Check Your Premises

the blog of the Ayn Rand Society

Zwolinski vs. Hicks on Rand's ethics and politics

Ben Bayer

Recently the Institute for Humane Studies' "Learn Liberty" site featured a debate between Matt Zwolinski (University of San Diego) and Stephen Hicks (Rockford University), both of whom have been participants in past sessions of the Ayn Rand Society. Notably, past ARS contributor Harry Binswanger (the Ayn Rand Institute) has also weighed into the debate in the comments section.

Zwolinski leads off the debate by raising critical points about Rand's ethical egoism, the consistency of her egoism with her theory of rights, and her view of property and value-creation. Zwolinski advanced several of these criticisms during his panel on Rand's theory of rights at the April 2014 meeting of the ARS. His paper from this session will be featured in the forthcoming third volume of Ayn Rand Society Philosophical Studies, The Philosophy of Capitalism: Objectivism and Alternative Approaches, edited by Gregory Salmieri and Robert Mayhew. The book will also feature commentary on the issues raised in Zwolinski's piece by Salmieri, Darryl Wright, and Onkar Ghate. Other authors featured will include Michael Huemer, Tara Smith, Peter Boettke, Robert Garmong, Lester Hunt, Tim Sandefur, Robert Tarr, and Steve Simpson.

Without weighing into this debate too much myself, I would like to make at least one observation about it and raise one question. The observation is of a similarity between the three lines of criticism that Zwolinski registers against Rand, even as the topics differ. Here are three excerpts from each topic, first on Rand's argument for individual rights:

In the first three uses, Rand uses the term “right” to assert that certain actions are morally permissible (it’s not wrong to do them) or even obligatory (it would be wrong not to do them). [...] Rand’s fourth usage of the word “right,” however, is significantly different. When she says that man “has a right” to live as a rational being, she is not merely saying that it is right for man to live as a rational being. She is saying that man has a right to live as a rational being. And these are two very different claims.

Next, on Rand's theory of property rights:

The problem is that everything we produce is, ultimately, made out of raw materials that were not themselves produced by anybody. So even if it’s easy to justify why I should be morally entitled to the cake I’ve baked out of the flour and butter I owned, it’s not so easy to justify why I should be morally entitled to the patch of land I simply found and quickly put a fence around. In political philosophy, this is known as the problem of “original appropriation.”

Finally, on Rand's theory of physical force:

Traditionally, libertarians and Objectivists have taken one of two broad approaches to defining “force.” One approach, which we can call the “moralized approach,” defines force in terms of an underlying theory of rights. The other approach, the “nonmoralized approach,” defines force in a way that makes no essential reference to rights or other moral terms. [...] Adopting a moralized definition of force allows us to explain why the individual who steals someone’s car is initiating force, and why the landowner who enforces his property right isn’t. So, so far, so good. But the moralized approach to force comes with a serious drawback of its own. For if we define the initiation of force in terms of the violation of rights, then we cannot define the violation of rights in terms of the initiation of force, lest we be guilty of circular argument. In other words, if we say that force is just any activity that violates individual rights, we cannot turn around and then say that our rights are to be understood in terms of freedom from the initiation of force.

I think it's interesting that each of these criticisms involves some kind of regress problem in which the regress must be halted by explaining how some property or relationship P can arise out of non-P facts. For instance, how do individual rights arise out of the fact that some actions are right or wrong? How does property arise out of material goods that are not already property? On the last question, I think it's a bit more of a stretch, but in principle the same issue is at work. How do we define force in a way that avoids circular reference to further force? This amounts to: how can force be defined in terms of non-force?

I don't mean to suggest that Zwolinski thinks that P can never, as a matter of principle, arise out of non-P, or that P can never be defined without reference to non-P. In fact he says there might be solutions available to the problems he's raised (whether from Rand or others). However, I do wonder if it is significant that these problems all have roughly the same form. It strikes me that one would think that these problems require a special solution only when one approaches them from a kind of deductivist philosophical framework. But since we know that this was not Rand's framework, would it perhaps be more more useful to interpret her views on these matters with more attention to her avowed inductivist methodology? In particular, it would be useful to reflect more on her oft-cited question about what facts of reality give rise to the need for a concept, whether the concept of "rights," of "property," or of "force."

Share this post: