Bryan Caplan  

Rand the Intuitionist

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Last week I saw the debate between my co-author Ilya Somin of the GMU Law School, and Will Thomas from the Atlas Society.  The topic: Are there conflicts of interest between rational people?  If you're inclined to respond, "Of course.  So what?," the answer is: A great deal... if, like Objectivists, you're both an ethical egoist and a rights-based libertarian.  How can you always do whatever best promotes your rational self-interest, and consistently respect the rights of others?  Only if violating the rights of others never promotes your rational self-interest.

Will Thomas began his statement by biting the bullet: There are no conflicts of interest between rational people.  Somin presented the obvious counter-examples.  By the end of the debate, Thomas seemingly revised his original position to read: There are no fundamental conflicts of interest between rational people under normal circumstances.  (Somin properly objected that what Thomas calls "normal circumstances" are historically and globally abnormal!)  In the Q&A, I suggested it would be clearer to simply say: There are few major conflicts of interest between rational people, but I don't think I convinced Thomas to adopt my formulation.

The solid core of Thomas' position is just basic economics as taught by Frederic Bastiat and Julian Simon: the mutual gains to trade, the social value of production, the human mind as the ultimate resource.  But of course this only gets you to "few major conflicts of interest," not "none." 

To cement his case, though, Thomas resorted to an argument bad enough to make almost every economist and logician on earth scoff: It's in your interest to respect others' rights because it is in your interest to live in a rights-respecting society.  There are few balder examples of the fallacy of composition.  One could just as easily claim, "It's in your interest to remain seated at concerts because it is in your interest for concert-goers to remain seated."

The most striking thing about the debate: It illustrated the conflict between Ayn Rand's often absurd official arguments, and her frequently persuasive unofficial arguments.  Officially, Rand tells you to respect others' rights because there are no conflicts of interest between rational people.  Say what?  But when Hank Rearden stands up for his rights in Atlas Shrugged, he discusses the harmony of interests only to deny its relevance: 
I could say to you that you do not serve the public good - that nobody's good can be achieved at the price of human sacrifices - that when you violate the rights of one man, you have violated the right of all, and a public of rightless creatures is doomed to destruction. I could say to you that you will and can achieve nothing but universal devastation - as any looter must, when he runs out of victims. I could say it, but I won't.  It is not your particular policy that I challenge, but your moral premise. [emphasis mine]
Instead, Rearden says something compelling enough to make coercive altruists doubt themselves:
If it were true that men could achieve their good by means of turning some men into sacrificial animals, and I were asked to immolate myself for the sake of creatures who wanted to survive at the price of my blood, if I were asked to serve the interests of society apart from, above and against my own - I would refuse. I would reject it as the most contemptible evil, I would fight it with every power I possess, I would fight the whole of mankind, if one minute were all I could last before I were murdered, I would fight in the full confidence of the justice of my battle and of a living being's right to exist. Let there be no misunderstanding about me. If it is now the belief of my fellow men, who call themselves the public, that their good requires victims, then I say: The public good be damned, I will have no part of it!
Passages like this tempt me to write a whole essay on "Rand the Intuitionist."  Her moral proofs were feeble, but her moral insight was often razor sharp.

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COMMENTS (11 to date)

And Peter Singer would say that coercive altruists like him do not demand anyone turn themselves into sacrificial animals, simply that you sometimes owe it to others to benefit them at your expense, as for example when you ought to rescue the child drowning in a pond even if it ruins your £100 shoes.

RPLong writes:

To take a page from Steven Landsburg, I think the Objectivists are right assuming both parties are truth-seekers. (I guess this is kind of a Hans Hermann-Hoppe argument, too.)

Assuming both parties have a legitimate interest in discovering and conforming to the objective, rational truth, then there can be no conflict between rational people. (Unless, of course, you consider the discussion itself a "conflict.")

When does it go awry? Often at the definition stasis. Two parties often disagree when they believe they have made the same fundamental conclusions about the matter, but in fact have not. They will probably agree if they can have a conversation about those fundamental things. Of course, this is quite often prohibative.

Something else I've noticed is that people seldom adhere to a single ethical framework. We are in the habit of providing consequentialist reasoning for something, and then switching to teleology when that doesn't work, then over to deontology, and so on...

So maybe the real question is, in any conflict, what is a "rational person," and are we sure it is us?

Steve Horwitz writes:

I think your last sentence is dead-on right Bryan. I think it also explains how if one has read Rand, one can also make sense of human behavior and cultural trends in interesting and often insightful ways. Ignore Rand the Philosopher, but pay great attention to Rand the Rhetorician. The phrase "sanction of the victim" (and its illustrations in her novels), with all of its lack of deep philosophical pretense, has much more explanatory power than any whole essay or book on philosophy or ethics she ever wrote.

