Egoism Explained: A Review of Tara Smith’s Ayn Rand’s Normative Ethics


Ayn Rand’s Normative Ethics: The Virtuous Egoist, by Tara Smith. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006. 328 pp. $80.00 (cloth), $25.99 (paperback).

normative-ethics

Ayn Rand’s ethics of rational egoism has long been maligned and dismissed without being understood, particularly by academics. Today, while ever-more introductory texts in philosophy include discussions of her Objectivist ethics, they routinely distort her views. For example, in his widely used text The Elements of Moral Philosophy, James Rachels ignores Rand’s actual meta-ethical argument for egoism, instead attributing to her an invented four-step argument against altruism.1 In direct contradiction to her view of interests as objective and her intransigent defense of individual rights, Rachels asserts that egoism would “endorse wicked actions” such as fraud, rape, theft, child abuse, and sexual slavery so long as the egoist could avoid detection and punishment.2 In considering the standard objection that egoism fails to resolve interpersonal conflicts of interest, Rachels seems unfamiliar with the Objectivist view that the interests of rational men do not conflict, as he suggests that the egoist’s position might be that “life is essentially a long series of conflicts in which each person is struggling to come out on top.”3 Ultimately, Rachels describes egoism as a form of arbitrary prejudice for oneself, akin to racism and nationalism.4 Although other introductory texts offer somewhat more accurate—and less snide—discussions of Rand’s egoism, major distortions are standard.

Serious misunderstandings of Rand’s egoism are not limited to her detractors in academic philosophy. Writers in the popular media often express similar views, such as describing the unscrupulous Gordon Gecko of the movie Wall Street as someone who “could have been a Rand disciple.”5 Even people inspired by the moral ideals portrayed in Rand’s novels The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged commonly err in thinking that her ethics demands the repression of feelings, sanctions bitter isolation from others, or endorses “do what you please” self-indulgence. People quite familiar with Rand’s philosophical writings often struggle with questions and confusions about the demands of rational egoism, such as whether honesty requires always speaking one’s mind and when to forgive a friend for a broken promise.

Although some confusions about Rand’s egoism undoubtedly stem from willful ignorance, carelessness, or even hostility, some are perfectly innocent misunderstandings. Grasping the abstract meaning and concrete demands of the principles of the Objectivist ethics requires considerable time and effort. Rand’s ethics is not a minor variation upon a familiar old theme: It is a major departure from traditional moral systems, particularly the varieties of altruism borne of Christianity. It upholds productiveness and pride as moral virtues while rejecting canonical virtues like charity and humility. The authority of ethics is not derived from divine commands, categorical imperatives, mysterious intuitions, raw feelings, or social stigmas—but from a person’s choice to live and the factual requirements of human life. It does not limit ethics to social relations; rather, it understands the field as encompassing the whole of a person’s life, whether lived on a desert isle or in a metropolis. Moreover, Rand’s ethical theory rejects all standard assumptions about the life and character of an egoist. Her rational egoist must produce and trade the values required to sustain his life while respecting the right of others to do the same. Supposedly self-serving actions—from petty con games to dictatorial power seeking—are rejected on principle as self-destructive. Rand’s egoistic revolution extends even to romance. She holds that the deep love of passionate romance is an exalted value, one that can take root and flourish only between two proudly selfish souls.

The Objectivist ethics also recasts traditional moral virtues to cover vastly more territory. An honest man does not merely refrain from uttering false statements; he steadfastly refuses to indulge in any faking whatsoever—whether in communications with other people or in the privacy of his own mind. Rand’s egoistic virtue of honesty is not merely a commitment to telling the truth; it is the principled refusal to pretend that facts are other than they are. Nor can Rand’s moral theory be segregated from her broader philosophy of Objectivism. Her ethics draws heavily on her unique insights in metaphysics and epistemology: Understanding even the basic demands of her virtue of rationality requires some knowledge of her view of the fundamental choice to think or not, of emotions as automatic responses to one’s values, of the distinction between metaphysical and man-made facts, and of the contextual nature of knowledge. Whether ultimately an advocate or a critic, to rightly understand the Objectivist ethics, one must, as Rand so often advised, check one’s philosophical premises.

