Rand and Plato on Value (2003)


Roger Bissell

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Rand and Plato on Value

by Roger E. Bissell

August 14, 2003

In Atlas Shrugged and The Virtue of Selfishness, Ayn Rand defines “value” as “that which one acts to gain and/or keep.” Some people puzzle over the “and/or” wording, wondering whether it is a needlessly word and confusing way to express the idea. Actually, however, it makes perfect sense, and this can be seen by noting very interesting parallel between this “and/or” and what Plato said about the good in The Republic.

As is clear from Rand’s wording of her definition of the concept of “value,” she recognizes three classes of things that people “act to gain and/or keep.” These three classes are (1) things that people act to gain, (2) things that people act to keep, and (3) things that people act to gain and keep. (The first two classes cover the “or” and the third class covers the “and.”)

In Book II of The Republic, Plato has Glaucon query Socrates about the nature of “goods.” I think that the three categories that Glaucon names and Socrates assents to are a very close match for Rand’s three categories of value – but to see this, they must be examined out of the order in which Plato presents them..

Rand: things that people act to gain = Plato’s third category: things that no one would choose for their own sakes, but only for the sake of some reward or result which flows from them. (If you want to gain something, but do not care about keeping it for its own sake, then it must be for the sake of its consequences that you want to gain it. That is the basis of my equating Rand and Plato on this.)

Rand: things that people act to keep = Plato’s first category: things that we welcome for their own sakes, and independently of their consequences. (If you want to keep something, but do not care about the consequences that flow from your having it, it must be for its own sake that you want it.)

Rand: things that people act to gain and keep = Plato’s second category: things that are desirable not only in themselves, but also for their results. (If you want to gain something and also care about it for its own sake, this is the same as wanting to keep something and also caring about the consequences that flow from it.

It's interesting to note that Plato regards the second category (Rand's "gain and keep") as the “highest” class. I think that the best way to interpret this is that a value or good that one acts to gain and keep is a fuller or more complete value/good than one which one acts merely to gain or to keep.

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