Rand’s Philosophic Thought: A Response to Professors Long, Huemer, and Badhwar

Towards the end of my lead essay I state:

If there is any single reason for why Rand’s views should be worthy of the attention they are currently receiving, it is this: philosophical principles matter, and persons and cultures that ignore them do so at their peril.  This is the basis for the continued appeal of Atlas Shrugged, for there she pointed out more vividly than anyone else in our time what happens when the right principles are subverted and the wrong ones take their place.

So, I certainly concur with the claim that it is Rand qua novelist that has made her so influential.  Nonetheless, what is crucial to Rand as the novelist is the philosophical vision that is expressed in her novels — particularly, it is her view of the nature of the free society, of capitalism, and of human perfection that has made her so inspiring.  It is in regard to that vision that I offered my six sets of questions.

Turning to some of these questions, I will respond not only to some of what Professors Long, Huemer, and Badhwar have said but also offer some of my own views regarding these questions.

Metaethics

1) Professors Long and Badhwar are certainly correct to note that if Rand’s ethics is based on a pre-moral choice to live, then she fails to overcome the so-called naturalistic fallacy.  I have in several articles [1] argued against the pre-moral choice view and have suggested that a neo-Aristotelian reading of her ethics (particularly one that invokes natural teleology) is a better way of understanding what she is saying.  There are, however, many proponents of her thought that still seek to defend the pre-moral choice view.

2) If I understand Professor Huemer rightly, he does not think that any naturalistic approach to ethics can overcome the supposed is-ought gap.  So, the issue as to whether Rand is to be given a neo-Aristotelian reading or not is simply beside the point as far as he is concerned.  Huemer thinks that only a non-naturalistic (specifically, an ethical intuitionist) approach can provide moral knowledge. [2] This claim is worthy of discussion on some other occasion.

Normative Ethics

3) Long and Badhwar are also on target when they note that Rand’s account of the moral life sometimes treats all virtues as merely instruments to an agent’s own flourishing but at other times treats them as constitutive features of such a way of life.  Further, I agree that a merely instrumental account of virtues (and basic goods) is unpersuasive.  Yet, as before, there are many proponents of Rand’s ethical views that interpret them in strictly consequentialist terms. [3] Indeed, it is against just this sort of account of Rand’s ethics that Huemer’s criticisms are well-directed.

4) I also agree that the virtue of justice is a constitutive feature of human flourishing for Rand, but I do not think that this virtue — that is, giving others their appropriate due — amounts to the same thing as respecting individual rights.  The virtue of justice requires both more and less than individual rights.  Giving others their appropriate due can require in certain contexts and relationships much more than simply forbearing from coercion, and alternatively it often can involve considerably less than equal or neutral treatment to everyone.  Practicing the virtue of justice is a highly nuanced matter. Individual rights do offer, of course, a form of justice.  They regulate human conduct by providing the rules for playing the moral game among others, so to speak.  But I do not think it would be accurate to characterize such rights as constituent virtues of an agent’s flourishing.

5) None of the virtues that constitute human flourishing for Rand can be applied or followed in simply a deductive manner.  In order for the moral life to be practiced, intellectual insight into the contingent and the particular is required (and here I share some common ground with Professor Huemer).  Any unity these virtues might acquire can only be achieved through the excellent use of practical reason. Thus, I continue to think that it is scandalous that Rand has no discussion of the intellectual virtue of practical wisdom in her ethics.  On the importance of this virtue, see Douglas J. Den Uyl’s The Virtue of Prudence.[4]

6) Unless Rand takes a Platonic or an agent-neutral [5] view of human flourishing, I remain unconvinced that what is objectively right and good for one individual to do must as a matter of principle never conflict with what is objectively right and good for another individual to do.  Are individual human beings mere loci for the right and the good?  Is who one is irrelevant to moral deliberations?  I think not, and I recommend David L. Norton’s Personal Destinies: A Philosophy of Ethical Individualism on this point. [6]

7) I think that Professor Long is dead-right to emphasize the self-directed character of human flourishing for Rand.  Possibly, her most important insight for our times is that attempting to force the human good is “like an attempt to provide a man with a picture gallery at the price of cutting out his eyes.”

