Objecting to Objectivism: Ethics as an Epiphenomenon June 3, 2014Posted by shaunphilly in Culture and Society, Skepticism and atheism.
Tags: ethics, moral values, Objectivism, philosophy, relativism, subjective experience
1 comment so far
OK, I give up on the analysis of Ayn Rand. It’s repetitive, annoying, and it’s not getting us anywhere. Ayn Rand was a terrible philosopher, she should not be taken seriously, and selfishness simply cannot be the basis for anything ethical. So, instead, let’s look at some idea which might actually get us towards an objective ethics.
Or, more precisely, an intersubjective ethics.
Why not objectivism?
Clearly, Rand’s rationalized whims dubbed objective was a philosophical failure. Her system was egoism in disguise, a projected set of values onto the tapestry of the universe. In the end, it was no different from Plato’s ironic projection of his thoughts onto the outside of the cave (ironic because it was the very phenomenon of projection that he thought he was correcting). Ayn Rand thought her selfish values were universalizable.
But beyond Rand’s particular brand of “Objectivism”, there is a further problem with moral objectivism as it is conceived in ethical philosophy. Here, for example, is how the distinction between objective and relativistic ethics is described on the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy:
The metaphysical component of metaethics involves discovering specifically whether moral values are eternal truths that exist in a spirit-like realm, or simply human conventions. There are two general directions that discussions of this topic take, one other-worldly and one this-worldly.
If you read the rest of that section, you will see this distinction played out between immutable objectively true moral codes or values pitted against either individualistically derived or culturally maintained sets of ideas which are dependent upon human thought. Here are a couple snippets from that page:
Proponents of the other-worldly view typically hold that moral values are objective in the sense that they exist in a spirit-like realm beyond subjective human conventions. They also hold that they are absolute, or eternal, in that they never change, and also that they are universal insofar as they apply to all rational creatures around the world and throughout time.
Technically, skeptics did not reject moral values themselves, but only denied that values exist as spirit-like objects, or as divine commands in the mind of God. Moral values, they argued, are strictly human inventions, a position that has since been called moral relativism…. In addition to espousing skepticism and relativism, this-worldly approaches to the metaphysical status of morality deny the absolute and universal nature of morality and hold instead that moral values in fact change from society to society throughout time and throughout the world. They frequently attempt to defend their position by citing examples of values that differ dramatically from one culture to another, such as attitudes about polygamy, homosexuality and human sacrifice.
Ever since I started reading philosophy, around the age of 14 or so, something about this distinction bothered me. It bothered me so much that my MA thesis was geared around the ontological aspects of this same distinction, as it pertained to the relationship between science and religion (ontology, to be more specific) especially.
I have come to conclude (tentatively, of course) that this philosophical dichotomy–whether between ontological realism or anti-realism, objectivism or relativism, etc–is a kind of cognitive splitting. And sure, I’m aware that many thinkers have existed in the many grey areas between such extremes, but I feel that defining the problem in such dichotomies isn’t helping and perpetuates us thinking of these questions in terms of ethics being either objective or relative, when it might be neither.
I believe that there is a nuanced and subtle way to appeal to the cognitive, emotional, and social advantages of both objective morality and relativism. If this approach is sufficiently powerful, it could establish a metaethical, normative, and potentially applied ethical way of thinking which achieves the best of both worlds, as it were, without sacrificing either reality or the sense of shared values. That is, such an approach may satisfy our desire for consistency and meaning which objectivist approaches provide, while at the same time allowing our individual subjective experiences to not be truncated by proposed “objective” truths which those experiences might contradict.
Truth, after all, must rise out of subjective experience and be weeded out by empirical methodologies. Truth is not derived from meditating on universal imaginary worlds, revelation from gods, or ideologies. Truth is the thing that individual people conceive of and offer to the rest of us to test, criticize, and perhaps accept as worthy of adoption. We should think of whims, values, and ethical preferences the same way.
The parts of us that are attracted to the certainty of an objective moral foundation, whether from religion, reason, etc, look for a way to project our individual experiences, values, and conclusions onto the world. It creates the illusion that our values are not merely opinion. But the parts of us which recognize the diversity and (often) contradictory nature of those subjective experiences will balk at the possibility of there being an objective reality to ethics. Whether people see this subjective diversity as the source of evil, chaos, or mere inefficiency, it creates a problem in establishing any shared ethics.
Whether we feel compelled to myopically obsess over our own values and desires or to altruistically sacrifice for the sake of the whole (as well as all the grey areas in between, of course) are one type of approach to addressing this problem, but it is not the only way.
Ethics as an emergent property of society
There is no Platonic world of Ideas, divine creator, or some other objective source of moral conclusions or values. Moral values only make sense within the scope of a plurality of sentient beings who interact, and it is only with such beings that questions of harm, welfare, rights, etc can become relevant. This, to most, might seem to imply that any conversation about morality must be relativistic, subjectivist, and possibly ultimately selfish or nihilistic in nature.
And it is certainly possible to construct a normative ethic which stays within this realm of relativism. Ayn Rand did it (poorly), Nietzsche did it (brilliantly, but often misunderstood), and there are many others to choose from. But if we remain convinced of and mired in the realm of relativism, problems arise related to whose subjective whims to follow (if we should follow any, of course) and how to proceed with establishing guidelines, social rules, or even laws. If there is no objective source, how can we escape pure, selfish, ethical egoism?
This has been the lament of many moralists, and not only from religious conservatives. Their arguments are sophomoric and trite, but they are obviously hitting on an issue with cognitive, emotional, and social weight because it keeps working. The lament of meaninglessness, poignantly illustrated by Dostoevsky with his claim that without god “all is permitted,” is trotted out frequently by those terrified of subjectivism and relativism.
And relativists of all stripes will attempt to respond with other meaningful values. Some might say that we can and should create our values. We can get together, agree on some basic principles and rules, and decide to abide by it or face whatever consequences we also agreed to. Social contract theory, in essence, is where potentially conflicting and disagreeing people agree on how to run our lives as a group.
Some might point to an ideal as a sort of agreed upon arbitrary replacement for the idea of an objective source. It would be sort of like creating an idol, giving it qualities, and asking everyone to try and emulate this idol. In the absence of a clear objective source, we idolize either a person (which we might deify), an idea (such as democracy, freedom, etc), or even a set of traditions which define who we are, how we behave, and who we demonize. We often do all of these things to various degrees.
All of these approaches necessitate that we utilize our subjective perspectives in some manner. But because they emerge as private experience, walled away from the rest of the world behind a veil of subjectivity, does not mean that we have to conclude that morality is a selfish enterprise. In fact, if we remain behind those walls, then we cannot do ethics at all. The ideas have to come from us, ultimately, but we have to use our ability to communicate, understand, and agree to implement any of these ideas as ethical constructs.
While such a set of values would grow out of subjective soils, it would either live or die in the real, intersubjective, world based upon how well it survives the trials of communication, interaction, and contradictions between other individuals and ourselves. A selfish whim or value will either work as a shared value, or it will not. No one individual can decide this alone (although individuals may articulate it better), because whether it works is not subject to any one person (or even a set of persons who happen to accidentally agree), but to how the value supervenes on the group.
When a value is presented by a person to a group, society, or even all of sentient life, it can be evaluated in a different environment from which it grew. As this idea moves away from individuals and towards the diversity of subjective opinions, it will either survive as a value which can be shared, or it won’t. No matter how well this value suits a person, or even a small group of like-minded individuals, if it cannot be applied to the group then its value as a moral foundation or value may be weak.
If you cannot show how the idea which you value in your life among yourself, friends, or family, is useful or helpful to everyone then it might not be a value which most people can share. My (hypothetical) selfish interest to do whatever I want, and not care about the desires of others, cannot be a shared value because there is a logical contradiction to applying it to the group. The idea is self-refuting when applied to the ethically relevant group;society.
Kant and the Scientists
Much like Kant’s categorical imperative, if the value a person presents to the world cannot provide value to the group, then the idea may be useless and possibly amoral (if not down right immoral). The philosophical and scientific study of ethics is, therefore, an epiphenomenon of subjectivist, relativistic, preferences. But rather than remaining at that limited and myopic level of description, looking at the effects of introducing those subjectivist preferences to the group dynamic creates an emergent property, ethical philosophy, which acts as a sieve for what moral principles are valid for consideration.
Thus, it does not create an objectivist ethic, because such a thing is impossible. It creates, however, a level of description which acts very much like objectivity in relation to our minds. It is a reality outside of us, but it was created by our collective effort, communication, and understanding. Being intersubjective, it is always being revised and updated just like a scientific theory. The strength of its propositions is directly related to how well it survives criticism and attempts to sink it.
It is not selfish, because selfishness is incapable of the relevant understanding and concern necessary to create the conversation which could sustain it. It is not absolute, because it is subject to actual circumstances which might change. It adjusts to our preferences, values, and thus is perfectly suited for progression and improvement as our understanding of ourselves, the world, and communication is improved.
It is also not relativistic. It is not culturally relative because all cultures have to deal with the realities of the facts about human psychology, harm, and the inter-related aspects of human existence. All cultures are subject to the same reality, and merely having the mass opinion that, for example, slavery is acceptable does not survive the larger skeptical, empirical, and rational analysis of the effects of slavery on people. It’s also not relativistic in the sense of being a matter of whims, because being subjected to scrutiny from any and all people erases that.
It is, however, skeptical and scientific. While this approach begins as individual subjective preferences, just like with other questions about the nature of reality it gets exposed to other people who will try to demonstrate problems with those ideas. Morality, values, and meaning are not ontologically different from other facts. The facts about how I feel, why I feel that way, etc are empirical questions. Once we realize that we are talking (when talking about ethics) about how to best implement ideas about how to behave in relation to other people, the question is one of doing the empirical work to find out how my feelings interact with the feelings of other people.
Because if I accept the reality that other people exist, have similar types of internal experiences as I, and that I’m capable of figuring out some things about those feelings, preferences, and whims, then ethics becomes a philosophical puzzle about how best to arrange guidelines, rules, or laws about how to interact which maximizes the experience of people. And then we can pull in questions of consequences, best habits and personality traits, and fairness (among other considerations) in order to figure out the details.
Ethics is an enterprise for science. Just like with facts about the nature of reality, it starts with subjective experiences and through epiphenomenal processes the emergent property of true things comes about(ideally). But for it to work we all have to be willing to be wrong, especially about our own values. Our preferences, even if they are working for us, might be better supplanted by other values (in some cases). We cannot allow ourselves to rationalize our selfish preferences as a fundamental value. We cannot allow self-justification, groupthink, or tribalism to convince us that our group has superior values. If our values are hurting other people, it is very possible they are not the best values.
And, most importantly, we can not allow ourselves to idolize, deify, or even consider settled, our values. They must always be open for criticism and debate. There is no room for sacred ideals, ideologies, or tribalistic jingoism in values. The more isolated our values are, the more exposure makes them defensive or aggressive, and the less communication with alternatives exists, the less powerful those values will be.
