Friday, March 15, 2013

A few points on Ayn Rand's philosophy

I posted this on a Goodreads thread about the book, Atlas Shrugged and Jesus Wept. I have not read it, but the comment thread was interesting. Whenever I see discussions of Ayn Rand's philosophy, I look for misrepresentations, which is not hard to do, and do my part to correct them. I'm all for criticizing ideas, but at the very least, a critic needs to first understand what they are criticizing. Straw men, after all, are easy to pull apart.

My response was inspired by this comment: "I think it's refreshing to read about a true right wing believer, as opposed to these modern day right-wingers who are more concerned with what others are doing than with themselves."


I think a more accurate description of her political philosophy is libertarian, as opposed to labeling her as a "true right wing believer."


A libertarian can hold liberal views on people's personal lives as well as economic liberal (pro-free market) views. Plus, although many conservatives ("right-wingers") tend to extol the virtues of the free market, they tend not to to practice what they preach. Once in power, they are as guilty as liberal governments for bloating the size of government, intervening in the economy in all kinds of ways, including practicing crony capitalism/corporatism (i.e., privatizing profits, but socializing losses a la bailouts and business subsidies).

As to Rand's notion of rational self-interest, although I don't agree that all moral behaviour needs to be justified by appealing to self-interest, I think there is a lot everyday behaviour in which the self is the primary beneficiary of one's actions. And I believe Rand offered a reasonable humanistic ethical philosophy that can be used as a guide in pursuing one's self-interested actions. Namely, she argued for pursuing values that objectively benefit the self in terms of one's happiness or flourishing. Then she appealed to an Aristotelian virtue ethics by arguing that if we adhere to values such as self-respect, honesty, integrity, rationality, and productiveness, that we do indeed further our happiness and flourishing.

Some of her ethical claims can be testable (e.g., the link between pursuing certain virtues and one's happiness), and that's another reason that makes it a rational philosophy. In my own self-esteem research, I look at whether associating one's self-esteem with the practices of certain virtues (e.g., honesty, accountability, trustworthiness, kindness, effort, discipline), rather than depending on other people to "boost your ego," is a healthier way to maintain one's self-esteem. This idea for this research is, in part, influenced by Rand's ethical philosophy; albeit as refined by Nathaniel Branden's theorizing on self-esteem. 

My disagreement with the self-interest justification is that there can be moral beahviour in which the recipient is the primary beneficiary of a moral behaviour. Rand attempts to argue that the self must and always be the primary beneficiary of an action in order for it to be moral. I think a lot of times that is true, but not always. There will be times when you help someone and what they gain far exceeds what you receive (aside from feeling good about yourself). And moreover, that the action is morally good because the recipient has benefited from your actions. 

Where I agree with Rand is her opposition to self-sacrifice, or more precisely, that our purpose in life is to exist for others (i.e., the Christian ethic). I view this as logical impossibility because if we were truly selfless all the time, others can make unlimited demands on our time and effort. We couldn't have a life we could call our own. We could have to (guiltily) snuggles some "selfishness." And what about the people making demands of your time and effort? Are they not being selfish?
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