Interests, Harmonious and Otherwise

Reply to Neera and Doug

I think by the “harmony of interests” doctrine Neera and Doug mean something more extreme than I do.  I don’t deny that the state of affairs that’s most in my interest may be inconsistent with the state of affairs that’s most in your interest, but that’s not what I mean by a conflict, or anyway a “fundamental” conflict, between our interests.  By a fundamental conflict of interests I mean a case where suppressing other people’s interests in an immoral way — including, but not limited to, rights violations — would be in my interest.

So take the rival-job-candidates case that both Neera and Doug both invoke; I would say that each candidate’s eudaimonic rankings should be as follows:

1) top choice, I get the job by moral methods;

2) second choice, the other person gets the job by moral methods;

3) third choice, the other person gets the job by immoral methods;

4) bottom choice, I get the job by immoral methods.

If my ranking (1) over (2) is what Doug and Neera mean by a conflict of interests, then I grant that such conflicts can occur under eudaimonism; but what I wish to deny (and all I take Rand to deny in her article “The ‘Conflicts’ of Men’s Interests”) is that the ranking of (1) over (2) implies a ranking of (4) over (2) or (3).

Take likewise the case of romantic rivalry, to which Rand devotes a fair amount of attention in her novels.  Does or does not Francisco, in Atlas Shrugged, prefer that Dagny choose him over Galt?  Well, I think that question underdescribes the situation.  Here’s how I interpret Francisco’s ranking of the relevant possibilities:

1) top choice, Dagny loves me and chooses me;

2) second choice, Dagny loves Galt and chooses Galt;

3) bottom choice, Dagny loves Galt and chooses me.

Rand makes clear that although Francisco would be happier with his first choice than with his second, he is still happier with the second choice than the third.

Of course Rand also portrays Francisco as accepting the second choice with more inner serenity than most of us could manage or perhaps would even want to.  (The idea of hanging out together in the company of one’s beloved and one’s successful rival is one I not only don’t find appealing, I don’t aspire to finding it appealing.)  But I don’t think an inability to achieve that kind of serenity over the situation would contradict the basic eudaimonic point.

On Neera’s patent case, I regard patents per se as unjust so I can cheerfully ignore that example.  (Incidentally, though, under U.S. law the patent doesn’t go to the first to file anyway, though Rand in her article on patents mistakenly thought it did; but the situation Neera and Rand describe does hold in some other countries, I believe.)

On Neera’s spousal career case, I’m not sure why intra-personal conflict should be considered a problem for the eudaemonist thesis.  Eudaimonism doesn’t say (well, the Stoic version does, but the Aristotelean version in any case doesn’t) that it’s always possible for everyone to attain all their rational desires.  Sometimes we have to give up some to get others.

I agree with Neera, then, that the need to “prioritize and try to make the best of the situation” doesn’t imply that there is “no room for rational regret, sadness, frustration, or unhappiness.”  But neither Rand nor Aristotle, as I read them, ever said otherwise.

Aristotle is sometimes interpreted as holding that the virtuous person will always enjoy doing the right thing, but he explicitly denies this; many of the deeds involved in, e.g., military courage, he notes, are ones that only a wicked person would enjoy.  To add another example (I owe this one to Karen Stohr):  it may fall to me, in some circumstance, to break the news to somebody of a loved one’s death, yet while I ought to perform this unwelcome task rather than wimp out of it, I certainly don’t have to enjoy it, and indeed there would be something morally wrong with me if I did.

On the issue of situations that destroy our capacity for happiness, I want to resist Neera’s suggestion that if we grant the premises a) doing the right thing always makes us happier, and b) happiness includes subjective enjoyment, then we’re committed to the conclusion c) that doing the right thing always increases our subjective enjoyment.  I accept the premises but reject the inference (and so don’t take the implausibility of the conclusion to impugn either of the premises).

If we’re faced with a situation where doing the right thing will destroy our capacity for subjective enjoyment, then happiness is no longer an option; but it can still be true than one option will leave us happier than the other.  (Analogously, we can grant that a mouse is larger than an ant without granting that either one is large.)  We can’t be living good lives unless we have both virtue and subjective enjoyment; but that’s consistent with holding, as Aristotle does, that we’re even worse off giving up virtue than we are giving up subjective enjoyment.

I also don’t think it’s true that Rand doesn’t face up to the possibility of these sorts of situations.  On the contrary, she says explicitly 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.

Doug thinks that if “human flourishing is different for each person,” then it follows that “there is no way that one can in principle rule … out” fundamental conflicts of interests.  Well, it depends how it’s different.  I take it that Doug agrees with me (and Cicero) that there is some necessary common overlap in content among these different versions of flourishing, just in virtue of our shared human nature.  But in that case, respect for rights, say, might belong to the common part rather than to the individualized part.

Of course, to say that it might be is not to show that it is.  But my point is that the mere fact of individualization doesn’t show that it isn’t.  By analogy: it’s true that red is always individualized as some particular shade — scarlet or crimson or whatever – but that doesn’t show that it’s impossible in principle to make any principled generalizations about red as such.

(An aside regarding Doug’s comment on metaphysical realism, I think Putnam and Wittgenstein are barking up somewhat different trees, and I prefer the latter to the former; but I agree with Doug that discussing this would take us too far afield.  I’ll just note that I don’t think reality is “social.”)

Reply to Mike

To Mike’s query about how one can extract normativity from Rand’s merely biological premises, here’s my short version of the naturalistic two-step:

1. We can’t make sense of a biological organism without seeing its successful self-maintenance as good for it; and indeed such self-maintenance seems to be a precondition of the applicability of the notion of “good for”; by contrast, nothing can be good or bad for a rock, say.  But this notion of “good for” doesn’t commit us to taking a positive attitude toward anything; I can grant that it would be good for the shark to eat me without endorsing its success in doing so.

2. But I myself am a biological organism, and it’s hard to see how I could without incoherence recognize something as good for me and yet take an attitude of indifference toward it.

So it’s the combination of a) the value-neutral fact that X is good for Y, with b) the fact that I am Y, that commits me to c) valuing X.

Regarding “Causality vs. Duty,” I agree that that essay is mostly in tension with the Aristotelian strand (though part of its aim is simply to defend internalism, which I take it is okay on Aristotelian grounds).  My view of Rand, as I’ve said, is that the Aristotelian and the instrumentalist strands coexist, that Rand wavers between them, and that the instrumentalist strands becomes more pronounced in her later writings.  “Causality vs. Duty” is an example of that latter trend.  But I also claim that the Aristotelian strand never completely goes away (and they’re both quite strong in “The Objectivist Ethics”).  In Reason and Value I trace the textual evidence of both strands throughout her writings, showing how the Aristotelian strand gradually (but never completely) wanes as its instrumentalist rival waxes.

(On another website, by the way, I noticed someone interpreting my use of “wavers” as meaning that Rand was hesitant.  No; I mean that she was confused — unhesitatingly confused — and failed to see the inconsistency.)

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.