About this Issue

Ayn Rand has been dead for 27 years, but the influence of the iconoclastic novelist and philosopher shows no sign of flagging. With the publication of two new major books about Ayn Rand (Ayn Rand and the World She Made by Anne C. Heller and Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right by Jennifer Burns) and an upsurge in public interest in her thought (witness the sales figures of her novels and the signs of “Tea Party” protesters threatening to “Go Galt”) the American public is evidently as excited as ever about Ayn Rand. The time would seem ripe, then, for a reappraisal of her ideas. However, Rand is a polarizing figure and discussions of her thought tend to be either unduly fawning or ignorantly contemptuous. In this edition of Cato Unbound we aim to fill some of the vast middle ground between these extremes with a probing, critical discussion of Rand’s moral and political thought by philosophers familiar with, and perhaps influenced by, Rand’s philosophy. What accounts for Rand’s ongoing appeal? Are her arguments for ethical egoism defensible? Does a social order based on individual rights, limited government, and free markets require, as Rand argued, a fundamental reshaping of our culture’s moral assumptions? What, if anything, should we take into the future from Rand’s moral and political thought, and what, if anything, should we leave behind?

St. John’s University philosopher Douglas B. Rasmussen kicks of this issue with a lead essay that asks “Why Ayn Rand?” as well as series of tough questions for our panel of contributors. Three outstanding Rand-literate philosophers will tackle Rasmussen’s questions and add their own. On deck, we have Auburn University’s Roderick Long. He’ll be followed by Michael Huemer of the University of Colorado. Rounding out our lineup we have Neera K. Badhwar of the University of Oklahoma.


Lead Essay

Why Ayn Rand? Answers and Some Questions for Discussion

Ayn Rand is in the news. Over the past year there have been more and more references to her views in the media, and a large number of these have been positive or at least respectful. Sales of her books, though always strong, have increased in pace as well. No doubt, this attention is due to a heightening sense by many that the fundamental changes promised by the Obama administration are turning the United States into a European-style social democracy in which active state intervention in the economy will be more the rule than the exception.  Whether this will indeed be the case and whether such a development would be anything more than the inevitable result of over a century’s worth of state intervention (brought about as much by Republicans as Democrats) are matters for debate.  But what is clear is that the thought of Ayn Rand is becoming more prominent.

At one level, the increased attention given to Rand’s views seems to be due to how aptly her account of the destruction of capitalism in Atlas Shrugged captures what has been happening in reality.  Here we find the description of how government and certain businesses work together to create a political/legal order that favors certain groups at the expense of others, destroys economic growth and enterprise, and makes an ever-increasing number of citizens dependent on government for their livelihoods.  In a word, we have a story about how government working with business and labor creates a fascist economic, political, and legal order.

Yet, this alone cannot explain the increased attention given to Rand, for both F. A. Hayek and Ludwig von Mises describe such a development, and while there is increased attention to their works too, it has not been as intense as that given to Rand’s. It would seem that the reason Rand’s views have been thrust into the public square is due to more than economic matters. No doubt, it is because of the moral or ethical dimension of her understanding of the role of government and the nature of capitalism.  This understanding is as follows:

  1. The purpose of government is the protection and implementation of the basic individual rights of life, liberty, and property.  These ethical principles define, sanction, and provide the foundation for liberty as the paramount value for the political/legal order. The sole legitimate purpose of the state is the protection of liberty, and if the state pursues any other ends, then it debases its legitimacy.
  2. Capitalism is neither immoral nor amoral.  Rather, it is, as Rand states, “a social system based on the recognition of individual rights, including property rights, in which all property is privately owned.”

Individual rights are the linchpin of Rand’s political philosophy, and it is in terms of this concept that she understands capitalism.   It provides the ethical ideal by which to measure political orders and economies.  The United States has from its inception fallen short of this ideal, but it has more closely approximated it than any other political/legal order.  Thus, many Americans have a sense that their country is now explicitly rejecting this ethical ideal for another.  So, this is certainly part of the explanation for the resurgence of Rand.

This does not seem to be sufficient, however.  The classical liberal tradition is full of references to individual rights and their importance for politics and the economics.  One has only to think of the works of Frédéric Bastiat, particularly The Law, to find a view of government’s function and a commitment to laissez faire capitalism that is equivalent to Rand’s.   Moreover, Bastiat’s wit and writing style certainly make him as accessible as Rand.  So, again, why Rand?

The next part of the answer seems to be this:  It is for Rand both right and a right for individuals to live for their own sakes.  The moral standard to be followed is for each individual to live as full and as complete a human life as possible. Each individual human being is an end in him- or herself and has no higher moral purpose.  One is certainly not merely a means to the ends of others. This is what Rand meant by speaking of the virtue of “selfishness.” Her purpose in using a term that is normally thought of as a vice to describe her fundamental virtue was to indicate just how profound a paradigm shift is needed in order to defend liberty.  The right to liberty will not long exist in a culture that sees the pursuit of happiness (and by “happiness” she meant something more like human flourishing than merely pleasure) as either unworthy or simply amoral.  Fundamentally, when it comes to culture and the institutions that constitute a social system, homo moralis is what mattered for Rand, not homo economicus.

Rand’s point was not, however, merely a matter of sociology of knowledge.  She argued not only that moral knowledge is in fact possible but that such knowledge is found by an understanding of what human beings are—that is, by an appeal to human nature.  She thus sought to make a deep and profound philosophical claim about the nature of ethics and to link her advocacy of the ideal of liberty to this claim. Individual rights are natural rights. Indeed, Rand can be understood in most general terms as basing her advocacy of natural rights in natural law, if by the latter one understands “law” as meaning the measure and human nature as providing the measure that is the law.  So, what one finds in Rand is (despite her atheism) an echo of an older ethical tradition whose basic note is that human nature grounds the moral order.  This echo rings true, in many ways, to Americans who find themselves lost in the seemingly contradictory norms of political correctness and ethical relativism and who increasingly fear a culture (and politics) of nihilism.

Yet the relevance of Rand does not end here, because it is not merely the existence of a moral order that human beings desire, but something even larger—namely, the existence of an order that is open to human reason, achievement, and flourishing. Rand held that reality is intelligible and that there is nothing in principle which prevents human beings from knowing it.  Moreover, not only can we know reality, we can also use our knowledge to control nature so as to fulfill our needs and achieve our goals.  This world is not a “vale of tears,” but a place in which humans can triumph over poverty, disease, and ignorance. It is a place where human happiness is possible.  There may be no other writer who so fully conveys the sense of triumph that is possible for human life.  For Rand, Prometheus is unbound.  It is in this regard that Rand has a drawing power that may be the most profound of all.

I think, then, that Rand is in the news for these reasons: 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.  Overall, Rand’s philosophy supports ideas that were once thought to pertain to the very essence of being an American.  This essence is illustrated well by a poem, which I learned over forty-five years ago.  It is known simply as “My Creed.”

I do not choose to be a common man.

It is my right to be uncommon—if I can.

I seek opportunity—not security.

I do not wish to be a kept citizen,

Humbled and dulled by having the state look after me.

I want to take the calculated risk,

To dream and to build, to fail and to succeed.

I refuse to barter incentive for a dole.

I prefer the challenges of life to the guaranteed


The thrill of fulfillment to the stale calm of utopia.

I will not trade freedom for beneficence

Or my dignity for a handout.

I will never cower before any master

nor bend to any threat.

It is my heritage to stand erect, proud,

And unafraid, to think and act for myself,

Enjoy the benefits of my creations

And to face the world boldly and say, this I have done.

All this is what it means to be an American.

Rand can be viewed as seeking to provide the philosophical foundations for the ideas expressed in this poem.

Despite the power of Rand’s views, they can leave the critical reader in a quandary.  I believe the reason for this was expressed well by Professor John Hospers.  He once described Rand’s philosophical style as being like the broad brush strokes of a painter but without the tiny strokes that make the painting complete.  In other words, Rand’s thought lacks the attention to details, counter-examples, and context that are the hallmarks of the philosopher’s task.  As a result, she leaves many lacunae in her views and room for various interpretations of her basic positions.  Given the increased interest in Rand’s views, as well as her uncompromising defense of liberty, it might be worthwhile, then, to state some questions about Rand’s philosophy that critical readers might wish to ponder.  I will list six sets of questions. It is my hope that these can be used as the basis for discussion.

  1. What is Rand’s justification for individual rights? Does it succeed? What is the function of the concept of rights?  Is it rooted in human flourishing?  If so, how?  Is it a human virtue? Is it a deontological (duty) concept, or is it a different type of ethical norm?  Does Rand have a single justification for rights?  If Rand does not have an adequate argument, does she suggest paths that might be developed?  Or, is there no hope in this regard, and if so, is there any way to justify individual rights?
  2. Is Rand’s account of capitalism accurate?  Is it true to the work-a-day reality that people confront?  In terms similar to those used by Howard Roark in The Fountainhead, do most people have customers in order to create, or do they create in order to have customers?  Does it matter? Does capitalism require a moral backdrop to work, to be understood, to be defended?  Are individual rights the only moral concept required?  What are the differences between Rand’s vision of capitalism and that of Smith’s, Mises’s, or Hayek’s? Does homo moralis really trump homo economicus?
  3. Does Rand succeed in showing that there is moral knowledge?  Does she succeed in showing that human nature is its foundation?  Does she provide a way to derive what is valuable from what is and thus avoid the so-called naturalistic fallacy?  Is she committed to some version of naturalistic teleology (for example, that life is the ultimate end) and is this defensible?  Or, is Rand also committed to the idea that all morality rests on a pre-moral choice to live, and if so, has she really shown that our knowledge of what is can provide guidance as to what we ought to do?
  4. The subtitle of The Virtue of Selfishness is “A New Concept of Egoism.”  Does Rand provide a new concept?  Is it egoism?  In Atlas Shrugged, the standard of moral value is “Man’s Life,” and in The Virtue of Selfishness, it is “man’s survival qua man.”  Are these the same?  Are all the goods and virtues that are involved in living “qua man” merely instrumental values, or are some valuable in themselves?  How are such goods and virtues to be understood? What is the place, if any, for the friendship and charity in Rand’s ethics?  Is it really true that what is objectively good and right for one individual cannot as a matter of principle ever conflict with what is objectively good and right for another individual?  Does Rand fully appreciate the role of individuality when it comes to making moral determinations, and why is there no discussion of the intellectual virtue of practical wisdom? What is the role, if any, of the contingent and the particular in determining what one ought to do? Is there no place for moral pluralism? Is Rand’s ethical individualism really a form of atomism, or does she have a place for sociality in her account of the moral life?  How do Rand’s ethical views compare to those of Aristotle, Aquinas, Hobbes, Smith, Kant, and Nietzsche?
  5. Is the idea of human nature defensible?  In general, can one be realistic about the nature of anything, or does one have to be more pragmatic when it comes to how the world is conceptually divided? Is Rand’s account of human nature defensible?  Does her account of human volition stand up?  Does Rand always maintain a clear distinction between the “concept of X” and “X,” or does she sometimes fall into a rationalism that conflates the tools of human reason with reality?
  6. Is Rand’s view of religion accurate?  Is there no place for the transcendent in human life, and is faith in God simply a form of irrationalism?  Has natural theology truly been dismissed from the realm of rational discussion? What is the proper object of religious worship? Is there no place for tragedy in a realistic account of the world?  Is philosophy as close to reality as Rand seems to think?

As said, I offer these questions as the basis for discussion.  I make no pretense that they are exhaustive, but they are the sorts of questions regarding Rand that I have thought about for years.  This should be enough to get the ball rolling, so to speak.

Before I close these remarks, I want to note what my colleague, Douglas J. Den Uyl, has observed regarding Rand’s view of the connection between philosophy and reality.

As philosophers have known since antiquity, what moves the world may not map exactly onto the rarified and subtle nuances of thought suitable to philosophical truth.   This asymmetry is, for the most part, denied by Rand.  But the truth is that it manifests itself either by issuing in a state of persistent pessimism about the world around one, or in a small but deep sense of “tragedy” that the path from philosophic principle to practical action is a long, twisted, and obstacle ridden one with no smoother alternative.  I, for one, find the “tragic” path more conducive to the enjoyment of living, but its danger is a pessimism (or equally problematic, an enthusiasm) that comes from trying to obliterate the distance between philosophy and life.

I think that Rand lost sight at times (both in her work and life) of the distance between thought and reality.  I think this causes her no end of troubles on certain occasions (for example, when she attempted to provide an account of an “objective” theory of the moral good in “What is Capitalism?” in Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal), but I do not think that it is an overwhelming problem. The answer is to be found in observing the appropriate mean:  we are not cut off from reality; happiness is possible.  But the road we travel is not easy and nothing is guaranteed.  We must always keep in mind the distance between thought and reality if we are to triumph.

Not only do I think these observations are important for individuals in facing the challenges of their lives, but also for all who seek to defend liberty.  We live in a most trying time, and we are called upon to discover what is true and defend it with all of our abilities.  The truth behind liberty will ultimately prevail, but this may not happen in our lifetimes. Even if we were to succeed in our defense of liberty, nothing would be guaranteed.  Our work would need to continue.  Such is the human condition.  So, if there is any single reason for why Rand’s views should be worthy of the attention they are currently receiving, it is this: philosophical principles matter, and persons and cultures that ignore them do so at their peril.  This is the basis for the continued appeal of Atlas Shrugged, for there she pointed out more vividly than anyone else in our time what happens when the right principles are subverted and the wrong ones take their place.


I have over these years worked not only with such philosophers as Hospers and Den Uyl, but also Tibor Machan, Eric Mack, Fred Miller, Aeon Skoble, and many others, and so I think I can say fairly that there has been much philosophical progress in developing, expanding, and improving upon the insights of Rand.   Moreover, there has been the creation of the Ayn Rand Society, which has been meeting at the American Philosophical Association for more than twenty years, as well as the Journal of Ayn Rand Studies (edited by Chris Sciabarra), which is devoted to a careful and no holds barred analysis of her thought.  Rand’s thought thus is part of the current intellectual scene, and so it is altogether proper to assess her views at this time. I say this not because I see Rand as the ending point for discussion but as a starting point.  Finally, it is possible to advance liberty and defend individual rights in a manner different from Rand’s, as the works of Robert Nozick, Loren Lomasky, Jan Narveson, and David Schmidtz attest, and thus there is nothing in this proposed discussion that should be taken to deny the importance of their works.

Two final matters:  “My Creed” was written by Dean Alfange, and I would like to thank Will Wilkinson and Cato for this opportunity as well as Douglas Den Uyl, Aeon Skoble, and Roger Bissell for their helpful suggestions.

Douglas B. Rasmussen is professor of philosophy at St. John’s University in New York City.

Response Essays

The Winnowing of Ayn Rand

Like many others, I discovered Ayn Rand around the age of 15; her writings were my introduction to the field of philosophy, thereby setting me on the path to my present career. And while my views over the years have increasingly diverged from hers in numerous details, the fact that I remain an Aristotelian in philosophy and a libertarian in politics surely bears the impress of her influence.

I find myself in general agreement both with Doug Rasmussen’s explanation of the reasons for Rand’s enduring and growing popularity, and with his characterization of Rand’s work as on the one hand (contrary to her detractors) inspiring and philosophically insightful at the big-picture level, while on the other hand (contrary to many of her adulators) sometimes careless at the level of “details, counter-examples, and context.” As I’ve written elsewhere, she “imagined (and was encouraged by her followers to imagine) that she had worked out an engineer’s meticulous blueprint when much of what she had done was only an impressionist’s sketch.”

I don’t mean to imply by this latter remark that Rand was a philosophical lightweight, however. On the contrary: she developed independently, for example, many of the criticisms that philosophers like Saul Kripke and Hilary Putnam were beginning to raise against conventionalist theories of reference and necessity — criticisms that in their more familiar form are widely regarded as among academic philosophy’s most significant achievements of the past fifty years. (This is an example of a Randian outlook that was “contrarian” at the time she developed it but has since become part of the philosophical mainstream; her championing of a broadly Aristotelian approach to ethics is another.) If she lacked the patience to follow up her achievements with a rigorous working out of the details, that doesn’t make those achievements any less genuine in their own right. Rand was generally contemptuous of mainstream academic philosophy, which has largely returned the favor; but for the most part, neither side had a very clear understanding of what it was rejecting.

The questions that Rasmussen raises for discussion are well chosen; in what follows I try to address, inadequately, a few of them.

Egoism and Rights

Rand sets out to found a classical liberal conception of politics (including strong individual rights to negative liberty) upon a classical Greek conception of human nature and the human good. Such a project is not unprecedented; one can find broadly similar syntheses in thinkers as diverse as the Salamanca Scholastics, John Locke, and John Stuart Mill. But Rand, in addition to having little use for the various theoretical frameworks in which these earlier efforts were embedded, adds to her ethics a spirit of heroic exaltation drawn from Nietzsche and the French romantics.

Classical liberalism’s “thin” conception of politics is often thought to be at odds with the Greeks’ “thick” conception of ethics. If there is an objectively best way of life, or at any rate a family of best ways, then why should we value, as liberals do, the freedom to choose ways of life that are not the best?

Rand offers two answers. One is that being self-directed is an essential part of the good life, so that a way of life forced on someone from without no longer counts as best. But her other and more characteristic answer appeals less to the welfare of the potentially coerced and more to that of the potential coercer; to deal with others by force rather than persuasion is to betray one’s own nature as a rational being, and thus to make not only one’s victim but oneself worse off. (Rand here embodies what Douglas Den Uyl has called the “supply-side” aspect of Greek ethics.)

Central to Rand’s ethics is the idea that the nature of our self-interest is something that has to be discovered on the basis a consideration of our nature as rational beings, not something that we can simply read off our desires. Rand’s delineation of the content of our self-interest includes, crucially, both the thesis that there can be no genuine conflict between self-interest and morality, and the closely related thesis that there can be no genuine conflict between one person’s self-interest and another’s. [1]   These claims may strike many today as implausible — one of Rand’s recent biographers calls the second thesis “eccentric” — but they were shared by nearly every major thinker in the first two thousand years of moral philosophy, from Socrates, Plato, and Rand’s beloved Aristotle, through the Stoics and Epicureans, and onward through Cicero to the aforementioned Scholastics. [2]

But what, in Rand’s view, connects our self-interest with the moral claims of others? For most of Rand’s aforementioned “eudaimonist” predecessors, the requirements of moral virtue were conceived as a constitutive part of the agent’s own interest; the Epicureans were the only major dissidents, regarding virtue instead as an instrumental strategy for attaining this interest (rather like Hobbes, in a way, though the Epicureans are surely closer to the main line of eudaimonism than Hobbes is). Rand appears to waver between these two approaches, treating the individual’s ultimate good sometimes as a robust human flourishing that has virtue as a component, and sometimes as mere survival to which virtue is only an external means. [3]

The constitutive approach predominates in her novels; the chief reason that Rand’s fictional protagonists (such as architect Howard Roark in The Fountainhead or railroad executive Dagny Taggart in Atlas Shrugged) do not cheat their customers, for example, is pretty clearly that they would regard such parasitism on the productive efforts of others as directly inconsistent with the nobility and independence of spirit that they cherish for themselves, and not because they’re hoping that a policy of honesty will maximize their chances of longevity. Like Aristotle, who preferred “a twelvemonth of noble life to many years of humdrum existence,” they evidently value quality of life over mere quantity. But as Rand began to work out — first in the lengthy “Galt’s Speech” near the end of Atlas Shrugged, and subsequently in a series of nonfiction essays and private seminars — a more elaborate set of theoretical underpinnings for the moral vision she’d presented in her fiction, her emphasis began to shift, though never unequivocally, to the instrumental reading. [4]

So when Rasmussen asks (in parts of his first and fourth sets of questions) whether and how Rand succeeds, or points the way toward success, in grounding respect for others’ rights in the agent’s own flourishing, I think the answer depends on whether one focuses on the instrumental or on the constitutive strand. The fatal weakness of the instrumental approach, as I see it, is that regarding the moral virtues as mere strategies for advancing one’s chances of survival makes it difficult to justify the kind of principled commitment to virtue that Rand seeks to defend. Working for a living, even at a hated job, is ordinarily a better strategy for survival than looking for discarded lottery tickets in the gutter; but if I happen to spot a winning ticket there, I have no reason not to take advantage of it. Yet it would be awkward if the superiority of honesty over dishonesty were similarly contingent on circumstances. (This is essentially the objection that Plato raises against the instrumental approach in book 2 of the Republic.) By contrast, the constitutive approach avoids this problem; when the means is an essential part of the end, the risk of cases arising where one can achieve the end by a different and incompatible means drops to zero. I regard the constitutive strand in Rand’s ethical writings both as more defensible in its own right (robust human flourishing is a goal we can make sense of for ourselves; bare survival isn’t) and as a valuable, though not necessarily complete, guide to the grounding of the other-regarding virtues, including (though not limited to) respect for individual rights. [5]

Teleology: The Living End

Among Rasmussen’s third set of questions is whether Rand’s apparent reliance on a naturalistic teleology to ground her ethics is defensible. Let me sharpen this question a bit further.

There are, broadly, three salient positions one might take on the relationship between teleological and evolutionary conceptions of biology. First, one might regard them as mutually incompatible; this position is taken both by those proponents of evolution who regard Darwin’s theory of natural selection as having debunked teleology, and by those creationists who think the obviousness of teleology in the natural world debunks evolution. (This option is especially attractive to those who think of teleology as necessarily involving purpose.) Second, one might on the contrary regard Darwinian evolution as vindicating teleology by providing a mechanism for it; notably, this was Darwin’s own view.[6]

Finally, one might regard teleology as compatible with Darwinian evolution without being grounded in it; this seems to be Rand’s own approach, since on the one hand she (like Aristotle) regards natural teleology as non-purposive and unconnected with any notion of “intelligent design,” while on the other hand she (again like Aristotle) identifies teleological traits in terms of their role in the organism’s current life-activity rather than in terms of the traits’ historical emergence. [7]   If the question is whether this sort of teleology is defensible, I would point, in defense of an affirmative answer, to the compelling recent work of such mainstream (i.e. non-Randian) philosophers as Paul Sheldon Davies (Norms of Nature: Naturalism and the Nature of Functions), Michael Thompson (Life and Action: Elementary Structures of Practice and Practical Thought), and Philippa Foot (Natural Goodness). I would add that the considerations raised by Thompson and Foot seem more promising as a basis for a Randian-style ethic (in its constitutive strand, at least) than those raised by Davies.

As for whether the Randian approach successfully crosses the fact-value gap, I would say that identifying X as good for some organism is safely on the “factual,” value-neutral side of the ledger. (A shark’s eating me may be good for the shark, but my recognition of that fact doesn’t, absent further argument, give me any reason to endorse the shark’s doing so.) But once I recognize not only that X is good for some organism, but that I am the organism in question, it’s hard to see how I could reasonably continue to take a value-neutral attitude toward X.

Another issue on which Rand wavers, however, is whether the value to me of my biologically given goals depends on a further “choice to live” –another topic raised by Rasmussen in his third question. Rand seems to say yes, insisting that liability to moral assessment depends on this premoral choice; yet her obvious contempt for those who would choose not to live suggests that moral assessment must apply to this choice too. A genuinely Aristotelian approach to ethics would seem to favor the later option.

Capitalism as an Unknown Ideal

Foremost among Rasmussen’s second set of questions is whether Rand’s “account of capitalism” is “true to the work-a-day reality that people confront.” Here I think the right answer is: no, not at all. But how much of a problem that is for Rand depends in part on which meaning of “capitalism” one goes by, and thus on the extent to which our work-a-day reality is to be identified with capitalism in the first place.

Rand describes a “pyramid of ability” operating within capitalism, wherein the dull masses are carried along by the intelligent and enterprising few. “The man at the top,” Rand assures us, “contributes the most to all those below him,” while the “man at the bottom who, left to himself, would starve in his hopeless ineptitude, contributes nothing to those above him, but receives the bonus of all of their brains.” Rand doesn’t say that the top and the bottom always correspond to employers and employees respectively, but she clearly takes that to be the usual situation. And that simply does not correspond with the reality of most people’s everyday experience.

If you’ve spent any time at all in the business world, you’ve almost certainly discovered that the reality on the ground resembles the comic-strip Dilbert a lot more than it resembles Rand’s pyramid of ability. In Kevin Carson’s words: as in government, so likewise in business, the “people who regulate what you do, in most cases, know less about what you’re doing than you do,” and businesses generally get things done only to the extent that “rules imposed by people not directly involved in the situation” are treated as “an obstacle to be routed around by the people actually doing the work.” To a considerable extent, then, in the real world we see the people at the “bottom” carrying the people at the “top” rather than vice versa.

Rand’s notorious reference to big business as a “persecuted minority” (Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, ch. 3) likewise jars with our real-world experience of “capitalism,” as we see the corporate elite lining up for tax-funded subsidies, protectionist regulations, bailouts, mandates, monopoly contracts, war profits, eminent domain giveaways, and other state-granted privileges.

Rand was not unaware of any of this, of course; on the contrary, she sharply condemns “men with political pull” who seek “special advantages by government action in their own countries” and “special markets by government action abroad,” and so “acquire fortunes by government favor … which they could not have acquired on a free market.” [8] Likewise, while readers often come away from Atlas Shrugged with the vague memory that Dagny Taggart was fighting against villainous bureaucrats who wanted to impose unfair regulations on her railroad company, in fact Taggart’s struggle is mostly against villainous bureaucrats who want to give her company special favors and privileges at its competitors’ expense. Moreover, most of the workplaces depicted in her novels are run by vain and incompetent bosses (like James Taggart in Atlas Shrugged or Guy Francon in The Fountainhead) who have to be continually flattered or outwitted by their subordinates.

Rand would deny, of course, that these are problems with capitalism. Government favors to business are directly incompatible with capitalism as she understands it, while incompetent and tyrannical bosses would be unlikely to thrive in a genuinely competitive market.

Yet as I read Rand, she once again wavers — this time between two conceptions of capitalism. On the one hand, she defines capitalism as “full, pure, uncontrolled, unregulated laissez-faire” in which “all human relationships are voluntary” — thus identifying capitalism as a 100% libertarian social system which by her own admission seems never to have existed in history. (Call this ideal capitalism.) Yet on the other hand she describes capitalism as a historical reality, saying for example that it “has created the highest standard of living ever known on earth.” (Call this historical capitalism.) How can capitalism have had all these wonderful results if capitalism has never existed? [9]

Rand’s answer, evidently, is that historical capitalism has been at least an approximation to ideal capitalism. But there is reason to doubt that this is so. Rasmussen speaks of the “heightening sense by many” that the current Democratic administration is ushering in a state of affairs in which “active state intervention in the economy will be more the rule than the exception”; but such intervention — usually on behalf of business interests — has arguably already been the rule for some time, with the present regime representing more a shuffling of the details than a major step toward greater statism.

Nor do we find a laissez-faire utopia when we turn to 19th century America; even if we set aside, as we shouldn’t, the fact that women and nonwhites –i.e. a majority of the population — were largely excluded from participation in the market, that market was heavily burdened by tariffs, banking regulations, monetary monopolies, postal monopolies, corporate subsidies, licensure laws, land seizures, cartelization schemes, censorship laws, anti-union laws, and Hamiltonian “internal improvements.”

Of course I don’t mean to deny that the United States and other countries generally identified as “capitalist” generally owe their prosperity to their free-market elements rather than to their statist and corporatist elements; but from a radical libertarian perspective that’s a bit like saying that the seriously ill owe what vitality they have to the respects in which they are not diseased.

The magnitude of the gap between corporatist reality and the free-market ideal was the subject of a previous Cato Unbound symposium in which I participated, so I won’t go into more detail now. But if that gap is greater than Rand assumed, then the use of a single term, “capitalism,” to cover both may be inadvisable. [10]  More substantively, if Rand indeed underestimated the magnitude of the gap, then her defense of ideal capitalism may not translate as readily as she thought into a justification of various features of historical capitalism. [11]   How much of her vision of titans of industry heroically striding across the economic landscape, their pyramid-shaped companies of the less-talented dangling from their pockets like watch fobs, is an artefact of competition-strangling regulations that prevent the flattening of corporate structures, the proliferation of small businesses, and the emergence of workers’ cooperatives?

A related concern about Rand’s vision of a “capitalist” society is the role she envisions for government: that it should be confined solely to the protection of rights, and “resort to force only against those who start the use of force.” In effect, Rand proposes to assign the job of rights-protection to a coercive monopoly insulated from competition, with all the informational and incentival perversities to which such monopolies are subject — and then demands that it not act like a monopoly. Rand described anarchism as a floating abstraction, but the charge might more justly be leveled against “limited government.” [12]   (Ironically, one of the central messages of Atlas Shrugged — that the way to defeat an oppressive regime is not through violent revolution but through the mass withdrawal of consent — represents a distinctively anarchist approach to political strategy.)

Liberty In Context

Finally, another question from Rasmussen’s second set is whether, as Rand held, a genuinely free society requires “a moral backdrop to work, to be understood, to be defended.” I would certainly agree that the defense of liberty needs to invoke moral and cultural values beyond the libertarian nonaggression principle alone. For one thing, politics and culture form an interlocking system, with each influencing and reinforcing the other — so we can hardly expect to achieve or maintain liberty while leaving the other elements in the system unaddressed. For another, there are values that, though not entailed by the nonaggression principle itself, are entailed by the best reasons for adopting that principle, so that one could not reasonably embrace that principle while rejecting the associated values. Hence Rand was right to insist that the struggle for liberty must be a cultural as well as a political struggle. [13]

This is not to say that all of the values that Rand championed are well-suited to that struggle; those values included both enlightened attitudes and reactionary ones, mixed together. Moreover, Rand overstated the extent to which the highly specific set of values she defended was crucial to the cause of liberty. Yet while a free society need not require a specific set of cultural values (and might well require the reverse), it seems obvious that liberty is likely to fare better in some contexts than in others, and indeed that some contexts, while not technically inconsistent with libertarianism, are very likely to undermine it in practice. Thus even if there is no one cultural model that a free society must follow, it’s reasonable to suppose that there is some (broad, but not infinite) range within which the prevailing cultural forms in a society must fall if a society is to remain free. In short, we need a combination of generic universalism with specific pluralism. Rand’s commitment to rationality and ethical individualism will surely be included under that generic universalism, even if many of her more specific doctrines will not.

Roderick T. Long is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Auburn University


[1] Incidentally, Rand’s rejection of a conflictual model of human interests suggests that she may have blundered in choosing the term “selfishness” to describe her ethical perspective; for what “selfishness” ordinarily means is not merely dedication to one’s own interests, but dedication to one’s own interests at the expense of the interests of others. Thus the concept of “selfishness” is at home only within a conflictual model of interests. For someone like Rand, who denies that one can achieve one’s own interests by sacrificing those of others, it might perhaps be better to speak, not of the “virtue of selfishness,” but of the impossibility of selfishness. (The term “egoism” does not seem problematic to the same extent.)

[2] For a contemporary exposition of this “eudaimonist” perspective, see Julia Annas’s recent article “Happiness As Achievement.

[3] See also Eric Mack’s argument (“Problematic Arguments in Randian Ethics,” Journal of Ayn Rand Studies 5.1 (Fall 2003), pp. 1-66) that Rand likewise wavers over the closely related question of whether the connection between self-interest and morality is conceptual or causal.

[4] This interpretation is controversial; for an ingenious argument (though I remain unconvinced) for the ultimate compatibility of the constitutive and instrumental approaches in Rand, see Robert Bidinotto’s “Survive or Flourish? A Reconciliation.”

[5] For further defense of the constitutive approach, see Neera K. Badhwar’s Is Virtue Only a Means to Happiness? An Analysis of Virtue and Happiness in Ayn Rand’s Writings and my own Reason and Value: Aristotle versus Rand.

I take Rasmussen’s own position, as defended in such works as Liberty and Nature and Norms of Liberty, to be that the function of rights is to guide society-wide legislation rather than to guide personal conduct; my worry about this approach is that it threatens to leave the individual with only instrumental reasons to care about anyone’s rights but her own.

[6] James G. Lennox, “Darwin Was a Teleologist,” Biology and Philosophy 8.4 (Oct. 1993): 409-421. For a contemporary defense of the same view, see Ruth G. Millikan’s Language, Thought, and Other Biological Categories.

[7] Harry Binswanger’s The Biological Basis of Teleological Concepts, itself intended in part as a defense of Rand’s ethical foundations, seems to combine the second and third approaches.

Incidentally, and interestingly, Rand is to some degree indirectly responsible for the resurgence of interest in Aristotle’s biology within mainstream academic philosophy; Allan Gotthelf and James Lennox, two of the leading authorities within the study of Aristotelean biology (see their studies Philosophical Issues in Aristotle’s Biology, Aristotle on Nature and Living Things, and Aristotle’s Philosophy of Biology), both come from a background in Randian scholarship.

[8] “The Roots of War,” Capitalism, pp. 35-44. Moreover, as Rasmussen notes, the form of political oppression against which Atlas Shrugged prophetically warns, and which Rand generally saw as the chief danger facing the United States, was not socialism but rather a fascist-style government-business partnership promoted, in her view, by both left and right. (See, e.g., “The Presidential Candidates, 1968,” Objectivist 7.6 (1968); “The Fascist New Frontier,” Ayn Rand Column, 2nd ed., ch. 28; “The New Fascism: Rule by Consensus,” Capitalism, ch. 20; and “The Moratorium On Brains, Part II,” Ayn Rand Letter 1.3 (7 Nov. 1971).)

[9] As Chris Sciabarra asks: if concepts, according to Rand’s theory, are supposed to have “existential referents,” where is the existential referent for capitalism? “Despite Rand’s affection for the American, republican form of government, her own vision is less a description of historical reality than it is the projection of an ideal that has yet to be realized. … But if Rand’s ideal is anticipatory, then how can she claim validity for such a concept when it has no legitimate past or current referents? In actuality, Rand creates an ‘ideal-type’ by abstracting liberal referents from historical states, while disregarding nonliberal factors that have been internal to every state in history. For Rand, such concepts as ‘government’ and ‘capitalism’ are socially transformative; their ‘ideal’ character is latent in currently distorted social forms. … Rand’s voluntary political association remains an unknown ideal.” (Chris Matthew Sciabarra, Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical, p. 283.)

For further discussion of how to make sense of a term like “capitalism” within the context of Rand’s theory of word meaning, see my “Praxeology: Who Need It,” Journal of Ayn Rand Studies 6.2 (Spring 2005): 299-316.

[10] There’s an ongoing dispute among libertarians over the meaning of “capitalism.” While most libertarians use the term to refer to a free market, a growing minority (examples include Kevin Carson, Gary Chartier, Charles Johnson, Sheldon Richman, and Brad Spangler) tend to reserve “capitalism” for the corporatist status quo, favoring “socialism” for the free-market alternative; still others (such as Steve Horwitz and myself) lean toward avoiding the terms “capitalism” and “socialism” altogether.

[11] Certainly Rand’s defense of individual business figures like J. P. Morgan seems to rest on underestimating the extent of the gap; for details, see pp. 321-25 of my article “Toward a Libertarian Theory of Class,” Social Philosophy & Policy 15 no. 1 (1998), pp. 303-349 (online here and here).

[12] For analysis of free-market anarchism, see Edward Stringham, ed., Anarchy and the Law: The Political Economy of Choice, and Roderick Long and Tibor Machan, eds., Anarchism/Minarchism: Is a Government Part of a Free Country?.

[13] For the relations between libertarian principle and broader cultural values, see Chris Matthew Sciabarra, “Dialectics and Liberty,” and Charles Johnson, “Libertarianism Through Thick and Thin.”

Why Ayn Rand? Some Alternate Answers

What accounts for the continuing and increasing interest in the work of Ayn Rand? Clearly, the attraction of her ideas has much to do with it. This is true despite the fact that most people, even in America, are probably hostile to most of her philosophy. In a capitalist society, one need not please a majority in order to be successful; one need only find a market niche. There are enough individualists and libertarians in America to provide a strong market for Rand’s message.

Recent political developments have clearly contributed to interest in her political philosophy. But recent events do not change the actual relevance of Rand’s ideas, political or otherwise. The election of Barack Obama, for instance, changes little. There have been left-wing democrats for a long time, and there have been calls to socialize medicine for decades. The principles of individual rights are exactly as true as they have been throughout human history, and the nature of the opposition to those principles has changed little in the past few decades.

Contrary to the impression one might get from listening to “tea party” enthusiasts, things are probably getting better, from an individualist’s standpoint, in the medium to long term (on the scale of decades and centuries). A few centuries ago, “the divine right of kings” was taken seriously as a theory of political authority, and slavery was widely practiced. A century ago, half of the adult population of the United States could not vote. Half a century ago, that same half of the population was effectively barred, by collectivist cultural biases, from most professions, while individuals of African ancestry were segregated, both by law and by custom, from the white population. Ayn Rand characterized racism as “the lowest, most crudely primitive form of collectivism.”[1]  This crudest form of collectivism was not long ago embraced, explicitly and shamelessly, throughout American society. Of course, it is hardly gone today (new forms have arisen lately, such as that of ascribing collective guilt to light-skinned individuals), but who could deny that racism has passed its peak? And just a quarter century ago, the human race was still threatened by the Soviet Union, which sought to spread Marxist communism across the globe. Like racism, communism has not disappeared from the Earth entirely, but it has certainly had its time. All of this suggests to me that the perennial interest in Ayn Rand’s work has more to do with a trend toward individualism than with a reaction to collectivist trends.

