Question: According to Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism, the universe is benevolent and the good ultimately wins. Neither point seems to be clear or obvious in the absence of a benevolent God. What am I missing?
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Answer: Objectivism is an atheistic philosophy, but it nevertheless does maintain that, in a specialized sense, the universe is benevolent. It doesn’t say, however, that the good always wins, even if we add the qualifier “ultimately.” Instead, it says that the good is potent and evil impotent, which has important implications for whether the good will be victorious. Let’s take each point in turn.
A Benevolent Universe
Objectivism rejects every version of the supernatural. It also doesn’t anthropomorphize nature. When it says that the universe is benevolent, therefore, it doesn’t mean that there is some supernatural agent or power which looks out for you and me in particular or for mankind in general, or that “mother nature” does so. The universe has no interests, plans, wishes, or cares. It just is. And it doesn’t accommodate itself to our desires, fears, or beliefs. It doesn’t adapt to us; we have to adapt to it.
But the universe is lawful and intelligible. Whatever exists is subject to the laws of identity and causality. Whatever is, is what it is and therefore acts as it acts. If, for example, you drop an egg, a wine glass, and a tennis ball from a roof to the pavement below, the first cracks and splatters, the second shatters, and the third bounces. Each thing is something specific (the law of identity) and acts accordingly (the law of causality).
The world of nature is of course wonderfully varied and complex. But if the human mind proceeds logically, rationally, scientifically, it can slowly unlock nature’s secrets. “Thinking,” Rand writes, “is the process of defining identity and discovering causal connections.”1 The result is that the human mind can understand the nature of nature and learn to reshape the world to serve human purposes.
And from our vantage point today, think of the scale on which this happens. Mankind has risen from the cave to the hut to the skyscraper to the moon. We’ve built knowledge upon knowledge in physics, philosophy, biology, psychology, engineering, economics, medicine and so much more. And we’ve used this knowledge to build life-serving tools and products, from ocean-sailing ships and electrical power plants to trigonometry and calculus to symphonies and movies to antibiotics and anesthetics to computers and fingerprint scanners to self-driving cars and artificial intelligence.
When Objectivism says the universe is benevolent, it means that nature is a place in which mankind can thrive. It means, as Leonard Peikoff puts it, that the universe is “‘auspicious to human life.’”2
The Benevolent Universe Premise
The fact that the universe is auspicious to human life, Objectivism holds, should be a truth that shapes your soul.
The proper attitude toward life is a commitment to put in the thought and effort required, and then to expect success. Dedicate yourself to expanding your knowledge and to creating truly human values on whatever scale is open to you, and you will be able to live and thrive. Joy and personal happiness, though demanding, are possible and should be strived for—and then expected, because they express man’s actual, metaphysical relationship to reality.
You will confront many challenges and hardships in life, but no metaphysical impediments, no gods or fates or other unintelligible forces are lurking in the shadows, conspiring against you. On the contrary, and to put the point metaphorically, the universe is inviting you in—if you’re ready to pay the price of admission.
To face life with the conviction that if rational values are pursued properly, they can and normally will be achieved, Rand calls being on the benevolent universe premise. To acquire and then sustain through life this conviction is not easy, but it is vitally important. Embedded in your soul, the premise orients you to eagerly confront the challenges of life, firm in the knowledge that the human mind and human action are efficacious. Failure, suffering and tragedy, though real and part of human life, don’t reveal the nature of the universe or mankind’s place in it. They just indicate that there is more still to learn and to master.
This is how one of Rand’s characters in Atlas Shrugged expresses this basic orientation:
We do not think that tragedy is our natural fate and we do not live in chronic dread of disaster. We do not expect disaster until we have specific reason to expect it—and when we encounter it, we are free to fight it. It is not happiness, but suffering that we consider unnatural. It is not success, but calamity that we regard as the abnormal exception in human life.3
One aspect of the timeless appeal of all of Rand’s novels—We the Living, Anthem, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged—is that each story contains characters who work to build and then retain the benevolent universe premise within their own souls, in a culture that is indifferent, hostile or even totalitarian in its opposition to human achievement and happiness. (I’ll return to this point at the end.) The novels are not journalistic accounts of daily life but metaphysical statements about the basic nature of human experience, and therefore ageless.
Impact on a Culture
To see the importance of the benevolent universe premise outside of Rand’s fiction but still on a grand scale, consider the fact that just as the premise can be embedded in an individual’s soul, so it can permeate an entire culture, shaping its dominant figures, ideas, institutions, activities and atmosphere.
