The Nature of the Morality of Rational Egoism: Short Notes

Some short points about the Objectivist ethics of rational egoism (1):

  1. If human beings wish to live, they need morality because only certain types of actions will lead to successful life as a human being, while others will necessarily lead to suffering and toward death; yet human beings do not automatically choose life-promoting actions, and they do not automatically know what is life-promoting for them, especially in the long term.
  2. A certain fundamental happiness is the marker of a flourishing life, and the fullest, long-term happiness is an individual’s proper purpose in adhering to moral principles. What serves his own flourishing life (and thus, long-term happiness) is what defines an individual’s self-interest, (i.e. his proper values.) Interactions with others are part of morality, but are not the central concern; the central concern is the reality of the individual’s condition with respect to the attainment of life-sustaining/enriching values.
  3. Rationality is the fundamental virtue that subsumes all other virtues. Its being the fundamental virtue means that reason is the means by which an individual discovers what is in his self-interest, and that action based on reason is the only means by which he can achieve his proper values, (thus building happiness.)
  4. The six subsidiary virtues that Ayn Rand identified are aspects of rationality. They are: honesty, independence, productiveness, integrity, justice, and pride. Pride is not boastfulness or foolhardiness, but a dedication to excellence and moral self-improvement.
  5. Attempting to sacrifice the rational interests of others as a means to one’s own happiness, whether done through force or deception, is doomed to fail. One’s own happiness cannot be built on the robbery or enslavement of others, because human life depends on the production of values that sustain it. Those on whom the parasite feeds are worn down or destroyed, and find it in their rational interest to sabotage and get rid of the parasite. By using force or deception, the parasite is working to sabotage the victims’ motivation and rational judgment, and it is their motivation and rational judgment in the production of values on which he is depending for his livelihood.
  6. The rational interests of individuals in everyday life in society do not conflict, because life-sustaining values are not a static quantity to be fought over, but are created by effort based on reasoning, and are thus variable and potentially unlimited.
  7. Human beings are a combination of the physical and mental, and an individual’s self-interest includes psychological values. Self-interest is not to be reduced to only the physical, such as money. Other people can be of tremendous psychological value (i.e. friends, lovers, children.) That an individual’s ultimate standard of value is his own flourishing life does not mean that he disregards others, or that he simply uses them for material gain. He can gain major psychological benefits from contact with other people of good character who reflect his values.
  8. Objectivist moral principles allow for a vast range of optional values within their practice. They allow for different career choices, (including full-time parenthood,) different tastes in art (literature, movies, music) and different amounts and types of social contact. One’s own emotions about different options are typically among the relevant factors to consider in deciding which optional values to pursue.
  9. A basic (non-self-sacrificial) benevolence toward others is in one’s own interest in an essentially free society. This typically includes being courteous and respectful to strangers, and considerate to friends. This is due to the fact that others are potential values to oneself, whether as trading partners, friends, lovers, or simply as general innovators whose ideas can improve one’s own life. In a free, rights-respecting society, strangers are much more likely to be allies than enemies, in fundamental terms, and it’s not in one’s interest to push such people away without good reason. (Business competitors are not enemies; see Atlas Shrugged.)
  10. Just like principles of physics and free-market economics, principles of morality are contextual absolutes. This means that they are not like Biblical commandments that are supposed to always apply, no matter the situation. Proper moral principles apply only within certain circumstances, but when they do apply, they are absolute, and cannot be violated with impunity. For example, the principle that “the initiation of physical force is immoral/evil (destructive to human life)” does not apply in the face of an immediate physical threat to someone’s life. Initiating force to push one’s unsuspecting friend out of the path of a falling boulder is a good act. In ordinary circumstances, when human life depends on the free exercise of each individual’s mind, the initiation of force is evil because it destroys and/or paralyzes the minds of victims and subverts the mental functioning of the perpetrator, to the extent it is initiated.

For those who don’t have backgrounds in philosophy, but want to learn more about this moral code, I recommend reading The Virtue of Selfishness by Ayn Rand and Loving Life: The Morality of Self-Interest and the Facts that Support It by Craig Biddle. For those who are more philosophically oriented, I also recommend Viable Values and Ayn Rand’s Normative Ethics: The Virtuous Egoist by Dr. Tara Smith.

——————

(1) Dictionary definition of: egoism1. the habit of valuing everything only in reference to one’s personal interest; selfishness (opposed to altruism). … 3. Ethics. the view that each person should regard his own welfare as the supreme end of his actions [Random House Dictionary of the English Language, Unabridged, 1973]

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8 thoughts on “The Nature of the Morality of Rational Egoism: Short Notes

  1. Pingback: A DEBATE OVER CHRISTIANITY, OBJECTIVISM, AND ALTRUISM | Citizen Tom

  2. Pingback: QuickPoint 2: Altruism Supports Coercion… | Objectivism for Intellectuals

  3. Query:

    Egoism manifest as self-reliance has emerged as a fundamental element of the American ethos from the inception of the “Noble Experiment”. Self-reliance and self-actualization are as American as Thomas Edison. However this concern for self was always expressed in a context of altruism. Even Adam Smith admitted the requisite pretext of “moral sentiments” (concern for others and the common good, i.e. conscience)

    How can we reconcile legitimate egoism of Wall Street objectivists (e.g. Henry Paulson, Allan Greenspan, et.al.) who have hurt the body politic and the commonweal with the need for objectivists’ rational thought? Can we really as conscientious citizens ignore our fellow man destined to intractable poverty? Even if we can do it emotionally, on a rational basis is not some altruism a smart strategy? Is absolute avoidance of altruistic opportunities not unwise when a significant (potentially criminal) cohort of the underclass is provided nothing to lose? Even the Nobel laureate Milton Friedman argued for a “reverse income tax (gratuitous govt. handout) to accommodate those who cannot fend for themselves. The bogus theorizing of the supply side economists seem to be discredited by explicit sociopathic proclivities of the Lehman Brothers gangs who openly admitted selling junk to exploit ignorance in innocent people. Are not their egoistic actions ultimately hurting themselves via the decline in public confidence in banking system and thus themselves?

    The pursuit of enlightened self-interest (objectivists’ “selfishness”) must be voluntarily limited by the implicit social contract which while unsigned is tacitly agreed to whenever an objectivist indulges the fruits of society, (safe streets, traffic rules, free markets kept clean by moderate statist regulations. Thus, is not the thesis of Rand irrational? Has not the thesis been discredited in its pure form by Wall Street? Is there not some wisdom in the social thesis that no man is an island entire unto itself? Indeed ever objective scientific data and the theory of natural selection argues against strict interpretations of egoism. After all even the ancients recognized the need for some altruism: “Man is by nature a social animal; an individual who is unsocial naturally and not accidentally is either beneath our notice or more than human.” (Aristotle)
    Curious about rational replies?

    -Lucid

    • Neither Adam Smith, nor Milton Friedman, nor Aristotle, nor even Ayn Rand rules my mind. Merely citing the views of prominent thinkers does not move me; only actual argument from facts does.

      ‘Can we really as conscientious citizens ignore our fellow man destined to intractable poverty?’

      “Destined”? You mean to make the blanket statement that the poor were all predestined to be so? In the large majority of the cases, this is not the case. Most poverty is created by a combination of individual choices and governmental initiations of force (minimum wage laws, interfering regulations on business/hiring, etc.) For those who were born handicapped, or had disaster befall them through no fault of their own, private help and charity is all that’s morally appropriate. Someone’s need imposes no moral duty on anyone else, and so it is not the government’s place to force charity. The rational basis of morality is in principles to help guide individuals to a flourishing life, not in duties to anyone who is “in need.”