Ethics is not merely relative and it is not objective. But it can be shared as an intersubjective reality and it can draw from our most personal experiences and values. In the end, ethics cannot rely on either any ultimate reality or personal preference; it must rely on reality potentially telling us that our preferences might be harmful and in need of alteration.The truth points to itself, but the truth is also not written in stones, ideals, or hearts. It is only written, collectively, in the great conversation which I hope we all keep having.
Tags: Ayn Rand, criticism, ethical philosophy, morality, Objectivism, Objectivist ethics, selfishness, The Virtue of Selfishness
Sorry, I’m apparently working on a TV series here. I cannot confirm or deny whether it will air on Fox News.
In part 2, we addressed Ayn Rand’s argument that reason is important as a means to realizing our capability for pleasure, life, and giving to charity. OK, maybe not that last one.
Today, we continue with Rand’s essay, picking up with the theme that human life is the standard of value.
The Objectivist ethics holds man’s life as the standard of value—and his own life as the ethical purpose of every individual man.
In this case, the repetitive nature of this essay is helpful is useful to us, because it acts like a scene from the previous episode, in case you missed it. Rand either assumes that her readers have the attention span of a goldfish, or she just never edited her essays very well.
This repetitiveness, along with her stark dichotomies, straw men, and logical fallacies are trademarks of her writing. It makes good speeches for people prone to agree with her, and I can imagine many Objectivists feeling the emotional rhythm of the repetitive nature of these essays, coming at them in waves of freedom, individual virtue, and life, but this is nothing more than affective rhetoric. It’s no different from a good sermon or political speech, but it’s not good philosophy.
The rest of the essay is better imagined as a stump speech at a political rally, or perhaps a sermon at a revival. A godless, selfish, pleasure-seeking revival.
Rand has laid out the groundwork of her ideas and has tantalized us enough that it’s time to get to the flesh of the ideas. As the following commences, you might imagine the crowd becoming more animated, and perhaps hands pound lecterns with each emphasized word.
The three cardinal values of the Objectivist ethics—the three values which, together, are the means to and the realization of one’s ultimate value, one’s own life—are: Reason, Purpose, Self-Esteem, with their three corresponding virtues: Rationality, Productiveness, Pride.
Aren’t those things nice? I mean, sure they are! I like when I’m reasonable, I like when I have a purpose, and self-esteem is s good thing for all of us to have. The ability to be rational, production, and proud of my achievements are all good things. So, what’s my problem? Why and I not excited about this Ethic which promises me all of this? How could a rational person disagree?
Here’s the rhythmic, pulsating, cheer-inducing climax (although the end would be cut out in today’s political atmosphere);
It means one’s acceptance of the responsibility of forming one’s own judgments and of living by the work of one’s own mind (which is the virtue of Independence). It means that one must never sacrifice one’s convictions to the opinions or wishes of others (which is the virtue of Integrity)—that one must never attempt to fake reality in any manner (which is the virtue of Honesty)—that one must never seek or grant the unearned and undeserved, neither in matter nor in spirit (which is the virtue of Justice). It means that one must never desire effects without causes, and that one must never enact a cause without assuming full responsibility for its effects—that one must never act like a zombie, i.e., without knowing one’s own purposes and motives—that one must never make any decisions, form any convictions or seek any values out of context, i.e., apart from or against the total, integrated sum of one’s knowledge—and, above all, that one must never seek to get away with contradictions. It means the rejection of any form of mysticism, i.e., any claim to some nonsensory, nonrational, nondefinable, supernatural source of knowledge. It means a commitment to reason, not in sporadic fits or on selected issues or in special emergencies, but as a permanent way of life.
This is the kind of speech that would, for the most part, fit into an atheist convention. The values enumerated here are good ones, generally, and I agree with most of it. Where I start to differ is here:
It means that one must never sacrifice one’s convictions to the opinions or wishes of others (which is the virtue of Integrity)
I have a different use of ‘integrity,’ one which permits me to not hold onto my convictions so tightly. While I will not change my mind merely because others wish it, I would consider the wishes and opinions of others in the potential interest of changing my convictions if the evidence or perspectives warranted such a change. The level of stubbornness here is a little worrying, especially from a skeptical point of view (and no, I would not call Ayn Rand a skeptic). This rigidity of conviction is quasi-religious, yes, but it is also consistent with modern Right Wing politics where loyalty, conviction, and not hesitating or changing one’s mind are often considered virtues. I don’t think such things are necessarily virtuous.
Perhaps this level of conviction is related to “pride.”
The virtue of Pride can best be described by the term: “moral ambitiousness.” It means that one must earn the right to hold oneself as one’s own highest value by achieving one’s own moral perfection….by never placing any concern, wish, fear or mood of the moment above the reality of one’s own self-esteem. And, above all, it means one’s rejection of the role of a sacrificial animal, the rejection of any doctrine that preaches self-immolation as a moral virtue or duty.
Because nothing is more important than you. Your truth, your life, and your feeling of self-worth trumps everything. You (not humanity in general, just you) are the standard by which you decide which is right. And if anything out there conflicts with that self-esteem or value, then that thing brings with it death. In some ways, this is not all that different from the concept of “spiritual death” within some interpretations of Christianity; Any form of altruism is a kind of “sin” which separates you from true, selfish, morality.
I know this type of thought well. When I’m defensive, scared, and feeling insecure about myself. I paint myself into a corner with self-interest. And I can feel the rationalization churning away as I do this, because what’s happening when I feel this way is that I’m trying to hold back the flood-gates of things that contradict my own happiness, pleasure, and dissonance with the view of myself as a virtuous and good person.
What bothers me most is that while I get this, I know many other people do not get this, and many of them genuinely think that they are not insecure, defensive, or delusional about themselves. They just seem themselves as successful and awesome. You know, attributes consistent with narcissism.
I, therefore, think that I have the same gut feeling as Ayn Rand is describing here in her Ethic, and I recognize it for what it is; a self-centered and inconsiderate impulse–a reaction–against the threat of the Other. It is a reaction against being potentially wrong, of being uncertain, of having to admit that maybe other considerations besides my own might be worth caring about. It’s tempting, sometimes, to just go with what’s comfortable and easy; to allow my selfish impulses to rule my decisions, actions, and subsequent worldview created by trying to rein those actions into a coherent worldview of myself as virtuous and awesome.
Knowing and understanding other people is hard, and knowing what we want and what brings us pleasure is easier by comparison. The idea here seems to be that if we can see ourselves as virtuous, reasonable, and productive people then we can take pride in that. It’s not our job, says this Ethic, to account for the reasonableness, production, or pride of others. That’s their job. Anyone else who is not succeeding is doing so because they aren’t being reasonable or productive, and so their struggles are their own doing.
Happiness is the successful state of life, suffering is the warning signal of failure, of death.
That is simply not true. This is a wonderful example of the just-world fallacy at work. The world does not, whether by gods, fate, or karma, dish out happiness to the just or not suffering to the unjust. This delusional belief, which is similar to the ideas behind The Secret and similar worldviews, must be confronted and slapped down as the bullshit it is. And yet it is all too common a belief that if you work hard and are ethical (no matter the ethic), you will be rewarded. It’s quite possible you won’t be. It’s also possible that you will be very happy while making many people around you miserable. It happens all the time, and it blinds the happy person from the effects of their behavior. And if said person is predisposed to selfishness and egoism, they are even less-likely to realize it.
All too common.
More John Galt:
“Happiness is a state of non-contradictory joy—a joy without penalty or guilt, a joy that does not clash with any of your values and does not work for your own destruction. … Happiness is possible only to a rational man, the man who desires nothing but rational goals, seeks nothing but rational values and finds his joy in nothing but rational actions.”
Pure delusion. But at least Rand is aware enough to make the following distinction:
If you achieve that which is the good by a rational standard of value, it will necessarily make you happy; but that which makes you happy, by some undefined emotional standard, is not necessarily the good. To take “whatever makes one happy” as a guide to action means: to be guided by nothing but one’s emotional whims.
The distinction is important, and I’m glad she made it here, otherwise she leaves herself open to the “Nietzschean egoism” she despises. She’s not stupid; she’s just myopic, oblivious, and obtuse.
Further, she is no mere hedonist;
This is the fallacy inherent in hedonism—in any variant of ethical hedonism, personal or social, individual or collective. “Happiness” can properly be the purpose of ethics, but not the standard.
I’m also glad she makes this distinction as well, as it is also important. Happiness, Rand argues, is great as a result but it is not the standard. The standard is, of course, is life itself (according to Objectivism, anyway). A happy life is just the reward for living with reason, productivity, and pride. All bullshit, of course, but at least it’s somewhat internally coherent bullshit.
Perhaps the following is a more clear illustration of the relationship between sacrifice, conflict, and the difference between egoism and altruism. This quote comes directly after addressing utilitarianism, wherein (according to Rand) the centrality of desire leads to situations where “men have no choice but to hate, fear and fight one another, because their desires and their interests will necessarily clash.” Desire, says Rand, cannot be the ethical standard.
And if the frustration of any desire constitutes a sacrifice, then a man who owns an automobile and is robbed of it, is being sacrificed, but so is the man who wants or “aspires to” an automobile which the owner refuses to give him—and these two “sacrifices” have equal ethical status. If so, then man’s only choice is to rob or be robbed, to destroy or be destroyed, to sacrifice others to any desire of his own or to sacrifice himself to any desire of others; then man’s only ethical alternative is to be a sadist or a masochist.
The moral cannibalism of all hedonist and altruist doctrines lies in the premise that the happiness of one man necessitates the injury of another
OK, that’s interesting. The idea seems to be that built into the very fabric of altruistic ethical philosophy implies that all desires, whether of the owner or the robber, are indistinguishable, and so equally valid. As a result, Rand seems to argue, we are all in perpetual conflict and that only by inciting sacrifice can we avoid perpetuating this conflict.
If you believed in a Hobbesian universe where we were all brutes who will try to rob, cheat, and lie to each other for our own benefit (a quite cynical view), enforced altruism might seem a way to get society to work. But what if that was not the motivation for altruism? What if the reason we ask for consideration, compromise, etc are not because we assume humanity is in a perpetual state of conflict?
It’s very possible that a sense of empathy, altruism (in the sense of the willingness and ability to sacrifice some of our desires, not Rand’s caricature), and care can be mapped onto a reasonable and logical moral framework without appealing to this view that leads to either sadism or masochism. If that were true, then self-sacrifice would not be causally related to conflict, and so we would not have to demonize altruism. Then, if (like Rand) we were to believe that human interactions are not inherently conflict-based, the solution does not have to be a fundamentally selfish set of values and virtues, whether Objectivist or otherwise. The solution could also be altruism or some compromise between selfish and selfless values (as most ethical philosophy does).
