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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VanDamme Academy: The Amazing School the World Needs to Know About

VanDamme AcademyThere’s a little school in California’s Orange County that not too many people know about. But this school should be the talk of the education world, because it’s an amazingly good school. This is VanDamme Academy, a small K-8 school in Aliso Viejo, California.

Imagine a school where you have whole classes of students, not sitting in bored silence as the teacher tries in vain to prod them into participation, but engaged, eagerly raising their hands, visibly excited about what they’re being taught–even in math class. Virtually everyone who visits the school comes away amazed and inspired, the parents gush about how wonderful the school is for their children, the students tell you that they love going to the school, that they are deeply grateful for having been able to attend the school, and that it’s the best thing that’s ever happened to them. Students come out of the school with a love of learning and much better prepared for high school than average–and all of this in a school whose tuition is close to the average spending per student in American public schools–all of this in a school that doesn’t give students homework.

This school may sound too good to be true. But it is not a fantasy. It is real. It is VanDamme Academy.

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Why Socialism is Morally Wrong: The Basis of Property Rights

This essay is Part 1 of a three-part series on socialism:

Socialism-raised fists-black on red backgroundSocialism has become more popular in the US recently, at least as a term people use for their political beliefs. Bernie Sanders and many of his young followers claim to be socialists. But what is socialism, really, and is it a moral system or an immoral one? Is it practical or impractical?

In this essay, I will give the definition of socialism as dictionaries and its most committed advocates understand it. Then I will take socialism in its “purest,” most “noble,” most economically reasonable form–which many socialists claim has not been refuted by history–and show you why it is both immoral and impractical.

The Common Definition of Socialism

The Oxford English Dictionary defines socialism as:

A political and economic theory of social organization that advocates that the means of production, distribution, and exchange should be owned or regulated by the community as a whole.

If we are talking about full socialism, as its serious advocates mean it, the “regulated” here is redundant and should be taken to mean complete regulation and control, which is effectively the same as ownership. In a fully socialist society, “capitalists”–those who own “the means of production, distribution and exchange,” like factories and grocery stores–are abolished. Everyone in the society is a “laborer” or “worker,” in the broad sense of “someone who works for wages,” (what I’ll sometimes call a “wage-worker,” as opposed to someone who earns profits from private ownership.)

The “community as a whole” exercises control through some form of governmental institution. In different socialist theories, this may take the form of anything from local direct democracies, to national or worldwide governments of central planners, allegedly representing the collective will of the “working class” (proletariat.)

(In light of this, I will say up front that Bernie Sanders is not a socialist in the full sense of the term: he doesn’t advocate the outright abolition of capitalists. I will have more to say about what he actually is, in Part 3 of this series.)

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“Equal is Unfair – The Inequality Advantage”: A Talk by Yaron Brook

Should economic inequality (inequality of wealth) in a capitalist system concern you? Is inequality of opportunity a problem that needs a governmental solution? Is it fair or just that some people make more money than others, or inherit wealth from their parents?

I found this video so powerful that I had to share it in its own post on my blog. In this video, Yaron Brook is both reasonable and passionate when he speaks about one of the central moral and political issues of our time: inequality. He also answers questions from his audience at the University of Exeter after the talk.

Stick around for the Q&A for Dr. Brook’s view of what legitimate equality is. (Hint: It’s the same type of equality meant by the Founding Fathers of the United States.)

Also, look for Yaron Brook’s upcoming book, Equal Is Unfair: America’s Misguided Fight Against Income Inequality, co-authored with Don Watkins.

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Related Posts:

Socialism and Welfare vs. Justice: Why Inalienable Private Property Rights are Required for Justice

On Fairness and Justice: Their Meanings, Scopes, and How They Are Not the Same

Wealth is Created by Action Based on Rational Thought

The Role of Profits in Free-Market Capitalism, and Why High Profits are Good for a Company’s Workers

How Business Executives and Investors Create Wealth and Earn Large Incomes

It Is Not True that “97% of Scientists Agree that Climate Change is Real, Man-Made and Dangerous,” but Environmentalist Leaders Dogmatically Repeat It

In May of 2013, Barack Obama put out a tweet that said:

Ninety-seven percent of scientists agree: climate change is real, man-made and dangerous.

This claim is often repeated by environmentalists and the Left, and is most definitely false. Alex Epstein, writing for Forbes, destroyed this claim in his article, “‘97% Of Climate Scientists Agree’ Is 100% Wrong”.

From Epstein’s article:

One of the main papers behind the 97 percent claim is authored by John Cook, who runs the popular website SkepticalScience.com, a virtual encyclopedia of arguments trying to defend predictions of catastrophic climate change from all challenges.

