Ayn Rand

Mathieu Deflem
www.mathieudeflem.net

This is an electronic copy of an essay published in Encyclopedia of Criminal Justice Ethics, edited by Bruce A. Arrigo. Sage, 2014. Also available in pdf format.

Please cite as: Deflem, Mathieu. 2014. "Ayn Rand." Pp. 775-777 in Encyclopedia of Criminal Justice Ethics, edited by Bruce A. Arrigo. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.


Ayn Rand was a Russian-born writer who in the 1920s migrated to the United States where she became a widely-read novelist and advocated a system of ideas she referred to as the philosophy of objectivism. A popular media figure in her days, Rand attracted a fairly large number of followers and admirers who contributed to her fame and the dissemination of her ideas. In recent years, objectivism has received renewed attention.

Ayn Rand was born Alisa Zinovyevna Rosenbaum in St. Petersburg, Russia in 1905. From 1921 to 1924, she studied at the University of Petrograd and was greatly affected by the Bolshevik Revolution and the transition to communism. Having obtained a temporary travel permit from the Soviet authorities to visit relatives in the United States, she arrived in New York in February 1926 and spent some time in Chicago before moving to Hollywood in pursuit of a career as a script writer. She held several jobs in the movie industry, among them as an extra in some of the movies of Cecil B. DeMille.

In the 1930s, Rand’s writing career began to take concrete shape when one of her stage plays was produced and her novels We the Living and Anthem were published, in 1936 and 1938 respectively. Rand’s next novel, The Fountainhead, would accomplish her commercial breakthrough. Published in 1943, the book recounts the tale of an architect who refuses to follow the wishes of his contractors and instead stubbornly pursues his own vision of accomplishment. The Fountainhead became a bestseller and was brought to the screen in a 1949 movie featuring Gary Cooper in the role of architect Howard Roark.

In 1951, Rand moved to New York to complete her next book, Atlas Shrugged. Published in 1957, the novel was Rand’s most ambitious work of fiction, weaving ideas on individualism, capitalism, and self-reliance into a fictional dystopian tale of increasing government control and the collapse of capitalism. Although receiving mostly negative reviews upon its publication, the book was enormously popular, especially among adolescents, and would go on to become one of the most widely distributed books in the English language.

After the success of Atlas Shrugged, Rand began to articulate her ideas in non-fictional writings and adopted the label of objectivism to describe the whole of her thought with a singular expression. She conceived of objectivism as a philosophy involving a unified hierarchy of metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, and aesthetics. Metaphysically maintaining that reality exists, Rand’s objectivist epistemology holds that reality can be known by identifying and integrating what is perceived through the senses. This intellectual process is achieved by means of the human faculty of reason, which is accepted as the sole basis of valid knowledge of both facts as well as values over and against any form of mysticism, including religion.

With respect to ethics, objectivism adheres to a commitment to the central values of reason, purpose, and self-esteem. Against a philosophy of altruism as self-sacrifice, an individual’s own life and happiness are held to be the only ultimate values of existence as they are practiced in various spheres of social life, including science, economic production, politics, and art. Politically, objectivism favors a system of government that respects each individual’s fundamental right of self-determination free from physical coercion. Aesthetically, objectivism implies a vision of art as a re-enactment of the basic values of human existence. Rand advocated specifically an art of romantic realism whereby the heroic character of a self-reliant and rational individual is expressed in more generally accessible settings.

Rand’s objectivism presents a collection of ideas that are defended by Rand herself rather than a philosophy that is systematically developed in dialogue within a community of thinkers. Largely ignored throughout her life at academic institutes of higher learning, Rand disseminated her ideas through her novels and non-fictional writings and various other forms of communication. She published in newsletters and magazines and also lectured widely in both academic and popular venues, thereby becoming revered as a celebrity intellectual in the popular media. Among her noteworthy media appearances were televised interviews with journalist Mike Wallace and popular talk-show hosts Johnny Carson, Tom Snyder, and Phil Donahue.

After Ayn Rand died in 1982, her works have remained in print and especially her two major novels, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, have continued to remain widely read. The principles of objectivism are propagated by Rand’s admirers through organizations such as the Ayn Rand Institute and the Atlas Society. Because of many objectivists’ unquestioned faith in the values and ideas forwarded by Rand at the exclusion of reasoned inquiry on the basis of questions, her following has often been described as a cult. The generally strongly emotional nature of objectivists’ devotion and loyalty to the person and ideas of Rand additionally supports this notion.

Upon the financial crisis of 2008, the election of U.S. President Barrack Obama that year, and the subsequent rise of the Tea Party movement, a distinct upsurge took place in an interest in Rand, leading to new publications and discussions on her life and work. Noted conservatives in American contemporary politics have proclaimed their admiration of Rand, even though her atheism is at odds with most of mainstream American conservatism, especially as it exists in the Republican Party. Organizations associated with objectivism have stepped up their efforts to propagate Rand by various means, such as by offering grant money to organize classes to advertise her ideas and by donating some of her books to high schools. Some inroads have recently also been made to inject Rand into the canon of academic philosophy, to wit the organization of courses about her ideas at universities, the self-identification of some academically employed philosophers as objectivists, and the inclusion of Rand in several encyclopedias. The impact of these modest efforts, however, remains uncertain.

See Also: Altruism; Aristotle; Egoism and self-interest, ethical; Free will; Objectivism, ethical

Further Readings

Burns, Jennifer. Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Heller, Anne C. Ayn Rand and the World She Made. New York: Doubleday, 2009.

Rand, Ayn. Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, Expanded Second Edition. Edited by Harry Binswanger and Leonard Peikoff. New York: New American Library, 1990.

Rand, Ayn. The Virtue of Selfishness. New York: Signet, 1964.

Smith, Tara. Ayn Rand's Normative Ethics: The Virtuous Egoist. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006.