Choosing selfishness, whether as Rand does via reason, purpose, and self-esteem or otherwise, would then be as valid as any oither attempt to formalize ethics, rather than being objective or the true foundation of ethics, as Rand claims.
If our being reasonable, productive, and proud lead to us being happy (because we deserve it), then why she even worried about whether we are altruistic? Or, is it that her Ethic rids the world of this conflict and the injury. Or perhaps it just ignores it by eliminating selfless acts? If conflict is not inherent to human interaction, then being altruistic is not necessarily self-immolating, and will not lead to any kind of death. It might be unnecessary, but that’s another question than it being evil. I’m having trouble making sense of all that. So much for internal coherence, I suppose.
In any case, let’s see how Rand deals with some of the implications of being selfish on other people.
[W]hen one speaks of man’s right to exist for his own sake, for his own rational self-interest, most people assume automatically that this means his right to sacrifice others. Such an assumption is a confession of their own belief that to injure, enslave, rob or murder others is in man’s self-interest.
This is obviously a preemption of concerns about Rand’s Ethics implying that since we shouldn’t sacrifice ourselves, it means we simply sacrifice others. It seems to imply that by doing neither type of sacrifice (of ourselves or others), we are left with neutral parties free to interact without a sense of sacrifice or conflict between them. Nobody has to sacrifice anything! Sounds great.
But what if the very nature of refusing to give an inch of your interests (or convictions) was inherently sacrificial of not only the interests of others, but ultimately our own interests? Not because the others are moochers or trying to steal from us, but because the very nature of human interaction or communication is already inefficient and requires some level of effort (on both parts) in order to succeed. The very nature of communication, therefore, would require self-sacrifice.
Let me try to sketch this out.
Communication is inherently difficult, but even more so the more different we are. If I am to interact with other people, especially if those people are significantly different from me (whether due to language barriers, psychological differences, temperaments, etc), then that interaction inherently requires some level of work on my part to effectively communicate my proposals, ideas, etc. So, is this work in my interest? Not always.
When misunderstandings or conflicts do occur (and they will, even among Objectivists), the unwillingness to give up any level of self-interest for the sake of another will make it very difficult, if not impossible, to communicate the specifics of a neutral and mutually beneficial proposal, let alone where there actually is a conflict of interests.
This unwillingness blocks the possibility of understanding points of view not immediately in the Objectivist’s interest, or even ones that might be in their interest but are unknown to them. But because an Objectivist would be unwilling to extend any “altruistic” effort to understand the interests of other people, they would never learn about the ideas connected to those alien interests. What’s worse is that they might not even see this as a loss. Nothing in The Objectivist Ethics would imply otherwise.
If sacrifice for the sake of others is actually evil, then perhaps understanding others might require being evil in some cases. My taking the time to try to empathize, listen, and hopefully understand the interests of others is a sacrifice on my part. It’s a sacrifice of my time, patience, and cognitive effort to communicate with people who think differently than I. And if I see this effort as a sacrifice, then Rand might say that putting forth that effort would be bowing to altruistic demands, and therefore not being virtuous. And the result of this is that I cut myself off from not only potential neutral trade partners, but sets of ideas which are significantly different from my own, which will end up isolating myself from people with diverse perspectives, opinions, and worldviews.
Just like with Galt’s Gulch, Objectivism seems to want to isolate itself from the world, effectively impoverishing its access to ideas, people, and experiences which they might learn from if they were not so self-absorbed and against any sort of self-sacrifice.
Getting back to Rand’s argument, Rand is asserting that the non-selfish ethical systems (whether utilitarian, Kantian, or full-blown altruism) view the world as full of people ready to take advantage of others and to ask us to sacrifice ourselves as a reaction to that inherent conflict. Rand does not assume this conflict is necessarily the case but neither do I, who she would have called an altruist, think that this is the case (no, I’m not even that cynical).
Let’s continue with the essay.
The idea that man’s self-interest can be served only by a non-sacrificial relationship with others has never occurred to those humanitarian apostles of unselfishness, who proclaim their desire to achieve the brotherhood of men.
Perhaps it has not occurred to some, but it has occurred to me, at least. Ayn Rand has set herself up as a sort-of prophet for true ethics, but what she really is doing is demonstrating her ignorance and misunderstanding of ethical philosophy in such spectacular fashion that all I can to is stare, slack-jawed. And yet this philosophy is revered by so many people!
The great speech of the essay has climaxed, and we head towards resolution. At this point, we’re past the part of the great speech where the music swells and the lights flicker, and we reach the part where the crowd is hushed and the speaker drops into a lower register, almost whispering so the everyone needs to strain to hear them. It’s now time for Objectivist pillow-talk.
The Objectivist ethics proudly advocates and upholds rational selfishness—which means: the values required for man’s survival qua man—which means: the values required for human survival—not the values produced by the desires, the emotions, the “aspirations,” the feelings, the whims….
The Objectivist ethics holds that human good does not require human sacrifices and cannot be achieved by the sacrifice of anyone to anyone. It holds that the rational interests of men do not clash—that there is no conflict of interests among men who do not desire the unearned, who do not make sacrifices nor accept them, who deal with one another as traders, giving value for value.
Nobody expects, accepts, or offers any compromise. This neutrality is a sort of marketplace of self-interested people who will trade their ideas and products in order to create a non-competitive world, or so Rand thinks. Not competition. Not brutish, emotional, covetous desire.
However, when this Objectivism is actually put into practice in life with other people around, it does in fact create a kind of conflict. The conflict is there, it’s just that this philosophy encourages people to re-define any sign of this conflict as an attempt of moochers and robbers to steal from them in some way, rather than some actual injustice.
Any request or expectation of consideration looks like a demand for the Objectivist to sacrifice their convictions; to give into altruistic morality. Any request of empathy is a demand for the Objectivist or egoist to sacrifice themselves in some way; a demand to give up what they consider to be virtues. Why should they give up anything, material or conceptual, for your sake? You should do that yourself (they think as they step on your toes, dominate a conversation, or otherwise impose themselves onto the world around them). The logical conclusion of this view of self-sacrifice makes any request of empathy or consideration look like a kind of demand or theft.
In order to operate effectively in the world, however, consideration, empathy, and some level of self-sacrifice is necessary; not merely ethically, but practically as well. Until we are able to transcend the realm of individual interests and dive into intersubjective concerns (where ethics lives), we can’t even consider what I want from, to do, etc other people. In other words, it’s not even possible to have interests related to others until I have some ethically relevant relationship with another person. I can only do this by sacrificing my immediate interests for the sake of external reality.
But Objectivist Ethics never leaves the realm of individual interests, because it considers doing so “evil”. Now, actual Objectivists might employ some level of empathy and consideration in their lives, but this would accidental or incidental, rather than inherent to the Ethic. That is, if the Objectivist doesn’t have an inclination towards empathy or consideration already, Objectivism does not encourage this empathy (and actually discourages it), so the Objectivist can feel fine not employing such tools, isolating themselves from people, ideas, and whole sections of cultures.
Objectivism gives us no reason to employ empathy, and even uses reason to imply that being asked to do so is a form of theft. But without empathy of some kind, communication and understanding are not possible, leaving the non-empathetic Objectivist as indistinguishable from the “Nietzschean Egoist,” who merely does whatever they want. If Ayn Rand ever employed any kind of empathy, she was only doing so while being a bad Objectivist.
Rand’s claims that her Ethic does not lead to the sacrifice of others is not reasonable given that the unwillingness to empathize does not, in fact, create a neutral relationship. The difficulty of communication, understanding, etc create an imbalance; not one of tension between owner and potential robber, but simply of comprehension. Thus, it hurts us all. This is the absurdity of calling any self-sacrifice as evil; avoiding self-sacrifice hurts us all in the long run.
Only a brute or an altruist would claim that the appreciation of another person’s virtues is an act of selflessness.
a trader is a man who does not seek to be loved for his weaknesses or flaws, only for his virtues, and who does not grant his love to the weaknesses or the flaws of others, only to their virtues.
In other words, we don’t love someone despite their flaws. We love them when they don’t have any, or at least we love them insofar as their virtues overshadow their flaws. That may sound good to you, but I would caution you against falling into a trap of privilege here; many of us struggle with aspects of ourselves that make our virtue harder to act on.
I’m not convinced that reason, productivity, and pride are sufficient to create a person of virtue. Is there no room for depression and its side-effects in virtue, where one might struggle with pride? What about economic factors that hold many people back from production? Are they not allowed to be loved or considered virtuous? What about a person whose reason is handicapped, at times or chronically,by either emotional disorders or simple cognitive inability? Do they get no love?
The worry here is that a person who wants to adopt this view will either be the type of person who is blind to their own faults (narcissists, for example) or who exist in such a bubble of privilege that they are deluded into thinking that they actually earned their success and happiness without the sacrifice of others around them. This view, therefore, is in tension with social justice insofar as economic and neuro-typical privilege (at least) is concerned. It seeks to pump up the already privileged, stigmatize the non-privileged, and to rationalize it all as “reasonable.”
But the line between reason and whim, as I discussed previously, is but a neuron or two away and all too often we are incapable of distinguishing them, especially when privilege takes its toll on us. I do not believe that Ayn Rand, or her followers, are any more reasonable than utilitarians, Kantians, or even those who follow the ethics of care (for example). I think they think they’re more reasonable, but we have Dunning-Kruger for that. But, of course, knowing you are subject to the Dunning-Kruger effect requires a certain level of self-awareness, attention, and care towards others. People prone to follow Ayn Rand have little of those qualities, in my experience.
And yet, they speak of love, human society, and the trade of knowledge and potential. However, Rand speaks of these things as things to be earned solely, and those “moochers” and other parasites cannot live in a rational, loving, cooperating society. It all sounds great, especially to Objectivist ears, but it’s an ideology which is startlingly ignorant of the nature of knowledge, intelligence, and the complexities of power and privilege.
But, what of government?
The only proper, moral purpose of a government is to protect man’s rights, which means: to protect him from physical violence—to protect his right to his own life, to his own liberty, to his own property and to the pursuit of his own happiness. Without property rights, no other rights are possible.
And while Rand does not deal with the politics of Objectivism here (the answer is Capitalism; “full, pure, uncontrolled, unregulated laissez-faire capitalism”), I’m glad she’s for the separation of church and state, at least.
In a sort of summation, she offers this:
I have presented the barest essentials of my system, but they are sufficient to indicate in what manner the Objectivist ethics is the morality of life—as against the three major schools of ethical theory, the mystic, the social, the subjective, which have brought the world to its present state and which represent the morality of death.
And then, following some more analysis of each school of ethical theory, she says that
It is not men’s immorality that is responsible for the collapse now threatening to destroy the civilized world, but the kind of moralities men have been asked to practice.
And then she ends by quoting John Galt (AKA herself) once more.
