(This is a continuation of part two 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.)
In this series so far, we have made several arguments concerning Rand’s epistemology, her metaphysics, and her ethics. Some of these arguments have resulted in bringing out the ire of many of Rand’s fans. So before moving on to Rand’s politics of selfishness, perhaps it is prudent at this point to address some of the misconceptions that have occurred concerning the arguments made against Rand so far. From here we will be in a better position to address her specifically political arguments for selfishness.
The first criticism that Rand-fans make is that Rand does not argue that “reason implies self-interest,” since she never said that humans have rational “essences,” only that the “can” be rational. While it is true that Rand never explicitly asserts this (that is why I paraphrased her argument), it nevertheless remains the case that she must make this argument or at least assume it, even if she never made this derivation explicit, in order to make her position consistent. It can be understood in this way. Rand claims to have shifted the Aristotelian notion of “essence” from metaphysics to epistemology, but then turns around and presents an ontological/metaphysical definition of “essence,” to wit: “the fundamental characteristic without which the others [non-essential characteristics] would not be possible. This fundamental characteristic is the essential distinguishing characteristic of the existents involved…” (Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, p. 45) Thus, Rand states in the Introduction to Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology that she intends to deny the reality of universals (i.e. nominalism—see Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, pg. 2), yet when it comes to defining “essences,” she defends the opposite point of view (i.e. a version of Aristotelian realism) by talking of such essences as common characteristics of entities (Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, p. 44).
Further, when it comes to explicating her understanding of human reason, she defines reason ontologically in various ways, as “a faculty” (The Virtue of Selfishness, p. 22; Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, p. 44), “a consciousness able to abstract, to form concepts…,” and as always conscious of something (Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, p. 29). Yet she simultaneously maintains that humans are self-created; that somehow volition must give rise to reason, which is not “automatic” (The Virtue of Selfishness, p. 23). There are two problems here. First, which is it? Rand never says, and because she does not make this clear, and because they cannot simultaneously be true, she (second) has involved herself in a contradiction . But since reason cannot both be aware of something and yet be completely blank and self-created (e.g. “man has to be man by choice,” The Virtue of Selfishness, p. 27), Rand “finds” in consciousness certain concepts “already there,” as it were (Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, p. 55). To the degree that she argues that latter—and she does it quite a bit—she has lapsed into a rational essentialism, and actually needs this essentialism in order to get to selfishness as the primary “human” virtue (as I argued earlier). She clearly admits this shift from rational ontology to rational selfishness when she states that “epistemologically [with the proper amount of metaphysical defining of it, as we have just seen], the concept of ‘value’ is genetically dependent upon and derived from the antecedent concept of ‘life’” (The Virtue of Selfishness, p. 18).
Further still, if reason is tied so tightly to perception, and no concepts can arise from the mind (because there is no “essence” of human mind), then how do logical principles, such as the law of non-contradiction arise? My students and I wrestle with this problem every semester. Rand states in several essays that there is “no contradiction in reality” (e.g. The Virtue of Selfishness, p. 58), but how would we know that without having “in mind” a principle that allowed us to understand that assertion, its meaning, and its truth? Rand certainly buys into the principle of non-contradiction, along with the principle of identity. But it will not do to simply assert that “man has to discover the laws of logic” (The Virtue of Selfishness, p. 23), since we must be operating by them in the process of finding order in the world, and it makes no sense to say that “reality” “writes” the law of non-contradiction on our passive minds, since it is a principle of thought, not of being (or at best, it is only a principle of being secondarily, even for Aristotle, as we argued in Part II of this series). In other words, there must be more to the intellect than Rand allows for it to reach such concepts. That she doesn’t see this is exemplified in such ideas as her assertion that “existence, identity and consciousness…are perceived or experienced directly, but grasped conceptually,” thereby collapsing perception and conception into an amorphous whole (Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, p. 55).
There is another issue related to this on the very next page of The Virtue of Selfishness (p. 23). There Rand tells us that it is human volition that chooses to usher in reason. What kind of volition? Human volition. So does she then mean that the class of those beings who are already human make a willful choice to then be rational? Is human nature being implied here to be volitional, then created by choice to be rational? If we create our own rational nature by choice, and we become human by such choice to be rational, what do we say of the volition to do so? Were we human before we became rational? What is this “willful choice” and from where did it come, if only humanscan make it, as Rand clearly states on page 23? Does not all of this presuppose some kind of human essence that Rand is simply hiding from us?
