The Rights (and Wrongs) of Ayn Rand

The Rights (and Wrongs) of Ayn Rand

Robert Bass



No thinker, perhaps, has had more influence upon contemporary libertarians than the novelist and non-academic philosopher, Ayn Rand. For that reason alone, her case for libertarian rights deserves attention.[1] Also important is the fact that her arguments are interesting in their own right and have often been misunderstood, misrepresented or ignored. As George Smith has commented, there has appeared relatively little in the way of competent reflection on Ayn Rand as philosopher. Accounts ... written by [her] admirers are frequently eulogistic and uncritical, whereas accounts written by her antagonists are often hostile and, what is worse, embarrassingly inaccurate.[2]

At least four factors have combined to discourage serious attention to her work by academic philosophers. First, she was prima facie unworthy of attention because her views were developed and expressed not in scholarly treatises but in novels and -- later -- in articles in which philosophical discussion was fused with cultural commentary and political advocacy. Her writing was often rhetorical and hyperbolic, directed to the mass readership accessible to a best-selling author instead of to the rather more critical audiences of the output of university presses.[3] A second factor leading to neglect was that the particular positions she held -- including an uncompromising defense of rational self-interest in ethics and of laissez-faire capitalism -- were quite distant from the overwhelming mainstream consensus (when she wrote) in favor of some form of welfare-state liberalism. A further factor which has contributed to neglect of Rand's ideas is that her arguments are often informal and inductive. They are presented by way of her fiction, and, so far as this is the case, it is left to the reader to judge the psychological and social plausibility of dramatizations of her principles and their alternatives. Finally, and least excusably, Rand invited neglect, contempt, and opposition by employing her considerable rhetorical skills to denounce anyone who disagreed with her and especially modern philosophers as evil, corrupt, and irrational[4] which could hardly have endeared her to the profession.


Rand's Argument

Rand's case for libertarian rights consists of two phases. The first argues for a variety of ethical egoism, that is, for the position that each persons actions should be directed to the promotion of that persons rational interests. The second aims to demonstrate or exhibit a connection between egoism and rights.

It would be convenient for purposes of discussion if this two-part case were all set out as a single connected argument; unfortunately, it is not. There appear to be at least three versions of the argument for egoism and three somewhat differing accounts of the transition from egoism to rights. (This seems coincidental; there doesn't appear to be any correlation at work.)

The arguments for egoism are directed at establishing that the appropriate standard of value for assessing the particular goals held by an individual is: life as the kind of being that that individual is. Having argued that consciousness or, more specifically, the rational employment of consciousness -- is the basic means of human survival, Rand spells this standard out as "Man's survival qua man which means the terms, methods, conditions, and goals required for the survival of a rational being through the whole of his lifespan -- in all those aspects of existence which are open to his choice."[5]

She makes it quite clear that she does not intend this to be understood as simply staying alive: "It does not mean a momentary or merely physical survival. It does not mean the momentary physical survival of a mindless brute, waiting for another brute to crush his skull. It does not mean the momentary physical survival of a crawling aggregate of muscles who is willing to accept any terms, obey any thug, and surrender any values for the sake of what is known as survival at any price, which may or may not last a week or a year."[6]

Accepting Man's Life as a standard of value and one's own life as one's purpose, Rand claims, generates an integrated catalogue of virtues including Rationality, Productiveness, Pride, Independence, Integrity, Honesty, and Justice.[7]

There are two principal difficulties with the derivations Rand proposes for these cardinal virtues. The first is that she constantly uses and relies upon the generic 'man'. For example, Productiveness is the recognition ... that productive work is the process by which man's mind sustains his life .... Productive work is the road of man's unlimited achievement and calls upon the highest attributes of his character ... [8] While it is certainly true that without productive work, the human species would perish, it does not follow that every (mature) human being must engage in productive work in order to survive. If 'man' refers to the human species, the statement may be true but doesn't generate conclusions that apply to each individual; if, on the other hand, 'man' is meant to apply directly to the individual, the statement is simply false (as a generalization). Rand's answer, that those who depend on others for their support are parasites incapable of survival, who exist by destroying those who are capable,[9] seems to overstate the case since dependence is not destruction[10] and, if correct, would prove too much. It would prove, for instance, that no one should be an engineer or a novelist and therefore dependent on others, such as farmers, for food. The question, "What if everyone did that?" is too blunt an instrument to draw useful moral distinctions because most of the things people do would prove impossible if practiced universally.

A second difficulty is that much of the rhetorical force of Rand's argument derives from the stark contrast between life and death. She equates the right goals for man to pursue and the values his survival requires.[11] "An organism's life is its standard of value: that which furthers its life is the good, that which threatens it is the evil".[12] However, one can fail to practice at least some of Rand's virtues in ways that are not obviously equivalent to failing to survive. One might, e. g., be unproductive and live off an inheritance. The answer, which I take to be Rand's, that "Man's Life" means more than just staying alive, considerably reduces the impact of her constant invocation of the issue of survival.[13] At a minimum, more work is needed to say just what is included in Man's Life and why it is included. Additionally, some explanation is needed as to why failure to survive in this sense is something to be avoided.[14]

For the present, I shall leave these issues aside[15] and direct consideration to Rand's arguments for treating Man's Life as the standard of value.


Egoism by Hypothesis

Her least ambitious argument is hypothetical. It treats choosing to live -- accepting Man's Life as a standard of value -- as a real option and the task of ethics is simply unraveling and detailing what is already implicit in that choice. The alternative choice -- not to live -- is apparently not to be taken seriously; those who make it are or soon will be dead and thus require no answer.[16] Such an approach is suggested in the words of Rand's character, John Galt: "My morality ... is contained in a single axiom: existence exists and in a single choice: to live. The rest proceeds from these."[17] It becomes fully explicit in a later essay:

Reality confronts man with a great many musts. but all of them are conditional; the formula of realistic necessity is: You must, if -- and the if stands for man'schoice: -- if you want to achieve a certain goal. You must eat, if you want to survive. You must work, if you want to eat. You must think, if you want to work. You must look at reality, if you want to think -- if you want to know what to do -- if you want to know what goals to choose -- if you want to know how to achieve them.

Life or death is man's only fundamental alternative. To live is his basic act of choice. If he chooses to live, a rational ethics will tell him what principles of action are required to implement his choice. If he does not choose to live, nature will take its course.[18]

The approach is unsatisfactory. First, criticism or questioning of the choice to live need not be presented directly by another person. It might, for example, be recorded in written form. It might not be presented at all but instead arise in the course of reflection on a choice already made or to be made. In such a case, neither a literal nor a figurative "Drop dead" can suffice as an answer. "[I]t refutes the arguer, perhaps, but not the argument."[19]

Second, the approach fails to take seriously Rand's own insistence that Man's Life is not to be identified with just staying alive. If it is not to be so identified then, equally, choosing not to live cannot be identified with choosing to be dead. It seems that a person could choose not to live in the special sense that gives content to Rand's ethical prescriptions -- without incurring any demonstrable inconsistency -- while successfully endeavoring to stay alive. If so, then "Drop dead" is not an answer even to another person questioning the choice to live. The death he is urged to undergo may be entirely consistent with remaining biologically alive and persistent in criticism.