      ‘…on a rational basis is not some altruism a smart strategy? Is absolute avoidance of altruistic opportunities not unwise when a significant (potentially criminal) cohort of the underclass is provided nothing to lose?

      Altruism does not properly mean any help to other people, but self-sacrificial help. That is, attempting to make the welfare of others one’s ultimate value, at least temporarily.

      So what you are talking about is accepting class-based thuggery as inevitable and giving in to it without moral protestation. But people’s views are the results of human choice, not the inevitable and the metaphysically given. There are plenty of poor people throughout history that accepted the responsibility of earning what they got, rather than trying to extort it from others. (These include such men as John D. Rockefeller and these people.) Also, see my third argument/refutation under the heading, A Few Fallacious Arguments for Government Robbery (Taxation) Refuted.

      ‘The pursuit of enlightened self-interest (objectivists’ “selfishness”) must be voluntarily limited by the implicit social contract which while unsigned is tacitly agreed to whenever an objectivist indulges the fruits of society, (safe streets, traffic rules, free markets kept clean by moderate statist regulations.’

      The “fruits of society” cannot be properly collectivized to “society as a whole.” What “fruits” do you get from the homeless guy who uses food stamps, spends any money he panhandles on booze, and pays no taxes?

      But those people who are not in the electing majority are forced to use government roads just to live, even if we do not want that system and would vote against it. We are forced to accept market regulations, even if we are confident that the market would be much “cleaner” without them and would vote against such regulations. By your logic, coercion is self-justifying. The government can come in and force you to accept unwanted “benefits,” then tell you that you can’t oppose them without being a hypocrite, because you are “benefiting” from them. I owe nothing to those with whom I did not transact voluntarily.

      ‘Has not the thesis been discredited in its pure form by Wall Street?’

      No, it has not. Fraud is properly outlawed, and committing fraud is not in anyone’s rational self-interest. (See: Bernie Madoff: Not Rationally Selfish, But Self-Destructive) Also, the financial sector is among the most heavily regulated and government-manipulated industries in America. This regulation and manipulation produces an environment in which people’s economic self-interest is distorted, and corruption flourishes. (See the first 2 links on this post: What Caused the Financial Crisis: It Wasn’t Capitalism or Deregulation.)

      ‘Indeed ever objective scientific data and the theory of natural selection argues against strict interpretations of egoism.’

      I have certainly heard this objection before, and I plan to deal with it in a future post. But in the meantime, I’ll just say that, in using facts to derive morality, unless some fact is truly fundamental to human nature, you are very likely committing the fallacy of the Appeal to Nature.

  4. “The rational interests of individuals in everyday life in society do not conflict, because life-sustaining values are not a static quantity to be fought over, but are created by effort based on reasoning, and are thus variable and potentially unlimited.”

    “Attempting to sacrifice the rational interests of others as a means to one’s own happiness, whether done through force or deception, is doomed to fail.”

    “Competition is a by-product of productive work, not its goal. A creative man is motivated by the desire to achieve, not by the desire to beat others.”

    This isn’t really true. I know lots of people that do evil things and get away with them. It does seem to increase their net happiness over the long run. We could speculate about their inner psyche, but everything I’ve seen indicates to me that people do sometimes benefit from evil in the long run.

    Even if we accept the whole idea of a purpose/production driven life (which I never felt Ayn Rand proved, only asserted) in order to fully realize ones life purpose it is often necessary to acquire resources of a scarce nature. If you can take them from someone else this will further achieving your own purpose.

    In general I find Ayn Rand is very black/white in her whole producer/moocher dichotomy. For instance, I worked in IB and fraud was a very rampant practice. Many of the fraudsters I knew made a lot of money quick, retired young, and then had the capital to pursue lots of other interests. Some even went on to be successful “producers”, but that production was enabled by their original fraud. If they had not benefited from that fraud they could never have realized that same potential if they were slogging away at lesser jobs that didn’t allow them to gain financial independence so quickly or gain access to the opportunities that come from the connections one gains at such a job.

