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Ayn Rand on Morality and the Misuse of Political Power

Ayn Rand’s perspective on morality and political power was philosopher Aaron Smith’s topic at a symposium on classical Greek and Roman thought.

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“Power & Politics” was the title of a recent online symposium at which I spoke to fans of ancient Greek and Roman thought about Ayn Rand’s perspective on political power.

The two-day event, hosted by Classical Wisdom, featured talks and panels with philosophers, historians, classicists and others — including philosopher Massimo Pigliucci, psychologist Donald Robertson, and classicists Anthony Long, Michael Fontaine and James Romm.

My own talk, “Morality and Political Power,” emphasized the ways in which our culture’s conception of morality, which extols self-sacrifice, leads us to use political power in destructive ways.

Among the topics discussed:

  • How altruism serves to justify the subordination of the individual to the group;
  • Why the trend is toward concentrating more and more power in government’s hands at the expense of the individual; and
  • Why it’s valuable to look back to ancient Greek conceptions of ethics, such as Aristotle’s, that do not valorize sacrifice or service to others.

In the Q&A following my half-hour talk, I answered questions on:

  • Whether moral individualism requires us to abandon the ties that bind us;
  • Whether sacrifice can be in one’s own rational self-interest;
  • What Rand thought of Stoicism; and
  • Whether it was self-sacrificial for Socrates to allow himself to be put to death by the Athenian state.

If you’re interested in Rand or classical thought, or both, you can read or listen to my article “The False Promise of Stoicism” or listen to a podcast about Aristotle and Ayn Rand that I recorded with Classical Wisdom’s cofounder, Anya Leonard. For a conversation I had with my colleague and fellow philosopher Onkar Ghate about the classics and “cancel culture,” try our podcast “Why We Shouldn’t ‘Cancel’ Aristotle.”

Here’s the symposium talk, recorded on October 25, 2020:

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Aaron Smith

Aaron Smith, Ph.D. in philosophy, is a fellow at the Ayn Rand Institute where he lectures and develops educational content for the Institute’s intellectual training and outreach programs.

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