(This is 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.)

We ended the last section by outlining Rand’s attempt to close the “is/ought” gap by including ethical class exclusion as part of an ontological understanding of human nature as rational. In sum, the argument was that if thinking is necessarily in the form of judgments, and judgments are the process of subsuming particulars under universal principles; further, if selfishness is not in fact a perception, but a judgment, then the principle of selfishness as an explanatory principle of particular actions of individuals is not a universal (i.e. necessary) principle, since there are too many falsifications of it in the particulars—e.g. compassion, social good, mutual assistance, etc. Nor does empirical evidence support such a principle. People regularly act outside the bounds of self-interest. Further, even if they know in advance that their interests will be served by a particular action, that does not mean that such prediction motivates their action.

Selfishness as a universal is disconfirmed by the evidence of human actions. Nowhere is this more evident than in the fact that Rand uses the term both to attempt to describe human behavior and thought, as well as to name it as the prime “virtue.” Such blending of judgments regarding selfishness (i.e. explanatory principle and prescriptive principle) does not fill the “is-ought” gap; it just blurs the gap. The inconsistent use of the term selfishness (i.e. first allegedly descriptively, then prescriptively, rocking back and forth between these two senses) indicates its lack of suitability as a universal principle in the epistemological sense.

We stated that 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. Let us now examine these issues.

Regarding the first option, let us be clear that “selfishness,” even in Rand’s sense, is an ethical category of thought. It is an ethical term because, in Rand’s own words, it “serves as a measurement or gauge to guide a man’s conduct” (The Virtue of Selfishness, p. 27). Thus, all parties would agree that ethics deals with what its holder advocates to be “proper” behavior on the part of humans. Rand states that such proper behavior, in her view, is that “man [is] an end in himself,” which means for Rand “his own life [is] the ethical purpose of every individual man” (emphasis hers). Yet, she blurs this into an ontology when she attempts to equate the “ought” of ethics with the “is” of her ontology by saying such things as “ethics is an objective, metaphysical necessity of man’s survival” (The Virtue of Selfishness, p.24; emphasis hers). But individual need and the choice connected with that need in no way exhaust ethical concerns. In nearly every definition of ethics, there is a primary concern for the conduct of agents toward others. Rand limits ethics to one’s conduct regarding oneself, and to the conduct toward oneself expected by others. Therein lies the problem. She ignores both the Aristotelian dictum that it is part of human nature to live together in communities (Politics I.2), as well as the larger traditional ethical concerns of duties and obligations toward others that are either universalizable (Deontological) or for the greatest good (Utilitarian). Without extensive criticism as to why these longstanding traditions are not properly ethical while selfishness is, attempting to redefine ethics in terms of “self” will not suffice to convince a skeptic.

Further, she attempts to bridge the ontology/ethics gap by using Aristotle’s teleological ethics. She says, for instance, that “an ultimate value is that final goal or end to which all lesser goals are the means.” She then asserts that “an organism’s life is its standard of value” (The Virtue of Selfishness, p. 17). In other words, humans have a single goal: human (rational) life. They have no choice in the ultimate goal; only a choice in whether and how to follow it. In direct contradistinction, Aristotle’s teleological ethics distinctly ties the individual human good to community. One of the nicest summaries of this idea is from an article entitled “Moral Character” by Dr. Marcia Homiak of Occidental College. It is worth quoting at length:

“According to Aristotle, the full realization of our rational powers is not something we can achieve or maintain on our own. This is true even for the activity of contemplation, which, Aristotle says, is done better with colleagues. So we need at least a group of companions who share our interests and aims, and who provoke us to think more and to achieve greater understanding of what we observe. Rational activity performed in the company of competent others makes our own rational activity more continuous and a more stable source of enjoyment and self-esteem. As we develop our abilities to think and know in the context of social groups, the enjoyment we take in learning and thinking affects our emotional attitudes and desires. We develop friendly feelings toward those who share our activities, and we come to develop a concern for their good for their own sakes. Once bonds of friendship are formed, it is natural for us to exhibit the social virtues Aristotle describes in Nichomachean Ethics IV.6–8, which include generosity, friendliness, and mildness of temper.”