All four of these considerations encourage us to affirm my original re-phrasing of Rand’s argument. Even though Rand wants to deny it, she must hold to some kind of rational essentialism by her own arguments, and “reason” (ignoring for now that “rational” and “reason” are not necessarily synonymous) is defined by Rand both ontologically as making sense of sense-perception and instrumentally as the means of survival qua human (pgs. 22-3), which implies that humans are self-interested. She says this directly: a human “is a specific organism of a specific nature that requires specific actions to sustain his life…to a living consciousness, every ‘is’ implies an ‘ought’.” (The Virtue of Selfishness, p. 24) “Self-interest” here is defined as an ethical (“ought”) category, meaning both biological survival and individual happiness (pgs. 23-5; 30). I argued in Part I that it is illogical to attempt to derive such a conclusion. I will now add to that argument that it is the use of the term “survival” that is used to both define reason and to support the ethical conclusion from reason that opens her to criticisms:
1. Equivocation: “survival” is used both descriptively (what humans do) and normatively (what we ought to do), without properly delineating them. Even if Rand had worked this out, it is still a question-begging argument, since the premise states that survival is reasonable and the conclusion states that survival is ethical. This leads to the second problem here.
2. Thought becomes strictly instrumental and utilitarian for Rand, oriented only to survival. But here again we see a significant problem: survival does not imply ethical virtue. Even if Rand was right about survival being the foundation of values, that does not imply that it is our only or even our most fundamental or cherished value. Countries go to war and nations and soldiers take risks far beyond that of mere survival. One cannot help but hear echoes of Thomas Hobbes when reading Rand, where ultimately an individual’s life would be solitary and brutish, if not also nasty and short. Primary among the reasons for this is that Rand ignores the history of human cooperation for a common goal that transcends individual interests. There is much more that needs to be said about this, which we will do in the next section of this analysis.
3. Whether Rand advocates rational essentialism or not, to move from the assertion that individual humans that are rational implies that they “ought to be self-interested” is still a non-sequiturargument originating in the attempt to use the Principle of Identity as the logical rule to move from premise to conclusion. I referred to this problem in Part I.
4. Instrumentalist view of reason—i.e. that reason arises from sense-perception and is directed to organizing sense-date and to survival (The Virtue of Selfishness, p. 22-23). But instrumentalist views of rationality run into the following dilemma: what happens if my reason dictates that my own self-interest be abandoned in favor of others? At that point, self-interest is no longer rational.
In sum, for Rand, to be a human is essentially to be either willful or rational or both, and this cannot be glossed over, as Rand does, by attempting to confine it “epistemology,” and to define this is a matter of perception. She mixes her epistemology with a healthy dose of ontological definitions and assumptions.
This should serve to clarify and lend support to the refutation of the second frequent and favorite objection of Rand-fans’ to criticisms of their philosophy: that the critic has “misunderstood” and/or “misrepresented” Rand’s egoism. The followers make a distinction between psychological egoism, which is descriptive, and Rand’s rational egoism, which is normative, and accuse the critic of attacking the former but missing the latter. But this objection, while valid in itself, is misplaced in three ways.
First, when she defines “rational selfishness,” in contradistinction to deontological ethics, as not having a duty or responsibility to care for another person’s needs or interests (and worse, equates deontology with a radical form of altruism in un-argued fashion), then it remains true that her selfishness is in fact defined as the ability to exclude other members of one’s own class (of rational beings) from equity of treatment. Even her assertion that acts of benevolence are permitted to the rational selfish person (The Virtue of Selfishness p. 56), it still redounds to this type of self-interest: exclusion of the other from one’s necessary concern. As an ethical position, it is in direct contradiction to her inclusion of all humans in the category of rational beings.
Second, when Rand argues in sweeping fashion that all deontological ethics is “altruistic” and “holds death as its ultimate goal” (The Virtue of Selfishness, p. 38), because it advocates something other than self-interest, one has to ask who is misunderstanding whom? The argument of deontological ethics—that one has certain responsibilities to others (e.g. Kant’s “What ought I do?”)—is not the same as the radical altruism as defined by Rand and thus certainly not the same as “death.” A more moderate and rational understanding of altruism is one of rationally taking account of the needs and interests of others as a condition for one’s ethical judgments. But how does this logically entail sacrifice of (of death to) one’s self? If I have $200 in my wallet and I buy a homeless person a sandwich because I believe in his humanness and in my duty to help others, how does that entail sacrifice on my part, instead of, at best, mere inconvenience? Rand must be defining sacrifice quite radically as “any inconvenience that will cause me delay in fulfilling my own goals” or something to that effect.
