13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
- Published on Amazon.com
Philosophy professor Tara Smith has produced a book of value to Ayn Rand scholarship. While Rand wrote many nonfiction essays describing the Objectivist approach to ethics (and certainly writes on the subject at length in her novels), I think this is the first book-length treatment of Rand's moral philosophy of virtuous egoism. There are several books, of course, on egoism and many books on virtue ethics, but the combination of the two is quite unique. And, honestly, a common critique of Rand in academic circles is that she seems sometimes a rule utilitarian, sometimes a virtue ethicist, and even occasionally a deontologist. That is why this book is so important for Rand scholarship.
First, I have to say that the book's organization (and writing) is very, very good. Smith devotes one chapter to each of the virtues as seen by Rand: rationality, honesty, independence, justice, integrity, productiveness, and pride. In each chapter, Smith explains why it is a virtue, argues why Objectivistic egoism demands that particular virtue, and what the internal and external conditions are for exercising that virtue. So, rationality, considered the cardinal virtue, is defended on the egoistic grounds that only use of rationality (rather than faith or emotional decision making) can ensure that individuals deploy their judgment in ways that aids their lives, and is a virtue demanding exercise of rational decision making, availability of information on which to make rational decisions, etc.
That brings me to the second merit of the book: Smith does defend all of these virtues on egoistic grounds. Where Rand, I think, did sometimes slip into an almost rule utilitarian defense of her moral system (that honesty's goodness is at least in part due to the idea that only in a world where people are honest, can we make fully rational decisions based on correct information, which leaves the egoist asking why I should care about anyone's ability but my own to act rationally.) So, a virtue like justice, which is usually defended either on deontological or rule utilitarian grounds, Smith defends by appealing to indivduals' self-interest in judging people appropriately and accurately. (Of course, justice involves much more than judging people accurately, but rewarding them according to what you truly believe they deserve, and I still think the question of why I should give a waiter who I'll likely never see again the fat tip they deserve, rather than keep more money for myself, is hard to answer by appealing to egoism.)
This book, though, has some weaknesses in my view. First - to expand on another reviewer's criticism - this book doesn't deal much with defending these virtues and their rationale from objections; the objections considered are usually light-weight ones, and Smith rarely strays from Objectivist literature (generally, except to point out where non-Objectivist philosophers agree with an aspect of her argument). So, this book is more an explication of Rand's moral philosophy than a defense of it, and as such, it will appeal much more to those already in agreement with Rand than those who may need convincing.
Secondly, I did find a few of Smith's arguments a bit wanting. For instance, the virtue of honesty is defended largely on the grounds that giving into temptations to be dishonest can have consequences to the actor, such as having to keep stories straight in the future, the risk of being found out, and the psychological stress of keeping up the deception. But, these are all very speculative as consequences, and one who is a REALLY good liar may successfully avoid all of these (in a way where Smith will have no good argument to convince them to be honest).
Another way honesty is defended is by suggesting that if one, say, lies about their qualifications to get a job, they may risk attaining a job they didn't earn and aren't sufficiently skilled for. As to getting a job I do not deserve, an egoist should ask: why do I care that (others think) I don't deserve the job, as long as I know I am qualified for the job? And to Smith's argument about deception's possible consequence of getting me a job I am not qualified for, it can just as easily be that my prospective employer is wrong about what qualifies me for the job: maybe a Harvard MBA isn't a good qualification, and my lying just gets me the job I knew I WAS qualified for without the Harvard MBA.
Several virtues are defended by their apppeal to the virtue being life-enhancing and its negation being life-denying. This may be too thin an approach, I think. Yes, telling the truth to others means that I am dealing objectively and rationally (as long as one disbelieves game theory's assertion that lying can sometimes be the most rational position). But in a case where I can lie (to get food I have no intent on paying for) or starve, it seems odd to say that truth-telling would be the more life-affirming position than gaining food I need to keep myself alive. (The same can be said for someone who can't fend for themselves becoming dependent on another; if their option is to become dependent or shrivel, is it not more life-affirming to become dependent?)
My last criticism is that, if Rand is a virtue ethicist, there are many aspects of her approach (as defended by her and Smith) that are radically out of the virtue ethic tradition. For instance, Rand and Smith talk often (not always) in deontic language (right and wrong, justified and unjustified) rather than aretaic language (good and bad, virtuous or vicious). And while Smith certainly admits that judgment in how to deploy the virtues is contextual, there are many aspects of Rand's philosophy that seem too rule-based for virtue ethics (natural rights as side-constraints, the idea that integrity demands acting inflexibly according to one's principles, seemingly NOT taking context into account). Lastly, in a big break with virtue ethics, Rand's ethics is more act based than intent based. Where in most virtue ethic theories, the virtuous person simply desires to perform those acts that are virtuous, in Rand's ethic, what matters is that the virtues are instantiated in acts, not that the actor just desires to perform virtuous acts. (The virtuous person is honest, even though they may not want to be.)
For all of this, I still want to give this book three stars because I think that Smith, whatever loose ends she leaves untied, has provided a valuable resource to serious Rand scholarship. The objections I list above may be answerable, but maybe that is for a different book - one dedicated more to defending Rand's virtuous egoism rather than explicating it. And the writing and book organization is quite good, enhancing my enjoyment of this important book.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
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Format: Kindle Edition
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.