Further heightening the challenge of understanding Rand’s egoism is the fact that she wrote no systematic treatises on ethics. Her most extensive discussion is her crucially important essay “The Objectivist Ethics”; its basic concern, however, is to establish the foundations of her ethics—particularly the principles that life is the standard of value and that reason is man’s basic means of survival—not to elaborate the requirements of a rationally egoistic life. In that essay, as in Galt’s Speech from Atlas Shrugged, the discussion of the seven basic virtues of the Objectivist ethics—rationality, productiveness, pride, honesty, justice, independence, and integrity—consists of just a few dense paragraphs. And although Rand fleshes out important elements of her egoism in essays such as “Doesn’t Life Require Compromise?” and “The Ethics of Emergencies,” many issues—including moral responsibility, optional versus necessary values, and the cardinal value of purpose—are only touched on lightly in her writings. Sometimes significant discussions of key ethical principles are found in unlikely places; for instance, Rand’s only explicit discussion of the objectivity of values occurs in the essay “What is Capitalism?”; and her analysis of the concept “justice” is found in the chapter on definitions in Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology.6

Of course, Ayn Rand’s vision of the moral life is clearly and vividly portrayed in her fiction, particularly her epic novels The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. However, extracting broad moral principles from the concretes of fiction can be difficult, delicate work. Just imagine, for example, what terribly wrong moral lessons might be (and often are) drawn from Dagny Taggart’s willingness to be Hank Rearden’s mistress in Atlas Shrugged.

And although Leonard Peikoff’s invaluable Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand offers more extended and systematic discussions of the Objectivist virtues than found in Rand’s corpus, given the purpose and breadth of his book, he had to ruthlessly condense his discussion of each virtue into about ten pages.7

If one wishes to develop a solid understanding of Rand’s egoism, casually reading an essay or two is manifestly insufficient. One must study the broad range of Rand’s philosophic writings as well as her novels. One must temporarily hold one’s own philosophic presuppositions at bay, particularly those concerning egoism, so that they do not falsely color one’s understanding. Perhaps most importantly, one must carefully consider the requirements of a genuinely principled pursuit of one’s own life and happiness. In short, achieving a solid grasp of Rand’s rational egoism is a time-consuming, thought-intensive task. This is one reason (though not the only reason) why Rand’s ethics is frequently misunderstood by advocates and critics alike.

For those interested in gaining a full and accurate understanding of Rand’s revolutionary moral code, University of Texas at Austin philosophy professor Tara Smith’s new book Ayn Rand’s Normative Ethics: The Virtuous Egoist is a most welcome addition to the existing literature. Smith describes the book as “an account of what Rand’s rational egoism consists of and requires,” with particular emphasis on its virtues.8 This it is—and more. The book illuminates the central principles of the Objectivist ethics in rich detail, rendering them readily accessible to any sincere inquirer.

Following an introductory chapter in which Smith explains her general approach, she begins in earnest in the second chapter with a lucid presentation of Rand’s essential case for ethical egoism—that is, for the proposition “that each person’s primary moral obligation is to achieve his own well-being and that he should not sacrifice his well-being for the well-being of others.”9 Smith fleshes out the basic character of that egoism by sketching Rand’s distinctive view of values as objective, the relationship of the standard of life to happiness and flourishing, the egoistic need for principles, and the harmony of interests between rational men.10 This chapter also illuminates the meaning of some of the most dense and difficult passages of Rand’s most widely-taught essay, “The Objectivist Ethics,” such as the argument that the concept of value fundamentally depends on the concept of life.

