An Imperfect Analogy

I have long been bothered by the following statement by Ayn Rand on how the “trader principle” applies to spiritual issues:

In spiritual issues […] the currency or medium of exchange is different, but the principle is the same. Love, friendship, respect, admiration are the emotional response of one man to the virtue of another, the spiritual payment given in exchange for the personal, selfish pleasure which one man derives from the virtues of another man’s character. (“The Objectivist Ethics” in The Virtue of Selfishness, p. 31.)

But there is one big difference between exchange in the material realm and this “spiritual exchange”. In material exchange, both parties to the exchange are always parting with something. The seller is parting with a good (or service), and the buyer is parting with some money. (In barter, of course, both parties are parting with some good or service, but that does not change the principle.) But this is not true about the spiritual exchange Ayn Rand is writing about here. To love or admire another person, or to show respect for him/her, you do not have to part with anything at all. And so, I find it inexact to call this a payment.

Now, this is hardly some kind of refutation of Objectivism, and I have filed this observation in a folder labeled “nit-picking objections to Objectivism”. And there is another part of this analogy that I find perfectly true:

A trader does not expect to be paid for his defaults, only for his achievements. […] In spiritual issues, a trader is a man who does not seek to be loved for his weaknesses or flaws, only for his virtues, and who does not grant his love to the weaknesses and flaws of others, only to their virtues. (Ibid., p. 31f.)

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There is a similar discussion in Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology:

The simplest example of this process [of teleological measurement] […] may be seen in the realm of material values – in the (implicit) principle that guide a man’s spending of money. On any level of income, a man’s money is a limited quantity; in spending it, he weighs the value of his purchase against the value of every other purchase open to him for the same amount of money, he weighs it against the hierarchy of all his other goals, desires and needs, then makes the purchase or not accordingly.
The same kind of measurement guides man’s actions in the wider realm of moral or spiritual values. […] But the currency or medium of exchange is different. In the spiritual realm, the currency – which exists in limited quantity and must be teleologically measured in the pursuit of any value – is time, i.e., one’s life. (ITOE, p. 33f.)

This makes good sense. The more two friends like one another, the more time they will want to spend together.[1] And the less two persons like one another, the less time they wish to spend together. And if we are talking about romantic love, the persons who love one another like to hold hands, hug and kiss, and will even go to such an extreme as wanting to spend their nights together and sleep in the same bed.[2]

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The reason I came to think of this is that Peter Saint-Andre discusses the ITOE quote in the article I mentioned in an earlier blog post. But in this case, Saint-Andre’s objections make no sense.

To the first part of the quote he objects that prices are a “social phenomenon” and a result of “a myriad interactions among buyers and sellers”. True enough; but how does this contradict Ayn Rand’s statement?

Of course, all economic transactions are “social” in the simple sense that more than one person is involved. But the two or more persons involved are still individuals; and each individual has to make the “teleological measurements” she speaks about. That the interactions are “myriad” does not change this. And I think this is a perfect example of people “talking at cross purposes”.

To the second part of the quote he objects that time is “inherently personal or subjective”. But this is nonsense.

If I think about my own life and observe that it has now lasted for slightly more than 70 years, this is not about how I personally or subjectively experience my life; it states an observable and ascertainable fact. And if I say that Usain Bolt has once traversed the distance of 100 meters at 9.58 seconds, it is not about my (or Bolt’s) subjective experience of the race. Time is eminently and objectively measurable.

Or does he mean that time is “personal or subjective” because it is experienced by a person or subject? But then, this is true of all knowledge. There is always “something known” and “someone who knows it”.[3] This is sometimes taken to imply that all knowledge is subjective merely because it involves a subject. But then one could as well say that all knowledge is objective, merely because it involves an object.

So much then about this.

PS. A thought that struck me after I had written this is that one could combine those two accounts by Ayn Rand in the following manner: The time you spend with your friend, or with your lover/spouse, is time that you could have spent on something else (and probably would have spent, if you had no friend or lover/spouse). And then one could say that you “pay” in the form of time spent. There is the old adage that “time is money”, and that might be applicable here.

[1]) Aristotle makes this point in The Nicomachean Ethics. See my blog post Aristotle on Friendship. Or read Aristotle himself.

[2]) What goes on in bed is beyond the scope of this blog post.

[3]) In Ayn Rand’s words:

Existence exists – and the act of grasping that statement implies two corollary axioms: that something exists which one perceives and that one exists possessing consciousness, consciousness being the faculty of perceiving that which exists. (Galt’s Speech.)


4 Responses to An Imperfect Analogy

  1. Gustav Ros says:


    When I looked up payment in the dictionary it also included the meanings “one’s due” and “something given in return”. Admiration can clearly be given in return for something and would then constitute a payment – in the broad sense of the term. I think your definition of payment which includes parting with something is too narrow. It is true that the parties in an material exchange most of the time parts with something, but not always; the seller of an idea will not part with it (which is the whole rationale behind the utilitarians argument against intellectual property). Or would you exclude buying e-books and the like from material exchange? Anyway, my point was that the essential part of a payment is not one side parting with something, but the other side recieving something.

    • I’ll try to figure out an answer to this tomorrow (or the day after).

    • I think this is a metaphorical use of the term “payment”. There are many metaphorical expressions in the language – like “paying respect to someone, or “paying attention” to a matter. Or expressions like “I don’t buy that argument” or “I’m not sold on this idea”. So I would say Ayn Rand’s reasoning in the passage I quoted is not literal but metaphorical. Maybe this only proves that I am very literal-minded. 😉

    • Also, “to sell an idea” is metaphorical. It means to promote the idea, to get it accepted or at least get people interested in it. It does not mean literally that you expect to get money from it. And as to intellectual property, it is not strictly speaking the idea that you expect to get money from; it is its material shape: a book, a painting, a record or CD, etc.; or, in the case of patents, a prototype. (More on this in Ayn Rand’s essay “Patents and Copyrights” in “Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal”. I have written about this myself some years ago, but it is in Swedish.)

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