Here is Cook’s summary of his paper: “Cook et al. (2013) found that over 97 percent [of papers he surveyed] endorsed the view that the Earth is warming up and human emissions of greenhouse gases are the main cause.”

This is a fairly clear statement—97 percent of the papers surveyed endorsed the view that man-made greenhouse gases were the main cause—main in common usage meaning more than 50 percent.

But even a quick scan of the paper reveals that this is not the case. Cook is able to demonstrate only that a relative handful endorse “the view that the Earth is warming up and human emissions of greenhouse gases are the main cause.” Cook calls this “explicit endorsement with quantification” (quantification meaning 50 percent or more). The problem is, only a small percentage of the papers fall into this category; Cook does not say what percentage, but when the study was publicly challenged by economist David Friedman, one observer calculated that only 1.6 percent explicitly stated that man-made greenhouse gases caused at least 50 percent of global warming.

Where did most of the 97 percent come from, then? Cook had created a category called “explicit endorsement without quantification”—that is, papers in which the author, by Cook’s admission, did not say whether 1 percent or 50 percent or 100 percent of the warming was caused by man. He had also created a category called “implicit endorsement,” for papers that imply (but don’t say) that there is some man-made global warming and don’t quantify it. In other words, he created two categories that he labeled as endorsing a view that they most certainly didn’t.

As Alex Epstein details, some of the scientists whose papers were mischaracterized by this paper objected to the misrepresentation. There is more to Epstein’s article that is worth reading, so I definitely recommend reading the whole thing when you have time.

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A Message on Ayn Rand, Compassion, and Individualism vs. Collectivism

Ayn Rand

Ayn Rand

A user on reddit posted a question to the subreddit, /r/askphilosophy, which I reprint below. I have also reprinted my response in a private message below that.

The question posed:

So I’ve read many of Ayn Rand’s work and have been frequently reading Libertarian articles and stuff. I’ve read Atlas Shrugged, The Fountainhead and The Virtue of Selfishness. [Links added in reprint.]

When I read Atlas Shrugged it was something quite new to me. I was a Philosophy undergraduate back then and her ideas were very different from all of the things I’ve been in contact with. Mainly her individualist ethics and capitalism.

As time went by I kept reading other books, articles, as well as debating with a few people and reflecting about all of those concepts. As for today, I really appreciate how well Rand’s ethics value the subject and how fair laissez-faire capitalism seems to be. However, I’ve seen many flaws in her ideas.

Concerning ethics, I think her ideas lack a lot of compassion and put collectivism to a zero. Individualism is great, but we are all part of social groups, aren’t we? And concerning politics I don’t see how a TRUE free market would be possible in any time soon, since it would require anarchy or minarchy to happen. (about economy, I am in favor of capitalism as an economic system, even though I disagree of how it is like right now)

So as it’s been a while since I’ve started this path, which was fairly opposite to the extreme-left I had taken when I got into Philosophy, I’d like to read some authors and books that have ideas that oppose Rand’s. I don’t want books that argue directly with her, such as “Ayn Rand Nation”. Instead, I’d like to read opposite opinions.

According to the Political Compass I’m a Right Libertarian, so I’d like to read some authors of the Left Libertarian. The Political Compass mentions Pyotr Kropotkin, Noam Chomsky and Emma Goldman in this area. (I’d like to read the Left Libertarian authors since I’m not that pro-government at the moment)

So what authors/books would you suggest me?

My response:

In your OP, you say:

Concerning ethics, I think [Rand’s] ideas lack a lot of compassion and put collectivism to a zero. Individualism is great, but we are all part of social groups, aren’t we?

First, in regard to compassion: that is an emotional response, and emotions are displayed by people, not ideas. Principles as such can neither be compassionate, nor uncompassionate. They can be true or false, justified or unjustified by evidence and argument.

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Philosopher Greg Salmieri (of Rutgers University) Discusses Ayn Rand’s Moral Philosophy on the Elucidations Podcast

The Library Research Pavilion at the University of Chicago, whose philosophy department produces the Elucidations podcast

The Library Research Pavilion at the University of Chicago, (whose philosophy department produces the Elucidations podcast.)

The Elucidations podcast has released an interview with Professor Greg Salmieri on Ayn Rand’s moral philosophy. This is a great interview, especially for those who don’t know that Ayn Rand’s moral philosophy supports friendship, benevolence and helping other people in certain ways and under certain circumstances.

The interview also does a good job of presenting Ayn Rand’s basic approach to morality and moral thinking.