The heart of the book—a detailed discussion of Rand’s normative ethics—is found in the next seven chapters. It begins with a tantalizingly brief discussion of the nature of virtue, largely comparing Rand with Aristotle and contemporary virtue ethicists.11 It then proceeds to carefully analyze each of Rand’s virtues in turn. The chapters on the virtues are similarly structured, in that each focuses on the same three core issues: the nature of the virtue, its egoistic justification, and its practical demands in life. Within that broad three-part structure, Smith delves into considerable detail about each virtue. For example, in her discussion of the moral permissibility of lying when threatened with force, Smith clearly distinguishes the contextual principles of the Objectivist ethics from the unconditional duties of Kant.12 And in the chapter on justice, she does not merely show that “egalitarianism represents a complete inversion of justice”;13 by examining the egoistic obligation to respect the rights of others, she also refutes the standard egalitarian claim that desert-based justice would permit the enslavement of the vicious to the virtuous.14 Although such discussions sometimes digress from the main path of the particular virtue under consideration, they thereby shed light on significant and even indispensable points about its nature, justification, and demands.

The chapter on pride—one of the brightest gems of the book—nicely illustrates Smith’s three-part approach to the virtues in action. After sketching the basic nature of pride as “the commitment to achieve one’s own moral perfection,” she differentiates this “forward-looking ambition that drives a person to act as morality requires” from the more passive sense of pride as positive judgments or feelings about one’s accomplishments, as well as from the “popular stereotypes” of the proud person as “boastful, arrogant, or stubborn.”15 Next Smith turns to the egoistic case for pride as a virtue, showing that “pride is necessary for self-esteem, and self-esteem is necessary for human life.”16 Self-esteem is not merely warm and fuzzy feelings about oneself; it “is a considered, deep-seated, positive assessment of one’s own competence and value” that must be “acquired through a person’s own choices and actions.”17 That judgment is crucial to a person’s life, as Smith explains:

Every action that a person takes, in addition to whatever changes it effects in the external world, contributes to that person’s self-image. He knows that he chose that action and that he could have chosen otherwise; he knows whether he was being rational or evasive. A person also learns, over time, that his life depends on his actions, that his choices carry a direct and potentially tremendous impact on his successes and failures, on his happiness or frustration. He learns, in short, that he must make good choices to achieve his values. Consequently, a person needs to develop the sense that he can rely upon himself to make good choices, knowing: “I’ll be rational; I am rational.” Such knowledge is the platform for self-esteem.

Awareness of the kind of person he has made himself, in turn, affects how a person will act. Pride is a virtue because a person’s fundamental evaluation of himself is critical to his success in life. Aware that he controls his thoughts and actions, a person must develop a reputation with himself as a person he can trust to take good care of himself and as a person who is worth the effort. He must think well of himself in order to act well and thereby gain the values that fuel his flourishing. A person’s estimate of his actions, his history, his character—of his self—will influence what he seeks and how hard he works to obtain it; it will influence what he encourages himself to do, what he allows himself to do, and what he demands of himself. This is the manner in which . . . the creation of one’s character makes all other values possible.18

Conversely, a person who lacks self-esteem will find his “negative verdict” of himself “debilitating.”19 Such a person “will not normally waste his time on what he deems himself incapable or unworthy of.”20 He “will not value his own happiness sufficiently to adhere to the rational moral code that his happiness depends on.”21 Although any individual immoral act might not destroy a person’s self-esteem, it “jeopardizes [his] well-being,” largely by “making further breaches, with the attendant damage to self-esteem and to other values, more likely.”22 Such is why pride is necessary to human life.

As with all the virtues, Smith spells out the practical demands of pride in considerable detail. Intellectually, pride requires a person to “exert the intellectual effort to identify proper moral principles”—and engage in “honest introspection about his knowledge, abilities, and values in order to grasp the proper application of [those] moral principles to his circumstances.”23 The proud person must also “exert special vigilance” against the root vice of evasion (i.e., willful blindness to the facts), as well as judge his own actions and character objectively.24 In action, the proud man must “act according to his ideal,” never settling for anything less than the morally best course of action.25 To flesh out this idea, Smith appeals to Rand’s moral concepts of ambition and perfection.