“You have been using fear as your weapon and have been bringing death to man as his punishment for rejecting your morality. We offer him life as his reward for accepting ours.”
However, the life that is offered is one infested with myopia, privilege, and an impoverishment of understanding of anything not immediately self-interested. This is a philosophy not built upon reason, but of rationalized selfish whims.
Smart people are really good at rationalizing their whims and making themselves think they are being reasonable. Ayn Rand was a smart woman who found a way to not only do so for herself, but created a worldview that still resonates with millions of people. If you look for them, you will find real places called Galt’s Gulch, and the influence of some of Rand’s ideas are still quite popular in political spheres, specifically for Rand Paul and many others within the Tea Party.
This essay demonstrates a sophomoric ethical philosophy, hardly worth serious attention except for its continuing influence. But there is more book to go (18 chapters, in fact), so we still have a way to go. Future posts will be shorter, as I will try not to address the same points.
I might need a day or two to recover, however.
Tags: altruism, Ayn Rand, egoism, ethical philosophy, Objectivism, The Virtue of Selfishness
In part 1 of this analysis, we primarily addressed the attempt of Objectivist Ethics to use reason, divorced from emotion, preference, or what Rand calls our mere “whims” in order to establish the “discovery of ethics. Let’s pick up on that theme as we continue, in order to work our way back into the structure of her essay.
Today, as in the past, most philosophers agree that the ultimate standard of ethics is whim (they call it “arbitrary postulate” or “subjective choice” or “emotional commitment”)—and the battle is only over the question or whose whim: one’s own or society’s or the dictator’s or God’s. Whatever else they may disagree about, today’s moralists agree that ethics is a subjective issue and that the three things barred from its field are: reason—mind—reality.
Perhaps that was true in 1964, but even if this narrative of popular ethical thinking was the case then, to treat the entirety of ethical philosophy, from Plato on through the 1950’s, as if a monolithic set of subjectivist or relativist claims based in a dangerous altruism is over-simplistic at best. And if this was an obscure argument from 50 years ago (The Virtue of Selfishness was published in 1964, and is a collection of essays from earlier years) which had little to no influence today, my pointing out such a problem would be uninteresting and irrelevant. But Ayn Rand’s words are still influential, resonant, and a common voice for many people who have not even read her work.
But the fact that people still make this argument today is problematic considering the wealth of information–from both science and philosophy–about how morality can be built upon objective facts about our actual real life in other ways besides Rand’s egoism. The dichotomies which Rand paints, even if they had been relevant in 1964, are certainly not relevant any longer. We really should leave this simplistic ethical dichotomy between subjectivism/relativism and Objectivism/individualism in the pile of philosophically impotent ideas, where it belongs.
And yet, Objectivism persists. If you think that individual selfishness is a virtue, well OK. But if you think that this alone can inform ethics, then I can’t trust you to be ethical nor do I think you know what ethics is.
Ayn Rand is concerned with things like virtues and values. So let’s see what she means by “value.”
“Value” is that which one acts to gain and/or keep. The concept “value” is not a primary; it presupposes an answer to the question: of value to whom and for what? It presupposes an entity capable of acting to achieve a goal in the face of an alternative. Where no alternative exists, no goals and no values are possible.
Only a living entity can have goals or can originate them. And it is only a living organism that has the capacity for self-generated, goal-directed action….
she continues shortly after by saying
Life can be kept in existence only by a constant process of self-sustaining action. The goal of that action, the ultimate value which, to be kept, must be gained through its every moment, is the organism’s life.
An organism’s life is its standard of value: that which furthers its life is the good, that which threatens it is the evil.
This is all fine, and I am in general agreement that life is good (I would, being alive) and that in general what supports life is good and what takes it away is bad (not ‘evil’, because I read Nietzsche). However in what follows it seems like she’s making the same mistake she was chiding above (in criticizing how people submit their ethics to a god, society, or others in general); she appeals to an ultimate authority:
Without an ultimate goal or end, there can be no lesser goals or means: a series of means going off into an infinite progression toward a nonexistent end is a metaphysical and epistemological impossibility.
But this is absurd. Not only is this not reasonable or rational, it’s not even consistent with er own argument above. What is the desire for life but another whim (if not a deeper one)? It’s not ultimate any more than my preference for vanilla over chocolate is ultimate. She then doubles down:
Metaphysically, life is the only phenomenon that is an end in itself
This can only be true if we were myopic enough to actually take our own individual perspectives as in some way privileged or ultimate. The level of self-centered bias here is so staggering that it leaves me nearly speechless. Further, so far the ethical perspective being advocated is consistent with the “Nietzschean egoism” she dismisses (putting aside that Nietzsche is not the straw-man she makes him out to be).
Ayn Rand wants to simultaneously decry the subjectivist parade of “whims,” and then proceeds to champion the one whim that (we might assume) we all happen to share. This is not a fundamental metaphysics, this is myopia projected onto metaphysics. The level of obtuseness and lack of perspective here is, perhaps, the key to understanding The Objectivist Ethics. It is this vacuous scaffolding which the whole Ethic is based upon, and I cannot fathom how Ayn Rand, as well as egoists in generall, are so self-absorbed as to miss the error here.
The fundamental problem here is not that Rand’s object of criticism (self-hating altruism) is actually right (it’s mostly a straw-man), but that her alternative to this straw-man is so absurd. There’s this, for example:
In answer to those philosophers who claim that no relation can be established between ultimate ends or values and the facts of reality, let me stress that the fact that living entities exist and function necessitates the existence of values…
Agreed. I would quibble over the use of “ultimate” ends or goals, but I essentially agree with the above. She then, however, finishes the clause;
and of an ultimate value which for any given living entity is its own life.
How is any individual life ultimately valuable? Only to itself. But this is subjectivity! This is more people prattling on about whims; it just happens to be her whims. And even if it were the case that the ultimate value is our own life, how does this point to selfish interests rather than either an altruistic value or even a balance of selfish/selfless values? What makes my interests more valuable than those of another? Nothing but a purely myopic lack of mirror neurons in action. Let’s put that aside for the moment. For the moment, something else just caught my eye, and I think David Hume just resurrected and is eloquently screaming from pure frustration.
The fact that a living entity is, determines what it ought to do. So much for the issue of the relation between “is” and “ought.”
(For some context on my views about the relationship between facts, values, is, and oughts, see my post here)
Not only is this mere brush-off of Hume a misunderstanding of the Is/Ought problem (the Naturalistic Fallacy, as G.E. Moore later called it), but it is not even insightful or clever. For some context, here’s David Hume, from A Treatise of Human Nature:
In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remarked, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary ways of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when all of a sudden I am surprised to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, ’tis necessary that it should be observed and explained; and at the same time that a reason should be given; for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it. But as authors do not commonly use this precaution, I shall presume to recommend it to the readers; and am persuaded, that this small attention would subvert all the vulgar systems of morality, and let us see, that the distinction of vice and virtue is not founded merely on the relations of objects, nor is perceived by reason.
Hume here seems to be inferring that we at least need some connection between our declarations of facts and what we should do with the facts. And I agree with him; is can be connected to an ought, but we should at least try to delineate the connection rather than merely assert a connection. Perhaps Rand intuits some obvious logical connection, but if she values reason as highly as she does, she should spell it out in a philosophical defense of her thoughts.
OK, so the connection between her is and her ought is a little shaky, but perhaps we can take a look at what kinds of actions we ought to take, and perhaps that will shed some light hat kinds of actions we should take as living things. Lets start with the question “what has value?”
Now in what manner does a human being discover the concept of “value”? By what means does he first become aware of the issue of “good or evil” in its simplest form? By means of the physical sensations of pleasure or pain.
she continues a bit later by saying that
The physical sensation of pleasure is a signal indicating that the organism is pursuing the right course of action.
If it’s pleasurable, it’s right. If there’s pain, it’s not. The childish simplicity of this is mind-boggling. The moral implications are, to me, startling. Contemplating the kind of mind that can seriously propose this as a means to defining a set of ethical actions is terrifying. And yet, if we remember from her introduction, she does delineate between a ‘Nietzschean egoism’ and hers, but so far here I’m not seeing any reason to not simply do what you will. Perhaps there’s more below.
After some discussion of the hierarchy of life, based upon differing levels of consciousness where we go from plants, animals with mere “sensation,” and on through “perception” we get to people, who are different from animals and plants in a significant way. And I know that Rand is writing 50 years removed, and that we understand a lot more about how the brain processes information, feelings, and decisions, but the following is just silly;
Man has no automatic code of survival. He has no automatic course of action, no automatic set of values.
We, unlike the animals, don’t have things like instincts or any unconscious moral sense (Rand claims). As I referred to in my critique of the introduction, this is flatly false. The research of people such as Jonathon Haidt (cf. The Righteous Mind), who have shown that much of our ethical reasoning is post-hoc rationalization of our automatic moral senses, simply contradicts Rand’s view here.
The simple fact is that Ayn Rand is stuck inside a Platonic-style dualism wherein the intellect is separate and superior to the animal instincts and material existence of us as animals. Our rational processes, moral thinking, etc are not separate and logical structures floating over a miasma of sensations and feelings. We cannot pull apart the rational, logical, and coldly logical from the mess of instincts, emotions, and “whims.’ This ontological dualism, one that Rand thinks she’s transcending, is exactly the delusion that Objectivism is subject to.
The faculty that directs this process [of “concept-formation”], the faculty that works by means of concepts, is: reason. The process is thinking.
We cannot always separate, at least with any meaningful certainty, reason and whim. Ayn Rand’s whims, which are based on the preservation of human life, is no better than a whim for the preservation of the society. Granted, this tension between the focus on protecting the society or the individual is a real one in ethical history, but the stark dichotomy between the sacrifice for the self for the society versus the society for the self (remember, Ayn Rand escaped soviet Russia) is hyperbole.
Perhaps this hyperbole is understandable given Rand’s experience within the problems of Russian Communism, but it is no less reactionary because of those considerations. Ayn Rand is as much the crystallization of the cultural phenomenon of the “Red Scare” than any American writer, and the kinds of thoughts that she proposed have influenced a large segment of people who seek to fight for individual rights at the very expense of the culture in which they live.
Any way you cut it, the subjectivism that Rand criticizes is as much a part of her thought as anyone else’s. Pleasure, happiness, and reasons are no more a way to advocate for a rational morality than pure asceticism or extreme altruism.
Rand wants us to actively pursue this thinking, because to not do so is to choose death:
Psychologically, the choice “to think or not” is the choice “to focus or not.” Existentially, the choice “to focus or not” is the choice “to be conscious or not.” Metaphysically, the choice “to be conscious or not” is the choice of life or death.
Constant diligence, therefore, is necessary. Now, to a certain extent I think there is something of value here; it is good to be able to maintain focus and attention, but I don’t accept that to stop doing so is analogous to a kind of mental death. There are times when we need to slow down, quiet our minds, and allow our unconscious processes to do their thing. When we are too involved and attached to a process, a set of arguments, or even a conclusion then we can often miss too much. Sometimes, we need to listen and be passive in order to learn. Not always, mind you, but sometimes.