Listen here:

Elucidations, Episode 73: Greg Salmieri discusses Ayn Rand’s moral philosophy

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Related Posts:

Introduction to Objectivism

Why the Philosophy of Objectivism is Still Relevant and Needed in the Age of Modern Science

Why “Selfishness” Doesn’t Properly Mean Being Shortsighted and Harmful to Others

Ayn Rand’s Philosophy vs. Abortion Bans: Why a Fetus Doesn’t Have Rights

The Wages of Altruism: Domestic Abuse

Philosopher Greg Salmieri (of Rutgers University) Discusses Ayn Rand’s Moral Philosophy on the Elucidations Podcast

The Library Research Pavilion at the University of Chicago, whose philosophy department produces the Elucidations podcast

The Library Research Pavilion at the University of Chicago, (whose philosophy department produces the Elucidations podcast.)

The Elucidations podcast has released an interview with Professor Greg Salmieri on Ayn Rand’s moral philosophy. This is a great interview, especially for those who don’t know that Ayn Rand’s moral philosophy supports friendship, benevolence and helping other people in certain ways and under certain circumstances.

The interview also does a good job of presenting Ayn Rand’s basic approach to morality and moral thinking.

Listen here:

Elucidations, Episode 73: Greg Salmieri discusses Ayn Rand’s moral philosophy

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Related Posts:

Introduction to Objectivism

Why the Philosophy of Objectivism is Still Relevant and Needed in the Age of Modern Science

Why “Selfishness” Doesn’t Properly Mean Being Shortsighted and Harmful to Others

Ayn Rand’s Philosophy vs. Abortion Bans: Why a Fetus Doesn’t Have Rights

The Wages of Altruism: Domestic Abuse

The Ayn Rand Institute’s 2015 Summer Conference (OCON) Just Wrapped Up

The Ayn Rand Institute (ARI) holds a conference every summer in a different city. Objectivists, students of Objectivism, and other people interested in Ayn Rand‘s philosophy travel from around the country to meet each other and hear talks by experts in various fields. The speakers discuss the ideas of Objectivism and their applications in life, science, and the arts, and answer questions from the audience. It is a very educational event, and a way to meet new people interested in ideas. (For the veterans of OCONs past, it’s also a chance to see old friends.) I definitely recommend it.

I went to OCON 2014 in Las Vegas, but was unable to go this year. But I look forward to videos of some of the major talks being released on ARI’s YouTube channel, as they were for OCON 2014.

There’s a fee to attend OCON, but that fee is reduced quite dramatically for current students and young adults. (Students can even apply for scholarships to cover the costs of travel and lodging.) If you are a student or young adult, I especially recommend taking the opportunity to attend at least one OCON. It’s a great opportunity to take a break from mundane things, meet great people, and learn more about Ayn Rand’s deep philosophy in a benevolent, congenial and exciting atmosphere.

You can subscribe to the Ayn Rand Institute’s Facebook and Twitter pages to see announcements when registration for next year’s OCON is open.

Here is the cvent page for OCON 2015, and here’s a list of upcoming ARI events.

Here are a couple of talks from last year’s OCON:

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Related Posts:

Introduction to Objectivism

Why the Philosophy of Objectivism is Still Relevant and Needed in the Age of Modern Science

Ayn Rand’s Philosophy vs. Abortion Bans: Why a Fetus Doesn’t Have Rights

The Wages of Altruism: Domestic Abuse

What Caused the Financial Crisis: It Wasn’t Capitalism or Deregulation

Objectivism for Dummies?

Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand by Leonard Peikoff

A more in-depth, book-length overview of Objectivism.

I find it a bit strange that one of the top Google auto-completes I see for “Objectivism” is “Objectivism for dummies,” considering that there is no “For Dummies” book on this topic. But what it indicates is that there is significant interest in a basic, understandable introduction to Objectivism, the philosophy of the novelist and philosopher, Ayn Rand.

If this is what you want, I’d like to recommend my Introduction to Objectivism page. Not only does it have a clear and straightforward presentation of the philosophy of Objectivism, but it also has a large number of links to resources for learning more.

Introduction to Objectivism

I’d also like to recommend reading Ayn Rand’s novels, such as Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainheadif you haven’t recently–to get a fuller feel for the type of person that Objectivism praises, and the type of life that it holds out as an ideal. As I like to caution, however, Rand’s novels are romantic novels, and they feature extraordinary and dramatic situations. The principles her ideal heroes live by are the ones she advocates, but one must be careful about being too literal, (or, in Ayn Rand’s terminology, “concrete-bound” or “anti-conceptual”) in applying those principles to real life.

Happy learning! 🙂

Sword of Apollo

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Related Posts:

The Nature of the Morality of Rational Egoism: Short Notes

Other People as Egoistic Values Versus Other People as Objects of Self-Sacrifice in Ayn Rand’s Philosophy

Human Emotions are the Products of Beliefs and Subconscious Value Judgments

Laissez-Faire Capitalism Solves “The Tragedy of the Commons” and Deals With Negative Externalities: A Dialogue

Why Healthcare in the US is So Expensive, and What Can Be Done About It