Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Ayn Rand, Tibor Machan, and Their Mistaken Defense of Objective Morality

Like many others, I first got hooked on philosophy by reading Ayn Rand. Also, like many, there came a time when I started reading other phiosophers. Therefore - again, like many - there was a time when I realized that Rand got just about everything wrong in her philosophizing. In particular, Rand had a habit of claiming that she had solved a vexing philosophic problem generally by vastly oversimplifying, if not getting wrong, a problem only to "solve" something different than the actual problem.

Recently, I have been reading essays in a colleciton called The Promise of Liberty by a follower of Rand's, Tibor Machan. In reading his first essay, which defends Rand's defense of ethical objectivism, I have re-realized how wrong her solution is, and how, as usual, she even got the question wrong.

As PoL is still in press, I am not going to quote from it, but rather from Rand's own essay "The Objectivist Ethics". machan does not really add to or expand to Rand's unfortunate defense, but only restates it with the intention of clarifying it.

In short, Rand and Machan's argument is that ethics are objective because ethical judgments are made with the aid of facts. Once one chooses to live ones life, certain values inexorably follow from that: we ought to seek food, shelter, that which will promote our flourishing, etc.

An organism’s life depends on two factors: the material or fuel which it needs from the outside, from its physical background, and the action of its own body, the action of using that fuel properly. What standard determines what is proper in this context? The standard is the organism’s life, or: that which is required for the organism’s survival.

Al;ready, though, Rand has misunderstood the dispute between objectivists and subjectivists. Quite honestly, what is at dispute is not whether values and moral judgments are (or should be) made in reference to facts, but what the nature of moral norms are. Subjectivists argue that moral norms are come to by subjects, not by some quality inherent in objects. The echo famous subjectivist JL Mackie, for morality to be objective requires that morals have some subject-independent existence in the world.

In fact, Rand's view is completely comapatible with a subjectivist account of morality. Subjectivists can easily, and without contradiction, suggest that moral judgments should - or must! - be made in the face of actual subject-independent facts, so long as the judgments being made are made by individual subjects. All that is required for subjectivism is the acknowledgement that judgments are made by the subjects and are not a pre-existing imperative that we happen to "come across" existing in the world independent of our minds.

The next question is whether Rand or Machan have done enough to show that an objective morality is possible. Life may be the "ultimate value" that undergirds all other values, but is that one value enough to give us any obvious answers to any but the most pedestrian moral questions?

Since reason is man’s basic means of survival, that which is proper to the life of a rational being is the good; that which negates, opposes or destroys it is the evil.

Before going on, I want the reader to pause and notice the subtle "no true scotsman" fallacy going on here. "[t]hat which is proper to the life of a RATIONAL being is good..." By framing it this way, Rand can easily say that x is an objective value. When one point out that more people choose y than x (a possible reason to suppose that x is not an objective value), Rand can simply dismiss them all by saying that they are not rational, and if they were, they'd choose x. Like the "no true scotsman" fallacy, one cannot win with this set up becuase Rand's caveat - "rational" - has rigged the game!

Beyond that, though, Rand once again demonstrates obliviousness to philosophers and ideas that she full well should have known about: in this case, GE Moore, author of Principia Ethica. If she had been aware of Moore's work - what ethical philosopher wasn't?! - she would have realized the need to show how this "equation" was not a violation of the naturalistic fallacy.

Moore's idea was simple; efforts to equate the terms "good" or "bad" with any demarcatioin principle - utility, survival, pleasure - was invalid and we can see this by realizing that our intuitions understand that "good" and x (pick any criteria) are two different things. "Good" is not a direct synonym for happiness (there are good things that don't make us happy), or, in Rand's case, survival (there are many things that don't enhance our survival that accord with our intuition of what is good).

By way of example, Machan's article mentions more than once a moral obligation to be generous. He mentions is as if to imply that choosing to live inexorably entails this obligation to be generous. He does not explain how this is, and I have serious doubts that any attempts to do so would not be very, very erroneous. I am all for generosity, but it is easy to think of a dozen examples of sceanrios where my survival is impeded or harmed by generosity. More straightforward, A person could certainly argue that being generous has social utility and CAN be personally beneficial (via game theory, say) but such argujments would tend to be utilitarian (or rule-utillitarian) in nature, and I am left mystified as to any plausible argumenst that the choice to live necessarily entails an obligation towards generosity (particularly for egoists like Rand and Machan).

