Last month, close to 400 fans of Ayn Rand gathered in Charlotte, North Carolina at the Westin Hotel for the Ayn Rand Institute’s annual Objectivist summer conference, where people of all ages from across the country discussed the application of Rand’s radical ideas to freedom of speech, foreign policy, antitrust laws, and a number of other political and cultural issues.
The Ayn Rand Institute was founded in 1985 to promote the ideas of philosopher-novelist Ayn Rand. Rand wrote the popular novels The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged in 1943 and 1957, respectively.
Rand’s tales of heroic industrialists and innovators undercut the idea that men owe their achievements to society and their lives to others. Challenging centuries of conventional wisdom through her radical philosophy of Objectivism, Rand declared that a person must be selfish to achieve his own happiness. She believed that to truly flourish one must dedicate one’s life to one’s own goals and values, not the goals and values of other people.
Now, more than thirty years after her death, ARI, the leading authority on Rand’s ideas, continues her battle for the individual’s right to pursue their own happiness. Every year since 2003, ARI has held an annual Objectivist summer conference to explain and apply Rand’s philosophy to the pressing issues of the day.
For many young people, reading Rand’s novels gives them their first indication of the major impact philosophy has on political and cultural issues. Whether a person believes the purpose of his life is to live for his own happiness or the purpose of his life is to live for others will radically alter his stance on political issues.
For example, Onkar Ghate explained in his lecture “Charlie Hebdo, the West and the Need to Ridicule Religion,” that if a person believes he has the right to pursue his own happiness, then he should believe in his right to hold and express political views that others find offensive. However, if a person believed that his happiness depended on making other people happy, that belief would prevent him from offending others. Elan Journo explained in his lectures “The Jihadist Movement” and “The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict,” that if a person believes he has a right to pursue his own happiness, he should not be forced to provide foreign aid to civilians in other countries.
Some of the other lectures at this year’s conference were “Free Speech Under Siege,” “Climate Change and Ideology,” “Understanding the Arguments for Universal Health Care,” and “Infectious Diseases and National Security.”
To build on students’ knowledge of political issues based on what they discovered in Rand’s novels, for the first time ever, ARI offered exclusive programming for college and graduate students. Throughout the weeklong conference that ran from July 4-9, in addition to general attendee lectures, students had the opportunity to attend exclusive events including lectures, student-led discussions, Q-and-As with speakers, and lively socials.
“The program served to further educate these students in Objectivism and how to communicate Objectivist ideas to others, to connect these students with one another and to help them see that they are part of a growing community of young people animated by Rand’s ideas,” said Jeff Scialabba, the college programs manager at ARI.
Hannah Monaghan, a first-year student at the University of Technology in Sydney, Australia, said the student programming at this year’s OCON tremendously improved her understanding of Objectivism.
“The first time I attended was in 2013 at the Chicago conference with my dad,” said Monaghan. “When I went, I didn’t understand a lot of the ideas, and there were no students for me to interact with. With this year’s theme and having a group of students to interact with, I was able to understand Rand’s ideas better than at the Chicago conference.”
The theme of this year’s student programming was “Objectivism in Practice.” The special programming focused on teaching students how the principles of Objectivism relate to their everyday lives.
The student programming was actually the main reason that Damos Anderson, a graduate form the University of North Carolina at Pembroke, decided to attend OCON this year. What Anderson wanted to learn most about Objectivism was how to apply it to his own life. He said he especially enjoyed attending Onkar Ghate’s lecture “Reason and Emotion” and Jean Moroney’s lecture “Aligning Your Subconscious Values with Your Conscious Convictions” both of which discussed the importance of conscious decision-making and thinking to a happy, prosperous life–which is of paramount importance, according to Objectivism.
For many students who attended OCON this year, the conference added to the impact Rand’s ideas have already had on their lives.
Before attending OCON, Henry Thompson, a junior and former intern for ARI, was uncertain about whether or not he wanted to go to law school after he graduated from Clemson University. Thompson said getting the perspective of other law students helped him decide he definitely wants to pursue law.
“I was impressed with the caliber of students at OCON,” Thompson said. “They were very engaged and driven. I connected with them more than I have with students at other conferences.”
Monaghan also enjoyed meeting other students interested in Rand’s ideas.
“Coming from different contexts, the students’ perspectives made me think about Objectivism differently,” she said. “I enjoyed comparing my knowledge with theirs.”
Thompson said OCON is for students who are serious about ideas and want to learn more about Objectivism. He said it helps for students to have a basic understanding of Objectivism going into the conferences.
“Our student programming was aimed at students with a basic familiarity with Objectivism who are inspired by Rand’s ideas and eager to acquire a deeper understanding of her philosophy and how to think philosophically in all aspects of life,” Scialabba said.
Next year’s OCON will be held in Seattle, Washington. Scialabba said that ARI would again offer student programming and travel scholarships to help alleviate the cost of attendance for students.
Anderson said he is definitely attending OCON next year.
“Being around other students interested in Objectivism makes you realize that you’re not alone,” he said. “At my university, there are no students I can talk about these ideas with. It’s refreshing to have that experience.”
Image courtesy of the Ayn Rand Institute