How Objectivists Can Fruitfully Reply to My Critique of Rand’s Ethics

I have come to believe that Ayn Rand’s Objectivist ethics is basically wrong, however interesting and insightful it is in various ways. Because of my interest in the matter, and because I used to think that Rand’s theory is correct, I spent considerable effort reading about the theory and formulating my thoughts about it. I wrote up the results in my new book, What’s Wrong with Ayn Rand’s Objectivist Ethics.

I have followed Objectivist circles long enough to anticipate that my book probably will generate heated comments from some Objectivists. That’s fine, of course; part of the purpose of the book is to provoke discourse. But that discourse can follow either helpful or unhelpful paths; here my goal is to promote the former.

People who already think that Rand’s moral theory is wrong, and people looking to learn about Rand’s views, also can find my book helpful. Here I primarily address Objectivist readers.

I sincerely hope that Objectivists will make a strong effort to defeat the arguments I make in the book. Since beginning the project, I have thought that, if Objectivists can effectively rebut my points, then Rand’s theory is definitely true. In other words, I make what I think is the strongest possible case against Rand’s theory, and, if my case fails, I don’t see how any other case could succeed. (Of course at various points I invoke and develop arguments raised by others, going back to the 1960s. And, as I explain in the book, I join Objectivists in rejecting the sort of intrinsicism of philosophers such as G. E. Moore, so those who think that I’m wrong about that will think that I do not make the most important sorts of criticisms.)

I encourage Objectivists to stay focused on the essential issue: Is Rand’s metaethics true or false? The pivotal chapter in the book, “The Essential Fallacies of Rand’s Ethics,” is also the shortest. Objectivists who criticize the rest of the book, yet ignore that chapter, will have missed the point. To defend Rand’s theory, Objectivists need to explain how and why Rand’s basic metaethical arguments hold up. They cannot merely argue around the edges of the theory, as though volume of commentary could substitute for establishing the essential point.

I raise this issue because, by page count, much of my book is devoted to implications of the theory. I see this material as supplemental yet important to my main case. I offer an avalanche of evidence that I think adds up to a very powerful case.

I acknowledge that various points that I make are not definitive arguments. They are instead plausibility claims. Rand’s theory just cannot plausibly explain many normal human values, I argue. Examples include having and raising children, pursuing various pleasures, rationally committing suicide (say to prevent great suffering), respecting others’ rights in important contexts, avoiding free riding (again in important contexts), and engaging civically. It is the weight of evidence that I find compelling as supplemental to the main case.

Yet my basic case against the metaethics does not depend on me being right about all of the implications. Even if Objectivists could effectively rebut some of my plausibility arguments (which I don’t think they can), that would not defeat the overall case. I say again: The metaethics must be tackled head-on.

I hope that Objectivists will reserve final judgment of my book until they read the final chapter. There, I formulate a person’s ultimate end differently than Rand does, yet, as will be obvious, my approach remains close in important respects to what Rand offers. I see Rand’s approach and my own as within the broadly Aristotelian tradition; they are theoretical cousins. Indeed, as I argue, Rand in some of her earlier work and various Objectivists in their mature work follow a path similar to what I lay out. Operationally, I think many Objectivists already implicitly embrace the moral theory that I outline in my final chapter.

Objectivists can value my book, although it is basically critical of Objectivism, for three main reasons (other than the primary reason that I make a strong case).

First, I give Rand a full and respectful hearing. My entire first chapter is a (mostly) sympathetic treatment of Rand and her conception of selfishness. I read Rand’s main works carefully, and I also read “the literature” about her moral theory. (Tracking down various, now-obscure essay from the 1970s was a chore.) Readers might quibble with how I interpret various remarks by Rand and others—I will be happy to respond to such criticisms—but I think no one can rationally deny that I make a full and sincere effort to present Rand’s theory accurately and in context.

Indeed, if I stripped my critical commentary from the book and lightly edited the rest, the result would be a pretty good introduction to Rand’s moral theory.

Second, at some points I offer comments on Rand’s theory that probably will be helpful to its advocates, as with my section about the choice to live. And many Objectivists will find my appendix, in which I briefly go through major works on Rand’s ethics, to be helpful.

Third, my book opens up some good opportunities for Objectivists to explain and defend Rand’s moral theory. I’ll outline three examples.

a) I argue that Objectivists have a hard time squaring parenthood with the Objectivist ethics. Parenthood is basically other-oriented, while Objectivism is basically self-oriented. Although many Objectivists are parents or are involved in the education of children, Objectivists have written surprisingly little about parenthood as it relates to the metaethics.

b) I argue that the Objectivist theory of rights runs into trouble in the context of the institutionalization of force. I frame the issue in a distinctive way and review the most important arguments, pro and con.

c) I do the best I can to recreate the Objectivist case against free riding, but Objectivists have written very little on the topic. When they have written on it, sometimes they have misunderstood the essential issues at stake.

Consider my book, in part, an open invitation for Objectivists to further address these topics and others.

Some people, I recognize, will argue that I fundamentally misunderstand Rand’s metaethical theory.

To summarize the theory, as I understand it: Values, Rand holds, orient to an organism’s survival. For people, who have choice, values should orient to a person’s survival. Yes, yes: I am well aware that Rand is after robust, long-term survival; that, as Rand holds, people survive in particular ways; that, for Rand, such survival requires virtue and results in happiness; and that “survival at any price” is not Rand’s standard. I review such matters in detail in the book. Still, the issue of life as opposed to death is central to Rand’s approach.

Two main groups will question my interpretation of Rand’s metaethics.

The first group, including scholars such as Chris Matthew Sciabarra and Neera Badhwar, argue that Rand’s metaethics is not “survivalist” in orientation because (to simplify) Rand’s conception of “life” is sufficiently rich that survival does not capture what she is after, and many values that Rand embraces do not fit a survivalist framework. But, as I discuss at length in the book, Rand’s metaethics is survivalist in the relevant sense as Rand presents it. My goal is to read Rand straight and assume that she meant what she said. Whether Rand’s metaethics implies what she thinks it implies is a different question; I maintain that, in important ways, it does not.

The second group includes Objectivists who, in effect, so expand their conception of “life” that their theory cannot sensibly be described as survivalist. The problem with this approach is that it is ultimately self-contradictory. The position is essentially this: “People should act to sustain their survival as the sort of beings that they are;  and they are the sort of beings that sometimes pursue values that do not sustain their survival.”  At that point the theory is not even coherent. Rand’s actual theory at least is coherent, and we pay Rand a compliment by recognizing as much.

It might be helpful here to mention a couple of key developments in my thinking on the general topic. The first was my understanding of basic evolutionary biology as articulated by scientists such as Richard Dawkins. As I argue in a chapter in my book, Rand’s biological claims just don’t hold up—and those claims are relevant to her metaethics. The second was my thinking about values as children pursue them, when they first start to think abstractly. Children soon realize (implicitly at first) that they have to make trade-offs among their values, that they sometimes have to accept some pain now (as with a vaccination shot) for future benefit, and that they sometimes have to defer gratification for future gains. Such was the seed for my final chapter.

I close on a note about social implications. Many of my friends and friendly associates I have met through a shared interest in Ayn Rand. It is awkward, then, to criticize fundamental ideas embraced by so many people whom I admire and respect.

Yet I cannot profess to believe ideas that I no longer believe. As I wrote last year, I no longer count myself an Objectivist—because Objectivism is a particular philosophy that I no longer accept in important fundamentals. As I wrote then and as I believe now, I see myself as a “fellow traveler” with Objectivists on many important matters.

The essence of Objectivism is that people should seek to independently understand reality based on their observations of reality and their logical thinking about those observations. Objectivists may conclude that my book is wrong in key ways. But I think they will understand that I did the best I could to make rational sense of the issues at hand and that I cannot pretend to think other than I do out of a worry about social awkwardness.

If Objectivism could be distilled to three words, they would be these: Think for yourself. That I am seeking to do so, I think, is the ultimate compliment that I could pay to Ayn Rand—even if I am wrong.

And if I am wrong, then Objectivists will be able to demonstrate why I am wrong. They have their work cut out for them. I look forward to further defending my case.

Update: Someone suggested to me that some people who may wish to comment on the book may not have easy access to a good public forum in which to do so. People who wish to ask a question, or state a tersely formulated criticism, are welcome to write to me, and I’ll probably write up an article responding to such comments.

See also the landing page for the book for reviews, media, and additional essays.