(This is part three of a four-part series on the ethics and political theory of Ayn Rand, written exclusively for The Daily Censored, by Dr. Robert Abele, professor of philosophy at Diablo Valley College in the San Francisco Bay Area.)
Let us begin our analysis of the politics of Ayn Rand with a key claim of hers that we noted in our assessment of Rand’s ontological ethics: that freedom to think implies freedom from any others (Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, p. 17. Unless otherwise noted, all citations will be from this text). We noted then that there is both collapse of metaphysical and epistemological understandings of humans as rational, and hence an additional logical problem involved in attempting to move from applying a trait such as reason to individuals of a class and then trying to derive an ethical trait from it. We also noted that there was a problem in predicating mutual class exclusion as the predicate defining (by necessity of her overlapping of metaphysics and epistemology) a universal class. All of these issues are foundational not only of her ethics, but also of her politics, since the entire Randian edifice is built on the foundation of individual selfishness, as we have already seen. The reason is that from these ideas Rand moves forward to define everything in the political realm as a function of, and predicated on, individualism: rights are individualistic (pgs. 18-19); capitalism is individualistic (p. 19); and human relationships are individualistic (p. 19. Also, relationships are defined by the capitalistic presupposition of the “trader principle;” see The Virtue of Selfishness, pgs. 30-39, passim). Finally, notions such as the “common good” destroy this individualistic “truth” by taking away individualistic rights (pgs. 15-20). Rand goes so far as to maintain that tyranny results from a conception of the common good, not from individualism, since, as she argues, every other theory but hers “make it possible for a man to believe that the good is independent of man’s mind” (p. 22). Further, as Rand asserts, there is no such thing as “the common good” to begin with (p. 21). In Rand’s words, it makes the superiority of certain individuals “sacrificial animals” to others who aren’t as superior. If this is not a form of social Darwinism, then it implies it. To be clear, social Darwinism is the attempt to apply Darwin’s theory of evolution to politics and social thought, such that the struggle for existence (what Rand calls “survival”) is used to craft a social and ethical world view that refuses to take into account the distinction between those who are able to achieve success in the world and those who are not.
A Note on Rand’s Political Ethics
It is worth pointing out in this regard that one of the reasons she says that she cannot accept an ethics that advocates principles of general responsibility or duties to others (i.e. deontological ethics) is that it’s principles are “subjectivist,” based on individual “feelings, desires, ‘intuitions,’ or whims,” and thus the principles produced by such ethics are “an arbitrary postulate or emotional commitment,” and are thus necessarily “subjective” in Rand’s understanding of the term. Here, however, she grossly misreads the ethical tradition. To take a single example, the universality posited by such thinkers in this camp such as Kant is based on a logical extension of one’s asserted norms of action: that if something is said to be “moral” it is said because it can be logically and willfully extended to apply to everyone, not just to the individual who produces it. Thus, even if Rand is right that such ethics is based on individual desires (like hers is not?), it nevertheless tests its legitimacy by the distinctly rational principle of universalizability of judgments. In other words, when making any kind of moral judgment, intellectual honesty requires that we take into account the interests of others (more on this below).
Here again, we see Rand attempting to blur the “is/ought” gap by positing her political values as “an aspect of reality in relation to man;” it lies somewhere waiting only to be “discovered, not invented by man” (p. 22). She accuses (Kantian) constructivism as “mak[ing] it possible for a man to believe that the good is independent of a man’s mind and can be achieved by physical force.” Note that I have to assume she is referring to Kant, since she never once even mentions anyone who might hold the positions she rejects. Further, she never really refutes such positions; she just names them and rejects them. Third, aside from the fact that no one in the deontological tradition ever argues in favor of forcing others to conform to a given code of ethics, there are at least three significant problems in Rand’s stated position here. First, note her gross misreading of the deontological position. Two issues are worth mentioning here. Kant, for example, distinguishes between a material and a formal rational principle. The former is based on desire and is not distinctly ethical; the latter involves a formulation of judgment for action that is not based on desire, and is more properly considered to be ethical. In connection with this, Kant never claims that we “invent” values or principles; he only claims that when reason posits them, the requirement of an objective, rational judgment is that they be universalized as a test of their consistency: “Act only according that maxim by which you could will that it become a universal law of nature” (Immanuel Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, n. 402).
