December 2004 -- Ayn Rand was an advocate of both egoism and rights. As an advocate of egoism, she held that the individual ought not to impose upon himself sacrifices of his well-being, even if those sacrifices would promote the well-being of others. She held that the appropriate ultimate end for each individual is his achievement of his own well-being.
What precisely is the relationship between Rand's claim that the ultimate end for each individual is the achievement of his well-being, and her claim that no individual is a means to the well-being of any other individual (or group)? This is a difficult question. It was wondering about the precise relationship between Rand's advocacy of egoism and her advocacy of rights that led me to devote a large part of my academic life to more general questions about the relationship between end-promoting reasons and means-precluding reasons.
One common view about the relationship between Rand's claims about ultimate ends and her claims about precluded means is that precluded means are simply those means that do not effectively promote ultimate ends. In Atlas Shrugged , Wesley's enslaving of Hank is a precluded means because (and only because) it will not really effectively promote Wesley's ultimate ends. With this understanding, what is wrong about Wesley's enslavement of Hank is that it is harmful to Wesley. (Hank has his own reasons to resist this enslavement. But if Hank has rights against that enslavement, Wesley must have reason to eschew the enslavement and, in the view at hand, those reasons must be a matter of the enslavement being contrary to Wesley's ends.)
I want to plead for a different view of Rand's advocacy of egoism and rights—a view which sees Rand's egoism and her endorsement of rights as two equal facets of the root idea that each individual is a moral end-in-himself. To be a moral end-in-oneself is necessarily connected with having an ultimate end of one's own—an ultimate condition to go for in life. To recognize oneself as a being with an ultimate end of one's own is to recognize that one has reason to promote that end and not the ends of others. To apprehend others as ends-in-themselves is to apprehend each other person as having an ultimate end of his own and, hence, to apprehend each other person as not merely an object available as an instrument of one's own ends. Others' existence as beings with ultimate ends of their own gives one reason, not to serve their ends, but to treat them as beings who are not at one's own disposal—as beings who uniquely are at their own disposal. It is because and only because Hank is a moral end-in-himself that, when he asserts his rights against Wesley, he is not merely appealing to Wesley's self-interest.
Eric Mack is professor of philosophy at Tulane University, where he is also a member of the faculty of the Murphy Institute of Political Economy.
This article originally appeared in the December 2004 issue of Navigator magazine, The Atlas Society precursor to The New Individualist.