The Conflict of Rational Interests

I too love the passage from Cicero that Doug quoted. But I did not see it as supporting either Doug (and me) or Roderick on the issue of the possibility of a conflict among different people’s rational interests. Although I have agreed with most of Roderick’s views so far, I am now making up by disagreeing with him on two of the three points he makes in his latest!

Roderick says that there is no “fundamental” conflict between one person’s good and another’s. I don’t know what rides on “fundamental,” but it seems to be a qualification to the thesis that there can be no conflicts between two people’s rational interests, the thesis affirmed by Rand and Objectivists. At any rate, I think there can also be fundamental conflicts. Here are some simple everyday examples: (i) there are two equally good candidates for one job — equally qualified and equally good for the business/department. The one who loses out gets stuck in a really awful job for several years that takes the joy out of work. It’s no good saying that there cannot be two equally good candidates for a job — I’ve witnessed this sort of situation more than once. (Of course, people then try to invent reasons for why one is better than the other, but they’re just that — inventions! There is oodles of experimental evidence for this kind of rationalization.) (ii) Two people invent the same thing at the same time, but only the one who reaches the patent office first gets the patent (she lives closer to the patent office). Now you could say that our patent laws are irrational, and the thesis of the harmony of rational interests applies only to situations not created by irrational factors. I’m not sure Rand thought our patent laws were irrational, but in any case, the first example does not depend on a situation created by irrational factors. Indeed, like I said earlier, I think even our own rational interests can conflict. Here’s an example that shows both intrapersonal and interpersonal conflict: (iii) the best location for my career, in which I am heavily invested, is P, the best location for my husband, in which he is heavily invested, is R, we both want each other to flourish in their careers, and we are both equally interested in living together. But neither of us can satisfy all of our interests.

The idea that rational interests cannot conflict assumes that the rational constraints on desire/need are no different from the rational constraints on belief: all rational wants must harmonize just as all true beliefs must harmonize (see Ronald de Sousa, “The Good and the True” [pdf]). But there is no good reason to believe this. In the face of conflict, It is rational to prioritize and try to make the best of the situation, but it’s not rational to pretend that there never was a conflict — and, therefore, no room for rational regret, sadness, frustration, or unhappiness.

On Happiness and Virtue

Roderick argues that “choice situations that destroy our capacity for happiness” are not a problem for the Aristotelian view because it does not hold that “virtue is sufficient for happiness or that happiness consists solely in conscious occurrent feelings.” I agree, but my argument did not assume either of these things. Rather, given the very real possibility of such situations, I believe it is false to hold that (i) doing the right thing is always better for us, where this means that it must contribute more to our happiness than doing the wrong thing (a view that, according to Irwin and others, Aristotle does hold), where (ii) where happiness includes both the objective worth of one’s life as a whole, and the psychological disposition to enjoy this life. I don’t think that enjoyment of life, joy in life, capacity for pleasure etc. can be subtracted from happiness without changing the very concept of happiness. Our philosophical concepts have to be “descriptively plausible,” that is, match up with the way they are ordinarily used. Moreover, Aristotle’s own conception of happiness is descriptively plausible in this way. The problem I was pointing to in my earlier post on this issue is that he (and the Stoics and Rand) do not face up to the possibility of the kind of terrible situation I was envisaging, that of destruction of the very capacity for such enjoyment.  Of course, doing the wrong thing can also destroy the very capacity for enjoyment through shame and guilt. In that case, it is as bad for us as doing the right thing, but still not worse, or not necessarily so. In my earlier post, I also pointed to another possibility illustrated by Swing Kids: the destruction of the very capacity for doing the right thing as a result, in part, of doing the right thing.

None of this is meant to suggest that naturalism doesn’t work (as, I think, Doug thought I was suggesting). Rather, it’s meant to show that Aristotelian naturalism needs to be modified to take account of such cases.

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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