The Elements of Moral Philosophy on Ethical Egoism: A Critique

The Elements of Moral Philosophy - Sixth Edition CoverMany college philosophy classes today discuss ethical egoism. Many take as their main source the work of James and Stuart Rachels, in their book, The Elements of Moral Philosophy. The main philosopher referenced in the Rachels’ discussion of ethical egoism in Elements is Ayn Rand. But their account of Ayn Rand’s Objectivist ethical theory and their arguments against it are problematic. Their account of her theory is not entirely accurate, and their arguments against it miss important considerations.

Here, I will look at how they present ethical egoism, including the arguments they present for and against it. Where appropriate, I’ll use this discussion to show how their conception of Ayn Rand’s theory is faulty. (After this point, I will refer to “Rachels” in the singular. The reader can take it to refer to whichever Rachels is responsible for the essence of the content.)

Part 1: “Duty” and Ayn Rand’s Ethics

On page 63 of Elements (6th Ed.), Rachels says:

[Ethical Egoism] holds that our only duty is to do what is best for ourselves.

This is not a good way to talk about Ayn Rand’s ethical theory, because Rand doesn’t accept moral duties as legitimate. Rand only thought that there were moral obligations, not duties. This may seem like a minor issue of semantics, but it is actually a deeply revealing point about how Ayn Rand’s conception of ethics is different from most other philosophers’.

In the field of morality, a “duty” means a rule that one must allegedly follow, apart from one’s own interests or happiness. When we do something because we see that it will cause something else that we want for our own happiness, we do not call that “following our duty.” For example, if I work and earn money to buy a new gaming computer, my working is not following a duty. It’s doing something in order to get something else for myself. Or again, if I invest in a company to get a larger return on my investment later, we do not say that I am investing out of duty. If I help my wife because her happiness is important to my own, that is not following a duty, but doing something that improves my own life and promotes my happiness. I help her because I genuinely want to, not because I have a “duty” to.

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Jordan Peterson at OCON: Video and Objectivist Commentary

On July 1, Objectivist Summer Conference 2018 hosted Dr. Jordan Peterson and Dave Rubin in discussion with Objectivists, Dr. Greg Salmieri and Dr. Yaron Brook. Here’s the video of the discussion:

After this discussion, Yaron Brook hosted Greg Salmieri and Dr. Onkar Ghate on his show for some illuminating after-action analysis. Here’s that video:

You can see more interviews and discussions like this by subscribing to Yaron Brook’s YouTube channel, here: The Yaron Brook Show.

You can listen to Greg Salmieri on Ayn Rand’s ethics on the Elucidations philosophy podcast, put out by the University of Chicago, here: Episode 73: Greg Salmieri discusses Ayn Rand’s moral philosophy

On a related note, I am now producing original videos for YouTube. My YouTube channel is here: Sword of Apollo.

Video: Why Socialism is Morally Wrong: The Basis of Property Rights

I just published a video version of my essay, “Why Socialism is Morally Wrong: The Basis of Property Rights.” In it, I discuss the “purest” and “most economically reasonable” form of socialism, and I show why it’s immoral and impractical, by the standard of a morality that is pro-human life.

Now, of course, if your morality is against human life on Earth, socialism may be perfectly “moral,” according to your anti-human moral code. And indeed, as Ayn Rand argued in Atlas Shrugged and The Virtue of Selfishness, conventional altruism is one such anti-human moral code. It is the origin of the appeal of socialism to so many people in the past 200 years. This includes, not only Marxists, but utopian and Christian socialists as well.

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Not Everyone is Self-Interested — Why Psychological Egoism is Wrong

Many people today believe that everyone is self-interested at all times. They say that people have no choice but to be selfish, in some way. This is a doctrine of human nature that’s been around for centuries, and it’s called “psychological egoism.” In this video, I’ll explain why this idea is wrong, and how it rests on a confused idea of what self-interest means.

So let’s get right to it. What does self-interest really mean? Does it mean doing whatever you want? No, it doesn’t.

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When “Helping Others” Doesn’t Help: Destructive Charity

What would happen if you gave a long-term homeless man $100,000? If he wasn’t mentally handicapped, would it turn his life around? Would he suddenly be like any normal, productive citizen? Well, someone actually tested this idea in real life, as described in this video from the “Today I Found Out” YouTube channel:

As presented in the video, the mentally sound homeless man, Ted Rodrique, was given $100,000 to do with as he chose. He was even given the benefit of a financial adviser. But within a year, Ted was already broke and homeless again, now with debt he hadn’t had before. In short, Ted was slightly worse off for having been given the $100,000.

So, what was the problem? Why didn’t Ted take proper advantage of this huge opportunity thrown his way? He didn’t take advantage because he didn’t really value the things required to maintain the small fortune given to him. He didn’t value hard work, planning and discipline, but rather, living day-to-day, guided by his whims.

This points to an important truth about human nature: Our personal well-being does not depend on purely material resources, but requires that we develop certain spiritual values–i.e. goals and pursuits in our own minds. These values are not determined by our material circumstances–by how much money we have–but by our choices and the way we think. In order to have a self-sustaining well-being, or happiness, you must choose to be the sort of person who earns wealth and pursues values for yourself. If you don’t choose the proper values that allow you to be self-sustaining, then you are wholly dependent on the work of others for any “prosperity” you have and any goods you consume.

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What Rationality Means in Ayn Rand’s Philosophy of Objectivism

Ayn Rand, novelist and philosopher of Objectivism, a philosophy for living on Earth.

Ayn Rand

Ayn Rand’s idea of rationality is one of the most misunderstood concepts in her Objectivist philosophy. It seems that almost everyone just assumes they know exactly what rationality means. Then, upon learning that Rand advocates consistent rationality, tend to judge Rand’s philosophy by their preconceived notion of rationality, without realizing their understanding is deeply flawed.

Here I’ll explain what rationality means in Ayn Rand’s philosophy. I’ll quote Rand for a brief, positive explanation of her concept of rationality. Then, because misconceptions are so prevalent, my further explanation will largely take the form of a series of myths about rationality, with genuine rationality explained in contrast to the myths.

In her essay, “The Objectivist Ethics,” Ayn Rand describes rationality:

Rationality is man’s basic virtue, the source of all his other virtues. …

The virtue of Rationality means the recognition and acceptance of reason as one’s only source of knowledge, one’s only judge of values and one’s only guide to action. It means one’s total commitment to a state of full, conscious awareness, to the maintenance of a full mental focus in all issues, in all choices, in all of one’s waking hours. It means a commitment to the fullest perception of reality within one’s power and to the constant, active expansion of one’s perception, i.e., of one’s knowledge. It means a commitment to the reality of one’s own existence, i.e., to the principle that all of one’s goals, values and actions take place in reality and, therefore, that one must never place any value or consideration whatsoever above one’s perception of reality.  It means a commitment to the principle that all of one’s convictions, values, goals, desires and actions must be based on, derived from, chosen and validated by a process of thought—as precise and scrupulous a process of thought, directed by as ruthlessly strict an application of logic, as one’s fullest capacity permits.

So rationality consists of two components: a mental component and a physical component. It involves both thought and action. The thinking portion can be described as the rigorous application of objectivity in one’s own life. So when I discuss the myths about rationality, you should understand that what I say about the mental aspect of it applies to Ayn Rand’s concept of objectivity, as well. (Objectivity is frequently mischaracterized, along with rationality.)

Now to the myths:

Myth: Rationality means not making errors about facts.

Truth: Rationality means judging facts to the best of your ability on the basis of observation, rather than going by faith or feelings. Doing this is not a guarantee that you won’t make mistakes. Rational thought can still result in major errors about what the facts are.

The evidence may seem to point to one conclusion, because of limitations in what evidence you have access to. But there may be other evidence you’re not aware of that would lead you to a different conclusion. So long as you’re continually thinking and following the evidence to the best of your ability, you are acting rationally in regard to the facts.

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How Government Welfare Programs Are Immoral and Hurt Everyone, Including the Poor

US Federal Government spends 19% of its budget on overt welfare programs, (including Medicaid).

In 2016, the US Federal Government spent $740 billion, or 19% of its budget, on overt welfare programs, (including Medicaid). It spent $1.57 trillion on Social Security and Medicare. Together these make up 60% of its budget. (Source)

A very common view today is that the government needs to provide welfare programs for the poor. This is the view that “redistribution of wealth to the needy” is a noble project, and such “government assistance” is necessary to keep people from starving in the streets.

This essay will challenge and refute this view. In Ayn Rand’s ideal society, under laissez-faire capitalism, there would be no welfare programs, and this would be a good thing.

The people who didn’t vote for welfare programs, yet are taxed to support them, did not consent to the taking of their money. They signed no “social contract,” and simply living near other people does not give those other people a right to take their money. If you doubt this, watching this short video should be helpful:

Welfare programs are immoral for the same reason that three people using guns to force a fourth to pay for all their dinners is immoral: It’s an injustice that violates the rights of the victims. It has the same moral status as a robbery.

Yet people still attempt to justify using government to “redistribute” (steal) money by force, by appealing to alleged good consequences that result from the practice. The main line of argument is that welfare benefits are needed to prevent the poor from starving, while wealthier people can “afford” to have a corresponding amount of money taken out of their incomes. Thus, the argument goes, there is a net “social benefit” to welfare redistribution.

This argument is wrong on four counts:

  1. Welfare is not needed to keep good people from starving.
  2. The effect of redistribution on the wealthy should not be thought of in terms of whether they can “afford” it.
  3. There is no such thing as a “social benefit,” in the way this argument assumes.
  4. Even if we dismiss the idea of “social benefit,” the argument falsely assumes that the “beneficiaries” of welfare really benefit, overall, from redistribution.

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