Rand Unbound, Part 4

Mike Huemer’s response to Doug Rasmussen’s essay is now online.

Since there’ll be some back-and-forth among the authors later on, I won’t comment on his piece now; at any rate, it should be obvious from my own piece where my disagreements with his will lie.

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29 Responses to Rand Unbound, Part 4

  1. MBH January 22, 2010 at 1:20 pm #

    He lists, as one of her key insight, “that persons exist as ends in themselves.”

    Wasn’t that Kant’s insight? The whole kingdom of ends thing…

    And doesn’t her notion of self-direction — whether lifting from Kant directly or not — uncannily resemble the conceptual structure of autonomous action?

    • JOR January 22, 2010 at 2:19 pm #

      Huemer actually attributes that insight to the common liberal tradition as such (including with Kant), not as originating with Rand.

      • MBH January 22, 2010 at 2:47 pm #

        Oops. Shouldn’t have started with the conclusion.

        • MBH January 23, 2010 at 3:06 am #

          FWIW: I like Mike’s piece a lot. I’m glad he points to the tension between her ethics and politics. I’m especially glad he shows how ethical egoism is incoherent.

          The only thing I would add is what Nathaniel Branden might say. Unconsciously, using-other-people-as-means-to-your-own-end is harmful to your self-esteem — whether it registers consciously or not. That doesn’t mean that ethical egoism is defensible. Only that self-interest has built-in limitations.

        • Roderick January 23, 2010 at 1:11 pm #

          I’m especially glad he shows how ethical egoism is incoherent.

          Well, he shows that a certain straw man is incoherent. But what he demolishes is not what any major ethical egoist has actually held.

        • MBH January 23, 2010 at 1:45 pm #

          I agree. I should say it this way: I find that the ego of coherent ethical egoism is more universal than the standard Randian is willing to accept.

          I mean, I think at some point in The Virtue of Selfishness she says that no rational person can have conflicting ends — or something like that. But that means that the ego she’s referencing is quite a refined thing.

          What she calls “ego” has nothing to do with what we conventionally call “ego.” Insofar as it’s shaped by objective rationality, we might as well think of it as “the rational mode of perception.”

          I’m just afraid that the word ‘ego’ muddies the waters. And I think that’s an undercurrent in Mike’s piece.

        • Roderick January 23, 2010 at 1:57 pm #

          Well, she used the subtitle “A New Concept of Egoism” to ward off potential misunderstanding. Unfortunately, this goal was frustrated by the title “The Virtue of Selfishness.” I wish she’d written The Impossibility of Selfishness: A New Concept of Egoism.

        • MBH January 23, 2010 at 2:04 pm #

          I like.

        • Aster January 24, 2010 at 8:51 am #


          I will take this challenge. Why is ethical egoism indefensible?

          It is indefensible if one begins with a conventional discourse on ethics which characterises our problem as one of why and how we should live ‘virtuously’ as a goal in itself worthwhile. But if one doesn’t see any reason why an individual should accept such a postulate, then one still has a need of an answer ‘how and by what knowledge shall I live’? That’s the question as Rand or Epicurus or some Aristotelians and Stoics would approach it.

          There’s certainly a social subspecies of ethics which should specifically deal with the question as to how one should relate to one’s fellow rational creatures. And I think it can be fairly easily shown that as a general rule it’s a wise idea to maintain and establish a state of peace with others so long and as long as others substantively keep a state of peace towards oneself. Civilisation rocks. And ‘man is the delight of man’: rational creatures at their best are the among most fascinating experiences possible in this life, and appreciating the excellence of others, and having one’s own excellence appreciated, allows for an intensity od consciousness unequaled by anything except aesthetic response, spiritual experience, and intellectual discovery. Friendship rocks.

          If socio-political institutions need to be built to make sure we keep to a minimum the stepping on each others’ toes, then I’ll give it my blessing, so long as there are no double standards- I’ll even be somewhat more permissive than libertarians as regards the possible public policy options. But there’s no cause to pretend that necessary house rules are our highest human creations; social guide ropes and traffic scones are merely boring administrative stuff. Our ethics is learning to think, feel, and live an active life- and to share these things with others. That is more worthy of ceremony and poetry. Washing the dishes is secondary and inferior to eating the blueberry-chocolate-cookie-cake.

