Rand on Biology and Egoism: A Reply to Mozes

I deeply appreciate Eyal Mozes’s thoughtful challenges to my critique of Ayn Rand’s metaethical theory, which I present in my book, What’s Wrong with Ayn Rand’s Objectivist Ethics, and in subsequent essays.

Here I reply to Mozes’s March 25, 2019, essay. My essay here is part of an exchange beginning with Mozes’s January 6 essay and continuing with my previous reply. Although I seek to put the present discussion in its broader context, I certainly do not try to recapitulate my entire case here, a fact to which I hope readers are sensitive. My goal here is to try to wrap up the exchange so that readers know where and how Mozes and I disagree.

Here is the main issue on the table: In her essay, “The Objectivist Ethics,” Rand argues that an organism’s values orient to that organism’s survival. What this means for people, who have free will, is that people should pursue their survival as their fundamental moral aim. Survival is what morality is basically about. This view is the theoretical root of Rand’s egoistic moral theory, as Rand presents it. (That said, Rand developed her basic egoistic positions before formulating her metaethics, so, to my mind, it is an open question to what degree the former actually rest on the latter.)

To survive, people must be true to their nature, Rand argues. People have long-range needs and complex psychologies, and we survive fundamentally by productive use of our reason. Also, we can survive more or less robustly. The somewhat broader statement of Rand’s position, given these facts, is that people should pursue their long-range, robust survival, which they can do only by acting virtuously (with rationality as the crown virtue), and which generally results in their happiness.

Yes, I am familiar with Rand’s remarks that she is not after “survival at any price”; I devote a section of my book to the relevant passages (pp. 86–90). Many Objectivists simply misread Rand on this point. My interpretation of Rand’s theory is fully consistent with her remarks on the matter. Following is my summary of the meaning of Rand’s remarks: “[I]n context it is clear that Rand means that ‘survival at any price’ cannot actually result in long-term, robust survival. The price that people must pay to survive long-range is to act by reason” (p. 87). For more on this point, please see my reply to David W. Johnson.

My position is that it is not true that an organism’s values generally orient to its survival; hence, Rand’s metaethics is false. Although survival is a very important moral consideration—and Rand deserves credit for emphasizing its moral importance—survival is not what morality is fundamentally about. Instead, I argue, morality is fundamentally about pursuing things that we value as ends in themselves in an integrated way. Doing this usually, but not always, involves acting to sustain our survival.

Our interests normally encompass the interests of others in profound ways, so in important contexts individuals morally act for the well-being of others rather than fundamentally for their own survival. Hence, Rand’s theory of egoism is false.

I realize (as I discuss in my book) that, both in her fiction and in her nonfiction, Rand sometimes endorses risking or even surrendering one’s life for the sake of others. This does not prove, as some Objectivists seem to think, that my interpretation of Rand’s theory is wrong. Rather, it illustrates that Rand’s theory is wrong. Rand’s contradictions in this regard do not prop up her theory but rather undermine it.

Many of my debates with Objectivists have been about whether my interpretation of Rand’s ethics is correct. A surprising number of Objectivists seem to think that Rand did not mean what she said in “The Objectivist Ethics.” My discussions with Mozes are different in that Mozes and I basically agree about what Rand’s core theory is. We disagree about whether Rand’s theory is correct and what it implies in certain respects.

Biology and Self-Interest

Important evidence that Rand is wrong about the relationship between values and survival comes from evolutionary biology. I devote a chapter to the topic in my book, and Mozes and I discuss the matter in our previous essays.

My basic point is that, generally, living things evolve to perpetuate their genes, not to maximize their personal survival. Of course, other than people, no living thing even knows that genes exist. In practice, the findings of evolutionary biology imply that living things often act for the well-being of close relatives and not just for their own survival.

Mozes and I agree about the basic findings of evolutionary biology. We agree, for example, that bees evolved to sometimes protect the hive by stinging intruders at cost to their own lives. To me, such facts provide an obvious and straight-forward refutation of Rand’s claims about the relationship between values and survival. Values just are not generally oriented to the acting organism’s survival, as Rand claims. Hence, Rand’s moral theory is false. I count the relevant evidence as overwhelming and definitive.

Mozes’s position, which he discussed previously and which he shares with Harry Binswanger (see the fourth chapter of my book for my critique of Binswanger), is that in some sense the bee that surrenders its life for the sake of the hive thereby actually acts for its own survival. As Mozes puts the point in his latest essay, if bees did not sting intruders at cost to their own lives, this “would be very likely to result in the hive being destroyed long before the bee was born.”

The relevant fact, though, is that the individual bee does not act for its own survival by doing something that helps save the hive but that causes it to die. Rather, the bee acts for the sake of the survival of the hive. The fact that previous bees acted similarly does not alter the basic dynamics.

Hence, the fact that the bee could not have acted differently does not salvage Mozes’s position, as he suggests it does. The bee’s values (what it acts to gain or keep) do not always orient to its survival. What matters is that, in fact, the bee acts to save the hive at cost to its own life. So Mozes’s note about the impossibility of an invisible gazelle is beside the point. What matters for our purposes is that gazelles, like other animals, in fact do things other than further their personal survival, such as compete for mates and devote resources to children.

At this point, I fear, some readers may lose sight of the point of the example. Obviously I am not saying that human beings live as bees. We have the capacity for choice and rational thought, and, moreover, we are social mammals rather than eusocial creatures such as bees, ants, and termites. (We needn’t get into technical debates over this; even if humans are eusocial in some respects, which I think is a stretch, still we are substantially different from bees.)

The point of the example is simply to show that Rand is wrong about the relationship between values and survival, a relationship that she saw as universal, applicable to all living creatures. The implications of this are different for bees than they are for people. There are obvious implications for people, though; for example, people sometimes risk or surrender their own lives for the sake of spouses or children. Objectivists call such behavior “egoistic” only by twisting the term beyond recognition and meaning.

Values in Themselves

Mozes rightly points out that, in my view, “the fact that we experience many values as valuable for their own sake refutes Rand’s view of survival as the ultimate end.” Mozes replies, “The fact that we experience many values as valuable for their own sake does not in any way refute Rand’s ethics,” because the goal of our “emotional capacity” as well as our “physical pleasure-pain mechanism” is survival.

Mozes misses the force of my argument in two respects.

First, the fact that we experience some things genuinely as ends in themselves implies that we pursue those things for their own sake, not for any further goal, such as survival. As I argue in the book, we pursue survival for the sake of things that we experience as valuable as ends in themselves, not vice versa.

Second, in fact we experience many things as valuable for their own sake that obviously do not have survival as their further end. For example, parents generally value the well-being of their children independently of the impact that their children’s well-being may have on their personal survival. Parents often pursue the well-being of their children even at cost to the robustness of their own survival, sometimes even to the point of surrendering their lives to save the lives of their children.

Mozes thinks that I set up a straw man, because, by Rand’s account, people typically do not explicitly think about their survival while pursuing (what she considers) lower-order values. But I do not assume that they do. Rand certainly does hold that, when appropriate, one should evaluate one’s lower-order values by the standard of personal survival and excise any lower-order value that does not serve that ultimate end.

If Rand were correct that the only way to achieve consistent happiness is by consistently pursuing our survival (although with lesser goals usually in conscious focus), then the present debate would be of little practical consequence. I would say that we should coherently pursue those things that we experience as valuable for their own sake, which requires that we consistently pursue our survival; and Mozes would say that we should consistently pursue our survival, which results in fully experiencing things as valuable for their own sake.

In fact, our proper values do sometimes diverge from our survival in important ways, and we cannot live a fully moral or meaningful life without recognizing that fact or at least implicitly accepting it, as I think nearly all Objectivists do. So the key problem for Objectivists is not, as Mozes has it, that many values play a real but non-obvious role in sustaining survival; it is that many normal values play an obvious role in ends other than survival.

The Value of Sex

Regarding sex, obviously sex did not evolve among living things in order to serve the survival of the individual creatures having sex; it evolved to promote the reproduction of the creatures having sex. For people, who often have sex outside of reproductive windows, sex serves the further evolutionary function of tying together couples so that males invest more energy in the raising of children (at least I think this is the most plausible account).

Of course, the fact that our capacity for sex arises from evolutionary pressures does not mean that we can or should have sex only to serve the evolutionary functions of conceiving children and bonding with mates to raise children. Human beings often have sex because the experience is awesome. They often take measures to avoid conceiving a child, intentionally form childless romantic couplings, and have sex other than with romantic partners (if only by themselves).

I agree with Mozes that Rand is on to something important when she describes sex at its best as “a celebration of [one]self and of existence.” But this insight does not arise from, and is not supported by, Rand’s claim that values orient fundamentally to survival. Psychologically healthy people often celebrate their lives (broadly conceived) partly through physically pleasurable activities, as by having sex, viewing art, or enjoying a fine meal. Sex, as a particularly powerful and intense physical experience, can accompany comparably intense emotional celebrations of life. This fits better with my broader conception of a human life than it does with Rand’s theory of survival-centric values.

We don’t need Rand’s metaethics to explain why a healthy treatment of sex escapes the old anti-physicality sentiments of Platonic and Christian thought and the newer materialist presumptions of Marxist (and related) thought.

The question is, should we celebrate our lives in partly physical ways as en end in itself, as I hold, or fundamentally as a means to survival, as Rand holds? At best, Objectivists can sensibly argue that the healthy pursuit of sex always, by coincidence, best furthers survival, mainly by providing people with the “emotional fuel” to go on living. Even if that is true, it does not show that people can or should have sex fundamentally in order to further their survival. As I’ve pointed out, even if a person had a condition whereby every act of sex shortened his life by some small amount, he’d probably still have a lot of sex, if marginally less. People are rightly concerned with more than their survival, as morality is fundamentally about something other than survival.

A Note on Children

In my view, having and raising children are the most important normal human values that are obviously at odds with Rand’s survival-oriented approach to ethics. As I discuss in my book, women literally put their lives at (some) risk in order to have children, and parents spend enormous resources raising children.

Bryan Caplan’s thesis, as I understand it, is that parenting need not be nearly as much work as many modern parents think. But even if we ignore the time commitments of parenting, which are substantial even with Caplan’s approach, the purely physical resources that parents devote to children are substantial.

We should not be surprised that the having and raising of children, at least in species such as humans in which adults act to help raise children, generally coincides with the successful living of the parents (at least until they become grandparents—lifespan seems to be closely related to people’s capacity to care for children and grandchildren). If this were not the case, such species would not exist. (I give examples of other sorts of species in my book.)

I recognize that concerns with personal survival properly play an important role in ethics, although not the fundamental role, so the practical moral advice that I endorse overlaps substantially with that implied by Rand’s theory. The problem for Objectivists is that they must show, not only that behavior such as having and raising children is consistent with the parents’ survival (I concede it often is), but that the fundamental moral point of having children is to further the parents’ survival. The second thesis just is not remotely plausible.

I welcome Mozes’s call for Objectivist theorists to write more on this issue, with the caveat that evidence showing a consilience between people surviving and people having and raising children is not evidence that Rand’s metaethics is correct. Good luck explaining how a parent surrendering his life for the sake of his child, as any decent parent would do in certain circumstances, is “really” an instance of the parent pursuing his survival.

The Slaveholder Example

Although institutional slavery is not a live issue within the United States and other developed nations, slavery is a live issue throughout parts of the world. There actually are cases of slavery even in the United States, although the slaveholders typically get caught. In other parts of the world, millions of people are held in slavery, and apparently in many cases slaveholders face no real threat of social or legal consequences for this.

In my book, I discuss the historical case of slavery in the American South prior to the Civil War. True, we do not face those conditions today. Still, we can legitimately ask: Given those conditions, were slaveholders in the moral wrong to hold slaves? I think the answer is obviously and emphatically yes. Mozes complains that I do not demonstrate that “unilaterally freeing one’s slaves would be the right thing to do.”

Mozes points out that, in my book, I take for granted that holding slaves is morally wrong. I argue that Rand’s moral theory logically permits slave holding under certain conditions; therefore, something is wrong with Rand’s theory. Obviously, people who reject my assumption that holding slaves is morally wrong, even in the conditions described, will not find my argument persuasive.

The problem for Mozes is that I doubt he can find any other Objectivist willing to forthrightly state, as he does, that holding slaves can be morally permissible in the conditions described.

The question is not, as Mozes suggests, whether we should express admiration for certain people who held slaves long ago. The question is whether we should count their slave-holding as morally permissible or as a profound moral failing. I think we can and should admire certain historical people who happened to hold slaves, because of the virtuous aspects of their lives, while recognizing their profound moral failings with respect to slavery.

Although I do not in my book explicitly make the formal case that holding slaves is morally wrong in the circumstances described, but take for granted that it is, I do offer the beginning of some arguments as to why it is wrong in my final chapter.

I think the problem for all Objectivists except Mozes is explaining why Rand’s moral theory logically precludes the holding of slaves even in the circumstances described. I don’t think they can do so. If I’m wrong about what most Objectivists think, and more Objectivists come out explicitly for the moral permissibility of holding slaves in the given circumstances, then I’ll rethink my approach here. But I think that Mozes’s views on the matter are idiosyncratic.

On Emergencies and Force

Mozes’s comments on my treatment of “The Ethics of Emergencies” strike me as odd, because Mozes agrees with me that the logic of Rand’s position is that it can be morally permissible to initiate force in certain emergency situations. Specifically, Mozes writes, “[I]t is not wrong to initiate force” in certain emergency cases. He writes that it is not the case that “Rand would have wanted to rule out such exceptions.”

Further, as I quote in my book, Rand explicitly said that she could kill ten innocent bystanders to save her husband’s life, and she couches her remarks in the context of a dictatorship rather than a short-lived emergency (see Ayn Rand Answers, p. 114.) I see no good reason to doubt the authenticity of this quote.

Anyway, my arguments are about the logic of Rand’s position, which, as I point out, extends beyond short-lived emergencies. If people want to argue with me about what Rand’s position logically implies, fine, but I think they have their work cut out for them.

A Note on Value Integration

I acknowledge that I need to do a lot more work to develop what I see as the most promising alternative to Rand’s moral theory, what I call “value integration theory.”

But a lot of what I’m saying strikes me as blindingly obvious to anyone who does a bit of self-reflection. We obviously do experience certain things as valuable for their own sake. We obviously do (at least sometimes) try to fit together our values into a coherent whole; for example, we strive to balance work and recreation, immediate pleasures and long-term health, and so on. The grist for my theory is not strange and inaccessible insight but the everyday experience of every human being walking the planet.

What I am trying to get people to do, and what people often do poorly, is to recognize what it is that they actually experience as valuable for its own sake, and then to consciously strive to integrate their values into a coherent life. Such is the essence of morality, in my view.

I think that Mozes’s problems with tracking what I’m saying stems from him thinking that anything that a person happens to value is something that the person experiences as valuable for its own sake, as an end in itself. A large part of my point is that people often value things for ridiculous “reasons,” and, if they seriously reflected on reality and on their deeper values, they would stop valuing those things.

Here is a simplified example. Let us say that I can convince you that there is a powerful being named Fred, and Fred insists that, every morning, you turn yourself around ten times while flapping your arms, sticking out your tongue, and saying “Kaw Kaw.” Let us call this ritual the Fred Dance. If you consistently do the Fred Dance, then Fred will reward you with a beautiful and temperate island, filled with succulent foods and beautiful and congenial people. If you refuse to do the Fred Dance, then Fred will punish you in his Temple of Torture.

If I can convince you that Fred is real, then you might well experience enormous satisfaction in doing the Fred Dance, and you might experience terror at the prospect of not doing it. Let us call people who believe that Fred is real and who do the Fred Dance Fredists.

Mozes seems to think that what I am advocating is for Fredists to integrate the Fred Dance into their lives. Obviously if such were my theory then it would be idiotic. But that is not what I am doing! Rather, I am encouraging people (in part) to stop being Fredists and the like, to stop valuing things because of irrational beliefs. If you come to the correct belief that Fred is not a real being, then you see the Fred Dance as ridiculous rather than as valuable, although this transition may involve some difficult emotional retraining.

Doing the Fred Dance is not the kind of thing that a person experiences as valuable for its own sake in any kind of primary way, in the sense relevant to my position. People do normally value material rewards and meaningful social relationships, and they also normally value the avoidance of pain and suffering. But a person can value the Fred Dance only by also embracing irrational beliefs, mainly the belief that Fred is a real being.

Mozes seems to have missed the bit that I am for the rational integration of values. The only way that we can actually integrate our values is to do so rationally. Is it not obvious that, to integrate our values, we have to give up those values (generally those rooted in irrational beliefs) that clash with our more fundamental values? The point of value integration is not to take as given whatever values a person happens to hold at the moment, however disintegrated; rather, it is to reform one’s values rationally such that they integrate. The main point of the theory is to overcome bad (irrational, disintegrative) values by replacing them with good (rational, integrated) values.

Part of my point is that doing things like forcibly imposing one’s beliefs on others and hurting others (in normal contexts) are akin to doing the Fred Dance (although obviously worse for others).

Regarding a general theory of rights, value integration readily ties into the broadly Lockean theory of rights, of which Rand’s theory of rights is a type. Rand is right that, in order to pursue our values, we need the freedom to do so. Liberty is essential to rational value integration; we cannot act to integrate our values to the degree that people hurt us and take our stuff.

The problem with Rand’s moral theory, with respect to a theory of rights, is essentially two-fold: First, it cannot logically explain why people should refrain from initiating force against others in various contexts in which they can get away with it; second, it cannot logically explain why individuals should not free ride on the efforts of others to achieve and maintain a free society. (For details, see Chapters 7 and 8 of my book.) My alternative theory offers a pathway to overcoming both of these deficits, essentially by explaining how one’s interests encompass the interests of others in more profound ways than Rand recognizes.

Obviously this discussion could go on at far greater length, and I hope to return to the relevant issues at some point. Here I will close by thanking Mozes for his insightful comments about Rand’s moral theory and about my critique of it.

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

Image: Maja Duma