Sunday, January 28, 2007

Ayn Rand

After doing a little reading about Ayn Rand's Objectivist philosophy, I've come to the conclusion that her position on ethics is less convincing that Peter Singer's. And I didn't particularly like Singer's position.

Rand decries moral relativism, and tries to establish the objectivity of her positions by staking out the prerequisites for values. Her values lead her to advocate a libertarian political position.

Non-living matter has no values. Invulnerable, unchangeable robots have no values. From this she concludes that all values are about survival of mortal beings. Rand notes that rationality is vital to the survival of human beings, in the same way that teeth and claws are vital to the survival of lions. So, Rand builds an philosophy that demands constant use of one's rational faculties to better one's life:
The virtue of Rationality means the recognition and acceptance of reason as one's only source of knowledge, one's only judge of values, and one's only guide to action. It means one's total commitment to a state of full, conscious awareness, to the maintenance of a full mental focusin all issues, in all choices, in all of one's waking hours.
The use of force in place of reason is regarded as contrary to human nature, and a regression to subhuman forms of behavior. Rand goes further than this to say that:
[Objectivist ethics] holds that the rational interests of men do not clash - that there is no conflict of interests among men who do not desire the unearned, who do not make sacrifices nor accept them, who deal with one another as traders, giving value for value.
She states that:
The basic political principle of Objectivist ethics is: no man may initiate the use of physical force against others. No man - or group, or society, or government, - has the right to assume the role of a criminal and initiate the use of physical compulsion against any man.
Like Singer, Rand tries to take you from one step to another, each step sounding somewhat morally agreeable, until you reach a point at which you're somewhat agreeing with her final conclusion. The problems with this are two-fold. First, this technique is not even remotely objective. Second, she doesn't carry it off particularly well because she is more blatantly failing to defeat the is-ought problem along the way.

Rand's first fault is at step one where she connects survival and value. That life is a prerequisite for values does not imply that values must promote survival. Neither is this the case in actual fact. Many people think they ought to die at some point, and many people think there are things worth dying for. I quite suspect that there are many people who think humanity should die out rather than change into cyborgs or some other posthuman form.

While it is true that rationality forms the teeth and claws of humankind, it's not obvious that non-violence is always the best approach to survival. Though violence poses an increasing danger to human survival, it's not obvious to me that it always has been the case.

Finally, the idea that if we were all rational, our interests would not clash is a little far-fetched. We can interpret this with flexibility, but only by weakening the claim to a ridiculous degree.

This leads me to the high degree of ambiguity in the interpretation of her positions.

If a company is polluting my air, has physical force been initiated against me? Can I respond with physical force? Suppose that, due to my family's poor circumstances and due to an unfair labor market imposed by powerful corporations, my health deteriorates. Are the corporations initiating physical force against me? If this is the case, then we may be justified in anything from armed revolution to state regulation and management. Ambiguous.

If you and I rationally conclude we should compromise on our values to avoid retaliation of the other party, does that mean that our rational interests do not clash? If it does, then Rand's statement applies equally well to instrumentalism and moral relativism. Again, this is ambiguous to the point of being useless.

Due to all this ambiguity, I think that the libertarianism that Rand promoted wouldn't follow from her premises even if those premises were true.

There are some attractive elements to Rand's philosophy, but they don't follow from her basic principles. It's hard to criticize Rand's ideals about non-violence and her rejection of mysticism. However, in the end, I found I was disappointed with the lack of clarity and rigor in Rand's system. Her Aristotlean starting point is defunct and obsolete, and I think that if Rand didn't boot out mysticism a priori, her philosophy wouldn't have strayed far from that of Thomas Aquinas.

The best part about reading Rand was that it led me once again to David Hume. Every time I read about Hume, I am more impressed. If for no other reason than the early date at which Hume came to his conclusions, I have decided that Hume is my favorite philosopher. Not that I don't still love A. J. Ayer.


Thomas said...

Thank you for your article about Ayn Rand's morality.

I would like to comment on a few things.

You write: "That life is a prerequisite for values does not imply that values must promote survival."

I do not agree. Let me explain. In Norwegian, another word for morality is "leveregler", which literally means "rules of life" or "rules for living". The need for morality follows from the choice to live -- if you do not want to live, you do not need morality. If you want to life, there are certain "rules" you will have to follow. If you do not care to live, you can do anything (or nothing) and you will sooner or later die.

So, if you want to live, you need morality, and morality will show you how to lead you life. Thus, values must promote survival (else they are not real values). For more on Ayn Rand's morality, I could recommend "Viable Values" by Tara Smith.

You also write: "it's not obvious that non-violence is always the best approach to survival".

This is quite correct. Ayn Rand would tell you to use physical force when it is in your self-interest. However, she would also show you that it very seldom is in your self-interest to use physical force. Animals should be treated with force (you cannot successfully negotiate with a cow), while it is in your self-interest to treat rational men in a non-violent way (except in some emergency situations).

Laissez-faire capitalism is the only system which bans the use of physical force in human relations (by definition).

Doctor Logic said...


Sorry for taking so long to get back to you.

If you do not want to live, you do not need morality.

I don't see this. A person's morality is shaped by his desires, not rules for optimal survival. I'm not going to give up eating rich pastries because it cuts years off my life. Why? Because there's no point in living without joy. Rand was a big critic of hedonism, but I think her criticisms fell flat for this reason.

If you do not care to live, you can do anything (or nothing) and you will sooner or later die.

But you will die anyway. It's not clear that the value of a life is amplified merely by its extent.

Only when life is good do we want it to be long. So survival doesn't appear to be an end in itself.

Laissez-faire capitalism is the only system which bans the use of physical force in human relations (by definition).

I don't think this is the definition of laissez-faire capitalism. Laissez-faire has to do with the lack of government oversight, and doesn't prohibit corporate violence. Even assuming your definition were correct, your claim ignores non-physical coercion and non-physical power. Economic power is not that different from physical coercion in its ability to deprive people of equality and freedom. To me, it makes no sense to ignore this fact, and focus exclusively on physical force as the root of all evil. Economic and military power are merely tools. It is inequality and authoritarianism that are evil.