Tuesday, 26 March 2013

John Locke vs. Ayn Rand on IP and more!

imageGuest post by patent attorney Dale Halling. Feedback is welcomed.

imageThis paper is exploratory not definitive. Comments and input is greatly appreciated. My interest in the comparison between Rand and Locke started when I wrote my book The Decline and Fall of the American Entrepreneur, spurred on by reading the excellent book The Power and the Glory: The Key Ideas and Crusading Lives of Eight Debaters of Reason vs. Faith, by Burgess Laughlin.

In my opinion, John Locke is often misrepresented by both his supporters and his detractors. (I freely admit I have neither the time or energy to review Locke’s original writings in depth at this time, so your input here is appreciated.)

Charles Murray suggests Ayn Rand’s ideas are just a rehash of Locke, Nietzsche, and Adam Smith.[1] I reject this out of hand. Nietzsche’s uberman certainly influenced Rand’s [early] fictional characters, but while she maintained her respect for Nietzsche's concept of the noble soul (“the noble soul has reverence for itself”) as her philosophical ideas matured she completely rejected Nietzsche’s explicit philosophy. Adam Smith’s book Theory of Moral Sentiments, written before his Wealth of Nations, is not at all consistent with Rand’s ideas, and the two books do not even appear entirely consistent with each other. As a result, it is hard to pin down Smith on his ethics and epistemology.

imageThe differences between Rand and Locke are more subtle.  My book mainly discusses patent law in terms of Natural Law or Locke, because that is the historical basis for the founding of the US and US patent law. Readers of my blog State of Innovation may wonder what this has to do with patent law. My answer is everything, since this is about the fundamental basis of property rights.

In my opinion, all philosophers fall either into the camp of Aristotle or of Plato.

Metaphysics is the base of all philosophy. The starting point.  It is the study of existence as such, and where we see the philosophical differences between the two plainly. Like Rand, Aristotle argues we can trust our senses, that there is only one existence, and the existents within it have identity—or in other words, as Rand stated it, A is A.  Plato’s metaphysics on the other hand says there is more than one plane of existence (with this one being less real), that our senses cannot be trusted to understand what we see, and in fact that we can never have any real understanding of “the real world.”

In the realm of metaphysics, Rand and Locke are both Aristotelian.

Some people may object that Locke advocated there was a deity. Locke did appear to make somewhat contradictory statements on God and faith, but he was writing at a time in which you could have your head cut off for being on the wrong side of a religious debate. Locke appeared to be a Deist (a Deist believes in god or a deity that created the laws of the Universe and has no effect thereafter):

His philosophy on human progress proposed the following:
a) human beings can progress by acquiring knowledge,
b) reason and action are subject to natural law, and
c) the mind (as consciousness) is subject to scientific inquiry (Smith, 1997).

Epistemology is the study of knowledge—the branch of philosophy examining how (or if) we can know anything.  John Locke’s epistemology was one of Reason. Reason is the means of integrating and conceptualizing perceptions by means of logic. It is distinguished from “rationalism” which begins with “revealed truths” and then applies a logical system derived from these ungrounded starting points. This is itself usually distinguished from “empiricism,” which holds that man’s only source of knowledge is his senses without any recourse at all to conceptual thinking. (The logical positivists did us all one favour at least in showing that all logical systems are based either on an observation, or on an assumption—such as Euclidean geometry’s idea that a straight line goes on forever and two parallel lines never intersect.)

Some people argue that Locke was an empiricist.[3] Locke was attempting to use the techniques of science to analyse ethics and political philosophy. (Note that he also defined the metaphysics and epistemology used by science.) People who argue that Locke was an empiricist usually argue that modern science is based on empiricism. Based on the definition given above, this is incorrect. Science builds on observation, but it is highly conceptual and many discoveries in modern physics are derived from following the logical consequences of theory. For instance, the Higgs Boson particle was first predicted by following the mathematics of field theory, and may now (eight decades later) have been verified by experiment. Based on the definition given above, Locke was not an empiricist either. He is widely quoted as having said “logic was the anatomy of thought,” which would be highly inconsistent with empiricism.

