A 1966 letter by Ayn Rand about cats recently turned up in the news, apparently showing up first in a tweet by Mallory Ortberg, then in a blog post by Marina Galperina for Animal and again in a piece by Caroline Moss for Business Insider. Here is a selection from the letter, addressed to the editor of a magazine about cats:
You ask whether I own cats or simply enjoy them, or both. The answer is: both. I love cats in general and own two in particular.
You ask: “We are assuming that you have an interest in cats, or was your subscription strictly objective?” My subscription was strictly objective, because I have an interest in cats. I can demonstrate objectively that cats are of a great value, and the charter issue of Cat Fancy magazine can serve as part of the evidence. (“Objective” does not mean “disinterested” or indifferent; it means corresponding to the facts of reality and applies both to knowledge and to values.)
Galperina mocks Rand for her sweet and perfectly sensible letter:
Big up to Rand for even responding to bait—tying objectivism to cats is like applying the String Theory to jealousy. A stretch. And yet, she manages to do so, in the driest way possible. Because “values”—even the ones found in a cuddly, fuzzy, lovable kitty—are purely objective, because Ayn Rand is
feelingobjectively stating them. Unlike the emotions of people that sway their moral values to care for other, less fortunate human beings, chortle chortle, how delightful.
Far from showing any problem with Rand’s letter, Galperina’s remarks show that Galperina does not understand what an objective value is. (Her comments also show that she’d rather smear Rand than present her ideas fairly.)
An objective value is not one untied to emotions, as Galperina suggests; nor is it necessarily a universal value for all people. Some objective values, including life, reason, moral virtue, and food, are universal for all people who choose to live. But values can be objective, even if not universal.
Consider a couple of examples. Peanut butter is objectively valuable for some people, in that eating it serves their life and happiness, but it is not an objective value for people with a peanut allergy. And, of course, some things that people pursue are not objective values: A drug abuser “values” a drug high in the sense that he pursues it, but the drug high is not an objective value in that it does not serve his life and happiness; rather, it harms his life (whether or not he acknowledges the fact).
Although Galperina rejects the idea that a pet can be objectively valuable to a person, in fact it can be. As a cat owner myself, I can attest that cats are playful and cuddly, they often do amusing things, and they provide companionship. My owning my cat objectively—that is, factually—contributes to my life and happiness. Obviously, to someone with an allergy to cats or to someone who doesn’t like cats, owning a cat would not be an objective value.
On a broader note, it is fascinating to me that a decades-old letter by Rand on a relatively light topic is making the rounds in today’s media and social media outlets. Hopefully the publicity about Rand’s letter on cats will inspire more people to explore Rand’s philosophic ideas—including her theory of objective value—in greater depth. Even an old letter about cats can be objectively valuable.