There have been, Rand thinks, two such eras in the Western world. The first was at the peak of ancient Greece’s flowering, which produced astonishing intellectual and artistic advancements. It was during this era that its leading figures taught mankind fully how to think—to think rationally, logically, objectively, scientifically—and the results were an eager curiosity and profound self-confidence.
A culture’s most prominent artists both reflect and shape its outlook on life. Rand wrote of the surviving architecture and sculpture of ancient Greece that they project the metaphysical attitude “that disasters are transient, that grandeur, beauty, strength, self-confidence are [man’s] proper, natural state.”4
The other broad era in which the benevolent universe premise became a cultural cornerstone, albeit more inconsistently and more haltingly at the start, was from the Renaissance through to the nineteenth century. This was the period in which intellectual geniuses developed mathematical science and won for mankind a previously unimaginable understanding of causal connections. And it was the period in which productive geniuses created the Industrial Revolution and capitalism, and won for mankind a previously undreamed of standard of living.
The cultural culmination was the nineteenth century, which witnessed in the freer countries an explosion in the quantity and quality of life—populations grew, life expectancies increased, and new inventions and products abounded, from train travel to telegraphs to electricity to the telephone to Romantic, individual-glorifying art. The new watchword, for the first time in history and whose significance cannot be overstated, was: Progress. Mankind is not confined to the life of other animals, a savage competition and struggle of endlessly repeated cycles. Mankind can think, learn, grow, and endlessly build achievement upon achievement.
The cultural atmosphere, as many have remarked, including Rand, was unique, an atmosphere of good will, well-wishing and benevolence. Primarily it was an individual’s good will directed at himself: as an individual I can and should aspire to the good in life, to the pursuit of happiness, and with a dedication to learning and to productive work, I can reach it. The corollary was a profound benevolence toward all fellow travelers on this same journey. Together—through knowledge, voluntary trade, specialization, business, literature and the arts—we could each grow as individuals. The art of the nineteenth century captured this atmosphere. It “projected,” Rand writes, “an overwhelming sense of intellectual freedom, of depth, i.e., concern with fundamental problems, of demanding standards, of inexhaustible originality, of unlimited possibilities and, above all, of profound respect for man.”5
This cultural atmosphere came to an end with the carnage of World War I and the rise of the mind- and life-negating ideologies of fascism, socialism and communism. In philosophy, in political science, in history, in literature, in painting, gone was the idea that mankind is on a road of limitless advancement. Only two significant areas of the culture retained the conviction that progress is to be fought for and then expected: the world of science and technology, and the world of business. All the incredible wealth we produce and enjoy today, from smartphones to CT scans to foods from around the world available inexpensively at the neighborhood grocery store, comes from this fact. It comes from the individuals who did not resign themselves to the notion that pain and suffering are the insignia of human life, but who worked to expand our scientific knowledge and productive abilities, on the premise that at least in these areas of life, success is possible and the to-be-expected.
The result, as Rand often remarked, is that we live in a schizophrenic culture. In the realms of science, technology and business, reason and objectivity are still the dominant forces and progress is expected (and taken for granted). In the humanities and the arts, including politics and morality, reason and objectivity have been marginalized and even abandoned, and the atmosphere within these fields is markedly different from that of the nineteenth century.
Good and Evil
Thus the idea that the universe is benevolent has a special meaning and a crucial importance in the Objectivist philosophy. But it must not be confused with the idea that the good always wins, even if qualified by “ultimately.”
Religions usually run these two ideas together. One reason people pretend to themselves that another, supernatural, realm exists, despite the absence of evidence and the actual contradictions the notion of the supernatural involves, is for the solace it promises. This world (they correctly observe) is rife with injustice. But there exists a higher, final court of appeal. In that “higher” realm, the suffering of the innocent will be rectified and the wicked will be met with appropriate punishments, often described in religious texts with gory and gleeful detail. Come Judgment Day, the good will ascend to the glories of heaven and the evil will descend into the fires of hell, for eternity. The idea of a cosmic comeuppance is deeply satisfying.
But Objectivism rejects all such appeals to the supernatural for comfort and salvation as mistaken and self-destructive. Although a good person, someone who truly strives to lead a rational and productive life, should normally expect existential success and personal happiness, he knows there is no supernatural enforcer guaranteeing these results or even tilting the scales in his favor. Accidents, errors, illnesses and natural disasters are part of reality and human life.