Individual Rights

8 ) Rights are not consequentialist moral concepts, but I do not think that they are deontological ones either. [7]  Further, I do not think that the idea that rights considerations trump all other moral considerations can be maintained simply by treating rights, as Rand appears to do, as means to human flourishing.  It may be that all moral concepts have their basis in human flourishing, but how they are related to this ultimate good may be neither direct nor isomorphic.  I think this is especially true when it comes to individual rights.  Den Uyl’s and my work, Norms of Liberty: A Perfectionist Basis For Non-Perfectionist Politics, offers an account of individual rights that takes many of these matters into consideration. [8]

Capitalism

9)  I agree with much of what Long and Badhwar have to say about capitalism, and I would only add that it is dangerous either to sever all connection between an understanding of capitalism and the ethical order or to hold that connection too close.  To my mind, Rand is sometimes guilty of the latter when she conceptualizes capitalism. [9] I think that part of her difficulty stems from wearing two hats: that of the novelist and that of the philosopher.  The very thing that allows Rand to be such an effective novelist is also the very thing that leaves her own account of her philosophical positions incomplete and sometimes simply mistaken.

Conclusion

In The Philosophic Thought of Ayn Rand, Den Uyl and I argued that Rand’s philosophy is a form of Aristotelianism. [10] Both Professors Long and Badhwar have in their responses, as well as in their own important works on Rand, noted how vital it is to understand her arguments and approach in an Aristotelian context.  Indeed, Leonard Peikoff has said of her philosophy that it is “Aristotelianism without Platonism.”  Rand saw herself, of course, as offering her own unique philosophy, and while it is certainly true that she offers some important insights and improvements on that tradition, [11] it seems best to understand her as a neo-Aristotelian. [12]

I am aware that this conclusion will disappoint some of Rand’s followers as well as some of her critics.

Notes

[1] See my essays: “Rand’s Metaethics: Rejoinder to Hartford,” The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies 8. 2 (Spring 2007): 307-316; “Regarding Choice and the Foundation of Morality: Reflections on Rand’s Ethics,” Vol. 7. 2 The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies (Spring 2006): 309-328; “Rand on Obligation and Value,” The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies 4, no. 1 (Fall 2002): 69-86; and “The Aristotelian Significance of Sections Titles of Atlas Shrugged: A Brief Considerations of Rand’s View of Logic and Reality,” in Edward M. Younkins, ed., Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged: A Philosophical and Literary Companion, ed. (Ashgate, 2007), 33-45.

[2] See his interesting book, Ethical Intuitionism (Palgrave MacMillan, 2005)

[3] Consequentialism is any theory in normative ethics that attempts to determine obligations simply by whether an action or rule produces the greatest, net, expected “good” (or least “bad”) consequences.

[4] (Peter Lang, 1991).

[5] Describes any value, reason, or ranking V for which, “if a person P1 is justified in holding V, then so are P2-Pn under appropriately similar conditions… . On an agent-neutral conception it is impossible to weight more heavily or at all, V, simply because it is one’s own value.” (Den Uyl, The Virtue of Prudence, p. 27).  Sometimes referred to as “impersonalism” and often thought of as definitive of the so-called moral point of view.

[6] (Princeton University Press, 1976).  See also my essay, “Human Flourishing and the Appeal to Human Nature,” Social Philosophy & Policy 16 (Winter 1999): 1-43.

[7] Deontology is any theory in normative ethics that holds “duty” and “right” to be basic and defines the morally good in terms of them. Such theories attempt to determine obligations apart from a consideration of the good.

[8] (Pennsylvania State University Press, 2005).  For a discussion of this work, see Aeon Skoble, ed., Reading Rasmussen and Den Uyl: Critical Essays on Norms of Liberty (Lexington Books, 2008).

[9] See not only Norms of Liberty on this general issue, but as it pertains specifically to economics, see Den Uyl’s essay, “Homo Moralis,” The Review of Austrian Economics 22 (2009): 349-385 as well as Rasmussen and Den Uyl, “Making Room for Business Ethics: Rights as Metanorms of Market and Moral Values,” The Journal of Private Enterprise 24.2 (2009): 1-19.

[10] (University of Illinois Press, 1984).

[11] See Den Uyl and Rasmussen, “The Philosophical Importance of Ayn Rand,” Modern Age 27 (Winter 1983): 67-69.

