Chris Sciabarra on Objectivism and Disability

Here’s a must-read interview with Chris Sciabarra at Folks magazine, on Sciabarra’s  lifelong struggle with Superior Mesenteric Artery Syndrome, along with his lifelong attachment to the work of Ayn Rand (and Nathaniel Branden).

One doesn’t usually think of Rand or Objectivism as offering much insight into the nature of disability, but Chris clearly does:

But she also helped you deal with your health issues?

Not only her work, but the work of her protégé, the late psychologist Nathaniel Branden, who became a personal friend of mine. He was known by many as the “father of the self-esteem movement.”

What did you take away from them?

Growing up, I had learned various “survival techniques” to deal with severe health problems; writing in a daily diary from age 11 was one way of articulating my thoughts and feelings. Therapeutically, it helped me not to wallow in self-pity. I learned the importance of seeing myself as a bundle of abilities and possibilities, in spite of a disability. In later years, their work helped me to understand the genuine importance that self-esteem plays in valuing our self-worth and our ability to rise above obstacles. It certainly gave intellectual weight to the old adage that with every closed door, a window opens—even if you have to kick it out to breathe freely.

That seems plausible enough to me. And valuable, as well.

That said, Objectivism does present a few odd and interesting puzzles about disability. On the one hand, one can, from the first-person perspective, learn the valuable lessons from Objectivism that Sciabarra teaches here: the lessons of graceful self-acceptance, as well as acceptance of one’s situation. Sciabarra is himself a breathtaking exemplar in this respect. I often find when I talk to him–almost always after his latest medical procedure, and after my latest romantic fiasco–that I’m the one with the whining complaints, and he’s the one with the cheerful sense of equanimity. A useful division of labor in any true friendship.

On the other hand, however, Rand and Objectivists have little time or energy to spare on disability from a third-person perspective, whether as a topic or as a phenomenon: given the way the so-called “benevolent universe premise” is often interpreted,* Objectivists regard disability as a “marginal” issue; because they do, they don’t think it requires much thought or attention. Given that, disability plays no important role in Objectivist ethical or social theory. If you ask how the disabled would fare in the ideal Objectivist society, the answer turns out to be that it doesn’t much matter, for they don’t much matter; but fear not, because in the end, things turn out all right for them.

How’s that? Well, for one thing, given the “benevolent universe premise” there aren’t enough disabled people out there to worry about. Yes, there are some, but given the benevolence of the universe, there can’t be all that many: human life is not (as Rand once put it) “one huge hospital.” Indeed, fixation on what we’re to do about the suffering of the poor or unfortunate is a sure sign of a malevolent sense of life–of a perverse desire to wallow in the messed-up and macabre.

Further, to the extent that there are disabled people out there, their needs are, as a matter of principle, an afterthought to the needs of the able: because the disabled depend for their very existence on the able, the needs of the able have to be our primary concern, whether theoretically or practically. The reverse procedure–of making the disabled our primary concern–would presumably lead to catastrophe for all concerned.

One implication of this view is that it’s a mistake to do normative theory behind a veil of ignorance, a la Rawls in A Theory of Justice, worrying about one’s place in the social lottery, worrying about how that place might adversely be affected by misfortune, or worrying about special principles to deal with it. Contra Rawls (and in an interestingly different way, contra Alasdair MacIntyre), Objectivists theorize in perfectionist vein, as though fashioning a society of supermen without disabilities of any kind; the best sort of society is one geared to the needs of–that facilitates, enables, privileges–the highest peaks of human achievement. In other words, the best society is one in which the most able are the least constrained. Given the dependence of the disabled on the able (and ultimately, on the super-able), the rising tide of ability will lift all boats. That makes the disabled better off than they would otherwise have been, and they can expect no more than that.

Put another way: since the able are normatively primary, production is normatively primary. Since production is primary, property rights are paramount. Since property rights are a species of rights, and rights are “contextually absolute” restrictions on the encroachments of others, property rights demand respect of a sort incompatible with, say, positive rights to health care or redistribution.

Though this arrangement might seem to disadvantage the disabled–it doesn’t obviously seem to be in their egoistic interests to refuse a right to medical assistance–given the “non-conflicts-of-interest” principle, that can’t be: the arrangement that best benefits the able (qua human) has to be identical to the one that best benefits the disabled (qua human).** Ultimately, then, things are better off for everyone in a world designed along Objectivist lines; indeed, things have to be better off for everyone of conceptual necessity, as the “non-conflicts-of-interests” principle implies. The principle asserts that the rational interests of rational beings acting rationally can’t conflict. Assume ex hypothesi that it’s true. Well, the able are capable of rationality, and so are the disabled; if they exercise their rationality, they have to see that their interests coincide. Granted, this coincidence of interests happens to put the needs of the able before those of the disabled, but doing so (according to Objectivism) is precisely what the interests of the disabled require.

I suspect that those hostile to Objectivism will be inclined to ignore Sciabarra, dismissing him as some sort of eccentric–a benevolent eccentric, to be sure, but still, an eccentric. Meanwhile, those sympathetic to Objectivism will be inclined to use Sciabarra’s testimony as a vindication of Objectivist doctrine, Sciabarra’s very real virtues functioning as evidence for the truth of the doctrine.

It seems to me that there’s another approach to take: take Sciabarra seriously as drawing attention to one very real aspect of Objectivism, an aspect that explains why people have been attracted to it despite what non-Objectivists have regarded as its fundamental absurdity or eccentricity. But take the underlying issues he raises seriously enough to acknowledge the tensions that, on reflection, arise within Objectivism when it comes to disability. I don’t mean to suggest that the tensions are irresolvable, or that the Objectivist Ethics is straightforwardly false. I just mean to suggest that the tensions are there, require resolution, and can’t be wished away.

It almost sounds like fodder for a dialectical inquiry. Oh the irony.

*A standard formulation of the benevolent universe premise holds that “human success and happiness are the metaphysical norm,” both teleologically and statistically; failure and misery are the deviation from that norm, whether arising from vice, error, incapacity, or misfortune. A much weaker formulation of the principle might hold that there are conditions such that human success and happiness are both conceptually and nomologically possible under them–a claim one might endorse without committing to further claims about the instantiation of the relevant conditions, or committing to claims about the likelihood or frequency of human flourishing under them.

**The underlying assumption is that there is one ideal social system for all human beings qua human, regardless of their abilities or states of disability.

11 thoughts on “Chris Sciabarra on Objectivism and Disability

  1. Thanks for this piece, Irfan. It got me thinking about the issue for the past day. It seems to me that everything you say is part of the Objectivist view of disability, but it’s not the whole story. There are at least two more pieces (this is still within orthodox Objectivism)

    1. It is not just the able people versus the disabled people, but the conflict within the individual between his able and disabled parts. A disability is generally a partial disability only. So a person retains a lot of capable parts of himself. Objectivism demands that he focus on the able parts and on developing them as much as possible, and considers this project more important and worthy of one’s time than a focus on the disability.

    A person can do this in many ways. Here are two. First, a person should identify with his strengths, and resist all temptations to identify with the disability. In other words, one should regard a disability as a side constraint only. Second, a person should focus on his disability only the minimal amount necessary to address it or keep it at bay. Extra time should be spent on developing strengths, taking pride in them, and enjoying life. A basketball player who loses a leg should of course go through a normal mourning process. But after that, he should accept the situation, find new purposes and strengths that he can develop, and get to work.

    2. All people, disabled or not, need the exceptionally capable. The need is not just for the economic benefits of their work, but also for the spiritual benefits – inspiration, admiration. So it is in the interest of all disabled people, as it is for non-disabled people, to ensure that the most capable are free to Produce and achieve. I can’t think of any disability that I would consider harder to handle than losing the things I most admire.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ray,

      Thanks for responding.

      On (1): I either don’t agree with what you’re saying here, or agree with some version of it, but wouldn’t put things the way you do.

      I agree, of course, that most disabilities are partial, leaving the disabled person with some abilities and some disability. But I think it’s misleading to say that there is a “conflict” between the two aspects of the person, any more than there is a “conflict” between a normally-able person and the capacities he lacks. There is no “conflict” between my ability to walk and my lack of an ability to fly; I have the former, but lack the latter, period. A disabled person is a single, unitary entity having some capacities and lacking others, or having them in diminished form. He has to try to survive and flourish within those constraints, but doing so requires accepting the fact that both sets of facts constitute his identity. He has to acknowledge his disability, not disown it.

