AYN RAND, HUMAN FLOURISHING, AND VIRTUE ETHICS (Print Version)
by Edward W. Younkins*
Le Québécois Libre, March 15, 2009, No 265.
During the last forty years or so, there has been a revival of scholarly interest in the virtues in general and in virtue ethics in particular. Many thinkers have turned their attention to a neo-Aristotelian version of virtue ethics, but none has made a better or more consistent case for a virtuous life than has Ayn Rand (1957; 1964; 1967; [1966-67] 1990).(1) Rand explains that attaining moral perfection means achieving the highest level of human flourishing which one is capable of reaching. Rand details how and why the consistent practice of seven virtues is essential for a person to attain his objective well-being (i.e., his flourishing).
For Rand, morality is a type of enlightened and rational self-interest―each individual's moral obligation is to attain his own moral well-being. She defines value as "that which one acts to gain and/or keep" (1964, 27). The purpose in pursuing values is the flourishing of one's own life. Values are thus at the root of morality. Proper moral norms are determined by human nature. Rand's ethical egoism sees naturalism as leading to facts that become the basis for objective judgments of value. An objective value is a feature of reality that is positively related to the flourishing of an individual human being. An objective value is relational and exists in a life-affirming relationship to a particular person.
The Value of Virtue
Rand defends the principled pursuit of one's own flourishing. She explains that promoting one's own interest requires a person to consistently follow principles. A human being needs to understand, in the framework of principles, the cause and effect relationships between his actions and the achievement of his values. Moral principles are formulated through observation and induction regarding the effects of various forms of action on one's well-being. A man must identify and follow rational principles if he is to flourish.
Moral principles, as guides to life-promoting actions, are defined in relationship to the facts that make them essential. For man to survive, he must discern the principles of action necessary to direct him in his relationships with other men and with nature. Man's need for these principles is his need for a code of morality. To flourish, a person must select proper principles and act in accordance with them. Human flourishing requires the identification and practice of a particular systematic code of morality. The traditional major virtues, as recast by Rand, provide the rational principles for this code of morality―virtues are manifestations of the rational long-range standards or principles that life as a human being requires.
Rand explains that a virtue is the act by which one gains and/or keeps an objective value. From another perspective, character traits that objectively and rationally benefit their possessor are deemed to be virtues. The virtues are egoistic or partial to oneself, but not in any objectionable sense. A virtuous character is the result of appropriate actions and is contributive to further appropriate actions.
The Good Life
Rand explains throughout her writings that the rational pursuit of one's self-interest requires the consistent practice of seven principal virtues: rationality, honesty, independence, justice, integrity, productiveness, and pride. Unfortunately, she did not produce a comprehensive, systematic, and detailed work with respect to the virtues. On the positive side, Tara Smith (2006) has endeavored to provide a detailed explanation of the virtues in the context of Rand's rational egoism.
Rationality, the primary virtue, involves full focus, commitment to reality, and the constant expansion of one's knowledge. Rationality is one's recognition and acknowledgment of reason as one's only source of knowledge, judge of values, and guide to action. Reason is the faculty that identifies and integrates the material provided by man's senses; it is man's fundamental means of survival and a practical instrument for gaining the values that further one's life. Rationality is concerned with the method by which an individual reaches his conclusions rather than being concerned with the particular conclusions that he comes to. Rationality is essential to the kind of practical actions required to attain human flourishing. It involves acceptance of the conditions necessary for man's flourishing. The virtue of rationality requires an individual to act on his rational conclusions.
Rationality requires the exercise of six additional derivative virtues that can be viewed as expressions of rationality (48-74). Honesty is the refusal to fake reality―it is the rejection of unreality and the recognition that the unreal can have no value. Misrepresenting reality does not change reality. Facts are independent of a person's beliefs. For honesty, a person must renounce misrepresentation, artifice, and evasion. He must also develop an active mind and act on his knowledge―an honest person seeks knowledge because he needs it to act properly. Honesty is practical. An individual must be truthful with himself, and not pretend that reality is something other than what it is. Self-deception is counter-productive. Dishonesty diverts an individual from identifying and seeking rational plans for gaining objective values. Dishonesty diminishes one's self-esteem and pride. It also makes facts and one's own rationality into enemies. Whereas an honest person depends on others' virtues, a dishonest person relies upon their vices.
Through dishonesty, a man makes himself dependent on others' standards, expectations, judgments, and ignorance. A liar depends upon others' naïveté and he must strive to keep them unaware. In reality, an individual is apt to profit the most from others' rationality, knowledge, and virtues. Honesty, like all the virtues, is contextual and does not require one to tell the truth in all cases. It is permissible (and moral) to lie in order to protect a value that is being threatened. The use of force or fraud by an aggressor changes the conditions and the relationship between honesty and life. Lying is wrong when done in an attempt to gain a value (75-105).
An independent person establishes his primary orientation to reality rather than to other people. Accepting the primacy of existence, the independent person goes by his own judgment of reality. Independence requires a person's acceptance of the responsibility for making his own judgments, gaining knowledge through the use of his own mind, and surviving and flourishing by the efforts of his own mind. Thought is performed individually. Because reason is a characteristic of the individual human person, knowledge must be attained by the individual. Because thinking is a self-directed activity, the requirement of independence is implied in the requirement of rationality. Independence can be viewed as the method through which an individual comprehends ideas. It is essential to follow through by acting on his independent judgment.
It is permissible to learn from others provided that one thinks through and grasps the ideas for himself. A man can be independent while not being the creator or discoverer of new ideas. What is important is a person's own judgment. In our division of labor society, it is rational to make use of the knowledge of experts and people who are more experienced. However, it is essential not to accept unconditionally whatever the other person says merely because it is the judgment of another person. It is necessary not to substitute the judgments of others for one's own judgment. It is important to assess, to the best of one's ability, the ideas presented and the legitimacy of the expert's qualifications, education, and experience (106-34).
