Rand’s Metaethics: A Reply to Don Watkins’s Nonobjective Review

Last year I released my book, What’s Wrong with Ayn Rand’s Objectivist Ethics, in which I criticize Rand’s formal metaethical theory (and defend various aspects of Rand’s broader moral theory), and I have written several essays on the topic since.

In his July 21, 2019, review (“Atlas Neutered: Ari Armstrong’s Straw Man Attack on Objectivism“), Don Watkins ignores almost all of the substance of my book, grossly distorts what he does address, and descends into juvenile name-calling, assuring his readers that I wrote my book in “bad faith” and that I am guilty of intellectual “theft” (my exhaustive citations notwithstanding).

For Watkins as for some of his social media contacts, who gleefully took Watkins’s review as an opportunity to publicly condemn me morally, it is not enough that I am wrong; I must also be evil. If someone wrote a parody of an Objectivist book review, drawing on the worst stereotypes of Objectivists, it would partly read like Watkins’s review of my book.

Watkins’s essay is especially disappointing because Watkins often writes good content applying Rand’s moral theory to the issues of the day. (Even in the essay at hand, Watkins does a good job of recapitulating key elements of Rand’s moral theory.)

Watkins is a leader among Objectivists, which, unfortunately, means that, when he acts like a jerk, he encourages some others in the Objectivist movement to do likewise. (Some self-proclaimed Objectivists don’t need much encouragement.) That is bad for the Objectivist movement. Thankfully, from what I can tell, the overall trend is for other Objectivist leaders to proactively encourage a more friendly and benevolent stance toward others.

I do not count myself an Objectivist—I take seriously the view that Objectivism is Rand’s philosophy as she defined it—but I consider myself a “fellow traveler” with Objectivism. I think that Rand got most things right and that the world desperately needs to hear her ideas. So I would very much like for certain Objectivists to stop corroding their own movement from the inside.

I am not going to attempt a comprehensive reply here. I wrote the book to lay out my case, and I have written lengthy subsequent essays further elaborating my positions. Those with a serious interest in understanding my case know where to look. My goal here is include enough content to indicate the major problems with Watkins’s review.

Rand’s Metaethics

In his section “The ‘Survivalism’ Straw Man,” Watkins properly points out that some of Rand’s critics have wrongly criticized her for supposedly “championing nothing more than staving off imminent death” (Watkins’s terms). Watkins acknowledges that I do not make that sort of error.

But then Watkins badly distorts what I do say about Rand’s ethics. He acknowledges that I see Rand as advocating “robust, long-term survival,” and I do, but I do far more than that. Besides offering a sympathetic treatment of Rand’s conception of selfishness in my opening chapter—a chapter that Watkins does not mention—I also discuss the role of pleasure, art, virtues, and happiness in Rand’s theory (see my pp. 40–41 for my initial summary of these issues, which I then go on to discuss in more detail later). I also offer a detailed discussion of Rand’s comments about “man qua man” (pp. 86–90) and the choice to live (pp. 90–99).

Yet here is how Watkins characterizes my interpretation of Rand’s moral theory: “Rand’s ethics is not about achieving life-sustaining values, but about an obsessive avoidance of the grave.”

Here is the quote that Watkins uses out of context to support his claim: “Rand is . . . building a survivalist standard—to be moral a person must strive to keep himself as far away from death as possible over the course of his lifespan” (my p. 88). But this remark is about the logical structure of Rand’s metaethical position, not about an “obsessive” psychological state of Objectivists, as Watkins pretends.

The quote taken in context will give readers a better idea of what I’m after here. This occurs in my section, “Man Qua Man” (on pp. 87–88), about a section of Rand’s essay, “The Objectivist Ethics” (p. 24 in my edition). Some Objectivists (as well as various critics of Rand) in effect interpret Rand’s comments here as Rand rejecting, turning away from, or adding something fundamentally novel to her earlier metaethical claims. That’s not what she’s doing, as I explain:

Some readers might be tempted to fixate on Rand’s rejection of “survival at any price” and think that she is after survival of a particular quality or survival plus values apart from survival. But in 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. So Rand definitely would not say that a person who happens to be alive thereby demonstrates that he is moral, because the person, through his actions, might have brought himself close to death (or closer than he needs to be) and made his survival precarious.

Rand is still building a survivalist standard—to be moral a person must strive to keep himself as far away from death as possible over the course of his lifespan. Rand does not here undermine the fundamental importance of survival in her moral theory; she explains what long-term survival requires. Remember that “reason is man’s basic means of survival” for Rand: We should note well what is the means and what is the end. Survival remains the ultimate value that all other values support.

My interpretation of Rand on this point is not strange or unique or, among serious Objectivists, controversial. It is simply a straight-forward reading of Rand’s essay, “The Objectivist Ethics.” My interpretation is consistent with that of every serious Objectivist scholar, including Leonard Peikoff (“Objectivism says that remaining alive is the goal of values and of all proper action”), Tara Smith (“The life-or-death alternative . . . stands at the foundation of all” other alternatives), and Allan Gotthelf writing with Gregory Salmieri (“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”). See my previous essay on the point for citations.

Indeed, my interpretation is consistent with Watkin’s own interpretation of Rand’s moral theory as he presents it in his review of my book:

Rand is often accused of playing bait and switch here [in the section about “man qua man”]: of adding something to the ultimate value over and above survival. But “man’s life qua man” doesn’t add any new information. It specifies what is contained in her conception of the ultimate value—namely, the fact that man’s basic means of survival is reason.

Watkins simply misunderstands my position and the nature of my critique of Rand’s metaethics. Consider his remark:

[P]eople often act in order to enjoy life rather than avoid death: “We eat to live but people often live to eat,” Ari explains. [This is a paraphrase of something I write on p. 64.] But this, he insists, is inconsistent with Rand. When we eat a meal, on her view, we aren’t supposed to do it in order to enjoy the meal. [We] are supposed to view it as purely a nutrition delivery mechanism, each bite taking us one more step away from starvation.

Really? Where do I say that, on Rand’s view, people are not supposed to enjoy a meal? Watkins offers no citation—because I say no such thing. Watkins is simply Making Stuff Up and attributing to me views that I explicitly reject.

For example, I write, “No doubt simple pleasures, sensibly pursued, can feed a person’s drive to live” (p. 68). And: “Rand sees rewards not only in material terms but in spiritual terms” (p. 67). I also quote Peikoff’s remarks about the “spiritual need” of sex (my p. 72). And I note:

When Rand refers to a joyful experience or to happiness broadly as an end in itself, she means that the experience does not have a direct tangible benefit. Rand is not saying that an experience of meaning or pleasure or happiness is valuable apart from its relationship to survival; she is saying that such an experience can reflect the pursuit of life-furthering values and can serve to motivate the pursuit of survival. (p. 73—see the entire section, “Ends in Themselves,” pp. 72–74.)

Ironically, Watkins’s claims that I straw-man Rand’s position rest on his own straw-manning of my position.

Value Integration

Later in his essay, Watkins addresses my proposed alternative to Rand’s metaethical theory, which I call value integration theory. Obviously, even if I am wrong in my approach to metaethics, that does not imply that Rand is right in her approach. But I do think I’m right.

Ignoring almost all of the substance of my final chapter, Watkins claims that I am a moral subjectivist along the lines of Hume, and that my position amounts to the view that we should embrace certain values (or not) “just because I feel it.”

My actual position is that people should rationally integrate their values. Obviously, this means that people should not pursue a value that they may “feel like” pursuing, if pursuing that value would disintegrate the person’s broader values. See my section, “Value Integration as the Basic Moral Standard.” I follow Rand’s theory of emotions, which holds that an emotion can be rooted in a false judgment and that a person in that case should not act on the emotion.