This does not answer the question, which Professor Rasmussen has raised, of why Rand attracts more attention than other defenders of liberty, such as Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich Hayek, or Frederic Bastiat. Here I must differ with Rasmussen. I don’t believe Bastiat, or any other of the well-known defenders of liberty, is nearly as accessible to a modern reader as Rand. Rand, I believe, is the most compelling writer of the group. More importantly, Rand was not only a philosopher, but a compelling novelist.

Some followers of Rand may scoff at this explanation. “No, it is all down to her philosophical ideas,” they may say. “Rand’s works outsell those of von Mises because she has a coherent, comprehensive philosophy!” I think Rasmussen’s suggestion is somewhere in this region as well—that Rand’s greater popularity is due to her connecting libertarian political philosophy with comprehensive ethical and meta-ethical theories. Let us consider the evidence. Atlas Shrugged outsells Human Action by a wide margin. As of this writing, the Amazon sales ranks are 101 and 16,331, respectively.[2] (Admittedly a limited measure, but still interesting.) But Atlas also outsells Rand’s own non-fiction books, by similarly wide margins. The Virtue of Selfishness trails at 11,993, with Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology all the way down at 120,117.[3] If the greater market success of Rand as compared with von Mises were due to Rand’s broader philosophy, wouldn’t we see this reflected in sales of Rand’s non-fiction works, in which she explicitly develops that philosophy?

The data fit another hypothesis: that the novel is a far more accessible and popular vehicle for communicating ideas than the monograph. The lesson for defenders of freedom seems clear. We need more novelists, screenwriters, and other artists.

But let us leave aside the matter of Rand’s literary success. What is the best way to defend freedom intellectually? Is it, as Rand believed, to connect the philosophy of individual rights to a version of ethical egoism, which in turn derives from the metaethical theory presented by Rand in “The Objectivist Ethics”?[4] I don’t think so. Objectivists seem to find that essay completely convincing. But hardly anyone else finds it at all convincing. This is not a trivial observation—one often finds that people who do not accept a whole philosophical system nevertheless find certain parts of it plausible. And one often finds that people who are not ultimately persuaded by an argument nevertheless see some plausibility in it. But neither of these things is true of the argument of “The Objectivist Ethics”—hardly anyone finds that argument even slightly plausible, unless they also buy into virtually all of Ayn Rand’s views. This is not true of most of her other views: one would not be surprised to find a non-Objectivist who nevertheless thinks Rand’s political views are reasonable, or her epistemological views, or her aesthetic theories. The explanation is simple: the theory of “The Objectivist Ethics” is simultaneously the most distinctive and the least plausible, worst defended of all of Rand’s major ideas. (Here is a nicer way to say that: all of Rand’s other major theories are more plausible and better defended than that one.) I do not have space to detail the flaws in the article here; they require more lengthy discussion.[5] For now, just take as a sociological observation that few find the theory of that article plausible, even after reading the article.

There are two major reasons why the best hope for political freedom is not to connect it ideologically with Rand’s ethical and metaethical theories. The first is that those theories are utterly unconvincing to almost everyone—even less convincing than libertarianism. Connecting the two together serves only to discredit the cause of freedom and individual rights. It plays into the hands of those who say that the only opposition to socialism derives from greed and selfishness.

The second major reason is that ethical egoism does not support the philosophy of individual rights in the first place. Quite the opposite. Take Rasmussen’s statement of the basic individualist premise: “Each individual human being is an end in him‑ or herself … not merely a means to the ends of others.” This is a very common idea in classical liberal writings. Nearly identical statements appear in Rand, in Nozick, and of course in Kant.[6] It is also, pace Rand, directly and obviously contrary to ethical egoism. For ethical egoism posits that the only thing that ought to matter intrinsically to me is my own welfare—for me, my own welfare or happiness is the only end in itself. It follows from this that I ought not to regard other individuals as ends in themselves; rather, I should see them only as means to my happiness—just as I see everything else in the world. This is a very simple and straightforward implication of the theory. 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.

One might say that each person is an end in himself only for himself—maybe the statement “Every individual is an end in himself, not a mere means to the ends of others” means only that each person should treat himself (but not anyone else) as an end in himself, and that no one should see himself as a means to the ends of others (but one should see everyone else as a means to one’s own ends). But this bizarre interpretation of the principle not only robs it of any intuitive plausibility; it also renders obscure its use in defending individual rights. The more straightforward interpretation of the individualist premise is that I must recognize other individuals as ends in themselves, not mere means to my ends. The straightforward argument for respecting individual rights is that when one violates another person’s rights, one uses that person without his consent, and one thus treats that person as if he were a mere means to one’s own ends. That argument, of course, could not be advanced by a true egoist, who must hold that it is obligatory to treat other persons (and everything else) as mere means to one’s own welfare.

At this point, most Objectivists fall back on the contention that, luckily, it is impossible for rational people’s interests to conflict. More particularly, that although it would be praiseworthy to use others for one’s own advantage if one should get the chance, opportunities are peculiarly scarce, so much so that there has never (or almost never) been a case in which anyone would have benefited by violating another person’s rights (for instance, by initiating the use of force against another). It would be truly wonderful if this could be proven. But actual arguments for this claim are unsurprisingly hard to come by, and it remains unclear why anyone would accept the claim, apart from a drive to reconcile Rand’s ethics with her politics. This issue has, of course, been discussed at great length among supporters and critics of Rand, and I have nothing especially new to add. I shall simply record my judgment that defenders of liberty are far more likely to convince others of the need to respect individual rights through the straightforward “persons are ends in themselves” argument mentioned above, than through an argument that relies upon (a) first convincing the audience that the right action is always the most selfish action, and (b) then convincing the audience that it is impossible to benefit from violating someone else’s rights.

It should be clear from this what I think remains alive in Rand’s political and moral thought, and what I think must be discarded. Her key insight is the principle of individual rights, that persons exist as ends in themselves, not mere resources for others to use, and that because of this, individuals may not initiate the use of force or fraud against one another. Rand saw clearly that this entails that capitalism is the only just economic system. Where she went wrong was in thinking that these crucial insights rested on an egoistic foundation.

Michael Huemer is an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Colorado and author of Ethical Intuitionism.


[1] The Virtue of Selfishness (New York: Signet, 1964), paperback ed., p. 126.

[2] Source: www.amazon.com, January 14, 2010. Statistics are for the paperback edition of Atlas Shrugged (Plume, 1999), and the paperback edition of Human Action (Liberty Fund, 2010)—the most popular editions of each book. Amazon sales rank statistics vary widely from day to day. Nevertheless, the qualitative points here are fairly stable.

[3] From www.amazon.com, January 14, 2010. Statistics are for the Signet 1964 paperback edition of Virtue of Selfishness and the Plume 1990 paperback edition of Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology (again, the most popular editions of these books).

[4] pp. 13-35 in The Virtue of Selfishness, op. cit.

[5] See my “Is Benevolent Egoism Coherent?”, Journal of Ayn Rand Studies 3 (2002): 259-88; “Why I Am Not an Objectivist,” especially section 5 <home.sprynet.com/~owl1/rand.htm#5>; and especially “Critique of ‘The Objectivist Ethics’”, <home.sprynet.com/~owl1/rand5.htm>. One caveat: based on my experience, committed Objectivists will not find any of this at all convincing. But just about everyone else will.

[6] Ayn Rand, The Virtue of Selfishness, op. cit., p. 27; Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia (New York: Basic Books, 1974), pp. 30-31; Immanuel Kant, Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals, <http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/5682/pg5682.html&gt;, section 2.

Ayn Rand’s Significance: A Reply to Douglas Rasmussen

I agree with the reasons Douglas Rasmussen gives to explain Rand’s popularity these days:

… 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 I also think that she would not be any more in the news than Mises, Hayek, or Bastiat if she had not expressed these ideas in fiction, especially Atlas Shrugged. Her fiction shows us moral, political, and economic principles at work in the lives of individuals and societies in the context of intricate and exciting plots. It thus appeals not only to our reasoning capacities, but also to our imaginative and emotional capacities. The daily spectacle of special pleading, pretense, and outright lying of politicians and the special interests who throng the public trough for a free feed is presented to us by the media in the tone of the unremarkable, the normal. Rand’s fiction highlights the moral meaning of such phenomena by revealing the smallness and self-deception of the wheelers and dealers, and the ruinous effects of their actions on others. The occasional acts of heroism that slip by unnoticed or un-understood by most people in everyday life — such as the refusal of a business to accept government subsidies, or do business with any business that acquires its property through eminent domain[1] — acquire their true proportions in Atlas Shrugged. In Rand’s fiction we witness the tragedy of Prometheus bound and the triumph of Prometheus unbound. No purely theoretical work can show this.

From Is to Ought?

Rasmussen raises questions about Rand’s handling of the is-ought problem and about the grounding and coherence of Rand’s ethics. The is-ought problem, first identified by Hume in the writings of his rationalist predecessors is (at least) the problem of deriving an ought statement from purely descriptive statements, with no reliance on desire or emotion.[2] Rand’s reply that, if you choose (and, thus, desire) to live, then you ought to be moral, in effect grants Hume’s point that “pure reason” cannot ground ethics. Like many others, however, I do not believe that Rand succeeds in deriving the virtues from the choice to live. Indeed, she does not even try consistently to do so. This takes us to the question of the grounding and coherence of Rand’s ethical views.

Human Nature, Virtue, and Happiness

In various places in her writings, Rand appeals not only to long-term survival to justify ethics, but also to survival qua man (that is, survival as a rational and, thus, virtuous, being), claiming that long-term survival for a human being can only be survival qua man, and to happiness, claiming (sometimes) that happiness and survival are two sides of the same coin. Thus, although she opens “The Objectivist Ethics” with an attempt to give a scientific, naturalistic account of ethics that shows our continuity with other living things (which, she mistakenly assumes, always act for their own long-term survival), in the course of the essay she also brings in survival qua man and happiness as the ultimate goals.[3] The dominant view expressed in her fiction, however, is that happiness (understood in a neo-Aristotelian way) is “the purpose, the sanction and the meaning of life” (Atlas Shrugged, 674), and that happiness requires virtue.

How, then, should we interpret Rand? In spite of the perseverance of some Objectivists, there is no coherent way to show that to survive long-term is to survive qua man is to achieve eudaimonia.[4] This is not to deny that there are connections between them, or that a plausible ethics must have instrumental value and be generally compatible with long-term survival. How could it be rational to be moral if morality were, in principle, useless for our ordinary human purposes or a threat to survival? Moreover, it is easy to see that no one could survive very long, or achieve a life worth living, if most people were irrational and unproductive (Anthem, Atlas Shrugged). We are all better off in a society of moral individuals. Since, however, the immoral can survive long-term, the justification of a plausible ethics must go beyond long-term survival. Indeed, in the very essay in which Rand tries to justify ethics as a survival need, she also admits that the wicked can survive by “hitch-hiking” (free-riding) on rational, productive members of society. But neither Hobbesian contractarians, who appeal to this fact to justify leaving “the state of nature,” nor Rand, can use this justification to show why we should not “hitch-hike” on others’ virtue if we can get away with it, or if not doing so imperils our well-being or lives. Yet Rand is very clear that we may not do this because others are ends in themselves, not to be used as mere means to our ends.

Rand admits that, in an imperfect society, justice or the other virtues, in conjunction with other factors, can undermine our well-being (virtue, after all, is not sufficient for happiness). But she also believes that nothing can undermine it as seriously as injustice or the other vices, because happiness is “a state of non-contradictory joy — a joy without penalty or guilt,” and such happiness is achievable only by “the man who desires nothing but rational goals, seeks nothing but rational values and finds his joy in nothing but rational actions” (“The Objectivist Ethics,” 32). Thus, Kira and Andrei in We the Living, Howard Roark in The Fountainhead, and most of the major characters in Atlas Shrugged, all risk their freedom or their livelihood or their lives for the sake of achieving or preserving “the best within them” — their vision of a life worth living. And in each case, a life worth living is depicted not only as a life in which they can do the work they love and be with the people they love, but one in which they can do all this with honesty, justice, integrity, independence, productiveness, pride, and rationality, the virtue that is implicated in all the other virtues. It is this component of Rand’s outlook that provides a justification for being moral even when being moral imperils our lives; it is also this component of her outlook that allows her to say that happiness requires being moral, perfecting our human nature.

