Morals and the Free Society: 8. Ayn Rand

Here is the eighth chunk of the argument. To return to the seventh chunk, click here. To advance to the ninth chunk, click here. The complete essay is posted here.

Ayn Rand claimed that her system of ethics “is the moral base needed by…Capitalism” (1961, 33, all citation emphases original). Her moral defense of a free society can be stated very briefly as follows. Human beings must live by reason. Other animals may be able to get by on instinct, but the human animal cannot. This point is made particularly clear by considering economic activity since the industrial revolution. The exponential growth in quality of life by essentially every indicator—from life expectancy to population to nutrition to health to education to comfort and leisure opportunities to you-name-it—since the industrial revolution has been made possible not only by the application of scientific and technological knowledge but by innovation and entrepreneurship. These are the achievements of a rational animal and only a rational animal. But the achievements of advanced economies are only the most dramatic demonstration. In every aspect of life, at any level of civilization, we can and must employ reason to determine our interests, goals, and actions, if we want to be successful in the game of life.

Now, reason is a faculty of individuals. There is no group consciousness. The exercise of reason must always come down to the judgment of the individual reasoner. Moreover, action performed under the judgment of reason cannot coexist with coercion. When a person is coerced, he acts regardless of his own rational judgment—and presumably despite it, or why would coercion be necessary? Thus coercion is antithetical to living in accordance with reason, which is the only way human beings can live successfully.

And there is another point, which stems from the egoism for which Rand is so much vilified. “An organism’s life,” she writes, “is its standard of value: that which furthers its life is the good, that which threatens it is the evil” (1961, 17). This principle has two consequences as applied to human beings. First, human beings are organisms of a certain type, with certain objectively discoverable requirements, functions, resources, and liabilities. These facts about human nature strongly constrain what particular values and actions will further our lives and what will threaten them. Of course, Rand particularly has in mind that human beings must exercise reason to live successfully. She expresses this point by saying that the standard of value in her ethics “is man’s life, or: that which is required for man’s survival qua man” (1961, 23). Second, each person applies this standard of value to the pursuit of his own life. Human life is individual, as is the exercise of reason. One therefore holds “one’s own life as one’s ultimate value, and one’s own happiness as one’s highest purpose” (1961, 29). Therefore, once again coercion, which means that others impose their judgment upon one by force, can never be acceptable. There can never be any reason for others to do this—bypassing persuasive means—except to force one to do what is not in one’s interests as determined by one’s own rational judgment.

The ban on coercion is Rand’s core political principle. It means a ban on the initiation of physical force. One may not employ physical force against the person or property of another except in the defense of one’s own person or property. This principle is codified in a system of individual rights, including property rights. “Individual rights are the means of subordinating society to moral law” (1963, 13). With the observance of individual rights, the free society is created. Life in a free society is one of personal responsibility and interpersonal relations based exclusively on trade.

This is a system of benevolence. When coercion is banned, people must deal with each other by persuasion. People must deal with each other by offering values in exchange for values, not threats, demands, blows, expropriation. If another cannot see the value of what one offers, one may not force it on him. If he is wrong, it’s his loss, and someone else will be bound to see the value; if not, he has not been imposed on. People who use reason more effectively to find better ways of doing things are left free to do so. They may not be forcibly prevented by the stupidity, fear, and superstitions of others—who, be it noted, benefit most from this arrangement. For, the thoughtless will eventually, with the passage of enough time, learn to appreciate and benefit from the innovation which the creator has provided and which would not exist if it were left up to the thoughtless; whereas the creator will be liable to live better in any event.

Here we have a moral vision for the free society derived from claims about human nature and the needs of individuals. Instead of Nozick’s unmotivated “individuals are inviolable” and Hayek’s requirements of the “extended order,” which need not be expected to promote individual human happiness, we have a moral system based squarely on the aim of promoting happiness. We also have a system that makes moral values primary, not a potentially discardable means of achieving other, nonmoral values, as in Frank’s approach.

But a glaring problem remains, which is that no reason has so far been given why the egoistic individuals in Rand’s free society should observe the rights of others. Unfortunately, she says very little that directly addresses this difficulty. Roderick Long (2000, 46) notices a passage in which Rand says, “men cannot survive by attempting the method of animals, by rejecting reason and counting on productive men to serve as their prey. Such looters may achieve their goals for the range of a moment, at the price of destruction: the destruction of their victims and their own” (1961, 24). As Long observes, this amounts to saying that a strategy of parasitism fails because the parasite must eventually run out of victims. This is unpersuasive, for a variety of reasons, the main one being that its premise is false. For instance, we have been “parasites” on cattle for a long time, and we show no sign of running out of cattle.

At the end of his discussion of this issue in his critique of Rand, Nozick (1971, 218) claims that Rand never tries to produce any reason why, if two individuals had conflicting interests, either should refrain from forcibly interfering with the other’s pursuit of those interests. Instead, she claims that, “there are no conflicts of interests among rational men” (1962, 31. Von Mises 1922, 360–363 makes an essentially similar argument. It is an intriguing question how far Rand may have been influenced by it. It is well known that Rand was deeply influenced by von Mises. For example, see Burns 2009, 141–143. But I am unaware of any discussion of this specific question.). If her claim is correct, our problem evaporates: the reason why egoistic individuals should observe the rights of others is that it is in their interests to do so—or at least not in their interests to violate them. The essay in which she defends this claim makes many important points. She points out that rational interests is an objective notion in her (in this respect admirable) view, not just whatever anyone randomly desires. She notes that a free market economy is not a zero-sum game in which no agent can gain except by the loss of another. She observes that no one depends on any one particular job, good, or opportunity. She points out that what one person achieves in a free society is not taken from those who did not achieve it. She points out that competition, which entails that there will be winners and losers, is a condition of the existence of the market opportunities over which people compete. However, none of this is really very much to the point. Her argument boils down to the observation that the conditions of a free market are in a person’s rational self-interest. But this is not disputed (not by anyone who thinks a free society is desirable, anyway). The question is why a Randian egoist, who holds his own life as his ultimate value, should respect the rights of other people if he can enhance his own life by violating those rights with impunity. Why would that not be in the interest of a rational man?

The doctrine that there are no conflicts of interest among rational men leads to an important difference between Rand and Nozick in respect of their political philosophies. Rather than insist that the interests of rational individuals never conflict, Nozick admits that they can conflict. That is why it is necessary to impose side constraints on individuals’ pursuit of their own interests. It is also why it is necessary to have a political agency—one that is not motivated purely by self-interest—to enforce the side constraints. For, a purely self-interested enforcement agency would violate those constraints whenever they conflicted with its pursuit of its self-interest. For Rand, however, there are supposed never to be any such conflicts. Therefore, an enforcement agency, though admittedly necessary to restrain short-sighted and irrational people, should never find it in its interest to coerce or violate the property rights of anyone. Self-interest can be counted on to restrain enforcement agencies, which therefore would be best left to their own devices and even to compete on the open market like any other business. This being so, there really is no need for government—a politically controlled monopoly on enforcement—to exist at all. Rand herself apparently never saw this consequence of her doctrine, but subsequent writers were not slow to point it out (Childs 1969).

Rand herself says nothing serious in answer to the question why a rational egoist should not violate others’ rights, if he can thereby enhance his own life, beyond what I have already mentioned. But her ethics may yet have the resources to provide a satisfactory answer. The question turns on what a human being’s real interests are. What is in one’s real interest depends on what is good for one, so the answer will depend on Rand’s conception of the human good. In a general way, we have already seen what this is: “that which is required for man’s survival qua man.” Unfortunately, there are notorious interpretive difficulties concerning just exactly what she means by this. (See for example the discussion in Long 2000 and Badhwar 2001.)

On the one hand, she often talks as though the ultimate value is simply long-term survival. On this interpretation, long-term survival is the ultimate value, and all other values are rated by their propensity to promote or threaten long-term survival. On this view, the qualification qua man in the phrase, “man’s survival qua man,” serves only to signal that the characteristic features of human nature—the kind of being we are—shapes our most effective means of survival. In particular, reason is the means human beings must employ to achieve their survival.

This interpretation is the most frequent, and I think it could be called even the standard interpretation. The reason, in my opinion, has less to do with the precise wording of her pronouncements concerning the ultimate value than with the fact that it fits well with the doctrines and arguments she makes on related topics. Thus, she tends to give merely instrumental justifications for moral principles. The argument mentioned above that the life of a looter is futile because one will eventually run out of victims and then be left helpless is an example. Again, she famously claims that there is no conflict between the moral and the practical, and “the practical” in this context tends to be characterized in material terms (“whatever you must practice to exist, whatever works, succeeds, achieves your purpose, whatever brings you food and joy, whatever profits you” [1957, 1053]). Again, she regards the virtues as merely instrumental. (“Value is that which one acts to gain and/or keep—virtue is the act by which one gains and/or keeps it.” [1961, 25] And: “Virtue is not an end in itself. Virtue is not its own reward… Life is the reward of virtue—and happiness is the goal and the reward of life.” [1957, 1021]) It seems unlikely that she would say these things if she regarded virtue as an essential constituent of life. Rather, it sounds like she thinks that no particular way of pursuing life—no virtue—is intrinsically valuable. The only value that ultimately matters is “life,” and virtue is important only as a means to this separate end. This impression is reinforced by her remarks on ethics as a system of hypothetical imperatives in “Causality versus Duty.” These are worth quoting at length (1970, 4):

Life or death is man’s only fundamental alternative. To live is his basic act of choice. If he chooses to live, a rational ethics will tell him what principles of action are required to implement his choice. If he does not choose to live, nature will take its course.

Reality confronts man with a great many “musts,” but all of them are conditional; the formula of realistic necessity is: “You must, if—” and the “if” stands for man’s choice: “—if you want to achieve a certain goal.” You must eat, if you want to survive. You must work, if you want to eat. You must think, if you want to work. You must look at reality, if you want to think…

In order to make the choices required to achieve his goals, a man needs the constant, automatized awareness of the principle which the anti–concept “duty” has all but obliterated in his mind: the principle of causality—specifically, of Aristotelian final causation (which, in fact, applies only to a conscious being), i.e., the process by which an end determines the means, i.e., the process of choosing a goal and taking the actions necessary to achieve it.

The trouble with the “survivalist” view of the human good, from the perspective of our inquiry, is that it leaves her helpless before the question why a fully rational agent should not violate another’s rights if it would really promote his survival. She is forced to claim that such a situation is impossible. This claim is not credible.