          One may of course as a philosopher to reject ethical egoism, but there’s no cause to call it incoherent unless you judge it by a measure logically external to egoism. Perhaps Rand’s ethical egoism is incoherent; her illogical borrowings from Kant do suggest squaring a circle. But hers isn’t the only egoism, and in any case the earlier Rand preached a sharper egoism with more passion and less need to present to confuse the interests of the individual with the maintenance of public order and social respectability. I personally think that we should put some collective effort into making the public system more fair and just, without expecting perfect synchronicity between the needs of individuals and individuals and the needs of individuals and societies. I like a bit of the jostle and bustle of the Renaissance and the American West. Better a few airplanes a year go down with bombs than subject everyone to the internalised spiritual equivalent of the Transportation Security Administration.

          Unconsciously, using-other-people-as-means-to-your-own-end is harmful to your self-esteem — whether it registers consciously or not.

          Aw, come on, you make it sound soooooo much worse than it really is. I kind of like it out here in Outer Heteronomy. Please, my friend, tell me, where is the evidence for this claim? Are the saints and Boy Scouts of the world happy? Was Nietszche devoid of self-esteem!? And what precisely is “using-other-people-as-means-to-your-own-end”? I’ll come close enough to agreement in practice if UOPAMTYOE is defined as a synonym for aggression or domination (not terribly fun ways to live, anyway). But I’m ROTFL if it’s defined in classical Kantian terms. Forgive me, but I know better. UOPAMTYOE happens all the time to me and I feel fine. There are whole continents of happiness across the moral ocean. The maps that say that you fall off the edge are wrong, drawn by men whose practice of cartography consists of filling in the blank spaces with what they think ought to be there, or what it would be better for society to believe is there.

          If we simply mean by UOPAMTYOE the exploitation or predation of others, then my own experience says that there’s some truth to this- altho’ not enough truth to rationally convince your average resident of a rich country that he or she would he happier as a result of adjusting their life to the limits of an equitable carbon footprint. As previously stated, I’m willing to endorse formal or informal social constitutions which enforce this rule on everyone. Even Kant, IIRC, admitted that rational devils can do that much.

          But Kant condemned something more than this; his definition of UOPAMTYOE applied to any relation that catered to desire or advantage as opposed to a disinterested reason. And this is simply a terribly false and terribly damaging way to counsel people to live, and contrary to everything we know about human psychology. People who consistently followed this advice would be miserable and have no friendships, only neighbours with whom they exchanged phony sentiments.

          Real friendships form because people have something to learn from each other, because each brings excitement and inspiration to one’s life. Successful marriages result when two people’s lives fit together so as to make both happier in kind– and it’s precisely those cultures which preach holy and churchly motivations as the basis for marriage which see the most abuse, exploitation, and (where the right to leave exists) failure. Selfless feelings, if they exist, are terrible glue, which is why they need to be clamped in place by chains. Christianity, Kant, and monotonous millennia of tribal patriarchies have taught us to think of others in alternative to thinking of ourselves, and have perpetrated a colossal fraud upon the human spirit by presenting love and friendship as examples of altruism. They’re not. My mom and I love each other because we each bring something to the other’s life which brightens our own. We think of others and care for them because of what they mean to us. Lilian Rearden’s torturous relation to her husband is precisely what loveless “selfless love” looks like in real life.

          The evil of cultural rightist positions on women, sexuality, and childraising is precisely because they’re built around a picture of society in which people who truly don’t enjoy each other’s company must be made to by reprogramming human psychological motivation. This does not work and can never work, as the tens of millions dead under Stalin and Mao bear witness. And it never should work: Plato’s Republic or the City of God would be miserable places to live even if they somehow didn’t turn into concentration camps.

          What kills human relationships is not selfishness but duty and dependency. Wanted children are treated well by families. Unwanted children are turned into house labour and vessels of vicarious immortality. Women placed upon pedestals are made lifeless statues who must never taint their position as worship-objects. Personally, I find the idea of a woman willing to give up her self and passions for the sake of living up to a pedestal ideal and preserving “freedom” from male UOPAMTYOE a horrifying case of spiritual murder complicated with Stockholm syndrome. Or, perhaps, a truly tragic case, suggesting a desperate cultural need for the establishment of educational programs for the purpose of combating female innumeracy.

