Friday, August 26, 2016

Understanding Ayn Rand’s Original Ethics Requires Original Thinking

CATO published an interesting piece by Douglas B. Rasmussen, “Why Ayn Rand?”  

In the section titled “Response Essays,” CATO provides key excerpts from a few of these essays. Here is one from Why Ayn Rand? Some Alternate Answers by Michael Huemer:

University of Colorado philosopher Michael Huemer takes up Douglas Rasmussen’s question of why there is such intense interest in Ayn Rand and answers that Rand, unlike Mises or Bastiat, “was not only a philosopher, but a compelling novelist.” However gripping her novels, Huemer is not impressed with Rand’s moral philosophy. “The theory of ‘The Objectivist Ethics’,” Huemer writes, “is simultaneously the most distinctive and the least plausible, worst defended of all of Rand’s major ideas.” Huemer argues that there is a glaring conflict between Rand’s ethical egoism and her case for individual rights: “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.” Huemer recommends discarding Rand’s egoism and setting her ban of the initiation of force and fraud on a more plausible foundation.

“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.”

No, you can’t. But Rand never said that any particular individual’s well-being is the only end in itself. She said that each individual should consider his own well-being as an end in itself. Take out the word “only” from Huemer’s quote, and Rand’s ethics harmonizes beautifully with individual rights.

One’s moral views tend to inform one’s moral judgements of others. Hence, an altruist who holds self-sacrifice for the needs of others as the standard of morality would tend to expect others to self-sacrifice for his, the altruists, own benefit. A person of self-esteem who considers his own well-being as an end in itself—as his own highest value and ultimate goal of his actions—would also tend to respect others’ right to act in the same way.

Keep in mind that Rand’s ethics is part of an integrated philosophy. Hand in hand with her ethics is her call for a ban on the initiation of force and fraud in human relationships. Hence, Rand’s advocacy of the “trader principle” as the basis for a moral coexistence among people in a social context. The trader principle—the mutually beneficial, mutually selfish exchange of value for value—is the practical social application of the Objectivist ethics. We see the trader principle successfully at work every day, all around us, in both the spiritual and economic sphere—proof that there is no contradiction in Rand’s ethics. In a voluntary trade, each person acts within his own rights toward his own ends, and each walks away, unmolested, with a net gain. The trader principle applies in regard to the spiritual realm (friendships, romance) as well as in the material realm (economics). Rand’s ethics, rational egoism, goes hand in hand with peaceful coexistence. If you’ve ever met a practicing Objectivist, you’ll see the truth. I am living proof that this is true.

One thing I’ve noticed about critics of Ayn Rand’s Objectivist ethics of rational egoism is that they tend to approach the issue through the filter of the conventional understanding of selfishness as the self-centered pursuit of one’s interests without regard for means or consequences. But to truly and fully understand Rand’s highly original ethics, you’ve got to completely let go of any moral preconceptions—to wipe the slate clean in your mind regarding everything you’ve been taught about morality since childhood. Granted, that’s a hard task. Take it from me. It took me years to gain a firm grasp of rational selfishness—and to thus gain the confidence to argue in support of it. But that’s what’s essential. Then, and only then, can one truly understand rational selfishness. That may be Huemer’s original mistake.

Related Reading:

Objectivism, the Philosophy of Ayn Rand—Leonard Peikoff

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