Does Rand Presuppose Egoism or Argue for Egoism?

In response to Mike’s post of Monday night: Rand presupposes what you might call  a natural or biological egoism, identifying this egoism narrowly with the goal of  the entity’s own survival. We know, of course, that this is false — the lives of animals display all kinds of “altruism” and “self-sacrifice.” But even if our biological goal were survival, inferring that we ought to choose life for this reason would be to commit the famous naturalistic fallacy — which Rand avoids by arguing that ethics is grounded in the pre-moral choice to live, this being the only alternative to the choice to die (as Mike notes in one of his Tuesday posts). But Rand also often writes as though, in normal circumstances, the choice to live is the only rational and moral choice.

One reason Rand’s view is so seductive is that, if it were true that each of us must be ethical to survive, then the result would be pretty fantastic! Everyone who is alive (and not trying to commit suicide even though he is in a position to do so) is rationally committed to morality just by virtue of choosing to remain alive! You can’t find a deeper grounding for morality in human nature and the nature of the world. The only problem, of course, is that it’s not true, as shown by the existence of wicked people.

Doug has pretty much said what I would have said in response to Will’s pot-stirring comments. The only thing I want to add is that if we want to interpret Rand’s views fairly, we cannot privilege a short essay she wrote as a lecture to a student group over the thousands of pages of fiction she wrote, as I think Will is doing in relying on “The Objectivist Ethics” for his interpretation. Nor can we privilege two short essays — or, indeed, the entire corpus of Rand’s non-fiction — over her fiction. As an individual shows her character in the life she leads better than in her statements about herself, I think Rand shows her philosophy in the worlds she creates in her novels better than in her non-fictional statements. But as all of us neo-Aristotelians have acknowledged in this forum and elsewhere, neither her essays nor her novels present just one consistent view; rather, we think that when this work is considered in its totality, the neo-Aristotelian view is dominant (and more defensible).

Conflict of Interests, Again

If all Roderick means by the claim that rational interests don’t conflict is that it can never be in one’s interests to gain something by immoral means, then I pretty much agree (“pretty much,” because of the possibility of tragic situations I’ve been describing, of which more below). But I don’t think Rand meant simply this in her article, although it’s been a long time since I read it, and I admit I may be wrong.

Regarding tragic situations and eudaimonia: I think we are converging, although Roderick still misunderstands some of my claims.

1.  I gave the example of the possibility of an intra-personal conflict of interests not because it’s a problem for the eudaimonist thesis, but because it strengthens the case for the possibility of an interpersonal conflict of interests (as I interpret or interpreted it).

2.  My point about rational regret, sadness, frustration, or unhappiness over losing out to someone else is that such regret etc. is precluded by the thesis that there are no conflicts of rational interests (again, as I interpret or interpreted it), even if Rand does not say otherwise.

3.   I agree that, on Aristotle’s view, the virtuous person will not always enjoy doing the right thing (this is a question I often challenge students with, with the example of Agamemnon sacrificing Iphigenia).

4.  I agree that neither Rand nor Aristotle believes that doing the right thing always increases our subjective enjoyment (I make this point whenever I discuss happiness in either of them, my favorite example being that of Roark in the quarry).

5.  Roderick says that when “happiness is no longer an option … it can still be true that … we’re even worse off giving up virtue than we are giving up subjective enjoyment.” But first, “giving up virtue” is not the option I was describing; the option was not acting virtuously on that one occasion. It’s psychologically implausible to respond, as philosophers sometimes do (Rand, Kant, Roderick?), that even one wrong act will destroy your character. If that were true, then everyone’s character would be in a shambles. I say this confidently not because I know every human being in the world, but because every human being I know well enough to evaluate has acted wrongly more than once (and, I am confident, will continue to do so)! Second, “we are worse off doing the wrong thing than we are giving up the very capacity for subjective enjoyment” is true only if being worse off simply means having a more tarnished moral account. But eudaimonia is more than an untarnished moral account — just as it’s more than subjective enjoyment. It begs the question to say that acting virtuously is always the more important component of eudaimonia, regardless of consequences. I have yet to see an argument for this. Not every unvirtuous act is terrible — some are forgivable. And when they are, we can recover our happiness again. But losing the very capacity for enjoying life — that, by hypothesis, is forever.

6.  I also presented an even more tragic possibility: losing the capacity to act virtuously by, in part, acting virtuously (thanks to Doug for acknowledging this). Neither Rand nor Aristotle faces up to the possibility of these sorts of situations. Again, see Swing Kids.

7.  Roderick thinks that Rand does face up to the possibility of these sorts of situations because she says, in his words, 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.” But this doesn’t encompass the SK case. It also doesn’t encompass the cases Solzehnitsyn describes in his Gulag Archipelago: (i) You are denied the opportunity to commit suicide, even by starvation; (ii) before you can commit suicide, you have to either cooperate or see your daughter tortured and gang raped.

Will — thank you very much for putting on this symposium and inviting me to participate. Doug, Roderick, and Mike: thank you for your many  insights. I look forward to reading or re-reading your work.

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.