Saturday, October 10, 2009

uncertain virtue

Ayn Rand
The Virtue of Selfishness (Signet, 1964)


This book posits an empowering ideology that encourages individuals to pursue their interests with self-determinant agency. In Virtue of Selfishness, Rand unveils the Objectivist ethos: a life in which an individual acts for one's self is properly the highest moral life one can live. Objectivism is an attractive philosophy in its exaltation of the individual and his personal achievement as the ultimate end-game of existence. However, ultimately Objectivism is reduced to the ethics of egoism: acting selfishly is inherently acting morally - merely assuming an inverted form of the "beneficiary criterion of morality" it assails in altruism. Inevitably, the philosophy merely substitutes the individual for the collective as that beneficiary.

Rand and Objectivists alike vehemently deny this assertion. Rand demarcates what exactly constitutes a moral action. Designating Objectivism as a "morality of rational self-interest," Rand claims that as living entities biologically constituted to value our existence and the objects that sustain it, we are morally obligated to act efficaciously to those ends - existence in itself induces an ethical responsibility of self-progressing action. Therefore, in crude biological terms, it is not God nor society that composes moral authority - instead it is our very nature itself. Rand argues that "the fact that a living being is, determines what it ought to do." (17) All who live implicitly understand existence as 'good' - and that the continuation of this existence is the first and highest moral edict nature affirms. Those who reject this basic truth subsequently contravene not only the first and highest law of nature but also transgress the very essence of existence.

Consequently, an action is ethical only if that action advantages the individual to the attainment of greater 'value' for one's life. Rand attests that life is in end in itself, and that an individual can objectively ascertain what serves his greater existence and what does not. At a most basic level, this reality is signified by the physiological phenomenon of 'pain' and 'pleasure' (17). Perhaps this is the best encapsulation: "The standard of value of the Objectivist ethics - the standard by which one judges what is good or evil - is man's life, or: that which is required for man's survival qua man. Since reason is man's basic means of survival, that which is proper to the life of a rational being is the good; that which negates, opposes, or destroys it is the evil." (23)

Upon this exposition, Objectivist critics promptly declare that individuals can murder, steal, and cheat their way to Objectivist heaven. This is not necessarily the case. Rand would assert that individuals will rationally conclude that destructive actions that harm others' self-sustaining interests incidentally do not serve their own. Such actions encourage collective behavior that compromises one's ability to pursue his own self-interest. In immediate terms, I should not wrong my neighbor precisely because such an action entails the risk of incarceration, execution, or retaliation. Inevitably, the morality that results lacks the 'thou shalt not' categoricals of most ethical modes. Instead, the correct moral choice for a singular event is properly arrested by an ad hoc calculation of an individual's ultimate benefit. Each individual event requires an individual deliberation - because the broad contours that comprise the class of actions that can best benefit an individuals' acquisition of value/life can not be properly circumscribed by any categorical rules of morality.

Thus the flaw within the Objectivist ethics is not that it does not forbid most conventionally immoral actions; it is that it does not forbid them unilaterally. If my self-interest is the standard by which actions are ethically judged, then the prohibition against murder becomes a conditional rather than a categorical one. Thus, in Objectivist eyes, murder is not inherently wrong. Instead, murder is only wrong because it is an action that does not serve one's own self interest (I risk incarceration, execution, reprisal, etc). Hence, if murder did serve my self-interest, it would not only be morally permissible according to Objectivism, but also morally sound. If I can murder someone - accrue substantial personal/pecuniary gain - and no one will discover my actions, will I suffer any negative ramifications to my self-interest? Subsequently does that murder not have moral sanction? Objectivism could resolve this issue by claiming that harmful acts against others still don't serve one's self interest, in that they incur latent consequences not immediately palpable. For if everyone acted against one another (even in the absence of ostensible ramifications), the society encouraged would be one comprised of insidious backstabbers who harm one another the moment they sense no evident consequences. This society would doubtlessly compromise the pursuit of self interest. It would thus be ethical as well as pragmatic to forbid all such transgressions categorically, in that such prohibitions protect individual self - interest.

