Thursday, January 22, 2009

Books to Aid in Understanding Ayn Rand's Rational Selfishness

“Ethics is an objective necessity of man’s survival...The purpose of morality is to teach you, not to suffer and die, but to enjoy yourself and live.” –Ayn Rand

One of Ayn Rand’s greatest achievements, and the source of her antagonists’ greatest angst, is the ethical system she defined as part of her comprehensive philosophy of Objectivism…rational egoism. Rational egoism (or selfishness or self-interest) is the subject of two books written by Objectivist intellectuals that are a must read for anyone interested in a full understanding of Rand’s much-misunderstood and distorted concept of selfishness. Loving Life, the morality of self-interest and the facts that support it by Craig Biddle is part theory and part practical guide. Mr. Biddle is editor and publisher of The Objective Standard; a journal dedicated to the analysis of cultural and political issues from an Objectivist perspective. Ayn Rand’s Normative Ethics, the virtuous egoist by Tara Smith is a scholarly work published by the prestigious Cambridge University Press. Ms. Smith is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Texas, Austin.

It was Ayn Rand’s explicit, stated purpose to resurrect the morality and nobility of the pursuit of one’s own personal happiness. “In popular usage,” she wrote, “the word ‘selfishness’ is a synonym of evil; the image of [one] who cares for no living being and pursues nothing but the gratification of the mindless whims of any immediate moment.” The only alternative offered by the conventional concept of what is considered moral behavior, is the selfless concern for others (altruism). But, contends Rand, that is a false choice, because it permits no concept of the self-respecting, self-supporting man- a man who supports his life by his own effort and neither sacrifices himself nor others” Thus, she contends, “To redeem both man and morality, it is the concept of ‘selfishness’ that one has to redeem” (Introduction, The Virtue of Selfishness, emphasis hers). Rand’s book, The Virtue of Selfishness, is a collection of essays laying out in non-fiction form the Objectivist ethics that were presented in fictionalized form in her two dramatic novels, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. (A systematic presentation of the Objectivist ethics is first presented by Ayn Rand’s student and intellectual heir, philosopher Leonard Peikoff, as part of his treatise Objectivism, the Philosophy of Ayn Rand.)

Ethics is a branch of philosophy and, as such, cannot be viewed in a vacuum, according to Ayn Rand. The base upon which ethics rests is the twin pillars of metaphysics (the study of existence), and epistemology (the study of the nature and method of human knowledge). Rand does not devise her theory of ethics in midstream. For example, she starts not with the question, “What moral code is proper to man?,” but with the question, “Why does man need a moral code in the first place?” The answer to both must be found in the study of metaphysics and epistemology. The answer to the first question is dependent upon the answer to the second.

Craig Biddle writes in his introduction:

“Contrary to popular myth, morality does not come from God; it is not a matter of divine revelation. Nor is it a matter of social convention or personal opinion. Being moral does not consist in obeying commandments, or in doing whatever one wants to do. The rabbis, the priests, the relativists, and the subjectivists are wrong. Morality is not a matter of faith or conformity or feelings.

“True morality is a matter of the factual requirements of human life and happiness. It is a matter of reason, logic, and the law of cause and effect.”

In other words, a proper morality, like all forms of knowledge, is to be not invented but discovered. That the Objectivist concept of morality is a discovery, not an invention, of Ayn Rand is a crucially important point to grasp. It means that her concept of rational egoism can stand up to the objective scrutiny of scientific inquiry with reference to the metaphysical facts of reality…something that can not be said of the ethics of self-sacrifice (altruism).

The Objectivist ethics thus completely rejects the false altruist choice that one must either sacrifice oneself to others (selflessness), or sacrifice others to oneself (the conventional definition of selfishness). “Altruism permits no view of man except as sacrificial animals and profiteers-on-sacrifice, as victims and parasites-…it permits no concept of a benevolent co-existence among men…or of justice. (VOS, emphasis hers)” Rational egoism rejects human sacrifice outright as evil and anti-life. It upholds a rational, benevolent code of ethics that teaches one how to live for one’s own sake (according to one’s own hierarchy of values) without sacrificing either oneself to others or others to oneself. Rand’s rational egoism is a non-exploitative, non-predatory moral code that demands respect for the rights of others, as a matter of self-interest. It is the code that is the foundation of the only non-sacrificial, benevolent…and moral…social system, capitalism. It is the code implicit in the America’s founding philosophy embodied in the words of the Declaration of Independence. This is why it needs desperately to be understood and embraced.

