Wednesday, February 10, 2010

How far can Ayn Rand's ethical egoism be defended?

In a post a few months ago I discussed whether Ayn Rand actually viewed selfishness as a virtue. I suggested that in arguing that selfishness is a virtue she was adopting a peculiar view of selfishness because the heroes of her novels did not seem to me to be particularly selfish.

The point was explained more clearly by Neera Badhwar in the recent discussion of Ayn Rand’s ethical thought on Cato Unbound (What’s living and dead in Ayn Rand’s moral and political thought):
‘Like Aristotle, Rand holds that the virtues, including justice, are not only means to the agent’s happiness, but also an essential, constitutive part of it. Julia Annas calls Aristotle’s ethical egoism a “formal” egoism because it essentially incorporates regard for others. Rand’s eudaimonistic egoism, likewise, is a formal egoism’.

Some other participants in the Cato discussion were not so sure that Rand viewed the virtues as an essential, constitutive part of the agent’s happiness.

Roderick Long noted that Rand appears to waver between treating virtue as a constitutive part of the agent’s own interest and as an instrumental strategy for attaining that interest: ‘The constitutive approach predominates in her novels: the chief reason that Rand’s fictional protagonists ... do not cheat their customers, for example, is pretty clearly that they would regard such parasitism on the productive efforts of others as directly inconsistent with the nobility and independence of spirit that they cherish for themselves, and not because they’re hoping that a policy of honesty will maximize their chances of longevity’. He suggests, however, that in her philosophical writings that ‘her emphasis began to shift, though never unequivocally, to the instrumental reading’.

Other participants suggested that Michael Huemer had an instrumental reading of Rand's views in mind in his initial contribution to the discussion. Huemer suggested that: ‘ethical egoism posits that the only thing that ought to matter intrinsically to me is my own welfare—for me, my own welfare or happiness is the only end in itself. It follows from this that I ought not to regard other individuals as ends in themselves; rather, I should see them only as means to my happiness—just as I see everything else in the world. This is a very simple and straightforward implication of the theory. I cannot hold my own well-being as the only end in itself, and simultaneously say that I recognize other persons as ends in themselves too’.

In defending the constitutive interpretation, Neera Badhwar made the point that ‘Rand shows her philosophy in the worlds she creates in her novels better than in her non-fictional statements’. I think this is a good point. Rand’s ongoing influence stems mainly from her novels rather than her philosophical writings.

Much of the Cato discussion centred on the question of whether what is good and right for one individual can ever conflict with what is objectively good and right for another individual. Douglas Rasmussen expressed his view that ‘if human flourishing is individualized and agent-relative ... then this would mean that human flourishing is different for each person, and thus it is possible for there to be conflict—that is, there is no way that one can in principle rule this out’.

Roderick Long was closest to endorsing Rand’s view that there can be no conflicts between two people’s rational interests: ‘One’s individual nature can make the requirements of human nature more specific, but it cannot contradict them. ...So the fact that the human good is individualized differently for different people doesn’t entail that one person’s good can conflict fundamentally with another’s.’

Neera Badhwar responded by suggesting that such fundamental conflicts, including situations where there are two equally good candidates for one job, occur frequently.

I think it is appropriate to give Douglas Rasmussen the final word in this highly selective summary of a complex discussion:

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

When I think further about the example of two equally qualified job applicants competing for one position it seems to me that this is a fairly trivial example of conflict of interest because the convention that the employer should choose between the applicants is not in question.

However, not all conflicts between what is good or right for different individuals can be easily resolved by reference to widely accepted conventions about the rights of various parties. For example, individuals can make rational decisions about the kind of music that is good for their families to listen to and yet come into conflict with their neighbours if they play that music loudly enough to interfere with their neighbours’ enjoyment of peace and quiet. Some might try to argue that such conflicts cannot occur among rational people because rational people would not play their music loudly enough to upset their neighbours. I think that stretches the definition of rationality too far because it implies advance knowledge of how neighbours will react. In my view people who find themselves involved in such conflicts are likely to be able to negotiate better solutions if they openly acknowledge their different interests and, most importantly, view mutual respect and peaceful co-existence as of over-riding importance.


clay barham said...

Ayn Rand's "Selfishness" really reflects what we mean by self-interest. Obama says community interests are more important than are individual interests, which is the kind of Rousseau to Marx view of the people in the herd, Obama and his elite few being the rulers of the herd. If you look at Roark's jury summation from FOUNTAINHEAD, you find self-interest which focuses on his art, his creations, which, like the woman he loved, are outside of him. That is not "selfish" or self-centered, but outer-centered where the circle of interests are smaller than proposed by socialists. See The Changing Face of Democrats on Amazon and

Winton Bates said...

It is interesting that socialist systems seem to have greater problems in controlling opportunism (bribery etc) than do those which provide a greater role for self-interest. The rhetoric about community interests being more important than individual interests seems to appeal to ancient tribal instincts but, irrespective of social system, there seems to be a stronger instinct to give priority to self and immediate family members. The systems that are most vulnerable to corruption are those most likely to be corrupted.