Debating Ayn Rand’s Philosophy

Cato Unbound has recently completed an interesting debate between several scholars on the strengths and weaknesses of Ayn Rand’s philosophy. All of the contributions are worth reading for those interested in the subject. But I agree most with University of Colorado political philosopher Michael Huemer:

What is the best way to defend freedom intellectually? Is it, as Rand believed, to connect the philosophy of individual rights to a version of ethical egoism, which in turn derives from the metaethical theory presented by Rand in “The Objectivist Ethics”? I don’t think so. Objectivists seem to find that essay completely convincing. But hardly anyone else finds it at all convincing. This is not a trivial observation—one often finds that people who do not accept a whole philosophical system nevertheless find certain parts of it plausible. And one often finds that people who are not ultimately persuaded by an argument nevertheless see some plausibility in it. But neither of these things is true of the argument of “The Objectivist Ethics”—hardly anyone finds that argument even slightly plausible, unless they also buy into virtually all of Ayn Rand’s views…..

There are two major reasons why the best hope for political freedom is not to connect it ideologically with Rand’s ethical and metaethical theories. The first is that those theories are utterly unconvincing to almost everyone…. Connecting the two together serves only to discredit the cause of freedom and individual rights. It plays into the hands of those who say that the only opposition to socialism derives from greed and selfishness.

The second major reason is that ethical egoism does not support the philosophy of individual rights in the first place. Quite the opposite. Take Rasmussen’s statement of the basic individualist premise: “Each individual human being is an end in him‑ or herself … not merely a means to the ends of others.” This is a very common idea in classical liberal writings. Nearly identical statements appear in Rand, in Nozick, and of course in Kant. It is also, pace Rand, directly and obviously contrary to ethical egoism. For ethical egoism posits that the only thing that ought to matter intrinsically to me is my own welfare—for me, my own welfare or happiness is the only end in itself. It follows from this that I ought not to regard other individuals as ends in themselves; rather, I should see them only as means to my happiness—just as I see everything else in the world. This is a very simple and straightforward implication of the theory. 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….

At this point, most Objectivists fall back on the contention that, luckily, it is impossible for rational people’s interests to conflict. More particularly, that although it would be praiseworthy to use others for one’s own advantage if one should get the chance, opportunities are peculiarly scarce, so much so that there has never (or almost never) been a case in which anyone would have benefited by violating another person’s rights (for instance, by initiating the use of force against another). It would be truly wonderful if this could be proven. But actual arguments for this claim are unsurprisingly hard to come by, and it remains unclear why anyone would accept the claim, apart from a drive to reconcile Rand’s ethics with her politics.

Ironically, Ayn Rand’s egoistic defense of libertarianism runs into particularly serious problems in a society filled with statist injustices. In such a regime, many people have obvious egoistic interests in maintaining the status quo, or at least not taking the risk of becoming open dissidents. Eliminating the horrible oppression of North Korean communism is surely desirable. But it just as clearly runs counter to the egoistic interests of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il. Similarly, when people like Vaclav Havel and Andrei Sakharov risked their lives and careers to become dissidents in communist societies, they struck a blow for freedom. But they also undermined their own egoistic interests. Sakharov especially would have been better off had he remained a loyal member of the privileged Soviet elite.

In her novels, Rand praises characters like John Galt who risk their livelihood to oppose statist oppression. But it’s hard to reconcile this praise with her egoistic philosophy, except perhaps by positing that Galt’s victory will happen so soon and with such certainty that resisting the regime actually maximizes his narrow self-interest. Whether or not this was true of the fictional Galt, it certainly is not true of many dissidents in the real world.

Despite the shortcomings of her philosophy, I think Rand deserves enormous credit for being perhaps the greatest-ever popularizer of libertarian ideas. Huemer also argues that her positive legacy outweighs the negative. One can acknowledge that while simultaneously recognizing that her philosophy has major weaknesses and is ultimately a flawed justification for a free society.