[Cross-Posted at Ayn Rand Contra Human Nature]
In the first part of this post, I discussed Rand’s style of argumentation as found in Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology. As I pointed out, Rand often defends her position using as a background the supposedly failed views of other philosophers. She takes much the same approach in “The Objectivist Ethics.”
Rand quickly disposes with the entire history of ethical thought. “In the sorry record of the history of mankind’s ethics—with few rare, and unsuccessful, exceptions—moralists have regarded ethics as the province of whims, that is: of the irrational.” Rand does not provide us with the names of those “rare” philosophers who consider ethics to be based on something other than whims. In any event, her claim is certainly exaggerated.
First, as Huemer notes, it is inaccurate to say that Plato, Aristotle, Epicurus, Epictetus, Aquinas, Butler, Kant, Bentham, Mill, Bradley and Moore regarded ethics as the province of whims and the irrational. And, even if unsuccessful, they are not the few.
Second, there is an entire traditional of natural law ethics which seeks to derive universal ethical principles from objective reality. Aristotle was called the “father of natural law.” Heinrich Rommen writes that, for Aristotle, “The supreme norm of morality is accordingly this: Realize your essential form, your nature. The natural is the ethical, and the essence is unchangeable.” (Rommen, The Natural Law, p. 15.) Thomas Aquinas, among others, passed this tradition to the West via his synthesis of Aristotelian and Christian thought.
Natural law theories were prominent in the Enlightenment. As Lord Kames, an important thinker in the Scottish Enlightenment, wrote, “A lion has claws, because nature made him an animal of prey. A man has fingers, because he is a social animal to procure food by art not by force. It is thus we discover for what end we were designed by nature, or the Author. And the same chain of reasoning points out to us the laws by which we ought to regulate our actions: for acting according to our nature, is acting so as to answer the end of our creation.” (Henry Home (Lord Kames), Essays on the Principles of Morality and Natural Religion, pp. 25-26.)
Natural law ethics wasn’t dead by Rand’s time either. One example is philosopher Henry Veatch who published a defense of Aristotelian ethics in his 1962 book Rational Man. (Rand dismisses Aristotle with the debatable claim that he based his ethics on observations of what wise and noble men did, without asking why they did it.)
Since nature law ethics have commonalities with Rand’s ethics (and in many ways hers seems to be a version of it), her readers would certainly benefit from a discussion of why these theories are unsuccessful.
Rand’s first failed school is the “mystics,” who allegedly hold the “arbitrary, unaccountable ‘will of God’ as the standard of the good and as the validation of their ethics.” No mystic is mentioned, but I assume that these are conventional religious thinkers. Even so, the description isn’t apt. Most religious philosophers would probably disagree with the claim that they consider God’s commands “arbitrary.” The Ten Commandments, for example, contain a mix of religious injunctions (e.g., have no other gods) and practical commands (e.g, don’t steal). Religious thinkers often adopt a natural law ethic, arguing that God created human beings with a certain nature. (See the above quote from Lord Kames.)
Rand next turns to the “neomystics.” These philosophers attempted to “break the traditional monopoly of mysticism in the field of ethics . . . . But their attempts consisted of accepting the ethical doctrines of the mystics and of trying to justify them on social grounds, merely substituting society for God." Particularly problematic is Rand’s claim that apparently all neomystics are advocates of the unlimited state. Her statement is so sweeping that it should be quoted in detail:
“This meant, in logic—and, today, in worldwide practice—that society stands above any principle of ethics, since it is the source, standard and criterion of ethics, since ‘the good’ is whatever it wills, whatever it happens to assert as its own welfare and pleasure. This meant that ‘society’ may do anything it pleases, since ‘the good’ is whatever it chooses to do because it chooses to do it. And—since there is no such entity as ‘society,’ since society is only a number of individual men-this meant that some men (the majority or any gang that claims to be its spokesman) are ethically entitled to pursue any whims (or any atrocities) they are entitled to pursue, while other men are ethically obliged to spend their lives in the service of that gang’s desire.”
Taken literally, Rand is arguing that no secular philosopher places any limits on the state’s power over the individual. This hardly seems the case, the utilitarian Ludwig von Mises being an obvious counter-example.
As in ITOE, Rand’s scholarship is quite poor. Rand mentions only Aristotle, Nietzsche, Bentham, Mill and Comte. None of these philosophers is discussed in any detail, and none is quoted or cited. Rand’s only quoted source is herself, principally John Galt’s speech from Atlas Shrugged. (Galt is called, curiously, Objectivism’s “best representative.”) The amount of hyperbole is excessive, even by Rand’s standards. Rand is certainly entitled to disagree with altruism, but do altruists really hold death as their ultimate value?