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Virtue and the Realization of Human Life: Response to Roderick Long on Ayn Rand

Ayn-Rand-720wIn my last post, I responded to Will Wilkinson’s allegation that Ayn Rand‘s ethical egoism cannot support the principle of individual rights, because the egoist has no self-interested reason to refrain from using force against others. Wilkinson contended that bureaucrats who feast at the public trough seem to fulfill their self-interest even though they live by force. In response, I asked whether they might be able to live a better, happier life by becoming producers rather than looters.

But many who read Ayn Rand’s works are troubled by Wilkinson’s question about why it is in the egoist’s self-interest to refrain from predation on others, and it is worth expanding on the answer. The question arises again in the series of posts from Cato Unbound that originally motivated Wilkinson’s comment. I want to briefly sketch an answer to one of these posts, by philosophy professor Roderick Long. Long also asks the question about how egoism supports rights, and offers an answer that he regards as superior to Rand’s. His position rests on a misunderstanding of Rand’s view on the relationship between means and ends.

To explain his answer to the predation problem, Long invokes a distinction from the history of ethics:

But what, in Rand’s view, connects our self-interest with the moral claims of others? For most of Rand’s aforementioned “eudaimonist” predecessors, the requirements of moral virtue were conceived as a constitutive part of the agent’s own interest; the Epicureans were the only major dissidents, regarding virtue instead as an instrumental strategy for attaining this interest (rather like Hobbes, in a way, though the Epicureans are surely closer to the main line of eudaimonism than Hobbes is). Rand appears to waver between these two approaches, treating the individual’s ultimate good sometimes as a robust human flourishing that has virtue as a component, and sometimes as mere survival to which virtue is only an external means.

Long sees this distinction as relevant to answering the predation problem because if we adopt the “constitutive” view rather than the “instrumental view,” and regard a man’s honesty and integrity as proper parts of his self-interest, then his being a man of honesty and integrity automatically contributes to his self-interest, whereas his use of force against others would contradict these virtues and automatically count against his self-interest. Long thinks that he sees elements of this “constitutive” view in Rand’s fiction:

The constitutive approach predominates in her novels; the chief reason that Rand’s fictional protagonists (such as architect Howard Roark in The Fountainhead or railroad executive Dagny Taggart in Atlas Shrugged) do not cheat their customers, for example, is pretty clearly that they would regard such parasitism on the productive efforts of others as directly inconsistent with the nobility and independence of spirit that they cherish for themselves, and not because they’re hoping that a policy of honesty will maximize their chances of longevity.

Long rightly stresses that elsewhere in her work, Rand urges that virtue is not an end in itself but a means to the end of human life. This suggests that she regarded virtue as “instrumental” to self-interest, rather than as a proper or constitutive part of it. But Long contends that this instrumental view of virtue is harder to square with an obligation to refrain from initiating force against others. If virtue consists of whatever achieves one’s self-interest, and self-interest is constituted only by generic material gain, then regularly mugging one’s neighbor would be virtuous. Long urges that we adopt the view that self-interest is constituted by virtue, but contends that Rand does not hold what he takes to be this more defensible view.

Long’s argument begins from a faulty assumption: that there is a firm distinction between the “instrumental” and the “constitutive” in value theory, that a means to an end cannot itself be part of the end.

Rand does regard the virtues as means, not as “ends in themselves.” But her point in rejecting the idea that virtue is “its own reward” is to distance her view from the altruistic view that severs the tie between virtue and the happy life. “Virtue is not its own reward or sacrificial fodder for the reward of evil. Life is the reward of virtue.” Her point is not necessarily to regard virtue as a mere means to an end—as if engaging in virtuous action were external to the end of life or as if virtuous action were not itself living.

Consider further that virtues are the principle-directed actions we must engage in to live a distinctive kind of life, a human life, which is itself constituted by distinctive types of values, values of both the body and the spirit. Life is an end in itself, and part of what this means is that living is both means and end, the means to more of itself. The question to answer, then, is what is this action of living?

In an underappreciated passage in “The Objectivist Ethics,” Rand makes this brilliantly clear:

Value is that which one acts to gain and/or keep—virtue is the act by which one gains and/or keeps it. The three cardinal values of the Objectivist ethics—the three values which, together, are the means to and the realization of one’s ultimate value, one’s own life—are: Reason, Purpose, Self-Esteem, with their three corresponding virtues: Rationality, Productiveness, Pride (pg. 25). [my emphasis].

Reason, purpose, and self-esteem are the values that most crucially constitute the distinctively human way of living—as such they are both means to and part of the end. And the virtues are actions in service of these values.

Reason, purpose and self-esteem are the fundamental means to the ultimate end, which is human life. We need reason to identify the facts of reality that bear on solving the problem of survival, we need to identify the relationship of our actions and goals to our life and happiness—which is the value of purpose, and we need self-esteem to motivate these actions by reminding us that we are capable of succeeding in them and worthy of doing so.

The crucial nature of these cardinal values to a life of happiness is exhibited in Rand’s fiction when her characters are shown enjoying work, and enjoying it even when it is not a part of their chosen career. When Roark can’t find commissions, for example, he finds purpose in his life by working in the quarry. And when Dagny exiles herself from the railroad, she creates tasks for herself—like clearing brush and clearing paths—just because “what she needed was the motion to a purpose, no matter how small or in what form” (563).

Life itself is a process of action, and the actions that are central enough to an organism’s life are by that fact also essential parts of that organism’s distinctive form of life. Ayn Rand uses the language of “man’s survival qua man” to describe the distinctive virtues and values that compose a distinctively human life.

To draw a parallel: A plant’s distinctive life qua plant is more than its life qua a mass of cells; its life includes the way its cells are organized to interact with each other, to allow its leaves to reach toward the sun and its roots to burrow into the earth. Were a plant to be harvested and sliced into salad bits, many of its cells would still live, but the plant’s life qua plant would cease.

By the same token, a man’s distinctive form of life involves more than heartbeat and respiration, and more than walking and eating and reproducing. Distinctive to human life is the way our actions are organized and integrated by the operations of a rational mind. A man in a comatose state has lost this distinctive organizing principle. His cells and his brain stem may continue to function, but his is not man’s life qua man.

Being in a comatose state is not the only way to live a less than fully human life. When people fail to live lives of reason, purpose, and self-esteem, they may not exactly be vegetables, but they are not living the full, flourishing lives that they could. Wilkinson’s beltway bureaucrats, to the extent that they parasitize others, live “lives” of force rather than lives of reason, of the promiscuous “why not?” instead of the purposeful “what for?”, and of neurosis about whether they can maintain their ongoing parasitism, rather than self-esteem.

Which man lived a more confident, self-secure life: Thomas Edison, or Al Capone? Which man does a Rahm Emmanuel or a Timothy Geithner more closely resemble? And in our current situation, how long will either be able to maintain even the façade of the productive law-abiding citizen, rather than that of the gangster?

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