Yes, We Can Get Along — and We Can Even Agree Quite a Bit!

Thanks to Doug, Roderick, and Mike for further food for thought.

Starting with the most recent: Mike is right that you can’t go from “Living things face an alternative of existence or non-existence” to ethical egoism. But of course Rand introduces a whole lot of other premises to get there: all living things, including the human variety, have a specific nature and must act according to that nature to achieve survival; our means of survival is reason, which functions volitionally; to survive we must survive as rational beings, which means both “by using our reason well” and “preserving our ability to reason well” (the latter is implicit); to reason well and live accordingly is to be virtuous. Now I don’t mean that the conclusion is strongly supported by these premises, since prudent free-riding is one way of reasoning well as a means to survival and preserving the ability to reason well. But I do think that the mistake in the passage from the starting point to the conclusion is not as naïve or obvious as Mike seems to. And the particular problem I’m identifying is a problem with all ancient theories.

If I understand Roderick correctly, I guess he disagrees with me on the last point. I find the following from Seneca inspiring, but I think it doesn’t face the toughest issue:

… a human being’s constitution is a rational one, and so a human being’s attachment is to himself notqua living being but qua rational being; for he is dear to himself in respect of what makes him human.  (Letters to Lucilius 121.)

The toughest issue is that doing the right thing can lead not just to death, but something far harder: prolonged torture and degradation of the self or of those we love (see Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago), or destruction of the very capacity for happiness (see Todorov on evil and the story of the absent father in the movie Swing Kids), or even of the capacity for moral agency (see Swing Kids again). In both the Gulag Archipelago and Swing Kids, the choice one is presented with is between saving oneself and those one is closest to from these consequences, on the one hand, and saving one’s comrades and one’s cause, on the other. What is the rational thing to do in such circumstances? Like Cicero, I find one answer convincing one day, and the other the next day. Like Sidgwick, I think practical reason is divided.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • 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

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.