Ayn Rand’s epistemology was also one of Reason. One difference between Rand and Locke can be seen in Rand’s refutation of philosopher Immanuel Kant’s attempts to limit reason, and to argue that emotion is a valid path to knowledge. Locke came before Kant however, and therefore could hardly have commented on Kant and the philosophy he unleashed on the world.

Rand spends a lot of time explaining how concepts are formed and how they relate to the real world, or to specific instances. An example is reproduced below:

The same principle directs the process of forming concepts of entities—for instance, the concept “table.” The child’s mind isolates two or more tables from other objects, by focusing on their distinctive characteristic: their shape. He observes that their shapes vary, but have one characteristic in common: a flat, level surface and support(s). He forms the concept “table” by retaining that characteristic and omitting all particular measurements, not only the measurements of the shape, but of all the other characteristics of tables (many of which he is not aware of at the time).[4]

It is my understanding that Rand is explaining in modern language the concepts of Aristotle, or refining them. This seems basically consistent with John Locke’s epistemology.

This is where we see the major differences between Rand and Locke. In my brief survey of Locke’s ethics, I found two competing concepts for Locke. One is his ideas about Natural Rights, and the other is a hedonistic perspective on ethics. Locke’s hedonistic perspective on ethics is in conflict with Rand’s concept of “rational selfishness,” and I would suggest in conflict with Natural Rights.

imageLocke’s hedonistic ethical views start with the idea that people naturally want to maximize their pleasure and minimize their pain. Locke’s Natural Rights starts with the idea that moral laws are divine, but he does state these divine laws are discoverable by reason. This second part makes it consistent with his deist metaphysics. He does not seem to reconcile these two competing ethical systems.[5] I will focus on Locke’s Natural Rights ethics.

Locke’s formulation of Natural Rights starts with his concept of man’s rights in a state of nature.[6] In a state of nature a man owns himself. Since he owns himself he has a right to defend himself. Man also has a right to those things he creates, which is where the right to property comes from. From these concepts the moral repugnancy of slavery follows as well as most of traditional criminal law, contracts, and property law. Locke does not explicitly state that man is an end in himself like Rand, however ownership in one’s self certainly implies this. To the extent we focus on Locke’s Natural Rights, Rand and Locke are not in conflict and I would suggest Rand’s ideas are a refinement and provide a deeper insight. Like Relativity and Quantum Mechanics expand our knowledge over Newtonian physics, but are not in conflict with it.[7]

Ayn Rand’s ethics starts with idea that human life has value and ethics is the actions necessary to allow man to live. By “live” she does not mean mere existence, but thriving. Everything else she derives from an evolutionary point of view.[8] In Galt’s speech she states,

There is only one fundamental alternative in the universe: existence or nonexistence—and it pertains to a single class of entities: to living organisms. The existence of inanimate matter is unconditional, the existence of life is not: it depends on a specific course of action. . . . It is only the concept of ‘Life’ that makes the concept of ‘Value’ possible. It is only to a living entity that things can be good or evil.

From this evolutionary individualistic basis (“There is no such thing as a collective brain. There is no such thing as a collective thought … or a collective stomach”) she focuses on man and his unique tool of survival, which is his mind.

In order to sustain its life, every living species has to follow a certain course of action required by its nature. The action required to sustain human life is primarily intellectual: everything man needs has to be discovered by his mind and produced by his effort. Production is the application of reason to the problem of survival.[9] (Emphasis added)

It is reason that requires an ethics of individuality, where each person’s life has value separate from the species. This is not true of other organisms.

Man’s mind is his basic means of survival—and of self-protection. Reason is the most selfish human faculty: it has to be used in and by a man’s own mind, and its product—truth—makes him inflexible, intransigent, impervious to the power of any pack or any ruler. Deprived of the ability to reason, man becomes a docile, pliant, impotent chunk of clay, to be shaped into any subhuman form and used for any purpose by anyone who wants to bother.[10] (Emphasis added)

Thus Rand ends up with an ethics in which each individual person is their own end. The exercise of their mind is the means by which they attain values to live. In order to achieve their values they must not only think but act. In order for this to be true, man must own himself, which is the starting point of Locke. The main difference between Locke and Rand is that Rand starts with a scientific or metaphysical basis of the nature of man to derive her ethics. Locke starts with the assumption that each man owns themselves, but Rand proves why this must be true.

