Sunday, August 31, 2008

Ayn Rand and Atlas Shrugged, part 1

There's a line from the movie The Mosquito Coast that goes something like, "Your father is the most dangerous sort: an opinionated man who's sometimes right." Ayn Rand fits this bill perfectly.

In this post, I want to talk about what I think is correct about Rand's moral philosophy, why she is "sometimes right."

Rand's fiction and philosophy constantly emphasizes the value of the individual. What is moral, according to Rand, is maximum self-actualization, whether it be artistic or professional. What is immoral, therefore, is sacrificing one's own self-actualization for the "good of society".

Rand is correct here, more correct than she probably cares to be, because it is physically impossible for people to pursue anything but self-actualization. Self-actualization is what brains and minds do: To say that a person should actualize himself is to say that a person should experience gravitational force. Furthermore there is no such actual thing as the "good of society"; there is only the good of individuals. The "good of society" is a statistical abstraction, an epiphenomenon of the good of a lot of interacting individuals.

To avoid vacuity, Rand qualifies self-actualization; not just any sort of self-actualization will do. In keeping with her admiration of Aristotle and the ancient Greeks, Rand's ideal person must have as his or her goal the achievement of arete, a concept that although notoriously hard to define still has tremendous resonance with our intuition. No other word will do; the superficial English translations of "goodness", "excellence" or "virtue" do not do justice to the original concept. Arete must be described by appeal to numerous examples, and Rand devotes a considerable portion of the million or so words in both Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead to providing examples of her notion of arete.

Her examples are appealing to a certain extent. Howard Roarke wants to create good buildings; Dagny Taggart wants to run a good railroad; Hank Rearden wants to produce good steel. We can easily empathize not only with the drive to arete, but with the specific expressions that drive takes in her main characters.

Rand further qualifies self-actualization in that the pursuit of one's self-actualization of arete should not improperly interfere with another's. It is debatable whether this non-interference is normative or analytic (i.e. any self-actualization that improperly interferes with another's is by definition not arete), but this distinction is relatively unimportant.

She makes this general principle more concrete by defining improper interference as the "initiation" of force. This proviso is plausible and uncontroversial under simple circumstances. If someone punches me in the nose — or tries to — he has clearly initiated force, and I'm entirely justified (according to our common moral intuitions) in using force to defend myself, and even exact revenge under the appropriate circumstances.

Rand presents a moral system that is at least superficially plausible and amenable to our ordinary moral intuition. If she did not do so, her work would have had no persuasive force. While somewhat simplistic, it's important to understand that she does not go wrong in her fundamental moral beliefs.

Where she goes wrong is in her analysis of how the world actually is. Thus the simplifications and ambiguities in her fundamentally sound moral beliefs find a perverse expression when coupled with an irrational analysis of reality.

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