Re: MD the ideology of capitalism - the Ayn Rand question

From: Sam Norton (
Date: Mon May 09 2005 - 13:36:49 BST

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    Hi Mark, also Matt, Ant, anyone listening in.

    My aim in referencing the GWB speech was not (at all!) to defend the content
    of what he said, merely to point out that he also uses the rhetoric of
    freedom to defend his actions. Now it is perfectly possible to say that he
    is merely a cover for selfish corporate interests etc, but I think that
    analysis needs to be built out of more than 'we know what freedom means and
    he doesn't' - simply because that is *still* to concede the issue, IMHO.

    I think the core idea can be dug out by further exploring the question of
    how far the Ayn Randian position is necessarily a selfish one; or, to put
    that differently (but in a way which I think is the logical consequence),
    that accepting the Ayn Randian position is necessarily a sign of bad faith
    or poor understanding. In a way, it's the question of whether the left-wing
    position is necessarily of greater moral worth than a conservative one. I
    don't expect we'll come to a final agreement on that ;-) but the
    conversation itself can be a good thing if it produces understanding, even
    if it doesn't produce consensus.

    Anyhow, the key thing for this thread - Ayn Rand's selfishness. I want to
    unpack my earlier comments in this thread as I think you've missed the point
    I was trying to make (in other words I wasn't sufficiently clear - I'm not
    blaming your for that!)

    You said: By my definition, no fully-realized person would make an attempt
    to cleverly rationalize selfishness, much less make "The Virtue of
    Selfishness," the cornerstone of her ethical philosophy: "The Objectivist
    ethics, in essence, hold that man exists for his own sake, that the pursuit
    of his own happiness is his highest moral purpose, that he must not
    sacrifice himself to others, nor sacrifice others to himself." -Ayn Rand
    Aware of our common humanity, our common identity, the fully-realized woman
    understands that her own happiness is NOT the highest moral purpose.

    I then claimed a) that this was a misreading of Rand, and b) that there
    seemed to be a striking resemblance to Gewirth's point about consistency. I
    pointed you to a website:

    Unpacking a)
    'Selfishness' doesn't mean the same in objectivism as it does in common
    language or understandings. From the website:
    Rand argues that the conventional understanding of selfishness implies an
    altruistic framework for thinking about ethics. Within this framework, the
    question, "Who is the beneficiary of this act?" is the most important moral
    question: right acts are acts undertaken for the "benefit" of others and
    wrong acts are acts undertaken for one's own "benefit." Rand believes that
    this approach passes over the crucial ethical questions: "What are values?"
    and "What is the nature of the right and the good?" In addition, the
    altruist framework suggests a dichotomy between actions that promote the
    interests of others to one's own detriment and actions that promote ones own
    interests to the detriment of others. Rand rejects this dichotomy and
    affirms the harmony of human interests (cf. "The 'Conflicts' of Men's
    Interests," VOS 57-65). Rand writes, "[A]ltruism permits no concept of a
    self-respecting, self-supporting man-a man who supports his own life by his
    own effort and neither sacrifices himself nor others . it permits no concept
    of benevolent co-existence among men . it permits no concept of justice"
    (VOS, ix).

    I still think that the concept of a "self-respecting, self-supporting man"
    is very close to your conception of the fully realised human being. Both
    conceptions are geared at a maximisation of welfare, and both hinge upon the
    free and unconstrained choices of enlightened human beings. What the
    difference would be is that the Randian would expect such a person to make
    choices in one direction, whilst you would expect them to make choices in a
    different direction. But that takes us onto thread 3...

    To summarise this bit, though, a disregard for the welfare of other people
    is not the hallmark of the selfishness that she is describing, and I take
    that to be the principal source of your objection to her point of view.
    Specifically, your claim seems to be that Rand and the objectivists are
    being disingenuous in what they say; that they don't actually believe their
    claims; and that their claims are in fact simply an ideological cover for
    vested interests (the monied classes etc). In fact, it would seem to flow
    from your definition that to be a fully realised human being you have to be
    left wing. Now that might be the case (!) but I think you need to do more
    than define things that way.

    Unpacking b)
    Ant referred to Gewirth's principle of Generic Consistency in the context of
    a discussion about removing subsidies, commending as rational "the ideal of
    genuine, unfettered, free markets that take into account the freedom and
    interests of all rational, autonomous end choosers", going on to say "As I
    noted before, in reference to Alan Gewirth and his 1978 text "Reason &
    Morality", it is irrational not to. In this text, Gewirth introduces a
    moral principle (the Principle of Generic Consistency or "PGC"), according
    to which all agents have inalienable rights to the capacities and facilities
    they need in order to be able to act successfully i.e. "Agents must act in
    accord with the generic rights of others to (the values of) freedom &
    well-being as well as their own." As I mentioned previously, his defense of
    this principle is that it is impossible to deny the principle without
    contradicting yourself (echoing Descartes' idea that one cannot deny one's
    existence because this very denial implies one's existence)."

    What I take Gewirth's principle to be is the claim that i) it is irrational
    to be selfish (in the don't care about anyone else sense), but also ii)
    enlightened self-interest is benevolent - in other words, the selfishness of
    an enlightened person is beneficial to the wider community, as that person
    will realise that the interests hang together (the specific point is about a
    logical contradiction, but Gewirth seemed happy with that wider expression,
    and apparently his book Community Rights makes the argument that "
    self-interest and community good are not opposed but mutually supportive ")

    Again, this seems extremely close to the Randian perspective, which
    precisely claims that the mature and self-responsible human being will be
    benevolent and well disposed towards others, and that a denial of this is
    internally incoherent.

    Hence, it seems to me that there is a very close logical parallel -
    virtually an identity from my point of view - between the philosophical
    structure of Rand's objectivism and what you are arguing for with respect to
    fully realised human beings. The *content* of what you would argue for, in
    political terms, is undoubtedly different (and we could have very
    interesting conversations about it), but it is the conceptual parallelism
    that strikes me - and which originally sparked this thread. (BTW neither
    perspective, yours or Rand's, are 'conservative' in the sense in which I
    understand that word, so I feel a little equidistant from both, despite
    finding elements of attraction in each).


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