Her starting point is that every living organism must value its life or go extinct. Note there are ethical systems that do not value human life, so this cannot be taken as a given. We will explore these more later. The second biggest difference between Rand and Locke is she shows the central place of reason and the mind in man’s existence. Evolution had not been discovered at the time of Locke, so he could not use it to develop his ethics. Another major achievement of Rand was to debunk the supposed is-ought dichotomy.

In answer to those philosophers who claim that no relation can be established between ultimate ends or values and the facts of reality, let me stress that the fact that living entities exist and function necessitates the existence of values and of an ultimate value which for any given living entity is its own life. Thus the validation of value judgments is to be achieved by reference to the facts of reality. The fact that a living entity is, determines what it ought to do. So much for the issue of the relation between “is” and “ought.”[11]

This issue was supposedly first raised by David Hume who lived after John Locke died. As a result, this was not a problem which Locke could address. In fairness to Hume, Rand starts with one assumption or observation in order to solve this problem, mainly that a living entity has to value its own life. As I pointed out earlier it is impossible to have a logical system that is not based on at least one assumption or observation.[12]

I have suggested that a deeper understanding of these issues can be had by understanding that evolution is the application of the second law of thermodynamics (entropy) to living organisms. Note I am not the first person to suggest that evolution and entropy are related. Applying entropy concepts to living organisms is fraught with potential logical errors. I have attempted to avoid them in my writings, but in passing these around I have found that even my most ardent supporters found them a little difficult to get through. My most well received post along this line is Sustainability isn’t Sustainable. My other posts on point can be found below.[13]

Life is a fight against entropy. Entropy as applied to economics is the concept of diminishing returns. It shows that inventions are the only way to overcome entropy – production without invention leads to the Malthusian Trap. As a result, this idea is consistent with Rand’s idea that the mind and reason are the primary means of survival, but refines this to the understanding of the critical role of inventions.

Why is this important? Because the intellectual battle today is against those people who have combined an incorrect interpretation of entropy with Kant’s emotion-driven epistemology. These people do not believe human life is valuable, in fact they believe humans are evil because they believe we accelerate the entropy of the Universe. Other living species do not harness and use energy (outside their physical body) so they do not accelerate the entropy of the universe and therefore are not evil. These people advocate the death of at least five billion people as a moral good. The basis of their morality is founded on a flawed understanding of entropy and physics. For more information see  The Pseudo Scientific Basis of Environmentalism. Defeating this evil philosophy intellectually is vital to anyone who values human happiness.

Property Rights
Locke formulation of property rights is based on the Labour Theory of Property which, commonly stated, says that when you mix your labour with natural resources you obtain property rights in your creation. This has been purposely mischaracterized and attacked by Locke’s opponents. Adam Mossoff has an excellent paper on point entitled  Locke’s Labour Lost. Locke’s concept of property is that your productive effort creates a property right in the thing you created. One problem or misinterpretation of Locke’s theory of property rights is that labour means physical labour. This is most likely a mischaracterization, but leaves open the question of whether intellectual property such as patents is property.

Rand’s theory of property rights argues that they derive from your right to life.

The right to life is the source of all rights—and the right to property is their only implementation. Without property rights, no other rights are possible. Since man has to sustain his life by his own effort, the man who has no right to the product of his effort has no means to sustain his life. The man who produces while others dispose of his product, is a slave.[14] (Emphasis Added)

Rand’s understanding that man’s mind is the most important tool for survival impels her to put intellectual property rights as primary:

Patents and copyrights are the legal implementation of the base of all property rights: a man’s right to the product of his mind.[15] (Emphasis Added)

Ayn Rand’s more detailed understanding of man leads to the primacy of man’s mind and reason as his tool of survival. This leads to a deeper understanding of property rights and the primacy of intellectual property rights. My refinement of Rand’s ideas leads to the primacy of property rights for inventions.

Locke and Rand are not in conflict philosophically, but Rand provides the more coherent ethics, one based on the fundamental nature of man and living organisms. Rand’s main difference in her epistemology is to dispense with the need for a deity, even one whose only effect was to create the world, and her tackling of Kant’s emotion-based epistemology provides a path out of the philosophical thickets he created.