Another example of this blunder can be seen when Rand tries to justify the objective (not subjective) value of productiveness.

The virtue of Productiveness is the recognition of the fact that productive work is the process by which man’s mind sustains his life, the process that sets man free of the necessity to adjust himself to his background, as all animals do, and gives him the power to adjust his background to himself.

To Rand, this value is objective in the sense that it is the "central value that integrates and determines the hierarchy of all his other values." To choose non-productiveness is, in essence, to act against the ultimate value of life and thus the objectively wrong choice.

To be honest, this is the type of rhetoric that I and many others got hooked on when we got hooked on Rand. Now, when I read those words, it is hard to see how, because as stirring as they are, they are wrong. While one can argue that produciveness is a life-sustaining virtue, it is certainly not objectively the only choice. One can - and many have - sustained their lives by freeloading off of people. Also, productiveness is no guarantor of sustaining one's life. Eithe way, to argue that productiveness is an objective value by reference to its utility in sustaining life is hollow, as it is neither a necessary or sufficient condition for sustaining life.

Like all of the other values that Rand defeds - egoism, capitalism, generosity, rationality, etc. - productiveness is a contingent and subjective value choice. One can choose it, but there is nothing compelling us to do so. Rand and Machan would object that the facts of life comepel values like productiveness and generosity, but any anthropologist or sociologist can easily demonstrate that there are a plurality of ways to answer moral questions consistent with sustaining, and flourishing in, life.

There are many other points that could be brought up, but I think I have done enough to show that Rand came nowhere close to solving the problem of moral objectivism v. subjectivism. The fact that she was so confident that she did, and that Machan is confident enough not to heavily modify and reconfigure her arguments, is testimony of the insularity that has and does plague the objectivist "movement."


  1. Just one comment and it is the heart of the matter. Freeloading off of productive people does not negate the fact that life requires the productive.

  2. Atlas Fan,

    It is true what you said that life in general - society - requires productivity. But that doesn't negate the fact that one can also enrich and flourish in their lives by freeloading. My point is that there is no OBVIOUS, NECESSARY or SUFFICIENT connection between productivity and flourishing in life (on the individual level) like Rand and Machan assume.

  3. Kevin Currie wrote: > that doesn't negate the fact that one can also enrich and flourish in their [sic] lives by freeloading.

    Actually it does -- if, that is, you're using "enrich and flourish" in the Aristotelian sense, which I believe (though I'm certainly no expert) was the sense that Ayn Rand used it: "the eudemonia of Aristotle's entelechy" is how she once described her ethical ideal -- meaning: fulfilling one's potential completely, which freeloading hardly does. In that sense, there is an obvious, necessary, and sufficient -- or, to borrow your rather extravagant typographical mannerism, OBVIOUS, NECESSARY, and SUFFICIENT -- connection between flourishing and productivity.

    My understanding of Ayn Rand is that the ethics she espoused, which were competely derivative, are thoroughly teleological, in the Aristotelian sense of the word. I do for certain remember, from a lecture she once gave many years ago, that she endorsed Aristotle's definition of agathon (the good) as "that for the sake of which everything else is done."

    As I recall, she was a somewhat qualified fan of Spinoza's ethics, which as you know are also autotelic:

    A good X is the X which fulfills its nature.

    She fully accepted that, I believe.

    She also nodded approval at the so-called prudential ethics of philosopher (and beekeeper) Richard Taylor who wrote the following:

    "The things that nourish and give warmth and enhance life are deemed good, and those that frustrate and threaten are deemed bad."

    She's on record as saying that "life for man is primarily epistemological, not physical."

    Thus, flourishing for her, as with Spinoza and Aristotle, did not mean growing fat and having plenty to drink and eat, and that's all. The primary thing for teleological ethics is fulfilling one's full potential. I don't think the freeloader would have met her idea of flourishing any more than he would have met Aristotle's idea of flourishing.

  4. So this piece begins by referring to an essay of mine that is available in various forms now, on line and off, but then nothing of what I wrote is offered. So then why not skip me entirely, as the text actually does, instead of invoking my name and doing nothing with my ideas?

    Tibor Machan