Rational Egoism Essay

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Ayn Rand’s Normative Ethics: The Virtuous Egoist, by Tara Smith. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006. 328 pp. $80.00 (cloth), $25.99 (paperback).

Ayn Rand’s ethics of rational egoism has long been maligned and dismissed without being understood, particularly by academics. Today, while ever-more introductory texts in philosophy include discussions of her Objectivist ethics, they routinely distort her views. For example, in his widely used text The Elements of Moral Philosophy, James Rachels ignores Rand’s actual meta-ethical argument for egoism, instead attributing to her an invented four-step argument against altruism.1 In direct contradiction to her view of interests as objective and her intransigent defense of individual rights, Rachels asserts that egoism would “endorse wicked actions” such as fraud, rape, theft, child abuse, and sexual slavery so long as the egoist could avoid detection and punishment.2 In considering the standard objection that egoism fails to resolve interpersonal conflicts of interest, Rachels seems unfamiliar with the Objectivist view that the interests of rational men do not conflict, as he suggests that the egoist’s position might be that “life is essentially a long series of conflicts in which each person is struggling to come out on top.”3 Ultimately, Rachels describes egoism as a form of arbitrary prejudice for oneself, akin to racism and nationalism.4 Although other introductory texts offer somewhat more accurate—and less snide—discussions of Rand’s egoism, major distortions are standard.

Serious misunderstandings of Rand’s egoism are not limited to her detractors in academic philosophy. Writers in the popular media often express similar views, such as describing the unscrupulous Gordon Gecko of the movie Wall Street as someone who “could have been a Rand disciple.”5 Even people inspired by the moral ideals portrayed in Rand’s novels The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged commonly err in thinking that her ethics demands the repression of feelings, sanctions bitter isolation from others, or endorses “do what you please” self-indulgence. People quite familiar with Rand’s philosophical writings often struggle with questions and confusions about the demands of rational egoism, such as whether honesty requires always speaking one’s mind and when to forgive a friend for a broken promise.

Although some confusions about Rand’s egoism undoubtedly stem from willful ignorance, carelessness, or even hostility, some are perfectly innocent misunderstandings. Grasping the abstract meaning and concrete demands of the principles of the Objectivist ethics requires considerable time and effort. Rand’s ethics is not a minor variation upon a familiar old theme: It is a major departure from traditional moral systems, particularly the varieties of altruism borne of Christianity. It upholds productiveness and pride as moral virtues while rejecting canonical virtues like charity and humility. The authority of ethics is not derived from divine commands, categorical imperatives, mysterious intuitions, raw feelings, or social stigmas—but from a person’s choice to live and the factual requirements of human life. It does not limit ethics to social relations; rather, it understands the field as encompassing the whole of a person’s life, whether lived on a desert isle or in a metropolis. Moreover, Rand’s ethical theory rejects all standard assumptions about the life and character of an egoist. Her rational egoist must produce and trade the values required to sustain his life while respecting the right of others to do the same. Supposedly self-serving actions—from petty con games to dictatorial power seeking—are rejected on principle as self-destructive. Rand’s egoistic revolution extends even to romance. She holds that the deep love of passionate romance is an exalted value, one that can take root and flourish only between two proudly selfish souls.

The Objectivist ethics also recasts traditional moral virtues to cover vastly more territory. An honest man does not merely refrain from uttering false statements; he steadfastly refuses to indulge in any faking whatsoever—whether in communications with other people or in the privacy of his own mind. Rand’s egoistic virtue of honesty is not merely a commitment to telling the truth; it is the principled refusal to pretend that facts are other than they are. Nor can Rand’s moral theory be segregated from her broader philosophy of Objectivism. Her ethics draws heavily on her unique insights in metaphysics and epistemology: Understanding even the basic demands of her virtue of rationality requires some knowledge of her view of the fundamental choice to think or not, of emotions as automatic responses to one’s values, of the distinction between metaphysical and man-made facts, and of the contextual nature of knowledge. Whether ultimately an advocate or a critic, to rightly understand the Objectivist ethics, one must, as Rand so often advised, check one’s philosophical premises.

Further heightening the challenge of understanding Rand’s egoism is the fact that she wrote no systematic treatises on ethics. Her most extensive discussion is her crucially important essay “The Objectivist Ethics”; its basic concern, however, is to establish the foundations of her ethics—particularly the principles that life is the standard of value and that reason is man’s basic means of survival—not to elaborate the requirements of a rationally egoistic life. In that essay, as in Galt’s Speech from Atlas Shrugged, the discussion of the seven basic virtues of the Objectivist ethics—rationality, productiveness, pride, honesty, justice, independence, and integrity—consists of just a few dense paragraphs. And although Rand fleshes out important elements of her egoism in essays such as “Doesn’t Life Require Compromise?” and “The Ethics of Emergencies,” many issues—including moral responsibility, optional versus necessary values, and the cardinal value of purpose—are only touched on lightly in her writings. Sometimes significant discussions of key ethical principles are found in unlikely places; for instance, Rand’s only explicit discussion of the objectivity of values occurs in the essay “What is Capitalism?”; and her analysis of the concept “justice” is found in the chapter on definitions in Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology.6

Of course, Ayn Rand’s vision of the moral life is clearly and vividly portrayed in her fiction, particularly her epic novels The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. However, extracting broad moral principles from the concretes of fiction can be difficult, delicate work. Just imagine, for example, what terribly wrong moral lessons might be (and often are) drawn from Dagny Taggart’s willingness to be Hank Rearden’s mistress in Atlas Shrugged.