Beyond Hypothesis (1): The Metaphysical Argument

That the hypothetical approach is less than wholly satisfactory may have been realized by Rand herself.[20] She did not, in any event, rest her case entirely upon it and repeatedly denounced the position that ethics was in any way based on a subjective or arbitrary choice:

Is the concept of value... an arbitrary human invention, unrelated to, underived from and unsupported by any facts of reality -- or is it based on ... an unalterable condition of man's existence? .... Does an arbitrary human convention, a mere custom, decree that man must guide his actions by a set of principles -- or is there a fact of reality that demands it? Is ethics the province of whims ... or is it the province of reason?.... In the sorry record of the history of mankind's ethics ... moralists have regarded ethics as the province of whims, that is: of the irrational .... No philosopher has given a rational, objectively demonstrable, scientific answer to the question of why man needs a code of values ....

Today, as in the past, most philosophers agree that the ultimate standard of ethics is whim (they call it arbitrary postulate or subjective choice or emotional commitment)-- and the battle is only over the question of whose whim .[21]

The man who does not wish to hold life as his goal and standard is free not to hold it; but he cannot claim the sanction of reason; he cannot claim that his choice is as valid as any other. It is not arbitrary, it is not optional, whether or not man accepts his nature as a living being .[22]

When Rand undertakes her implied task of showing that her recommended choice of Man's Life as the standard of value is not arbitrary or optional, she begins with the insistence that, in ethics, "[O]ne must begin at the beginning .... The first question is not: What particular code of values should man accept? The first question is: Does man need values at all -- and why?"[23] She evidently considered this to be a question of fundamental importance, deeper and more penetrating than any asked by prior moral thinkers.

I have no reason to suppose she was less than sincere in this claim, but the depth of the question is an illusion. Whether or not human beings need values cannot be the first question in ethics -- because need is already an evaluative term. Something is normally called a need only if it is a necessary condition for or an inseparable constituent of something already considered to be good or desirable or worthwhile. We do sometimes use need in a value-neutral sense to refer to necessary conditions -- the wheel needs lubrication in order to turn freely -- without committing ourselves to the desirability of that for the sake of which those conditions are necessary. However, a value-neutral usage would contribute nothing to Rand's argument: To hold that we need values for the sake of something else which is not valued is distinctly unpromising. We could as easily argue that we need thermonuclear war in order to wipe out the human race or that we need to subsidize checker-players in order to elevate their cultural prestige.

Despite the fact that the question misfires, I think it is relatively easy to understand what Rand was aiming at. She wants to say that valuing -- that is, the choice and pursuit of goals[24]-- is not simply to be taken for granted as the given or self-explanatory. She wants us to ask whether value-oriented action has any necessary presupposition. If it does ... and if that presupposition should have some definite evaluative dimension ... then we may be on the track of something interesting. That is, if it should turn out that a background condition for any kind of value-oriented action at all and for our understanding what it is to seek values is that we recognize and value something else, then well know what valuing is for,[25] and, knowing that, we will also know how (in principle) to order, adjust and assess the particular goals by which we guide our lives.

From this sketch, Rand's strategy in the arguments to come should be clear: She will attempt to show that the necessary presupposition of valuing is the existence and value of life. Before proceeding to consideration of those arguments, however, we should note that they will be transcendental in form. That is, they will be arguments that something admitted to exist or occur, namely, value-oriented action, presupposes something else, namely, the existence and value of life. Such an argument, if successful, can be very persuasive but may fail if it does not eliminate the possibility that the something admitted to exist or occur can be explained or accounted for by some other presupposition. This is not a reason for avoiding or refusing to employ transcendental arguments; it is a reason for treating them with caution.

Rand employs two distinguishable strands of argument for her conclusion -- one is metaphysical, the other epistemological. These lines of argument are interwoven with one another without any stated awareness that they are distinct. And, given Rand's epistemological stance -- which includes the convictions that human beings are competent to know reality and that knowledge is simply the correct identification of facts -- such interweaving may be appropriate because epistemological considerations will have no ultimate independence from what is correct metaphysically. Nonetheless, the arguments involved are different, and the issues can be laid out more systematically by separating them.

The metaphysical argument aims to show that valuing depends in fact on life or, more precisely, that it depends on life as conditional existence. Because of this dependence, it is only living beings (who face the alternative of nonexistence) that either do or can have values or goals. Moreover, although goals may be means to an end, it is logically impossible for all goals to be means to an end. There must be some goal which is an end in itself, which is pursued for its own sake rather than for the sake of anything further to which it may contribute. That goal, for any particular organism, is its own life, preserved and sustained in and through the organism's actions insofar as those actions are successful. And because this is an ultimate goal, it also sets the standard in terms of which all other goals are to be evaluated.

Rand's attempt to demonstrate this set of conclusions begins with an analysis of the presuppositions of the existence of values: "The concept value is not a primary; it presupposes an answer to the question: of value to whom and for what? It presupposes an entity capable of acting to achieve a goal in the face of an alternative. Where no alternative exists, no goals and no values are possible."[26] As glossed by Den Uyl and Rasmussen, three theses are involved here: (1) that valuing requires the presence of an alternative, (2) that it requires the existence of an entity whose actions are relevant to success or failure in securing the realization of that alternative, and (3) that the alternative must be capable of making a difference to the entity that faces it.[27]

These seem acceptable with minor qualifications. First, there need not always be a real alternative present: A child may decide not to cross the street while being unaware that she is being carefully watched and would be stopped if she tried.[28] Second, the difference made by success or failure in realizing an alternative must be one that matters (or could matter) to the entity in question: Many differences that result from action (e. g., differences in distance from Nepal) have no weight in decision-making.[29]

Rand's claim is that this set of conditions comes together only in the case of living organisms and that, therefore, the very possibility of value-oriented action depends on the existence of life. Moreover, this is important since "[t]here is only one fundamental alternative in the universe: existence or nonexistence and it pertains to a single class of entities: to living organisms. The existence of inanimate matter is unconditional, the existence of life is not .... It is only a living organism that faces a constant alternative: the issue of life or death."[30]

Because it is impossible that all goals be means to further ends, there must be some end in itself pursued or sought or preserved for its own sake. Because value-oriented action requires the presence of an alternative and because only life vs. death is a fundamental alternative, life -- the life of the organism in question must be this end in itself, "[a]n ultimate value ... to which all lesser goals are the means -- and it sets the standard by which all lesser goals are evaluated."[31]

Several questions are suggested by this line of argument: First, why is existence vs. nonexistence the only fundamental alternative? Second, why does it apply only to living organisms? Third, granting that value-oriented action presupposes the existence of an (at least apparent) alternative, why must it be related to a fundamental alternative? Fourth, admitting that value-oriented action presupposes that something is an end in itself, why must there be only one? And finally, if there can be more than one end in itself, why -- even if life is treated as one of these -- must it be regarded as ultimate and taking precedence over all others? If we consider these in order, it is less than obvious that Rand's answers to these questions are the only ones possible or defensible.