As in the case of morality in general, Rand does not begin by assuming self-interest as a given. She asks…Why must one act in one’s own self-interest, what is in one’s self-interest, and how does one determine what is in one’s self-interest? The answers require a fundamental evaluation of that which presupposes ethics. In her introduction, Ms. Smith writes:

“I will present a kind of egoism that I believe escapes the concerns that usually make people loathe to even consider it. I will elaborate on the virtues of proper egoism- the kinds of action required for human beings to advance their interests and to flourish. Rand’s egoism is distinctive insofar as she contends that a determination of the proper way to lead our lives must begin with an analysis of the concept of value.” (Emphasis added.)

Ms. Smith demonstrates in this book how far removed from the conventional concept of selfishness Rand’s ethical theory is. She continues;

“This analysis yields a portrait of what a person’s interest is that requires the rejection of many of the doctrines commonly associated with egoism, such as hedonism, materialism, and predation (which is based on the assumption that promotion of one’s own well-being must come at the expense of others’). The pursuit of self-interest should not be driven by emotion, in Rand’s view, but by reason, and reason demands the consistent practice of seven principle virtues.” (Emphasis added.)

Those seven virtues are deeply explored and explained by Ms. Smith and represent the meat and potatoes of her book. They are also covered in Mr. Biddle’s book. They are rationality (the master virtue), honesty, independence, justice, integrity, productiveness, and pride. How and why these virtues are in man qua man’s self-interest and thus indispensable to his well-being and very survival is exhaustively explained by reference to the relevant and immutable facts of reality. Ms. Smith’s last chapter deals with Rand’s ethics as they relate to conventional virtues such as charity, generosity, kindness, mercy and temperance. Mr. Biddle includes in his book a discussion on the proper social conditions required for man to live properly and morally.

For centuries, the ethics of self-sacrifice and self-abnegation (altruism) have been unquestioningly accepted as an absolute, despite the fact that no rational explanation…no why?…has ever been offered to explain how it advances mens’ well-being. Altruism’s hold remains potent, its predatory and destructive nature notwithstanding. But it is beginning to fray. Ayn Rand has introduced a moral code that challenges the still-dominant cultural penetration of altruism. The ethics of rational self-interest is an integral part of Rand’s comprehensive “philosophy for living on earth,” Objectivism, and, thus, answers the all-important question…why?

Around barely 50 years, Rand’s ethics have been mostly ignored, distorted and misrepresented. But 50 years is an historical blink of an eye. Compared to the ethics (or, in fact, the anti-ethics) of altruism…with roots dating back thousands of years…the Objectivist ethics has barely begun to penetrate the culture. But penetrate it has, leaving altruism’s apologists to face a choice…continue a policy of evasion, or refute Objectivism outright.

The morality of rational self-interest has broken once and for all the monopoly held by altruism in the field of ethics. It is now up to the altruists to defend their code against a rational alternative, openly and honestly. To meet the challenge, they must now answer the "why". Why is self-sacrifice the good? Why must morality consist of others being the beneficiaries of one’s actions, but not oneself? Why is the unearned morally superior to the earned? It’s too late for evasion any longer. A benevolent, rational, non-sacrificial code of values to live by has been discovered and has gotten a toehold in the culture. It is a code that says it is the good to pursue your interests, your well-being, your happiness…without guilt, without sacrifice of oneself or others, and without being one’s brothers’ keeper.

With the collectivist statist trend resurfacing with a vengeance in America, these two books could not be a more timely read. Ideas move human events, and morality is the most powerful force on the battleground of ideas. Altruism is the moral foundation of collectivism/statism. The political purveyors of altruism…the now-dominant socialist Left…seem to have grasped this. To advance the only alternative, individualism/capitalism, requires recognition of its moral foundation. That moral justification is rational egoism. For anyone concerned about the current state and direction of the country and the world, and for whom challenging the entrenched ethical status quo is not something to fear, I highly recommend Loving Life and Ayn Rand’s Normative Ethics.

[EDITORS NOTE: Of course, the best place to start is with Ayn Rand's own words, The Virtue of Selfishness. A more recent book, In Defense of Selfishness: Why the Code of Self-Sacrifice is Unjust and Destructive by Objectivist schollar Peter Schwartz, is a must read.]

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