Bryan Caplan  

Huemer on Rand at Cato

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Mike Huemer, my favorite philosopher in the world, is true to form in the Rand symposium at Cato Unbound.  Highlights:

Rand is the most popular libertarian thinker because of her great novels, not her comprehensive philosophical system:
Rand, I believe, is the most compelling writer of the group. More importantly, Rand was not only a philosopher, but a compelling novelist.

Some followers of Rand may scoff at this explanation. "No, it is all down to her philosophical ideas," they may say. "Rand's works outsell those of von Mises because she has a coherent, comprehensive philosophy!" ... Let us consider the evidence. Atlas Shrugged outsells Human Action by a wide margin. As of this writing, the Amazon sales ranks are 101 and 16,331, respectively... But Atlas also outsells Rand's own non-fiction books, by similarly wide margins. The Virtue of Selfishness trails at 11,993, with Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology all the way down at 120,117.  If the greater market success of Rand as compared with von Mises were due to Rand's broader philosophy, wouldn't we see this reflected in sales of Rand's non-fiction works, in which she explicitly develops that philosophy?

Rand's effort to argue people to libertarianism by way of egoism (see "The Objectivist Ethics") is hopeless:
Objectivists seem to find that essay completely convincing. But hardly anyone else finds it at all convincing. This is not a trivial observation--one often finds that people who do not accept a whole philosophical system nevertheless find certain parts of it plausible. And one often finds that people who are not ultimately persuaded by an argument nevertheless see some plausibility in it. But neither of these things is true of the argument of "The Objectivist Ethics"--hardly anyone finds that argument even slightly plausible, unless they also buy into virtually all of Ayn Rand's views. This is not true of most of her other views: one would not be surprised to find a non-Objectivist who nevertheless thinks Rand's political views are reasonable, or her epistemological views, or her aesthetic theories. The explanation is simple: the theory of "The Objectivist Ethics" is simultaneously the most distinctive and the least plausible, worst defended of all of Rand's major ideas.
(For Huemer's defense of the last sentence, see his detailed critiques in footnote 5).

It would be discouraging, of course, if Rand's egoistic defense of libertarianism, though unconvincing, were actually true.  But it's not: Egoism and libertarianism are incompatible, for obvious reasons:
The straightforward argument for respecting individual rights is that when one violates another person's rights, one uses that person without his consent, and one thus treats that person as if he were a mere means to one's own ends. That argument, of course, could not be advanced by a true egoist, who must hold that it is obligatory to treat other persons (and everything else) as mere means to one's own welfare.
Huemer's characteristically commonsensical conclusion:
[D]efenders of liberty are far more likely to convince others of the need to respect individual rights through the straightforward "persons are ends in themselves" argument mentioned above, than through an argument that relies upon (a) first convincing the audience that the right action is always the most selfish action, and (b) then convincing the audience that it is impossible to benefit from violating someone else's rights.
P.S. This is a perfect time to urge Mike to start working on Ethical Answers, the book I say he was born to write.  Contra Rand, men's interests sometimes conflict; but if Mike writes this book, it will be good for him, us, and the world.


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COMMENTS (6 to date)
Loof writes:

Good post, Bryan. Mike makes a lot of sense.

One point: Egoism is to selfishness and objectivism as ego is to self-interest and objectivity. The “I”, definitely developed by kindergarten, separates self from an object and key to develop objectivity through the excluded middle, and thereby opens the door to sensibility and think-ability.

Second point: Empathy also arises about the same time as ego and is quite well developed in healthy kindergarteners. By then, children know what is fair for involving an “us” in community. Empathy appears subjectively central to family, community, culture as well as avoiding conflicts and selfishness in kindergarten.

As such a philosphy can be developed where ego and objectivity appears central to nature and society; as empathy and subjectivity appears central to community and culture. With ego, masculinity apparently leads well in constructing “houses”; with empathy, femininity leads well likewise in creating “homes”. Comprehensively, morality is to creating homes as ethics is to constructing houses.

Kurbla writes:

Huemer's conclusion is reasonable. However, if one plays with person is end on itself principle, there is no much reasons to stop after economic liberty is reached. It is hard not to think about, say, what happens to orphans in libertarian society.

I imagine human motives as something like 30% conservative (not necessarily rightist), 60% selfish (incl. group selfishness), 5% contrarian, 3% altruistic and 2% psychopathic.

MernaMoose writes:

This would all be fine and great if it wasn't a misinterpretation of what Rand said.

Simply put, it's a moose crap "condemnation" of Rand's ethics.

If Mikey boy wants to disagree and can't come up with any better arguments than that, it's his prerogative. But he hasn't convinced anyone of anything with this tripe.

For years I have watched-looked-listened, to see if anyone could show me fatal flaws in "The Objectivist Ethics". There are some problems here and there with what she says. But the wholesale condemnation that Huemer claims to have developed here -- isn't.

David Landy writes:

BC writes: "Rand is the most popular libertarian thinker..[]"

and

"Rand's effort to argue people to libertarianism by way of egoism..[]"

and

"It would be discouraging, of course, if Rand's egoistic defense of libertarianism, though unconvincing, were actually true."

But Ayn Rand was not a libertarian and in fact was totally opposed to libertarian ideas:

http://www.aynrand.org/site/PageServer?pagename=education_campus_libertarians

So why would one say that she attempted to defend them?

MernaMoose writes:

To refine the above, Mike Huemer redefines Rand's explicitly stated definition of selfishness, and then attempts to use that as a starting point.

Huemer's criticisms fall apart for this reason. He redefines the meaning of "is" and then says "See! It is not!".

Doesn't work....

Fenn writes:

Dug his undergrad essay.
Nihilism for the win.

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