Biology and Interests

Mike wants to know whether all I’m saying re Rand’s biological defense of egoism is that it’s “incoherent to doubt that one should pursue one’s interests.”

Well, not quite all.  It sounds as though Mike is inviting me to dispense with my “good for” talk in favor of talk about interests.  But I think the “good for” talk is essential, because the reference to “good” is essential.  Seeing something as in one’s interest doesn’t by itself carry with it any conceptual necessity to value the thing unless we have that link between interest and goodness; the conceptual necessity of valuing one’s interests is parasitic on the conceptual necessity of valuing goodness.

Here’s what I mean.  “Good” is action-guiding; to see something as good is to be committed (ceteris paribus) to favoring it, pursuing it, endorsing it, etc.  “Good for X” is not ordinarily action-guiding; I can see something as good for X and quite rationally not give a damn; what’s good for the virus is no concern of mine. But when I recognize myself as X, then (I claim) the qualifier drops away and I have to regard what’s good for X as good simpliciter.

By “good simpliciter” I don’t mean good from some agent-neutral point of view.  Rather, I just mean this: I can see something as valuable from X’s perspective and yet not value it; but not when I’m X. I can’t see something as valuable from my perspective and yet not value it, because I can’t get out of my perspective.

I mean the term “perspective” in a broad way that applies to plants too; I’m not talking solely about conscious agents. However, if one is a conscious agent, then one’s perspective in the narrow sense needs, on pain of incoherence, to be responsive to one’s perspective in the broad sense.

I regard the situation as analogous to Moore’s Paradox.  There’s no incoherence in saying “It’s raining, but X doesn’t believe it is” — unless I am X.  “It’s raining, but I don’t believe it is” is indeed incoherent.

As for why the biological references aren’t dispensable, I think we need those to give content to the notion of “interest.”  An interest isn’t just anything I happen to want; to want something is inter alia to judge that it’s worth having, and those judgments can be true or false; so we need something independent of our wants to be what makes them true or false, and life is the phenomenon that gives value-concepts their purchase.

Where the eudaimonic and instrumentalist strands differ is in the role assigned to those biological considerations; the instrumentalist strand makes mere survival the goal and a definite mode of survival the means, while the eudaimonic strand makes a definite mode of survival the goal.

In answer to Mike’s question about why non-flourishing people don’t also count as enjoying a definite mode of survival, let me point to a certain mode of argument that the eudaimonist can accept while the instrumentalist can’t:  if my goal is to survive in a human manner, then if life A is more human than life B, then life A has better claim than life B to be my goal.

The instrumentalist can’t consistently accept that claim; if your goal is just to live, say, a human life, or a reasoning life, then hey, Hitler was human and alive, and he could reason enough to find his way to the bathroom, so he must have been achieving the goal – and then any fancier considerations will have to enter at the level of implausible claims about, e.g., strategies needed to ensure longevity.

But the eudaimonist can say that if some lives are more human than others, or more fully exemplify what is most essentially human, then those lives are more fully candidates for the good human life — so that our goal will be not to live a minimally human life but to  live one that excels at being human.

And what’s attractive in Rand, I maintain, is the respects in which she sets out that latter vision, even when aspects of her theorizing pull her at the same time toward the instrumentalist approach.

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.