But this reasoning merely circles back to the methodology of discerning the correct moral action in the first place. The claim that injuring another - in the absence of overt injury to my own self interest - still bears an opaque consequence is an abstract claim that often opposes an action that bears apparent and concrete self-interest. One could rationalize that destructive actions against the interests of another are categorically unethical in that they ultimately harm one own's self interest. However in practice, individuals confronting such an action could easily rationalize exemptions, particularly when an action that harms one another carries a patent benefit with no known ramifications. In fact, the 'opaque/distant' consequences mentioned regarding actions committed against others appear contrived to place Objectivism in greater harmony with more conventional modes of morality.

And so the circle continues, and Objectivism veers in vertiginous circles of reasoning to this contradictory conclusion: In Objectivist ethics, transgressions against others is both always and never permitted. Ascertaining the correct moral action shouldn't entail such convoluted abstractions. This problem originates from the methodology applied to discern the relationship between self-interest and morality: reason. Objectivists insist reason is a foolproof faculty {Rand calls its potential for knowledge 'limitless' (18)} that objectively gleans the substantive (and thus moral) worth of an action to one's self.

There are also issues with Objectivism's implied 'by any means necessary' consequentalism towards 'being' - any action that enhances survival is thus 'good'. This is a tough proposition to swallow - and when one does - this cocktail tastes like the hard liquor of Darwinism chased by a sweet twist of ethics. Our genetic identity proscribes a biological - not a moral - blueprint for existence. The confluence of biological fitness with moral worth is problematic, for morality is an evaluative construct derived from our biological constitution - a composition that is not ab initio moral but just 'is'. Survival is antecedent to morality rather than concurrent with it. Thus why must an organism sustain itself? Why is it unethical for an individual - as the true sovereign of his being - to terminate himself, especially after rational deliberation (i.e. in the situation of a life of total suffering)?

Objectivists claim reason forbids actions that jeopardize self-existence. But if reason is the penultimate force that frames our purpose and morality, then Objectivism simply substitutes Reason for God. Since reason functions only parochially for the self (according to Rand), then the self becomes God. But critical to the integrity of such a position is the discussion of the place of reason. Camus claimed that the purpose of epistemology is not to extinguish reason entirely nor to aggrandize reason as infallible. Instead, the purpose is to lucidly acknowledge its limits. Rand eschews such humility, and in her book, reason - paradoxically - exalts itself as a nearly omnipotent instrument for truth. The other side of the coin, where reason falls on its own sword, is no less ironic. Whereas one might argue that Rand applied reason poorly in imparting it with such objectivity and omniscience, philosophers who reason most prudently (which is in itself a problematic evaluation) are often the ones who subsequently depreciate the faculty most (Hume, Kant). Every episode of reason evaluating its own efficacy is doomed to paradox (it is akin to a student grading his own test without an answer key - there is no external/objective standard for evaluation). Most attempts at such inevitably result in epistemological suicide.

Rand's assertion that reason can convey moral proclamations from a superficial throne of its own construction is illusory - for its scepter is its own hand. The problem is not that morality itself is subjective or relative, it is that Rand's particular claim to objective morality - that rationality affirms selfishness (acting on one's own behalf) as the consequent ethics - is flawed: the rationale expressed is less than compelling, discordant with many other sound ethical reasonings, and presumes to crown itself as 'objective' without 'objective' proof of such a designation.

Can one live unequivocally selfishly and morally? This is the question explored in the Virtue of Selfishness. Certainly, any 'beneficiary criterion of morality' presents an ethical system fraught with contradictions. It is not surprising that philosophers in academia scoff at Objectivism as unsound and sophomoric. It is an empowering ideology, but poor philosophy. In terms of the individual/collective egoism/altruism opposition, it can best be resolved by a holistic incorporation of the two seemingly disparate interests. Formulating a moral framework that eschews this either/or construct would be ideal. -David Metcalf

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