          I more or less agree with Aristotle here, or at least with the most secular interpretations of Aristotle. The world has many kinds of bonds between people. Some of them are based upon appreciation of another’s skills, some upon enjoyment of another’s company, some upon regard for another’s wisdom. None of them are selfless; in fact they are all made possible by the magnitude of the selves involved. Absent a need to begin enquiry from a God’s eye perspective there need be no dichotomy between UOPAMTYOE and appreciating people “in themselves”; arguably, UOPAMTYOE is constitutive of friendship as well as its necessary fortification. Deep friendship is a matter of common projects and endeavours. You can’t separate the friendship Achilles and Patroclus from their comaraderie as warriors, nor do I read Homer as ever suggesting that one ought to.

          Kant’s ethic is an ethic for angels, not for human beings. And angels not only do not act upon matter, but they lack existence. Fortunately we human beings are still alive.

          Need I mention that the vast majority of sex, and love, involves lots and lots of UOPAMTYOE? “UOPAMTYOE” is precisely what most people wish to do and/or have done to them in bed, and praise the gods for it. The ethics of Christ and Kant were formulated by men who literally did not know what they were talking about when they formulated ethoi completely incapable of doing justice to this crucial aspect of the human experience. Heck, most moralities ever formulated are simply unable to do justice to the fact that people like beer. This suggests to me that most moral discourse has been looking in the wrong direction.

          There is so much of a better world out there. “Life is a reason unto itself!” It is possible that many happinesses exist to a greater or lesser degree in tragic conflict. It is certain that human exuberance will never fit inside a sunday school classroom. This is perhaps reason for some sad reflection on the human condition loss of innocence does that. But it’s no reason at all to divert our endeavours from the pursuit of happiness in the name of ideals which we do not want and which do not fuel the furnaces of creation. Here is my ethics. And that. Or that. Or even that– and here who can show any religion, any moralism, any shining ideal whose stature shall ever shame the pursuit of happiness by comparison?

          Come, fill the cup, and in the fire of Spring
          Your winter-garment of Repentance fling.
          The bird of time has but a little way to fly-
          And lo!, the bird is on the Wing.

        • MBH January 24, 2010 at 10:15 am #

          Well, I do see it as aggression.

          I think Branden is more clear on this issue than Rand. He might say, “UOPAMTYOE is a manifestation of low self-esteem.” Rand might say it’s, “selfishness without a self.”

          But I don’t think that heteronomy = UOPAMTYOE. To me, heteronomy can be something as harmless as trying to understand another person’s perspective. I’ve said it before: I think we can imagine autonomy and heteronomy as a continuum instead of a strict dichotomy. When X tries on the shoes of Y, X is not surrendering autonomy. To me, shifting perspectives can strengthen autonomy.

          I don’t know that Rand considers this. I have a vivid memory of Roark in the beginning of The Fountainhead. What she describes as heroic and stoic comes across to me as anti-social. But from his perspective — accessing heteronomy land — I can see the tension between a mission orientation and a light-hearted social-butterfly mode. It’s not easy to reconcile those, but that’s no reason to assume that it can’t be done.

        • Roderick January 24, 2010 at 10:46 am #

          In fairness to Kant, what he condemns is not using others as means but using others as mere means, i.e., using them as means in a way that doesn’t respect the fact that they are also persons and ends in themselves.

        • JOR January 24, 2010 at 4:20 pm #

          I don’t think Huemer shows (or tries to show, or even thinks) that ethical egoism per se is incoherent. He thinks it is false. I agree with him, obviously – and I think that attempts to save egoism by redefining self interest to include moral virtue as a constitutive part do so by destroying it – on that accounting, any ethical theory at all would count as egoist. Now I think there are good reasons to think that the eudaimonist conception of self interest is more coherent and compelling than the various egoist conceptions of self interest; nevertheless they are talking about irreconcilably different things when they talk about self interest.

          He might think that Rand’s particular ethical theory is incoherent (and not merely false), but not because it’s egoist per se. In any case he doesn’t argue for that in this article.