    What I think a lot of what Rand people miss is that competition isn’t just between “moochers” and “producers”. In addition producers compete with each other because realizing productive vision is contingent upon access to scarce resources that allow it.

    Whether its financial independence, investment capital, access to beneficial relationships, network effects, powerful educational and institutional membership, etc. there are always scarce resources that allow one to “produce” better.

    Fundamentally the flaw with Rand is she assumes that everyone is 100% self made, and that if someone wants to achieve their potential they will always find a way if their will is strong enough even if they never steal. However if this assumption is false, if someone following her principal of non-aggression doesn’t have total control over realizing his productive potential, and if stealing would enable him to realize his productive potential more fully, we have a breakdown in the philosophy. It’s my believe that ones ability to achieve their potential is dependent on circumstances as well as the individuals will and ability, and that these circumstances include scarce resources. So for one to have access to them and achieve their potential another must not. It true that others could try to steal back (I’ll address below), but then the only question that matters to you is if your stronger.

    What you ought to fear is a producer who will mooch when it makes sense for him to do so. The competent and opportunistic moocher, who can produce if he needs to but will also steal if he sees a good opportunity. Even if you decide to no longer produce once he’s stolen from you he is now done with you, and he can produce on his own even if you no longer comply. If you go on strike he goes on just fine.

    In modern mass society this typically takes the form of fraud, which is easy to do because one can always meld back into the anonymous mass. Others don’t know they are a fraudster. Rand’s reply that long term reputation effects mean there is no contradiction with self interested egoism ignore the effects of mass society and the manipulative nature of reputation in it. She assumes, probably intuitively like most people, that reputation economy is much like it was when we lived in smaller tribes, everyone knew everyone, and your actions had a reputation effect. The modern world is very different, and the reputation economy doesn’t stand as a strong enough bullwork against opportunistic fraud.

    The effect if “everyone did it” is irrelevant. What matter’s is your individual payoff structure. You can’t affect what other people do.

    In short, we end up with what evolution says we should end up with. An equilibrium between hawks and doves, with hawks and doves trading places in certain circumstances.

    From Atlas shrugged:

    “In rejecting this demand as unfair, you have created instead a society of brutality and plunder, in which gangs battle for control of the government and the power to extort wealth.”

    Of course that is the way the world is. Once we establish that stealing can make a man happy, and if happiness is the highest virtue, it makes sense that men will try to steal.

    Telling them what they are doing is immoral won’t stop them, nor will it even make them feel bad if they believe it increases their happiness and that is all that matters.

    And what it means for society at large doesn’t matter. It might indeed be better for you to be left alone then stolen from. However, it might be even better for you to steal yourself. The fact that being stolen from is bad for you doesn’t matter if you have the strength to steal and others can’t steal back.

    […Mod note: Atlas Shrugged SPOILER ALERT…]

    Rand’s only solution to this was to assume that if you did not produce then the stealer could not produce on his own. But this is false. There are moochers that can produce, so this is not a threat. Imagine if Galt not complying didn’t lead to society collapsing, but instead lots of scabs rush in to take the choice opportunities the strikers left behind. Society goes along just fine, then they find the Gulch, invade, kill everyone, and bring the motor back to some scab who reverse engineers it in exchange for whatever it is that makes him happy that he wouldn’t have been able to do otherwise.

    In general Rand assumed only hyper competent straw men and completely incompetent moochers. But real life is more complicated, you get hyper competent moochers who can also produce and are opportunistic. The closest she comes is Dr. Robert Stadler, but in the end she can’t bring herself to write a story in which such a man really does win, a thing that actually happens in real life. And I don’t just mean win in the power sense, but actually get to do the things that help him realize his full potential as a human being (not fall into depravity or have a bunch of weird abstract ideas and habits like he does in the novel). It doesn’t take a lot of writing changes to have his brute accomplices be slightly more competent and use Project X correctly to take down the strikers and Stradler doesn’t die. Galt is dead (how “life affirming” a morality that gets you killed can be) and Stradler gets to keep doing research. If people like Stradler can win by stealing when it benefits them, and if winning makes them happy, you can’t find a way to counter them with Rand’s philosophy.

    • ‘In general I find Ayn Rand is very black/white in her whole producer/moocher dichotomy. For instance, I worked in IB and fraud was a very rampant practice. Many of the fraudsters I knew made a lot of money quick, retired young, and then had the capital to pursue lots of other interests. Some even went on to be successful “producers”, but that production was enabled by their original fraud. If they had not benefited from that fraud they could never have realized that same potential if they were slogging away at lesser jobs that didn’t allow them to gain financial independence so quickly or gain access to the opportunities that come from the connections one gains at such a job.’

      The first thing I’d like to note is that banking is a highly regulated industry. In general, the more government force pervades an industry, the less practical honesty is, relative to dishonesty. Government regulations are absolute conditions of doing business that are dependent on people’s arbitrary desires. They are less predictable and more capricious than the metaphysical reality that sets the absolute conditions for doing business in a free market. Hence, business in a market subject to government regulation becomes much more of a short-range, smash-and-grab affair. To the extent that force pervades an industry, morality ceases to be practical.

      “When you see that trading is done, not by consent, but by compulsion — when you see that in order to produce, you need to obtain permission from men who produce nothing — when you see money flowing to those who deal, not in goods, but in favors — when you see that men get richer by graft and pull than by work, and your laws don’t protect you against them, but protect them against you — when you see corruption being rewarded and honesty becoming a self-sacrifice — you may know that your society is doomed.” –Atlas Shrugged

      But having a regulated market doesn’t mean that the mental-physical flourishing that results in happiness can be achieved through dishonesty. All the regulations do is reduce the ability of honest people to succeed in attaining objective flourishing, thus reducing the contrast between the honest and dishonest.

      Due especially to the psychological effects of dishonesty, I would say that whatever genuine happiness the individuals you describe experience, it is despite their commission of fraud, not because of it. They would have been far happier had they actually earned what they got, rather than stealing it from others. They would have been happier if they had lived by rational principles, than if they put themselves at risk in such an out-of-control way.

      If you want proof that violating the rights of others is always against one’s self-interest in a free market, you’re going to have to wait for my future posts. I have a couple of posts in the works on the nature and value of principles, and on why abiding by the principle of individual rights is always in one’s self-interest in a free market.

  5. I want to throw something out there, because it will probably save me a lot of time replying to the initial objections.

    As a story of some people with good rule of thumb values, Rand’s work is good. However, Rand goes on to build an absolutist philosophy around it. That structure is very shoddy.

    When you have an absolutist framework every piece has to fit together and apply in ALL possible circumstances. If a single circumstance doesn’t fit, no matter how unlikely, the whole thing falls apart as an “objective” philosophy. That’s why Rand’s situations and characters have to be so straw man, and why lots of philosophers have ripped her system to shreds.

    I would consider this problem when replying. It’s not enough to say, “I assert that XYZ is the only rational value/choice.” You have to prove it.

    • Ayn Rand’s intent in writing her nonfiction works was not to provide every answer and excruciatingly detailed explanation to refute hostile critics, but to provide readers of her novels with more information and strong leads to gain a greater understanding of her philosophy. The job of detailed chewing and proof was largely left to readers. (See: Understanding Objectivism and Objectivism Through Induction.)

      When you have an absolutist framework every piece has to fit together and apply in ALL possible circumstances.

      You see, this shows that you don’t understand the Objectivist theory of principles. Principles are contextual absolutes, and they don’t have to apply in ALL possible circumstances; only in all those circumstances that fit the context of the principle. (See: the principles of physics and “The Ethics of Emergencies” in VoS.)

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