On the other hand, it sometimes seems as if she has a more expansive conception of “man’s life” than mere long-term survival. That is to say, she sometimes writes as if to survive “qua man” means to live a certain kind of life, namely a human life. On this view, the phrase, “that which is required for man’s survival qua man,” designates in part features that are intrinsically necessary for a distinctively human existence. Thus, reason for example is important not merely as a means to biological survival—a means which might be dispensed with if one could somehow secure survival some other way—but as an essential component of a distinctively human life. And similarly for the other virtues, such as honesty and integrity. They are not merely useful for survival; they essentially characterize the only way of surviving that is human and thus fit for a human being.

As both Long (2000) and Badhwar (2001) point out, this more expansive view of the human good represents an Aristotelian interpretation of her thought (and is in consequence supported by her own claims to be a neo-Aristotelian). They also point out that the strongest evidence for this Aristotelian interpretation comes not from Rand’s philosophical writings but from her fiction, specifically from the noble attitudes and exploits of her heroes. An obvious example is John Galt’s willingness to kill himself to prevent Dagny Taggart from being tortured to make him talk. He states that this would not be an act of self-sacrifice, but if his own biological survival is his ultimate good, it is hard to see how this can be true. His statement makes better sense if his ultimate good is a distinctively human kind of survival, where one does not put oneself at the mercy of torturers and murderers. (See also the discussion of this example in Nozick 1971, 219).

The more expansive view of the human good on this interpretation of Rand enables her to explain why one should respect the rights of others. Namely, because to do so is an essential component of a distinctively human life. The question, of course, is whether this interpretation is very well supported by her writings. On balance, I’m inclined to think it isn’t.

But whether it is or it isn’t, it begins to be a moral vision for a free society that can explain why observance of the rights of others is something one should care about even where this conflicts with one’s material interests. Now, this interpretation, as noted, is broadly Aristotelian. This suggests that we should consider what a broadly Aristotelian moral vision for a free society might look like.

Works Cited

  • Badhwar, Neera K. 2001. “Is Virtue Only a Means to Happiness?” Objectivist Studies, 4.
  • Burns, Jennifer. 2009. Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right. Oxford University Press.
  • Childs, Jr., Roy A. 1969. “Objectivism and the State: An Open Letter to Ayn Rand.” The Rational Individualist, 1 (10).
  • Long, Roderick T. 2000. “Reason and Value: Aristotle versus Rand.” Objectivist Studies, 3.
  • Mises, Ludwig von. 1922. Socialism: An Economic and Sociological Analysis. Translated by J. Kahane. Page references are to the Liberty Classics edition, 1981.
  • Nozick, Robert. 1971. “On the Randian Argument.” The Personalist, 52: 282–304. Page references are to the reprinting in Jeffrey Paul (ed.), Reading Nozick: Essays on Anarchy, State, and Utopia, Rowman and Littlefield, 1981: 206–231.
  • Rand, Ayn. 1957. Atlas Shrugged. Random House.
  • ———. 1961. “The Objectivist Ethics.” Paper delivered at the University of Wisconsin Symposium on “Ethics in Our Time,” Madison Wisconsin, Feb. 9, 1961. Page references are to the reprinting in The Virtue of Selfishness, New American Library, 1964.
  • ———. 1962. “The ‘Conflicts’ of Men’s Interests.” The Objectivist Newsletter, 1 (8): 31–35.
  • ———. 1963. “Man’s Rights.” The Objectivist Newsletter, 2 (4): 13–16.
  • ———. 1970. “Causality versus Duty.” The Objectivist, 9 (7): 1–6.

21 thoughts on “Morals and the Free Society: 8. Ayn Rand

  1. David wrote: “The more expansive view of the human good on this interpretation of Rand enables her to explain why one should respect the rights of others. Namely, because to do so is an essential component of a distinctively human life. The question, of course, is whether this interpretation is very well supported by her writings. On balance, I’m inclined to think it isn’t.”

    It seems I think it’s better supported than you do, such as by the following.

    “The basic political principle of the Objectivist ethics is: no man may initiate the use of physical force against others.” (Virtue of Selfishness , Signet pb, 32)

    “Can man derive any personal benefit from living in a human society? Yes – if it a human society. The two great values to be gained from social existence are: knowledge and trade.” (32). She then appeals to the transmission of knowledge from one generation to the next and the division of labor.

    “The principle of trade is the only rational ethical principle for all human relationships, personal and social, private and public, spiritual and material” (31).

    I think the last is too sweeping, but I won’t elaborate now.


    • I have a lot to say about this post, but I’m in the middle of preparing for a talk that I’m giving this Saturday, so most of my comments will have to wait until after that. For now, though, I wanted to piggy-back on Merlin’s comment above, not so much because I disagree with David’s claim that Rand’s theses are unsupported by argument (I agree that they are), but because I think David misses the overall form of the argument Rand wants to give for the non-initiation of force principle. Ironically, it’s precisely the sweeping character of the trader principle that gives force to Rand’s argument. A narrower conception of the trader principle would greatly weaken the argument Rand wants to give.

      As I understand it, Rand’s view is that the trader principle is constitutive of justice, and justice is constitutive of survival qua human. But since the trader principle governs all human interactions, and the trader principle always requires mutually voluntary, consenting interaction of a certain type, all force-initiations violate the trader principle. In doing so, all force-initiations militate against justice, and subvert the conditions of survival qua human. In my view, Rand is committed to every one of the preceding propositions, but argues for none of them.

      The central (unsupported) assumption in Rand’s “argument” is that we cannot benefit in our interactions with others except insofar as we interact with them by rational trade. I can rape someone or love them, but loving them is better for me (and of course, them). I can rob someone or engage in commerce with them, but commerce is better for me (and them). I can beat someone into submission or persuade them into agreement, but persuasion is better for me (and of course, them). What’s central to her view is that the activities of loving, (honest) commerce, and persuasion are self-beneficial qua exemplifications of trade. There is something about activities of the loving-honest commerce-persuasion type that better promotes our survival/realizes our nature than activities of the contrary type. What this is, is left unclear. But what’s clear is that she’s committed to the claim itself.

      It follows from the nature of Randian trade that respect for rights is required as a condition of engaging in it. Ultimately, then, the burden of the argument for respect for rights is borne by the “argument” for Randian trade. (I put it in scare quotes because there is no such argument. What I mean is: the burden of the argument for rights would be borne by a hypothetical forthcoming argument for Randian trade.) The problem with Rand’s whole system is that while the trader principle plays an outsize role in it, what she focuses on for polemical reasons is, by contrast, a philosophical red herring–rights. She focuses on rights because it gives her political mileage to do so. She wants to beat up on leftists. But philosophically, the real work would be done by a theory of the nature of trade. What she wants to say about rights is ultimately a footnote to, or trivial deductive implication of, what she needs to say about trade.

      What Rand needs is a much fuller account of what the trader principle is, what it implies by way of actual prescriptions, and why it is true (if it is), where the latter includes an account of why adherence to it is self-beneficial. With that in place, the task of reconciling egoism and rights becomes relatively trivial (respect for rights is just a trivial implication of the requirements of trade). Without it in place, the task is quixotic. Precisely because it is not in place, and because Rand never discussed the overall structure of her system or argument, the trader principle gets lost in the shuffle of discussions about rights and egoism. Roderick Long doesn’t mention it at all in the monograph you cite.

      I don’t have time to discuss this at length (right now), but I fundamentally disagree with the “instrumentalist” reading of Rand on textual grounds. I think Rand makes clear that she is not committed to an “instrumentalist” reading of her final end (“ultimate value”), and that the final end is not physical survival or sheer longevity, where “longevity” is understood as sheer persistence in existence without further qualitative constraints on “existence.” In my edition of The Virtue of Selfishness (Signet paperback)*, she describes the cardinal values as “the means to and realization of one’s ultimate value” (p. 27). These cardinal values are constituted by adherence to cardinal virtues, which are themselves constitutive of “one’s own life.” I don’t think any part of this passage coheres with an instrumentalist reading. On the preceding page, she goes out of her way to deny that “survival qua man” entails “a merely physical survival.” What she means is ultimately unclear, but given what she does say, I don’t think she can be saddled with instrumentalism or a commitment to a narrowly “survivalist” conception of “survival qua man.”

      More to come after Saturday.

      *NB: different versions of the Signet paperback have different paginations. The one I’m using is the the one that came out in the mid to late 1990s, and features a notably ugly cover illustration with a man ascending a staircase and gazing at what looks like a sunrise, as drawn by Salvador Dali on a bad day.


      • Irfan,

        Mostly what I would have to say in reply to what you’ve said so far, I already said to Merlin. So I’ll wait for the “more to follow” to reply any further.

        Just one thing occurs to me, though. You say the trader principle is of vast importance for her, but she doesn’t argue for it. I think you’re right that the trader principle is a stronger principle than it might at first seem to be. But if it is so central, isn’t it peculiar—and a liability for your interpretation—that she says so little to defend it? It’s not true in general that she didn’t give reasons to support her claims. She is usually full of reasons. So if she really regarded the trader principle as such a load bearing part of her system, you’d think she would defend it. If she doesn’t do the latter, it indicates that she didn’t do the former.


        • David,

          Just on this point:

          But if it [the trader principle] is so central, isn’t it peculiar—and a liability for your interpretation—that she says so little to defend it? It’s not true in general that she didn’t give reasons to support her claims. She is usually full of reasons.

          It’s peculiar (of her) but not a liability for my interpretation. I do think it’s true that she didn’t give reasons in support of her most fundamental principles. The principles are asserted with great vigor, and one sees how they fit together into a coherent whole (or generally coherent whole), but there’s a notable dearth of argument in Rand’s work for the principles that she regards as most fundamental to her “system.” A couple of examples:

          (1) Rand regards her theory of concepts as a solution to the problem of universals. But though she gives us a theory of concept formation, she does literally nothing in IOE to explain how a theory of concept formation (much less hers) is a solution to the problem of universals. There is no chapter in the book devoted to the fundamental question that the book is intended to answer. The answer to “How is the Objectivist theory of concept formation a solution to the problem of universals?” is left implicit.

          Suppose that someone worked out a recognizably Randian account of how Rand’s theory of concepts is a solution to the problem of universals (arguably, David Kelley has done this, as has Allan Gotthelf). It wouldn’t be a liability for their accounts that Rand hadn’t worked things out herself. They could legitimately say that she had sketched the outlines of the account (or theory) and left it to scholars like them to fill in the details of her views (where “details” = the arguments for the main claims). It would be peculiar (or annoying) of Rand to have claimed to have solved the problem while leaving the task of explaining the solution to someone else. But that’s her modus operandi. And in fact, if you look at the Introduction of every one of her books, she goes out of her way to insist that the claims she’s making the book are rather modest ones. IOE is an introduction to one part of a worked-out epistemology. The Virtue of Selfishness is “not a systematic discussion of ethics” but a prologue to one (VS, p. xii). Etc. The work of spelling out systematic connections and giving arguments for her main claims is left as an exercise for others.

          (2) Think about the fundamentality of Rand’s commitment to metaphysical libertarianism (i.e., a strongly libertarian conception of free will). But now consider how little she says in defense of it. All told, what she explicitly says about free will may add up to a page of text. Since her death, others have tried to work out the implications of her views on free will. Whatever the success of their efforts, I don’t think it’s a liability for their efforts that she said so little about free will. Anyone who reads (or listens to), say, Binswanger, Peikoff, or Onkar Ghate on free will (scroll down to April 2009) can grasp the sense in which the view they’re defending is in some sense Objectivist, even if what they say go well beyond what she explicitly said.

          (3) Consider the outsize role that the concept of a (real or rational) interest plays in her ethical theory. And yet the only substantive thesis she defends about interests is that, qua rational, they don’t conflict. That tells us what they don’t do, but what is their actual nature? She has very little to say in answer to that question. There is no essay in the Randian corpus called, “What Is a Human Interest Qua Rational?” The same thing is true of “virtue,” of the particular virtues, and even of concepts like “emergency.” She devotes a whole essay to “the ethics of emergencies,” but read carefully, the essay says almost nothing about the nature of emergencies. There’s one throw-away “definition” of “emergency,” followed by a few ad hoc claims about the application of ethical norms to emergencies. But most of the essay is about something else entirely: the nature of human benevolence. (I’ve discussed Rand on emergencies here. I’ve made the point about Rand on interests here.)

          This list could be extended almost indefinitely. Last example: Compare the fundamentality of “the primacy of existence” in Rand’s theory with how little she says about it or in defense of it.

          I think the explanation for this phenomenon is that Rand wrote on topics that interested her (in the purely subjective and personal sense of “interested”), not on topics that played a load-bearing role in her system. I don’t think it’s psychologically possible to motivate oneself to write on the premise, “Topic X is fundamental to my system, so I’d better write about it, or else the system will lose credibility.” And I think Rand understood that (cf. her lectures on non-fiction writing). But she also saw herself as generating a system that solved all the major Problems of Philosophy, and in that spirit, cultivated followers who would force themselves to write on the premise “I must write about Fundamental Objectivist Topics.”

          That state of affairs led to a dysfunctional and problematic division of cognitive and writerly labor: Rand wrote about whatever she wanted to write about, insisting that the whole thing constituted a single coherent system. And in truth, much of it did constitute a single system of some philosophical interest. She then induced her followers to fill in the details of this system on the premise that the implicit system was “all there.” It is indeed possible to do this, to some extent (cf. Peikoff’s OPAR or the new Gotthelf-Salmieri volume). But given the idiosyncrasies of Objectivist-Movement intellectual life, no one within the movement was allowed to notice the obvious mismatch between the two things: if Rand’s own writing was presented in an explicitly unsystematic but implicitly systematic form, how obvious was it that the whole really constitutes a coherent system? To what extent does it constitute a single coherent system? How much of it does, and how much of it doesn’t?

          I don’t think the answers to these questions are obvious either way, but I do think that there are systematic connections between certain important parts of Rand’s “system” (or whatever one wants to call it). Trade as the rationale for rights is one of them; there are others, as well.


          • I think you’re basically right about her writing and motivations. She wanted to write a treatise expounding her philosophy, but not enough to actually do it. And perhaps the basic reason for that was that she found such writing tedious.

            However, that doesn’t mean she didn’t argue for the fundamental tenets of her system or that it doesn’t have a recognizable structure. I’m not sure what you mean when you say she doesn’t address the problem of universals in IOE. She takes the book as a whole to be doing just that, doesn’t she? It’s true that she doesn’t go into the sort of detail that Kelley does in his essay (I haven’t read the Gotthelf), but I don’t know what he says that makes some huge difference. (And it could be that I’ve just forgotten—I haven’t read it in decades.) The whole project is a failure, of course, as far as I’m concerned, no matter who’s writing it. No sort of nominalism or conceptualism is workable, in my opinion. But if you are a nominalist or conceptualist, then you think your theory of semantics or concepts just is a solution to the problem of universals—all the solution there is to be had. Kelley’s “contribution,” as I recall, was to get into a lot of grubby (and implausible) details about the psychology of similarity judgments, which Rand just took for granted. That’s fine, but it doesn’t mean Rand herself never did any work on the theory of universals.

            She devotes a chapter of IOE to the primacy of existence and the “axiomatic concepts” of existence, consciousness, and identity. That’s pretty good, for her. I agree it’s a little weird that her ideas about free will, which she considered to be an important issue, seem never to have been explicitly discussed by her. Without Peikoff’s discussion in his “Philosophy of Objectivism” lecture course, I wouldn’t really know what her view was. (I presume Peikoff spells it out in OPAR also. But I’ve never even looked in that book, much less read it. And speaking of an aversion to theoretical writing, that’s his only book length exposition of Objectivist philosophy, isn’t it? And other than that, there are just a few essays.) Still, though she didn’t do the writing, we can take it that she was the originator of the ideas, can’t we? Peikoff was the mouthpiece. And the issue is not about writing but about whether she had a system with a recognizable structure and argumentative support.

            Closer to our area of concern, she wrote an essay, “The Objectivist Ethics,” that presents an elaborate argument for her system of moral values. It attempts to ground values in life and in the requirements of living per se. So life and what it requires provide a standard of value, which is then fleshed out with empirical arguments about what is more specifically required for the life of a being such as man (free will, reason, no instincts, etc.). From this we get reason, purpose, and self-esteem as cardinal values and rationality, productiveness, and pride as cardinal virtues, with the virtues of honesty, integrity, independence, and justice to round out the set (because, you know, you have to have seven virtues). From this we get a social philosophy that people should be independent, meaning mentally and materially self-sufficient, and this seems to be the root of the trader principle. It also is the root of the principle of individual rights and the ban on the initiation of physical force. This structure is pretty clear, and at every point she gives (or tries to give) reasons to back it up.

            The role of the trader principle in this scheme is that one stands on one’s own two feet, neither giving nor seeking the unearned. It seems fair to ascribe to it the sweeping scope that you do. Therefore, maybe on the issue of centrality, we don’t disagree much. She thinks of justice as getting what we deserve, so to the extent that we deserve what and only what we have earned, the trader principle—the principle of giving/receiving only what has been earned—is indeed the principle of justice. And that must be pretty central. But do you agree that the trader principle has the rough origin in her system I’ve ascribed to it? That it derives from the moral requirement of human beings to be independent and stand on their own two feet? If so, then not taking the unearned is as much or more a matter of pride as anything else. The points that matter to me are that the trader principle is derivative in the sense just described, and that it is therefore not well described in terms of “obligations” primarily to others, or in terms of treating others as ends, etc.


          • I agree that Rand’s system (or “system”) has a recognizable structure and that she offers some arguments for her claims. My point is that the arguments she offers don’t even come close to bearing out the claims. The claims she’s making are gigantic in scope and revolutionary in content. She herself insists on this, but repeatedly fails to give any indication of the kind of work one would need to do to bear out claims of that nature.

            Look, for example, at how “The Conflicts of Interests” essay opens. Whatever you think of the merits of the thesis, it’s a ludicrous way to open an essay on the subject. Paraphrased, her claim is:

            Believe it or not, there are people who have read my novels, including the speeches in them, and not been able to grasp that all genuine human interests harmonize. Now, granted that I put a theory of human interests in print. And granted, I only just gave a speech about the overall structure of my ethics a few months ago, and it hasn’t yet been put into print, and won’t be for the next few years. Still. Isn’t my thesis blatantly obvious to anyone of above-average intelligence?

            Well. I wouldn’t dispute that “Conflicts” contains an argument. What I would dispute is that it contains the kind of argument that could hope to persuade a philosophically informed reader of the thesis under consideration. It obviously doesn’t. It doesn’t even manage to acknowledge, much less answer, the most glaringly obvious objection to the whole exercise: clearly, something about the nature of rational interests explains why it is that they don’t conflict. The non-conflicts thesis is merely parasitic on some positive claim about why the interests in question harmonize. But to begin to discuss that, we’d need to know how interests are derived from the standard of ‘man’s survival qua man.’ So how is that done?”

            “The Objectivist Ethics” is the transcript of a lecture she gave at a symposium. It does an impressive of job of laying out the structure of an ethical system. But the claims it makes are entirely programmatic. That wouldn’t be an objection in an author who was more forthright about the programmatic nature of her work. But part of arguing for a position is anticipating and responding to obvious objections to the position. She doesn’t do anything of the sort. Every major claim in the “argument” amounts to a sentence-long declaration indicating a huge gap that a professional philosopher would regard as an opportunity for a research program, not a finished argument:

            1. “Man’s life is a continuous whole”; if man is to succeed at the task of survival, he must choose his values in the context of a lifetime.
            2. “Such is the meaning of the definition: that which is required for man’s survival qua man…”
            3. “Productive work is the central purpose of a rational man’s life…”
            4. Justice requires that one never enact a cause without taking responsibility for its effects…
            5. Man is born tabula rasa…

            That’s just a tiny sample. All five claims give us a sense of the structure of Rand’s ethics, but none is argued for, in any recognizable sense of “argued for.” They’re either just asserted, or supported by unsupported assertions. You could ask dozens of crucial and relevant questions about each assertion, but find neither acknowledgement of the legitimacy of the question nor an answer to any of the questions in Rand’s work (or Peikoff’s).

