Ayn Rand’s Ethics, Part Four
According to Rand, ethics is based on the requirements of life. That which makes life possible sets the standard of good; that which undermines or destroys life is the bad. Ethics is thus rooted in biology: the fact that life is conditional. The values needed for life are not automatically achieved, and since they are not automatically achieved, each human faces a fundamental alternative: to achieve the values necessary for life, or not. Achieving the values sustains one’s life; not doing so leads to death. But the achieving of the values has preconditions. Each of us has to learn what values are necessary for life and what actions are necessary to achieve them, and then choose consistently to initiate those actions. But the learning of these things depends on a personal choice to think.
In summary form, the points here are:
- Life requires the consumption of values.
- The values to be consumed must be produced.
- The production of values requires that we act in certain ways.
- Acting in those ways requires that we have the knowledge of what values we need to consume and what actions will produce them.
- Having the knowledge requires that we think and learn.
Or, in brief:
- Life depends on values.
- Values depend on production.
- Production depends on knowledge.
- Knowledge depends on thinking.
The key thing about each of these points is that they are and can be performed only by individuals. Individualism is built into the nature of human life.
Start with the thinking requirement. Only an individual mind can think, and only an individual can initiate the thinking process. Others can help us enormously in our thinking process by providing us with information, guiding us from step to step, pointing out pitfalls—but others can only help. As much as they help, each of us is the only one who can do our thinking for us. Thinking is an individual process.
The result of good thinking—knowledge—resides in individual minds, and it can be put to productive use only by the initiative of an individual. Only individuals know things, and only individuals can put their knowledge into practice. Several individuals may have the same item of knowledge in their minds, or several individuals may decide to work cooperatively on a project that utilizes their different items of knowledge. But the initiation of the group project requires sustained initiative by the individuals involved. Groups donʹt do things; the individuals in the group do.
The result of productive action is some value to be consumed, used, enjoyed. Here again, the individual is the unit of reality. Only individuals are consumers. Only individuals can eat a salad, enjoy a friendship, or experience art. Two individuals may share a salad or a friendship, but the benefits are felt individually. A thousand individuals may hear the same symphony performance, but it is a thousand individual experiences.
In summary, the case for individualism is that only individuals think, only individuals know, only individuals act, and only individuals can consume the product of their actions. In other words, human life is individual. Individuals are both the producers of value and the consumers of value. Individuals are both the means of value seeking and the end of that value seeking. Others may assist or interfere in the process, but they cannot live your life for you.
These are the premises upon which egoism depends. The ethics of self interest is based on the fact that human life is an individual phenomenon, that its maintenance is an individual responsibility in three fundamental ways: individuals must think, they must apply the results of their thinking productively, and they must consume the results of their productive actions. It is thus the needs of the rational, productive individual that are fundamental in Rand’s ethics.
Elements of this view have been noted by other philosophers, economists and biologists. But they have never been recognized as fundamentally significant for ethics. That is because other facts (or alleged facts) have been given priority, and to the extent those other facts were given priority the requirements of the rational, self interested producer were subordinated. Those alleged facts were the conclusion that conflicts of interest are fundamental, and the premises that resources are scarce, that human nature is destructive, and that the needs of the unable are prior.
Let us see how Rand’s claims of fundamentality compare to these other claims.
Responding to Limited Resources
Take the problem of scarce resources or lifeboat economics. Zero-sum economics is a problem of production. If we subsisted as other animals do, as hunters and gatherers of a limited supply, then our economic predicament would indeed be essentially zero-sum.
But by the application of reason humans are capable of increasing net production. If we have reason, then science is possible, and with it engineering and technology. In other words, reason makes possible production— and not merely hunting and gathering. And if production is possible, then economics is not the science of life on a lifeboat.
Thus, taking scarce resources as a fundamental fact about human life is simply false. Resources are not limited in the sense required to generate conflicts of self interest. I am not in conflict with you for a limited supply of goods, for by thinking and producing I can increase the supply of goods. The increase is not made at another’s expense. If I am a scientist who creates a better hybrid of corn, I increase the net stock of food. If I am an inventor who improves the efficiency of a loom, I increase the net stock of cloth.
Whatever my profession, it is to my self interest to think and produce, as it is to everyone’s self interest. There is a fundamental harmony of self interest here, rather than a conflict—others’ reasoning and producing increases the supply of goods, as does mine, making it possible for us to trade to mutual advantage.