The second problem comes with Rand’s claim that the principles espoused by deontology are invented by individual minds as “existing in reality,” while her own view of morality is objectively perceived (“discovered”) by human minds to exist in reality (pgs. 21-23). How exactly does an ethical value exist “latent” in nature and/or mind; how is it waiting to be “discovered” by a human mind? Wouldn’t that mean that they exist objectively, in the traditional sense? Additionally, if Rand is correct that moral principles are not “in reality,” yet not “in the mind,” how is it that they can be “discovered” to begin with? Exactly where do such values exist? Rand’s attempt to “objectivize” them, using her understanding of “objective,” ends up in an inconsistent position, as they seem to be simultaneously in both places and in neither place.
Third, there is also an inconsistency in holding that humans are by nature radically free from others to think about their moral codes as required by their nature, while simultaneously being radically determined by their nature to think in a certain way (i.e. her way of rational egoism) about their moral codes. But Rand cannot have it both ways here. If one is truly free to think (i.e. apart from the “force” of other opinions), how can the content of that thought be reduced simply or even primarily to the self-interest (“survival”) of the thinker? If Kant is right that formal rational principles of ethics are defined as a universal way of thinking (called “reversibility” or “reciprocity”), then Rand’s limiting rational ethical thinking to individual self-interest is simply false. It looks as though Rand wants to box moral norms into a tight corner of individualism by fiat; in no way has she opened up the road to her version of egoism by refuting the tradition of deontological thinking. She rather simply redefines thinking about ethical values in her own way (selfishness) and simply dismisses all other possibilities.
These issues aside, let us examine Rand’s politics by using her own themes for it. We will examine Rand on economics, on rights, and on government.
The Foundation of Rand’s Politics
One thing Rand is surely correct about is the intrinsic connection between egoism and laissez-fairecapitalism. In laissez-faire capitalism, there is no imposed limit on individual wealth accumulation. The philosophy of selfishness underscores this dogma by the “no sacrifice” principle combined with the idea that justice is not giving to people what they haven’t merited (read this as a condemnation of the welfare state). However, if Kant is right that reason transcends self-interest by its ability to universalize conceptual notions such “man being an end in himself,” one of Rand’s favorite ethical expressions (stolen from Kant, whom she despises), then such a notion of ethics not only allows but requires us to engage in what is frequently referred to as “reversibility.” This is the process of making a judgment of ethical universality which puts oneself in the role of the receiver of action rather than the doer. This directly implies a formal equality between agent and receiver. If universal reason can recognize this, then humans are capable of a more human, more inclusive politics. So let us examine Rand’s alleged connection between rational essentialism and selfishness.
First, to advocate self-interest as a political base is to ignore its own social underpinnings, such as a shared language, shared social constructions, shared physical environment (earth), shared communal goods (e.g. roads, schools, parks, etc.), and shared cultural embeddedness, out of which arise certain beliefs and behaviors based on those beliefs. This is, in my estimation, central to understanding the problems with Rand’s politics. Cultural presuppositions deeply influence the content of thought. Although Rand does talk about the inability of human ethics to transcend social conditions (“the nature of reality,” in her terms), she avoids such notions of finding ourselves embedded with others already, and proceeds to strictly limit such social contexts to individualistic presuppositions (see The Virtue of Selfishness, pgs. 59-60). This negation of sociality results in a conception of individualist “trading” in a marketplace of products. Thus, Rand’s ethics is really a justification of a particularly selfish form of capitalism rather than to see what is truly “objectively” right, even though she claims that she is examining “right” (p. 58). But when “right” is defined in narrow terms of self-interest, and “man as an end” is not universalized to include treating others as an end, such an ethics is stripped of its larger, universal meaning that is required by a rational judgment. Even more, sociality is stripped of any inter-human embeddedness in favor of individuals in “isolated” competition—i.e. I cannot be in a relationship of mutuality if I only see you as a trader.