David R. Henderson writes:

Excellent post, Bryan.
In addition to Steve Horwitz's point, her "aristocracy of pull" is one of the best terms--and concepts--ever.

Chris Lemens writes:

Being a lawyer, I've always thought that Rand failed to understand much about the law. It just wasn't her thing. But I've also always thought that her notion that rational people could not have fundamental conflicts of interest would have been better criteria for determining what is "objective law" than what she actually said. That is, for law to be "objective law," the rights of individuals must not conflict.

Two further points about that, though. First, you can't square it with the actual legal institutions she endorsed. For example, copyright in a work of authorship cannot be squared with traditional ownership of paper and ink without any conflict. Second, that set of legal institutions would be much closer to Rothbard than Rand.


Eric Falkenstein writes:

You call the 'stay seated during a concert' argument absurd, but is not this an example of a Nash Equilibrium being overturned via the time dimension, rational in a repeated game? Alexrod's Evolution of Cooperative Behavior goes over a lot of 'irrational' examples that are rational when you look at things over time.

Mindy Newton writes:

I think you mean the fallacy of division, not composition. However, there isn't a fallacy at all, if the argument is given its correct statement.

It is in every man's interest to have rights. To have rights he must live in a rights-respecting society. To live in such a society, he must act as a rights-respecting member of society.

I don't know how Mr. Thomas put it, but that is the argument to oppose, if you wish to.

Craig writes:


My moral intuition is that all peoples with skin color unlike mine should be enslaved.

So much for the validity of basing ethical codes on "intuition."

When your philosopher buddy, whose name escapes me, was asked by ARI's Ghate about how he reconciled "intuitionism" with the fact that for most of human history slavery was considered moral, he had to resort to the risible answer that Ghate's claim was false.

This would be news to most historians who have studied the issue. As David Brion Davis has eloquently argued, there was a great ethical shift in the late 18th as for the first time in history human bondage came to be seen as immoral.

We have no moral intuitions outside the prevailing norms we imbibe from our culture, norms which are in turn shaped by the arguments of moral philosophers, for good or for ill.

William Thomas writes:

Bryan writes: "Thomas resorted to an argument bad enough to make almost every economist and logician on earth scoff: It's in your interest to respect others' rights because it is in your interest to live in a rights-respecting society. There are few balder examples of the fallacy of composition."

I certainly didn't intend to make the argument Bryan attributes to me. So, let me sketch out the argument I usually make that involves claims like those he mentions:

You benefit tremendously from the values others tend to create when their rights are respected.

It isn't really possible to arrange a society where everyone else's rights are respected, but where you can violate their rights at will.

Anyway, others don't tend to put up with being attacked, robbed, etc.

Plus, you need your rights to be respected, too.

So it is in your interest to live in a society where everyone's rights are protected.

This means, it is in your fundamental, long-term interest to face legal sanctions for violating others' rights.

Where's the fallacy of composition there?

Ray Raad writes:

"There are few major conflicts of interest between rational people"

I know this is Bryan's statement, not Thomas', but I don't see why Objectivism needs any stronger statement than that. If the conflicts are few enough, and the benefits great enough, then you, I, and everyone else would benefit from living in a rights-respecting society.

I read Objectivism as being about principles, not strict rules -- that is, assessments of net benefits, not a denial that costs exist.

W Schultz writes:


I recently had a discussion about this topic with a friend of mind. I'm reposting my comments here because you and your readers may find them interesting.

[This is what my friend wrote to me]:
Now, regarding force. You wrote, “I'm not sure I understand the part about "why" we need a system of morality. Is it because morality is a hierarchy of ends to achieving ...either life or death? The reason I ask is this: Rationality as you define it doesn't really seem to preclude force as a method of achieving the end of sustaining life. As long as we are free to think and act, we should be free to bash each other over the head, with the understanding that our freedom to think and act should lead us to a method of protecting ourselves or fighting back. You describe force as an evil, but I'm not sure that it is, according to your analysis. It would seem to me that force is merely force, one of a set of possible actions that we can take to act in our own self-interest. Without the assumption that force is, a priori, evil, there is another reason to use force - it maximizes my self-interest, even if there is a mutual self-interest to be served. I guess I'm wondering why a rational individual is more inclined to produce instead of loot.”

[This was my reply]:
First things first, assume that you are right and I cannot demonstrate that force is an evil. If this is true then I don’t know if any rational moral code can demonstrate that force is evil. Of course, anyone could –pronounce- that, according to their moral code, force is evil – but that -- “X is wrong because I say so.” -- is a fallacious form of moral justification.