And although Leonard Peikoff’s invaluable Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand offers more extended and systematic discussions of the Objectivist virtues than found in Rand’s corpus, given the purpose and breadth of his book, he had to ruthlessly condense his discussion of each virtue into about ten pages.7

If one wishes to develop a solid understanding of Rand’s egoism, casually reading an essay or two is manifestly insufficient. One must study the broad range of Rand’s philosophic writings as well as her novels. One must temporarily hold one’s own philosophic presuppositions at bay, particularly those concerning egoism, so that they do not falsely color one’s understanding. Perhaps most importantly, one must carefully consider the requirements of a genuinely principled pursuit of one’s own life and happiness. In short, achieving a solid grasp of Rand’s rational egoism is a time-consuming, thought-intensive task. This is one reason (though not the only reason) why Rand’s ethics is frequently misunderstood by advocates and critics alike.

For those interested in gaining a full and accurate understanding of Rand’s revolutionary moral code, University of Texas at Austin philosophy professor Tara Smith’s new book Ayn Rand’s Normative Ethics: The Virtuous Egoist is a most welcome addition to the existing literature. Smith describes the book as “an account of what Rand’s rational egoism consists of and requires,” with particular emphasis on its virtues.8 This it is—and more. The book illuminates the central principles of the Objectivist ethics in rich detail, rendering them readily accessible to any sincere inquirer. . . .

You have heard this before: you are either good, or you are selfish. For the majority of people, virtuous egoism is an oxymoron: they don’t think it is possible to be virtuous and pursue self-interest at the same time. People believe that egoism is evil because they have been taught that all their lives, thanks to philosophers who have promoted altruism—sacrifice for the sake of others—as the only moral code. One contemporary ethicist captured the almost universal consensus among philosophers by this claim: “…moral conduct by definition is not motivated by self-interest.”

Yet, most people practice common-sense egoism every day. They pursue their values: their work, wealth, and the material values that sustaining and enjoying their and their families’ lives requires, recreational activities, entertainment, art, friendship, and other things that contribute to their well-being and happiness. Most people pursue their values—their self-interest—without harming others. This is common-sense egoism.

However, common-sense egoism is not an explicit moral code. While people practice it in their daily lives, the dominance of altruism in moral teaching makes them feel guilty for not giving up their values for the sake of others. Because common-sense egoism is not an explicit code, there is no moral justification for it and no clear principles to guide the pursuit of self-interest. Yet, for fallible beings achievement of self-interest is not automatic; we need moral principles for guidance. We also need a justification that the principles we follow are moral, lest we want to waste our time feeling unearned guilt for pursuing our own happiness.

The good news is that there is an explicit moral code that offers both a moral justification and moral principles to guide all the common-sense egoists out there in achieving their self-interest without harming others. That moral code is rational egoism, developed by Ayn Rand on the foundation established by Aristotle. (For Ayn Rand’s moral theory, see her essay collection The Virtue of Selfishness, or Tara Smith’s Ayn Rand’s Normative Ethics: The Virtuous Egoist—which inspired the title of this post). I used the qualifier ‘rational’ to avoid confusion of egoism with cynical exploitation, the mistaken idea that self-interest entails ruthless trampling on others in the pursuit of one’s goals. From now on, I will use ‘egoism’ to refer to Ayn Rand’s rational, non-predatory moral code.

Egoism is virtuous because it makes possible the achievement our long-term well-being and happiness without initiating physical force on others. The moral justification of egoism is that it makes it possible for us—who don’t have automatic knowledge about the goals we should pursue and about the means to reach them—to achieve our values in the long-term: to survive and to be happy. It is a moral code for living and flourishing.
Starting from the premise that the pursuit of self-interest is moral and necessary for our well-being and happiness, Ayn Rand identified seven egoist virtues—principles that define the actions required to achieve long-term self-interest: rationality, independence, integrity, honesty, justice, productiveness, and pride. Rand and others have written much about these virtues, so here I focus only on rationality, the primary virtue on which the others rest. Rationality guides us to use reason—to adhere to reality through observation and logic—as “our only means of knowledge, our only judge of values, and our only guide to action.”

Rationality is the primary egoist virtue because reason is our primary means of survival. In contrast to all other species, we survive and achieve other values primarily by thinking, not by brute strength, speed, or sharp fangs. Thinking human minds adhering to reality (and the consequent human actions) have made possible the unprecedented wealth and well-being we experience today. But thinking and acting on rational conclusions are not automatic to us. And people’s choice to not adhere to reality often leads to immoral actions which contradict their self-interest. Consider a business owner who keeps evading that his competitors are offering better products at lower prices and that his cash flow is declining. Only when the company is experiencing losses, does he acknowledge his self-interest is threatened, and is now tempted to deceive his customers or investors to save the business. But the only way to avoid or to correct such a situation is to adhere to facts and act accordingly, guided by the rest of the egoist virtues.

To achieve our long-term self-interest, common-sense egoism is not enough. The only route to our well-being and happiness, without violating the rights of others, is virtuous egoism. All we have to do is to understand and apply its principles.

About Jaana Woiceshyn

Jaana Woiceshyn teaches business ethics and competitive strategy at the Haskayne School of Business, University of Calgary, Canada. She has lectured and conducted seminars on business ethics to undergraduate, MBA and Executive MBA students, and to various corporate audiences for over 20 years both in Canada and abroad. Before earning her Ph.D. from the Wharton School of Business, University of Pennsylvania, she helped turn around a small business in Finland and worked for a consulting firm in Canada. Jaana’s research on technological change and innovation, value creation by business, executive decision-making, and business ethics has been published in various academic and professional journals and books. “How to Be Profitable and Moral” is her first solo-authored book.
Visit her website at profitableandmoral.com.

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