From Thomas Hobbes to John Locke: Putting Ayn Rand Through Her Paces

The question of morality in political and economic systems has been brought into the national conversation by Paul Ryan, a follower of Ayn Rand. Ayn Rand’s definition of morality is the morality of rational self-interest. She argued that rational and ethical egoism should be the guiding principle of morality, and she defined egoism as the virtue of selfishness. Morality, she said, is based in the needs of man’s survival, and ethical altruism is incompatible with the requirements of morality. Individual rights should be pre-eminent and laissez-faire capitalism is the only system that can protect them.

Perhaps those who interviewed the young Ayn Rand on their talk shows were fooled by the fact that she was simply a novelist. Maybe they thought that if her ideas were simply made known to the public, the public would see through them. That could explain why they offered no substantial challenge to Rand’s claims.  I suspect they have helped to ensure Rand’s continuing influence. You might want to watch her interviews again with this in mind. She was interviewed by: Mike Wallace ((; Tom Snyder ((Ayn Rand and Tom Snyder,; James Day ((Ayn Rand and James Day,; and Phil Donahue ((Ayn Rand and Phil Donahue,

It is revealing that Rand herself chose to talk about right and wrong, good and evil, and it is therefore appropriate that the Catholic Church has been one of her main critics.  However, Rand had another purpose besides the promotion of her definition of morality. She claimed her views represented the ultimate truth about America, and she posed as a patriot when all the while she was working to redefine who and what America is. It is therefore appropriate that President Obama chose to enter the debate, stating that her ideas do not define who we are. ((Brinkley, Douglas, Obama and the Road Ahead: The Rolling Stone Interview. Rolling Stone Politics, Nov. 8, 2012. Available:

What do we mean when we talk about morality?

The following definition of morality is from the Catholic Encyclopedia:

“It is necessary at the outset of this article to distinguish between morality and ethics, terms not seldom employed synonymously. Morality is antecedent to ethics: it denotes those concrete activities of which ethics is the science. It may be defined as human conduct in so far as it is freely subordinated to the ideal of what is right and fitting.”

America’s definition of morality, on the other hand, will require more discussion. [intlink id=”96″ type=”post”]We have seen[/intlink] that the creators of the secular foundation for morality had no intention of creating a new code of behavior. Their task was to develop a new basis for the old code. This was necessary because the moral authority of the church had been destroyed in the Protestant Reformation.

The Church’s morality is based on natural law theory. Natural Law theories assume any rational person can know the kinds of actions that are prohibited, required, discouraged, encouraged, and allowed.  The theological version of natural law, such as that of Thomas Aquinas, assumes that God implanted this knowledge in the reason of all persons.  The secular version of natural law, attributed first to Thomas Hobbes, assumes that natural reason allows all persons to know what morality prohibits, requires, etc. These are not empirical claims about morality but claims about what is essential to morality, or about what is meant by ‘morality’ when it is used normatively.((Gert, Bernard, “The Definition of Morality”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2015 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), forthcoming URL = <>.))

Ayn Rand claimed to have dispensed with all previous rational arguments for morality with her critique of Emmanuel Kant. However, of the moral philosophers who contributed to America’s form of government, Kant’s ideas were probably the easiest to refute. Kant, by the way, was not a natural law philosopher.

Theories of Morality in Perspective

According to Bernard Gert, the term ‘morality’ is used in two ways: descriptively or normatively. Descriptive codes of conduct are put forth by a society or some other group such as a religion, or by an individual for her own behavior.  On the other hand, the assumption behind a normative code of conduct is that all rational persons would agree to it, given specified conditions.

A descriptive morality might appear to be a normative system within small homogeneous societies. However, in large societies not all members accept the same code of conduct. A natural response to this problem is to switch attention from groups to individuals. However, when individuals propose a moral code, they imply that their guide to behavior should be universally adopted, or at least accepted by everyone in their group.