        • MBH January 24, 2010 at 5:24 pm #

          You’re right. Careless of me to generalize it to all ethical egoisms. I think he’s only talking about Rand’s version.

        • Aster January 24, 2010 at 9:23 pm #


          Very well. Would you care to offer a reason why I should wish to accept a non-egoist ethics?

        • Roderick January 24, 2010 at 10:47 pm #

          I’m reminded of a collection of responses I wrote to various ethical theories. It went something like:

          Utilitarianism has bad results.
          Relativism isn’t true for me.
          Not everyone can be a Kantian.
          Moral realism is bad — really bad.
          What kind of person would be a virtue ethicist?
          Don’t be a prescriptivist.
          God says: don’t be a divine command theorist.
          Emotivism, boo!
          I don’t like subjectivism.
          No one would agree to contractarianism.
          Ethical egoism — what’s in it for me?

  2. JOR January 22, 2010 at 3:04 pm #

    Huemer’s take on Objectivism is the closest to mine I’ve ever seen anywhere. I wonder if one of the reasons hardcore Randists remind me so much hardcore Calvinists is that Calvinist ethics, such as it is, is basically something like egoism+monotheism.

    • Aster January 24, 2010 at 9:34 pm #

      Calvinism=egoism??? ??!??!!!. Weber’s confusions aside, have you met any Calvinists, or read what it was like to be a citizen of Calvin’s Geneva or Puritan America? Skimmed Rousas Rushdoony’s Institutes of Biblical Law? Calvinism is spending your whole life in collectivist church. Total depravity?? Here’s Wikipedia’s section of that tenet:

      The doctrine of total depravity (also called “total inability”) asserts that, as a consequence of the fall of man into sin, every person born into the world is enslaved to the service of sin. People are not by nature inclined to love God with their whole heart, mind, or strength, but rather all are inclined to serve their own interests over those of their neighbour and to reject the rule of God. Thus, all people by their own faculties are morally unable to choose to follow God and be saved because they are unwilling to do so out of the necessity of their own natures.

      I can’t comprehend how this could possibly be associated with any version of egoism, with the possible exception of the fact that it does resemble the psychological atmosphere of Objectivist culture.

      • Roderick January 24, 2010 at 10:10 pm #

        I would have said that Calvinists accept psychological egoism (at least about postlapsarian humans) but not ethical egoism. Rand of course is precisely the reverse.

  3. Micha Ghertner January 23, 2010 at 1:55 am #

    For the sake of historical curiosity, and because I’m too lazy to research it myself, could someone explain to me Rand’s/Objectivists’ (of the ARI variety) hostility to Kant? Or point me to an article which explains this strange hostility?

    • MBH January 23, 2010 at 3:40 am #

      I’ve always imagined Jim Taggart’s wife’s suicide as how Rand pictured the world through Kant’s eyes. Nothing solid. Everything in flux. All illusion.

      Kant rejects “knowledge” from pure experience or from pure thought. Rand thinks that pure experience does give us knowledge of the world. So Kant is evil — to her — because he won’t allow knowledge from pure experience.

      Kant might respond to her by saying, “you act like concepts don’t shape experience.” Which is true; she doesn’t leave room for that. Objectivist epistemology doesn’t allow — what is a common sense fact — that you perceive the rope as a snake if you think the rope is a snake.

      Kant would say to Rand that what she qualifies as knowledge is domatic. It’s dogmatic to assume that sense-data is presenting the world as it is in itself. In the greatest irony of objectivism, Kant might suggest that she check her premises.

      • MBH January 23, 2010 at 3:52 am #

        Wittgenstein would chime in: you cannot “think” the rope is a snake if the rope is not a snake. You can only “imagine” that. Regardless, the concepts you use in your imagination contribute to the form of your sense-data.

        • MBH January 23, 2010 at 3:55 am #

          I hope it’s clear why Rand would be hostile towards this idea. She wants sense-data to be like a direct reading of the objective world. Kant tells her that sense-data is always — in part — shaped by your pre-conceived notions of the world.