            Some obvious examples: Must every choice be made “in the context” of a whole lifetime? What does “in the context of” mean, anyway? Does “survival qua man” mean that adherence to the virtues can be expected to lead to a longer-than-average lifespan? Or does it lead to better quality of life, where quality is conceptualized independently of quantity? Or are these the wrong questions altogether–in which case, what’s wrong with them? Why is productive work central? What counts as “productive work,” anyway? Does justice really require taking responsibility for the unintended consequences of one’s actions that are detrimental to oneself? How does that promote the agent’s self-interest? And what does “taking responsibility” mean? Even if one admires the architectonic of the overarching system (as I do), I would insist that a philosopher who fails to deal with such obvious questions–most of them just questions of clarification–has not really argued for her thesis so much as laid out a thesis in need of extensive clarification and argument.

            The root of the trader principle is the idea that human interaction ought to involve a rational exchange of “value for value.” What does “value for value” mean? It clearly does not mean: Smith and Jones make a mutually consenting trade according to which each party merely regards what the other offers as valuable. What they regard as valuable is not constructed in the act of consensual exchange, as though whatever the ended up agreeing on would automatically constitute an exchange of “value for value.” That’s a common misinterpretation of the principle, but it is a misinterpretation.

            Peter Keating doesn’t coerce anyone, but he doesn’t adhere to the trader principle, either: second-handers marketing second-handed products to other second-handers are not exchanging “value for value” even if they all act consensually. (Likewise Keating’s romantic relationships with Dominique and Catherine.) Rand’s claim is that qua rational, Smith and Jones have an antecedent conception of the “currency” proper to exchange–a conception they bring to the exchange, and which guides the exchange (over and above respect for rights). This conception implies that some consenting exchanges are genuine trades and some are not. But how? What exactly are traders doing that non-traders are not doing?

            Recall that the principle applies to every aspect of a non-commercial exchange as well as to commercial exchange. That means that the principle literally supplies answers to questions like the following: if a husband and wife have sex, and the husband fantasizes about their next door neighbor during the act, and the wife knows this and doesn’t mind, is their sexual encounter still a rational trade of value for value? The principle implies that it might be, or might not be, but nothing in Rand explicitly addresses how the principle applies to sex and commercial exchange and warfare and intellectual debate–respecting the diversity of goods involved, but formally speaking, applying to all of those goods in the same way. But that is what “the only rational ethical principle for all human relationships” means.

            Does the principle imply that we have to stand on our own two feet? Generally, I suppose it does. But since the principle applies to all human interactions, and we unavoidably have to depend on others for our survival and flourishing, the principle equally implies that there are times when we have to ask for and accept help rather than quixotically trying to stand on our own two feet. In fact, given the way it’s formulated, it tells us when we ought to accept help, and how much help to accept (or give): we accept help when doing so would involve an exchange of “value for value,” and we do so to the extent that doing so exchanges “value for value.” Everything turns on what that phrase “value for value” means. But that’s exactly what she fails to explain. (The phrase “stand on one’s own feet” is ambiguous as between “refusing, if possible, to accept help from anyone,” and “doing what is best for oneself without compromising major values.”) Put another way, a principle that tells us never to seek or give the unearned is close to vacuous if it gives no indication of what counts as the earned. Rand’s formulation of the trader principle tells us what role it plays in her system, but tells us nothing about its action-guiding consequences.

            The points that matter to me are that the trader principle is derivative in the sense just described, and that it is therefore not well described in terms of “obligations” primarily to others, or in terms of treating others as ends, etc.

            That seems to me a false dichotomy (or a potentially misleading way of putting things). In one sense, all moral requirements are derivative for Rand: every moral requirement has to promote the agent’s interests, so every moral requirement is derivative from those interests. But it doesn’t follow that moral requirements aren’t well described in terms of obligations primarily to others, or in terms of treating others as ends. It really depends on the context (and what one means by “primarily”). If you take for granted that a certain moral requirement promotes the agent’s interests, there is nothing wrong with focusing on the fact that it requires extensive action on behalf of a beneficiary other than the agent.

            Suppose that I take for granted that beneficence is self-beneficial. It may still be true that in order to be beneficent, I have to focus on my beneficiary, not expected self-benefit. Obviously, the act has to be compatible with acknowledging its self-beneficial quality. But it may not be compatible with dwelling on it. Meta-ethically, the obligation is not owed primarily to others; no obligation is. But it could be essential to satisfaction of the obligation that the other is fully experienced as a separate beneficiary, not a mere extension of the benefactor. It may not be possible to benefit the beneficiary (or oneself) unless you experience the other person in the right way.

            Of course, if your aim is to argue all the way down to the foundations for the self-beneficial character of morality, then you can’t take for granted that beneficence or justice are self-beneficial. But since we aren’t always doing that, there are contexts in which you can take that for granted, and focus on the other-regarding aspects of those and other virtues.

            On IOE, your interpretation would work if Rand regarded herself as a conceptualist or a nominalist, but she doesn’t. She goes out of her way to deny that she is a Platonic or Aristotelian realist about universals, but she also goes out of her way to deny that she’s a conceptualist or a nominalist about universals (in the Introduction). In other words, she claims to have carved out conceptual space between (her version of) Aristotelian realism and historical versions of conceptualism and nominalism. Her account of Aristotelian realist is very realist; it makes Aristotle sound like a naturalized Plato who simply sticks forms inside of concrete objects. Her taxonomy of solutions to the problem of universals is compatible with the possibility that her theory is one that’s realist, but less realist than Aristotle, or that it’s conceptualist/nominalist-like, but in a way that differs historical paradigms of those views. (She doesn’t even tell us what the paradigms are, but I suppose we can guess: Ockham, Locke, Hume.)

            It’s not enough for a person to hold such a position to provide a theory of concepts and say, “OK, I’m done.” That’s to stumble before the finish line. We need to be told where we’ve ended up. Is her theory ultimately a nominalism that holds that a theory of concept formation is all there is to universals? Or is it a moderate realism that says that concepts are objective because they supervene on mind-independent features of things that each class of things “has” in common? Put another way: we don’t get an explicit answer to the question, “Is Rand committed to realist-type universals or not? Yes or no?” There is nothing in IOE that commits her to denying the possibility of realist-type universals. What she denies is the legitimacy of what she takes to be Aristotelian realism. But that isn’t even an adequate account of Aristotle’s realism, much less of the possible types of realism.

            I’m not saying Rand didn’t do any work on a theory of universals. I’m saying that it’s not clear how her theory of concepts solves the problem that she sets out to solve when she starts the book. We need an explicit account of how a completely novel non-realist/non-conceptualist/non-nominalist theory solves the problem of universals. We could insist that despite her protestations, the theory is ultimately nominalist. But if she thought it wasn’t, we need a clear account of why she did. Maybe she was just confused or ignorant. Or maybe there is something non-nominalist to the theory. To the extent that that’s left unclear, we don’t know how IOE solves the problem of universals, or even how it was intended to.


          • Re arguments, I agree with everything you say. Especially the point about unanswered questions. There are just so many specifics, applications, gaps, details, and follow-up questions that she never addressed as to leave her philosophy in many ways hopelessly vague (not to mention inadequately supported).

            Re the trader principle:

            The root of the trader principle is the idea that human interaction ought to involve a rational exchange of “value for value.” What does “value for value” mean?

            I suppose this is intended to contradict my own statement that independence is the root of the trader principle? When I said that, I meant “root” in the sense of source, basis. I made this claim simply because it’s what she seems to be doing when she introduces the trader principle (calls it the principle of justice, etc.) in “The Objectivist Ethics.” She says that Objectivism doesn’t believe in human sacrifices and that there are no conflicts of our “rational” interests, where being rational in this context seems particularly not desiring the unearned. She emphasizes that, “A trader is a man who earns what he gets and does not give or take the undeserved. He does not treat men as masters and slaves, but as independent equals.” It does seem to follow from this that one will only give value for value. So the ground of the trader principle seems to be independence: not being a parasite or host for parasites. It’s not that the trader principle implies self-sufficiency; it’s the other way around.

            Giving value for value seems to me to be what the trader principle is, rather than its ground. Giving value for value defines the trader principle. If you have the principle of giving value for value, then you already have the trader principle, don’t you? There’s nothing more to the trader principle. And if you have the trader principle, you will be giving value for value. These principles are necessary and sufficient for each other.

            I agree of course that the criteria of “value” here is woefully vague. That’s the point above. I would only add two points. First, ultimately we have the standard by which all rational values are to be measured: man’s life—that which is required for man’s survival qua man. Second, there is the lengthy (for her) discussion in “What Is Capitalism?” of values, “socially objective” versus “philosophically objective.” The latter is estimated “from the standpoint of the best possible to man.” So airplanes are superior to bicycles and Victor Hugo is superior to true confession mags. But every individual is different, and many people aren’t up to the “best.” So each person must judge his values for his own context—his own capabilities, particular needs, situation, etc. If even at your personal best you aren’t up to appreciating Victor Hugo, it is not rational to waste your time trying to read him. “Socially objective” values are the distillation of these individual rational judgments across the whole community. And it is socially objective values that are reflected in the free market (where true confession mags are more profitable than Victor Hugo). This at least gives some hints, I suppose, at what she means in talking about values.

            Re universals, all this is a matter of interpretation, obviously, but still I think it’s pretty obvious that she was a conceptualist and knew it. I mean, she introduces “the problem of universals” as mere philosophy jargon for the issue of concepts. I submit that anyone who thinks that the problem in question simply is the problem of concepts is a conceptualist! True, she distances herself from “conceptualists,” who think that abstractions have no actual basis in reality. And perhaps indeed she thinks—as she wants to claim about most things—that her own view is a shocking, radical departure from all that came before. Though it mystifies me why she should have thought that Locke, for instance, held that abstractions have no basis in reality. But from a comfortable distance we can see that she is a conceptualist. And it’s hard to believe that she herself wouldn’t have agreed that she is similar to Locke in regarding a theory of concepts as a solution to the problem of universals—however radical an improvement her own view makes over Locke’s.