To begin, the claim that existence vs. nonexistence is the only fundamental alternative cannot be defended without some understanding of what makes an alternative fundamental or not. Why, for example, is actual vs. possible not a fundamental alternative? Or happiness vs. non-happiness? Or possible vs. impossible? The answer, if there is one, cannot be that other alternatives presuppose existence while the converse is not the case -- because this is not clearly true in the case of actual vs. possible and is clearly untrue in the case of possible vs. impossible. Another suggestion, that the relevant sense of alternatives is one in which at least one member of the pair is a possible outcome of action, might rule out possible vs. impossible[32] but would leave happiness vs. non-happiness as a candidate. If we conjoined the two conditions -- that is, if we required that a fundamental alternative both be accessible through action and not presuppose any other alternative (existence vs. nonexistence) -- we might get the conclusion Rand seeks but will still lack an answer as to why this is the criterion of fundamentality and may face troubling questions as to whether we are tailoring our conditions to generate the conclusions we desire.

Second, does existence vs. nonexistence only apply to living organisms? It would seem not: A chair is not a living organism, but it can be destroyed. Rand's explicit answer, that "[m]atter is indestructible, it changes its forms, but it cannot cease to exist,"[33] sidesteps the question: Matter, in some sense, may be indestructible, changing only in form -- but chairs can be transformed into parts that are not chairs just as living organisms can be transformed into parts that are not living organisms.

It has been claimed that although [a] non-living thing, e. g., a sofa or a boulder, may be open to the possibility of non-existence this is not an alternative that the sofa or boulder faces." "...The sofa or boulder does not achieve its existence or fail to achieve it as a result of its actions. Its existence is not an object, a result, or an end of its actions."[34] This may be a useful distinction -- but it is unavailable to Rand in light of her claim that "[w]hen applied to physical phenomena, such as the automatic functions of an organism, the term goal-directed is not to be taken to mean purposive ... and is not to imply the existence of any teleological principle operating in insentient nature. I use the term goal-directed, in this context, to designate the fact that the automatic functions of living organisms are actions whose nature is such that they result in the preservation of an organism's life."[35] Without reference to any teleological dimensions of action, the desired distinction between the actions of chairs, for example, and the actions of living organisms appears to be only a matter of degree.

Third, the assumption that value-oriented action must be related to a fundamental alternative needs only to be made explicit to appear doubtful. To reach the conclusion she seeks, Rand would require a far stronger premise than that existence vs. nonexistence is the only fundamental alternative. She would need either the premise that it is (literally) the only alternative there is or would need an argument that no other alternative could be an option for choice unless a choice were made with respect to existence vs. nonexistence.

Fourth, there does not seem to be any reason that there can only be one end in itself. If anything, a better case can be made to the contrary -- that there must be more than one end in itself. The most general proposals, e. g., life or happiness or pleasure, are too abstract to generate determinate choices in all the issues of life. (Just try to imagine making a choice of romantic partners by treating the outcome of your choice as a means to staying alive.) On the other hand, more specific preferences are clearly not general enough to guide all one's choices. These points are well put by Michael Scriven:

Any end, at any level, is potentially subject to rational assessment insofar as it is a matter of choice whether we have it or not and insofar as we have any other independent goals at all .... And there is no one who has only one aim, by which all his decisions are determined .

The system of a man's values is a net and not a knotted string. It is a web that stretches across our lives and actions and connects them with the threads of reason. It may be true that a net only ties holes together, but it still has to have some points of attachment. The rational tension in the cords often makes it necessary to adjust these points of attachment, as we add new connections or the old holding points move around, but this internal tension is not self-supporting. There must be points of attachment, and they should be secure ones. No point of attachment is immune to these adjustments; so there are no ultimate values in the sense of unquestionable or indefensible ones. But certainly some values are more important than others; that is, more numerous threads run from them. A child begins with certain wants, and these get modified by his environment; he learns to think, he acquires new tastes, and these changes lead to self-modification. Eventually, all his values are either new or have a new importance. But they sprang from the interaction of rationality (or irrationality) with his original values and his environmental constraints .... [T]he picture of ultimate values, from which all others hang like onions on a string, is completely wrong.[36]

The answer to the last question should now be obvious. If there is not just one end in itself, there is no case to be made that one such end must be ultimate and take precedence over all others. If life is not the only thing sought for its own sake, then it may come into conflict with another and, under certain circumstances, may be overridden. Rand, for example, presumably would not consent to go on living in hell -- i.e., in intense suffering with no prospect of release.

Thus it appears that Rand's metaphysical argument is unacceptable as it stands. It depends at crucial points upon premises that are either doubtful or false and so, even if her conclusion is correct, it is not established by this line of argument.

Before turning to consideration of Rand's epistemological argument, however, it is worthwhile to examine a reformulation that has appealed to some who have been influenced by her.[37] Rand's version is inconclusive because it fails to show that life must be regarded as an end in itself and also fails to show that nothing other than life can (rationally) be treated as a potentially competing end in itself. The reformulation promises to remove both difficulties by showing that life must be valued and that the difficulty posed by competing ends can be sidestepped.

The core of the reformulation turns on the question, Why must an attempt to demonstrate the value of life involve showing that it is an end in itself? If there is some ultimate means, something that is necessary for the pursuit of any goal, then that would have to be valued whatever else one might seek to achieve. And since it is at least plausible that life is a necessary condition of value-oriented action, we seem to have an argument that there is no (rational) alternative to valuing life. Merrill expands as follows:

[C]an something be a value if its attainment would be such as to eliminate or reduce one's ability to pursue values? To seek an end while rejecting an essential means to that end, is to act ([as a] means) to gain and/or keep a value (end) while not so acting -- which is a contradiction. So whatever [ends in themselves] there may be, one can seek them only if, and to the extent that, one values that which serves one's own life. Whether or not life is the only ultimate end, it is an end which is a necessary means to any and all other ends.[38]

Three difficulties vitiate the reformulated argument. First, the only sense in which it is true that life is a necessary means to any possible goal is if it refers to survival or just staying alive -- that is, if it does not refer to man's life qua man as Rand construes it. And, though there can be little doubt that life is necessary in order to act in pursuit of a goal, it is not true that (continued) life is a necessary means to any and all other ends. In fact, one's own death might be a necessary means to an end. One might have to die so a spouse could collect on an insurance policy. Ultimately, the argument succeeds only in showing that life must be valued as a means. It does not show that such positive evaluation of life must override goals pursued for their own sakes. Indeed, it could not -- Part of the meaning of treating something as an end in itself is that such an end is overriding rather than overridden if it should come into conflict with the means normally appropriate for its pursuit or achievement (and if no other considerations, e. g., derived from some other end in itself, are relevant).


Beyond Hypothesis (2): The Epistemological Argument

Though neither Rand's metaphysical argument nor its attempted reformulation can be regarded as successful, a significant strand in her case for egoism is still to be considered -- -- her epistemological argument. As Branden put it:

The cardinal principle at the base of Ayn Rand's ethical system is the statement that It is only the concept of Life that makes the concept of Value possible. It is only to a living entity that things can be good or evil. This is the identification that cuts through the Gordian knot of past ethical theorizing, that dissolves the mystical fog which enveloped the field of morality, and refutes the contention that a rational morality is impossible and that values cannot logically be derived from facts. It is the nature of living entities -- the fact that they must sustain their life by self-generated action -- that makes the existence of values both possible and necessary. For each living species, the course of action required is specific; what an entity is determines what it ought to do.

By identifying the context in which values arise existentially, Ayn Rand refutes the claim ... that normative propositions cannot be derived from factual propositions. By identifying the genetic roots of value epistemologically, she demonstrates that not to hold man'slife as one's standard of value is to be guilty of a logical contradiction. It is only to a living entity that things can be good or evil; life is the basic value that makes all other values possible; the value of life is not to be justified by a value beyond itself; to demand such justification -- to ask: Why should man choose to live? -- is to have dropped the meaning, context and source of one's concepts. Should is a concept that can have no intelligible meaning, if divorced from the concept and value of life.

If life -- existence is not accepted as one's standard, then only one alternative standard remains: non-existence. But non-existence -- death -- is not a standard of value: it is the negation of values.[39]

In part, this argument repeats the Randian claim that value-oriented action is in fact dependent upon the existence of life. It would be both tedious and pointless to recapitulate the objections already registered against that claim. I will instead focus on what is distinctive -- namely that value can only be understood against a background presupposition of the value of life.

It should be noted that what Branden is claiming amounts to the assertion that factual premises presuppose something normative. When the methodology is made explicit, however, it is less than completely clear that Branden (or Rand) has identified the correct presupposition. Why, for example, is it life (i. e., the life of an individual organism) rather than, as sociobiologists might suggest, gene representation in subsequent generations? The latter suggestion would at least have the merit of explaining our basic and probably ineliminable interest in reproductive activities which, despite modern medicine, impose a non-negligible risk of death or shortened life upon the individual organisms who engage in them.

Two further difficulties with the argument are decisive. First, Branden's concluding argument involves an obvious fallacy. It is not true that "[i]f life -- existence -- is not accepted as one's standard, then only one alternative standard remains: non-existence." The alternative to existence-as-a-standard-of-value is not non-existence-as-a-standard-of-value, but not-[existence-as-a-standard-of-value]. A person who refuses to accept existence or life as a standard of value may be adopting something else, say, the greatest happiness of the greatest number. He is not (necessarily) choosing non-existence and need not deny the correctness of the arguments already discussed for the value of life as a means.

Second, given Rand's own definitions of value (that which one acts to gain and/or keep) and of life (a process of self-sustaining and self-generated action),[40] the claim that the concept of life is epistemologically prior to the concept of value collapses. "[S]he is implicitly using the concept value to define life. How could one explain self-sustaining action without the concept of action to gain and/or keep something? But if life is, directly or indirectly, defined in terms of value, then in what sense is the latter conceptually dependent on the former?"[41]


The Transition to Rights

It might appear tempting at this point, Rand's arguments for egoism having miscarried, to dismiss her from further consideration. Doing so, however, would ignore an interesting additional issue: namely, whether libertarian rights can be validated on the basis of some form of egoism. And any such argument must somehow face the obvious objection, which will occupy us in due course, that the attempt must be wrecked on issues raised by conflicts of interest. (The version of egoism in question may be either Rand's -- but reached by different arguments -- or some other.)

Rand conceives of rights as

a moral concept -- the concept that provides a logical transition from the principles guiding an individuals actions to the principles guiding his relationship with others -- the concept that preserves and protects individual morality in a social context the link between the moral code of a man and the legal code of a society, between ethics and politics. Individual rights are the means of subordinating society to moral law.[42]

On this point, Rand's arguments are considerably less systematic than in her foundational explorations of ethics. Part of the reason may be that she felt less need for systematic investigation here: There is little in these arguments that cannot be paralleled, point for point, in the work of others. Another part is undoubtedly that much of her work on this topic is embodied in her fiction. Still, three explicit lines of argument can be distinguished:

  1. The Man-is-an-End-in-Himself Argument
  2. The Right-to-do-Right Argument
  3. The Benefit Argument

The first is stated only briefly: The basic social principle ... is that just as life is an end in itself, so every living human being is an end in himself, not a means to the ends or the welfare of others -- and, therefore, that man must live for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself.[43]

It is perhaps asking this passage (and similar brief invocations of the notion that man is an end in himself) to bear too much weight to treat it as an argument, but if it is so treated, it is clearly inadequate. First, the suggested parallel with life as an end in itself is obscure. Life, in Rand's view, is an end in itself because its preservation and enjoyment are both the outcome of action and pursued for their own sakes. What this could mean as applied to a particular living human being as distinct from that persons treatment of life as an end in itself requires, to say the least, further clarification. (How could an already living human being be the outcome of concurrent human action?)

As Rand uses the phrase that every living human being is an end in himself, it appears to function as a denial -- a denial that the proper or moral purpose of anyone's life is to be subordinated to the ends or the welfare of others. If so, it is simply a truncated restatement of egoism -- from which, of course, it clearly follows that one must not sacrifice oneself to others; it would, however, require far more detail than is provided by a therefore to show that one must also not sacrifice others to oneself.

Parenthetically, it is noteworthy that the phrase, "man is an end in himself," achieved currency through the influence of Rand's chosen philosophical antipode, Immanuel Kant -- and, in his usage, had clear-cut libertarian implications. His second formulation of the categorical imperative is: Always act so as to treat humanity, whether in your own person or that of any other, as an end in itself, never as a means only. This, as a condition upon human action and interaction, may easily and plausibly be read, in part, as a prohibition on initiated force or fraud[44] which are pre-eminent examples of the treatment of others as means only.[45] Rand's usage -- as a statement of egoism -- cannot be so employed without some supplementary argument to show that it is never in one's interests to treat another as a means only.

The second argument appears in the essay, "Man's Rights":

The source of man's rights is not divine law or congressional law, but the law of identity. A is A -- and Man is Man. Rights are conditions of existence required by man's nature for his proper survival. If man is to live on earth, it is right for him to use his mind, it is right to act on his own free judgment, it is right to work for his values and to keep the product of his work. If life on earth is his purpose, he has a right to live as a rational being .[46]

Two features of this argument are problematic. In the first place, it seems to be incomplete as an argument for the liberties which Rand would recognize as falling under the protection of individual rights. As it is stated, it is only an argument for a right to live as a rational being. But there are ways of being irrational by Rand's standards -- living unproductively from an inheritance, for example -- that would also be protected by the principle of individual rights. She may disapprove of such behavior, but it would be deeply at odds with both the implicit and explicit force of her political theory to hold that the worthless heir has no right to his possessions (or life or freedom): Basic rights are requirements based on human nature; they are not gifts or permissions granted by others nor are they conditional upon good behavior.[47]

A second and more fundamental difficulty is that it is not clear what -- if anything -- justifies the transition from what it is right for a person to do to what one has a right to do. To make the former claim is to say that one ought to do it (whatever it is); to make the latter claim is to say that others ought not to interfere (in certain ways). Both are moral judgments, but they are addressed to different parties and require different actions (or inactions) of their addressees. On the face of it, these are not equivalent, and the transition from what it is right to do to what one has a right to do appears to be just a play on words. The problem is only rendered more acute if egoism is the background moral theory in terms of which the rightness of actions is judged. Further argument is needed to show that self-interested reasons for action either cannot or will not generate conflict. (Why can it not be true that I ought to [try to] do x and also true that someone else ought to [try to] prevent the doing of x?)

Rand's third argument promises to tie respect for libertarian rights more closely to considerations of rational self-interest. She asks what advantages accrue to an individual from participation in social relations:

Can man derive any personal benefit from living in a human society? Yes -- if it is a human society. The two great values to be gained from social existence are: knowledge and trade .... But these very benefits indicate, delimit and define what kind of men can be of value to one another and in what kind of society: only rational, productive, independent men in a rational, productive, free society. Parasites, moochers, looters, brutes and thugs can be of no value to a human being -- nor can he gain any benefit from living in a society geared to their needs, demands and protection, a society that treats him as a sacrificial animal .... No society can be of value to man's life if the price is the surrender of his right to his life.[48]

What is being argued here appears to be threefold: First, what can be gained (and all that can be gained) from life in society involves (or: is) knowledge and trade -- which may be true if the two are broadly construed -- and that both in turn depend on the freedom, independence, and rights-respecting behavior of those who enact various roles as participants in these activities and occupations. Second, no one has anything to gain from having his own (libertarian) rights violated. The third point, which is more suggested than stated, is that there must be some general rules, laws, or norms in any society -- something to which that society is geared. And the only way in which a society can be geared to the needs and protection of rational, self-interested people is by refusing to allow anything to count as a reason for requiring any form of sacrifice. Libertarian rights, as the means of subordinating society to moral law, amount, on the one hand, to a social policy of making the world safe for egoism and, on the other, to the best terms that an egoist could reasonably hope to secure. (Any better terms for a given individual would be worse terms for someone else, e.g., My libertarian rights must remain inviolate, but Smith and Jones will be my slaves.)

This line of argument, I think, is substantially correct -- but it provides insufficient support to the conclusion Rand needs in order to unify and integrate her ethical and political positions. She needs not only to show that libertarian rights represent the best bet or deal or terms that rational egoists can or are in the least likely to get; she needs to show that no better terms would be in their interests if they could be had and also to answer the question whether, when better terms cannot be had, it is always in one's interests to abide by the available terms. She must, in short, face the problem of possible conflict of interests. If an egoist's interests ever do conflict with someone else's, he will have a self-interested reason for violating libertarian rights.


Conflict of Interests

Each of the foregoing is insufficient as it stands. In addition to the particular difficulties faced by the first two versions, all -- including the best, the benefit argument -- stand in need of supplementation to effectively deal with the issue of conflict of interests. And Rand is well aware of this need. It is all too obvious that if there can be a genuine conflict of interests, one must either surrender the doctrine that each should pursue solely her own interests -- i. e., give up egoism -- or admit that rights-violation is sometimes appropriate (or, perhaps, least inappropriate). Her dominant response is to deny the premise:

The Objectivist ethics holds that human good does not require human sacrifices and cannot be achieved by the sacrifices of anyone to anyone. It holds that the rational interests of men do not clash -- that there is no conflict of interests among men who do not desire the unearned, who do not make sacrifices or accept them, who deal with one another as traders, giving value for value.[49]

The response is more thoroughly worked out and more richly textured than can be indicated by a single quote. Apparent conflicts of interest are explored in her fiction and considered, both directly and by implication, in her non-fiction. The central argumentative maneuvers in its defense appear to be two: the appeal to objectivity of interests and the appeal to context. And there is a third maneuver which she could have employed but did not. All three deserve examination and, though we will find that they do much to support the general correctness of the harmony-of-interests thesis (hereafter, the Harmony Thesis), they fail to show that there is never a conflict. More precisely, they could only show that there is never a conflict at the price of reducing the thesis to tautology.[50]

The appeal to objectivity notes that there would arise no question of conflicts of interest if there were no conflicts between or among the different things that people want. But wants are not to be identified with interests. If they were, we would have to admit that there is no such thing as a bad habit, i. e., something someone wants to do which is not in his interests. We would also have to countenance the possibility that there may be a conflict between a persons own interests -- no reference to the interests or wants of others would be needed to generate conflict. Rand, of course, has her own more detailed account of what it is for some action or state of affairs to be in a persons interests, but the formal point made here is quite adequate to dismiss perhaps the majority of proposed criticisms of and counterexamples to the Harmony Thesis. For many such arguments simply postulate -- without any reference to the history or circumstances of parties to a conflict of wants -- that there is a conflict of interests. If, as almost everyone agrees, it is not true that wants are identical to interests, such examples and arguments are simply irrelevant to overturning or undermining the Harmony Thesis.

The appeal to context goes somewhat further to defuse alleged conflicts of interest. Consider a simple example: An employer might, if the option were available, prefer to have an employee work for no remuneration. Similarly, the employee in question might, were the option available, prefer as remuneration the entire assets of the employer (for no work!). Though there is a conflict between out-of-context preferences here, there is no conflict of interests because both the employer and the employee can (or should be able to) see that on such terms there would be no employment. So long as the employer needs to be able to hire others to perform certain functions and so long as the employee needs a job, neither will be able to get all she would prefer. The very possibility of an employment arrangement between them depends on their willingness to agree to and abide by terms intermediate between the two extremes.

Other sorts of context are also relevant to the specification of the interests of the parties to an interaction. Probably the most important of these is consideration of long-term consequences. Many things which might appear to be in one's interests can reliably be predicted to have negative long-term impacts upon other things (or even upon the same thing) that we care about. In addition, Rand wants to build into the understanding of what is in one's interests considerations deriving from the history of particular situations -- specifically as to what has been earned or deserved by the different parties.

