Can We All Get Along?

I’m in considerable agreement with what all three of my fellow symposiasts have said.  For example, we all seem to agree in finding both an instrumentalist strand and a constitutive, Aristotelian strand in Rand’s ethics, and we likewise agree in finding the latter more attractive and defensible than the former.

My chief disagreement with Mike, I think, is over the extent to which the instrumentalist approach pervades Rand’s mature moral philosophy, and in particular “The Objectivist Ethics.”  Mike seems to see the latter essay as almost purely instrumentalist — which, I take it, is why he is able to say that hardly anybody finds its argument even remotely convincing unless they buy into Rand’s whole system.  Clearly this would not be a plausible claim if we gave the constitutive strand in that essay much weight, for then we could offer as counterexamples virtually every major moral thinker from the first two thousand years of Western philosophy; none of them would have bought into Rand’s whole system, but the basic idea of our moral concern for others being grounded in our own flourishing as rational agents, with the latter in turn being identified both with our own true self-interest and with our biological life-function, was the reigning paradigm from Socrates through the Scholastics.

Mike’s claim becomes more plausible if we take “The Objectivist Ethics” as purely instrumentalist or nearly so; but I find instrumentalist and constitutive strands confusedly intertwined in that piece.  (Consider her rejection of “merely physical” survival, for example.)  The mere attempt to ground ethics on self-preservation, I should note, is not by itself enough to make Rand’s argument instrumentalist; for the Stoics, e.g., likewise gave self-preservation a place in ethical justification, yet few thinkers were less instrumentalist than they were.  For the Stoics, self-preservation is by nature our initial primary concern, but this concern can and should be transformed, as a result of critical reflection on the nature of the self to be preserved, into a broader moral concern to preserve ourselves as particular kinds of beings living a particular kind of life – and that new concern will, when necessary, trump mere survival, which now gets kicked away like a ladder after we have climbed up it.

Seneca, for example, writes that our desire to preserve our own constitution, while initially favoring mere survival, ultimately leads us away from it, since “a human being’s constitution is a rational one, and so a human being’s attachment is to himself not qua living being but qua rational being; for he is dear to himself in respect of what makes him human.”  (Letters to Lucilius 121.)  There is much in “The Objectivist Ethics” that is reminiscent of this approach, which shows that Rand’s talk of survival can make sense even within the constitutive strand, not just within the instrumentalist strand.  (I’d also be curious to know what Mike makes of the approach defended in the Bidinotto essay I linked to earlier.)

Mike’s argument that egoists cannot have non-instrumental concern for others echoes Cicero’s similar criticism of the Epicureans.  The Epicurean response was, in effect, an indirect consequentialism or rule-consequentialism: it’s in our self-interest to cultivate in ourselves non-instrumental concern for others.  While I don’t find this adequate (mainly because once the cultivation is successful the agent is no longer a consequentialist — see my article “The Value in Friendship”), it doesn’t seem obviously hopeless, and one could read Rand the same way; I’d be curious to know what my fellow symposiasts think of this solution.

My chief disagreement with Doug is over the extent to which interpersonal morality, and in particular a principled dedication to rights, can be identified as a constitutive part of human flourishing.  Doug thinks that the natural harmony of interests that the eudaimonist tradition largely embraces requires an agent-neutral conception of the good; I’m not convinced.  (Our further disagreement as to whether one can ground rights in interpersonal morality is, I think, a corollary of this prior disagreement.)

Resolving this dispute between Doug and myself would require answering another of Mike’s questions:  by what epistemic means we are to determine the content of eudaimonistic flourishing.  Mike finds empirical methods unpromising (as do I) and so defends an appeal to intuition.  In my book Reason and Value: Aristotle versus Rand, and again in my review of Leland Yeager’s Ethics As Social Science, I defend Aristotelian dialectic as the best epistemic method, and argue that Rand’s deviation from Aristotle in the direction of empiricism was responsible for the instrumentalist strand in her ethics (a claim that’s similar to what Mike is saying about the survival approach being easier to justify via empiricism).  I also argue there that the dialectical approach supports the harmony of interests and the incorporation of rights into personal morality and happiness.  Whether Aristotelian dialectic is the same thing as intuitionism is of course a complicated question.

I have the fewest disagreements with Neera, but let me mention a few. While I agree with her (and, apparently, everyone else here) that the value of mere survival is insufficient to ground the value of survival qua human, I am less convinced about the further gap Neera sees between survival qua human and eudaimonia; but perhaps I am loading more into the former notion than she does.

Neera also criticizes Rand for insisting on the unity of virtue.  If by the unity of virtue Neera means the thesis that one can’t have any one virtue to a significant degree without having them all, then I agree with her that that’s false (and I also agree that Rand seems, at least sometimes, to have held this mistaken view — as for example when she assumed that 19th-century businessmen could be neatly divided into those who prospered by their own effort and those who prospered through government favoritism, ignoring the substantial class of those who initially rose by their own efforts but then turned to government for favors once they’d acquired sufficient wealth to influence legislators). But if Neera means the thesis that one can’t have any one virtue completely without having them all, then I’d be willing to defend that thesis, on the grounds that a virtue is a disposition to act correctly in a certain domain, and the relevant domains all overlap.  In the words of Alexander of Aphrodisias (the leading Aristotelian of the 2nd century CE):

That the virtues are implied by one another might also be shown in the following way, in that it is impossible to have some one of them in its entirety [emphasis added] if one does not have the others too. For it is not possible to have justice in isolation, if it belongs to the just person to act justly in all things that require virtue, but the licentious person will not act justly when something from the class of pleasant things leads him astray, nor the coward when something frightening is threatened against him if he does what is just, nor the lover of money where there is hope of gain; and in general every vice by the activity associated with it harms some aspect of justice. (“That the Virtues Are Implied By One Another,” On the Soul II. 18; trans. R. W. Sharples)

(See also my pieces Happiness in Austro-Athenian Perspective and Why Does Justice Have Good Consequences?.)

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.