(This is part one 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.)
Ayn Rand has become the darling of both neoliberals and, unfortunately, many young people today. The latter phenomenon has been due in large part to the intense promotion of her writings by the well-organized and well-funded Ayn Rand Institute. Their public relations work has resulted in a proliferation of Rand’s books on college campuses in the United States, in exchange for having her philosophy taught.
In order to best understand the Objectivist philosophy of Ayn Rand, one needs to read her backwards from the way she writes it in, for example, The Virtue of Selfishness. Rather than beginning with metaphysical and epistemological claims, one would best begin with the ethics she wants to draw from these claims: the ethics of rational egoism. By reading “backwards,” one can see (if not by her own argument, then by the volume of work Rand wrote on each category) that it is not the Principle of Identity that logically implies the specific brand of Rand’s extreme egoism, her “virtue of selfishness.” It is rather her extreme egoism that leads her to her peculiar understanding of Aristotle’s Principle of Identity and other epistemological and metaphysical commitments. As we shall show, not only is this conception of virtue itself fraught with problems, but it does not logically connect to the metaphysics and epistemology to which she appeals.
First, I would like to make some general observations concerning Rand’s philosophy. She makes few specific references to, nor does she do any critical (in-depth) analysis of, specific philosophers’ arguments. She relies more on rhetorical flourishes to do this kind of work for her. Second, she demonstrates little knowledge of or response to criticisms of or weaknesses to her arguments. Third, she does not read Aristotle fully, and misinterprets Kant on several levels, some of which will be outlined below. Finally, you know you have a dogmatic philosophy (if not a pure ideology) when you are blind to and/or misinterpret first, the history of the problem/issue; second, the problems and criticisms of the stated position.
Thus, in my estimation, Rand’s philosophy stumbles out of the starting gate. Overlooking these general problems, though, I should like to point out specific problems with one specific dimension of her philosophy in this writing: her ethics.
Rand’s argument concerning the rational essentialism of humans is inconsistent in its positing selfishness as the essence of human reason (to say nothing of using selfishness as an ethical concept!). Paraphrasing Rand’s argument, “humans are rational” implies that “humans are selfish,” through the additional premise that “human rational survival (‘man’s survival qua man’) is the ‘is’ that determines the ‘ought’ of human actions.” In this way Rand believes that she has solved the traditional “is/ought” problem of ethics (The Virtue of Selfishness, pgs. 24-25). But the judgment that all humans are selfish (i.e. for Rand, self-interested and individualist) would make for a very odd class of beings indeed if it consisted of members who denied that they belonged to a class of beings that was defined as those who, despite having a large number of substantial similarities to themselves, had no natural (rational) regard for the rational members of their own class. There is something distinctly counterintuitive about this assertion, if it is not downright inconsistent. More importantly, Rand’s argument posits simultaneously a rational understanding of the universal essences (natures) of humans (for Rand, under her term “concepts”)—and thus the universal inclusion of a subject term/class (“human”)—and a denial of rational recognition of the ontologically equivalent status of the members of their own class as part of that rational essentialism—and thus a negated predicate, resulting in the judgment that all humans are inclusively rational but excluded from being equivalent with one another in terms of equality of treatment. This raises two problems for Rand’s position. First, it does not solve the “is/ought” problem, as she claims; it just underscores how difficult it is to tie ethical terms onto an ontology. Second, it surely must be true that the concept of ontological equivalence provides far stronger logical support for the ethical concept of equality than it does individual self-interest. Ontological equivalence implies relationship of some type of mutuality, not the mutual exclusion of individualism. Put more colloquially, if humans can understand themselves as comprising the same essential traits, there is no logical reason to conclude that the proper ethical action based on that recognition is to act individualistically; i.e. the opposite of the assertion of equivalence.
Another, similar argument is that if each individual human is selfish, then nothing will hold for humans as a class and therefore not for human nature, since humans as a class cannot exist if the defining trait of that class isolates individual entities from others of the class, since then the class would be defined in terms of an identical trait that humans recognize in other humans, yet deny that it has equal status as one’s own (identical) traits. I take it that this underlies G.E. Moore’s concern that egoism is self-contradictory. In Principia Ethica, Moore argues that “that a single man’s happiness should be the sole good, and that also everybody’s happiness should be the sole good, is a contradiction which cannot be solved by the assumption that the same conduct will secure both…” (p. 103; emphasis his).
