Ayn Rand Challenges Hume’s Guillotine

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This is the cover of Ayn Rand's 'Philosophy: Who Needs It,' which includes Raphael's painting 'The School of Athens.' Image courtesy of 1Veertje.

This is the cover of Ayn Rand’s ‘Philosophy: Who Needs It,’ which includes Raphael’s painting ‘The School of Athens.’ Image courtesy of 1Veertje.

Radical thinker Ayn Rand is an unconventional and controversial philosopher who described her philosophy as “objectivism.”

Ayn Rand (1905-1982) was born in St. Petersburg in Russia, and studied at the University of Petrograd (as St. Petersburg was named then) although later she took on American citizenship. She came to America in 1925, where she first earned her living as a screenwriter, and later as a novelist; integrating radical ideas into her famous novels, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged.

Rand’s philosophy is essentially straightforward.  In Atlas Shrugged, Part I, Chapter VII, Rand has one of her characters say: “Contradictions do not exist. Whenever you think that you are facing a contradiction, check your premises. You will find that one of them is wrong.”

Accused of Making a Virtue out of Selfishness

Critics have accused Rand of making a virtue of selfishness. These are the central tenets of Ayn Rand’s objectivism:

  • Individual happiness is the highest human aspiration.
  • Work and achievement are the highest human goals.
  • Everything should be privately run, although if force is required, governments may intervene.
  • A free-market system is the only moral system.
  • Self-sacrifice is immoral.

Rand says that existence exists, therefore objective reality exists, independent of any perceiver, or the perceiver’s feelings. Reason is the only way to perceive reality.


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Painting of David Hume (1754) Allan Ramsey, Scottish National Portrait Gallery. Author: Guinnog. Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

Here is a painting of David Hume (1754) by Allan Ramsey, courtesy of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. Image by Guinnog.

Hume’s Guillotine: You Cannot Derive “Ought” from “Is”

So – what is Ayn Rand up against in challenging the tricky concept of Hume’s Guillotine?

Hume’s Guillotine is also known as Hume’s Law, or, alternatively, as the “is/ought question;” it appears in The Treatise of Human Nature, Book III.

An “ought” statement is known as a “normative” statement.  However, we cannot use “ought” as the conclusion of reason, says Hume.  

In other words, we cannot derive “ought” from “is” in order to make a moral valuation from a factual statement.  How can we say an argument is valid because things should be different from how they are?

An example of the argument Hume rejects might be as follows:

  • Jenna lies to her mother.
  • Lying to her mother could cause her mother to become upset.
  • Girls should not lie to their mothers.
  • Therefore,  Jenna ought to stop lying to her mother.

So Hume’s Guillotine is a metaphor for the severance of “ought” from “is.”  One cannot logically follow the other.  The fact that something “is” can’t presuppose that something “ought” to be. This is because the “ought” is not derived from the “is” – but from the goal itself, which is, essentially, “the ought.”

Ayn Rand’s Argument Against Hume’s “Atilla-ism”

Morality, for Rand, needs to be shown to operate independently of the human will.  As she makes clear in The Virtue of Selfishness, she hates terms relating morality to irrationality, for example:  subjective choice, emotional commitments, or “whim.” Instead,  she defines morality and ethics as follows:

“What is morality, or ethics?  It is a code of values to guide man’s choices and actions – the choices and actions that determine the purpose and course of his life.  Ethics, as a science, deals with discovering and defining such a code.” 

She disputes Aristotle’s statement that ethics is not an exact science, believing instead, that a proper moral system is capable of being rational.  As for Hume, she describes his scepticism as “Atilla-ism” which, O’Neill claims, is hardly unfair of her since “power is the overall determinant.”

Is Rand unfair in making such a forceful and negative claim against David Hume?

In The Virtue of Selfishness, Rand begins her argument by pointing out: “The concept “value” is not a primary.  It presupposes an answer to the questions “to whom?” or “for what?”  Then, she establishes a link between life as value, by using a character, John Galt, from her novel Atlas Shrugged.  John Galt says that only living entities can have values and that the great fundamental alternatives in the cosmos are existence and non-existence.

In the end, Rand reaches the conclusion that this organism, life itself, is its own standard of value. She claims that it is a phenomenon that is “an end in itself.”  Therefore, the role of value is in preserving life and injecting meaning into it.  We avoid subjectivity because the “choice” is “chosen” correctly.

O’Neill says that Rand then contradicts herself and falls metaphorically under the Guillotine, when she states that what a human is decides what it ought to do.  O’Neill says, “Clearly Rand thinks that Hume denied a connection between fact and systems of morality. The error is not uncommon.”

In essence, David Hume’s argument was not that value and morality cannot be integrated.  His claim was only that a value could not be derived, logically, from a statement of fact. It is purely an argument of reason, not a statement of how we should live.

Iris Murdoch – On the Instinctive Connection of Fact with Value

Hume is actually easy-going about combining fact with value.  As we have seen, through his Guillotine, he is merely objecting to the deriving of values from facts.

Hume is presenting an argument of reason. As Iris Murdoch says in her book Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals, “…he wants no drama made of this since habit and custom and semi-reflective feeling are not only the best but the only available guides to conduct. This, in effect, allows an instinctive, if not intellectual connection of fact with value.”  

The key word here is “instinctive.”

Hume accepts and celebrates our instincts to passion and feeling.

Later, in her Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals, Murdoch says, “…he means that reason is bound, one way or another, whether we like it, or admit it, or not, to be swayed, or coloured, by desires; and moreover this is a good thing…”

Ayn Rand’s Objectivism – What is it Good For?

There are positive outcomes from Rand’s objectivism, since it encourages responsibility and upholds the constitutional protection of human rights in respect of freedom and property.

Objectivism also limits the powers of government, which may be a good thing in certain situations, although maybe not in others.

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