This question is of interest to me for two reasons. First, I am a fan of Ayn Rand’s novels. Second, in the first chapter of my book, Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing, I seek to identify the basic goods that a flourishing human could be expected to have.
of basic goods
The chapter identified
the basic goods as: wise and well-informed self-direction, health and
longevity, positive relationships, living in harmony with nature, and
psychological well-being. I suggested that the exercise of wise and
well-informed self-direction helps individuals to obtain other basic goods.
also noted that Aristotle saw the exercise of reason as the function that
distinguishes humans from other animals and held that a good man’s purpose is
to reason well (and beautifully).
that individuals develop and realize their potential for wise and well-informed
self-direction largely by learning from experience. I therefore accepted implicitly
that it is good for adults to have a capacity to self-direct even if they make
choices that on mature reflection they might later regret.
recently, I was fairly sure that my view of what is good for humans was broadly
similar to that of Ayn Rand. Some of the things she wrote suggest that
impression was correct. For example, John Galt’s speech (quoted above) suggests
that it is good for humans to have the capacity to exercise practical wisdom. A
similar sentiment is expressed in the following passage in the chapter, ‘What
is Capitalism?’ in Capitalism: The unknown ideal:
essential characteristic is his rational faculty. Man’s mind is his basic means
of survival – his only means of gaining knowledge.”
later in that essay, in endorsing “the objective theory” of the nature
of the good, Rand rejects the idea that good can be an attribute of things in
theory holds that the good is neither an attribute of ‘things in
themselves’ nor of man’s emotional states, but an evaluation of the
facts of reality by man’s consciousness according to a rational standard of
It seems to
me that Rand is suggesting that it would not be legitimate to say that
the capacity to exercise practical wisdom – which is a thing in itself - is a
good attribute for an individual to have, irrespective of how it is used. Rand
seems to be implying that having the capability is only good when it is used
to make evaluations according to a rational standard of value.
Rasmussen and Douglas Den Uyl (the Dougs) seem to me to provide a less
ambiguous approach to considering the nature of the good in a recent article in
which they compare their Individualistic Perfectionism (IP) to Rand’s
Objectivist Ethics (OE). (‘Three Forms of Neo-Aristotelian
Ethical Naturalism: A Comparison’, Reason Papers 43, 2, 14-43, 2023.)
acknowledge that a person does not have a concept of moral good apart from the
self-directed use of their conceptual capacity. The human good is
individualized. It is good for a human being to engage in the act of
discovering human good.
Dougs suggest that the process of discovering the human good can be thought of
in terms of grades of actuality:
with Aristotle that there is a distinction between grades of actuality when it
comes to living things. The first grade of actuality is the possession of a set
of capacities that are also potentialities for a living thing’s second grade of
actuality—that is, their actual use or deployment by a living thing. Included
among the set of potentialities of a human being that comprise its first grade
of actuality is the potential to exercise one’s conceptual capacity. This first
grade of actuality is a cognitive-independent reality. However, when one’s
conceptual capacity is exercised and used in a manner that actualizes the other
potentialities that require it, then a second grade of actuality is attained.
For example, one has the capacity to know one’s good and attain it (first grade
of actuality), but one needs to engage in knowing and attaining it in order to
be fully actualized (second grade of actuality).”
In 2008 I wrote
a blog post on the topic, ‘Is our inner nature good?’. The post consisted of a
discussion of the views of Abraham Maslow, Aristotle, J S Mill, David Hume, and
Jonathan Haidt and Fredrik Bjorklund. My outline of the views of Abraham Maslow
is reproduced below because it seems relevant to the current discussion.
Abraham Maslow suggested that humans have an inner nature or
core which is good. According to Maslow this inner core is “potentiality, but
not final actualization”. He argued that in principle our inner core can easily
self-actualize, but this rarely happens in practice due to the many human
diminution forces including fear of self-actualization and the limiting belief
in society that human nature is evil (“Toward a Psychology of Being”, 1968,
On reflection, I am not sure that the concept of an inner
nature makes much sense. However, the idea that all humans have good
potentiality is appealing.
In my view
it is good for adults to have a capacity to self-direct even if they make
choices, that on mature reflection, they might later regret.
I am unsure
whether Ayn Rand would have agreed. At one point she seems to imply that a
capacity to exercise practical wisdom is only good when it is used to make
evaluations according to a rational standard of values.
Rasmussen and Douglas Den Uyl offer a less ambiguous approach by recognizing
different grades of actuality. They suggest that the first grade of actuality
is cognitive-independent. On that basis, there is no reason to doubt that the
potential to exercise practical wisdom is good.
I like the
idea that all humans have good potentiality.
My understanding of the quoted passage by Doug Rasmussen and Doug Den Uyl is as follows:
Though we must use our minds and act in the appropriate manner to self-actualize, that is, to attain our second grade of actuality, it does not follow from this that what is being actualized is merely a potentiality. Rather, it is a cognitive-independent actuality that also has potentialities. The distinction between actuality and potentiality in the case of living things does not require a dichotomy. It is not 'either-or'. Aristotle is subtle.
Moreover, though attaining one's second grade of actuality requires both cognition and practical actions to exist, this does not make human good simply an evaluation (which Rand claims). To hold that an objective view of human good is an evaluation is a further non sequitur. Consider this analogy: Phar Lap was a thoroughbred racehorse, as such he would not have existed without much human thought and effort, and in terms of the function of racehorses he was very good. But the reality of his goodness did not consist in our evaluation of him as good but in how well he fulfilled his function. The same is so for human beings, mutatis mutandis. Humans attaining their second-grade of actuality does require cognitive effort and choice, but this does make the goodness thereby expressed merely an evaluation.
prompted to write this contribution by my reading of two recent essays on The Savvy Street:
Younkins, Objectivism and Individual
Perfectionism: A Comparison; and
Roger Bissell has also responded to this essay.
anyone wishing to obtain a better understanding of the issues to read those
articles as well as the article by the Dougs referred to above.