The maneuver which Rand could have employed but didn't has to do with how our interests are contoured. It may be called the appeal to the malleability of interests. Interests are not simply afflictions which come upon one independently of the choices one makes and the projects one pursues. What a person has an interest in is determined in part by what he chooses to do. Given this, the question can be raised: What interests is it in one's interest to have? Or, put differently, are there any general constraints on the sort of behavior that is or is likely to be in one's interests?

It seems that there is at least one such general constraint. Whatever one's interests are, it is in one's interests that others not interfere with their pursuit. It is therefore in one's interests that one avoid behavior likely to provoke active interference by others. That is, it is in one's interests not to interfere without provocation in others pursuit of their interests. Conflict-avoidance is in one's interests whatever else one seeks and therefore one has self-interested reasons for adopting a policy of not provoking conflict -- i. e., reasons for giving independent weight to respect for the rights of others in judgments as to what it is in one's interests to do.

What bearing do these maneuvers have on the Harmony Thesis? The appeal to objectivity shows that a conflict of wants does not establish the existence of a conflict of interests. It cannot establish the much stronger thesis that no conflict of wants is a real conflict of interests. It defuses a class of bad arguments against the Harmony Thesis but can do no more. The appeal to context accomplishes more but cannot show that there is always a relevant context to harmonize apparent conflict. Any given type of context may turn out to be irrelevant to the situation of a particular decision-maker. An elderly man or woman, for example, may reliably expect not to be around to suffer the long-term negative effects unleashed by a current rights-violation. The appeal to the malleability of interests provides an additional reason for adopting a policy of respect for the rights of others but cannot eliminate the possibility of conflict unless that policy is accorded infinite weight in one's decision-making processes. So long as its weight is finite, it will always be possible for it to be swamped by other considerations also derived from self-interest.

The Harmony Thesis is, in general, acceptable that is, it is not normally the case that peoples interests considered in full context are in irreconcilable conflict. (For simplicitys sake, I am leaving aside conflicts of interest which are generated by alterable legal systems, e. g., legally mandated discrimination.) But such conflict has not been ruled out, and the Harmony Thesis therefore cannot be employed to fully reconcile Rand's commendation of egoism and her claim that libertarian rights are inviolable.

It may be that Rand recognized this as well. She does state that her discussion of the Harmony Thesis applies only to the relationships among rational men and only to a free society.[51] She also states, without explaining how it would apply to the emergency constituted by a real conflict of interests, that [i]t is important to differentiate between the rules of conduct in an emergency situation and the rules of conduct in the normal conditions of human existence.[52]

Though Rand does not offer us any detail as to how the rules are or would be different in an emergency situation, I think it is clear that this is the direction in which she has to move if she is to reconcile egoism with respect for libertarian rights. If the Harmony Thesis is not universally true, then universal egoism is compatible only with contextualized libertarian rights.[53] That is, rights will be properly applicable only in normal circumstances -- in the substantial majority of cases in which there is no real or ultimate conflict of interests. In the minority of cases in which real conflict occurs, it will not, strictly speaking, be proper to say that the parties to the conflict possess (the full panoply of) libertarian rights, and, therefore, it will not be the case that the parties, in pursuing their interests, are violating each others rights.

Unfortunately, such a reconciliation is untenable for at least two reasons. There is a deeper incompatibility between libertarian rights and egoism than is addressed by this proposal.

One aspect of it can be brought out by considering what the proposal would mean in the case of some particular egoist. On any occasion, the egoist, within the limits of his knowledge and abilities, will choose that course of action which scores best in terms of his self-interest. If two or more courses of action score equally well and none score better, he may choose either or any of them. An apparent conflict of interests is real only if there is no non-rights-violating course of action which scores at least as well as the best rights-violating course of action.[54]

Suppose that our imagined egoist is both a libertarian and fortunate. On every occasion of his life on which there is an apparent conflict of interests, there is a non-rights-violating alternative open to him which scores as well as the best rights-violating alternative. Being a libertarian, that is, on every occasion, the one that he chooses.

Note that this is about as favorable a case for the compatibility of egoism and libertarian rights as can be imagined. We have simply stipulated away any troublesome questions that may arise if there are real conflicts of interests.[55] We have also allowed that, in no case, does our imagined fortunate egoist ever sacrifice his own interests or ever violate anyone's libertarian rights. But this is still not sufficient for compatibility. The reason is that one cannot explain his consistent choice of the non-rights-violating alternative in those cases in which some rights-violating alternative, ex hypothesi, serves his interests equally well by reference to his self-interest. Though he never sacrifices his interests, his pursuit thereof is shaped by other considerations than what is in his interests -- i. e., by consideration for the rights of others.[56]

There is a second way in which the proposed reconciliation fails which can also be explored without reference to the occurrence of real conflicts of interest. Assume, once again, that there is an egoist whose interests never, in fact, conflict with those of anyone else. Assume further that, in her case, there are no ties some non-rights-violating course of action is always superior to any rights-violating course of action.

Thus, judged by criteria of respect for libertarian rights, her calculations of what is in her interests always generate the right answers. Still, the compatibility of egoism and libertarian rights is not secured unless the right answers are generated for the right reasons. If egoism is assumed to be her basic moral position, then the objection to any proposed course of action that ought not to be taken is that it is either incompatible with or not the best way to achieve her well-being. That is, such an action is, with respect to her goals, either not effective or not efficient.

Apply this to a choice-situation in which the rights of others are not at issue: She ought to take daily exercise for the sake of her health. But suppose she doesn't. She has then failed to live up to her professed egoism, has failed to do the best that she could to promote her own interests. No one, however, is entitled to impose a penalty upon her on that account. The penalty for failing to act optimally in one's own interests is: not achieving what is in one's interests.

Now consider a choice-situation in which someone else's libertarian right -- say, the right not to be murdered by her -- is at stake. Is the sole objection to the other party's being killed by her that it is either an ineffective or inefficient means to the egoist's goals? If that is the sole objection, it seems that there is no occasion for the imposition of any penalty other than or apart from the natural consequences of the egoist's miscalculation namely, its failure to optimally serve her interests.[57]

This is what I meant by suggesting that, even in the favorable case in which it is always clearly in one's interests to respect the rights of others, this generates the right answers for the wrong reasons. At least part of what is wrong with the contemplated murder is that it is a harm to the victim quite apart from how it may or may not mesh with the egoist's other plans and goals. There is a deep sense in which, though the egoist never in fact finds it to be in her interests to engage in rights-violating-behavior, she does not really respect anyone's rights. To respect someone's rights is to regard something about that person -- such as his welfare or freedom -- as having an independent claim to one's respect -- that is, it is to cease to be an egoist; it is to cease to calculate the range of permissible actions solely in terms of self-interest.



