Thursday, February 26, 2009

“Think!” Debate on Rand’s Ethics of Self-Interest

On March 2nd, 2009, The Center for Values and Social Policy in the Philosophy Department of the University of Colorado at Boulder will host a "Think!" debate on Ayn Rand's Objectivist ethics. The title, "Making a Virtue of Selfishness? A Debate about Ayn Rand's Ethics", is rather interesting in light of President Obama’s campaign sneer aimed at Republicans (and likely Ayn Rand) late in the campaign -“You know I don’t know when, when they decided they wanted to make a virtue out of selfishness.”

I don’t know if this upcoming debate, or its title, was inspired by Obama’s comment, but it is significant that Rand’s ethics are the subject of a serious debate on the campus of a major university. But more on that later.

Defending the Objectivist ethics will be Dr. Onkar Ghate, a senior fellow at the Ayn Rand Institute. Dr. Ghate states in his preamble:

"Ayn Rand challenges the idea, dominant in the
West since Christianity, that morality consists of commandments. Even though
this conception of morality has often been secularized, its essence has
remained: the source of morality is something external to the self, to which
the self owes obedience. In sharp contrast, Rand argues that the nature and
purpose of morality is to teach one how to achieve one's self-interest."

Thus, Dr. Ghate will make the case that ethics is not a matter of the subjective whims of the state, the collective (i.e., society), one’s personal opinion, or God (i.e., those claiming to speak for God). Rather, he will demonstrate that a proper ethics is derived from the facts of reality and the requirements of man’s survival. Ethics, he will argue, is an objective necessity for man and that this analysis leads rationally and logically to a moral code of rational egoism.

Presenting the case against the Objectivist ethics will be Prof. Michael Huemer (CU Boulder, Philosophy). In his preamble, Prof. Huemer’s argues:

"Ayn Rand champions an excessively egoistic ethic, one in which individuals must place themselves before everyone and everything else. This ethic can lead one to hurt, exploit, or simply ignore the needs of others, when it suits one's own interests to do so. Rand's ethic of selfishness clashes with the moral sense of philosophers, spiritual leaders, and ordinary people the world over. These people are not all wrong-- Ayn Rand is wrong."

It will be interesting to hear what Mr. Heumer means by “excessively”. That aside, the professor’s statement indicates that Dr. Ghate should have a fairly easy time refuting his position, because it is contradictory and misrepresentative of Ayn Rand’s ethical theory.

I certainly don’t mean to preempt Dr. Ghate, and I most certainly don’t mean to present myself as any kind of expert on the Objectivist ethics. But, since the main thrust of professor Heumer’s side is riddled with the kind of altruistic slants on key Rand points, I will make my own rebuttal based upon my own understanding of her ideas.

For example, the professor states that "Ayn Rand champions an excessively egoistic ethic, one in which individuals must place themselves before everyone and everything else."

Rand’s ethics rests on man’s life, qua man, as the standard of value. She states that the achievement of his own happiness is his highest moral purpose, because each individual is an end in himself. This requires him to rationally identify a hierarchy of values to work for and to maintain over the long term by his own independent judgement and effort. It is these values that he must place as his primary concern, not himself as such “before everyone and everything else”. Rand specifically rejects hedonism and materialism as the standard of ethics. She writes in The Virtue of Selfishness:

The Objectivist ethics…is applicable only in the context of a rational, objectively demonstrated and validated code of moral principles which define and determine his actual self-interest. It is not a license “to do as one pleases…” (introduction, page x)

Mr. Heumer’s next sentence embraces the classic definition of selfishness…one that, once again, Rand specifically and emphatically rejects…with a twist:

This ethic can lead one to hurt, exploit, or simply ignore the needs of others, when it suits one's own interests to do so.

