Leitmotif

Reason as the Leading Motive

Confusing Your Ayn Rand

Posted by Jerry on July 14, 2006

I get quite annoyed everytime I read someone smugly attempting to dismiss Rand’s philosophy by patently misrepresenting her views, and then attributing the errors of their own understanding to Rand.

Take the case of this Michigan Philosophy graduate student, John Ku. He investigates Rand’s ethics of egoism (which, mind you, is a derivation of much more fundamental ethical principles, plainly ignored by Ku) by asking the question: Is Stealing Selfish?

The line of argument he attributes to Rand–and as a consequence, draws a stupid caricature of her profound philosophy–is that it is in the “collective self-interest” of individual members of a society to respect an institution that protects property rights; he says, “having property rights is in the collective interest of society; you are a member of that collective who benefits from such an institution; therefore, acting against such an institution is never in your self-interest.”

This, he believes is one of the basic principles of Rand’s egoist ethics. Quickly, therefore, he labels Rand as a “confused Utilitarian”.

Then he goes on to say, “the mere fact that respecting property rights would be in the collective interest is insufficient to show that respecting them is in one’s self-interest… it [is] abundantly clear that in so far as Rand relies on an appeal to the collective interest, she unwittingly abandons egoism and embraces some consequentialist form of altruism such as Parfit’s Utilitarianism.”

However, what is objectively evident here is that no one is more confused that John Ku. Let’s dissect his argument.

There is no existential referent to the concept of “collective” self-interest; infact, it is a forced fusion of two contradictory conceps, i.e. “collective” and “self”. A collective has no “self.” A “self” refers to an individual, not a nebulous, indistinct mass of individuals.

Rand’s derivative principle of rational self-interest, or egoism, is not based on some vague appeal to the prudent behavior of a collective. That notion more closely typifies Rawlsian ethics than Rand’s. Rational self-interest is derived from the metaphysical nature of human beings–that we are individual beings, with volition and identity, our survival is not automatic or guaranteed, and that our only tool for survival is our faculty of reason.

Property rights is not derived from an appeal to the benefits of the prudent reciprocal behavior of a collective. Objectivism does not defend property rights (or consider stealing a violation of rights) on the basis of our “collective self-interest” in protecting our property. Objectivism shows that there is only one fundamental right that is inalienable to human beings: the right to life. All else is derived from this fundamental right–even property rights. By confusing the logical hierarchy of principles, John Ku meanders into flimsy and circular argument that basically says, “because I do not want to be stolen from, we all do not wish to be stolen from, and therefore it is in our “collective self-interest” to want to have property rights.” That is an exact inversion of Rand’s logical argument that basically says “I have property rights because I have the right to life. Because I have property rights, nobody should steal from me.”

John Ku’s other arguments against Objectivism are similarly flawed because he misrepresents Rand’s positions at the most fundamental levels. It’s easy enough to innocently misunderstand Rand if you take her out of context. It’s much, much easier to misstate her positions, attribute one’s own false notions to her, and then proceed to debunk what you believe is her argument; and this is not innocent.

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