Saturday, 9 February 2013

Ayn Rand, the Academic Philosopher

Rand wasn't an academic. She didn't write like an academic. She wasn't exceedingly well read or studious on academic philosophy. And the tendency is, academic philosophers do not take her seriously if they've heard of her at all.

But underneath the style she chose and the approach she took, how well would her ideas translate into academia? Or to put it a more interesting way: can Rand be taken seriously as a *philosopher* and not just a guru.  

Philosophy problems Rand offers solutions in:

The meta-ethical problem 'why be moral?': what if you don't want to be moral? Doesn't the whole thing kind of fall apart if you don't care about doing the right thing?

Rand's solution is that she never asks you to care. But, she argues, it would never be in your interest not to. Rand's morality is utterly self-interested, and is more concerned with freeing you from not doing the moral thing (e.g. being altruistic) due to cultural standards or pressures, than it is in commanding you to act any way you might not see the point in.

The meta-ethical problem of objectivity: Objective morality is hard to defend meta-ethically. Values that are 'mind-dependent' are subjective. They are governed by preferences. For a value to be objective it must be good 'mind-independently'. But how could something be valuable if its not valuable to the subject? What other authority could determine a values status as valuable?

Obviously 'objective morality' is important to Rand, enough she named her theory 'Objectivism', but actually she never insists on objective values. What she insists on instead is that our chosen values be thought through rationality. So for example, a heroin addict isn't acting wrongly because they value having a high, if this is what they choose, they may. They are acting wrong because they are picking a destructive way of attaining a high, one that causes them distress and other things *they* don't enjoy. With rational thought, they could realise a better way to get their high.

Rand manages to not be a subjectivist without having to awkwardly discover a way in which this mysterious thing called 'mind-independent value' exists.

The ethical problem of altruism: If we're motivated to do what's good for us, why care about what's good for others?

What makes Rand's account of altruism so interesting is that it's negative. For Rand, 'altruism' is her word for 'self-sacrifice for the sake of others', that is to say, putting someone else's values before you own. To do so is for Rand wrong. But she acknowledges that sometimes your own value may contain in it the consequence of doing something nice for another.

Forget whether or not this is true, this is a very interesting answer to the problem because she explains away the problem: All morally permissible acts that are altruistic are also self-interested. Others have attempted this answer, but they always end up with a morality being nothing more than prudence. But because of Rand's interesting combination of values and selfishness she doesn't fall into this trap.


The above three problems are each major hot debates in contemporary ethics. Rand actually offers interesting and worthy solutions to them. She is not ignored by academic philosophy because of lack of content then, but lack of being understood. This may be her fault for being unclear, it may be the fault of her advocates for not being good enough at philosophy to represent her, or it may be the fault of academic philosophers who have heard of her, for dismissing her based on character.

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