Rand’s apologists might object that Rand, as a matter of fact, did introduce some specific virtues that she had drawn (or at least claimed to have drawn) from her vaguer principles. What about these virtues? Are they not specific enough? Well let us take look, beginning with the first of them, which is to say, with rationality. Here’s how Rand introduces rationality in Galt’s Speech:
Rationality is the recognition of the fact that existence exists, that nothing can alter the truth and nothing can take precedence over that act of perceiving it, which is thinking—that the mind is one's only judge of values and one's only guide of action—that reason is an absolute that permits no compromise—that a concession to the irrational invalidates one's consciousness and turns it from the task of perceiving to the task of faking reality—that the alleged short-cut to knowledge, which is faith, is only a short-circuit destroying the mind—that the acceptance of a mystical invention is a wish for the annihilation of existence and, properly, annihilates one's consciousness.
We here find Rand taking a rather consequentialist view of rationality, which is just as well, given that she never was able to state precisely the how of rationality. Rationality means for Rand perceiving and understanding reality. How is this perceiving and understanding accomplished? Although Rand sedulously avoids providing helpful details, from what we can gather from hints scattered throughout her writings, she seems to have bought into the classical conception of reason shared by Aristotle and the medieval scholastics. Despite denials to the contrary, there are also parallels between Randian reason and the rationalisms of Descartes and Hegel. (Rand thought well enough of Brand Blanshard’s Reason and Analysis—a thoughtful, but ultimately specious, defense of neo-Hegelian rationalism—to publish Nathaniel Branden’s laudatory review of the book in her sixties newsletter.)
We have already offered a number of critiques of Rand’s notion of reason, but one problem that we have not touched upon in detail involves the issue of whether traditional knowledge, based on the trial and error experience of many generations, may in some instances prove a more reliable guide to truth in the moral and social realms than Randian rationality. Friedrich Hayek, whom Rand particularly despised (for obvious reasons), saw unrestrained reason as a threat to freedom. As he explained:
Of [the] conventions and customs of human intercourse, the moral rules are the most important but by no means the only significant ones. We understand one another and get along with one another, are able to act successfully on our plans, because, most of the time, members of our civilization conform to unconscious patterns of conduct, show a regularity in their actions that is not the result of commands or coercion, often not even of any conscious adherence to known rules, but of firmly established habits and traditions. The general observance of these conventions is a necessary condition of the orderliness of the world in which we live, of our being able to find our way in it, though we do not know their significance and may not even be consciously aware of their existence. In some instances it would be necessary, for the smooth running of society, to secure a similar uniformity by coercion, if such conventions or rules were not observed often enough. Coercion, then, may sometimes be avoidable only because voluntary conformity exists, which means that voluntary conformity may be a condition of a beneficial working of freedom. It is indeed a truth, which all the great apostles of freedom outside the rationalistic school have never tired of emphasizing, that freedom has never worked without deeply ingrained moral beliefs and that coercion can be reduced to a minimum only where individuals can be expected as a rule to conform voluntarily to certain principles….
It is this submission to undesigned rules and conventions whose significance and importance we largely do not understand, this reverence for the traditional, that the rationalistic type of mind finds so uncongenial, though it is indispensable for the working of a free society. It has its foundation in the insight which David Hume stressed and which is of decisive importance for the antirationalist, evolutionary tradition—namely, that “the rules of morality are not the conclusions of our reason.” Like all other values, our morals are not a product but a presupposition of reason, part of the ends which the instrument of our intellect has been developed to serve. At any one stage of evolution, the system of values into which we are born supplies the ends which our reason must serve. This givenness of the value framework implies that, although we must always strive to improve our institutions, we can never aim to remake them as a whole and that, in our efforts to improve them, we must take for granted much that we do not understand…. In particular, we can never synthetically construct a new body of moral rules or make our obedience of the known rules dependent on our comprehension of the implications of this obedience in a given instance….
There are good reasons why any person who wants to live and act successfully in society must accept many common beliefs, though the value of these reasons may have little to do with their demonstrable truth. Such beliefs will also be based on some past experience but not on experience for which anyone can produce the evidence. The scientist, when asked to accept a generalization in his field, is of course entitled to ask for the evidence on which it is based. Many of the beliefs which in the past expressed the accumulated experience of the race have been disproved in this manner. This does not mean, however, that we can reach the stage where we can dispense with all beliefs for which such evidence is lacking. Experience comes to man in many more forms than are commonly recognized by the professional experimenter or the seeker after explicit knowledge. We would destroy the foundations of much successful action if we disdained to rely on ways of doing things evolved by the process of trial and error simply because the reason for their adoption has not been handed down to us. The appropriateness of our conduct is not necessarily dependent on knowing why it is so….
While this applies to all our values, it is most important in the case of moral rules of conduct. Next to language, they are perhaps the most important instance of an undesigned growth, of a set of rules which govern our lives but of which we can say neither why they are what they are nor what they do to us: we do not know what the consequences of observing them are for us as individuals and as a group. And it is against the demand for submission to such rules that the rationalistic spirit is in constant revolt. It insists on applying to them Descartes’ principle which was “to reject as absolutely false all opinions in regard to which I could suppose the least ground for doubt.” The desire for the rationalist has always been for the deliberately constructed, synthetic system of morals… [The Constitution of Liberty, 62-65]If Hayek’s analysis is correct, then rationality is not quite the virtue that Rand made it out to be. Indeed, in some contexts, it may be more of a vice than a virtue. Deliberate conscious reasoning tends to break down in the face of complex problems. In such instances, intuitive and traditional forms of knowledge may prove better guides than mere reason.
So is rationality a virtue? Not if we equate rationality with the classical conception of reason shared by philosophers of the Aristotlean and Cartesian traditions. The actual knowledge-methodologies that people use to get things done and achieve well-being draw on a number of different cognitive processes, including intuition, unconscious thinking, emotions, ingrained habits, illogical generalizations and inferences from experience, custom and tradition, trial and error, empirical criticism, peer review, empirical documentation, and scientific experimentation. The ability to choose and utilize whichever method (or combination of methods) is most appropriate to the situation at hand is called wisdom. It is this sort of wisdom, and not Randian rationality, that constitutes the great cognitive virtue.