    • Roderick January 23, 2010 at 1:21 pm #

      Rand’s two main beefs with Kant were his epistemology and his ethics. I briefly summarise here what I take to be the good and bad sides of each. If you focus just on the bad sides, then it looks as though you’ve got an epistemology that makes reality unknowable and an ethics that divorces morality from happiness. Rand was reacting to those aspects, and to the influence she thought they had.

      • MBH January 23, 2010 at 1:53 pm #

        What’s weird is that Rand’s ethic is deontological. I mean, she very clearly is talking about a “duty to self.” All her characters are restrained from certain actions that aren’t in their self-interest. I mean she treats egoism as if it were a categorical imperative.

        I don’t see how she lands either an epistemic punch or an ethical punch on Kant.

        • Aster January 27, 2010 at 7:22 am #


          Why should one wish to fight? The quarrel between Rand and Kant is a war between other people in another century. It’s never going to be my work in this lifetime to parse the transcendental deduction. I’d rather understand Kant than try to defeat him with inadequate skill, and I’d rather live and enjoy this brief life than do either.

          All I wished to communicate is that it’s not in my nature to live other than an egoistic life. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t feel, or think, or care, or empathise, or appreciate beauty or spiritual depth. Contrary to rumour, we egoists do have souls(=1), even if we manage them strangely And it’s obvious while speaking to you that not all Kantians are mystically animated clockwork soldiers. Contrary to what many think of me, I don’t object to others thinking differently as long as the difference in premises does not preclude just and respectful relations- and I’ve always believed that those who take different ideas deeply and seriously have more in common than those who share the same creed with shallow understanding. And given the times that are so swiftly descending, anyone who understands and is willing to defend the Enlightenment is a friend. I’m terribly frightened by how few people seriously examine our contemporary situation here.

          I’ll be glad to argue the merits of Rand vs. Kant if you wish. Please forgive me if it’s not possible to argue over such crucially foundational issues without some degree of combative passion. And please also forgive me more if I am simply in way over my head when debating the technicalities of Kant’s philosophy with you.

          I have strong convictions. I mean them. I don’t believe in dying for ideas, but I do believe that ideas are nothing if not one’s best understanding of what is worthwhile in life and what lives are not worth the hardship of survival and the effort to breathe. I am strident with my egoism because it is inextricably bound up with my life, and I live in a world in which explicit egoism is only very tenuously granted a right to exist. I live for my passions. I don’t know how to exist any longer without letting them burn. And the world is so hostile. If I fear Kant, it’s because Kant and so many other before and after proclaim me something close to the essence of evil. Sometimes I think they’re right. But if it is so, then to live aflame is itself worth anything, tho’ in Hell. I wish others could know what it is like.

          I like philosophy. But I’m not a philosopher. I get distracted by the music too easily. There’s part of me that looks at the axiomatic nature of truth and says that you just can’t do that.. To allow poetry to invade reason is to invite superstition and sophistry. I don’t know. Secular or literary Paganism is more of a fuzzy border than I might wish(=2). I feel like I’m on fuzzy borders in many places right now. But it makes as much sense as I’m coming to believe can be found.

          Blessed be (ignore the visuals). I truly do have a very busy week ahead, and will be writing very little here until the second week of February.

          (=1) It is not a chip! And same difference.

          (=2) Camille Paglia has claimed to believe in astrology. Amusingly, that says about the same thing whether it’s true or whether she’s lying for publicity.

      • MBH January 23, 2010 at 1:54 pm #

        I guess I should qualify: when I say “Kant,” I’m referencing the austere one.

        • MBH January 23, 2010 at 1:58 pm #

          Further qualify: I think it’s misleading to talk about two of him. It would be like talking about the Hume in the philosopher’s closet and the Hume out in the world. He used the former as a process to better understand the latter.

          Same goes for Kant, I think. The “transcendental” mode was something he used to get a fuller grasp of the “austere” mode.

        • MBH January 23, 2010 at 2:00 pm #

          In the same way Conant distinguishes elucidations from nonsense. Kant would say that the transcendental mode was nonsense but helped elucidate the austere mode.

        • MBH January 23, 2010 at 2:13 pm #

          I do think it’s fair to talk about two Rands. And I read the root of the bad Rand like this: “you cannot use artful perception (synthetic a priori judgments) to better understand the world.”

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