In summary, though Rand has done interesting and suggestive work, though there is much that may have a place in moral and political theory, her ambition exceeded her achievement. Neither her attempts to validate egoism nor any of the arguments that seek to base libertarian rights upon it are successful. This is, in the end, just as well. For, if the arguments of the foregoing section are correct, the two positions are not really compatible. Rand has not successfully defended the universal truth of the Harmony Thesis, and even that, if it could be done, would not be sufficient to fully reconcile egoism and libertarian rights.[58]



Comments? I'd love to hear.



[1] Rand steadfastly refused to associate herself with libertarianism. She commented only sparingly on the subject but, judging from the works of followers, her central objection seems to have been that libertarianism is philosophically shallow and that libertarians are willing to tolerate as libertarians people whose commitment to or respect for human rights is based on (what she regarded as) false premises or upon no grounds at all. She took this to mean that libertarians were philosophical subjectivists or relativists and were thus unable to really or genuinely support individual liberty.

Even if this were a correct assessment of libertarianism as a social phenomenon (which it is not), it is irrelevant to the classification of Rand's own views. Her protests to the contrary notwithstanding, her political position falls clearly within the libertarian camp.

[2] Atheism, Ayn Rand, and Other Heresies (Buffalo, New York: Prometheus Books, 1991), p. 193.

[3] Additionally, Rand's mode of presentation makes it next to impossible to criticize, however sympathetically, without paraphrase -- and also next to impossible to engage in such paraphrase without leaving room for the counter-charge that her ideas have been distorted or misrepresented. The result has been, naturally, that only Rand herself and authorized interpreters (who got to be authorized by virtue of agreeing with her) were adjudged competent to discuss, expound, or apply her ideas.

[4] Rand's disrespect for modern philosophy is easily documented. For example: "[O]bserve the sharp drop in the intellectual stature of the post-Kantian philosophers, and the progressively thickening veil of grayness, superficiality, casuistry that descends on the history of philosophy thereafter -- like a fog enveloping a sluggish river that runs thinner and thinner and finally vanishes in the swamps of the twentieth century." For the New Intellectual in For the New Intellectual (New York: Signet, 1961), p. 32.

[5] "The Objectivist Ethics," in The Virtue of Selfishness (New York: Signet, 1964), p. 24.

[6] Ibid., p. 24.

[7] For the New Intellectual, pp. 128-131.

[8] "The Objectivist Ethics," p. 26. Emphasis (on "man" and "man's") added.

[9] Ibid., p. 23.

[10] In fairness to Rand, the passage quoted refers to those who resort to violence or fraud to survive at others expense. The fact that she doesn't discuss the intermediate possibility -- dependence with the consent of those depended upon -- is itself a weakness in her argument.

[11] Ibid., p. 22. Emphasis added.

[12] Ibid., p. 17.

[13] An indication of how prevalent the life vs. death theme is in Rand's ethical thinking is the fact that the words "survive" and "survival" appear 28 times in less than four pages when she is developing her central arguments. Ibid., pp. 22-25.

[14] An alternative reading of Rand on this point would take Man's Life as a shorthand expression for the kinds of things (including actions) that contribute to or constitute a worthwhile life. This move has much to recommend it but is unavailable to Rand without an independent argument -- which she doesn't provide -- for identifying what makes a life worthwhile. Otherwise, she would be reduced to the patent circularity of treating what is valuable or worthwhile in life as the standard of value -- i. e., as the basis for deciding what is valuable or worthwhile in life.

[15] Useful discussion may be found in Eric Mack's “The Fundamental Moral Elements of Rand's Theory of Rights� in The Philosophic Thought of Ayn Rand, ed. Douglas J. Den Uyl and Douglas B. Rasmussen (Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 1984), esp. pp. 135-150, and in Ronald E. Merrill's The Ideas of Ayn Rand (La Salle, Illinois: Open Court, 1991), pp. 103-104, 110-113.

[16] More precisely, they are or soon will be dead if they are consistent in conforming their behavior to this fundamental choice and if they are not unfortunately (from their perspective) kept alive by unanticipated circumstance. In any case, their staying alive has no philosophical significance.

[17] For the New Intellectual, p. 128. Emphasis added.

[18] Philosophy: Who Needs It (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1982), pp. 118-119. I have reversed the order in which these paragraphs occur in Rand's text.

[19] Merrill, p. 100.

[20] Leonard Peikoff's Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand (New York: Dutton, 1991) is based on a lecture course endorsed by Rand as "the only authorized presentation of the entire theoretical structure of Objectivism, i. e., the only one that I know ... to be fully accurate" (p. xiv). Somewhat surprisingly, he presents the hypothetical argument as the core of Rand's validation of egoism: "Morality is no more than a means to an end; it defines the causes we must enact if we are to attain a certain effect .... Morality ... is the price of the choice to live. That choice itself, therefore, is not a moral choice; it precedes morality; it is the choice of consciousness that underlies the need of morality" (pp. 244-245; see context pp. 206-214, 241-249 and compare the discussion of primary choice, pp. 55-62.)

[21] "The Objectivist Ethics," pp. 13-15, passim.

[22] Branden, Nathaniel, Who is Ayn Rand? (New York: Paperback Library, 1968 [1st ed. 1962]), p. 27. Branden was later denounced by Rand for various (unspecified) transgressions, but was for many years her closest associate. She never repudiated or publicly criticized the work he produced prior to their break (in 1968) and, in fact, explicitly, if somewhat grudgingly, endorsed it. For this reason, I will employ pre-1968 material of Brandens where it seems to illuminate or amplify Rand's own published arguments.

[23] "The Objectivist Ethics," p. 15, p. 13.

[24] Rand defines "value" as "that which one acts to gain and/or keep." "The Objectivist Ethics," p. 15. One shortcoming of the definition is that it seems to build Rand's egoistic conclusions into her definitions. By speaking of values as being gained and kept, she might appear to be denying that one can act to bring about or to preserve something when that action would not, in ordinary speech, be described as gaining or keeping it. Alternatively, she might be denying that such actions should be spoken of as valuing. The appearance can be avoided by suitably broad definitions of gaining and keeping. I suspect, however, that her actual choice of terminology has functioned as a tacit component in the persuasive force of her arguments.

[25] An analogy suggested by Eric Mack is that we only understand what hearts are when we understand the role that hearts play in the supply of oxygen and nutrients to bodily cells. Were it not for these requirements, there would be no hearts; if we do not understand these requirements, then, in a fundamental sense, we don't know what hearts are -- that is, we do not have a (correct) concept of hearts. And because hearts fulfill this functional role, we can use these requirements to gauge how well a particular heart is functioning. See Mack’s "The Fundamental Moral Elements of Rand's Theory of Rights," pp. 127-129.

[26] "The Objectivist Ethics," p. 15.

[27] Den Uyl and Rasmussen, p. 65.

[28] It might be said that there is a real alternative here but not the one the child thinks there is; that is, she can try to cross the street or refrain from doing so. But if we can be mistaken about the nature of our alternatives, we can also be mistaken in thinking that we have alternatives. The alcoholic believes that he can stop drinking by an exercise of will-power (without outside help or treatment) but cannot; he may even be self-deceived about his capacity to try.