Moral ambitiousness is the “systematic pursuit of challenging goals and of constant improvement in regard to such goals” in “the overall leading of one’s life.”26 It requires “deliberately heightening one’s sensitivity to the moral dimensions of one’s choices,” so that one is “more attuned to the ways in which seemingly incidental choices can carry effects on one’s values.”27 It also requires refusing to “coast or vegetate” in regard to morality: The proud person must “work to spot and then overcome specific weaknesses” in his character, such as by “assigning himself specific projects of moral improvement.”28

Smith proceeds carefully in her explication of Rand’s startling claim that morality demands nothing less than perfection. Since perfection means “the best possible in a given domain,” the morally perfect person is not somehow immune from moral error but rather “unusually consistent in abiding by his moral principles day in, day out.”29 Such consistency is “not only attainable but mandatory,” for it stems from a person’s “commitment to follow reason” in every aspect of his life.30 Contrary to the standard “impossible dream” model of perfection, “a person is perfect when he does his best,” where “a person’s best must be understood relative to his particular circumstances” including his “knowledge, experience, abilities, resources, [and] options.”31 This fact-based standard of perfection does not “weaken . . . morality’s rigor” but rather provides “practical guidance” in life by eschewing “unattainable standards.”32 And the moral perfection demanded by the Objectivist ethics is undoubtedly possible: Absent physical impediments, the rationality that is “the essence of all moral action” is wholly and solely under a person’s control.33 No one is doomed to act immorally because “no one is doomed to act irrationally.”34

In the final section of the chapter on pride, Smith considers Rand’s reasons for rejecting “the widely held doctrine that humility is a virtue,” including the relationship between humility and altruism.35

Although the chapters on the other six virtues differ in their details, they share the same illuminating structure as the chapter on pride, and each clarifies the nature and implications of its respective virtue.

The final chapter of Smith’s book explores the question of whether certain traditional virtues—namely charity, generosity, kindness, and temperance—also meet the criteria of moral virtues by the standard of man’s life. Smith’s basic answer is that such qualities are neither virtues nor vices since the egoistic propriety of engaging in such actions wholly depends on the particular circumstances at hand. In acting generously, for example, a person “gives in excess of what morality or custom requires.”36 Although generous acts are often commendable on egoistic grounds, they may also be sacrificial—meaning that “whether it is proper to extend generosity in a given case depends entirely on what one is giving, to whom one is giving, and why one is giving.”37

Smith’s basic line of argument in this chapter raises an interesting question about the status of productiveness as a virtue. Notably, the problem with generosity as a virtue is not simply that it is more contextual than the recognized virtues; the difference is more substantial. Smith observes that,

Barring emergencies, a person should be honest. [*] The same applies to all of the fundamental virtues. By contrast, it is not the case that, barring emergencies, a person should be generous. The propriety of giving a person more than he could reasonably expect depends, in all cases, on more fine-grained facts about the particular individuals and relative values involved.38

In other words, within their broad context, any genuine virtue will make full-time demands of a person, guiding all his choices and actions. But productiveness does not seem to satisfy that criterion; no clear context can be specified in which a person ought always to be productive (in the sense of creating material values). A rational egoist ought to rest, relax, and enjoy the fruits of his labor. In so doing, he will always be purposeful but not always productive. Nonetheless, productiveness is obviously fundamental to human life in a way that generosity is not; as Smith observes, it is “a systematic, ongoing method of meeting the challenge of survival.”39 Yet it does not seem to possess the kind of contextual absolutism characteristic of Rand’s other six virtues, nor to satisfy the criterion used by Smith to exclude other potential virtues from the roster. Smith does not address this question in her chapter on the virtue of productiveness, but the practical demands of the virtue of productiveness (particularly the answer to the question “How productive should an egoist be?”) would likely become clearer in light of such an account.40

Finally, an appendix considers the egoistic basis for friendship—a helpful addition given the common charge that an egoist could not be a genuine friend.41

Ayn Rand’s Normative Ethics is aimed primarily at an academic audience, but it ought to reach the far wider audience of intellectuals, students, and professionals interested in understanding (or better understanding) Ayn Rand’s ethics of rational egoism. That broad appeal, which is unusual for a work of academic philosophy, is possible largely thanks to Smith’s consistently clear, patient, and purposeful writing.