But then Rand says something, occasionally, which I fully agree with. The following is an example.
But man’s responsibility goes still further: a process of thought is not automatic nor “instinctive” nor involuntary—nor infallible. Man has to initiate it, to sustain it and to bear responsibility for its results. He has to discover how to tell what is true or false and how to correct his own errors; he has to discover how to validate his concepts, his conclusions, his knowledge; he has to discover the rules of thought, the laws of logic, to direct his thinking. Nature gives him no automatic guarantee of the efficacy of his mental effort.
Yes. Because even if we cannot divorce reason and logic from ours whims completely, we can sharpen those tools to be more effective. The mistake, one that many people make, is in concluding that when we sharpen those tools enough, such tools are no longer subject to bias or emotional influence. I know of too many ‘skeptics’ and atheists who fall victim to this vanity, and it is as universal an attribute as there is.
What is open to his choice is only whether he will discover it or not, whether he will choose the right goals and values or not. He is free to make the wrong choice, but not free to succeed with it. He is free to evade reality, he is free to unfocus his mind and stumble blindly down any road he pleases, but not free to avoid the abyss he refuses to see.
Knowledge, for any conscious organism, is the means of survival; to a living consciousness, every “is” implies an “ought.”
And then she loses me again. Now, if this is merely equivalent to the ancient idea of “do thy will,” then I can be on board, insofar as the traditional “harm no one” follows it. But it doesn’t, here. Here, Rand wants us to associate what is (our pleasure, which comes from our physical nature) with what we ought to do. What is good for us, what is pleasurable, is good. Full stop.
But what about ‘ethics’?
What, then, are the right goals for man to pursue? What are the values his survival requires? That is the question to be answered by the science of ethics. And this, ladies and gentlemen, is why man needs a code of ethics.
OK, finally, we get to the meat! Now we can leave the confines of selfish desires and pleasure-fulfillment and get to how we should behave, ethically.
Ethics is an objective, metaphysical necessity of man’s survival—not by the grace of the supernatural nor of your neighbors nor of your whims, but by the grace of reality and the nature of life.
Ethics is a real thing, observable and scientific, which is not dependent upon gods or neighbors. OK, I will agree that we don’t receive moral absolutes or conclusions from neighbors, but I think that without consideration for the interests of our neighbors we might have some trouble developing an ethical sense. Without that, we’re just concerned with the effects as they pertain to us, which while important, is not ethics.
What else? Well, more quoting from John Galt, of course! (Which is really just her quoting a character from a book she wrote)
“Man has been called a rational being, but rationality is a matter of choice—and the alternative his nature offers him is: rational being or suicidal animal. Man has to be man—by choice; he has to hold his life as a value—by choice…”
and then some more commentary about choice. I’m not even touching the implications of determinism and free will on this, because Ayn Rand seems to take free will for granted. So, leaving that aside, what should we choose to do? And by what standard?
The standard of value of the Objectivist ethics—the standard by which one judges what is good or evil—is man’s life, or: that which is required for man’s survival qua man.
OK, going around the circle again. We covered this already. Survival is good, and in general I agree. So what? What kind of survival? What kind of life? And what about other people’s lives?
Since reason is man’s basic means of survival, that which is proper to the life of a rational being is the good; that which negates, opposes or destroys it is the evil.
OK. A reasonable and rational life. That sounds good, I guess. But, again, we covered that. What kind of reason? what factors should we consider? How should I weigh my reason in comparison to the reasons of others? How do you know when it’s reason and not merely a “whim” that feels like reason?
Since everything man needs has to be discovered by his own mind and produced by his own effort, the two essentials of the method of survival proper to a rational being are: thinking and productive work.
OK, that’s a little better. We need to think (good) and we need to produce, through work. OK, as an economic principle that is true. But this is true within a world of altruistic self-sacrifice and of selfish egoism just as equally; whether we are working for our own benefit, for everyone else’s benefit, or for a mixtures of all of our benefits, work and thinking can still be good qualities. I’m curious what makes these two things important to Objectivism specifically.
So, what kind of work? And, again, what kind of thinking?
If some men do not choose to think, but survive by imitating and repeating, like trained animals, the routine of sounds and motions they learned from others, never making an effort to understand their own work, it still remains true that their survival is made possible only by those who did choose to think and to discover the motions they are repeating. The survival of such mental parasites depends on blind chance; their unfocused minds are unable to know whom to imitate, whose motions it is safe to follow.
In other words, think for yourself. Good advice for individuals in any situation. Learn to think independently, reason out the world for yourself, and don’t merely follow. That’s good advice! However, that still could be true in an altruistic and selfless society of individuals. I am not seeing, here, how this reasonable ethics differs from an altruistic and social morality. I don’t see the contradiction between altruism and reason.
I’m not seeing what this reasonable selfishness is offering me that another set of values couldn’t. Just like when religion offers me community, shared values, and morals, my answer is “I can do that without religion too!”
I can have free-thinking and productivity without the virtues of selfishness.
But then, something bizarre happens:
If some men attempt to survive by means of brute force or fraud, by looting, robbing, cheating or enslaving the men who produce, it still remains true that their survival is made possible only by their victims, only by the men who choose to think and to produce the goods which they, the looters, are seizing. Such looters are parasites incapable of survival, who exist by destroying those who are capable, those who are pursuing a course of action proper to man.
Now, I imagine that here is where Rand differs from the egoists (she calls the “Nietzschean egoists” in the introduction) who simply do what they will. The difference seems to be that one produces while the other simply takes. But I don’t see how one could not start with the valuation of pleasure and life (as Rand does) and not logically be able to get to being a thief. A thief, after all, is following his or her pleasure, and many a thief or robber is quite capable of survival. Also, I know many people who strive to work and produce who are on the edge of survival, because those who control the means of production….
Oh, wait, I’m starting to sound like a socialist….
I was about to associate those who are at the top of the economic food-chain, the so-called producers (we call them “job creators” now), are making it so that one might consider crime in order to survive, because having the value of production and work are insufficient what the system is tilted against you. But that would be associating the “Robber Barons” with the mere “robbers.” As we saw in the introduction, Ayn Rand dislikes this comparison. I’m guessing that Ayn Rand would not have been at Occupy Wall Street, except to tell them all to get a job (or to be some sort of entrepreneurial genius, like John Galt).
Man cannot survive as anything but man. He can abandon his means of survival, his mind, he can turn himself into a subhuman creature and he can turn his life into a brief span of agony—just as his body can exist for a while in the process of disintegration by disease. But he cannot succeed….
No, I have not stopped quoting Ayn Rand and started quoting recent Republican speeches. if this rhetoric sounds familiar to you, it’s because of the influence of the “teabagging” right-wing of American politics these days. Because while Ayn Rand was not the only influence of this political set of ideologies, she was a strong influence. The fact that these ideas have subsequently been hitched to conservative religious ideas is, to me, high comedy.
But more than being comedy, this fact demonstrates the center of my critique; Ayn Rand’s whole philosophy here is not, in fact, a reasonable discourse divorced from the human whims and fancies from which religion, dictatorships, and crime arise. This delusion of being above the fray is the source of this ideology becoming the new fray.
For every person who claims to be above being superior to the faults of human bias, error, and self-deception, I give you a person steeped in such biases. The way to escape is not to rise above it, it is to dive down into it and get to know them. Because we can only avoid traps if we are on our hands and knees, in the mud of our messy emotional selves, feeling for traps. Ayn Rand thought she transcended the mucky swamp of human whims, but like the rest of us she was swimming waist deep in her own shit, but just not looking down.
We have to have the courage to look down. And when we do look down and see the abyss, and that abyss looks back, we need the courage to not blink or look back up out of fear. Because whether we look back up to a god (as Rand encouraged us to avoid) or to some Platonic ideal of pure reason (it amounts to the same), we are deluding ourselves.
And here we must pause again. Later this evening or tomorrow, I will post the final part of this analysis, where we will discuss the cardinal values of Objectivism and how they might usher in a utopia, somehow. Stay tuned.
Tags: altruism, Ayn Rand, egoism, ethical philosophy, Objectivism, The Virtue of Selfishness
Many years ago I read Ayn Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged. I found it entertaining, but mostly it was preachy. The convoluted universe within contains idealistic characters who give long diatribes composed in an attempt to get the reader riled up about how our culture is broken morally, and how we can pull ourselves up through our individual greatness to a utopian future. Such narratives failed to evoke more than mild positive feelings in me, and in the end I found Ayn Rand’s novel to be emotionally immature and philosophically problematic.
And yet, in opening her essay about ethics, Ayn Rand quotes one of the characters from this book as a representative of her “Objectivist Ethics,” as a man we should try to emulate. Here are the words of John Galt.
“Through centuries of scourges and disasters, brought about by your code of morality, you have cried that your code had been broken, that the scourges were punishment for breaking it, that men were too weak and too selfish to spill all the blood it required. You damned man, you damned existence, you damned this earth, but never dared to question your code. …
“Yes, this is an age of moral crisis. … Your moral code has reached its climax, the blind alley at the end of its course. And if you wish to go on living, what you now need is not to return to morality … but to discover it.”
And with this as the battle cry, Ayn Rand attempts to help us discover ethics, a process which seems to include trashing the history of ethical philosophy as misguided and ultimately evil. Despite her antipathy to Nietzsche’s egoism, this is very much a quest that we have found Nietzsche to be on many years before (especially with Beyond Good and Evil), and while I appreciate the need for a re-valuation of value (Nietzsche’s phrasing), as we have seen previously I am skeptical that Ayn Rand’s contribution is worthy of significant seriousness. So, in order to understand why, let’s take a look at a few highlights from chapter one of The Virtue of Selfishness, which is composed of an essay called “The Objectivist Ethics.”
What is morality/ethics?
It is a code of values to guide man’s choices and actions—the choices and actions that determine the purpose and the
course of his life. Ethics, as a science, deals with discovering and defining such a code.
The first question is: Does man need values at all—and why?
These are fair questions and definitions for starting to think about ethics. And I agree with Rand that ethics is essentially a scientific, or at least empirical, exercise. Rand is reacting, in part, to the movement in popular ethics which was largely subjective and relative, and while I am not a relativist myself I am also not an Objectivist. One thing to be aware of is the dichotomy set up there; those are not the only options.
Returning to the distinctions between reason and whims, which we looked at in the introduction, Rand asks the following.
Is ethics the province of whims: of personal emotions, social edicts and mystic revelations—or is it the province of reason? Is ethics a subjective luxury—or an objective necessity?
Clearly, Rand thinks that ethics is not a mystical, social, or subjectivist project. Rather, it is “scientific” and “objective”–hence Objectivism. And despite the fact that a number of philosophers, including Nietzsche, have sought a scientific approach to ethics prior to Rand (and many more since Rand wrote this book), Rand has the following criticism.