Watkins offers the following summary of my position:

And it turns out there are lots of things that Ari thinks are valuable for their own sake, apart from any contribution to life or any other goal we have: sex, a good meal, playing with children, helping a stranger on the other side of the globe, etc., etc. Our task [is] not to justify ends in . . . themselves but to organize them into a harmonious unity. And, indeed, this harmonious unity—an “integrated life”—is our ultimate value, which everyone accepts “at least implicitly.”

Watkins’s formulation is largely wrong.

I think that every value that we pursue (once we mature) should be for the sake of the ultimate value of the person’s broadly integrated life. Because a person’s hierarchy of values is enormously complex (I follow Aristotle and Rand in recognizing this hierarchy), every value we pursue (aside from the ultimate value of an integrated life) is either a means to or a constituent of some higher or broader value.

I don’t think that all instances of the potential values that Watkins mentions are necessarily valuable for their own sake; I think they can be valuable for their own sake, in the right context. On that point, I agree with Rand. Again, I think a person should pursue a potential value (such as sex) only if it integrates with his broader values. So, for example, if a person “feels like” having sex with a floozie at a bar, he shouldn’t do it because that would harm myriad other important values (such as his marriage).

If what I’m advocating sounds a lot like aspects of Rand’s moral theory, that’s because it is. Indeed, I think that Rand implicitly accepted value integration theory (or something very close to it) before taking a wrong turn with her formal metaethics. For details, see my section, “Rand and Value Integration.”

Watkins’s Personal Attacks

Watkins argues not only that I am wrong, but that I wrote my book in “bad faith” (as he titles one of his sections).

Watkins says he may “raise the issue on Ari’s honesty” because, supposedly, I “threw the first stone.” (Many children get past the “He did it first!” stage when they reach the age of around ten or twelve.) What is my great sin?

I write, “At a certain point, efforts to contort things into a survivalist ethic such as dying for a loved one or committing suicide to avoid suffering begin to look like after-the-fact rationalizations, akin to religious apologetics” (p. 79).

So my sin is accusing Objectivists of rationalizing certain moral claims. As Watkins helpfully points out, “Rationalization, Ari explains later, is a form of dishonesty.” So supposedly I am accusing Objectivists of dishonesty! I threw the “first stone,” I accused Objectivists of acting in “bad faith,” and Watkins is merely responding in kind.

It is true that I talk about “rationalization,” in the context of my section, “A Theory of Evil,” as a form of dishonesty (see pp. 165–167). But is that the only widely accepted meaning of the term? Obviously not. As Objectivists constantly (and rightly) point out, context is critical. The term “rationalize,” as related to the term “rationalism,” obviously has a distinct meaning, roughly, “the coming up with reasons unbounded by empirical facts.” Objectivists themselves very often use the term this way. I cite or use the term in that sense in a couple of other places as well (see my pp. 179 and 196).

Watkins does not approach my text with anything approaching a charitable reading; indeed, he goes out of his way to make me out to be some sort of villain and to interpret everything that I write as uncharitably as possible.

Incidentally, in a different section that I subsequently deleted, I included a footnote about the two distinct meanings of the term: “Here ‘rationalization’ means faulty explanation and does carry implications of immorality as discussed regarding Rand’s theory of evil.” In retrospect, I which I’d pulled that endnote into the section at hand. Regardless, I should be able to rely on readers to recognize that terms often carry different meanings in different contexts.

I welcome serious Objectivist critiques of my work. Objectivist scholars are thoughtful and serious people, so, if it is possible to defend Rand’s theory in light of the criticisms that I raise, they can do it. I think it is ultimately an impossible task, but I look forward to Objectivists further refining their case toward that end.

Unfortunately, Watkins’s review of my book is a step in the wrong direction.

Also unfortunately, the exchange between Watkins and me has been unnecessarily testy. Nevertheless, I respect Watkins’s broader body of work, and I look forward to promoting other new material that Watkins produces, which I anticipate will usually be great.

Image: Pieter Claesz’s Still Life with Musical Instruments