Because other people are potential values or disvalues to an individual, it is essential to judge other individuals' character and conduct objectively and to act accordingly. The personal virtue of justice involves the application of rationality to the evaluation and treatment of other persons. These moral assessments and judgments require fidelity to reality and the use of one's reason rather than yielding to one's emotions.
It is essential to give each person that which he deserves. This idea reflects respect for causality―certain causes justify certain effects. This value-oriented perspective on justice recognizes that virtuous actions bring values into existence and that unprincipled or irrational actions damage or destroy values. It is rational to reward virtues with positive values and vices with punishments or negative values.
Smith explains that a man should judge others objectively and treat them as they deserve because that is the best way to achieve his own personal flourishing. In fact, everyone is in a position to profit from actions that produce value and to be diminished by actions that harm or extirpate values. Injustice destroys the natural causal chain by rewarding corrupt conduct and punishing virtuous conduct. The Randian view is that both those who receive just treatment and the individual bestowing that treatment profit from that practice. It follows that one should support and endorse qualities in other people that benefit himself and dissuade those attributes that are damaging to oneself. It is necessary to judge, evaluate, and act properly toward other people in order to attain one's values and flourishing (135-75).
Pride and Productivity
Integrity is loyalty in action to rational principles and to one's convictions and values. There should be no breach or dichotomy between one's thought and moral principles and his actions. Integrity is fundamental to attaining one's values and flourishing. Integrity requires a policy and the conscientious, consistent practice of life-promoting principles. Smith explains that Rand condemns some, but not all, forms of compromise. There is a difference between a compromise of moral principle and a compromise of the details of a situation falling under a moral principle. It follows that when a person voluntarily negotiates toward a final agreed-upon price, he is not compromising the principle of free trade (176-97).
Productiveness, the process of creating material values, is necessary for human survival. Such values should be created rather than being confiscated. Productive work is the process through which man's mind maintains his life. It is through productive work that man's consciousness controls his existence; it involves the adjustment of nature to man's requirements and the translation of ideas into physical form. All productive work requires a combination of mental and physical exertion in varying proportions depending upon the particular kind of work. Values in reality are made possible by the existence of knowledge. Although the mental aspect is primary, this does not imply that there is some type of separation from the physical realm. The product of one's work must acquire physical existence outside of one's consciousness. Existential values are made possible through the application of a person's knowledge.
Productive work is necessary for a man both materially and spiritually; according to Rand, it is the central purpose of a person's life. Productivity depends upon one's rationality and sustains a man's self-esteem and sense of identity. Productive work can act as the integrating central element of a person's life. As such, it can be viewed as both an end and as a means (198-220).
Pride (i.e., moral ambitiousness) is the commitment to attain one's own moral perfection. Pride demonstrates the exercise of the other six Randian virtues and involves one's dedication to achieving the highest or best character state which he is capable of attaining. Like Aristotle, Rand views pride as the "crown of the virtues." Smith explains that pride involves one's commitment to rationality in thought and action, the systematic pursuit of achievement, lifeadvancing actions, and the continual strengthening of one's character. Pride leads a person to the self-esteem that is necessary for human life. Moral perfection is essential for one's personal flourishing (221-46).
1. For rival explanations of virtue ethics, see Annas 1998; Crisp and Slote 1997; Darwall 2002; Foot 1978; 2001; Gaut 1997; Hunt 1997; Hursthouse 1999; Korsgaard 1996; MacIntyre 1997; McDowell 1978; Slote 1992; 1995; Swanton 1995; Wallace 1978; and Zagzebski 1996.
•Annas, Julia. 1998. Virtue and eudaimonism. Social Philosophy and Policy 15, no. 1 (Winter): 37-55.
•Crisp, R. and M. Slore, eds. Virtue Ethics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
•Darwall, Stephen L., ed. 2002. Virtue Ethics. Boston: Blackwell Publishing Limited.
•Foot, Philippa. 1978. Virtues and Vices. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
•Gaut, Berys. 1998. The structure of practical reason. In Ethics and Practical Reason, edited by Garrett Cullity and Berys Gaut. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 161-88.
•Hunt, Lester H. 1997. Character and Culture. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield.
•Hursthouse, Rosalind. 1999. On Virtue Ethics. New York: Oxford University Press.
•Korsgaard, Christine. 1996. The Sources of Normativity. Cambridge, U. K: Cambridge University Press.
•MacIntyre, Alasdair. 1997. The nature of the virtues. In Virtue Ethics, edited by Roger Crisp and Michael Slate. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 118-40.
•McDowell, John. 1978. Virtue and reason. Monist 62: 331-50.
•Rand, Ayn. 1957. Atlas Shrugged. New York: Random House.
―. 1964. The Virtue of Selfishness. New York: New American Library.
―. [1966-67] 1990. Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology. Expanded second edition. Edited by Harry Binswanger and Leonard Peikoff. New York: Meridian.
―. 1967. Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal. New York: New American Library. Slote, Michael. 1992. From Morality to Virtue. New York: Oxford University Press.
―. 1995. From Morality to Virtue. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
•Smith, Tara. 2006. Ayn Rand's Normative Ethics. New York: Cambridge University Press.
•Swanton, C. 1995. Profiles of the Virtues. Pacific Philosophical Quarterly 76: 47-72.
•Wallace, James D. 1978. Virtues and Vices. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
•Zagzebski, L. 1996. Virtues of the Mind. New York: Cambridge University Press.
* Dr. Edward W. Younkins is a Professor of Accountancy and Business Administration at Wheeling Jesuit University in West Virginia.