If one accepts Rand’s moral code, one necessarily rejects the pursuit of one’s own self-interest at the expense of others. What in Rand’s seven cardinal virtues (rationality, honesty, independence, justice, integrity, productiveness, and pride) engenders the need or desire to “hurt or exploit” others, and how is that in one’s self-interest? As demonstrated in the characters of Peter Keating (The Fountainhead) and James Taggart (Atlas Shrugged), it is, in fact, the utter helplessness and dependence of the selfless (meaning lacking in self-esteem) personality that seeks to advance by destroying others.

The “twist” in that last quote is an interesting package-deal put over by Heumer when he equates hurting and exploiting others with ignoring “the needs of others, when it suits one's own interests to do so.” Thus, taking destructive action against others (hurting and exploiting others) is equivalent to refraining from any action at all (“simply ignoring the needs of others”). Well, should one ignore one’s own well-being in order not to “ignore the needs of others?” If so, why? (This is the “why” to which Rand asserts no objective answer has ever been given… “Why is it moral to serve the happiness of others, but not your own?”) Notice that Heumer implies that to concern oneself with the needs of others “when it suits one's own interests to do so” does not appear to be a virtue, in his estimation. Why not? Why should an individual make the needs of any and all others his concern, at the expense of his own best interests (including those whom he values)? Why shouldn’t one base one’s concern for the needs of others upon the context of one’s own rational hierarchy of values…one’s self-interest?

And, if placing the needs of others ahead of one’s own self-interest is one’s highest moral duty, does one not then have the moral right to demand that his needs supercede the best interests of all others? But this is the essence of altruism…the inversion which holds the unearned as a moral virtue, and the earned as a vice! As Rand discovered, it is altruism that engenders the need and desire to hurt and exploit others. It is Ayn Rand who identified the viciously false choice between sacrificing oneself to others or others to oneself.

In popular usage”, Rand wrote, “the word ‘selfishness’ is a synonym of evil; the image it conjures is of a murderous brute who tramples over piles of corpses to achieve his own ends, who cares for no living being and pursues nothing but the gratification of the mindless whims of any immediate moment.

If it is true that what I mean by ‘selfishness’ is not what is meant conventionally, then this is one of the worst indictments of altruism: it means that altruism permits no concept of a self-respecting, self-supporting man-a man who supports his life by his own effort and neither sacrifices himself nor others. It means that altruism permits no view of men except as sacrificial animals and profiteers-on-sacrifice, as victims and parasites-that it permits no concept of a benevolent co-existence among men-that it permits no concept of justice.
(introduction, pages vii and ix)

Professor Heumer’s preamble indicates that he, too, cannot conceive of moral selfishness, or of a virtuous egoist.

Finally, Heumer apparently places great stock in the fact that Ayn Rand stands virtually alone in the ethical field. That she stands alone is indisputable, having challenged the dominant altruist morality of the past several thousand years. He concludes in his preamble:

Rand's ethic of selfishness clashes with the moral sense of philosophers, spiritual leaders, and ordinary people the world over. These people are not all wrong -- Ayn Rand is wrong.

Thus, in the end, Professor Heumer declares that Ayn Rand is wrong…because majority opinion says so! That will not be a convincing argument against Dr. Ghate, or the logic of the virtue of selfishness.

But, as I stated earlier, this debate is significant in that it provides further evidence that Objectivism is gaining in both cultural influence and acceptance as a serious philosophy…especially in academia, the breeding ground of cultural ideas. This debate at a major university is further acknowledgement of what I said in a previous post, Books- Understanding Rational Selfishness:

Around barely 50 years, Rand’s ethics have been mostly ignored, distorted and misrepresented. But 50 years is an historical blink of an eye. [T]he 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.

Here I must give Heumer much credit for taking on Rand’s ethics head-on against a seasoned Objectivist intellectual. The professor has taken the open and honest road of giving Ayn Rand’s ethical ideas the respect they deserve, even as he expresses his disagreement with her.

I look forward to viewing this very important debate, if it is made available by ARI. (If it is, I will link to it on this blog.) As I have stated repeatedly, Ayn Rand identified the battle between individualism and collectivism…between freedom and tyranny…as primarily moral/philosophical. That is what makes events of this nature much more important than that of being merely an intellectual curiosity.

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