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Considering Ayn Rand

by Bill Meacham on July 18th, 2011

Ayn Rand advocates a promising methodology for ethical thinking, but has a deeply flawed vision of human nature, so her enterprise doesn’t quite pan out.(1) That’s too bad, because the methodology – to base ethical values on what is objectively and verifiably true about the world – is a good one, better than basing them on moral intuition or uncritically-accepted social norms or someone’s authority. Moral intuition seems compelling, but different people have different intuitions, so how do you decide among them? Social norms seem as evident as sunlight, but different societies have different norms, so again how do you decide among them? The same goes for authority: how do you decide which authority is worth obeying, particularly if you suspect (often with good reason) that they are really trying to get you to behave for their benefit, not yours?

The answer goes all the way back to the Classical Greeks. We all want a fulfilling life, and we find out what that is by examining who and what we are. Knowing that, we have very good clues to two things: what we are good for or good at, and what is good for us. When we are doing what we are good at and getting what is good for us, then we are functioning well. And the internal experience of functioning well is fulfillment, a fulfilling life, in short: happiness. Aristotle sums it up:

[A clearer account of happiness] might perhaps be given, if we could first ascertain the function of man. For just as for a flute-player, a sculptor, or an artist, and, in general, for all things that have a function or activity, the good and the ‘well’ is thought to reside in the function, so would it seem to be for man, if he has a function.(2)

What is good for us as human beings is to do well the uniquely human function.

And what is that? Rand follows Aristotle closely here. She says the essential function of the human being is to be rational. Unlike plants, which do not move and only react automatically to stimuli, and animals, which move around and act instinctively, humans think and reason. Common to all three is the urge to survive and thrive. How humans do that is by the use of reason: “For man, the basic means of survival is reason.”(3) And “that which is proper to the life of a rational being [i.e. the exercise of reason] is the good [for that being]….”(4) So the ethical imperative for human beings is to exercise reason, to be rational.

So far, so good. We can quibble about whether the distinctions between plants, animals and humans are really so hard and fast, but as a first approximation the account is sound. But what shall we reason about? Certainly prudential calculation of risks and benefits in the economic sphere is a big part of it, as is scientific discovery and applied engineering to produce the means of sustenance. By reasoning we figure out how to acquire what we need in order to survive. In large part that entails being productive, actively working to grow and manufacture the goods we require. For Rand, the ideal person is the one who thinks accurately and acts productively. She rails against thugs and dictators who steal from others without doing the work to produce what is stolen. (No doubt that is a big part of her appeal, because we have all been victims or fear being victims, or both.) And all of this reasoning is to one end: our own survival and welfare. The goal is to “hold one’s own life as one’s ultimate value, and one’s own happiness as one’s highest purpose….”(5) She combatively calls this “the virtue of selfishness,” although a better characterization would be the virtue of rational self-interest. Thinking rationally about our own welfare is, according to this view, what humans do best and hence what we should do in order to survive, thrive and be fulfilled.

I have no argument with that, and in fact have discussed it before in this blog. What I find problematic is how this plays out in the social sphere. Her ideal is a society of rational actors, each out to satisfy his or her own interests, who trade goods and services with each other to maximize their wealth. Each of us, in this view, is a homo economicus who seeks to obtain the highest possible well-being for himself or herself given available information about opportunities and constraints. Consequently, for Rand, the ideal human relationship is trade for mutual benefit, entered into freely and without coercion. She says so quite unambiguously:

The principle of trade is the only rational ethical principle for all human relationships, personal and social, private and public, spiritual and material.(6)

Well, that works fine for economic relationships, but does it make sense for personal relationships? I know someone who bases friendship on this principle. He openly looks for how others can be of use to him, and in turn he is willing to be used by them. Many people find this distasteful. Few entrust their deepest feelings and concerns to him.