      The grain of truth in your claim is that a disability can either be caused by an external agent (e.g., a disease), or pose a positive hindrance to the person’s life (e.g., cause pain and suffering), So yes, I may be in conflict with the tumor inside me, and in conflict (I guess) with the pain I experience. But there is no conflict between “able me” and “disabled me,” as though I “retained” the former and somehow disowned the latter.

      Nor do I see the basis for focusing on the able parts as “more worthy of one’s time” as distinct from refusing to focus on the disabled as unworthy of it. It’s one thing to say that a person shouldn’t wallow in despair or succumb to self-pity (easier said than done, but I agree that one shouldn’t). But I don’t think it makes sense to advise a disabled person to focus on his abilities while treating his disabilities as unworthy of his notice. The person has to figure out what activities are possible to him, and at what cost, and if possible, how he’s to undertake them successfully given his special circumstances. There is no way to do this by the method you’ve described.

      Taken literally, the method you’ve described sounds like a recipe for self-deception. It’s as though someone were to say, “I am disabled, but I am going to act as though I’m not. I am going to focus on my abilities, because that’s the part of me that matters. The disabled part doesn’t matter, so I’ll ignore it–unless I’m forced to acknowledge its existence. Even then, my acknowledgement will be grudging and reluctant.” This seems to me like a very quixotic form of Stoicism rather than a realistic attitude to adopt. It reflects, not an acceptance of reality, but a failure to properly integrate the fact of being able with the fact of being disabled.

      Likewise, I don’t really understand what you mean when you say that a person should “resist all temptations to identify” with his disability. A person should identify with his identity. Disability is part of a disabled person’s identity. So there’s no way to resist the temptation to identify with it except to deny that one is disabled. Even if “identify with” means “regard as the more important aspect” I’d reject the formulation. The disabled part of the person is as important as the able part: its identity has to be actively acknowledged when undertaking planning or action, and it has its own needs. Take the case of a normally-able person: she can’t fly. But not being able to fly is just as important as being able to walk. If you’re walking by a cliff, recognition of both facts is what keeps you from going over. We tend not to pay attention to this because we (mostly) internalize or automatize our grasp of our physical limits. But workaholism is a clear (and common) case of failure to fully internalize or automatize one’s grasp of one’s limits: it’s a case where one focuses on abilities while ignoring limits on them, to one’s overall detriment.

      I don’t see that the language of “side constraints” helps here. In its original formulation (in Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia), a “side constraint” is a deontological constraint on the pursuit of a goal. But a disability is not analogous to that. To the extent that the analogy applies at all, it strikes me as harmful: it treats the recognition of reality as though it was a mere “constraint” on more important things.

      That leads to my next disagreement. You say “a person should focus on his disability only the minimal amount necessary to address it or keep it at bay.” A person has to focus on his disability to the extent that doing so is necessary for effective exercise of his capacities. There’s no a priori guarantee that the “extent” in question will be “minimal.” It depends on the case. If the disability is severe, the amount of time spent on it will be intensive. If not, not. But I think advice about minimization is out of place. I agree that the disabled person has to address his disability, but the language of “keeping it bay” sounds as though he’s to dissociate from it.

      Again, if we’re talking about the causal agent of a disability–like a disease–the language of “keeping at bay” may serve some metaphorical purpose. But one can’t literally keep the fact of being disabled at bay. It’s an ongoing condition for as long as it lasts. The basketball player in your example can’t keep his status as an amputee “at bay.” I also think it’s wrongheaded to expect someone who experiences a loss to “go through a normal mourning process” as though once and for all and be directed to “get to work” as though there’s something wrong if the mourning re-occurs. The mourning could well persist in zig-zag form–in ups and downs–across the person’s lifespan.

      On (2): I’m not disputing anything you’re saying in this paragraph, but it doesn’t address the point I was making. I think the issue becomes clear if we leave disability aside and consider a simpler example.

      Imagine two legal systems.

      (a) The first one has credit transactions but no system of bankruptcy law. If you default on a loan, you are expected to pay it regardless of any other circumstance. If you can’t, the debt is extracted from you by force. The process of extraction is either imposed until you pay the loan, or until you die. Premature death is regarded as harsh, but just: after all, you incurred the loan voluntarily, so you’re obliged to pay unto death.

      (b) The second has credit transactions but makes allowance for bankruptcy, and therefore has a system of bankruptcy law, much like our own right now. A person judged unable to pay back a loan is put into a legally protected situation precisely to avoid having to apply a disproportionate amount of force in order to collect the debt. In cases of this nature, the creditor has to take a loss, and his doing so is regarded as a risk he assumes in entering the transaction. Notice that the creditor’s property rights are not violated by the loss he takes when bankruptcy is declared. At that point, he has no right to the money that would otherwise have come to him.

      Most people would agree that debtors need creditors more than creditors need debtors. A debtor incurs debt because he needs the money–and money is precisely the thing he needs. By contrast, a creditor could likely find other uses for his money than to lend it out. So there is an asymmetry of dependence between the two. Further, creditors have rights and so do debtors. Let’s assume that neither party’s rights should be violated.

      My point is that none of those facts, individually or jointly, tells us which legal system to adopt, (a) or (b). Focusing exclusively on financial considerations, system (a) is advantageous to persons qua creditors, and system (b) is advantageous to persons qua debtors. But a just legal or social system is supposed to be advantageous to humans qua humans. Which of the two systems is advantageous qua human is not decided simply by noting the asymmetry of dependence between creditors and debtors. Nor is system (b) discredited simply by noting that it advantages the dependent party (debtors) rather than the independent one (creditors).

      I’d apply the same reasoning, with appropriate changes, to the case of able and the disabled. The asymmetric dependence of the disabled on the able doesn’t imply that a just world qua human ought to be one designed for the advantage of the able in the way that system (a) in the preceding example is designed for the advantage of creditors. I’m not disputing that the able have rights to produce (and to property) and that the disabled have (in most cases) an obligation to support and improve themselves to the extent of their abilities. The question is, on what terms. A just social system has to be advantageous to both the able and the disabled. The fact that the disabled depend on the able doesn’t by itself mean that what is advantageous to the able matters more than what is advantageous to the disabled.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Irfan, thanks for replying to my comment.

        Perhaps I used the word “conflict” imprecisely and didn’t explain what I meant fully. My main point is that your presentation of the objectivist view in incomplete in that it focuses on able PEOPLE versus disabled PEOPLE. In reality there are also disabilities and abilities within each individual, to varying degrees. This fact substantially changes the objectivist view. If individuals were segregated into disabled and able people, there would be more of an obvious conflict between whether to focus on the needs of one, or the needs of the other.

        The “conflict” I was referring to is a choice that each individual has to focus on developing his abilities versus dwelling on his disabilities. Obviously one needs to be honest about one’s disabilities, face them head on, and address them. I didn’t mean to imply otherwise. But an individual also has a choice of identifying with a disability, of making it central to his character – that would be immoral in most cases. The difference is that the moral person thinks of himself as able despite a disability, and identifies with the ability more than the disability, whereas the immoral person thinks of himself as a victim of his disability. Objectivism offers people the former over the latter.

        By the way, when I said “minimal amount necessary to address it or keep it at bay”, I didn’t mean that the amount of time necessary would always be minimal. Nor did I mean that a mourning process is always complete within a specified period of time. But in most cases, mourning is short lived. Lastly, by “keep at bay” I meant prevent a disability from significantly impairing one’s productive pursuits.

        This might help drive my point home: what I’m advocating is vaguely similar to a process that Rand says is involved in the work of an artist. Each individual has to be honest about his entire self. But he shouldn’t treat all aspects of himself equally. There’s a decision that he has to make about what’s important and what’s not important. I’m saying that people should treat disabilities as unimportant aspects of themselves. Even if a severe disability takes up 75% of one’s time, the productive 25% is more important.

        Now regarding my point #2, I don’t think your example of creditors and debtors is a good one. Both offering credit and taking on debt can be productive purposes in an economy, or essential aspects of productive activities. So it is important in this case to have policies in place that ensure that both activities can be undertaken, and both are protected. But disability qua disability offers no benefit to any individual.


        • On issue (1): I agree a lot more with the formulations in your most recent comment than I do with the ones in your original comment. As I said, I wasn’t sure whether I was literally disagreeing with the substance of your claims, or with the way you were putting them.