Part of the problem in Rand’s argument connecting selfishness to human nature is her attempt to derive selfishness ultimately from the Principle of Identity (A = A). There are three problems in doing this. First, for Aristotle, who enunciated this principle, it is just an axiom of thought concerning metaphysics, while also serving as an ontological assertion. But because of the close connection between metaphysical knowledge and the syllogism, it would seem that Aristotle did not intend this principle to be a content premise for any syllogism, but rather a logical presupposition that underlies any ability to think cogently about ontology. Thus, from the Principle of Identity, nothing logically follows. It does not directly imply individualism or anything else Rand claims for it. Second, Rand confuses this principle with the Principle of Non-contradiction (A and not-A cannot be simultaneously true) when she explains the former through the latter (see The Virtue of Selfishness, pg. 58). But the Law of Non-contradiction by definition is concerned only with the consistency of and between assertions, not with what those assertions say per se. Thus, to appeal to a philosophy of self-interest on the basis of the laws of logic or “rationality” is completely question-begging, since it assumes as a premise what it attempts to prove: that statements advocating self-interest can be derived from the laws of thought they rely upon for internal and logical consistency. Thus the laws of logic do not allow the conclusion that statements that human nature is selfish to be based on or drawn from those laws, and this is a significant philosophical error. Finally, Aristotle himself did not hold the Principle of Identity to be a primary law of thought. He did not even consider this to be an indemonstrable principle of knowledge, as Rand does. It is rather the case that the Principle of Non-contradiction is the primary and “most certain principle” (see Metaphysics Book IV, Chapters 3-4).
In sum, to understand ontological equivalence and yet deny ethical equality would result in the strange position that rational beings cannot recognize the rational imperative to “treat like cases alike,” as Aristotle put it (Nichomachean Ethics, Book V, Chapter 3, 1131a 10-b15; 1130b-1132b). Rand and her followers regularly appeal to Aristotle for their philosophical base, but to ignore such important Aristotelian precepts as this one demonstrates yet another significant inconsistency in the Randian argument. To show how absolutely fundamental this notion of ontological equivalence is ethically and politically in Aristotle, one should not stop with the Nichomachean Ethics, but also read his Politics, in which equality plays a critical role in political rule. Equality is the form of rule appropriate when the ruler and those ruled possess equal and similar rational capacities (Politics, Book III, Chapter 9, 1280 a8-15; and Book III, Chapter 12, 1282b18-23). This is exemplified by naturally equal citizens who take turns at ruling for one another’s advantage (1279a8–13), and by “true” constitutions, which aim at the good life for all citizens: “Governments which have a regard to the common interest are constituted in accordance with strict principles of justice, and therefore are true forms…” (1279A17-21).Yet, according to Rand, recognition of the rationality of the human species implies that each individual within this species by nature is concerned fundamentally (if not solely) with themselves. In other words, Rand holds that although class inclusion (defined as a recognition of the rationality of [fellow]) humans) is itself rational, rational class inclusion understood as implying a rational ethical “ought” extending to actions toward others in the same class is suddenly irrational or non-natural when rational-universal inclusion is expressed in an ethical form. Rand attempts to overcome this problem by positing negative rights—i.e. the mutual-reciprocal demand on others to be left alone to pursue one’s own good (we will deal more with this specific idea when we examine Rand’s political theory).
Herein is the key problem in Rand’s ethics. One cannot consistently hold to an ontology of universal class inclusion (human essential rationality) predicated on the universal mutual exclusion (selfishness) of its individual members. To do so is to assert that what binds humans as a class is the fact that they rationally understand that they aren’t bound by their class membership; or more charitably, that what binds humans into a common class is that they are rational enough to understand that their class membership is defined by their excluding one another from their essential concerns—i.e. that they are a class (rational) that denies their class membership with others (selfish). It is difficult to see how a universal class could be defined as consisting of members who are rational enough to understand universal class membership but who necessarily (i.e. by nature) exclude one another from equal or reciprocal consideration as members of that class. Yet that is exactly what Rand does by asserting that the rational nature of humans is inherently selfish. She defines the mutual exclusion of those who possess a common rational nature in this way: “man must live for his own sake… neither sacrificing himself to others, nor sacrificing others to himself. To live for his own sake means that the highest achievement of his own happiness is man’s highest moral purpose” (“The Objectivist Ethics,” in The Virtue of Selfishness, p. 30). Further, for Rand, it is the nature of humans not to “subordinate one’s life to the welfare of others…that the relief of others is not his primary moral concern…not of moral duty…” (The Virtue of Selfishness, p. 56). Rand claims that by uniting these logically contradictory concepts, she is solving the “is/ought” problem of philosophy. Her solution attempts to resolve this issue by including ethical class exclusion as part of an ontological understanding of human nature as rational. However, to do so requires one or all of three conceptual missteps: 1) a confusion of ethical and ontological concepts; 2) a cherry-picking and/or misreading of Aristotle; and/or 3) an inconsistent assumption that theoretical reason and practical reason are different kinds of rationality, and yet answer the same questions. As we shall see, these two aspects of human reason deal with different issues. If they are to be united, it cannot be by the content of thought, but by the normative principles each type of thought follows, since their content concerns different issues. Yet, Rand tries to unite them by blending an ontology of human nature embedded with an ethical principle.
We will examine these possible options in the next section.
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