A person, for example, can lose control of his car and crash into you, confining you to a wheelchair for life. You can take a wrong turn mountain hiking and become desperately lost. Cancer can strike you down in the prime of your life. An earthquake can transform your home into rubble, killing you and your family in the process. “No philosophy,” writes Leonard Peikoff, “can alter the metaphysically given fact that man is not omniscient or omnipotent.”6
But what a proper philosophy does is give us the correct orientation: that the only way to combat the power of accident, error, illness and natural disaster in human life is through the relentless commitment to expand our knowledge and productive abilities. We can learn to create self-braking cars, maps and compasses, cancer-fighting drugs and earthquake-resistant homes.
One man-made factor, however, warrants special consideration: the fact that human evil exists. Individual human beings possess free will. They can and sometimes do choose to manipulate, deceive, rob, torture and murder other innocent individuals. No pining for cosmic justice can erase or address this fact.
The Crucial Importance of Justice
This is why Objectivism takes the virtue of justice so seriously, a virtue to be practiced consistently, unfailingly, mercilessly, in this world, i.e., in the here and now.
No supernatural dimension exists, in which every wrong will be righted. A victim of injustice can in fact never be rendered fully whole. Life is measured in time: there is no way to go back in time and remove the pain and suffering the victim has experienced. Perpetrators of injustice can (and should) seek to make amends and compensate their victims, but the perpetrators can never put their victims back to where they were prior to the injustice. Whether it’s someone who falsely accused a co-worker, who cheated on a spouse or who defrauded a customer, the fact is that this is a portion of the victims’ lives that they will never get back.
As one of the main characters in Atlas Shrugged comes to realize, in an important formulation: “There is no escape from justice, nothing can be unearned and unpaid for in the universe, neither in matter nor in spirit—and if the guilty do not pay, then the innocent have to pay it.”7
If you want the good to triumph, therefore, you can’t leave it to the gods or to karma. It’s your responsibility. You must explicitly champion and fight for that which you regard as good. Justice, properly understood, is a demanding virtue. We live in a non-judgmental age, which often derides the act and even the very idea of morally judging another person. Objectivism’s advice is radically different: “One must never fail to pronounce moral judgment.”8 In all human endeavors, each one of us should work carefully and conscientiously to separate the good from the evil, and then actively support the good and actively expose, punish and shun the evil. The forms this takes in life are many and varied. But the principle remains the same. Anything less than this will undermine the good and prop up evil.
Thus when Objectivism maintains that the universe is benevolent, it is not trying to erase or minimize the existence of human evil. Recorded history is rife with evil and injustice. “Man,” Rand writes, “is the only living species that has the power to act as his own destroyer—and that is the way he has acted through most of his history.”9
But Objectivism ascribes no metaphysical significance to this fact. Good, not evil, is efficacious. Objectivism’s moral exemplars—not necessarily in the entirety of their convictions or lives, but in their capacity as rational thinkers and producers—are individuals like Socrates, Aristotle, Archimedes, Galileo, Michelangelo, Newton, Locke, Vermeer, Jefferson, Madison, Pasteur, Darwin, Tchaikovsky, Edison, Vanderbilt, Rockefeller, Einstein, Gates and Jobs. These are the individuals who most advance their own knowledge and productive ability, and who consequently move the world forward.
Evil, by contrast, is the irrational, the attempt to exist without the need of acquiring knowledge or producing values. The root of evil, Objectivism maintains, is “the refusal to think—not blindness, but the refusal to see; not ignorance, but the refusal to know. It is the act of unfocusing your mind . . . on the unstated premise that a thing will not exist if only you refuse to identify it, that A will not be A so long as you do not pronounce the verdict ‘It is.’”10 Metaphysically, the attempt must fail: no one can circumvent the nature or demands of reality. Reality, Rand observes, “is not to be wiped out, it will merely wipe out the wiper.”11
Left to its own devices, therefore, evil is impotent and will collapse in on itself; it is self-defeating. Its pervasiveness is due not to any inherent power on its part, but to the default of the good—to the failure, intentional or otherwise, to practice the virtue of justice. The continuing power of evil comes from the good’s willingness to tolerate, appease or whitewash it. “In any compromise between good and evil,” Rand argues, “it is only evil that can profit. In that transfusion of blood which drains the good to feed the evil, the compromiser is the transmitting rubber tube.”12
In other words, whether through ignorance, error or evasion, whenever we treat evil as though it were good, or simply as less evil than it in fact is, we help to prop it up. Whether we ignorantly proclaim that “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need” is a moral principle instead of a manifestation of hatred for every individual of ability—or we erroneously conclude that Immanuel Kant is a great philosopher and a defender of reason and science instead of the rescuer of mysticism—or we evasively declare that Soviet Russia is a noble experiment and Mao a misguided agrarian reformer, and that, after all, you have to break a few eggs to make an omelet—the results are the same. We drain the good to feed evil.
