Will Wilkinson has posted the third in his “Letters to a Young Objectivist” series, this time dealing with Rand’s ethics. I was never really an Objectivist, as Will was, but did also grapple with her ideas back in the day—something I still think was a useful exercise. I was intrigued to note, though, that the critique Will offers up, while valid enough on its own terms, picks out problems mostly distinct from the ones that had struck me as the main mistakes. So, since the post got me thinking about those…
First there’s the argument for “life” (equivocal between “survival” and “flourishing,” as Will notes, but never mind that) as a uniquely rational primary value. The argument, as I recall it, ran something like this: Being alive is a precondition for pursuing any values at all. Ones own life itself, therefore, must be the highest or first value, since you can’t even begin to talk about acting to promte other values if you’re a corpse.
Stated baldly (though, I hope, not unfairly) like that, I expect it’s fairly obvious that this just doesn’t follow. An instrumental value doesn’t get promoted to an intrinsic one just by dint of being instrumental for very many things. A really fantastic means is still different in kind from an end. And so it’s just not clear why there’s anything irrational or logically contradictory in saying: “I care about promoting X, and I need to be breathing and walking to do so, so I’ll go about preserving my ability to breathe and walk as wisely as I can. But X is still in the saddle, and if it turned out at some point that I could do more on net to promote X by dying than by staying alive, that’s what I’d do.” As I say, this strikes me as fairly obvious, but it kills the Randian project in the cradle if there’s nothing more rational per se in caring about your own happiness and survival than about someone else’s—even if your own survival often ends up being a good way to ensure you can promote another person’s.
The derivation of rights is another spot where there appears to be a big honking gap. Recall that Rand’s egoists don’t just respect the rights of others as a matter of prudence—because it’s easier to get your buildings made if you’re not going around stabbing people in the eyes with forks or some such thing. Rather, respect for rights is seen as flowing from a sort of truth of reason. Again, reconstructing from memory, the argument runs something like: I require a certain measure of non-interference to achieve my ends. Therefore I have to assert a right to pursue my ends without interference. But since there’s nothing special about me (a thought rare in Rand) on this score, I have to acknowledge that if I’ve got such a right, everyone does, and so rights have to be compossible and universal.
Here, too, I think stripped of the rhetorical baggage it’s pretty obvious this won’t go through. Indeed, there’s a bit of an undefended Kantian (horrors!) move in there, isn’t there? First, why does the observation that one needs something—whether non-interference or strawberries—get us to rights talk at all? Why not just say they’re things we need—and want to get others to afford us, if we can—and leave it at that? Even ignoring that, though—maybe we can read “right” in the sort of Hobbesian sense, where “good” is just short for “good for me”—what justifies the universalizing move? And if it’s valid here—insisting on rights for myself rationally requires a commitment to the rights of others—why isn’t it valid elsewhere, so that (say) commitment to one’s own happiness rationally requires a commitment to the happiness of others?
As I said, I’m going from memory here, and it’s been years since I read any Rand, so there’s probably some more one could say to flesh out the view. But my sense is that you’d be applying Spackle at the edges rather than really patching the hole.