Neither Stoicist Nor Putnam-Wittgensteinian

I agree (1) with Rod’s response to Neera that happiness needs to be understood objectively and (2) with what he says about Michael’s concern re the plausibility of Rand’s general approach.  Much of what Rod says in response to Michael was noted by Den Uyl and myself in our “Nozick on the Randian Argument” in The Personalist 59 (April 1978): 184-205 as well as in our account of her ethical views in The Philosophic Thought of Ayn Rand.  But he makes these points well, and they are to my mind part of the life-based approach to natural teleology that we both champion.

I cited Cicero for his recognition that human flourishing is individualized and not for the problematic Stoic claim (made elsewhere) that universal rights (which may or may not be negative) follow from our rational nature.

I would think that if human flourishing is individualized and agent-relative,[1] then this would mean that human flourishing is different for each person, and thus it is possible for there to be conflict—that is, there is no way that one can in principle rule this out.   For example, if Arizona University were considering only either Rod or myself for an endowed chair, then mutatis mutandis his good would be served better if he were chosen and I was not, and my good would be served better if I were chosen, and he was not.  But all these sorts of things depend on numerous concretes (e.g., that it would be good for either of us to accept such a chair).  Ethical principles do not specify such details, and this is again why practical wisdom is so important.

I do think that it is possible for people to cooperate peaceably.  This is why basic negative rights are so important, but the issue here between me and Rand seems to be whether the existence of such rights depends on the assumption that what is objectively good for one individual cannot ever conflict with what is objectively good for another.  I don’t assume this.  She did.

Human beings are certainly social.  Indeed, human reason has a social dimension, but I am afraid that I may have a different reading of the social nature of reason than Rod’s.  It may come down to a disagreement regarding the views of Hilary Putnam and possibly the later Wittgenstein.  (See my essay, “The Importance of Metaphysical Realism,” Social Philosophy & Policy 25.1 (Winter 2008): 56-99.) But now, we are getting away from Rand and talking more of our own approaches to these issues.

Surely, any philosopher’s work is incomplete.   But Rand’s corpus is certainly nothing like that of Aristotle’s or Kant’s.

This has been fun.  I want to thank Rod, Michael, and Neera for their comments.  I learned a great deal.


[1] “Agent-relative” describes any value, ranking, or reason V for which its description includes an essential reference to the person for whom the value exists, for whom the ranking is correct, or who has the reason. Thus, a good, G1, for a person, P1, is agent-relative if and only if its distinctive presence in a world, W1, is a basis or reason for P1 ranking W1 over W2, even though G1 may not be a basis or reason for any other person ranking W1 over W2.

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.