Imagine a group in which loyalty is a must for survival. This is not implausible, because for hundreds of thousands of years that was exactly the case for all humans. Today as an extreme example we might think of a platoon of soldiers in battle, but to some degree it applies to any in-group. In order to survive as a member of such a group you need the cooperation and help of others, and in order to secure such cooperation and help you need to be seen as cooperative and helpful yourself. Others need to recognize that you are loyal and reliable. And the best way to be perceived as loyal and reliable is actually to be loyal and reliable. It is precisely not to act as Rand would have you act, coldly calculating whether to continue to be loyal. Instead you need to act in the interests of the group unhesitatingly, to act swiftly and automatically on your intuition that loyalty is obligatory and disloyalty is so hideous as to be almost unthinkable. Those whom the group suspects of being purely self-interested are less likely to become trusted members of the group than those whose loyalty is immediate and unquestioned. As group membership is crucial for survival, by her own criteria Rand’s recommendation is anti-life.

What I am talking about here is a moral emotion, an emotion that has been ingrained in us through hundreds of thousands of years of human evolution as beings who are ultra-social, obligatorily gregarious. We need each other, constantly and thoroughly. Rand sneers at morality based on instinct, intuition or feeling, but the instinct for affiliation is what has enabled humans to survive. Human societies are support systems within which individual weakness does not automatically spell death. Mutual dependence is key to our success. The moral emotion of loyalty is crucial for our survival. And so are others, such as willingness to devote resources to group welfare, cooperation, honesty and many more.

We have two kinds of rationality, but Rand recognizes only one. We can think carefully and attentively, reasoning step by step from premises to conclusions. And we can react in the blink of an eye, assessing probabilities and choosing what to do without conscious thought. More often than not it is the latter that we employ. Our minds do most of their work by automatic pattern matching. We do not pay attention, for instance, to how our visual systems translate excitation of receptor cells on the back of the eyes to recognition of objects and people; instead we just recognize things. Similarly, most of our social cognition occurs rapidly and automatically. We very quickly appraise people we meet as attractive or not, friendly or threatening, male or female, higher or lower in status than we are, etc. Moral intuitions are a form of social cognition. Human beings come equipped with an intuitive ethics, an innate preparedness to feel flashes of approval or disapproval toward certain patterns of events involving other human beings.

But this is what Rand decries, instead praising a rationality that entails “a full mental focus in all issues, in all choices, in all of one’s waking hours,” a process of thought that is “precise,” “scrupulous” and “ruthlessly strict.”(7) Someone who actually acted that way would not last very long at all.

Rand overlooks two things: the role of what cognitive scientists call “hot cognition,” which I have been describing, and the essentially social nature of human reality. Nowhere in her essay is the word “compassion” to be found. Nowhere does she speak of empathy. She does mention love. She calls it a “spiritual payment given in exchange for the personal, selfish pleasure which one man derives from the virtues of another man’s character.”(8) Love as payment? If men are from Mars and women are from Venus, Rand appears to be from Jupiter.

Despite the inadequacies of Rand’s theory of human nature, however, there is something to be learned from her theory of ethics. As humans we do have the ability to reflect on ourselves and our situation, to exercise second-order mentation. We have the opportunity to judge whether the moral intuitions provided to us by our evolutionary heritage actually make sense in the present. The feeling of loyalty to the group, crucial to the survival of small bands of hunters and gatherers, may not make sense when directed to sports teams or, less harmlessly, to governments that oppress portions of their populace and wage wars for the enrichment of the elites. We may not be able to fully divest ourselves of such feelings, but we can intervene when they arise and decide whether and in what manner to act on them.

And, more realistically, we can intervene ahead of time. We can cultivate habits of character that enable us to act in the heat of the moment as we have chosen in times of cool reflection. Consider someone, perhaps a follower of Ayn Rand, who realizes that his excessively calculating attitude toward others is self-defeating. To overcome this deficiency he could deliberately cultivate habits of emotional openness, generosity and helpfulness. He could look for opportunities to speak the truth about what he is feeling, to be helpful to others, to give freely instead of hoarding. At first, acting in these ways would feel uncomfortable and alien, but with time they would become second nature. And people would respond to him in kind.