[12] It should be noted that Tibor R. Machan has argued that Rand does share some affinities with the later Wittgenstein regarding essences.  See also my essay, “Quine and Aristotelian Essentialism,” The New Scholasticism 58 (Summer 1984): 316-335.

Also from This Issue

Lead Essay

  • Why Ayn Rand? Answers and Some Questions for Discussion by Douglas B. Rasmussen

    In this month’s lead essay, St. Johns University philosopher Douglas B. Rasmussen notes that Ayn Rand is all the rage. But why not Hayek or other free-market thinkers? Why Rand? Rasmussen submits that it comes down to “her ability to note with dramatic force the immorality and hypocrisy of our current political age; her commitment to individual rights; her holding liberty and capitalism inviolate; her rejection of ‘moral cannibalism’ in any form; her advocacy of moral individualism; her recognition of a moral order grounded in human nature; and her realization that reality is not only intelligible but open to possibilities for human achievement far more wondrous than ever realized.” But is the philosophy underpinning this envigorating picture coherent? Rasmussen offers for discussion a series of tough questions, ranging from Rand’s account of individual rights to her views of religion.

Response Essays

  • The Winnowing of Ayn Rand by Roderick T. Long

    In his reply to Rasmussen’s lead essay, Auburn University philosopher Roderick Long sets out to sort the wheat from the chaff in Ayn Rand’s moral and political thought. Long maintains that “Rand sets out to found a classical liberal conception of politics … upon a classical Greek conception of human nature and the human good,” and he goes on to defend the plausibility of this project. In particular, Long stands up for Rand’s reliance on a naturalistic teleology to ground her neo-Aristotlean ethic theory, pointing to contemporary philosophical work that supports Rand’s view. Long is less happy with Rand’s political thought and criticizes her ideas of the “pyramid of ability” and of big business as a “persecuted minority.” Long credits Rand for her trenchant analysis of corporatism, but argues that she was mistaken to deny that corporatism and capitalism go hand in hand. According to Long, Rand’s ideal of voluntary interaction not only implies a radical departure from historical capitalism, but also a more thoroughly anti-statist social order.

  • Why Ayn Rand? Some Alternate Answers by Michael Huemer

    University of Colorado philosopher Michael Huemer takes up Douglas Rasmussen’s question of why there is such intense interest in Ayn Rand and answers that Rand, unlike Mises or Bastiat, “was not only a philosopher, but a compelling novelist.” However gripping her novels, Huemer is not impressed with Rand’s moral philosophy. “The theory of ‘The Objectivist Ethics’,” Huemer writes, “is simultaneously the most distinctive and the least plausible, worst defended of all of Rand’s major ideas.” Huemer argues that there is a glaring conflict between Rand’s ethical egoism and her case for individual rights: “I cannot hold my own well-being as the only end in itself, and simultaneously say that I recognize other persons as ends in themselves too.” Huemer recommends discarding Rand’s egoism and setting her ban of the initiation of force and fraud on a more plausible foundation.

  • Ayn Rand’s Significance: A Reply to Douglas Rasmussen by Neera K. Badhwar

    University of Oklahoma philosopher Neera K. Badhwar attributes the ongoing currency of Ayn Rand’s ideas to the persisting appeal of her novels. “In Rand’s fiction,” Badhwar writes, “we witness the tragedy of Prometheus bound and the triumph of Prometheus unbound. No purely theoretical work can show this.” When it comes to Rand’s theoretical work, Badhwar’s assessment is mixed. She notes that Rand’s ethical theory presents both long-term biological survival and survival “as a rational, and thus, viruous being” as the standard of moral action. However, Badhwar argues, “there is no coherent way to show that to survive long-term is to survive qua man is to achieve eudaimonia.” Rand depicts virtue in her fiction “as a shield against misery even in the worst of misfortunes,” and vice “as causing psychological turmoil.” But, Badhwar observes, virtue doesn’t always pay and vice doesn’t always exact a terrible price. Badhwar also disputes Rand’s belief in the unity of the virtues and the possibility of moral perfection and argues that “virtues such as kindness, charity, and forgiveness are much more important in human life than Rand grants.” Last, Badhwar takes up Rand’s idea that “the creator should not pander to debased or immoral desires,” and suggests a more moderate version of this view.

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