Like Aristotle, Rand holds that the virtues, including justice, are not only means to the agent’s happiness, but also an essential, constitutive part of it. Julia Annas calls Aristotle’s ethical egoism a “formal” egoism because it essentially incorporates regard for others. Rand’s eudaimonistic egoism, likewise, is a formal egoism. But can even a formally egoistic justification of virtue give the right account of why we should be just and respect others’ rights? Surely the right account is that we should give others their due because it is their due — because people are ends in themselves — and not because doing so is necessary for our happiness. This objection, however, owes whatever force it has to the thought that justice can be inimical to our well-being, but we ought to be just even so. But as noted above, Rand holds that injustice is even worse for us. Giving others their due, she believes, is rational both because it is the appropriate response to an important normative fact, and because responding appropriately is necessary for our own happiness. Indeed, Rand defines each virtue in terms of the recognition of, and motivation by, some important fact, and holds that the pursuit of happiness is inseparable from the activity of maintaining one’s life through the rational pursuit of rational goals, that is, from virtuous activity (“The Objectivist Ethics,” 29, 32). Here, again, her view resembles that of Aristotle, who tells us that the virtuous person is motivated by what is truly good, pleasant, and useful, and that being motivated thus is the chief component of his happiness.

Rand’s fiction depicts her heroes’ virtues acting as a shield against misery even in the worst of misfortunes, and her villains’ vices as causing psychological turmoil or, at best, leaving them incapable of enjoying life, even in the greatest of good fortunes. Her depiction of Gail Wynand in The Fountainhead suggests that not only does he not get much out of life, but also that his ignorance of his own vice and of what is truly worth pursuing is in itself a great loss. Rand does not consider the possibility of circumstances under which someone who is less than perfectly virtuous may avoid disaster by doing a small wrong and, thus, end up better off than by doing the right thing. Rather, she suggests, like some other moralists, that even one small wrong is likely to introduce a fatal flaw into one’s character — or, alternatively, that no wrong is ever really a small wrong. But this is unrealistic. Not every wrong action leads to an unraveling of one’s character, and not every wrong action merits endless guilt and self-reproach. Moreover, some misfortunes resulting from an act of integrity or justice can reduce a person to despair, as they do Henry Cameron and Steven Mallory in The Fountainhead. Under such circumstances, I think the eudaimonistic justification for acting virtuously fails — but not, perhaps, all egoistic justification. For it can still be a matter of pride and integrity to do what is right, regardless of the consequences.

Rand’s Moral Psychology

Rand’s depiction of moral perfection in her fiction assumes that the virtues can be global, that is, extend across all domains of a person’s life. But both everyday observation and experimental social psychology call this assumption into question, and the conditions of moral development explain why. Just as complete knowledge of the world is beyond any one human being’s intelligence, so moral perfection seems to be beyond any one human being’s psychological ability. If this is true, as I think it is,[5] then Rand’s belief that moral perfection can exist in the real world is unrealistic. In turn, this fact (though not only this fact) requires recognizing that virtues such as kindness, charity, and forgiveness are much more important in human life than Rand grants.

In addition to globalism, Rand assumes (like Aristotelian virtue ethicists) that the virtues are reciprocal or united, such that one virtue entails the others, and the absence of even one entails the absence of the others. A striking economic-political example of this belief is Rand’s exalted view of the producer. Rand depicts true producers as neither needing nor wanting government help with their enterprises, and those who do take government help as lacking in productivity. But this view is contradicted by the evidence. Samuel F.B. Morse, the inventor of the Morse code and the telegraph, and a talented painter and photographer to boot, is only one counter-example. It can be denied neither that he was highly productive, nor that he took help from Congress for his first domestic telegraph line, and tried to get help for his transatlantic line.[6]

Capitalism and the Creator

Rasmussen asks about the difference between Rand’s vision of ideal capitalism and the system we have today, and about the difference between Howard Roark as a creator and most producers today. The answer to the first question is, of course, easy: Rand envisaged pure capitalism as requiring a complete separation of state and economy, for the same reason, she said, that it requires a separation of church and economy. But not only have we never had a complete separation of state and economy, we even have less of a separation of state and church now than before, thanks to the “faith-based” initiatives introduced by the Bush administration.

The answer to the second question is more complicated. The mainstream view among economists and business people is that producers produce in order to make profits by satisfying our needs and desires, whatever they might be, and that this is the way it should be. Rand’s view is that the creator should not pander to debased or immoral desires; Gail Wynand is not a true creator precisely because he does. By contrast, Howard Roark looks for customers for whom he can build the kinds of buildings he regards as appropriate for their purposes and for the materials used in making them. By staying true to his vision, he educates and shapes people’s tastes, and eventually makes a profit. But Rand overstates the matter when she says that Roark wants customers in order to create, at least if she means by this (as she often does when talking about creators) “only” in order to create. Surely Roark would not be happy if an inheritance enabled him to create his buildings, but no one wanted to use them. He wants to create buildings that people recognize as serving their purposes. Like an unread book, or an unheard symphony, an unused building does not fulfill its creator’s purpose. Creators need customers in order to create, but they also need to create in order to have customers.

Neera K. Badhwar is a professor of philosophy at the University of Oklahoma


[1] See http://www.objectivistcenter.org/cth–1639-BBT_Rights.aspx on BB&T’s stand on eminent domain.

[2] “At least,” because some commentators believe that it is a cluster of other problems as well.

[3] “The Objectivist Ethics” (1961), in Rand, The Virtue of Selfishness: A New Concept of Egoism (New York: New American Library, 1964). pp. 13-39.  [Available online] http://www.aynrand.org/site/PageServer?pagename=objectivism_advessays

[4] I discuss this and other aspects of Rand’s ethics in Neera Badhwar and Roderick Long, “Ayn Rand,” Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, forthcoming.

[5] I argue for this in “The Milgram Experiments, Learned Helplessness, and Character Traits,” Journal of Ethics (special issue on Situationism), June 2009 (online), 1-33; printed version July 2009.

[6] http://www.answers.com/topic/samuel-f-b-morse

The Conversation

Rand’s Philosophic Thought: A Response to Professors Long, Huemer, and Badhwar

Towards the end of my lead essay I state:

If there is any single reason for why Rand’s views should be worthy of the attention they are currently receiving, it is this: philosophical principles matter, and persons and cultures that ignore them do so at their peril.  This is the basis for the continued appeal of Atlas Shrugged, for there she pointed out more vividly than anyone else in our time what happens when the right principles are subverted and the wrong ones take their place.

So, I certainly concur with the claim that it is Rand qua novelist that has made her so influential.  Nonetheless, what is crucial to Rand as the novelist is the philosophical vision that is expressed in her novels — particularly, it is her view of the nature of the free society, of capitalism, and of human perfection that has made her so inspiring.  It is in regard to that vision that I offered my six sets of questions.

Turning to some of these questions, I will respond not only to some of what Professors Long, Huemer, and Badhwar have said but also offer some of my own views regarding these questions.


1) Professors Long and Badhwar are certainly correct to note that if Rand’s ethics is based on a pre-moral choice to live, then she fails to overcome the so-called naturalistic fallacy.  I have in several articles [1] argued against the pre-moral choice view and have suggested that a neo-Aristotelian reading of her ethics (particularly one that invokes natural teleology) is a better way of understanding what she is saying.  There are, however, many proponents of her thought that still seek to defend the pre-moral choice view.

2) If I understand Professor Huemer rightly, he does not think that any naturalistic approach to ethics can overcome the supposed is-ought gap.  So, the issue as to whether Rand is to be given a neo-Aristotelian reading or not is simply beside the point as far as he is concerned.  Huemer thinks that only a non-naturalistic (specifically, an ethical intuitionist) approach can provide moral knowledge. [2] This claim is worthy of discussion on some other occasion.

Normative Ethics

3) Long and Badhwar are also on target when they note that Rand’s account of the moral life sometimes treats all virtues as merely instruments to an agent’s own flourishing but at other times treats them as constitutive features of such a way of life.  Further, I agree that a merely instrumental account of virtues (and basic goods) is unpersuasive.  Yet, as before, there are many proponents of Rand’s ethical views that interpret them in strictly consequentialist terms. [3] Indeed, it is against just this sort of account of Rand’s ethics that Huemer’s criticisms are well-directed.

4) I also agree that the virtue of justice is a constitutive feature of human flourishing for Rand, but I do not think that this virtue — that is, giving others their appropriate due — amounts to the same thing as respecting individual rights.  The virtue of justice requires both more and less than individual rights.  Giving others their appropriate due can require in certain contexts and relationships much more than simply forbearing from coercion, and alternatively it often can involve considerably less than equal or neutral treatment to everyone.  Practicing the virtue of justice is a highly nuanced matter. Individual rights do offer, of course, a form of justice.  They regulate human conduct by providing the rules for playing the moral game among others, so to speak.  But I do not think it would be accurate to characterize such rights as constituent virtues of an agent’s flourishing.

5) None of the virtues that constitute human flourishing for Rand can be applied or followed in simply a deductive manner.  In order for the moral life to be practiced, intellectual insight into the contingent and the particular is required (and here I share some common ground with Professor Huemer).  Any unity these virtues might acquire can only be achieved through the excellent use of practical reason. Thus, I continue to think that it is scandalous that Rand has no discussion of the intellectual virtue of practical wisdom in her ethics.  On the importance of this virtue, see Douglas J. Den Uyl’s The Virtue of Prudence.[4]

6) Unless Rand takes a Platonic or an agent-neutral [5] view of human flourishing, I remain unconvinced that what is objectively right and good for one individual to do must as a matter of principle never conflict with what is objectively right and good for another individual to do.  Are individual human beings mere loci for the right and the good?  Is who one is irrelevant to moral deliberations?  I think not, and I recommend David L. Norton’s Personal Destinies: A Philosophy of Ethical Individualism on this point. [6]

7) I think that Professor Long is dead-right to emphasize the self-directed character of human flourishing for Rand.  Possibly, her most important insight for our times is that attempting to force the human good is “like an attempt to provide a man with a picture gallery at the price of cutting out his eyes.”

Individual Rights

8 ) Rights are not consequentialist moral concepts, but I do not think that they are deontological ones either. [7]  Further, I do not think that the idea that rights considerations trump all other moral considerations can be maintained simply by treating rights, as Rand appears to do, as means to human flourishing.  It may be that all moral concepts have their basis in human flourishing, but how they are related to this ultimate good may be neither direct nor isomorphic.  I think this is especially true when it comes to individual rights.  Den Uyl’s and my work, Norms of Liberty: A Perfectionist Basis For Non-Perfectionist Politics, offers an account of individual rights that takes many of these matters into consideration. [8]


9)  I agree with much of what Long and Badhwar have to say about capitalism, and I would only add that it is dangerous either to sever all connection between an understanding of capitalism and the ethical order or to hold that connection too close.  To my mind, Rand is sometimes guilty of the latter when she conceptualizes capitalism. [9] I think that part of her difficulty stems from wearing two hats: that of the novelist and that of the philosopher.  The very thing that allows Rand to be such an effective novelist is also the very thing that leaves her own account of her philosophical positions incomplete and sometimes simply mistaken.


In The Philosophic Thought of Ayn Rand, Den Uyl and I argued that Rand’s philosophy is a form of Aristotelianism. [10] Both Professors Long and Badhwar have in their responses, as well as in their own important works on Rand, noted how vital it is to understand her arguments and approach in an Aristotelian context.  Indeed, Leonard Peikoff has said of her philosophy that it is “Aristotelianism without Platonism.”  Rand saw herself, of course, as offering her own unique philosophy, and while it is certainly true that she offers some important insights and improvements on that tradition, [11] it seems best to understand her as a neo-Aristotelian. [12]

I am aware that this conclusion will disappoint some of Rand’s followers as well as some of her critics.


[1] See my essays: “Rand’s Metaethics: Rejoinder to Hartford,” The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies 8. 2 (Spring 2007): 307-316; “Regarding Choice and the Foundation of Morality: Reflections on Rand’s Ethics,” Vol. 7. 2 The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies (Spring 2006): 309-328; “Rand on Obligation and Value,” The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies 4, no. 1 (Fall 2002): 69-86; and “The Aristotelian Significance of Sections Titles of Atlas Shrugged: A Brief Considerations of Rand’s View of Logic and Reality,” in Edward M. Younkins, ed., Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged: A Philosophical and Literary Companion, ed. (Ashgate, 2007), 33-45.

[2] See his interesting book, Ethical Intuitionism (Palgrave MacMillan, 2005)

[3] Consequentialism is any theory in normative ethics that attempts to determine obligations simply by whether an action or rule produces the greatest, net, expected “good” (or least “bad”) consequences.

[4] (Peter Lang, 1991).

[5] Describes any value, reason, or ranking V for which, “if a person P1 is justified in holding V, then so are P2-Pn under appropriately similar conditions… . On an agent-neutral conception it is impossible to weight more heavily or at all, V, simply because it is one’s own value.” (Den Uyl, The Virtue of Prudence, p. 27).  Sometimes referred to as “impersonalism” and often thought of as definitive of the so-called moral point of view.

