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Ayn Rand and Individualism: a book project outline
Submitted by Chris Cathcart on Mon, 2010-02-15 07:02
(I know Goode and plenty others might be interested in this...)
Tentative proposal, February 2010
Ayn Rand's unique moral vision holds an important place in the history of individualist thought. I plan to demonstrate that her individualist moral vision merits an important place in the history of normative thought, and that philosophers need to take her seriously as such. From this time forth, there should be no mistaking within the philosophical community what her individualist moral vision is and what it rightly entails, and why it serves as one of the most promising ethical theories in the history of philosophy to date.
Rand's moral vision is an originally-formed and systematic one in its own right; at the same time, it manages to incorporate the most appealing elements of the many competing theories in the ethical tradition, from Socrates and Aristotle to Kant and Nietzsche and many in between. Her ethics can be most briefly summed-up in the term eudaemonistic individualism. In a eudaemonist-individualist moral vision, each individual has a unique and irreplaceable worth and a responsibility to develop the capacities and actualize the potentialities unique to every individual human being. The goal is happiness, rightly understood to be a feeling and a condition associated with the satisfaction of right desire. The means of achieving this happiness is a life of virtue, best understood as fidelity to the requirements of actualizing one's potentialities. This moral vision is individualistic in that this perfection or actualization of unique potentials is necessarily self-actualization.
Eudaemonia is attained when one's condition as a human being matches what the "inner voice" or daemon tells the individual is the means to self-actualization. Self-knowledge is crucial to living well or being eudaemon. And fidelity to what one's daemon dictates is the essence of virtue or moral excellence - that the inward and the outward self be one. This entails living with scrupulous rationality, integrity, honesty, and independence of spirit. These virtues have implications socially (the virtue of justice), materially (the virtue of productivity), and psychologically (the virtue of pride).
The heroes of Ayn Rand's novels are her depictions of morally ideal individuals - people of excellence with unwavering integrity of spirit. In this regard, she identifies man as an end in himself, an idea with both Kantian and Nietzschean connotations. I plan to show that her ethics retains the right aspects of both of these thinkers' conceptions of man as an end in himself, while rejecting the wrong aspects. After all, Rand, contra Kant, sees happiness as the purpose of ethics, and, contra Nietzsche, believes that value and virtue are objective as means to happiness and thus necessitate morally-informed behavior. With Nietzsche, she rejects altruism; with Kant, she emphasizes that desire must be rationally-informed in order to be right desire. Other similarities and differences will be fleshed out and it will be shown that her ethics closely resembles Aristotle's, in which case her conception of egoism is best placed within the virtue-ethics tradition.
After a discussion of Rand's fictional heroes as moral exemplars, I will compare and contrast her moral vision with that of David L. Norton, author of Personal Destinies: A Philosophy of Ethical Individualism. Norton's moral vision is not only appealing but it is right in every way that we would expect a moral theory to get things right. This means, among other things, that the right moral theory is an individualistic one.
At a certain juncture, Rand and Norton part ways, particularly as it relates to the social entailments of eudaemonism. Not only is there a (self-actualizing-justified) obligation to actively encourage members of one's community to self-actualize themselves, but there is also a political obligation based in the virtue of justice to members of one's community that goes beyond the negative obligation not to "initiate the use of physical force," but also to ensure that the necessary political conditions are in place so that people can flourish. This entails a political community or state that ensures, if the community can afford it, that every member is guaranteed certain basic goods and opportunities. This fully retains the appealing features of individualism, because every member of the community has a rational stake in every member being able to flourish.
In this regard, I hold that Randian individualism properly entails a political liberalism in the tradition of Locke, Jefferson, and F.A. Hayek. In regard to Hayek, I will show that Rand shared the same views about rationalism, or as Hayek termed it, constructivist rationalism. I will also show that, while Hayek did not offer a moral vision in the same way that Rand did, he did offer a supremely practical vision for the ordering of society in ways that answer to the rational self-interest of its members. And as Rand was keen to insist, there is no dichotomy between the moral and the practical. Being that Rand was supremely practical herself, I urge for Randians to reconsider that her ethics does not entail a "laissez-faire" politics by necessity, and in this regard I urge a consideration of liberal individualism in the tradition of these thinkers named above. This is also the politics entailed in Norton's eudaemonism.
This politics is also genuinely a liberal one, in spite of the virtue-ethics underpinnings. Just as there is no dichotomy between the moral and the practical, so there is no dichotomy between virtue and liberality. They are one and the same. The individualist moral vision of Rand and Norton is strong enough to counter objections from communitarians who urge that virtue-ethics has non-liberal political implications.
Since John Rawls is the most dominant figure on the contemporary moral landscape, a detailed treatment of the liberal individualism I set forth as it relates to Rawls's is crucial. Of particular interest would be how a Randian conception of man as an end in himself compares and contrasts with Rawls's Kantian conception. Since Rand's conception is inspired by Nietzscheanism with respect to its non-egalitarianism and partiality to one's own flourishing, but infused with the Kantian ideal of respect and concern for one's fellow human beings and of freedom as the highest political aim, a promising individualist alternative to Rawls's theory of justice emerges.
One potential area of application of Rand's moral vision is the ethics of how we rightly treat non-human animals. Since animals are not moral agents but are nonetheless part of the sentient community, we owe them consideration to the extent that they have mental lives that individuate them in morally significant ways. This is to say that the proper approach to the subject of how to treat animals is a eudeamonistic one, i.e., that the right way to treat animals is the one most expressive of our commitment to moral excellence and self-actualization in all its social entailments.
Updates/revisions of this outline would be available here.
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The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand
Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand