Update: You’ve Got Another Academic Thing Coming

A little while back I mentioned that Carrie-Ann was giving a talk at Rockford University on Ayn Rand and Mike Rowe. The talk seems to have gone well; Carrie-Ann sends the following picture of herself at the podium, being introduced by Shawn Klein of Rockford’s Philosophy Department (photo credit: Stephen Hicks).

RU visit introduced by Shawn

Carrie-Ann tells me that she’ll be blogging her talk soon and eventually posting it at her Academia site, but in general (I’ve read a copy), it’s a discussion (comparison/contrast) of Rand’s views on the moral psychology of work and/versus Mike Rowe’s as laid out on Rowe’s show, his web writings, and in his recent book Profoundly Disconnected.

(Incidentally, though not directly related to Carrie-Ann’s topic, this profile of NOL editor Brandon Christensen’s experiences with homelessness is at least indirectly relevant to the topic and very much worth reading. Not quite a “dirty job” but a “dirty education”: the lengths to which some people will go to get a college degree!)

One basic claim that Rand and Rowe seem to have in common concerns the morally redemptive nature of productive work across the spectrum of types of work–from “clean” to “dirty” (in Rowe’s sense of dirty). A corollary seems to be that it’s more in your interest to work than receive a hand-out, assuming that you’re capable of working. Another corollary seems to be that it’s more in your interest to do dirty work than receive a hand-out while holding out for clean work, assuming that you’re capable of doing the work in question.

A related implication is that when you look for work, ceteris paribus, the choiceworthy features of the work are its not-necessarily-remunerative virtue-realizing features,* not how much money you make from it. In other words, faced with two jobs each of which pays a sufficient amount, you ought to pick the virtue-promoting job over the more remunerative (but less virtue-promoting) one. Similarly, faced with two jobs, one of which is virtue-promoting and pays peanuts, and the other of which pays a lot but is immoral, you ought to pick the former. Those are all, of course, large claims that would have to be developed in ways that go beyond the paper in its current form.

One topic not discussed in the paper but badly in need of discussion is what Randian egoism has to say about the tension between a commitment to egoism and the existence of dangerous-but-necessary jobs, or even a commitment to egoism and the existence of necessary-but-merely arduous-and-messy jobs.  Take jobs like military combat, policing (as well as prison work), fire-fighting, and certain types of construction work, farming, mining, and roofing, etc. They’re all necessary in the sense that they need to get done for the efficient or even minimal functioning of a modern society. If they didn’t get done, we wouldn’t have societies of the sort we’re used to.**

But what egoistic motivation beyond economic necessity or lack of better alternatives (in cases where those are applicable) would induce someone to take such a job? If there is no non-necessity-based egoistic reason for taking such a job, it seems rational to shun them. If it’s rational to shun them, then under ideal conditions, no egoists (or relatively few egoists) would be found in such jobs. Granted, conditions are rarely ideal, but the point is, the better the conditions, the fewer the egoists would gravitate toward such jobs, and under good conditions, few egoists would do them.

Suppose ex hypothesi that we’re in the near-ideal situation where the egoists are doing the “better” jobs and the worse jobs are done by non-egoists (by people whose reasons for doing those jobs is inherently incompatible with egoism). Then it seems that in order to enjoy the fruits of modern society–itself an egoistically rational aim–egoists must of necessity rely on the work (and motivations) of non-egoists. If so, egoism is vulnerable to the charge of failing the test of universalizability or (putting the same point another way) requiring a (conceptual) form of parasitism. Egoism only works, in social terms, if many people aren’t egoists and the egoists rely on them in the way that Aristotle’s virtuous aristocrats rely on natural slaves.

I don’t mean to imply that the preceding objection is necessarily sound, just to suggest that it hasn’t gotten enough sustained attention by defenders of ethical egoism as it deserves. That said, Greg Salmieri (Rutgers, Stevens Institute) has been working on the closely-related topic of exploitation in Aristotle’s social theory. I expect that there’s some convergence between Carrie-Ann’s paper and Salmieri’s.

Meanwhile, to move from the virtue of productiveness to the vice of bestial cowardice, I have to confess that I ended up not attending the ACTC conference at which I was supposed to give my paper on the Nicomachean Ethics and the Grant Study (mentioned in the same post as Carrie-Ann’s paper). I finished the paper the night before I was supposed to leave, then got home to discover that my apartment had been infested with mice. (I’ve had an ongoing sporadic mouse problem these past few weeks, but my point is, when I got home, things crossed the hard-to-define-but-easy-to-discern threshold from mouse problem into mouse infestation.) The damn things kept me up all night, and then obliged me to turn from humane-but-totally-ineffective methods of rodent deterrence to inhumane, lethal methods drawn from years of personal observation of U.S. foreign policy.

I had mentioned my mouse problem in passing to my critical thinking students, one of whom turned my random complaint into a teaching moment by asking, “So why assume that you can’t learn to co-exist with the mice in your house?” Part of it (I said) was that mice spread disease. (Response: “Yes, but people spread disease, too. So you’d kill people if you thought they’d spread disease?”) But part of it, I must confess, is simply that I’m skeeved out by the thought–and not just the thought, but the actual physical reality–of sharing my bed with a passel or herd (or whatever it’s called) of feral mice. Granted, as a divorced single man, I should probably welcome the presence of anyone in my bed, but unfortunately, I don’t. (Yes, they’ve crawled into my bed at night with me in it, I’m not making that up.) I know it’s crude of me to put things this way, but I also can’t help mentioning that the mice pay no part of the rent and do not help at all with household chores.

What would Aristotle do? I don’t know, but here’s what he has to say, in what I think is the only mouse-related passage in the Nicomachean Ethics:

If, for instance, someone’s natural character makes him afraid of everything, even the noise of a mouse, he is a coward with a bestial sort of cowardice. (NE VII.5, 1149a7-8).

Yeah, well, call it another chapter from my ongoing memoir, Profiles in Bestial Cowardice. I almost think it’s worse than bestial cowardice. I mean, if I were a bona fide beast–something terrifying, like a tabby or a terrier–I’d at least have the courage to attack the mice mano a mano. But I’m a middle-aged twenty-first century American professor. I haven’t had a fist fight in decades. As it stands, I’ve just armed my apartment with a series of ultrasonic devices, traps, and poison in the hopes that I can drive the intruders away by high-tech methods of shock and awe. I guess we have to invent another category for people like me: sub-bestial cowardice. Or: Not-even-bestial cowardice. Or: pathetic over-civilized wimpiness.

Anyway, my new surge strategy seems to be working about as well as Bush’s did in Iraq and Obama’s in Afghanistan (wish list item: weaponized drones), but too late for my presence at the ACTC conference. My session starts in an hour, but I’m six hours’ drive away.

The point is, I write about virtue. I never said I had it.

*I had originally written “non-remunerative,” but that seems too strong.

**For interesting but in my view inadequate discussion of this topic, see chapter 11 of Alasdair MacIntyre’s Dependent Rational Animals and “Politics, Philosophy, and the Common Good” (reprinted in Kelvin Knight’s The MacIntyre Reader). Though not an egoist, MacIntyre faces a version of the problem mentioned in the text, but contrary to the impression he gives, never really resolves it.

One thought on “Update: You’ve Got Another Academic Thing Coming

  1. Pingback: Another Query: Retributivist Solutions for Noisy Neighbors | Policy of Truth

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