Although Rand attempts to “de-market” the “trader” into those who mutually respect each other’s individual rights (The Virtue of Selfishness, pgs. 34-35), that type of mutual respect must itself be predicated on the recognition of the other qua person (i.e. as someone whose being merits respect), not “qua individual with something to offer me,” nor on the other as they merit it, since the entire tradition of human rights recognizes the “human being” conception and not the “meritorious individual” as the foundation on which ethics may properly be said to commence. While Rand ignores this tradition and wants to rewrite it as “trader individualism,” the rights tradition itself is predicated on the concept of mutuality, which itself answers the question: “What do I owe to others?” Rand’s answer to that question begins with what I want and thus what others owe me—i.e. with individualism/self-interest and thus radical individual freedom. Granted that Rand is willing to admit that I owe others what they owe me, again though, the recognition of mutual rights is underpinned by recognition of a certain type of mutuality that Rand lacks, seen by recognition of shared language, shared values, shared discourse, shared social institutions in which we participate and in which we find ourselves already when we begin to think, and a rational ability to think beyond “self.” And the individual right to property, or even the more general right to life, both of which Rand advocates, are insufficient to capture this situation of co-existence and of mutual recognition adequately, since it ignores the inter-human social milieu by straight denial, and ignores the proper universalizing of ethical claims in a process of reciprocal application of ethical principles.
Nor is her conception of rights in general supported by individualist/self-interest claims. For now, it will do to support this claim by stating that her conception of rights is “negative;” that is, the right of individuals to be left alone from the imposing claims of others (see her essays “The Ethics of Emergencies” and “Let Us Alone!” both in The Virtue of Selfishness, for more detail on this). But such a conception of “negative rights” is incomplete, for “each person as an end” does not imply “me as an end” and also “you as an end” with no connection between agents other than the negative one. Kant, for example, holds that humans constitute a “kingdom of ends,” in which individual subjects have positive duties toward one another (to treat others with “respect,” using contemporary nomenclature). Rand ignores this completely when she steals this ethical phrase from Kant in order to twist it to her own limited philosophical presuppositions of worship of the individual. This tradition is extended in John Rawls political conception of the two primary rights of liberty and equality of opportunity as definitive of democracy. This is closer to traditional American democratic thinking (e.g. “all men are created equal,” “we the people,” and “the general welfare” that ensures individual liberty) than it is Rand’s conception of “I am my own end” and there is no such thing as a common good or general welfare. If that is not enough, one need only examine both the structure and content of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights to see that the idea of self-sufficient individuals who have only some amorphous “good will toward others” as Rand advocates, is in fact insufficient to actualizing the rights of all people. The Declaration is predicated not on a Randian notion of individual autonomy, but on human beings as equal in individual autonomy, two critical factors absent from Rand’s conception of rights.
Rand states that with a “trader principle” ethics there is no conflict of interests, nor a resulting view of another as a mere “competitor.” How this can be is unclear in Rand, but there are two arguments she presents that seem to be intended to clear this up. First, she connects the trader principle to individual responsibility for taking care of one’s own life, and by expenditure of individual “effort” (The Virtue of Selfishness, pgs. 60-63). There is nothing in these pages to allay one’s fears of seeing others as competitors, however. They simply state her position. So she attempts to support the lack of conflict in operating from the trader principle through an analogy with romantic love: when a woman chooses one man over the other, it is not a matter of competition or conflict of interest, nor is it the case of one man losing to another. It is only a function of the winner having “earned” the love of the woman he won (p. 63). How this is possible is unclear, but since in the preceding paragraph Rand denies luck, chance, favor, or breaks, and reduces everything to merit, Rand is not only ignoring the complexity of human psychology, but is also short-changing human motivations and circumstances by reducing them all to the single motivation of self-interest, which for her implies responsibility and self-effort. Again though, that human relationships can be reduced to this is simplistic and one-dimensional at best.
In regard to capitalism itself, Rand maintains that it is the most “objective,” that is, natural, system of economics (Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, pgs. 23-27; passim), based on the idea that “the good” is “a value pertaining to reality, to this earth, to individual human beings.” In general, because private property is a good for individual people, it is “objective” for Rand. Thus, the capitalistic system, as the one that honors private property above all else, is the best system “objectively” for humans. However, if one takes history seriously at all, the recognition of the historical evolution of capitalism allows one to understand three things: first, that it is an artificial system, to be taken, left, and/or adjusted by human decision. There is nothing within the capitalistic system per se that grants it the kind of objective magnitude Rand sees in it. Second, this historical recognition allows philosophers such as Karl Marx to argue (e.g. in the Communist Manifesto) that the way in which societies organize to produce in order to fulfill their needs not only determines what that society will look like, but also in which direction it will go in the future. Thus, capitalism is the historical-material consequence of another system that it superseded, and would itself be superseded by another system. Rand does not refute this conception of history or of the distinctly epochal nature of capitalism; she simply ignores it in asserting the “objective” nature of private property. Third, this historical conception of capitalism puts one in a position to be more critical of its shortcomings than does the position that creates apologetics for capitalism.