Evil endures, Objectivism argues, through the acquiescence, the sanction, of the good. Thus a crucial moral principle in Objectivism is to refuse ever to sanction evil; this is a vital aspect of the virtue of justice. Far from denying the reality or extent of human evil in the world, Objectivism asks us to take it seriously: to properly identify it, to understand it, and to oppose it. If we do this consistently, we will witness the metaphysical impotence of evil.
But until that time, until mankind learns the correct philosophical conception of good and evil, and until good people decide to fully practice it, evil will endure. And each one of us has his own life to lead, now, so as individuals we must learn to navigate widespread evils, for which the principle of justice is one indispensable aid. But exploring the full contours and depth of this issue was a major concern of Rand’s throughout her life, which I noted in an article a few years back.13
From her first novel We the Living and onward, however, Rand’s basic viewpoint is clear. She maintained that although often enormously challenging, it is possible to remain psychologically and morally intact, loyal to the end to reality and human life, even in the grip of immense evil. One of Rand’s most haunting articles (and a personal favorite of mine) is her penetrating account of the souls of a few such lonely, real-life individuals, caught in the Soviet nightmare but able to maintain their allegiance to the truth and their ambition for a proper, human form of existence, cornerstones of the benevolent universe premise.14
Rand’s fictional portrait of this same phenomenon is her 1936 novel We the Living, set in Soviet Russia. It’s a commonplace to say that there are no atheists in foxholes. Objectivism’s perspective is the opposite: to endure spiritually intact in man-made hells, you must neither surrender to supernatural illusions nor give up. You must instead have a clear and sacred devotion to your own mind and life and to the inexorable requirements of reality. Through one of her most compelling characters, the heroine Kira Argounova, Rand depicts the nature of this metaphysical conviction. And in an ending of astonishing beauty and power, the story shows what it looks like to remain untouched, to the end, by the evil of one’s surroundings.
As paradoxical as it may seem, then, if you want to understand what Rand means by the benevolent universe premise and its importance in life, read We the Living—a novel about the evil of collectivist dictatorship—and reflect on its ending.
In sum, there is no guarantee that the good will win, even if we add “ultimately.” Today, for instance, there are enormous forces for good in the world—think, say, of Silicon Valley and the staggering worldwide trade that is globalization—but there are also enormous evils, including the resurgence of various forms of collectivism, such as socialism, religious fundamentalism and nationalism. The outcome is not preordained.
But what the metaphysical facts of reality do guarantee is that only the good can truly live, and that it is within the good’s power to triumph. Triumph, however, requires a full philosophical grasp of the nature of good and evil (which Rand’s later novels go on to explore in more depth) and its consistent expression in action: a profound loyalty to the good and a refusal in any way to sanction evil.
- Ayn Rand, “This Is John Galt Speaking,” in For the New Intellectual (New York: Signet, 1964 Centennial edition).
- Leonard Peikoff, Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand (New York: Dutton, 1991), 342. The whole of chapter 9 is relevant, especially pp. 326–33 and 342–43.
- Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged (New York: Plume, 1999), pt. 3, ch. 2.
- Ayn Rand, “The Psycho-Epistemology of Art,” The Romantic Manifesto (New York: Signet, 1971 Centennial edition). In contrast, she wrote that the art of the Middle Ages projects “that happiness is transient and evil, that [man] is a distorted, impotent, miserable little sinner, pursued by leering gargoyles, crawling in terror on the brink of an eternal hell.”
- Rand, “Introduction,” The Romantic Manifesto. See here too for Rand’s remarks about nineteenth-century culture more broadly.
- Peikoff, Objectivism, ch. 9.
- Rand, Atlas Shrugged, pt. 2, ch. 6.
- Ayn Rand, “How Does One Lead a Rational Life in an Irrational Society?,” The Virtue of Selfishness (New York: Signet, 1964 Centennial edition).
- Rand, “The Objectivist Ethics,” The Virtue of Selfishness.
- Rand, “This Is John Galt Speaking.”
- Rand, “This Is John Galt Speaking.”
- Rand, “This Is John Galt Speaking.”
- Onkar Ghate, “The Basic Motivation of the Creators and the Masses in The Fountainhead,” Essays on Ayn Rand’s “The Fountainhead,” ed. Robert Mayhew (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2007).
- Ayn Rand, “The Inexplicable Personal Alchemy,” Return of the Primitive (New York: Meridian, 1999).