No philosopher has given a rational, objectively demonstrable, scientific answer to the question of why man needs a code of values. So long as that question remained unanswered, no rational, scientific, objective code of ethics could be discovered or defined.
The greatest of all philosophers, Aristotle, did not regard ethics as an exact science; he based his ethical
system on observations of what the noble and wise men of his time chose to do, leaving unanswered the questions of: why they chose to do it and why he evaluated them as noble and wise.
I’ve admired Aristotle’s approach to ethics for a long time. I don’t consider him to be the greatest philosopher, but I think his contribution to philosophy is profound and influential. His Nichomachean Ethics is among my favorite works of ethical philosophy, and anyone who takes ethics seriously should be at least familiar with it. Let’s spend a moment looking at Aristotle’s Virtue Ethics, since Rand at least hold Aristotle himself in high regard.
“Virtue Ethics,” as Aristotle’s view is called, is an interesting and powerful method for thinking about how we behave and why. Essentially, it focuses less on outcomes or principles, and instead looks at varying human attributes–virtues and vices–and considers what would be the ideal level of such attributes, which is often some moderate between extremes. We identify which temperaments make better people, and try to emulate those characteristics in ourselves. Looking at the individual behavior of a person who is admired, respected, and sought as virtuous is often an indicator of (at least) who a culture holds as a virtuous person.
However, if we left it there we would be missing something. Ethics, as I stated in the introduction, can start with individual interests, attributes, and concerns, but it must transcend these things to be powerful enough to be ethical. Much of Objectivism can be seen as a lesson in how to be an individual, but it often fails (for reasons I’ll get to) in addressing ethics primarily because it rejects the very definition of ethics. I realize Rand is doing this intentionally, I just think it fails.
Why? Let’s get back to Aristotle.
What does it matter what this or that “wise” or “virtuous” person does unless we are interested in the social and cultural implications of those actions? That is, unless we are concerned with the implications of a set of actions or virtues which we may or may not emulate, then why would we even bother paying attention to the actions of said person? Unless we are concerned with how our actions affect other people, or with how their actions affect us, then we would not care what they did. It is the very fact that we concern ourselves with the right set of actions and virtues in (other) people which excavates the fact that ethics is a social question, not an individual one.
Rand rejects “subjectivism,” but the “Objectivism” that she proposes rarely, if ever, leaves the bounds of individual interest. She thinks that the effect on the world will be one of love, collaboration, and fair trade (as we shall see), but she never articulates how this happens or why we should care about that. Without a connection between the virtues of selfishness and how it avoids making our culture and society sick, evil, or at least unsuccessful, we are left holding a bag of our own selfish interests and successes without any overt concern for anyone else, or even why we should care about them. Ayn Rand never traces how her virtues of selfishness translate into a better world in this essay, and often states directly that we should not be concerned with this. If this is not a contradiction, it is at least a serious tension.
Selfishness per se is insufficient to address a question of social significance, such as ethics. Selfishness cannot bring in empathy (a word that never comes into “The Objectivist Ethics” or the rest of the book) or understanding, which seems intentional on Rand’s part. Rand seeks to de-couple ethics from its mystical past of self-sacrifice and “irrationality” in an attempt to de-couple reason from emotion.
But you can’t de-couple reason from emotion. You can’t be coldly reasonable and rational without concern for emotion, because our brains simply are not constructed in such a way that we can separate reason from emotion. We can delude ourselves into thinking we have done so (which Rand seems guilty of), but this is an illusion.
Ayn Rand is just focusing on her set of preferences and turning them into “objective” ideals (they are, at best, intersubjective). There is nothing wrong with that inherently, but her conclusions are so self-centered, myopic, and (ironically) disjointed from reality that Objectivism can only appeal to those who are predisposed to avoiding any kind of self-sacrifice for the sake of their own selfish interests.
In other words, it seeks as a rationalized shelter for selfish people, rather than a reasonably constructed utopia of ethical living away from an evil world of altruistic fear.
Insofar as Western thought has tried to de-couple ethical philosophy from religion and mysticism specifically,
…their attempts consisted of trying to justify them on social grounds, merely substituting society for God.
This is quite similar to arguments I have heard from many conservatives, especially Christian apologists, who claim that liberals/atheists are substituting the government, science, or (in one case, at least) time for god. Society, progress, and time are all “replacements” for the missing god, supposedly. The basic complaint seems to be that where people try to understand something, all they end up doing is replacing god, rather than actually figure out what the truth is.
Now, Ayn Rand was no fan of god (she was an atheist and spoke against religion openly). Her complaint here is not that in creating a social morality we are replacing the true source of morality; god. Her problem seems to be that in attempting to re-think ethics as secular or social ideal, we are just doing the same thing as the broken systems of religion, communism, etc were doing, and which Objectivism is trying to transcend. I have had similar thoughts in relation to some of the humanist community, and so I recognize this complaint as sometimes legitimate.
Insofar as secular ethics merely clones religious ethics, I think this criticism is fair. But is this what ethical philosophy was doing? And even if it was then, is it still doing so now?
If we are to build ethics from the ground up (using reason and science), it does not mean that the structure of social morality must be abandoned as a conclusion, even if we do abandon a subjectivist, social, or mystical grounding of ethics as a starting point. One can build a reasonable ethics that leads to us thinking about ethics as a social phenomenon without starting there. In fact I’d argue that not only must we start with the facts of individual interests and considerations, if we don’t arrive at a set of social considerations when we’re done then all we are doing is arguing for the abandonment of ethics in favor of individual interests, not the discovery of ethics.
How does Rand see the relationship between society and ethics?
This meant, in logic—and, today, in worldwide practice—that “society” stands above any principles of ethics, since it is the source, standard and criterion of ethics, since “the good” is whatever it wills, whatever it happens to assert as its own welfare and pleasure.
Rand’s confusion here is to say that, for the culture and society she is criticizing, ethics starts as being what society claims to be right, wrong, or true. This description of social ethics, if true, is indeed circular and does often lead to a kind of relativism rather than anything objective or true. But this description is a straw-man. What Rand continues to misunderstand is that it is possible (and has been done, many times) to build an ethical system from the ground up (using reason, and not mere “whims”) and conclude that ethics are about social good and may, in fact, include some aspects of altruistic thinking.
Rand is essentially saying that we have all been spoon-fed a social standard of morality which is harmful to us as individuals and as a group, and I’m responding by saying simply that this is not necessarily true. It might be true for some people; some people might accept a social morality without thinking about it or taking the time to care about their individual interests enough, but this does not imply that we must abandon social concerns as a legitimate question in ethics in order to be reasonable.
My argument is that ethics can start with individual virtues, selfish concerns, and other non-inherently social factors and when we then ask the question about interactions, differences of opinion, etc, then those individual factors coalesce and supervene to create a larger level of description via the emergent properties of selfish interests.
That larger level of description is ethical philosophy. In the same way that cells operate individually, yet when we study the implications of how they interact, new levels of description (tissues, organs, bodies, ect) come into view.
If Ayn Rand’s ethics were biology, it would imply that the only thing that would matter is how cells operate independently of other cells. And just like cellular biology isn’t all of biology, selfishness isn’t all of ethics. Selfishness is, at best, the start of the conversation. How does Ayn Rand deal with the rest? Well, we’ll have to see in part 2.
This is a good time to pause. In reading, analyzing, and writing this post I have managed to compose nearly 9000 words (so far), and after writing a nearly 6000 word introduction, I decided to break up this analysis into 3 parts. I will publish part 2 in the next day or so, depending on how busy I am.
Tags: altruism, Ayn Rand, ethics, Objectivism, selfishness, The Virtue of Selfishness
50 years ago Ayn Rand, a novelist and philosopher, wrote a book entitled The Virtue of Selfishness. I read this book many years ago, in addition to The Romantic Manifesto, Atlas Shrugged, and Anthem. I actually enjoyed some aspects of her writing, especially when it came to her novels. But I never was able to seriously accept her philosophical worldview, and her epistemologucal and ‘ethical’ thinking rubbed me the wrong way.
Ayn Rand called herself an Objectivist. Here, and in the following series posts, I will not be addressing all of her Objectivist views, but will rather be focusing on the essays from this one work, The Virtue of Selfishness, and the related issues pertaining to ethical philosophy. In essence, I will be addressing her ‘ethical egoism.’
From the start, I will be clear that while I find some of what she says to be interesting and thought-provoking, I ultimately disagree with her. Vigorously. In re-reading this work I will be launching a criticism, but I hope it to be fair insofar as I represent her views accurately. That is, in arguing against selfishness as a moral foundation or value, I want to be aware that she uses the term in a different way, intentionally, in an attempt to deconstruct how selfishness has been demonized by our culture and the philosophical history which helped establish that culture. And while this deconstruction does unearth some assumptions about morality, in much the same way that Nietzsche’s views on ethics did, it is my opinion that her views on ethics are derived from an oversimplified caricature of the subject. Her dichotomy between altruism and selfishness (egoism) is sophomoric philosophy, and misses too much to be as influential as her thinking continues to be.
As a disclaimer, I view ethics as not based upon altruism (selflessness) or egoism (selfishness), and view the dichotomy, which Rand employs, between altruism and egoism as misguided as a means of thinking about ethics at a basic level. For me, ethics is based in the value of fairness, derived from freedom and its logical consequences. Further, while an analysis of ethical philosophy can start from consideration of selfish interests, so long as it remains there is never becomes a discussion about ethics at all (I know some people disagree with my on this point, and I’m willing to defend this view).
I, like Rand (as we shall see below), don’t want an ethic which sacrifices either the self or the other for their own sake. However, her solution is largely myopic and ignorant of many alternative solutions. Ignorance is not itself bad, but when millions of people follow a view which demonstrates such blatant ignorance, as I philosopher I become worried; especially when I see the same myopia reflected in people who are not ostensibly Rand followers.
Whether the person making the mistake of defending a similar form of ethical egoism is a fan of Ayn Rand or has antipathies towards her is irrelevant if they are making similar philosophical mistakes.
With that said, here’s some selections from the introduction, with commentary by myself, to start out the series.
The Virtue of Selfishness, by Ayn Rand (1964).
The title of this book may evoke the kind of question that I hear once in a while: “Why do you use the word ‘selfishness’ to denote virtuous qualities of character, when that word antagonizes so many people to whom it does not mean the things you mean?”
To those who ask it, my answer is: “For the reason that makes you afraid of it.”
Ayn Rand was not shy nor afraid to be blunt, as we can see from the start. However, there are more motivations than fear which would prompt such a question. In some ways, her reasons for choosing that term may be similar to my reasons for maintaining the label ‘atheist’ when another might be more palatable to people. If I were being snarky, I might respond with a similar answer that Rand gave here when asked why I maintain the ‘atheist’ label, so I won’t chastised her for her tone. Let’s continue to gain more context.