[6] (Princeton University Press, 1976).  See also my essay, “Human Flourishing and the Appeal to Human Nature,” Social Philosophy & Policy 16 (Winter 1999): 1-43.

[7] Deontology is any theory in normative ethics that holds “duty” and “right” to be basic and defines the morally good in terms of them. Such theories attempt to determine obligations apart from a consideration of the good.

[8] (Pennsylvania State University Press, 2005).  For a discussion of this work, see Aeon Skoble, ed., Reading Rasmussen and Den Uyl: Critical Essays on Norms of Liberty (Lexington Books, 2008).

[9] See not only Norms of Liberty on this general issue, but as it pertains specifically to economics, see Den Uyl’s essay, “Homo Moralis,” The Review of Austrian Economics 22 (2009): 349-385 as well as Rasmussen and Den Uyl, “Making Room for Business Ethics: Rights as Metanorms of Market and Moral Values,” The Journal of Private Enterprise 24.2 (2009): 1-19.

[10] (University of Illinois Press, 1984).

[11] See Den Uyl and Rasmussen, “The Philosophical Importance of Ayn Rand,” Modern Age 27 (Winter 1983): 67-69.

[12] It should be noted that Tibor R. Machan has argued that Rand does share some affinities with the later Wittgenstein regarding essences.  See also my essay, “Quine and Aristotelian Essentialism,” The New Scholasticism 58 (Summer 1984): 316-335.

Survival, Flourishing, and Intuition

I guess I will comment on the “survival vs. flourishing” debate. This is, briefly, how it seems to me.

1.There probably is no answer to the question, which is correct as an interpretation of Rand. Rand probably did not have a settled position herself, and thought different things at different times.

2. The important question, however, is not which view is Rand’s, but which view is more likely true. On this, I think:

a) The flourishing view is much more ethically plausible. I don’t think I would have been impressed with Atlas Shrugged if the heroes were just centenarians going around reading actuarial tables to figure out how to maximize their life expectancy.

b) The survival view is more clearly connected to the metaethical foundations Rand seems to be trying to lay, and the effort to avoid the is/ought gap. With the flourishing view, it is much more clear that you’re going to have to rely on ethical intuition.

3. Apropos of the last point, it has never been clear to me how we are supposed to know what constitutes flourishing. Suppose I want to know whether observing the non-initiation of force principle is part of “flourishing.” Is there an empirical test I can perform? Do I just rely on intuition?

Omitting Practical Wisdom

Doug is right that the omission of the virtue of practical wisdom from Rand’s discussion is an important one. But I don’t find it surprising: she was not a systematic philosopher, and she omitted to discuss a whole lot of important things, such as generosity, kindness, forgiveness, and charity. Of course, there are philosophical reasons why she didn’t discuss practical wisdom or the virtues of benevolence: she thought the latter “minor” and she assumed, like Plato, that practical and theoretical rationality are one and the same. Hence her view that the truly productive must have all the other virtues. Still, she does show practical wisdom in her heroines’ and heroes’ characters, as she shows generosity, kindness, and forgiveness (or so I argue in “The Virtues of Benevolence: The Unnamed Virtues in The Fountainhead,” ARS, December 1993; see also David Kelley, Unrugged Individualism, 2003).

Michael Huemer is certain that “hardly anyone” other than Objectivists finds “The Objectivist Ethics” “at all convincing.” Well, I could name many, many counterexamples, in addition to the other three people contributing to this symposium. We “counterexamples” find it somewhat convincing because we see more than a Hobbesian, instrumentalist egoism there: we also see a neo-Aristotelian egoism. And I should think that everyone would find it convincing that long-term survival requires a more-or-less moral society, and that predators survive only by free-riding on others. This is not, of course, original with Rand, but it’s rare to see it acknowledged these days by philosophers other than contractarians. (And it’s worth noting, although I know Michael is not disputing it, that no one shows it more vividly than Rand in Atlas Shrugged). That said, I agree that individual rights cannot be defended on the basis of a purely instrumentalist ethical egoism. This is the part of Rand we need to throw out and not link with libertarianism.

Can We All Get Along?

I’m in considerable agreement with what all three of my fellow symposiasts have said.  For example, we all seem to agree in finding both an instrumentalist strand and a constitutive, Aristotelian strand in Rand’s ethics, and we likewise agree in finding the latter more attractive and defensible than the former.

My chief disagreement with Mike, I think, is over the extent to which the instrumentalist approach pervades Rand’s mature moral philosophy, and in particular “The Objectivist Ethics.”  Mike seems to see the latter essay as almost purely instrumentalist — which, I take it, is why he is able to say that hardly anybody finds its argument even remotely convincing unless they buy into Rand’s whole system.  Clearly this would not be a plausible claim if we gave the constitutive strand in that essay much weight, for then we could offer as counterexamples virtually every major moral thinker from the first two thousand years of Western philosophy; none of them would have bought into Rand’s whole system, but the basic idea of our moral concern for others being grounded in our own flourishing as rational agents, with the latter in turn being identified both with our own true self-interest and with our biological life-function, was the reigning paradigm from Socrates through the Scholastics.

Mike’s claim becomes more plausible if we take “The Objectivist Ethics” as purely instrumentalist or nearly so; but I find instrumentalist and constitutive strands confusedly intertwined in that piece.  (Consider her rejection of “merely physical” survival, for example.)  The mere attempt to ground ethics on self-preservation, I should note, is not by itself enough to make Rand’s argument instrumentalist; for the Stoics, e.g., likewise gave self-preservation a place in ethical justification, yet few thinkers were less instrumentalist than they were.  For the Stoics, self-preservation is by nature our initial primary concern, but this concern can and should be transformed, as a result of critical reflection on the nature of the self to be preserved, into a broader moral concern to preserve ourselves as particular kinds of beings living a particular kind of life – and that new concern will, when necessary, trump mere survival, which now gets kicked away like a ladder after we have climbed up it.

Seneca, for example, writes that our desire to preserve our own constitution, while initially favoring mere survival, ultimately leads us away from it, since “a human being’s constitution is a rational one, and so a human being’s attachment is to himself not qua living being but qua rational being; for he is dear to himself in respect of what makes him human.”  (Letters to Lucilius 121.)  There is much in “The Objectivist Ethics” that is reminiscent of this approach, which shows that Rand’s talk of survival can make sense even within the constitutive strand, not just within the instrumentalist strand.  (I’d also be curious to know what Mike makes of the approach defended in the Bidinotto essay I linked to earlier.)

Mike’s argument that egoists cannot have non-instrumental concern for others echoes Cicero’s similar criticism of the Epicureans.  The Epicurean response was, in effect, an indirect consequentialism or rule-consequentialism: it’s in our self-interest to cultivate in ourselves non-instrumental concern for others.  While I don’t find this adequate (mainly because once the cultivation is successful the agent is no longer a consequentialist — see my article “The Value in Friendship”), it doesn’t seem obviously hopeless, and one could read Rand the same way; I’d be curious to know what my fellow symposiasts think of this solution.

My chief disagreement with Doug is over the extent to which interpersonal morality, and in particular a principled dedication to rights, can be identified as a constitutive part of human flourishing.  Doug thinks that the natural harmony of interests that the eudaimonist tradition largely embraces requires an agent-neutral conception of the good; I’m not convinced.  (Our further disagreement as to whether one can ground rights in interpersonal morality is, I think, a corollary of this prior disagreement.)

Resolving this dispute between Doug and myself would require answering another of Mike’s questions:  by what epistemic means we are to determine the content of eudaimonistic flourishing.  Mike finds empirical methods unpromising (as do I) and so defends an appeal to intuition.  In my book Reason and Value: Aristotle versus Rand, and again in my review of Leland Yeager’s Ethics As Social Science, I defend Aristotelian dialectic as the best epistemic method, and argue that Rand’s deviation from Aristotle in the direction of empiricism was responsible for the instrumentalist strand in her ethics (a claim that’s similar to what Mike is saying about the survival approach being easier to justify via empiricism).  I also argue there that the dialectical approach supports the harmony of interests and the incorporation of rights into personal morality and happiness.  Whether Aristotelian dialectic is the same thing as intuitionism is of course a complicated question.

I have the fewest disagreements with Neera, but let me mention a few. While I agree with her (and, apparently, everyone else here) that the value of mere survival is insufficient to ground the value of survival qua human, I am less convinced about the further gap Neera sees between survival qua human and eudaimonia; but perhaps I am loading more into the former notion than she does.

Neera also criticizes Rand for insisting on the unity of virtue.  If by the unity of virtue Neera means the thesis that one can’t have any one virtue to a significant degree without having them all, then I agree with her that that’s false (and I also agree that Rand seems, at least sometimes, to have held this mistaken view — as for example when she assumed that 19th-century businessmen could be neatly divided into those who prospered by their own effort and those who prospered through government favoritism, ignoring the substantial class of those who initially rose by their own efforts but then turned to government for favors once they’d acquired sufficient wealth to influence legislators). But if Neera means the thesis that one can’t have any one virtue completely without having them all, then I’d be willing to defend that thesis, on the grounds that a virtue is a disposition to act correctly in a certain domain, and the relevant domains all overlap.  In the words of Alexander of Aphrodisias (the leading Aristotelian of the 2nd century CE):

That the virtues are implied by one another might also be shown in the following way, in that it is impossible to have some one of them in its entirety [emphasis added] if one does not have the others too. For it is not possible to have justice in isolation, if it belongs to the just person to act justly in all things that require virtue, but the licentious person will not act justly when something from the class of pleasant things leads him astray, nor the coward when something frightening is threatened against him if he does what is just, nor the lover of money where there is hope of gain; and in general every vice by the activity associated with it harms some aspect of justice. (“That the Virtues Are Implied By One Another,” On the Soul II. 18; trans. R. W. Sharples)

(See also my pieces Happiness in Austro-Athenian Perspective and Why Does Justice Have Good Consequences?.)

Clarifying What Hardly Anyone Would Find Plausible

I can’t dispute with Neera about what she finds initially plausible. But I want to clarify what I thought hardly anyone would find plausible. I didn’t mean neo-Aristotelian egoism per se. I meant the argument in “The Objectivist Ethics” that, as I think, starts from “Living things face an alternative of existence or non-existence,” and somehow gets from there to ethical egoism (be it of whatever kind) and free market capitalism as the only just social order. Do the other participants find that inference plausible? Or would they say that is not a fair characterization of what goes on in “The Objectivist Ethics”?

Yes, We Can Get Along — and We Can Even Agree Quite a Bit!

Thanks to Doug, Roderick, and Mike for further food for thought.

Starting with the most recent: Mike is right that you can’t go from “Living things face an alternative of existence or non-existence” to ethical egoism. But of course Rand introduces a whole lot of other premises to get there: all living things, including the human variety, have a specific nature and must act according to that nature to achieve survival; our means of survival is reason, which functions volitionally; to survive we must survive as rational beings, which means both “by using our reason well” and “preserving our ability to reason well” (the latter is implicit); to reason well and live accordingly is to be virtuous. Now I don’t mean that the conclusion is strongly supported by these premises, since prudent free-riding is one way of reasoning well as a means to survival and preserving the ability to reason well. But I do think that the mistake in the passage from the starting point to the conclusion is not as naïve or obvious as Mike seems to. And the particular problem I’m identifying is a problem with all ancient theories.

If I understand Roderick correctly, I guess he disagrees with me on the last point. I find the following from Seneca inspiring, but I think it doesn’t face the toughest issue:

… a human being’s constitution is a rational one, and so a human being’s attachment is to himself notqua living being but qua rational being; for he is dear to himself in respect of what makes him human.  (Letters to Lucilius 121.)

The toughest issue is that doing the right thing can lead not just to death, but something far harder: prolonged torture and degradation of the self or of those we love (see Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago), or destruction of the very capacity for happiness (see Todorov on evil and the story of the absent father in the movie Swing Kids), or even of the capacity for moral agency (see Swing Kids again). In both the Gulag Archipelago and Swing Kids, the choice one is presented with is between saving oneself and those one is closest to from these consequences, on the one hand, and saving one’s comrades and one’s cause, on the other. What is the rational thing to do in such circumstances? Like Cicero, I find one answer convincing one day, and the other the next day. Like Sidgwick, I think practical reason is divided.

This and That


Doug thinks that the natural harmony of interests that the eudaimonist tradition largely embraces requires an agent-neutral conception of the good.


Doug is right that the omission of the virtue of practical wisdom from Rand’s discussion is an important one. But I don’t find it surprising: she was not a systematic philosopher, and she omitted to discuss a whole lot of important things such as generosity, kindness, forgiveness, and charity.