(It is an important historical point that most major ethical philosophies were formed before the rise of science and before the Industrial Revolution transformed human productive ability. There was, accordingly, a lesser grasp of power of reason and the possibilities of production. To the extent production was not seen as an option, the focus shifted to the zero‐sum game of distribution.)
Responding to Gyges/Original Sin/Id
Now let us turn to the traditional claim that conflicts of interest are fundamental because we are born with other-destructive desires. This claim depends on saying that our desires are primaries, that our characters are formed by forces largely beyond our control, that reason has no fundamental role in determining our values and hence our emotions. If it is true that emotion is prior to and more powerful than reason, then conflicts among individuals are necessary and self-restraint is necessary. If, on the other hand, emotions are consequent to reason, then conflict is not necessary.
Rand argues that individuals are born cognitively, emotionally, and morally tabula rasa, that reason is primary in shaping one’s values, and that emotions are consequences of one’s value choices. This means one is not born preset with destructive values, which means that it is possible to shape one’s value system and character. This in turn means that the achieving of a great character, rather than the suppressing of a bad character, is our fundamental ethical project: Ethics is about self‐development rather than self‐restraint. If so, there are no inherent conflicts among men on this basis. Self interest is not the enemy of ethics if individuals are capable of directing their lives by reference to their long-term rational interests.
We have here only two opposed sets of assertions—the traditionalists’ and Rand’s—and a huge set of nativism and tabula rasa issues would need to be addressed before deciding one way or the other. Let me focus only on one more limited issue. Whether emotions are acquired or innate, it is nonetheless true that many individuals have other-destructive drives and the habit of short-range thinking. Even if one agrees that in the long-term a commitment to rationality and productiveness is the standard of good, opportunities do present themselves in which one can make a short-term gain at the expense of someone else and get away with it.
For example, suppose you are normally a productive individual, but you have an opportunity to steal $1 million and get away with it. Why not?
Rand’s general solution is clear: The ethical fundamental is that life requires production. And so a principled commitment to production is the moral core. Production requires knowledge, facing facts, integrity. In a social context, production and trade require cooperation, which requires honesty, justice, respect for property rights, abiding by agreements, and so on. Thieves are parasitic upon this process: they do not produce, nor do they help the process of production. They do not trade, nor do they facilitate trade. Thieves undercut the system of production and trade: they harm those who make production and trade possible. So thievery is ruled out on principle.
But the particular question comes back: Why stick by the long-term commitment to production if a short-term commitment to thievery will yield you more?
The issue is being able to separate the short-term parasitism from the rest of one’s life. One’s life is a long-term commitment, and it requires a set of long-term principles to guide it and give it meaning. Who one is and what one achieves depends on one’s long‐term commitments. A thief, by contrast, thinks short-range: I can get away with it. Maybe he can, and maybe he canʹt. That is not the primary issue.
Consider an analogy to marriage. A marriage is successful if both parties share a deep mutuality of interests and both are committed to a long-term development of those interests. Suppose the husband in such a relationship is away on a business trip and is offered a prostitute for the evening. He knows his wife is not likely to find out, and he can practice safe sex so there’s not much chance of catching syphilis. Is it to his self-interest to go for it? If he is committed to the marriage, then clearly not: Sleeping with a prostitute destroys the integrity of the marriage. But if he is not committed to the marriage, then he will miss out on all that such relationships can offer. In either case, his long-term self‐interest is not achieved.
Returning to the temptation to thievery. One’s life and its meaning are deeper and more long-term than marriage and the principles that inform it need to be as deeply held. Injecting parasitism into one’s life is like injecting a prostitute into one’s marriage.
The solution to the problem of short‐run temptations is to promote the long-term. This requires rational identification of one’s long-term interest and the principles of action necessary to achieve it. This is what ethics should be about.
This is not what the conflict model of morality offers as a solution to the problem of thieves. Thieves are motivated by the desire for gain, so the traditional morality condemns the desire for gain as such. Taking the view that individuals are short-run and passion-driven, the only solution possible to it is to teach restraint. Rather than saying that the desire for gain is healthy and moral, but that there are proper and improper ways to gain, it condemns the only thing that makes life possible.
