My Critique of Objectivist Morality V1

Among my most recent article updates is Objectivist Ethics, a Critique. I suspect it is unsettling to my many Objectivist friends, so I am offering them a chance to critique back. But my self-interest in the matter extends beyond preserving friendships. I want to make the article better. Ideally, it should persuade Objectivists to update their philosophy from merely following Ayn Rand — errors and all — to using her works as inspiration to produce something better.

As a start, I’d like to focus on making sure I am not doing a straw man argument. In the static article, I summarized her derivation of Objectivist ethics as follows:

  1. Existence exists.
  2. Living beings must act in order to exist. The plant seeks light, the cow chews cud, the tiger hunts, etc.
  3. Man is a rational animal.
  4. Reason is man’s basic tool for survival, just as claws are for a tiger, etc.
  5. Since man is not governed by instinct, he needs rules to live by. He needs ethics.
  6. Morals thus derive from self preservation, from self interest.
  7. However, rational self-interest is socially benevolent. To steal, mooch or be a useless playboy is to violate intellectual integrity, causing the mind to melt down like a computer in an old Star Trek episode. Rational self-interest produces a drive for productivity and trade. (But not necessarily for charity towards the disabled.)

Do I have this correct? Step 7 is perhaps the most problematic. Is the Star Trek reference too cute? Obviously, Rand did not claim an immediate mental meltdown results from rejecting rationality. The destruction claimed  is considerably slower. So at the very least I intend to add “(only slower)” to the second sentence.

Also, can anyone give me a reference where Rand lays out her derivation of Objectivist ethics with all the steps intact. The first essay in The Virtue of Selfishness skips quite a few to say the least. If not, has anyone else written up such a derivation with citations of the relevant bits of Ayn Rand’s works?

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  1. I think you pretty well have it (Rand’s Ethics).

    Suffice it to say that your comment “But not necessarily for charity…” is somewhat gratuitous because if Objectivist Ethics required charity that would make it welfare and would put another’s claim above the claim of the producer.

  2. Bill, thanks for the feedback. I got rid of the gratuitous bit and tweaked as follows:

    Rational self-interest, however, is socially benevolent in many ways. To steal, mooch or be a useless playboy is to violate intellectual integrity, causing the mind to melt down like a computer in an old Star Trek episode, only more slowly. Rational self-interest produces a drive for productivity and trade.

  3. I don’t have the patience to dust off my Rand books, but methinks yer in the ballpark. She did seem to find it tragic if one did not hone the mind’s rational functions in order to maximize rational self interest. Great things come from this, and like Smith’s invisible hand, from great things come a generalized improvement in the human condition.

    The tweak “in many ways” is vital, since actual socially benevolent outcomes is a side effect, not the primary purpose of being a high-achieving Randroid.

    Going on intellectual strike illustrates the opposite, when the great minds no longer create.

    Who determines all these sorts of things is up in the air, near as I can tell.

  4. Your on the right track. Moreover, as a matter of formal philosophy Rand was weak in epistemics (she embraced Aristotle without fixing his problems), her presumption that “reason” necessitates atheism is flatly idiotic, and her
    aesthetics are childish and laughable.

    I read most of Rand a decade ago. Her assault on collectivist politics is terrific. The rest of it is junk and impressive only to people that have never studies real philosophy…

  5. Carl,

    Excellent essay that I agree with.

    Read The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt ISBN 9780307377906. We are a bit more complex than purely rational beings.

    Haidt’s conclusions about instinct / feeling / heredity being much more in charge than pure reason are a bit depressing to me. Why? Because any number of “old solutions” to human problems never worked all that well in the past — sometimes because of the selfish parts of our nature. Also, old solutions to new challenges are often very inadequate.

    For example, narrow group loyalty in a nuclear world doesn’t work.

    There is a role for reason to play for examining new ideas on their own merits. Once that’s done connection needs to be made to the feeling side of human nature.

    Any Rand made that connection brilliantly in her novels to the selfish urges in people. Humanists need to come up with a narrative as exciting to re-balance the discussion.

  6. “Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand” by Leonard Peikoff addresses your points. You seem sincere in your critique, however, you misunderstood her positions (at least at the time your essay was written).

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