            You suggest it is possible that she might have been some sort of moderate Aristotelian realist; for instance, she might have regarded the “characteristics” she so commonly mentions as real universals that underlie and ground the similarity judgments which are the basis of concept formation on her account. I agree it is possible, but I seriously doubt it. There are textual indications, such as her remark that “the concept ‘unit’ is a bridge between metaphysics and epistemology: units do not exist qua units, what exist are things, but units are things viewed by a consciousness in certain existing relationships” (her emphasis). But the smoking gun is what she doesn’t say. If she believed in any sort of Aristotelian-style universals, or thought that such universals were part of the solution to the problem of universals, it is inconceivable that she wouldn’t have said so. Not because of some allegiance to Aristotle (and she wouldn’t necessarily have had to call such universals Aristotelian anyway, or regard them as Aristotelian), but because such universals, if they were acknowledged to be part of her view, would have such a great deal of importance. They would provide the metaphysical ground of similarity and sameness of kind, the one-in-many, that is the real solution to the problem of universals, and they would render the theory of concepts secondary insofar as the theory of concepts is looked upon as a solution to the problem of universals. Her theory of concepts would still have other important, epistemological work to do, of course. But it wouldn’t be a solution to the problem of universals, and this would be much too obvious a fact to be simply ignored. Ergo, she didn’t regard “characteristics” as immanent universals.

            Of course, she does talk about “characteristics,” and they do seem to have the status of immanent universals, even though she doesn’t acknowledge it. So, in spite of what I just argued, mightn’t it really be that she did realize that they were immanent universals? I would say that this is the best reason in favor of interpreting her as a moderate realist, but the trouble is that this contradiction—claiming that only particulars exist but then helping yourself tacitly to what must be in the end real “characteristics,” “features,” “similarity relations,” “resemblances,” etc.—is standard practice among nominalists and conceptualists of all stripes. This contradiction was noticed by Bertrand Russell 100 years ago and was utilized to great effect later by D. M. Armstrong in his attack on nominalism and conceptualism. So committing this fallacy is not good evidence that an author isn’t really a conceptualist or nominalist, because the fallacy is dead common.


          • Let me reserve comment on IOE for when I get back (two months from now!). I don’t have IOE with me here, and can’t comment intelligently without it in hand.

            I do agree that there’s a distinction to be drawn between the ground and the content of the trader principle, and that “value for value” is an account of its content, not its ground. I don’t really disagree that something like independence or self-sufficiency is part of the ground for the principle, but I also hesitate to agree too quickly with the claim that independence is the ground for it. That’s either right-but-potentially-misleading, or not-quite-right.

            Preliminary point: she herself gives no ground for it. She makes no serious attempt to derive the trader principle from the requirements of man’s life, in any plausible sense of “derive.” Like so many claims, the trader principle plops out of theoretical nowhere. There are many plausible undeveloped lines of thought that tie the principle back to survival qua man, but none are explicitly given. So just to be clear: what we’re doing is following plausible undeveloped lines of thought that she may or may not have had in mind, but that we regard as explicating the conceptual connection between Randian survival and Randian trade (given everything else she says, and background beliefs about the world).

            One problem with saying that independence is the ground for the trader principle is that it implies that independence is the ground for justice. But independence and justice are both virtues for Rand. So this would imply that one virtue is the basis for another virtue. Well, maybe it is, but: (a) she never says that, (b) it’s not clear why one virtue would be singled out on this way, and (c) even if it were true, it would just leave us with questions about the basis of the virtue of independence. In other words, it doesn’t solve anything theoretically to say that that independence grounds justice/trade. It just pushes the buck to the grounds for independence.

            And we can’t just rely on a rough-and-ready colloquial understanding of “independence” as the ground for Randian trade, because that just multiplies our difficulties. We have a colloquial, conventional, even bourgeois understanding of what it is for someone to “stand on his own feet.” But I think it begs the question to rely on that conception to justify (and give content to) Randian trade. Why is our colloquial conception of “standing on one’s own feet” (whatever it ends up being) correct? We have to know that it’s correct before we use it to ground trade. There’s a danger of relying on too narrow/conventional a conception of independence and ending up with too narrow/conventional a conception of trade. (Of course, if Rand espouses a version of the unity of virtue, as I think she does, there is a sense in which every virtue provides the basis for every other, in which case we need a separate basis for virtue as such.)

            Second, related problem: We have to leave open the possibility that you can trade value for value in ways that are radically at odds with any conventional understanding of “standing on your own two feet.”

            Example 1: Children cannot stand on their own two feet, but at some point, children (qua children) are obliged to be traders. So both independence and trade have to be conceived so that they’re compatible with a fairly radical form of dependence (either that, or: she has to ratchet back the scope of the trader principle to exclude children, or admit ad hoc exceptions to the principle so that children are left out, or insist that children “shift entirely for themselves” earlier in life, or admit theoretical defeat).

            Example 2: After a certain point, people suffering financial duress can’t stand on their own feet. The trader principle tells us (or ought to tell us) how forgiving we ought to be of such people (which ones to forgive, when, how, etc.). For instance, the trader principle would decide between debtor’s prison or bankruptcy as methods of dealing with them. If we opted for bankruptcy, it would decide between harsh and lenient conditions of bankruptcy (or in-between ones). Our conventional understanding of “stand on your own feet” inclines toward the less forgiving side of all of these options. But if so, it’s unsuitable as a ground for the trader principle. To incline toward the less-forgiving ab initio is to bias both the justification and content of the trader principle in an as-yet unjustified direction. Our conception of what the principle is (“value for value”) has to leave open both possibilities: the harshest and the most lenient. We then need a non-circular argument for why harshness or leniency is preferable by the standard of man’s life. But we can’t start with a conception of independence that inclines toward harshness–that requires a kind quasi-Stoic default position of always relying on oneself and forswearing the help of others–and then conclude that the trader principle follows suit.

            Incidentally, I think Rand’s novels are interestingly equivocal on this point, i.e., on what it means to “stand on your own feet.” Sometimes, her characters conceive independence and trade in very harshly “stand on your own feet” terms, but sometimes they conceive independence in ways that really do not fit any such understanding. I don’t have the novels here with me, but I’ve tracked this phenomenon in them, and can cite examples when I get back. (Needless to say, the bookstores of Palestine do not carry the novels of Ayn Rand, whether in Arabic or in English. Come to think of it, there are no bookstores here.)

            I think it’s more promising to think of rationality as the basis of the trader principle. In IOE, somewhere in the 40s of the book, she has a very brief account of practical rationality, which she describes in terms of a principle of “teleological measurement.” In short, rationality requires the agent to rank the available options he faces in ordinal form, and act on the highest ranking. If rational interests don’t conflict, then every agent will act in this way qua rational.

            So rationality is the basis for the trader principle in this sense: I know that I have to act on the principle of teleological measurement (= doing so is in my interest), and I know that, qua rational, so do you (= doing so is in your interest). If I then suppose that I benefit most from other rational agents qua rational, then I can infer that I benefit most from you (and you benefit most from me) if and only if we act in such a way as to coordinate action so as to achieve the best option that both of us could achieve in cooperation with one another. The trader principle simply names the requirement of acting so as realize your highest-ranked option by means of your trading partners’ realizing his highest-ranked option (or: your achieving the best for yourself via the partners’ doing the same).

            So conceived, the trader principle might well imply that if I’m to get the most out of interacting with you, I’m obliged positively to create the conditions that enable you to act at your best, i.e., promote rationality in you. At a minimum, I have to abjure force and deception (since that obviously undercuts rationality), but I may have to go well beyond that. Though I don’t disagree that the trader principle in some sense requires (some version of) independence, the preceding interpretation doesn’t rely essentially on a conception of independence (except insofar as independence is required for rationality itself).

            The unsupported assumption that drives the preceding interpretation of the trader principle is the phrase I italicized: a rational agent benefits most from others only insofar as those others are acting fully rationally. Since a rational agent ought to do what is optimally beneficial, a rational agent should always strive to promote optimal rationality in others (at least insofar as you can rationally predict they are likely to do that; if not, all bets are off).

            On this view, if I act in such a way as to capitalize on (what I take to be) your irrationality, I am not benefiting myself, even if I gain external goods in doing so. I can’t, for instance, benefit from an action that requires the subversion of another person’s self-esteem, even if doing so would make me a lot of money. (I literally mean: there is no benefit to be had from such an action.)

            For instance, imagine two mutually consenting adults, A and B. A has premium video equipment, and B has a personality disorder. Assume that A knows (or strongly suspects, even in some subliminal way) that B has the disorder. Nonetheless, A markets videos of B “acting out” in grotesque, degrading ways, puts them on the Internet (as content you have to pay for), and gives B a cut of the proceeds. And let’s assume that they don’t defraud or mislead or rip off any of their customers. The customers know up front what they’re paying for. They just happen to pay for it in droves because they like what they see.

            A and B could both get fabulously rich this way for life. They could even get fabulously rich this way and live wholesome lives outside of work. But the whole business plan involved is a paradigmatic violation of the trader principle. In fact, B needs to deal with his personality disorder. At a minimum, if A interacts with B at all, A has to promote B’s rationality, which precludes exploiting (and reinforcing, prolonging) the disorder. On Rand’s view, A cannot benefit qua human by exploiting B’s mental illness. The wealth they both acquire by this expedient is just unjust ill-gotten gains, no matter how much of it there is.

            Notice that the example doesn’t really turn on “standing on your own feet.” Ex hypothesi, they’re both making money, paying their bills, and discharging their debts. If you want to cover every conceivable base, you could even suppose that A and B are politically active in all the right ways, so that they’re even contributing to the upkeep of “the system.” They are not parasites in the usual sense of that term, though there may be some subtler, unconventional sense in which they are. But in the conventional sense at least, “standing on your own feet” is irrelevant to the violation of the trader principle in this example. The relevant point is that the relationship is exploitative. The exploitation involved flouts the requirements of Randian rationality, and by implication of Randian justice or trade. Nothing that A or B can do while in the relationship–wholesome lives on the side, bien pensant political activity, charitable giving to the right causes from the proceeds of the business–can compensate for the ongoing violation of justice intrinsic to the business itself. Justice requires that they simply stop what they’re doing, period.

            As I’ve said before (and we agree), I don’t think Rand provides a real justification for any of this, but it’s what I take her view to be (or entail).


      • This interpretation (and criticism) of Rand rings true to me, Irfan. However, I worry about this form of argument: if whole X is desirable, then any essential constituent of X, A, is desirable to the same (or only slightly-less-equal) extent. Fill in ‘X’ with living a human life that ideally well or sufficiently realizes human functionality and ‘A’ with one’s favored to-be-strictly-follow principle of action and there you are – deontological reasons, at least of a sort, justified. Some concerns…

        (1) Why think that respecting the rights of others (setting aside just which set of rights is the right one) is an essential constituent of being a well-functioning human being? More pointedly, this seems like a move to get one’s desired result, not a claim born of the relevant specific-to-the-topic evidence.