And that is the real power of Ayn Rand’s ethics. Applied to a more accurate view of human nature, it encourages us, not to cogitate excessively over each situation, but to decide what kind of person we want to be. In true Arisotelian fashion it encourages us to cultivate virtues that enable us to live fulfilling lives in the company of others.

—————
Notes

(1) I base this assessment on Rand’s essay “The Objectivist Ethics,” which seems to sum up her essential argument nicely and is certainly a quicker read than her monumental works of fiction.

(2) Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, I.7 1097b 22-29.

(3) Rand, pp. 22-23.

(4) Ibid., p. 25.

(5) Ibid., p. 32.

(6) Ibid., p. 34. Italics in the original.

(7) Ibid., p. 28.

(8) Ibid., p. 35.

References

Aristotle. Nichomachean Ethics, tr. W.D. Ross. In McKeon, Richard, ed., Introduction to Aristotle. New York: Random House Modern Library, 1947. Also available as an on-line publication, URL = http://classics.mit.edu//Aristotle/nicomachaen.html as of 17 April 2011.

Rand, Ayn. “The Objectivist Ethics,” in The Virtue of Selfishness, pp. 13-39. New York: Signet Books, 1964. Also available as an on-line publication, URL = http://www.aynrand.org/site/PageServer?pagename=ari_ayn_rand_the_objectivist_ethics as of 3 July 2011.

Wikipedi. “Homo economicus.” On-line publication, URL = http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Homo_economicus as of 16 July 2011.

 

From → Philosophy

7 Comments
  1. Patrick Green permalink

    Hi, friend! Thanks for sharing this. Sorry I’ve been distant. I changed roles at Trinity, amd my email flow tripled, I think.

    I’d offer the thought that moral intuition combines well with objectivism; one tempers the other. My central objection to Rand is that she reduces reality to the merely objective, constrained to five senses. I have no real problem with diversity in moral intuition. I’m accountable for my own and can, at best, only assert some level of influence with regard to that of others. What is essential is that each of us is clear regarding his own, not that there be unanimity.

    Peace & Love

    Patrick

  2. Larry Yogman permalink

    > Ayn Rand advocates a promising methodology for ethical thinking, but has a deeply flawed vision of human nature, so her enterprise doesn’t quite pan out

    I largely agree with this assessment of Randian ethics, but would like to respond to some parts of your essay from the perspective of a fan of her fiction.

    > I base this assessment on Rand’s essay “The Objectivist Ethics,” which seems to sum up her essential argument nicely and is certainly a quicker read than her monumental works of fiction.

    Yes, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged are very thick novels, but they provide important concrete examples of her values. Quoting the Ayn Rand Institute.

    http://www.aynrand.org/site/PageServer?pagename=home_school_fountainhead

    > [The Fountainhead] was also an artistic landmark for Rand; in the character of Howard Roark, she presented for the first time the uniquely Ayn Rand hero, whose depiction was the chief goal of her writing: the ideal man, man as “he could be and ought to be.”

    Returning to your review…

    > [Rand’s] ideal is a society of rational actors, each out to satisfy his or her own interests, who trade goods and services with each other to maximize their wealth. Each of us, in this view, is a homo economicus …

    The behavior we expect of “homo economicus” doesn’t match the behavior of the heroes in Rand’s fiction. These idealized figures value virtues – such as honesty, integrity, and independence – far above wealth – money and security and material comforts it buys. For example, Howard Roark (the protagonist of The Fountainhead) consistently makes whatever choice is required to maintain the integrity of his work as an architect – at enormous cost to his ‘career’.

