Updates for What’s Wrong with Ayn Rand’s Objectivist Ethics

This is the “official” landing page for my book, What’s Wrong with Ayn Rand’s Objectivist Ethics. (Those who purchase the print copy from Amazon can add the ebook for $0.99.) Following a brief introduction, I organize the material under “Reviews and Media” and “Additional Essays.” —Ari Armstrong

Introduction

My thesis is that Ayn Rand’s survival-oriented metaethics is wrong. Rand’s case is flawed logically and inconsistent with basic facts of biology. Further, Rand’s metaethics does not square with all of the values that Rand embraces nor with all of the values that people normally embrace. My alternate view is that people experience certain things as ends in themselves (or, valuable for their own sake), and the point of ethics is to help us integrate our values.

My main focus is on Rand’s 1961 paper, “The Objectivist Ethics” (published in 1964 in The Virtue of Selfishness), although of course I also discuss numerous other works by Rand, by Rand’s supporters, and by her critics. In “The Objectivist Ethics,” Rand argues that values normally orient to life in terms of survival and that the concept of value must (rationally) be understood in light of that relationship. People, who have choice, should choose to so orient their values. More precisely, Rand argues that people should pursue their robust, long-term survival, which they can achieve only by acting virtuously (with reason as the crown virtue), and which pursuit normally results in happiness.

My interpretation of “The Objectivist Ethics” is controversial in some quarters, but my goal is to read Rand’s essay straight and to assume that Rand meant what she said. I proceed on the assumption that the Objectivist ethics is what Rand says that it is in the essay that she titles, “The Objectivist Ethics.”

True, Rand developed her formal metaethics relatively late in her thinking, and by that point she had already developed a rich (if incomplete) moral theory. Rand’s main defenders argue that Rand’s formal metaethics fits perfectly with her previous thinking and completes her moral theory. My view is that Rand’s metaethics is an errant attempt to integrate her previous thinking and that her metaethics is at odds with some of her moral commitments. (Others seem to think that Rand’s metaethics is something other than what she says it is.)

At the heart of the book are my (relatively short) second and third chapters, “Reviewing the Objectivist Ethics” and “The Essential Fallacies of Rand’s Ethics.”

My fourth chapter is titled, “The Error in Rand’s Biology,” and I want to dispel some potential misunderstandings about that. The chapter shows that Rand’s survival-oriented metaethics is inconsistent with basic biology. What I am not doing here, and what I explicitly point out that I am not doing (despite some baseless criticisms to the contrary), is arguing that people are somehow biologically determined or that people should somehow pursue their “genetic fitness” or the like. The point of this chapter is to show that Rand’s arguments about the nature of values fail. Elsewhere, particularly in my final chapter, I present my own views.

In much of the rest of the book, I show that Rand’s survival-oriented metaethics does not square with various normal human values. In various sections I further explain and critique aspects of Rand’s theory, such as her example of an “indestructible robot” and her standard of “survival qua man.”

In my seventh chapter, “Egoism and Rights,” I argue that Rand offers strong reasons for a survival-oriented egoist to respect others’ rights in the context of a generally rights-respecting society, but that her theory breaks down in the context of institutional force. In my eighth chapter, I argue that Rand’s theory has trouble handling the free-rider problem and important cases of charity.

In my final chapter, “Rethinking the Ultimate Value,” I indicate an alternate way to conceive of a person’s ultimate value, one that fits snugly with our nature as rational beings and with normal human values. I suggest that Rand follows a path similar to what I lay out before veering off course.

Some readers will be interested in my extensive notes and in my lengthy appendix, which briefly goes through major works (and some minor ones) dealing with Rand’s ethics.

For further introductory remarks, see my first chapter (which is available for free via Amazon’s “look inside” feature for the Kindle version) as well as the essays linked below. I look forward to further engaging with serious criticisms of my book.

Drafted December 12, 2018

Reviews and Media

Jason Brennan, a heavy-hitter libertarian philosopher and author of the recent books, When All Else Fails and Against Democracy (among others), posts a review at Bleeding Heart Libertarians (December 11, 2018). He writes: “An engaging discussion and critique of Rand’s metaethics and ethics. . . . I highly recommend this book for anyone interested in Rand.” I would tweak a line; Rand thinks that “only living things seem to pursue value,” as Brennan says (and I agree with Rand here), but Rand also thinks that it is demonstrably true that living things normally pursue values for the ultimate aim of sustaining their lives (which is false, as Brennan and I agree). Rand further thinks that people should pursue values for that aim.

Jon Caldara, host of the Devil’s Advocate television show, hosted a brief discussion about my book and about Rand’s cultural influence (video posted to YouTube December 11, 2018). The time here is very limited, so I could make only a few basic points.

Andreas Müller wrote up a series of essays (in German) favorably discussing my book. His related articles are dated November 30, December 1, December 3, and December 19 (all 2018). A nit: Although children do not play a major role in Rand’s fiction, they do appear (as I mention in the book).

Eyal Mozes writes in his review (January 6, 2019): “Objectivists have become jaded with critiques of Objectivism that attack ridiculous straw men, with no attempt to understand what Rand actually said; and who throw out any argument they can think of, no matter how obviously fallacious, in the hope that something sticks. Armstrong’s book is a refreshing exception. Armstrong has read Rand’s writings, and the literature discussing her ethics, with close attention, and for the most part presents Rand’s philosophy accurately, more so than many of those who claim to defend it. He devotes a lot of time to explaining Rand’s ideas and arguments, correcting common misconceptions about them, and discussing and ably answering many of the weak criticisms of Objectivism that have appeared in the literature, before presenting his own criticisms. The result is a very interesting and thought-provoking book, which, if it gets the attention it deserves, will be an important contribution to the literature on Objectivism.” (See also my reply.)

Liberty On the Rocks, Flatirons, hosted my talk on the book on January 14, 2019.

Additional Essays

How Objectivists Can Fruitfully Reply to My Critique of Rand’s Ethics
November 19, 2018
“I encourage Objectivists to stay focused on the essential issue: Is Rand’s metaethics true or false?”

Critique of Rand’s Ethics: Reply to Pseudo-Objectivists
November 25, 2018
Unfortunately, some self-professed Objectivists are trolls.

Rand’s Ethics and the Burden of Proof
November 27, 2018
“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.”

Rand’s Ethics: Reply to Dave Walden
November 28, 2018
The essay addresses the significance of human choice and reason and discusses the role of biology in Rand’s metaethics.

Rand’s Ethics: Reply to David W. Johnson
February 1, 2019
Yes, Rand is after long-term survival, which people can achieve only by using reason. This does not change the fact that the individual’s survival is the ultimate value in Rand’s ethics.

Exploring Value Integration: A Reply to Mozes on Rand’s Ethics
March 2, 2019
This lengthy essay discusses Rand’s views of biology as they pertain to her moral theory, the relationship of human values to evolution, implications of Rand’s theory, and some aspects of value integration theory.

Errata

On p. 186, third line of second full paragraph, “district” should be “distinct.”

On p. 112, n. 155, I used the story of Johnny Bobbitt as someone who “contribute[s] to the welfare of others.” More recently he was “accused of conspiring to deceive donors in a fraudulent crowdfunding scheme.” Thankfully this detail does not affect my broader point (and I use a second example here anyway).