        (2) If one failed to respect rights in others, on this sort of view, why wouldn’t one be a merely-somewhat-less-well-functioning human being? Why such a sharp boundaries to the supremely-desirable state (and its degree of desirability)?

        (3) Why care so much about one’s own human well-functioning per se?

        (4) Even if one did care about one’s own human-well-functioning in this way (and did correctly or with sufficient justification) it seems that one’s concern for respecting the rights of others would be merely instrumental. The metaphysical “constitutivist” claim does not blunt this point. And this is a problem for vindicating some version of the intuition that “virtue is its own reward.” It is hard to see how this vindication would go without the agent having non-instrumental or intrinsic reason to conform behavior to the virtue (as when respecting the right of others in a pretty-strictly-rule-governed fashion).

        (5) Though motivation and reasons are individual, they do not always involve positive or negative affect. So we don’t get egoism from the facts of motivation (or the role of motivation in human functioning). Nor are all of our motivations responses to facts about ourselves (our own states, such as tissue damage). In fact, many of our most powerful motivations and apparent reasons – specifically, the moral ones – are responses to social-interaction or social-collective (group) states or conditions. (That and why this is so is explained by the growing literature on group selection in evolution and human evolution in particular.) For these reasons, despite the undeniably foundational role of things that qualify as benefits and harms in our psychology and proper or well-functioning, it is hard to see how the idea that human well-functioning is the ultimate end for morality or practical reason comes to a kind of egoism.

        For these (strong) reasons, I find the Aristotelian defense of the virtues (broadly deontological reasons, reasons to follow rules, particularly certain sorts of social rules, rather strictly) – and the Randian egoist version of this in particular, on the interpretation of Rand that you favor – pretty unpromising as an explanatory and justificatory account of reasons to be virtuous (broadly deontological reasons), moral reasons, and reasons generally. A defender of the Aristotelian approach – I gather that both of you are no longer functional or normative egoists – needs to have good answers for points (1) through (4). Absent that, it is hard for me to get too excited about various foundationally Aristotelian projects in practical reason, ethics, or politics. Sorry!


        • Well, those are huge questions, and I’m not sure I can answer them all. But I’m puzzled by the connection between the argument form you’re criticizing, and objection (1): I don’t see the connection.

          In the first paragraph, you worry about arguments of the form: if whole X is desirable, then essential constituents of X are desirable. Just formally, I would say that whatever makes whole X desirable makes its essential constituents desirable. The essential constituents are essential constituents insofar as they sustain the identity of X as such. If health is desirable because it enables physical functionality, then good nutrition is desirable for the same reason.

          But (1) is just addressing a separate issue. In (1), you’re not querying why respects for rights would be desirable if it were a constituent of flourishing; you’re asking why it should be thought a constituent of flourishing in the first place. Right? So there are two separate issues here, and they need to be kept separate.

          Suppose that we grant that rights are a constituent of flourishing. Then if flourishing is valuable because of the nature of flourishing, rights are valuable for the contribution they make to every agent’s flourishing. That may sound excessively formal, but it still answers your question.

          If the further question is why rights do make a contribution, I can only sketch an answer–or rather, two somewhat overlapping answers.

          One line of argument is that if Randian trade (=adherence to the trader principle) is a constituent of flourishing, rights identify the necessary conditions of trade. If I can only gain through Randian trade, and every violation of rights flouts the trader principle, I have nothing to gain from violations of rights. Of course, this answer just pushes the buck: why is gain only possible through Randian trade? That’s a long story I can’t give in a comment, but if trade is the select route to flourishing, and every rights violation is a deviation from that route, no rights violation promotes flourishing. Perhaps it’s true that the smaller the deviation the less damaging to one’s flourishing, but still, every deviation is damaging.

          Another (related) line of argument: for Rand, every right is reducible to a property right of some kind. Among other things, property rights delineate zones of exclusive control in the physical world. One claim here is that rational action requires knowledge of such delineations: we need to know who controls what. But the deeper and more significant claim is that rational action requires delineations which the agent can morally ratify, i.e., can regard as right. It’s not enough for me to control the stuff I have. I have to know that the stuff I control is morally speaking mine to have and control (and not yours). You have the same need, and so does everyone, qua human.

          Put this way, in order to act rationally, I need to know when and where I have the exclusive entitlement to act–where “exclusive entitlement” means that I can with moral conviction prevent others from interfering with my actions. And so do you. Now suppose that we decide to interact. In order for both of us not only to have zones of exclusive control, but have conviction in the rightness of the zones over which we exercise that control, we need to appeal to a principle that both of us can recognize and act on at once, that carves the world up into the “yours” and the “mine” so that we can (each) control what’s ours and leave what isn’t ours for others to control.

          It’s obviously to my interest to control what’s mine. But if the trader principle requires me to act vis-a-vis others at their best (most rational), the principle implies that it’s to my interest for me to interact with you only insofar as you control what’s yours (and what you know to be yours). The ideally self-beneficial relationship is one in which I control what’s mine and have conviction that it’s mine; you control what’s yours and have conviction that it’s yours; I acknowledge/respect what’s yours as yours; and you acknowledge/respect what’s mine as mine. That’s the role that “rights” plays: it delineates zones of exclusive control necessary for rational action that all rational agents can ratify and respect qua rational.

          In a superficial sense, without rights, we can’t coordinate action. If everything is up for grabs, we can’t get cooperation off the ground. Rights are in that sense a precondition of cooperation. What’s yours is a constraint on my deliberations, and what’s mine is a constraint on yours. Without a clear sense of those constraints, coordinated action would be impossible (or at least extremely precarious).

          In a deeper sense, a quasi-Hegelian one, rights are a requirement of self-esteem (or dignity, or self-respect: whatever). The requirements of self-esteem are such that human beings have to morally ratify the actions they take. A Hobbesian state of nature (one without rights) is famously “solitary, nasty, brutish, and short.” Human beings can’t indefinitely live under conditions of moral nastiness. It’s not just that you don’t want other people to act nastily toward you, but that you can’t live (qua human) under conditions that require you to regard your own actions as chronically nasty or brutish. A principle of rights gets us out of that predicament by identifying what belongs to us and what doesn’t.

          So the bottom line answer is that a distinctively human survival requires an account of what belongs exclusively to any given agent, and the rationale for the norm of rights is to give it. We need to know what belongs to us in order to act in a world with other rational-social beings, both to coordinate our actions effectively, and to maintain our dignity while doing so. Without rational coordination, we die; without dignity, we go insane. Without rights, we do a bit of both.

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          • You are right that the argument form (or conditional) that I start out worrying about and (1) – as well as some of the other points that I make – are different issues.

            The worry about deontological reasons (or desirability) coming out instrumental does concern the relevant sort of conditional (you need to get something like ‘very strongly intrinsically desirable’ and instead you get something like ‘as instrumentally desirable as you can get’).

            Here is a separate but similar worry about the relevant sort of conditional: it is not clear that acting according to some rule R (say, a rights-of-others-respecting rule) being an essential constituent of what is ultimately valuable for one (one’s flourishing, suppose) results in following R having the sort of “usually trumping” normative status that we are trying to explain. We need something like ‘conformity to R taking priority over all other options, exception in exceptional circumstances and except when there is a similar, competing rule R* that has more weight’ rather than ‘as instrumentally desirable as you can get’. The broad question with the conditional is whether you can get norms of rule-conformity from something like the Aristotelian or Randian ultimate-end evaluative/normative status.

            You are right that the generic whole-to-essential-part conditional (with just the generic ‘desirable’ in both the antecedent and consequent) looks to be true (at least with respect to whatever respect of desirability you have in the antecedent).

            (Also I should have made clear that I was more staking out my reasons for doubting the neo-Aristotelian and Randian projects in order to help find good areas of overlap and productive debate – not really to assess whether these reasons should carry the day. Or maybe I was just expressing my reasons for opposing the approach in a counter-productive, self-indulgent way!)


    • Merlin,

      First, let me reemphasize that it is a difficult interpretive question whether Rand was a “survivalist” or a “flourisher.” I am happy to concede that the question is open, and I certainly would not say that someone who sees her as a flourisher is necessarily wrong. I myself spent a great deal of time some years ago trying to make her a flourisher, so I understand the impulse. I just finally decided it couldn’t be done, for the reasons I give in my paper.

      As to the passages you quote, I’m not really sure how they make the case. I don’t see, for instance, why the benefits of living in society (knowledge and trade) shouldn’t be benefits ultimately in the sense of promoting individuals’ survival.

      On the noninitiation of force principle and the trader principle, you might want to look at the exchange Irfan and I had back in March on this same issue of Rand interpretation. See especially his comment to me here.

      Irfan does succeed in showing, I think, that the trader principle is a sweeping moral principle that goes well beyond merely observing the rights of others. So if the requirement to respect the rights of others (nonininitiation of force) is already a stronger claim than can be justified merely by economic rationality (i.e., self-interest in terms of material payoffs; i.e., survivalism), then so is the trader principle, in spades.

      The trouble is, as I see it, this is just her having her cake and eating it too. And just because she eats it (noninitiation, trader) doesn’t mean she doesn’t also have it (survivalist account of moral foundations). Her reasoning about moral foundations seems almost entirely survivalist. Take the indestructible robot argument, for instance. It’s hard to know exactly what’s going on in that argument, but a key point seems to be that the robot’s survival isn’t contingent on anything, so it cannot have values. I think if she were some sort of closet Aristotelian who believed that a particular way of living made a more than practical difference, she would have argued differently. For that matter, if she really thought there was something fundamental about how one lives as opposed to what is necessary to promote survival, she had plenty of opportunity to say it, and it’s hard to see why she should be shy.

      So I see the trader principle as on a par with Galt undertaking to kill himself to prevent Dagny from being tortured. It represents an ethical conclusion she wished to hold even though her reasoning doesn’t justify it. I’m inclined to see the reasoning as the dog and the conclusions as the tail, so I favor a survivalist interpretation.

      There’s a lot going on in that comment of Irfan’s, by the way, and I don’t agree with all of it. The issues are brilliantly elucidated in my reply to him.


  2. I wonder what separates an “egoism” or eudaimonism according to which viewing and dealing with others “as traders” (in some expanded sense of ‘trader’) is essential and central to the good or happy life from a deontological view with a similar content. (I suppose this kind of machinery might be a way of explaining things that fall under the banner of duties or “acting on principle” or the like.)

