This and That

Rod:

Doug thinks that the natural harmony of interests that the eudaimonist tradition largely embraces requires an agent-neutral conception of the good.

Neera:

Doug is right that the omission of the virtue of practical wisdom from Rand’s discussion is an important one. But I don’t find it surprising: she was not a systematic philosopher, and she omitted to discuss a whole lot of important things such as generosity, kindness, forgiveness, and charity.

Michael: ”… you’re going to have to rely on ethical intuition.”

I am dubious of the idea that what is objectively good and right for one person to do cannot ever conflict with what is objectively good and right for another person to do. Rod thinks I am dubious because I believe that the only way one can have harmony is by assuming agent-neutrality.  I do not.

Though there are some advocates of eudaimonia that take an agent-neutral approach, I don’t think agent-neutrality is the hallmark of the eudaimonist tradition.  This is not the basic issue, however.  As I implied in my earlier remarks, it has to do with the place of individuality in one’s understanding of human good.  Human flourishing is always and necessarily individualized, and this means not only that human flourishing does not exist apart from individuals but also that it only exists in an individualized manner. Though we can speak abstractly of generic goods and virtues and thus note what is common, these goods and virtues do not take on determinacy, reality, or worth apart from the excellent use of practical reason. This does not mean that there must be conflicts between one individual’s good and that of another’s, but it does mean that there can be.  But more importantly, it does show that human flourishing is something different for each of us.  Here is the pluralist dimension of ethics.  (See Norms of Liberty, chapters 6 and 7)

This is why Rand’s failure to have a place for practical wisdom in her ethics is so disappointing. Practical wisdom is necessary for the presence of all of the virtues, including the ones she notes, as well as those she ignores or fails to emphasize. Indeed, it is indicative of a failure to truly appreciate the importance of individuality for ethical deliberations.  I think this comes from an excessive rationalist approach to morality.  I also think that this is part of the reason for the cultish behavior of many of her followers and some of the foundations devoted to her thought.

Neera is of course correct to say the Rand is not a systematic philosopher and that she omits many other important virtues as well, but I think that the omission of practical wisdom is a fundamental flaw because it undermines her ethical individualism.

Finally, Aristotle notes that nous goes in both directions — that is to say, it apprehends both the universal and necessary and the contingent and particular.  So, there is certainly a place for direct insight — not all knowledge, including ethical knowledge, is discursive.  But I think insight occurs within the context of metaphysical realism and natural teleology.   As Foot has noted, “A moral evaluation does not stand over against the statement of a matter of fact, but rather has to do with facts about a particular subject matter.”  So, I think we have insight into what human flourishing is as well as many other things. This is part of the story.

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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