When an individual claims that morality prohibits or requires a given action, the term ‘morality’ is ambiguous. It is not clear if she refers to a guide to behavior put forward by a society; a guide that is put forward by a group; a guide that a person regards as overriding and wants adopted by everyone in her group; or a universal guide that all rational persons would put forward for governing the behavior of all moral agents. But when she refers to her own morality, she invariably speaks normatively. I believe this is how Rand meant her ideas to be understood.

When the term ‘morality’ is used descriptively, the proposed code of behavior has no implications for individuals not belonging to that group.  A person who accepts a normative definition of morality, however, commits herself to that code of behavior. For this reason, there are serious disagreements about which normative definition to accept.

The Reformers Compared

Thomas Hobbes’s remedy for the chaos of the Reformation was to establish a new basis for the old morality–not to create a new morality. He thought that “If higher laws are not equated with intangible goods like virtue, wisdom, and salvation, then the ills of civilization can be avoided and mankind can enjoy enduring civil peace.” Hobbes identified the same human traits as Ayn Rand, but while Hobbes considered them regrettable, Rand arbitrarily called them moral. This is typical of Rand’s thought, but it is also evidence of a continuing ‘[intlink id=”96″ type=”post”]process of forgetting[/intlink]’, which was already evident during the Enlightenment.

Hobbes insisted that there is no utmost aim or greatest good as put forth by the ‘old moral philosophers,’ Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas. Rand insisted there is in deed an utmost aim, survival. Further, the individual’s moral purpose is his own happiness. Finally, according to her fictional hero, John Galt, human perfection is ‘an unbreached rationality’. ((The Ultimate Philosopher, Ayn Rand on Human Perfection. Available: While Hobbes lamented that human nature is restlessly striving for power after power that has no end and therefore no happiness or perfection, Rand considered such striving to be a virtue.

“Hobbes presented the materialist account of man as a creature of appetites and aversions: seeking pleasure, avoiding pain, and desiring power after power. The materialist account supports the view that no natural end for man really exists, only the ceaseless motion of a complex machine. The materialist account also strengthens the case against the Aristotelian-Thomistic view of man as a rational and social animal naturally suited by language and friendship to live in a political community. Hobbes’s model shows that human beings are selfish, competitive, and anti-social and that they are rational only insofar as reason serves the selfish passions. The logical conclusion was [his] ‘state of nature’ teaching, which describes the anarchical condition of individuals without an artificial social contract and a coercive sovereign to hold them together.” (Leviathan, Part I, as summarized in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy) Of course, Ayn Rand thought selfish striving was moral and that it should be given free reign.  Now back to Hobbes:

“The mechanical model of man, however, [was] not sufficient to refute classical natural law. Hobbes develops a second argument based on moral experience, showing that human beings are motivated not only by pleasure and power but also by vanity–a false estimate of one’s superiority to others. In historical writings, Hobbes shows how the passion of vanity has undermined traditional political authority where kings have relied on higher law to gain obedience from the people. The defect of this arrangement is that traditional higher law doctrines are easily exploited by vain and ambitious men who claim superiority to the sovereign because of privileged knowledge of divine, natural, and common law. Hobbes’s account of the English Civil War (1642-60) in Behemoth illustrates the problem: King Charles I was overthrown by Puritan clergymen, democratic Parliamentarians, and lawyers of the common law who sought recognition for their superior knowledge of higher law yet who could not agree among themselves about whose doctrine was right, producing sectarian wars that reduced English society to the anarchic state of nature.”

By contrast, Ayn Rand thought she could determine who among her acquaintances deserved her love.

Today, Hobbes is notorious as an atheist materialist and advocate for absolute monarchy over constitutional government, but he was a major influence behind the natural rights principles of modern liberalism that became the middle-class materialist view of morality. Still, he would have disagreed with later thinkers who advocated constitutional limits on state power because he thought the sovereign’s absolute and arbitrary power was the only way to keep people in line. The movement to limit the scope of government to the protection of rights led away from Hobbes’s absolute monarchy and toward constitutionally limited government. This movement was led by Locke, Hume, Montesquieu, and the Federalist. ((Lloyd, Sharon A. and Sreedhar, Susanne, “Hobbes’s Moral and Political Philosophy”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <>.))