    I also wonder whether this element of morality is not better thought of in terms of regarding others as parties to fair trade. Of course, that pushes the hard work to one’s theory of fairness (and perhaps to the question of basic moral standing and what this entails in the relevant circumstance).


    • Interesting question. But deontological versus teleological views are just distinguished by the sort of rationale they give for obligations, aren’t they? That is, there’s an obligation either way, and the difference is in what sort of justification is offered.

      In a deontological view, the supposed source of obligation might be rationality somehow: one cannot with rational consistency violate the moral rules. And why one should care about rational consistency might be for the sake of “autonomy.” This is how I read Kant, anyway. Morality is a matter of following rules, the rules are formal requirements of rationality, and ultimately we must be obedient to them for the sake of “autonomy” or “dignity” or something like that.

      The eudaimonistic view, most broadly construed, says that we are the sort of beings who can function better or worse in accordance with some standard of how we are “supposed to” function. Our good is to function the way we are supposed to, and this is characterized as flourishing or thriving or happiness. But—importantly—it would be our good whether it made us subjectively “happy” or not. The eudaimonistic good is objective; it is not a matter of desire satisfaction.

      So we have moral obligations, according to eudaimonism, but they derive from the master obligation to be good (or equivalently, to do well), as this is defined by our natural functions, not from pure “rationality” or from a metaphysical (noumenal) value like autonomy.


      • I agree with David’s conclusion here (paragraph 1), as well as with the characterization of Kant (paragraph 2), but not with the details of the reasoning he gives in the rest of his comment. I raise some quibbles below, because I think it helps make sense of some prior disagreements we (David and I) have had on this topic.

        Let me take the other two paragraphs out of order:

        So we have moral obligations, according to eudaimonism, but they derive from the master obligation to be good (or equivalently, to do well), as this is defined by our natural functions, not from pure “rationality” or from a metaphysical (noumenal) value like autonomy.

        I think the contrast here–obligation to be good versus obligation based on rationality or autonomy–is somewhat misleading. Couldn’t a eudaimonist regard autonomy as a formal feature of rationality, and regard rationality as an essential element of the agent’s flourishing, hence as the central source of his obligation to be good?

        Ultimately, I think Rand’s strategy is equivalent to the preceding one. She regards rationality as a “basic” or “cardinal” value, and treats the other virtues (independence, integrity, honesty, justice, productiveness, pride) as essential aspects of the expression of rationality (Virtue of Selfishness, pp. 27-28). Though she tends not to use the words “autonomy” and “dignity,” the requirements of independence and integrity are recognizably like standard versions of autonomy and dignity, and in her critique of Skinner (in Philosophy: Who Needs It), Rand has no qualms about explicitly using and valorizing both “autonomy” and “dignity,” using those very words. (She accuses Skinner of being hostile to both autonomy and dignity. The implication is clearly that autonomy and dignity are are real moral phenomena–not Kantian “anti-concepts”–and objectively valuable by her standards. Compare that to her strictures against the word “duty” in “Causality Versus Duty,” in the same book.)

        In saying that rationality is a “cardinal” or “basic” value which is the “means to and realization” of the ultimate value, I take Rand to be saying that rationality has to be exemplified in every action one initiates on behalf of the ultimate value. Since the other virtues are implicit in rationality, she seems committed to some version of the “unity of virtue”: every virtue has to be exemplified in every action. Though her view is ultimately teleological, these aspects of it brings her close to a Kantian-style deontology. In other words, despite the Kantian-sounding nature of the claim, I think it’s perfectly accurate to say that Rand is committed to stringent norms based on the requirements of rationality–the trader principle and non-initiation of force principles being among them. And it’s accurate enough to say that she’s committed to autonomy and dignity as rational values.

        All I’ve done so far is clarify what she’s committed to. It’s a separate issue whether she’s entitled to that commitment based on what she says in defense of it, and I think the answer to that is “no.” She fails to reconcile her account of rationality and virtue with her account of the final end. My criticism is not so much that she fails to reconcile rationality/virtue with a specifically “survivalist” account of that end, but that she fails to specify the nature of the final end altogether. In other words, there is no clear way to tell what she is talking about, or what she is committed to when she uses phrases like “man’s survival qua man,” or “man’s life as the standard of value,” etc. But since a teleological ethic implies that adherence to moral norms promotes the agent’s ultimate value, if she hasn’t clarified the nature of the end, she can’t demonstrate that adherence to moral norms promotes it. So she hasn’t shown what she needs to show.

        I belabor this because while David and I agree that there is a failure in Rand’s theorizing, we’re disagreeing significantly about what it is. My view is that her substantive ethical position is correct but ultimately unjustified: she gets the what of morality right, but not the why. As I understand it, David’s position is that her substantive ethical position is narrowly survivalist (hence incorrect) and unjustified. In other words, our disagreement is one over the degree of Rand’s theoretical failure. I don’t think the failure is as severe as David has made it out to be. That said, I do think she fails to accomplish what she sets out to do.

        I also disagree with the third paragraph’s characterization of the place of desire satisfaction in a eudaimonist ethic.

        But—importantly—it would be our good whether it made us subjectively “happy” or not. The eudaimonistic good is objective; it is not a matter of desire satisfaction.

        This contrast–objective good vs. desire satisfaction–seems misleading as well. Couldn’t a eudaimonist theory insist that subjective happiness is an objective part of our good? Ceteris paribus, it’s objectively better to have a robust set of desires than to shrink your desire to the minimum in a spirit of risk-aversity. Further, assuming that you have the right set of desires, it’s objectively better for those desires to be satisfied than to be frustrated.

        I realize that the ceteris paribus clause is doing a lot of work here, but I think the thesis has some clear implications. Consider three people:

        Person 1 is in favorable circumstances, but focuses only on the bad things in his life (or life generally), and is miserable as a result.

        Person 2 is in objectively bad circumstances but fixates obsessively on the worst aspects of those circumstances, and is miserable as a result.

        Person 3 is in objectively terrible circumstances, and allows himself to succumb to despair about them. (I assume that despair is more miserable than, say, a sense of tranquil resignation to one’s unavoidably terrible circumstances, so that Person 3 is more miserable than he might be.)

        None of the three is flourishing, and they’re not flourishing because they’ve acquiesced prematurely in subjective unhappiness. To the extent that it’s open to them to do so, rationality requires a revision of their attitudes toward their own circumstances and desires, but it requires that revision precisely because misery is objectively bad for the agent, and subjective happiness is objectively good. Put another way: all three agents are “guilty” of a certain failure of virtue; the differences between them are just differences in the excusability of the failure.* The failure in question is a failure with respect to having a sufficiently positive attitude toward one’s subjective happiness. In each case, I would say that the eudaimonistic good is both objective and a matter of desire satisfaction: we can’t function or flourish as we were “supposed to” unless we feel a certain way, i.e., are as subjectively happy as circumstances allow.

        *I put “guilty” in scare quotes because the word “guilt” may overstate Person 3’s moral failing, but if so, we lack the right word to describe the failure involved. It is a failure of some sort, however excusable or understandable it may be.


        • Irfan, I’m not sure there is any disagreement here—at least, none we don’t already know about.

          Couldn’t a eudaimonist regard autonomy as a formal feature of rationality, and regard rationality as an essential element of the agent’s flourishing, hence as the central source of his obligation to be good?

          Yes, but this wouldn’t make him somehow really a deontologist. As I understand it, deontology bases moral obligation ultimately on some kind of merely formal requirement—such as logical consistency—as opposed to on the achievement of some good end—such as pleasure or happiness or flourishing. Thus, if rationality is important because it is an essential element of flourishing, and flourishing as a final end is the ultimate basis of moral obligation, then rationality is not basic, nor is it being treated as a merely formal requirement. Rationality (and “autonomy,” if you think rationality entails autonomy, which I don’t) would then be extremely important, as being essential to flourishing, but it (i.e., rationality in the sense of logical consistency) would still not be the fundamental basis of moral obligation.

          Though she tends not to use the words “autonomy” and “dignity,” the requirements of independence and integrity are recognizably like standard versions of autonomy and dignity, and in her critique of Skinner (in Philosophy: Who Needs It), Rand has no qualms about explicitly using and valorizing both “autonomy” and “dignity,” using those very words. </

          I meant “autonomy” and “dignity” in their Kantian senses, which are not what Skinner or Rand are talking about. In the Groundwork, Kant distinguishes autonomy from heteronomy, meaning self-determination of the will (autonomy), as opposed to its determination by external forces, which include of course the emotions, the desires, pleasure, pain, etc. (heteronomy). He also distinguished dignity, as being intrinsic value, from price, as what satisfies our desires or gives pleasure. Only autonomy confers dignity. And autonomy ultimately depends on the metaphysical freedom of the noumenal will. (Freedom is of course impossible for the phenomenal will.) This freedom, with its attendant dignity, as I read Kant, is the ultimate reason we should care about morality. Interestingly, this scheme has a distinctly teleological cast! But it is not eudaimonistic; it has nothing to do with living well as that is determined by human nature.

          In saying that rationality is a “cardinal” or “basic” value which is the “means to and realization” of the ultimate value, I take Rand to be saying that rationality has to be exemplified in every action one initiates on behalf of the ultimate value. Since the other virtues are implicit in rationality, she seems committed to some version of the “unity of virtue”: every virtue has to be exemplified in every action. Though her view is ultimately teleological, these aspects of it brings her close to a Kantian-style deontology. In other words, despite the Kantian-sounding nature of the claim, I think it’s perfectly accurate to say that Rand is committed to stringent norms based on the requirements of rationality–the trader principle and non-initiation of force principles being among them. And it’s accurate enough to say that she’s committed to autonomy and dignity as rational values.

          Except for the bit about Kantian deontology (and that we need to be careful what we mean by “autonomy” and “dignity”), I agree with all this. Reading over the passage you’re talking about, she talks as though one has got to live and breathe “rationality” at every waking moment (and all the unwaking moments too, if one could manage it) with every fiber of one’s being. And this fits the way she talks all the time, not just here. I also think that her frequent use of the phrase “proper to a rational being” in this passage lends itself to a eudaimonistic interpretation, as though she were making rational living an end in itself and choosing other values by that standard. However, if you look at how she defends all this, once again it seems very practical: we can’t survive living like animals, by instinct; reason is our means of survival; the survival we could achieve mindlessly could only be short-lived; mere physical survival by a person “willing to accept any terms” cannot be guaranteed to last more than a week or a year; the price of slacking on our use of reason (by imitating others, for example), is “destruction,” political “dictatorship,” “a brief span of agony,” then death. These are all appeals to prudence. She’s saying if you want to be successful, not just today but over the whole course of your life, it is unwise to make yourself the plaything of others, dependent on their talents, brains, benevolence, or mercy—whether as servant or master. Rather, you must exercise your own rational judgment on your own behalf, not because this is good in itself, but because it is the only truly practical means at your disposal.

