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Updates to Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy Entry on Ayn Rand

Ben Bayer

I was pleased to see the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy feature an updated entry on Ayn Rand earlier this week. The piece is authored by past ARS presenter Neera Badhwar (University of Oklahoma) and Roderick Long (Auburn). The entry was originally published in the summer of 2010, and its first major revision was in the fall of 2012. (You can review earlier versions here.)

I was happy in 2010 to see this entry finally contributed to the SEP. Fair and accurate encyclopedia entries on Rand for philosophers have been few and far between. The entry in the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy is notoriously inept. The ARS web site features the entry by Gotthelf and Salmieri in the lower-profile Dictionary of Modern American Philosophers, but it is brief and doesn't have the space to review secondary literature. Stephen Hicks also has a good entry at the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, and while it is longer than Gotthelf and Salmieri's, its list of secondary literature is still very terse.

When it first came out, the Badhwar and Long SEP contribution filled an important gap. It provided an overview of Rand's major positions in every branch of philosophy, offered a survey of a wealth of relevant secondary literature, and portrayed Rand's position in a fair and honest manner.

In this post about the latest revision, I'd like to do three things. First, I'd like to highlight some useful additions and modifications to the entry. Second, I'll make a few respectful criticisms. In both cases, I'm only highlighting major features and bugs, without any attempt to be exhaustive. Finally, I'll raise some questions for discussion.

Nice features of the revision

In this revision, I think that Badhwar and Long wisely chose to relegate much of the material on Rand's metaphysics and epistemology to the status of a supplementary entry linked from a now brief section on Rand's M&E. The original article was arguably too long, and the reader had to wade through unfamiliar, sometimes technical positions before getting to the account of Rand's centrally important and noteworthy views in ethics.

As for new content, I was pleased to see greater attention paid to the role of a non-instrumentalist or constitutivist interpretation of Rand's view of man's life as a standard of value. This is the view that treats cardinal values and virtues not as mere means to the end of life, but as partially constituting life itself. There are several places in this entry where recalling this interpretation helps to understand Rand's likely response to a variety of objections.

This is evident, first of all, in the entry's expanded portrayal of Rand's view of benevolence toward strangers, her support for which the entry claims cannot be understood in "act egoist" terms. By implication, this suggests that Rand's view here should be interpreted more along "rule egoist" or "virtue-theoretic egoist" lines. (More on how to understand egoistic virtue below.) Likewise, the article shows how the non-instrumentalist interpretation casts light on how Rand would derive the value respecting rights from egoism, and why she would claim that there are no conflicts of interest among rational human beings.

I also enjoyed how the revision fleshed out of Rand's political theory, especially in the several places where it elaborates on the unity between economic and political freedom, and why leftist and conservative opponents of one or the other are motivated by what Rand took to be false metaphysics.

Bugs in the revision

The first major bug I'd like to mention is simply one of omission, but it's an omission of something important. The section on why Rand thinks we need ethics rightly includes a discussion of the problem of how to understand her view of the choice to live: whether it is subject to moral evaluation or a pre-moral choice. I think there's plenty of textual evidence to think it's the latter. In the revision, Badhwar and Long flesh out the major objection to this interpretation as follows:

On the other hand, if the choice to live is a non-moral choice (an idea that’s hard to reconcile with Rand’s general view that all significant choices are moral choices), then suicide can never be wrong, even if it is done for cowardly, irresponsible, or unjust reasons, a view that seems incoherent (King 1984 and Narveson 1998 criticize this and other aspects of Rand’s moral views). Even more problematically, if morality is needed only for long-term survival, and choosing suicide is not immoral, then a suicide-bomber does no wrong in killing innocent people.

This is a good question to ask about the pre-moral choice interpretation. But I should note that I think the best statement in answer to it has been given in Darryl Wright's excellent article, "Reasoning about Ends: Life as a Value in Ayn Rand's Ethics," in Ayn Rand Society Philosophical Studies, vol. 1, Metaethics, Egoism and Virtue (pp. 3-32, see especially pp. 26-29). Wright offers persuasive reasons to think that one who lacks a deliberative reason to be moral can still be criticizable on non-deliberative grounds. Badhwar and Long include ARSPS vol. 1 in their bibliography, so I'm not sure why they didn't reference the Wright article in connection with this problem.

