Flourishing at the Margin

Thanks to my fellow symposiasts for a terrific conversation!  And likewise to our hosts at Cato for sponsoring it.

Just a few last observations:

I agree with what Doug says about abstraction; indeed the distinction between precisive and non-precisive abstraction has been one of my chief hobbyhorses for some time.  (See, e.g., this piece [pdf].)  I don’t see how that point about abstraction conflicts with anything I said about universal vs. individualized aspects of human nature, however.  The abstraction mammal is individualized in different ways in different mammals, but that doesn’t change the fact that some properties belong to all mammals qua mammals (such as being warm-blooded), while others vary according to the individualization (such as having or not having fur); individualization does not invalidate what is essential to the class as a whole.  So what’s good for any given mammal will depend in part on universally mammalian properties (the needs of warm-blooded animals) and in part on properties specific to that species or indeed to that individual organism.  Why should it be different with humans?

At first I was puzzled as to why Neera should think that “the existence of wicked people” shows the falsity of the claim that everyone who remains alive is “rationally committed to morality.”  But now I think there’s an ambiguity on “committed.”  In one sense, being “committed” to something is a matter of deliberately dedicating oneself to it; in that sense, obviously not everyone is committed to morality.  But in another sense, one is “committed” to something if one’s current beliefs and projects logically entail it, whether or not one recognizes this fact; and in that sense, of course, the existence of evil people is no evidence against the claim that everyone is committed to morality.

Finally, Neera wonders whether I’m saying that one wrong act destroys one’s character.  I certainly don’t think that (and neither, incidentally, did Kant).  What I’m saying is that in each individual choice situation, the virtuous choice is eudaimonically preferable to the non-eudaimonic choice.  I think there’s a danger of confusing the claim that I should choose death over an unjust act with the claim that if I do choose an unjust act, my life thereafter is no longer worth living.  The second claim doesn’t follow from the first.  The preference ranking goes as follows:

a) Top choice, I act justly at time t and go on living afterward.

b) Second choice, I act justly at time t and then perish.

c) Third choice, I act unjustly at time t and go on living afterward.

d) Bottom choice, I act unjustly at time t and then perish.

Now when I’m confronted with the choice between justice and survival, then obviously (a) is no longer an option.  So I should then choose (b).  But suppose I fail to do so; instead I commit the unjust action at t.  In that case, (b) is no longer an option, and so the best option for me now is (c) rather than (d).  As I understand it, eudaimonic choice is about ranking options in particular case after particular case — not about some stark once-for-all choice between a happy life per se and an unhappy one per se.  As the Austrians have taught us, choice happens at the margin.

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.