As a result of this, one of the problems in Rand’s economic theory is that she is unable to account for the contradictions of capitalism for the exact reason that such contradictions are defined in terms of the private appropriation of public wealth, and this in terms of the suppression of generalizable interests through treating them as particular. Rand ignores this crucial aspect of capitalistic practice. As a result, Rand’s position that there are no conflicts of interests between individuals cannot be maintained, since political decisions of a society that reflect this type of organization do not admit of a rational consensus (Thomas McCarthy, The Critical Theory of Jurgen Habermas, p. 358).
One of the reasons that Rand is unable to engage a detailed sociology—indeed, the reason she finds it necessary to deny that a society defined in terms of a common good actually even exists—is because it is impossible for her to conceptually make the leap from individualism to social concerns. But as the German philosopher Jurgen Habermas puts it, one cannot abstract a social system from structures of personality; it is rather the other way around: “personality structures must be grasped within the determination of the institutional framework and of role qualifications.” There is enough social and psychological evidence available to allow us to conclude, as Habermas commentator Thomas McCarthy puts it, that “the forms of individual identity are intimately connected with the forms of social integration,” and not the other way around, as in Rand (see McCarthy, p. 334-ff).
Overall, Rand’s egoism has no vision of the future; it is only focused on self and “rational survival.” There are some problems with this type of focus, however. First, the theory is unclear regarding what constitutes “rational survival” over time. If my “rational” self-interest now is in conflict with what I know my future self-interest will be, for which alternative do I opt right now? Even if Rand could answer this problem, it still remains the case that the Rand egoist does not dare to imagine what “existent entities” or their cultural and/or institutional constructs could be if mutual cooperation based on our interrelationships with each other was a part of our social theory. As we noted in Part II of this series, and in the preceding paragraph, psychological evidence and sound social argumentation both show that maximal human development and self-understanding entails taking into account notions of cooperation, community and shared resources. Yet these very things are all anathema to Randian individualism. We have already seen in Part I of this series how Aristotle himself considers the development of individual good to be embedded within the polis; that there can be no person who can grow in their moral or intellectual character without being involved with others. We have just demonstrated how, in contemporary philosophy, thinkers like Marx and Habermas take this Aristotelian insight seriously. All of these thinkers have in mind not just the current situation of humans, but in fact have teleological concerns that clearly recognize that the desire for a better human being depends on a better human community. This dimension of teleological thinking is also common to nearly all Utilitarian thinkers of yesteryear as well as today. Because the Rand dogma is concerned with the isolated wants of egoists, it does not recognize nor debate the philosophical tradition of human common good at all.
What needs to be recognized here is that Randian selfishness is a direct driver of inequality, since it would oppose those very structural arrangements that would prevent power and wealth from being concentrated in the hands of a few. It would take away the ability of individuals to organize in order to stand up for their rights to and against those individuals who have accumulated money and power and operate the mechanisms of cultural and institutional arrangements to increase their own advantage. This type of individualism results in oppressive power structures that only unified individuals can challenge (e.g. trade unions; collective bargaining; social and institutional arrangements for equity for the less powerful, etc.).
But contrary to Rand, equality is a pre-condition of good politics—i.e. institutional arrangements for the good of others and/or the common good is ethically preferable to individual voluntarism to equalize distribution of goods. The reason is that some citizens are not in a position to be individualists, due to lack of resources such as education, income, basic goods, cultural prejudice, historical and/or institutional racism, dominance of unenlightened rulers, etc. In other words, individualism in politics presupposes a level playing field, but that does not exist in a capitalist world (this is why the movement known as “fair trade” arose). Even now, Randian arguments for creating such a level playing field say nothing about actually creating that level field—i.e. the arguments continue to leave the inequalities as they are in place, and call for a “leveling” “in our future arrangements.” But this “leveling” is a process of leaving those who have the most alone to hoard their gains. Of course, when one denies that a common good even exists, one is free to embrace such claims.
We will continue with this point in our concluding section of this series.