But there are others, who would not ask that question, sensing the moral cowardice it implies, yet who are unable to formulate my actual reason or to identify the profound moral issue involved. It is to them that I will give a more explicit answer. It is not a mere semantic issue nor a matter of arbitrary choice. The meaning ascribed in popular usage to the word “selfishness” is not merely wrong: it represents a devastating intellectual“package-deal,” which is responsible, more than any other single factor, for the arrested moral development of mankind.
That is quite a charge!
OK, so what’s clear here is that Ayn Rand thought that there was something wrong with how American/Western culture and its moral thinking was using the term “selfish,” and maybe the term needed some re-evaluation. Fair enough. Let’s see why she felt that way.
In popular usage, the word “selfishness” is a synonym of evil; the image it conjures is of a murderous brute who tramples over piles of corpses to achieve his own ends, who cares for no living being and pursues nothing but the gratification of the mindless whims of any immediate moment. Yet the exact meaning and dictionary definition of the word “selfishness” is: concern with one’s own interests. This concept does not include a moral evaluation; it does not tell us whether concern with one’s own interests is good or evil; nor does it tell us what constitutes man’s actual interests. It is the task of ethics to answer such questions.
OK, agreed…partially. This image of a brutish person would be included in the set of selfish people, but certainly it would not be an exhaustive list. There are other expressions of selfishness, Rand’s idealized one included, which may or may not be objectionable. My concern here is the hyperbolic nature of the example. This is a tactic that one sees when reading Ayn Rand; she sets up foils which create a caricature of the idea she is criticizing, and sets up her own perspective as an idealized picture. Surely, we all do this to some degree (I’m probably doing so in this very post), but one rarely sees it to the stark level as with Ayn Rand.
In her novels, a common theme is one where the immoral government schemes, through their love of altruism, attempts to prevent capable individuals from succeeding through enforcing taxation and other means of taking from producers and giving to those who don’t produce. Those arguing for the altruistic model, in her caricatures, are set up as sniveling and weak collectivists who de-value personal achievement and virtuous selfish interest. Her foils are never fleshed out as people with complex motivations, whether because Ayn Rand was incapable of comprehending their potential reasons or because she didn’t care to. In the end, it amounts to the same.
In short, Ayn Rand is quite good as setting up strong dichotomies which include the evil, morally regressive altruists and collectivists (who hate individual freedom and strength) against her heroes who strive for personal glory and achievement by bucking the system. Sort of like the ‘lamestream’ media versus ‘mavericks.’
Sound familiar? *cough*tea party*cough*. Also, Fox News.
Is there any surprise that many conservatives love Ayn Rand?
Anyway, when Rand eventually leaves behind the stark dichotomies and straw-men above, she addresses what selfishness is. The demonized ‘selfishness’ she is reacting against is not this monster she just created for the purpose of comparison, it’s something else; something virtuous and moral. Get used to this tactic when reading Ayn Rand. Her method is to contrast a caricatured monster of selfishness with her virtuous one, which ignores the reality that every day self-centered behavior has detrimental effects on all of us, including her own virtuous kind of selfishness (we;ll get to that).
But the contrast to the monstrous selfishness is an equally monstrous altruism, and with this her continuum and her ethical boundaries are painted.
The ethics of altruism has created the image of the brute, as its answer, in order to make men accept two inhuman tenets: (a) that any concern with one’s own interests is evil, regardless of what these interests might be, and (b) that the brute’s activities are in fact to one’s own interest (which altruism enjoins man to renounce for the sake of his neighbors).
This is a really excellent example of the straw man fallacy in action. There may, in fact, be people who argue for altruism in this sense, and certainly many ethical systems throughout history have emphasized the importance of forms of altruism which include some sacrifice of the self for the sake of others, but pure renunciation or asceticism is usually only regarded as virtuous within specific religious traditions, including many Catholic saints. That is, if Rand has issues with the altruism within those traditions, then she needs to stop arguing that this altruism is universal, rather than confined to certain small sections of culture and history. Rand’s altruistic monster is not a dominant ethical value, and so it makes me wonder who she’s arguing with, and why she is unable to wrestle with more nuanced ethical questions about fairness, rather than a caricature of such things.
Ayn Rand’s depiction of altruism is nowhere near the dominant value of ethical thinking, and there are many alternatives to the altruism/egoism dichotomy which she portrays. From reading Ayn Rand, one could get the impression that altruism and egoism are the primary values in conflict in ethical philosophy. That view would be very wrong, as there are many ways to address ethics which do not deal with this question of altruism or selfishness directly.
However, perhaps we need to see what she has to say about altruism, and its flaws, to understand how she’s thinking about this.
There are two moral questions which altruism lumps together into one “package-deal”: (1) What are values? (2) Who should be the beneficiary of values? Altruism substitutes the second for the first; it evades the task of defining a code of moral values, thus leaving man, in fact, without moral guidance.
So, in other words, others should be the beneficiary of our values, or actions. This, thinks Rand, is the altruistic value. This is either a terrible misunderstanding of how most people actually think about ethics (including many who talk about altruism specifically) or an intentional skewing of those whom she is arguing against. She continues.
Altruism declares that any action taken for the benefit of others is good, and any action taken for one’s own benefit is evil. Thus the beneficiary of an action is the only criterion of moral value—and so long as that beneficiary is anybody other than oneself, anything goes.
Hence the appalling immorality, the chronic injustice, the grotesque double standards the insoluble conflicts and contradictions that have characterized human relationships and human societies throughout history, under all the variants of the altruist ethics.
So, for those of you who are philosophically inclined, she’s claiming that altruism has an ethical principle of helping others, and from that point of view any selfish action is immoral. Now, some altruists might agree with the first part, but the second does not necessarily follow. In real life, not many people take such an absolutist approach to thinking about selfishness v. selflessness.
So, after reading those two paragraphs, I’m left with the resounding thought that this is–and there is no other way to put it worthy of the content–bullshit. That is, if this is an indictment of popular morality, in favor of a rationalistic ethics, it is a biased and parochial interpretation in order to make her own views look good in comparison to a straw-man version of altruism. It is making the other side look as bad as possible to make the ensuing ‘rational’ view seem reasonable by comparison. it’s a shameless and possibly dishonest method.
It is statements like those above which make many people cringe when calling Ayn Rand’s thinking “philosophy,” as it seems to be more about rationalizing her whims (which is exactly what she claims to be avoiding in being rational) than thinking carefully and with understanding about ethics. The fact that so many people take her views seriously is, well, baffling to me.
Real ethical philosophy is more nuanced than this. Even if altruism were a philosophy that concluded that so long as an act is done for other people it is permitted (it doesn’t make such conclusions, that I’m aware of), the simple fact is that this type of altruism is not the machine against which Rand rages. This, quite simply, is a massively shoddy straw-man which has few (if any) actual representatives, and therefore this introduction is impotent as a critique of popular morality. Also altruists, or at least those who value altruism as part of their ethical thinking, do not view anything done selfishly as evil. This drastic oversimplification is borderline absolutist and reactionary, not careful or insightful.
But it gets better.
Observe the indecency of what passes for moral judgments today. An industrialist who produces a fortune, and a gangster who robs a bank are regarded as equally immoral, since they both sought wealth for their own “selfish” benefit. A young man who gives up his career in order to support his parents and never rises beyond the rank of grocery clerk is regarded as morally superior to the young man who endures an excruciating struggle and achieves his personal ambition. A dictator is regarded as moral, since the unspeakable atrocities he committed were intended to benefit “the people,” not himself.
Right. No, I mean wrong. Sorry, her brain worm is eating my brain. Too much more of this I might start campaigning for Rand Paul.
Observe what this beneficiary-criterion of morality does to a man’s life. The first thing he learns is that morality is his enemy; he has nothing to gain from it, he can only lose; self-inflicted loss, self-inflicted pain and the gray, debilitating pall of an incomprehensible duty is all that he can expect. He may hope that others might occasionally sacrifice themselves for his benefit, as he grudgingly sacrifices himself for theirs, but he knows that the relationship will bring mutual resentment, not pleasure—and that, morally, their pursuit of values will be like an exchange of unwanted, unchosen Christmas presents, which neither is morally permitted to buy for himself. Apart from such times as he manages to perform some act of self-sacrifice, he possesses no moral significance: morality takes no cognizance of him and has nothing to say to him for guidance in the crucial issues of his life; it is only his own personal, private, “selfish” life and, as such, it is regarded either as evil or, at best, amoral.
That’s right folks. Look out for yourself because there is no guarantee that anyone else will. Don’t trust, or build interdependent communities where you have to be vulnerable to each other, or submit to any policies which seek to make you support the community as a whole. Make yourself self-sufficient and anyone else who can’t (or won’t) do so, well they’re entitled and immoral leeches upon you, and not worth your time.
I recognize this instinct. In my more selfish moments, I have thoughts that verge along this path. I feel its pull, and I can walk down this road in my mind. I resist this path. I don’t resist it because I feel guilty or because I’m supposed to resist it; I resist it because the behavior it induces are harmful to those around me, and I’m not as happy or fulfilled insofar as I walk that path. And if I were mostly focused on my own interests, I would miss many of the effects of my actions in this way, and I might agree with Rand in that case because I’d be oblivious, or perhaps callous, to those effects.
When I think in these terms, I’m more likely to be angry, reactionary, and less likely to be empathetic. I don’t like the person who walks that path, whether it is another or I who walks it. I have trouble understanding how someone can walk that path without understanding its pitfalls, but I know they exist. I suppose someone prone to selfishness and self-interest would be less likely to notice them, and that’s probably why so many people are drawn to this philosophy.
This screed by Rand, and all her pronouncements similar to it, are the lament of a person who is incapable, apparently, of comprehending or caring about the interests of others (except where they intersect with our own), especially how our actions affect those interests. In a room full of people with their individual interests, they must all equally matter or a contradiction is spawned; whatever argument any of them uses for why their interests are more important is automatically valid for anyone else, which implies that they are all equal from the start (the “original position”). Their individual interests are equal in comparison to each other. It is when they all realize that their interests aren’t superior to the interests of others that each individual is able to start thinking about what will be right to do. If they are all thinking about their own interests, the conversation about ethics can’t even get off the ground.
In light of all this, it seems that Ayn Rand would not have been a fan of John Rawls, whose 1971 book A Theory of Justice described what was called the “veil of ignorance,” which effectively shows the fundamental problem that many ethical systems have missed in trying to establish fairness, or care about fairness at all. Rawls’ view is, in some ways, antithetical to Rand’s. Where Rand seeks to emphasize individual interests, Rawls seems to minimize them, but Rawls was no altruist (which is not to say he was against selfless acts, just that his foundational principle was not that selfless acts were necessarily good, or that selfish ones were necessarily bad).