Consider teaching ethics to your child. Suppose that your child steals, whines to get his way, or hits another child to get something. The child is “selfish”: he believes that stealing, whining, and hitting are practical means to his ends. The traditional restraint model teaches him: Yes, those are practical means to your ends, but you must either renounce your ends or the means for the sake of others. By contrast, the rational egoist model teaches him: No, those are not practical means to your ends; rather, productiveness, friendliness, and cooperation are practical means to your ends. The difference is crucial. It is the difference between teaching the child that self‐fulfillment is immoral because it means stepping on others and teaching him that self‐fulfillment is a worthy goal and there is a rational, non‐conflicting way to achieve it.
Responding to the Needs of the Unable
Solving the problems of the unable is given less emphasis in the current business ethics literature. The recent emphasis is more on preventing sins of commission than on promoting charity. When the promotion of charity or compulsory redistribution does appear in the literature, the argument is that (a) the interests of the unable take precedence over those of the able, (b) that the responsibility for solving unable’s problems lies primarily with the able, (c) that giving to charity is a sacrifice of self interest, but (d) that the able should see their assets as belonging to all who have need of them.
From what has been said above, it is clear that Rand’s ethics rejects all of the above. She rejects the collectivist premise: Individuals are not primarily means to the ends of others. Further, since the unable depend on the able, the needs of the able take precedence: the requirements of production take precedence over the requirements of distribution. And charity for the temporarily unfortunate is not necessarily against one’s self interest. If my charity can help someone get back on his feet and become self-supporting, I benefit: the more rational producers there are in the world, the better off I am. Most individuals are capable of exercising self-responsibility and supporting themselves. Charity becomes a minor issue in ethics: It becomes a matter of good will rather than duty—a matter of individuals who can afford it helping those who deserve it out of a difficult situation.
The problem of the unable only creates a fundamental conflict with the interests of the able if there is no long-term solution to the problems of the unable. But for most of the reasons why individuals become unable to support themselves, long-term solutions are possible. If the problem is limited resources, science and production are solutions. Accidents of nature such as earthquakes and floods can be addressed and recovered from fairly quickly. Poverty caused by repressive politics can be solved politically: bad politics is not a law of nature. Inability due to personal laziness or bad judgment is correctable. This leaves the small minority of individuals who are severely handicapped either physically or mentally; for these individuals the only option is charity from the able. But again, the able do not exist to serve the unable: charity is an act of goodwill, not duty.
The heart of Rand’s strategy is to make fundamental the role of reason in human life. Reason makes possible science and production, long-term planning, and living by principle. It is these that make individuals flourish, and it is these that eliminate the idea that there are fundamental conflicts of interests among individuals.
Business is then one application. In business the moral individual is the producer: the individual who is an end in himself, independent in thought and action. Moral social relations are voluntary interactions to mutual benefit by productive individuals. Businesses and consumers, employers and employees are self-responsible ends in themselves who trade to mutual advantage. Neither is fundamentally in conflict with another, and neither is to be sacrificed to the other. Given these broad non-conflicting principles, differences over details are sorted out by negotiation. Governments enforce the non-conflicting principles and protect the negotiated contracts.
Objectivism’s defenders of business claim three things:
- that the standard of value is one’s self interest,
- that the purpose of business is to achieve a profit,
- that the purpose of government is to protect individuals’ rights to their lives, liberties, and property.
No, they are not, say their critics. In writing about ethics they say self interest is dangerous to others—and besides, individuals should be selflessly serving the interests of others. In writing about business they say the profit motive is a dangerous, other-destructive force—and besides, a business should see itself as a servant of society as a whole. In writing about politics they say a laissez-faire policy leaves individuals too much freedom to do damage to each other—and besides, the purpose of government is to redistribute society’s assets in the collective interest.
It is the anti-self interest ethic that has been the major source of opposition to business and the free society. This I think explains the rather modest success of the strategy of explaining patiently how free markets and the profit motive lead to practical success and how socialism leads to practical failure. All of these have been demonstrated in theory and practice for 200 years but have had little effect on the opposition: pointing out the practical success of self interest and the profit motive will not much affect those who put morality in a different, more important category.
Only a moral defense of self interest, combined with an understanding of free market economics and classical liberal politics, will advance the free society and business, its economic engine.
Some libertarians and conservatives have done well in promoting the economics and politics. But we need Ayn Rand for the ethics.