David Brat, the winner of the primary against Eric Cantor, has a huge bank-buys-curriculum grant to teach the ethics of Ayn Rand to college students. Because Rand was a science fiction writer who aspired to be a philosopher, this seems the right place to say something about the ethics of Ayn Rand. (There are other interesting things to say, such as Brat is a devoted Christian and a follower of Ayn Rand, which is a contradiction that Rand would have totally loathed; she rightly believed Christian ethics antithetical to her ethics. And not just Christian: she believed ontological dualism and belief in an afterlife were fundamentally opposed to her view, with or without the Sermon on the Mount, so nearly all forms of theism will be inconsistent with her ethics. Odd that American politicians who follow her manage to overlook this. But focus, focus….)
I know of only one mainstream philosopher who cited Rand (Robert Nozick). So why don’t philosophers take Rand seriously? Because consistently, Rand’s reasoning is so obviously and hopelessly flawed that it does not rise to the standards of philosophers. Two examples will suffice, from the big Galt speech.
First, Rand attempts epistemology (the theory of knowledge) but never rises above a parody of epistemology. She, in the voice of Galt, tells us that a=a. Everything follows from this, she asserts.
All the disasters that have wrecked your world, came from your leaders’ attempt to evade the fact that A is A. All the secret evil you dread to face within you and all the pain you have ever endured, came from your own attempt to evade the fact that A is A. The purpose of those who taught you to evade it, was to make you forget that Man is Man.
But nearly nothing follows from a=a. It’s a necessary truth, given a standard interpretation of identity. And from it you can derive nothing of significance; you can at best derive from it a series of tautologies or other necessary truths, like: it is not the case that it is not the case that a=a. Or: if a=a then a=a.
Maybe what Rand meant was something like this: there are indisputable truths, and from this epistemic realism follows. (Realism about some domain is the view that there are evidence-transcedent truths about that domain.) But this erects as opponent a straw epistemology, and ignores the history of epistemology. Philosophers who study epistemology are not worried about whether a is a. They are worried about things like: If we cannot observe something, but it is useful to assume a description of it for our theories, should we believe it exists or should we remain skeptical and assume it is nothing more than a useful theoretical posit? Or: if two people disagree about the meaning of “the good,” how will we settle such a dispute? Or: how is it that we have knowledge about all triangles, when we have experience of only a few imperfect images of triangles? Rand is not up to answering those kinds of questions. She does a drive by; she pretends epistemology is trivially easy, but she never considers a single difficult case.
Second, Rand does the same thing with her ethics. This is far more damning, because her primary concern is ethics, and her core ethical views are fundamentally hopeless. She asserts that self-interest is the foundation of ethics. The claim that we each of us know what is best for our self is a claim that philosophers debated for centuries, but which she thinks is not worth even discussing; let us set that aside. The most problematic issue is that she betrays her own axioms immediately, and rightly so: they’re simplistic and inadequate. Repeatedly Galt says things like
The symbol of all relationships among such men, the moral symbol of respect for human beings, is the trader. We, who live by values, not by loot, are traders, both in matter and in spirit. A trader is a man who earns what he gets and does not give or take the undeserved.
It’s hard not to cringe at this. An ethical theory must address issues of desert. It’s one of the hardest parts of political ethics. Does a rich kid who never worked a day in his life deserve a billion dollar inheritance? Does a CEO deserve to be paid $15 million dollars in an annual bonus? Does a drug addict deserve some kind of public assistance? Do all citizens deserve a free education? And so on. Here, Rand merely asserts that the virtuous person won’t take what is undeserved.
Some self-interested people will rob, lie, and cheat, and then comfortably assert they deserve their ill gotten earnings. Every Wall Street thug, who used government bailout money to pay himself a multimillion dollar bonus, has said, and may even believe, that he deserves it. How do we settle our disagreements with such people? We need a theory of desert, of when something is and is not deserved. Rand never grapples with any of that. Instead, Rand just assumes desert as a primitive; she basically says, “it’s obvious what desert is, it’s to take what is deserved.”
This goes to the heart of Rand’s “virtue of selfishness” ethics. Selfishness is good. So why not rob, lie, cheat? Because, Rand tells us, the trader won’t take what is undeserved. Why not? It would surely be self-interested and, done deftly, would produce personal profit. The answer is implicit but obvious. Robbing, lying, and cheating are wrong. Rand knows this. And this wrongness is independent of selfishness, as her argument here makes clear. She introduces another ethical principle on the sly, without admitting it to us, and perhaps without admitting it to herself. She claimed that ethics was easy, and we were all being pig-headed by not seeing the objective truths that she could see. But whenever things get a little tough, she betrays her own first principles.
These are only two examples. We can multiply them.
Ayn Rand was an extraordinary person. From Russia she came to the United States as a young woman, a very late age to not only master English but become a novelist. She became an enormously successful writer. It’s a very impressive accomplishment. Her influence on American politics is remarkable. But she has made no contribution to philosophy and no contribution to ethical theory. None at all.