Michael: ”… you’re going to have to rely on ethical intuition.”

I am dubious of the idea that what is objectively good and right for one person to do cannot ever conflict with what is objectively good and right for another person to do. Rod thinks I am dubious because I believe that the only way one can have harmony is by assuming agent-neutrality.  I do not.

Though there are some advocates of eudaimonia that take an agent-neutral approach, I don’t think agent-neutrality is the hallmark of the eudaimonist tradition.  This is not the basic issue, however.  As I implied in my earlier remarks, it has to do with the place of individuality in one’s understanding of human good.  Human flourishing is always and necessarily individualized, and this means not only that human flourishing does not exist apart from individuals but also that it only exists in an individualized manner. Though we can speak abstractly of generic goods and virtues and thus note what is common, these goods and virtues do not take on determinacy, reality, or worth apart from the excellent use of practical reason. This does not mean that there must be conflicts between one individual’s good and that of another’s, but it does mean that there can be.  But more importantly, it does show that human flourishing is something different for each of us.  Here is the pluralist dimension of ethics.  (See Norms of Liberty, chapters 6 and 7)

This is why Rand’s failure to have a place for practical wisdom in her ethics is so disappointing. Practical wisdom is necessary for the presence of all of the virtues, including the ones she notes, as well as those she ignores or fails to emphasize. Indeed, it is indicative of a failure to truly appreciate the importance of individuality for ethical deliberations.  I think this comes from an excessive rationalist approach to morality.  I also think that this is part of the reason for the cultish behavior of many of her followers and some of the foundations devoted to her thought.

Neera is of course correct to say the Rand is not a systematic philosopher and that she omits many other important virtues as well, but I think that the omission of practical wisdom is a fundamental flaw because it undermines her ethical individualism.

Finally, Aristotle notes that nous goes in both directions — that is to say, it apprehends both the universal and necessary and the contingent and particular.  So, there is certainly a place for direct insight — not all knowledge, including ethical knowledge, is discursive.  But I think insight occurs within the context of metaphysical realism and natural teleology.   As Foot has noted, “A moral evaluation does not stand over against the statement of a matter of fact, but rather has to do with facts about a particular subject matter.”  So, I think we have insight into what human flourishing is as well as many other things. This is part of the story.

Bravo Neera

I think Neera is correct to say in response to Michael that there are “a whole lot of other premises.”  This is why it is important to take Rand as making insightful suggestions, but not as offering a finished product.  But if you think any and every version of naturalism in ethics must fail, then it does seem implausible.  That is the basic issue here.

Also, speaking of Cicero, I would like to add my favorite statement from him:

Everybody, however, must resolutely hold fast to his own peculiar gifts, in so far as they are peculiar only and not vicious, in order that propriety, which is the object of our inquiry, may the more easily be secured. For we must so act as not to oppose the universal laws of human nature, but, while safeguarding those, to follow the bent of our own particular nature, and even if other careers should be better and nobler, we may still regulate our own pursuits by the standard of our own nature.

– Cicero, De Officiis

More on Happiness

The passage Doug quotes from Cicero is one of my favorites too, but it seems to be asserting my position rather than Doug’s.  For it says that we should follow our individual nature only so far as it consists with virtue and/or the requirements of universal human nature; and Cicero would clearly agree (given the rest of De Officiis) that respect for the rights of others is part of universal virtue.  One’s individual nature can make the requirements of human nature more specific, but it cannot contradict them. (In the text that follows Cicero goes on to specify that one’s social circumstances can add yet further specifications, but these are clearly subject to the same requirement.)  So the fact that the human good is individualized differently for different people doesn’t entail that one person’s good can conflict fundamentally with another’s.  So I don’t agree with Doug’s claim that the mere fact of individuality “does mean that there can be” such conflicts.

Of course, if Doug hasn’t shown that there can be, I also haven’t shown that there can’t be. Determining which aspects of morality belong to the universal nature and which to the individual, and in particular whether respect for rights belongs to the former or the latter, is a complicated business.  But I do think that the close connection between our nature as rational beings and the need to deal with others through reason rather than force does speak in favor of locating respect for rights at a fairly deep level.

In response to Neera’s worries about choice situations that destroy our capacity for happiness, I think this would be a problem for the Aristotelian view if it held either that virtue is sufficient for happiness or that happiness consists solely in conscious occurrent feelings. But if happiness is a matter of the objective success of one’s life as a whole, then I don’t find it problematic to say that if we were to avoid suffering horrific injustice only by committing such injustice ourselves, our lives would be objectively even worse (though we might perhaps feel better).  But here I suspect I am siding with Aristotle against Rand, who defines happiness as “a state of non-contradictory joy,” which doesn’t make it sound like a feeling (though one might be able to place some weight on the qualifier “non-contradictory”).

In answer to Mike’s question, here’s principally what I find plausible in “The Objectivist Ethics”:  a) the idea that the self-sustaining nature of living organisms gives value-concepts a purchase in their case that it doesn’t have in the case of things that don’t do anything to maintain themselves in existence, and so can’t clearly be said to succeed or fail, or to be benefited or harmed; b) the further idea that once we recognize ourselves as one of these entities, we cannot without incoherence fail to endorse what is biologically good or bad for it/us; and c) the yet further idea that reflection on the nature of the particular sort of organism we are will form part of the argument both for governing our own lives by reason and for dealing with others by reason.

And that’s a fair bit.  But I think to get to a full-fledged harmony of interests we need more than Rand gives us, and in particular we need to lay some stress on the social nature of reason, which is something Rand would not be jazzed about.

So in short, I’d say that Rand filled in some important bits of the picture, but not all of it, and indeed she explicitly rejected some pieces that I think are needed.  But I’d say the same of Aristotle, or indeed of Kant.

The Conflict of Rational Interests

I too love the passage from Cicero that Doug quoted. But I did not see it as supporting either Doug (and me) or Roderick on the issue of the possibility of a conflict among different people’s rational interests. Although I have agreed with most of Roderick’s views so far, I am now making up by disagreeing with him on two of the three points he makes in his latest!

Roderick says that there is no “fundamental” conflict between one person’s good and another’s. I don’t know what rides on “fundamental,” but it seems to be a qualification to the thesis that there can be no conflicts between two people’s rational interests, the thesis affirmed by Rand and Objectivists. At any rate, I think there can also be fundamental conflicts. Here are some simple everyday examples: (i) there are two equally good candidates for one job — equally qualified and equally good for the business/department. The one who loses out gets stuck in a really awful job for several years that takes the joy out of work. It’s no good saying that there cannot be two equally good candidates for a job — I’ve witnessed this sort of situation more than once. (Of course, people then try to invent reasons for why one is better than the other, but they’re just that — inventions! There is oodles of experimental evidence for this kind of rationalization.) (ii) Two people invent the same thing at the same time, but only the one who reaches the patent office first gets the patent (she lives closer to the patent office). Now you could say that our patent laws are irrational, and the thesis of the harmony of rational interests applies only to situations not created by irrational factors. I’m not sure Rand thought our patent laws were irrational, but in any case, the first example does not depend on a situation created by irrational factors. Indeed, like I said earlier, I think even our own rational interests can conflict. Here’s an example that shows both intrapersonal and interpersonal conflict: (iii) the best location for my career, in which I am heavily invested, is P, the best location for my husband, in which he is heavily invested, is R, we both want each other to flourish in their careers, and we are both equally interested in living together. But neither of us can satisfy all of our interests.

The idea that rational interests cannot conflict assumes that the rational constraints on desire/need are no different from the rational constraints on belief: all rational wants must harmonize just as all true beliefs must harmonize (see Ronald de Sousa, “The Good and the True” [pdf]). But there is no good reason to believe this. In the face of conflict, It is rational to prioritize and try to make the best of the situation, but it’s not rational to pretend that there never was a conflict — and, therefore, no room for rational regret, sadness, frustration, or unhappiness.

On Happiness and Virtue

Roderick argues that “choice situations that destroy our capacity for happiness” are not a problem for the Aristotelian view because it does not hold that “virtue is sufficient for happiness or that happiness consists solely in conscious occurrent feelings.” I agree, but my argument did not assume either of these things. Rather, given the very real possibility of such situations, I believe it is false to hold that (i) doing the right thing is always better for us, where this means that it must contribute more to our happiness than doing the wrong thing (a view that, according to Irwin and others, Aristotle does hold), where (ii) where happiness includes both the objective worth of one’s life as a whole, and the psychological disposition to enjoy this life. I don’t think that enjoyment of life, joy in life, capacity for pleasure etc. can be subtracted from happiness without changing the very concept of happiness. Our philosophical concepts have to be “descriptively plausible,” that is, match up with the way they are ordinarily used. Moreover, Aristotle’s own conception of happiness is descriptively plausible in this way. The problem I was pointing to in my earlier post on this issue is that he (and the Stoics and Rand) do not face up to the possibility of the kind of terrible situation I was envisaging, that of destruction of the very capacity for such enjoyment.  Of course, doing the wrong thing can also destroy the very capacity for enjoyment through shame and guilt. In that case, it is as bad for us as doing the right thing, but still not worse, or not necessarily so. In my earlier post, I also pointed to another possibility illustrated by Swing Kids: the destruction of the very capacity for doing the right thing as a result, in part, of doing the right thing.

None of this is meant to suggest that naturalism doesn’t work (as, I think, Doug thought I was suggesting). Rather, it’s meant to show that Aristotelian naturalism needs to be modified to take account of such cases.

Neither Stoicist Nor Putnam-Wittgensteinian

I agree (1) with Rod’s response to Neera that happiness needs to be understood objectively and (2) with what he says about Michael’s concern re the plausibility of Rand’s general approach.  Much of what Rod says in response to Michael was noted by Den Uyl and myself in our “Nozick on the Randian Argument” in The Personalist 59 (April 1978): 184-205 as well as in our account of her ethical views in The Philosophic Thought of Ayn Rand.  But he makes these points well, and they are to my mind part of the life-based approach to natural teleology that we both champion.

I cited Cicero for his recognition that human flourishing is individualized and not for the problematic Stoic claim (made elsewhere) that universal rights (which may or may not be negative) follow from our rational nature.

I would think that if human flourishing is individualized and agent-relative,[1] then this would mean that human flourishing is different for each person, and thus it is possible for there to be conflict—that is, there is no way that one can in principle rule this out.   For example, if Arizona University were considering only either Rod or myself for an endowed chair, then mutatis mutandis his good would be served better if he were chosen and I was not, and my good would be served better if I were chosen, and he was not.  But all these sorts of things depend on numerous concretes (e.g., that it would be good for either of us to accept such a chair).  Ethical principles do not specify such details, and this is again why practical wisdom is so important.

I do think that it is possible for people to cooperate peaceably.  This is why basic negative rights are so important, but the issue here between me and Rand seems to be whether the existence of such rights depends on the assumption that what is objectively good for one individual cannot ever conflict with what is objectively good for another.  I don’t assume this.  She did.

Human beings are certainly social.  Indeed, human reason has a social dimension, but I am afraid that I may have a different reading of the social nature of reason than Rod’s.  It may come down to a disagreement regarding the views of Hilary Putnam and possibly the later Wittgenstein.  (See my essay, “The Importance of Metaphysical Realism,” Social Philosophy & Policy 25.1 (Winter 2008): 56-99.) But now, we are getting away from Rand and talking more of our own approaches to these issues.

Surely, any philosopher’s work is incomplete.   But Rand’s corpus is certainly nothing like that of Aristotle’s or Kant’s.

This has been fun.  I want to thank Rod, Michael, and Neera for their comments.  I learned a great deal.


[1] “Agent-relative” describes any value, ranking, or reason V for which its description includes an essential reference to the person for whom the value exists, for whom the ranking is correct, or who has the reason. Thus, a good, G1, for a person, P1, is agent-relative if and only if its distinctive presence in a world, W1, is a basis or reason for P1 ranking W1 over W2, even though G1 may not be a basis or reason for any other person ranking W1 over W2.

More on the Conflict of Rational Interests

About Neera’s message on the conflict of rational interests: Ditto that.

But now about her previous message, responding to me:  We’ve mentioned the following premises and/or lemmas that appear in “The Objectivist Ethics” (taken from Neera’s message, slightly abbreviated):

1. Living things face an alternative of existence or non-existence.

2. Living things have a specific nature and must act according to that nature to survive.

3. Our means of survival is reason.

4. Reason functions volitionally.

5. To survive we must use our reason well and preserve our ability to reason well.

6. To reason well and live accordingly is to be virtuous.

First, I didn’t mean to imply that “Living things face an alternative of existence or non-existence” was the only premise deployed in the essay, and of course my one-line identification of the argument I was talking about does not give one the full picture of what goes on in the article.