    > Imagine a group in which loyalty is a must for survival. This is not implausible, because for hundreds of thousands of year that was exactly the case for all humans

    Anthropologically speaking, I believe you’re correct – and this premise is fundamentally incompatible with Rand’s conception of the ideal human. Men such as Hank Reardon, Francisco D’Anconia, and Ellis Wyatt (all characters in Atlas Shrugged) are independent to the point of implausible omnicompetence. They would naturally work together for mutual benefit, but they need to band together for survival only because they face common enemies. More on this tension between Rand’s ideals and real ‘human nature’ below.

    > as Rand would have you act, coldly calculating whether to continue to be loyal.

    It is inconceivable that any of Ayn Rand’s heroes would betray his own word, or harm an innocent for his own benefit. Rand’s novels are full of such actions – but committed by the villains, not the heroes. “Rational self-interest”, to Rand, is necessarily a matter of understanding and conforming to general principles. Those principles include honesty, and the recognition of the equal rights of other human beings. The “rational actor model” of contemporary economics or game theory is a straw man here – it has nothing to do with Randian normative ethics.

    > What I am talking about here is a moral emotion, an emotion that has been ingrained in us through hundreds of thousands of years of human evolution … Human beings come equipped with an intuitive ethics, an innate preparedness to feel flashes of approval or disapproval toward certain patterns of events involving other human beings.”

    Rand’s work – both fiction and philosophy – predates sociobiology, behavioral economics, moral psychology, and other contemporary scientific fields that support the points you’re making about human nature. But I suspect that if Rand were alive today, she wouldn’t think much of these fields. In her own time, she rejected a lot of early 20th century physics as obviously wrong, because it was incompatible with her conception of a rational metaphysics. Rand works from first principles. If the science doesn’t fit, the science must be wrong.

    > Nowhere in her essay is the word “compassion” to be found. Nowhere does she speak of empathy. She does mention love. She calls it a “spiritual payment given in exchange for the personal, selfish pleasure which one man derives from the virtues of another man’s character.”

    Rand’s fiction is again illuminating. Romances have a strong element of hero worship. Even friendships are based on recognition and admiration of another’s virtue. This is the “spiritual payment” Rand is talking about. Randian heroes are quite generous when they recognize value in another human being. For example, Howard Roark provides life-saving moral and material support to an artist whose work he finds uplifting – even when he’s in no position to act as a patron. But such empathetic feelings and acts of compassion are not animal instincts or virtues in themselves – in Rand’s view they are appropriate if and only if they are responses to good qualities in another.

    Two things I find tellingly absent from Rand’s fiction are any convincing portrayal of childhood, and any positive portrayal of the maternal bond. There are some scenes from the childhood of Randian heroes and villains, but the children are already fully-formed – basically precocious adults. As adults, the heroes do not have children of their own. There are nightmare mothers in Rand’s fiction – who seek second-hand social status from their children. The mother as hero – willing to do whatever is needed to protect and provide – is notably absent.

  3. Scotty Gaydos permalink

    Hi Bill. Thanks for sharing this note.

    I am not one for typing long responses, so I will keep my ideas here brief.

    The crux of contention with Rand in your blog is in reference to human relationships. I can appreciate this contention, as I have argued points similar to yours with Objectivists for years. I have always believed that Rand is missing two big things in her philosophy — a formal sense of government, and a useful sense of human relationships. Yet, I have to echo Larry a bit here and say that there is much in the fiction that explores what you consider in your blog.

