Objectivism and Thomas Jefferson
Seven Essays on the Philosophy of Ayn Rand


1. Reason as Absolute

In providing a summary of her own philosophy, Ayn Rand stated:

The first three tenets and their relativistic terms--"heroic," "happiness," and "productive"-- are necessarily arbitrary, subjective evaluations, and cannot describe a standard founded in objective reality. Nothing can be defined using those terms, save in its comparative relationship to some other subjectively evaluated condition. Without addressing those three, we will here consider the last, since it relates to an essential first step towards any philosophy, political or otherwise, created by human intellect, i.e., an understanding of the role of the intellect itself.

In declaring reason as man's only absolute, Rand was making the point that it is through reason that man makes progress in knowledge and understanding, not through feelings or the authority of religious revelation or the pronouncements of any other kind of authority. Reason is the only means by which man can rightly govern his life and make the choices necessary for his optimum existence. It is the only means by which he can properly deal with reality, which she viewed as "objective," as opposed to the subjectivity of feelings and imagined states of mind in which reality is sometimes said to be a creation of our consciousness. Hence, she called her philosophy "Objectivism."

Unfortunately, in her eagerness to stamp out all subjectivity, she erred in the other direction, and in declaring reason an absolute, in fact raised it to a level of trustworthiness that cannot be sustained. Reason became to her an absolute because it is the only valid means of comprehending reality. But reason itself is highly unreliable and can only be viewed as an absolute through an abstract process which is as separate from reality as any subjective concept. What Rand apparently failed to include as a part of her philosophy is the fact that reason, however indispensable, is itself flawed in its real-world uses. It can be as wily and slippery as an eel, and will only become a path to self-deception if thought of in any way as an absolute.

Jefferson was certainly an advocate of reason and its employment in the government of human affairs. The whole idea of democratic self-government was that it was based on reason in its operation, not on force, and without reason, self-government could not exist.

It is this reliance on reason that made republican government superior to all others.

But for Jefferson, there was nothing absolute about reason; reason is a tool for testing what is natural and true.

And it is truth that is the primary aim. Reason is merely a means for getting there, a way of discovering and refining truth.

Rightful government would result from a face-off with any difficulty if its course is determined by the investigations of reason.

Reason is the tool to be used in guiding the course of government by its legislative councils. The true worth of reason is made manifest in collective activities, i.e., when the reason of one person is tested against the reason of another.

The conclusions of reason are not justified by conformance to some absolute standard, some abstract, final determinator of right and wrong, but by the process of reason itself.

To all this, the Objectivist would likely respond that he is in total agreement. But the disagreement comes in practice and in the idea that reason can produce an absolute result.


Eyler Coates

Objectivists will often cite Jefferson's statements in support of reason, but then omit his many cautions on its limitations, as when he wrote:

Indeed, there is nothing absolute in the individual's conclusions drawn from the use of reason. The conclusions of reason are at best tentative because reason is always subject to misapplication and error.



Eyler Coates

As Jefferson wrote regarding reason and its lack of absoluteness in any practical sense:

And that error can only be sifted out when reason is tested, not against itself, but against the reason of others in the unrestrained free market-place of ideas.

Reason is not absolute, but is a progressive development in every human consciousness and in society itself. Indeed, rather than being an absolute, reason leads to deeper and better insights as reason is tested against reason.

Certainly, in an individual's private life, he is and must be led by his own reason. This lays the foundation for personal responsibility.

Thus, everything should come before the bar of reason.

But while an individual must be led by his own reason, he cannot assume that his reason is absolute in any social situation. He must acquiesce in society when overruled by the reason of everyone else, even if he cannot agree with everyone else.



Eyler Coates

The individual makes a grave error if he assumes that reason is absolute and can lead to absolute conclusions; he thereby forms an intolerance that makes association difficult, if not impossible. This assumption that reason itself can somehow transcend the human frailty of the reasoner makes no allowance for other people with equal rights reaching different conclusions.

Reasoning is not just an individual, but a group effort when employed in politics, and it frequently requires some individuals to compromise on the conclusions reached by their own reason.

Indeed, reason in and of itself is always suspect, because reason, far from being absolute, is easily subjected to distortion by self-interest.

And because reason is such a wily attribute, Jefferson valued integrity above the reputed soundness of reason.

Integrity of view, i.e., internal consistency, more than soundness, i.e., apparent rightness (almost always an intuitive and prejudiced judgment), is the basis of esteem, i.e., worthy of respect. Because of the easy fallibility of reasoning, Jefferson had little difficulty putting his own conclusions aside when confronted by the reasoning of others, knowing that his own reason was not an entirely reliable resource, and that no intelligent person should rely upon it absolutely.

Morality itself is not dependent on reason alone or even chiefly.

If we say that reason is absolute and that he who reaches erroneous conclusions is not using reason, then we have redefined reason in terms of its results instead of as a process of mind. But such remedies are only a way of establishing bias, because there is no criteria of reason outside of the human mind, and when it decides that it is in possession of "true reason," who is there that can overturn such a judgment?

Reason, therefore, is hardly an absolute save in an abstract, idealized sense. In real terms, confidence in reason easily becomes the path to self-deception, especially when it is viewed as an absolute. Every bigot is absolutely convinced of the rightness of his positions, and looks upon those who differ from him as mentally defective. But reality and truth are the only true absolutes, and reason that is not in service to truth becomes mere rationalization, sophistry, self-justification, and self-deception.



Eyler Coates
Eyler Coates
Jock Doubleday
Eyler Coates
Jock Doubleday
Eyler Coates

NEXT PAGE The Delusion of Certainty


Go to the Essays

Front Page | 1. Reason as Absolute
2. Safety in Error | 3. Happiness as Moral Purpose
4. Selfishness as Virtue | 5. Capitalism Over Self-Government
6. Non-Initiation of Force | 7. Adversaries of Democracy


© 1997 by Eyler Robert Coates, Sr.

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