However, as far as I understand the reasoning,  premises (2)-(5) only seem to become relevant after you have established ethical egoism (perhaps the same is true even of premise (1)); I do not see how they are part of the premises used to establish egoism. (2)-(5) seem to be intended to show that, to survive, we must use our reason well and preserve our ability to reason well. But, what does that have to do with showing that the point of ethics is to serve one’s self-interest? It seems as though we are just presupposing that the purpose of ethics is to ensure one’s own survival. So it must be that that was supposed to be established already, right?

I’m not trying to saddle Neera with defending Rand’s argument in “The Objectivist Ethics”. I’m just trying to get more agreement on what the argument is. Whatever it is, I think egoism must have come out before things like (2)-(6). In fact, my own opinion is that egoism was simply presupposed, but that Rand represented it as having been proved.


I obviously agree with Neera regarding the no-conflict-of-rational-interests issue. But I want to express not only my appreciation for the reference to Ronald de Sousa’s important article but also for her point about how it is possible to lose the capacity to do the right thing as a result, at least in part, from doing the right thing.  (Sorry that I did not grasp this point from her earlier remarks.)  It may be a “benevolent universe” but it is still possible for such things to happen.

Instrumentalist Egoism

On the subject of instrumentalist egoism, survival vs. flourishing, and the pre-moral “choice to live”: someone just reminded me of Rand’s “Causality versus Duty”, which supports interpreting Rand as holding the less sophisticated views on these matters. Consider two quotations:

1. “Life or death is man’s only fundamental alternative. To live is his basic act of choice. If he chooses to live, a rational ethics will tell him what principles of action are required to implement his choice. If he does not choose to live, nature will take its course.” [1]

I think this supports the view of a pre-moral “choice to live”. It also suggests that living is understood here as the logical contradictory of dying (rather than as flourishing).

2. “Reality confronts man with a great many ‘musts,’ but all of them are conditional; the formula of realistic necessity is: ‘You must, if–’ and the ‘if’ stands for man’s choice: ‘–if you want to achieve a certain goal.’” [2]

This again lines up with the pre-moral-choice-to-live view. And I think it suggests that there are no ends to be found in nature, no goals that are metaphysically privileged. Rather, we simply choose what goals to pursue, and an action can be rationally criticized only when it fails to fit with the agent’s chosen goals. I think this stands in contrast to the Aristotelian view.


[1] Ayn Rand, “Causality Versus Duty,” in Philosophy: Who Needs It (New York: Signet, 1984), paperback ed., p. 99.

[2]Ibid., p. 99.


Some things are not as clear as our good editor thinks. So, in response to his pot-stirring, I offer these brief comments—each of which requires much greater development than I can provide here.

First, strictly speaking, Rand’s “Causality Versus Duty” does not require an instrumentalist reading of morality.  See my previously cited essays in the Journal of Ayn Rand Studies on the pre-moral choice issue.

Second, instrumentalist reasoning and practical wisdom are not the same.  Aristotle notes that prudence is not “cleverness.”  See Den Uyl’s previously cited The Virtue of Prudence.

Third, I find the survivalist-reading of Rand most implausible. Unless one engages in what Rand called a “floating abstraction,” the claim that life is the ultimate end means “life as the kind or sort of thing something is.”  There is no such thing as denatured or abstract life for Rand. One must understand her ethics in the context of her ontology — to exist is to be something or, as Rand prefers, “existence is identity.” I think this is the point of “qua man.”

Fourth, Rand’s Aristotelianism is what makes her intellectually interesting, and not just another contractarian. (By the way, does Adam Smith see human beings as merely instrumentalist reasoners?  I think not.)

Fifth, egoism need not be instrumentalist, see Lester Hunt’s important essay, “Flourishing Egoism,” Social Philosophy & Policy 16.1 (Winter 1999): 72-95 and Tibor Machan’s discussions of classical egoism in his many works. Sixth, if moral dualism holds that there are two basic, but fundamentally different standards (with no connection between them), then this is a most unstable ethical view. Moreover, it must be shown why there are two basic moral standards. (Den Uyl and I discuss these problems towards the end of chapter 9, “Self-Ownership,” in Norms of Liberty.)

Seventh, Rand’s discussion of rights is her basic way of discussing the social nature of morality, because rights provide the rules of the game, and this provides the context for both instrumentalist reasoning and prudence properly understood.   But this is strictly speaking only the political/legal dimension of social morality.  There is indeed much more to society than politics and law.

Finally, Deidre McCloskey, who is a most interesting thinker, not only conflates instrumentalist reasoning with practical wisdom but also makes the connection between morality and capitalism too close. See Den Uyl’s previously cited, Homo Moralis, for a discussion of these two issues.

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.)

Identities and Interests

There was something I didn’t follow in Doug’s last post, under his third observation. It seemed as though Doug was saying that we must interpret life in terms of flourishing rather than survival, because it is impossible to exist without a specific identity. I don’t follow this. People who are not flourishing (by Doug’s lights) exist, right? And they are not lacking in a specific identity, are they? So I don’t see why the concept of life couldn’t include both flourishing and non-flourishing people.

I thank Rod for his recent post. I think that “good for x” means “in x’s interests”. And I think that by “take an attitude of indifference toward x,” Rod means approximately, “not hold that one should pursue x (at least ceteris paribus)” (only thus would the reasoning bridge the is-ought gap). So, I think Rod’s premise (2) can be paraphrased like this:

2′. One cannot, without incoherence, recognize that x is in one’s interests but not hold that one should pursue x (ceteris paribus). Or:

2”. It is incoherent to doubt that one should pursue one’s interests (ceteris paribus). Or even:

2”’. It is a logical truth that one should pursue one’s interests (ceteris paribus).

If you have this premise, then I don’t think you need Rod’s premise (1), nor any talk about biological organisms. (2) by itself eliminates the is/ought gap. Can it be that easy?

Yes, and …

I agree with almost everything in Doug’s response to Will’s pot-stirring.  (The only real disagreement is over whether respect for rights is merely a background context for flourishing rather than constitutive of it; but we’ve discussed that already.)

Let me just add a couple of points.

I once heard Dave Schmidtz explain moral dualism this way:  it may be true that the wise person wouldn’t find murder fulfilling, but what’s wrong with murder is (at least primarily) what it does to the victim rather than what it does to the wise person.  So although morality needs a eudaimonic element, it needs to appeal to a different kind of reason as well when it comes to certain aspects of interpersonal morality.  (I should add that I don’t mean to suggest that Dave’s entire complex position can be reduced to this one argument! But anyway …)

On Dave’s point about what’s wrong with murder, I agree and disagree.  Certainly if one takes what murder does to the murderer as separate from what it does to the victim, then I agree that it would be perverse to hang the wrongness of murder solely or even primarily on the former.  But I think that’s the wrong way to conceptualize the eudaimonist approach (and thus the wrong way to conceptualize the eudaimonist strand in Rand’s thought).  Rather, what murder does to the victim is constitutive of what it does to the murderer. So we don’t need moral dualism to solve the problem Dave raises, because that problem is the result of excessively dualistic thinking to begin with.

On the coordinating function of morality:  my preferred way of handling this is different from Rand’s.  I take a unity-of-virtue approach where the value of coordination (which in turn relates to my social-rationality stuff) stands in reciprocal determination with various other values and they’re all thrown into the pot together, so what emerges is guaranteed to include coordinative considerations (along with other considerations that may sometimes trump them).  (Note that throwing them all into the pot is crucially different from assigning them to separate spheres à la moral dualism.)  But all that involves a dialectical approach to epistemology that Rand rejects.  That may explain why Rand (I think) wavers between treating respect for rights as part of the virtuous life and treating it as a background social condition à la Doug’s metanormative framework:  if you want coordinative considerations but you’re not willing to throw them into the pot from the start, then you’re going to have to add them on to whatever comes out later. 

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.

And Now for Something Completely Different

Doug’s initial essay raised a number of questions. For the most part, we’ve been focusing on just one subset of them: those having to do with Rand’s attempt to argue from biological teleology to Aristotelian egoism to individual rights and the harmony of interests. In my initial post I did try to address one of Doug’s questions about Rand’s conception of capitalism, but no one really took the bait. (Well, no one here. Bryan Caplan replied elsewhere; see my response in the talkback.)

But Doug raised still other issues that none of us has addressed — including the question of whether Rand’s complete rejection of religion is defensible. As our discussion winds down, I thought it might be worth asking whether we want to say anything about those further issues, and in particular religion.

Let me approach the issue of religion from a somewhat odd angle.

Rand says somewhere in her letters or journals that she would not object so much to a conception of God that made him just one more thing among others in the universe; that would leave him open to rational investigation, and in particular would avoid the need to see God as the creator of the universe (which in her view would incoherently make existence dependent on consciousness). It is particularly the notion of a transcendent God that she objects to.

For many believers, of course, Rand will seem to have gotten things simply reversed. A God who was just one more being among others would hardly seem worthy of worship; his distance from a clay idol would be too small, and to worship him would be degrading and unseemly. Without transcendence, we have no God worth talking about.

I share the reaction that any God worthy of the name would need to be more than just one another denizen of the universe. But I also agree with Rand that nothing should be beyond rational investigation, as well as that the notion of consciousness creating existence is incoherent. So does that leave any room for a transcendent object of worship?

Maybe. There is a long tradition of identifying God not with a subjective personality but with something more like an ontological-moral principle, or even the logical structure of the universe itself. We find this idea in Plato’s Form of the Good, in the Stoics’ identification of God with Reason or the Scholastics’ identification of God with Being, and perhaps even in God’s Biblical self-identification as “I AM WHO AM.” Thinking of God as the logical structure of the universe rather than as one more chunk of reality within that structure would yield the transcendence the believer desires, but it wouldn’t place God beyond rational inquiry (what could be more open to reason than Reason itself?), nor would it make God a personal creator. The notion of worshiping a principle may also seem less offensive to human dignity than that of worshiping a person. (Of course, insofar as the logical structure of the universe is something atheists can believe in too, the line between theism and atheism would thereby be blurred.)

But is there room for such a conception of God in Rand’s ontology? Probably not. For a Platonist, the realm of logic is a feature of reality itself, external to the human mind, and so is a potential candidate for Godhood; but for Rand, logic is a tool of the human mind with which to grasp reality, and the constructs of logic, such as universals, have a merely epistemological status rather than a metaphysical one. Hence worshiping logic would simply be worshiping the contents of one’s own mind — an unpromising (though not unprecedented) basis for theism.

My own (Wittgenstein-influenced) view, however, is that logic is neither a tool we bring to reality à la Rand nor an extramental feature to which our minds must bow à la Plato; it’s much more pervasive than that. It’s not located in our mind, or in the Forms, or in physical objects, or in our mind’s relation to physical objects; it’s not located, period. It’s the background presupposition of all thought and all reality; and there’s nothing we can (without resorting to metaphor) say about it over and above what we can say with and through it. Hence it is, in a certain sense, indescribable, even though it is the most intelligible thing there is. If this sounds like mysticism, it’s the mysticism of reason rather than the mysticism of unreason. (I talk about these issues more in “Theism and Atheism Reconciled,” “The Unspeakable Logos,” “Satanic Epistemology?,” and “The Very Idea.”)

In saying these things about logic, and identifying God with logic so conceived, do we rescue the concept of God, and indeed raise it to the highest transcendence conceivable? Or do we instead etherealize God into nothingness?

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.

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.”

The Pyramid of Ability

OK, one more comment.

In his initial response to Doug’s essay, Roderick argued that Rand’s “pyramid of ability” contradicts “most people’s everyday experience.” He cites Kevin Carson: the “ ‘people who regulate what you do, in most cases, know less about what you’re doing than you do,’ and businesses generally get things done only to the extent that ‘rules imposed by people not directly involved in the situation’ are treated as ‘an obstacle to be routed around by the people actually doing the work.’”

Whereas I’m not familiar either with Carson’s work or with the empirical studies Bryan Caplan uses to dispute Roderick’s and Carson’s contention, it does seem that even if the statement above is true, all that follows is that the masses are not dull, but not that there is no pyramid of ability, or that “the people at the ‘bottom’ ” carry “the people at the ‘top.’”  I have no doubt that assembly line workers, carpenters, plumbers and so on know more about their work than the owners of the business who would regulate them. But the owners know more about their work than the people they regulate. Who does more carrying of whom depends on whose intelligence, productive energy, and vision are greater. In my experience, in every area of human endeavor a few people stand out above others and benefit others much more than they are benefited by them: in school and college, in science, philosophy, medicine, music, technology, sports, and art.  It would be odd if this were not the case in business.

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.