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).
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. . . .