          Even where I basically agree, however, I still think you are over-simplifying psychological issues that are more complex than you’re making them. Let’s agree that a disabled person should do what he can to identify and make use of his abilities, rather than fixating on his disabilities, and exaggerating specific disabilities into a blanket identity of “victimhood.” Let’s also agree that a disabled person has to face his disabilities honestly, acknowledge them, and think, plan, and choose accordingly. Given that agreement, this passage still strikes me as a mixture of true and false claims:

          But an individual also has a choice of identifying with a disability, of making it central to his character – that would be immoral in most cases. The difference is that the moral person thinks of himself as able despite a disability, and identifies with the ability more than the disability, whereas the immoral person thinks of himself as a victim of his disability.

          Your phrase “identifying with a disability” strikes me as ambiguous. It could mean fixating on the fact that one has a disability in such a way as to forget that one is also able. But it could also mean accepting that one has a disability, accepting the limitations of this disability, and accepting one’s identity as partly able but significantly disabled, without letting the latter fact adversely affect one’s self-esteem. If “identify with a disability” means the first, we’re in agreement. If it means the second, we disagree.

          But in a more general way, I think your view fails to acknowledge the difficulty, in the concrete case, of distinguishing these two things from a first person perspective. It’s crucial for a disabled person to distinguish between over-fixation on the disability and honestly acknowledging his identity as disabled. You’re making a charge of immorality without acknowledging the difficulty. Given the difficulty of the task, some failure is inevitable. But if failure is inevitable, it’s a serious mistake to say that identifying with a disability would be immoral “in most cases.” In most cases, identifying with a disability in the problematic fixation sense is likely to be an inevitable outcome of the sheer difficulty of the struggle involved. It’s a failure, to be sure, but a failure that’s so predictable and understandable that it’s unlikely that most cases of it are immoral.

          I agree that a virtuous person thinks of himself as able despite having a disability, though I would be reluctant to say he identifies more with the ability than the disability–for fear that using such language would incline him to disown the part of him that is disabled and treat the able part as “the real” him. But I understand what you mean, so I won’t claim that “identify more with the ability” is literally false. That said, where is the immorality in regarding himself as a victim of the disability? He is a victim of the disability! Yes, there is more to him than simply being a victim of his disability. But if he is a victim, his regarding himself as a victim is not immoral–it’s the recognition of an obvious truth.

          He may not be a “victim” in any sense that implies that nature is his “victimizer.” But a huge part of being seriously disabled is coming to terms with the fact of one’s misfortune, and doing so relative to others’ good fortune. You can’t deal with a serious disability by saying, “Well, I’m seriously disabled, but let me put that aside. The more important point is: I have abilities.” That’s one part of dealing with disability. There are other parts of it, equally important. If the disability is intrusive, the frustrations it involves will be constant. If so, the task of dealing with constant frustration will also be constant. Frustration leads inevitably (not culpably) to having systematically mistaken beliefs about the world. In cases of serious disability, it will be a constant, permanent task to deal with this not a once and for all “Well, I’ve gotten that unpleasant silliness over with, so it’s on to the next achievement”!

          It is one thing to say, “No one should ever think about one’s own fortune relative to anyone else’s fortune!” But that’s not realistic advice. It’s an inevitable, predictable fact that people do and will compare their fortune with that of others, and in cases of misfortune, will face the major problem of getting lost in this thought. For obvious reasons, one can’t face that problem by installing a censor in one’s head that says: “Never compare your misfortune with anyone else’s good fortune!” Short of installing a censor in one’s head, one has to figure out how to deal with the inevitable, recurrent tendency to ask, “Why did this happen to me? Why was I victimized by this misfortune?” You have to avoid getting lost in that labyrinth without demanding an inappropriate form of self-deception that censors the thought as such.

          The first step toward dealing with such feelings is to admit that you are a victim. If you woke up one day to the discovery that a tumor in your brain was first going to destroy your brain, then kill you prematurely, it would not be wrong to think: “Though no one has literally done this to me, I’m still a victim; the life I thought I would lead is never going to happen, and the life I am going to lead will fall far short of what I might have accomplished.” If you don’t want to call that victimization, it’s still pretty tragic. If you don’t want to use the word “tragic,” you’d have to admit that it’s pretty sad. On the one hand, you’d want to make sure that the sadness didn’t come to encompass your life. But on the other, it would be an equal and opposite mistake to claim–in the name of maintaining a “positive outlook”–that the sadness wasn’t there, or that there was no reason for it to be there.

          On issue (2): I think the example illustrates what I set out to illustrate. Debtors depend on creditors in a way that creditors don’t depend on debtors, but it doesn’t follow that an ideal social system should, for that reason, be tailored to the advantage of creditors. I wasn’t talking about either qua economic producers; I was talking about both qua human. I also think that institutions like bankruptcy law reflect the justified belief that it’s not to our advantage qua human to have institutions that make impossible demands of basically virtuous people who face misfortune (and fail) through no fault of their own. Breach of contract is a failure, but the usual remedy is monetary damages rather than specific performance. Failure to pay a debt is a failure, but we don’t demand payment-unto-death; we have bankruptcy protection.

          Likewise, in the case of disabled people who use wheelchairs (to cite just one example), we don’t allow them to use wheelchairs on the sidewalks but then confront them with the impossible dilemma of what to do when they reach the curb: stop there indefinitely for fear of negotiating the curb, or drive directly over the curb and fall into the street. We now install a curb cut so that the wheelchair can go up or down without falling over.

          It would be beside the point to say, “Well, wheelchair users depend for their well-being on the good will of municipal planning authorities, engineers, construction workers, and fully able taxpayers, but all four categories could exist very well without wheelchair users. So let the wheelchair users find their own way over the curb. And if their wheelchairs fall into the street, dumping the user in the intersection, so be it.” It’s an implication of my original post that a social system that makes a virtue of the preceding sentiment is inferior to one that rejects it.


          • Though I link to this in my discussion with Stephen below, there’s no harm in repeating it: a great deal of my thinking on disability has been shaped by the experiences of my friend Carol Welsh, who’s suffered from an ependymoma (malignant by location) since the year 2000. She’s chronicled her 18-year struggle in literally excruciating detail on her website:


            I think you can see concrete examples of my claims in the parts of her experience that she describes.


  2. Thanks for these reflections on disability, Irfan. One thing that strikes me about the disability-life of Chris and (a big stretch of) my own is that we continue to have productive purpose. We are creative people and continue on with that as best we can. That sort of non-commercial productivity can be a central organizing principle of one’s life if one is a creative self-mover, along the lines Rand described for her basic ethics, though without the commercial aspect in her fictional characters illustrating that central individual productivity and its virtue. I can’t imagine me being any other way, until I lose ability for abstract thought, all motor ability, etc. So I hardly think of it as something to my moral credit, though it is something greatly to my happiness and fulfillment (as opposed to boredom or despair, say). It has appeared to me, however, that most people are not like we hopelessly creative people. They have passionate enduring hobbies, but when they become commercially disabled or come to commercial retirement, that career ended, they do not have some all-consuming continuing central productive purpose. The absence of assimilation of the ways of goodness in retirement life has long struck me (I mean friends beat me over the head with it decades ago) as sign of error in Rand’s basic ethics or an inadequate expression of her conception.

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    • I think your comment gets at a real ambiguity–or series of them–in Rand’s conception of productiveness.

      One contrast I’ve always drawn is between productive work and productiveness. Productive work is an activity, productiveness a trait of character. I have always assumed that, as an activity, productive work contrasts with leisure (a perfectly legitimate activity), whereas productiveness, as a trait, contrasts with non-productiveness, a vice. Productive work is supposed to be the central organizing activity of a good human life, with leisure at its periphery. But productiveness is the trait that enables the agent to achieve the right balance of work and leisure. Carrie-Ann Biondi and I had an exchange with Eyal Mozes on this topic in Reason Papers back in 2013:


      Biondi and Khawaja:

      But the concept of productive work (or activity) presents its own problems. Objectivists have employed broader and narrower conceptions of it.

      1. In its broadest sense, the concept refers to any self-generated, self-sustaining, life-promotive action. In this broad sense, it subsumes leisure. So a retiree at leisure can be productively employed as long as he’s making good use of his retirement.

      2. In another sense, productive action is anything that qualifies as work as contrasted with leisure. (This is the sense Biondi and I were employing in our exchange with Mozes in Reason Papers.)

      Actually, “work” is itself a troublesome concept. (2a) In one sense, “work” refers to any specifically remunerated activity–to commercial exchange. But that seems both too broad and too narrow. Too broad, because fraudulent or criminal work is not genuine work, even if remunerated. And too narrow because (2b) some things seem a lot like work–child-bearing, child-rearing, housework, caretaking–even when they’re not remunerated.

      Most disabled people are capable of productive work in sense (1). Many are capable of it in sense (2). But some are only capable of it in (2b), rather than (2a): a friend of mine has been disabled for almost 20 years in that sense. She can’t work for remuneration; the work she does full time is dealing with her disability. I’m not sure that Objectivists would treat that as an instance of productive work, but I think it is.

      I was at first tempted to say that in your comment, you were using “productivity” in sense (1) above. Then I began to think that you might have something like (2) in mind. But on a closer reading, I think you may have something else in mind altogether: (3) an intense, animating purpose–not necessarily remunerated, but distinct from most of one’s other purposes–that persists across a lifetime, and enables one to maintain a single-minded focus across life’s vicissitudes, including disability.

      I’m not entirely sure whether these ambiguities indicate a defect in Rand’s conception (e.g., an equivocation), or the sheer breadth of her conception of the phenomenon.

      P.S., Eyal has his own take on the issue here.

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      • Thanks, Irfan, for those distinctions and links to related discussions. In connection with Rand’s philosophy, my interest was only with your #3. That is what she was holding up in her ideal fictional characters, and proclaims in her ethical theory as here:

        “Productive work is the central purpose of a rational man’s life, the central value that integrates and determines the hierarchy of all his other values.”

        “‘Productive work’ . . . . means the consciously chosen pursuit of a productive career, in any line of rational endeavor . . . .”

        That leaves open whether this sort of work is commercial or not. I think it’s wrong in either case. Yes, I’m much like that. So was Rand. It’s a good thing. It’s not the only form of giving purpose to a human life by one’s own authority that is effective and good. That’s the mistake. The overgeneralization of what choosing to make a life, a rational life, looks like. But then I disagree importantly with Rand on what is fundamental human nature and living nature more generally, so I’ll file this modest difference to look at in the future in that larger folder.

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        • I actually took the first of the two quotations you cite as an instance of my sense (2), not (3). The quotation requires a contrast between production and non-production, where both are elements of a good life, except that production is central and non-production is peripheral. I used “leisure” as the contrast to production. Of course, if we take the geometric metaphor literally, it’s ambiguous: if we imagine a life as a circle, “the center of the circle” could either be a point at the center, or an internal polygon of unspecified area at the center. Less metaphorically, even if we grant that production is at the center, it’s not clear how much space it takes up, or what’s left over when it’s done.

          The second quotation you cite makes it sound as though a rational person tries to have one and only one career across his lifespan. If a person with an interest in philosophy has a career as a engineer, then retires from engineering and devotes his time to philosophy, is that one unified career devoted to reason; one career devoted to engineering followed by a non-career interest in philosophy; or two careers, one devoted to engineering and the other to philosophy? I’m not sure.

          Incidentally, the passage relevant to sense (1), the broadest sense, is this one from “What Is Capitalism”?

          In order to sustain its life, every living species has to follow a certain course of action required by its nature. The action required to sustain human life is primarily intellectual: everything man needs has to be discovered by his mind and produced by his effort. Production is the application of reason to the problem of survival. (p. 8 in the Centennial Edition, p. 17 in other editions).

          Does “production” then refer to any application of reason to the problem of survival? If so, “production” would refer to any virtuous action, including the choice (when justified) to stop working and engage in leisure. Taken literally, the preceding claim of Rand’s seems to imply that leisure pursuits are themselves acts of production–which ends up blurring the distinction between productive work and everything else.

          Maybe those particular implications were unintended, but she surely has to concede that a person’s struggle with a disability is an application of reason to the problem of survival, hence an instance of “production”–whether or not it produces a product beyond the person’s survival, and whether or not it’s a commercial act.

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          • Choice to apply reason to the problem of survival. Stop. That is enough for that middle slot between reason and self-esteem. Production can be fitted within that, rather than trying to fit that into “production.” I don’t mean that by way of reflecting Rand’s thought, but by way of just counting a wrong timber of Rand’s wrong and replacing it.


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