I see the relationship between Rand and Locke as the difference between Algebra and Analytic Geometry, or between Newton and Einstein (with the full awareness of the intellectual stature being made by that comparison).  The difference is one of refinement, not of opposition.

I believe that Rand’s ethics can be further refined by understanding how entropy and evolution are related. This leads to a slightly different understanding of property rights, but more importantly provides a direct argument against the religion of environmentalism and the related Malthusian argument that we are running out of natural resources .

[1] Noted in “Ayn Rand's Critics,” Capitalism Magazine, by JAMES VALLIANT, http://capitalismmagazine.com/2011/08/ayn-rands-critics/, accessed 3/20/13.
[2] RESEARCH ON JOHN LOCKE'S INFLUENCE ON THE PHILOSOPHY OF DEISM DURING THE AGE OF ENLIGHTENMENT, Robert Waxman, http://www.robertwaxman.com/id85.html, 3/18/13.
[3] “The Empiricist John Locke,” http://nmalbert.hubpages.com/hub/The-Empiricist-John-Locke, 3/18/13.
[4] “Concept-Formation,” Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, 11–12
[5] “Locke's Moral Philosophy,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/locke-moral/, accessed 3/20/13.
[6] The state of nature concept has been much maligned by Marxists and others. They have purposely distorted his argument into an anthropological statement. This clearly was not Locke’s intent and shows an intellectual dishonesty on the part of Marxists.
[7] For those people who do not know, Relativity and Quantum Mechanics are in complete agreement with Newtonian physics except in the realms of very fast systems, very high gravitational fields, and very small distances. This is part of how we know they are correct.
[8] It is surprising that Rand was indifferent on the idea of evolution. Her ethics is clearly based on the same concepts. I believe the reason for this is she was worried it would lead to erroneous ideas about Determinism.
[9] “What Is Capitalism?” in Rand’s Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, 16
[10] The Comprachicos,” in Rand’s Return of the Primitive: The Anti-Industrial Revolution, 84
[11] “The Objectivist Ethics,” in Rand’s The Virtue of Selfishness, 17
[12] This is a favourite argument of Christians. They believe it shows morality is impossible without God. This is inconsistent with both Locke and Rand.
[13] “The Science of Economic Growth” 1-3, http://hallingblog.com/the-science-of-economic-growth-part-1/, http://hallingblog.com/the-science-of-economic-growth-part-2/, http://hallingblog.com/the-science-of-economic-growth-part-3/; and
”The Pseudo Scientific Basis of Environmentalism” http://hallingblog.com/the-pseudo-scientific-basis-of-environmentalism/ .
[14] “Man’s Rights,” The Virtue of Selfishness, 93
[15] Rand, Ayn, Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, Signet, New York, 1967, p. 130.


  1. Apropos of nothing, love your IP posts, Peter. One of the biggest issues shaping the 21st century, and so important to keep the principled position in the debate.

  2. Very nice summary Dale, with some great points.

    When reading on Rand and others in this vein, the underlying world view of the centrality of the individual comes across very clearly.

    In this regard, I am in complete agreement on the deduction that this creates an intrinsic value of each person's life, and from that follows arguments on rights and the need for property rights.

    What always seems to be missing from these discussions though is a more considered acknowledgement of interdependence. The problem is often converted to a level of materialism, with free trade being the cornerstone for ascribing value. To me, that's where the cracks start to show.

  3. Zen, I am not sure what you mean by interdependence. Certainly, you cannot mean interdependence of the mind. If by interdependence you mean trade that is covered and explained by contract law. If you mean at a governmental level that is covered nicely by Natural Rights, which explains all of the basic criminal laws and the function of government. If you mean a “duty” to your fellow man, then you do not agree with Locke or Rand or me.

  4. The fact is, take away Locke, Nietzsche, Smith and others and there isn't much original thought of substance from Rand.

    The fact she didn't agree with other aspects of their philosophy is besides the point.

  5. @ Barry

    That's like saying there's nothing original about an iPhone compared to what was available 10 years ago, because there were various other devices that when combined could do similar things. However the iPhone was original because it consistently integrated all these separate devices into one superior and user friendly device.

    If we adopt your definition of 'original' then almost nothing anyone does or creates can be regarded as original. All great innovations build on what preceded it in some way , but then go on to improve on it.