Next, section 2.2-2.4 of the revision is concerned with the question of how to understand Rand's view of man's life as the standard of value and one's own life as one's ultimate value. The section claims that Rand could be interpreted as understanding the ultimate value in one of three ways: as bare survival, as "survival qua man," and as happiness. This organization survives from previous versions of the article. While I agree that there are interpretations on which the ultimate end is to be understood using one of these conceptions to the exclusion of the others, it's a flaw in the article that it fails to mention a fourth interpretation, according to which these concepts needn't be seen as mutually exclusive in the first place.

Consider the idea that the ultimate value is mere survival. In this view, survival means just existing, not necessarily existing "qua man." But then consider a passage from Badhwar and Long's own supplement on Rand's metaphysics:

There is no such thing as existence other than as some definite thing with a specific identity; identity is the form that existence takes. Hence an entity just is the totality of its attributes.

Presumably for Rand this applies just as much to living things as it does to anything else. To exist as a living thing is to exist with a certain identity. There can be no life without life qua something. So there is a strong case from the Objectivist metaphysics that "mere survival" and "survival qua man" are false alternatives. This point requires a fair amount of elaboration, and I won't do that here, but the point has strong enough affinity to other Objectivist themes that it deserves a place in this entry. I'll refer the reader to pages 78-80 of Allan Gotthelf's essay "The Morality of Life" in the forthcoming Blackwell Companion to Ayn Rand (which is now available as an E-Book).

By the same token, the view that sees Rand as maintaining that happiness is the ultimate value, as if this were distinct from the end of life itself, seems to miss the lesson of the very constitutivist interpretation Badhwar and Long's essay has otherwise been good about emphasizing. The assumption here seems to be that happiness, as a psychological state, is a distinct layer on top of life itself that can be viewed as a separate and even higher goal than life itself. But if it makes sense to see cardinal values and virtues as both means to and realizations of the end of life itself, why can't happiness be seen as both an expression of and realization of the end of life itself—albeit one that has a special reflective relationship to success in the rest of life? Happiness is a state of consciousness, and human life essentially involves consciousness. Why not say, following the point about virtue, that human consciousness is not only a means to the end of human life but partially constitutive of the end? Here again there is more to be said, but I'd point readers again to Gotthelf's essay, especially to pages 80 and 81.

I noticed a few other smaller bugs in the piece, but by comparison they are nit picks, so I'll move on to wrap up with a few questions for discussion.

Questions for further discussion

Most of these questions are on topics in Rand's political philosophy. At one point, Badhwar and Long make the following comment:

Like other libertarians, both right (market) and left (egalitarian), Rand opposes state regulation of morality, as well as forced service to the state, whether military or civilian.

This leaves as a throwaway implication that Rand is a libertarian. That is a view accepted by many, but disputed by many others as well. I can imagine some definitions of the concept "libertarian" where Rand would be counted as one. But it would be interesting to specify those definitions and discuss whether they count as valid according to Rand's Aristotle-inspired rules for definition. What might they be?

A similar point comes up here:

If feminism is the view that women are, and ought to be recognized as, men’s intellectual, moral, sexual, and political equals, then the Objectivist philosophy of human nature is inherently feminist, since it applies equally to all human beings, regardless of gender (or race).

The piece goes on to note that in spite of the consistency between Rand's philosophy and this definition of "feminism," Rand nonetheless maintains some "anti-feminist" views. Is this an accidental inconsistency or is "feminism" perhaps not being defined properly? Once again, how might the proposed definition be evaluated by Rand's own rules of definition?

Finally, there's this:

In Atlas Shrugged Rand depicts her utopia, Galt’s Gulch, as a “voluntary association of men held together by nothing but every man’s self-interest”, without any formal organization (1957 [1992]: 690). There is a judge to arbitrate disagreements, but there has never been any need for arbitration. Galt’s Gulch is, thus, an anarchist society, although Rand never calls it that.

Is it right to count Galt's Gulch as anarchist on such evidence? This point will depend not only on our interpretation of the story in Atlas, but also on our understanding of the definition of "anarchy" and of "government." Again, what can be said about these definitions?

Badhwar and Long go on to report Childs' and Rothbard's contention that government as such is incompatible with the non-initiation of force principle, without mentioning the usual Objectivist responses to this objection. Would anyone care to share them?

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