Ayn Rand in the Real World

The limited government debate should be taking place in the context of this evolution from Absolutism to limited government. In a more specific sense, the discussion of Ayn Rand’s ideas should be carried on within another context. Because of her support for both Big Oil and Israel, a tendency she shares with Paul Ryan as well as the neoconservatives who emerged from RAND Corporation, it seems reasonable to compare her ideas and influence with theirs.

The RAND Corporation used positivism to develop ideas similar to Rand’s. Ayn Rand was motivated by personal experience with Marxism; RAND Corporation was motivated by a perceived need to defend against the Soviet threat to the United States. Also, both efforts aimed at redefining America: Ayn Rand wanted to promote unfettered capitalism; RAND Corporation wanted to promote American imperialism. Their methods differed, but the effects on the body politic were complementary.

RAND Corporation

“At its most basic, Kenneth Arrow’s work (at RAND) demonstrated in formal terms–that is, in mathematical expression–that collective rational group decisions are logically impossible. Arrow’s paradox, or Arrow’s impossibility theorem, as it came to be called, presented an unshakable mathematical argument that destroyed the academic validity of most kinds of social compact. Arrow utilized his findings to concoct a value system based on economics that destroyed the Marxist notion of a collective will. To achieve this result, Arrow freely borrowed elements of positivist philosophy, such as its concern for axiomization, universally objective scientific truth, and the belief that social processes can be reduced to interaction between individuals.

“Arrow assumed that individuals were rational, that they had consistent preferences that they sought to maximize for their own selfish benefit. Arrow also assumed that reason, as he defined it, was not culturally relative but identical in all human beings, who act according to the same rules of logic.

“Furthermore, Arrow assumed the objectivity of science–that its laws are universal and that there aren’t two different sets of choices for capitalist and Communist societies, as some economists had theorized before World War II…[He] posited the individual as the ultimate arbiter of decision, using the phrase ‘consumers‘ sovereignty‘ to signal individual preference as the basic building block of any economic system.

“Arrow’s impossibility theorem, then, lay a theoretical foundation for universal scientific objectivity, individualism and ‘rational choice‘ while undermining Marxism, totalitarianism, and the idealistic democracy. Simply put, he posited that immutable, incontrovertible science tells us the collective is nothing, the individual is all.”((Abell, Alex. Soldiers of Reason: The RAND Corporation and the Rise of the American Empire. Harcourt, Inc. Orlando Austin New York San Diego London. 2008))

Note that axiomization was also a concern of Ayn Rand.

Paul Ryan

As for clues to Paul Ryan’s intentions behind his proposed privatization of Social Security, Israel would be the place to look.

About fifty years ago, a certain Ja’akov Levinson, the head of Israel’s Bank Hapoalim, took over Histadrut’s retirement funds…

“During the recession of 1965-66, these pension and provident funds, which were previously managed by various organs of the Histadrut, were brought under one roof. The immediate purpose was to boost the ailing finances of companies such as Solel Boneh, Koor, and Teus, which were hurt by the slowdown. The plan was backed by Labour Minister of Finance, Pinchas Sapir, and the man in charge of the operation was Levinson. In a typical manoeuvre, Levinson, who had no intention of having the Histadrut executive looking over his shoulder, merged the previously separate funds into a separate pool named Gmool, which he then turned into a department of his bank, far from the peering eyes of the Histadrut Controller. Gmool’s deal with the government was sweet and simple. Half of its funds had to be kept in government bonds. The other half was earmarked for investment and subsidized credit, with the interest rate financed by the government’s development budget. The beauty of the deal was that the precise allocation of these funds was up to Gmool’s managers to decide – that is, for Levinson. In this way, Levinson crafted for himself an enormous leverage, far greater than any of his competitors, and one which he quickly put into use. The mechanism worked more or less as follows. Workers and employers would make monthly contributions to Gmool. After putting half of these in government bonds, the rest was up for discretionary investments. Of that half, part would be earmarked for buying new stocks issued by Hapoalim and its subsidiaries; this part provided Levinson with ‘free money’ (since Gmool had no ability to exercise ‘control’) as well as a powerful vehicle for manipulating stock prices (since it enabled him to control both supply and demand). The other part would be invested in, or lent to Histadrut companies; in order to get these loans and investments, however, the companies had to mortgage their assets to Hapoalim, open their books to Levinson’s peering eyes, and accept his representatives as director on their boards.” ((Nitzan, Jonathan and Shimshon Bichler. The global Political Economy of Israel. Pluto Press, London, Sterling. 2002))