  6. Let us do it. Take away Locke, Nietzsche, Smith and others. What original thought of substance from Rand remains then?


  7. @Barry: James Valliant observes "Murray thinks of Rand’s powerfully original thought as warmed over Locke and updated Nietzsche warmed over Locke and updated Nietzsche," responding,

    "Anyone familiar with those two thinkers will see an immediate tension. A Nietzschean, 'beyond good and evil,' who advocates natural rights? Is that even possible? Well, only for a Nietzschean who rejects every aspect of his 'perspectivist' epistemology and anti-principled 'ethics,' and one who, unlike Nietzsche himself, actually has a political theory. John Locke was a Christian, hardly an egoist, and Rand rejected his epistemology completely. Even within liberal politics, Rand made vital corrections to the thinking of Locke, Thomas Jefferson, John Stuart Mill and Herbert Spencer. And all of this is what enabled her to soar to new heights of radicalism."

    Yet Barry says no. THere's no difference. Well, here's three short, sweet and simple things, without even diving into the deeper philosophies of the four.

    Locke: Locke argues property rights derive from one having "mixed one's labour" with something. Which is not enough. Rand on the other hand points out that human life and flourishing requires property rights ("only ghosts can live without property") which derive from the entrepreneurial act of bringing new values into the world.

    Nietzsche: Nietzsche argues the noble soul should reject the slavery of altruism and seek instead to rule others--as if being either master or slave are the only two alternatives the universe offers. Rand rejects this false dichotomy, pointing out that the moral man is neither a master nor a slave, but a creator (and trader) of values. "The creator's concern is the conquest of nature; the parasite's concern is the conquest of men. The creator requires independence, he neither serves nor rules. He deals with men by free exchange and voluntary choice."

    Smith: Smith recognises it is not from the benevolence of the butcher, brewer and baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self-interest--but as his 'Theory of Moral Sentiments' makes clear, while he recognises this WORKS (Smith also said, “I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the public good"), he recognises the morality of voluntary trade (exchanging value for value) clashes with his altruism. Rand on the other hand recognised the clash for what it was, pointing out that altruism is not a fully human morality--arguing for the virtue of selfishness, and the morality of voluntary trade and capitalism.

    That's just three things from the realm of ethics and politics. But as Terry points out, the biggest difference is in her integration of her thought--analagous to the iPhone, her thinking was original because it rejected errors, posited fresh ideas, and consistently integrated her thinking into one superior and reality-based philosophy.

  8. Mark you make excellent points about where inventions and ideas come from.

  9. Peter,

    James Valliant’s statement that Locke was a Christian is a bit misleading. While you can certainly find quotes of Locke’s that tend to support this point, you can also find many quotes of Locke that support that he was a Deist. In addition, someone who believes that you own yourself is certainly somewhat a egoist.

    Also the statement by Rand “that human life and flourishing requires property rights” is not a statement of where property rights derive, but why they are necessary. In my opinion Rand shows that you must own yourself, because your basic tool of survival is your mind and it only works when it is unconstrained. The mind is profoundly individualist (you own yourself) and only by being able to exercise your mind can you survive (the product of your labor, which is what Locke meant – he never actually said the mixing labor thing to the best I could find). Meaning you need to have rights in what you own. Another way to look at Rand on property rights is that they are the law recognizing the metaphysical fact of creation – but for you this would not exist. As a result, I do not believe Rand and Locke are as far apart as James Valliant states.

    Unfortunately, Locke was not completely clear about his epistemology or ethics, but his interest was in the methods of his contemporary scientists, such as Newton who he was friends with (to the extent Newton had any friends). It is also unfortunate that Rand never gave us her thoughts about Locke. I suspect that it is in part because Locke was not that clear or consistent.

  10. @PC

    Your comment on Nietzsche is exactly what I was talking about. You referred to Rand's (and Hitler's) misunderstanding of Nietzsche, then you presented what Nietzsche actually meant as Rand's genius idea.

    'Integrating her thought' is a euphemism for plagiarising the ideas of another thinker, then criticising their other ideas.

    Doing this doesn't make you a great thinker, which is why the intellectuals referred to in James Valliant's article don't give her credit.


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