Now, I do think force is evil. I think the initiation of force is against my objective self-interest. But I agree with you that more explanation of why is necessary.

I want to begin my explanation with a clarification by way of a story. Well, not really a story, but a recollection of a situation I find
myself in more often than I’d like.

Imagine me defending my moral position to someone. As I elaborate on the political structure my moral position implies, a government that respects individual rights, the individual I am arguing with crafts a situation where respect for individual rights would be clearly not in my self interest. The situation is this:

I find myself on a desert island. There is one other inhabitant who got there first. This inhabitant gathered up all the food. There is no food left on the island. I encounter this inhabitant. I’m hungry. I ask if I can trade some labor to get some food. He says no. I ask if I can trade anything. He says no. And here is the “trap” that has been put in place for me by the individual I am arguing with. In this case it is clear that unless I use force to get some food I’m going to starve. So the use of force can sometimes be in my self interest.

There are a couple morals to this story. First of all, force is not, as you put it, “a priori” evil. The idea of any moral concept being a priori is one of the ideas the objectivist ethics challenges. “Moral Rightness” and “Moral Wrongness” are not floating entities that descend from heaven and attach to our actions. No. An action is morally right if it serves the interest of the organism performing it. The justification for this was the bulk of my previous series of posts.

How does this square with my assertion that force should be bared from human relationships? I am willing to concede that such “lifeboat” scenarios stand as counter-examples to the principle of non-coercion.

But the fact that this scenario stands as a counter-example to the principle of non-coercion does not mean that the ethics of rational egoism is invalidated. No, the foundation of rational egoism remains untouched. It is only the environment where that ethics plays out that

I think that the key point is that, according to rational egoism, non-coercion is not an infallible law from god or an arbitrary assertion not needing defense. The principle of non-coercion is a –generalization- about the best method of interacting with other human beings. Conceding that non-coercion is a principle, a generalization, is the cost imposed by defending morality rationally as I do.

A rational code of morality proves that actions are moral if they are in my interest. But, because of my lack of omniscience, I may sometimes not know what counts as my interest. Generally, I shouldn’t cut off my arm. Cutting of my arm isn’t in my self-interest. However, I can imagine countless scenarios where I do need to cut of my arm if I want to survive (e.g., it is pinned under a boulder and I either cut my arm off or stay trapped and die). Likewise with many other scenarios: Should I eat a vitamin D supplement? Well, the studies are still coming in. The conclusions aren’t certain. I hope that these examples show why rational egoism is the foundation for the –science- of ethics. This science discovers the principles, the generalizations, that should govern my conduct based on the greatest possible context of knowledge.

Let me describe principles a bit further because this is an important point. Principles are a general truth on which other truths depend. The need for principles is rooted in the fact that there is far too much information for any human being to process without the guidance of principles. In the same way that it is, in principle, good for me to not cut my arm off (knowing such situations might occur), it is, in principle, good for me not to initiate force against others to achieve my ends. Cutting my arm off is objectively bad for me because it means I won’t be able to use that arm, I will bleed, etc. etc. Initiating force against others is objectively bad for me because: I destroy the possibility of the division of labor with that person, I destroy the possibility of trade with that person, I have antagonized another rational being, I have made it clear to all other rational beings that I have no qualms about force and, thus, made them wary of me.

Even if I could gain something by the initiation of force it wouldn’t be objectively good for me unless I could prove that I would gain -more- by using force than by cooperating. For example, imagine that I went back in time a couple of decades and kidnapped Bill Gates then locked him in my basement, forcing him to do my laundry. Net gain! I no longer have to do my laundry. Leaving aside all the other difficulties this would bring to my life, is my no longer having to do laundry as valuable as the development of windows that Gates spearheaded?

And there are other reasons to think that force is inferior to cooperation. Those who use force to gain values still implicitly rely on thought because they are stealing from those who use thought to guide productive action. But they are placing themselves in a state of dependency because their survival can only exist if the others continue to act. Dependency is never as strong of a state as independence. Independence permits creativity, innovation and freedom – all things that are in my interest.

Because of the ample amount of evidence that supports the conclusion that any individual stands to gain immensely from cooperating with other individuals instead of coercing others, non-coercion is still a valid principal to guide my action. Likewise, it will be in my interest to: study hard, work hard, make good relationships, refrain from heroin, not walk down dark alleys in crime infested neighborhoods, etc.

These are some readings/recording I think are useful: -- An interview with Ayn Rand on whether not it is moral to kill someone else (an innocent someone) to save your own life.

You can access this lecture for free by becoming a registered user at

This lecture discusses the importance of thinking in principles.

"The Ethics of Emergencies" in The Virtue of Selfishness

A discussion of morality in "emergency" situations.

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