Given the faulty presumptions about egoism common amongst academics, good academic work on Rand’s normative ethics absolutely must be engaging and accessible—and this book is. Key ideas are often examined from several different angles, as in the case of the egoistic objections to “white lies.”42 Vivid examples show the real-life meaning of the abstract principles under discussion. Smith observes, for instance, that, even in the commonplace act of buying a gift for a friend, “rationality does demand that a person heed pertinent facts, such as the recipient’s tastes and needs, previous gifts, [and] the giver’s budget” in the selection.43 Smith also routinely pauses to explain potentially confusing terms (e.g., the “faking” forbidden by honesty) and unfamiliar principles (e.g., the “primacy of existence”).44

Throughout the book, Smith remains focused on her central purpose of explaining Ayn Rand’s normative ethics. So, although she often compares Rand’s views to those of significant historical and contemporary philosophers, such analyses are usually relegated to footnotes. Similarly, in considering thorny issues in contemporary moral philosophy (such as whether a person with a strong commitment to wrong principles possesses integrity) Smith’s basic concern is not to solve a fashionable puzzle, but to elicit some significant theoretical or practical point.45 Finally, while the book seeks to straighten out common confusions about egoism, it focuses primarily on the positive case for Rand’s rational egoism, not on the refutation of alternative theories.

The paramount concern of Ayn Rand’s Normative Ethics is evident in every page and every chapter: to offer the reader a solid grasp of Rand’s ethical principles, the facts supporting them, and their proper application to life. That kind of purpose is a rare virtue in a work of academic philosophy—and Smith excels in its achievement. Undoubtedly, alert readers will find reasons to quibble with the occasional passage—I thought the treatment of the psychological effects of violating one’s principles inadequate, for example—but only rarely.

All considered, Ayn Rand’s Normative Ethics offers its readers—whether intellectuals or not—an unparalleled opportunity to substantially deepen and broaden their understanding of Ayn Rand’s ethics of rational egoism. For those inspired by Rand’s ethics, it is an opportunity to learn how to live a more rational, more egoistic, happier life. For those unfamiliar with Rand’s ethics, it is an opportunity to seriously consider the possibilities of an ethics of egoism.

For critics of egoism, the book poses a sizable challenge. Through its positive and detailed presentation of Rand’s actual moral theory, it demonstrates that the Objectivist ethics is wholly immune to the standard criticisms of it offered by academics and intellectuals. No, Rand’s justification for egoism is not a polemic against altruistic sacrifices of self to others, nor premised upon the inherent worth of the individual or the prospect of social benefits.46 No, a rational egoist would not even consider sabotaging a coworker to secure a promotion, executing a political opponent to win an election, or torturing babies for fun.47 No, Rand’s egoist would never conceal his ethical views in the hope of living amongst altruists devoted to his needs, nor attempt to collect sacrifices from anyone.48 No, the rational egoist would not be barred from genuine concern for the well-being of his friends.49 If critics of egoism wish to remain reputable critics, they will have to invent some more plausible objections than such tired strawmen as these.

Ayn Rand’s rational egoism is a rich, substantive, and well-grounded ethics, one eminently worthy of serious thought and consideration. It deserves a fair hearing, not just from academics and intellectuals, but from anyone interested in living life well; justice demands nothing less. With Ayn Rand’s Normative Ethics, Tara Smith has made that task easier than ever.

Endnotes

* Editor’s note: Being honest is not synonymous with truth-telling. A person should always be honest (i.e., he should never pretend that facts are other than they are)—emergencies included. Whether or not a person should tell the truth depends on the context.

1 James Rachels, The Elements of Moral Philosophy, 4th ed. (New York: McGraw Hill, 2003), pp. 81–82.

2 Ibid., p. 85.

3 Ibid., pp. 85–86.

4 Ibid., pp. 88–90.

5 Lynne Snifka, “Atlas Smirked,” Anchorage Press, July 27, 2006. http://www.anchoragepress.com/archives-2006/coverstoryvol15ed30.shtml.

6 Ayn Rand, Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal (New York: Signet, 1967), p. 22. Ayn Rand, Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, expanded 2nd ed. (New York: Meridian, 1990), p. 51.

7 Leonard Peikoff, Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand (New York: Dutton, 1991).

8 Tara Smith, Ayn Rand’s Normative Ethics: The Virtuous Egoist (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006), p. 5.

9 Ibid., p. 23.

10 Ibid., pp. 25–46.

11 Ibid., pp. 48–52.

12 Ibid., pp. 94–96.

13 Ibid., pp. 156–59.

14 Ibid., pp. 170–75. Peter Singer, “A Utilitarian Defense of Animal Liberation,” in Environmental Ethics, ed. Louis Pojman (Stamford, CT: Wadsworth, 2001), p. 34. Tom Regan, The Case for Animal Rights (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1983), pp. 233–35.

15 Smith, Ayn Rand’s Normative Ethics, pp. 222, 223.

16 Ibid., p. 226.

17 Ibid., pp. 226, 227.

18 Ibid., pp. 227–28.

19 Ibid., p. 228.

20 Ibid.

21 Ibid., p. 229.

22 Ibid., p. 231.

23 Ibid., pp. 232–33.

24 Ibid., p. 233.

25 Ibid.

26 Ibid., p. 235.

27 Ibid.

28 Ibid.

29 Ibid., p. 237.

30 Ibid.

31 Ibid., p. 238.

32 Ibid., pp. 240, 239.

33 Ibid., p. 241. As Smith explains in the chapter on the virtue of rationality, rationality is a commitment to full awareness of reality in all areas of life. It does not depend on intelligence, nor does it require that a person reach all and only true conclusions. A person can be fully rational yet mistaken, provided that his thinking diligently adheres to all the evidence available to him. (Smith, Ayn Rand’s Normative Ethics, pp. 52–56, 61–73.)

34 Smith, Ayn Rand’s Normative Ethics, p. 241.

35 Ibid., p. 243.

36 Ibid., p. 258.

37 Ibid., pp. 258, 260.

38 Ibid., p. 265.

39 Ibid., p. 203.

40 Ibid., pp. 212–16.

41 Michael Stocker, “The Schizophrenia of Modern Ethical Theories,” The Journal of Philosophy, vol. 73, no. 12, 1976, p. 456.

42 Smith, Ayn Rand’s Normative Ethics, pp.100–104.

43 Ibid., p. 55.

44 Ibid., pp. 76, 58.

45 Ibid., pp. 185–88.

46 Louis Pojman, “Egoism, Self-Interest, and Altruism,” in The Moral Life, ed. Louis Pojman (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), pp. 558–59. Rachels, Elements of Moral Philosophy, pp. 80–82. Mike Martin, Everyday Morality, 2nd ed. (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Co., 1995), p. 12.

47 Steve Wilkens, Beyond Bumper Sticker Ethics (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1995), pp. 55–66. Martin, Everyday Morality, p. 12. Robert Almeder, Human Happiness and Morality (New York: Prometheus Books, 2000), p. 33. Rachels, Elements of Moral Philosophy, pp. 85–86.

48 Wilkens, Beyond Bumper Sticker Ethics, pp. 56–57. Pojman, “Egoism, Self-Interest, and Altruism,” pp. 560–61. Nina Rosenstand, The Moral of the Story, 4th ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2003), p. 148.

49 Martin, Everyday Morality, pp. 11–12. Henry J. Gensler, Ethics: A Contemporary Introduction (New York: Routledge, 1998), p. 144. Pojman, “Egoism, Self-Interest, and Altruism,” pp. 561–62.

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