After This, More Ketchup. I Swear.
Here’s some deep in the woods philosophical stuff. It may only be of interest to libertarians, and maybe not even to them.
I promised a few days ago that I’d show where Objectivism, the philosophy of Ayn Rand, doesn’t work without help from Immanuel Kant.
This may come as a shock to anyone who has read much of Objectivism. Among the most notable features of the philosophy is its seething contempt for all things Kantian.
In metaphysics, that contempt is entirely understandable; Rand is a realist; Kant, an idealist. The concept of the noumenal, central to Kant’s metaphysics, is for realists rather like proposing that life itself is a gigantic shell game, and that we’ve all been hopelessly duped from the getgo.
I’m not even going to touch that question here. I’d like to talk instead about Kant’s ethics. It’ll be my claim here that the categorical imperative almost certainly must be invoked in moving from ethical egoism to a society of individual rights, if such a move can be made at all. (Note that we can easily move from ethical egoism to a grossly unequal society of Ubermenschen and Untermenschen. Rand insisted that that wasn’t her game, and I’m holding her to her word.)
Leonard Peikoff is, apart from Rand herself, the most important exponent of Objectivism. One of his great virtues is that he doesn’t even try to write fiction. He simply explains what Rand meant. And if anyone knows what Rand meant, he does. In his Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, he writes:
If a man lived on a desert island, a policy of dependence would be impossible to him. He would have to think, act, produce on his own or suffer the consequences. He would have to focus on reality or perish.
The same principle applies when one lives in society. The presence of other men does not change the nature of man or the requirements of his life. Others can properly offer one many values; they cannot, however, become one’s means of survival or basic frame of reference. They cannot be treated as a substitute for reason or reality — not without impunity….
The independent man who lives in society learns from others and may choose to work jointly with them, but the essence of his learning and his work is the process of thought, which he has to perform alone. He needs others with whom to trade, but the trade is merely an exchange of creations, and his primary concern is the act of creating; his concern is his own work.(p 252)
There is much in this passage that just doesn’t work at all.
Consider the method by which it proposes to move from is to ought: If you lived on a desert island, only certain methods of survival would be open to you, and you would be forced to employ them or perish. You would have no other alternatives.
So far, so good. But it simply doesn’t follow that we ought to employ the same methods when living in society. For one thing, we wouldn’t necessarily perish if we didn’t. And for another, it’s not clear why the exceptionally rare circumstance of perishing alone on a desert island offers us any insight into what is right or wrong when we are not on a desert island.
We might very much like things to follow from this example, but they simply don’t follow.
Perhaps we shouldn’t ask too much of the method: If we really were limited in society only to those means of survival that were available to us on a desert island, we would — yes — be allowed to use our reason and our individual efforts, and mooching or looting would be off-limits. But trade would be off-limits as well (and communication, and cooperation, and…), and that’s obviously not what Peikoff intends. He disavows those implications quite explicitly. Indeed, it isn’t clear why the desert island is a useful illustration, because invoking it seems to condemn many otherwise praiseworthy things. Then comes a bunch of awkward backpedaling.
Worse yet, if the use of reason alone were the standard, then it isn’t clear why the rational egoist should not, on moving from the desert island into society, simply consider himself fortunate to have moved into a target-rich environment for clever predation. Objectivism has always struggled with the prudent predator problem, particularly in light of its rejection of Nietzscheanism. (A rejection that begins to look unconvincing the longer one struggles with what ought to be an easy philosophical difficulty for most non-Nietzscheans.)
To argue that man’s primary tool of survival is his reason doesn’t get us out of the difficulty; a prudent predator must if anything do a very great deal of careful reasoning to get away with his crimes. Quite exactly like the man on the desert island, the prudent predator cannot possibly avoid the use of reason and hope to survive.
And while a clever fraudster must count on others not discovering his fraud in time — through reason — it isn’t at all clear why this is a relevant ethical consideration, as opposed to simply a practical one. An egoist ought not to be concerned with the merely psychological upset that he sometimes causes others.
The only way out of this difficulty that I have been able to imagine is simply to admit that Kant was right, and that other human beings must be afforded the same ethical status, dignities, and rights that we would claim for ourselves. Why? Because they are rational beings, and because if I propose to claim the life of a rational being for myself, I must allow a similar claim from them. Always. Categorically.
We can now read John Galt’s oath in a very new light:
I swear, by my life and my love of it, that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.
“And I can will this maxim to become universal law,” he added subversively.
But if we believe and will all of this — if we believe and will that all people ought to survive by rationally pursuing their self-interests — then suddenly we face a huge problem whenever we become predators. To be a predator by force is to engage in a performative contradiction and a hypocrisy; it is to declare with our will that all people should pursue rational self-interest, and then to declare with our actions that this person, the victim, won’t be able to anymore. And to be a predator by fraud is to will the failure of the victim’s reason, something that we cannot will consistently with our categorical imperative. (There can’t be two standards; we can’t say, “If you’re me, you should be a predator, and if you’re you, you should be a victim.” Those imperatives are hypothetical, not categorical, and at least one of them contradicts our earlier categorical imperative.)
When we act by reason and by ethical egoism, we are either acting by a set of principles that we believe should be generalized to all people, in all times and places, or we are acting wrongly. Without that patch, the Objectivist interpersonal ethics simply fails. And Objectivists should all be prudent predators.
Reinserting a categorical imperative results in (I think) something not far removed from Herbert Spencer’s ethics, which have in the meantime gotten an undeserved reputation for social Darwinism. Alas, one problem at a time.
 Yes, I know, insofar as Kant’s ethical theory is understood to participate in or arise from the noumena, we have a wee bit of a problem. You may develop that problem as far as you like in the comments, or suggest any number possible loopholes that may allow us to escape. They certainly exist.
 What about Benjamin Constant’s inquiring murderer? He is easily dispensed with: If my maxim is that all people should live lives of rational self-interest, and if I know for an absolute fact that the man at my door is looking for a child to murder, and if I’m hiding his victim in my basement, I am not hindering the murderer’s life as a rationally self-interested person by lying to him. I am hindering his life as an irrational thug, and that’s perfectly allowed.