Thursday, March 14, 2013

Ayn Rand's Normative Ethics by Tara Smith #review

Title: Ayn Rand’s Normative Ethics—The Virtuous Egoist
Author: Tara Smith
Publisher: Cambridge University Press, 2006

Often, when mentioning Ayn Rand to my friends, I’m met with open scorn. People generally assume that Rand’s Objectivism philosophy stands for cold-hearted selfishness, as frowned upon by every “decent, moral citizen”. After all, isn’t altruism the way forward? Doesn’t selfishness ultimately lead to one’s downfall? How can selfishness be considered a virtue for a virtuous person. The question that’s often asked is: “What makes a person good?”

Surely your life must benefit others? Is it even possible that Rand’s rational egoism can result in an individual living a moral life governed by ethical decisions? It is easy to assume that people are, first and foremost selfish, a societal default setting if it were.

Often it’s insinuated that an egoist acts without a code of ethics, and without any consideration for others. It’s easy for people to write off Rand’s philosophy without taking a closer look. With this book, Tara Smith encourages readers to consider virtues as Ayn Rand defines them and promotes as beneficial to a rational egoist. Because, Rand states, a rational egoist will naturally live a virtuous life if she values flourishing.

Rationality, honesty, independence, justice, integrity, productiveness, and pride might all come across as self-evident virtues. The majority of these will be promoted by your bog-standard adherent of the Abrahamic faiths, or indeed a humanist. And, you might ask, how the hell does pride fit into the picture? Tara Smith takes each of these virtues as set down by Rand, and elaborates on them. In this process, she also shows how these virtues share a basic, undeniable interconnectedness. One needn’t rely on a world religion in order to live a moral life. And one can be a giving person, if certain conditions are met—and one’s actions do not impact negatively on one’s own wellbeing.

Smith also examines how a person with these virtues must act, and also looks at how other virtues (often taken for granted) act within this context: kindness, charity, generosity, temperance, courage, forgiveness, and humility.

Ayn Rand holds up the magnifying lens to all these virtues and how they work within the framework of rational egoism. Underlying all of this is the notion of value, and how a rational individual will not trade something of greater value for the lesser. In this regard, Rand’s Normative Ethics was recommended to me as a follow-up to Smith’s Viable Values: A Study of Life as the Root and Reward of Morality, and provides supplementary reading.

Smith also discerns between popularly held conceptions of virtues, and how a rational egoist would approach them. Rationality is perhaps one of the most important, because it requires that we deal with facts—life as it is—as opposed as how we’d like to perceive it. Just because we want something to be true doesn’t make it so. She also underlines that we should seek rationality, not because we should live rational lives, but because we understand why rationality is so important in order for us to flourish.

Why flourish, you might ask? There’s more to life than simply breathing, and by flourishing we add value to our life. Life isn’t simply to exist. After all, if our entire raison d’etre was to simply breathe and live without pain we might as well live such exciting lives as a tree in a forest or fungus growing on a compost heap. Similarly, we should live moral lives, not because it is expected of us, but because a moral life will result in our continuing flourishing. Before we go further, it’s important to establish what Rand means by flourishing.

By flourishing, Rand suggests that we attain value within our lives, and actively pursue to better our quality of life—to create value. That which is valuable to us isn’t merely money, or a big house: we also value friendships, music, good health, art or the wherewithal to travel and see new destinations. In achieving these goals, we enrich ourselves, and, by extension, have a positive influence on our environment and the people around us.

After looking at how rationality is the master virtue, Smith touches on honesty, and how this applies in our factual assessment of our situations and future plans, and also in how we present ourselves to others. She looks also at the conditions of honesty—for example, it’s perfectly acceptable to lie to Nazis about whether you’re hiding a Jewish friend. After all, the Nazis are not upholding rational virtues in the bigger scheme of things. By being truthful to the Nazis, you basically state that you agree with how they go about doing things.

Independence is, according to Smith, a virtue. She goes on to underscore the differences between being able to live by the efforts of one’s own work, or being a parasite, or moocher, dependent on others. Once again, we look at the exchange of values and a system of free trade, and that values are not always tangible. For example, a woman who decides to stay home to raise children can provide value as much as her engineer husband who provides her the means with which to do so, and she should not be looked down upon.

Justice is another important factor that Smith examines within Rand’s writing. Much can be said for justice, and Smith examines it within the framework of meting out to others what they deserve. If you buy an item or a service from another person, you pay what that item or service is worth. In the same way, if someone goes out of his way to damage you, you’re within your rights to defend yourself and protect that which you value.

According to Smith, Rand ascribes a slightly different slant to integrity than the standard assumptions. At its core, integrity requires of an individual not to sacrifice his or her convictions or values to satisfy the whims or opinions of others. This is especially pertinent after one has established one’s values based on that which is rational, which will lead to your flourishing (and not at the expense of others as some are wont to accuse the rational egoist). A person of integrity displays qualities of devotion to their chosen path, and is consistent in his or her purpose.

Courage, says Rand, goes hand in hand with integrity. The true test of one’s integrity only really comes into play when an individual finds him or herself in a situation of danger, or where there is some sort of risk to the self or what one values. To have courage is not to be without fear, because it can be argued that she who doesn’t fear does not take full cognisance of the dangers involved in a potentially volatile situation. A courageous person therefore doesn’t allow her fears to get between her and her values.

Almost a no-brainer when suggested, Rand clearly encourages productiveness. Not so much that it can generally be agreed that sloth is a cardinal sin, no matter what one’s outlook, but that productiveness is essential to anyone considering the science and art of flourishing. Productiveness is more than creating objects of material value: it is also the mental alacrity required to conceive of objects, and to have the necessary ability to realise them as physical objects or actions that fill a specific purpose, to add value to one’s life, and by default, the lives of others.

Chapter 10 interested me because Smith examines the virtues charity, generosity, kindness and temperance—ones that are so often bandied about within a sacred context that they have lost meaning, or that cause individuals to fall within a set of behaviours that are congruent with altruism. Rand and Smith both agree that altruism is of no use to the rational egoist and her flourishing.

In conclusion, a rational egoist places value in herself. This does not require her to fall into a mire of solipsism. If you value yourself, you will value your relationship with others and their wellbeing, but not to the point where you trade something of greater value for that which is of a lesser value. Self-interested motivations do not detract from a person’s capacity to value others. The reason why Rand highlights rationality as the greatest virtue over all others is precisely so that we can make decisions that are in all our best interests, to benefit ourselves and, by default the people around us, in the long term.

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