Rational Interests

Rational Interests
Rob Bass

Rand maintains that there are no conflicts between people’s rational interests in a rational society. The restriction to a rational society presumably is intended to set aside questions about the ways that a legal code may set different people’s interests in opposition to one another. In particular, she would regard a society as falling short of rationality if its legal code did not embody (either at all or sufficiently) respect for and protection of the schedule of rights she favored. In any case, I shall also set it aside and abbreviate by speaking only about the harmony or lack of conflict between rational interests.

Now I want to pose the question why she believed there was no conflict between rational interests. That question can be taken in two different ways. It could be a request for the particular arguments she gave on its behalf, such as those contained in “The ‘conflicts’ of men’s interests.? Or it could be a request that it be explained what role the thesis plays in, how it fits with, her ethics and political philosophy more broadly considered. I am concerned here mainly with the second.

One reason for restricting attention to the second is that her direct arguments are pretty clearly inadequate. At most, what they succeed in showing is that rational interests are typically or usually harmonious. They do not begin to show that there is never a conflict between rational interests. (Of course, it still might be, for all I’ve said so far, that there never is a conflict between rational interests; I am only asserting that Rand has not shown it.)

Why, then, does Rand want to say that there are no conflicts between rational interests? I think the core of the answer can be found in the observation that if there are any genuine conflicts of interest, then her commitment to egoism would require her to endorse the violation of the rights that she also favors. Or, conversely, her commitment to rights would require her to endorse someone’s acting against his own interests.

To be somewhat more precise, we can say that an apparent conflict of rational interests is genuine when the conflict is such that

  1. It is not possible, under the circumstances, for both (or all) parties to get or have or do what they take to be in their interests, and

  2. What is at stake in the conflict involves the real interests of the parties (not just their wishes or hopes or desires), and

  3. The conflict cannot be resolved through any appeal to context, including considerations of the long term, and

  4. The conflict cannot be ameliorated, resolved or otherwise shown to be unreal through any process or steps that it would be in the interest of the parties to employ or engage in, or

  5. The apparent conflict cannot be explained as the product of defective rationality on the part of one or more parties to the conflict.

If there are any genuine conflicts of interest in that sense, then plainly, either her rights theory or her egoism has to give way. It will be in the interests of at least one party to the conflict to violate the rights of some other.

To be a bit more concrete, if it is in my interests to have the food on your table and in your interests not to let me have it – after all possibilities for bargaining and such have already been exhausted, then (assuming you have a right to the food) I will either violate your rights by taking the food or else I will respect your rights at the expense of my interests.Accordingly, if egoism provides over-riding reasons for action, then sometimes people ought to violate rights, while if respect for rights is an over-riding consideration, then people should sometimes act against their own interests.

Understandably, Rand did not want to be caught on either horn of this dilemma and so denied the premise that there was ever any conflict of rational interests. By denying it she could maintain both that each person should always serve his own interests and that rights should never be violated. Or so, at least, it appears.

Nonetheless, the claim that rational interests never conflict is pretty obviously false. Moreover, I think most Objectivists recognize that it is false. They show this by their willingness to interpret what Rand said about the lack of conflict between rational interests as true “in context? – where the context is normal, non-emergency situations. What they say is that rational interests never conflict except in emergencies.

This, however, is not helpful unless there is some independent way of determining that some situation is an emergency apart from the fact that rational interests conflict there. Without that, the claim that rational interests never conflict except in emergencies just reduces to the claim that rational interests never conflict except when they do. True, no doubt, but not enlightening.

However, I want to put both of these issues aside to raise a further question. Specifically, I will assume for the sake of argument both that we have some independent way of telling what an emergency is and that, in non-emergency situations, there are never any conflicts of rational interests.

The question is, even assuming that Rand has established that there are no conflicts between rational interests in non-emergency situations (she has not), whether that is enough to reconcile egoism with a robust respect for rights. That is, if the no-conflict thesis were true, would it be reasonable to conclude that a rational person never has reason to violate the rights of others?

The answer to that is not at all obvious. Surely, Rand would want to claim that rational persons would never violate the rights of others, and perhaps thought she had established it. However, there’s an important possible case that her arguments do not address at all, that of the person who, by Rand’s lights, is irrational but acting within his rights. For example, since she holds that productivity is an important virtue, she has to say that a person is irrational, even if he can live on a large inheritance, to fritter away his time with trivial pursuits. He may be acting within his rights, but still be irrational because unproductive.

Now, whatever argument she has that rational interests do not conflict simply does not bear on the question whether it is ever in someone’s rational interests to violate the rights of someone who is himself not being rational. Imagine the rational John Galt and a slightly sanitized, but still irrational, James Taggart. Suppose Taggart has inherited a fortune, but does not use it in any way to play political games or try to buy unjust favors for himself. Instead, he devotes himself entirely to “wine, women and song? (and, because of his large fortune, may expect to do so for the rest of his life). Suppose further that Taggart’s fortune is very large – not only will it support him for the rest of his life in the extravagant style to which he has become accustomed, it will do so with plenty left to spare. Is there an argument that it could never be in Galt’s interests to rob him of some small portion of that fortune to put it to better use? If so, what is it?

More generally, what Rand seems to need is not just an argument that rational interests do not ever conflict but that rational interests never conflict with respect for rights, even when those are the rights of people who are themselves irrational.

Rob Bass

Comments? I'd love to hear.