[29] I suspect there is some circularity here. If alternatives only count as genuine insofar as they matter to the entity facing them, we will be holding that there must be some kind of value-judgment in order for there to be any value-oriented action -- which is either a trivial truth or obvioous nonsense. This, at least, cannot be the way in which Rand hopes to show that the existence of evaluation presupposes the existence and value of life.

[30] "The Objectivist Ethics," p. 15.

[31] Ibid., p. 17.

[32] Actually, unless the alternative, possibility vs. impossibility is qualified in some way, a great deal of goal-directed action is aimed at making something else either possible or impossible.

[33] "The Objectivist Ethics," p. 15.

[34] Douglas Den Uyl and Douglas Rasmussen, "Nozick on the Randian Argument," in Reading Nozick, ed. Jeffrey Paul, (Totowa, New Jersey: Rowman and Allanheld, 1981), p. 243. Emphasis added.

[35] "The Objectivist Ethics," p. 16. Alternatively, this might be treated as a mistake on Rand's part. If the assertion that there is some teleological principle operating in insentient nature could be defended, this portion of her argument might be rescued.

[36] Primary Philosophy (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1966), pp. 48-49.

[37] See, for example, Murray Rothbard, The Ethics of Liberty (Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey: Humanities Press, 1982), pp. 31-32; Den Uyl and Rasmussens Nozick on the Randian Argument, pp. 244-246; and Merrill, pp. 104-105. None of these authors claim the reformulation is to be found in Rand's own writings, but only Merrill explicitly identifies it as a reformulation.

[38] Merrill, pp. 104-105. In passing, it should be noted that this argument sounds very much as if it is saying that life should be valued because of its contribution to successful value-oriented action -- that is, as if the real ultimate end were not life but successful goal-pursuit.

[39] Branden, pp. 26-27. As previously noted, the epistemological argument is, in Rand's text, interwoven with other considerations. This lengthy quotation from Branden is the only place I know -- which Rand endorsed -- that attempts to present that line of thought independently.

[40] "The Objectivist Ethics," p. 15.

[41] Merrill, p. 101.

[42] "Man's Rights" in The Virtue of Selfishness (New York: Signet, 1964), p. 92.

[43] ""The Objectivist Ethics,"" p. 27.

[44] It is worth emphasizing that this condition may be plausibly so read only in part. Kant certainly meant to do more than just issue an injunction against initiated force or fraud.

[45] Those -- including most of Rand's admirers -- whose judgment of Kant is based solely on her condemnation of him as the most evil man in history may be surprised. But Kant was a defender of individual rights and limited government, capable of writing that "[h]uman freedom ... I express in this formula: No man can compel me to be happy after his fashion, according to his conception of the well-being of someone else. Instead, everybody may pursue his happiness in the manner that seems best to him, provided he does not infringe on other peoples freedom to pursue similar ends ..." On the Old Saw: That May Be Right in Theory But It Won't Work in Practice trans. E. B. Ashton (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1974), p. 58.

[46] Man's Rights, pp. 94-95. Compare Herbert Spencer: "Those who hold that life is valuable, hold, by implication, that men ought not to be prevented from carrying on life-sustaining activities. In other words, if it is said to be right that they should carry them on, then, by permutation, we get the assertion that they have a right to carry them on." The Man versus the State with Six Essays on Government, Society, and Freedom (Indianapolis: Liberty Classics, 1981), p. 150.

[47] "The United States was the first moral society in history .... All previous systems had held that man's life belongs to society, that society can dispose of him in any way it pleases, and that any freedom he enjoys is his only by favor, by the permission of society, which may be revoked at any time. The United States held that man's life is his by right (which means: by moral principle and by his nature) ..." -- Man's Rights, p. 93.

[48] "The Objectivist Ethics," p. 32.

[49] Ibid., p. 31.

[50] That Rand may have been willing to pay that price is suggested in the foregoing quote: "there is no conflict of interests among men who do not desire the unearned, who do not make sacrifices or accept them, who deal with one another as traders ...." In other words, if people never find it to be in their interests to violate others rights, then (of course) they'll never find self-interested reasons to do so.

[51] The Conflicts of Mens Interests in The Virtue of Selfishness, p. 56. Hyperbolically, and incredibly, she adds that [i]n a nonfree society, no pursuit of any interests is possible to anyone. Since Rand thinks that all of morality involves, in one way or another, the pursuit of one's own interests, it follows from her remarkable addendum that morality has no meaning or application in any society that falls short of being free. It also follows, since she once lived in a society that was unfree by her standards, in Russia under the Bolsheviks, that she never did anything in her interests while there, including getting out.

[52] "The Ethics of Emergencies" in The Virtue of Selfishness, p. 47. She mentions a lifeboat situation: What should you do if you and another man are in a lifeboat that can carry only one? (p. 49) -- which seems to be a sufficiently clear case of conflict of interests -- but does not say how she would resolve it.

[53] Alternatively, it might be said that universal libertarian rights are compatible only with contextualized egoism. In other words, in emergency situations, the (normal) ban on altruism is relaxed. It is difficult to see how this would work or what would justify it if egoism is supposed to be the fundamental moral position from which respect for rights is derived.

[54] Strictly, since we are assuming that the existence of rights is context-dependent, we should refer to what would or would not be rights-violating courses of actions if rights applied. Omitting such terminological convolutions from the text may detract from precision but adds to readability.

[55] The only way in which the case could be more favorable would be if it were stipulated, in addition, that there are no ties -- that there are no cases in which a rightts-violating course of action scores as well in egoistic terms as some non-rights-violating alternative. At best, such an additional stipulation could secure the compatibility of egoism and libertarian rights for the imagined case but would fail to show anything about the real world unless we could be sure that the stipulation was always true. And we could not be sure of that unless something much stronger than the already criticized Harmony Thesis were universally true. As will be evident later, I do not think that even these extravagant assumptions can, in the last analysis, support the compatibility of egoism and libertarian rights.

[56] Though my conclusions are rather different, this objection to the compatibility of egoism and libertarian rights was inspired by reflection on Eric Mack's article, "Individualism, Rights, and the Open Society" in Tibor R. Machan (ed.), The Libertarian Reader (Totowa, New Jersey: Rowman and Allanheld, 1982), pp. 3-15.

[57] This is a bit too simple as it stands: Part of the reason that it is not in the egoist's interests to commit murder may be that it can reliably be predicted that others will impose penalties. This does not alter the basic point. Their reasons for imposing penalties, if they are egoists, will also fail to take account of the wrong done to the victim.

[58] A disclaimer is in order: I do not mean to be attacking self-interest as such or maintaining that it does not have a proper (and large) role in a good life. I am criticizing only the claim that it is identical to or coextensive with the good life.