Continuing on, Homiak says:

“Aristotle thinks that, in addition to friendships, wider social relations are required for the full development of our rational powers. He says we are by nature political beings, whose capacities are fully realized in a specific kind of political community (a polis or city-state). Aristotle’s ideal political community is led by citizens who recognize the value of living fully active lives and whose aim is to make the best life possible for their fellow citizens. When citizens deliberate and legislate about the community’s educational, office-holding, and economic policies, their goal is to determine and promote the conditions under which citizens can fully develop their powers to think and to know. Thus Aristotle recommends in the Politics VII-VIII that the city provide a system of public education for all citizens.”

Furthermore, Aristotle differs significantly from Rand in that he sees human character to be composed of multiple virtues, not a single virtue, as does Rand. Additionally, none of Aristotle’s virtues is egoistic in Rand’s sense, and none of them can be tied down to a univocal definition, let alone to a single virtue (see Nichomachean Ethics, Book II, Ch. 6, on “the intermediate relative to us”). Further, although Rand seems to gain her understanding of justice as based on merit from Aristotle’s Politics, he does not limit it as severely as Rand does. For Aristotle, merit is defined differently in different situations. Most specifically, in democracies, “merit” is defined in terms of “the status” of being a free citizen, he says (see Nichomachean Ethics, Book V, Ch. 3). Note that Aristotle’s understanding of “freedom” is connected with “citizens,” and not with “individuals.” The Aristotelian implication is clearly political—i.e. a person in a polis. Thus, justice based on merit, for Aristotle, is not at all the same as Rand’s tying merit to “production,” and calling those who take from those who produce “parasites” and “looters” (The Virtue of Selfishness, p. 25). Rand is assuming the virtue of capitalism in order to argue for the virtue of selfishness, when it should be the other way around. This leads to the next point.

As to the state, for Aristotle a state exists for the sake of the good or happy life, so that the best form of government will be one which promotes the well-being of all of its citizens (Politics VII). In his emphasis on the rule of law and the role of a constitution in defining a state, he says “Nor does a state exist for the sake of… security from injustice” (1280 a35 — cf. b27, b32). As this passage progresses, it is quite clear that Aristotle categorically rejects Rand’s view of the “minimalist” state as one whose function is only to protect individual rights of acquisition.

Thus Rand, for her alleged reliance on ancient Greek wisdom, ignores crucial aspects of Aristotle that are worth developing here, as they directly contradict her cherry-picked Aristotelian themes.

All of this indicates perhaps the greatest flaw of Rand’s work: taking what is simply a potential and occasional motivation for human behavior—self-interest—and inflating it to the central foundation of her entire philosophy, using it across the board in as the basis for epistemology, metaphysics, ethics, and politics. In this respect, her philosophy commits two large fallacies: Hasty Generalization and category mistakes, the latter in Gilbert Ryle’s sense of construing objects of inquiry that belong to one category in terms of concepts of another. Or, put another way, the category mistake is thinking the erroneous view that two things (in this case, reason and selfishness; human nature and motivation for action) are of the same logical type. (See Ryle G., The Concept of Mind, Chapter 1, sec. 3, pgs. 18-23). With Rand, the use of “selfishness,” a distinctly ethical category of either moral character or action-assessment, is used in her metaphysics and in her epistemology.

