Ayn Rand, Academic Freedom, and Gifts from the Marketplace

        In ancient Athens, the agora, the marketplace, was the center of civic life.  There, wares were sold, public policies were debated, and Socrates labored to persuade fellow citizens to care more for moral excellence than material goods.  Today, many dominating the agora both envy the academic freedom that Socrates’ heirs exemplify and hope to dictate to the Academy what should be taught. 

        A good recent example of the agoraists’ aspirations was in the required reading of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged as part of a BB&T gift to UNC-C.  Even more recently, our Chancellor and Provost struggled to provide justification for Western accepting a similar gift by BB&T’s dropping the required reading stipulation.  Perhaps this will make a difference.  Still, the description of the Distinguished Professorship in Capitalism must ‘work closely with the Ayn Rand Institute, have a “reasonable understanding and positive understanding toward Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism”.  Since all of these proposals make grandiose claims about the philosophical foundations of American business, ethical implications about market (and non-market) systems, accountability and integrity in the business profession, it seems incumbent on a philosopher in the Socratic tradition to make some sort of considered response.

1.     Since the distinguished professorship is required to have a ‘reasonable understanding of and positive attitude toward’ Rand’s Objectivism, it is clear that s/he will have little academic freedom to analyze critically Rand.  Despite the change from a de jure requirement of proselytizing for Rand, this person will have a de facto expectation to advocate on her behalf.  Otherwise, there would be no stipulation for a screening by the Rand Institute.  Do we really expect such blatant advocacy to encourage genuine academic freedom of inquiry (‘free from internal and external restraints that would unreasonably restrict their academic endeavors’, as the Faculty Handbook states)?

2.     The program is entitled ‘The BB&T Moral Foundations of Capitalism’.  As the Chancellor and Provost noted, the stress here is on the academic sense of morality.  Of course, there is no mention of the fact that universities already have a profession that teaches moral theory and applied ethics – philosophers.  However, the way that philosophers approach the study of ethics is to give the best presentation of diverse, even conflicting, moral perspectives and then raise objective criticisms of those theories, allowing students, as mature, self-reflective reasoners, to decide for themselves which theory seems most compelling, in light of the considered critiques.  This typical philosophical way of presenting the academic study of morality, though, seems very contrary to the BB&T donor’s intention, since the condition of being screened by the Rand Institute precludes such objectivity.  So, will a philosopher be hired to teach business Ethics?

3.     Ayn Rand does not carry very much clout among philosophers.  The reason she has been ignored academically is that she is regarded as an intellectual lightweight.  In fact, almost every introductory Ethics text has 2 main areas of student predisposition that philosophers agree need critical challenge – moral relativism and ethical egoism.  Rand is most well known to philosophers due to her ethical egoist position presented in The Virtue of Selfishness.  Many have argued that if Rand’s ethical egoism is true (each individual ought to seek his own self-interest exclusively, and thus attain his own happiness), then one cannot have true friendship, since the latter requires (sometimes, at least) one to be altruistic.  Rand’s own writings are filled with tirades against altruism, especially to distant global strangers; and philosophically, that is quite opposite to the moral concern for the stranger or the ‘other’ person, that is stressed in most moral and religious ideals.  In most ethics courses, philosophers see it as one of their first goals to awaken students from their native but uncritical acceptance of ethical egoism.  So the claim that capitalism, with its stress on unrestricted self-interest, will be studied from a moral perspective has a hollow ring to it, unless critical analysis is promoted.

4.     Rand stresses limited government, a position in political philosophy known as ‘libertarianism’ that has drawn many followers in America.  However, once again, her version of it, as presented in The Fountainhead, is more for uncensored individualism, more of the ‘rage against the machine’ of modern impersonal bureaucracy.  Most of us who have done the yeoman’s work of department head can appreciate the sentiments of such adolescent rage.  But Rand’s view is again superficial.  A better philosophical presentation of libertarianism, with its actual implications for public policy, can be found in Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia.  In fact, in my upper-level Ethics course (Morality, Conflict, and Community) this semester, we studied both Nozick’s libertarianism and John Rawls’ egalitarian liberalism (Justice as Fairness).  If BB&T really wants academic recognition of this position, why don’t they advocate for both Rand’s libertarianism and Rawls’ liberalism to be taught?  Many have argued that Rawls’ view presents a better ideal for a truly democratic, egalitarian society.  Others argue that a third alternative, perhaps democratic socialism, as practiced in Britain and Sweden, would offer yet another option for those disenfranchised in property-holding capitalist systems.  Would not the search for truth, a primary mission of the Academy, be best served by the scholarly advocacy and critique of both or perhaps all three of these opposing positions?

5.     Finally, we should worry a bit, morally speaking, about what policies the Rand Institute would advocate.  On their website, the lead article (by the co-chair of the board of directors) is entitled “The Danger of Environmentalism.”  In it, the author argues that the basic goal of environmentalism is the ‘demolition of technological/industrial civilization’ and the creation of a ‘subhuman world’ wherein “nature” is worshipped totemistically.  Bill McKibben’s The End of Nature is regarded as “malevolent, man-hating philosophy.” Obviously, this shallow analysis of environmentalism lacks any substantive philosophical points, but this is what we can expect from such sources that are out of step with issues in environmental ethics.  Even more worrisome from the synoptic, synthetic perspective of the university’s vision, the Rand Institute’s positions are completely opposite to our aspirations to foster student ‘service to others and commitment to stewardship of the natural and cultural environment.’  Even further, how can this position be consistent with what my colleagues teach in the natural sciences, and with the positions advocated by virtually all environmental ethicists (stewardship, ecosystemic thinking)?

        In conclusion, gifts from the marketplace should be welcomed when they are in line with the aspirations of the Academy.  However, when they have strings attached that imply we give up our own gifts of critical analysis and moral reflection, we should approach them cautiously.  If Socrates was right, we should consider the Academy as an intellectual agora, the marketplace of ideas, but we should be skeptical about demands from the agoraists that the Academy be nothing but the ideas of the marketplace.


Daryl L. Hale, Acting Department Head

Dept. of Philosophy and Religion