I ever read Rand, but I never pictured a “selfless friendship” until I read that passage some years back. I could not stand a person being my “friend” solely for my sake, meaning that my existence means nothing to him, personally, and he’s only my “friend” as a service based on my need and his pity; I would hate such a person. (Incidentally, this “selfless friendship” bears a remarkable resemblance to how a narcissist might view his “friendships,” and narcissism is supposed to be the “extreme” version of self-interest.)

GS, reply to ScienceRules
Actually Aristotle himself does think that virtuous people are (and must be) selfish–see NE IX.8. I have a forthcoming paper on just this issue, which can be found online at….

But of course, the point of Rand’s argument isn’t that any specific virtue-theorist endorses selfishness, but that there is a sort of incoherence in moral theories that don’t endorse it. Formally speaking, the most similar argument I can think of in the more widely studied ethics literature is Anscombe’s argument that much of modern moral philosophy is incoherent because it makes use of concepts that derive from divine command theory, while rejecting that theory.

John P. McCaskey, reply to ScienceRules
Ah, for that, see Rand’s “The Objectivist Ethics” (in The Virtue of Selfishness or online at It takes her several pages to get to that conclusion. And I always tell my students to read those pages very slowly. Readers always want to fit her argument into a familiar form. So they presume she has said things well before she actually does. Then when the conclusion comes, it seems to drop out of the sky. The reader is still waiting for the pieces of a conventional argument to get filled in. But she headed down a different path pages earlier.

Johann Gevers, reply to John P. McCaskey
Deeply insightful article, John—an important contribution to understanding Rand’s method and others’ responses to her.

John P. McCaskey, reply to Johann Gevers

J.S., reply to John P. McCaskey
Thank you for bringing this topic up! Many Objectivist do not grasp the differences you are trying to point at between Rand and traditional conceptions of logic, or how this related to the historical debate in the philosophy of language and logic.

One thought on “How Best to Attack Ayn Rand’s System

  • Jan 8, 2017 at 10:32 pm

    Rand and Trump have just one degree of separation. She admired Joe McCarthy for attacking Communists and McCarthy’s lawyer, Roy Cohn, was Trump’s mentor.


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