One of the implications of Rawls’ analysis, as well as that of the idea of power dynamics in general, is that our individual interests, whether rational or irrational, exist within a miasma of blindness, privilege, and lack of understanding of what it’s like to be other people. Rand wants us, as we will see, to consider our rational self interest in thinking about how to behave and what actions to take. She does not want us to merely follow our whims (our irrational self interests), but the problem is that this distinction between rational self interest and irrational self interest (her terms) may be impossible for us to make ourselves, because we may be blind to the processes thagt distinguish them.
In order to comprehend the differences between rational and irrational interests (whether self or other), we need to apply empathy, perspective, consider the interest of others (but not merely sacrifice ourselves to them), and put ourselves behind Rawls’ veil of ignorance. Otherwise, we may end up emulating some of that brutishness even when we think we’re being rational because we think our interests are rational when they are, in fact, irrational.
Rand seems to be unaware that we humans are largely incapable of determining whether our interests are rational or irrational, especially when we are acting primarily with deference to self-interest. Cognitive dissonance, bias, and the fact that we are generally blind to our own flaws are reasons enough to not utilize our self interest as the standard by which we start thinking about ethical behavior. We simply don’t know ourselves well enough to trust that our self interest is actually in our interest, let alone anyone else’s.
Ayn Rand then continues to address means of survival, since altruism is evil and will probably kill us.
Since nature does not provide man with an automatic form of survival, since he has to support his life by his own effort, the doctrine that concern with one’s own interests is evil means that man’s desire to live is evil—that man’s life, as such, is evil. No doctrine could be more evil than that.
Our own effort, but definitely not by our collective effort, is the means to moral behavior (says Rand). This continuation of a caricature of a self-hating, insecure, and completely anti-life demon should be getting on your nerves by now. I don’t know anyone who believes that our own interests are evil per se (well, maybe some Christians, but again Rand is not overtly criticizing religious morality, but supposedly altruism-based morality in general), even if they could be harmful or problematic sometimes. Similarly, acting on behalf of others is not good in itself, but it could be. The major flaw here is arguing that the base value of ethics has anything to do with either selfishness or altruism. Neither of those factors are sufficient to construct an ethical system.
The more one applies weight to the value of selfish motivations (whether reasonable or not), the farther away from ethical considerations one gets. One must have some consideration of the interests of others to be doing ethical thinking. This is not because selfishness is immoral per se (or because altruism is good per se), but because without the presence of others, or their interests we are not even talking about ethics. Selfishness is not immoral because it makes us brutes (although it might do that as well), selfishness is amoral by definition. Our rational self interest is not ethics. It is one of the building blocks of ethics (potentially), but by itself it is nothing more than establishing what an individual wants, which is not an ethical question at all.
Individual interests are great to know for the sake of personal growth, therapy, and knowing how to spend time alone, but until the interests of others come into play a conversation about ethics is logically impossible. That is, until some level of giving of ourselves for the sake of others is admitted into consideration as ethically relevant, we are not talking about ethics at all. So when Rand argues that we should not be concerned with the interests of others at the expense of our own, she might be arguing that ethics are not worth our effort.
If it is true that what I mean by “selfishness” is not what is meant conventionally, then this is one of the worst indictments of altruism: it means that altruism permits no concept of a self-respecting, self-supporting man—a man who supports his life by his own effort and neither sacrifices himself nor others. It means that altruism permits no view of men except as sacrificial animals and profiteers-on-sacrifice, as victims and parasites—that it permits no concept of a benevolent co-existence among men—that it permits no concept of justice.
Altruism, even when portrayed this way, allows for the existence of such people, it just might look down upon them. But being that I am not coming from an altruistic point of view, this is not relevant to me or to most ethical thinkers.
But we do have other concepts of justice–John Rawls’ work was already alluded to, and there are others. Rand here is so blind to anything except her own interests that she can’t see that she is not being rational in her criticism of a moral system which is not only a straw-man, but ignores many other possible views. This myopia is common in Rand’s work, and seems to belie a general lack of understanding of ethical philosophy, especially that of her philosophical opponents.
If you wonder about the reasons behind the ugly mixture of cynicism and guilt in which most men spend their lives, these are the reasons: cynicism, because they neither practice nor accept the altruist morality—guilt, because they dare not reject it.
To rebel against so devastating an evil, one has to rebel against its basic premise. To redeem both man and morality, it is the concept of “selfishness” that one has to redeem.
So, there are some people who resent being repressed to act the way that they want, because what they want to do is considered immoral. The problem with this is that this could be true of all sorts of behaviors, whether actually immoral or not. Wherein popular morality has not caught up with what is rational, this is a battle cry for those who fight against the conservatism of our society. For atheists, polyamorous people, etc such ideas are important if we want to progress our culture morally, legally, and behaviorally.
But for others this could be used as an excuse to not consider the social and interpersonal effects of their behavior. There are times when we need to, morally, restrain our interests (even if we think those interests to be rational), when the effects of those interests harm others unnecessarily. And in more cases than not, this side of this battle cry seeks to preserve certain types of power structures and privileges which the individual, who considers their proclivities to be rational, is blind to (due to the nature of privilege and power).
It is no surprise that fans of Ayn Rand tend to side with business interests, free market capitalism, etc and view any form of socialism, communism, or any type of centrist criticism of Wall Street et al as problematic at best and down right un-American at worst. Anyone who has a problem with those things hates freedom, and seeks to take something from you which you earned rightfully. Any tax or sacrifice of any kind, which you earned, is immoral because it gives to someone who didn’t earn something.
The first step is to assert man’s right to a moral existence—that is: to recognize his need of a moral code to guide the course and the fulfillment of his own life.
For a brief outline of the nature and the validation of a rational morality,see my lecture on “The Objectivist Ethics” which follows. The reasons why man needs a moral code will tell you that the purpose of morality is to define man’s proper values and interests, that concern with his own interests is the essence of a moral existence, and that man must be the beneficiary of his own moral actions.
Since all values have to be gained and/or kept by men’s actions, any breach between actor and beneficiary necessitates an injustice: the sacrifice of some men to others, of the actors to the nonactors, of the moral to the immoral. Nothing could ever justify such a breach, and no one ever has.
Yes, many have. Ayn Rand and her followers may not think it moral to get between you and your interest, but insofar as your interest is hurting other people, we have many tools to evaluate the worthiness of such a breach. While I would not advocate a strong altruism, this view of Rand’s, which calls itself rational, misses so many levels of reasonable consideration that it is almost laughably simplistic in its perspective.
One thing we have learned, since Rand’s time, is that our moral motivations are fundamentally emotional and instinctual, and then secondarily rational. Ethical philosophy, insofar as it attempts to be rational or divorced from our mere whims, is largely an illusion. By making a strong distinction between rationalism and emotional/instinctual concerns, Rand and anyone else who argues for a similar worldview of maintaining a purely reasonable or rational approach to ethics, is failing to understand a fundamental problem of human nature and behavior; most of our thinking is rationalized whims.
Ayn Rand does not seem to agree, which is fine because we discovered this after she formed her ideas.
The Objectivist ethics holds that the actor must always be the beneficiary of his action and that man must act for his own rational self-interest. But his right to do so is derived from his nature as man and from the function of moral values in human life—and, therefore, is applicable only in the context of a rational, objectively demonstrated and validated code of moral principles which define and determine his actual self-interest.
It is fair to emphasize that Rand’s views are not a license to just do whatever we want:
It is not a license “to do as he pleases” and it is not applicable to the altruists’ image of a “selfish” brute nor to any man motivated by irrational emotions, feelings, urges, wishes or whims.
This is said as a warning against the kind of “Nietzschean egoists” who, in fact, are a product of the altruist morality and represent the other side of the altruist coin: the men who believe that any action, regardless of its nature, is good if it is intended for one’s own benefit. Just as the satisfaction of the irrational desires of others is not a criterion of moral value, neither is the satisfaction of one’s own irrational desires. Morality is not a contest of whims.
No, morality should not be a contest of whims, but that is what most ethical philosophy ends up being; a contest of rationalized whims. Rand’s dichotomy between the altruist and the egoist is interesting as an analytical tool for deconstructing the nature of those two sets of values and behaviors, but as a means of discussing what seems to be meta-ethics, this is a flop. Altruism and egoism are not fundamental values, they are two conclusions. And if this is an attempt to analyze them as conclusions, all we have is a couple of straw-men and what is presented as a rational middle ground. I’m not convinced it is rational or reasonable.
Rand does not like the straw-man she creates for altruism, nor does she like the (also straw-man) Nietzschean egoist, but her rational solution is not any better. She believes that she is being rational and not following her mere whims, but I am skeptical of this belief. Here’s more:
Just as man cannot survive by any random means, but must discover and practice the principles which his survival requires, so man’s self-interest cannot be determined by blind desires or random whims, but must be discovered and achieved by the guidance of rational principles.
What moral principles? Well, we will have to wait for later to get the flesh, but the foundation is rational self interest:
This is why the Objectivist ethics is a morality of rational self-interest—or of rational selfishness. Since selfishness is “concern with one’s own interests,” the Objectivist ethics uses that concept in its exact and purest sense. It is not a concept that one can surrender to man’s enemies, nor to the unthinking misconceptions, distortions, prejudices and fears of the ignorant and the irrational. The attack on “selfishness” is an attack on man’s self-esteem; to surrender one, is to surrender the other.
No, to attack selfishness is not to attack self-esteem. One can be secure in themselves without being selfish, and one can be secure in oneself and be altruistic. This contradiction Rand thinks she sees is an illusion; a warped reflection in a dirty mirror. We may never be able to see others completely, or know their interests, but that does not mean we should merely concern ourselves with our own interests. That seems to me to be a rationalization of a lack of consideration or empathy.
Ethics does not ask us to surrender to the other, but sometimes it asks us to see the other as a mirror of ourselves. We have our interests, and so does the other. What do we do when confronted with this fact? By waving off the other and their interests, whether due to lack of interest, lack of understanding, or any other reason is to wave off any attempt as not only ethics but also community, intimacy, and the possibility of understanding through shared vulnerability. We don’t surrender to the other, we identify with them insofar as we can in order to not put our interests over theirs, because doing so is a contradiction of the commonality of our interests.
If we view the interests of the other as competing with our own, or we view them as incomprehensible because they are ultimately unknowable to us, or if we just think their interests will rob us of our own interests, we are missing out on a large part of humanity. To focus on our own interest so much seems too parochial and limiting. If I really want to be a great individual, I should give up some of myself just for the sake of self-improvement. By not wanting to give up any of ourselves or to understand the interests of others, we are much more likely to start idolizing the self and not change, which is bad for everyone around us. Especially ourselves.
Understanding of others is a key to self-improvement.
Ayn Rand gets into more meat in the essays themselves, and I we will dig into that when that time comes, but this short introduction (and this long analysis) will set the stage for how we think about her ideas.