    I do not believe Rand would contend that any man should be an island, should horde his love, or should be coldly calculating with regards to others. In fact, I believe Rand would argue that man must be an island only if he should when there is no person of good moral standing available for fellowship. If we love or care for someone, however, Rand would actively promote the relationship. And even when we don’t know someone, we at least afford this person respect. I feel the following quote agrees with much of how you promote human relationships. From _Virtue of Selfishness_, “Ethics of Emergencies”
    ——
    The virtue involved in helping those one loves is not “selflessness” or
    “sacrifice,” but integrity. Integrity is loyalty to one’s convictions and values;
    it is the policy of acting in accordance with one’s values, of expressing,
    upholding and translating them into practical reality. If a man professes to love a woman, yet his actions are indifferent, inimical or damaging to her, it is his lack of integrity that makes him immoral.
    The same principle applies to relationships among friends. If one’s friend is in trouble, one should act to help him by whatever nonsacrificial means are appropriate. For instance, if one’s friend is starving, it is not a sacrifice, but an act of integrity to give him money for food rather than buy some insignificant gadget for oneself, because his welfare is important in the scale of one’s personal values. If the gadget means more than the friend’s suffering, one had no business pretending to be his friend.

    The practical implementation of friendship, affection and love consists of
    incorporating the welfare (the rational welfare) of the person involved into one’s own hierarchy of values, then acting accordingly.

    But this is a reward which men have to earn by means of their virtues and which one cannot grant to mere acquaintances or strangers.

    What, then, should one properly grant to strangers? The generalized
    respect and good will which one should grant to a human being in the name of the potential value he represents—until and unless he forfeits it.

    A rational man does not forget that life is the source of all values and, as such, a common bond among living beings (as against inanimate matter), that other men are potentially able to achieve the same virtues as his own and thus be of enormous value to him. This does not mean that he regards human lives as interchangeable with his own. He recognizes the fact that his own life is the source, not only of all his values, but of his capacity to value. Therefore, the value he grants to others is only a consequence, an extension, a secondary projection of the primary value which is himself.

    “The respect and good will that men of self-esteem feel toward other
    human beings is profoundly egoistic; they feel, in effect: ‘Other men are of value because they are of the same species as myself.’ In revering living entities, they are revering their own life. This is the psychological base of any emotion of sympathy and any feeling of ‘species solidarity.’ ”

    [This last quote from Nathaniel Branden, ‘Benevolence versus Altruism’… embedded in the article]
    ——

    If you get a chance, I recommend reading through the entirety of _Virtue of Selfishness_. It is one of my favorite books, right along with Rand’s fiction. It’s a series of articles and relatively short.

  4. Donald permalink

    When I was a freshman at Yale I took a special course in Philosophy, and one guest lecturer was Ayn Rand, who spoke about Kant, whom she called the “witch-doctor of philosophy”. My instructor, Mr. Bender, an expert on Kant, commented in the next class (when we asked him what he thought of Ms. Rand’s rant) that “She should have spoken about nuclear physics”. (Such was the subtle humor to which I was exposed in my youth.)

  5. Parmenides permalink

    I had a thought on the following:

    > “Others need to recognize that you are loyal and reliable. And the best way to be perceived as loyal and reliable is actually to be loyal and reliable. It is precisely not to act as Rand would have you act, coldly calculating whether to continue to be loyal.”

    It seems to me that a group member could engage in the cold calculation of self-interest, and calculate that the best way to maximize the cooperation and help they need from the group, is indeed, to be loyal and reliable. Thus, you have it both ways: (1) The member still calculates to maximize their own gain, but finds that the way to do it is to (2) be loyal and reliable.

    So, What do you think? Can we have it both ways? If so, Rand’s recommendation is not anti-life.

    • I think you are right and that approaches what I was getting at in the last few paragraphs. You can rationally choose both what kind of person to be and what to give your allegiance to. It is not helpful to keep revisiting that decision. Rand’s talk of “full mental focus,” being “scrupulous” and “ruthlessly strict,” would seem to imply such constant revisiting, however. It is her tone and attitude in this regard that I find suspicious.

  6. Adam permalink

    Excellent article. Reason is vital, but reason is a double edged sword. One can “reason” as Hitler did as well as how the Dalai Lama reasons.

    Reason says the Teacher is tied to heaven and hell. Our inspiration, our revelation of truth, of goodness, of love and harmony, comes first…reason follows.

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