          I don’t think this is such a bad argument, either. I have come to think that reason plays a far less grandiose role in human life than Rand portrays it as playing. But that doesn’t mean it’s not still the best thing we’ve got going or that making up your own mind about things is unimportant. Of course, this sort of prudence-based argument won’t get her to other-regarding virtues. It won’t solve the problem of the “sensible knave.” This is the point I fault her on. But her argument still gets her pretty far; i.e., it does justify well enough the bulk of what she wants to say about ethics.

          I belabor this because while David and I agree that there is a failure in Rand’s theorizing, we’re disagreeing significantly about what it is. My view is that her substantive ethical position is correct but unjustified. As I understand it, David’s position is that her substantive ethical position is narrowly survivalist but unjustified. In other words, the disagreement is one over the degree of Rand’s theoretical failure. I don’t think the failure is as severe as David has made it out to be. That said, I do think it’s a failure.

          Actually, the way I would put it is that her substantive ethical position is pretty much as you describe (except when you’re going overboard with the Kant stuff), but it is unjustified because the justification she offers for it is survivalist. I think the main difference between us is that whereas you think her defense of her ethics is vague or obscure or even nonexistent, I think the general idea is reasonably clear, and it’s survivalist.

          Couldn’t a eudaimonist theory insist that subjective happiness is an objective part of our good? Ceteris paribus, it’s objectively better to have a robust set of desires than to shrink your desire to the minimum in a spirit of risk-aversity. Assuming that you have the right set of desires, it’s objectively better for those desires to be satisfied than to be frustrated.

          Yes, certainly. I agree with everything you say here.


      • I was supposing, perhaps somewhat quixotically, that one having an obligation PHI (where PHI-ing is strict adherence to some rule) entails one having (quite strong) intrinsic reason to PHI. This precludes any instrumentalist normative explanation for why it is that one is obligated to PHI rather than obligated to (incompatible) PSI-ing. One of my fundamental objections to the Aristotelian/neo-Aristotelian/Randian picture is that it seems to rely on this kind of instrumentalist explanation (this explanation being exemplified despite the metaphysical constitutivist or essentialist claim). It occurs to me that standard rationalist and Kantian explanations of obligations face a similar objection. However, ethical intuitionism (a la Michael Huemer) does not face this kind of objection (yet I think clearly counts as a kind of deontologism).

        If you don’t want to go Huemer’s non-explanationist route, we might seek non-instrumentalist normative explanations for intrinsic deontological or rule-following-type reasons. We might also take these points as reasons to deny that X having obligation to PHI entails (and is partly constituted by) X having (strong) intrinsic reason to PHI. I’m inclined to go this way and instead think of X having (moral, social) obligation to PHI as, in relevant part, X having sufficient reason to become strongly motivated to PHI – and thereby, given the right conative and functional background conditions, come to have intrinsic reason to PHI (where, again, PHI-ing constitutes following some rule rather strictly). Perhaps, often or always, the important reasons for becoming a rule-follower with respect to some rule – the ones that put one over the edge, that are reasons over and above prior reasons of social utility – are the rest of us really strongly disapproving of the relevant rule-violations. (Make this point in non-Humean terms by replacing my half-assed Humean picture with ‘doing the things that suffice, in the circumstances, for having intrinsic reason to PHI’.)

        One of the good things about this kind of approach is that the instrumentalist explanation, whether Kantian or Aristotelian, is not a (putative) normative explanation of intrinsic reasons, but rather an instrumentalist explanation one having reason to do the things that suffice for one coming to have intrinsic reason to PHI. (I’m inclined to think that having intrinsic motivation to PHI, in the right functional conditions and relative to some set of basic background affective and conative (desire) states, constitutes having intrinsic reason to PHI. This may not fully live up to our “mythology” of value and morality.)

        In any case, it seems to me that obligations entail either actual or hypothetical (deontological or strict-rule-following) – and that the standard Aristotelian story (and perhaps as well the standard Kantian story) – seems to yield only actual, instrumental reasons to PHI (strictly follow the rule).

        You can save the Kantian view from this objection by interpreting (plausibly enough) “the requirements of rationality” in a pluralistic way that involves multiple, primitive rules that one has intrinsic reason to follow. In which case, “the obligation to be rational” is shorthand for a set of obligations to be rational in various ways or respects (and the relevant mode of explanation is not instrumentalist). I suppose that one might interpret “living one’s life well” in a similar way on the Aristotelian picture. Maybe that is the way to go.


        • Michael,

          I think it is odd to speak of the eudaimonist account of morals as giving “instrumentalist” explanations for “fundamental obligations.” The “fundamental obligation,” as I characterized it in my earlier reply, is simply to be good. I would say that there is really no explanation given of this fundamental obligation. That one ought to pursue what is good comes with the concept good. It is just what good means. Why certain things, PHI, constitute our good is explained functionally: As a functionally organized being, we can do better or worse, depending on how well we perform our functions. I don’t see how this explanation for why we ought to PHI is instrumental. I think of an instrumental good as one which is not good in itself but derives its good solely from its utility in securing some other, further good which is good in itself. But the good of PHI-ing, as characterized here, is good in itself, because it is some aspect of our functioning well, which is our good. So it seems off base to me to describe this sort of explanation of our moral “oughts” as instrumentalist.

          I have the feeling that what bothers you is that moral obligations on this account lack the character of absolutes. This account seems to say, not that you must PHI, but that PHI-ing is advisable or would be a good idea. I agree, it does say that (although I’m being a little flippant with phrases like “would be a good idea”). I think that is the nature of any teleological or good-based account. If you want moral obligations stronger, more absolute, than what appeal to your good, you may have to look elsewhere (as you suggest).

          The feeling that our moral prescriptions should be absolute is perhaps encouraged most by the concept of political rights. We do treat political rights as absolute, deontological principles. In my own view, however, this is an artifact of the way rights must function in society, not a reflection of the fundamental character of morals. For what it’s worth, I described an approach to rights that is compatible with eudamonism in a comment on your “Rethinking Rights” thread. Perhaps you will find it no more convincing now than you did then, but at least it should help put in question whether rights really have the character of absolutes.

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          • My view is that not only causal promotion but also constitution or realization supports or grounds the instrumental-value relationship. If my running is inherently desirable for me, then each step that I take in the run is instrumentally desirable – i.e., desirable in virtue of promoting or constituting/realizing my running (and in virtue of my running being non-instrumentally desirable for me). This is the fundamental reason why I don’t think the Aristotelian approach can yield non-instrumental reasons to do anything other than flourish (and if flourishing is not an action or response to anything, and if one can have reason only to exhibit actions or other responses, then the Aristotelian approach cannot yield any non-instrumental reasons for action at all!).

            (I know that Aristotelians also have a concept of doing something for its own sake and apply this concept to things like actions that bring one pleasure. But in light of how function is supposed to yield normativity, this concept would appear to be motivational, not normative. Perhaps I am missing something. In any case, the appeal, in getting virtues their normativity does not appear to be to particular things done for their own sake.)

            I don’t think of deontological reasons as absolute, but I do think of them as intrinsic not instrumental. Relatedly, I think of them as reasons of rule-conformity that outweigh or “trump” most other options (that are not similar rules that we have deontic reason to conform to) in each case of decision-making.


          • Hi Michael. I’m going to reply here both to this comment and to your other one (to Part 4), since they are both on the same general topic. That general topic is the question of “instrumental” values in Aristotelianism and whether they can supply strong moral reasons to do things like respect others’ rights. These comments of yours have been helpful, by the way, for me to understand what it is that concerns you.

            On the matter of instrumental values, your reasoning seems to be that if a thing isn’t done or pursued for its own sake, then it’s instrumental. Thus, in the running example, however constitutive of running the movements of my legs may be, I still don’t move them for the sake of moving them, but for the sake of running.

            True enough, but I don’t think the component functions of Aristotelian flourishing are like that. Obvious example: I love philosophy and pursue it for its own sake, even though I recognize that my so pursuing it is also a component of my flourishing. Again, if I loved model trains and pursued them for their own sake, it would be the same way. You wonder how such things could acquire normativity. I agree that to do philosophy or model railroading is not a natural human function. But to love some pursuits is, whatever they may be. Furthermore, it seems like most of what might plausibly be suggested as natural human functions are pursued for their own sakes. Raising children, loving your wife, solving problems, planning your future, socializing are things people do which it would seem odd to ask reasons for. I wouldn’t say I do these things in order to flourish or as necessary components of flourishing, however true that may be. Some of them are more or less enjoyable, but I wouldn’t say I exactly do any of them for pleasure, either. I think I would say I do them because they are how one lives well, and also because they are just good things to do.

            This is relevant to your concerns, because I think on the Aristotelian conception, certain moral actions are performed for similar reasons. Some actions are just “fine” or “noble” (kalos) actions. They are done for their own sake, because they are fine. They are also part of being a good person, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t noble deeds and worthy of being done for that reason.

            In other words, particular human functions may all go into the larger fabric of life, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t functions in their own right.

            But setting all this aside and accepting your running example for the sake of argument, I don’t see how the “instrumentality” of moving your legs undercuts its importance in the way that worries you. Suppose you had a reason for running of the “trumping” sort you insist on. Would you not also thereby have a trumping reason to move your legs? I mean, this would not be like Robert Frank’s commitment to be honest that is only instrumentally made in order to reap the material rewards of honesty. On Frank’s view, honesty really is only instrumental. This is shown by the fact that, on his view, if you can get as much or more material reward by mimicking honesty (and really being dishonest), you should do it. But this doesn’t apply to running. There is no running without moving your legs. So if you have a trumping reason to run, you have a trumping reason to move your legs, whether we call the latter “instrumental” or not.


  3. Pingback: Morals and the Free Society: 9. Aristotelianism, Part 1—Natural Human Functions Can Be Investigated Scientifically | Policy of Truth

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