Rand’s Ethics: Reply to David W. Johnson

In his Amazon review of my book, “What’s Wrong with Ayn Rand’s Objectivist Ethics,” David W. Johnson claims that my essential point is that the “Objectivist ethics allegedly is heavily oriented toward basic survival, undervaluing . . . life’s greater potential.”

It is true that Rand’s metaethics is oriented to the individual’s survival, as I review, but Johnson’s terms “heavily” and “basic” are misleading.

The term “heavily” seems to imply that Rand’s ethics is largely but not entirely oriented to survival. That’s wrong. According to Rand’s metaethics, a person’s proper ultimate value is his own survival. It’s not as though Rand thinks a person should pursue survival a lot of the time and some other goal part of the time.

The term “basic” seems to imply a distinction between “basic” survival and rich or robust survival, a distinction that, as I explain in the book, Rand rejects. However, Rand’s metaethics certainly is oriented toward (robust, long-term, virtuous, happiness-producing) survival.

This interpretation of Rand’s theory is not merely an allegation of mine; it is a straightforward reading of Rand’s essay, “The Objectivist Ethics.” Anyone who claims otherwise is simply not paying attention to what Rand actually writes in that essay. I am concerned with Rand’s actual theory as she presents it, not with some fantasy version of her theory that many self-professed Objectivists seem to prefer.

So when Johnson claims, “A great many Objectivist adherents undoubtedly would vigorously dispute” that the Objectivist ethics is “heavily oriented toward basic survival,” he is no doubt correct, if he means “heavily” and “basic” to imply what I discuss above. But then Johnson is not actually addressing the thesis of my book. I too vigorously dispute such an interpretation of Objectivism.

If Johnson (instead or also) means, “A great many Objectivist adherents undoubtedly would vigorously dispute” that the Objectivist ethics is oriented to survival—in the sense that a person’s ultimate value is his survival—then Johnson’s claim remains true. I do not doubt that many self-professed Objectivists misunderstand Rand’s theory. They demonstrate that fact on a daily basis.

But, if we limit the discussion to serious Objectivists, no serious Objectivist doubts that Rand’s metaethics, as she presents it in “The Objectivist Ethics,” is oriented to the individual’s survival (as qualified). Following are some representative quotes.

In “The Objectivist Ethics”—the main essay in which Rand presents her formal metaethics—Rand writes that the “one fundamental alternative in the universe” is “existence or nonexistence,” and it pertains only to “living organisms.” She writes, “It is only a living organism that faces a constant alternative: the issue of life or death.” She describes life as a “process of self-sustaining and self-generated action,” and she says that the concept of “value” depends on the concept of “life” (which, again, is a process of self-sustenance). Rand claims that an organism’s physical functions are “directed to a single goal: the maintenance of the organism’s life.” She writes, “[T]he ultimate value which, to be kept, must be gained through its every moment, is the organism’s life.” She describes an actor’s ultimate value and its standard of value as its life. (See pp. 15–17.)

In Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand (OPAR)—regarded by almost every Objectivist philosopher as the most authoritative presentation of Rand’s systematic philosophy—Leonard Peikoff writes, “Only self-preservation can be an ultimate goal, which serves no end beyond itself.” He adds, “Objectivism says that remaining alive is the goal of values and of all proper action” (pp. 211, 213).

In Viable Values—widely regarded as the most important work by an Objectivist philosopher (other than Rand) specifically on Rand’s ethics—Tara Smith writes, “The life-or-death alternative . . . stands at the foundation of all [other alternatives], rendering them significant because of their impact on life.” Other things can matter, she writes, “only because of their impact on an individual’s life—on his survival and on the subordinate goals that sustain his survival.” She adds, “[L]ife is the goal and sets the proper standard of value” (p. 93).

In A Companion to Ayn Rand—widely regarded as the most important work on Objectivism by Objectivist scholars since OPAR—Allan Gotthelf and Gregory Salmieri write, “The structure of Rand’s argument makes it clear that she intended the standard of value to include only content that could be derived from the requirements of man’s literal survival” (p. 79).

Anyone who claims that Rand’s metaethics as she presents it is not oriented to the actor’s survival simply does not know what he’s talking about.

Johnson then goes on to talk about the “needs of man’s consciousness,” the cardinal values of Objectivism, and the Objectivist virtues. Johnson leaves the impression that I omit discussion of these issues, even though I discuss these topics in some detail.

Johnson’s next remark is extremely misleading in several ways. He writes:

Armstrong . . . remains “unconvinced” (p. 89) about Ayn Rand’s emphasis on “man’s survival qua man.” . . . Armstrong writes (pp. 89-90): “in effect, the ‘man qua man’ standard does serve to introduce values into Rand’s moral system that do not fundamentally support survival.” If “survival” here means “at any price” or “minimalist” or “purely physical” or “bare subsistence” (etc.), and if “support” means primarily or exclusively, then yes, of course “qua man” encompasses a wider range of human choices and actions. That’s the whole point! Ayn Rand’s ethical perspective is not limited to what she calls “survival at any price” or what Armstrong calls “survivalist ethics.”

What I find unconvincing is not that Rand emphasizes “man’s survival qua man”—she does emphasize that, as I explain in detail in my book. What I find unconvincing is the claim that various actions that Objectivists typically embrace actually serve as their moral end survival as Rand understands it. Johnson makes no effort to engage my arguments along these lines, so I will not repeat them here.

Johnson’s interpretation of my book is wrong. I take great pains in my book to explain that, by survival, Rand does not mean “survival at any price,” “minimal” survival, “bare subsistence,” or anything of the sort. Johnson attributes to me an interpretation of Rand’s ethics that I explicitly reject.

Rand is not saying, as Johnson seems to imply, that she promotes “minimalist” survival plus “survival qua man,” which somehow encompasses values beyond survival. Rather, as I explain in the book (pp. 86–90), and as anyone can read in “The Objectivist Ethics” (pp. 23–24), Rand is arguing that human beings can survive only by using reason and by advancing their rational faculty. “Survival qua man” means, essentially, “survival as a rational being.” This does not alter the fact that survival is the ultimate value in Rand’s metaethics. Rand’s point is that people cannot survive except through reason.

The problem is that a lot of self-professed Objectivists want to take the “qua man” part of Rand’s moral theory and leave out the “survival” part.

That Rand presents a survival-oriented metaethics—with all that she thinks that entails for human beings—is not in question by anyone who takes Rand’s philosophy seriously.

As I argue in my book, Rand’s theory, as she presents it, is false. I cover my main arguments in my third chapter, “The Essential Fallacies of Rand’s Ethics,” and in my fourth chapter, “The Error in Rand’s Biology.” (Johnson does not mention any of this content.) As I explain in other chapters, Rand’s theory cannot logically account for many normal human values (such as having and raising children) and various actions that Rand endorses in some contexts (such as sacrificing one’s life for a loved one).

Next, Johnson claims, “Armstrong’s book, Chapter 7 and elsewhere, seems to ignore or deny the concept of a rational being living by principles, such as respecting the individual rights of others.” Johnson’s claim is ridiculous. I explicitly endorse the “consistent application of moral principles” (p. 164). My complaint about Rand’s approach is that it does not, in its logical implications, apply proper principles with sufficient consistency. But, again, Johnson makes no effort to engage any of my arguments on these matters.

Johnson next offers a discussion of egoism in which he implies that I ignore aspects of Rand’s theory that I actually discuss in great detail, such that Rand advocates rational egoism.

In sum, Johnson either misrepresents my claims or else pretends that I do not account for aspects of Rand’s theory that I do account for. Meanwhile, Johnson makes no effort to seriously engage any of my arguments.

Unfortunately, to “Objectivists” of a certain type, Johnson’s sort of “review” offers exactly what they are looking for.

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

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