Further, Rand does not differentiate forms of altruism, but just as her fans are insistent that one not conflate Rand’s “rational egoism” with psychological egoism, the very same concern may be expressed regarding Rand’s characterization of altruism: do all of our actions have to concern others in order to be altruistic, or do only some of them have to be so directed? Further, is Rand discussing psychological altruism (where some of our actions toward others may be motivated by concern for them), biological altruism (where there is an “automatic” acting for the good of another in one’s group), ethical altruism (where the consequences of one’s action on others is considered to be the only good), or rational altruism (where there is a willingness to sometimes act for another’s good)? It is unclear in Rand; she seems to prefer lumping them all together and condemning them all through her rhetorical dismissal of altruism as “death-seeking.”
Third, the criticism of Rand’s egoism is not a question of motivation, which is what distinguishes psychological from rational egoism. The point of the criticism at issue is that, in attempting to ethically universalize the self-interested nature of a being who knows others in his/her class through the rational process of universalizing to class inclusion, there is a logical inconsistency in thereby maintaining that exclusion in the sense of being duty bound (to self) not to take another’s interests into account is the proper predicate of the universal class of humans. In contradistinction to this, Peter Singer argues that such a statement can be universalized, but only on pain of either incoherence (i.e. simultaneously holding that each person should maximize his self-interest and also that all people should maximize their own self-interest) or of switching into a utilitarian mode of argument. I do not see Rand lapsing into Utilitarianism, so that is why I maintain that her ethical position, allegedly implied by her understanding of human nature (i.e. her ontology), is incoherent.
In part I, I rejected her implicit notion of the predication of a universal category of “humans” with an ethical predicate of selfishness. Since we are moving into her politics, let me now add to this that she also uses humans as a subject conjoined with a predicate of “self-interested” through an ethical copula of “ought to be.” This defines a class of humans ethically obligated not to include the members of their class in their deliberations, when in fact those members are already included in a class of which there is a predication to be made. There are numerous inconsistencies in Rand’s philosophy at issue here:
1. Ontological: The denial of class existence (i.e. actual universals), and yet implicitly using that very concept in as a condition of its denial (see above);
2. Ethical: Collapsing this class inclusion (Rand’s “common characteristics”) into an ethics of moral exclusion;
3. Logical: “rationality” does not imply “self-interested,” either on an individual or a class statement—i.e. not as a “can be rational” implies (or of which is predicated) “should be selfish,” since there is nothing in the former that necessitates the latter, and since the proposition as a whole cannot withstand the empirical test: there are simply too many counter-instances of this for it to be true. That is why I maintain that it matters not which form of egoism one uses—psychological or rational—in egoism there is no recognition of the other qua other, like oneself, thus implying certain responsibilities to that other that do not redound to self as a condition for distinctly ethical action;
4.Moral: as an ethical maxim, exclusion of the concerns of others fails the test of universality (e.g. “All rational beings must exclude others from their concerns” is a meaningful [and thus rational] but not an ethical maxim, since she denies anything resembling inter-personal relationships, either on an individual or a societal level, all her talk of “society” notwithstanding).
The third objection concerns understanding of selfishness as the exclusion of others rationally recognized to be in one’s own class or species. Although Rand does not advocate that other persons automatically or necessarily be excluded from one’s own concern (i.e. she does say that selfishness does not mean that one is required to be indifferent to others— The Virtue of Selfishness, p. 56), nonetheless, selfishness in Rand’s sense does mean that any assertion of a commonality with others that would call into play mutuality or equality, as I defined them earlier, is a priori excluded from being “rational” (there is abundant evidence to support this reading—too much to even note fully here. But for examples, see Virtue of Selfishness, pgs. x-xi; 28; esp. 56; 80; 112-113; 115, etc.), and this is where I submit that her ethics is inherently unethical. Notice how such “other-regarding” virtues are missing from Rand’s ethics: charity (which Rand denies is a virtue), magnanimity (an important virtue for Aristotle, completely missing from Rand), and other such virtues are denied by Rand to be goods per se, having their values determined instrumentally as contributing to self-interest (see her 1964 Playboy magazine interview to see this aspect specifically dealt with by her). Even where Rand submits that there is a unity of virtues such as integrity and justice (The Virtue of Selfishness, pgs. 28), that unity is both in and for the self, and in that respect, misses the ethical target. Much has been said of this by other critics, notably those philosophers such as Peter Singer, who use the now-famous Prisoner’s Dilemma to demonstrate the short-sightedness of holding selfishness to be a virtue (the easiest way to enter into Singer’s arguments in this regard is to read his Encyclopedia Britannica article on Egoism).
 For an excellent critical introduction to Rand, see Scott Ryan, Objectivism and the Corruption of Rationality (New York: Writers Club Press, 2003). Ryan and I share many of the same criticisms of Rand, although he reaches different conclusions than I do. This is primarilybecause his own position is that of a theistic rationalist, and I hold to neither position.