Rand’s Ethics and the Burden of Proof

I want to encourage Objectivists to bear in mind who has the burden of proof regarding Rand’s moral theory. Objectivists have the burden to prove both that the metaethics is valid and that it entails the sorts of values and actions that they say it does.

In my new book, What’s Wrong with Ayn Rand’s Objectivist Ethics, I present two chapters (“The Essential Fallacies of Rand’s Ethics” and “The Error in Rand’s Biology”) that, in my view, definitively disprove Rand’s metaethics. (To get a sense of the book, people may read the first chapter via Amazon’s “look inside” feature for the Kindle edition as well as my essay introducing the book to Objectivists.) To successfully defend Rand’s theory, Objectivists need to show, if they can, where my arguments go wrong and how Rand’s arguments succeed.

Much of the rest of my book argues that Objectivists cannot square their metaethics with various values that they embrace. To give some examples, I argue that Rand’s survival-oriented metaethics cannot account for why people normally become parents (when they do), why they might commit suicide to prevent horrible suffering, why they should respect others’ rights even in certain cases of institutional force, and why they should avoid free riding in important cases.

In these cases, I offer strong reasons, but not definitive proofs, to doubt that Rand’s metaethics works out the way that Objectivists think it does. But the burden does not rest with me to prove that Rand’s theory does not work as Objectivists say; the burden rests with Objectivists to prove that it does. I do all that I need to do and all that I think can be done in these cases: Offer strong reasons to doubt the Objectivist case.

I hope that Objectivists will pay attention to what I am actually arguing. I am arguing that Rand’s metaethics cannot account for various values that Objectivists often embrace. If I’m right, then this independently serves to reduce Rand’s theory to absurdity, because a metaethics that cannot plausibly account for many normal human values just doesn’t work.

I am not arguing that Rand or Objectivists cannot or do not embrace the values in question. They often can and do. So bringing up how many Objectivists are parents, or what Objectivists have written about parenthood and education generally (for example), does not address the question at hand. I think that Objectivists typically embrace all sorts of values that are incompatible with their formal metaethics. So the question is not whether Objectivists embrace those values, but whether they can square those values with their metaethical theory.

I hasten to point out that, even if Objectivists could plausibly explain how their metaethics accounts for some or all of the values under discussion, that still would not rebut the arguments in my third and fourth chapters (the ones mentioned above), which directly address Rand’s core metaethical theory.

To repeat: The burden of proof rests with Objectivists to prove that their metaethics is valid and that it entails the values they say it does. I welcome a serious effort by Objectivists to assume that burden in light of the challenges I raise.

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

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