You might say that both of these examples are ancient history, that they don’t explain the Ayn Rand resurgence today, but it looks like they were merely forerunners of today’s Rand-inspired injustice. It is likely that the interest in Ayn Rand today is the response of ruling corporations to Dodd-Frank. ((Reese, Frederick. Defang Dodd-Frank to Protect Wall Street Vampires: A Look at the Proposed Changes. Mint Press News. May 7, 2013. Available: Although Dodd-Frank was passed in 2010, it hasn’t been fully implemented. The House Committee on Financial Services continues to try to overturn its regulations, in spite of the fact that the four largest U.S. banks that would be affected by it constitute half of the nations entire economy and hold more than half of the nation’s fiscal deposits. These are: JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America, Citigroup and Wells Fargo. The collapse of any one of them would have the potential to permanently compromise the nation. The Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act was created as a way to guard against this threat, but from the beginning it has been challenged by Republicans in the service of the banks.

Most of the Republican caucus insists the 2008-2009 mortgage crisis was a fluke and therefore, they say, the banks should continue to regulate themselves. This isn’t the first time we’ve seen this type of denial. We saw the same thing after the collapse of Long Term Capital Management in 1997. ((Roger Lowenstein. Long Term Capital Management: It’s a Short Term Memory. The New York Times, Business. Available:

Goldman Sachs

I previously mentioned two firms that were top donors to Tea Party republicans, one of them being Goldman Sachs. According to one article, a managing director of Goldman Sachs is the Co-Chair of the Ayn Rand Institute. ((Martens, Pam and Russ Martens. Resurrecting Ayn Rand: Hedge Fund Money Teams up With Koch & BB&T. Wall Street On Parade: A Citizen Guide to Wall Street. Feb. 28, 2012. Available:

What’s really at stake?

This isn’t really a partisan issue, although Rand, Ryan and others try to frame it as such. It isn’t capitalism against big government at all. This is about a few powerful corporations becoming more powerful than the government. In support of this assertion, I’ll close with a strongly worded critique of Rand’s ideas in the Wall Street Journal. It seems a fitting conclusion to the discussion that Ayn Rand initiated about morality:

“We have lost the collective spirit that led 57 capitalists to risk their lives and fortunes signing the Declaration of Independence. That’s dead. Today it’s “every man for himself” in a capitalist anarchy.

You ask, why do we embrace our own demise like out-of-control addicts? In behavioral economics, as in classical Greek drama, Jungian psychology and cultural mythologies … all the battles we see “out there” are actually projections of unresolved conflicts raging deep within our own souls … we’re rehashing old traumas projected on the outside world as battles between our highest ideals and our darkest secrets … classic battles between good and evil.
But they are conflicts buried deep in what Jung called “The Shadow,” a prison of dark secrets we cannot admit even to ourselves. In there, fierce battles are fought for the possession of our immortal souls … projected onto news, politics and finance, in television and films, theater, literature, history and dreams, at the dinner table and in the bedroom, “out there” we try to resolve our innermost secrets, never fully understanding how our minds are tricking us into inaction.

And as our individual souls and our collective unconscious splits further and further apart, eventually we will collectively implode and collapse.” ((Farrell, Paul. B. Ayn Rand’s Death of the Soul of Capitalism. The Wall Street Journal, Market Watch. June 14, 2011. Available: