More on Happiness

The passage Doug quotes from Cicero is one of my favorites too, but it seems to be asserting my position rather than Doug’s.  For it says that we should follow our individual nature only so far as it consists with virtue and/or the requirements of universal human nature; and Cicero would clearly agree (given the rest of De Officiis) that respect for the rights of others is part of universal virtue.  One’s individual nature can make the requirements of human nature more specific, but it cannot contradict them. (In the text that follows Cicero goes on to specify that one’s social circumstances can add yet further specifications, but these are clearly subject to the same requirement.)  So the fact that the human good is individualized differently for different people doesn’t entail that one person’s good can conflict fundamentally with another’s.  So I don’t agree with Doug’s claim that the mere fact of individuality “does mean that there can be” such conflicts.

Of course, if Doug hasn’t shown that there can be, I also haven’t shown that there can’t be. Determining which aspects of morality belong to the universal nature and which to the individual, and in particular whether respect for rights belongs to the former or the latter, is a complicated business.  But I do think that the close connection between our nature as rational beings and the need to deal with others through reason rather than force does speak in favor of locating respect for rights at a fairly deep level.

In response to Neera’s worries about choice situations that destroy our capacity for happiness, I think this would be a problem for the Aristotelian view if it held either that virtue is sufficient for happiness or that happiness consists solely in conscious occurrent feelings. But if happiness is a matter of the objective success of one’s life as a whole, then I don’t find it problematic to say that if we were to avoid suffering horrific injustice only by committing such injustice ourselves, our lives would be objectively even worse (though we might perhaps feel better).  But here I suspect I am siding with Aristotle against Rand, who defines happiness as “a state of non-contradictory joy,” which doesn’t make it sound like a feeling (though one might be able to place some weight on the qualifier “non-contradictory”).

In answer to Mike’s question, here’s principally what I find plausible in “The Objectivist Ethics”:  a) the idea that the self-sustaining nature of living organisms gives value-concepts a purchase in their case that it doesn’t have in the case of things that don’t do anything to maintain themselves in existence, and so can’t clearly be said to succeed or fail, or to be benefited or harmed; b) the further idea that once we recognize ourselves as one of these entities, we cannot without incoherence fail to endorse what is biologically good or bad for it/us; and c) the yet further idea that reflection on the nature of the particular sort of organism we are will form part of the argument both for governing our own lives by reason and for dealing with others by reason.

And that’s a fair bit.  But I think to get to a full-fledged harmony of interests we need more than Rand gives us, and in particular we need to lay some stress on the social nature of reason, which is something Rand would not be jazzed about.

So in short, I’d say that Rand filled in some important bits of the picture, but not all of it, and indeed she explicitly rejected some pieces that I think are needed.  But I’d say the same of Aristotle, or indeed of Kant.

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.