The Other Shoe has Dropped and Some Parting Comments

Probably, the last thing anyone needs to see at this time is another post by me.  So, I am going to keep this short and hopefully sweet.  I do not suppose for a moment that this is the last word.  But I think it must be so, at least for me, now.

First, Rod has dropped the other shoe regarding what he means by conflict of interests and concedes what I (and I believe Neera as well) noted — namely, that there can be righteous conflicts.  It is better for me that I get the job by moral means than that Rod gets the job my moral means, and vice versa.  But I don’t see anything in this point as implying that one can use immoral means to rectify this situation.   Whether Rand only meant to deny the appropriateness of immoral means to rectify such conflict and not the existence of righteous conflicts, as Rod claims, is not at all obvious to me.

Second, I am not at all comfortable with Rod’s speaking of common and individualized “parts” of human nature.   Following Aquinas, the nature of a thing is thoroughly individualized, and it is only by an act of abstraction that we can talk about what is common. (This is accomplished by what Thomists call “abstraction without precision,” and this process is more or less what Rand meant when she said that in abstraction we “omit the measurements.”)  So, I do not think some ethical principles flow from a universal part and other ethical principles flow from an individual part of human nature.  I also think this confuses how ethical principles are both justified and applied, but this is for another day.

Third, Rod’s understanding of metanormativity is not complete.  Rights regulate human conduct so as to allow for the possibility of playing the moral game in a social context.  The vital importance of securing this possibility and the determination in what this possibility consists (as well as how it is to be secured) is dependent on the nature of human flourishing.  But this does not mean that securing the possibility for playing the moral game in a social context is the same as securing the possibility of human flourishing. Rights are ethical principles that trump all other ethical principles when it comes to securing the possibility of playing the moral game among others, but they do not trump tout court.  This does not require moral dualism, but the realization that an account of human flourishing that is objective, individualized, inclusive, agent-relative, self-directed, and social gives rise to ethical principles that are not all of the same type or have the same function.

There is even more that I should say here, but this will have to do. (See Norms of Liberty, especially chapters 6, 7, 11 and 12).  Further, I am aware that Den Uyl’s and my own theory of rights is not the topic of discussion for this conversation.  (Those interested should see also Aeon Skoble, ed., Reading Rasmussen and Den Uyl: Critical Essays on Norms of Liberty [Lexington Books, 2008]).  Yet, since Rod has mentioned this theory more than once, I thought I should say this much about it.

Finally, Michael is correct, of course, to say that non-flourishing folks exist, but the issue is whether they are actualized.  This is why I have always contended that the way to read Rand’s ethics is as a type of perfectionism. What Rand brought (and now Philippa Foot brings as well) to perfectionism is an emphasis on life that allows for a connection between being a good X and being good for X when it comes to living things.  This is crucial to any account of how goodness might be defined.  (Rod’s recent post, “Biology and Interests” fits nicely into this line of thought.)

Of course, all of this involves a deep discussion of metaethics, as well as a debate with Mooreans [1] regarding meaning and reference, but this is not the place for such discussion.  I will say, however, that I have an essay in progress dealing with the alleged naturalistic fallacy.

Well, maybe these parting comments have not been short, but I hope they were sweet.  Once again, thanks to everyone.


[1] This refers to anyone who is a follower of G. E. Moore.  He claimed that any attempt to define goodness committed the “naturalistic fallacy.”

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.