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.’

4 comments to How Far Can Ayn Rand’s Ethical Egoism be Defended?

  • I don’t think it is a conflict if someone is pursuing the same job as I am.

    The fact that someone else is competing with me for a job would simply be a *fact*. To regard facts of reality as “against my interest” would be to wage war against reality.

    This is the subjectivist viewpoint, which demands that reality conform to my desires, instead of the other way around.

    It is in my own best interest for an employer to be rational and make the best decisions possible. If I am that candidate, then it is my responsibility to convince the employer of that, and get hired. If I am *not* that candidate then that, too, is simply a *fact*, not a conflict.

    I would also add that using dishonest tactics to obtain a position is also not in my self-interest, because using *dishonesty* as a means of achieving my values makes truth my enemy.

    This, again, would be the subjectivist viewpoint of demanding that your whims take precedence over reality.

    Which means: waging war with reality, which is not in a person’s self-interest.

  • I want to amend my sentence:

    To regard facts of reality as “against my interest” – simply because stand in the way of my goals – would be to wage war against reality.

    Just like if someone happens to be sitting at my favorite table at a restaurant, it is not a conflict of interests.

    Or if I like a girl very much, but she likes some other guy, it is not a conflict of interests.

    Or if I am a Yankees fan, and the Mets hire a fantastic new pitcher, it is not a conflict of interests.

  • Harry Binswanger

    Why not read the article that Rand wrote on this subject? “The ‘Conflicts’ of Men’s Interests” in The Virtue of Selfishness. Two candidates applying for the same job is one of the two major cases of alleged conflicts she addresses there. (One of the many points she makes there is that it is in everyone’s interest that there is competition for job, and competition entails the possibility of losing as well as winning.)

    The “instrumental” vs. “part of human flourishing” debate is a false alternative. Justice, for example, becomes “part of human flourishing” AFTER it is shown to be the policy required by man’s survival.

    You are a specific kind of entity. You are not a cell or a plant. The requirements for the survival of any kind of living organism are specific. For a plant to survive it must do different things than a bird or cat does. The same is true of man. His survival has definite requirements, just as human health does. It is irrelevant that violating one of those requirements (for morality or health) does not mean instant death–it is either headed toward life or toward death. The task of ethics is to identify the principles and policies of action that are pro-man or anit-man. Justice is pro-man, because it is rationality applied to human interaction. Sure, a given man may accidentally succeed (in a certain limited sense of “succeed”) by acting unjustly. And a man with chronic bronchitis may accidentally live longer than one without them. That doesn’t mean bronchitis is healthy or injustice is pro-survival.

    There’s a lot more to say, but I’ll stop here.

  • Rob and Harry: Thanks for your comments. I think you make some good points.

    When I think further about the example of two equally qualified job applicants competing for one position it seems to me that this 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.

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