In response to Mike’s post of Monday night: Rand presupposes what you might call a natural or biological egoism, identifying this egoism narrowly with the goal of the entity’s own survival. We know, of course, that this is false — the lives of animals display all kinds of “altruism” and “self-sacrifice.” But even if our biological goal were survival, inferring that we ought to choose life for this reason would be to commit the famous naturalistic fallacy — which Rand avoids by arguing that ethics is grounded in the pre-moral choice to live, this being the only alternative to the choice to die (as Mike notes in one of his Tuesday posts). But Rand also often writes as though, in normal circumstances, the choice to live is the only rational and moral choice.
One reason Rand’s view is so seductive is that, if it were true that each of us must be ethical to survive, then the result would be pretty fantastic! Everyone who is alive (and not trying to commit suicide even though he is in a position to do so) is rationally committed to morality just by virtue of choosing to remain alive! You can’t find a deeper grounding for morality in human nature and the nature of the world. The only problem, of course, is that it’s not true, as shown by the existence of wicked people.
Doug has pretty much said what I would have said in response to Will’s pot-stirring comments. The only thing I want to add is that if we want to interpret Rand’s views fairly, we cannot privilege a short essay she wrote as a lecture to a student group over the thousands of pages of fiction she wrote, as I think Will is doing in relying on “The Objectivist Ethics” for his interpretation. Nor can we privilege two short essays — or, indeed, the entire corpus of Rand’s non-fiction — over her fiction. As an individual shows her character in the life she leads better than in her statements about herself, I think Rand shows her philosophy in the worlds she creates in her novels better than in her non-fictional statements. But as all of us neo-Aristotelians have acknowledged in this forum and elsewhere, neither her essays nor her novels present just one consistent view; rather, we think that when this work is considered in its totality, the neo-Aristotelian view is dominant (and more defensible).
Conflict of Interests, Again
If all Roderick means by the claim that rational interests don’t conflict is that it can never be in one’s interests to gain something by immoral means, then I pretty much agree (“pretty much,” because of the possibility of tragic situations I’ve been describing, of which more below). But I don’t think Rand meant simply this in her article, although it’s been a long time since I read it, and I admit I may be wrong.
Regarding tragic situations and eudaimonia: I think we are converging, although Roderick still misunderstands some of my claims.
1. I gave the example of the possibility of an intra-personal conflict of interests not because it’s a problem for the eudaimonist thesis, but because it strengthens the case for the possibility of an interpersonal conflict of interests (as I interpret or interpreted it).
2. My point about rational regret, sadness, frustration, or unhappiness over losing out to someone else is that such regret etc. is precluded by the thesis that there are no conflicts of rational interests (again, as I interpret or interpreted it), even if Rand does not say otherwise.
3. I agree that, on Aristotle’s view, the virtuous person will not always enjoy doing the right thing (this is a question I often challenge students with, with the example of Agamemnon sacrificing Iphigenia).
4. I agree that neither Rand nor Aristotle believes that doing the right thing always increases our subjective enjoyment (I make this point whenever I discuss happiness in either of them, my favorite example being that of Roark in the quarry).
5. Roderick says that when “happiness is no longer an option … it can still be true that … we’re even worse off giving up virtue than we are giving up subjective enjoyment.” But first, “giving up virtue” is not the option I was describing; the option was not acting virtuously on that one occasion. It’s psychologically implausible to respond, as philosophers sometimes do (Rand, Kant, Roderick?), that even one wrong act will destroy your character. If that were true, then everyone’s character would be in a shambles. I say this confidently not because I know every human being in the world, but because every human being I know well enough to evaluate has acted wrongly more than once (and, I am confident, will continue to do so)! Second, “we are worse off doing the wrong thing than we are giving up the very capacity for subjective enjoyment” is true only if being worse off simply means having a more tarnished moral account. But eudaimonia is more than an untarnished moral account — just as it’s more than subjective enjoyment. It begs the question to say that acting virtuously is always the more important component of eudaimonia, regardless of consequences. I have yet to see an argument for this. Not every unvirtuous act is terrible — some are forgivable. And when they are, we can recover our happiness again. But losing the very capacity for enjoying life — that, by hypothesis, is forever.
6. I also presented an even more tragic possibility: losing the capacity to act virtuously by, in part, acting virtuously (thanks to Doug for acknowledging this). Neither Rand nor Aristotle faces up to the possibility of these sorts of situations. Again, see Swing Kids.
7. Roderick thinks that Rand does face up to the possibility of these sorts of situations because she says, in his words, that “if one were faced with a choice between cooperating with an oppressive regime or watching a loved one be tortured to death, suicide might be one’s only rational option.” But this doesn’t encompass the SK case. It also doesn’t encompass the cases Solzehnitsyn describes in his Gulag Archipelago: (i) You are denied the opportunity to commit suicide, even by starvation; (ii) before you can commit suicide, you have to either cooperate or see your daughter tortured and gang raped.
Will — thank you very much for putting on this symposium and inviting me to participate. Doug, Roderick, and Mike: thank you for your many insights. I look forward to reading or re-reading your work.