Regarding the second option suggested above—the inconsistent assumption concerning the relation between theoretical reason and practical reason—Rand is sketchy, but does not seem to hold that they are distinct. Most philosophers hold that theoretical reason is the function of reason that deals with matters of understanding both experiential and conceptual claims—determining what is or is not the case, and how and why it is or is not. Rand seems to agree with this, limiting reason as she does to a narrow empiricist understanding: “Reason is the faculty that identifies and integrates the material provided by man’s senses” (The Virtue of Selfishness, p. 22). However, it is important to note that from this conception of reason alone, one is not in a position to discuss ethical type of reasoning. Thus, most philosophers also discuss what they call “practical reason” (starting with Aristotle, incidentally),which deals with deliberations concerning human actions. Rand attempts to unify these two types of reason not only by tying the function of reason closely to the senses, but by using the unity of ontology and ethics to maintain that “the virtue of rationality” means “never sacrificing one’s convictions…[and] never seek[ing] or granting the unearned and undeserved…” (The Virtue of Selfishness, p. 28). So if we want to maintain the connection between ontology and ethics, as Rand clearly does in her claim to have resolved the “is/ought” problem, we would be on much firmer conceptual ground to maintain that theoretical and practical reason have a unified structure: that if one rationally recognizes universal class inclusion, one must also, on pain of inconsistency, recognize the ethical universality involved in the recognition that one belongs to such a universal class. In following this line of thought, we can use the argument of Immanuel Kant that a rational imperative is part of—or has the same form as—the ethical categorical imperative (i.e. universality and normativity). In the first Preface to the Critique of Pure Reason, Kant refers to “reason’s common principle.” Although he never addresses what this principle might be, according to Onora O’Neill, since for Kant practical reason is primary to theoretical reason, it must be the case that Kant’s Categorical Imperative (his ethical principle of reason) is the supreme principle of reason (Constructions of Reason, pgs. 23-24). If this is correct, then the unity of theoretical and practical reason would be in the maxim that one should think in accordance with that maxim whereby one would will that it be a universal law of thought. O’Neill introduces two texts from Kant in which he discusses such a unity: his “What is it to Orient Oneself in Thinking?,” and his Critique of Judgment. Respectively, she introduces these Kantian lines:

“To make use of one’s own reason means no more than to ask oneself, whenever one is supposed to assume something, whether one could find it feasible to make the ground or the rule on which one assumes it into a universal principle for the use of reason” (“WOT?” 8:146n).

Kant maintains that reason has a sensus communis, which he defines as: “a critical faculty which in its reflective act takes account…of the mode of representation of everyone else, in order, as it were, to weigh its judgment with the collective reason of mankind” (CJ, V, 293).

The sensus communis has three maxims: 1) think for oneself; 2) think from the standpoint of everyone else; 3) always think consistently (CJ, V, 294-295).[1]

This notion of thinking “from the standpoint of everyone else” is, significantly, the best way to avoid the problems, distortions, and omissions that can arise from purely individualist thinking.

This understanding of the unity of practical and theoretical reason introduces another problem with Rand’s ethical rationality: she ignores the need for discourse with others in claims of knowledge or ethics. How is any claim to universal (Rand’s “conceptual”) knowledge possible without discourse with others? Who can claim to know the universal class inclusion under a predicate (class attribute) if one is unaware of potential shortcomings of one’s judgment? Objectivity is only guaranteed by dialogue with potential objectors. Kant distinctly acknowledged the autonomy of reason, as does Rand. But Kant does not make the same mistake Rand does, which is to take the independence of individual reason to be the reasoning of individualists. Reasoning universally, for Aristotle as well as for Kant, is never a self-referential or self-interested activity. For Aristotle, even that most revered form of reasoning that leads to human eudaimonia (happiness) and is the ultimate good, contemplation, is never a strictly self-based enterprise: “the just man needs people towards whom and with whom he shall act justly…[and] the philosopher can [contemplate] better if he has fellow-workers…” (Nichomachean Ethics, Book X, Ch. 7, 1177a34-1177b1).

When rational inclusion is applied to ethics, and ethics is defined minimally as the justification of (or for) the conduct of one human toward another, I can draw these conclusions:

1. To be truly “objective” means taking all factors into account in one’s environment, which includes one’s relationship with others and impact on others. To ignore inequality caused by radical self-interest is not to be objective in the rational sense.

2. Thus a notion of formal equality is called for, which by definition demands recognition of others in my reasoning.

3. Kant’s Categorical Imperative, in the form of “Act only according to that law by which you can will it to be a universal law of nature,” best captures this objectivity in its practical use;

4. Psychological evidence and theories indicate that psycho-social maturity is a function of taking account of others. Lawrence Kohlberg, Carol Gilligan, Erik Erikson, and Abraham Maslow, to name just a few, have argued quite convincingly for this.

Conclusion: Individualists like Ayn Rand want to be treated by others in a certain way, and then attempt to universalize that desire (i.e. self-interest). But that puts the ethical concern backwards. The Golden Rule, for example, does not have as its major term how I want to be treated; rather, it concerns the maxim by which I treat others: “Do unto others…” Thus, universalizing in ethics is not about universalizing what I want for myself and calling on others to do the same; it is rather about universalizing my actions toward others; or, if one really does want to reverse the direction of the rule, how I would evaluate the treatment of others toward me if I was to treat them the same way. Thus, ethical universal thinking is about reciprocity of actions between agents, not about agents acting alone for themselves and wanting others to give them space to do it. Rand and her followers leave out this key notion of universal ethical concern, and this is where their alleged emphasis on rationality and universality becomes contradictory and thus self-refuting, since the laws of logic would require that the norm of reversibility apply across claims—i.e. that if I do action x, then in any other similar situation, action x may be done to me. That is rational and universal, and most importantly, the true criterion of a distinctively ethical rational universality.

Thus, the key to understanding universal ethical concepts is not the alleged self-interest of each and every individual; that overlays content onto form and claims to derive that content from the form. Universal ethics such as the Golden Rule is rather the claim that whatever action I contemplate, its normative status is determined by the interests of any other in the stipulated category (e.g. persons). “Interests” in Golden Rule thinking are better defined as “a conceived action toward another that the other him/herself would approve as being critical to his/her well-being” (i.e. “as you would want done to you”). This conception of interest goes well beyond an individualist notion of self-interest, since another’s good might conflict with my own self-interest, and yet I would be obliged by universal considerations of inclusiveness or reciprocity to surrender my self-interest for the sake of the interests of another. For example, to save another’s life, I might have to (i.e. be obliged to) surrender some of my money, as happens in families when a member is struggling or meets with unfortunate events. Or again, in a community setting, where my hoarding my goods would or does contribute to the life struggle of others, universalizing my actions would not meet the ethical demands of reciprocity. In short, Randians take the notion of ethical “responsibility” to be self-referential, and in doing so strip it of its essential meaning of being directed primarily toward others, not others toward oneself. But ethics is not about oneself and one’s self-interest, with each looking out for him/herself, and a fortiori it rejects the notion that selfishness (i.e. individualism) is a virtue.

It is fairly easy to see why professional philosophers ignore Rand’s philosophy. At a superficial level, it is tightly knit, but when one looks for empirical or further rational justification for her positions, one will be disappointed. This is not to say that her most devoted followers have not systematized her philosophy in much better fashion than did Rand herself. But even those followers frequently miss the blind spots in Rand’s philosophy.

From here the examination of the position of Ayn Rand’s philosophy of selfishness can either take a forward-moving or backward-moving direction. The backward-moving direction would be one which examines how her philosophy of selfishness impacts her epistemology and metaphysics. The forward-moving direction would be one which examines how her philosophy of selfishness is used to support her political ideas, particularly her promotion of laissez-faire capitalism. We will engage in this forward-moving direction at a later date.


[1] Quotations taken from O’Neill, Onora. Constructions of Reason, pgs. 26; 45-46; see pages 24-27 and 45-48 for her discussion on Kant’s notion of sensus communis.